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Our Founding Fathers Were Wise To Erect A Wall Between Church & State--Wing Nuts Are Tearing It Down

DATELINE: Southern California's Inland Empire

In its first few centuries, Christianity was an oppressed church, persecuted by the Roman Empire, evidenced by the martyrdom of Peter (crucified upside down) and Paul (beheaded). Christians were arrested, tortured and executed. That ended when Constantine converted in the 4th Century and issued the Edict of Milan (313). Christianity slowly became the dominant religion in the empire, moving gradually from the oppressed to, in the Middle Ages, the oppressor. Once the empire collapsed in the Fifth Century, the Church stepped in to fill the void, providing social services, education, even healthcare, helping it to consolidate power. That went into hyperdrive with the Crusades, solidifying the Church’s position as the dominant religious and political force in Europe.

Was it inevitable that the Church would become an oppressor? British author Karen Armstrong, a former nun, is probably best known for her 1993 book, A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, but she also wrote The Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism 7 years later. In that book, she argues that all religions have the potential to become oppressive, regardless of their origins because all religions are human institutions, and humans are flawed creatures who are capable of violence and oppression.

Another scholar whose work in this area is worth reading is Mark Juergensmeyer, a University of California professor who wrote the book The New Cold War? Religious Nationalism Confronts the Secular State. He made the case that religious nationalism is a growing threat to global peace and security and argued that religious nationalists are often willing to use violence to achieve their goals, and that they pose a challenge to secular states. In 2001, he published Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence, which examines the phenomenon of religious violence, from the Crusades to the present day. He argued that religious violence is not caused by religion per se, but by the way that religion is used by political and social actors. He also argued that religious violence is not always irrational, but can be motivated by a desire to achieve political or social goals.

It was an essay about religious oppression right here in Southern California that I read in the Daily Beast yesterday by Kate Briquelet and Decca Muldowney, that got me thinking about Armstrong’s and Juergensmeyer’s work. If you go as far east in L.A. County as you can, you get the San Bernardino County and you quickly come to a rich agricultural area— Chino— and Christian nationalists who have gone to war with the LGBTQ community (and their very existence) and with the Democrats who run California. Chino’s representatives in Congress are Mark Takano (D) and Norma Torres (D) and in the state legislature, Sen. Caroline Menjivar (D) and Assemblywoman Wendy Carrillo (D). These Chino Christian nationalists are book-banners, spewers of bigotry and hatred and harassers in the tradition of the Inquisition, the kinds of monsters Armstrong and Juergensmeyer warned about. The elected school board president— a Satanic witch/MAGAt named Sonja Shaw— recently crowed in front of the state Capitol: “Today we stand here and declare in his almighty name that it’s only a matter of time before we take your seats and we be a God-fearing example to the nation, how God is using California to lead the way. We already know who has won this battle. You will be removed in Jesus’s name! You, Satan, are losing.”

She— and the man behind the curtain, megachurch pastor Jack Hibbs (Calvary Chapel Chino Hills)— have thrown their lot in with the Proud Boys, and other right-wing anti-“woke” extremists. Hibbs claims God himself installed Shaw in her position as school board president. “When California superintendent of schools Tony Thurmond appeared at the July meeting in opposition,” wrote Briquelet and Muldowney, “Shaw unceremoniously silenced him. Weeks after state Attorney General Rob Bonta announced a civil rights probe into Shaw’s ‘gender disclosure’ policy, his office sued the school board. Bonta said the policy violates the California constitution and state law, and would cause LGBTQ+ students, ‘mental, emotional, psychological and potential physical harm,’ according to a press release. Other right-leaning school boards across the state have followed Chino Valley Unified’s lead. Shortly before filing suit against the Chino board, Bonta issued statements denouncing the Anderson Union High School District, Temecula Valley Unified and Murrieta Valley Unified school boards’ decisions to pursue ‘copycat’ anti-trans policies.”

