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by Robin Morgan

Fighting Words


Excerpted from Fighting Words: A Toolkit for Combating the Religious Right by Robin Morgan. Copyright © 2006 by Robin Morgan. Published by Nation Books (September 28, 2006).

Introduction by Robin Morgan: It Is Happening Here

Are you muttering to yourself a lot lately? Do you gnash your teeth, shout at your TV set, compare incredulous notes with friends? Do you try to laugh at it all, or deal with it by sending a check to an organization? Do you feel yourself wearying from the dogged assaults of our homegrown American Taliban, chafing at cynical, political manipulations of personal faith, or hardening with indifference at the familiarity of Orwellian double-speak? (My favorite for today is Senator Orrin Hatch’s “Capital punishment is our society's recognition of the sanctity of human life.”)

Do you feel helpless, as it keeps getting worse?

As I write this, in April, 2006, it no longer seems such a mystery that Europe’s Dark Ages could affirm superstitions that empowered the Church while eradicating knowledge of how to build aqueducts, trepan skulls for brain surgery, safely deliver or abort a pregnancy, construct indoor plumbing, practice sophisticated herbal medicine, or even simply read and write.

Today, science in the United States—once a world leader in virtually every research field—is under intense assault from the extreme religious right, via its White House representative, President George W. Bush. No matter how vast the scientific consensus that fossil fuels constitute a principal factor in climate change, Bush’s administration still won’t sign the Kyoto Protocol (and still speaks longingly of oil-drilling in the Alaskan wilderness). In 2006, the National Institutes of Health budget is being cut—for the first time in 36 years. The U.S. now educates fewer scientists each year, and now imports more high-tech products than it exports. Bush administration policy dictates that one-third of all government HIV-prevention spending—hundreds of millions—must go to “abstinence until marriage” programs, while government funding for programs that support condom use have been eviscerated (this, despite the failure rate for abstinence programs proving many times higher than for condom use). The Federal Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control have both been forced to take positions that please religious conservatives despite being contrary to their own scientific findings—on the “morning after” Plan B pill and on condom use--provoking public resignations of scientists from both federal agencies. Reginald Finger, an evangelical Focus on the Family member and Bush appointee to the CDC Immunization Committee, says he might actually oppose an HIV vaccine if one becomes available: “With any vaccine for HIV, dis-inhibition [freedom from fear, presumably of sex] would certainly be a factor and it is something we will have to pay attention to.” Finger may even block approval for a vaccine protecting women against HPV, the human papilloma virus that can cause cancer of the cervix: He worries “[T]his vaccine may be sending an overall message to teenagers that ‘We expect you to be sexually active.’” Meanwhile, the administration sends anti-choice lobbyists as delegates to international meetings on women’s health, and pressures global conferences on AIDS to have Rev. Franklin Graham lecture on “faith-based solutions to AIDS.” The religious right’s effect on Bush’s opposition to stem-cell research is notorious, despite the majority of scientists—and U.S. citizens, including evangelicals—supporting research that potentially could have as massive an impact on health as antibiotics did, particularly affecting research on cancer, Parkinson’s disease, other neurological disorders, diabetes, and paralysis.

The Dark Ages indeed. With the Crusades thrown in, to boot.

Recently, news coverage has been focused on worldwide marches, boycotts, flag- and building-burnings by Muslims protesting cartoons that allegedly mocked the Prophet Muhammed, run by a Danish newspaper last year. TV pundits tsk-tsk about these “obsessed fanatics,” these literalist, fundamentalist extremists, while commentators (and U.S. politicians) discover a seemingly newfound pride in “Western free speech.” OK. Fair enough. Alright.

