Behind the Right’s Phony War on the Nonexistent Religion of Secularism
Once upon a time, in early 2004, I attended one of hundreds of “Parties for the President” organized nationwide for grassroots volunteers who wanted to help reelected George W. Bush, at a modest middle class home in Portland, Oregon. At one point, a nice old lady politely pressed into my hand a grubby little self-published pamphlet she had come upon, purporting to prove that Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry had faked the heroics that had won him three purple hearts in Vietnam. I added it to my mental store of the night’s absurdities that I expected to hear rattling across the wingnutosphere the entire fall: “I still believe there are weapons of mass destruction”; “There is an agenda—to get rid of God in this country”; “John Kerry attended a party in which there was bad language!” What I didn’t expect was to see Kerry’s war-hero cred earnestly debated night after night on CNN. Then came August and “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” — and that little old lady’s fever dream began dominating the media discussion of the campaign, and the rest, as they say, is history.
That’s the way, in my experience, the ecology of right-wing smears works: Insane horror stories – Clinton is running cocaine out of an Arkansas airport! Barack Obama had gay sex in the back of a limo! – bubble up from the collective conservative Id at the outset of an election year; professional conservatives in Washington identify the ones that seem most promising and launder them through the suckers in the “balance”-hungry mainstream media; and presto, before you know it, it’s death-panel-palooza, 24/7.
Responsible political reporting, of course, would seek to penetrate this process while it’s going on. But we don’t have responsible political reporting – or reporters who understand enough about the historical matrix from which these predictable discourses emerge to recognize the contending lies for what they are before they nose across the finish line. Let me venture my own attempt. You might not have heard about Mitt Romney’s utterance in Milwaukee that Democrats desire to “establish a religion called secularism.”
At present this storyline is reverberating only across the fearful precincts of the right, but it may soon be the “debate” du jour on a cable news channel near you, starring befuddled, blind-sided Democrats, à la Kerry’s surrogates in 2004, forced to defend their presidential candidate against a charge that two seconds ago seemed too surreal to be worth swatting away, but which might well end up sounding just credible enough, if only by virtue of the fact that it’s being debated, to sway some anxious swing voters.
Here’s some background those befuddled Democrats need to know: One of the most robust and effective conspiracy theories on the right, the notion that “secularism” – or, just as often, “Secular Humanism” – is a religion is meant to be taken entirely literally: right wingers genuinely believe it refers to an actually existing religious practice. How do conservatives know? Because, they say, the Supreme Court said so. It was, as religious historian and Lutheran minister Martin E. Marty has written, “an instance where one can date precisely the birth of a religion: June 19, 1961.” That was the day the Court ruled in the case of Torcaso v. Watkins striking down the Maryland Constitution’s requirement of “a declaration of belief in the existence of God” to hold “any office of profit or trust in this state” — specifically, in atheist Roy Torcaso’s case, the office of notary public. In his decision, Justice Hugo Black, writing for a unanimous court, further asserted that states and the federal government could not favor religions “based on a belief in the existence of God as against those religions founded on different beliefs” – and, in a fateful, ill-considered, and entirely offhand footnote explained: “Among religions in this country which do not teach what would be generally be considered a belief in the existence of God are Buddhism, Taoism, Ethical Culture, Secular Humanism and others.”
From here, things get wacky. As unearthed by the outstanding scholar Carol Mason in her masterpiece Reading Appalachia from Left to Right, in 1974 a Jesuit priest and Fordham University law professor named Edward Berbasse argued that “since humanism is now considered by the court to be a religion , it must be prevented from being established by the government.” An activist asked him if that meant they could win their fight to ban the satanic textbooks being forced down their children’s throats in Kanawha County, West Virginia by taking the matter to the Supreme Court. “I think you may have the material if you can get a crackerjack lawyer,” Father Berbasse responded. A Supreme Court case was never actually attempted – not least because, as Chip Berlet and Matthew Lyons have pointed out, “While historically there has been an organized humanist movement in the United States since at least the 1800s, the idea of a large-scale quasireligion called secular humanism is a conspiracist myth.” In Kanawha County, the textbook fight was fought out with dynamite instead. Nationwide, however, the conspiracist myth took on a life of its own – even unto the halls of Congress.
For Secular Humanism was not just an imaginary religion. It was, as the subtitle to a 1984 book still revered by religious conservatives, put it, The Most Dangerous Religion in America. How so? Because it held that man, not God, determines human affairs. From that, as Martin Marty explained, the ascendant religious right developed the claim that “when a textbook does not mention the God of the Bible … it necessarily leads to a void which it must fill with the religion of Secular Humanism.” (It’s a religion. Thus the Capital Letters.) And that any textbook which does not mention the guiding hand of God is rock-solid proof that the “secular humanist” conspiracists had written it; the absence was the presence.
Liberals, dumbfounded by irrationality in that patented liberal way, pointed out that the number of people calling themselves “secular humanists” was only a handful, so how could they possibly possess such omnipotence. Well, fundamentalists would counter, doesn’t that just prove the success of their conspiracy?
Ain’t America grand?
