Democracy Under Assault
Theopolitics, Incivility and Violence on the Right

Michele Swenson

'Christian Persecution': Corrupted Language,
Degraded Civic Discourse and Subversion of Democracy

Key to the political ambitions of the now dominant evangelical wing of the Republican party is the revisionist history that defines the U.S. a Christian nation, the prelude to installation of biblical literalists as its divinely ordained leaders. Out of the presumption of "Christian nationhood" flows much of the divisive language calculated to marginalize and disenfranchise all who hold divergent beliefs, frequently demeaned by such epithets as "amoral," "unpatriotic" and "anti-Christian," or even "pagan" and "satanic." Wrapping themselves in the mantle of Christian persecution, the political right wages an offensive against every aspect of liberal democracy.

Perversion of language extends far beyond religious or partisan litmus tests, as meaning itself has been upended toward the purge of political opposition. Since the ‘70s, think tanks have spun issues to demonize and stigmatize disfavored groups, and to effectively stifle opposing voices. A chilling effect is cast over free and open dialogue and inquiry.

The political right push to restore nineteenth century religious, corporate and male-dominant hierarchies influences every aspect of culture, from social and economic contracts, to science, health, education, defense and environment. Theirs is the historic precedence of patriarchy, reinforcing protection of male prerogatives and female punishments. The resurrected 'science' of biodeterminism implies opportunities limited by gender and ethnicity. Language in service of dominance advances white heterosexual male hegemony and subordinate status for women and minorities. In classic dysfunctional mode, players will turn on a linguistic dime 180 degrees to achieve the moment’s purpose—the ultimate goal being the retention of power by any means necessary, even betrayal of the very moral precepts upon which one professes to stand.

The surging tides of contemporary culture wars erode civic discourse and threaten to submerge U.S. democracy.


It did not take long before investigation into religious discrimination at the Air Force Academy drew accusations of "reverse discrimination" against Christians. Rep. John Hostettler (R-Ind) lashed out at Democrats whose proposed bill condemned "abusive religious proselytizing" at the Academy in the wake of accounts of anti-Semitic slurs directed at a Jewish cadet; a chaplain urging condemnation of fellow cadets "who are not born again...[destined to] burn in hell"; and a another branded "a heathen" for failure to attend religious services. Further commanding spiritual allegiance, the football coach strung a banner in the locker room reading "I am a member of Team Jesus Christ." Railing against "those who would eradicate any vestige of our Christian heritage," Hostettler accused Democrats of "denigrating and demonizing Christians," part of "the long war on Christianity in America."

The right-wing feint of "Christian persecution," like that of "liberal media," serves as distraction from the fact that the culture battle in America has been fomented by biblical literalists against mainstream Christians, adherents of other religions and secularists. Religious ultraconservatives have taken the offensive against disfavored groups and belief systems, even as they portray themselves besieged. For over three decades, partisans on the right have refined wedge politics, aggressively spinning language into Orwellian distortions and mind-bending inconsistencies, while applying selective religious litmus tests — a cumulative effort to render silent and irrelevant any opposition. Even as David Horowitz advances his Academic Bill of Rights for "more tolerance on campus," his group, Students for Academic Freedom, has actively sought to ban from the University of North Carolina reading list Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America — judged by the right "anti-Christian" because it alludes to "liberation theology;" and "anti-capitalist" because it "blames corporations" for the plight of the poor in America.

Framing issues to disempower historically marginalized groups, the right brands women "murderers," gays "pedophiles," immigrants "criminals," and public schools "unconstitutional and unbiblical." As occurred during the welfare reform debate, poverty, abuse and injustice are dismissed, and all problems imputed to the moral failure of women and minorities. On PBS Think Tank in 1996, Independence Institute fellow David Kopel pronounced gun control laws "dangerous" because they divert attention from welfare and single parenthood as the "primary cause of crime." Tom DeLay directly linked school shootings to birth control, small families, daycare, working women, teaching evolution, and the absence of prescribed school prayer. Blanket indictments of marginalized groups for societal ills have historically served the dual purpose of oppressing the powerless while preserving dominant power structures.

Further demeaning and diminishing women,1998 Arkansas Republican Senate candidate Fay Boozman recirculated popular right-wing apocryha, asserting that females cannot become pregnant from rape. An eye surgeon, Boozman posits that fear triggers a chemical reaction that raises "God’s protective little shield" against conception. The pernicious lie that "fear prevents ovulation" conveniently blames women for their own abuse - another conceit that has historically protected perpetrators and oppressors.

Linguistic treachery generates charges of "class warfare" in response to any mention of huge tax breaks for the rich or increased tax burdens on the working class. The contemporary transfer of massive wealth in the U.S., with the implied imperative of the rich to drive the poor into extinction is a vestige of nineteenth century socioeconomic Darwinism. Ultraconservative goals mirror those of Howard Phillips Christian Reconstructionists—to ‘defund the left" and abolish all social programs. An architect of annual Bush administration tax cuts for the wealthy, Grover Norquist shares the ambition to gut all social programs dating to the New Deal, an end he gleefully anticipates will precipitate states’ descent into bankruptcy and chaos.

Distorted populism that vilifies liberalism and government is traceable to the 1968 presidential campaign of George Wallace, who also equated social change and civil rights advances with moral corruption. The overt racism of 1970s political ads in the south that named Democrats the party of "high taxes, crime and domination by blacks," waxed more subtle as taxes became code for any minority-associated government program.

