Do Moderate Christians Enable Fundamentalist Agendas?

I have a theist friend who thinks I’m too quick to blame some of the world’s ills on religion. After all, he was raised in religion. He believes in god, and he doesn’t care if anyone else does or not. He isn’t trying to force it onto anyone else. He isn’t writing to legislators to ask them to incorporate his beliefs into laws that impact anyone else. And none of his friends or family has ever done anything like that, either. Christianity isn’t impacting U.S. policy. I’m simply imagining things.

My friend is an example of what Sam Harris discusses in his writings when he describes how moderate Christians act as a buffer—a safety net—for fundamentalist Christians who are pushing their agendas into public policy and legislation. To criticize such a Christian agenda insults moderate Christians (like my friend) who are quick to defend that their religion should not be blamed for public ills. After all, what moderate wants to be held responsible for harmful public policies and legislation?

Say that religion is at the root of such a problem, and you get shot down before you’re even out of the gate (if I can mix my metaphors)—not by overzealous fundamentalists, but by moderate, liberal Christians—like my friend. Point out where religion harms society, and you’re met with the shout down—from moderate, middle-of-the-road Christians—that you’re guilty of painting religion with too broad a brush. You’re cherry picking lunatics and fanatics and trying to impose that dysfunctional mess upon all Christians, who are, for the most part, socially benign.

To be honest, I have no idea if the majority of Christians are “moderate”—in the sense that they have personal beliefs they don’t try to spread around or impose on others. I have no aversion to assuming most Christians fit that bill. Certainly most believers I have met personally aren’t any different. But whether they have majority numbers or not, it’s the fanatics that are running the program, invading politics, and shaping law and policy in this nation to bend it to a fundamentalist Christian agenda.

If a silent majority doesn’t like being represented by a squeaky-wheel faction—I recommend they should learn to speak up against their brethren whom they condemn privately as “lunatics” and “fanatics.” Instead, from what I can see, moderates would rather use their collective, “majority” voices to speak out against anyone else who condemns their fanatical members publicly. And here I have to excuse (and applaud) more responsible, moderate Christians—few though they may be—who do actually counter fundamentalism publicly, such as Barry Lynn Executive Director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

But it can no longer be denied, by any reasonably informed person, that public policy is being shaped by Christian agendas—whether it is the work of a fanatic, but highly politically efficient, minority of Christians or not. And if the moderate middle rebuffs criticisms of their more fanatic brethren, denies there is any problem in their midst, and refuses to join anyone in confronting the negative elements within their own camp—how are they not part of the problem? These moderates aren’t just guilty of letting the fundamentalist element run roughshod while they sit silently by, they’re actually protecting fundamentalist actions against legitimate criticisms by throwing the accusation “gross generalization” and “prejudice alarmist” at anyone who dares claim there even is a problem to criticize within the Christian ranks.

In the editorial section of this morning’s Austin American-Statesman, there are two articles that address the statistically observable supreme failings of Texas’ abstinence-based sex education in public schools. One article, “Learning Sex the Texas Way,” has this to say:

“Gov. Rick Perry’s office said he is comfortable with the abstinence-based approach. ‘We oppose any sex education other than abstinence until heterosexual marriage,’ said his spokeswoman.”

Make no mistake, Perry has won re-election in the past. I cannot claim that he is unpopular. And I’m guessing he knows who his supporters are. What politician doesn’t? If he put forward policies not backed by the majority of voting Texans—how would he remain in office? Any thinking person might legitimately then ask, “what constituency would support failing programs and policies that put their own children at risk of deadly STDs and unwanted pregnancies?”

Let’s examine that question.

At the American Family Association (AFA) online, in their article, “Abstinence-Only Education Proves Effective,” it states, “there is no logical reason why abstinence-only education would not be effective in reducing sexual activity among teens.”

Logical or not, we come pretty close to abstinence-only in Texas—and it’s not working as it “logically” should.

Just to cement that this is a Christian organization, in their section “Does AFA hate homosexuals?” the site states:

“The same Holy Bible that calls us to reject sin, calls us to love our neighbor… AFA has sponsored several events reaching out to homosexuals and letting them know there is love and healing at the Cross of Christ.”

Make no mistake AFA is a Christian coalition.

Another supporter is The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. On their site is an article “Support Abstinence Education,” that says, “Don’t let the Senate jeopardize the future of abstinence education. Call or e-mail today!”

Do I need to keep going? The religious right has code words as well, such as conservative, family values, traditional, moral, and so on. They have less overtly religious organizations as well, such as the National Review—which bills itself as a “conservative” media source. Not every group is an outright Wallbuilders. But the more you educate yourself about these issues, the faster you begin to recognize the words that equal “Christian.” Doubt me? Try following a few of these sites for a month to see if you don’t start seeing particular words and phrases that begin to stand out as secular, yet repetitive.

Why use codes? Why not simply say, “This is my religious belief, and I’m going to do all I can to promote it in public policy and legislation”? AFA pretty clearly does this—so why not all organizations with a Christian base?

There is one clear advantage to hiding a religious agenda. Ask Intelligent Design proponents. When the courts tell you that teaching Creationism in schools is using the government to promote religion, and you can’t do that, you are forced to find more subversive, secular-sounding means to reach your goals. You take out “god” and put in “Intelligent Designer.” (Just make sure to double-check the search-and-replaces in your documentation really well before going to court.)

