I just recently watched Jesus Camp, an excellent movie that any self-respecting skeptic should watch. It was interesting for reasons other than it preached to my choir on religion and how dangerous it is, namely the repeated idea by those featured in the movie that “we must take back America.” About an hour into the movie this phrase struck me. Take back America? Take it back from whom? Who had it in the first place? As far as I know, America didn’t belong to any one religious group, and it never has. I hope it never will, but it seemed to me, that if 25% of America believes what Jesus Camp said they did, America was turning into a Christian nation. Christian-led, Christian-governed, complete with a Christian set of morals. Government and religion have been separated by the Constitution, the United States was founded on the idea of fleeing religious persecution. However, there has been a steady increase in the thinning of the wall between government and religion. This breaking down of the separation is dangerous as it can disadvantage minority groups, can lead to a ‘forced morality’, and can tear apart communities both religious and secular.
According to countrystudies.us, “a large group of fundamentalist Christians, who regard the Bible as the direct and inerrant word of God,” began to gain political heft in the early 1980′s. This New Right favored using “state power to encourage its view of family values, restrict homosexual behavior and censor pornography.” This use of political power to bring religious issues to center stage has only increased since 1980, and it is now normal, and even expected for politicians to discuss their religious views on the campaign trail, for them to hold ‘prayer breakfasts’ and for religious and moral issues like abortion, gay rights, contraceptives, and evolution to become legislative topics. This issue has reached a tipping point. Those who believe we must “take back America” have grown in ferocity, if not in number.
Religion, when it is kept in the church and in the homes and minds of those who practice, can be an extremely powerful force for good, for change, and for social reform. However, when religion starts to get involved in the government and in the legislation of the country, it becomes a suffocating, restrictive, and sometimes dangerous doctrine of forced morals. This is particularly evident in sex education. At my high school, we did not have sex-ed. We had safety-ed, and in saftey-ed there was about a week dedicated to ‘abstinence education’. I did not receive any sexual education at my high school, save being told that sex was bad and I shouldn’t do it. We had no discussions about condoms, about birth control, about the other types of contraceptives. We had no discussion of ‘safe sex’, of how to protect yourself, no discussions about the myths about pregnancy. We were shown some disgusting slides of STD’s and reminded that sex can wait until marriage. Thankfully, I have parents who are more sensible than that, who sat me down and gave me ‘the talk’. This ‘abstinence only’ approach to education, one being pursued by Arizona Governor Jan Brewer,forces a religious take on sex: That it should wait until marriage. This approach promotes ignorance about dangerous sexual practices and puts students at risk of not knowing the dangers of being sexually active. “It provides human sexuality education programs which are limited to promoting sexual abstinence until marriage, turning a blind eye to the proven benefits of contraceptive education. It puts a minority of people’s religious views above the health of our nations youth.”Sex-ed is not the only area where religious involvement can be negative. Minority groups, like punks, skaters, bikers, anything ‘counter-culture’ is seen as unwholesome, and therefore a threat, by those in the religious right. These ‘culture wars’ have been going on since the 1960′s, during that cultural revolution “when the youthful counterculture and the antiwar movement were pitted against solid citizens” The religious right that has become such an entrenched part of our government is violating the very principle on which the Declaration of Independence was written. That it was there to protect the weak and the unpopular, to protect the punk kids with tattooed necks, to protect sexually active men and women, to protect minority religions, and anything else that may seem ‘unwholesome’ or ‘improper’. It is not the government’s job to dictate a morality; I like my right to swear, buy condoms, get tattoos, get piercings, have sex, watch porn, and go out on a Sunday, and it is not the governments job to tell me whether or not those things pass the moral litmus test that is the religious right.
This idea of forced morality can be confusing. Forced morality is not making a law against murder or rape. It is the decision to make abortion illegal, to allow prayer in public schools, or to endorse abstinence-only education. These are not rules necessary for society to continue to function, these are rules that are imposed by a religious majority onto a non-religious (or differently religious) minority. It is the government endorsing religion, something it has no business doing. If one religion is ‘chosen’ over the others, what happens? Well, in place of a large-scale answer, look at the anti-gay legislation that is popping up all over the country. The anti-gay legislation is prejudiced. It prevents those in the gay community from having the same rights as heterosexual citizens. This is religion getting into government. Marriage is a legally binding contract, and somewhere along the way, America has confused legally binding union with the idea of a ‘white wedding’. Nowhere in the Constitution, Declaration of independence, or any other legal document is the ‘sanctity of marriage’ addressed. The sanctity of marriage is a religious construct. What legal difference does it make if the couple signing the tax forms is homo- or heterosexual? This is a perfect example of religion forcing its way into politics. It has no place there. And, if Jesus Camp is anything to go by, it is only going to get worse.
Not only is religion a destructive force when it is used in legislation, churches who let themselves become politically involved can tear themselves apart, alienate parishioners, and ruin their image as a house of God. “at High Point Church in Arlington, Texas, Pastor Gary Simons showed a video that depicted the views of Barack Obama and John McCain on abortion. His sermon gave God’s alleged view on abortion and told the congregation how to vote accordingly. Some congregants said the pastor seemed to be comparing Obama to King Herod, the biblical monarch who ordered the mass murder of infants. Several members just walked out.”When a church becomes a political machine it risks forcing it’s members to choose one side or another. I make no claim to group every religious person together. There is a wide range of beliefs, and in one church there can be everything from Conservative Christians to Christians verging on Socialist. This is why churches cannot become embroiled in a political debate. Not every Catholic voted for or McCain. They voted according to their personal doctrine, which may not mirror that of their church. To drag your congregation into a good and bad debate about Democrats and Republicans destroys the very nature of what a church is supposed to be– a place for sanctuary, reflection, communion with your God. It is not a place to bad-mouth political candidates. It is not a place to further a political agenda. Religious organizations can lose their tax-exempt status if they participate in lobbying for one candidate or another.