BROTHERS AND SISTERS, this column is about the New Time Religion. It is about the religion of the television preachers and the new funamentalists and all the people who gathered in Dallas recently to denounce, in no particular order, homosexuals, the school prayer ban, abortion, divorce, evolution and, for good measure, the 20th century. I am having a hard time distinguishing between the New Time Religion and the Old Oppression.
There always has been a high quotient of intolerance associated with most religions. Religion, in fact, doesn't have a very good record when it comes to tolerating dissent or minority rights. Almost by definition, religions think they have The Truth. They like things done their way or not at all. I cite, by way of evidence, the Inquisition, the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation and, for good measure and to keep my mail to a minimum, the way Orthodox Jewish groups have a stranglehold over some aspects of life in Israel.
It seems it is not enough for someone to believe. He has to make sure that you believe also or, barring that, that you at least act as if you believe. It not necessary, for instance, to believe in closing stores on Sunday. What counts is to have a law insisting on it. In that way, you have no choice but to be observant.
Similarly, it seems it is not enough to have constitutional neutrality when it comes to religion. That means, when it comes to school prayer, that a religious person can pray whenever he or she wants. You can pray in the morning or at lunch or on some sort of break or silently to yourself.
That is not enough for the new fundamentalists. What apparently is required is a law that would force everyone to pray, whether they want to or not. This, we are told, is God's will.
Much of the New Religion falls into this category. Prohibiting abortion for religious reasons might sound like the morally wonderful thing to do. But to those who disagree, it means simply denying women the right to have some control over their own bodies.
As for homosexuality, it is more of the same. The new religionists talk about the matter as if they were not referring to the civil rights of their fellow man. Just who gets hurt by homosexuality (who's the victim of this "crime?") is not at all clear. What is clear is that the fundamentalist preachers who would like to deny homosexuals jobs, housing and other rights have gone from religion to civil liberties without so much as pausing for a second thought.
The fundamentalists would be ominous enough on their own, but they are demonstrably not on their own. It is, instead, the religious arm of the Republican Party, which now comes to us complete with candidate, platform and theology. Ronald Reagan lends his support and his presence to preachers who excorciate homosexuals for being, of all things and through no fault of their own, homosexuals.
Reagan's got his role all wrong. The obligation of a political leader, especially one who wants to be president, is to remind these preachers that they have to be mindful of the civil rights of others.They owe others the same respect they themselves seek. They are entitled to their beliefs, but they are not entitled to take away someone's right to a livelihood or his right to live where he pleases.
But from Reagan and the Republican Party we get no such criticism. We get no reminder that there is in America a place for religion and a place where religion does not belong -- government, for instance. Instead, we get the smiling face of Reagan on the stage at Dallas, his applause being upstaged only by his silly and intellectually vacuous statements about the reservations he has about the theory of evolution.
It may not be entirely fair to single out Reagan. Other politicians have come and paid court to the spokesmen for the New Religion, and it is still not clear whether Jimmy Carter stayed away from Dallas because he was troubled by its message or simply because he was not particularly wanted. Whatever his reason, he has been a lot better than Reagan at understanding that there is a distinction between his personal beliefs and policy -- that his literal truth may not be everyone's.
What is the literal truth, though, is that in this country we have made room for lots of literal truths -- for the truths of Catholics and Mormons and Christian Scientists and Moslems and Protestants and Jews and any group you can name. We have been good about not imposing one version of the truth on everyone else -- in respecting the difference between permitting religion and enforcing religion.
The spokesmen for the New Religion would like to cross that line. This would be worse than a mistake. It would be a sin.