In a now-infamous speech at an event “commemorating Mormon political pioneers,” Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, railed against such woes as the “browning of America,” and the lack of assimilation among immigrants that will make America “look very much like South American countries very quickly.”
Though the shift in conversation away from legal immigration status to the more explicit (and honest) rallying cry against Arizona’s increasing racial diversity may fail to shock us in the Trump era, we cannot ignore her comments any more than we can ignore the identity politics that make them so dangerously effective.
That’s right, identity politics.
And not in the way that the phrase is used to negate the stories of people who speak out against lived injustices.
Allen’s rhetoric brilliantly mingles the nationalistic, religious, and racial identities of her target audience to cast the “other” as an existential threat. She made the comments at an event centered on the historical influence of Mormonism in Arizona and made use of secularists and feminists as handy punching bags right alongside Arizona’s immigrant population.
“Our boys are struggling to know how to be men. This feminist movement is not doing favors for us, at all,” she said, reiterating her opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment. “What’s really hurting society is the decline of the patriarchy.”
She can apologize all she wants that some Arizonans took the “browning of America” to be a racially charged phrase. Disentangling it from the theocratizing tendencies that she invokes to validate her message would be difficult nonetheless. She casts secularism as one of the many threats to her vision of America, and rightly so. To embrace the religious diversity of Arizona, including its humanists, atheists, and other nonbelievers, would take away one of the essential ingredients to the faith, family and freedom cocktail that conjures the reactionary nostalgia that makes her policy agenda possible.
The threat to a white and patriarchal America cannot be separated from the threat to a Christian theocratic America.
Allen isn’t alone in scapegoating secular Americans, or, for that matter, Americans outside conservative Christianity. Take Gov. Doug Ducey’s political theater around Easter (and omission of Ramadan), or Rep. John Kavanagh’s “God is in the gallery” tirade against his Latinx and openly humanist colleague, Rep. Athena Salman, as examples from just this year. There is a brand of politicized Christianity that believes appealing to one particular faith community and vilifying all others will draw enough support to offset the Arizonans that it alienates.
And the political points that such comments score go directly to reinforcing the regressive culture that threatens people of color and women across Arizona and the nation.
This is why humanism is so essential as a bridge-builder. We are those non-believing Americans who organize around shared progressive values to challenge lines of thinking like Allen’s, and then actually do something about it. We work across the interfaith spectrum to help religious minorities find their voice in a space of overwhelming Christian privilege, while collaborating with reform-minded Christians to reclaim their faith from the polarizing rhetoric of politicians who use it for their own gain. We provide a home to some of the countless religious “nones” whose doubts lead them in many cases, my own included, out of the religious right looking for community in the life after faith.
As long as anyone is otherized by harmful rhetoric when religion and racism mingle, a world where church and state are separate is essential if we hope our world to be one in which comments like Allen’s are wholly rejected.