Tag Archives: Religious Liberty

What it Really Means to be on the Right Side of History

Presumably, by

Presumably, by “traditional marriage,” these folks mean the right have roughly 700 wives — just like King Solomon did in the Bible.

The “right” side of history. It’s a refrain we’re hearing a lot these days, especially since the tyrannical, unelected, black-robed demon horde known as the Supreme Court decided to scoff at the biblical interpretation of foamy-mouthed Fundi-gelicals everywhere by legalizing the rainbow plague of super-gay Homo-Sexxican Devil marriage across the formerly free-but-now eternally damned United States of Sodom and Gomorrica.

Predictably, fire-and-brimstone wingnut stalwarts went apoplectic over the Court’s decision. Perennial presidential candidate and last-remaining Ted Nugent fan Mike Huckabee blew about fifteen gaskets and advocated mass civil disobedience against the impending Homo-Hordes. “When we believe that the civil government has acted outside of nature, and nature’s god, outside of the bounds of the law, outside of the bounds of the Constitution,” Huck winged, “we believe that it’s [civil disobedience] the right and the moral thing to do.” Not to be outdone by the Huckster, Bryan Fischer — the Mississippi-based gonzo-wingnut radio jockey for American Family Radio — described the Supremes’ ruling on same-sex marriage as “the new 9/11,” and claimed to witness “Satan dancing with delight” over America’s newfound gayness. The Dark Lord Himself could not be reached to verify Fischer’s comment.

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Hobby Lobby and the Real Meaning of Religious Liberty

You have a right to religious beliefs that are scientifically inaccurate, but you don't have a right to make others subscribe to those beliefs.

As these protesters recognize, you have a right to religious beliefs that are scientifically inaccurate, but you don’t have a right to make others subscribe to those beliefs.

Ah, yes, America: it’s a country with no official state religion in which people of all backgrounds can practice their respective faiths without the government deciding which faith is “true” via legislative action. Well, at least that’s the kind of country the United States is supposed to be, but thanks to the right-wing Catholic dude-bro contingent of the United States Supreme Court, “religious freedom” apparently now constitutes the right to make other people (especially women) accept as fact your own particular religious dogma via laws that sanctify (in more ways than one) those beliefs.

I am, of course, referring to the Supreme Court’s decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby that allows closely held (ie., non publicly traded) corporations to be except from the Obamacare mandate that employers provide contraceptives as part of their female employees’ heath plans. In keeping with a millenia-old tradition in which “religion” has too often been a code word for men controlling how the wimmin-folk use their lady-parts, the court’s conservative, male, Catholic justices made up the majority decision, with Justice Samuel “The Catholic Crusher” Alito opining that closely held corporations have the right to deny women contraceptive coverage simply because said corporations believe that contraception is the same damn thing as abortion, which it ain’t.

As I discussed at length in an earlier post, the case was instigated primarily by David Green and his family, the fundamentalist Christian owners of the arts and crafts store Hobby Lobby. The Greens believe that certain types of birth control, specifically Plan B, Ella, and a pair of intrauterine devices are, in fact, “abortifacients;” i.e, they cause abortions. This belief, however, is completely, utterly, false. It’s wrong. It’s not right. It’s scientifically falsifiable. As Mother Jones’ Erika Eichelberger and Molly Redden note, “Alito and the four other conservative justices on the court were essentially overruling not just an Obamacare regulation, but science. According to the Food and Drug Administration, all four of the contraceptive methods Hobby Lobby objects to…do not prevent the implantation of a fertilized egg into the uterus, which the owners of Hobby Lobby consider abortion. Instead, these methods prevent fertilization.”

Hobby Lobby’s position makes a weird kind of sense when you consider that the hallmark of religious fundamentalism is its obsessive rejection of secular-scientific advancements that contradict “traditional” faith beliefs regardless of the empirically verifiable validity of those beliefs. But that said, let’s be clear: the Hobby Lobby folks are free to believe whatever they want, truth and reality be damned (or not damned, if you subscribe to their point of view), but they don’t have the right to impose those beliefs on other people. This is what we mean by the phrase “religious liberty” in America, and it’s why the Supreme Court’s decision is dunder-headed and just plain wrong.

The idea of “religious liberty” is a concept that was debated during the earliest days of the Constitutional era following the American Revolution, and it’s a concept we still struggle with today. In his book Religion in American Politics: A Short History, historian Frank Lambert identifies the core point of division between religious and secular forces in America. “[R]eligious coalitions seek by political means what the Constitution prohibits, namely, a national religious establishment, or, more specifically, a Christian civil religion,” he writes.* But those wishing to make U.S. laws abide by particular religious codes have run into the problematic reality of secular forces and other religious groups that also want, and deserve, a voice in the public sphere. As Lambert writes, “the result is sometimes a clash between the country’s secular laws, which reflect the tenets of liberal capitalism and the free exchange of goods, and the ‘higher laws’ that religious groups cite to condemn certain goods and services offered in the marketplace.”*

These six Supreme Court justices are Catholic. But guess which one didn't vote in favor of Hobby Lobby, and then guess why.

These six Supreme Court justices are Catholic. But guess which one didn’t vote in favor of Hobby Lobby, and then guess why.

