The right to impose Christianity

The religious right worked itself into a righteous fury at "Justice Sunday," using the stalemate over judges to tar Democrats as enemies of God.

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One of the most telling moments of Sunday night’s Justice Sunday rally and telecast came right after Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, bellowed, “We will be disobedient altar boys! We won’t be told to shut up and give it over to the secular left! Who are they to say that I don’t have a right to freedom of speech?”

At the rally, held at Highview Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., the crowd jumped to its feet, whistling and clapping. In the small Long Island, N.Y., Christian youth center where I watched Justice Sunday with a dozen or so believers, people murmured their assent, as if Donohue had bravely spoken truth to power. Apparently, many ordinary Christians believe that some nefarious “they” is saying that believers don’t have a right to freedom of speech.

Almost everything uttered at the rally stoked this deeply held feeling of persecution, giving a righteous cast to some of the speakers’ vows of vengeance. “Those people on the secular left, they say, ‘We think you’re a threat,’” said Donohue. “You know what? They’re right.” This brought laughter, and more cheers.

The message of Justice Sunday was that the Senate’s filibuster of some of Bush’s judicial nominees constitutes discrimination against “people of faith.” Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who delivered a speech by video, tried to distance himself from this inflammatory assertion, but his participation spoke much louder than the wan caveats offered in his remarks. He lent his authority and credibility to the parade of right-wing celebrities who are using the parliamentary stalemate over judges as an excuse to tar Democrats as, essentially, enemies of God.

Thousands crowded the megachurch in Louisville, while others watched via satellite in hundreds of churches nationwide. Still more tuned in online and through Christian TV and radio. They heard from Focus on the Family’s James Dobson, the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins, Watergate felon turned evangelist Chuck Colson and a handful of others.

For an hour and a half, these right-wing eminences spun a political line that was blithely untethered from reality. Priscilla Owen, for example, one of Bush’s blocked judges, was held out by Frist as a jurist admired across the partisan spectrum. No mention, of course, was made of the words of one of her colleagues on the Texas Supreme Court, who accused her of an “unconscionable act of judicial activism” in a case dealing with a minor seeking an abortion. The godless leftist who hurled this charge was none other than Alberto Gonzales, now the attorney general.



In one case in which Owen dissented from the majority of the court in an abortion case, her colleagues, Republicans all, wrote that opposition to abortion “does not excuse judges who impose their own personal convictions into what must be a strictly legal enquiry.”

What’s fascinating, then, is that Owen, a judge known to put her politics before the law, is being held up as the cure for a supposedly ideological judiciary. For the orators at Justice Sunday, judicial activism in defense of biblical literalism is no vice.

Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, angrily recalled something that Judge Charles Pickering, one of the appellate court nominees that Democrats blocked, was asked during his hearings. “He was asked about something he said as president of the Mississippi Baptist Convention. He said, of all things, that Christians ought to base their decision making on the Bible … that is normative Christianity! There’s what it means to be a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ and to be a Christian incorporated into the body of Christ!”

Of course, the concern about Pickering’s comment at the hearings had to do with the implication that when the law contradicts his reading of the Bible, he sets the law aside. In the rhetoric surrounding Justice Sunday, though, expecting judges to put the law before their personal theology constitutes discrimination that threatens all Christians. “If it’s Judge Pickering now, it can be you tomorrow,” Mohler warned.

The language on Sunday was consistently apocalyptic. Dobson, the avuncular culture warrior, declared, “I think this is one of the most significant issues we’ve ever faced as a nation, because the future of democracy and ordered liberty actually depends on the outcome of this struggle.” After all, the Supreme Court is responsible for “the biggest holocaust in world history” — the legalization of abortion. “For 44 years, the Supreme Court has been on a campaign to limit religious freedom,” Dobson said. He continued, “We do have a right to participate in this great representative form of government.” From the way the crowd cheered, you’d have thought someone had told them they didn’t.

Conflating the right to participate with the right to evangelize, Mohler said, “We are not calling for people to be moral, we want them to be believers in the Lord Jesus Christ.”

That’s a valid position for a religious figure to take, perhaps, but since Mohler also argued that Christians can’t separate their public responsibilities from their spiritual obligations, it seemed as if he was arguing for the right of judges to impose Christianity. If so, the real problem isn’t discrimination against “people of faith.” It’s the claim that “people of faith” have the right to discriminate.

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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