Steve Rose

July 12, 2014

Recalling pulpit warnings from the Rev. Robert Meneilly on the religious right

The Rev. Robert Meneilly of Village Presbyterian Church prophetically warned 21 years ago, “Religious extremists are breeding all kinds of ‘culture wars.’ Religion can breed all kinds of harassment, bigotry, prejudice, intolerance and deception.”

The U.S. Supreme Court recently struck down contraceptives as a requirement of a private company’s insurance — if its owners disagree on religious grounds.

It reminded me of a sermon given by the Rev. Robert Meneilly in August 1993.

I reprinted that sermon in its entirety in my column, and The New York Times ran excerpts the following week on its op-ed page because Meneilly, the founder of the Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village, had captured the fears of those who do not agree with the religious right. Meneilly spoke from the pulpit of a church that had become one of the largest Presbyterian churches in America.

He prophetically warned 21 years ago: “Religious extremists are breeding all kinds of ‘culture wars.’ Religion can breed all kinds of harassment, bigotry, prejudice, intolerance and deception.”

Religion, he stated, “can be a democratic republic’s greatest good or its worst threat.”

Even Meneilly, though presciently seeing the handwriting on the wall, may have underestimated the ultimate power of the religious right in this nation, as well as other powerful forms of extremism that have swept over our country.

“The religious right’s mission is twofold,” he said. “First, it seeks to gain control of the Republican Party apparatus at the state and local levels, with the eventual goal or claiming control of the Republican National Committee itself. Its second objective is for its candidates to win election to hundreds, even thousands, of lower-level public offices.”

Indeed, Meneilly’s admonitions came to pass.

Little did he know, however, that the religious right would reach all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“The religious right extremists always refer to the United States as a ‘Christian nation,’” Meneilly said. “But look at history honestly. The very idea that the United States should be officially Christian was explicitly rejected by James Madison, one of the primary designers of our Constitution, and the other framers, who insisted on a system of separation of church and state that guarantees religious freedom for all individuals and groups.…”

Meneilly went on to say the “Christian nation” has never been endorsed by the Supreme Court as officially binding judicial policy.

Not yet.

Is it far-fetched to imagine a Supreme Court that would someday rule this is a Christian nation? A majority of justices certainly seems to be moving in that direction.

“The religious right always employs the expression ‘Christian nation,’ referring to their desire to see the national laws reflect the narrow sectarian principles which they themselves hold,” Meneilly said.

Closer to home, he warned that the “religious right are running down the public schools, toward the end of getting government money for the private and parochial schools.”

In the last session of the Kansas Legislature, a bill was passed and signed by the governor, giving tax credits to corporations that provide scholarships to private schools.

The “culture wars” Meneilly referred to, before that term became popular, have been waged ferociously by religious extremists, and, indeed, they are winning.

Although the religious right is still thriving, its spotlight has been somewhat overshadowed by the recent rise of the tea party extremists.

These extremists are waging a different kind of war — a war on our budgets. Though some of its members may also be members of the religious right, the thrust of their appeal is not so much on religious changes as radical fiscal changes.

Meneilly retired the year following his epic sermon.

If he were still on the pulpit today, he would surely warn his parishioners of the dangers of those who would gut our public schools, universities and vital social services, all for lower taxes.

“We have only to look back to Jesus’ day. His greatest problems were…with extremists,” Meneilly said.

Meneilly made it clear: “When you have religionists (or tea party fanatics) who think they have all the answers, and that everyone should be compelled to live by their beliefs — because they have an ‘exclusive’ on righteousness — you have the worst dangers knocking at your door.”

Amen to that.

To reach Steve Rose, a longtime Johnson County columnist, send email to

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