God And Government: A New Book That Trumps The Religious Right

Seeking to escape 24/7 news coverage of Donald Trump, my wife and I recently fled to a local cinema to watch an indie film called “The End of the Tour.”

It’s about the five days that Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky spent with famous novelist David Foster Wallace at the end of the author’s Midwestern tour for his best-selling novel Infinite Jest. At one bookstore, Wallace asked the proprietor, “Could we just not do Q & A?” When Lipsky looked baffled, Wallace added, “The first question is always the same: Where do you get your ideas?”

Talk about timely. My new book, God And Government, is just out. It’s non-fiction, so my ideas come from reality. Yes, some of the tales in the book sound unbelievable, but that is only because folks in the Religious Right often come across as living in Oz or some alternate universe.

On Aug. 10, I did a reading at a bookstore called Busboys and Poets in Washington, D.C.  I told the audience that I had foolishly thought that by updating, expanding and editing previously written materials and then seamlessly melding it through what I call “connective tissue,” the volume would be much easier to complete. Two missed deadlines later the preposterousness of that idea became clear.

Don’t get me wrong. I really like the finished product. I am just not recommending this approach to every budding memoirist.

I wanted to be sure to include a 2002 speech about 10 reasons to be suspicious of the Religious Right (excerpted in this issue) to see if much had actually changed. And guess what? Not much has changed. I am still wary of this movement for the same kinds of reasons.

For starters, I remain suspicious of their grasp of history. I was recently kayaking in Calvert County, Md., one of the state’s most conservative areas, and floated past a property with a large Confederate flag with an image of Jesus sewn into the middle. And I’m pretty sure that landowner is convinced that Jesus helped the South win the Civil War.

Second cause for alarm: lack of knowledge of biology. AU is still battling a creationist group in Kentucky that insists it is entitled to tax breaks to operate a Noah’s Ark-themed park that will include a replica of that famous boat populated by humans, dinosaurs and possibly unicorns.

Now, this ministry in 2007 constructed the Creation Museum with private dollars. Why can’t it do that again? (The museum originally had videos depicting famous scenes from the Bible including Adam and Eve, but then it came to light that the role of Adam was being played by a gay male porn model.) 

Third, I’m weary of claims by conservative politicians that their candidacies have been blessed by God. Megyn Kelly of Fox News tried to get at some of this in the first GOP debate but only got squishy answers where previously candidates had been a lot clearer.

Ben Carson had told an interviewer that he felt “fingers from God” when he decided to run. John Kasich told “Meet the Press” in April that he was “pondering what the Lord wants me to do with my life.” Ted Cruz’s father told him “God has destined you for greatness.” That’s just three out of 17 in one party. At a minimum, at least two have already had a “failure to communicate.”

Finally, I remain skeptical of the Religious Right’s understanding of theology and its relation to the law. Americans United has a new project called Protect Thy Neighbor designed to fight back against those who seek religious exceptions to civil-rights laws in a way to hurt other people. Remember the pizzeria owners in Indiana who said they would serve slices to a gay couple that came to the store but would refuse to cater pizza at their wedding? How in the world should the American legal system adjust to a belief that two slices are morally acceptable, but 200 slices are morally wrong?

So, the examples may change but the fundamental problems remain the same.

But my book isn’t a “doom and gloom” volume. Some issues are losing steam. School prayer amendments are still introduced but go nowhere in Congress. Similarly, since our victory against “intelligent design” in the 2005 Dover, Pa., case, many states seem reluctant to repeat that stunt. This doesn’t mean the tide is permanently out; it just means we only need extraordinary vigilance every month instead of daily.

More of my guarded optimism comes from polling data about millennials. Even among evangelical millennials there is significantly more openness to marriage equality, contraception availability and evidence for evolution. (It is “guarded” only because of the truly pathetic turnout of these folks in the mid-term elections.)

This column was written on an airplane during a quick trip to Los Angeles. I happened to glance across the aisle and saw a fellow watching “The Daily Show” on a tablet. The host was poking fun at Trump by blowing on the fly-away hair of one of those plastic troll dolls that were so popular in the 1970s.

Sometimes there is simply no escape!
 

Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.