Normal residents have long raised alarms about the school board’s religious bent. And Hibbs and members of his megachurch congregation appear to be more involved than ever in Chino’s public schools. Mentally and spiritually deranged, Hibbs claims “that children are ‘groomed’ into trans ideology in the classroom and that schools want to ‘castrate your children’ and ‘mutilate them.’… Calvary Chapel has boasted on social media of collecting tens of thousands of ballots for state and local candidates endorsed by Hibbs. The church’s ballot collection, a practice it’s engaged in for years, is conducted with help from Hibbs’ political organization Real Impact.”

I always wonder why these bigots don’t lose their tax exemptions. Jack Hibbs is clearly a Jim Jones-like figure… only more evil and in the most direct possible communion with Satan.

Hibbs has emboldened supporters to fight progressive education bills and prop up Christian candidates. In his sermons, he has tearfully prayed on stage for Donald Trump to win the 2020 election, said COVID-19 vaccines would lead people into accepting “the mark of the beast,” and called “transgenderism” a “sexually perverted cult” and “an anti-God, anti-Christ plan of none other than Satan himself.”
On education, he’s claimed that he and his acolytes are “trying to rescue kids from a system that is sexualizing them,” that kids “come out of school questioning their gender but they don’t even know how to do simple math” and “are being raped by the public school system.”
Hibbs has also taken aim at California’s abortion protections, describing them as “Infanticidal Death Policies,” in a document circulated to his congregation in October 2022, just before Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom’s re-election.
“If God does not intervene in this upcoming election through His people, which has always been his MO, and, if Newsom has his way, then this will certainly be proof that judgment has begun in California if not the United States,” the document reads. It ends by encouraging followers to return their ballots to the church.
“We should be able to stand against the school board,” Hibbs said in May. “We should be able to stand against some teacher that is molesting your child— if not physically, in their minds.”
In July, Hibbs delivered a skewed history lesson claiming that some founding fathers “inherited” slaves but actually cared for them. “Before you call them rich white guys who were slave owners,” Hibbs preached, “you need to finish the sentence: They were rich white guys who were slave owners who clothed, fed, and in many cases took very good care of their slaves while at the same time juggling two worlds…”
The megachurch has also tried to meddle in Chino Valley public school classes and teachings. Calvary Chapel members once funded textbooks for an elective course in two public high schools on the Bible as history and literature and tried to alter rules for sex education curriculum.
The church also runs a Christian “Released Time” program, where public school students can duck out of class for weekly one-hour Bible lessons held in buses outfitted with tables and chairs. This program had a table at the district’s back-to-school night, and a volunteer in a Calvary Chapel Chino Hills T-shirt handed out candy and Bible coloring books.
“This is a national movement and it’s intentional,” former school board president Christina Gagnier told the Daily Beast. “I think Chino Valley is a cautionary tale.”
…At last month’s rally at the state Capitol, Shaw shared that she grew up in a home without much parental involvement. Her mother was a heroin addict who died when she was young. Her father was from another country (Israel, she told the Daily Beast) and worked seven days a week.
Shaw was a frequent commenter at school board meetings during COVID-19 shutdowns, voicing opposition to Critical Race Theory and mask mandates via her group Parent Advocacy of Chino Valley. Sometimes she was hostile to the board, yelling and interrupting proceedings, according to footage. Calling herself “The Parent’s Voice” in campaign materials, she narrowly won election to the board by 317 votes thanks to door-knocking volunteers, Hibbs’ blessing, and a $50,000 donation from Charlie and Sherry Reynoso, who own a hardware company.
Jon Monroe, another newly-elected board member who’s voted in line with Cruz, Na, and Shaw, also received $50,000 from the couple.
In a phone call with the Daily Beast, Reynoso confirmed he is a member of Calvary Chapel but insisted he hadn’t heard about the school board race at church. Instead, he and Monroe coach high school sports together, and he thinks highly of him. “I just wanted to support them,” Reynoso said. “I just like Jon a lot. Jon is a good guy, he’s just a solid human being.”
Shaw says she decided to run for office after a local GOP operative approached her and urged someone in her parents' group to vie for the open seat.
Her opponent was then-board president Gagnier, a technology lawyer and adjunct professor who has been featured as a legal expert on TV and in print. After Gagnier lost, she co-founded Our Schools USA with a former teacher in the district, Kristi Hirst, to combat misinformation and counter Moms for Liberty (M4L) and their ilk.
Our Schools has spent the last year spotlighting Shaw’s actions pre- and post- election, sharing footage of her yelling at Gagnier and board members; her speeches at political events as school board president; and her apparent collaborations with far-right agitators.
During an April board meeting, Shaw invited a director with Gays Against Groomers— a right-wing group aligned with M4L that calls gender-affirming care for minors “indoctrination” and “mutilation”— to lead the pledge of allegiance. She had also passed a resolution backing Assemblyman Essayli’s bill 1314, which would have required schools to tell parents if their child “is identifying at school as a gender that does not align with [their] sex on their birth certificate.”
When Essayli’s bill failed to get any traction, Shaw proposed a policy of her own. It immediately drew outrage from LGBTQ residents and allies, who said a significant percentage of trans kids feel safe at school but not at home.
Chino High School valedictorian Daniel Mora, who is gay, spoke in opposition.
Mora told the Daily Beast that he feels the policy “has nothing to do with parental rights” but “everything to do with outing trans kids because they don’t think people can be trans.” Mora points to the July board meeting, when Cruz called being transgender “a dismantling of our humanity” and “mental illness.” “We are saving children,” Cruz added. “Because we’re losing a lot of them. It is a death culture from the left.”
“I really don’t understand these types of policies,” Mora told us. “The majority of the people who live in Chino do not agree with this. Most people who speak at the meetings in support of these policies are outsiders. They’re outsiders invited by Sonja and the school board.” After Mora spoke at the board in June to oppose Shaw’s flag ban policy, someone yelled, “Your parents should be in jail!” in a moment captured on camera.
…In mid-September, [Shaw] is scheduled to speak at the Pray Vote Stand Summit in Washington, DC, organized by the Family Research Council, an evangelical nonprofit designated as an anti-LGBTQ hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. This lineup also includes Hibbs, former president Donald Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former vice president Mike Pence, and other boldfaced conservative names. The director of Hibbs’ Real Impact will lead a breakout session on how “individuals and churches can engage in ‘ballot harvesting.’”

