On Thursday, February 5, the U.S. Senate took up an amendment introduced by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) to strip church-state protections from the stimulus bill. The amendment failed 43 to 54 after DeMint repeated the inflammatory claims he had been making all week and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) swiftly and effectively refuted them.
The creation of a phony crisis that DeMint’s amendment was supposed to solve is a case study of Religious Right leaders’ strategic use of false alarms about threats to religious liberty – and of the willingness of right-wing media and elected officials to play along. Watch now, in the wake of the amendment’s defeat, for Religious Right leaders to use the vote as “evidence” that Democrats are hostile to people of faith and to try to undermine support from religious Americans for the new administration.
Wildly alarmist rhetoric from DeMint and right-wing leaders accusing the Obama administration and congressional Democrats of hostility to faith and public prayer was especially ridiculous coming in the week that President Obama spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast and announced the creation of a multifaith advisory panel for his office of faith based and community initiatives. But stoking fears about anti-Christian “persecution” and claiming that liberal politicians are out to destroy religious liberty is a fundraising and organizing tactic that the Religious Right cannot seem to give up.
Here’s how it played out, as documented in near-real time by People For the American Way’s RightWingWatch.org.
Right-Wing Echo Chamber in Action
On Tuesday, the American Center for Law and Justice, created by Pat Robertson to be the Religious Right’s answer to the American Civil Liberties Union, announced that it had “discovered” a provision in the stimulus bill that “unfairly targets religious activity at universities and colleges that receive federal stimulus funds.”
In fact, the provision “discovered” by the ACLJ has been included in legislation for decades, and has been upheld by the Supreme Court. It prevents federal funds from being used to construct buildings, like chapels, designed for religious worship or sectarian instruction. It’s perfectly in keeping with the spirit of the First Amendment and prevents taxpayer dollars from being used to take sides on religion by funding some groups’ worship facilities.
But the chance to stir up fears of anti-Christian persecution by the new administration and Congress proved too tempting to pass up. The “Christian Post” ran with the story on Tuesday, quoting the ACLJ’s Sekulow demanding that the “discriminatory measure” be removed from the bill. And we were off to the races.
Ratcheting Up the Religious Persecution Rhetoric
The next day, Sen. Jim DeMint told CBN’s David Brody that “Democrats are looking for every opportunity to purge faith and prayer from the public square.” Did DeMint miss the inauguration?
Fox News also chimed in on Wednesday, with a story that covered the bases: The headline announced that “Conservative Groups Declare Obama’s Stimulus Bill a War on Prayer,” while the opening line of the story attributed the “war on prayer” to “Democrats in Congress.”
“Religious activity is already scarce at most of our colleges, the Obama people want to make sure it is extinct,” complained the TVC’s Andrea Lafferty. Which “Obama people” she has in mind is not clear, but purging religion from college campuses does not seem a likely priority for Joshua DuBois, the former pastor named to oversee White House faith outreach.
The Liberty Counsel’s Mathew Staver took the claim even further, saying that the provision “will lead to the banning of all religious activity from all public facilities” and snarking that “Apparently, President Obama’s idea of faith-based initiatives is to remove faith from all initiatives.”
And the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins, reportedly considering a run for the U.S. Senate, called for “Hammering Out Dems’ Anti-Faith Building Provision,” which he said would encourage colleges and universities to discourage religious activity on campus out of fear of losing out on federal dollars.
Tax Dollars for Discrimination?
The ACLJ’s Jay Sekulow insisted that the provision is part of a “troubling pattern regarding the use of federal taxpayer dollars” and declared, “We know that the American people don’t want their tax dollars used for discriminatory measures.” Of course, Sekulow would not apply that principle to religious groups or institutions using federal dollars to discriminate in hiring people who provide social services or to those that proselytize and require beneficiaries to adhere to their religious tenants. Religious Right groups are defending that kind of federally funded discrimination, which President Obama opposed as a candidate and which the Justice Department has now been tasked with reviewing.
Method to the Madness
To any serious observer, there is no credibility to claims that the Obama administration and the Democratic congressional leadership are out to silence people of faith or encourage colleges to squelch students’ religious expression. Yet claims of “religious persecution” and the “criminalization of Christianity” persist as a favored Religious Right strategy across a range of issues, including opposition to anti-discrimination laws and hate crimes provisions.
Claims that the nation’s leaders are hostile to Christianity may help Religious Right leaders raise money, and may generate political action from individuals who fear that their faith and freedom are being threatened, but they also poison the well of public discourse and may diminish many Americans’ willingness to trust in the possibility of the nation’s elected leaders to work together to advance the public good.
Challenging False Witness
A number of advocacy organizations, including People For the American Way, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the American Civil Liberties Union and other members of the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination worked to set the record straight during the hours leading up to the Senate vote on DeMint’s amendment and encouraged activists to contact Members of Congress. That kind of work demonstrates the importance of a robust public interest advocacy community.
It’s also important for journalists, public officials, and other opinion leaders to challenge the Religious Right’s false claims that President Obama, or liberals, or equality advocates are out to destroy religious liberty, and not to give proponents of those false claims more credibility than they deserve.