Science is one of those secular forces that challenges religion in the public sphere, and it has the weight of empirical evidence behind it that sometimes runs afoul of religious groups’ by-definition evidence-free ‘higher laws.’ Because religion often relies of these ‘higher laws,’ some types of religious folks — especially Christian fundamentalists — are thoroughly convinced that their laws should be EVERYONE’S laws, because who would dare argue with the TRUTH?! It’s these sanctimonious scallywags — not religious people in general — that the Constitution wisely prohibits from establishing a theocratic government in America. And it’s this prohibition that fundamentalists like the Hobby Lobby goons want to challenge.

No figure in American history recognized the threat posed by overly self-righteous believers better than the most Founding Father-est of all the Founding Fathers: Thomas Jefferson. Ole’ T-Jeff eloquently detailed the problem posed by unshaken religious dogmatism in his 1786 Virginia Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom, a key document that he drafted in response to religious coercion by the Anglican Church. Before the American Revolution, the Anglican Church of England was the state church of the Virginia colony, and as such, all Virginians were legally compelled to attend church services and support its operations through taxation.

The Anglican Church’s domination of state laws pissed off renegade sects of Baptists and Presbyterians, and, in an effort to liberalize Virginia’s religious liberty laws in accordance with an independent, republican state — and to gain non-Anglican groups’ support for the Patriots during the fight against Britain — Jefferson, with much input from fellow Founding Father James Madison, drafted the Virginia Religious Freedom Statute in 1777. The Virginia General Assembly then adopted the statute in 1786. That’s right: Jefferson drafted his statute in support of religious pluralism in part to protect the rights of minority religions against the heavy-handedness of a state religion. He recognized that nothing dampens religious liberty more than Theocracy.

Among the key arguments in Jefferson’s statute is the timeless observance that some über-pious pilgrims just can’t help but force their particular beliefs onto others, and that American law must guard against this tendency. Jefferson warned against “all attempts” to influence the free human mind through “temporal punishments or burthens” imposed by “the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical.” He recognized that religious people, like ALL people, were “themselves but fallible and uninspired.” When these theocrats “have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible,” Jefferson wrote, they had only “established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world and through all time.”

Jefferson realized that forcing others to abide by YOUR particular brand of religious dogma is, you know, kind of tyrannical. Establishing any kind of state religion was “a dangerous fallacy which at once destroys all religious liberty,” he wrote, because the person wishing to force his beliefs on others “will make his opinions the rule of judgment and approve or condemn the sentiments of others only as they shall square with or differ from his own.” This is precisely what Hobby Lobby is doing by effectively trying to turn a purely religious belief into a state law.

Thomas Jefferson. He wasn't perfect, but on occasion, he did write some good material.

Thomas Jefferson. He wasn’t perfect, but on occasion, he did write some good material.

Justice Alito’s argument highlights this absurdity while at the same time sanctioning it into law when he writes that, “the owners of the businesses have religious objections to abortion, and according to their religious beliefs the four contraceptive methods at issue are abortifacients.” As Wonkette’s Kaili Joy Gray writes, “does it matter whether their ‘religious beliefs’ are in any way, like, scientifically accurate? Nope, writes Alito, because ‘it is not for us to say that their religious beliefs are mistaken or insubstantial.'” She thus reaches the disturbing conclusion that Hobby Lobby has “a First Amendment right to believe whatever they want…and that First Amendment right is far more important than, say, a woman and her doctor to choose the best method of contraception for her.”

And there’s the religious rub. By demanding that the highest court in the land recognize, through law, the utterly non-factual belief that “abortifacients” cause an abortion, Hobby Lobby is forcing its employees to tacitly accept the “validity” of their religious beliefs. This denies Hobby Lobby employees, as well as other workers now placed at the whims of their potentially wingnut boss’s non-factual religious notions, the right to be free from religiously based coercion. This is the kind of coercion Jefferson warned was a direct threat to actual religious liberty.

But perhaps I’m putting too fine a point on the whole “religious liberty” angle and taking Hobby Lobby a bit too much at their own word. Why, you ask? Because this whole Supreme Court brouhaha may have nothing to do with “religious liberty” and everything to do about promoting a patriarchal culture that keeps men in control over women’s most personal rights. As Mother Jones details, Hobby Lobby has for years included contraception in employer retirement plans and has invested in them via manufacturers of all kinds of birth control. Perhaps those who are the most vocally self-righteous are always Pharisees in disguise. Jefferson would probably agree, dammit.

And as far as the Supreme Court goes: the five-justice majority that decided the Hobby Lobby decision are Catholic, male, and conservative. Is it wrong for me to suggest that subscribing to a religion that opposes contraception may have influenced these justices’ votes? You be the judge of that.

* See Frank Lambert, Religion in American Politics: A Short History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), 5,7.

American Religious Tolerance: It’s Complicated

Southern Baptist pastor, talk-radio host, Georgia congressional candidate, and all-arounf nut bag, Jody Hice. There is so much 'Murica in this image that it's almost too much freedom to handle...almost.

Southern Baptist pastor, talk-radio host, Georgia congressional candidate, and all-around nut bag, Jody Hice. There is so much ‘Murica in this image that it’s almost too much freedom to handle.

