Sunday, March 30, 2014

Reichwing's Phony "War on Secularism"

To the extent that American liberals are able to successfully counter the blatant lies and continuous mendacity of the American Reichwing, that success is due entirely to the heroic efforts of historian Rick Perlstein to translate repug rhetoric and analyze repug tactics to reveal the hidden strategy behind what only seems to be unmoored insanity. 

The latest is that secular humanism is attacking the nation's schools and only teaching straight out of the Protestant Old Testament will save them.
 That's the way, in my experience, the ecology of right-wing smears works: Insane horror stories – Clinton is running cocaine out of an Arkansas airport! Barack Obama had gay sex in the back of a limo! – bubble up from the collective conservative Id at the outset of an election year; professional conservatives in Washington identify the ones that seem most promising and launder them through the suckers in the "balance"-hungry mainstream media; and presto, before you know it, it's death-panel-palooza, 24/7.
Responsible political reporting, of course, would seek to penetrate this process while it's going on. But we don't have responsible political reporting – or reporters who understand enough about the historical matrix from which these predictable discourses emerge to recognize the contending lies for what they are before they nose across the finish line. Let me venture my own attempt. You might not have heard about Mitt Romney's utterance in Milwaukee that Democrats desire to "establish a religion called secularism."

At present this storyline is reverberating only across the fearful precincts of the right, but it may soon be the "debate" du jour on a cable news channel near you, starring befuddled, blind-sided Democrats, à la Kerry's surrogates in 2004, forced to defend their presidential candidate against a charge that two seconds ago seemed too surreal to be worth swatting away, but which might well end up sounding just credible enough, if only by virtue of the fact that it's being debated, to sway some anxious swing voters.
Here's some background those befuddled Democrats need to know: One of the most robust and effective conspiracy theories on the right, the notion that "secularism" – or, just as often, "Secular Humanism" – is a religion is meant to be taken entirely literally: right wingers genuinely believe it refers to an actually existing religious practice. How do conservatives know? Because, they say, the Supreme Court said so. It was, as religious historian and Lutheran minister Martin E. Marty has written, "an instance where one can date precisely the birth of a religion: June 19, 1961." That was the day the Court ruled in the case of Torcaso v. Watkins striking down the Maryland Constitution's requirement of "a declaration of belief in the existence of God" to hold "any office of profit or trust in this state" — specifically, in atheist Roy Torcaso's case, the office of notary public. In his decision, Justice Hugo Black, writing for a unanimous court, further asserted that states and the federal government could not favor religions "based on a belief in the existence of God as against those religions founded on different beliefs" – and, in a fateful, ill-considered, and entirely offhand footnote explained: "Among religions in this country which do not teach what would be generally be considered a belief in the existence of God are Buddhism, Taoism, Ethical Culture, Secular Humanism and others."
From here, things get wacky.
Liberals, dumbfounded by irrationality in that patented liberal way, pointed out that the number of people calling themselves "secular humanists" was only a handful, so how could they possibly possess such omnipotence. Well, fundamentalists would counter, doesn’t that just prove the success of their conspiracy? Ain't America grand?
The professional right had found its substitute for the Red Menace. In many ways "secular humanism" was Communism’s superior as an organizing tool, because it so handily took the fight directly to the bloodiest crossroads in our political culture: the space between the public school and the home. There is no more effective way to organize against liberalism than to argue that liberals are invading the sacred precinct of the nuclear family – the basic unit of government under God's covenant, as the "Christian Reconstructionist" Rousas J. Rushdoony, father of the home-schooling movement, argued in his 1972 book The Messianic Character of American Education. The power-grabbing would-be-messiah government must be defeated, argued Connie Marshner, a Heritage Foundation staffer influenced by Rushdoony, if Christians were to "reverse the coming of the secular humanist state."
The vagueness is deliberate — it means new issues can be sluiced into the discourse as historical convenience dictates. For instance the secular humanism golden oldie, ever pliant, slots perfectly into the religious right's new phony crusade for "religious liberty," which in turn serves so marvelously in the corporate right's crusade to do away with even the faintest gesture toward healthcare equality. "I think there is in this country a war on religion," Romney said before raising that above-noted specter of Obama's "desire to establish a religion in America known as secularism." He continued, "They gave it a lot of thought," this business of forcing the Catholic Church "to violate its principles and its conscience (since when do institutions have "consciences"?) and be required to provide contraceptives, sterilization, and morning-after pills to the employees of the church" (a lie, by the way: employers don't have to provide anything).
Note the careful language: Democrats want "to establish a religion" — a precise quotation of the First Amendment's' Establishment Clause banning same. And the claim that "they gave it a lot of thought" insinuates a deliberate conspiracy. But conservatives would not fall for it, the stalwart Romney announced: "Those of us who are people of faith recognize [what] this is—an attack on one religion is an attack on all religion."
A marker has been laid down. Heed it well. Universal healthcare is the Trojan Horse in Obama's radical religious crusade to undo orthodox religion. Could a notion so crazy possibly have legs? Crazier things have penetrated the fog before — and this one has the advantage of tickling the most abiding anxiety of conservative-minded citizens: that liberalism is contributing to the sexual dissolution of their very own homes and hearths. Romney's recycling of the smear may already have helped him assuage the doubts of the religious right that he is one of them.
And Democrats losing their nerve, backing away from defending desperately needed reform out of fear stepping on mysterious "deeply held" beliefs that are actually the invention of hucksters with right-wing agendas? Well, that's happened before, too.
Don't let it happen again.

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