Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Peter Irons has a posting on a USA Today blog about insiders and outsiders in cases involving the separation of church and state. Much of the material comes right out of his book, God on Trial, which chronicles a series of such cases in great detail. As I’ve noted before, one of the consistent features of any such case once it gets media coverage is the harassment and abuse of the plaintiffs for daring to speak out.

Irons also points out that this is not true only of atheists like Phillip Paulson and Michael Newdow, plaintiffs in the Mt. Soledad cross case and the Elk Grove pledge of allegiance case respectively, but also of the many Christians who have raised objections to what they view as de facto religious establishments.

In some of these communities, the challengers were truly outsiders, such as Philip Paulson, a Vietnam War veteran who sued to remove the cross from San Diego’s Mount Soledad park, and Michael Newdow, an emergency room physician who objected to the Pledge’s reference to God in his first-grade daughter’s classroom. Both of them are avowed atheists. Significantly, however, most of the people I talked with were Christians, including Baptists, Lutherans and Episcopalians. Regardless of religious beliefs, they all lost their insider status when they broke with their town’s majorities and joined these lawsuits.

Most of the plaintiffs in church/state cases, like most Americans, are Christians. Nearly all of the plaintiffs in the various evolution cases have been Christians, most of them clergymen. And he tells this story of the plaintiff in the McCreary County ten commandments case:

On the surface, Jimmie Greene and Louanne Walker both qualify as insiders in rural McCreary County, Ky., a stronghold of hard-shell Baptists and rock-ribbed Republicans. They are, in fact, cousins whose ancestors settled in the Cumberland Mountains back in Daniel Boone’s days. Jimmie and Louanne grew up together, attended the same elementary school and worshipped in the same Baptist church. Jimmie served four terms as the county’s “judge executive,” and Louanne has worked for 20 years in the welfare office.

But Louanne quickly became an outsider when she challenged her cousin’s decision to hang a copy of the Ten Commandments in the lobby of the McCreary County courthouse in Whitley City, a town of just over 1,000 residents. Talking with me recently over coffee in her kitchen, Louanne traced her decision to her mother, Nellie, an “outsider” from neighboring Pulaski County who married into the huge Walker clan.

“She was a Democrat, a liberal, a strong-minded person,” Louanne said. “She was a big supporter of the church, but she was also a supporter of separation of church and state, and she brought me up that way.”

With some trepidation, Louanne joined a lawsuit — filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky — to remove the Ten Commandments. “I was really scared at first,” she said, “just watching to see if people were going to throw things in the yard or kill my dogs. They had rallies here, and people would say, ‘We’re going to get her job.’”

But in reality, Louanne was lucky. She was merely condemned, not threatened. In many other cases, the plaintiffs have been victims of vandalism and they almost always get death threats. More typical is this woman’s experience:

Debbie Mason had long been active as a volunteer in the school attended by three of her daughters in Santa Fe, Texas. But she quickly became an outsider after she challenged the football game prayers in the town’s high school stadium. Debbie endured ostracism, even threats of drive-by shootings. One of her daughters, Jenni, left church in tears one Sunday morning after a school board member denounced her family from the pulpit.

I think Irons is on to something with this insider/outsider perspective. I think that is the emotional root of why people respond so virulently to such cases, because in their mind religion is primarily a form of tribalism – those who agree with you are “Us” and those who don’t are “Them.” The moment you buck the majority, you are immediately placed in the “Them” category and the basic tribalism instinct kicks in; they truly do see themselves as protecting the in-group from the barbarian hordes at the door. And never mind that the horde usually consists of people just like them who just have a different perspective on the question of government support for religion.