The theocrats are back. Yep, just in time for election season, the Republican Party is trotting out its God Squad, the gaggle of fundamentalists who want to put the Deity back into our schools and return this heathen nation to its good old Christian values.
Mike Huckabee believes that events like the Sandy Hook shooting occur because “we’ve systematically removed God from our schools.”
Ben Carson claims America has “abandoned God,” which has led to this country’s rapid decline.
Ted Cruz, son of an evangelical preacher, says our rights “come from God Almighty” and that “God’s blessing has been on America from the very beginning.”
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Marco Rubio has said that “faith in our Creator is the most important American value of all” and that “you cannot do anything without God.”
I have experienced this theocratic mentality up front and in person. I was a high school student in Abington, a suburb of Philadelphia, when a courageous family of Unitarians legally challenged a Pennsylvania law requiring that at least 10 Bible verses be read at the opening of each school day. Back then, Abington Senior High was a prestigious public institution in a generally upper middle class area, a WASP majority school with a sprinkling of blacks, Jews and Catholics. It was rigidly reactionary in its attitude toward dress, speech and student deportment.
At the time, the Keystone State was one of only five states with this mandatory requirement (25 others had laws regarding “optional” Bible reading). What this meant for students at the homeroom level was that every morning, as the school intercom crackled on, we had to sit there and listen while someone – generally a student as bored as we were – read from the Holy Book. And there was nothing we could do about this. We couldn’t read, chat, do homework. We couldn’t ignore the Christian indoctrination. If we did, we were hit with detention.
But Edward Schempp objected. He filed suit
against a law that required his children to listen to, and sometimes read aloud, Bible passages. After the case wound its way through the judicial system, the Supreme Court, on June 17, 1963, voted 8-1 in favor of the Schempps. Writing for the majority, Justice Tom Clark stated that “we repeat and again reaffirm that neither a State nor the Federal government can constitutionally force a person to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion.”
Naturally, the Bible crowd hated this decision. One Washington paper said that “God and religion have all but been driven from the public schools,” while members of Congress drafted over 100 resolutions seeking to overturn the decision by amending the Constitution.
No one seemed more upset about the lawsuit than Dr. W. Eugene Stull, principal of Abington Senior High School. In a Philadelphia Inquirer story I wrote following up on the Schempps 20 years after the court decision, I discovered not only that Stull was a closet creation science advocate, but also that he had taken an active role in trying to deny Ellery Schempp admission to the college of his choice. Stull called the admissions office at Brown University, told them Ellery was a “troublemaker” and suggested he be refused admission. Brown, recognizing the value of dissent in a free society, admitted Ellery, who went on to earn a Ph.D. in physics.
Even today, with increasing signs that there is a significant decline
in the number of Americans who identify as Christian –
the theocrats act as if these numbers are irrelevant. Even if they make statements that are blatantly untrue – that, for example, it isillegal for an individual to pray in public school
– they ignore the reality to pursue their agenda.
The theocrats are relentless. They are fundamentally anti-democratic. Their footprints can be seen in the “religious freedom” bills that have made headlines over the past several months, in the proposed Texas legislation that would ban state and local governments from granting or enforcing same-sex marriage licenses and in the vote by the Tennessee House of Representatives to name the Bible as the state book (a decision killed by the state Senate).
During the years that the Schempp case went through the court system, they received thousands of letters, some of them smeared with excrement, at least a third vile in tone. Ellery’s younger brother, Roger, was bullied at school, and his sister Donna was relentlessly teased and not allowed to have a normal high school life. Cries of ‘Commie camp’ were flung at their house when school buses passed by.
Yet the Schempps survived this religious bigotry. And so far, this country has survived the onslaught of the theocrats. But eternal vigilance is necessary, because the Huckabees and Carsons of this world will refuse to mind their own business and leave the rest of us alone. We as a democratic, pluralistic society have to let these people know that we will not be the Christian version of Iran. Not now, not ever.
Lewis Beale is a journalist based in Raleigh.