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How Christian Fundamentalism Feeds the Toxic Partisanship of US Politics

When evangelicals attack 'the gay agenda' of an anti-bullying event in schools, something is sick in America's religious culture

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"Religious Freedom Day is not 'celebrate-our-diversity-day,'" members are reminded. Gateways advocates a "Biblical approach to tolerance", which apparently consists of intolerant attitudes toward what the ADF and Gateways call "pro-homosexual education" and "the gay activist agenda." Parents' No 1 goal, they say, should be to "encourage your children to be bolder" in expressing their faith at school.

The far right's fixation on same-sex relationships is so ludicrous that it defines a sub-category of camp. But let's take a step back for a moment. The big question, the one that keeps coming back in every one of these skirmishes in the culture wars, is: why is the loudest religion in American politics today so much about hate?

Consider Mix it Up at Lunch Day from the perspective of the almost limitless other conceptions of the Christian religion that are out there. You could, for example, construe it as an exercise in "loving thy neighbor." You could quote the gospel of John that "God is love." You could view it as part of the religious mission of charity. I have no doubt that there are countless Christian and non-Christian people in the US who would view Mix It Up Day in just this way.

So why does the form of religion that seeks to claim the term "Christian" in the political realm have to focus so relentlessly on a "gay conspiracy" – not to mention sexually active singles and the purely evil Muslims?

I don't believe for a moment that this hysterical voice that screeches in America's political sphere is the authentic voice of religion in America. Most religious Americans want to mix it up at lunch! They want to make friends across party lines, and they want to help people who are less fortunate. A survey by the Public Religious Research Institute, released on 24 October, reveals that 60% of Catholics believe the Church should place a greater emphasis on social justice issues and their obligation to the poor, even if that means focusing less on culture war issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. Earlier this year, in response to the Ryan budget, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops joined other Christian leaders in insisting that a "circle of protection" be drawn around "essential programs that serve poor and vulnerable people."

So why is it that the so-called "values voters" are urged to vote against the politician who supports choice, not the politician who wants to shred that "circle of protection" for the poor and vulnerable? Why is it that when politicians want to demonstrate just how religiously righteous they are, they talk about banning same-sex marriage and making contraceptives hard to get, instead of showing what they have done to protect the weak?

There is an obvious answer, and it is, in a sense, staring you in the face every time you watch a political debate or read about the latest antics of Focus on the Family and the AFA. The kind of religion that succeeds in politics tends to focus on the divisive element of religion. If you want to use religion to advance a partisan political agenda, the main objective you use it for is to divide people between us and them, between the in-group and the out-group, the believers and the infidels.

The result is a reduction of religion to a small handful of wedge issues. According to the religious leaders and policy organizations urging Americans to vote with their "Biblical values," to be Christian now means to support one or, at most, a small handful of policy positions. And it means voting for the Republican party.