Isn’t it great to be religious in America? After all, there are so many deities in the world today vying for the mantle of the “One True God®,” it’s nice to know that there’s one nation on earth that guarantees you the right to worship any deity you see fit — if for no other reason than to hedge your spiritual bets. But alas, all is not well in the land that separates church from state and (constitutionally, anyway) doesn’t recognize an official state religion. For you see, according to Georgia yokel Jody Hice, if you’re one of the 2.2. billion or so of the world’s Muslims who worship that bloodthirsty desert Satan known as Allah, then your right-to-worship ain’t protected by the Constitution, my friend. Because in America, some people think that if you’re not genuflecting to a heavily armed, tax-cutting American Jesus, then you can kiss your religious rights goodbye.

Jody Hice is a Georgia-based syndicated right-wing radio host and pastor who is currently running to fill the 10th congressional seat vacated by current GOP senatorial candidate Paul Broun. Now, admittedly, it’s hard to out-crazy Paul Broun, a guy who once stood in front of a wall of stuffed deer heads and criticized the idea of evolution — and most science in general — as un-biblical heresy “straight from the pit of Hell.” But this being the Deep South, loony right-wing politicians are more prolific than fantastic barbecue and diabetes, and Jody Hice doesn’t disappoint.

As the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports, Hice recently claimed that freedom of religion doesn’t apply to Islam. “Although Islam has a religious component,” Hice stated, “it is much more than a simple religious ideology. It is a complete geo-political structure and, as such, does not deserve First Amendment protection.” And that’s not all. Talking Points Memo dug up similar statements Hice made at a Tea Party rally, at which he claimed that, “[m]ost people think Islam is a religion, It’s not. It’s a totalitarian way of life with a religious component. But it’s much larger. It’s a geo-political system that has governmental, financial, military, legal and religious components. And it’s a totalitarian system that encompasses every aspect of life and it should not be protected [under U.S. law].”

Now, look, you don’t need to be a card-carrying, Caliphate-beckoning, beard-stroking, desert monkey-bars training, Kalashnikov-toting member of Al Qaeda to recognize that Hice is one-hundred percent wrong about Islam and religious freedom in America. First off, the mind-boggling level of ironic self-unawareness on display from a Protestant religious fundamentalist who accuses Islam of having “governmental, financial, military, legal and religious components” while simultaneously proclaiming on his campaign website that American society is “based upon Christian principles” and “imbued with Judeo-Christian values” is downright awe-inspiring. It’s pretty damn ballsy of Hice to criticize Muslims for wanting to hijack all levels of American society while also bragging that Christians have already done that.

But lack of self-awareness aside, what Hice is invoking is an age-old stance that has challenged America’s most pie-in-the-sky ideals since day-one: tyranny of the majority. And no, I don’t mean the kind of “tyranny of the majority” espoused by nineteenth century South Carolina senator and pro-slavery nitwit John C. Calhoun, who claimed that an evil majority of abolitionist zealots sought to snuff out the political voice of God-fearing, black people-owning Southern planters everywhere. No, I mean the type of tyranny of the majority that emerges when a particular belief or practice becomes so widespread and so well-known among the majority of the population that it sheds its historical provenance and becomes ensconced in that nebulous cultural void known as “the way things have always been.”

An image depicitng the 1844 Philadelphia nativist riot during which Know Nothings targeted Catholics. Hurray for religious tolerance!

An image depicting the 1844 Philadelphia nativist riot during which Know Nothings targeted Catholics. Hurray for religious tolerance!

Christianity — especially the Christianity espoused by Jody Hice — falls into that category of a belief system that the majority of Americans subscribe to and, consequently, accept as the “default” American religion — even if it’s not recognized by the Constitution as such. But just because the majority of Americans are Christians doesn’t mean that Christianity is the state religion and that other belief systems should play second-bananas to the Jesus clubs. Unless you’re someone like Jody Hice. You see, despite America’s espoused ideals of religious tolerance, stances like Hice’s have been historically more common than most people think. In other words, quite often in America, “freedom of religion” in practice meant “freedom of religion as long as that religion is the same religion that I and everyone else I know practices.”

The worst offenders of this type of cultural tyranny of the majority — in the past and today — have been American Protestants, if for no other reason than they got here first (aside from Native Americans, but they were heathens, so who cares) and constituted the majority religious population for a very long time. Historians John Corrigan and Lynn S. Neal note that early on “a Protestant majority was secure in its belief that extension of its morality and beliefs to the nation as a whole was its God-given destiny, and it was confident that freedom of religion in America was a fact that Protestant ambitions could in no way undermine.”* Thus, when new religious groups gained traction, the various factions of Protestant Christians, drunk on their own majority cultural clout, have often freaked out, and they’ve reacted in a way that rendered them “unable to see that minority groups suffered at the hands of majority traditions.”*

Thanks to the long-time Protestant domination of American religious culture, other belief systems, even different factions of Christianity such as Catholicism and Mormonism, have faced discrimination for not being true “American” religions. Basically, Catholics and Mormons used to be what Muslims are today: supposedly shadowy, alien religious agents that threaten to infiltrate American society and alter it for the worse. This type of fear of the religious “other” is what’s freaking the Hell out of already borderline insane folks like Jody Hice.

