Many Americans today find themselves faced with coercive proselytizing in their work environments, urged to attend prayer and Bible studies sessions, said journalist and author Michelle Goldberg.
The Buffalo native recalled how she was signing copies of her new book Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, when a woman said her daughter was pressured in the workplace to take part in Christian activities. Goldberg asked where the daughter worked.
“The (US) Justice Department,” the woman replied.
Christian nationalism is not the same as evangelical Christianity, a faith that 30% of Americans claim as their own, said Goldberg. Fewer than 15% of the country are Christian nationalists, an ideology positing that Christianity should be the official religion of the United States, said the senior political writer for the online magazine Salon. She spoke here last week in a speech sponsored by National Council of Jewish Women, Cleveland Section, and The Temple-Tifereth Israel.
Jews should not fear coerced conversion, Goldberg said. Christian nationalism is not a theocratic movement. Rather, it’s a political philosophy defining the role religion should have in our laws and culture.
“It’s a slow and insidious process,” Goldberg said. “What used to be impossible (has) become possible and even common.”
Christian nationalism holds that America’s founders did not come here for religious freedom. Instead, they came to establish a Christian nation. Under this ideology, “separation of church and state is a fraud that needs to be eradicated so the nation can reach its fulfillment,” Goldberg explained.
Christian nationalism got its start in the late 1970s. Veterans of the Barry Goldwater presidential campaign wanted to peel off conservative white voters from the Democratic Party, Goldberg said. They recruited Jerry Falwell, then an obscure preacher, to head the Moral Majority. Ten years later, the Christian Coalition, founded after Pat Robertson’s presidential run, gained ascendancy.
The idea was to create a grassroots campaign, winning positions on school boards, town councils and political precincts. “They just out-organized everyone else,” Goldberg said.
Today, Robertson is viewed in many quarters as a disgrace and a laughing stock, and the Christian Coalition is in tatters, she maintained. Nevertheless, Robertson has obtained a $24 million government contract to provide social services.
It’s not new money, but dollars that used to go to secular-service providers or to organizations affiliated with religious groups like Jewish family services associations and Catholic Charities. Those groups have created separate nonsectarian organizations to provide counseling and other social services.
But today, faith-based contracts are going to overtly religious groups. For instance, drug programs entirely based on Bible reading and conversion to Christianity receive taxpayer money, Goldberg said. Clinics under the guise of family planning exist solely to dissuade women from having abortions.
These religious groups, which previously had to abide by the civil rights laws, have received tacit government permission to Christianize the work force, Goldberg said. They can now hire employees on the basis of faith, not merit. “The rules have been rewritten in terms of government-funded discrimination,” she said.
In New York City, the Salvation Army is a major provider of social services, such as foster care and HIV services, receiving nearly $89 million annually in taxpayer funds. A couple of years into Bush’s first term, the Salvation Army sent in a consultant.
“He sniffed around for Jewish-sounding names,” Goldberg said, asking one administrator to identify the non-Christians and the homosexuals.
Salvation Army employees were required to list their church affiliation for the last 10 years, with the pastor’s name and telephone number, so supervisors could check their fitness to work with children. Workers also had to pledge adherence to the Salvation Army’s religious mission “to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
In February 2004, the New York Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on behalf of 18 current and former employees, charging the Salvation Army with religious discrimination in government-funded social services.
All over the country, new organizations with Christian nationalism goals are filling the void left by the Christian Coalition’s demise, Goldberg said. Here in Ohio, the Rev. Russell Johnson heads the Ohio Restoration Project and the Rev. Rod Parsley leads Reformation Ohio.
At World Harvest, Parsley’s megachurch in Columbus, Goldberg heard the pastor urge his followers to “lock and load” against gays and their subversive influence on a “healthy” population.
“This is a political movement about political power,” Goldberg insisted.
In addition to granting government contracts, the Bush administration has rewarded Christian nationalists with slots in delegations to the United Nations, health and human services panels, and other bureaucratic positions. These bureaucrats can delay access to the emergency contraception Plan B or impede the rights of women.
The Air Force Academy is a hotbed of Christian nationalism, Goldberg asserted. About two years ago, professors there were declaring themselves to be Christian and telling cadets, “By the end of the term, I hope you’ll find Jesus as well.” In this atmosphere, those who declined to attend voluntary prayer meetings were labeled part of the “Heathen Flight.” Jews were called Christ-killers.
After a former Reagan administration official, the father of a cadet, filed a lawsuit, an investigation ensued. The Air Force Academy wrote new guidelines forbidding faculty or administrators from proselytizing those over whom they had power.
“This outraged Christian nationalists,” Goldberg says. “Seventy congressmen signed a letter demanding the new guidelines be revoked, and they were.”
The US House of Representatives recently passed the Public Expression of Religion Act, which would make it impossible for plaintiffs bringing Establishment Clause cases to collect attorney fees and costs if they win in court, Goldberg noted. The bill targets only church-state separation, not other civil rights cases. Only the very rich would be able to afford to bring these cases, which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
In Cincinnati, two middle-aged Jewish women saw this Christianization happening in their own community. Undercover, they went to rallies and church gatherings. They discovered evangelical Christians at a public high school teaching an abstinence-only sex education curriculum. Students were told that condoms don’t prevent disease and that abortion causes breast cancer.
At their urging, the principal replaced the instructor with a qualified sex educator. The women approached writers and religious leaders, efforts which contributed to the formation of We Believe Ohio, an interfaith group of progressive clergy attempting to counter the growing political influence of conservative Christians.
“It’s very likely that Christian nationalists will get slightly less support at the federal level than in the past,” said Goldberg, who spoke before the November 7 election. “But they’re not going anywhere. I hope neither will you.”