But meanwhile, little attention is given to a short item running in only a few newspapers on February 11: protests by Callaway Christian Church members in Fulton, Missouri, which resulted in cancellation of the scheduled high-school spring production of Arthur Miller’s American classic, “The Crucible”; the Christian protests were actually about the high-school having already staged a (considerably tamed) version of the musical “Grease”—yes, honest, that depraved orgy, “Grease”—but their chilling effect was sufficient for Mark Ederle, superintendent of schools, to ban the Miller play, thus saving the school from being further "mired in controversy." The drama teacher, Wendy DeVore, quit after learning that her contract would almost certainly not be renewed. Dr. Ederle said, "That was me in my worst Joe McCarthy moment, to some.” Since “The Crucible,” set in Salem, Massachusetts during the witch trials, was written as a metaphor for McCarthyism, well . . . yes.

Not one news commentator pointed out the parallels, wondered why free speech was such a great idea to brandish abroad but not at home, or compared one set of obsessed, fanatic, literalist, fundamentalist extremists against freedom of expression with the other.

On August 15, 1997, a man named Gil Alexander-Moegerle held a press conference in Colorado Springs. Co-founder with James Dobson of the group Focus on the Family, he had just authored a book, James Dobson's War on America, the first insider expose of a major religious- right organization. Amazingly, Alexander-Moegerle, taking his Christianity seriously for a change, offered a public apology to all women, men of color, Jews, Muslims, homosexual people, and others harmed by “actions and attitudes on the part of the Christian Right in general and James Dobson and Focus on the Family in particular.” He also revealed how corruptly the Christian right operates behind the scenes, urged an end to political lobbying by such organizations, and issued a warning to the American people. There was virtually no coverage of his press conference (though it is still available in full at www.ralliance.org/Alexander-Moegerle.html). His book was barely reviewed.

Even our media is afraid. Our media’s corporate ownership is afraid.

We are all more than a little afraid.

And we are tired.

The great Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis wrote: “Those who won our independence believed . . . that the greatest menace to freedom is an inert people. . . . that it is hazardous to discourage thought, hope, and imagination; that fear breeds repression; that repression breeds hate; that hate menaces stable government. . . . [Fear] cannot alone justify suppression of free speech and assembly. Men feared witches and burnt women. It is the function of speech to free men from the bondage of irrational fears (Concurrence in Whitney v. California, 1927).

But really, should we be surprised that the state of the Union has been corroded this far, or that religion should be employed as the corrosive element?

After all, God is always claimed to be on both sides in every war, and the Bible has been used to defend the Crusades, the Inquisitions, conquest, slavery, lynching, apartheid, indentured servitude, racism, poverty, wife battery, child abuse, homophobia, and other holy terrors.

After all, the decade 1991-2001 saw multiple attacks on U.S. clinics and medical personnel providing contraception and abortion services, leaving eight dead and 33 seriously wounded. Additionally, there have been more than 20 arsons and attempted arsons, 10 bombings and attempted bombings, and multiple clinics in 23 states have received threats of anthrax and chemical attacks. This was not called “terrorism.” Yet in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks, an American Life League ad attacking Planned Parenthood ran in the Washington Times, declaring “Abortion is the ultimate terrorism.”

After all, news items like the following have now become commonplace:

* The three largest Christian-right organizations call for “crusaders” to pray that certain U.S. Supreme Court justices whose voting records they dislike will die.

* Televangelist Pat Robertson blames Emmy-Awards-host Ellen Degeneres for the Hurricane Katrina disaster: “This is the second time [9/11] God has invoked a disaster before lesbian Ellen Degenerate hosted the Emmy Awards . . . America is waiting for her to apologize for the death and destruction her sexual deviance has brought onto this great nation.” Robertson also noted that the Christian Broadcasting Network had compiled a list of 283 nominees, presenters, and invited guests at the Emmys “known to be of sexually deviant persuasions.”

* Citing “religious reasons,” some pharmacists now refuse to fill prescriptions for emergency “morning after” contraception, flatly (and illegally) turning away their female customers--including survivors of sexual assault.

* Air Force Captain Melinda Morton, a Lutheran executive chaplain at the Air Force Academy in Colorado, resigns her commission after being fired for whistle-blowing about “strident evangelicalism” infecting the religious climate at the Academy, where 55 complaints about religious discrimination have been lodged in the past four years. “Evangelicalism is the official religion of the U.S. Air Force Academy,” Morton warns. (And yes, this is the same Academy infamous for its epidemic of rape and sexual-harassment charges by female cadets--who were ignored or even punished for complaining.)

* Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Kansas garner some press attention for their legal battles and school-board struggles over the campaign to teach “intelligent design”--“creationism” renamed--as science. But The National Center for Science Education (www.natcensied.org), which defends the teaching of evolution in public schools, notes that such battles are increasing in Alabama, Michigan, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Utah, and other states.

* Georgia has taken things even further—becoming the first state to approve the use of the Bible as a public-school core textbook. Alabama and Missouri are looking into similar measures.

* “Faith-based prisons” are proliferating—apparently as much to rake in profits as to spread the Gospel to a captive audience. Taxpayers unwittingly finance such prosletyzing prisons, where inmates receive special privileges if they follow all-day, all-week, Christian agendas. Former convicted Watergate conspirator Charles Colson’s Prison Ministry Fellowship runs “partnership” prisons with its $46 million annual budget. When he was governor, George W. Bush helped launch the “Inner Change Freedom Initiative” in Texas; Inner Change now also runs prisons in Kansas and Minnesota. Another Bush governor, Jeb, happily supports three (with more to come) “faith-based prisons” in Florida. In New Mexico, the state contracts with the Corrections Corporation of America, the largest private prison “provider”: workbooks for women prisoners emphasize obedience under such headings as “Yielding Rights” and “Proper Submission.”

* Meanwhile, the Bush administration initiates or supports:

--providing funds for “faith-based” social-service programs to practice religious discrimination: hiring only staff who belong to the same church;

--a school voucher program, which would give parents federal tax dollars for tuition to private, religious schools;

--pressuring staff in the White House, Justice Department, and other federal agencies to begin their workday with attendance at “voluntary” Bible study and prayer sessions.

--approval of a federally funded health plan for Catholics only, that excludes insurance coverage for contraceptives, abortion, sterilization, or artificial insemination;

--instituting a "religious test" for judges, promising to appoint only “commonsense judges who understand that our rights were derived from God.”

Americans who revere The Constitution of the United States and believe in the strict separation of religion and government are in a state of deepening shock and growing anxiety. They include religiously observant people of every faith, as well as agnostics and atheists. Most Americans fear, sensibly, that the ultra-conservative religious right is gaining historic political power via a glib, well-organized, media-savvy movement with powerful friends in high places.

But average Americans feel helpless to confront them. Most of us haven’t read the Founding Documents since grade school (if then). We assume that U.S. law has Judeo-Christian roots. (It doesn’t.)

Most Americans lack the tools to argue against the religious right.

This book is the tool-kit for arguing.

We don’t know that the Constitution contains not one reference to a deity--on purpose.

We don’t know that Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration of Independence did not mention “endowed by the Creator,” but read:We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable, that all men are created equal and independent; that from that equal creation they derive in rights inherent and unalienable, among which are the preservation of life, and liberty andthe pursuit of happiness . . .”

One tool in this kit is the lie-detector. For instance:

* Former Attorney General John Ashcroft invoked “the Christian Fathers of our country,” but actually, the Founders were a hodgepodge of freethinkers, Deists, agnostics, Christians, atheists, and Freemasons--and they were radicals. For example:

Question with boldness even the existence of a god. --Thomas Jefferson

Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind. --James Madison

I doubt of Revelation itself. --Benjamin Franklin

My own mind is my church. --Thomas Paine

* Pat Robertson claims that “In God We Trust” was on our currency and “Under God” was the U.S. motto “from 1776.” Are you surprised to learn that neither was the case--until the 1950s?

* George W. Bush adds “so help me God” to his Presidential Oath of Office. Did he know he was defying The Constitution?

* General William Boykin, Undersecretary of Defense, announces, “We’re a Christian nation.” But the U.S. Treaty of Tripoli--initiated by George Washington and signed into law by John Adams--declares: “The government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion.

