Oratory of Division
"Gingrich's rhetoric reinscribed the notion that secularism is seditious.
Newt Gingrich's new book, To Save America: Stopping Obama's Secular-Socialist Machine, has harsh words for nonbelievers—or at least those who in his view are complicit with the president in a "secular-socialist" conspiracy that imperils the nation's survival. Since the election of Barack Obama in 2008, conservatives have been relentless in their vilification of Obama as a mortal enemy of American democratic traditions, free enterprise and the moral authority of the United States. Gingrich's canard is noteworthy because of its hackneyed Cold War-style conflation of Obama's liberal domestic policies and the lurking evil of secularism. The scorched earth culture wars that characterized the Reagan-Bush and George W. Bush eras made "secular" a dirty word. Secularism was blamed for everything from abortion, teen pregnancy, divorce, pedophilia and political radicalism. In this latest iteration, secularism was once again code speech for being anti-American, un-patriotic and amoral. Gingrich's charge against Obama was part of a growing wave of anti-government hysteria incited by the far right Tea Party movement. This hysteria is informed by the belief that secularism is the ideological linchpin of an administration caricatured as the architect of big government wealth redistribution.
Historians such as Gary Wills, Robert Middlekauf and Robert Boston have ably challenged the grossly misguided notion promulgated by conservatives that the U.S. was a founded as a fundamentally "Christian nation." Yet the persistence of this myth continues to cast long shadows on American politics, culture and education. In March 2010, the Texas Board of Education proposed substituting the term "Atlantic triangular trade" for the term "slave trade" and revising historical representations of the separation of church and state in its textbooks. Dominated by conservatives, the most prominent members of the Board were a dentist and a real estate agent. No historians, sociologists or political scientists were consulted. The Texas debacle was significant because the state is one of the largest buyers of textbooks in the U.S. and has a broad national influence over school curricula. One of the most extreme examples of the backlash against "secularism" was the Texas Board's decision to omit Thomas Jefferson from "a list of figures whose writings inspired revolutions in the late 18th century and 19th century, replacing him with St. Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin and William Blackstone." In lieu of Jefferson, the National Rifle Association, The Moral Majority and Gingrich's "Contract with America" brainchild were added to state content standards to restore "balance" to an egregiously left-leaning curriculum. Based on the Board's view that capitalism had gotten a bad rap, the word capitalism was replaced with free enterprise. In line with the right's Reagan-besotted playbook, free enterprise received a more nuanced definition—"including minimal government intrusion, taxation and property rights."
The Texas Board's action and Gingrich's rhetoric reinscribed the notion that secularism is seditious. The contradiction between "minimal government intrusion" and the depiction of the U.S. as a Christian-inspired, Christian-endorsing nation reverberates as one of the most pernicious. A woman's right to exercise control and authority over her own body is distorted with colonial obscurantist language like "fetal rights" and "pro-life." And, in conservative parlance, freedom from government intrusion has meant freedom for white males to bear arms and avoid fiscal responsibility for public education and social welfare programs while challenging the "excesses" of equal protection legislation like the 1964 Civil Rights Act. In this universe, a government in which there is no separation between church and state should rightfully be the handmaiden of Christian religious sacraments and doctrines that supersede constitutionally protected rights for women, gays and lesbians and people of color.
So what contribution can a Humanist critique make in the midst of such a polarizing climate? As a philosophy based on secular principles of human worth, dignity, self-determination and interdependence, the Humanist lens can give perspective to the connections between social justice and individual liberty. Non-white, non-heterosexual, non-male individuals have only recently begun to be accorded full personhood status under the law. Recognizing the role that both the state and religious dogma have played in denying people of color, women and gays and lesbians full personhood, progressive Humanist perspectives challenge the hierarchies of personhood that have historically informed racist, sexist, and heterosexist discrimination. They also highlight the institutional inequities that prohibit diverse communities from gaining equitable access to social welfare needs. Indeed, one of the most profound issues confronting American society is lack of consensus on what constitutes a fundamental human right, be it equitable access to health care, education or housing. By promoting the need to "minimize the inequities of circumstances and ability…and support a just distribution of nature's resources," Humanist belief systems implicitly value the human right of individuals to health care, education and housing.
