Religious Liberty and Religious Extremism

Bill Moyers

Editor's Prefatory Remarks:

In New York City on September 11, 1995, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) presented its first Religious Liberty Award to veteran broadcast journalist Bill Moyers, "for his contribution to the maintenance of freedom of religion and the separation of church and state in America and for his commitment to the reaffirmation of the values of the First Amendment."

In making the presentation, Leonard Greenberg, an Honorary AJC Vice-President, commented: "In 1980, it was Bill Moyers who first exposed the anti-Jewish nature of Dr. Bailey Smith's address in Dallas in which Mr. Smith, then President of the Southern Baptist Convention, claimed 'God Almighty doesn't hear the prayers of a Jew.'" In addition to his excellent programs on the Constitution, Mr. Moyers has also analyzed the dangers inherent in some of the radical Religious Right groups.

After expressing his thanks as the first recipient of this award, Bill Moyers prefaced his acceptance speech by saying, "As much as I prize the honor of your recognition, I especially welcome the chance to tell you how important it is that America's oldest human rights organization has instituted this award in behalf of religious liberty. There could not be a more timely moment for the American Jewish Committee to proclaim once again the rights of conscience as the well-spring of freedom."

"Surely no one questions this who heard Pat Buchanan declare 'a holy war' in America or heard the Christian Coalition's Ralph Reed say that Christians 'have got to ...take back this country one precinct at a time' until it is 'once again governed by Christians and Christian values.' The same Ralph Reed whose surrogate in Oklahoma announced that "only Christians can restore this nation...only Christian believers doing the work... in the thick of battle." The same Ralph Reed who has talked of putting his opponents in 'body bags.'"

(The full text of Bill Moyers' speech follows.)

Holy war. Body bags. Thick of battle. This militant rhetoric echoes the crusades launched ten centuries ago in Europe. Those, too, were feverish days when the spirit of religion was infused with toxic zeal aroused by persecuting priests and pious princes, and armed hosts, pausing just long enough to kill the Jews in Germany, rode forth to rout the "accursed race" of Turks and Arabs whose numbers stretched from Jerusalem to Constantinople. Summoned to war "against the infidels" for the defense of Christ, the crowds responded: "Dieu lo vult! God wills it." God rode at the head of their warring columns and Jesus—the teacher Jesus who had talked of loving one's neighbor and forgiving one's enemy, who had looked with compassion on the wounded and sick; the shepherd Jesus who had gathered to him the oucast and stranger, the despised and forsaken; the healing Jesus who had welcomed into his embrace the frightened prostitute, forlorn leper, and hungry beggar; who called even the tax collector to fellowship—this same Jesus was now yoked to the cause of flashing shield and slashing sword, politics and conquest.

But that, you say, was an epic long ago, unique to its age, and manifest today only in places remote to us — in Northern Ireland where Protestant and Catholic murder squads perform routine rituals of vengeance, or in Islamic lands where fundamentalists shoot teenage girls in the head for refusing to wear veils, or among the still-feuding Biblical heirs of the Holy Land where Muslims bomb busloads of Jews and a fanatic Jewish doctor mows down praying muslims in a mosque, or in India where massacres are rituals of choice among Sikhs, Hindus, and Moslems. In America, fortunately, militancy in religion has been cooled by time and tolerance. Perhaps. But what about the religious fundamentalists who assassinate workers at abortion clinics? Or the "citizens' militias" that preach contempt for our government and commit violence against U.S. Park Rangers? Surely something is at work here more profound than the "nuttiness" of those fringe Christians who at Ross Perot's 1995 Dallas revival were hawking aprons with twin pockets—one for a Bible and the other for a pistol.

A tolerant time? Tell it to Charles Schumer. The New York Representative held a special hearing on violence and harrassment by militia groups, and his office was deluged with hate calls and faxes, many stamped with the hot fury of religious bigotry. One of those messages came from the United Federation of Aryan Nations. It warned Charles Schumer: "You should make no mistake that you are a conceited, arrogant kike son of a bitch. You will suffer physical pain and mental anguish before we transform you into something a bit more useful...a lampshade or wallets or perhaps soap."

