It’s Time for an American Offensive against Theocracy

Ronnie Dugger

This is the right historical moment to launch a national offensive against the degeneration of the United States into a theocracy. Pres­sures to subordinate democratic plural­ism to fundamentalist domination have converged into the presidency of George W. Bush.

Bush identifies himself as a born­again Christian and continues to violate the Constitution by ladling out govern­ment funds to churches of his admin­istration’s choice. In January, for the first time, Congress appropriated our tax dollars to re­direct public school students into religious schools, begin­ning in the District of Columbia. Bush communicates to writers such as Carl Woodward his belief that he is God’s agent as he wages worldwide war in his self­declared mission to end evil on Earth. If all this keeps up without deci­sive resistance, we might as well resign ourselves to the transformation of the White House into a fortified cathedral.

For too long we have tolerated the moral cowardice of those congressional politicians who added “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. Where does this language leave the patriotism of youngsters of secular disposition or belief who are required to rise in the classrooms of the nation and recite what they do not believe? And why not “under Allah”? Why not “under Yah­weh”? Why not “under God, Jehovah, Allah, Buddha, Gandhi, or Wicca?”

Why not? Because the Constitution that secured the freedom of Americans from religious domination in England and the Colonies stipulates that Congress shall make no law that estab­lishes religion.

During the past three years Bush, act­ing by unconstitutional executive order, has given tens of millions of our tax money to churches of the government’s choice for the social­service programs through which they dispense charity and recruit new members. Religious prosely­tizing, spooned in along with the charity, is by no means prohibited.

Bush calls this “unleashing the com­passion of America’s religious insti­tutions.” Who, pray, is “leashing” the Catholic Church, or the Episcopalian, the Baptist—or Judaism or Islam—by not giving them federal tax money? If we choose to support religious insti­tutions, the way we do it legally is by giving them money directly, not by establishing them with funds from the federal government. What Bush is actu­ally doing is using everyone’s tax money to promote the recruitment programs of the evangelical Christian denomina­tions that he regards as his political base and to seek to seduce influential Black ministers to weaken opposition among Black voters to his election.

In his State of the Union speech in January, Bush declared: “By executive order, I have opened billions of dol­lars in grant money to competition that includes faith­based charities. Tonight, I ask you to codify this into law.” That is, he is now asking Congress to legal­ize and multiply his gifts of federal tax money to religious institutions for them to dispense as charity and to get new members. Congress can do this legal­ly only if it repeals the establishment clause or lets Bush stack the Supreme Court with a clear majority for Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.

By the same presidential fiat, Bush has exempted favored churches from the national laws against discrimina­tion in employment, as if he were a king whom we permitted to excuse his chosen allies from the laws the rest of us must obey.

Both consensual sex and marriage among adults are strictly the business of the people directly concerned. The state’s only legitimate interest in either subject is the protection and education of children. Yet Bush also proposed in January that we spend $1.5 billion in federal funds to promote marriage, especially among the poor. He’s worried about lust and degeneracy not among the well­to­do but in the slums of the poor. He is against raising the minimum wage or strengthening labor unions or job security or subsidizing child care or taking any of the other real steps that would improve the lives of the poor. Instead, he wants Uncle Sam butting into their personal lives, teaching them to marry and not to divorce—one more program toward turning the United States into a religious dictatorship over personal matters of the sort that his­torically has been exercised by, for example, the Catholic Church, certain puritanical Protestant sects, and Islam.

Like a plaintiff lawyer who acciden­tally lets his client’s credibility becomes an issue in a trial, Bush has opened himself to hard questions in this area by threatening, in his State of the Union this year, to use “the constitutional pro­cess” to block “activist judges” such as those in the 4–3 majority on the Supreme

Judicial Court in Massachu setts who ruled that gays must be allowed to marry. It is past time for the reporters in the White House press corps to stop giving Bush a free ride with his ambig­uous and hypocritical pieties. Any good reporter with a dash of imagination and a gram of gumption can think up good questions for him here.

