Breaching the Wall

Jan Vickery Knost

First Parish in Norwell
January 27, 2002

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;"
1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

During these beginning years of the third millenia, we are witnessing more and more stridency by the radical religious right. It has been going on for a while but it was really escalated over the abortion controversy during the 1996 presidential election.

Some of the most powerful lobbies in Washington are promoting a consciousness raising crusade selling Christian salvation. As near as one can tell, though, God has not been brought into this process which is just as well. God has always been a kind of shadowy "walk-on, walk-off" character in the melodrama of the Jesus religion.

What IS at a premium, however, is your soul and mine. The object of the entire effort is to win converts. The campaign is so strident that it has converted millions to silence or even apathy. Protest has dried up. Questions involving the public accountability of congressional leaders is seldome heard. And, under the cover of an undeclared "war on terrorism" there is a lot of religious mischief afoot in state and federal legislatures. I want to address this issue and share some of my anger at its continuing.

This frontal assault is really on our Constitutional rights. And we are in danger of losing some very important battles that most of us - particularly religious and political liberals and moderates - believe were fought and won many years ago. And it is happening in legislatures all over the country.

Politicians from the Religious Right, puffed up by their powers and smug in their self-righteousness, are determined to impose their agenda on you and me. School vouchers, for instance. State courts in Wisconsin and Ohio have allowed these programs to proceed and the U.S. Supreme Court has refused to address the issue.

In another instance and despite overwhelming objections by the American public, the Republicans in the House of Representatives went through with the impeachment of President Clinton. As closely as I have been able to determine there were easily 70 per cent of our fellow citizens who said they were opposed to the impeachment.

So it seems to me that we are reaping the spoils of a generation of complacency that has resulted from a dwindling number of Americans who even bother to go to the polls. In addition there is the horrendous matter of campaign financing which the recent Entron scandal has forced Congress to consider.

Now I know that I may very well be preaching this morning to the choir. You are a sophisticated congregation much aware of the political process. But there is another aspect of reality which doesn't bode well for the future of our Constitutional rights. And that is the double-edged sword of religious and political tolerance we Unitarian Universalists celebrate long and long. We are tolerant of other people and their beliefs. Probably TOO tolerant. Those of us who share a strong belief in human rights (as we indicated last week in our service honoring Martin Luther King, Jr.) not to mention our respect for the integrity of the individual - are less likely to become concerned when someone of another belief begins to make noises in the background. "It is their right", we insist, "to express their beliefs and to live their lives accordingly."

Trouble is that there is a growing segment of our population not so tolerant. There are those who believe it is their "god-given right" to impose their way of life upon the rest of us. And since the early 1980's when they worked to elect Ronald Reagan as president, they have used their political clout to gradually take control of more than half of the state legislatures and (before Sen. James Jeffords "crossed the aisle" in the Senate) the majorities in both houses of Congress.

Now how did all this happen?

Very simply, actually. A small group of activist fundamentalists succeeded in turning the Southern Baptist Convention into a political machine. That was a complete reversal of that denomination's deep-seated understanding of church-state separation as articulated by their legendary founder, Roger Williams of Rhode Island.

That same group who engineered the Southern Baptist takeover became deeply involved in the Religious Right's support for Ronald Reagan and, after, in the founding of Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority and it's successor, Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition.

These shrewd rightwing operatives, working in the background, turned both those organizations into what were actually illegal political action committees. So between 1988 and 1992 both Falwell and Robertson lied to the public about their intentions and the use of their tax-free wealth for political purposes. The infant movement gained its zenith at the 92 Republican convention in Houston when Pat Buchanan declared the Religious Right's "holy war" (that's "jihad" in today's terms) in America.

For 43 years I have tried to pursue a religious profession that celebrates the spiritual life of human beings. I am not opposed to religion. But when Pat Buchanan explained the lines of his holy war I frankly began to become very frightened.

What really frightened me was that the Republican platform being then announced would reverse nearly all the civil rights legislation of the'60s and 70's. That platform still, today, simmers with undercurrents of bigortry and prejudice.

The ultimate goal is clear. The agenda says it wants to "get the government off our backs". It wants to give big business special benefits while at the same time inserting government controls into private life - from the bedroom to the school room to the work place to the public square and even into our television set and home computer.

They want to control how one lives and how one dies. (I am reminded of an extremely scary novel by Margaret Atwood published in the 70's titled The Handmaid's Tale. Check it out !)

Let's start with the issue of school vouchers. The Religious Right wants to give vouchers to a few kids in so-called "failing public schools" to allow their parents to opt to enroll them in nearby private schools. But if the standard of grading is gradually raised for public schools then more and more public schools will fail.

In Ohio, wealthy families who have alrady had their children enrolled in private schools qualified if they resided in a failing public school district. Once they get the vouchers they are able to continue receiving them until their child graduates even if the failing school improves and is no longer ranked as a failing school.

The ultimate goal is to abolish the public school education system and to give each student in the states where it is voted a voucher for a designated amount of tax dollars each year. It can be used in any public school or any parochial school OR be spent by the parents if the student is "home schooled". The ultimate cost if this continues for taxpayers would be horrendous.

