Lincoln, Slave Narratives, and Hollywood’s Neoliberal Agenda

Click here to see the full neoliberalism issue of The Public Eye magazine

Click here to see the full neoliberalism issue of The Public Eye magazine

Why does Hollywood keep distorting history to portray exceptional individuals rescuing America from collective problems?

**This article appears in PRA’s Fall, 2014 issue of The Public Eye magazine, a special edition on neoliberalism and the Right**

Recently, a number of acclaimed films focusing on the life of Abraham Lincoln, slavery, and the Civil War have distorted historical reality to suggest that exceptional individuals, rather than social movements, are responsible for progressive social change. From serious historical dramas based on historical texts (Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, Robert Redford’s The Conspirator, Salvador Litvak’s Saving Lincoln) to fictionalized dramas set in historical times (Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained), to works of fantasy and science fiction (Timur Bekmambetov’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Richard Schenkman’s Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies), these films work to further entrench a hegemonic neoliberal economic and political system.

Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln and Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens in the 2012 film Lincoln

Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln and Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens in the 2012 film “Lincoln”

The only film listed above that manages to offer moments of subversion is 12 Years a Slave, the sole film directed by a Black artist, with a screenplay written by an African-American, and with its three leading actors all having been born and raised outside of the U.S. The varied backgrounds of the film’s primary creative forces help explain why the film has a greater sense of ideological complexity.

Yet even 12 Years a Slave is flawed in its refusal to represent slavery as an economic system of extreme labor exploitation, such as when a slave in the film is casually murdered by one of his kidnappers (a ludicrous situation within the economy of slavery, where murdering a strong, able-bodied person was tantamount to setting a small fortune of currency on fire, and also inconsistent with Solomon Northup’s memoir upon which the film is based.)This distortion contextualizes slavery as less an economic system and more a system of psychological cruelty.

The screenplay for 12 Years a Slave also erases Northup’s insightful analysis on how enslaved people were in a constant state of rebellion. Like Tarantino’s Django Unchained, McQueen’s film is obsessively focused on Black passivity. The Black male protagonists in both films are exceptions to the rule of Black abject conformity.

Indeed, all of these films embrace narratives of exceptionalism. This fixation helps to explain why representations of Abraham Lincoln have become so popular—a trend perhaps best exemplified by the film Lincoln.

In interviews, Tony Kushner (the Pulitzer prize-winning playwright behind Lincoln) has repeatedly said that his interest was in creating a narrative that would relate to our time (and specifically to the struggles of the Obama administration). To do this, though, Kushner engages in a conscious act of misremembering historical facts.

Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book Team of Rivals, upon which Lincoln is based, is conceptually brilliant: rather than a linear history of Lincoln’s presidency, Goodwin offers a parallel biography of Lincoln and his three primary rivals—William Seward, Salmon Chase, and Edward Bates—for the Republican presidential nomination of 1860. By placing Lincoln within his broader social context, Goodwin highlights both what was extraordinary about him, as well as what was typical of other male political leaders in this extraordinary time.

Kushner, on the other hand, created a largely fictionalized drama that emphasizes the greatness of Lincoln, portraying him as a man who had the good sense to not go too far in terms of granting African-Americans full civil rights and who is applauded for his great patience. (Kushner doesn’t seem to consider that it is rather easy to be patient about the human rights of a group to which you yourself do not belong.) The antagonist of the film is not a Southern leader of the Democratic Party but rather the Northern Radical Republican leader and abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens.

Kushner seems intent on denouncing radicalism as unrealistic, portraying the radical wing of the Republican Party as a bunch of hyper-emotional “wild boys.” In his casual disregard for historical facts, Kushner’s larger aim becomes clear—that is, to mount a critique of contemporary progressive critics of the Obama administration rather than any attempt to realistically portray political life during the time of the Civil War.

In one profoundly disturbing scene in the film, Kushner and Spielberg conspire, with great artistry, to suggest that the suffering of African-Americans for almost a century under Jim Crow and the continuing legacy of poverty that disproportionately affects the African-American community are worth it because any other historical course would have been impossible. The forces that moderately wanted to maintain class and race privilege are depicted as the “reasonable” forces. People such as Stevens, who demanded full civil rights for all humans, are depicted as “unreasonable”.

Kushner thus becomes an apologist for the rampant human rights and civil rights violations of contemporary Democratic presidents such as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. He stated that the election of Barack Obama “changed his politics” and that he now understands one has to “work within the system” if one really wants to help people1.

In a later scene in Lincoln, Kushner and Spielberg portray Stevens and Lydia Smith, an African-American woman Stevens employed as his housekeeper, in bed together reading the official copy of the 13th Amendment. By framing Stevens’s commitment to Smith as the motivational force for his politics, the film attempts to justify its argument that Lincoln had the more rational political analysis. Kushner manages to lodge a powerful critique against Stevens in a way that also engenders contemporary audience sympathy for his alleged extremism. The film is arguing that Lincoln wanted African-American political liberation as profoundly as Stevens did but that he was the more pragmatic political force.

In reality, Abraham Lincoln was a White supremacist who cared little about the fate of people of color. In 1862, he presided over the largest mass execution in American history, when 38 Dakota men were hanged in Minnesota. While Lincoln did also pardon over 250 men from hanging on that same day (the Army had wanted to execute 303 Dakota men), he pardoned them because of fear of European opinion, not out of any sense of humanitarian intervention2. His only opposition in Washington to his plans for increasing the intensity of the genocide of the Native American populations consisted of radicals like Thaddeus Stevens3. One might wish Tony Kushner and Steven Spielberg had been questioned about Lincoln’s “pragmatism” and Stevens “lack of realism” vis-à-vis this issue.

12 Years a Slave and Lincoln are not the only Hollywood films guilty of neoliberal, historical revisionism. While Seth Graham Smith’s novel, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, includes realistic ties to Lincoln’s biography (minus the vampires), his screenplay imagines an almost farcical friendship between Lincoln and an African-American character, William H. Johnson, played by Anthony Mackie4. The filmmakers make Johnson into a pathetic sidekick who, in a pivotal scene, is kidnapped by vampires and has to be saved by Lincoln and two other White male friends. Their friendship allows the filmmakers to suggest that the North was a post-racial wonderland for African-Americans (a quality the film shares with the strange early scenes of 12 Years a Slave).5

Why is contemporary Hollywood prone to such acts of distortion? While there has been critique of the lack of gender and racial diversity in Hollywood films, critics have paid much less attention to the ways Hollywood has progressively adopted neoliberal positions vis-à-vis global finance capital and U.S. imperialism.

Yet the neoliberalism of Hollywood is a reflection of our larger neoliberal landscape. Liberal elites embedded in the Democratic Party would prefer to ignore the historical reality that slavery ended primarily because of the relentless resistance that existed within enslaved African-American communities, and to discount the heroism of radical White men, like Thaddeus Stevens, who worked in solidarity with African-American leadership.

To realistically portray a historical character like Abraham Lincoln as a political moderate “forced into glory”6 by the social forces of his time would help delegitimize the idea that history is made by a few great (White) men. To realistically portray Black radical insurgency against slavery as a consistent aspect of life during the 19th century would suggest that racist violence and a racist legal system has held the African-American community in disproportionate poverty since the end of slavery—not Black passivity and pathology. For neoliberals, history and contemporary reality must be recast into a form that protects the inequity and cruelties of the current global economic and political structure.

If liberals are consistently pushed by Hollywood to believe that progressives and radicals have been the “problem children” of history, is it any surprise that they shy away from working in coalition with them or even, at times, view them with hostility? If liberals are led to believe that Lincoln was a great man who would have accomplished even more if not for the distraction of critical gadflies, is it any wonder that a majority of liberals resist critiquing the Obama administration to give the President a chance to “save us”?

There is another way. The historical record supports the narrative that President Lincoln became a great President because he had so much pressure from a well-organized and militant left-wing (both electoral leaders like the radical Republicans and radical social movement leaders in the African-American and progressive White communities). We must boldly and vigorously challenge Hollywood’s tendency to distort reality in the name of elitist propaganda. Only then can we expect to get the kind of films that will enable, rather then hinder, the struggle for human liberation.

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1 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wg91T83Bwmk

2 Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian American History of the American West, p. 40, Henry Holt, Owl Book edition (1991, copyright 1970)

3 Hans L. Trefousse Thaddeus Stevens:Nienteenth-Century Equalitarian p. 193-200, The University of North Carolina Press, (1997)

4 David Herbert Donald Lincoln p. 20-47, Simon and Schuster (1996)

5 For viewers familiar with the life of the real William H. Johnson, his representation in the film is problematic. Johnson was Lincoln’s personal valet in Illinois and he was brought with Lincoln to Washington DC upon his election as our 16th President. Johnson accompanied Lincoln to Gettysburg for the famous address. While at Gettysburg, Lincoln contracted smallpox. The president was placed in isolation and was only cared for by Johnson. The president recovered but Johnson contracted the disease and died.

