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On the Frontlines of the Culture War

by Dr. David R. Koepsell


The following article is from the Secular Humanist Bulletin, Volume 20, Number 2.


David KoepsellWar has been declared in America. The battle lines were drawn some time ago, in the early 1980s, when a small but vocal element of fundamentalist Christians declared a certain segment of society to be public enemy number one. Since then, these forces, often posing as something less than they actually are, have been working to take power in the public sphere and transform this country into a form of theocracy. This movement has been referred to as “dominionism,” and it seeks to reverse the liberalization of society through the last century and the long-standing separation of church and state dictated by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

This culture war has been planned for decades. The forces of fundamentalism in America gathered their resources, consolidated power, and got elected to various levels of government offices. They finally won the ultimate prize, the presidency, by action of the Supreme Court in 2000.

This year, those culture wars are coming to a head, and it may be the last stand for liberal democracy in America. We are battling against the recitation of “under God” in the Pledge, a proposed constitutional amendment defining marriage as an exclusively religious institution, and establishing for the first time in two hundred years an explicitly religious connection between the federal government and our individual choices and preferences, through such legislation as the proposed constitutional ban on same-sex marriages as well as restrictions on abortion rights. Given the situation, we ought to discuss our commonalities and gird ourselves for the pitched battle ahead, or we risk losing our long-held religious and philosophical liberties.

The Roots of Dominionism

The first shots across the bow in the culture wars were levied in about 1982, when Christian broadcasters such as Pat Robertson began rallying their followers to become politically active. Whereas, until the eighties, fundamentalist Christians mainly worried about communism, in 1986, Francis Schaeffer, a noteworthy evangelical theologian, called secular humanism the greatest threat to Christianity ever. In the week of July 7 that year, on The 700 Club, Schaeffer stated:

Today we live in a humanist society. They control the schools. They control public television. They control the media in general. . . .

He went on to state:

If you don’t revolt against tyranny and this is what I call the bottom line, is that not only do you have the privilege but the duty to revolt. When people force upon you and society that which is absolutely contrary to the Word of God, and which is really tyranny . . . we have a right to stand against it as a matter of principle.

On April 29, 1985, Billy Graham, again on The 700 Club, called upon evangelicals to get themselves politically involved and active. Since about 1982, the ranks of this movement have swelled to about thirty-five million. The movement is centered around hatred of and political opposition to what it considers to be the secular-humanist agenda (maintaining a strict separation of church and state, liberal views on marriage, keeping creationism out of the schools, internationalist cooperation, a rejection of the notion of the fallen state of man, etc.). This is combined with the “dominionist” agenda (reversing Roe v. Wade, eliminating public schooling and the New Deal, turning the American government into “God’s Dominion” led by evangelicals, etc.) Explaining this agenda in his book, The Secret Kingdom, Pat Robertson explains:

It is clear that God is saying, “I gave man dominion over the earth, but he lost it. Now I desire mature sons and daughters who will in My name exercise dominion over the earth and will subdue Satan, The unruly, and the rebellious. Take back My world from those who would loot it and abuse it. Rule as I would rule.” [p. 201]

Speaking for God, Robertson described the dominionist agenda, as it was conceived by the religious Right and as it is now being carried out. This is why so-called conservatives, who should oppose expanded federal authority over individual choices like abortion, marriage, sex, and self-directed “vices,” remain quiet when their president exerts or even considers extending federal power into any of these arenas.

Simultaneously with seeking to interject more federal authority over individuals’ choices and lives, the dominionist agenda seeks to undo the New Deal. It views it as socialist and believes that churches and faith should replace government in providing for the downtrodden and downfallen. The current spate of faith-based initiatives is the culmination of the positive aspects of this philosophy, while the deficit-fueled crises in Medicare and Social Security are the negative. In 1985, Pat Robertson first unveiled his program to eliminate Social Security, which is similar to the current administration’s Medicare Prescription Drug Bill. Robertson called for a gradual increase in retirement age and moving Social Security taxes into private investments with the goal of eliminating Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s greatest legacy.

After leaving the Reagan administration, David Stockman, former director of the Office of Management and Budget, admitted that running up large deficits was part of a plan to force the eventual elimination of the New Deal. With the then Democratic Congress and the eventual eradication of the deficits in the 1990s, that plan was thwarted. Now, with record budget deficits and a Federal Reserve chairman’s warning that Social Security cannot survive without cuts, that agenda is coming to fruition.

