JANESVILLE, Wisconsin — Life has gone from bad to worse since Donna Sturdivant’s husband was laid off four years ago and now she feels that the thing which brings her the most comfort — her faith — is under threat.
“We’re starting to see our religious freedom taken away. Our Christian faith is being stepped on. Like kids in the schools — they can’t talk about God,” Sturdivant, 60, told AFP. “There’s something wrong in America.”
Republicans like Sturdivant are rallying against what they see as an insidious attack on Christians by Democrats in government, activist judges in the courts and secular liberals bent on eroding the country’s moral values.
The nation’s simmering culture wars have been re-ignited by the Republican nomination battle to take on President Barack Obama in the November 6 election as the White House hopefuls vye to win over the party’s conservative base.
Emotions spread after Obama moved to require most employers to include contraception in their health insurance plans, prompting outrage from the Catholic church and firing up evangelicals.
Rick Santorum — a devout Catholic who stridently opposes abortion and gay marriage — has mobilized the conservative base with his fiery rhetoric, winning 11 out of the past 34 nominating contests.
At a recent rally in Wisconsin — which heads to the polls Tuesday — Santorum painted the upcoming election in stark terms.
“The lights of freedom may well go out if we don’t win this election,” the former Pennsylvania senator said, urging supporters to pick a true conservative over frontrunner Mitt Romney.
Barry Dean, who like Santorum home schools his many children, is also deeply concerned about the direction of the country.
“Christians are persecuted in many other countries and I think this is the next one,” Dean, 48, told AFP sipping a soda after the rally.
Just a few decades ago, Dean went to a public school where the Bible and the Ten Commandments were proudly displayed. Abortion was illegal. Gays were closeted, not getting married and serving openly in the military.
Nowadays nativity scenes have been replaced with “holiday trees,” stores erect signs saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” and children are not allowed to bring Bibles to school.
“They say it’s the separation of church and state, but it’s a falsehood,” Dean said.
The first amendment — which prohibits the “establishment of religion” — was written because the founders were concerned that government would interfere with religious practices, he insisted.
The Supreme Court, however, has interpreted the clause to mean that the government cannot promote religion. As did former president Thomas Jefferson, main author of the Declaration of Independence, who wrote that the establishment clause sought to create a “wall of separation between church and state.”
Yet many evangelicals and conservatives like Dean read the constitution and Declaration of Independence differently, finding proof that the United States was founded as a Christian nation.
The United States has undergone dramatic social and cultural shifts that have left many people feeling displaced and threatened, said John Green, an expert on religion and politics at the University Akron.
“It’s very hard to walk around any city in the United States and feel that religious people as a group or individually are suspect to mass persecution,” Green said.
But “in politics, what matters is perceptions. And many people really do perceive they’re under assault.”
Such fears come as the number of Americans who claim no religious affiliation has reached an all-time high, noted Geoffrey Layman, a political science professor at the University of Notre Dame.
“There is an anxiety about the status of religious life and more things to be outraged about as we become a more secular society,” he said.
“On the other hand it’s just good strategic politics to play up the idea of a threat.”
The problem with stoking those fears, however, is that it makes it very difficult to reach a compromise, said Rogers Smith, a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
Religious conservatives consider their opponents to be “sinful” while liberals think their opponents as “not just wrong but crazy,” he said.
The focus on divisive social issues also threatens to undermine Republican chances in November by alienating moderates and independents key to winning the elections.
“This type of faith and values politicking has very, very little broad support amongst Americans,” said Jacques Berlinerblau, a Georgetown University professor and author of the upcoming book “How to be Secular: a Call to Arms for Religious Freedom.”
“The problem is a core constituency of the Republican party will only engage as Republicans if that product is sold and this is where they’re stuck.”