Health care reform emerged as a flashpoint for national debate about government's role in protecting "individual liberty" versus social welfare. The backlash over President Obama's health care reform legislation was one of the most potent examples of the continued influence of the Religious Right's propaganda apparatus. Powerful Christian evangelical groups like the Family Research Council and Campaign for Working Families joined the Conference of Catholic Bishops in a lobbying campaign against abortion coverage provisions. Across Middle America, town halls denouncing the plan were packed by the Tea Party activists. In one infamous exchange in South Carolina, a health care reform opponent was purported to have shouted "keep your government hands off of my Medicare," swaggeringly ignorant of the fact that Medicare is in fact administered by the federal government. Noting the irony, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman remarked, Americans "hate single payer insurance…because they don't know they have it." Hearkening back to the high-pitched rhetoric of the Contract with America era, "government" became the signifier for socioeconomic and political tyranny. Largely missing from mainstream media coverage of the debate were the voices of people of color. Many of the most prominent protests were dominated by Tea Party activists toting signs equating Obama's plan with "White Slavery" whilst vowing to "take back the country." Concerned that the Tea Party was becoming a vehicle for a white racist insurgency, the NAACP passed a resolution calling on Tea Party leadership to repudiate the racist sentiments that have gained prominence in the movement.
Gingrich's characterization of Obama's policies as "secular socialism" relies on a thinly veiled appeal to white nationalism, a sentiment that the Tea Party has so masterfully exploited. Despite the Tea Party leadership's vigorous protestations of racial inclusivity, the majority of the movement is white, male, affluent and over 45. According to a New York Times poll, Tea Party advocates believe that Obama's policies disadvantage the middle class and the rich and are fundamentally at odds with "authentic" presumably Christian American values. As one respondent complained about Obama, "I just feel he's getting away from what America is…He's a socialist. And to tell you the truth, I think he's a Muslim and trying to head us in that direction, I don't care what he says. He's been in office over a year and can't find a church to go to."
The connection between religiosity and the notion that government is encroaching upon the freedoms of average white Americans has gained fresh currency in the conservative backlash against Obama. Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich and such lightening rod figures as Fox News commentator Glenn Beck have fanned the Tea Party's "take back our country" flames with evangelical rhetoric that promotes belief in Obama's "alien" status. Indeed, a recent Pew Research Center poll indicated that 18 percent of Americans and 29 percent of white evangelical Protestants believe that the president is a Muslim and a CNN poll found that 27 percent of Americans doubt he was born in the United States. These misguided ideas persists despite Obama's profession of Christian beliefs, his administration's renewal of Bush's faith-based initiative program and his Hawaiian birth certificate. It is a sentiment that Obama's principled support of a proposed mosque and interfaith center near Ground Zero in Manhattan has further enflamed. According to Harvard professor Lisa McGirr, "the Tea Party uses a kind of code to talk about social values. For instance, when they emphasize a return to the strict meaning of the Constitution, they interpret that as a return to a Christian foundation." Thus, "when they talk about returning to the values of the Founding Fathers…they are talking about life as a social issue."
In a Los Angeles Times article criticizing the gutter tactics of conservative blogger and professional defamer Andrew Breitbart, conservative pundit David Klinghoffer alluded to the divinely-inspired relationship between limited government and Judeo-Christian values. In his view, conservatives believe that there is a governing "purpose" to the cosmos. Klinghoffer implies that this belief is distinguished from a humanist, materialist world view in which the cosmos is random, chaotic, and, of course, devoid of moral structure. Without purpose and design, gays, women and people of color might actually demand full rights of democratic citizenship, and "liberal relativism" would rule the day. The idea that there is some universal, timeless model of design and purpose is consistent with a conservative strict constructionist view of the Constitution wherein inalienable rights applied exclusively to propertied white men. Thus, contrary to U.S. District Court judge Vaughn Walker's landmark ruling overturning California's same sex marriage ban, same sex marriage is not a personal choice that demands equal protection on the basis of individual liberty and property rights but a grievous violation of the state's vested interest in upholding heterosexual partnerships as the only moral template for marriage. The wall that separates church and state should not allow government to ignore the role that Christian religious principles play in the adjudication of individual liberty and moral values.
After Obama's election, some declared post-racialism and the Religious Right's political decline a fait accompli. However, growing opposition to illegal immigration and renewed right wing vigor against abortion rights and same sex marriage, have exposed a deep well of resistance among some, mainly white, Americans to the inclusive vision of American democracy that Obama's candidacy appeared to represent. In its bid to "take back the country" the Tea Party movement's toxic blend of anti-secular, "anti-government" propaganda is perhaps the first gasp of a new Confederacy.