* Prayer circles proliferate in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate. Yet James Madison, “father of the Constitution,” denounced the presence of chaplains in Congress--and even in the armed forces--as unconstitutional.

* Cardinal Egan is a front-row guest when, for the first time in history, an American president signs a bill outlawing an approved medical procedure (emergency late-term abortion). Most people believe the Roman Catholic Church’s position on abortion is 2000 years old and infallible. Yet the 15th-century church considered abortion moral--and even today the prohibition is not governed by papal infallibility.

* When President George W. Bush established an “Office for Faith-Based Initiatives” inside the White House, he was in clear violation of the Lemon Test, based on a 1971 U.S. Supreme Court decision, which begins: “Any statute [or public policy] must have a secular legislative purpose”--and then continues with even stronger wording.

* Rev. Jerry Falwell blames the 9/11 attacks on “the pagans, abortionists, feminists, gays and lesbians . . . [and other] groups who have tried to secularize America.” He’s a bit late: Alexander Hamilton attacked Jefferson and the other Founders for their successful “conspiracy to establish atheism on the ruins of Christianity” in the newly formed United States of America.

* Alabama State Supreme Court (deposed) Chief Justice Roy Moore defends his display of the Ten Commandments by claiming that U.S. law is founded on common law, in turn based on Judeo-Christian tradition. But hear this: “We may safely affirm (though contradicted by all the judges and writers on earth) that Christianity neither is, nor ever was, a part of the common law.”--Thomas Jefferson.

The principle of separation of church and state was first articulated by Roger Williams, who was banished from Massachusetts for his beliefs and who then founded the settlement of Rhode Island in the 1600s. The Framers of The U.S. Constitution adopted this principle (and were also influenced by The Iroquois Confederacy’s laws on the rights of all peoples). It has been upheld by every Supreme Court since 1879--until 2002, when the court approved school vouchers.

Now--no hyperbole--it is in genuine danger.

The United States, still a young country with a short memory, has been swept by religious revivals before. For instance, we now take it for granted that churches, temples, mosques, and other religious institutions are tax-exempt--but it was not always that way, nor was it the intent of the Founders: this policy was the fruit of a religious campaign. So was “In God We Trust” getting stamped onto our coinage, and the insertion of “Under God” in our Pledge of Allegiance. Beginning with Lincoln’s administration, presidents (and also congresses) have repeatedly turned back attempts to pass a “Christian Amendment,” which would declare Jesus Christ “the Ruler among nations.” (Why aren’t we taught this sort of thing in school?) It’s been more than 80 years since the 1925 Scopes “Monkey” Trial in Tennessee--where the judge wouldn’t permit Clarence Darrow to put scientists on the stand as witnesses to vouch for Darwin’s scientific method. Yet when left up to the states (post-Scopes), ruling after ruling continued to ban the teaching of evolution: by 1930, 70 percent of U.S. school districts did not teach evolution. It was not until 1968, in Epperson v. Arkansas, that the Supreme Court ruled against such bans as having a primary religious purpose, thus violating the Constitution’s Establishment Clause. In 1987, in Edwards v. Aguillard, the Court used the same rationale to strike down a Louisiana law requiring biology teachers who taught evolution to discuss “evidence” supporting “creation science.”  (Moral: we can recover from these assaults.)

Interestingly, a recent study by evolutionary scientist Gregory Paul in the Journal of Religion and Society (Vol. 7, 2005), found that greater degrees of social dysfunction in a society correlated with higher religiosity. Contrary to religionists’ claims that secularism produces moral decay, secular societies—e.g., France, the Scandinavian countries, Japan--have far lower rates of homicide, sexually transmitted diseases, teen pregnancy, and abortion than does the U.S. with our high rate of religionists, a rate unique among industrialized Western nations. Similarly, the more secular “blue states” in the U.S. have lower rates of divorce, infant mortality, homicide, and violence than the so-called “red states” where fundamentalism claims to have made its beachhead.

But this religious revival, this time, is different.