Catholics, for example, were long considered to be scheming pawns of the Imperial Papal regime who were hell-bent on infiltrating America’s democratic society and transforming it into a slave colony beholden only to the pointy-hatted Roman Pontiff.

Heck, when Catholics started immigrating to the U.S. in large waves in the mid-nineteenth century, they spawned a Nativist Protestant political party known as the Know-Nothings (who I’ve written about more here and here) whose primary goal was to stamp Catholicism out of American life. The Know Nothings vowed to bar all Catholics from holding political office, and their supporters sometimes started riots during which they tarred-and-feathered and even murdered Catholics. One of the most notorious of these riots, known as “Bloody Monday,” occurred on August 6, 1855 in Louisville Kentucky. During a heated election that pit the Know Nothings against the Democratic Party, a wave of Protestant mobs attacked Irish Catholic neighborhoods in an orgy of street fighting, property destruction, and violence that left twenty-two people dead.

The martyring of Mormon founder Joseph Smith, 1844. Don't worry, Smith later got is revenge in teh form of Mitt Romney.

The martyring of Mormon founder Joseph Smith, 1844. Don’t worry, Smith later got his revenge in the form of Mitt Romney.

But Catholics haven’t been the only group to bear the brunt of Protestant religious intolerance. Also during the nineteenth century, the Church of Latter-Day Saints, aka the Mormons, were considered by “mainstream” American Christians to be a weird, heretical sect that needed to be put in its place. Mormonism was, of course, founded in 1830 by the boringly named New York prophet Joseph Smith, but Smith’s beliefs — especially his idea that the Christian God had once been a mortal man — earned him the heretic tag from upstate New York’s Protestant majority, and he eventually fled with his followers to Nauvoo, Illinois, where he established a new LDS settlement. But when Smith sanctioned polygamy as part of Mormon practice, the local non-Mormons jailed him and his brother. All hell eventually broke loose on June 27, 1844 when a mob stormed the jail and shot Smith and his brother to death.

These past examples of American religious intolerance may be more extreme than the bone-headed rantings of Jody Hice, but the common-thread of tyranny of the cultural majority remains. Wherever there are belief systems that stand in obvious contrast to the beliefs of the majority of Americans, friction and even violence have been the results. This strain of religious intolerance in the erstwhile land of the free continues to have repercussions, particularly in a post-9/11 world where troglodytes like Hice can reap electoral rewards from trafficking in anti-Islamic demagoguery.

As Corrigan and Neal write, “stories of religion in American have taught us to see religious intolerance and violence as something inflicted upon the United States or something that occurs in less-civilized and sophisticated nations than our own.” Thus, when would-be theocrats like Jody Hice tout their Jesus bona fides by invoking the Muslim devil, they’re tapping into a deep historical well of religious intolerance that has justified action against “foreign” minority faiths “all in the name of upholding American values and protecting American liberty.”* Of course, the obvious retort to such instances of religious bigotry is to remind America’s home-grown theocrats that religious tolerance and diversity ARE American values that DO protect American liberty. Anything else would truly be uncivilized.

* See John Corrigan and Lynn S. Neal, eds., Religious Intolerance in America: A Documentary History (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011), 5, 9.

Greece v. Galloway and America’s Long Sacred/Secular Mix

Where to drawn the line between the sacred and the secular in American society has always been a point of debate, and it probably always will be.

Where to drawn the line between the sacred and the secular in American society has always been a point of debate, and it probably always will be.

America has always been a deeply religious country. That’s just a plain fact. But saying that the U.S. is a religious country isn’t the same as saying that it’s a country with an official state religion. America has never been a theocracy, and trust me, we’re better off that way. This is why, despite the pipe-dreams of would-be modern theocrats on the Religious Right who want to impose their brand of fundamentalist Protestant Christianity onto every aspect of American life, the U.S. Constitution explicitly forbids the recognition of any state religion.

And while some religious-minded folks work themselves into an apocalyptic tantrum over this inconvenient truth, they should consider that church/state separation is beneficial to both entities. Think about it: let’s say you want to make Christianity the official religion of the United States. Well, which version of Christianity do you mean?

Surely you don’t mean those cracker-munching, incense-huffing, indulgence-selling Catholics and their sinister Papal overlord — right? Or what about America’s home-grown Appalachian snake-handlers? How’d you like to make a serpent-fondling suicide cult the centerpiece of your national spirituality? Or what about the Church of Latter Day Saints (aka the Mormons)? Sure, they say they’re Christians, but did you know they’re technically polytheists who wear weird, Minnesota ice fisherman-style long underwear? What about the Amish?! Okay, forget the Amish, they’re wise enough to generally avoid politics, but as for the rest of these groups: are these the “official” Christianities you want enshrined into state law?!

If you’re the typical, non-denominational, fundamentalist, white bread ‘Murican WASP, the idea of any of the above “Christianities” gaining state recognition should scare the (literal) Hell out of you. Wouldn’t it be better to have no state religion so that ALL faiths, regardless of their level of weirdness, can flourish in private — including yours? Of course it would better. That’s why it IS better that we have church/state separation.

