It was about 25 years ago that a magazine article first called to my attention something called the Christian right. The story depicted a movement of religious fundamentalists who sought a radical restructuring of American life -- mandating school prayer, creationism, censorship. I remember thinking the article was a little alarmist. Actually, it was prescient.
That realization crept over me much as Christian fundamentalism has crept over American life: steadily. The movement -- well-organized, well-funded and with true believer zeal -- has made itself the primary ideological engine of the Republican Party, climbing to power from school boards to state legislatures to Congress to the White House.
And along the way, books were burned and banned. Religion masquerading as science elbowed its way into classrooms. Legislation requiring recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance became law. Pharmacists, citing religious objections, refused to fill prescriptions for birth-control pills. A lawmaker suggested unmarried pregnant women be prohibited from teaching in schools.
And that movement came to seem a scary thing, indeed.
So you will understand the sense of disconnect I felt upon the release of a new Gallup Poll that suggests that people are becoming a little concerned about the power of the Christian right.
The proximate cause of this ripple of anxiety -- and it is, statistically speaking, only that -- is the fight over removal of Terri Schiavo's feeding tube. The poll found that, by large margins, Americans disapproved of the way Congress and the president intruded upon the ordeal of that brain-damaged woman and her family.
Pollsters also found that Americans believe the GOP -- supposedly the party of non-intrusive government -- is more likely than the folks across the aisle to interfere in citizens' private lives. And 39 percent of us now say the religious right has too much influence over the Bush administration; 18 percent believe it has too little.
As I said, a ripple. Thirty-nine percent is not a majority. And for the record, another 39 percent think the Christian right has just the right amount of influence. Still, as USA Today points out, the new numbers represent a change from previous polls in which equal numbers thought conservative Christians wielded too much power or too little. Now "too much" leads "too little" by two to one.
I choose to believe it means people are beginning to have doubts about the new American theocracy. Maybe they are looking at the theocracies of the Mideast and Africa and asking if these are really models to which we should aspire. Maybe they're realizing that for all its pious moralizing, the fundamentalist movement is less about right than self-righteousness, less about faith than intrusion, less about God than power.
Yes, this is, as the fundamentalists are fond of saying, a Christian nation. Thing is, it's also a Jewish, Muslim, atheist, Hispanic and gay nation. The only way that works is if we inculcate respect for difference and, more to the point, respect for the laws and customs that protect difference. The Schiavo case offered an up-close and unpretty look at the sort of respect fundamentalists have for difference, in this case difference of opinion.
And it wasn't hard to imagine yourself in the position of Schiavo's husband, making a hard, painful and private decision no one should ever be asked to make, only to find yourself intruded upon by an army of religious zealots eager to substitute their judgment for yours. And a government breaking its own rules to empower them.
So a few more of us are wondering, worrying and saying, Hey, wait a minute.
I have just one question. What took you so long?