Charge: Manipulating Audiences

Hand-wringing over the rise of the Religious Right consumed a major chunk of the program at this year’s annual meeting of Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU). About 100 members attended the two-day meeting, held in suburban Washington, D.C.

Evangelists of the New Right are out to manipulate their audiences for political purposes, charged keynote speaker G. Welton Gaddy, pastor of Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas. Accusing them of authoritarianism and “Messianism,” he complained they are spreading confusion, suspicion, and isolationism among the American people, and are a threat to religious freedom.

The alliance of many religious fundamentalists with “reactionary political movements” has resulted in “a type of neo-fascism that threatens the very foundations of American life,” warned Paul D. Simmons, an ethics professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

In another speech, Simmons, who has testified in Congress against antiabortion measures, lamented the involvement of fundamentalists and evangelicals with Roman Catholics in the antiabortion movement. He declared: “The Helms-Hyde efforts to have Congress define life as existing from the moment of conception is an exercise in moralistic muddling and legislative bungling that may result in a Constitutional crisis.”

Religious conservatives have been asking why they are being criticized for their interest in politics when liberals have been politically active for years. Faced with that dilemma, Simmons granted them a concession that is music to fundamentalist ears. He said:

“We cannot fault them on efforts to be politically involved. They are right in saying that separation of church and state does not mean separation of God and government. The question is not whether we should try to influence public policy but why and which policies should be supported. The fundamentalists have heard the liberal message that Christians should be involved in politics. They are doing so with a vengeance.”

In short, Simmons seemed to say, what is most offensive about religious conservatives is that they are on the wrong side of the issues.

James Bond, a law professor at Wake Forest University, explored the “frightening” possibilities of a Constitutional convention “dominated by Jerry Falwell, James Bakker, and Oral Roberts.” (Bakker and Roberts, in fact, have not been numbered among Religious Right leaders.) Only two more states need to issue a call for a convention to draft a balanced-budget amendment, he reminded. After warning that such a convention’s agenda could be opened to the concerns of the Moral Majority people, he predicted that the courts, Congress, and the American people would never permit the Constitution to be altered to reflect such views.

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In a revealing panel presentation, AU attorney Lee Boothby and Seventh-day Adventist lawyer Robert Nixon reported a study showing how often U.S. Supreme Court justices have voted “the AU position” in cases involving church-and-state issues. The findings: “Justice Brennan; 100 percent; Marshall, 91 percent; Stevens, 75 percent; White, 57 percent; Blackmun, 50 percent; Stewart, 48 percent; Burger, 41 percent; Powell, 36 percent; and Rehnquist, 20 percent.

Ironically, in 1957 AU lobbied against the nomination of Brennan, the only Roman Catholic on the Court. He reportedly will receive AU’s highest commendation, its Religious Liberty Citation, after he retires.


Charge: Others Are Born-Again, Too

Two keynote speakers clashed over the Religious Right at a recent conference on “Church-State Relations and Contemporary American Politics,” sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities at Old Dominion University in Norfolk.

Charles V. Bergstrom, executive of the Office for Governmental Affairs for the Lutheran Council U.S.A., and an official of People for the American Way, eloquently affirmed that there was no other kind of Christian except one who was born again. But he lashed out at television evangelists who claim the experience solely for themselves and those who think like them. He said they do not represent the corporate church but speak only for themselves. They have formed coalitions with well-organized secular lobbies and used terms like “success, attack, winning, and intimidating” in describing the contest with their foes. Bergstrom said the United States is not a Christian republic but a pluralistic society, and its people should work together in the struggle for justice in America.

The other headliner, Sen. Jeremiah A. Denton (R-Ala.), former Vietnam war prisoner, founder of the Coalition for Decency, and a strong conservative, insisted the nation’s principles would determine its success. He said the core idea of America was that all men were endowed by the Creator with inalienable rights. Denton’s concern was that the country is moving away from the source of its rights and toward secularism and immorality. He said he had no “categorical complaints” about Moral Majority and appreciated the assistance it gave him in the last election.

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The meeting was planned to provide a forum where representatives of both the right and left could examine and debate their differences over the question of religious liberty. It opened on a relatively calm note with presentations by two historians of evangelicalism, Erling Jorstad of Saint Olaf College, and Richard Pierard of Indiana State University. Jorstad explained the three major components of American religious freedom: pluralism, denominationalism, and voluntarism; Pierard traced right-wing intolerance in America’s past. He concluded that the historical record offers little hope that the contemporary New Right will be any more respectful of religious liberty than were its predecessors.

Merrill D. Peterson of the University of Virginia examined the emergence of religious freedom in the state after the Revolution, and showed that what developed was rationalism and evangelicalism. The two sides have coexisted ever since in a common quest for freedom, and this, not the separation of church and state, has been the underlying theme of U.S. church-and-state relations.

The fireworks broke loose when the conservative University of Notre Dame law professor Charles E. Rice flatly stated that the First Amendment provided for the general support of Christianity but that Supreme Court interpretation had led to the establishment of a secular faith. He contended that belief in the existence of God and belief in the nonexistence of God were both religious beliefs, and that all education is religious in nature, even in the public schools. Harvard-trained lawyers Frederick Schauer of the College of William and Mary law school and Leonard S. Rubenstein of the American Civil Liberties Union argued otherwise. Schauer explained that a secular basis of morality was needed to secure legislation that stemmed from religious grounds. Rubenstein maintained that Jefferson and Madison believed religion and nonreligion could coexist without discrimination, and that what exists now is not a “wall” of separation but a “hedge” between church and state. “Religion can go around, under, or over the hedge because it simply is impossible to live in a society and rope off this entire area.”

Articulate representatives of the right and left squared off in other sessions. Ruth L. Harvey, vice-president of the National Association of Black Women Lawyers and a Baptist, denounced Moral Majority as “the greatest threat to American freedom in history.” Edward McAteer, president of the Roundtable, an organization of conservative religious leaders, called for voluntary prayer, Bible reading, and teaching of creationism in the schools, and for national leaders who manifested “biblical righteousness.” Republican Congressman G. William Whitehurst (R-Va.) suggested the new Christian activists were the cutting edge of a pendulum swing to the right.

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Southern Baptist Richard G. Puckett, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, blasted Moral Majority as a “fatally flawed” blending of conservative politics and religion being exploited by secular New Rightists.

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