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A poster boy for radical Christian rightwingers: Tom Cotton


Senator Tom Cotton is upset. is On Fox News’ website, he called Joe Biden’s nominee for Health and Human Services secretary, Xavier Becerra, “a partisan culture warrior” and said that he, Cotton–an ultra-conservative Republican from Arkansas—will lead the charge in the Senate to defeat Becerra.

Well, okay: from Cotton’s perspective, the fact that Becerra is a moderately liberal Democrat makes him “a partisan culture warrior.” But that’s not the only reason Cotton, a Methodist, is down on Becerra. He’s also upset by what he views as Becerra’s cancel-culture attitude toward Christianity. “The common thread of Xavier Becerra’s tenure as the attorney-general of California,” he said in the San Francisco Chronicle, “is that he uses law to target his enemies, which curiously enough always seem to be people of faith and pro-lifers and other social conservatives.”

Religious conservatives always complain that Democrats are biased against them, the implication being that Democrats are atheists or religion-haters. This is a potent charge, since more than 70% of Americans identify as Christian.

But is it true? For starters, Becerra himself is Christian—specifically, Roman Catholic—so it’s odd to claim he’s targeting people of faith. And yet, Cotton is only the tip of the spear of the Trump-Republican movement, which weeks ago lined up to defeat Becerra. That far-right movement is well-organized and playing from the same book. For example, here are the opening lines of Cotton’s op-ed piece on Fox News:

Joe Biden campaigned on pledges to unite the country and defeat the pandemic; he continues to stress these twin priorities. But his nominee to be secretary of Health and Human Services, Xavier Becerra, is a partisan culture warrior who undermines both pledges.”

And here are the opening lines from a rightwing columnist, Chris Nagavonski, writing on the conservative Acton Institute Powerblog:

“Joe Biden frequently says that he ‘seeks not to divide, but unify’ Americans. But his announcement that he would like California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to lead the Department of Health and Human Services undercuts that sentiment.”

What conservative think tank dreamed up these talking points? Both pieces go on to parrot each other, word for word—and these are only two of many other op-ed pieces I could cite. Okay, so maybe all of these conservatives are thinking along similar lines: it happens to Democrats, too.

But I would argue it’s disingenuous to claim that criticisms of conservative Christianity are in themselves “partisan” or “unreasonable” (to use one of Nagavonski’s descriptions of Becerra). And for this reason: it is the nature of certain strains of Christianity to insinuate into the body politic, forcing themselves into legislatures so that Christian values inform our laws. And the more conservative these strains of Christianity are, the more eager they are to violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which explicitly forges a separation between religion and government:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

This clause, eminently reasonable in itself, has worked well for over two centuries in preventing any one religion from having undue influence over any others, or over non-believers. The Founders well understood the danger of having an official State religion, presided over by an authoritarian leader, and they protected the nation they conceived from falling into that error. But Christian conservatives have been active from Day One of America’s founding to tilt the First Amendment their way, neutralizing it and increasing their power and influence. Since the heyday of Ronald Reagan, these Christian conservatives have gradually increased their power in government and correspondingly eroded the natural freedoms the Founders bequeathed us.

Becerra is not some aberrant Christian-basher. He represents the best qualities of secular, Constitution-respecting Americans. In this, he is representative of the broad swath of Democrats, a party whose belief in the separation of church and state was eloquently expressed by John F. Kennedy more than sixty years ago:

I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference; and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.”

How far America has strayed since JFK uttered those noble words! Today we have so-called “Protestant ministers” not only telling their parishoners whom to vote for, but actually helping Republican politicians draft policies. We have a system in which a Republican-dominated Supreme Court allows public funds to flow to private religious schools. We have (or had, until Biden took over) a presidency that often took orders from far-right religious conservatives such as Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell, Jr. We had, in other words, so far deviated from this country’s traditions that the Founders would be turning in their graves if they could witness it.

This is the notion that Xavier Becerra, a very decent man, consistently tries to convey. But this is the message Christian conservatives, like Cotton, hate to hear, because fundamentally they don’t believe in the separation of church and state, which means that, fundamentally, they don’t believe in the U.S. Constitution. They yearn for a Christian despotism in America, a Jesus-centered version of what the Taliban has done in Afghanistan, or the radical Shiite ayatollahs have imposed upon Iran. Becerra is unalterably opposed to this.

Christian conservatives have learned nothing from Trump’s defeat, or from their losses in Georgia. Like fanatics everywhere, they have planted their flag in the fertile soils of our democracy and will take down, or try to take down, anyone of prominence who stands in their way. This includes Xavier Becerra. Trump may be gone (for good, let’s hope), but Trumpism, and the rightwing Christian quackery that fuels it, remain for us to defeat.

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