This is why the recent Supreme Court decision in the case Town of Greece v. Galloway is really, really dumb. The case came before the Court after Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens — two persnickety, anti-God crusaders who are doomed to roast in the flames of Hell while listening to an endless loop of John Tesh playlists — claimed that the podunk city of Greece, New York violated the Constitution’s Establishment clause by opening its legislative session with a prayer. Galloway and Stephens had Americans United for Separation of Church and State on their side, but nonetheless received a legal smackdown in the form of a 5-4 decision — authored by Justice Anthony Kennedy — arguing that “Greece does not violate the First Amendment by opening its meetings with prayer that comports with our tradition and does not coerce participation by nonadherents.” This is legalese for, “Yeah, they’re praying to God, but no one’s forcing you to pray along.”

Susan Galloway (left), an atheist, and Linda Stephens who is Jewish, recognize that in Greece, they're prayin' to a VERY specific God.

Susan Galloway (left), who is Jewish, and Linda Stephens, an atheist, recognize that in Greece, they’re prayin’ to a VERY specific God.

Despite Kennedy’s claim that opening a governmental session with prayers is fine ‘n dandy as long as the prayers invoke “traditional” themes and are “addressed only to a generic God,” this decision is a cheap way to slide Christianity into official state recognition because, to absolutely no one’s surprise, the prayer offered in Greece, NY was a Christian prayer. As Slate’s Dhalia Lithwick observes, “What Kennedy did here…was to announce that as a matter of constitutional law, some religious traditions that are universal and longstanding are basically Christian.” Because Kennedy deemed that “Christian values are basically universal,” Lithwick writes, he “drew a line between ‘traditional’ and accepted religions, and religions that are ‘other.'”

The biggest problem with the Supreme Court’s decision in Greece v. Galloway is that it essentially sanctions non-Christian religions as “others” in the public square while suggesting that “traditional” Christian beliefs should be given some form of state recognition. This is counter to the entire American legal precedent of promoting religious pluralism. In terms of numerical representation, America may indeed be considered a “Christian” nation, but it’s never been just that — and has never been defined as such by law. Multiple faiths have always thrived within U.S. borders, including versions of Christianity — such as Mormonism — that were once violently persecuted by “mainstream” Christians before finally gaining acceptance (for the most part) after the passage of time. Prohibiting a state religion ensures that minority and upstart groups like the Mormons can thrive rather than submit to persecution by the state.

This unique relationship between the sacred and the secular in American life helped forge a country in which religions could flourish and influence public policy while never explicitly directing public policy. In his excellent book Touchdown Jesus: The Mixing of Sacred and Secular in American History, historian R. Laurence Moore describes the U.S. as “a secular state indifferent in formal ways to all religious institutions but dependent for its survival on their health.”* Indeed, the health of religious pluralism reflects the health of American equality. “[I]n the United States the expansion of equality has always involved the erasure of difficulties attached to being different,” Moore writes. Because religion has always been a “constitutionally privileged form of difference,” he adds, “religious pluralism has played an important role in advancing the struggles of many Americans held back because of their race, or ethnicity, or sex, or national origins.”*

C'mon folks, do you REALLY want teh government to give preference to this guy's religious beliefs?

C’mon folks, do you REALLY want the government to give preference to this guy’s religious beliefs?

In other words, by not privileging one religion over another, the U.S. has historically allowed different belief systems to grow and influence the public sphere in ways they could never do if there were an official state religion. The separation of church and state, then, has historically been less about the exclusion of religion and more about its unofficial inclusion. As scholars Marjorie Garber and Rebecca Walkowitz explain in their book One Nation Under God?, “those who use the language of secularism would have to speak to a secularism of presence, not absence.” What they mean is that, while the U.S. is unquestionably a secular nation with secular laws, religions always have — and always will — play a role in the pubic sphere “negotiating for voice and influence in public discussion.”*

The important thing is that Christianity shouldn’t get special treatment in the public sphere via the state’s Christening (see what I did there?!) of it as the one-true religion. The decision in Greece v. Galloway tramps all over religious pluralism like a drunk, cleat-sporting golfer on a putting green. By claiming that Christian prayer, no matter how generic and “traditional” it may be, can be used to open government functions — even local meetings in upstate New York — the Supreme Court is getting uncomfortably close to saying, “Christianity’s fine, but everything else isn’t cool, bro.” American religious pluralism has long protected and expanded the rights of religious minorities, both of the Christian and non-Christian variety. This is a tradition worth holding onto — unless you’re fine with taking up poisonous serpents as a prerequisite for voting.

* See R. Laurence Moore, Touchdown Jesus: The Mixing of Sacred and Secular in American History (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2003), 6, 5.  

* See Marjorie Garber and Rebecca L. Walkowitz, eds., One Nation Under God? Religion and American Culture (New York: Routledge, 1999), 17.

Todd Starnes, Fox News, and Nostalgia’s Twisted History

Tod Starnes, the epitomome of American manhood, thinks the Doobie Brothers never smoked weed.

Fleshy Fox News gas geyser Todd Starnes, the epitome of American manhood, thinks the Doobie Brothers never smoked weed. Isn’t that precious.

It’s a fairly well-established trope in American politics that conservatives are overly obsessed with the past. Anyone whose ever spent time experiencing the ear-invading ceti-eel that is conservative talk-radio, or viewing the idiot-box propaganda that is Fox News knows that conservatives love to reference a past that was invariably better than the allegedly freedom-crushing nightmare of the Obama era.

