Katha Pollitt: Freethought Heroine (April 1996)

 This speech was presented at the annual convention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Denver, Colorado, September 29, 1995, following presentation of the “Freethought Heroine” award to Katha Pollitt.

By Katha Pollitt

When I asked Anne Gaylor what themes she suggested for my speech, because I’ve never spoken to a group of atheists before, she mentioned that one of the reasons I’m here tonight, receiving this wonderful honor, is that I had declared myself publicly, on “Crossfire” yet, to be an atheist. This apparently is not something that too many people do, at least not on national television. She thought it would be interesting to take off from that fact. I’ve written several times about my atheism in The Nation and also a long time ago in Mother Jones.

I have to tell you an odd feature of my life is that my parents, who were both extremely radical nonbelieving people, for some bizarre reason, sent me to a religious school. I never understood that. I think it probably had something to do with the fact that it was the nearest school–it was two blocks away. So it was one of these kind of path-of-least-resistance things. This school, which was an all girl’s school–which was another problem with it–had chapel every day! We had chapel for half an hour! We would sing three hymns on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and four hymns on Tuesday and Thursday. We said the Lord’s prayer. We said another prayer that I don’t know the name of. We had bible readings from the Old and New Testament; this went on every day. This was all in the will (that’s what they used to tell us) of the woman who had started the school more than a hundred years previously. This was also the reason, we were told, why there couldn’t be any Black people in the school. She had thought to put that in her will as well (which I don’t believe). She was a forward-looking woman.

So we had this chapel and we had a Christmas pageant. It was very beautiful actually. Very poetic, dignified, antiquated . . . lovely. Everyone wanted to be Virgin Mary in the Christmas pageant. It was amazing. If you were very tall you could be the angel Gabriel. If you were really blonde, you got to be one of the two little angels that followed Gabriel. If you were really pretty you got to be be the Virgin Mary, and if you were a lightbulb you got to be Baby Jesus. (It was a lightbulb wrapped up in a blanket.) One way or another, I had quite a bit of haphazard religious training in the school’s melange of Presbyterian-Methodist-Episcopal-Protestantism. And what made it all the stranger to us was that a third of the kids were Jewish and at least another third were Catholic. This was, after all, Brooklyn.

The problem was that I really loved music and I loved to sing, so every year it would be the same thing. Do I sing hymns, do I not sing hymns? It’s very hard to sit there and not sing when everyone else is singing. But I’d think no, it’s all about Jesus, I don’t want any part of it. Other people went through the same thing, too. Our teachers would tell us, “You don’t have to sing, and you Jewish girls don’t have to say the Lord’s Prayer, but you should bow your head as a sign of respect.” That really got to me, so I didn’t bow my head, but I sang most of the time.

The result of all this prayer in school for me was that even today I can’t stand to be in a religious service. It didn’t have, at all, the effect that people who favor prayer in the schools think it’s going to have–which is that it sort of seeps in, it influences you for the good, it sets you up for a school day full of virtue. It was just the opposite. Of course, I had a peculiar upbringing in many ways. So the atheism or the freethought was reinforced at home, which is, as we know, what really counts.

Nation readers knew that I was an atheist, but it was when I went on “Crossfire” that the whole world got to find out that fact (I doubt they were too interested). My experience on “Crossfire,” where I uttered the dreaded A-word, was interesting in a number of ways. The topic was “spirituality,” which you might not think was a subject that would lend itself to the kind of shouting match for which “Crossfire” is justly famous. What could such a debate properly be: “Tonight: Saint Teresa of Avila squares off against Martin Buber on the divinity of Christ?” Or “Tonight: “Baptist vs. Anabaptist . . . Be There!”

Of course not. My opponent: the dreaded Arianna Stephanofoulus Huffington, best known as wife of California Senate hopeful, Michael Huffington. I may have written a column for The Nation about school prayer, and she may have written a book about spirituality called The Fourth Way (this was after her previous career as a shill for a new-age guru John-Roger, and after many other adventures in the world of religion), but neither of us is a big expert on religion. We were there because of politics.

I represented the so-called secular humanist position that tends to be connected with political liberalism, and Mrs. Huffington represented the new hard-right Republicanism allied with the Christian Coalition. We did not discuss whether God existed. Or what were the everyday implications of his existence, or nonexistence, or the extent or nature of his interest in human beings, or any of the other questions relating to religion or spirituality that have preoccupied so many for so long, without any end in sight. We debated, if you can call what transpires on “Crossfire” a debate, whether individual altruism can replace the federal government, and whether income tax prevents people from donating to charity. (That was Mrs. Huffington’s theory.)

