Religion in the public arena has been getting a lot of attention recently. The Australian Democrats are fearful of Christian influence in politics. (Indeed, I was attacked in the Melbourne Age today by their leader over this very issue.) On the other hand, Labor MP Kevin Rudd says it is time the left of politics gains the Christian vote. He claims that for too long the conservatives have had exclusive ownership of the Christian voice.
And then there are the various secularists warning of a Christian take-over of Australia, a theocratic dictatorship if you will. In this debate there seems to be more heat than light being generated, but it is nonetheless an important issue.
In America this debate is even more pronounced and polarised, and has been going on for a longer period of time. This is in part because America is much more religious than Australia, and in part because the secular left there is at near boiling point over what they perceive as dire threats from the so-called Religious Right.
As a case in point, one major US publishing house took out a full-page ad (costing over $100,000) in the New York Times with this banner headline: “RELIGION=MADNESS?”. The ad is about a new book by Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation. This is one of dozens of recent books by panicked secularists and those on the religious left who perceive an imminent religious right take-over of America, on a par with the Nazi takeover of Germany.
American Jewish columnist and film critic Michael Medved takes up this story in a new Townhall.com article. His October 4, 2006 piece, “Religion, madness and secular paranoia,” begins with a discussion of this newspaper ad. He asks why a major publisher would risk alienating the clear majority of Americans with such an inane ad.
He then mentions over a dozen similar titles to the Harris book coming from the fulminating left. “Think of all the innocent and beautiful trees cleared from the landscape and pulped into paper to feed this raging epidemic of major book releases meant to indict and expose Christian conservatives! On the Keith Olbermann ‘Countdown’ show on MSNBC, the shrill leftist Chris Hedges announced his own forthcoming project: ‘American Fascist: The Coming of a Theocratic Dictatorship in the United States’.”
Medved continues, “In order to cash in and surf to shore on this trendy publishing tidal wave, it may be time to write: ‘Christian Killers and Cannibals: How the Religious Right Plans to Burn Your Homes, Rape Your Women and Eat Your Babies.’ This attention-getting title counts as only slightly more ridiculous and more extreme than many others proudly published by major corporations. Sam Harris, for instance, suggests that ‘eradicating’ religion represents an urgent priority that should engage the efforts of all good people – a moral necessity comparable to the abolition of slavery.”
And it is not just books denouncing religious conservatives. Films are also appearing at a regular rate pushing the same theme: “Meanwhile, the ecstatically positive reviews that greeted the alarmist documentary film ‘Jesus Camp’ (which explicitly compares an enthusiastic Christian summer program for kids to a terrorist training ground) show the genuine horror of religious revival that pervades much of the secular establishment. In reviewing the film for the New York Times, a horrified Stephen Holden unambiguously equated young Evangelical believers to Communist mass murderers.”
Medved notes the strange timing of all this. The religious right is, if anything, losing ground in the US. So why such paranoia over it at this time? “The most surprising aspect of the current vogue for Christian-bashing hysteria involves the timing: after many years of growth and progress, religious conservatives have suffered recent reverses. The once mighty ‘Moral Majority,’ ‘Christian Coalition’ and other influential organizations are either disbanded or irrelevant. Conservative Christians failed spectacularly in their attempts to spare the life of the stricken Terri Schiavo, fell far short of achieving the needed Congressional majorities for a Marriage Protection Amendment, have lost a series of high profile court cases on Intelligent Design, and face daunting odds in efforts to block governmental funding of Embryonic Stem Cell Research.”
And Medved notes the double standards of the leftists: “When secularists try to insist that all religions, not just Islam, display a dangerous violent streak, it’s deeply revealing that they indict Christianity by reaching back five hundred years (to the Spanish Inquisition) or a thousand years (to the Crusades). It’s no exaggeration to say that Muslim extremists around the world committed many, many more violent attacks in the last week than have Christian conservatives in the last ten years.”
So why is the Left so paralysed in fear over the Right? “In answering that question, critics of the ‘Religious Right’ always come back to issues of political influence and their groundless fears of some future, Orwellian, dictatorial, theocracy. These alarmists consistently ignore the actual agenda of even the most ambitious Christian conservatives who express no desire to install a new, religiously inflexible form of government, but merely wish to return to the more hospitable attitude to public expressions of faith that flourished in this nation until the 1960’s. Yes, religious activists want to roll back some of the controversial secularist ‘advances’ of the last fifty years…” Things like abortion, school prayer and the like are mentioned by Medved as examples of genuine issues to be debated in a democracy, but hardly signs of an impending Christian take-over of America. Indeed, Medved shows that such leftist fears are really groundless.
So why does the panic-mongering continue? I quote Medved at length: “Why, then, the current paranoia over the often exaggerated prominence and power of religious conservatives? In Letter to a Christian Nation, Sam Harris unwittingly provides the answer. Addressing his believing fellow citizens, he dramatically declaims: ‘If the basic tenets of Christianity are true, then there are some very grim surprises in store for nonbelievers like myself. You understand this. At least half of the American population understands this. So let us be honest with ourselves: in the fullness of time, one side is really going to win this argument, and the other side is really going to lose’.”
“Mr. Harris, in other words, seems to worry that people assume he’s bound for damnation and an eternity of regret because in one tiny corner of his mind, at least, he fears they may be right. In the argument he describes, it’s not possible that Christian believers are ‘really going to lose.’ If Mr. Harris is right about humanity and materialism, then there will be no sense of regret or despair if religious people fail to reach heaven after death. If we are, indeed, just spiritless chemicals and soulless matter, then we won’t be around in any sense to feel remorse over a life wasted in prayer, religious fellowship, love of family and good deeds. When he suggests that one side is ‘really going to lose’ he can only have his own side in mind.”
Quite right. That is the real concern of the secular left: their own insecurity over their unbelief. Maybe they might be wrong. Maybe there is a God after all. Maybe there is life after death, and two eternities for mankind. Concludes Medved:
“That’s why even the most benign, loving Biblically based religious ideas seem so threatening to non-believers. The more that people of faith develop confidence, sophistication and intellectual influence, the more that those on the other side nurse the dark, clammy, cold, intolerable fear that these theists just may be right about God and eternity. When polemics and newspaper ads seek to ‘arm’ so-called ‘rational Americans with powerful arguments,’ it’s not that they need defense against rampaging Christians with pitchforks and torches. They ultimately seek protection against creeping, subversive doubts about their own unbelief.”
Amen. I encourage readers to view the whole of this important article by Medved: