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Deceptions and Fallacies Of the Religious Right

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Every so often the religious right looks unstoppable--divinely inspired and poised to reverse our national lurch to perdition. Then there are the other times, when it turns mean-spirited and judgmental. Sometimes, the sides converge or blur, and we wonder where these people want to take us and what they expect of our schools.

Right now, fresh from its boisterous "Road to Victory" convention in September, Pat Robertson's five-year-old Christian Coalition, the engine of the "pro-family" movement, is in great shape. With its membership nearing 1.5 million dues-paying activists in nearly 1,000 chapters, it is attracting the attention of a punditocracy that worships political clout. Few Republican Presidential aspirants dare pass up an opportunity to visit with its movers and shakers.

Angry, determined~, and capably led, this vanguard force of the religious right is single-minded. It means to spark a decisive shift in the way Americans think, act, and educate their children. And now, more than ever before, its leaders are prepared to fog over their harsher messages if that is what it takes.

Emboldened by its early successes and financial prosperity, the Christian Coalition is shaping a popular-front-type strategy designed to present religious fundamentalists as the occupants of an accessible and attractive niche in the political spectrum, profoundly concerned about the quality of life in America and ready to offer sensible solutions on education, health-care and welfare reform, crime, tax policy--everything, it seems, except the baseball strike. The coalition's talented young executive director, Ralph E. Reed Jr., has even taken to depicting his organization--and, by extension, the larger force it symbolizes and often leads--as "a kind of faith-based Chamber of Commerce, a kind of League of Women Voters, if you will, for people of faith."

This is the same Ralph Reed who spoke so memorably a couple of years ago of doing "guerrilla warfare," of painting his face and traveling by night, and of leaving vanquished opponents in body bags. Though none of the flock have taken this game plan literally (as far as we know) several thousand performed a slightly more civilized version of it in 1992 and 1993 and landed on school boards and in other political offices across the country.

Only a few years after its death was officially certified by political analysts and some prominent theologians, the religious right is changing the veneer and product description of the basic package. Religious-right-watchers cite support of the winning U.S. Senate candidacies of a pair of pro-abortion-choice Republican politicians, Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas and Paul D. Coverdell of Georgia, as proof of its willingness to cast a wider net. Two of the main stories out of the Road to Victory sessions, the push to recruit Catholics, Jews, Hispanics, African-Americans, and even Democrats, and the well-publicized adoption of a less rigid tactical (but emphat~~ically~ not substantive) stance on abortion, were clearly calculated to implant such an image in the national consciousness.

Sweet reasonableness is busting out all over.

Perhaps the new spin will spur the growth of the "pro-family" movement beyond its dependable but historic~ally limited support base. It is surely a far cry from its narrow, long-held obsessions with creationism, school prayer, and below-the-belt social issues. Finally, it appears, the top brass has discovered that these do not stoke the political passions of the mainstream electorate. Time for a new tack.

But changing labels and broadening agendas do not signal even a millimeter's deviation from the religious right's core attitudes and objectives toward education. This, more than any other place, is where the religious right lives, and it isn't about to move. That other stuff is all about issues and tactics that come and go with the seasons. It's what happens to the young--how their educational experiences and belief systems are formed--that really counts. About this there can be no disagreement. Flexibility and compromise with the secularists are out of the question. Cosmetic or marginal adjustments are conceivable, but school leaders who mistake a change of pace or presentational style for an honest switch i~n policy will live to rue their faulty judgment.

Over the past year or so, several national educational groups have made an earnest if misguided effort to locate common ground with their traditional opponents. Luminaries of the religious right, including the arch-fundamentalist Robert Simonds of Citizens for Excellence in Education, have written for their publications, addressed their conventions, and, late this past summer, even joined in an unpublicized Washington meeting to air issues and try for some degree of two-way civility.

It won't wash. The religious right's truckloads of prose on the evils (not just the admitted shortcomings) of public education provide a mother lode of reasons why any search for common ground is moonshine. The attacks have never been more strident, and they have been largely ignored by the heavy hitters of educational policy.