For those to the right of the political spectrum, the space-time continuum is defined by two — and only two — eras: before and after the authoritarian reign of Barack Obama. And, of course, the era before Obama’s conquest was much better (and whiter). That’s because conservatives imagine the past to be a simpler, morally superior time, and they want to return to that time pronto!

The problem with yearning for a more wholesome (and by extension, less liberal) time is that such a time never actually existed. The idea of a simpler American past over which right-wingers salivate like golden retrievers anticipating a bag of Beggin’ Strips is, in fact, a past constructed from nostalgia.

In his classic article “Nostalgia and the American,” the historian Arthur Dudden defined nostalgia as “a preference for things as they are believed to have been.”* Conservatives use nostalgia to rally their followers (usually, but not exclusively, grey-haired, government-hating medicare beneficiaries) into supporting Republican political candidates who promise to destroy liberalism and bring America back to a mythical time when the federal government was non-existent and most people lived in a version of Andy Griffith’s Mayberry, went to church every day, and didn’t have to deal with teh gayz.

Case in point: Todd Starnes — a pasty cross between Lou Dobbs and Lewis from Revenge of the Nerds who regularly serves as Fox News’ resident front-line correspondent for the non-existent “culture wars” — has written a new book that uses nostalgia to condemn all-things liberal. Brilliantly titled God Less America: Real Stories from the Front Lines of the Attack on Traditional Values (conservatives don’t do irony), Starnes’ book is a standard collection of right-wing boilerplate describing the so-called assault on Christian values by the ever-expanding army of liberal heathens who are apparently intent on dragging the U.S. into a hellish orgy of critical thinking and secularism.

In most respects, Starnes’ screed differs little from the stack of conservative polemics published by the (now-threatened) right-wing book industry on a yearly basis that warn of America’s impending slide into moral anarchy. But Starnes’ book is notable thanks to its unbelievable reliance on hackneyed nostalgic clichés to describe a completely fictitious American past in which conservatism reigned supreme and that Barack Obama took away.

As this Andy Griffith statue in Raleigh, North Carolina demonstarte, the myth of a Mayberry-style small town still shapes American identity.

As this Andy Griffith statue in Raleigh, North Carolina demonstrates, the myth of a Mayberry-style small town still shapes American identity.

Andrew Kirell over at Mediaite first alerted me to the truly Shaksperian verbiage contained within Starnes’ mighty tome, and he dares people to actually get through the first six pages without bursting into uncontrollable (and possibly dangerous) fits of laughter. Take these paragraphs from Starnes’ Introduction,* in which the Fox News poet layeth down the corn-pone characteristics that defined his humble youth in small-town America:

I grew up in a much simpler time — when blackberry was a pie and dirty dancing meant somebody forgot to clean out the barn for the square dance. It was a time when father still knew best — when the girls were girls and the men were men. I grew up in a time when a rainbow was a sign of God’s promise, not gay rights.

And:

When I grew up, spam was something you ate and a hard drive was the twelve-hour trip to grandma’s house without any bathroom breaks. It was a time when a virus was cleared up with a bowl of chicken soup, not the Geek Squad from Best Buy. It was a time when Doobie was a brother and hip-hop was something a bunny rabbit did.

In a truly stunning feat of deception laced with stupidity, Starnes uses nostalgia to create a fictitious American past that is completely untethered from any actual time and space. Just look at the disparate pop-culture references he manages to cram into those two paragraphs: Square-dancing hasn’t been en vogue since at least the late-1970s; the film Dirty Dancing (which Starnes references to comment on the decline of American sexual values) came out in 1987; Best Buy’s Geek Squad was founded in 1994, and modern computers have been around in some form or another since the 1970s. This alleged “time” when Starnes “grew up” is an imaginary past that he created using nostalgia to stitch together disparate time-periods and pop-culture references into a mythical American historical cloth.

And then there’s the sheer obtuseness displayed in some of Starnes’ references to pop-culture, which he uses to contrast a simpler past with a more complicated present. Seriously, is there anything simple about what goes into making a can of Spam?! And what about the reference to a “Doobie” being merely a “brother?” If Starnes thinks that the name of seventies band the Doobie Brothers wasn’t a verbal nod to smoking weed — then he’s really, really dumb. Starnes commits the cardinal sin of all nostalgia mongers: he believes that because the past happened before, then it must have been simpler than what happened after. Of course, as historians have long pointed out, the past was never, ever “simple.”

So why do Starnes and other conservatives insist on viewing the past through nostalgia-colored lenses? Well, they do so because nostalgia simplifies the past and purports to offer solutions to problems in the present. In his book, Starnes invokes what scholar Andrew Murphy calls “Golden Age politics” by reappropriating the past in order to present a “solution to present difficulties.” Murphy writes that “nostalgic and Golden Age politics depend on the…claim that some aspect of the past offers the best way forward in addressing the inadequacies and corruptions of the present.”* In God Less America, Starnes is doing just that by claiming that the (fictional) America of his youth was simpler and, by extension, better than, the overly complex and morally depraved present that is the Obama era.

I’ve written about nostalgia before, particularly in reference to the reality show American Pickers and in terms of how nostalgia shapes the enduring myth of small-town U.S.A., and I’ve noted that nostalgia in-and-of-itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But in some circumstances, it CAN be a bad thing, especially when conservatives use it reshape the past in an effort to disingenuously comment on the present.

