Less Than Zero... Foggy Bottom and
the defeat of the Istook Amendment...
Over two centuries ago, when Andrew Ellicott and Benjamin Banneker began to survey a swampy lowland between Virginia and Maryland, few people alive then believed that the future capital of the United States would become the grand and imperial city which it is today. George Washington, of course, appointed Pierre L'Enfant to design the new metropolis, originally dubbed Federal City. He laid out an ornate template of wide boulevards and circles which compared favorably to the capitals of Europe; its boundaries would include the Potomac and Anacostia rivers. The federal government officially opened up shop there in 1800, but Washington, D.C., renamed by an act of congress for the nation's first President, had fewer than 5,000 inhabitants. It was sacked by the British in the War of 1812, and later threatened during the Civil War. After that, depressions and migrations swelled the city. Today, it remains essentially a ward of the federal government, with the major activities being the mechanics of statecraft and tourism.
July 14, 2020
About all that L'Enfant might recognize today is his name which honors an enormous office and commercial plaza. Add to this, however, the persistent fog which rises like tendrils from the Potomac, occasionally saturating the area in a thick blanket of gray. The new capital may have started life as Federal City and evolved into the more salutary Washington, District of Columbia, but to the more cynical it is still known by the somewhat pejorative moniker, Foggy Bottom. Indeed, the name describes one of the more upscale and trendy neighborhoods in D.C. today; but it also conveys the pervasive sense of obfuscation and concealment which, as a part of statecraft, is a vital and thriving industry there as well. Foggy Bottom has provided ample inspiration to political editorialists, cartoonists and pundits. It is appropriate that this unofficial appellation also serve as the inspirational font of more contemporary descriptions of exactly what goes on there. One thinks of media-speak terms such as "spin control" and "spin doctoring." It's all part of the weltanshauung of Foggy Bottom culture, which is to say that nearly every utterance originating from Washington must be carefully analyzed, deconstructed, vetted and questioned. Beware of politicians and their courtiers speaking claims of facts.
It would have been fitting had Foggy Bottom lived up to its reputation for that obfuscating canopy of gray earlier this summer, June 4 to be precise, when the House of Representatives finally got around to voting on the proposed Religious Freedom Amendment. That legislation, which possesses a near-fetish quality for religious right organizations like the Christian Coalition, would have essentially eviscerated the First Amendment and opened the cultural floodgates for religious expression in government, and even the public funding of faith-based groups. After a day of hyperbolic and blustery debate, representatives turned down the RFA, 224-203. Despite the majority vote for the Religious Freedom Amendment, the tally was 61 votes short of the required 2/3 margin necessary to pass so weighty a measure as a proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
But it is the reaction to this event which concerns us here. Within hours of the early-evening vote on the RFA, both sides in the contest were claiming their own respective triumphs. Rep. Ernest Istook (R-OK) noted that most attempts to enact any constitutional amendment required several efforts. Randy Tate, Executive Director of Christian Coalition added that merely getting the Religious Freedom Amendment onto the floor of congress was a significant victory.
From the other side, a bevy of religious and separationist groups which out taken their stand against RFA celebrated in the demise of this scheme to entangle the interests of church and state. "Religious liberty" had been preserved, Jefferson's wall still stood firm, the Barbarians of the evangelical right had been turned back despite their fierce assault. "The Istook amendment is vanquished," said the Rev. Barry Lynn of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.
End of story?
Hardly. There are lessons to be learned here, and not just about the growing power of the religious right on the American cultural and political landscape. The "defeat" of the Istook Amendment, while certainly just cause for elation and even merriment, should also serve as impetus to revisit the strategy of upholding the principle of state-church separation, and take stock of other issues as well.
Fifteen years ago, during the heyday of the Reagan presidency, the onus of getting a piece of legislation such as the Religious Freedom Amendment onto the floor of congress was, well, a dream in the eye of fundamentalist activists who were just beginning to learn the ropes of Foggy Bottom realpolitik. Before that, literally hundreds of constitutional amendments had been proposed, all with the goal of inserting some form of prayer back into the nation's public schools. Between 1963 and 1964, for instance, over 150 such amendments were proposed, and the House Judiciary Committee held eighteen days of public hearings over the matter, accumulating 2,774 pages of testimony. In 1971, the so-called Wylie Amendment called for prayer "in any public building which is supported in whole or in part through the expenditure of public funds." It fell 28 votes short of reaching the required 2/3 majority.
