Las Vegas Sun

February 20, 2019

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Guest column:

What about the First Amendment?

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

“It makes me crazy!” the pastor cried out, more than once, in her weekly sermon.

She was responding to a New York Times article about American Christian nationalism she’d read the day before. It reported that 70 bills were before state legislatures across the country — bills “to use the coercive powers of government to secure a privileged position in society for their version of Christianity.” The organizers coordinating this legislation call it Project Blitz.

A number of the bills are intended to sponsor government programs which promote and celebrate Christianity in public schools and elsewhere. Others excuse businesspeople who discriminate against LGBTQ persons on the basis of deeply held beliefs. One of Blitz’s leaders is Bill Dallas, a convicted embezzler and database master managing 200 million files on American citizens. Dallas sums up Blitz’s political philosophy simply: “There is not a place in the universe where Christ does not shout out ‘Mine.’ ” David Barton, another “steering committee” member, explained the strategy behind the legislative onslaught: “It’s kind of like whack-a-mole for the other side. It’ll drive ’em crazy … they’ll have to divide their resources out in opposing this.”

“Report and Analysis on Religious Freedom Measures Impacting Prayer and Faith in America” is a 116-page rundown of Project Blitz’s activities. It is provided by the organizations supporting the effort: Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation, the National Legal Foundation and Wall Builders ProFamily Legislative Network.

The report details the 70 legislative proposals, all for the sake of “religious liberty.” Anyone who thinks this is a crank effort by a diminishing group of bitter, elderly right-wing Christians needs to review this sophisticated report. It is a stunning, upfront guidebook to a legal, political, moneyed campaign to turn the United States into an exclusively Christian nation. Sample legislative titles: Proclamation Recognizing Christian Heritage Week; Resolution Establishing Public Policy Favoring Intimate Sexual Relations Only Between Married, Heterosexual Couples; Resolution Establishing Public Policy Favoring Reliance on and Maintenance of Birth Gender; and Student Prayer Certification Act.

Power supporting prejudice, bias and bigotry

Many have been following the close bond developing between right-wing Christian evangelicals and President Donald Trump. Trump’s new agency, the White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative, is designed to support the laws being proposed by Christian nationalists. Note the president’s preference in giving interviews to the Christian Broadcasting Network. If you need a wakeup call, read the “Two Kingdoms” theology that Pastor Robert Jeffress of Dallas has been championing, asserting that individuals are called biblically to be kind and caring, but not governments. Jeffress offered the opening prayer at the U.S. Embassy dedication in Jerusalem last month and once said in a lecture series, “God sends good people to hell. Not only do religions like Mormonism, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism — not only do they lead people away from God, they lead people to an eternity of separation from God in hell. ... The majority of humanity will spend eternity in hell, and only a few will find the exclusive way to salvation.” On Dec. 14, Jeffress said on Fox News, “President Trump is not only on the right side of history, he is on the right side of God.”

Implicit in Christian nationalism is a moral superiority complex, a prejudice that scorns diversity of faith and inclusion of perspectives as it reaches for the levers of power in the United States, in cooperation with the president. Christian nationalism is the absolute antithesis to a commitment to inclusivity and diversity, to welcoming all peoples from all traditions, to nurturing mutual respect, compassion, friendship and values-based collaboration among those who were strangers. Even hardline Christians need look no further than the Parable of the Good Samaritan to see Jesus’ own perspective and appreciation of inclusion and diversity.

Clearly, Christian nationalism has seen its enemy, and the enemy is diversity of perspective and interfaith inclusion. Every special favor the government gives exclusively to a certain brand of Christians violates the Constitution, breaks the law, and implicitly condemns all but a certain version of Christianity. Yet it is happening, and the evangelicals who secured Trump’s success are enthusiastically hard at work to undermine the Constitution’s separation of church and state.

The Christian nationalist agenda, to the degree that it succeeds, condemns the rest of us to be, at best, second-class citizens, or worse, citizens of hell, stripped of the rights guaranteed by the Constitution. Surely the time has come for anyone who truly understands and supports the Golden Rule to oppose such an agenda. The time has come to speak up for religious pluralism and universal rights for all people, and for the First Amendment to our Constitution.

“Religious liberty” does not allow a person to discriminate against or harm those who don’t believe what I believe. Rather, it is the freedom we all deserve to believe what we believe and safely practice the faith we choose to follow. Never has the importance of reinvigorating our appreciation of a nation “of the people, by the people, for the people” been greater. If I read the prophets of the great traditions correctly, I believe they do not shout “Mine;” rather, they proclaim “We!” The sacred African philosophy Ubuntu says it best: “I am because we are, we are because I am.”

Gard Jameson is chairman of the Interfaith Council of Southern Nevada.