Lest there remain any doubt about what the religious right really wants American education to be, one need only open the textbooks that nearly all fundamentalist Christian schools, "the next best thing to home schooling," according to Mr. Simonds, use day in and day out to instruct their young. Nowhere is there a more valid or instructional statement of the religious right's doctrinal underpinnings.

In his eye-opening Visions of Reality: What Fundamentalist Schools Teach (Prometheus, 1993), Albert J. Menendez, a veteran analyst of religious fundamentalism, finds what adds up to a shocking refutation of commonly held views about American society and its central beliefs. Basic texts routinely deny or slight such ingrained qualities of national life as diversity, intellectual freedom, experimentation, and even religious tolerance. "These books," Mr. Menendez reports, "promote intolerance, separation, and political reaction. They idealize a past that was itself intolerant and unjust or, in some cases, simply imaginary." Anyone who can find favorable mention of feminism, multiculturalism, or equity gets a gold star.

While advocating a strict Christian value system, the authors of these widely used schoolbooks find Catholicism to be a fraudulent form of Christianity. In language saturated with ridicule and contempt, they slash and burn the beliefs and practices of Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Episcopalians, Greek Orthodox, Mormons, Unitarians ("uniquely evil"), and, counting it as a religion, which no respectable theologian would, humanism ("an abomination"). Theirs must be a vengeful, intolerant God, certainly not a gentle shepherd.

Of the unending parade of denunciations in these texts--a key source of information and indoctrination for close to one million children every year--the most worrying may be their almost casual demonization of American secularism and democracy. Only rarely audible or visible in the public utterances of the religious right's mandarins, this line of attack, as well as the political strategy of the larger movement, is eerily familiar to students of totalitarianism, notably of Communism, "the God that failed." Far from modeling themselves on the ethical and scrupulously nonpartisan League of Women Voters, the Christian Coalition and its most vociferous educational fellow-traveler, Citizens for Excellence in Education, advocate operational tactics that could have come straight from Coach Lenin's playbook.

The similarities are impressive. Both have an entrenched base of ideological fervor that confers a feeling of belonging to something special on all, regardless of station or employment, who think as they do. As true believers, they share the zealot's consuming urge to convert waverers or nonbelievers. But they don't object too strenuously to ~expedient short-term accommodations with unlikely allies (the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy on sex education, for example) to make a particular point or advance a carefully vetted issue. Their loyalists are often prodigiously informed on narrowly defined topics, although their historical recall is usually distorted or blurred--which doesn't bother them because, as Henry Ford once observed, "History is more or less bunk."

Once in the sandbox of politics and community activism, Communists and the legions of the religious right have always been prepared to volunteer for the nastiest jobs and to pack the house for the most tedious and inconsequential meetings. They relish boring from within organizations they find unresponsive to their preoccupation of the moment. Like their Marxist peers, they are not above distorting the truth, often by misrepresenting who they are at election time or by portraying opponents, many of them pillars of their communities, as anti-family extremists.

While soft-pedaling their preference for a theocratic America, the grandees of the religious right are campaigning for exactly that. As long as they can get away with misla~beling themselves--most tellingly to the millions of decent religious fundamentalists who care deeply about their children's upbringing--the more likely they are to continue their recent advances.

This is a time to hear from courageous officeholders of both parties (Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania has distinguished himself in this regard), from national educational spokespersons (strangely silent to date), and from thinking parents. It is not a time to bow to a biased version of contemporary education or of any public matter just because it comes in a re~ligious~ package, one that is often at odds with lo~ng-accepted views of the interplay between religion and public policy.

The Rev. Joan Brown Campbell of the National Council of Churches got it right when she wrote, "Religious concerns are best fulfilled when political positions reflect the reality of a God who suffers with all who suffer, who cares for the integrity of all creation, who wills the well-being of all people, and whose will is always justice and peace."

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