There are also school prayer bills waiting to be voted in a number of state legislatures. They want to allow prayers in every public school during the regular school day AND and public events INCLUDING all sports events - football, baseball, basketball, hockey.
Such legislation, my friends, will permit students to evangelize fellow students, to entice classmates into clubs and other organizations disguised as recreational groups with the clear intention of religious conversion.

O.K. What else might they have in mind?

Here's one that might surprise you. It is a delusion called "parental rights". It will permit fundamentalist Christian parents to interfere with the curriculum of the public schools by demanding that "creationism" be given equal voice with evolution in science classes. Certain books they feel are offensive will be censored or eliminated from classrooms and school libraries and health education classes will be forbidden when they teach matters dealing with birth control, abortion or any dating practices beyond what they call "total abstinance".

This will mean that young people cannot be taught anything relating to healthy sexual practices or personal body care which the U.U.A. educational program called "OWL" - (our whole lives) has been set up for our kids and which adult members of this congregation have given hours to learn to teach. Under any "new" plan youngsters would not be taught anything relating to healthy sexual practices or personal body care.

Obviously the Religious Right is determined to abolish women's right to reproductive choice. The pressure is subtle in many ways: requiring teenagers to get parental permission to have abortions or listing doctors who perform abortions in a public register even if they rarely perform such procedures.

They also want to incorporate a sort of "charitable choice" element into the social services of various states. What this means is that religious groups will be encouraged to enter into the social welfare mainstream. President Bush's "Faith-Based Initiative" program is a federal expansion of the same concept. Though some good may come of such plans if made available to all religious groups, the Religious Right continues to keep pressure on the federal legislators so that only "the right charities" could receive such aid and assistance.

So it goes. One scary thing after another comes on the horizon with ever-tightening controls. The satire I did a year ago in this pulpit in which a federal agent arrives and asks where his desk will be located so he can monitor our charitable programs with the money we'd received from the government - wasn't far off the mark.

Overall, the rights of individual citizens are in jeopardy if we don't watch things a little more carefully. They want to oversee America's love life requiring couples to submit to religious counseling before they can marry or divorce. They want to make homosexuality in any form a crime. And the ultimate result of all this will be a society in which women are less equal than men; single parents are looked upon with disdain; immigrants are denied social services or help in adjusting to American life and language and gays and lesbians are sentenced to lifetimes of discriminiation and eternal damnation.

This is the life they envision for you and me. Be not mistaken. Living in liberal Massachusetts may insulate us from threats that the people of states like Texas and Florida feel all the time - but the possibility is there.

I want to conclude with a beacon of hope. The result of my doing so will be to charge you with ongoing vigilance in the year ahead - a vigilance that recognizes the subtle efforts to limit personal freedoms and civil rights by those in political power.

I suspect that only a tiny minority of American students of history can properly identify the most well-known of the Bill of Rights. Those first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution constitute an inspiring document in totality. They should stand sacred in the minds and hearts of every citizen. But the most important of all those rights is the very first one. Listen:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or of the right of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."

In case after case over the decades of America's history, the United States' Supreme Court has carefully protected that "wall of separation between church and state" intimated in the First Amendment.

But these days, it's changed. That noble testament to human freedom is under fire.
And though I know our present Attorney General, Mr. Ashcroft assures us that he will in all cases carry out the law, we know that in his heart he is the most flagrant of religious fundamentalists. His track record proves it.

So be vigilant, my friends. Pay attention. Read the various "watch journals" that let us know when such mischief is on the horizon. Paste the names and addresses of your state and federal representatives on your refrigerator and enter their eMail addresses in your computers.

President Thomas Jefferson stated that of all the things he was proud to have accomplished in his political life was the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom which he wrote and saw passed into law. And so, as your motto you might take the second step and memorize his stirring words that he used to justify that document. Here's what he said:

"...I have sworn on the altar of god eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of humanity.

To close I would like to share the conversation that took place some time back on the ACLU Network with former U.S.Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black during an interview marking his 80th birthday. He was asked, "What has been happening back home (in America) that gives you most concern?"

This was his answer: "Religion. To little knowledge of history. Too little respect for diversity. To much talk of accomodation. People so sure that they've seen the divine light that they want the government to make everyone else see it that way, too."

Justice Black continued: There was nothing more important to the framers of the Bill of Rights than the subject of religious freedom. They knew that religious differences can lead to hatred and persecution that can tear a country apart. What I don't understand – I can't understand is how people in America can look at what is happening in the rest of the world, where people are killing each other because of religious differences, and then chip away at the constitutional rights that were put there for the very purpose of avoiding these problems.

And then he concluded: They gave us something new–a written guarantee of religious freedom, and they enforced that freeedom by requiring that government and religion be separate – that government couldn't support any religion or all religions, whether through taxes, prayers or giving money to religious schools or putting the stamp of approval on any religious faith.

I hope, my good friends, that I have stirred you to a modulated anger that will result in action in the days ahead. God knows our country will need such patriots.


(This sermon was developed from notes taken at a lecture by Jeanne Pugh, columnist for the St. Petersburg Times given on March 28, 1999.)