6 Forced Into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream is remarkable alternative study of the Lincoln presidency written by African-American historian Lerone Bennett Jr. in 2000. Bennett’s controversial book suggests that the true “great emancipators” were African-American activists and leaders and their white anti-racist allies.

Neoliberal Language Lessons

Click here to see the full neoliberalism issue of The Public Eye magazine

Click here to see the full neoliberalism issue of The Public Eye magazine

How right-wing power—along with free-market ideas—shifted from conservative Christians to the Tea Party

In his book A Brief History of Neoliberalism, political geographer David Harvey traces the triumph of neoliberalism back to a “revolutionary turning-point” in the late 1970s.[1] Figures across the world, including Deng Xiaoping in China and Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom, began to implement ideas and policies that favored property rights and market exchanges over public investment and government intervention.

In the United States, Harvey notes, Ronald Reagan participated in this early neoliberal wave when he “brought to life the minority tradition that stretched back within the Republican Party to Barry Goldwater in the early 1960s.”[2] This tradition had emphasized not only libertarian economics but also social traditionalism since at least the post-war period. But over the course of the 1970s, it was transformed into a political alliance between wealthy, neoliberal-friendly elites and a grassroots more interested in curtailing women’s bodily autonomy and promoting “family values”—the so-called Christian Right. Why has this latter group, comprised mostly of evangelical conservatives, acted as regular, if not always docile, allies in the Republican Party’s active role in the neoliberal project?

People wave signs at a "tea party" protest on the grounds of the Colorado state capitol in Denver April 15, 2009. image via Reuters

People wave signs at a “tea party” protest on the grounds of the Colorado state capitol in Denver April 15, 2009. image via Reuters

Political analyst Thomas Frank, famously, thought the answer was clear: they were being hoodwinked.[3] According to Frank, Republicans talk about abortion and other social issues but do not actually provide much policy action. Yet while their supporters are distracted, Republican officials can erode the social safety net and promote unfettered, free-market capitalism. Still, Frank’s analysis has been criticized for suggesting that grassroots Christians are rubes.[4] In fact, social issues are not just distractions, but rather legitimate concerns for evangelical Christians. Liberalism and feminism are indeed threats to their way of life, or at least to the conservative, patriarchal social structures that their political and religious leaders promote as “natural.”

There also are concrete policy actions that Republicans provide to make neoliberalism “real” for evangelicals. Faith-based initiatives are a key feature of the “compassionate conservatism” so favored by George W. Bush.[5] These policies outsource and privatize welfare by providing grants to religious organizations, creating a kind of “market” where churches compete to provide voluntary support for the poor. (Frederick Clarkson covers this phenomenon extensively in his essay for this issue of The Public Eye.)  Churches remain eligible for federal dollars without having to conform to any prohibitions on discrimination or proselytization, while the neoliberal shrinking of the state proceeds. As both economic elites and evangelical leaders promote their alternative to a supposedly pervasive culture of “welfare dependency,” faith-based initiatives help cement Christian Right support for neoliberalism. As geographer Jason Hackworth notes, “The rationality of replacing secular welfare with religiously delivered welfare has helped to bond together elements of the American Right throughout the past thirty-five years.”[6]

Faith-based initiatives also have helped neoliberals by softening the image of their poverty policies; they’re not eliminating aid to poor families and children, but replacing it with a better alternative. (Forget that no evidence exists that these policies produce better results, or that they might actively undermine a democratic civil society.[7])

But Christian conservatives have come to neoliberalism for more than just welfare. Some scholars argue that evangelicals are naturally predisposed toward free markets. Sociologist Max Weber famously tied the rise of capitalism to the Protestant work ethic. More recently, historian Mark A. Noll has argued that the rise of evangelicalism in the early United States likely fostered acceptance of free-market principles among religious believers: having largely rejected regulation and authority in religious life, evangelicals were then ready to accept a similar economic program.[8] Sociologist Fred Block has even suggested that a shared commitment to “market fundamentalism” helps unite business elites and Christian conservatives; this latter group is particularly “reassured by its moral absolutism.”[9]

It may be true that evangelicals have an affinity for free markets, but Christian doctrine has also been aligned with social welfare liberalism, as with Catholics and the Social Gospel, or rights liberalism, as with the Black Church and the Civil Rights Movement. The missing step is politics—a political force that activates Christian conservatives’ affinity for neoliberalism and transforms it into political action. And this is just what some savvy political operatives within Republican networks have done.

Evangelicals did not magically become Republicans in the late 1970s; the marriage required matchmakers. New Right operatives famously invited Christian evangelicals into the GOP, most publicly with the creation of the Moral Majority in 1979.[10] Since then, the wealthy elites who run the GOP have spent years trying to convince the Christian Right to go along with their economic agenda, and have used religious-based discourse and coded language to do it. So the estate tax, for example, became portrayed as a “family” tax that disrupted the bonds of inheritance.[11] Similarly, voucher advocates use the language of “school choice” to enlist religious conservatives in neoliberal privatization efforts.[12]

All of these maneuvers have led to the present moment, when, at the grassroots level, the most active force within the Republican Party is no longer the Christian Right but the Tea Party. As polling by the Pew Research Center confirms, Tea Party activists are also often Christian evangelicals.[13] Tea Partiers may still love Jesus in their hearts, but they are talking and acting like good neoliberals.

Tea Partiers may still love Jesus in their hearts, but they are talking and acting like good neoliberals.

It remains to be seen how much staying power the Tea Party has, and whether its leaders are engaged in a zero-sum game with the Christian Right in national politics. But their success in driving the American political agenda towards issues of deficits and the proper scope of government cannot be denied. On one level, this is a tremendous victory for economic (or corporate) conservatives. On the other hand, grassroots activists are taking neoliberal ideas to their logical conclusion, possibly damaging the GOP’s political prospects by pushing for government shutdowns and challenging incumbent Republican officials who are insufficiently devoted to their principles.

The obvious Frankenstein parallels may not be lost on today’s Republican elites. Still, Republican neoliberals continue to have one thing in common with their evangelical protégés; they are unlikely to waver in their faith.

**Opinions expressed by outside authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Political Research Associates or its staff and researchers.**

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[1] David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 1.

[2] Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, 9.

[3] Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2004), 6.

[4] Larry Bartels, “What’s the Matter with What’s the Matter with Kansas?Quarterly Journal of Political Science 1 (2006): 201-226. Frank’s analysis is generally more subtle than his detractors let on; his analysis is less about what voters think than about the kinds of discourses they adopt (referring to an antagonistic “liberal elite,” for example).

[5] Frederick Clarkson, “An Uncharitable Choice: The Faith-Based Takeover of Federal Programs,” The Public Eye, Fall 2014. http://www.politicalresearch.org/2014/10/10/an-uncharitable-choice-the-faith-based-takeover-of-federal-programs/

[6] Jason Hackworth, Faith Based: Religious Neoliberalism and the Politics of Welfare in the United States (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2012), 3.

[7] David Ashley and Ryan Sandefer, “Neoliberalism and the Privatization of Welfare and Religious Organizations in the United States of America,” in Religion in the Neoliberal Age: Political Economy and Modes of Governance, ed. François Gauthier and Tuomas Martikainen (Farnham, UK: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2013).

[8] Mark A. Noll, God and Mammon: Protestants, Money, and the Market, 1790-1860 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001). British historian Boyd Hilton suggests a similar dynamic for the UK in the same period; see Boyd Hilton, The Age of Atonement: The Influence of Evangelicalism on Social and Economic Thought, 1785-1865 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), viii.

[9] Fred Block, “Reframing the Political Battle: Market Fundamentalism vs. Moral Economy,” Longview Institute, Jan. 30, 2007, http://www.longviewinstitute.org/projects/moral/sorcerersapprentice.

[10] Frances FitzGerald, “A Disciplined, Charging Army,” The New Yorker, May 18, 1981.

[11] See Richard J. Meagher, “Tax Revolt as a Family Value: How the Christian Right Is Becoming A Free Market Champion,” The Public Eye, Vol. 21, No. 1 (Winter 2006). Also see Richard J. Meagher, “Family Taxes: Conservatives Frame Estate Tax Repeal,” Journal of Policy History, Vol. 26, No. 1 (Jan. 2014).

[12] “‘School Choice Week’: A Dose Of Facts Debunks Voucher Propaganda,” Americans United for Separation of Church & State, https://au.org/voucherFAIL.

[13] “The Tea Party and Religion,” Pew Research Religion & Public Life Project, Feb. 23, 2011, http://www.pewforum.org/2011/02/23/tea-party-and-religion.

Christian Right Undermines Marriage Equality With Religious Supremacism

This article is a part of PRA fellow Fred Clarkson's ongoing column on religious liberty for LGBTQ Nation

This article is a part of PRA fellow Fred Clarkson’s ongoing column on religious liberty for LGBTQ Nation

As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” That vision of history’s progression has been well illustrated by the past year’s landslide of advances for marriage equality.  And as we move closer to a more just society, the nature of the opposition is revealed in the nature of the backlash.