Gauged by the 1971 vote, the Religious Freedom Amendment tally was a set-back for those seeking to reinstate some kind of prayer or faith ritual in public venues. Or was it? The fact that a majority of elected representatives would have voted for such a constitutional amendment is disturbing; thank the Founders of the Republic for their wisdom in installing the 2/3 rule necessary to enact such a widesweeping piece of legislative impetuousness. A decade ago, however, even having something like the RFA clear the House Judiciary Committee (which it did last March in a 16-11 vote) was a glimmer in the eye of a Pat Robertson or a Paul Weyrich. The fact remains that the 224-203 vote must be acknowledged by all sober observers as testament to the effort, expertise and gritty determination of groups like Christian Coalition in mastering the art of spin control and flexing their newly-pumped political muscle. On June 4, it was the Coalition -- and not the array of religious and political groups united in opposition to the RFA -- which was the 800-pound gorilla on Capitol Hill.
The Religious Freedom Amendment also vanquished a long-standing taboo in American politics, one not addressed in the erstwhile Wylie amendment. RFA declared that groups could not be denied a "benefit" on account of religion. Translated from the Foggy Bottom lexicon, this means that churches and other religious groups could soon be queuing up for public funding.
It was a clear violation of the intent of the Founders of the American system, including the sentiments expressed by Thomas Jefferson in his Act for Establishing Religious Freedom in Virginia, 1786. That measure declared that "no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions of belief; but that all men shall be free to profess... their opinion in matters of religion."
The 224-203 vote tells us of more than just the political complexion in Foggy Bottom, though. Listen carefully to the debate over the Religious Freedom Amendment, and study the alignment of the different groups staking out ideological positions on the proposal, for it is a disturbing demographic and topographical snapshot of the evolving American culture. Numerous faith groups spoke out against the RFA, of course, and as usual the commentary on both the House floor and in front of the Judiciary Committee was strictly confined to those who vociferously cited their own religious credentials as a prelude to their remarks about the First Amendment. Opponents of the amendment felt compelled to showcase their respective beliefs about god, the Bible, prayer and the sanctity of religious ritual; to do otherwise was tantamount to political suicide. Indeed, it is a frightening aspect to this whole debate over prayer and religious expression that opposing the excesses of such practices first requires such a mandatory and ritualistic public mea culpa.
Somewhere, lost in the matrix of rhetorical jabs and altar calls echoing throughout the House on June 4, was the fact that nearly 26 million Americans profess no belief and describe themselves as Atheists, agnostics, or skeptics of some form in matters concerning religion. One must add to this a majority of our fellow citizens who are perjoratively labeled Unchurched Americans, the tens of millions who do not attend church services on a regular basis. Despite periodic waves of religiosity which have swept the land, from the Great Revival to the rise of the modern-day religious right, never has there been a time in American history where the majority of this land's people could be counted in the ranks of faithful, persistent church-goers.
the groups which have fought the Religious Freedom Amendment and its predecessors, represented year after year by cut-out, well spoken ministers, priests and rabbis, are an endangered species.
Even so, there was hardly an Honorable Gentleman or Gentlewoman who chose to speak for this group. Like the hearings in front of the House Judiciary Committee, the floor debate over H.R. 78, Mr. Istook's proposed constitutional amendment, was reduced to a doctrinal squabble among competing camps, each of which journeyed to extremes in upholding their respective claim to being godly and religious.
But the vote informs us of more than just the growing sophistication and clout of the Christian Coalition and its allies. A 61 vote gap, the difference between defeat and passage, counts for very little in politics, especially given the ability of the religious right to think in terms of long-range and grass roots constituency building. Once consigned to the fringes of American realpolitik, even within the Republican Party, religious conservatives now call the tune. House Speaker Newt Gingrich knows this dance quite well, and in the weeks leading up to the RFA vote waves of panic resonated through the GOP ranks when religious right heavies like James Dobson of Focus on the Family threatened to take their support (and votes) elsewhere if more was not done to appease the party's influential faith-based wing. No longer could Gingrich and his aging class of GOP Young Turks who had been swept into power four years ago, so easily dismiss the culture war issues -- abortion, gays in the military, vouchers, school prayer -- so close to the ideological hearts and minds of Dobson and his followers, in exchange for IRS reform and tax cuts.
The point is this, in all of its stark realism: the groups which have fought the Religious Freedom Amendment and its predecessors, represented year after year by cut-out, well spoken ministers, priests and rabbis, are an endangered species. Their denominations are stagnant, even declining in terms of membership. It is the energized religions of the right, the Fundamentalists, Evangelicals, Pentecostals whose organizational muscle generally supports measures such as the Religious Freedom Amendment, which are thriving and growing in fin de siecle America. The "separationist" religious groups are ideological dinosaurs, rapidly being pushed into the cultural tar pits. The immediate future favors the religious right, the Promise Keepers, the Christian Coalition. It is not smiling on the comfortable and more liberal mainline denominations of the American religious establishment.
