Justice Black Was Right: How Bush Killed Faith
April 12, 2009, 10:41 am
Filed under: Ian | Tags: , , ,

justiceblackTwo polls this week show religion in general, and Christianity in particular, is in decline in the United States.  While the Gallup poll shows a slow-but-steady decline in self-identified Christians over the last 60 years, the Newsweek poll’s findings strike me as particularly stark.  Self-indentified Christians have declined ten points in the last twenty years, going from 86% to 76% of Americans, and the number of atheists and agnostics have almost quadrupled.  Moreover, the poll finds that Jews make up only slightly more than 1% of the populations, and Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus are even less than that (the poll also includes an “other” category, but the number of people who identify as an “other” faith is very small), so it does not appear that U.S. Christians are simply finding God elsewhere.  Rather, it appears that former American Christians have simply lost their faith alltogether.

Newsweek‘s writeup of the poll quotes a “starched, unflinchingly conservative Christian” pastor who warns that this trend “threatens the very heart of our culture,” but I have a tough time being sympathetic towards this pastor.  It seems to me that conservative so-called Christians such as himself brought this problem on themselves.

For decades the “Christian” right has preached a sanctimonious political morality which teaches that gays and lesbians are not people, that the only good woman is a submissive woman, and that—above all—their sexual morals must be my sexual morals.  They accuse Dan Savage of destroying America, but cheer when Michael Savage wishes death upon an entire community.

And for the last eight years, they got to set much of U.S. policy.  Despite all the research in the world showing that the surest way to ensure that your teenage daughter will get pregnant is to take her to a purity ball, the Bush Administration insisted on replacing lifesaving sex education programs with “abstinence only” programs which taught teens to simply ignore their God-given desire to have sex.  Not content merely to ruin the lives of teenagers who are stuck with the consequences of unprotected sex they were never adequately taught not to have, President Bush even took aim at contraception use by adults by pushing to protect the “religious freedom” of health care workers who think it’s their job to tell their patients whether or not they are Godly enough to use birth control.

And, of course, his creation of a sexual morality police was only the tip of the iceberg.  Time and time again, Bush reminded us of how his “faith” was driving his policies.  The War on Terror was a “crusade.”  The Iraq War was ordained by God.    Bush’s own “born again” experience was a centerpiece of his first campaign for the White House.  Pat Robertson’s university became a farm team for Administration jobs.

In other words, George W. Bush sent one clear message throughout his Presidency: “I am a proud Christian, and Jesus works through me!”

The problem for actual Christians, however, is that George W. Bush was a terrible President (and most Americans aren’t all that interested in a sexual morality police either).  So as Bush tied Christian identity more and more to himself, he also tied Christianity to Katrina, the Iraq debacle, torture and the tanked economy.  Many Americans no doubt saw George Bush—the country’s most vocal and prominent self-identified Christian—and said “well gosh, if that’s what a Christian is, I want to be something else.”

And it’s not like the Christian right didn’t have forewarning that blurring the line between God and government would lead Americans to visit the White House’s failures upon the church itself.  As Justice Hugo Black explained almost fifty years ago, the framers realized that separating church and state isn’t just a good idea because it leads to better policymaking, but also because the wall of separation protects religion as well.  Witness Justice Black’s words for the Court in Engel v. Vitale:

When the power, prestige and financial support of government is placed behind a particular religious belief, the indirect coercive pressure upon religious minorities to conform to the prevailing officially approved religion is plain. But the purposes underlying the Establishment Clause go much further than that. Its first and most immediate purpose rested on the belief that a union of government and religion tends to destroy government and to degrade religion. The history of governmentally established religion, both in England and in this country, showed that whenever government had allied itself with one particular form of religion, the inevitable result had been that it had incurred the hatred, disrespect and even contempt of those who held contrary beliefs. That same history showed that many people had lost their respect for any religion that had relied upon the support of government to spread its faith. The Establishment Clause thus stands as an expression of principle on the part of the Founders of our Constitution that religion is too personal, too sacred, too holy, to permit its “unhallowed perversion” by a civil magistrate.

Justice Black was right.  Eight years of with-us-or-against-us policies, in an era when “with us” meant becoming Monica Goodling, led millions of Americans to decide that they would rather be “against us.”  So if the “Christian” right is as concerned that the decline of American Christianity “threatens the very heart of our culture” as they claim to be, they would do well to study Justice Black’s warning closely.  So long as they tie Christian faith to right-wing politics, they risk turning Americans who do not share their abhorent political views away from God altogether.


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