Montreal, August 15, 2008 • No 258




Mathieu Bréard lives in Montréal.




« Religion may be the concern of a people, but it must never become a concern of the state. »


-Leo Baeck, German Rabbi (1873-1956)


by Mathieu Bréard


          They take full advantage of the benefits of modern society. They are polite, courteous, well-educated, and very much involved both in their communities and in politics. They are Born Again Christians, and there are more than 80 million of them in the United States, 42% within the Republican Party.(1) Born Agains claim to have had a personal encounter with Jesus Christ, a mystical experience which, according to several among their number, not only turned their lives upside down, but also awoke a desire to give themselves, body and soul, to the achievement of a great, divine project for their nation.


          Deluded, some say; freedom of worship, others respond. Either way, it is hard to take the magnitude of the phenomenon lightly. When evangelicals become entrenched in Washington and seek to influence the orientation of foreign policy and direct federal spending according to their religious beliefs, it is difficult not to gnash one's teeth.

The First Amendment

          No one can deny the religious pluralism that reigns in the country of Uncle Sam. From Hindu temples in Tennessee to Buddhist monasteries in Minnesota, by way of California's Sikh pilgrimage centers, entire communities have been built up and organized voluntarily from coast to coast. In the mid-1960s, successive waves of immigration from Asia brought a panoply of new rites and customs that have had an impact on architecture, art, music, and dining in many cities. It's a rich resource the magnitude of which the American Founding Fathers could not have imagined when they drew up their Constitution's First Amendment.

          In the Founding Era, having witnessed bloody religious wars engulf the European continent(2) and failed attempts to establish and maintain State religions in certain American colonies, Thomas Jefferson set himself the task of constructing a law guaranteeing freedom of worship to all in Virginia. Even though he himself believed in God, he learned from history the danger of a State imposing a national religion. The citizen, bereft of his natural right to believe what he wants, is then forced to pay taxes to finance institutions he does not support. Let us not forget, also, all the violence and discrimination that such a policy can engender.

          While controversial, Jefferson's proposition had a domino effect in the other colonies. Ultimately, in the wake of the revolution, it led to this common agreement: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." In other words, each citizen remains free to choose what he wants to believe, or not, depending on his conscience and his convictions.(3) And in fact, America's traditional motto is not In God We Trust, but rather E Pluribus Unum, which signifies a nation united in its diversity.

A Torrent of Subsidies for God's Sake

          "This is all a fraud, a distortion of history," Pat Robertson often says in order to attack the separation of Church and State. Far from being the opinion of a single citizen, this is coming from the founder of the Christian Broadcast Network, a powerful and respected organization reaching millions of voting-age Americans daily. Its main objective: making the United States a Christian nation. Basing itself on a particular reading of the biblical story, jumbling together different verses of the prophets, the CBN fights ferociously against homosexuality, equal rights for women, and research into therapeutic cloning, and also advocates the return of prayer in all schools.

          These attitudes found an echo in the current Republican president, George W. Bush. Convinced that he himself has been born again, Bush openly celebrates Christian morality in his policies. From the very beginning, unlike his predecessors, Bush maintained close ties—not to say compromising ties, from a constitutional point of view—with the evangelical lobby.(4) He did not hesitate to loosen the purse strings to create, at the very heart of the White House itself, the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, charged with distributing billions of dollars in subsidies to churches and religious associations. This program shows favouritism to Christian organizations, in accordance with the President's monotheistic beliefs.(5)

"The September 11, 2001 attacks literally galvanized Christian fundamentalists. For them, the antichrist revealed his true face, and Islam must now be fought as much with fierce propaganda as with force of arms."

          For example, public funds were used to grant privileges to detainees in an Iowa prison on the condition that they accept to convert to evangelical teachings. In Kentucky, the Baptist Homes for Children received more than $61 million for social activities in which children were subjected to indoctrination sessions and to coercion in order to get them to accept Christ's forgiveness. One million dollars was given to Pastor Herbert H. Lusk's Exodus Baptist Church in Philadelphia for its support of the Bush administration in its sermons.(6)

          The list goes on, proof that the wall separating Church and State has indeed been dynamited. This seduction campaign seeks especially to ensure the religious right's loyalty to the Republican Party and is in keeping with a far wider strategy that reaches beyond the nation's borders.