The Christian Right has been operating on multiple fronts to stop—or at least limit—the scope of the advance of marriage equality, including seeking to enable business owners, civil workers, and elected officials to openly discriminate against LGBTQ couples by co-opting the progressive principle of religious liberty.   The most dramatic example of this is in Mississippi, where recently passed Religious Freedom Restoration Act authorizes just such discrimination by businesses—and is being challenged in federal court.

As the case proceeds, we may hear more about one of the most remarkable marriage equality victories in the landslide of federal court victories this year. General Synod of the United Church of Christ v. Cooper.

The United Church of Christ, whose origins go back to Plymouth Rock, won a stunning victory for both marriage equality and religious liberty when they overturned North Carolina’s ban on same-sex marriage. The federal judge ruled (PDF) that the state could not criminalize the role of clergy in solemnizing the same-sex unions of members of their congregations. “It is clear,” U.S. District Court Judge Max Cogburn declared, “ … that North Carolina laws … threatening to penalize those who would solemnize such marriages, are unconstitutional.”

Judge Cogburn’s ruling underscores that religious liberty is only possible in the context of religious pluralism—in which all religious and non-religious points of view have equal standing under the law. It also helps to clarify that when Christian Right leaders talk about religious liberty—they often really mean theocratic religious supremacism.

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, took to the airwaves after the filing of UCC’s suit to claim that the church is not really Christian, and that those who support gay rights don’t have the same rights as conservative Christians—because ‘true religious freedom’ only applies to ‘orthodox religious viewpoints.’”

FRC head Tony Perkins

FRC head Tony Perkins

Perkins’ blunt statements are a sobering reminder that theocratic factions of the U.S. Right have long sought to regain the religious and political hegemony they lost when the Constitution was ratified in the 18th century.  The arc of the moral universe is not bending their way, and demagogues like Perkins are abusing the idea of religious liberty to beat down people with whom they religiously and politically disagree.

Let’s take a moment, then, to hear what advocates for religious liberty and pluralism actually sound like.

“We didn’t bring this lawsuit to make others conform to our beliefs, but to vindicate the right of all faiths to freely exercise their religious practices,” said Donald C. Clark Jr., general counsel of the United Church of Christ.

“The historic wins for marriage equality and our willingness to seek justice through the courts,” said president Michael D. Castle of the Alliance of Baptists, “not only places us as a leading witness for justice, but also allows the Alliance of Baptists to offer a powerful and prophetic witness to a Christian faith where love always trumps fear, and where the welcome of Jesus always trumps hate and archaic religious dogma.

The Alliance of Baptists—progressives who fled the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention in the ‘80s— and the Central Conference of American Rabbis signed onto the UCC suit as co-plaintiffs, along with a number of individual clergy from a variety of religious traditions.

“Depriving rabbis of the freedom to conduct same-sex marriage ceremonies in North Carolina,” Rabbi Steven Fox, Chief Executive of the Conference stated, “stigmatizes our religious beliefs and relegates many of our congregants and community members to second-class status.”

“There is no more central tenet to our faith,” added Fox and several other Reform rabbis in the wake of the Windsor decision of the Supreme Court last year, “than the notion that all human beings are created in the image of the Divine, and, as such, entitled to equal treatment and equal opportunity… Thanks to the Court’s decision, the federal government will now recognize these marriages as well, while still respecting the rights and views of those faith traditions that choose not to sanctify such marriages.

No one speaks for all of Christianity, let alone all people of faith. But there are certainly authentic spokespeople for religious liberty. Let’s not allow the Christian Right to drown them out or shout them down.

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Christian Right’s Historical Repetition – CAUTION: BEWARE OF [HOMOS]

On Saturday, August 30, 2014, I approached the Nelson Mandela Capture Site and Museum in South Africa. Mandela was arrested here in KwaZulu-Natal, and sentenced to life imprisonment at Robben Island. As I walked around these hallowed grounds, surrounded by the history of apartheid and oppression—it strongly dawned on me that human liberation has a cost, which only some people must pay.

nelson mandela museum

 

Visiting the site with me were 39 scholars, religious leaders and civil society leaders, who had joined me in South Africa for a three day consultation on human sexuality. These distinguished leaders came from around the continent and the diaspora, representing Uganda, Kenya, Malawi, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Cameroon, Lesotho, South Africa, and Tanzania. We had chosen South Africa because it is the first and only country in Africa to grant equal rights to sexual minorities.

Walking onto the Mandela capture site with Prof. Sylvia Tamale, Prof. Esther Mombo, Dr. Musimbi Kanyoro, Dr. Nyambura Njoroge, and Dr. Manasseh Phiri was no small honor; their wisdom and courage have pioneered women’s liberation and the fight against HIV/AIDS in Africa. And standing next to them, courageous young scholars like Dr. Ezra Chitando, Dr. Nyeck Sybille, Dr. Masiiwa Ragies Gunda, and others were equally inspirational. These are the leaders and scholars who give me hope that someday all people of Africa will be treated equally, who had inspired me to help organize the Conference on Human Sexuality so that African scholars could discuss the treatment of LGBTQI people without Western influence.

The Mandela Capture Site is a small building on a very big piece of land—nothing much to see. On that day, it was full of people, young and old, boys and girls—most of them getting ready for a bicycle marathon. Inside the Museum, however, was a hushed reverence as we examined pictures and depictions of the life of Nelson Mandela and his family. Photos told the story of the civil rights hero’s life from his early years to the end. An old TV broadcasts the propaganda of the racist government of the time—craftily touting to international journalists the “beauty” of the Robben Island prison, where Mandela spent 18 of his 27 year prison sentence.

As I listened to the broadcast, I was reminded of how this shameful propaganda wasn’t limited to just South Africa, and how U.S. conservatives, particularly under the Reagan administration, amplified the smears on Mandela’s name. The attacks got so bad, Desmond Tutu was forced to declare the U.S. policy on Apartheid “immoral, evil and totally un-Christian,” in 1984. Political Research Associates published our report Apartheid in Our Living Rooms, exposing the Christian Right’s support of the racist authorities in South Africa. In July, 2013, Sam Kleiner called U.S. conservatives’ newfound respect for Mandela after his death “Apartheid Amnesia.” After all, national U.S. conservative figureheads like Jeff Gayner of the Heritage Foundation, Pat Robertson, Pat Buchanan, Jerry Falwell, and many others all supported the racist South African regime’s imprisonment of Nelson Mandela on the premise that he was “terrorist and communist.” To them, fighting for the fundamental human rights of Black people was wrong. Some even used the Bible to justify the mistreatment of black people—claiming it was God’s will to treat Black people as second class citizens.

caution beware of nativesAfter I left the TV’s eerie reminders of the past, one of the pictures on the wall caught my attention. “CAUTION: BEWARE OF NATIVES,” the sign in the photo read. In the old black and white photo, two Black Africans are walking past the posted sign on a road. I asked one of my colleagues to take my picture next to the photo, making us three. “Beware of natives?” I wondered. Were we a danger? I was struck by how closely the old propaganda mirrored how Africa is now treating our lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex. With the help and encouragement of U.S conservative exporters of the culture wars, similar messages can now frequently be seen at anti-LGBTQ rallies across Africa—“Beware of Homos,” “Homosexuals are a Danger,” “They Are Coming After Your Children,” and many others.

To be LGBTQ is to be an enemy of humanity. African kids are taught to fear these oppressed minorities, constantly told they are a danger to the community. “If we allow them to exist,” Africans are taught, “they will destroy our families and humanity as we know it.”

It’s like watching history repeat itself: African governments copying the tricks of the past, using propaganda to deny the plight of sexual minorities in their countries, while running full steam to destroy them. I thought of President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, President Yahya Jammeh of the Gambia, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria—all claim that African sexual minorities are not under siege. U.S. conservatives working in these countries repeat these lies to their American audiences. Even as African LGBTQ people are murdered, beaten, and raped, U.S. culture warriors like Rick Warren, Scott lively, and Sharon Slater claim that the international human rights community are misrepresenting the facts. Africans now believe that sexual minorities are a danger to humanity—forgetting that we, Black people, were once viewed the same way.

As I walked through the capture site, my head was filled with thoughts of not only Nelson Mandela, but the millions of South Africans who were captured and the thousands who were killed by the apartheid government for standing up for their rights. My eyes filled with tears as I recognize this monstrosity happening again as sexual minorities are forced to fight for the basic dignity of being recognized as fellow human beings.

Will the world remember the capture sites of LGBTQ people who are currently being held and die in African jails from Lusaka to Cairo? Will the blood spilled by the countless murdered African sexual minorities who sought nothing more than to live in peace mean something at last?

