Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, does not like the Freedom From Religion Foundation. At this year’s Values Voters Summit, Perkins moderated a “No Fear Panel” that featured a young man who used the stage at his public high school graduation to unconstitutionally impose his prayer on everyone present, regardless of their beliefs. That graduate—a white, male Christian—is part of the most privileged majority in this nation. He prayed to an audience comprised mostly of Christians, received a standing ovation for breaking the law, and was then lauded as heroic by the Religious Right. Only with religion could pandering to a majority be considered taking a courageous stand.
In his introduction of this young man, Perkins likened FFRF to the Taliban:
“Those who want to eradicate any reference to god or exercise of religious freedom from the public square. And in Liberty South Carolina, … The Freedom From Religion Foundation, kind of the Atheist Taliban, they came there and they came after the school board because they had prayer before a school board meeting…”
This, coming from Perkins, a man who:
- runs a hate group, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center;
- would like to establish a government based on his particular religion, which, incidentally, is what the religious terrorists he compared us to are actually trying impose.
On the second point, Perkins calls court decisions that uphold the separation of state and church—Torcaso v. Watkins, Engel v. Vitale, Abington School District v. Schempp, Epperson v. Arkansas, Lemon v. Kurtzman, etc.— “major assaults that have been successfully launched against the Christian faith in the last forty to fifty years.” It’s almost as if he wishes there were no separation of state and church so that he and his ilk could create a Christian state. Incidentally, the Taliban will wage a “jihad until we establish the Islamic state.”
Make no mistake, I’m not equating Tony Perkins or the Family Research Council to the Taliban. He’s a hateful bigot, but he is not, as far as I know, a violent man. I disagree with much of what he says and what he stands for, but he is far more civilized than the Taliban. However, Perkins has invited a comparison between the Taliban, the Family Research Council, and FFRF. The comparison shows that Family Research Council and the Taliban’s goals are eerily similar, while FFRF is opposed to the goals of both groups. Of course, the comparison also shows that FRC and the Taliban’s methods are far different.
Militant or strident atheism looks a lot like….
Perkins’ hyperbolic attack on FFRF goes beyond the offensive into the realm of the absurd. Even if for the sake of argument we were to concede a stereotypical modifier used to describe an atheist—strident, militant, etc.—what does such an atheist look like? In other words, how does Perkins’ Atheist Taliban compare to the Taliban?
A “militant” or “strident” atheist goes to conventions, engages in online discussions, wears freethought T-shirts, and works to keep state and church separate. The Taliban beheads people because of what they believe. The Taliban sends suicide bombers into markets. The Taliban dynamites priceless treasures of other religions, such as the Bamiyan Buddhas. The Taliban murders 132 children and forces the survivors to watch their teacher being burned alive.
Militant atheism looks a lot like open, intellectual debate and free inquiry. It looks nothing like terrorism.
The “public square” v. a government office
After Perkins likened FFRF to a group of terrorists, the student he was interviewing portrayed himself as standing up to FFRF when, as he put it, he “found out that religion was going to be removed from all aspects of our community.” Perkins himself claimed that FFRF wants “to eradicate any reference to god or exercise of religious freedom from the public square.” You’d be hard pressed to find a bigger straw man.
There is a significant difference between “all aspects of our community” or “the public square” and the government. Tony Perkins and his acolyte can worship, read the bible, and pray in public all they like. I genuinely don’t care. What Perkins can’t do is use a government office to promote his personal religion. His confusion over this simple distinction and his hyperbole are symptoms of conservative Christians’ desire to be persecuted. In their minds, being asked to observe the law and this distinction is persecution. Kim Davis claimed persecution because she couldn’t use her government office to impose her personal religion on other people or deny them equality based on her religion’s archaic rules. Coach Kennedy, the Bremerton (Wash.) high school football coach, is claiming persecution because a public school asked him not to abuse his public position of power to foist his religion on other people’s children. Davis and Kennedy are not being persecuted. They are simply not being allowed to abuse their governmental positions to impose their religion on others.
Although Perkins’ analogy is rude and offensive, as it was meant to be, it is also revealing. Perkins has no legitimate criticism to levy against FFRF and the work we do. If he did, he would not rely on deliberate misrepresentations and terroristic analogies. In sum, Perkins lacks not only class, but also a leg to stand on when criticizing the Freedom From Religion Foundation and our work upholding the First Amendment.