For example: half of the marriages in the United States end in divorce. Bush has said that the philosopher who most inspired him is Jesus Christ. Jesus told his disciples, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her hus­band and marries another, she commits adultery” (Mark 10:9–12). The question: “Mr. President, do you agree with Jesus that remarriage is adultery, and if so would you favor a constitutional amend­ment to prohibit divorce?” Let the born­again president answer yes or no before the entire American people.

A riff on the Internet suggested that what Bush and his “base” really want to do is codify marriage on biblical prin­ciples. This sent me back to re­reading the Old as well as the New Testament. If brothers live together and one is mar­ried but dies without a son, the surviving brother is expected to marry his broth­er’s widow. If he refuses, in the presence of her elders she is to pull his sandal off his foot and spit in his face (Deut. 25:5–10). A constitutional amendment requiring marriage on biblical principles would give fathers the right to choose the husbands for their daughters (Gen. 29:17 –28). The supreme male leaders, however, could take as many wives and concubines as they want (King Solomon loved many foreign women and had seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines; Rehoboam, king of the cit­ies of Judah, had eighteen wives, sixty concubines, twenty­eight sons, and sixty daughters, but loved the daughter of Absalom above all of them [Kings 11:3, 2 Chron. 11:21]). If two men are fighting and the wife of one of them seizes the private parts of the other one, “then you shall cut off her hand” (Deut. 25:11–12). A new wife who is discovered not to be a virgin is to be stoned to death at “the door of her father’s house” (Deut. 22:13–21). If it’s biblical marriage Bush has in view for us, perhaps he should be devoting the whole federal budget to marriage counseling.

The distance between American Catholics’ personal decisions and Cath­olic doctrines continues to widen. Last June, the Vatican said that votes by elect­ed legislators to legalize gay marriage are “gravely immoral.” Although polls have shown that about half of Catholics do not oppose gay marriage, the four Catholic bishops of Massachusetts are sending out talking points for priests in the pulpits and a million brochures into Catholic households, explicitly lobbying in favor of a state constitutional amend­ment to prohibit it. This is the specter of men who have never been married—either to women or to men—using their religious high­dudgeon to tell the rest of us what we can and cannot do in our private lives: it is the specter of theocra­cy replacing democracy. Boston Globe columnist Eileen McNamara wrote, in the context of the Church leaders’ sys­tematic protection of pedophile priests from exposure and the law, that the bishops “are in urgent need of remedial education about human sexuality” and “should be asking questions, not issuing directives.”

To be sure President Bush opposes Islamic theocracy for Iraq, but does he oppose Christian theocracy for the United States? Let some reporter ask him outright whether he believes in the separation of church and state. Or pick any test case at hand. In Presque Isle, Maine, a public school social­studies teacher sued his school district, com­plaining that “a small group of funda­mentalist Christian individuals” won the adoption of a curriculum which pro­hibits him from teaching his students about any religion but Christianity and any civilization but Christian ones. Is that OK with the president? Is it OK with Americans? Since, in fundamen­talist redoubts throughout the country, now nationally, we are being cudgeled toward theocracy, let’s put up one fero­cious fight for our freedoms of and from religion.

Ronnie Dugger is a writer and a social-structure activist. His work includes biographies of Lyndon Johnson (Norton, 1973) and Ronald Reagan (McGraw-Hill, 1983). He was the founding editor of the Texas Observer and co-founder of the Alliance for Democracy.

Ronnie Dugger

Ronnie Dugger, a reporter, writer, and social-structure activist, has written biographies of Lyndon Johnson (Norton, 1973) and Ronald Reagan (McGraw-Hill, 1983), as well as other books and countless articles in the New Yorker, Harper’s, the Nation, the Atlantic, and so on. He was founding editor of the Texas Observer and co-founder of the Alliance for Democracy.

This is the right historical moment to launch a national offensive against the degeneration of the United States into a theocracy. Pres­sures to subordinate democratic plural­ism to fundamentalist domination have converged into the presidency of George W. Bush. Bush identifies himself as a born­again Christian and continues to violate the Constitution by ladling out govern­ment …

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