Over the weekend, The Atlantic published an essay by Daniel Williams, What Really Happens When Americans Stop Going To Church. He wrote that “Millions of Americans are leaving church, never to return, and it would be easy to think that this will make the country more secular and possibly more liberal. After all, that is what happened in Northern and Western Europe in the 1960s: A younger generation quit going to Anglican, Lutheran, or Catholic churches and embraced a liberal, secular pluralism that shaped European politics for the rest of the 20th century and beyond. Something similar happened in the traditionally Catholic Northeast, where, at the end of the 20th century, millions of white Catholics in New England, New York, and other parts of the Northeast quit going to church. Today most of those states are pretty solidly blue and firmly supportive of abortion rights.” But, don’t get all excited yet. He warned that “people hold on to their politics when they stop attending church… [A]s church attendance declines even in the southern Bible Belt and the rural Midwest, history might seem to suggest that those regions will become more secular, more supportive of abortion and LGBTQ rights, and more liberal in their voting patterns. But that is not what is happening. Declines in church attendance have made the rural Republican regions of the country even more Republican and— perhaps most surprising— more stridently Christian nationalist. The wave of states banning gender-affirming care this year and the adoption of ‘proud Christian nationalist’ as an identity by politicians such as Marjorie Taylor Greene (who even marketed T-shirts with the slogan) is not what many people might have expected at a time when church attendance is declining.”

