Fighting Words—A Toolkit for Combating the Religious Right
Do you gnash your teeth, shout at your TV set, feel yourself wearying from the dogged assaults of our homegrown American Taliban?
After all, news items like the following have now become commonplace:
● Citing “religious reasons,” some pharmacists now refuse to fill prescriptions for emergency “morning after” contraception, flatly (and illegally) turning away their female customers—including survivors of sexual assault.
● Air Force Captain Melinda Morton, a Lutheran executive chaplain at the Air Force Academy in Colorado, resigns her commission after being fired for whistle-blowing about “strident evangelicalism” infecting the religious climate at the Academy, where fifty-five complaints about religious discrimination have been lodged in the past four years. “Evangelicalism is the official religion of the U.S. Air Force Academy,” Morton warns.
● Georgia has become the first state to approve the use of the Bible as a public school core textbook. Alabama and Missouri are looking into similar measures.
Americans who revere the Constitution of the United States and believe in the strict separation of religion and government are in a state of deepening shock and growing anxiety. They include religiously observant people of every faith, as well as agnostics and atheists. Most Americans fear, sensibly, that the ultra-conservative religious right is gaining historic political power via a glib, well-organized, media-savvy movement with powerful friends in high places.
But average Americans lack the tools to argue against the religious right. We don’t know that the Founders were secular radicals: “Question with boldness even the existence of a god” (Thomas Jefferson). “Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind” (James Madison). “I doubt of Revelation” (Benjamin Franklin). “My own mind is my church” (Thomas Paine). Major American figures of both genders and every ethnicity—in politics, literature, the arts, science, law, philosophy, social-justice movements, even in the clergy itself—have strongly affirmed the separation of church and state. Here is a sampler of quotes from some distinguished female Americans.
Paul Gunn Allen 1939- (Pueblo-Sioux poet, Native American activist): For the American Indian, the ability of all creatures to share in the process of ongoing creation makes all things sacred.
Susan B. Anthony 1820-1906 (women’s suffrage leader, reformer): I was born a heretic. I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do, because I notice it always coincides with their own desires.
Pearl Buck 1892-1973 (writer): I am so absorbed in the wonder of earth and the life upon it that I cannot think of heaven and the angels.
Mary Daly 1928- (philosopher): “God’s plan” is often a front for men’s plans and a cover for inadequacy, ignorance, and evil.
Emily Dickinson 1830-1886 (poet): Some keep the Sabbath going to Church— I keep it staying at home— With a bobolink for a Chorister— And an orchard for a Dome.
Matilda Joslyn Gage 1826-1898 (suffragist, author of Woman, Church, and State): Of late, a rapidly increasing tendency has been shown towards the destruction of our civil liberties. . . . The government is undergoing changes which are signs of danger. They [the people] forget that liberty must ever be guarded. They forget the hereditary enslavement, the bondage of the human will to the church. (Speech at the Women’s National Liberal Convention, 1890)
Charlotte Perkins Gilman 1860-1935 (author, Woman and Economics and His Religion and Hers): [Let us inquire] what glory there was in an omnipotent being torturing forever a puny little creature who could in no way defend himself? Would it be to the glory of a man to fry ants?
Emma Goldman 1869-1940 (radical reformer): I do not believe in God, because I believe in Man [sic].
Katherine Hepburn 1907-2003 (actor): I’m an atheist, and that’s it. I believe there’s nothing we can know except that we should be kind to each other and do what we can for other people.
Maxine Hong Kingston 1940- (writer): I learned to make my mind large, as the universe is large, so that there is room for paradoxes.
Butterfly McQueen 1911-1995 (actor): As my ancestors are free from slavery, I am free from the slavery of religion. If we had put the energy on earth and on people that we put on mythology and on Jesus Christ, we wouldn’t have any hunger or homelessness.
Elaine Pagels 1943- (religion scholar): There’s practically no religion I know of that sees other people in a way that affirms the other’s choice.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton 1815-1902 (radical writer and women’s movement visionary): The greatest obstacle we [suffragists] had to overcome was the Bible. It was hurled at us on every side.
Sojourner Truth (19th century abolitionist and suffragist leader): Religion without humanity is poor human stuff. That little man in black says woman can’t have as much rights as man because Christ wasn’t a woman. Where did your Christ come from? . . . From God and a woman. Man has nothing to do with him.
Jane Wagner 1935- (writer): Why is it when we talk to God, we’re said to be praying—but when God talks to us, we’re schizophrenic? (The Search for Intelligent Life in the Universe, performed by Lily Tomlin, 1986)
Alice Walker 1944- (writer): Any God I ever felt in church I brought in with me.
Frances Wright 1795-1852 (abolitionist, suffragist, lecturer): Time is it to arrest our speculations respecting unseen worlds and inconceivable mysteries, and to address our inquiries to the improvement of the human condition . . . those beautiful principles of liberty and equality enshrined in the political institutions and, first and in chief, in the national declaration of independence. I am neither Jew nor Gentile, Mahomedan nor Theist; I am but a member of the human family.