In 1933 a group of liberal intellectuals, including education reformer John Dewey, published the Humanist Manifesto, which argued that “the traditional dogmatic or authoritarian religions that place revelation, God, ritual or creed above human needs and experience do a disservice to the human species” (Martin, 195).
Revised and reissued in 1973, the manifesto was little noticed by most Americans. Among some Christian traditionalists, however, the ideas propounded by the Humanist Manifesto came to be perceived as a form of godless secular religion competing with the Judeo-Christian ethic for the heart and soul of the nation.
Catholic ideologues in the 1960s launched the current crusade to define secular humanism as a threat to Christianity, but is was Protestant evangelicals, especially fundamentalists, who made it a major battleground in what became known as the Culture Wars of the 1980s.
At first, Christian activists such as protestant doctor C. Everett Koop, active in the mostly Catholic antiabortion movement, and Francis A. Schaeffer, a popular Protestant theologian, developed intellectual arguments and a theological approach to combating secular humanism.
Together they wrote a book titled Whatever Happened to the Human Race? A film version was screened across the country in church auditoriums and rented halls.
This was a time when some Protestant fundamentalists were discussing the work of Christian evangelical writer Hal Lindsey, who argued that contemporary world events revealed the signs of the End Times heralding the apocalypse and the Second Coming of Christ.
One way of reading the prophecies in the Book of Revelation in the New Testament is that the End Times bring a conspiracy of leading political and religious leaders, who join forces with Satan to build a one-world government and new world order ruled by the Antichrist.
Soon there was a discussion in fundamentalist circles as to whether the spread of secular humanism was just a symptom of liberal permissiveness, or part of a long-standing secret Communist conspiracy to spread Godlessness, or even part of the satanic End Times conspiracy.
Already angered by a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions permitting the sale of pornography and allowing abortion, Christian evangelicals created a battle line over new educational curricula featuring books that frankly discussed human sexuality, criticisms of foreign and domestic policies, and race relations.
This was seen as an example of secular humanism infecting the public schools. In 1974 a parents’ revolt against new textbooks in Kanawha County, West Virginia, hit the headlines as national conservative groups including the Heritage Foundation rallied to the side of the parents.
During the 1970s and 1980s there were dozens of books published exploring the liberal “conspiracy” to promote secular humanism and take God out of the United States. Some argued that the very idea of public education was part of a plot to brainwash children to defy authority, disobey their parents, and reject religion. During the cold war, this was linked to a liberal conspiracy to weaken the United States and pave the way for a Soviet Communist invasion.
According to George Marsden, the new focus on secular humanism “revitalized fundamentalist conspiracy theory.” The threats of “Communism and socialism could, of course, be fit right into the humanist picture,” wrote Marsden, “but so could all the moral and legal changes at home without implausible scenarios of Russian agents infiltrating American schools, government, reform movements, and mainline churches”.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, the belief in a conspiracy of secular humanists provided continuity, and allowed for a seamless shift in targets from the red menace to contemporary threats such as the feminist movement, the pro-choice movement, and the gay rights movement.
Conservative groups that at various times have publicized the idea of a secular humanist conspiracy include the Christian Coalition (Pat Robertson), the Eagle Forum (Phyllis Schlafly), Concerned Women for America (Beverly LaHaye), American Coalition for Traditional Values (Tim LaHaye), Christian Anti-Communism Crusade (Fred Schwarz), and the John Birch Society (Robert Welch).
Christian Right activists Gary Bauer and James Dobson described the struggle between Christians and secular humanists for the hearts and minds of Americans as a “great Civil War of Values” (Martin, 344).
Dobson’s organization, Focus on the Family, is a huge national operation that publishes numerous magazines and sponsors a daily nationally syndicated radio program. Through these and other media the Christian Right continues to warn of the dangers of secular humanism, and frequently suggests it is part of a decades-old secret conspiracy.