It is always interesting to see the great fits of outrage that flow in recent years from the camp of my liberal-progressive-Democrat friends whenever there is some revelation of a moral transgression of a prominent conservative. First there was Bill Bennett and his gambling binges, then Rush Limbaugh and his prescription drug habit, and Bill O’Reilly and his sexual harassment of a Fox News employee. Now comes Armstrong Williams, the conservative commentator, who admits accepting a quarter of a million in public dollars from the Bush Administration to promote the president’s education law. In a column, Williams calls this “an obvious conflict of interests.”
Yes, but not much of a surprise. To me, in any event.
Some years ago, in that period in the early 1980s when Republicans briefly took control of the U.S. Senate, black South Carolinians held demonstrations around the state in protest of Senate Judiciary Chair Strom Thurmond’s plans to kill the Voting Rights Act. (For those of you who don’t remember, most Southern blacks were barred from voting—much less holding office—until Congress passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965.) Looking for a black voice-any black voice-to speak against the demonstrations, a local newspaper found the young Mr. Williams, a South Carolina native and resident, who pronounced something to the effect that the demonstrators “looked foolish” out there marching around in a circle in the hot sun.
What readers might not have known at the time was that while Mr. Williams might have honestly held those beliefs, he had some financial incentives for making them public—Mr. Williams had served as an intern in the senator’s office and, if I recall correctly, his father had been a long-time Thurmond employee.
But the problem with doing more than merely pointing out such transgressions is that in making too much of a deal of them, you appear to buy into the conservative spin that conservatives are presumed to be more moral than the rest of us, merely because they say they are.
Which, like they say down in Charleston, ain’t necessarily so.
Still, one must give conservatives—particularly conservative Christians—A’s for persistence and creative effort to impose their views upon the rest of us on the theory that they are getting instructions from on high.
The most recent one—of many—comes from the good people of the Cobb County (Georgia) Board of Education, who ordered that stickers be placed on the cover of biology textbooks to inform the students that “This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered.’’
This is no three-school district at the fork of a creek, by the way. The Atlanta suburb school district is responsible for more than 100,000 students, making it the second largest school system in Georgia and among the 30th largest in the United States.
A federal judge—Clarence Cooper—this week ordered the stickers removed, ruling that “By denigrating evolution, the school board appears to be endorsing the well-known prevailing alternative theory, creationism or variations thereof, even though the sticker does not specifically reference any alternative theories.’’
The theory of evolution—based upon Charles Darwin’s ideas on the origins of species—is, in fact, religion-neutral, neither advocating the existence of the guiding hand of a God in creation, nor eliminating that possibility. The mainstream Christian child—whose beliefs are so affirmed in many ways throughout American society—can easily hold the belief that the collection of assembled bones from australopithecus to homo erectus is merely the recorded evidence of God’s work on earth, all intended, all inevitable, all set out by prior plan.
That, apparently, is not enough for many of our evangelical Christian friends, who are convinced that not only must that Christian child be free to draw that conclusion, but it is the duty of God’s advocates to do their best to make sure that all the rest of us draw it as well.
Falling back on another old theory—that of the goose and the golden egg—they ought to take more care to leave well enough alone.
Christians have it extraordinarily good in America, which has for its entire lifetime operated under pro-Christian national and state governments that have allowed mainstream Christians—and even many of their more unorthodox brethren—to go about their business without undue interference. That the national Constitution under the First Amendment requires that the government remain neutral in religious affairs is what has led to American Christian freedom and flowering, not to its stifling.
While other religions are allowed, of course, our official acceptance is less tolerant.
For many years, American politicians equated the practice of religion with attendance at church, and it is only relatively recently that the phrase “or synagogue” has been generally added, as an acknowledgement of the Jewish brethren amongst us. But when was the last time you heard an American politician urge Americans to attend the church, or synagogue, or the mosque of their choice? (Mosque being the designation of the Muslim house of worship.) And that leaves out such transgressions as President Bush—at the start of the invasion of Iraq—referring to it as a “crusade,” a phrase which might have some bad memories for our Muslim friends, who recall that the last time that name was given to a military operation, it signaled an attempt by Christian soldiers to take the Holy Land from the hands of the Saracens.
It gets worse for the non-Abrahamic in our midst. Wicca and Ifa are two of the older religions of the world, predating Judaism, Christianity, and Islam by many thousands of years. But their practitioners in America are subject to intolerance and ridicule so regular that we hardly notice it—the broom-riding witch of black hat and pointed nose is our national symbol of evil, after all, and when we want to pronounce something ridiculous, we equate it with voodoo.
I once met an old South Carolina man who told me that his view of God was like a light brighter than the sun-we could only look at it indirectly, and so our attempts to describe it were at best, imperfect. Religion—humanity’s various interpretations of God’s ways and intents-were always going to be imperfect and from various points of view, he said, because folks could only once in a while get a quick view of the light before either blinking or going blind. Since no-one could see the full God, he concluded, no-one could tell which interpretation was closest to being right. We could all only do the best we could, and leave it at that.
In such a world, our conservative Christian friends might be moral, or they might be not, but they hold no special claim to a crown. Faith is judged by acts and acts alone, that old South Carolina man would say, thus ending the sermon, again.