What’s different this time is the blatant political mobilization of extreme right religious forces--which in this country are primarily though not exclusively Christian--with the stated theocratic goal sometimes called “Dominionism”: taking over the government and “Christianizing America.” (Never mind the anguished embarrassment this causes principled Christian Americans, and never mind that such politicking contradicts Jesus’s purported own words: “The kingdom of heaven is within you” (IB. IV [1904], no. 654, The Oxyrhynchus Papyri, 1989).

What’s different this time is that the current, tightly organized, well-financed mobilization has been carefully constructed over 25 years, precisely to such an end.

What’s different this time is that this religious extremism--peopled by scared, loyal, true believers, but led by ambitious, hypocritical, political cynics--has in fact seized power in all three branches of our government, yet wants still more.

But to fully grasp what’s different this time, we need to pause for a brief historical aside. We’ve all heard religious condemnation of atheists and agnostics (along with liberals and feminists, of course) as “Nazi baby-killers” for defending a woman’s right to self determination over her own body; and how anyone who insists on strict separation of church and state is an “anti-Christian godless Nazi.”

So it’s crucial to understand--with history, not histrionics--just who is repeating which past, and who is not.

Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist Party came to power via coalition with and support from Germany’s Christian churches, both Catholic and Protestant. Hitler, born into the Roman Catholic Church, was never excommunicated, and he forged political Concordats with the Church. As late as 1941, he told one of his generals, Gerhard Engel, “I am now as before a Catholic, and will always remain so.” Early in his power-consolidation, o n July 14, 1933, Hitler signed into law Article 1 of the "Decree Concerning the Constitution of the German Protestant Church,” merging the German Protestant Church into the Reich, and giving the Reich authority to ordain priests. Article 3 of the Decree assured the new state church that the Reich would finance it, stating: "Should the competent agencies of a State Church refuse to include assessments of the German Protestant Church in their budget, the appropriate State Government will cause the expenditures to be included in the budget upon request of the Reich Cabinet." The constitution of this new, state-sponsored, German church began: "At a time in which our German people are experiencing a great historical new era through the grace of God, [this church] federates into a solemn league all denominations that stem from the Reformation . . . and thereby bears witness to: “One Body and One Spirit, One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism, One God and Father of All of Us, who is Above All, and Through All, and In All.” Article 5 established a head for the new State Church: “Reich Bishop.” Hitler appointed Ludwig Müller, a Lutheran pastor who retained the position until he committed suicide at the war’s end (for more information, see www.commondreams.org).

Women--the canaries in the mine--were hit first. The Kinder, Kirche, Kuche (“children, church, kitchen”) ideal was promulgated by the State Church, women’s groups and publications were shut down, and in the year Hitler became chancellor, feminists and “non-Aryans” were forced out of jobs in education, political office, and the judiciary. In 1934, based on religious arguments, abortion for “Christian Aryan” women was banned and made a criminal offense against the state, punishable by hard labor or the death penalty.

Well. But surely it’s different in the here and now. There are token women, even of color, in the U.S. administration--although the reins of deep power remain clutched in rich, pale, male hands. Besides, we are the country that gave the world Madison Avenue advertising techniques--so totalitarianism here was always bound to have a slick, palatable, happy-face, salable veneer.

But here are some real comparison quotes.

They need no rhetoric. They speak for themselves.

“I hope I will live to see the day when, as in the early days of our country, we won't have any public schools. The churches will have taken them over again and Christians will be running them.”--Rev. Jerry Falwell.

“Secular schools can never be tolerated because such a school has no religious instruction and a general moral instruction without a religious foundation is built on air; consequently, all character training and religion must be derived from faith. . . . We need believing people.”--Adolf Hitler, April 26, 1933, speech during negotiations leading to the Nazi-Vatican Concordat.

“God wants me to run for President.”--George W. Bush, 2000 campaign statement.

“I am convinced that I am acting as the agent of our Creator.  By fighting off the Jews, I am doing the Lord's work." --Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf.

So here we are.

