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January 4-10, 2006

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Open Mic

American Mullahs

By Rusty Klassen

IN RECENT YEARS, it has become fashionable, if not prerequisite, for politicians to declare their faith. George Bush announced his all-time favorite philosopher to be Jesus. Bill Frist panders to pressure from charismatic bankrollers by diagnosing via video exam, thus providing vote-worthy evidence of his faith in divine guidance. Elected officials are all sharp elbows in the rush to parade what, until recently, would have been discreetly held personal beliefs.

While busily excusing the existence of bald moral depravities like outsourced torture enclaves, extremist Christian social engineers hammer out faith-based screeds justifying a sort of King James interpretation of the Constitution. Divinely inspired presidential jingoisms such as "Bring 'em on" and "Stay the course" are offered up as a legitimate substitute for considered leadership and enduring policy.

Organizations with flag-branded names like the American Way ardently propagandize Christian-canted social and domestic agendas. In turn, these positions are forwarded in Congress by ex-wrestlers and indicted former termite inspectors—recently declared true believers, all—who specialize in the use of pork and menace as persuasive bludgeons.

And what of Congress? Congress is becoming the province of pious lackwits who believe the Patriot Act's catastrophic corrosion of democratic principles is warranted to ensure liberty—a liberty that is, diabolically, jeopardized by just such freedom-undermining concessions to terrorist intimidations as . . . well, the Patriot Act, for one.

Fundamentalist convictions have also propelled recent court decisions allowing the use of federal monies by religious institutions. Such rulings violate the intent of the Establishment Clause, while other intrusive findings in cases relating to personal preferences put the court in the business of legislating morals as they create classes of citizenry.

So here's a question: Are Americans witnessing the rise of a homegrown religious hierarchy that aims to install the same sort of rigid moral intolerance that we decry in the Islamic world? What is the practical difference between our emerging theocracy and a government whose political agenda is set, approved and forwarded by Ayatollahs and Mullahs? We are ardently heading toward a government whose laws are proposed and enacted by legislators acting as political mechanics, dispatched to enact rulings authored by and favorable to the Christian fundamentalists supporting them.

We have a drastic problem, and it's time we confront the plain reality that our democratic process is being suborned through the dedicated efforts of fundamentalist zealots. If the extremist Christian's myopic, ethically ossified vision of personal liberty is realized, what separates us from the enemy we decry and defame? What would keep our society from mirroring the socially moribund, misogynist, Islamic church states we declare antidemocratic? Ready for the answer? Nothing.

And that brings us to inquire about the costs of allowing this trend toward radical sectarianism to continue. Here's one possibility: Persistent, successful efforts by congressional, executive and judicial activists to impose Christian moral and ethical standards on a religiously and ethnically diverse populace cannot help but lead to rising domestic conflict (see France, circa yesterday). Lasting damage to the legitimacy of our claim to being a nation dedicated to tolerance and inclusion (as well as the beacon of democracy) is sure to result if we continue moving in this direction.

This dangerously polarizing drift toward sectarian governance must stop. Our historical course as a nation is brightly illuminated by the clear separation of church and state enunciated in the Constitution. The Establishment Clause is not second in the list of amendments by chance. The founders knew firsthand that a disastrous loss of individual rights and liberties was associated with a conflation of church and state interests. That reality was part of what propelled the Pilgrims' flight from England.

Respect for all citizens regardless of race or creed, the pursuit of life liberty and happiness—those are the core promises held out by our unique foundational proposition. Ours is a nation whose special character is defined by the Constitution and Bill of Rights, not the sectarian dogma offered up by the New Testament or morally whimsical television evangelists.

We are a secular nation, proud of our heritage as a country of laws. The right to freely and fully express one's religious conviction, or lack of it, is an anchoring tenet of the American experience. Imposing any faith-based moral or ethical mold on the direction of society is specifically prohibited. It is vital to the health of our nation that we disallow the insidious trend toward sectarianism presently developing at all levels of government. If we are to remain a society of, by and for the people, governance must never be of, by or from the pulpit.

Rusty Klassen's upcoming book is 'One Small Thing: Practicing Generosity.' The Byrne Report will return next week.

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