Writing in the 1960s, Arthur Dudden recognized how nostalgia, which he characterized as a type of “cultural homesickness,” could be manipulated to serve devious ends. “Nostalgia implies a certain dissatisfaction with present circumstances, and very likely also a dissatisfaction with the apparent direction of trends leading into the future,” Dudden wrote — and I’ll be damned if he didn’t describe the essence of modern conservatism as promoted by Todd Starnes.*

For Todd Starnes, America begins and ends with this painting.

For Todd Starnes, America begins and ends with this painting.

But by invoking a mythical past to fix what they see as a “broken” present, conservatives like Starnes fail to see how their own beliefs and policies have shaped a contemporary world that seems so much more complex and amoral than the “simple” past they claim to remember. Consider conservatives’ sanctification of free market capitalism. As Erica Grieder notes, “capitalism encourages mobility and disruption. It therefore represents a particular challenge to the traditional structures, like family or civil society, that used to represent a person’s personal safety net.” Grieder recognizes how the inherent dynamism of capitalism pays no heed to traditional structures like family, church, and small-town communities that conservatives want to preserve.

All of the complexities of modern society — which Starnes sees embodied in things like the Blackberry device, the film industry, popular music, the internet age, and urbanization — are the direct result of the relentless free-market dynamism that conservatives promote. Market forces drive the onslaught of technology by creating products that people want to buy, and if, in the process, these same market forces decimate small towns by shipping jobs to Third World countries, or make employment so scarce that tight-knit families and communities are forced to split up in order to find work that is increasingly concentrated in big cities, as opposed to the small towns over which Starnes waxes nostalgic, then so be it.

Market capitalism doesn’t care about disrupting American social institutions, but Todd Starnes does, and like other conservatives, he’s unable to recognize how his undying support for free-market capitalism creates the contemporary conditions that he views as far less simple than the idealized past that he longs to return to in God Less America. And therein lies the dangerous aspect of nostalgia: by creating a fictional and overly simplified vision of the past, it renders people unable to deal with the present as it is.

While it’s worth reiterating that nostalgia isn’t always a bad thing, it’s nonetheless something that can prevent people from understanding the very real complexities of the modern world. Shameless nostalgia mongers like Todd Starnes only make things worse by promoting a past that never existed in order to fix a present that they simply don’t like. So suck it up Todd; your gay rainbow is here to stay.

* See Todd Starnes, God Less America: Real Stories from the Front Lines of the Attack on Traditional Values (Lake Mary, FL: Charisma House, 2014), 1-2.

* See Arthur P. Dudden, “Nostalgia and the American,” Journal of the History of Ideas 22 (Oct. – Dec., 1961): 517.

* See Andrew R. Murphy, “Longing, Nostalgia, and Golden Age Politics: The American Jeremiad and the Power of the Past,” Perspectives on Politics 7 (Mar., 2009): 126.

Hobby Lobby, Religious Liberty, and American Exceptionalism Gone Bad

Hobby Lobby is a a craft store run by veout Christians whose adherence to bibical teachings is so strict that they sell blasphemous Pagan paraphenialia.

Hobby Lobby is a craft store run by devout Christians whose adherence to biblical teachings is so strict that they sell blasphemous Pagan paraphernalia just so good Christian shoppers know what such forbidden items look like and therefore do NOT buy them.

Who’d have thought that a middle-of-the-road arts and crafts store run by religious nutballs would provide the most formidable challenge yet to Obamacare? Strange as it may seem, this is what’s happening as the U.S. Supreme Court holds hearings in the case Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Inc..

So what’s sticking in Hobby Lobby’s craw about Obamacare (aka The Greatest Abomination in the history of history)? Superfically, it’s about religion and birth control, but on a deeper level, it’s about power relations in U.S. culture. Mother Jones provides a fantastic breakdown of this bizarre case and details its significance in terms of shaping the future of American health care and employee-employer relations. But this case is also important for bigger reasons. Hobby Lobby’s crusade against providing emergency contraception coverage to female employees demonstrates the waning, yet still formidable power of religiously motivated American Exceptionalism.

As Mother Jones’ Stephanie Mencimer writes, Hobby Lobby is a privately held, Oklahoma City-based corporation owned by a trust managed by CEO David Green and his family. The Greens are hardcore Jesus Freaks who run their company in accordance with so-called “biblical principles,” and they’re suing the Obama administration over provisions in the Affordable Care Act (ACA, or Satan’s Law, if you prefer) that requires employers to cover emergency contraception, known as Plan B, in employee health insurance plans. The Greens believe that emergency contraception is a so-called “abortifacient” — a made-up word that means Plan B causes an abortion — and that mandating emergency contraception coverage therefore violates their pro-life religious beliefs.

No matter that the “Plan B=abortion” notion is pure hogwash — and no matter that other conservative Christians accept that plan B doesn’t=abortion — what matters to the Greens is that they believe that emergency contraception causes abortion, and that this belief should exempt them from full ACA coverage on religious freedom grounds. This would be akin to securing endangered species protection for Bigfoot based on the mere belief that Bigfoot exists, but Hobby Lobby’s case has proved attractive to the right-wing troglodyte majority on the U.S. Supreme Court — I’m looking your way, Scalito.