Despite the vast amounts of money, guns, jails, and bibles being used to deny sexual minorities their fundamental human rights, the Mandela capture site is a reminder that justice will come one day. Just as those young boys and girls race in the Marathon to the finish line at the Mandela memorial, the race to freedom for African sexual minorities will not end in African jails or in unmarked graves, but in the heart of young people—boys and girls who will grow to see the day when people will not be judged by their sexual orientation or gender identity, but by their humanity. These are the ones who will laugh in horror at the posters that demonize sexual minorities today and like me, will take pictures with those posters and try to imagine what the world was once like. But they will also celebrate the courage of those who have risked their lives for the freedoms of all people—regardless of who they love or who they are inside.

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Christian Right Doubles Down in the Face of Catholic Progress

Despite subsequent backtracking, the Catholic world is abuzz with news that the Synod of Bishops could be taking steps toward a dramatic overhaul in the church’s long-standing doctrine on LGBTQ people, as well as its view on divorced members.

The Roman Catholic Church’s Third Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops convened last week at the Vatican in Rome. From Oct. 5-19, over 250 participants, including scores of Catholic bishops and clergy, lay people, and some Protestant and Orthodox “fraternal” delegates are meeting to “thoroughly examine and analyze the information, testimonies and recommendations received from the particular Churches in order to respond to the new challenges of the family.”

Third Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops

Third Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops

Early this week—midway through the assembly—the Vatican released an interim document that is unusually conciliatory toward LGBTQ people and nonmarital unions, both of which have long been considered contrary to church doctrine. Though the text definitively states that “unions between people of the same sex cannot be considered on the same footing as matrimony between man and woman,” NPR’s Sylvia Poggioli observes that the report as a whole “is a far cry from official church teachings that homosexuality is ‘intrinsically disordered.’”[1]

In the section of the report entitled, “Welcoming homosexual persons,” it’s acknowledged that “there are cases in which mutual aid to the point of sacrifice constitutes a precious support in the life of the partners.” As Box Turtle Bulletin’s Jim Burroway points out, “The idea of gay couples offer[ing] anything ‘precious’ in their relationships has never appeared in an official church document before. And the phrase ‘intrinsically disordered,’ so reflexively deployed in the past, is nowhere to be found.”

Some have gone so far as to suggest this is a “revolutionary change.”

Conservative Catholics were quick to react, however, and the Vatican was forced to clarify that the report was a working document, and that while the Church certainly wants to welcome gays and lesbians in the church, the Vatican has no intention of creating “the impression of a positive evaluation” of LGBTQ people or, for that matter, of unmarried couples who live together. Regardless, at the end of the day Pope Francis will have the final word.

Conservative resistance to any potential shift in the Vatican’s approach to the reality of an ever-expanding understanding of what it means to be family began long before today. Preceding the gathering, a group of leading conservative Catholics and Protestants issued a joint appeal to the Synod, expressing their concern over what they perceive to be grave threats to church teachings on marriage and family. Among the signers is megachurch pastor Rick Warren; Alan Sears, president of Alliance Defending Freedom, a right-wing legal group behind the U.S. Right’s push to redefine the meaning of religious liberty in their favor; Mark Regnerus, sociology professor at University of Texas at Austin and author of deeply controversial and debunked report on same-sex parenting; Patrick Fagan, director the Family Research Council’s Marriage and Religion Research Institute; and countless other Christian Right leaders not only from the U.S. and Europe, but also from Australia and parts of South and Central America. Thomas Farr, former president of the right-wing think tank Institute on Religion & Democracy and current head of Georgetown University’s Religious Freedom Project, was one of the letter’s key organizers.

The letter notes that “marriage and the family are indispensable, both as vehicles of salvation and as bulwarks of human society, and extols upon the Synod to seize this moment as an “opportunity to express timeless truths about marriage” that exemplify “true love, not ‘exclusion’ or ‘prejudice,’ or any of the other charges brought against marriage today.”

Among the many “threats” to marriage, family, and children, the appeal cites cohabitation, divorce, and pornography, urging the church to resist these dangerous trends and stand firm in its commitment to protecting and preserving the “natural family.” Though LGBTQ people are not named explicitly, the letter calls on the Synod to promote legal restrictions that limit marriage to “a conjugal union of one man and one woman.” Additionally, the church is encouraged to create a consortium of attorneys and legislators to support religious freedom in divorce courts, ensuring that judges not be allowed to “ignore or demean the views of a spouse who seeks to save a marriage, keep the children in a religious school, or prevent an abandoning spouse from exposing the children to an unmarried sexual partner.”

Cooperation between Catholics and evangelicals is not a new phenomenon. The 2009 Manhattan Declaration marked a significant departure from historic divisiveness, formalizing the alliance between Roman Catholics and right-wing evangelical Protestants and outlining priorities around three primary areas: abortion, same-sex marriage, and religious liberty. This newest document—notably signed by Robert P. George, creator of the Manhattan Declaration and co-founder of the anti-LGBTQ National Organization for Marriage and the  Witherspoon Institute—is yet another example of these strengthening ties.

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[1] The Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church calls for “respect, compassion and sensitivity” toward LGBTQ people while also calling the “inclination” toward homosexuality “objectively disordered,” and a 1986 document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith called homosexuality a “more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil.”

The Nullification of Religious Liberty

It’s true. Religious liberty is under sustained attack in America—but not in the way the Christian Right would have us believe. A theocratic (and sometimes Neo-Confederate) movement within the broader Christian Right is targeting the religious liberty of those they don’t agree with. Marriage equality is currently on the front lines of this historic assault. And while it has not always been framed as an issue of religious liberty by LGBTQ activists and progressive allies, that is changing—even as advances in marriage equality in the courts and federal policy are causing some Christian Right leaders to discuss potential state-level nullification.

United Church of Christ's Rev. J. Bennett Guess

United Church of Christ’s Rev. J. Bennett Guess

But the narrative promoted by the Christian Right—that they are upholding religious liberty against a creeping secular totalitarianism—is unraveling. People are getting wise to how the religious liberty of those, religious or non-religious, who wish to marry the person of their choice is being stricken by organized theocratic factions bent on using any tool they can find to ensure that only their definition of marriage and of religious liberty prevails.

An historic example came last week. The mainline United Church of Christ (UCC) won their federal court challenge to a North Carolina law which banned same-sex marriage. The UCC, the first national Christian denomination to recognize same-sex marriage back in 2005, noted that North Carolina’s Amendment One not only made it illegal for their members to marry as same-sex couples, but also made it illegal for their clergy to perform the religious ceremony— even if that ceremony carried no legal weight. The federal judge recognized this infringement of true religious liberty, and made that clear in his ruling for the plaintiffs.

“We are thrilled by this clear victory for both religious freedom and marriage equality in the state of North Carolina,” said the Rev. J. Bennett Guess, a UCC national officer. “In lifting North Carolina’s ban on same-gender marriage, the court’s directive makes it plain that the First Amendment arguments… were both persuasive and spot-on. Any law that threatens clergy who choose to solemnize a union of same-sex couples, and threatens them with civil or criminal penalties, is unconstitutional.”

But even as the court victories pile up— the backlash has also begun.

In response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last week to let stand seven lower court rulings legalizing marriage equality, a leading Republican presidential prospect for 2016, and perhaps the leading politician on the Christian Right, has come out in favor of state nullification of decisions of the Court. Former Governor Mike Huckabee (R-AR) says he hopes that “somewhere there will be a governor who will simply say, ‘No, I’m not going to enforce that.’”

Miranda Blue at Right Wing Watch reports that Huckabee told Iowa conservative talk show host Steve Deace that states should have also ignored Roe v. Wade, and the Court’s rulings banning school-sponsored prayer. “Well, the courts have spoken,” Huckabee declared, “and it’s an important voice, but it’s not the voice of God and the Supreme Court isn’t God.”

“When Deace pressed him on the ‘maelstrom’ that would be set off if state governments simply ignored court rulings on marriage,” Blue’s article continues, “Huckabee responded that it was in fact the courts that have set off a ‘constitutional crisis’ by ruling in favor of marriage equality.”

Rachel Tabachnick and Frank Cocozzelli documented the rise of modern unconstitutional nullification efforts in a recent article in The Public Eye magazine. I followed up with an essay detailing public predictions by Christian Right leaders of violence that would likely follow from the political tensions generated if states defied federal laws, regulations and court decisions. A glimpse of how such tensions are building is revealed in how Republican religious and political leaders are now being forced to try and walk back and manage the blossoming Neo-Confederate surge. This was on vivid display at the 2014 Values Voter Summit in Washington, DC, where radio talk show host Mark Levin explicitly warned against the Neo-Confederate temptation.

The Huckabee interview was significant, in part, because Deace is a powerful voice in Iowa where the first presidential party caucuses will be held. Huckabee, along with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), and Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-LA) have been the main headliners over the past year at Pastor Policy Briefings, organized by the American Renewal Project, which has been one of the main organizing vehicles of the Christian Right for the past decade. Huckabee has frequently headlined these events over the years, while hosting a show on Fox News on Sunday nights. All of which may make him the most trusted and well-known political leader of the Christian Right.

