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WATCH ON THE RIGHT: The Istook Threat. John M. Swomley discusses a new threat to our liberties in the form of actions by right-wing Christians as demonstrated by the Istook amendment. A revealing look at the politics of the Christian right-wing lead by Representative Henry Hyde of Illinois, a papal loyalist, Representative Ernest Istook of Oklahoma, the “Father of Public School Prayer.” From: THE HUMANIST, SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 1997




The Istook Threat

John M. Swomley

It is always useful to contrast the politics of right-wing Christians with the statements of Jesus. In doing so, it becomes clear how uncommitted some Christians are to their religion and how devoted they are to foisting on the nation a theocracy of their own making. Such is the case with the Istook amendment now before Congress.

To illustrate this contradiction, the following is the teaching of Jesus as reported in Matthew 6:1--6 of the Bible:


Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them. . . . And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites, for they love to stand in the synagogues and in the. . . streets, that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door, pray. . . in secret.


The Bible also tells us in Luke 18:10--13 how “two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican.” The pharisee let it be known that he was a virtuous man, while the publican said, “God, be merciful to me a sinner.”

Compare these teachings with the language in the Istook amendment:


To secure the right to acknowledge God according to the dictates of conscience, the people’s right to pray and to recognize their religious beliefs, heritage, or traditions on public property, including schools, shall not be infringed. The government shall not require any person to join in prayer or other religious activities, initiate or designate school prayers, discriminate against religion or deny equal access to a benefit on account of religion.


We can call the two men responsible for the Istook amendment re-publicans - not only because of their party affiliation but because they have revised the publican’s and the biblical attitude toward prayer to fit their political purposes. They want every child in public school to be able to pray aloud and every politician to be able to pray aloud on public property where they can emphasize their piety as a cover for whatever else they do, as well as be seen as benefactors of religious institutions.

The first of these men is Representative Ernest Istook of Oklahoma. Fundamentalist Ernie is known for advocating rhetorical praying as evidence of his political virtue, instead of good works like providing food for the hungry, health care for children of poor parents, and adequate funds for inner-city public schools. Fundamentalist Ernie also has tried for years to be known as the “Father of Public School Prayer,” but he’s been thwarted by another re-publican: Representative Henry Hyde of Illinois, a papal loyalist.

Holy Henry has been known as the most loyal advocate of government aid to his church, which is not only the world’s largest but richest. Henry would not let Ernie have his political prayers until Ernie agreed to include government funding for religious purposes. Ernie yielded and accepted Henry’s clause: “or deny equal access to a benefit on account of religion.” But Henry’s religious loyalty is not confined to wanting all taxpayers to fund his church’s schools and other enterprises; it includes constitutional protection for his church’s attitude toward women, as well as abortion and family planning.

Since Henry and Ernie have long objected to the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights - whose establishment clause prevents government support of religion - it is prudent to examine the implications of their proposed amendment.

First, they have not explicitly excluded the prayers of Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and others, perhaps because they assume that the majority religion in almost every community would intimidate one or more minority students from articulating their unique public prayers. However, Muslims are expected to pray five times daily, and if no religious discrimination is permitted, these, plus numerous Protestant fundamentalist prayers, can take a large part of the day away from academic subjects. Currently, there are nearly two thousand different denominations, sects, and cults in the United States, and Muslims - numbering over five million - are the fastest growing group.

Second, if the clause “to recognize their religious beliefs, heritage, or traditions on public property, including schools” is taken seriously, it goes beyond daily periods of prayer to permit daily devotional readings, creeds, exposition of religious history, religious biography, and dogma. It could, in effect, turn public schools into religious day schools with more overt religious expression than is usually permitted in parochial schools, if only because of the various religious traditions represented in most public schools.

Third, there are also racial undertones to the amendment. Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam will have the same status as Southern Baptists. Charismatic and evangelical Hispanics, as well as Native Americans, have their distinctive religious traditions. Are Christian militias and the Ku Klux Klan religious? Must teachers or school boards decide or will the American Civil Liberties Union have a field day raising money and litigating claims?

Fourth, what about Henry’s clause “or deny equal access to a benefit on account of religion”? Is he willing to have every church, church school, and church agency share proportionately the enormous sums now provided to his church? Such sums are not always public knowledge, but litigation under this clause could reveal them. For example, Catholic Relief Services, which has an annual budget of $290 million, receives about 77 percent of its resources from the U.S. government even though it fails to implement government policies that require aid recipients have access to family planning. Church hospitals also receive government funding, as do other institutions: Does “deny equal benefit” mean that other churches would receive a proportionate share of public funds? Would proportionate or equal share be determined by the number of denominational members or some other criteria? Would a Congress devoted to en riching corporations be prepared to provide such additional funds to all churches? Is this wise public policy?

Even a brief examination of this Henry and Ernie amendment reveals that it would be the beginning of a theocracy in which all religions would presumably have some as-yet-undetermined share. And what about the large number of Americans who are not religious or who prefer religious privacy? Will they, in effect, be subject to harassment, even though they are not required “to join in prayer or other religious activities”?

Pat Robertson has indicated that he will pour enormous sums of money into the campaign to get the Istook amendment passed. The entire right wing - both Catholic and Protestant - will support it. Now is the time to take action against this new threat to our liberties.


John M. Swomley is president of Americans for Civil Liberty.







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