It is undeniable that the economy dominated campaign 2010 and that cultural issues at the nexus of religion and politics were downplayed, but the results are nevertheless very bad news for for those who care about achieving secular goals. Because the Republicans who now control the House, and have increased their numbers in the Senate, are all social and religious conservatives, there is not the slightest possibility in the next two years that any more progress will be made on such hot-button issues as the status of gays in the military, the use of federal funds to support health care based on religious doctrine, or the right-wing war on science.
Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, says he expects the emboldened religious right to push for religious school vouchers, publicly funded “faith-based” hiring, laws, wider latitude for churches to participate in political campaigns, and the teaching of creationism in public schools. “Americans did not vote to stoke the fires of the culture war,” Lynn notes, “but they may have done so inadvertently.”
Here’s a roundup of the potential bad news:
* The Republicans slated to head House committees are not only religious and social conservatives; many embody the most extreme right-wing brand. Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, who will almost certainly be the new chair of the House Judiciary Committee, is one of the hardest-line conservatives in Congress. He has long been an opponent of all abortion rights (receiving a 100 per cent rating from the National Right to Life Committee). He’s the sort of anti-choice right-winger who opposes not only abortion but embryonic stem cell research–and judges whose decisions would allow that research to continue. He has been a consistent and strident critic of all in the federal judiciary whose decisions, on matters ranging from the teaching of creationism in public schools to religious school vouchers, run counter to the religious right’s assault on the separation of church and state.
* In the new Congress, there will be almost no moderating Republican voices on any committee. Many moderate Republicans throughout the country were defeated by Tea Party candidates in primaries. On the judiciary committee, the chairman will be backed up by members like Rep. Steven King (R-Iowa), who recently attacked the federal district court judge who struck down the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
* Congress cannot do anything about presidential executive orders, such as President Obama’s rescinding of the Bush administration’s restrictions on embryonic stem cell research. It can, however, employ many procedural techniques in an effort to achieve the religious right’s goals. The House could, for example, starve scientific research by cutting the overall budget of the National Institutes of Health. It’s easy to imagine this happening, given that the GOP-Tea Party candidates all have made promises to cut taxes and government spending. Everyone knows, of course, that the Republicans aren’t going to vote to cut defense, Social Security and Medicare (the former because Republicans never met a military expenditure they didn’t like, and the latter because such a move would alienate over-65 voters.) The only places left to cut are social spending for the poor and the discretionary budgets of many government agencies, from the Institutes of Health to the Department of Education. Such cuts will, of course, make no real dent in the federal deficit–but candidates can go back to their districts in 2010 and pretend that they have “cut spending.” Cutting spending in areas that are the religious right’s pet bugaboos would kill two birds with one stone. Slash funding for science education, for example (even though the poor performance of American students in science is recognized as a matter of great national significance), and you will support the religious right’s basic opposition to any science teaching that conflicts with their religious beliefs. Cut overall spending for public education, and you bolster private religious schools.
* Look for an endless stream of amendments to vital appropriations bills designed to promote favorite right-wing causes like abstinence-only sex education. and to favor faith-based social spending over programs administered by secular organizations.
* Forget about any possibility of ending “don’t ask, don’t tell” in the next two years. The Republicans aren’t going to listen to any high-ranking military officials who have already testified against the policy, and the military knows which side its bread is buttered on. Obama, who has always waffled on these issues, is certainly not going to press this battle while he is struggling to retain his presidency.
* Worst of all, from a secular point of view, is the unlikehood of Obama being able to affect the federal judiciary during the next two years. The Senate, of course, still has a Democratic majority, but it has already been demonstrated that in the absence of a super-majority, any appointment can be blocked by any senator. Given the Republicans’ stated objective to make Obama a one-term president, they can endlessly delay any judicial appointment proposed in the next two years. Should any of the four far-right Supreme Court justices drop dead during the next two years, I believe that Republicans will stall the confirmation of his successor. Why wouldn’t they? They scent blood in the water, and it’s hard to imagine that the voting public will punish them for keeping a seat vacant on the Supreme Court until 2012.
* Look for even more attacks on church-state separation at the state level, where Republicans have taken control of many legislatures. In a particularly grim election result in Iowa, a campaign led by the far-right Family Research Council and the National Organization for Marriage, was successful in ousting three state Supreme Court justices who had voted to legalize same-sex marriage. Iowa state judges are elected, and three of the seven judges who voted (unanimously) for the legalization of same-sex unions were up for re-election on the ballot. “What is so disturbing about this is that it really might cause judges in the future to be less willing to protect minorities out of fear that they might be voted out of office,” said Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the University of California, Irvine, School of Law.
Yes, Tuesday was a bad night for Democrats. It was a worse night for those who, over the past 30 years, regarded the increasing encroachment of religion on government with alarm and were just beginning to see glimmers of hope that the process might be reversed.
More On Faith and politics:
Catholic America: The disappearing abortion issue
Muqtedar Khan: Sharia Law banned in Oklahoma
Jordan Sekulow: We’re back: Christian conservatives swarm Congress
Albert Mohler: New political equation for religious right
Under God: Debate over religious factor in election begins