OXFORD – Where does America put God? Historically, there has always been tension between the separation of church and state that the United States has enshrined in its Constitution and regular upsurges of religious faith, even religious extremism, that seek an outlet in the political process – or even seek to dominate it.
Nowhere is this tension more visible today than in the struggle for the political soul of the Tea Party. For, as the coalition on the religious right that dominated American conservatism since the 1980’s has begun to fall apart, some of the same Christian fundamentalist elements are seeking to absorb – some would say take over – the originally non-sectarian Tea Party.
The Tea Party emerged from a laudably grassroots base: libertarians, fervent Constitutionalists, and ordinary people alarmed at the suppression of liberties, whether by George W. Bush or Barack Obama. Libertarians, of course, tend to understand church-state separation: if you don’t want government intruding in your life, you definitely don’t want it telling you how to worship.
This anti-establishmentarian impulse is a time-honored tradition in America, where advocacy of separation of church and state – a radical view in the late eighteenth century – was driven by the experiences of religious minorities such as Quakers, Huguenots, and Puritans, all of whom suffered religious persecution in Britain and France.
Unfortunately, religious bigotry also has a long history in America, and there are powerful factions that cannot accept that God did not intend the US to be a Christian nation. Ronald Reagan saw the benefit of tapping these constituencies, introducing a faith-first element into what had been a more secularized, “big tent” conservatism.
Since the 1980’s, “culture wars” (usually staged) about homosexuality, abortion, and sex education, or other coded messaging about religious values, have served to mobilize the religious right. Bush’s early avowal of his conversion experience was given in language poll-tested for acceptance by fundamentalist Christians.
But, in the face of a severe recession and endless real wars, hot-button “culture war” issues don’t have the mobilizing power that they once did. Moreover, the Christian conservative movement has become rudderless and fragmented, with many of its leaders dead, compromised by sex scandals, or increasingly perceived as plain batty. This is why the architects of the religious right – many of them professional political consultants with no organic ties to movement – see the Tea Party as the great prize to subvert and then dominate.
You can see these fingerprints everywhere. At early Tea Party events, secular issues dominated: the Federal Reserve, monetary policy, taxation, the size of the government, and, above all, the Constitution. Today, the think tanks and pressure groups of the organized right are pumping money into Tea Party “branded” sites and events – and altering the message with an increasingly “culture war” slant.
At Townhall.com and LibertyCentral.org, for example, explanations of the Constitution sit uneasily next to articles urging citizens to take action against the construction of a mosque at the Twin Towers site in New York. Elsewhere, a seemingly commendable grassroots petition movement to re-establish Constitutional values at the state level turns out to be – if you read the fine print – a drive to enshrine Christian values in state law.
Likewise, the Tea Party, which showed no interest in racist language or iconography at its outset, increasingly injects such demagoguery into its messages. The movement’s libertarian message is now regularly subverted by anti-Muslim paranoia and contradicted by activism supporting such initiatives as the mass round-up, without due process, of undocumented immigrants in Arizona.
The political consultants behind this shift know that chauvinist appeals work in America – especially in times of economic stress and political turmoil. But perhaps enough Americans will keep their eyes open this time and learn from history.
Over a century ago, a nation that originated modern democracy was gripped by a political fever that led ordinary people to choose sides based on racist demagoguery. Cynical political tacticians manipulated popular opinion – through propaganda, through what posed as a free press, and through targeted political hate speech – to unite in carrying out a massive miscarriage of justice, demonizing a religious minority for political gain.
Not insignificantly, this hysteria was whipped up in the name of fighting “treason” and bolstering “national security.” Also tellingly, the accused member of the hated religious minority was jailed for life and condemned to a method of punishment – solitary confinement on an island 3,000 miles away – that was invented just for him after his conviction.
The nation that had defined itself by its belief in freedom and reason for over a hundred years found itself seduced by the most barbaric of faith-based bigotry. Even civilized, educated people signed on to it. It was not the US that was gripped by this wave of racist paranoia, but France, the cradle of “liberté, egalité et fraternité.” And the hated, “treasonous” religious minority was not Muslim, but Jewish.
Indeed, the most important book that a student of America can read right now to understand today’s malignant political climate is Ruth Harris’ admirable new look at the Dreyfus affair, The Man on Devil’s Island. Harris re-reads the famous trial to show how even the greatest of democracies can falter when good people abandon their principles, and when fear-mongering propaganda drives leaders to erode democratic checks and balances in the name of “national security.” American Jews, in particular, need reminding that when one religious minority is targeted, all religious minorities are at risk.
France eventually regained its soul – but long after a dark eclipse of its most cherished democratic values. Americans – and the Tea Party – should look at France a century ago, when religious bigotry hijacked constitutionalism, and then take a good hard look at themselves.
Naomi Wolf is a political activist and social critic whose most recent book is Give Me Liberty: A Handbook for American Revolutionaries. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2010. www.project-syndicate.org