Using Religion as a Tool

          Regarding foreign policy, three broad groups converge around President Bush: the military, neoconservative, and evangelical camps, which together attract for him an impressive pool of voters. Even though they do not come from the same ideological circles and their influence on power varies a lot, they share a common goal: redrawing the map of the Middle East.

          Richard Perle, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, and the former Secretary of State and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld are not fervent churchgoers, and religion does not motivate the development of their policies. Rather, religion is perceived as a tool of persuasion and control which, in certain circumstances, can be useful in guaranteeing support for their military campaigns. In short, they can put up with a certain collective hysteria and certain irrational impulses in the population.

          Certain Born Agains, the more fundamentalist among them, consider the State of Israel as sacred ground whose destiny is linked to the Hebrew covenant found in the pages of Genesis. The prophet Zachary said that on the final day, the Hebrew State would be completely surrounded by its enemies and God would grant his benediction to those nations that would remain loyal to it. Now, in every age, people have tried to connect reality and biblical fables. The September 11, 2001 attacks literally galvanized the Christian fundamentalists. For them, the antichrist revealed his true face, and Islam must now be fought as much with fierce propaganda as with force of arms.

          George W. Bush's error was to allow this perspective, and the concepts associated with it, to infiltrate his administration. What emerged was a communication policy based on religious rectitude. References to the "axis of evil" that we find in the State of the Union addresses from 2002 and 2003 refer to the Book of Daniel and the "evil empires" of the north and east. Not only does the president use messianic biblical excerpts, but he uses them to legitimize his policies and to render himself impervious to criticism. "You're either with us or against us," he said in November 2001, citing the words of Christ in Matthew 12:30: "He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters."

          This simplistic, black-and-white conception of the world has pushed the United States onto a slippery and potentially dangerous slope. Let us not forget that Islam is also an Abrahamic religion complete with a millenarian branch in which one finds exactly the same duality between good and evil found in Christian fundamentalism. Can we affirm beyond all doubt that God is the co-pilot of one of these two groups? Herein lays the importance of relying on reason rather than on the confrontation of myths in the battle against terrorism.

          The next person to occupy the White House, whatever his ethics and his personal beliefs, will need above all to respect the Constitution and show a little more rigour and maturity.


* This article was first published in French in QL no 233 – September 16, 2007. It was translated by Bradley Doucet.

1. According to data compiled by journalist Barbara Victor in La dernière croisade. Les fous de Dieu – version américaine, Plon, 2004.
2. The major conflicts between Protestants and Catholics; the eight consecutive religious wars in France from 1562 to 1598; the murder of Protestants during the Irish Rebellion of 1641...
3. On June 25, 1988, the Williamsburg Charter was signed. It is a reaffirmation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution: "Religious liberty finally depends on neither the favors of the state and its officials nor the vagaries of tyrants or majorities." "No threat to freedom of conscience and religious liberty has historically been greater than the coercions of both Church and State. These two institutions… have through the centuries succumbed to the temptation of coercion… [which] has too often resulted in terrible violations of human liberty and dignity."
4. George Bush is the most religious president ever to occupy the White House, according to American University historian Allan Lichtman. Nothing surprising, you might say, but the difference in Bush's case is that he is certain that he is really an instrument of Divine Will.
5. During an interview with Esther Kaplan, author of With God on Their Side, the former director of the program, Jim Towey, confirmed that few non-Christian organizations enjoy these kinds of subsidies.
6. See "Ban on Prison Religious Program Challenged," The Washington Post, February 25, 2007; "Coercion In Kentucky: State-Funded Children’s Home Pushed Religion On Kids" and "Phila. Church That Endorsed Bush Gets $1 Million 'Faith-Based' Grant," Americans United for Separation of Church and State.