Tell it to Arlen Specter, the moderate Republican Senator from Pennsylvania. He describes "a continuum from Pat Buchanan's 'holy war' to Pat Robertson saying there's no separation of church and state, to Ralph Reed saying pro-choice candidates can't be on the Republican ticket, to Randall Terry saying 'let a wave of hatred wash over you,' to the guy at Robertson's law school who says murdering an abortion doctor is justifiable homicide, to the guys who are pulling the triggers." When Senator Specter spoke out against the radical agenda of the religious right at a state Republican convention of Iowa, he was roundly booed and jeered.

Tell it to Thomas Kean. The former governor of New Jersey is likewise an endangered speices, a moderate in his own party. When he tried to warn his fellow Republicans against giving control to the ultra right, he, too, was booed. When he announced he would not run for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Bill Bradley, his reason was two-fold: the meanness of Washington and the control of the Senate by the radical religious right. The party of Abraham Lincoln has become the parish of Pat Robertson who compared non-Christians to termites "destroying institutions that have been built by Christians," the same Pat Robertson who called the separation of church and state "a lie of the left" and vowed to dismantle it.

Now I must pause to remind you that Pat Robertson is a Baptist. And so am I. New Gingrich is a Baptist. So is Richard Gephardt. So are Bill Clinton and Al Gore Baptists. Jesse Jackson is a Baptist. So is Jesse Helms. At last count there were more that two dozen varieties of Baptists in America. One of my seminary professors compared Baptists to jalapeno peppers; one or two make for a tasty dish, but a whole bunch of them together in one place brings tears to your eyes. What accounts for the great differences among us? It's something called "the priesthood of the believers." Baptists believe that each and every one of us is free to read and interpret the Bible for ourselves. Study, commentary, cultural condition, teacher, preacher, and prayer—these feed the springs of our interpretation, but in the end each of us is left to decode the sacred text according to our own lights. This accounts for the theological chaos that prompted my father, then a deacon in our local church, to say that Cain and Abel must have been the first Baptists, because their rivalry ended in fratricide.

But is is not only in the reading of the Bible that Baptists differ so prfoundly. We don't read history the same, either. Take the separation of church and state. The Robertson, Reed, and Gingrich crowd lays the moral decline of America at the doorstep of that principle, as if the First Amendment had kept God waiting offshore like some quarantined refugee denied a visa. Listening to their speeches—and I have listened to scores of them through the years—you realize that they are serious in their belief that we could arrest America's backward slide into barbaric degradation and moral relativism if we could only bring back the Puritans. Newt Gingrich writes admiringly that "the Puritan experience is at the heart of the American cultural tradition." Central to this experience was the notion of a personal commitment and connection to God and a conformity of spirit that would bind all members of the community into a religion and a civic society based on the Bible—as interpreted by themselves. Morrison, Commager, and Leuchtenberg tell us in The Growth of the American Republic that the Puritans had grown so disgusted with the frivolity, extravagnce, and moral corruption that prevaded English society and they came to the New World to lead something approaching a New Testament life. "We have entered into a covenant with God 'for this work'," their leader John Winthrop told them,"and the Lord will expect a strict performance." Puritan leaders like Winthrop were disturbed by the prospect of egalitariansim because they believed that God had ordained a heirarchy of classes. At a synod in 1679, church elders expressed concern not only about the rise of bastard children and the displaying of "abominable, naked breasts," but they also abhorred the spirit of insubordination inferiors were showing their betters, in particular "Day-Laborers and Mechanics" who were unreasonable in their demands."(And you wondered where New Gingrich got the ideas for his Contract With America!)

In other words, the "City on a Hill" envision by John Winthrop and so often invoked by Ronald Reagan would be a one-party town, in matters of religion and politics. And the Puritans would be Kings of the Hill.

