Rutherford Road Trip: An Interesting Conversation With Interns, Ex-Theocrats and Even Two Liberty U. Students

July 15th, 2010
By Rob Boston
Inside AU, Jerry Falwell Jr, Religious Right Research

If someone had told me 20 years ago that I would one day be giving a lecture at the Rutherford Institute (TRI), I would have scoffed.

“The Rutherford Institute!” I probably would have snorted. “They don’t support church-state separation! Why would I want to talk to them?”

Yet there I was yesterday in Charlottesville, Va., talking to a crowd of Rutherford interns and residents of the community (including three Americans United members). In fact, this was the third summer running that I’ve spoken at TRI.

A lot has changed since 1990. John W. Whitehead, founder of the Institute, has moved away from the Religious Right and now openly criticizes its leaders. While Whitehead and Americans United don’t see eye on some church-state issues, he’s definitely no fan of efforts by fundamentalist Christians to “take over” government and impose their narrow moral vision.

In addition, TRI these days is doing lots of other things, including defending unpopular forms of free speech.

Whitehead told me an interesting story: After he made some comments in the conservative Christian media criticizing the Religious Right for gay bashing, stridently anti-gay minister Fred Phelps’ church sent him a message saying their members planned to picket outside TRI’s office.

Whitehead replied that the church was welcome to do so, offered to provide snacks and told Phelps that if the police bothered the protestors, TRI would defend them in court. The Phelps clan never showed up.

Whitehead hires a big group of interns every summer, but he doesn’t subject them to any type of political or religious litmus test. He sets them up in shared offices and lets them hash out their views while they work. A parade of speakers comes to kick around ideas and take questions. It must make for an interesting summer.

Among the crowd yesterday were two Liberty University students. They were unfailingly polite but had sharp disagreements with what I had to say. With great passion, one of them expressed her opinion that church-state separation leads to a loss of national morality. She quoted George Washington to buttress her view that religion is necessary for morality.

I hear this often from supporters of the Religious Right. Their concern is that if we enforce church-state separation, it will lessen the influence of religion. If religion loses power, a corrosive secularism will take hold and people will adopt the view that “anything goes.”

There are several problems with the argument.

First off, church-state separation doesn’t lessen the influence of religion. Separation creates a platform on which religious liberty rests. People are free to engage in the religion of their choice or ignore them all.

Church-state separation simply mandates that the government be neutral on questions of theology; it does not call for hostility toward faith. The great flowering of religious freedom – and the diversity of sects we have seen here – are evidence that our government is anything but hostile to religion.

Secondly, it should be pretty clear by now that non-religious people can be good, ethical and decent and that religion is no guarantee of moral behavior. I pointed out to the young woman that many European nations, which are much more secular than the United States and where interest in organized religion has fallen, have lower crimes rates and stronger safety nets than our country.

Religion, I replied, can inspire people to do great things. It can also lead some to start wars and engage in violence. At the same time, secular ideologies like Communism and Nazism spawned horrible crimes. Blind, unquestioning adherence to any ideology, whether religious or secular, is the problem.

The other Liberty student also asked a number of thoughtful questions, including a query about why AU keeps going after his university’s tax-exempt status. This gave us an opportunity to get into the issue of religion and politics.

I’m sure I didn’t change the minds of those Liberty students. But perhaps the exposure to a range of ideas and the water cooler debates they’ll undoubtedly take part in this summer at the Rutherford Institute will plant a few seeds. You never can tell what may grow from those.

Who knows? Twenty years from now they may be agreeing with John Whitehead that the Religious Right has it all wrong.

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