Imagine an America in which Catholic nuns patrol the streets armed with rulers and issue citations like meddlesome meter maids to women whose hemlines rise provocatively more than two inches above the knee.
Preposterous? I would have thought so, too, until the controversy over women's access to birth control rose from the dead, zombie-like, after being safely interred for more than half a century.
Today, conservatives seem more eager than they've been in a very long time to stick their noses into parts of our private lives that just a few years ago would have been unthinkable.
Conservatives insist all this talk about a "War on Women" is just a ruse, a liberal invention to distract attention away from more problematic issues for Democrats, such as joblessness and gas prices. Real women, say the white-gloved ladies of Concerned Women for America, don't care about contraception, or Planned Parenthood, or trans-vaginal probes. Only "feminists" do. In fact, this whole debate isn't about women at all. It's about "religious liberty."
Much of the controversy about the "War on Women" and the insertion of religion into our politics is mostly semantics given that the wall of separation between church and state in America still remains high, despite recent attempts by conservatives to scale it.
But there's no need for metaphysical disquisitions over the number of angels who can dance on the head of a pin when we debate whether the "War on Women" is real or just a metaphor since we already know what such a war looks like and that the usual aggressors almost always turn out to be religious conservatives.
In Saudi Arabia, according to Human Rights Watch, women continue to be treated as "legal minors" by their male "guardians" who still retain the power to determine whether women may work, study, marry, travel, and even undergo medical procedures. Recently, a doctor in her forties lost a court appeal to have her father removed as her guardian after he refused to give her hand in marriage and then confiscated her income. She now lives in a women's shelter. In another case, two women were forced by their brothers to marry five men each for money and against their wills. Another woman was sentenced to 300 lashes and 18 months in prison for "appearing in court without a male guardian."
Things are a little better in Iran. According to USA Today, women are still not equal under Iran's constitution, adopted in 1979 after the overthrow of the Shah, but Persian women do enjoy greater liberties than those in neighboring Arab nations. Unlike most Arab women, those in Iran can drive by themselves, get a university education and hold public office. In Tehran, there is even a professional fire company composed entirely of women -- the only female firefighters in the entire Middle East. But according to USA Today, Iranian law still treats women as just half of a man on matters like inheritances, compensation for injury and death and giving testimony in court.
Women are also finding their liberties under increasing assault in ultra-Orthodox Israel, writes Daily Beast columnist Peter Beinart. Ultra-Orthodox Judaism was born out of terror and hatred of the Enlightenment and is based on a rejection of all secular values, including the emancipation of women, says Beinart. "And so, like their counterparts in the Muslim and Christian worlds, ultra-Orthodox Jews have responded with increasingly aggressive efforts to subjugate women in public life," he says.
Thankfully, says Beinart, liberal Israelis are taking to the streets to fight the "moral depravity" of this "ultra-Orthodox misogyny." But the ability of ultra-Orthodox Jews to demand segregated buses, sidewalks, and public events, he says, is rooted in their control of key ministries in Netanyahu's Likud government.
You say it cannot happen here? How could anyone oppose equality for women? That's what liberals were asking themselves a generation ago when the drive to add an Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution stalled a few states short of ratification.
Say what you will about Phyllis Schlafly, she was a genius of messaging and organization who understood the vulnerabilities of America's political system to a small but determined minority -- even one that represented a worldview most would regard as backward if not appalling.
Many would also agree with Chris Mooney, author of a recent book on conservatism, that Schlafly represented a politics that was "authoritarian, traditionalist and hierarchical" to its core. But Schlafly also spoke for those who saw feminism and the ERA "as an attack on marriage, the family, the homemaker, the role of motherhood, the whole concept of different roles for men and women" -- and who also saw the "traditional" family unit as "the single greatest achievement in the history of women's rights."
The War on Women that Republicans are desperately trying to dismiss as a figment of liberal imaginations was certainly real enough for Jimmy Carter when, in 2009, he severed a 60-year relationship with the Southern Baptist Convention to protest that conservative religious organization's treatment of women as second class citizens.
"This view that women are somehow inferior to men is not restricted to one religion or belief. It is widespread," said Carter. "At their most repugnant, the belief that women must be subjugated to the wishes of men excuses slavery, violence, forced prostitution, genital mutilation and national laws that omit rape as a crime. But it also costs many millions of girls and women control over their own bodies and lives, and continues to deny them fair access to education, health, employment and influence within their own communities."
