How the PDR Displaced the PDA; or Welcome to Jesusland

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Think back to middle school, when you were somewhere between 11 and 13 years old, and your body was first urging you to really reach out and touch someone (beyond AT&T). Accompanying most of those touches was an ever-present reminder from teachers and administrators to please “mind the PDAs.”

Because newly minted teens often have difficulty exercising self-control, it is necessary for adults to give gentle reminders that PDAs, public displays of affection, are not appropriate.

I think it’s high time to institute the “gentle reminder”  policy on another matter involving proper public conduct. For the PDA has been usurped by a far more insidious problem in adulthood that has completely infected political discourse — as well as an entire political party — in this country. I call it the “PDR” or public displays of religion.

The brandishing of religion as the ultimate qualifier for elected office and policy construct is absurd. Yet, virtually all of the 2012 GOP presidential candidates are thumping their Bibles to curry favor with the 20 percent of Americans who think religion and politics should run concurrent. It may be hard to remember, but it wasn’t always this way.

The Reagan revolution in 1980 was the proverbial shofar blast for the Christian right to finally flex its political muscle. While “The Shining City Upon a Hill” may not have introduced religion into the body politic, it greatly facilitated the ascent of religious zealotry cum public.

In his book, In God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right, University of West Georgia historian Daniel Williams argues the entree of Christian conservatives (the ones most guilty of PDRs) into the Republican political soup was the ultimate Faustian bargain. Grafting their social agenda onto the party’s anti-communist platform had lasting repercussions; it has since co-opted the party of Lincoln almost completely.

“The evangelicals were looking for a party that would champion what they viewed as moral values and their interests in the Cold War,” Williams said. “The Republican Party was also looking for potential voters.”

As the Cold War began in earnest, the narrative of God-fearing, freedom-loving capitalists versus godless, state-controlled communists dovetailed nicely with conservative Christian beliefs.

“Evangelicals had been speaking out against communism even before it became a central cause for the American government,” Williams said. “But what happened during the early years of the Cold War was that they became convinced that the federal government was acting in the interests of God by fighting against communism internationally, and by rooting out communist subversives within the country.”

The watershed moment seemed to occur during George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign against Sen. John Kerry. The president, employing the panoply of wedge issues in his arsenal and publicly courting the religious right with tales of being reborn, so polarized the nation that a blog post capturing the mood of the day became one of the first truly viral phenomena of social media’s rise: The United States of Jesusland.

The premise, for anyone lucky enough to have been in a coma that year, goes that the coastal states and the Great Lakes region — the blue states — are home to a liberal socialist elite (a la Canada), and thus could be its own country, duly known as The United States of Canada. The remainder of the states — the red-leaning “fly-over” portion of the continent, home to God-fearing social conservatives — would aptly be called Jesusland.

This month, Red Thread devoted a fair amount of real estate to religion vis-à-vis secular law/politics. Our cover feature, “God v. Man: Religious and Secular Courts in America,” written by Drew Cohen, a George Washington University Law School student, looks at how American courts and Jewish religious courts, called beit din in Hebrew, intersect and co-exist in our pluralistic democracy.

We also interviewed Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), whose book, The Gift of Rest: Rediscovering the Beauty of the Sabbath, which was released over the summer, talks about his love of this cornerstone tenet in an observant person’s world.

In the book, and in the interview, he espouses the benefits our souls can derive by unplugging from man’s world for 25 hours, whether or not you are of the Jewish persuasion. Never once does he use the precepts of Shabbat, or religion in general, as a platform to promote political ideology.

Interestingly, also last summer, his colleague across the aisle, South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, released a book with a religious subtext called The Great American Awakening, which is primarily focused on the insurgent conservative movement known as the Tea Party. He said the book’s title is an homage to the Second Great Awakening, a period of religious revival in the early 19th century.

“(The Tea Party) is as much a spiritual awakening as a political awakening,” DeMint said in an interview with the Huffington Post. “The concern about our country … has awakened the faith of many people.”

The senator, who took an oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” after being elected frequently cites Christian theology and biblical passages to help make his points.

“The spiritual assessment is just the lens I look through,” he was quoted as saying in the interview. In his book, DeMint argues that the separation of church and state “is contrary to what our founders envisioned,” attacking the idea of big government on spiritual grounds.

“Big government is a religious issue,” DeMint writes. “History shows in nations where there is a big government, there is a little God. When people are dependent on government, they are less dependent on God, and their spiritual fervor fades. Socialism and secularism go hand in hand, as do faith and freedom.”

I am not an atheist, nor am I a socialist. My wife and I observe Shabbat and keep a kosher home. Our children attend a local day school. My favorite economist is Adam Smith. I voted for George H.W. Bush in 1992. I don’t thump my siddur in public.

As a member of a religious minority, I fully understand why the founders wrote the establishment clause in the Constitution. Why does it feel like I’m in the minority on that, too?

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