Beyond Stealth by John M. Suarez, M.D. (March 1998)

This speech was delivered at the twentieth annual convention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, on Dec. 5, 1997, in Tampa, Florida.


I experienced a rather unusual exchange this morning when I got to the hotel. There were two young men discussing things outside and I am certain they were in some kind of time warp. One of them was apparently a fundamentalist, the other was a freethinker.
The fundamentalist was telling the freethinker that the earth was a flat sphere resting on the shell of a slowly moving turtle.

The freethinker asked, “But what’s holding up the turtle?”

The fundamentalist answered, “Oh, there is a huge rock underneath the turtle.”

The freethinker asked, “Well, what’s holding up the rock?”

The fundamentalist said, “Oh, there’s another rock holding up the first rock.”

Just as the freethinker was going to persist in his questioning, the fundamentalist impatiently interrupted and said, “Oh, stop this silly questioning! There are rocks all the way down.”

Now, I’m hoping in my presentation today to deal with some of those rocks and some of the slime that’s found under those rocks. I like to set challenges for myself. My challenge in this presentation is that I hope by the end of it, I will have converted–oh, that’s a poor word–I will have transformed all of you into activists. I don’t claim to tell you how or what to do. What I claim to offer you are reasons why you should be an activist.

Fundamentalism, at least what we’re concerned with in this country, is like a viral epidemic that comes in waves, and ebbs and flows over time. The present flare-up has been with us since the early ’70s–a little over 20 years. It started with the Moral Majority and Jerry Falwell.

Falwell, whom I have always found to be grandiosely optimistic, thought that by simply putting out the concept of the “moral majority,” it would be accepted and spread rapidly throughout the country. In reality, it didn’t get very far. Some of the televangelists at that time got into trouble, had their personal scandals. Evangelism and fundamentalism seemed to slow down, and in fact some people at that time predicted that it was dead. But that was not to be the case. Fundamentalism is like the creature in the “Alien” movie series–even though considered dead, it keeps coming back and forces all of us to play Sigourney Weaver time and time again.

The resurgence came around 1990 with the Christian Coalition, or, as I call them, the immoral minority. It was masterminded by Ralph Reed, who, as you may know, has left the Christian Coalition. What Ralph Reed masterminded was a grass roots build-up–gradually spreading sideways and upwards. A key element of that strategy was stealth.

Let’s take, for example, an election of a school board. The fundamentalists would select a candidate who would keep a low profile throughout the campaign, would avoid the media whenever possible, and if forced to give interviews or debate, would deny any radical ideology. The candidate would appear very much mainstream. The entire election would be played down by the Radical Right as unimportant, obviously with the intention of reducing the overall vote. If possible–and they often did this–they would smear opposition candidates at the last minute so as to deny that candidate any chance of rebuttal or of clearing his or her name. They, however, would see to it that their entire constituency, through last-minute advertising in their churches, would get out.

This kind of local election typically averages maybe 10-15% overall vote, so you can see that by controlling about 6%-7%, they can get their candidate elected. The town would wake up the next morning to a candidate elected to their school board whom they knew little about, but from whom they would hear from extensively in the months to come.

In this fashion, they were able to control many school boards, library boards, city and local offices, etc.

Their success was so tremendous that it went beyond their dreams. Not only were these grass-root achievements made, but in the course of only a handful of years they were able to control the major political party. Now we have a situation in which fundamentalists control a party which is in charge of both houses of Congress. The only opposition available at that level comes from a President who suffers from vertigo. Being dazed and confused, our beloved President alternates between spinning to the right and to the left. That is unacceptable in terms of the threat that the religious right poses.

The stealth strategy, being as effective as it was, and has been, is not dead. They are still using it extensively. Take the Promise Keepers march in Washington, D.C., not too long ago. They were magnificent–that’s the best word I can use–in bamboozling the media into thinking that they were not a political movement.

Another example of current stealth thinking and strategy is the recent introduction in the House of Representatives of the Religious Freedom Amendment by Istook. Istook and the other fundamentalists within the Republican party have done a very good job, so far, in presenting this very radical amendment to the Constitution as something rather mild and necessary, but not certainly radical in the changes it would make. In effect, we do know that when you read between the lines, when you anticipate its impact, it would radically change the First Amendment as we know it, and the notion of separation of church and state will go down the drain.

Then there are also, within the past year, some developments that suggest that the Religious Right is going beyond stealth. There is a debate among most of us who are concerned with the Radical Right and who track them closely, as to what this means. Some feel that going beyond stealth is an indication of how confident and cocky and sure they have become of the gains that they have already made and the further gains that they are planning. Others feel that given the recent reversal in terms of their development, it suggests a certain measure of desperation on their part. I’m not sure which is correct. I think only time will tell.