Religious conservatives today say they are the ones being treated like second class citizens. They insist that all they want to do is participate in American politics like everyone else and they don't see why their religious commitments ought to disqualify them.
Conservatives also compare themselves to the religious movements led by such spiritual leaders as Dr. Martin Luther King in the fight for civil rights, and before that abolition. And they accuse liberals of hypocritical double standards for insisting on a wall of separation between church and state - but only when it's conservatives organizing themselves politically to push for their religious values in public.
This is dangerous nonsense. Liberals have never believed people must check their most deeply held beliefs at the door or be treated like moral and ethical eunuchs whenever they take part in politics.
The problem is that conservatives want more. They aren't interested in merely participating in politics. They seek to change the nature of American politics altogether by making the private, public.
The civil rights and abolitionist movements that conservatives are so eager to be identified with addressed issues that were already political in nature, meaning they touched on the relationships between human beings and how we treat one another. By taking part in those movements for human dignity and freedom, the liberal churches were merely adding their own religiously-informed voices to the larger agitation already underway for change and justice.
What religious conservatives seek, on the other hand, is to radicalize politics by making what we do in the privacy of our own homes into a fit topic for public debate, public discussion and even public law-making. But an authoritarian code of conduct requires an authoritarian state to enforce it.
The Catholic Church, for instance, has well-established positions on a whole array of legitimate political issues - on war and peace, on the welfare state, on capitalism and labor relations, on the environment, on the death penalty and criminal justice.
But these are not the issues that interest the Catholic bishops most when they insert themselves into the public square. Instead, the Catholic hierarchy is motivated by the same "morals" issues that the religious imagination has always been obsessed with, whose regulation and enforcement is what separates a modern society that gives individuals broad liberties and freedoms from a traditionalist one in which those same individuals are forced to conform to ancient and rigid norms of behavior. Often on penalty of death.
This most recent spasm of political activism by the Catholic bishops and other church leaders wouldn't be the first time that such autocrats have asked for nothing more than to make use of the rights guaranteed by a democracy in order to advance a cause that undermines it. For what distinguishes democracy from all other forms of politics is that thin line which separates authority from autonomy.
The classic expression of this democratic principle was provided by John Stuart Mill who, in his famous essay On Liberty, wrote: "The only purpose for which power can rightfully be exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant."
Mill's distinction between the public and the private is not one that a traditional society or that society's traditional religious leaders would recognize at all.
"This was not a fight that we picked," said New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, posing as the victim in the bishop's dispute with President Obama over birth control. But as Daily Beast blogger Andrew Sullivan smartly observes, to a religious mind like Dolan's "any space for non-believers is an assault on belief itself."
When conservatives like Cardinal Dolan or Dr. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention see individual autonomy, choice, and freedom in the modern world they are appalled by it, says Sullivan, for it represents to them all the values they detest: "secularism, feminism -- homosexuality."
We may be a world apart from the traditionalist societies of the Middle East, but Sullivan says there is a difference "only in degree" between Islamism's view of the role of women and that of Focus on the Family's James Dobson or End Times fabulist Tim LaHaye.
"Very, very few women control any religious institutions on the religious right," says Sullivan. "Patriarchy rules there as it rules in Pakistan."
If, in the view of religious conservatives, the law cannot be neutral between competing moral ideals. And if the law must reflect God's will regardless of the views of religious minorities. Then faith of any kind is always and everywhere preferable to no faith at all or to sincere doubt, says Sullivan. And so, to conservatives the distinction between religion and politics must finally disappear.
Sullivan says that the logical next step for a Catholic hierarchy and for the religious right that seeks to sever conservatism from its roots in the post-Enlightenment world is to weld themselves "permanently to an older, pre-modern vision of mankind and religion."
And if that means an attack on America itself and on America's democratic ideals, then so be it, says Sullivan. "These are core beliefs we are talking about, and some of them run deeper than patriotism."
An assault on women's rights and freedoms, as well as the attempt to control women's sex lives, has always been a distinctive manifestation of these authoritarian and hierarchical movements as they grab for public power to police private behavior, "purifying" the culture by re-imposing upon populations hostile to their views the conservative movement's own "individual mandates."