Huckabee’s remarkable view also invites potentially unflattering comparisons to the segregationist southern governors of the Civil Rights era. Gov. George Wallace (D-AL) for one, drew the scorn of Martin Luther King, Jr. in his famous I Have a Dream speech: “I have a dream that one day in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”

Although Huckabee shrewdly did not use the words—nullification and interposition were exactly what he meant.

Huckabee thus brings a decidedly Christian Reconstructionist element to the openly nullification-supportive wing of the GOP, which to date has been identified primarily with Gov. Sam Brownback (R-KS) and former Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX).

Uncoincidentally, Deace suggested in a column on The American View (the website of Neo-Confederate politician Michael Peroutka) in August that a breakup of the GOP is imminent, given the tensions between the so-called establishment and movement conservatives. He also foresees the possibility of a breakup of the U.S. itself, between what he calls “government states” and “liberty states.” According to Deace, officials of the latter “will be pressured by their constituents to defy the feds’ immoral edicts, and defend the people’s freedom instead. This will take America down a dark path it last walked in the 1850s.” He thinks a religious revival like the Great Awakenings of the 18th and 19th centuries may be the only hope. Such dark appraisals are not uncommon these days.

But in the small world that is politics, these leaders and activists are part of a profound and wide-ranging ranging conversation about the religious and political future that is becoming both increasingly urgent and increasingly public. It is also clear that whatever their differences, they agree that the religious liberty of those who disagree with them on the leading issues of the culture war, are but collateral damage in the creating a more theocratic union – if in fact they think it is a union that they still want, or think is even possible.

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Neoliberalism, Higher Education, and the Rise of Contingent Faculty Labor

Higher education is intended to foster critical reflection, personal growth, public discussion, collective inquiry, social and political analysis, and the pursuit of knowledge, truth, and justice.  These values and practices emphasize the generation of knowledge.  Higher education does not simply record what has already been said and done; instead, it reviews the past and present in order to create newer, deeper, and better ideas.  Ideally, those ideas become social goods, improving the lives of everyone—from Albert Einstein’s E = mc2 and Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine, to Edward Said’s Orientalism and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.  Some of these works may be controversial and debatable, but that is also the point—they provoke necessary discussions about the unsavory aspects of worldly affairs.

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This underscores the politics of knowledge and higher learning.  Which ideas are allowed to speak, and which are censored?  Who gets to speak those ideas, and who is silenced?  What values are attached to those ideas and speakers?  How might issues of power, domination and, hopefully, liberation, factor into these equations?

Such issues cut to the heart of the matter: higher education is under attack by the neoliberal enterprise.  While most colleges and universities are still nonprofit institutions, they have been overtaken by the neoliberal agenda.  I am not suggesting some grand conspiracy between university board members and the corporate elite. That may be true in some cases,[1] and some do argue that collusion has occurred.[2]  Generally speaking, however, the synthesis of higher education and corporate interest is much more supple and unspoken.  Forty years of privatization, stagnant wages, a weak economy, a lack of jobs, and budget cuts have forced college administrators to find alternative forms of funding.  These alternatives have involved everything from licensing agreements with Coca-Cola and Disney and the corporate sponsoring of research to a pedagogical emphasis on job preparation.[3]

This corporatization has also given rise to a contingent faculty labor force.  According to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), “contingent faculty” include both part-time and full-time non-tenure track faculty.[4]  This includes adjuncts hired on a part-time, semester-by-semester basis; full-time lecturers and instructors granted one-year to multi-year contracts; and special- or visiting-assistant professors whose contracts are similar to those of lecturers or instructors but with slightly more institutional status.  The common characteristic among these positions is a lack of institutional commitment from the university.  A 2011 AAUP report found that contingent faculty of all types, including graduate assistants, account for “76 percent of all instructional staff appointments in American higher education,”[5] a marked increase from 55% in 1975.[6]

Adjunct labor represents the largest segment of this workforce, comprising about 50% of all higher education faculty.  (In 1970, that number was only about 20%.)[7]  The overwhelming majority of adjuncts have post-secondary degrees but earn far less than full-time instructors; receive no health or retirement benefits; teach different classes at different institutions; often pay out of pocket for gas and/or transportation; receive no funding for conference travel or professional development; and are commonly assigned cumbersome teaching schedules, making it difficult to teach consecutive classes across campuses.

Such conditions undoubtedly affect the quality of instruction.  That’s not to say that adjuncts—or contingent faculty, in general—are not excellent teachers.  According to a 2010 survey, about 57 percent of adjuncts “are in their jobs primarily because they like teaching, not primarily for the money.”[8] But the contingency of the modern day professorate places unreasonable demands on pedagogical practice.  Adjuncts are rarely granted their own institutional computers, phones, or offices, and something as simple as photocopying can be difficult when teaching once-per-week night classes.  Consistent office hours, regular communication with students, spontaneous classroom activities, pedagogical discussions with colleagues, and critical, creative, open-ended exams become difficult to sustain.

Contingent faculty are also less likely to serve on committees, advise undergraduate theses, teach graduate classes, oversee student organizations, lead program or curricular changes, participate in institutional governance, or reap the full benefits of a university’s intellectual life.  Campus can quickly become a place to earn a paycheck, period.

The most recent economic crisis may have exacerbated, but does not fully account for, this situation.  Decades of conservative, pro-business, deregulatory policies have restructured the landscape not only of higher education but also the workforce as a whole.  Precarious labor is now a defining characteristic of the contemporary global workforce, affecting everyone from computer programmers and IT call-centers to migrant agricultural workers and Wal-Mart employees.  The era of a secure, long-term, well-paid position with a single institution is over.  Downsizing, outsourcing, temp-jobs, sweatshops, day labor, and company relocations have stripped workers of stability and power.  These practices allow corporations to outmaneuver state and federal taxes, government regulations, workers’ rights, and manufacturing costs. Higher education has followed suit, as universities continue to cut back on the number of faculty, increase class size, issue temporary contracts, and refuse to rehire anyone who speaks out.

These precarious conditions also inhibit open and honest discussion, both in and out of the classroom. Controversial course topics might raise the brow of a department chair. An appearance at a campus protest or a quote in the school newspaper might catch the eye of a dean. A search committee might question candidates with politicized research agendas.  (These are some of the very reasons why tenure was invented.) Tenure and academic freedom are being dissolved by a system driven by corporate logic rather than by the free exchange of ideas.

Luckily, not everyone has been silenced.  The American Federation of Teachers, the American Association of University Professors, and the National Education Association have been vocal in their opposition to these trends; the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has launched “Adjunct Action,” a national campaign to address the needs of adjunct faculty; “New Faculty Majority” was started in 2009 to advocate for the rights of contingent faculty; and there has been a resurgence in graduate student unionizing, with New York University and University of Connecticut recently winning high-profile victories.[9]  Even Congress has begun paying attention to the issue of contingent faculty labor.  A Democratic House Committee released a report in January, 2014 on adjunct labor,[10] and Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) has introduced the “Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program” that could potentially reduce student loan debt for adjunct professors.[11]

These are necessary and uplifting efforts that should be supported and applauded.  Yet we also should recognize that victories for some educators are not the same as victories for all workers.  Only by uprooting the system of neoliberalism and corporate domination can we begin to address the wants and needs of all people and reconstruct higher education as an epicenter for knowledge, truth, and justice.  Such a lofty goal necessitates a broad-based, multi-pronged movement capable of speaking to our shared material conditions and our collective hopes for a more just and equitable society.  Examples from Wisconsin, Occupy, and the emerging student loan forgiveness movement suggest the will of the people is there.  Now it’s time to turn that will into a long-term, sustainable reality.

For more, see Neoliberalizing Public Higher Ed: The Threat of Free Market Ideology, and the Fall 2014 special neoliberal edition of The Public Eye magazine.

Jason Del Gandio is an Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Public Advocacy at Temple University.  He is the author of Rhetoric for Radicals: A Handbook for 21st Century Activists (2008) and co-editor of Educating for Action: Strategies to Ignite Social Justice (2014).  You can visit his website for more information about his work.

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[1] See, for example, Graham Bowley, “The Academic-Industrial Complex,” New York Times, July 31, 2010, www.nytimes.com/2010/08/01/business/01prez.html.

[2] See, for example, Claire Goldstene, “The Politics of Contingent Academic Labor,” Thought & Action (Fall 2012), http://www.nea.org/home/53403.htm.

[3] See, for example, Natasha Singer, “On Campus, It’s One Big Commercial,” New York Times, Sept. 10, 2011, www.nytimes.com/2011/09/11/business/at-colleges-the-marketers-are-everywhere.html; and National Education Association, “Higher Education Privatization,” NEA Higher Education Research Center (10.2, March, 2004: 1-6), http://www.nea.org/home/34258.htm.

[4] American Association of University Professors, “Background Facts on Contingent Faculty,” http://www.aaup.org/issues/contingency/background-facts.

[5] American Association of University Professors, “Background Facts on Contingent Faculty.”

[6] American Association of University Professors, “Trends in Instructional Staff Employment Status, 1975-2011,” http://www.aaup.org/file/Instructional_Staff_Trends.pdf.

