People calling themselves Christians are gathering once again for a crusade against what they consider to be the secular humanist subversion of Christian values. This time the object of their wrath is the judiciary. In the wake of the fanatical and fruitless assaults against the judicial system for letting Terri Schiavo die, the Family Research Council will convene tomorrow what it calls "Justice Sunday," a live simulcast to pit Christian values against "our out-of-control courts."
The burgeoning assault on the American judicial system by right-wing Christians is an integral part of their attack on "godless" secular humanism. According to them, secular humanists nurture a culture that promotes abortion; encourages gay marriage; prohibits prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance in permissive schools that indoctrinate students with Darwin's "theory" of evolution; preaches moral relativism; and generally threatens to subvert the Christian foundations of the republic.
What these self-avowed Christians do not acknowledge -- and what the American public seems little aware of -- is that the war they are waging is actually against other people calling themselves Christians. To simplify: Right-wing and fundamentalist Christians are really at war with left-wing and mainstream Christians. It is a battle over both the meaning and practice of Christianity as well as over the definition and destiny of the republic. Secular humanism is a bogeyman, a smoke screen obscuring the right-wing Christians' struggle for supremacy.
The assault on the judiciary is especially revealing. The vicious attacks on Judge George Greer, the Florida jurist who presided over the Schiavo case, reveal the bizarre nature of right-wing Christian fantasies. A regular recipient of hate mail and threats against his life that required him to walk to court with an armed marshal, Judge Greer is a lifelong Southern Baptist, a regular in church and a conservative Republican. None of those credentials protected him from the assaults of fellow Christians, including messages saying he would go straight to Hell. What he found "exasperating," he told a journalist, "is that my faith is based on forgiveness because that's what God did. . . . When I see people in my faith being extremely judgmental, it's very disconcerting."
Nearly all of the demonized judges are, in fact, practicing Christians, not secular humanists. Perhaps half of them are Republican appointees, and at least that many regard themselves as conservatives. In addition to Greer, most of the judges of the 11th Circuit who upheld his rulings, as well as most of the Supreme Court justices who declined to intervene, consider themselves Christian. And so it goes around the country, even including many, if not most, of the judges in the California-based 9th Circuit, the regular object of President Bush's ridicule. And, lest we forget, Charles Darwin himself was a serious Christian.
The history of a Christian church divided against itself is a long and bloody one. People calling themselves Christians have stood for war and peace, subjugation and brotherhood, communism and capitalism, privilege and equality, enslavement and liberty, imperialism and isolation.
That is one reason Thomas Jefferson insisted on religious liberty in the new republic. In his Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, he wrote that "millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch toward uniformity."
The present war within the Christian fold is perhaps more threatening to the republic than any of the previous intramural disputes. Right-wing religious zealots, working in partnership with the secularists who have advised President Bush, are a threat to the most fundamental of American principles. The founders of our nation welcomed and planned for spirited debate over public policies, including the role of the judiciary. But as sons of the Enlightenment, they looked to found a republic in which the outcome of those debates would turn on reason and evidence, not on disputed religious dogma. They planned wisely for principles that are now under wide assault.
All Americans, of whatever religious or non-religious persuasion, need to be on the alert to preserve those principles. The burden falls especially heavily on the mainstream Christians who are slowly awakening to the gravity of the challenge facing them. Too long tolerant of their brethren, too much given to forgiveness rather than to confrontation, they need to mount a spirited, nationwide response to what constitutes a dangerous distortion of Christian truths and a frightening threat to the republic they love.
The writer is professor emeritus of southern and civil rights history at the University of Virginia.