The litany of alleged Christian oppression is expansive— birth control and non-reproductive sex that "eliminates our posterity"; gun laws, AIDS research, environmental protections or international cooperation; public schools, the United Nations, teaching evolution, sex education, or "nonbiblical" roles for men and women—in brief, any perceived challenge to the ultraconservative agenda is named an assault on America’s "Christian heritage." Wrapping religion around politics renders any disagreement an attack on the faithful. Wielding "with-us-or-against-us" rhetoric as a tool of suppression, Pat Robertson invokes the wrath of God against such "demonic spirits" as "abortionists, gays and Democrats." Ralph Reed— strong advocate of stealth tactics who vows opponents "will be in body bags before they know what hit them"— rails against "left-wing unions, gays and feminists."

Elaborating on the "good conservative-bad liberal" dichotomy on California radio in early 2005, Sen. Orrin Hatch, railed against liberal money - large sums of cash allocated to leftist causes by the likes of George Soros. Without a trace of irony, Hatch mocked "liberal inheritors of wealth who never worked a day in their lives." The subversion of language and religion maligns civil rights gains and religious freedoms that exemplify liberalism at the heart of democracy. "It is liberalism which brought us a pact with the devil," Newt Gingrich assured a 1995 Christian Coalition gathering. Gary Bauer ascribes moral decline to "tolerance promoted by a liberal agenda." Liberals "aided by Satan" have taken control of government, media and education, echoed Pat Robertson during a frenzied fundraising appeal to his faithful.

Naming other faiths "demonic and satanic," and church-state separation "a lie of the left," Robertson has likened Christian oppression in the U.S. to that of Jews in Hitler’s Germany. The literalist "World" magazine denounced pluralism, multiculturalism, tolerance, equality and religious freedom as "rejections of a biblical ordering" of society— shorthand for nineteenth century white Christian male-dominant hierarchies. Multiculturalism denigrates men of European descent and "western Christian culture," affirmed Robertson. The absence of biblical Christian teaching in public schools is reason for their elimination, pronounced Jerry Falwell.

Among Robertson’s faithful, tolerance for other religions is named "intolerance for Christianity." Gay civil rights have been called an "infringement of the freedom of religion." Colorado Gov. Bill Owens vetoed a bill in 2005 that would have simply informed rape victims about emergency contraception, characterizing it "a violation of beliefs" of church-owned hospitals. Clearly, such linguistic jujitsu aims to elevate the beliefs of one sect over all others, eviscerating constitutional protections of individual rights, as well as boundaries of the unique domains of religion and government.

Rev. D. James Kennedy’s Coral Ridge Ministries published a 1997 expose’ of the "unjust judiciary," titled "Out of Order: How Courts Steal the Rights of People." In its pages, former Nixon aide Chuck Colson protested that courts deny Christians the right "to force their views, their religious convictions or their philosophies on all other members of a democratic society." Demanding disobedience, if not outright revolution, in order to topple man-made laws in violation of "biblical moral law," the document included law professor Russell Hittinger’s admonition that it may become necessary to intentionally advance select issues for the purpose of precipitating a constitutional crisis.

The right’s imperative: change government or abolish it. Reading biblical allegory as history, and defining America’s destiny in terms of end times battles between good and evil, Robertson describes the mission of his Christian Broadcasting Network: To establish "God’s government" in preparation for Christ’s second coming. Theologian Walter Capps relates that Francis Schaeffer, a doctrinal father of the fundamentalist right, rewrote western intellectual history to align the intent of the founding fathers with the Reformation, the New Testament and the political goals of the modern religious right.

Schaeffer, Robertson and Colson describe two world views that "cannot coexist"—that of Biblical literalists vs. Enlightenment secularists. Robertson predicts full-blown civil war if evangelicals fail to establish control by "God’s people"over government and all institutions. In the right’s pitched battle for control of America, tolerance is deemed a betrayal of biblical truth. Contrasting President John Adams’ statement of American creed— "to be just and good"— social justice and good works for their own sake are regarded heretical except as a means to the ends of proselytizing. Forbidding Christian proselytization, advises Robertson, is like "failing to inform a patient he has cancer."

Tim LaHaye (co-author of the Left Behind books) is among the orthodox demanding replacement of all humanists in public office with "pro-moral political leaders." Christian Reconstructionists who have defined church-based politics since the ‘60s, regard only select white Christian males God’s "true heirs," worthy to vote or hold office. The deceased patriarch of Christian Reconstrucionism, Rousas Rushdoony renounced democracy as "heresy." Nixon’s administrator of OEO, Christian Reconstructionist and Moral Majority co-founder Howard Phillips invokes "traditional family" as euphemism for return to "one-family-one-vote."

Fundamentalists of all religions struggle against any suggestion of progressivism. Many appropriate their sacred texts to advance exclusionary agendas, often reading them as political directives for destroying one’s enemies. Taking its protest to different cities, "Operation Save America" (formerly Operation Rescue), has expanded its religious war from anti-abortion, anti-gay activism to picketing Mosques. Prominent among their signs: "Islam is a Lie" and "Muhammad is Dead." A statement on its Web site equates non-Christian religions with "moral depravity and religious heresy." It reads, in part, "In this day of religious pluralism where all "gods" are to be tolerated, we Christians are called to draw a line in the sand...Jesus Christ alone is God and apart from Him there is no other...Islam and Christianity cannot peacefully coexist. They are at war (Genesis 3:15)...There is no common ground between the two any more than there is common ground between Christianity and abortion or Christianity and homosexuality."

Globally, various fundamentalists reject principles of democracy, tolerance, equality, women’s rights, and modern science. Each fundamentalist sect regards itself alone divinely ordained to rule and reign, and many actively work to advance apocalyptic conflict. The persistent demonization of different religions and secularists portends the continued cycling of sectarian conflict. Corrupted language and distorted religion are at the heart of contemporary culture wars, contributing to vastly degraded public dialogue that undermines democracy. As Fareed Zakaria described in The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad, it is no longer sufficient to make the world safe for democracy— it has become necessary to make democracy safe for the world.