We discussed sex education in the schools. Did it (as Mrs. Huffington believed) destroy romance if teachers demonstrated birth control by putting condoms on bananas? Or, assuming that anecdote was true, which I’m inclined to doubt, were such techniques just what teens needed to see in the age of AIDS and teen pregnancy, as I argued. We discussed the separation of church and state, and the relationship of the Christian Coalition to the Republican party.

We even discussed whether the premise of the program was true: was spirituality (never defined) really on the rise as everyone but me seemed to think, or, as I unsuccessfully maintained, were people really responding to the uncertainties of the economy and other difficulties of the 1990s? This last opinion caused Mrs. Huffington to suggest that I was the last living Marxist and belonged in a museum, which wasn’t very polite, but then I had suggested that the true cause of spiritual unease in America today was the vast disparity of wealth, some people with millions of dollars, others living in the street, so she had to get back at me.

I’ve noticed that whenever I suggest the economy or general social conditions have any connection with any right-wing pet project, I get called a communist. I always say, well, that proves my point! Which is that the real issue in the so-called culture wars isn’t spirituality or rap music or pornography or sex education, it’s politics! Specifically a right-wing political and economic agenda that is being pushed by annexing, in a fairly cynical way, the free floating fears and anxieties of people who feel, rightly, that the good times are over. So in some deep sense, to say that it’s pointless to get all upset about rap music is almost to be a kind of communist, is to strip away the level of obfuscatory morality that tends to surround this sort of issue and encourage questions like “Why does Bob Dole care about rap music anyway?” and “Why do so many people like rap music if it’s so evil and worthless?”

But back to Mrs. Huffington and “Crossfire.” The fact is that our debate had very little to do with actual religion and everything to do with the ways in which the radical right uses Christianity to push an agenda that would have amazed Jesus Christ, who, so far as I know, did not have a firm line on the relative powers of federal vs. state governments, the relative merits of progressive vs. flat taxes or no taxes, or even the banana/condom issue.

Although Christianity and organized religion generally have a great deal to answer for historically, I don’t think opposition to gun control can be blamed on the Bible. What we are dealing with here is a grab bag of new-right causes and pet peeves that has been given a quick spiritual make-over in order to appeal to the mobilized millions of the Christian Coalition. Some of these causes are old, like the fight against taxes and for states’ so-called rights. Others are new, like the proposed flag-burning amendment. Some, of course are eternal, like the sexism and racism that lies behind the attempt to deny welfare to the children of single teenage mothers.

I’m not saying that the Christian fundamentalists don’t really believe in the causes they advocate with such fervor. On the contrary, they’re frighteningly sincere. But what gives them a national profile and what makes them players in presidential politics is that they have thrown in their lot with the people who really hold power in America: big corporations, right-wing foundations like the Olin, Bradley, Scaife and Carthage foundations which fund a wide array of highly visible right-wing media from the New Criterion, Hilton Kramer’s high-toned review of books and the arts, to The American Spectator, a low-rent reactionary rag, where David Brock prints his slanderous attacks on Anita Hill and President Clinton.

Then there’s the Republican party, which is now offering us the spectacle of would-be presidential candidates bowing to Pat Robertson and family values, even as they parade around with their younger second wives. Does Robert Dole care about sex education or prayer in the schools? Pat Buchanan, I grant you, yes, but Dole, Gramm, Newt Gingrich–with his futuristic plans to raise money for NASA by selling honeymoons in space? I don’t think these issues matter to them one way or another. But votes matter to them. As Vin Weber, former Republican Congressman of Minnesota, said: “Without the votes of religious conservatives, we’re the minority party.” That makes sense because they represent the rich people, and rich people are a minority, so why would anybody vote for them? They have to annex themselves to something with a little more appeal to regular people. Votes matter to them and so does garnering support that looks like grassroots for their own issues. Here the Christian Coalition can be most useful to them.

Let me give you an example that came my way thanks to Solidarity Magazine, the United Auto Workers magazine I received as a member of the Newspaper Guild and from which I’ll now crib shamelessly. According to Russ Bellant, who’s an expert on the radical right, everyone who attends a political training session with the Christian Coalition is handed a leadership manual which declares that biblical scripture commands slaves to submit to their masters. It then goes on to say, “Of course, slavery was abolished in this country many years ago, so we must apply these principles to the way Americans work today, to employees and employers: Christians have a responsibility to submit to the authority of their employers, since they are designated as part of God’s plan for the exercise of authority on the earth by man.” Russ Bellant goes on to point out that this wacky religious gloss provides a rationale for opposing unions, which do challenge the authority of employers! Anti-union legislation, such as right-to-work laws, is something that right-wing Republicans care about deeply, passionately, profoundly. Unlike the burning question of whether Judy Blume’s novels should be on the school library shelf.

