The Religious Wars

Editor's Note: This article has been updated to reflect yesterday's ruling by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. The original version of the piece can be found in the December issue of the print magazine.

Since last summer's Supreme Court decision in Lawrence vs. Texas, overturning
Texas' anti-sodomy law, evangelicals have grown louder. Now that the
Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has declared that gay couples have the
right to marry, evangelicals are committed to making gay marriage a major issue
during the upcoming presidential campaign. Their recent legislative victory
over "partial-birth" abortions has emboldened them to seek additional
ways to erode Roe v. Wade. They're mounting an all-out offensive for Senate
confirmation of people like Alabama's attorney general, William Pryor -- who
called Roe "the worst abomination of constitutional law in our
history" -- to the federal courts. And they're determined to put religion
back into the public schools.

The outcome of the 2004 presidential election will depend partly on what happens
between now and Election Day in Iraq and to the U.S. economy. But it will also
turn on the religious wars -- fueled by evangelical Protestants, the ground
troops of the Republican Party. The conventional wisdom is that these issues
are sure winners for the right. But Democrats can hold their own in these
wars -- if they respond vigorously to the coming assault.

Democrats should call all this for what it is -- a clear and present danger to
religious liberty in America. For more than three hundred years, the liberal
tradition has sought to free people from the tyranny of religious doctrines
that would otherwise be imposed on them. Today's evangelical right detests that
tradition and seeks nothing short of a state-sponsored religion. But
maintaining the separation of church and state is a necessary precondition of
liberty.

Public opinion sides with the Democrats. Even though a slim majority continues
to oppose gay marriage, polls show that most Americans believe that homosexual
relationships between consenting adults should be legal, that the choice of
whether to have an abortion should be up to a woman and her doctor, that
stem-cell research should be legal, and that religion should stay out of the
public schools. But unless Democrats focus the public's attention on the larger
ongoing assault on religious liberty, the evangelical right will whittle away
these freedoms.

Gay marriage doesn't have to be a wedge issue for the evangelicals -- not if
Democrats can put it where it belongs, as another front in the religious wars.
The question of whether gay couples should be treated the same as married
people need not and should not involve the religious meaning of
"marriage." That's up to particular faiths and congregations to
decide. The issue here is whether gays should have the same legal rights as
heterosexuals -- survivor's benefits under Social Security, alimony, the
distribution of assets when relationships end in divorce and other legal
privileges now conferred only on heterosexual couples.

Democrats should make clear that this is an issue about state power, not
religion -- and call for gay civil rights. Not "marriage," but
"domestic partnership" or "civil union" or whatever words
will convey the same legal rights accorded heterosexuals. Most Americans think
the law shouldn't discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. It follows
that gays should have the same legal rights.

The evangelicals' victory on "partial-birth" abortion proves only that
gruesome pictures and inflamed comments can persuade a majority that a
particular procedure is inhumane. It has no bearing on the more basic question
of whether the evangelical view about when life begins should be imposed on the
rest of America. Democrats should be clear that the issues of abortion and
stem-cell research are about religious liberty. Tar the Republicans and the
evangelicals with William Pryor and other nominees who want to overrule Roe.
Show that the Senate Democrats' filibuster of these nominees is another front
in the same religious war. Likewise, Democrats should hold evangelicals
accountable for what they're trying to do in our nation's schools -- promoting
the teaching of creationism, demanding school prayer, pushing "abstinence
until marriage" programs, and opposing sex education. This is all about
imposing their religious views on our children.

The religious wars aren't pretty. Religious wars never are. But Democrats should
mount a firm and clear counter-assault. In the months leading up to Election
Day, when Republicans are screaming about God and accusing the Democrats of
siding with sexual deviants and baby killers, Democrats should remind Americans
that however important religion is to our spiritual lives, there is no room for liberty in a theocracy.

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