[W]hat’s going on in the South and Midwest is consistent with what happened in the Northeast: People hold onto their politics when they stop attending church. Just as liberal Christians in Massachusetts and Connecticut stayed liberal when they dropped off their church’s membership roll, so conservative Christians in Alabama and Indiana stay conservative even when they’re no longer part of a congregation.
In fact, people become even more entrenched in their political views when they stop attending services. Though churches have a reputation in some circles as promoting hyper-politicization, they can be depolarizing institutions. Being part of a religious community often forces people to get along with others— including others with different political views— and it may channel people’s efforts into charitable work or forms of community outreach that have little to do with politics. Leaving the community removes those moderating forces, opening the door to extremism.
It seems clear that Christian nationalism attracts a lot of adherents who rarely go to church themselves. A PRRI survey published earlier this year showed that only 54 percent of Christian nationalists— and just 42 percent of those who are “sympathizers” with the ideology— attend church regularly. While that’s still significantly higher than the rate of regular church attendance among the general population (which is 28 percent), it still means that roughly half of all Christian nationalists rarely, if ever, go to church. So even as church attendance declines, Christian nationalism is likely to remain alive and well.
Indeed, in their new book, The Great Dechurching, Jim Davis and Michael Graham draw on new survey data to show that dechurched evangelicals— especially those who retain evangelical Christian beliefs— remain Republican, with conservative views on most issues. Other researchers have found that Christian nationalism may produce even more extreme right-wing political manifestations in those who don’t go to church than it does among people who do go to church. “At a time when fewer Americans attend religious services, religious narratives about Christian nationhood may have their strongest political effects when, and perhaps because, they are detached from religious institutions,” one 2021 sociological study concluded.
This may seem counterintuitive if you assume that people take their religious and political cues from church, and that when they leave church, they abandon convictions of the Christian faith and perhaps also the politics that go with them. But according to Davis and Graham’s research, something else seems to be happening. When people leave church, they don’t typically become atheists or agnostics. They don’t even necessarily join the growing ranks of the religious “nones”— that is, those who no longer identify with any religion. Instead, millions of Americans who leave church continue to identify as Christians, and many retain theologically orthodox beliefs. They continue to view Jesus as their savior and retain a high respect for the Bible.
But without a church community, in many cases, the nation’s political system becomes their church— and the results are polarizing. They bring whatever moral and social values they acquired from their church experience and then apply those values in the political sphere with an evangelical zeal. For many of those leaving church traditions that place a strong emphasis on concern for the poor and marginalized, the values they retain from church translate into socially liberal political positions. Davis and Graham found that dechurched Christians who came from liberal mainline Protestant or Catholic traditions were likely to be political progressives. A quick glance at the politics of historically Catholic (but no longer heavily churched) areas of the country bears this out.
The nation’s most historically Catholic states, such as Massachusetts and Rhode Island, have retained the Democratic leanings that they had half a century ago, when more residents went to church. As white Catholics left church, they continued to practice the values of the Social Gospel that perhaps they or their parents or grandparents had learned there, and they channeled those energies into the political community. Although perhaps breaking with the church on issues of sexuality, gender, and abortion, they continued to embrace the ethic of concern for the poor and marginalized, and insisted that the government champion these causes. But among dechurched white evangelicals (a group heavily concentrated in the South and rural Midwest), the political values that remain are focused on culture wars and the autonomy of the individual.

