Imagine a nation where schoolchildren gather under a state-sponsored banner imploring their nation’s god to help them grow “morally.” Then imagine one courageous young woman taking a stand against the authoritarian inculcation of theocracy in that country, only to be labeled an “evil little thing” by its political establishment. Imagine if the same people who want the godlike morality of that banner taught in schools threatened the young woman with beatings and rape. Imagine the kind of medieval dictatorship that would foster this behavior.
Now, stop imagining and think of Rhode Island, the state founded by Roger Williams, a Christian clergyman who hoped to create a place where pluralism and absolute religious freedom would be protected. It is there that a young woman named Jessica Ahlquist led a successful campaign against a prayer banner in her school. In so doing, she has become a target for the ire of far-right politicians and other self-proclaimed defenders of the faith.
Among Ahlquist’s detractors are Rhode Island State Representative Peter Palumbo, whose political accomplishments include preventing an illicit drive through at a Dunkin Donuts, and introducing an “Arizona-style immigration bill” into the Rhode Island legislature. Palumbo described Ahlquist as “an evil little thing” who has been “coerced by evil people.” To be clear, the “evil” Ms. Ahlquist has promulgated is the simple act of petitioning the courts to ensure that a minority group – in this case non-Christians – receive the full protection of the Constitution.
Following on the heels of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, it is not difficult to recognize that what this politician has called “evil” is in fact nothing short of heroic. Shortly before his death, Dr. King proclaimed, “And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, not polite, not popular, but he must do it because Conscience tells him it is right.” Standing the tradition of Dr. King, and Roger Williams, a sixteen-year-old young woman has done just that. She exemplifies what American citizens can be at our very best.
Unfortunately, the “Christian” response to her actions has demonstrated what we can be at our worst. The screenshots of the social media posts about the District Court’s decision are nothing short of horrifying. One young woman tweeted, with no apparent sense of irony (or grammar), “I hope there’s lots of banners in hell when your rotting in there you atheist fuck. #TeamJesus.” Many others, in their zeal for the Prince of Peace, discussed the merits of various means of assaulting Ahlquist including a hope that Satan would “rape her” in hell and a more broad suggestion of a “holocaust to all the atheists.”
The tone and content of these posts reveal more than just the abysmal state of public education in America. They also demonstrate the real nature of a debate that is often framed as one between “Christianity” and its opponents. Those members of “TeamJesus” who are enthusiastically cheering for the beating, rape, and eternal torment of a young woman are not trying to defend Christianity. If they were, they would follow the counsel of the Apostle Paul.
Instead, they are acting like crazed fans after their team has lost the Super Bowl. This is hardly surprising, since the recent manufactured rage from the far right in defense of “Christianity” has nothing to do with preserving and protecting the teachings of Jesus, and everything to do with guaranteeing the privileges – and entrenching the prejudices – of certain powerful social groups. The fight is not about religion, it is about the traditionally powerful team seeking to hold on to its social and political capital. Talking about a war on “Christianity,” however, sells a lot better than a war on “our right to limit the freedoms of those who disagree with us.”
The candor of Ahlquist’s opponents offers a glimpse beneath the veneer of religious labels to make this abundantly clear. Whether the topic is a prayer banner in a high school, adoption rights for same-sex parents, or school curricula based exclusively on science, those who claim the banner of the “Christian” Right are not working for Christian values. They are fighting to protect their position of power within American political culture. Jessica Ahlquist had the courage to stand against them, and now she is faced with the predictably vile and brutish responses that bullies have employed throughout history. It remains for the rest of us to look past their crosses and Bibles to see the clubs and pitchforks hidden beneath them. When we do, it becomes remarkably easy to see where the real “evil” lies.
The Rev. C. Joshua Villines teaches Religion as an adjunct in the College of Continuing and Professional Studies at Mercer University.