Articles of Faith: Will a Slew of Overturned State Laws Galvanize the Christian Right?

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Judges on the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sounded skeptical this week as they heard arguments about why a ban on sharia law in Oklahoma courts should become part of the state’s constitution. “We just have sharia law singled out,” said Judge Scott Matheson, while one of his colleagues pressed the state’s solicitor general to confirm that the ban applies to only one religion. Seventy percent of Oklahoma voters supported the ballot initiative–known as the “Save Our State” amendment–last November, not because sharia often comes up in the Oklahoma court system, but as a preemptive measure against a shadowy, frightening future.

Not long after Election Day, a U.S. District Court judge ordered Oklahoma to refrain from certifying the referendum results. Her reasoning was that the ban was likely to be found unconstitutional on First Amendment grounds because it dealt with only one religion’s legal code. And based on the tenor of this week’s questioning by the Appeals Court, she was probably right.

Anti-abortion activists have run into similar problems with their efforts to enact a variety of abortion restrictions at the state level. Two weeks ago, a U.S. district court judge issued an injunction against parts of a new Texas law that would require women seeking abortions not only to have sonograms, but to listen to detailed descriptions of their fetuses and hear the heartbeat, if audible, as well. As the state’s appeal now moves to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, opponents of the law feel confident that it will be found to have violated the First Amendment by forcing doctors to engage in government-mandated speech.

Around the same time, Kansas officials announced they would comply with a federal judge’s directive to resume funding Planned Parenthood clinics. The state had passed a law earlier this year essentially stripping Planned Parenthood of federal family planning dollars by requiring Kansas to direct funding to public hospitals and health centers. A U.S. District Court judge blocked enforcement of the new law over the summer and funding to Planned Parenthood clinics was supposed to continue. But somehow the money never made its way to the clinics until the court issued its most recent “I really mean it.”

On their face, these rulings might seem like major defeats for conservatives. All told, five states so far this year have passed laws blocking funding for Planned Parenthood clinics, and nearly two dozen states have introduced or passed laws to ban the use of sharia in court cases. These laws are being knocked down in court almost as quickly as they’re entered into the rule books. (Federal judges have also blocked laws banning funding to Planned Parenthood in Indiana and North Carolina.) Are conservatives engaged in a senseless effort with these legislative initiatives?

Not exactly. In fact, you could argue that the constitutionality of sharia bans and the effectiveness of attempts to block funding for Planned Parenthood are almost beside the point. Yes, many of the organizers and financial backers of these efforts are genuinely concerned about abortion and genuinely frightened about sharia, even if they often can’t say exactly what sharia is. But that doesn’t prevent them from recognizing the political benefit to agitating about the dangers of Planned Parenthood or sharia–a catch-all word used by people who fear Islam and Muslims. A generous description of the political upside to these campaigns would be “framing the cultural debate.” Another one would be “fear-mongering.”

The beauty of the strategy is that it plays directly into a narrative conservative Christians have been weaving for over a generation. After all, the political reawakening of many Christian fundamentalists took place in the 1970s after a series of court decisions took Bible reading and prayer out of public schools. (They were also eventually–but not immediately–mobilized by the Roe v. Wade case.) For conservative Christians who had withdrawn from public engagement to focus on spiritual concerns, these judicial actions made them realize that whether they were politically involved or not, the government could impact their lives and shape society around them.

For the past few decades, then, many conservative Christians have viewed themselves as soldiers in a fight against government representatives who want to impose secular values on them. Remember the Justice Sunday events of a few years ago, when Christian Right organizations railed against “activist judges” who sanctioned gay marriage? These Christians don’t have to view judges as Satan’s agents to see them as enemies.

So, legal roadblocks to measures banning sharia or ending Planned Parenthood fit the narrative: Good Christian folk try to turn their values into law, only to be stymied time and again by secular judges and bureaucrats. With an important presidential election coming up, the wave of unconstitutional social legislation couldn’t be better timed for conservative political strategists. If conservative Christians go into their voting booths in November 2012 believing that they are under siege by a secular political system, then the stakes are far higher for them than simply the difference between two candidates’ positions on Social Security.

Amy Sullivan is contributing writer at TIME, and author of the book The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats are Closing the God Gap (Scribner, 2008). Articles of Faith, her column on the intersection of religion and politics, appears on TIME.com every Friday.

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