Still, today I realized something different and new and as enlightening as it is disturbing. I realized that even powerful mainstream critics of these religious fundamentalists have learned to pretend that this is actually a battle between secular ideologies—Republican vs. Democrat—and religion plays no part. In both opinion pieces, religion is oddly absent—as is any mention of who might be promoting such policies. Why call out Perry alone? Yes, he’s a politician, and his performance should be examined in the paper. I can’t deny that. But is a public official who has won re-election really the cause of bad policy or is he merely the elected representative for it? Again, without the support of the majority of voting constituents in Texas—he could not have won re-election. Perry is doing the will of the (voting) majority in Texas. And when his office can issue a statement such as the one quoted earlier—can there be any doubt it’s a Christian Right majority he intends to please?

What would happen if the paper
published an editorial critical of the “Christian” agenda to promote abstinence-only education? In addition to raising the ire of far right groups like AFA, Wallbuilders, Liberty Commission, and so on—they would upset, as well, huge numbers of “regular” people—like my friend—who would cry “foul” at being lumped under the umbrella of the fundamentalist “lunatic fringe” who are causing this harm.

But if I say Christians are at the root of the abstinence-only policy, I’m not generalizing any more broadly than if I were to say that horses run in the Kentucky Derby. The group promoting these policies consists of self-identified Christians. And the animals running in the Derby consist of horses. Do all Christians support these policies? No more than all horses run in the Derby. So, what’s the problem? I don’t care if some Christians—even most Christians—aren’t supportive of these policies. It’s no less true that the policies are, by the largest margin, Christian created, promoted and supported. But if we say that, nobody will hear—not because the Religious Right will shut us down, but because religious moderates will.

My friend made this point loud and clear. “There’s nothing religious in those articles. It’s just about the schools and education. Where do you see religion even mentioned?”

He’s right that I don’t see religion even mentioned. But I have to ask if he sees any mention of who is at the root of these policy directives? Does my friend imagine Perry just made this up himself?

Fundamentalist Christians use public policy and legislation to push their religion onto everyone else. Anyone who criticizes the far right source is immediately shot down by the moderate middle. And, for the most part, we all pretend religion has no bearing on public policy—to the point that many people actually believe this is true. Anyone who says otherwise is just an overly excited alarmist. And the fundamentalists proceed, without mainstream majority opposition or interference, to push their religious agenda onto everyone else, with absolute gratitude toward their moderate brethren—the ones who would never do anything to push their religion onto anyone else.

More thoughts on the presentation of science

I’m re-listening to the podcast grab of the TV show that Matt and I did yesterday. There is a point that I started to make about the framing of science, but I don’t think I carried it all the way through to its conclusion.

What I did say, at the time, was that contrary to Matt Nisbet’s bloviations, science does NOT have the “framing” problem of being associated with atheism. Instead, science has the problem of being perceived as boring. The stereotypical image of a science teacher is a dull, droning guy reeling off disconnected facts. Not unlike Ben Stein’s own infamous Ferris Bueller character, if you will. (“Does anyone know what Vice President Bush called this in 1980? Anyone? Something-d-o-o economics. Voodoo economics.”) And so, I concluded, science could actually benefit from more public controversy.

I have more to add to this. Science doesn’t have a problem with not being respected. In fact, despite its stodgy image, science is almost universally accepted in our culture as important and worthy of respect. There is no clearer example of this to be found than in the behavior of creationists. When they lost some early battles in the 60′s they retitled their subject to creation science. When that failed to work, they reacted by redoubling their efforts to make “intelligent design” (a.k.a. “Creationism, the Revenge”) sound less like religion and more like science.

And finally, when people in the ID movement want to boost their own image in the public eye, what rhetorical approach do they take? Why, ID is real science, and evolution is unscientific! Look at all these people who have signed on to this statement titled as “A Scientific Dissent From Darwinism”. It says right here that “Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged.” See? That’s not religious at all!

What I’m saying is, in the general battle for science vs. religion, science has already won. In order to make their points more palatable, creationists have to pretend that they’re doing science. And beyond the world of creationism, there is a whole industry of pseudoscientists who peddle their wares by filling the descriptions with science jargon-imitating gobbledygook.

Acceptance of science is not the problem. Convincing people to understand science is the problem — studying is hard, scientists are boring, I’m never going to use this in real life, blah blah blah.

When atheists point out that scientific literacy tends to undermine religion, you might say that they’re doing the same thing as creationists: using the already well-established respected status that science has, and associating themselves with science to receive some of that credibility by proxy. On the other hand, associating atheism with education and science literacy also has the advantage of being true.

Should we obscure that fact, as Matt Nisbet seems to constantly suggest? Hell no. Nisbet would have you believe that the “culture war” is over whether you can get these foolish savages to accept our modern ways and incorporate this new-fangled “science” into their culture. On the contrary, however, they’ve already done that. They all have their own TVs and internet connections and microwave ovens and cars. The job that we, as people who care about education, have before us is to leverage that acceptance of science, tell the truth about how to think critically and evaluate claims, and ridicule the hell out of intelligent design for the phony snake oil sideshow that it is.

If more people are persuaded to become atheists after being so educated, that’s just a fortunate byproduct.

Today on the show: Framing Atheism

Links about today’s topic:

How do all these things fit together? Listen to episode #546 and find out!