Well, I, too, take seriously the notion of a personal commitment and connection to God, and I was forewarned at the Central Baptist Church in Marshall, Texas, against 'abominable, naked breasts," and I, too, want America to be a shining example to the world. But let me tell you, my branch of Baptists believes in a free church in a free state, and my spiritual forbearers didn't take kindly to living under a bunch of theocrats who embraced religious liberty for themselves and no one else. "Forced worship stinks in God's nostrils," thundered the dissenter Roger Williams as he was banished by the Puritans from Massachusetts for denying their authority over his conscience. Baptists there were only a "pitiful negligible minority" but they were denounced as "the incendiaries of the commonwealth and the infectors of persons in main matters of religion." For refusing tribute to state religion Baptists were fined, flogged, and exiled. In 1651 the Baptist Obadiah Homes was given thirty stripes with a three-corded whip after he violated the law by taking communion with an elderly and blind Baptist in Lynn, Massachusetts. Holmes refused the offer of friends to pay his fine so that he could be released. He refused he strong drink they said would anesthetize the pain. Sober, he endured the ordeal; sober still, he would one day write: "It is the love of liberty that must free the soul."

So what Robertson, Reed, and Gingrich find as a stumbling block—the constitutional separation of church and state—I see as a touchstone of freedom. Over time and at great struggle, the First Amendment has made of America "a haven for the cause of conscience." It finally checked what Thomas Jefferson called "the loathsome combination of church and state" which had been enforced in the old and new world alike by "weapons and wrath and blood," as human being were tormented on the rack or in the stocks for failing the salute of orthodoxy. It put an end to the subpoena of conscience by magistrates who ordered citizens to support churches they did not attend and recite creeds they did not believe in.

The Constitution of the new nation would take no sides in the religious free-for-all that liberty would make possible and human nature would make inevitable. It would neither inculcate religion nor inoculate against it. For Baptists of my stripe, this separation of church and state encourages neither atheism nor animosity to religion. Americans can be loyal to the Constitution without being hostile to God.

As for Baptists of the other stripe, I find their attitude toward the separation of church and state shot full of contradictions.

They invoke it to protect themselves against encroachment from others but denounce it when it protects others against enchraochment from them.

They use it to shelter their own revenues and assets from taxation, but then insist that taxes paid by others support private sectarian instruction in pervasively religious schools.

They loath any government intrusion into their sphere, but are laboring mightily to change federal tax laws so that churches may more easily influence government.

They deplore the coercive powers of the state, except when they would use those very powers to force others to do "the right and moral thing" as they define it.

They stand foursquare behind the First Amendment when they exercise their own right to criticize others—sometimes with a vengeance and often with vitriol, as when Jerry Falwell circulated videos implicating the President of the United Staes in murder; but when they in turn are challenged or criticized, they whine and complain that they are being attacked as 'people of faith." There was Newt Gingrich rousing the Christian Coalition to a fever pitch of paranoia by telling them they are victims of "Christian-phobia."

They want it both ways. In the pursuit of power they take no prisoners and give no quarter. But confronted and contradicted, they take refuge in piety and self-pity. They control the Republican Party, the House of Representative, and the Senate, yet from no corridor of power in their grasp comes the faintest sound of Christian love or mercy, nor a single refrain of healing.

So make no mistake. The language of religion has been placed at the service of a reactionary agenda. God is being invoked to undermine safeguards for public health and the environment; to attack politicians; to censor classroom textbooks; to cut back school breakfast programs, assistance for low birth-weight babies and legal aid for poor defendants; to ostracize homosexuals; to end public funding for the arts; to amend the Constitution to require a balanced budget; to cut taxes for the rich; and to mislead voters. "Dieu lo vult! God wills it."

Johnathan Swift got it right:

"But mark me well; Religion is my name;
An angel once: but now a fury grown,
Too often talked of, but too little known."

You will see then the importance of our rallying around "A Shared Vision." Inspired by your own Rabbi Rudin and by James Dunn of the Baptist Joint Committee, this declaration of principle on church state relations offers an alternative to the Christian Coalition's pinched and dogmatic opinions. More than 80 individuals and six religious and civil liberties organizations—including the American Jewish Committee—have signed on. They have declared: "We, too, share a vision of America. We believe religious values and religious speech play crucial roles in public life. But we recognize the need for institutional and functional separation of church and state. To us, the First Amendment's Free Exercise and Establishment clause carry equal weight. They exist side by side in the service of religious liberty. And we say "no!" to those who want to enforce either clause to the detriment of the other or to compromise both clauses to promote their majoritarian values."

