This is Part 3. Part 1 is here, and Part 2 is here. This part deals with a political organization that works on church/state separation issues, so if discussion of these issues leaves you inclined to attack strawmen and insult blog writers, do us both a favor and skip the damn entry.
…so far we have my father, the Society for California Archaeology, the Student Conservation Association, and the Society for Creative Anachronism. Now onto the next S.C.A. with which I have become affiliated – the Secular Coalition of America.
Interestingly, my willingness to pitch in with this S.C.A. is partially linked to my experience with a previous S.C.A. – The Student Conservation Association. As I described, my time on the Air Force Base left me feeling rather disturbed at the degree to which that particular government agency was in the hands of a particular brand of hard-right wing Christianity. This coupled with my growing unease at the Bush administration’s willingness to cater to the same group, and the realization that both members of congress from both parties seemed to want to follow suit in order to gain votes.
Now, so that the easily-offended or presumptious don't assert that I hold a position that I do not hold, I'll discuss my concern a bit more thoroughly. Beginning with the 70’s, the group that has become known as the Religious Right – a minority group within Christianity, but one that has been very active in using political rhetoric and targeted voter drives to push their particular agenda - became active as a political force. Their effectiveness is well open to debate, and they have been used by politicians at least as often as they have used politicians (and arguably, the politicians have typically gotten the better of them). However, they are tenacious, and had managed to get some traction with the Bush administration - things such as the presidents regular discussions with a particular set of religious leaders, the Office of Faith Based Initiatives (which has proven to have a rather questionable track record), and the push to have laws passed that allow medical providers to refuse care for religious reasons* all come from this rather weird alliance.
Whatever their political gains or losses, the loosely-associated group of people, churches, and political groups known as the Religious Right have been very effective in promoting the notion among much of the population that they ARE Christianity. This is, of course, bunk. As with any huge number of people, there is so much variation amongst Christians that the notion that one particular sub-set or agenda can represent all or even most of them is absurd. However, the various entities comprising the Religious Right have nonetheless been so successful in branding themselves as the “defenders of Christianity” that even some Christians who disagree with them feel that they still have to vote in a particular way in order to remain “real” Christians (I have no idea how many Christians end up feeling this way, but I do know that it is not uncommon, based on conversations I have had with a large number of Christians who have made statements to that effect). This has also had the effect of convincing many non-Christians that Christians are generally judgmental, legalistic, hypocritical, and weirdly obsessed with the sex lives of others. Needless to say, such misconceptions run counter to the interest of the majority of Christians.
Concurrent with the appearance of the religious right as a political force, secular groups also began to appear. Contrary to the claims put forth by many of the more vocal Religious Right individuals and organizations, the secular groups have generally been both reactive and one step behind their opponents.
Like many people, I had stopped believing in any religion long ago, but paid religion itself little mind until the early 2000’s. Many folks would cite the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks as the catalysts that got them to be more critical of religion. This was not, however, the case for me. While I can not claim that they had no impact, what really hit me was the reaction from many of the vocal and politically active Religious Right groups and people AFTER the attacks.
To be certain, the majority of religious groups did not engage in divisive and needlessly inflammatory behavior in the aftermath**, but many did. We saw blame placed on everyone from Muslims at large to atheists to feminists to gays, with the accusers all conveniently ignoring the very real intersection of politics with history with economics with a particular brand of religion that actually caused the events. And what I began to notice was that I was seeing many examples of prominent would-be theocrats using these events, with varying degrees of success, to try to forward their own agenda. It is fortunate, perhaps, that they usually attached themselves to tried-and-true politicians who would use their support to get elected and then not follow through on their promises, either real or implied.
This caused me to become more concerned about church/state separation. One doesn’t need to be much of a student of history to know that government establishment of religious orthodoxy, whether through force or simply favoritism, tends to cause problems not only for the non-religious, but also for the religious that do not fall within that orthodoxy. And as most religious people don’t fall within the rigid orthodoxies that governments have often demanded, it is best for government to not endorse one for the benefit of everyone (the exception being the rather weak and milquetoast national churches of modern Europe, which were themselves often quite vicious before their de-fanging in the 19th and 20th centuries – look up the history of England if you doubt that). My experiences on the Air Force Base and the concurrent proseletyzing scandal at the Air Force Academy crystalized this concern, and led to me thinking more seriously about the nature of our politicl system.
Around this time, the next S.C.A. – the Secular Coalition for America – formed. It works as an umbrella organization for church/state separation organizations, and was able to put a lobbyist (now two) on Capitol Hill. Contrary to what many pundits like to claim, the S.C.A. is not anti-religious – in fact it spends a lot of time working with overtly religious groups that are in-touch enough with reality to see the necessity of enforcing the establishment clause – but it does actively lobby against government-enforced or government-espoused religion.
Like any political group, they take positions that I disagree with from time-to-time, or they choose to fight battles that I think are silly or inconsequential. However, the majority of the time, they do what I believe to be the right thing. Also, the S.C.A.’s model of working with religious groups to achieve common ends for the common interest is one that I think other secular organizations could learn a good deal from.
So, I support this organization with donations and, more importantly, by writing to my congressional representatives when issues that I feel are important come up. The ultimate value of this is simple – when the only people speaking out on issues are from the Religious Right, that’s who the elected officials tend to support. When people, religious and non-religious alike, who oppose those views speak up, we have a good chance of preventing poor policy.
So, check out the S.C.A., and while we’re at it, here’s the lobbyist, Lori Lippman-Brown, being interviewed by Stephen Colbert – trying to tempt him into illicit sex no-less!
...and in episodes 46, 53, 59, 68, 81, 89 of Skepticality she is interviewed.
While I can not claim to be completely satisfied with the S.C.A.'s work, I do think that they are doing a good job and that they tend to be realistic in their approach. I am, overall, supportive, and whether you are religious or not, you should check them out - odds are that if you have a good grasp on history and politics, and are reasonably intelligent, you'll also appreciate their work.
*No doubt somebody is going to start telling me that medical care providers should be allowed to refuse certain procedures and treatments based on their beliefs. In most professions, I would agree, but because medical care providers are often in shorts supply AND have very specialized knowledge that is not readily available elsewhere and difficult for the layman to clearly assess AND because we as a society invest them with a good amount of authority that most other people do not have AND because the structure of our health care system is such that second opinions can be difficult to come by, well, they are something of a special case, and should not be allowed to withhold, not discuss, or manipulate treatment by anything other than scientific medical standards. This is different than most other professions – including my own – where practitioners are relatively common, the work we do accessible enough for the layman to grasp, we are invested with relatively little authority, and we don’t alter the health or lives of others – and therefore we don’t need to be held to the same standards.
**Although even those who were generally doing good still went to some default assumptions that were, in light of what had just happened, very strange. I recall seeing an interview with a Catholic priest on September 12th. He was being interviewed as he was on his way to the site of the World Trade Center to help out – and admirable activity all the way around – and he was asked why he was going. He stated “I represent the opposite of what happened here. I represent faith.”
Now, he could have said that he represents peace, or that he represents love, or that he represents compassion, and I would have agreed and been right there with him, he was going in a hard time to try to do good and that was absolutely commendable. But faith is the opposite of what happened? Whatever else can be said about the guys who rammed the plane into the building, they absolutely had faith. That faith and conviction was in the service of a murderous and evil cause, but it was, nonetheless, faith and conviction. Faith was an element of what had happened, not the opposite of what had happened.