Bill O’Reilly recently got into a little hot water with the religious right. The abrasive talk show host dared to suggest on his show, “The O’Reilly Factor,” that the anti-gay movement would be better off using secular arguments against same-sex marriage than resorting endlessly to biblical ones. “The compelling argument is on the side of homosexuals,” O’Reilly argued, adding, “And the other side hasn’t been able to do anything but thump the Bible.”
Since the beginning, the Christian right has been aware that the First Amendment makes it impossible for them to use “God said so” to justify legislation. They’ve spent decades grafting secular reasons onto what are fundamentally attempts to foist their views on the rest of the country, often going out of their way to conceal the religious origins of their policy ideas. In response, I created this list of what the religious right wants; what nonsense secular reason they give for wanting it; and the actual, true reason, usually down to chapter and verse.
1) What they want: A rollback on environmental protections. This is but one of many ways the religious right has merged its interests with that of corporate America.
The secular reasons they give: Many on the Christian right scoff at the science of global warming. Sadly, Americans in general are resistant to the science of global warming, but white evangelical Christians are even worse than the general public. Pew Forum found in 2009 that 47% of Americans accept the science of climate change, but only 34% of white evangelicals. The objections the religious right offers are fed to them by oil industry lobbyists, such as Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council calling global warming theory “speculative.”
The unconstitutional, actual religious reasons: They justify this to themselves religiously coming and going. The fundamentalist Cornwall Alliance claims that belief in climate change is anti-Christian, because it “rests on and promotes a view of human beings as threats to Earth’s flourishing rather than the bearers of God’s image” and implies that God’s creation is “the fragile product of chance, not the robust, resilient, self-regulating, and self-correcting product of God’s wise design and powerful sustaining.” On the other side of it, as Ben Jervey of GOOD argued, 41% of Americans believe Jesus Christ will usher in Armageddon before 2050. If you believe the world is about to end, it seems pointless to make huge sacrifices to preserve its health into the future.
2) What they want: For the government to take money from the public school system and give it to private schools in the form of vouchers. They’ve had remarkable success at this by hijacking the larger, secular debate over education.
The secular reasons they give: The claim is that “school choice” creates competition among schools that improves educational outcomes. Public school charter systems are seen as an inadequate alternative, because they are supposedly not flexible enough.
The unconstitutional, actual religious reasons: They want the government to pay for the religious indoctrination of children. Even though the vouchers can, in theory, be spent on private secular schools, the way the program works in places like Louisiana makes it clear that this is about government-sponsored religious education.
3) What they want: No Equal Rights Amendment. While this battle to prevent the Constitution from being amended to give women equal rights, which the right won, was mostly fought in the late ’70s and early ’80s, Christian right-controlled legislatures occasionally take time to vote against it today.
The secular reasons they gave: In many ways, Phyllis Schlafly used the battle against the ERA to invent the modern conservative strategy of making bad faith secular arguments to advance a religious agenda. As Rachel Maddow recounts, Schlafly and her comrades claimed the ERA would mandate unisex bathrooms, make it illegal for women to be housewives, and destroy families.
The unconstitutional, actual religious reasons: The Bible is pretty clear that women are not equal to men, calling them “the weaker vessel” (1 Peter 3:7) who must live “in silence” to “not usurp authority over man” (1 Timothy 2:12), because women are to basically worship their husbands, “and he shall rule over thee” (Genesis 3:16).
4) What they want: A ban on gay marriage. Often cast as “protecting” traditional marriage.
The secular reasons they give: The argument presented in favor of Prop 8 before the Supreme Court is that marriage was established to make sure children are raised by the parents who created them through sexual intercourse, and that expanding it to include gay couples (it’s already expanded to include stepfamilies and infertile couples) would redefine it in a way that would cause vague damage the anti-gay lawyer refused to describe.
The unconstitutional, actual religious reasons: The Old Testament harshly condemns homosexuality, saying, “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death” (Leviticus 20:13). Christian fundamentalists have downgraded this simply to mean that their government shouldn’t endorse marriages that go against right-wing religious teachings.
5) What they want: To end the teaching of evolution in schools. This battle has been going on since at least the 1920s, and every time it comes around, the religious right gets a little better at hiding its religious motivations behind secularist claims.
The secular reasons they give: The current strategy is to claim that evolutionary theory is scientifically controversial, and therefore schools should “teach the controversy.” Clearly, they hope to give students reason to doubt the theory of evolution. In reality, there is no controversy. As the National Center for Science Education has stated, “There is no serious scientific doubt that evolution occurred or that natural selection is a major mechanism of evolution.”
The unconstitutional, actual religious reasons: For Biblical literalists, evolution is an uncomfortable topic because the Bible says God created the world in the space of six days. While evolution correctly holds that human beings are primates who evolved from a common ancestor, the Bible teaches that God made them out of “the dust of the ground” (Genesis 2:7). Why that is supposed to be less demeaning is hard to say.
6) What they want: To restrict access to abortion and contraception. Everyone knows the religious right has it out for abortion rights, but recently attacks on contraception access have also been increasing.
The secular reasons they give: Abortion is “baby-killing,” it’s unsafe for women, and it causes breast cancer and suicide. Emergency contraception is really “abortion” and birth control pills are unsafe. Telling kids just to abstain from sex is the only public health strategy we need. Condoms don’t work to prevent HIV.
All of these claims are lies, as is the secular pose that anti-choice activists take when promoting these lies.
The unconstitutional, actual religious reasons: Right from the beginning, the Bible is big on the idea that a woman’s role is to be frequently pregnant, whether she likes it or not. “Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children” (Genesis 3:16). He commands it again to Noah: “And you, be ye fruitful, and multiply; bring forth abundantly in the earth, and multiply therein” (Genesis 9:7).
So, in a very real sense, even when Bill O’Reilly is right, he’s wrong. He’s not wrong to say that social conservatives would do well to come up with secular arguments for their positions, instead of tell a country with strict protections for religious freedom to obey their interpretation of the Bible. He’s just wrong to think they don’t already know that. After all, they wrote the instruction manual.