Prophet Pat?: Buchanan Predicted The Current Wave Of Odious Initiatives

It has been nearly 20 years since I did a near-daily three-hour radio show for NBC with conservative pundit Pat Buchanan. It was done in the format of “Crossfire” but without quite the intensity since yelling for three hours is, well, six times more difficult than doing it for 30 minutes. 

As you may correctly assume, our worldviews were worlds, if not universes, apart.  I remember only one or two issues that we agreed on.

One day after the 1993 election, I came into the studio aglow with the final results of a referendum to permit use of California taxpayer funds for an ill-conceived (aren’t they all?) school voucher program. This is a subject we had discussed with some frequency on the show. 

Ironically, Buchanan had been an arch opponent of vouchers and then had a sudden and supportive change of heart. I did love to find old anti-voucher quotes of his to throw back at him, of course. 

That afternoon, though, he congratulated me – and all opponents – on our anti-voucher victory, but then added, somewhat ominously, “Someday conservatives will learn to fight on lots of fronts at the same time, and then we’ll ‘initiative’ you guys to death.” (I don’t think he thought that was a real verb.)

Buchanan explained that if people had to spend money in the same year fighting school vouchers, school prayer and reproductive rights limitations, in addition to other “liberal” non-religious controversies, we’d have to raise a vastly greater amount of money and use up far more energy.

Pat eventually went off to run for president (like the California voucher initiative, without success).  In this election cycle, though, it seems like his initiative campaign idea may be taking off. 

Who knows, it could have been a few listeners from 19 years ago who are now in a position to do something about Buchanan’s strategy. People still come up to me occasionally who first heard of me from that radio show. You just never know.

Whatever the genesis, some pretty terrible ideas are floating around the initiative world these days. One has been resolved already in North Dakota.  It was called “Measure 3” (which sounds like the title of a bad science fiction movie) and was claimed to protect “religious liberty,” something, of course, already protected by both the North Dakota and U.S. constitutions.  It stated without nuance or equivocation that the state could not burden in any way any conscientiously held religious belief of an individual or an organization absent a compelling government interest. 

Most states that have proposals like this require a demonstration of a “substantial” burden and specifically note that the law cannot be invoked when the religious practice impedes the safety or civil rights of others. This vaguely worded mess – opposed by all five major newspapers in the state – would lead to endless litigation about religiously motivated child neglect, violence against domestic partners or even marriage with minors. (As this issue went to press, we learned that Measure 3 failed! More on that next month.)

Next up is an ominous proposal in Missouri to amend the state constitution to protect prayer in public places and make other changes to educational practice.  Obviously, school children can pray in a non-disruptive manner right now if school officials don’t set the time, place, manner or content of that prayer. So this is more about creating a so-called “right” to pray in government meetings in an orchestrated fashion. 

And let’s not forget that another provision actually provides students with a right to not participate in assignments that violate their religious beliefs. I can already hear: “Mr. Geometry Teacher, I refuse to take any tests because according to I Kings 7:23, pi is equal to 3, but you claim in an unbiblical fashion that is it an infinite number starting with 3.1415.…”

With this on the plate, an 800-pound gorilla is on the threshold of the initiative movement also, a behemoth in Florida.  Proposed Amendment 8 would completely eliminate the current (most recently affirmed in 1968) constitutional proviso prohibiting use of state tax dollars “directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution.”  

The language it would add is clearly designed to support any and all Florida voucher plans and lead to widespread funding of religious social services, even those that allow the open display of religious icons and scripture, discriminate in hiring employees and refuse service to beneficiaries who don’t see eye-to-eye with the service provider on religious rules or rituals.

If initiatives remain the trend, maybe we’ll have to start putting up some of our own:  “Only sound science will be taught in the state of ‘fill in the blank.’”  Or “No state funds may be given to any pervasively sectarian institution or to any church where the pastor has more than one mansion and one Rolls Royce.” 

You get the picture. Maybe a few of those Pat Buchanan-era radio listeners I still run into who liked my side of the argument should get started drafting now.

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