If you’ve spent any time at all watching the Religious Right’s political doings over the years, you know that one of their most cherished tactics is to charge that liberals, gays, feminists, [insert appropriate bogeyman here] aren’t only undermining America, they’re actually out to shut down the church, silence pastors, and throw Christians in jail for breathing a word about their faith publicly.
In recent years they’ve leveled that charge most consistently at hate crimes and non-discrimination legislation. In his now-infamous Beliefnet interview, Rick Warren said it was necessary for Californians to pass Prop. 8 in order to protect pastors’ freedom to preach against homosexuality. That utterly false charge was repeated by one of the panelists on The View, where it reached a mass audience.
This past week, it was the stimulus package. Pat Robertson’s lawyer Jay Sekulow got the ball rolling on Tuesday with the breathless announcement that he had “discovered” a secret anti-faith clause in the stimulus package. What he was referring to was language designed to prevent colleges who get federal funds to renovate buildings on campus from using that money for chapels and other houses of worship. It’s standard church-state language that has appeared in numerous bills over many years. The underlying principle has repeatedly been upheld by the Supreme Court.
But, thrilled to have a “Christian persecution” angle in the biggest news story of the month, a succession of “mainstream” and more fringe Religious Right leaders accused the Democrats of wanting to push religion off college campuses and out of public debate altogether. The whole thing gained a big enough head of steam that 43 senators, including a few Democrats, voted to strip the language out of the bill. (The ludicrous nature of the charges was heightened by the fact that the vote on Sen. James DeMint’s amendment took place on the same day that Obama spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast and appointed 15 members of an interfaith panel to advise his office of faith-based and neighborhood partnerships.)
Predictably, when the amendment failed, Religious Right leaders started screaming anew about the coming extinction of religious liberty on college campuses, and they’re still at it, threatening to challenge the bill in court.
Kyle, blogging at Right Wing Watch, has done a great job reporting on the drama as it unfolded, and People For the American Way did a recap here. But there has been precious little media coverage, even of the Senate vote. I think reporters often make the judgment that these charges are so ridiculous they aren’t worth repeating. But by avoiding Religious Right leaders’ persistent charges of religious persecution, journalists let them off the hook for their repeated lying. And we all miss the bigger story, which is the long-term cultural impact of millions of American Christians being told over and over by those they trust that they are surrounded by people who want to criminalize their faith.