While the evidence of antireligious bias builds, calls for a Christian antidefamation league get mixed reviews.

• Angela Guidry, a straight-A student at Sam Houston High School in Moss Bluff, Louisiana, was scheduled to give a valedictory address at her graduation. But when a guidance counselor reviewed the speech, she told Guidry to eliminate references to her Christian faith. Rather than change her address, Guidry did not speak. Her case is now in federal court.

• When Scott Klika mentioned his Christian faith to a group of adult patients at a private psychiatric hospital in Green Bay, Wisconsin, his supervisors asked that he not bring up the subject again. Three months later, though he had not spoken further about his beliefs, he was fired. According to Klika, his supervisors told him his faith was not in keeping with the beliefs of the hospital.

• After columnist Cal Thomas learned his appearance on ABC’s “Good Morning America” had been canceled, he called the network to ask why. According to Thomas, he was told that the producers feared he would quote Bible verses on the air.

Do these cases and scores of others like them prove an anti-Christian bias in America? “Yes,” says a growing collection of evangelical leaders. In government, education, media, law, and business, Christians remain the last group that can be ridiculed and discriminated against with impunity. But in no uncertain terms, some Christians are rising for a fight.

In February, broadcaster Pat Robertson announced plans to convene the American Congress of Christian Citizens in the spring of 1991—a gathering he hopes will draw 10,000 to 15,000 Christians from a broad spectrum of beliefs—to address the issue of anti-Christian bias. At a planning meeting held after the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., Robertson’s call for the formation of a Christian antidefamation league was welcomed with loud applause. Christians are tired of being stepped on, he told the crowd of about 100 supporters, and the time has come to stand up for Christians’ rights.

Last month in Memphis, a conference on “Anti-Christian Bias in America” sponsored by the American Family Association (AFA) drew 120 Christian activists from 20 states to decry what AFA executive director Don Wildmon called “bigotry, plain and simple.” There, too, repeated suggestions of an antidefamation league drew hearty approval.

Exclusion Of Religion

Though the idea of an anti-Christian bias in America is not new—Moral Majority leaders raised the theme in the mid-1980s—the exclusion of Christianity, or at least religion, from public debate has found wider recognition in recent years. For example, People for the American Way (PAW) and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, groups most often at odds with conservative views, have documented in their own studies of public-school textbooks the widespread omission of religion, especially Christianity.

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In mass media, commentators such as columnist Don Feder have noted that “no other group is so consistently maligned on prime-time television” as Christians. Michael Medved, cohost of the weekly PBS program “Sneak Previews,” has observed, “For many of the most powerful people in the entertainment business, hostility to traditional religion goes so deep and bums so intensely that they insist on expressing that hostility, even at the risk of commercial disaster.”

Without a doubt, says Richard John Neuhaus, director of the Institute on Religion and Public Life, bias and even bigotry against supernatural religion exist in society, especially among those who control the cultural centers of media and education. That bias is inevitably expressed against Christianity, which remains the majority religion of the culture, he says.

Running headlong into that trend is the increased involvement of evangelicals in public life. Twenty years ago, high-school students were not standing up to give their testimonies at graduation ceremonies, says John Whitehead, founder and president of the Rutherford Institute, a legal organization specializing in religious-liberty cases. “It’s obvious that Christians are singled out because they speak up and evangelize,” he said.

Robertson Regroups ‘Invisible Army’ into New Coalition

“Christian Americans are tired of getting stepped on,” proclaims a brochure promoting the Christian Coalition, a new political group organized by former presidential candidate Pat Robertson. According to executive director Ralph Reed, the Christian Coalition will combat anti-Christian bias through the political system, focusing on the state and local levels.

Reed said the coalition, based in Virginia Beach, Virginia, will recruit conservative Catholics and evangelical Christians with a threepronged approach: to educate them as citizens, to make them citizen activists and lobbyists, and to groom them to be political candidates.

“We believe that the Christian community in many ways missed the boat in the 1980s by focusing almost entirely on the White House and Congress when most of the issues that concern conservative Catholics and evangelicals are primarily determined in the city councils, school boards, and state legislatures,” Reed said in an interview with CHRISTIANITY TODAY.

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The group will hold “political technology training schools” around the country and has a goal of fielding as many as 5,000 candidates at all levels by the end of the decade. Reed himself has extensive experience in Republican party politics and campaigns, though he did not work directly on Robertson’s unsuccessful run for the presidency in 1988.

Reed said that Robertson’s campaign and the “invisible army” that was mobilized then are forming the base of the new Christian Coalition. Mailing lists generated through Robertson’s three-million-signature petition drive have served as the backbone of the coalition’s efforts. “We believe it is God’s will that those people stay involved [in politics] for the long haul, not just for a single campaign,” Reed said. Currently, the coalition has 25,000 members and expects to be at 150,000 by the end of the year.

Although Robertson is president of the Christian Coalition, there is “no financial relationship per se and no cash transfers” between the coalition and Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Nework, according to Reed. Reed said the group’s $1 million budget this year is being met by individual and corporate contributions, with “95 percent of the support coming from contributions of less than $50.”