The Divine Right of Kings

Dominionism is a form of divine-right theory. Whereas our founders wisely left this notion behind and chose to establish a secular state, clearly setting forth its basis and philosophy of religious toleration and lack of established religion, the dominionists despair that, without a common religious authority and due to the creeping influences of liberalism and humanism, society is somehow in decay.

Once again, in 1986, on Pat Robertson’s The 700 Club, Francis Schaeffer stated that humanism was being “forced” on Christians and taught the heretical (and caricatured) viewpoint that “Man was the center of all things.” He equated humanism with communism because both were atheistic. He called the humanistic worldview “the enemy.”

Part of the strategy has been to call humanism a religion and thus to be able to turn the First Amendment protections against the establishment of religion against secular humanism. This strategy appears to be working and is part of a concerted effort to twist the language of certain court decisions to make the argument that teaching evolution, among other things, is akin to the establishment of religion. Unwitting humanists who concede that the humanistic worldview is religious and not philosophical have played into the hands of the activists on the religious Right who continue to try to get the teaching of evolution out of the schools and include religious creationism under the guise of “intelligent-design theory.”

By Any Means Necessary

Part of the dominionist methodology is essentially to do whatever it takes, without regard for good or evil, to accomplish the goals. Dominionist spokespeople blithely quote Machiavelli in the name of conducting God’s work and establishing His dominion here on Earth through the vessel of the U.S. government. Michael Leeden of the American Enterprise Institute is a frequent guest on the The 700 Club and in 1999 published Machiavelli on Modern Leadership: Why Machiavelli’s Iron Rules Are as Timely and Important Today as Five Centuries Ago. In it he states:

In order to achieve the most noble accomplishments, the leader may have to “enter into evil.” This is the chilling insight that has made Machiavelli so feared, admired, and challenging. It is why we are drawn to him still. . . . (p. 91)

This “insight” can help us understand the mindset behind stalwart Christians who nonetheless violate notions of “Just War Theory,” who systematically violate fundamental human and political rights, and who stoop to trickery, theft, and other “sins” to achieve their ends. Their justifications are neo-Calvinist and guided by the unwavering notion that as they are “Born Again” they now work directly for God, and the ends will justify the means.

Now, dominionism is not limited to the pentecostal and fundamentalist Christian communities, but sweeps through Episcopalian and Roman Catholic communities as well. Witness the tremendous success of Mel Gibson’s fundamentalist Catholic demagoguery in his The Passion of the Christ. Far from being pacifists, they accept even violence as a means of establishing the Kingdom of God. Pat Robertson wrote in his The Secret Kingdom that the kingdom of heaven “suffers violence, and that violent men take it by force. . . . Zealous men force their way in. That’s what it means” (p. 82).

New Attacks and Fronts

The culture wars will only heat up as the 2004 presidential election approaches. We can expect that the forces on the religious Right will continue to try to drive a wedge between the American people, and the means they will use to do this include cultural issues such as marital rights, prayer in schools, and proposed legislation such as the Constitution Restoration Act of 2004. This legislation, drafted by former Judge Roy Moore’s attorney, Herb Titus, is now being considered in both the Senate and the House of Representatives as H.R. 3799 and S. 2082. It would amend Title 28, Chapter 81 of the U.S. Code at Section 1260. The amendment would limit appellate jurisdiction and would state:

Notwithstanding any other provision of this chapter, the Supreme Court shall not have jurisdiction to review, by appeal, writ of certiorari, or otherwise, any matter to the extent that relief is sought against an element of Federal, State, or local government (whether or not acting in official or personal capacity), by reason of that element’s or officer’s acknowledgement of God as the sovereign source of law, liberty, or government.

This bill would prevent the U.S Supreme Court, and other federal courts, from hearing cases involving “expressions of religious faith by elected or appointed officials.” This means that cases like former Judge Roy Moore’s would be immune from actions from higher courts, such as the one that finally removed his Ten Commandments plaque from the Alabama courthouse and that got him removed from the bench.