Much of the controversy over this case, as Mencimer notes, stems from Hobby Lobby’s assertion that “a for-profit corporation can have the constitutionally protected right to the free exercise of religion.” This previously asinine notion gained credence thanks to the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Citizens United case, a decision that effectively granted corporations “personhood” via full first amendment rights. That’s right: corporations are now people, my friend! And some of these people don’t like the women-folk using birth control because Jesus…or something.

What tyhese protestors are fighting against is the assertion of religious dominance over personal, secular affairs.

What these protestors are fighting against is the assertion of religious dominance over personal, secular affairs.

But if you look at the broader assertions that the Greens are making, their Hobby Lobby case is about much more than a spiritual squabble over contraception. No, what we’ve got here is a contest over power — specifically, the power of religiously motivated American Exceptionalism to still hold sway over an increasingly science-dominated American culture.

Let me explain a bit further. As scholar Deborah Madsen writes, American Exceptionalism has been at the center of every major American historical event. It’s also been at the core of debates over what constitutes American cultural identity. Madsen defines American Exceptionalism as the idea that “America and Americans are special, exceptional, because they are charged with saving the world from itself” while simultaneously sustaining “a high level of spiritual, political and moral commitment to this exceptional destiny.” This idea dates back to the Puritans who described America as “a city upon a hill” that should serve as a redeeming beacon to a spiritually fallen world.*

Indeed, there’s no separating religious belief from American exceptionalism. The Puritans, as I noted in a piece for Salon, came to North America to establish a new heavenly kingdom on earth. Rebelling colonists fought the American Revolution based, in part, on the belief that Old King George was disrespecting their Creator-endowed inalienable rights. Nineteenth century westward expansion was driven by Manifest Destiny: the idea that Americans were chosen by the Christian God to conquer their land from sea to shining sea. Both sides in the American Civil War claimed to be acting on the will of God. And during the Depression and World War II, Americans were quite literally convinced that they fought in God’s name to save the world from the evils of fascism and communism.

In the twenty-first century, legal fights over “religious liberty” involve the same notions of American Exceptionalism, as conservative religious Americans struggle to maintain their long-established cultural dominance over a society that’s slowly but surely becoming less religious and more secular. Those convinced that a belief in God makes America morally, politically, and culturally exceptional interpret any challenges to religious authority as a challenge to their vision of American identity. Therefore, it doesn’t matter that, scientifically, Plan B contraception doesn’t constitute abortion. For religious authoritarians like David Green of Hobby Lobby, even the mere whiff of a secular challenge to the cultural domination of Christian fundamentalism can’t be tolerated. In Green’s mind, the literal soul of America hangs in the balance. 

It’s no coincidence that the rise of the American Religious Right happened after World War II and the triumph of the modern scientific age. In his book Redeeming Culture: American Religion in an Age of Science, historian James Gilbert notes that in the years following the Second World War, scientific secularism rose to its highest level of prominence in American culture, and it hasn’t looked back since. “Not only did science and technology provide the material of progress,” Gilbert writes, “but in their intellectual process, standards, and professions, they offered enticing and convincing ways to discover and organize knowledge.”*

A Hobby Lobby in Stowe, Ohio. Screw these jerks: just go to Michael's.

A Hobby Lobby in Stowe, Ohio. Screw these jerks: just go to Michael’s.

The rise of science to a previously unheard-of level of prominence in American culture proved problematic to religious folks who saw belief in God, not adherence to the scientific method, as the foundation of American exceptionalism. Religious Americans reacted to the rise of scientific secularism in different ways. Some accepted it. Some sought to improve on it. Others, however, dug in their heels and resisted it when they could. The Hobby Lobby folks and other modern Christian Fundamentalists fit squarely in the latter camp. “For reasons of self-preservation and expansion,” Gilbert explains, “American religions have been deeply concerned about the impact of scientific law and discovery,” and the long-running strategy of religious conservatives has been to resist marginalization at every turn.*

Thus, while Science and a secular government may say that emergency contraception doesn’t equal abortion, God says otherwise, and the Almighty’s Hobby Lobby holy warriors will be damned if they don’t put up a worthy spiritual — and legal — fight.

Hobby Lobby is contesting the ACA requirements because a victory in their case would mean a victory over the colluding forces of liberalism and scientific secularism, all of which they see embodied in the power of the secular state to institute universal health coverage. For Green and others, the fight against Obamacare is part of larger fight for the soul of America, nay, the soul of an exceptional America. They see themselves as generals on the front lines of the culture wars fighting to uphold their long-held, God-sanctioned authority in American culture. In their minds, losing the battle over Plan B coverage would constitute a major defeat in the larger war over the right to define the meaning of American Exceptionalism.

So make no mistake: Hobby Lobby doesn’t really care about “religious liberty.” What they do care about is the right to continue to define American Exceptionalism on their own terms and, by extension, the authority to decide the fates of women and employees in the broader socio-economic hierarchy. After all, those groups oughta know their submissive place — the bible says so.

* See Deborah L. Madsen, American Exceptionalism (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1998), 2.

* See James Gilbert, Redeeming Culture: American Religion in an Age of Science (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), 5, 16.