COMMENTARY: The phony war on religion

(RNS) In their relentless search for enemies to loathe and not love (sorry, Jesus), right-wing politicians have assumed yet another victim role, this time as targets of a "war on religion" and victims of an assault on "religious liberty."

You'd think they would be grateful for an opportunity to suffer as Jesus suffered. But their aims have more to do with Caesar than with the man from Galilee. They want unfettered power to control other lives and to preserve their franchise, while maintaining the protections of American law.

Let's think, then, about what a "war on religion" would actually entail. If history is any guide, a government that wanted to declare war on religion would take these actions:

An anti-religion government would force churches to close their doors. In reality: Churches are closing their own doors, because they lost touch with a changing world and clung to old ways that new generations don't value as pathways to God.

An anti-religion government would ban churches from recruiting new constituents. In reality: Those bans do exist, but they come from change-resistant members who don't want children and diversity in their midst. Deterrents to recruitment also arise from sexual abuse by clergy and the hierarchy's determination to hide or minimize it.

An anti-religion government would prevent the publishing of sacred texts, religious books and religious newspapers. In reality: It is church hierarchies that compel authors and editors to toe the line or lose their jobs.

An anti-religion government would deny freedom of speech to believers. In reality: It is church leaders who shun, dismiss and persecute constituents who stray from approved doctrine.

An anti-religion government would remove church property and operations from the protections of normal laws, such as those honoring contracts and property rights. In reality: Churches divided over sexuality issues have taken full advantage of their legal rights, devoting months and years to legal wrangling in a self-inflicted bankrupt-the-enemy tactic reminiscent of Big Tobacco.

An anti-religion government would target powerful preachers for muzzling, hoping to silence smaller fry, as well. In reality: The only powerful preachers being muzzled did themselves in by adultery and financial misbehavior, and the muzzlers were their own boards of directors.

An anti-religion government would use tax policy against religious organizations. In reality: Churches are exempt from most taxes, and they dread having to operate on a level playing field. Religious leaders have undermined their own stewardship ministries and, at this point, have trained their members so poorly that loss of tax benefits would stifle giving.

An anti-religion government would divide and conquer by segregating churches into warring camps, turning people against each other, preventing churches from attaining the "oneness" that was God's desire for them, and protecting wealth and power from any intrusion by the actual gospel. In reality: Churches do this shattering and weakening themselves, as one group after another is lifted up for derision.

Do you see the theme? Religion's enemy isn't government. If anything, the American system has bent over backwards to protect religion from the accountability, fairness and justice that are expected of other citizens. No, religion's enemy -- if it has one -- is itself.

It is we who declare war on our own members. It is we who demand the benefits of law but not the responsibilities. It is we who shame the gospel by our hypocrisy. We have met the enemy in this phony war on religion, and he is us.

(Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of "Just Wondering, Jesus" and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.)