As an American writing for a primarily UK audience, I feel like part of my remit is trying to help y’all understand how things are going in American culture and politics. I’ve written about the culture wars we’re continually exporting, and the spread of Bill Cooper style anti-globalist conspiracism. My overall view is that the superficially disparate moral panics that have dominated American politics throughout my lifetime are mostly just different fronts in the overarching war against the social change that conservatives blame on rising secularism. The conventional understanding that America is trending towards secularism misses the polarisation that’s actually occurring, where secularism is met with increases in “intense religion”.
American Atheists recently released their yearly State of the secular States report, which emphasises the threat of white Christian nationalism that is driving a host of regressive policies and projects. I want to highlight some of the major takeaways, to hopefully give a better sense of what American skeptics are dealing with, and how that shapes our understanding of these issues.
First, I think it’s significant that American Atheists has chosen to openly engage with the problem of white Christian nationalism. While the term is not used in the report, the author of the report and Vice President of Legal and Policy Alison Gill argues that:
Unless the media and advocates shine a light on white Christian nationalists’ unprecedented attacks on our democracy, this extremist movement’s momentum will only increase in 2022.
The inclusion of “white” highlights that there is a crucial racial element to this conflict, one that I emphasised in my previous culture war article. By highlighting “white” in this way, American Atheists risks being labeled “woke”, and potentially alienating some white atheists who oppose making the movement about something more than disbelief in god. However, I think you can’t get a full understanding of the problem by limiting which pieces you talk about for political reasons.
The report highlights three main areas of concern: Religious Freedom Restoration Acts, denial of healthcare legislation, and legislation attacking public schools. Religious Freedom Restoration Acts (RFRAs) are aimed at ensuring broad religious exceptions to laws that interfere with religious freedom or require an individual to violate their deeply held religious beliefs. The original RFRA law was introduced back in 1993 by democratic legislators and signed by Bill Clinton, to give you a sense that this is not exclusively a right-wing idea.
The original inciting incident involved respecting the right of Native Americans to practice religious traditions involving the use of peyote, a cactus containing a potent hallucinogen. Since then, 21 states have passed some version of RFRA, which have primarily been cited to defend religious exemptions around providing medical care ranging from birth control to gender-affirming care. These bills fell out of favour after 2015 because of successful campaigns emphasising their harmful applications, but there has been a resurgence of proposed RFRA legislation in recent years.
American Atheists ties the recent resurgence to the pandemic and attempts to limit large public gatherings that can result in super-spreader events. Some of these proposed legislations would have gone far beyond protecting churches from public health measures. Depending on how they’re written, RFRA laws can arguably provide protection from basic fire codes, criminal and civil charges of sexual abuse of minors, charges stemming from discrimination, and medical negligence stemming from an organisations religious beliefs.
Activists have managed to defeat some of the broadest bills, but more narrowly-tailored exemptions to emergency and disaster codes have made it through in several states. The question remains if these bills will lay the groundwork for further expansion of religious exemption, or if harms can be limited to issues of public safety.
The second, related concern raised by American Atheists is the successful passage of “conscience” bills for healthcare providers, that give sweeping protection to anyone in the medical system who refuses to provide service on the basis of religious beliefs, even if a patient dies as a result. This sort of protective overreach is indicative of the siege mentality that comes from decades of being told that your political opponents are out to destroy your very way of life.
The harms are likely to fall disproportionately on women, especially women seeking abortions, as well as trans individuals seeking not just gender-affirming care but medical treatment more broadly. It’s important to note how these broad claims of “religious freedom” continue to be used to advance a range of concrete, often discriminatory projects against both women and LGBTQ communities.
This effective use of overlapping concerns is also on display in the recent attacks on public schools. Public schools and public school teachers have long been a target of criticism by the religious right. The teaching of evolution and comprehensive sex education, and policy changes like the removal of prayer outside of religious extracurriculars, have fueled a push for religious charter schools and a demand that public funding be provided, in the form of vouchers for parents who wish to remove their children from public schooling.
The debate over religious charter schools is complicated by the history of marginalised communities relying on charter schools to provide an educational alternative to racist public schools. The conservative war on public schools tends to take the form of whatever cultural issue is currently in vogue, from the gay agenda panic to the current attacks on Critical Race Theory, and related pedagogical approaches like social-emotional learning.
I haven’t discussed the CRT moral panic in this column, as it has primarily remained an American problem, but it’s worth understanding its place in the larger debate over school choice in America. Critical Race Theory was originally developed as a legal theory to address the lack of progress on racial justice despite the shift to racially neutral laws in America. This theory then influenced education through concepts like culturally-relevant pedagogy, and a shift away from a deficit model approach for understanding marginalised students. The CRT moral panic was popularised by Chris Rufo, a former director of the Discovery Institute’s Center on Wealth and Poverty. The Discovery Institute is known for their “teach the controversy” creationist agenda, and their UK affiliate group Truth in Science has been sending anti-trans pseudoscience films to UK schools. In America, this moral panic is part of an ongoing project to discredit public schooling and drive demand for alternatives. The CRT moral panic has combined with anger over school closures and mask mandates into a broad concern that parents are being denied control over what happens to their children in public schools, despite the fact that, in the age of Covid and remote learning, parents have unprecedented access to what is happening in their student’s classrooms.
I recently had an exchange with Andy Lewis concerning gender critical views and skepticism, where I argued that UK concerns about “the Trans agenda” are being influenced by American style religious conservatism. I received some pushback that the UK doesn’t have these problems the way that America does, but I worry that your genuinely more secular society might make it possible to be complicit about what’s seeping across the Atlantic.
The reality is, the internet is creating more cultural crossover than ever before, and I want UK skeptics to understand what we’re dealing with over here, because I’m not convinced it can be kept from influencing your culture in ways that might not seem religiously motivated at first, but lead to regressive outcomes. The religious right in America are not taking secularisation lying down, and they can cause a lot of suffering if their attempts to undermine secularism aren’t taken seriously.