The language contained in the proposed law is even more ominous than it may at first appear. It essentially suggests that federal judges may be able to institute biblical punishments without fear of judicial review. This is in fact more in the way of realizing the dominionist agenda. It echoes Pat Robertson’s call to action, in which he stated via an article published March 24, 1986: “There’s a whole class of cases [the Supreme Court] can’t hear, and there’s nobody can do anything about it.”

It certainly addresses the stated concerns of John Giles, Alabama president of the Christian Coalition: “The greatest unbridled abuse by the federal judiciary for over forty years has been in the area of redefining the acknowledgement of God as the sovereign source of law. . . . We define this as judicial activism, making law from the bench. These unconstitutional rulings have gone unchecked by other branches of government.”

And so to answer these concerns, which are themselves not founded upon history, reason, or logic, the dominionists seek to usurp the role of the courts in interpreting the Constitution and to place God in the role of supreme arbiter and source of law, in complete contradiction of our Founders’ intent and the Constitution’s plain meaning. They are attempting to establish their theocratic state, and this bill, sponsored by, among others, Senators Richard C. Shelby, Zell Miller, Sam Brownback, and Lindsay Graham, and of course supported by the current occupant of the White House, are working from within the government to try to do it.

Humanism Is Not the Enemy

In December 2000, the Supreme Court’s selection of George W. Bush to ascend to the presidency was the accomplishment of twenty years of planning by a small but powerful dominionist cabal. On December 24, 2001, Pat Robertson resigned as president of the Christian Coalition. It was a symbolic act whose meaning was clear to true believers: the president had ascended to the head of the True American Church. The dominionists assumed their dominion over this country, and their agenda could become realized. Soon thereafter, it became clear that the dominionist agenda stretched into the rest of the world, as war was declared in the Middle East, and American supremacy and hegemony, often vaguely referred to by our president as a divine mission, were increasingly tested.

In 1982, humanism, specifically secular humanism, was declared to be the enemy. Now, it is clear that the enemies of the new religious state include all “heretics”—all dissenters, including the liberal, the tolerant, the peaceful, and the disadvantaged. The secular humanist philosophy includes toleration, secularism, individual choice, the inherent dignity of man, the methods of science, liberty, and rational resolution of conflict. We also believe in freedom of intellectual and spiritual inquiry. We are not all atheists, and we care about the role of morals and ethics in our communities and lives. Yet, because we reject the establishment of state religion and because we reject intolerance and dogmatism, we are blamed for the downfall of society. We are heretics, of a sort. We share this role now with the majority of spiritual and faithful, as well as the irreligious and nonbelievers.

We are now truly at the front lines of a culture war, started by those who view their religious beliefs as authority enough to impose their narrow worldview and ideology and to establish their kingdom of God here in America. We need to recognize that this war is in progress and that our ranks are included as targets of those who have taken power. This could be the last stand for religious diversity and toleration in America.

The Council for Secular Humanism is the largest organization of its kind in the world. We publish Free Inquiry and have a number of programs and committees working to “foster interest in and encourage the growth of the traditions of democracy, secular humanism, and the principles of free inquiry in contemporary society.” We also work to defend the right of the nonreligious and to maintain the separation of church and state that protects minority religious viewpoints. Our First Amendment Task Force is actively involved in protecting religious freedom and diversity both for the sake of nonbelievers and believers alike.

Although we are clearly at war and we are defenders of a certain tradition and viewpoint, the Council’s mission is essentially positive. We believe that reason, science, and the arts can uplift humanity and encourage cooperation, understanding, and peace. We believe that man’s inherent dignity can best be realized when institutions foster rational inquiry and superstitions and ignorance are rejected. We believe that humankind’s condition improves and society evolves when, utilizing reason and emotional capacities for sympathy and cooperation, humankind shirks old prejudices and constructs new and workable societies based upon shared principles and toleration of diversity and freedoms of thought, conscience, and person.

We share these principles with many Americans and Europeans. We believe that we are the silent majority and that, when we find our voice, join it with others, and raise those voices together in support of our positive worldviews and against the rising tide of intolerance and dogmatism, we can prevail in the culture war and live in a better world. 


David Koepsell is executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism.

Author’s Note: Read Katherine Yurica, “The Despoiling of America” (The Yurica Report, http://www.yuricareport.com) for a thorough account of dominionism. It is the source of many of the quotations in this article.


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