We are talking here about the rights of conscience—nothing new to you. The vocation of conscience is one of Judaism's great gifts to the world. It is to the Hebrew prophets more than to any others that Western civilization owes its conviction that the future of any people depends in large part on a just social order, that a just social order depends in turn on the free exercise of conscience by men and women responsible for their decisions and actions. For those prophets, justice was the surest sign of God's presence, and liberty His agent. Their message adorns our Liberty Bell in Philadelphia: "Proclaim liberty through the land." It permeates our social compact with vision of "justice rolling down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream." It has imprinted in the bedrock of Western civilization the conviction that to be made in the image of God is to be endowed with the moral freedom to choose our own destiny through decision freely made: "I have set before you life and death. Therefore, choose life." Freedom of choice is the first right of conscience.

You as Jews and I as a Baptist share the conviction that majority believers must never use the power of the state to discriminate against other believers. For us, the separation of church and state must be kept separate so that all faiths can operate freely and none be sacrificed to conformity or coercion.

What a difference this has made to our country. I was reminded of it just last week while visiting my mother in my home town of Marshall, Texas. On my last evening there I had finished some errands and was returning to her house when I drove down Burleson Street and stopped to make a right turn on Fulton. My eye caught a familiar historical marker. Throughout my youthful days in Marshall there stood on this site the Temple Moses Montefiore, organized by Jewish residents of the area late in the last century. It was a striking building featuring an elaborate Middle Eastern architecture. But more significant that the building was the witness of the community who worshipped there.

At their height the Jewish citizens of Marshall numbered close to 150 out of a population of 20,000 or more. But they exerted a profound impact on our town through their civic, business and cultural life. Loius Kariel, Sr., had been practically the only mayor we had during my youth there. His father, Morris, had gained passage from the old world through a lottery—the only one of this family to leave. Now, even as he served as mayor of our small town in East Texas, Louis Kariel, Sr. would lose all his kin to the Holocaust.

His daughter-in-law Audrey, who lives a few doors from my mother, is the fisrt woman mayor ever to serve our town. She led the drive to build the new library at whose dedication I was privileged to speak. The old library had been segregated; blacks had to ask their white friends to check out books for them. But Audrey agreed to champion a new library only if it were open to all. And it was.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that "we must measure all religions by their civilizing power." So many of the Jews nurtured civility in that town. The Kahns built our first modern hospital. The Hirsches were roundly criticized during the Depression for seeing to it that poor blacks got their fair share of social services delivered by the New Deal.

My friend Raymond Hall is one of our leading African-American sociologists. The death of his parents left him destitute as a boy, and under the circumstances, he was a child who should not have succeeded. But mowing lawns to make ends meet, Raymond Hall was taken under wing by Joe Hirsch, one of his customers. Joe loaned the young man books, insisting that he not only read them but return to talk about the ideas they inspired. Raymond Hall was hooked, went on to a lifetime of scholarship, and has been teaching for years at Dartmouth College. Raymond is a Baptist; Joe was a Jew. "We measure all religions by their civilizing power."

From the site where the temple stood, I walked a block down the street to another historical marker. Until recently, a great oak tree spread its majesty in a wide arc there. The whole town mourned when disease and age finally brought it down a few years ago. Under that tree, in 1857, Sam Houston had campaigned during his first race for governor. At one time, there were more slaves in Harrison County than perhaps in any other Texas county, and Houston had come to this hotbed of secession to give a courageous speech for preserving the Union. Sam Houston was a Baptist, a rough man and flawed. But on the question of union he would not flinch, and this day he delivered such an oration that although he lost the election for governor, he almost carried this East Texas county of slaveholders and rebellion. The wrong side of the issue was the right side of history, and that's where conscience often lands you. I walked that block often when I was a kid. That oak tree and that temple are both gone now. And yet—they exist, as surely as the still small voice of the soul.


This paper was first published in Religious Humanism, vol. 30, nos. 3 & 4, summer/fall 1996, p. 36-45. Copyright © 1996 by the HUUmanists, Inc.