[7] “The Just-In-Time Professor,” Democratic House Committee Report, Jan. 2014, http://mpsanet.org/Portals/0/1.24.14-AdjunctEforumReport.pdf.

[8] American Federation of Teachers, “A National Survey of Part-Time/Adjunct Faculty,” American Academic (March 2010, Vol. 2), https://www.aft.org/pdfs/highered/aa_partimefaculty0310.pdf.

[9] Vimal Patel, “Graduate Students Seek to Build on Momentum for Unions,” Chronicle of Higher Education (May 16, 2014, Vol. 60, Issue 35), http://chronicle.com/blogs/ticker/jp/uconn-recognizes-new-graduate-assistant-union.

[10] See “The Just-In-Time Professor.”

[11] Tyler Kingkade, “Adjunct Faculty Would Get Student Debt Wiped Away Under New Proposal,” Huffington Post (July 31, 2014), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/07/31/adjunct-faculty-student-debt-durbin_n_5638881.html.

Friedrich von Hayek, Thomas Piketty, and the Search for Political Economy

Click here to see the full neoliberalism issue of The Public Eye magazine

Click here to see the full neoliberalism issue of The Public Eye magazine

Seventy years after the Right embraced von Hayek’s manifesto, does Piketty’s rock-star reception portend a new revolution?

**This article appears in PRA’s Fall, 2014 issue of The Public Eye magazine, a special edition on neoliberalism and the Right**

A European economist travels to America to give a few lectures on his new book, recently published by a university press. Although a successful scholar, he is hardly a celebrity, especially in the United States. Yet almost as soon as he arrives, this economist is swept into a book tour exceeding any author’s wildest dreams—crowds of thousands at his public talks, generous offers from wealthy donors to continue and expand the work, and reprints in popular magazines.

The story is drawn from the life of Austrian economist Friedrich von Hayek, who visited the United States in 1945 to publicize his book The Road to Serfdom, considered today as one of the foundational texts of neoliberalism. But it also resonates with the more recent example of Thomas Piketty, the French academic whose 577-page Capital in the Twenty-First Century has been on the New York Times bestseller list for 16 weeks (as of this writing) following its publication in April 2014.1 Piketty’s American tour this past spring became a news story as much as his book: he met with Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew and the Council of Economic Advisers and appeared on Stephen Colbert, and Business Week ran a cover feature on “Pikettymania.”

At first glance, Hayek and Piketty seem to have nothing in common. Writing in the wake of the Great Depression and in the middle of World War II, Hayek argued that even as the United States, United Kingdom, and the USSR were allies in a fight against Nazi Germany, the real threat to civilization was the move toward economic planning and regulation embodied by the New Deal. “We have progressively abandoned that freedom in economic affairs without which personal and political freedom has never existed in the past,” he wrote.2 Piketty’s project is entirely different: it is to document the history of inequality over the course of the 20th century; to show that the gap between rich and poor (and especially between the very rich and the rest of the society) has been widening rapidly, especially in recent years; and to argue that the general tendency of capitalism itself may be to generate ever-higher levels of inequality unless political institutions and taxes exist to counteract this. Hayek hardly saw economic inequality as a problem; for Piketty, it is the primary threat to social cohesion and democracy.

Yet the two actually have more in common than might appear, for both books suggest the deeply political nature of economic life.

Hayek’s American journey followed several years of frustration for the Austrian economist. As chronicled by historian Angus Burgin in his study The Great Persuasion, Hayek found himself outmatched in the early 1930s by John Maynard Keynes (his academic rival), as Hayek’s criticism of government involvement in the economy became increasingly out of place in the context of the Great Depression. He began to search for a way to update the old liberal creed of economic liberalism and opposition to the power of the state. As hard as it may be to believe today (as neoliberalism occupies a dominant place in American policy circles), neoliberal thought was born out of a sense that the earlier wave of economic liberalism had collapsed in the Depression years.

Instead of rigidly insisting on economic individualism, Hayek tried to reframe the issues in terms of the need to protect the fragile, creative spontaneity of the marketplace. The real danger of the welfare state and economic planning, according to Hayek, was that no matter how well-intentioned its advocates (the “totalitarians in our midst,” as he put it) might be, they would lead Britain and the United States down a path ending in political disaster.3

His book had some difficulty finding an American publisher but was eventually taken on by the University of Chicago Press, which planned an initial print run of 2,000 for release in September 1944. Front-page reviews in the New York Times Book Review and other publications boosted interest—and only a few weeks after publication, the Press had to scramble to get out a second, then a third, edition.4

Imagine the shy Austrian’s surprise when he arrived in the United States for a five-week book tour in April, 1945, and was met by a crowd of 3,000 at an early speaking engagement at New York’s Town Hall, also broadcast over the radio.5 Conservative businessmen who had been deeply frustrated by the rise of labor unions and expansion of government regulation during the New Deal had been eager to find what one referred to as a “‘bible’ of free enterprise,” a book that could articulate the underlying principles of capitalism in the rhetoric of freedom, giving them a way of opposing the new order without appearing motivated solely by self-interest.6 Hoping to find ways to limit labor’s reach and undermine the welfare state, these businessmen were thrilled to discover The Road to Serfdom.

The book also owed much of its success to Reader’s Digest, which published a condensed version for its readership of 8 million people; Look magazine printed a handy cartoon version, which was then picked up by General Electric’s in-house magazine.7

Hayek was a little chagrined by this success; he worried that he would no longer be taken seriously by scholars, that his admirers in the business community had discarded the subtlety of his arguments. But he was also happy to accept a position—financed by one of the early conservative foundations—at the Committee of Social Thought at the University of Chicago.8 While a bit wary of his business supporters, he was also aware of the potential for an alliance with them. As he wrote in the preface to The Road to Serfdom, “When a professional student of social affairs writes a political book, his first duty is to say so. This is a political book.”9

At first glance, Hayek and Piketty seem to have nothing in common. However, Piketty’s success, like that of Hayek, comes in part because of his willingness to write about the economy as a political space. As he suggests, economic inequality is a topic far too important to be left to economists. It’s a subject with which everyone is intimately familiar, affecting our most basic choices about work, consumption, family, and identity.

It might have been hard for Hayek, writing in 1944, to imagine the world of 2014 into which Piketty’s book appeared. One of Piketty’s major claims is that the level of inequality in a society is determined by politics and social norms—the deregulation of finance, the political mobilization of the wealthy, and even the dominance of the free-market ideas that Hayek once championed—all of which have given rise to the ascendance of the super-elite.

The differences between the two books are not just about their arguments, or even their politics. They’re also methodological: Piketty is an empiricist, whose major contribution lies in his assembling of massive quantities of statistical information about economic inequality. Like Hayek, he was at odds with the economics profession even before his book was published, alienated even as a young assistant professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology by its retreat into mathematics and avoidance of history and politics.

Hayek became a theorist, even a polemicist, eschewing narrow mathematical arguments but also by and large avoiding data altogether. Overlooking any possibility that corporations or inequality might limit freedom, Hayek argued that the heavy hand of the state was all that people had to fear.

Friedrich von Hayek came to the U.S. in 1945; "Pikettymania," by contrast, has been a phenomenon of 2014. Photo courtesy of Sue Gardner.

Friedrich von Hayek came to the U.S. in 1945; “Pikettymania,” by contrast, has been a phenomenon of 2014. Photo courtesy of Sue Gardner.

However, Piketty’s success, like that of Hayek, comes in part because of his willingness to write about the economy as a political space. As he suggests, economic inequality is a topic far too important to be left to economists. It’s a subject with which everyone is intimately familiar, affecting our most basic choices about work, consumption, family, and identity—and the economy is something that “all activists in the unions and in politics of whatever stripe,” as well as journalists, commentators and social scientists need to understand.10

The response to Piketty from liberal audiences, eager to find an analysis deeper than a Paul Krugman column, reflects not only the economic politics of our own time: the stark, growing separation between the very rich and the rest of American society, a division that affects everything from education and health care to the very terms of political participation (and which may even be starting unsettle elites, such as those who have greeted Piketty’s work with enthusiasm). It also indicates a longing, however tentative, to bring these economic questions into political debate in ways that reflect their centrality to our lives—reviving an approach to economic life that sees it shot through with ideas about justice and indeed even freedom.

Kim Phillips-Fein is the author of Invisible Hands: The Businessmen’s Crusade Against the New Deal (W.W. Norton, 2009). She teaches History at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at NYU, and in 2014-15 she is a Cullman Center Fellow at the New York Public Library.

