Bigotry is bad. Everybody knows that much. That's why political correctness thrives. It's supposed to protect the feelings as well as the rights of vulnerable minorities, whoever they may be.
Political correctness was born on the left and can be extremely narrow-minded, but the motivation behind it is not always bad. It strives to reduce offense, and sometimes it works. It's no longer socially permissible to be blatantly anti-Semitic or anti-papist. Rarely do you hear the insults and epithets that our grandparents often did - such as "kikes," "fish-eaters," "holy rollers," "Bible thumpers," "wops," "harps," "Chinks," and "dagos."
But conspicuously alive and well in this land of the free and home of the brave is one last permissible bigotry, one target of prejudice on the receiving end of acceptable slurs. It's open season on Christian fundamentalists.
I rarely sit at a bar or in a restaurant, or in a political meeting on a college campus, or engage in a cosmopolitan give-and-take social life in New York and Washington without hearing casual references to religious right "wackos," fundamentalist "kooks," or those "nuttos" who follow Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson. You won't hear any-thing like that aimed at Jews, whether Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform - or the followers of Al Sharpton, for that matter.
Catholics as well as most Methodists and Presbyterians, who are as politically active as the fundamentalists, are a protected species in the popular vernacular.
How did it happen that white Christian fundamentalists get no respect? I took an informal survey of sophisticated friends and acquaintances and the answers are all over the map. Some blame the abortion issue and the "crazies" who bomb abortion clinics.
But every religion suffers its fringe groups and we usually don't tar the whole religion. Most Catholics and many Orthodox Jews oppose abortion and they're not lumped together with the tiny number of the criminally crazed who bomb clinics. Thoughtful men and women of a variety of religions and of no religion debate the ethical consequences of pro-choice and pro-life. These issues cut across theology.
Others tell me that the Christian fundamentalists are merely fanatics who refuse to enter the 21st century. But a literal belief in the Bible hardly makes a believer fanatic. Whether you believe that God literally created the universe in six days or that six days is a metaphor for a designated period, or whether Moses saw a burning bush that was not consumed by fire, or whether God actually parted the Red Sea, does not affect what you eat or where you sleep, or even who you want to be president of the United States.
Still others accuse the fundamentalists of wanting to separate themselves from secular society (you might think they would see this as a good thing), home-schooling their children or pressuring local governments to censor textbooks and library books. But concern for what their children read is as old as the public school system and subject to legitimate debate. Home-schooling is popular for many reasons, not the least of which are dismal scores and violence in the public schools.
Karen Armstrong, in a provocative new book, The Battle for God, argues that fundamentalists and secular religious people were not polarized in America until after the famous Scopes trial in Tennessee seventy-five years ago, when the fundamentalists were humiliated even though John Scopes was convicted of breaking state law against teaching Darwin. Consequently, they were forced into a kind of silent underground, where the more extreme ideas in defense of creationism flourished.
"Few fundamentalists had believed in the so-called 'creation science,' which argued that Genesis was scientifically sound in every detail," she writes. The fundamentalists of that era were less concerned with creationism vs. Darwinism than they were their right to reject an "unsupported hypothesis" which they believed would have immoral consequences.
But after the Scopes trial the liberal secularists heaped scorn on fundamentalists as a "lunatic fringe." Something like that is at work again today. Fundamentalist Christians have turned, usually reluctantly, to politics because they are again concerned with what they regard as the immoral impact of secular ideas on our common society. Their opponents stereotype them as "Neanderthals" and bigoted attacks win tacit public approval, or at least toleration.
But they should remind themselves of what Karen Armstrong calls "the moral and spiritual imperatives" of religious people who are frightened that their spiritual survival is threatened by unthinking secularism in the interests of "unfettered rationalism." In refusing to recognize their humanity, we become blind to our own.
Editor's Note: Suzanne Fields is a Los Angeles Times Syndicate writer. As a secular commentator her articles are seldom featured in Christian publications. It is precisely her secular orientation that makes her insights especially relevant in the current cultural climate. Reprinted with permission from the Los Angeles Times Syndicate, April 3, 2000.