Saturday, September 10, 2005

Bill Moyers on Confronting the Christian Right

Bill Moyers delivered a powerful address at Union Theological Seminary in New York last week. He drew on central themes of American and Chrisian history to offer perspectives on what Americans need to do to come to grips with the dangerous, anti-democratic Christian Right.

An edited version appears on TomPaine.com.

Its worth sitting down to read Moyers'speech with a cup of coffee, a notebook, and a mind to figure out how we can preserve the best of constitutional democracy in our time, against the most dangerously anti-democratic movement to come along since the McCarthy era. Here is an excerpt to get your mind warmed-up for a stirring read:

"At the Central Baptist Church in Marshall, Texas, where I was baptized in the faith, we believed in a free church in a free state. I still do. My spiritual forbears did not take kindly to living under theocrats who embraced religious liberty for themselves but denied it to others. 'Forced worship stinks in God's nostrils,' thundered the dissenter Roger Williams as he was banished from Massachusetts for denying Puritan authority over his conscience.

In l651 the Baptist Obadiah Holmes was given 30 stripes with a three-corded whip after he violated the law and took forbidden communion with another Baptist in Lynn, Massachusetts. His friends offered to pay his fine for his release but he refused. They offered him strong drink to anesthetize the pain of the flogging. Again he refused. It is the love of liberty, he said, 'that must free the soul.'

Such revolutionary ideas made the new nation with its Constitution and Bill of Rights 'a haven for the cause of conscience.' No longer could magistrates order citizens to support churches they did not attend and recite creeds that they did not believe. No longer would 'the loathsome combination of church and state' -- as Thomas Jefferson described it--be the settled order. Unlike the Old World that had been wracked with religious wars and persecution, the government of America would take no sides in the religious free-for-all that liberty would make possible and politics would make inevitable.

The First Amendment neither inculcates religion nor inoculates against it. Americans could be loyal to the Constitution without being hostile to God, or they could pay no heed to God without fear of being mugged by an official God Squad. It has been a remarkable arrangement that guaranteed 'soul freedom.'.....


Democrats are divided and paralyzed, afraid that if they take on the organized radical right they will lose what little power they have. Trying to learn to talk about God as Republicans do, they're talking gobbledygook, compromising the strongest thing going for them -- the case for a moral economy and the moral argument for the secular checks and balances that have made America 'a safe haven for the cause of conscience.'

As I look back on the conflicts and clamor of our boisterous past, one lesson about democracy stands above all others: Bullies--political bullies, economic bullies and religious bullies--cannot be appeased; they have to be opposed with a stubbornness to match their own. This is never easy; these guys don't fight fair; Robert's Rules of Order is not one of their holy texts. But freedom on any front -- and especially freedom of conscience -- never comes to those who rock and wait, hoping someone else will do the heavy lifting."

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