On the next-to-last night of Hanukkah I went to Alan and Will's house, and before the menorah lighting there was time to read a book with 4-year-old Sam. I had brought him Lemony Snicket's The Latke Who Couldn't Stop Screaming. The latke was screaming first because it had been thrown into a pan of boiling oil, and then because everyone it ran into -- a string of colored lights, a candy cane, and a pine tree -- tried to make it a part of Christmas, when it had nothing to do with Christmas.
I know how the latke felt, because I keep coming across fundamentalists who insist that everyone else's religion match theirs. The latest source of annoyance is Republican presidential candidates, most of whom are not fundamentalists but pander to them for their support in upcoming state caucuses and primaries. One contender in this dismal competition is Mitt Romney, who said on Dec. 6, ''Freedom requires religion.''
I feel free to say that the former governor's statement is absolute rubbish. Organized religion has a long, bloody history of being an enemy of freedom. Granted, it depends on what the meaning of ''freedom'' is. Romney's version of the First Amendment, like that of Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.) before him, says that we are guaranteed freedom of religion, not freedom from religion.
New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote on Dec. 7, ''In Romney's account, faith ends up as wishy-washy as the most New Age-y secularism. In arguing that the faithful are brothers in a common struggle, Romney insisted that all religions share an equal devotion to all good things. Really? Then why not choose the one with the prettiest buildings?''
Then there is Rudy Giuliani, who said on Dec. 9, ''It's the various acts that people perform that are sinful, not the orientation that they have. I've had my own sins that I've had to confess.'' This echoes the phony fundie distinction between sin and sinner, and shows how far Rudy has drifted since living with a gay couple for a time while mayor of New York. It was smart of him to mention his own sinfulness, but his church offers gay people no option but lifelong celibacy.
Finally there is Mike Huckabee, who wrote as a U.S. Senate candidate in 1992, ''I feel homosexuality is an aberrant, unnatural, and sinful lifestyle, and we now know it can pose a dangerous public health risk.'' Speaking of health risks, it's a good thing Huckabee lost 100-plus pounds before launching his candidacy. He also called for isolating people with HIV, long after we knew that HIV was not easily communicable like airborne diseases. But to be fair, in contrast to Romney and Giuliani, Huckabee's ignorance appears genuine.
The GOP-candidate follies are the Bush-Rove strategy come home to roost. The desperation and disconnect of the religious right's war on popular culture is illustrated by recent attacks against The Golden Compass, a movie based on the first volume of Philip Pullman's fantasy trilogy, ''His Dark Materials.'' Catholic League President Bill Donahue objected that, ''This is selling atheism to kids, and it's doing it in a backdoor fashion.'' Considering Donahue's assertions that the sexual abuse of children by priests was not done by pedophiles but by homosexuals, he knows all about backdoor attacks.
That fantasy literature can provoke such fury from the religious bullies shows their fear of the imagination -- which is fear of freedom. Pullman responded on Nov. 2, ''As for the atheism, it doesn't matter to me whether people believe in God or not, so I'm not promoting anything of that sort. What I do care about is whether people are cruel or whether they're kind, whether they act for democracy or for tyranny, whether they believe in open-minded enquiry or in shutting the freedom of thought and expression.''
We should not let exasperation at right-wing excesses prompt us to throw out the religious baby with the fundamentalist bathwater. For one thing, champions of liberty ought to show more tolerance than the fundies. For another, many secularists are religious. When we accept the theocrats' characterization of secularism as hatred of religion, we concede more than they deserve.
At Alan and Will's, after Sam finished his dinner, he went around the table for hugs. ''Good night, Uncle Ricky,'' he said, kissing me on the cheek. Then Will took him upstairs and read him another story unapproved by the Catholic League. And Daddy's little miracle was just fine.