The professional right had found its substitute for the Red Menace. In many ways “secular humanism” was Communism’s superior as an organizing tool, because it so handily took the fight directly to the bloodiest crossroads in our political culture: the space between the public school and the home. There is no more effective way to organize against liberalism than to argue that liberals are invading the sacred precinct of the nuclear family – the basic unit of government under God’s covenant, as the “Christian Reconstructionist” Rousas J. Rushdoony, father of the home-schooling movement, argued in his 1972 book The Messianic Character of American Education. The power-grabbing would-be-messiah government must be defeated, argued Connie Marshner, a Heritage Foundation staffer influenced by Rushdoony, if Christians were to “reverse the coming of the secular humanist state.”
For the Leviathan’s grubby fingerprints were everywhere. As a magazine called Christian Harvest Times explained (h/t Kevin Kruse), “To understand humanism is to understand women’s liberation, the ERA, gay rights, children’s rights [the movement to help minors in abusive families, in which Hilary Clinton did a little work as a young lawyer, Exhibit A for consrvatives in the 1990s seeking to prove her diabolical wickedness], abortion, sexual education, the ‘new’ morality, evolution, values clarification, situational ethics, the separation of church and state, the loss of patriotism, and many of the other problems that are tearing America apart today.”
This is incredibly seductive stuff for any right-leaning ordinary citizen who finds the changing world they’re forced to navigate frightening and alien. As Connie Marshner argued in her 1978 “parents’ rights” manifesto Blackboard Tyranny, “Mothers have long observed that after the first child starts school, the rest of the family starts catching more colds and flus. But other forms of disease are not so evident. What about the personality traits that start developing? What about the dissatisfaction with family rules and routines?… Why do children suddenly begin to complain about responsibilities toward little brothers or sisters? Why do they resent doing unaccustomed chores? Why does off-color language or unfamiliar slang suddenly crop up in a child’s conversations?” The liberal state here is an infection, responsible for all of the family’s manifold ills – a reassuringly straightforward story, especially when there are politicians in Washington ready to swoop in to the rescue. Around this time the Heritage Foundation published a report titled Secularism Humanism and the Schools: The Issue Whose Time Has Come (another still-beloved volume) for an elite Washington audience. An issue whose time has come, indeed. Politicians, of course, may or may not really care about the “unfamiliar slang” infecting their constituents’ kitchen tables — does Mitt Romney, really? — but it’s sure a handy way for the 1 percent to enlist them in crushing the liberal state that, say, peskily insists on regulating credit default swaps.
In 1976, an Arizona congressman named John Conlan – now obscure, but at one time Evangelicals’ first choice for president – introduced an anti-secular humanism bill. It passed a House of Representatives in which Democrats outnumbered Republicans 291 to 144. This is potent stuff. The conservative group Concerned Women for America began donating legal services for parents wishing to challenge the supposed teaching of secular humanism, predicting that 300,000 school districts might come under challenge in 1986. Megachurch minister Tim LaHaye (who later co-authored the “Left Behind” series) said secular humanists were not qualified to hold government positions – neatly inverting the very Supreme Court decision, Torcaso v. Watkins, grounding their “Constitutional” crusade in the first place. And in 1985, congress passed the Education for Economic Security Act to improve science education, including funding for magnet schools — to which conservatives added an amendment prohibiting its use for “teaching secular humanism,” conveniently omitting to define “secular humanism,” except to note that local school boards could define it themselves. (Read about these in this PDF law review article.)
The vagueness is deliberate — it means new issues can be sluiced into the discourse as historical convenience dictates. For instance the secular humanism golden oldie, ever pliant, slots perfectly into the religious right’s new phony crusade for “religious liberty,” which in turn serves so marvelously in the corporate right’s crusade to do away with even the faintest gesture toward healthcare equality. “I think there is in this country a war on religion,” Romney said before raising that above-noted specter of Obama’s “desire to establish a religion in America known as secularism.” He continued, “They gave it a lot of thought,” this business of forcing the Catholic Church “to violate its principles and its conscience (since when do institutions have “consciences”?) and be required to provide contraceptives, sterilization, and morning-after pills to the employees of the church” (a lie, by the way: employers don’t have to provide anything).
Note the careful language: Democrats want “to establish a religion” — a precise quotation of the First Amendment’s’ Establishment Clause banning same. And the claim that “they gave it a lot of thought” insinuates a deliberate conspiracy. But conservatives would not fall for it, the stalwart Romney announced: “Those of us who are people of faith recognize [what] this is—an attack on one religion is an attack on all religion.”
A marker has been laid down. Heed it well. Universal healthcare is the Trojan Horse in Obama’s radical religious crusade to undo orthodox religion. Could a notion so crazy possibly have legs? Crazier things have penetrated the fog before — and this one has the advantage of tickling the most abiding anxiety of conservative-minded citizens: that liberalism is contributing to the sexual dissolution of their very own homes and hearths. Romney’s recycling of the smear may already have helped him assuage the doubts of the religious right that he is one of them.
And Democrats losing their nerve, backing away from defending desperately needed reform out of fear stepping on mysterious “deeply held” beliefs that are actually the invention of hucksters with right-wing agendas? Well, that’s happened before, too.
Don’t let it happen again.
Rick Perlstein is the author of Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus and Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America. He writes a weekly column for RollingStone.com.
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