It’s not surprising that last year Pat Robertson hired, as director of voter education for the Christian Coalition, a man named Charles Cunningham, who is the former executive director of New England Citizens for Right-to-Work, which supports anti-union laws. Nor is it surprising to find Reeve Larson, the head of the National Right-To-Work Committee, joining Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and other Religious Right leaders along with many anti-union employers, a member of the Klu Klux Klan and a member of the John Birch Society, in something called The Council For National Policy, which was originally founded by the John Birch Society. This organization is so secret even Russ Bellant, the expert, doesn’t know what they do in their quarterly meetings. The Coors family is in it, and donates to Pat Robertson, and one of them sits on the board of his Regent University. So you see how these connections all work. It’s not just religion going on here.

I don’t want to give you the idea that I think Christian fundamentalism is in any sense harmless, or that it would be harmless if it didn’t have a thing going with corporate capitalism and the hard, but until recently, secular right.

The appeal of the new fundamentalism has a certain tragic aspect though, in that it claims to be fighting to restore the basic local American institutions of a more prosperous time: stable marriages, safe schools and neighborhoods, respectful children who could be effectively controlled by their parents, which those of us who are parents know is practically impossible, neighborhood networks that provide fellowships and mutual aid and so forth. I say tragic because, while individuals may indeed find what they need in church to help them stop drinking, or work through a marital problem, or adjust to the loss of a job, no religion can put back what the enormous tide of modernity and capitalism between them have destroyed. That would take God himself, and so far he’s not cooperating.

Your ordinary, politically mobilized fundamentalist is actually being sold a tremendous bill of goods. They think, for example, that school prayer will actually affect the behavior of students, which–you don’t have to be a fundamentalist to agree–could use some work. But school prayer will have no effect at all on kids’ behaviors, in or out of the classroom. I myself am proof of that. They will still be the same people, receiving the same inferior, underfunded education from the same overwhelmed teachers in the same crumbling buildings. The violent ones will still bring weapons to school, the hostile and frustrated ones will still do their best to make learning impossible for the rest. SAT scores will still be the educational scandal of the western world. Prayer in the schools, in the form of some voluntary mumbo-jumbo moment-of-silence compromise, is an achievable goal that the fundamentalists may even win. After all, most Americans regularly support it in public opinion polls. It’s a pretty mainstream thing that many people in this room probably remember well from their own lives. It may even be the reason you are here, God working in his mysterious way and all. But what prayer in the schools symbolizes, the safe and orderly school where obedient children learn about all the ways in which America was the best country in the world and then went home at lunchtime to their mothers, that they cannot have.

The same is true for the other family-values goals of the Religious Right. Take, for example, abortion. There’s no doubt in my mind that the antiabortion movement (which Nation readers are always reminding me not to call the “prolife” movement, since it’s anything but) can make life very difficult for women who want abortions. Indeed they have already done so, by harassing clinic patients, staging mass demonstrations in front of clinics, and by violence, arson bombs, death threats to doctors, and even murder. There’s legal harassment too: pressuring landlords not to rent space to clinics, fighting to change zoning regulations to keep clinics out of neighborhoods, setting up ordinances and regulations that raise clinic costs to prohibitive levels.

Recent years have seen a host of restrictions on abortion at the state level. Parental notification and consent rules, waiting periods, mandated biased counseling and so forth. At the national level, too, the antichoice movement has had some success. Women in the armed forces, which is a lot of people, who are stationed overseas now cannot get abortions at a military hospital even if they pay for it with their own money. Of course, there’s the continued restriction on using public funds for poor women’s abortions. Now we have the attempt to ban certain procedures used in third trimester abortions, which is going through Congress now. This last is particularly cruel and demagogic because women who have these very late abortions are the most needy and desperate. Women who are carrying severely damaged fetuses that have no chance of life outside the womb, women who are very sick and so on. Can the antichoice movement succeed in toting up enough legal restrictions and pour on enough terrorism to make it impossible for some women and girls to find their way to a clinic in time? Definitely.

Just this week, in the New York Times, it was reported that a pregnant, teenaged girl was forced to carry to term by police and judges, who essentially kidnapped her, acting on behalf of her boyfriend and his parents. They took her away from her parents, who were preparing to pay for her abortion. They put her in foster care. She and her whole family were tormented by their neighbors. This happened even though time and again–this is settled law–courts have ruled that the male partner cannot prevent an abortion, much less some 16-year-old boy that she wasn’t even married to. But for those of us who live in big cities and who have ample funds and sophistication to negotiate complex rules and regulations, it’s easy to forget how many women can’t fly to a metropolis or leave their families for several days or withstand the public humiliation that was visited by her neighbors on this poor girl, while her boyfriend was lionized around town and remains on his high school football team.

