First up from the God Machine this week is an interesting dispute in Montana, where conservatives have been reduced to arguing that Jesus statues aren’t necessarily religious.

A statue of Jesus on U.S. Forest Service land in the mountains of Montana may be moved after an atheist organization argued that its placement on public land violates the separation of church and state. Rep. Denny Rehberg (R) has come to the statue’s defense, a monument to World War II veterans, and has even established a website for the statue. Rehberg appeared on Fox & Friends [Tuesday] morning to promote his effort, but ran into some trouble while responding to a statement from the foundation behind the lawsuit.

“Just because it’s maintained and was put up by the Knights of Columbus does not make it a religious statement,” he said. No, the fact that it’s a statue of Jesus makes it religious.

This comes up from time to time, and it always fascinates me. In 2009, for example, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a devout Roman Catholic, was outraged by the argument that a Christian cross is a symbol of Christianity, insisting that it’s not inherently religious.

Indeed, the right does this all the time in the hopes of securing government support for religious icons and texts. The Ten Commandments, they say, aren’t really religious, so there’s no problem with the government promoting them. Creches (representations of the Nativity) aren’t really religious, so there’s no problem with the government promoting them, either. Christian holidays like Easter and Christmas have been watered down so they can be official government holidays with minimal trouble.

And now a statue of Jesus, erected and maintained by a religious group, is, we’re supposed to believe, secular.

The goal, in each instance, is to ensure official, legal support for one faith tradition. If that means stripping the major aspects of Christianity of their spiritual significance, so be it.

Also from the God Machine this week;

* Pope Benedict XVI appears to be very sympathetic to the concerns raised by the 99 Percent activists, condemning the “scandal of glaring inequalities” and urging government to help with the redistribution of wealth.

* A Public Religion Research Institute poll released this week found that most Americans still do not know that Mitt Romney is a Mormon. That seems likely to change.

* And the Pew Forum this week released the results of a national survey showing support for marriage equality by religious affiliation. Those unaffiliated with any faith tradition support gay marriage continue to support equality in the largest numbers, but the last few years have seen significant increases among Roman Catholics and white mainline Protestants. (thanks to R.P.)

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.