There is a final insult and irony in this story about religious politics in Foggy Bottom. There was little chance that this year the Religious Freedom Amendment would clear the House of Representatives, let alone the Senate. Be assured that the Christian Coalition and its friends are already sharpening the knives for the next round of congressional races, and looking ahead to the White House race; certainly, that 61 vote margin can grow, or vanish, after one election. Even so, separationists and civil libertarians -- and this includes Atheists -- were focused on the events of June 4. One could hear the sigh of relief on newsgroups, discussion boards and in the pages of celebratory commentary in the days which followed.
But what kind of victory was it? The day after the vote on the Religious Freedom Amendment, many of the groups that had taken high-profile media stances in denouncing that measure were back at work lobbying for passage of a new version of the discredited Religious Freedom Restoration Act. School prayer is a hot, divisive and media-sexy issue, and news wires hummed about the RFA vote before and after the final count. This is not the case, though, with the RFRA, which after being struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in the BOERNE v. FLORES case, has been reincarnated in nearly two dozen state versions, and a new federal proposal disingenuously titled the Religious Liberty Protection Act. RLPA does not address school prayer per se, but it does speak to the underlying issues of the Religious Freedom Amendment, namely, the relationship between government and religion. RLPA holds government to a standard of having to demonstrate a "compelling interest" before placing a "burden" on any religious group or practice. It has also, as a political cause celebre united an astonishing range of religious and other groups -- Jews, Evangelicals, mainstream Protestants, Humanists, Muslims, Scientologists, Hindus, new agers. In California, one finds the Presbyterians and other "respectable" churches working with the right-wing Traditional Values Coalition for passage of that state's "mini-RFRA," dubbed the Religious Freedom Protection Act.
And unlike the alarm sounded over the (unlikely) passage of the RFA by many separationist and religious groups, there is hardly a whimper or mention of the Religious Liberty Protection Act. According to constitutional scholar Dr. Marci Hamilton, the RFRA/RLPA is one of the most widespread pieces of legislation in American history, and surely one of the most important in terms of the First Amendment issues it addresses. Yet, for months the organizations backing RFRA, led by a cozy umbrella group called the Committee for the Free Exercise of Religion, have been anything but vocal about the measure. In state after state, legislators, city officials and civic groups are now complaining that they had not been properly informed about RFRA-style legislation. The City of Chicago even struck a deal with the state to not actively oppose the Illinois Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Some municipal authorities, though, including the City Attorney are now speaking up, and asking Gov. John Edgar to not sign the legislation.
Why the secrecy? Why the "stealth" agenda? Why all of the saber rattling over the Religious Freedom Amendment? And why work behind the scenes in support of RFRA and RLPA, a piece of legislation that, in effect, uses the power of government to proclaim and protect the "special rights" of religious groups and practices, and fosters a system of "dual justice" in the application of laws?
Clearly, some of the groups which are supporting the RFRA/RLPA -- American Civil Liberties Union, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, People for the American Way -- generally do good work in defending the wall of separation between government and religion. And whenever something like the Religious Freedom Amendment is pushed through the House Judiciary Committee and on to the floor of the Congress, it helps to have religious groups casting doubt on the wisdom of such legislation. Something is missing, though. Something is amiss. In the discussion over state-church separation in America, the debate can no longer be limited to religious groups who happen to agree or disagree on proposals like the Religious Freedom Amendment. The "religious separationists" cannot be counted upon to hold the line forever. Someone has to break the self-imposed taboo demonstrated so blatantly in the House of Representatives on June 4, 2020. Someone has to begin talking about 25 million people in this country who have no religious beliefs. Someone has to acknowledge the fact that while religious faith has been an important aspect of American history and culture, so has the role played by an "Unchurched" and secular majority.
If there is one thing you can know for sure from Foggy Bottom, it is the fact that the Religious Freedom Amendment will be back in one form or another. Thirty five years of effort is sufficient proof of that. There will be more hearings, more debate, more votes. Admittedly, any constitutional amendment faces a trying process through Washington and the necessary 2/3 of the nation's state capitols. In the past, this has been a relatively effective safeguard against the impulses of those who would amend the Constitution, and demolish so many of the guarantees and protections accorded us in the First Amendment. Crazier things have happened, though. The Great Experiment of Prohibition also had the trappings of a holy crusade, a clarion call to muster the forces of government in enforcing a crude religious version of public morality. When America finally sobered up from that heady excess, a constitutional amendment was passed in order to correct the disastrous consequences of its predecessor.
Let's hope we don't make a similar mistake again.
© 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000 by American Atheists.