Can the antichoice movement achieve what abortion restrictions symbolize? I think the answer is no. We may see an America in which even more teenaged girls have babies before they are ready to be mothers. We may see an America in which there are more illegal abortions, more abandoned children, more infanticide and more overburdened grandparents. But we are not going to see again the America of the imaginary 1950s for which the antiabortion movement is so nostalgic. Virginity is not going to come back, shotgun marriages are not going to come back. Families are not going to start forcing their daughters to turn their babies over to adoption agencies. The whole web of social understanding that underwrote that old sexual morality is gone, and one reason it’s gone, is, of course, the economic developments caused by the late-stage capitalism of which their political allies are so fond. You can’t simultaneously have a commodity culture in which people are constantly urged to satisfy every desire and sex is used to sell everything from soap to cars and also a culture that reserves sex for the marital bed. You can’t make a teenager marry if the young husband has no possibility of being able to find a job and support his family. Feminism, the pursuit of happiness, the mass acceptance of sex as a pleasurable part of life: you can’t put these genies back in the bottle so easily. Certainly, not so long as the hard realities of the economy are driving women into the work place.

Why do we have this marriage of fundamentalist religion and right-wing politics? From the political side it seems obvious enough. You can’t, even today, come right out and say, “Our basic program is to take away worker’s rights, deprive citizens of access to the courts, close down hospitals that serve the poor, starve the public school system and put poor women and children out on the street.” Even Newt Gingrich can’t say that. Still less can you say, “The reason why we want to do all those things is to effect a massive transfer of wealth from the lower end of the income scale to the top, with not too many stops in between.” Even Phil Gramm can’t say that. Pat Buchanan certainly can’t say that. What you can talk about is responsibility, family, work, faith, values. If you’re Phil Gramm, you can throw in the imminent second coming of Christ, as he recently did.

You can make people feel that the world feels uncertain because the National Endowment for the Arts funds dirty pictures and that the solution to the so-called breakdown of the family is to put men back in charge. In short you can foment a culture war and if you’re lucky everyone will be so busy fighting it, they won’t even notice that they’ve become steadily poorer, with fewer rights, fewer public amenities and public services, breathing more polluted air and drinking toxic water.

It’s pretty easy to understand why the Republican party is making a big play for the fundamentalists, but why do the fundamentalists want to be Republicans? I remember, not so many years ago, when the Moral Majority was getting started, how the academic experts who followed American religion said Jerry Falwell wouldn’t get too far because, historically, fundamentalists had been apolitical: less likely to vote, more likely to pray. Of course, no one in quite a while had made a direct appeal for their support on their own terms. What’s come out of that is religion as politics, which has a long and fitful history in America, dating, I suppose you could say, from Plymouth Rock.

But what about politics as politics? Addressing our problems directly, rather than through the screen of biblical revelation. Well, the liberals did just a tiny little bit of that and look what’s happened to them. Some problems aren’t so easily solvable, whether it’s the flight of jobs to the Third World or the unstable nature of modern marriage. If you look at the facts, not the biblical blinders, you’re bound to notice that and to do so could be very disturbing.

It’s always risky to make predictions. I was the person who, after all, said on the radio that Bill Clinton would probably withdraw from his campaign for the presidency because of the Gennifer Flowers revelation. Still it’s hard for me to imagine the fundamentalist group continuing their swath through the U.S. political landscape. They’re too extreme, too ignorant, too out of it for most nonfundamentalists to want to see them deciding whether or not their kids get to read Of Mice And Men or celebrate Halloween. Even on abortion, I’d have to say I think they’ll ultimately lose. Abortion is too entrenched a part of middle-class family life now. And abortion is an issue where the forces on the other side are also very highly motivated and alert, which isn’t the case with some of the other issues the fundamentalists care about.

The question is, will the rest of America get fed up with fundamentalists before the fundamentalists and the Republican party get fed up with each other? And how much damage will they do before that happy day arrives?

Katha Pollitt, associate editor of The Nation, is an author, widely published essayist, feminist and freethinker who received her Bachelor of Arts degree from Harvard and her Masters of Fine Arts degree from Columbia. Her book of poems, Antartic Traveler, won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her most recent book of essays is titled Reasonable Creatures (Knopf). She lives in New York City.

Pollitt’s column “Subject To Debate” appears regularly in The Nation, a weekly magazine. Subscriptions are $52 yearly; write PO Box 37072, Boone IA 50037.    

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