The emergence of the religious left: an opportunity for religious liberals and Humanists to unite.
Blinded by the religious right's howling dogmatism and recalcitrant disregard for such principles as the separation of church and state, many Humanists might be unaware of just how pivotal Protestants were in building the wall that many contemporary Christians seem determined to collapse. A summary of such broad support comes to us via Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America (1835, 1840). Reporting on the rise of American democracy, Tocqueville, a Roman Catholic, wrote that he was initially shocked to learn that the "spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom" in the United States weren't "pursuing courses diametrically opposed to each other." Upon coming into contact with several priests, he found "that they mainly attributed the peaceful dominion of religion in their country to the separation of Church and State. I do not hesitate to affirm that during my stay in America I did not meet with a single individual, of the clergy or of the laity, who was not of the same opinion upon this point."
While such appreciation for the separation of church and state and the true spirit of religious freedom is entirely lost on the United States' growing number of religious fanatics, there are signs of a revived deference for this great principle within our nation's expansive Christian population. On June 22, 2005, at a Washington, D.C., press conference, the Christian Alliance for Progress (CAP), a Jacksonville, Florida, group, declared war on the religious right's theocratic aspirations and its attempt to take over Christianity. The group boldly stated:
We reject a Christianity co-opted by any government and used as a tool to ostracize, to subjugate, or to condone bigotry, greed, and injustice.
The organization, which delivered the same declaration the following day outside of Jacksonville's First Baptist Church, particularly highlighted its commitment to the separation of church and state:
We also reaffirm a well-established American commitment to a clear separation of church and state. In your statements you often characterize America as a "Christian nation." We strongly disagree. As a nation of immigrants, America has been a land of freedom and diversity. Separation of church and state helps ensure liberty and justice for all Americans--not just those who are like-minded.
Citing some of the very quotes I used in the May/ June 2005 Humanist ("Up Front"), where I argued that Martin Luther King was a strong supporter for the separation of church and state, CAP went on to fortify its advocacy for church-state separation by quoting King: "Hear these words: 'The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state."
When I interviewed CAP's director of religious affairs, the Reverend Timothy Simpson, he said he believed that the separation of church and state was an important buffer protecting the United States from the kind of horror experienced in other parts of the world throughout history. As Simpson started citing a litany of fears regarding the rise of religious fanaticism in the United States, I realized that he was just as fiercely possessed by the separation issue as any nontheist.
"When you look at these websites you'll see that's exactly where this is headed" he warned. "If you go to the Coalition for Revival (www.reformation.net) and read all of their documents; if you go to the Chalcedon Institute (www.chalcedon.edu) with R. J. Rushdoony, and you investigate the connections between the theocrats, Rushdoony's group, and the Alliance Defense Fund (www.alliancedefensefund.org)--which is the sort of fundamentalist [version of the American Civil Liberties Union], you'll see very much what these people have in mind for the ideas of government, and how the laws of the nation should be understood. I mean, many of these people are for stoning gays and lesbians; they're for executing adulterers, idolaters, people who don't hold their opinions.
"These organizations have been [around] for several decades; they're not new. But they ... have been kept on the leash by the larger more moderate Republican Party, and what has happened in the last couple of years is the fundamentalists are off the leash. They're no longer being controlled by the fiscal conservatives--the so-called Rockefeller Republicans, the Arnold Schwarzeneggers, the Rudolph Giullianis, the George Patakis. Those people are endangered species in Republican Party circles. And that whole side of the political aisle has been colonized by fundamentalists."
Founded by health-management consultant Patrick Mrotek early in 2005, Simpson's group proclaims unequivocal support for economic justice, gay and lesbian rights, environmental stewardship, reproductive rights, universal health care, as well as the separation of church and state. Boding well for the organization's humanistic agenda, thousands of Christians flocked to become members of the group before its official launch in June 2005, with virtually no publicity. By the end of July, after news of the group had spread across the globe--yes, international media covered its kickoff--CAP announced that it had 6,000 new members, swelling its membership to 10,000.
The group garnered so much attention that one of the godfathers of religious extremism had to weigh in. On July 8 Jerry Falwell denounced CAP as "hardly 'Christian'" in an e-mail to members of the Moral Majority Coalition and the Liberty Alliance. He added that the group's "so-called broad-minded efforts toward tolerance have blinded them to how the Bible instructs us to live." Lest we forget that Jesus neither attended nor performed at the original Woodstock, Falwell went on to remind us that Jesus "was not a hippie do-gooder but rather the Son of the Living God who came to earth to pave the one way to heaven for mankind."
Viewing Falwell's neoconservative Jesus as a fanatical fantasy, Simpson says it is liberals who most embody the virtues of Jesus. "Liberals try to be the hands and feet of Jesus" he said. "They work the soup kitchens, they work the homeless shelters, they do social justice ministries. The conservatives buy satellites, they buy television stations, they build humongous radio networks."
Beyond the simple boundaries of left and right wing politics, CAP is also leading a revival of MLK-styled Christian humanism, countering the religious right's mantra of faith over works. Opening the door to an important partnership with freethinkers, Simpson says his group rejects the notion that a person has to be Christian in order to share Christian values. "An atheist that stands with a neighbor," said Simpson, "that stands with poor people; that is concerned about the marginal and the oppressed, is somebody who is embodying the values of Jesus. And we will work with them happily in the political sphere on areas of common concern. Because that's what this is all about.
"Ultimately, in Christian theological terms, the question is: how is the neighbor best served. And we want the focus to be on that--particularly the neighbors that are in difficulty, that are in distress, that are in the margins--rather than on trying to get the corporate interests and the wealthy in this country another tax cut."
Most recently CAP succeeded in debunking a bundle of stereotypes when it denounced the pseudoscience of "intelligent design." In response to recent attempts to mandate the teaching of intelligent design alongside evolution, CAP states its unequivocal support for real science: "Evolution is widely accepted as incontrovertible in science communities and faith communities across the world." The group also points out that, as with many issues, such as same-sex marriage, the separation of church and state is at the heart. CAP also promotes the Clergy Letter Project (blog01. kintera.com/christianalliance/archives/2005/09/the_ clergy_lett.html), "a coalition of scientists and Christian clergy members" declaring that "faith and science can be partners rather than enemies."
Whether Humanists and Christians agree on the issue of God's existence, the existence and popularity of CAP proves arguably that both groups have something far more important in common: a unified dedication to peace and justice issues. Groups like CAP offer Humanists an important opportunity to bridge the gap between secular and Christian humanism.
Already, progressive Christians and Humanists are working side by side on such issues as church-state separation, social justice, and supporting true science. With so much at stake, let's take the next step and join these struggles arm in arm.
Jeff Nall is a community activist and freelance writer. He has contributed to publications such as the Humanist, Toward Freedom, Impact Press, Humanist Network News, Freethought Today, and Clamor. He lives with his wife and daughter in Brevard County, Florida.
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|Title Annotation:||WATCH ON THE LEFT|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2006|
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