God's soldiers get political

The Baptists versus Walt Disney is just a skirmish in a much bigger crusade - to turn the United States into a Christian nation
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The Independent Online
Last week was a good one for the forces of righteousness in America, but God's soldiers are always on the march. They win battle after battle in this godliest of Western nations but, seeing Satan everywhere, they never pause for rest.

The Concerned Women for America, a conservative group with half a million members, voted to boycott all Walt Disney products because they believe the company promotes homosexuality and subverts family values, and thus joined the 15 million-strong Southern Baptist Convention who began their own holy boycott of the Disney conglomerate last month.

Every one of the 50 state governments agreed to accept money from Washington to promote sexual abstinence among teenagers. A number of states are now planning billboard campaigns along the lines of Michigan's "Sex Can Wait" and Maryland's "Virgin: Teach your kid it's not a dirty word". The Concerned Women of America are also worried at the effect on children of the cartoon character Pocahontas sporting what they described as sexy lingerie.

But these are just skirmishes in a much more serious battle. The Christian Coalition - successors to the Moral Majority of the 1980s - are determined to push through an amendment that would introduce the word "God" into the US constitution, a document which has always remained steadfastly neutral on matters of religion.

The ruthlessly organised, militant Coalition has mounted a nationwide fund-raising and grass- roots campaign. It vows to inundate Congress with phone calls, letters, e-mail, signed petitions and telegrams until they have achieved their divinely inspired goal of forcing a vote on the constitutional amendment before the congressional elections of 1998. Such a radical amendment is necessary, according to the Coalition's executive director Ralph Reed, "to make it clear that we are no longer going to be treated as second- class citizens because of our faith".

To anyone from outside America, this is arrant nonsense. Surveys show that 94 per cent of Americans believe in God; 86 per cent believe in Heaven; 69 per cent believe in the Devil; 68 per cent belong to a church. A questionnaire issued in 1990 by America's Institute for Social Research showed that 80 per cent of Americans believe that religion is "very or quite important" in their lives, as opposed to half that proportion on average in Britain, France, Germany and Italy.

There is plenty of evidence to show how deeply embedded religion is in the fabric of American society. The paper currency carries the motto "In God We Trust". Congress begins each day with a prayer. "The Battle-Hymn of the Republic" is a religious song - "In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea/...As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,/ While God is marching on."

NO LESS baffling to the outsider is the fact that abortion is a matter of lacerating, sometimes murderous, political conflict, or that a large number of American football players seem unable to celebrate a score without a prayer of thanks to the Almighty.

Yet the Christian Coalition's Mr Reed is not derided as a madman. His contention that religious persecution is rife in the land of the free has attracted 140 adherents in the House of Representatives, where all new legislation begins. Newt Gingrich, the Republican Speaker of the House, and Dick Armey, his number two, are among those who have said they will support the Coalition's proposed constitutional amendment.

The "Religious Freedom Amendment", formally introduced in Congress last week by a Republican representative from Oklahoma, would say:

"To secure the people's right to acknowledge God according to the dictates of conscience: The people's right to pray and to recognise their religious beliefs, heritage or traditions on public property, including schools, shall not be infringed." A further clause would state that the government "shall not ... discriminate against religion or deny equal access to a benefit on account of religion".

Plainly put, the purpose of the amendment is to open the door to formal prayer sessions in public (state) schools, to allow religious objects like the crib at Christmas inside government buildings and to permit government funding for religious organisations. The Coalition would be able to send its well-drilled troops on a contemporary Crusade. Its members could infiltrate school boards everywhere and ensure that morning assemblies hum to the sound of "Our Father". With time, creationism may legally replace the teachings of Darwin in schools. The ultimate ambition of the Coalition to make America a Christian nation might cease to be a dream.

A Georgia Congressman, Sanford Bishop, last week told a constitutional committee hearing: "Over the past 30 years there has been an alarming separation of the people of this country from the longstanding religious heritage that had been woven into the fabric of our history." Mr Bishop is a black Democrat: white Republicans have no monopoly on missionary zeal.

Mr Bishop went on: "Ironically, the founding fathers, who had the tyranny of a national religion fresh on their minds, probably would never have envisioned a time in history like today, when religious expression and exercise of any kind in public places is shunned so adamantly by government. They were running from a government too involved in religion. Today, we now have a government that discriminates against religion!"

THE argument against the amendment came from the president of a group whose members would have been burned alive in Mr Bishop's good old days. Ellen Johnson, head of American Atheists Inc, delivered one of the most heretical statements ever heard inside the US Congress. Starting from the premise that "the business of religion" should not be afforded special protections or advantages in "the free market place of ideas", Ms Johnson savaged the proposed amendment word by word.

The introductory clause seeking "to secure the people's right to acknowledge God" was "the most pernicious" of all, she said. "This presumes the existence of the god of monotheism and effectively establishes its existence by fiat of law," thus granting "religion hegemony over non-religion". The amendment "would be the first successful constitutional step in a centuries- long effort to make the United States a Christian nation".

As for the right to recognise religious beliefs "on public property, including schools", Ms Johnson wondered what this might entail. "Does this not mean that practitioners of Santeria will now be able to sacrifice chickens every day at the start of sixth-grade classes in Miami?"

Ms Johnson's fare was too strong to be reproduced by the media, which may be just as well as her speculation about the nature of prayer might even have made her an assassination target. She wondered that a "superintending, self-aware conscious force in the universe" could "upon whim grant or refuse certain supplications and, if need be, suspend the laws of nature to accomplish that which it would not have done otherwise. In other words," said Ms Johnson, "this divinity has an insatiable need to be entertained by the act of prayer before performing what it is requested to do."

Apparently enough Americans agree with her to ensure that if the amendment comes to a vote, the big battalions will be on the side of the atheists. A majority of members of Congress still trust the wisdom of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson to prevent tampering with the separation of church and state. Chet Edwards, a Democratic Congressman from Texas, noted that religious freedom was already protected by the first amendment of the constitution, guaranteeing free speech. "If history has taught us nothing else," he said at last week's congressional hearing, "it has taught us the best way to ruin religion is to politicise it."

Mr Edwards, who is a Methodist, might even have quoted from GK Chesterton's poem about FE Smith (later Lord Birkenhead) when he was being an overzealous member of parliament 100 years ago. "Talk about the pews and steeples,/ and the cash that goes therewith,/ But the souls of Christian peoples,/ Chuck it Smith!"