Getting religion in the public square

the cross in americaThe most recent edition of PBS' Washington Week included an interesting exchange between a member of the audience at the Aspen Ideas Festival and a panel consisting of leading journalists from Time, The Atlantic and NBC News:

Q: I would like to ask how can we keep religion out of government and politics?

MS. IFILL: How can we keep religion out of -- how can we or should we?

Q: Hell, how should we? (Laughter.)

I was a bit taken aback by the bluntness of the question. To some, it's not a matter of whether religion should be involved in public life, but a matter of how it can best be eliminated.

Ifill quickly passed that question to Andrea Mitchell, NBC News' chief foreign affairs correspondent, who referred the audience member to American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation by Jon Meacham, the managing editor of Newsweek. Mitchell said the book shows the role of religion among the Founding Fathers, how religion was not completely excluded from our civic society and how it does have a role.

No, really?

I haven't read Meacham's book yet, but it is highly respected and has has helped shift popular Washington opinion toward the understanding that religion can indeed have a role in public society.

But as with all matters of religion, some people disagree.

Peter Slevin of The Washington Post has written a 1,400-word viewpoint, I mean news article, on an organization dedicated to keeping religion in the public square:

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- A 29-foot war memorial shaped like a cross should be allowed to remain on public land. A teacher should be able to emphasize references to God in the Declaration of Independence. Protesters should be permitted to approach women near the doors of an abortion clinic.

These courtroom fights and dozens of others pending across the country belong to the portfolio of the ambitious Alliance Defense Fund, a socially conservative legal consortium. It spends $20 million a year seeking to protect what it regards as the place of religion -- and especially Christianity -- in public life.

Considering itself the antithesis of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Scottsdale-based organization has used money and moxie to become the leading player in a movement to tug the nation to the right by challenging decades of legal precedent. By stepping into the nation's most impassioned debates about religion in the public sphere, the group aims to bring law and society into alignment with conservative Christianity.

religion in the public squareNote now the article portrays the group as on the offensive. But if you read through the article, all of the examples place the group on the defensive. Rather than attempting to move American law to the right, the group seems more determined to keep the law where it is.

This impression of advancement was helped along by ADF founders Alan Sears and Jeffery Ventrella. The group has a financial interest in proclaiming this version of reality. American values and cultural mores have already been trampled underfoot. And they are the ones, if we can get a check, to bring them back from the brink:

Alliance executives say they are on solid ground when it comes to history and the law, and they insist that the pendulum is beginning to swing their way. Sears said the group, "by grace," expects to grow 20 percent a year.

"Over and over, there's a search-and-destroy mission for religious expression," Ventrella told the trainees in Chicago. "Do we want to forget our religious heritage? When we abandon God, we will forget man. So what's God got to do with it? Everything."

The article does an excellent job of documenting the group's attempts to inflame situations using impassioned rhetoric, but I wonder if the Post would have examined similar efforts by just about any other interest group. I receive ACLU and Sierra Club fundraising letters with rhetoric that could give the ADF a run for its money.

So, why the ADF? The Post article briefly mentions Pat Robertson's American Center for Law & Justice and Jerry Falwell's Liberty Counsel. Those groups, and the Rutherford Institute, surely would appreciate similar front-page treatment.

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