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1. “Best Sellers,” New York Times, accessed Sept. 14, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/best-sellers-books/hardcover-nonfiction/list.html#.
2. Friedrich Hayek, The Road to Serfdom, 1994 ed. (University of Chicago Press, 1944), 16.
3. Hayek, Road to Serfdom, 199.
4. Bruce Caldwell, “Introduction,” in The Road to Serfdom, Text and Documents, ed. Bruce Caldwell (University of Chicago Press, 2007), 18-20.
5. Angus Burgin, The Great Persuasion (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012), 88.
6. Kim Phillips-Fein, Invisible Hands (W.W. Norton, 2009), 30.
7. Burgin, Great Persuasion, 89.
8. Burgin, Great Persuasion, 100-1.
9. Hayek, Road to Serfdom, xlv.
10. Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Belknap Press, 2014), 577.

Globalization and NAFTA Caused Migration from Mexico

Click here to see the full neoliberalism issue of The Public Eye magazine

Click here to see the full neoliberalism issue of The Public Eye magazine

When NAFTA was passed two decades ago, its boosters promised it would bring “First World” status for the Mexican people. Instead, it prompted a great migration north.

**This article appears in PRA’s Fall, 2014 issue of The Public Eye magazine, a special edition on neoliberalism and the Right**

Rufino Domínguez, the former coordinator of the Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations, who now heads the Oaxacan Institute for Attention to Migrants, estimates that there are about 500,000 indigenous people from Oaxaca living in the U.S., 300,000 in California alone.1

In Oaxaca, some towns have become depopulated, or are now made up of only communities of the very old and very young, where most working-age people have left to work in the north. Economic crises provoked by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and other economic reforms are now uprooting and displacing these Mexicans in the country’s most remote areas, where people still speak languages (such as Mixteco, Zapoteco and Triqui) that were old when Columbus arrived from Spain.2 “There are no jobs, and NAFTA forced the price of corn so low that it’s not economically possible to plant a crop anymore,” Dominguez says. “We come to the U.S. to work because we can’t get a price for our product at home. There’s no alternative.”

Rosalba Maritero is a Triqui indignous immigrant from Oaxaca and lives in Madera, California.  She and her husband, both farm workers, were strikers at a large berry farm in Washington State last year and helped organize a new union, Familias Unidas por la Justicia/Families United for Justice. Photo by David Bacon.

Rosario Ventura is a Triqui indignous immigrant from Oaxaca and lives in Madera, California. She and her husband, both farm workers, were strikers at a large berry farm in Washington State last year and helped organize a new union, Familias Unidas por la Justicia/Families United for Justice. Photo by David Bacon.

According to Rick Mines, author of the 2010 Indigenous Farm Worker Study, “the total population of California’s indigenous Mexican farm workers is about 120,000 … a total of 165,000 indigenous farm workers and family members in California.”3 Counting the many indigenous people living and working in urban areas, the total is considerably higher. Indigenous people made up 7% of Mexican migrants in 1991-3, the years just before the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement. In 2006-8, they made up 29%—four times more.4

California has a farm labor force of about 700,000 workers, so the day is not far off when indigenous Oaxacan migrants may make up a majority. They are the workforce that has been produced by NAFTA and the changes in the global economy driven by free-market policies. Further, “the U.S. food system has long been dependent on the influx of an ever-changing, newly-arrived group of workers that sets the wages and working conditions at the entry level in the farm labor market,” Mines says. The rock-bottom wages paid to this most recent wave of migrants—Oaxaca’s indigenous people—set the wage floor for all the other workers in California farm labor, keeping the labor cost of California growers low, and their profits high.

Linking Trade and Immigration

U.S. trade and immigration policy are linked. They are part of a single system, not separate and independent policies. Since NAFTA’s passage in 1993, the U.S. Congress has debated and passed several new trade agreements—with Peru, Jordan, Chile, and the Central American Free Trade Agreement. At the same time, Congress has debated immigration policy as though those trade agreements bore no relationship to the waves of displaced people migrating to the U.S., looking for work. Meanwhile, heightened anti-immigrant hysteria has increasingly demonized those migrants, leading to measures to deny them jobs, rights, or any equality with people living in the communities around them.

To resolve any of these dilemmas, from adopting rational and humane immigration policies to reducing the fear and hostility towards migrants, the starting point must be an examination of the way U.S. policies have produced migration—and criminalized migrants.

Trade negotiations and immigration policy were formally joined together by the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986. Immigrants’ rights activists campaigned against the law because it contained employer sanctions, prohibiting employers for the first time on a federal level from hiring undocumented workers and effectively criminalizing work for the undocumented. IRCA’s liberal defenders argued its amnesty provision justified sanctions and militarizing the border,5 as well as new guest worker programs. The bill eventually did enable more than 4 million people living in the U.S. without immigration documents to gain permanent residence. Underscoring the broad bipartisan consensus supporting it, the bill was signed into law by Ronald Reagan.

We come to the U.S. to work because we can’t get a price for our product at home. There’s no alternative. — Rufino Dominguez, Director of the Oaxacan Institute for Attention to Migrants

Few noted one other provision of the law. IRCA set up a Commission for the Study of International Migration and Cooperative Economic Development to study the causes of immigration to the United States. The commission held hearings after the U.S. and Canada signed a bilateral free trade agreement, and made a report to President George H.W. Bush and Congress in 1990. It found that the main motivation for coming to the U.S. was poverty. To slow or halt the flow of migrants, it recommended that “U.S. economic policy should promote a system of open trade … the development of a U.S.-Mexico free trade area and its incorporation with Canada.” But, it warned, “It takes many years—even generations—for sustained growth to achieve the desired effect.”

The negotiations that led to NAFTA started within months. As Congress debated the treaty, then-Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari toured the United States, telling audiences unhappy at high levels of immigration that passing NAFTA would reduce it by providing employment for Mexicans in Mexico. Back home, he made the same argument. NAFTA, he claimed, would set Mexico on a course to become a first-world nation.6   “We did become part of the first world,” says Juan Manuel Sandoval of Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History. “The back yard.”7

Increasing pressure

NAFTA, however, did not lead to rising incomes and employment in Mexico, and did not decrease the flow of migrants. Instead, it became a source of pressure on Mexicans to migrate. The treaty forced corn grown by Mexican farmers without subsidies to compete in Mexico’s own market with corn from huge U.S. producers, who had been subsidized by the U.S. Agricultural exports to Mexico more than doubled during the NAFTA years, from $4.6 to $9.8 billion annually. Corn imports rose from 2,014,000 to 10,330,000 tons from 1992 to 2008. Mexico imported 30,000 tons of pork in 1995, the year NAFTA took effect. By 2010, pork imports, almost all from the U.S., had grown over 25 times, to 811,000 tons. As a result, pork prices received by Mexican producers dropped 56%.8

According to Alejandro Ramírez, general director of the Confederation of Mexican Pork Producers, “We lost 4,000 pig farms. Each 100 animals produce 5 jobs, so we lost 20,000 farm jobs directly from imports. Counting the 5 indirect jobs dependent on each direct job, we lost over 120,000 jobs in total. This produces migration to the U.S. or to Mexican cities—a big problem for our country.”9 Once Mexican meat and corn producers were driven from the market by imports, the Mexican economy was left vulnerable to price changes dictated by U.S. agribusiness or U.S. policy. “When the U.S. modified its corn policy to encourage ethanol production,” he charges, “corn prices jumped 100% in one year.”10

NAFTA then prohibited price supports, without which hundreds of thousands of small farmers found it impossible to sell corn or other farm products for what it cost to produce them. Mexico couldn’t protect its own agriculture from the fluctuations of the world market. A global coffee glut in the 1990s plunged prices below the cost of production. A less entrapped government might have bought the crops of Veracruz farmers to keep them afloat, or provided subsidies for other crops.

But once free-market structures were in place prohibiting government intervention to help them, those farmers paid the price. Campesinos from Veracruz, as well as Oaxaca and other major corn-producing states, joined the stream of workers headed north.11 There, they became an important part of the workforce in U.S. slaughterhouses and other industries.

U.S. companies were allowed to own land and factories, eventually anywhere in Mexico. U.S.-based Union Pacific, in partnership with the Larrea family, one of Mexico’s wealthiest, became the owner of the country’s main north-south rail line and immediately discontinued virtually all passenger service.12 Mexican rail employment dropped from more than 90,000 to 36,000. Railroad workers mounted a wildcat strike to try to save their jobs, but they lost and their union became a shadow of its former self.

