The GOP versus the Religious Right

The GOP versus the Religious Right
By Brad Pfeiffer/
The Sun-Times
February 06, 2009

My mom used to get a kick out of my kid brother and me “laying on hands” in our faith-healing performances. It was something we picked up from one of those Sunday morning TV con-artists. Sometimes we’d get out of hand when shouting “you’re healed” and palm-smacking each other on the forehead too hard. We weren’t really money-minded so we never passed the plate, although in hindsight, we probably could have picked up a few nickels from the neighborhood kids. Back when I was young you could still buy a decent-sized candy bar for a few nickels.

Scammers who play on gullibility and superstition are still alive and well—just spin your radio dial and you’ll hit five or six Republican-talk stations. Some of them are thinly disguised as religious-talk stations with little or no message subtlety: “Vote Democrat and you’ll burn in Hell.” Some have the nerve and arrogance to suggest that if you vote Democrat you aren’t really a Christian. If you think I’m kidding about such messages, google Rev. Jay Scott Newman’s (St. Mary’s Church, Greenville, S.C.) letter to parishioners, in which he advised them that their souls were at risk if they voted for Obama.

Then there’s James Dobson of Focus on the Family. That group has a nice-sounding name, but then so does The Heritage Foundation.
The best I can figure, the bottom line for most of these right-wing groups boils down to getting more Republicans in office, which seems to assure more anti-labor legislation and more tax breaks for the extremely wealthy.

That’s an oversimplification, but not by much. Even after their severe spanking at the polls and millions of Americans facing hard times, Washington Republicans are still singing their same old hymn: “Tax breaks for the wealthy will be our salvation.”

Back to Dobson. Dobson got all riled up when Obama posed a few questions to defend our ever-threatened separation of state and church. Obama asked, “Even if we did have only Christians in our midst, . . .whose Christianity would we teach in the schools? Would we go with James Dobson’s or Al Sharpton’s?” Obama clearly explained why public policies must be based on secular rationales: “Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God’s will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.”

An overheated Dobson reacted to Obama’s statement by calling it a “fruitcake interpretation of the Constitution.”
Let’s be clear about a few things here. We understand that Dobson is a child  psychologist and right-wing-radio agitator.
Assuming he’s properly licensed, maybe he just ought to stick with what he knows, because it’s a pretty safe bet that Obama, a Harvard-trained lawyer who taught constitutional law,  knows more about our Constitution than Dobson. Indeed, one reason Obama won the presidency is that he demonstrated a clear understanding of our Constitution. In contrast, we have to seriously wonder if his predecessor had even read the document.
GOP leaders are now saying that these social fundamentalists are hurting the party. Though it’s really hard to pin him down on the issues, the new chairman of the Republican National Committee, Michael Steele, has been closely teamed with his former boss, former GOP New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman. In fact, Steele and Whitman, together with Senator John Danforth formed the Republican Leadership Council. Here’s what Whitman wrote in a post-election column: “Unless the Republican Party ends its self-imposed captivity to social fundamentalists, it will spend a long time in the political wilderness.”

Others are joining the chorus. Conservative columnist Kathleen Parker wrote that the “GOP has surrendered its high ground to its lowest brows. In the process, the party has alienated its non-base constituents, including other people of faith (those who prefer a more private approach to worship), as well as secularists and conservative-leaning Democrats who otherwise might be tempted to cross the aisle.” She concluded that the “Republican Party—and conservatism with it – eventually will die out unless religion is returned to the privacy of one’s heart where it belongs.”

Cal Thomas, who helped launch the Moral Majority, now advises conservative Christians to back away from politics and instead focus their lives on demonstrating God’s love. I think Cal may be on to something: I remember learning that Jesus admonished us to love our enemies, pray for those who persecute us, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit those in prison, and care for widows and orphans. I don’t recall Jesus advising anyone to use government to force personal beliefs or some sort of “official religion” onto others.

It’s clear that the GOP’s “official religion” wing is driving away moderates, therefore hindering future GOP success at the polls. But the “official religion” crowd, sometimes described as the “Religious Wrong” or “wannabe theocrats,” whether they are con-artists or simply misguided sheep, are more than just a lead anchor pulling down the GOP. They threaten religious freedom as we know it—and religious freedom is much too precious to lose.