Jewish World Review April 26, 2005 / 17 Nisan 5765

Paul Greenberg

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The war on religion

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | Mark Pryor, the junior senator from Arkansas, may not make the news very often, but when he does say something newsworthy, it's a doozy.

The other day, he strongly objected to those religious fanatics (fa-nat-ic — anyone who disagrees with you strongly) who have been campaigning against the never-ending filibuster that is denying the president's judicial nominees a straight up-or-down vote in the United States Senate.

Mark Pryor wasn't so much challenging these folks' political views but their daring to express them. It's unbecoming, you see, for church people to participate in the low rough-and-tumble of politics. Their tactics, he says, could "make the followers of Jesus Christ just another special interest group."

So shut up, he explained.

It's all enough to bring back memories of the good ol' bad old days in these Southern latitudes. Back in the Furious Fifties, those defending the political status quo relied heavily on the filibuster, too, and they, too, objected to preachers sticking their noses into politics and getting folks all riled up.

Back then, it was the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (talk about mixing politics and religion!) that was causing all the trouble, and stirring folks up for no good reason.

Religion may be a fine, stained-glass thing in its purely ornamental place, but actually to take a stand on religious conviction and fight for it, whether it's picketing a lunch counter or driving the money-changers from the Temple, well, then you've gone from preachin' to meddlin' — and become a special interest, to use Mark Pryor's damning description.

"We do need to think about the tone that we as Christians are setting," Sen. Pryor said in a conference call with some reporters from Arkansas, "and think about the examples we are setting."

Note the senator's reference to "we as Christians" — he's not above speaking for Christians in general when it suits his purposes. Which is the charge he levels against those preachers opposed to the filibuster.

The senator's objections to religion in politics seem limited to the Religious Right. Has he ever had a bad word for those religious groups that have joined him in trying to save the filibuster? I have yet to hear him go after the Interfaith Alliance, which just held a teleconference to attack the Republican leader of the U.S. Senate.

Apparently it's only some church groups that Senator Pryor wants to censor.

It won't work. Anyone, including a United States senator, who thinks he can keep religious ideas out of the political arena in this country must be talking about, well, a different country. France, maybe, or the old Soviet Union. Or Mexico during one of its anti-clerical seizures.

Religious concepts have been woven into the fabric of this republic from its conception: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness . . . ."

And what of Lincoln's immortal Second Inaugural, this country's second declaration of dependence on divine Providence? Strip that document of its religious references, and it would be reduced to meaninglessness.

And think of all the great protest movements that have made, and are making, America what it is, and is becoming. Successful or unsuccessful, right or wrong, from abolition to civil rights, Prohibition to Pro-Life, so many have been rooted in religious conviction. The moral imagination of Americans, which is so much a part of our national character, is inseparable from our religious roots.

Sen. Pryor has every right to disagree with those whose religious convictions lead them to different conclusions. It's a free country, which means the political brawl is open to all comers. But the senator has no right to keep some Americans from voicing their honest convictions.

The most dismaying thing about Mark Pryor's remarks is that he wasn't arguing the substance of the political issue at hand — the filibuster against the president's judicial nominees — but that some folks, namely Christians, shouldn't be expressing their views. Or at least that they should censor their words to please him.

How strange. To borrow a line Mark Twain uttered when he ran across an equally strange notion: It's not anti-American, it's not un-American, and it's French.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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