Unlike Robertson’s previous political group, the tax-exempt Freedom Council, the Christian Coalition is not a tax-exempt organization and therefore may engage in unlimited lobbying. According to Reed, the coalition is “action-oriented” rather than just educational.

The founding of the new coalition was prompted in part by the demise of the Freedom Council and the Moral Majority, Reed said. “There is a political vacuum at the grassroots on the conservative side of the political spectrum,” he said. “We see our role as both filling that void and opening new opportunities as we move into the 1990s.”

Reed denied the group will serve as a Christian version of the Jewish Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, but said a “major thrust” of the Christian Coalition will be to see that Christian values do not become “verboten” in American society. “We think the Lord is going to give us this nation back one precinct at a time, one neighborhood at a time, and one state at a time,” he said. “We’re not going to win it all at once with some kind of millennial rush at the White House.”

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In effect, the Rutherford Institute functions as an antidefamation group, Whitehead said. “When we see open discrimination against Christians, we oppose it.” Last year his group handled 95 court cases and counseled some 700 clients. Other groups such as the Christian Legal Society and Christian Advocates Serving Evangelism (CASE) also handle cases. And there are countless other incidents of discrimination that are never pressed, according to Whitehead.

At the same time, conservative leaders admit that Christians themselves must take responsibility for their part in creating a secular bias in society. Their absence from many areas of culture in the past opened the door to the ideas that now dominate public thinking. Only now, Whitehead says, are Christians waking up to how much ground they have lost and beginning to respond.

One other reason for the rising clamor over anti-Christian bias, says Jim Castelli, a journalist who has covered religion for over 20 years and served as director of church-state policy for PAW, is the decline of the Religious Right. “For those who have less influence than they did 10 years ago—namely, the fundamentalist Right—the idea of bias against them is a good explanation, and creating an antidefamation league seems a good way to regain some power.”

A Matter Of Motives

While the antireligious bent of society is widely recognized, the motives behind many of the case-study conflicts are not as easily agreed upon. Observers agree some disputes arise from benign ignorance or misunderstanding of church-state issues, and that in other cases political agendas are often intertwined with questions of religious exercise.

Castelli asks how the Christian in “anti-Christian bias” is defined. “If you mean the 87 percent of the American people who identify with some Christian faith—no, there’s not bias,” he said. “But if you define Christian as some fundamentalists do, meaning just them, then that’s a different story. One problem with conservative Christianity is that it can be very parochial.” Though Castelli agrees that some liberal circles do look down on believing Christians, he added, “I would guess if a former McGovern delegate walked into some of these [anti-bias] meetings, he would be subject to some bias himself.”

Wildmon concedes that conservatives have not always dealt fairly with their opponents. But the litany of complaints he hears from across the country, he says, leaves him convinced that Christians remain the last acceptable targets for bigotry. “When the norm of society says, ‘You can’t participate in the mainstream because you’re a Christian,’ then there’s a serious problem, not just for me but for everybody in society,” he said.

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No one has yet offered a detailed proposal for forming an antidefamation league. Most suggestions focus on pressing legal rights. At the AFA conference, media critic Joseph Farah called for the creation of a Hollywood-based advocacy office to combat anti-Christian stereotyping. He pointed to the success of the Gay Media Task Force in changing programming as an example of what can be accomplished.

“An antidefamation league isn’t a final solution,” Wildmon said, “but I think its time has come.”

Evangelical Paranoia

While the call for a Christian antidefamation league has gained supporters, it has also attracted critics within evangelical circles, even among those who share concern for Christian freedoms. Os Guinness, former executive director of the Williamsburg Charter Foundation, which brought together a broad coalition of national leaders in 1988 to affirm religious liberties, considers the idea “one of the worst proposals to come down the road for a long time.”

“For one of America’s strongest, most historic and sizable faith communities to pass itself off as a beleaguered minority is an insult to real minorities, and an extraordinary testimony to current levels of evangelical paranoia and pessimism,” Guinness said. He fears such a reaction would close the very doors Christians should be trying to open. “The single strongest source of prejudice about evangelicalism is its unwise action in the public arena—just like this.” What is needed most, he said, is “a constructive Christian view of public life.”

Neuhaus also disagrees with any reaction that casts Christians in the role of a persecuted minority. “There is an enormous cultural conflict in America,” he said. “But the way you win a cultural war is by fighting bad ideas with better ideas.” According to Neuhaus, the solution to antireligious bias is “a lot more Christians in the public square,” not in the catacombs.

If Christians want to follow the model of Jewish reaction to prejudice, Castelli points out, they should recognize that its success lies not in its stridency but in the coalitions Jews have built with other communities. He fears that conservative Christians would instead turn an antidefamation league into a lobby “to bash everyone who disagrees with them on abortion or homosexuality as anti-Christian.”

Most people in society are not yet aware of anti-Christian bias, Wildmon said at the close of his conference. But he believes the issue will emerge as a major controversy in the next five years. For him, it is a “front-burner issue”—one under which he and other Christian leaders clearly intend to turn up the heat.

By Ken Sidey.

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