Jumping the shark for Jesus

Jumping the shark for Jesus

: Many say that the Schiavo episode is splitting the Republican party; others say is it splitting Democrats, too; others say it is dividing America. But I think something more fundamental is happening:

The religious right is separating itself from the rest of America. The theocrats may have finally gone too far too often.

They have been aided and abetted — but ultimately undermined — by a media that bought their PR and presented the loud voices of a few as the voice of the nation marching to the right and up to the altar. But the overdose of overdoing it that we’re seeing on TV these last few weeks may just be the catalyst that causes a backlash, that reminds us that we are a secular nation of churchgoers and that we value separation of church and state over either church or state: That is our mainstream.

In the case of Terri Schiavo, we have heard angry, even frightening rhetoric from the religious right: people in Florida and in Congress accusing judges of murdering Schiavo; the Schindlers and their advocates, many of them ministers, turning on even their allies (even on Jeb Bush if he doesn’t do enough to satisfy them, if he doesn’t do the impossible); online advocates saying that the laws and the courts should be damned; and conservatives throwing over their political philosphy opposing federalism and government interference in service of their religous philosophy.

It’s not just Schiavo.

It’s also about the FCC and censorship, where we have a few, a very few religious nannies trying to tell the rest of us what we cannot hear and see. And, again, the religious conservatives throw away their allegiance to small government and their opposition to government interference in citizens’ lives in favor of their religous orthodoxy. (And religous Democrats ignore their belief in free speech — not for religious principle but instead for cynical political gain … which, I could argue, is worse, for it is unprincipled.)

Of course, it’s about abortion as well: Every time I drive my kids to their orthodontist, I pass what must be a clinic and see protesters standing outside not just protesting but trying to shock with their images and words. They don’t appear to be merely protesting or just angry; they look extreme.

And it’s about sex: At the same time they oppose abortion, the religious right opposes sex education beyond pushing abstinence with young people; in the age of AIDS, that’s doubly dangerous.

Finally, it’s about attempts to stake claim to the moral high ground. See also David Brooks in The New York Times this weekend trying so very hard to be Mr. Reasonable. But, in the end, by taking what he calls the high moral ground, he accuses those who do not agree with his stand of being ammoral, or at least less moral:

The socially conservative argument has tremendous moral force, but doesn’t accord with the reality we see when we walk through a hospice. The socially liberal argument is pragmatic, but lacks moral force.

He is arguing that only one side holds a moral argument. No, both sides have moral arguments but they are different arguments. There is not just one-true-way, or at least there’s no way for us to know what it is… yet.

It’s about some people telling the rest of us how we should live — and this comes from the people most resent being told how to live. It’s self-righteous and shrill. And I’m betting all that is turning off more people than it is converting them. That is jumping the shark culturally.

But it’s happening politically, too, as the theocrats stand apart from their own political principles and from the rule of law and the voters who reject their actions.

I think that those factors alone — shrill media appearances and hypocritical political actions — are enough to spark a backlash against the religious fringe.

This will have impact on politics: I will not be surprised to see the mainstream of the Republican party disassociate itself from the fringe — especially if the polls continue to scream that they should and especially if the Democrats stop acting politically fringy and self-righteous themselves and start inviting that mainstream in.

I hope there will be impact on the press: The press repeated again and again, 24 hours a day, that we are divided on this issue but, in fact, we are not: Most people backed Terri Schaivo’s husband’s efforts to do what he believed she wanted. (Hear On The Media this week on this.) A vast majority of people objected to Congress’ intervention. But the press got that wrong in its running commentary, just as they get wrong the notion that we are a nation of red vs. blue extremes when, in fact, we are the nation of the vast maintream, a mainstream of individuals who all hold their own beliefs. Just as the Congress should looks at this episode and the polls and realize they blew it, so should the press.

And I hope this has cultural impact: We need to see a renewed defense and appreciation of the First Amendment: of free speech and separation of church and state. This is not about one true religion ruling the day; that is what our ancestors left so many years ago. This is about the democratic tension that occurs as our society struggles with what is right. That struggle is never over but we are blessed to be in a nation that allows us to struggle freely.

Mind you, I am writing this after leaving my church on Saturday setting up the lillies and pansies for the dawn of Easter sunday. And I am posting this on Easter morning as millions of Americans go to church — huge numbers of them who may not be devout in media terms and, in fact, go only once or twice a year. These are the reasonably religious, not the zealots, not the theocrats, just Americans.

Easter is about celebrating a new day.

: LATER: Frank Rich bangs this same drum today.

: LATER STILL: Joe Gandelman joins in.