But I think it’s important to recognize and respond to what’s happening, which is no longer stealth, and is much more direct. Let me give you a few examples. A very good one is one that we heard about this morning: the situation in Judge Roy Moore’s courtroom–not so much the fact that Moore is breaching the wall of separation by his activities in court (because in the South there are many courtrooms where this is practiced). What is important and worrisome is that in spite of court decisions, Moore felt confident enough, and was backed obviously by officials within the state, to continue the activity, even though it had been declared improper and unconstitutional by the courts.

Shortly after the ruckus hit the news in Alabama, the House of Representatives passed, or voted, on a nonbinding resolution about the public display of the Ten Commandments in schools and in other public places. And the vote by the House in favor of this resolution was 295 to 125. This is no longer a rural, backward court in Alabama. This is the House of Representatives voting 295 to 125 that there should be the Ten Commandments displayed and dealt with in public education and other public settings.

The second example of beyond stealth occurred May 13, 1997, at a meeting of the South Carolina Board of Education in which the issue of the Ten Commandments in the school was being discussed. Some member of the board raised the question, “But what about minority religions? How are they going to fare? How are they going to handle the introduction of the Ten Commandments in the school setting?” To which, the Board member named Henry Jordan, uttered the famous quote, “Screw the Buddhists and kill the Muslims!”

Obviously, this is beyond stealth. This is a clear, loud declaration that the Religious Right is ready to move on and to continue their path to a theocracy.

The Radical Right frequently talks about a culture war. They talk about a moral crisis. Most of us freethinkers do not respond directly to that allegation of a moral crisis. My guess is, that we are reluctant to do so because we too, think there are things wrong in this society, and if we were to take issue with their claim of a moral crisis, we might be considered as participants in some of this immorality. But I think that this is a mistake. I think we have to look at what they mean by a moral crisis.

This is what the Radical Right constitutes as a moral crisis in our society today. First, there is widespread abortion. Abortion is “murder” by their ideology, and therefore sinful. Any sex outside of the heterosexual marriage is also a sin. I don’t think there would be many more people than they who would subscribe to such an antiquated view of what is sexually permissible or desirable. In fact, it is that idea that fuels and supports their homophobia and their persecution of homosexuals. And of course, the greatest sin of all, according to the Radical Right, is the lack of acceptance that the only redemption from sin is to accept Jesus unconditionally and also commit to biblical literacy. This, in a nutshell, is what the Radical Right refers to as the moral crisis that is gripping the country.

Now, I’ve looked around and I see something different. I find overt government corruption, by which I mean the legislator’s vote is dictated in proportion to how much money he or she collects from different groups rather than voting by conscience or by what’s needed. I find a very limited brand of radical capitalism, which I define as the profit motive, overshadowing all other considerations, and thus dangerously broadening the gap between the haves and have-nots. I find an environment that is being rapidly decimated for profit and/or out of desperation by poverty-stricken people who are forced to sacrifice their future. I find our pluralistic society in jeopardy of being vulcanized along racial, ethnic, and/or religious lines. We’re on the verge of abandoning public education. We seem less and less willing to seek and implement rational solutions to complex problems. This list that I went through is not intended to be all-inclusive, but it’s a very different list than what the Radical Right proposes. The question becomes which of these visions, which agenda will be dealt with? That will depend very much on which issues are brought to the table and that, in turn, depends on who is elected to political office. We’re losing that struggle, judging by the electoral results beginning in 1994.

It’s an uphill battle that is further complicated by the fact that the mainstream media have become progressively less free and objective over the past decade. All significant newspapers are currently owned by a handful of conglomerates. Even if their politics are not radically conservative, certainly they’re attune to advertisers and their demands.

I’d like to leave you with one final message. We freethinkers have spent time and effort promoting our philosophy and ideology, but now I think we are faced with a more rigid task. We are a very small percentage of the population, but so is the Radical Right. Except that, by virtue of organization, funding and dedication, we have become no match for them. If this were a baseball game in the Olympics–that is, the struggle between us and the Radical Right–the game would have been called already by applying the mercy rule.

So what we must do is devote our main time, effort and money to educating the populous–the mainstream. Unless we can alert them to what is going on and unless they vote in a manner that will avoid a theocracy, I don’t think we’ll be having many of these meetings into the new millennium.

John M. Saurez, M.D., a new Life Member of the Foundation from California, is a retired psychiatrist, with degrees from Columbia University and the UCLA. He specialized in legal psychiatry and has written many articles on legal psychiatry and the impact of divorce. He is an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA, and is on the board of the ACLU Southern California, and is founder and first president of the Los Angeles chapter of Americans United, also serving on the AU’s National Advisory Board.

Freedom From Religion Foundation