Paul Kurtz reviews a new book on American fundamentalism
The rise of the religious right in the United States is a scary phenomenon for those living through it.This is particularly the case for secular humanists (such as myself), who have been in the trenches attempting to stem the tide.
Michelle Goldberg, a senior journalist for Salon.com, gives a vivid account of the pitched battles now occurring in the United States. She quotes Ned Ryun, a former speechwriter for George W Bush that "there are two world views in conflict." The first is Judeo-Christian. "It starts with God... it protects life... it's about traditional marriage, one man, one woman." The second is "secular humanism, which starts with man as the centre of all things. There are no absolute standards, it's all morally relative, anything goes as long as it has to do with sex." According to best selling evangelical author Tim LaHaye (and co-author David Noebel) there is an all out war to 'reclaim America', and there are millions of evangelical foot-soldiers steeled to take it back from secular humanists, who they allege control the godless public schools and universities, the liberal media, foundations, and the courts (would that we did have such influence!). They claim that secular humanism is a religion, and they insist that it violates the establishment clause of the US Constitution and as such should be extirpated from the schools.
Kingdom Coming surveys the latest fronts in this Kulturkampf. First is the resort to homophobia; it is vehemently against gay marriage. Second is the effort to force Intelligent Design on science classrooms in order to combat Darwinian evolutionary theories. Third is the use of federal funds to support 'faith based charities' by executive order, without congressional approval, and in violation of the separation of church and state. Fourth is the abstinence programme against the use of condoms to prevent both teenage pregnancy and AIDS. Fifth is the continuing assault on the liberal courts. The Democrats were recently defeated in a hotly contested battle, with the selection of conservative justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court.
Today, a rogue cast of right wing characters tries to dominate the American scene: conservative think-tanks (the Heritage Foundation, CATO Institute, et al), media moguls (Murdoch and Paxson), TV personalities (Bill O'Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter), preachers (Pat Robertson, James Kennedy, Jerry Falwell, James Dobson), and many, many more. How did they achieve this? They began by building new grassroots organisations, churches, publishing houses, TV and radio networks, websites, schools and universities and they organised a powerful political base for the GOP.
Meanwhile, the number of non-religious secularists has virtually doubled in the past decade, going from 8 to 16 per cent of the population. This is far less than other western democracies, but it is now the third largest grouping in the US, after Roman Catholics and Baptists. In a concluding section, Michelle Goldberg has some interesting recommendations of what secular forces can do to respond to the religious right. Those who wish to thwart Christian nationalism, she advises, must develop a long-range strategy. First and foremost is the need to organise at the grassroots level and to embark on a campaign to alert the public of the extreme dangers that the "gun-toting, Bible-thumping, McDonald's-eating, gay-bashing, gas-guzzling, right-wing freak show" continues to pose to democratic freedoms. Secularists need to point out that the blue states where the religious right predominate have the highest rates of teenage pregnancy, divorce and murder, and the lowest rates are in Democratic red states such as New England and the coastal areas so much for the superiority of religious moral values!
This important book demonstrates that secular humanist forces have an all-out struggle ahead to save American democracy from religious fanatics. Its not going to be easy, and we should not deceive ourselves that we will prevail. The American future is uncertain.