Tenets of secular democracy taking hit here at home


ATLANTA -- The White House hopes that Iraqi voters will choose a government dedicated to a democratic, secular state. Such a government - with Islam held at arm's length and protections for minorities built in - would be more likely to cultivate friendly relations with the West. It might also have a better chance of staving off civil war in a country riven by sectarian conflict.

It is curious that President Bush values the principles of secular democracy so highly in Iraq but gives them so little support here at home. That's a shame, because those principles, embedded in the Bill of Rights and meant to protect minorities from the tyranny of the majority, desperately need a boost in the United States.

From the trumped-up "war on Christmas" to controversies over the teaching of evolution, the demagogues of the religious right - claiming that they have a mandate to reclaim a lost history as a "Christian nation" - are poised to dynamite the wall separating church and state.

It is no accident that Mr. Bush's latest Supreme Court nominee, Judge Samuel Alito Jr., has a record of supporting government-sponsored religious ceremonies and displays in public places. The nomination of Harriet Miers ran aground amid harsh protests from conservatives; the religious right made it clear that they believed the president owed them a nominee who would sit in their pew.

Among other things, Judge Alito has told senators that he believes the courts have gone too far in limiting public religious activities. As just one example, the federal appeals court on which Judge Alito sits decided in a 1996 case that a New Jersey school board should not allow prayer at high school graduations. The court's ruling was 11-4, with Judge Alito among the four dissenters. If he ascends to the nation's highest court, he is likely to further erode the protections that have kept the majority from imposing their religious views on the minority.

The nation's religious right demagogues - the Falwells, Robertsons and Dobsons - make an odd claim: Christians are persecuted by secular interests, though (as they insist on pointing out) the majority of Americans identify themselves as Christians. Given that self-identified conservative Christians control most of the levers of power in this country, including the presidency, it's hard to take the claims of persecution seriously.

As to their claims of a Christian majority, they are correct: According to the latest American Religious Identification Survey, conducted in 2001 by the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, 77 percent of Americans identify themselves as Christians (though the beliefs of Christians vary). So what?

The framers of the Constitution understood the dangers that flow from the religious passions of a pious majority intent on having everyone else worship as they do. That's why they were careful to pass a Bill of Rights that protects minorities - those who are not Christians. The Founding Fathers were close enough to the bitter and bloody sectarian conflicts that had scarred Europe to know the dangers of allowing one group of believers to force their faith on others.

Because of his standing among conservative Christians, Mr. Bush is in an excellent position to remind those conservatives of the importance of protecting minority rights, of shoring up the wall of separation between church and state. He could help them remember that public spaces must protect the rights of all citizens - Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, agnostics. He should remind them that they wouldn't want their children forced to pray to Mecca by a Muslim schoolteacher.

Instead, Mr. Bush panders to his base of ultraconservative Christians, encouraging their holy war on the Constitution. He whipped up a frenzy on gay marriage to draw them to the polls last year (and he has not mentioned the subject since); he supported congressional intervention in the heartbreaking case of Terri Schiavo, which had already been properly decided by Florida courts; in August, he told Texas newspaper reporters that he supports the teaching of intelligent design, though it is clearly an effort to inject religion into science classrooms.

For all his rhetoric about planting the seeds of democracy in the Middle East, Mr. Bush has no great appreciation for it here at home. Why should theocrats abroad heed his message when theocrats here appear to be running the place?

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is cynthia@ajc.com.

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