Let me go back to Karen Armstrong’s writing that I brought up earlier. In The Battle for God, she argued that there’s a growing confusion between idealistic religious teachings (mythos) and practicality (logos) and that this confusion is leading to a rise in religious fundamentalism of the kind we’re seeing in the Chino area, as crackpots like Hibbs try to impose their vision of religion on normal people. Armstrong traced the roots of this confusion to the Enlightenment, when religion was increasingly challenged by science and reason. In response, some religious leaders retreated into a world of pure mythos, where they could ignore the messy realities of the world. This led to a devaluation of practical reason and a narrowing of the focus of religion to abstract theological concepts. Today, this confusion has been exacerbated by the rise of globalization and the internet. These forces have made it possible for people to connect with like-minded believers from all over the world, creating a sense of community and shared purpose. However, they have also made it easier for people to isolate themselves from dissenting voices and to reinforce their own beliefs. As a result, Armstrong explained, we’re seeing a rise in religious extremism, as people seek to impose their idealized vision of religion on the world. This extremism is can be violent, since it’s motivated by a sense of urgency and a belief that the world is on the brink of disaster. She believes we need to find a way to bridge the gap between idealistic religious teachings and practicality and argued that we need to reclaim the tradition of religious moderation, which has always been the dominant tradition in world religions. This tradition emphasizes the importance of both faith and reason, and it seeks to find a balance between the demands of the individual and the needs of the community the will help us create a more tolerant and compassionate world. She contends that we need to learn to live with our differences, and to respect the beliefs of others. We also need to find ways to apply the insights of religion to the challenges of the modern world, such as poverty, war, and environmental degradation.

Williams warned that “Whether inside or outside of church, evangelicals in conservative regions of the country have lined up in support of gun rights and restrictive immigration policies— even though these stances run directly counter to the official views of several mainline Protestant denominations, as well as the statements of American Catholic bishops. When evangelicals leave church, they don’t abandon these political views; they instead continue voting for politicians who champion the Second Amendment and tighter border security… [W]hite southerners who identify as Christian but do not attend church are overwhelmingly conservative in their attitudes on race and social welfare (just as church-attending southern white Christians are). A majority of southern white Christians who never attend church (or attend only once a year) also support restrictive abortion laws. Many are liberal or libertarian on matters of personal liberty, such as marijuana and premarital sex, but they’re still strongly conservative on issues of race, gender, and Christian nationalism…The exodus of millions of Americans from churches will have a profound influence on the nation’s politics, and not in the way that many advocates of secularism might expect. Rather than ending the culture wars, the battle between a rural Christian nationalism without denominational moorings and a northern urban Social Gospel without an explicitly Christian framework will become more intense.

Only half a century ago Christian denominations acted as politically centrist forces. Southern Baptists such as Jimmy Carter and Al Gore ran politically moderate campaigns that appealed to their fellow church members on both the right and the left, and devout Catholics such as then-Senator Joe Biden could still combine relatively moderate positions on abortion with a liberal-leaning Catholic social ethic to win Catholic votes. But those days are disappearing.
Denominations and church commitments once preserved a set of broadly shared Christian moral values that transcended the right-left divide, but now that some of the loudest supporters of Christian nationalism have left these denominations behind, there is little to stop them from refashioning the Christian faith in their own image, with potentially heretical results. And in contrast to the days when both Republicans and Democrats— and northerners and southerners— shared a common religious language despite their differences, little common ground is now left between the post-Christians of the urban North and the post-churched Christian nationalists of the rural South. The decline of churchgoing in America, it seems, has not eviscerated Christianity; it has simply distorted it. And that distortion will have politically unpleasant implications that go far beyond church walls.


Jesse Salisbury
Jesse Salisbury
Sep 05, 2023

Appraise the lord , tax the church


Sep 05, 2023

Yes, the founders were WISE. So... that means that all who vote today are WHAT(?) because none of them have voted to keep it thataway for several decades now? WHAT I been saying!!!

"...religious violence is not caused by religion per se, but by the way that religion is used by political and social actors."

Not exactly. Since religion is a manifestation of human flaws, evil done by the worst of humanity is usually done "in the name of god".

And, in fact, the rest of the column goes on to prove that anecdotally.

Evil is done by humans because of their flaws and hatreds. Whether they are active in their church or not, they still do their evil an…

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