Anyone who attended elementary school in Michigan remembers the “Core Democratic Values” program. Complete with its own textbooks, the sequence presented “the fundamental beliefs and constitutional principles of American society which unite all Americans.” Because of that program, I grew up thinking – along with the millions of students across America who benefited from similar programs – that America was the land of individual equality, individual freedom and individual religion. I grew up thinking, not in such fancy terms, that America was a secular democratic republic A– a land Thomas Jefferson envisioned as offering “Equal and exact justice to all men, of whatever state or persuasion, religious or political.”
If recent events are any guide, I grew up believing a lie. While America accepts in theory that secular government is a good idea, our political process completely discredits the concept. While our unstated national policy is to oppose religious fundamentalism abroad, Americans welcome it at home. While our leaders denounce the illiberalism of Islamist states, many influential conservatives are enamored with the idea of America as a Judeo-Christian one.
Since President Bush’s re-election last year, religious and “moral-issues” conservatives have stepped up their campaign to, quite literally, force religion upon the rest of the country. One by one, successive religious interests have emboldened each other; the Right is now waging religious war on abortion, immoral television and video games, contraception, Spongebob Square Pants, homosexuality, sexuality in general, sex education, HIV-positive Sesame Street characters and even the scientific theory of evolution.
Underlying each “moral initiative” is the burning desire to create a more Christian state, to impose public morality on private decisions, to enact public policy that elevates certain beliefs as more righteous than others. This isn’t speculation: Focus on the Family aims “to ‘turn hearts toward home’ – so people will be able to discover the founder of homes and the creator of families: Jesus Christ.” The American Family Association exists “to motivate and equip citizens to change the culture to reflect Biblical truth.” The Christian Coalition, beyond its obvious name, exists to “preserve, protect and defend the Judeo-Christian values that made this the greatest country in history.” These powerful political groups exist solely to inject a good dose of religion into our supposedly secular political system.
The agenda is broad. Heterosexual marriage should be elevated to the exclusion of homosexual marriage – even though the two are not mutually exclusive – because heterosexual marriage is the traditional Christian way. Governments should ban same-sex benefits, even though they make economic sense, because they promote a lifestyle contrary to the traditional Christian way. Teachers should not expose students to safe-sex techniques because teaching abstinence, no matter how ineffective, is the Christian way. All these initiatives, grounded in Christian theology and morality, aim to shape society and restrict individual liberties in the name of preserving traditional values.
If America were secular, the close relationship between the White House and these not-so-subtly Christian organizations would raise alarm. If we actually believed the core democratic values each nine-year-old in Michigan learns, we’d be outraged: Religious interests are dictating government policy! If America bought into secularism, society would have responded with indignation when Bush nominated Harriet Miers to the U.S. Supreme Court – not only because she was unqualified (she was), but also because the president and his allies insinuated her religion was an important part of her judicial philosophy.
If America is actually a secular nation, where is the public opposition to the current course of events? Why are religious lobbying organizations the most powerful nongovernmental organizations in Washington? Why are religiously backed initiatives such as Michigan’s Proposal 2 from 2004 – which banned gay marriage and potentially same-sex unions in an effort to “protect traditional marriage” – so successful across the nation? Why did Kansas’s elected school board change the definition of science so that supernatural explanations for events can be classified as scientific? Why must every presidential candidate meet a certain bar of spirituality if he’s to stand a chance? Bottom line: If America is actually secular, why doesn’t it act like it?
As a nation, we recognize the problems with religious governance abroad. We recognize, when looking at other nations, that secular leadership is more likely to protect minority rights, individual freedom and self-determination. The founders of this nation realized this when they wrote strict limits on government power and sweeping guarantees of personal freedom into the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. I’d like to think the core democratic values I learned aren’t lies; I’d like to think this nation truly embodies the secular ideas it claims to uphold at home and around the world. I’d like to think we can – and will – put an end to the illiberal politics of the Religious Right.
Momin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.