You, me, and this little book--this tool-kit--in your hands.

As a writer and a reader, I trust the power of words that try to tell truths. I believe such words can help save us--our country, and our scarred, embattled planet. Tom Paine despaired that his words were hopelessly misunderstood--yet they inspired a revolution. Lincoln, on meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, said “So this is the little lady who started the Civil War.”

I want to start no war--of culture or otherwise. Perhaps naively, I still want to end wars. The sole purpose of Fighting Words is to reacquaint my countrymen and countrywomen with our secular roots--and inspire us to honor them.

Happily, there seems to be a growing hunger for histories of early America and for biographies of the Founders who framed the new nation’s Constitution. Still (regrettably), too few people plow through 400-page books. We live in an age and culture of sound-bites and factoids. So I researched and compiled Fighting Words—whichbegan life asa short piece in Ms. magazine--in hopes of bridging the two: feeding the hunger, but with the sound-bite brevity of modern communications. A tool for arguing. A source to pull from pocket, purse, or knapsack and brandish, saying “No! Wait! That’s not true! Actually, James Madison said . . .” A body of evidence. A database for reference when writing letters to newspapers, or debating in school. Or just to delight in feeling vindicated, and in recognizing the Founders not as dusty, pompous, old men in powdered wigs, but as the revolutionaries they actually were.

This book is U.S.-specific--although I confess it would have been lovely to include bits from the luminous writing of Mary Wollstonecraft, or from “The Necessity of Atheism” by Percy Bysshe Shelley (an essay that got him expelled from Oxford in 1811). I was tempted to add many quotes like Graham Greene’s “Heresy is only another word for freedom of thought,” or Albert Camus’ “Don't wait for the Last Judgment. It takes place every day.” But what does insist on inclusion here is the following paragraph by Alexis de Tocqueville, from his great Democracy in America, in 1835:

"They all attributed the peaceful dominion of religion in their country mainly to the separation of church and state. I do not hesitate to affirm that during my stay in America I did not meet a single individual, of the clergy or the laity, who was not of the same opinion on this point."

Lucky de Tocqueville.

It’s time to reclaim our nation and return it to its original “patriotic” values. These constitute our rightful inheritance, and could serve, as well, as our inspiration. The United States of America was--is--a remarkable experiment, as its Founders realized. To this day, the reason the world wants to come here is not really for the plasma TVs, big cars, fast foods, and commercial hype--especially since these dubious enticements are now being exported around the globe. The real reason the world wants to come here is still to be part of the remarkable experiment.

So it’s up to us. You and me.

After the first Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin was asked what type of government the Founders had chosen. Franklin replied, “We have given you a republic--if you can keep it.”

Can we keep it?


Excerpted from Fighting Words: A Toolkit for Combating the Religious Right by Robin Morgan. Copyright © 2006 by Robin Morgan. Published by Nation Books (September 28, 2006).  


"Fighting Words is the indispensible Little Red (and White and Blue) Book for reclaiming our country, a "Quotations from Chairman Jefferson"--plus Washington, Madison, Franklin, and many more. Funny, eye-opening, accessible, smart, and best of all really useful for combating the "Christianizing of America."—LILY TOMLIN and JANE WAGNER

“Here are the real words of our founders, free of the prison of rightwing distortion--and we've never needed them more!”—GLORIA STEINEM


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ROBIN MORGAN   An award-winning writer, political analyst, journalist, and editor, Robin Morgan has published more than 20 books, including six of poetry, four of fiction, and the now-classic anthologies Sisterhood Is Powerful, Sisterhood Is Global, and Sisterhood Is Forever. Her latest books include A Hot January: Poems, Saturday’s Child: A Memoir, the best-selling The Demon Lover: The Roots of Terrorism, and her new novel The Burning Time, about women fighting the Inquisition. Her work is translated into 13 languages. A founder and leader of contemporary US and global feminism, she lives in New York City, and recently co-founded The Women's Media Center (womensmediacenter.com). You can visit Robin's new website at www.robinmorgan.us.

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