In researching my dystopian political novel, Christian Nation, in which Sarah Palin becomes president and leads the country down a slow road to theocracy, one of my most puzzling discoveries was that Christian fundamentalist politics is animated by the conviction that "religious freedom" for evangelical Christians often requires others to be denied their own basic freedoms.
This strain of thinking was illustrated last month when a broad coalition of Christian right groups, calling themselves the "Freedom Federation," tried to explain to the rest of us, in advance, why they couldn't and wouldn't accept a loss in the Supreme Court cases dealing with marriage equality. They wrote, in part: "While there are many things we can endure, redefining marriage is so fundamental to the natural order and the true common good that this is the line we must draw and one we cannot and will not cross." And what does not crossing that line involve? They explain:
"...if the government redefines marriage to grant a legal equivalency to same-sex couples, that same government will then enforce such an action with the police power of the State. This will bring about an inevitable collision with religious freedom and conscience rights. We cannot and will not allow this to occur on our watch."
And there you have it: It's not simply that the evangelical political movement opposes gay marriage because their religion tells them it's wrong and they feel conscience bound to oppose it. Instead, the Christian right is telling us that gay marriage and its "enforcement" by the state is an act that contravenes their own "religious freedom and conscience rights." When a gay couple gets married and lives in happy monogamy for the rest of their days, they argue, this constitutes a constitutionally and morally unacceptable infringement of the "religious freedom and conscience rights" of fundamentalist Christians, and thus something against which we can expect them to struggle -- righteously -- until they are once again "free."
I have to explain this again, because the brains of the rest of us are simply not wired to understand this way of thinking, and it's really important that we do: Fundamentalist dogma, which is obsessed with sexual purity, holds that a modern, secular, diverse and tolerant society victimizes evangelical Christians, because tolerance of sin and error is intolerable to them. This Orwellian inversion, where your freedom must be limited in order to assure my own, is no longer a fringe or schismatic belief. It motivates a large group of our fellow citizens who have been manipulated by their leaders into feeling that their religion and way of life are under relentless attack.
I believe it may have been Pat Robertson, the Christian media mogul who ran for president of the United States in 1988, who first popularized the idea that America's evangelical Christians are a persecuted minority. In a 1993 interview he said, "Just like what Nazi Germany did to the Jews, so liberal America is now doing to the evangelical Christians. It's no different." To this day, it astonishes me that the media and public did not react more strongly to this statement by Robertson. Because such an assertion was manifestly untrue as an empirical matter, did they not see that Robertson must have made this absurd claim for a purpose? After all, what do such victims do? What are they entitled to do? There is no moral or legal code under which a minority so terribly victimized would not be entitled to rise up and vanquish their persecutors, and claim the mantle of history -- and the mantle of righteousness -- in doing so.
Over the past 30 years, in a strategy common to fundamentalists the world over, evangelical preachers successfully tapped into the meme of the "persecuted church." The growth of a modern, secular and tolerant society, they argued, really is about the tyrannical suppression of Christianity, because the idea of a secular and tolerant society is inconsistent with the Bible and fundamentalist claims to dominion over civil society. Extension of basic civil liberties to those who engage in a sexual practice that is taboo to fundamentalists becomes an attack on the Christian church in which Christians, and not the historically persecuted homosexuals, are the true victims. Permitting gays to marry becomes an attack on marriage, in which married people are somehow victimized, threatened and undermined. Abortion and contraception are seen as an attack on life itself. Gradually, non-fundamentalist evangelicals started to look at modern secular society differently. Perhaps the big-city atheist intellectuals really do not mean "live and let live." Perhaps, they began thinking, the patina of tolerance really is part of a program to abolish my religion and prevent me from believing and worshiping as I see fit. Fear is contagious, and when accompanied by economic distress and social alienation, turns easily into the comforting cloak of victimhood, providing absolution to the wearer for his misfortune, solidarity with his fellow victims and an enemy on whom to project his anger and resentment.
Too many of us in the big cities and "blue states" indulge in the wishful thought that the 2012 elections signal at long last the ebb tide of Christian fundamentalism in American politics. I certainly hope so. But that's not what it looks like in much of the country. In what Garry Wills has called the "great bait and switch," tea party politicians elected to tame deficits have instead unleashed a tsunami of religiously motivated legislation in the state legislatures, including by his count -- in the first quarter of 2012 alone -- 944 separate bills and amendments dealing with abortion and contraception. And most disturbingly, the Southern Poverty Law Center reports what they call a "stunning" rise in extreme right "hate groups" and militias. Once you understand how many of your fellow citizens believe that marriage equality and a secular government are intolerable affronts to their own freedoms, this should not be a surprise. I fear that the recent Supreme Court decisions on marriage equality will provide new energy and vigor to Christian fundamentalist politics and the "Christian Nation" movement. This makes it all the more vital for the rest of us to overcome our stubborn complacency and become vigilant in our defense of the real gift of the founding fathers: a secular constitution in which no religion receives preference over any other, and no one's religious freedom requires any other citizen to sacrifice his or her own.