According to Garrett Brown, head of the Maquiladora Health and Safety Network, the average Mexican wage was 23% of the U.S. manufacturing wage in 1975. By 2002, it was less than an eighth. Brown says that after NAFTA, real Mexican wages dropped by 22%, while worker productivity increased 45%.13

Attracting Investors, Repelling Workers

Low wages are the magnet used to attract U.S. and other foreign investors. In mid-June, 2006, Ford Corporation, already one of Mexico’s largest employers, announced it would invest $9 billion more in building new factories.14 Meanwhile, Ford closed 14 U.S. plants, eliminating the jobs of tens of thousands of U.S. workers. Both moves were part of the company’s strategic plan to cut labor costs and move production. When General Motors was bailed out by the U.S. government in 2008, it closed a dozen U.S. plants, while its plans for building new plants in Mexico went forward without hindrance.15 These policies displaced people, who could no longer make a living as they’d done before. The rosy predictions of NAFTA’s boosters that it would raise income and slow migration proved false. The World Bank, in a 2005 study made for the Mexican government, found that the extreme rural poverty rate of around 37% in 1992-4, prior to NAFTA, jumped to about 52% in 1996-8, after NAFTA took effect. This could be explained, the report said, “mainly by the 1995 economic crisis, the sluggish performance of agriculture, stagnant rural wages, and falling real agricultural prices.”16

By 2010, 53 million Mexicans were living in poverty, according to the Monterrey Institute of Technology—half the country’s population.17 The growth of poverty, in turn, fueled migration. In 1990, 4.5 million Mexican-born people lived in the U.S. A decade later, that population more than doubled to 9.75 million, and in 2008 it peaked at 12.67 million. Approximately 9.4% of all Mexicans now live in the U.S., based on numbers from Pew Hispanic. About 5.7 million were able to get some kind of visa; but another 7 million couldn’t, and came nevertheless.18

From 1982 through the NAFTA era, successive economic reforms produced migrants. The displacement had already grown so large by 1986 that the commission established by IRCA was charged with recommending measures to halt or slow it. Its report urged that “migrant-sending countries should encourage technological modernization by strengthening and assuring intellectual property protection and by removing existing impediments to investment” and recommended that “the United States should condition bilateral aid to sending countries on their taking the necessary steps toward structural adjustment.” The IRCA commission report acknowledged the potential for harm, noting (in the mildest, most ineffectual language possible) that “efforts should be made to ease transitional costs in human suffering.”19

In 1994, however, the year the North American Free Trade Agreement took effect, U.S. speculators began selling off Mexican government bonds. According to Jeff Faux, founding director the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington, DC-based progressive think tank, “NAFTA had created a speculative bubble for Mexican assets that then collapsed when the speculators cashed in.”20 In NAFTA’s first year, 1994, one million Mexicans lost their jobs when the peso was devalued. To avert a flood of capital to the north, then-U.S. Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin engineered a $20 billion loan to Mexico, which was paid to bondholders, mostly U.S. banks. In return, U.S. and British banks gained control of the country’s financial system. Mexico had to pledge its oil revenue to pay off foreign debt, making the country’s primary source of income unavailable for the needs of its people.

As the Mexican economy, especially the border maquiladora industry, became increasingly tied to the U.S. market, tens of thousands of Mexican workers lost jobs when the market shrank during U.S. recessions in 2001 and 2008. “It is the financial crashes and the economic disasters that drive people to work for dollars in the U.S., to replace life savings, or just to earn enough to keep their family at home together,” says Harvard historian John Womack.21

Immigrants, Migrants, or Displaced People?

In the U.S. political debate, Veracruz’ uprooted coffee pickers or unemployed workers from Mexico City are called immigrants, because that debate doesn’t recognize their existence before they leave Mexico. It is more accurate to call them migrants, and the process migration, since that takes into account both people’s communities of origin and those where they travel to find work.

But displacement is an unmentionable word in the Washington discourse. Not one immigration proposal in Congress in the quarter century since IRCA was passed has tried to come to grips with the policies that uprooted miners, teachers, tree planters, and farmers. In fact, while debating bills to criminalize undocumented migrants and set up huge guest worker programs, four new trade agreements were introduced, each of which has caused more displacement and more migration.

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The Art of Activism

Spotlighting the efforts of artists and organizations who are engaged in the struggle for social justice and are helping build the movement through their work.

“En los Campos del Norte (In the Fields of the North)” is an exhibition of photographs of farm workers in the U.S., almost all migrants from Mexico, taken by David Bacon (shown here). The photgraphs are hung on the iron bars of the border wall between Mexico and the U.S., in Playas de Tijuana on the Mexican side.

“En los Campos del Norte (In the Fields of the North)” is an exhibition of photographs of farm workers in the U.S., almost all migrants from Mexico, taken by David Bacon (shown here). The photgraphs are hung on the iron bars of the border wall between Mexico and the U.S., in Playas de Tijuana on the Mexican side.

For more than 30 years, David Bacon has been writing about and photographing people who are displaced by poverty in Mexico and choose to cross into the United States in search of a better life. David writes:

“For me, photography is a cooperative project. For over a decade, I’ve worked with the Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations, a Mexican migrant organization, and California Rural Legal Assistance to document this contradiction. The photographs shown on the border wall, ‘En los Campos del Norte (In the Fields of the North),’ are drawn from this long-term project. They show poverty, the lack of housing for many people, and the systematic exploitation of immigrant labor in the fields. But through the photographs and accompanying oral histories, migrants also analyze their situation. They demand respect for their culture, basic rights, and greater social equality. People in Tijuana are pretty familiar with working conditions in California, and most people I met looking at the show had actually been there, many as workers. The images, therefore, underline the need to change reality, and appreciate our mutual humanity and the importance of our labor.

For three decades, I’ve used a method that combines photographs with interviews and personal histories. Part of the purpose is the “reality check”—the documentation of social reality, including poverty, homelessness, migration, and displacement. But this documentation, carried out over a long period of time, also presents some of the political and economic alternatives proposed by people who are often shut out of public debate. It examines their efforts to win the power to put some of these alternatives into practice. I believe documentary photographers stand on the side of social justice—we should be involved in the world and unafraid to try to change it.”


1. Eric Hershberg and Fred Rosen, “Turning the Tide?” in Latin America After Neoliberalism: Turning the Tide in the 21st Century, eds. Eric Hershberg and Fred Rosen (New York: New Press, 2006), 23.
2. John P. Schmal, “Oaxaca: Land of Diversity,” ¡LatinoLA!, Jan. 28, 2007, http://www.latinola.com/story.php?story=3908.
3. Richard Mines, Sandra Nichols, and David Runsten, “California’s Indigenous Farmworkers: Final Report of the Indigenous Farmworker Study (IFS) To the California Endowment,” Jan. 2010, http://www.indigenousfarmworkers.org/IFS%20Full%20Report%20_Jan2010.pdf.
4. Mines, Nichols, and Runsten, “California Indigenous Farmworkers Final Report of the Indigenous Farmworker Study (IFS) To the California Endowment.”
5. Brad Plummer, “Congress Tried to Fix Immigration Back in 1986. Why Did It Fail?” Washington Post, Jan. 30, 2013, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/01/30/in-1986-congress-tried-to-solve-immigration-why-didnt-it-work.
6. David Clark Scott, “Salinas Plays It Cool After Big Win on NAFTA,” Christian Science Monitor, Nov. 19, 1993, http://www.csmonitor.com/1993/1119/19014.html.
7. Juan Manuel Sandoval, interview with David Bacon, 2006.
8. David Bacon, The Right to Stay Home: How US Policy Drives Mexican Migration (Boston: Beacon Press, 2013).
9. Bacon, The Right to Stay Home.
10. Bacon, The Right to Stay Home.
11. David Bacon, Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants (Boston: Beacon Press, 2008), 63.
12. Bacon, Illegal People, 58.
13. Bacon, Illegal People, 59.
14. Elizabeth Malkin, “Detroit: Far South,” New York Times, Jul. 21, 2006, http://www.nytimes.com/2006/07/21/business/worldbusiness/21auto.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0.
15. Paul Roderick Gregory, “Outsourcer-In-Chief: Obama Of General Motors,” Forbes, Aug. 12, 2012, http://www.forbes.com/sites/paulroderickgregory/2012/08/12/outsourcer-in-chief-obama-of-general-motors.
16. José María Caballero et al. for the World Bank, Mexico: Income Generation and Social Protection for the Poor, Volume IV: A Study of Rural Poverty in Mexico, Aug. 2005, (accessed via https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/8286), 9-11.
17. Richard Wells, “3 Ways To Compete Sustainably: Lessons from Mexico,” GreenBiz.com, Oct. 9, 2013, http://www.greenbiz.com/blog/2013/10/09/3-ways-compete-sustainably-lessons-mexico.
18. Bacon, The Right to Stay Home.
19. Bacon, Illegal People, 60-61.
20. Bacon, Illegal People, 61.
21. Bacon, Illegal People, 64.

An Uncharitable Choice: The Faith-Based Takeover of Federal Programs

Click here to see the full neoliberalism issue of The Public Eye magazine

Click here to see the full neoliberalism issue of The Public Eye magazine

Two presidents in a row have increasingly steered federal grants and contracts to conservative Christian groups—including houses of worship.

**This article appears in PRA’s Fall, 2014 issue of The Public Eye magazine, a special edition on neoliberalism and the Right**

The privatization of public services has long been a feature of neoliberalism. It has also been part of the domestic and global agenda of the Christian Right, and more broadly, of conservative evangelicalism. The free-market agenda of the economic elite and the interests of elite evangelicalism found common cause and a historic opportunity during the Clinton administration. It is a relationship that continues to this day under the rubric of the Faith-Based Initiative.

The forerunner to this groundbreaking notion was injected into policy during the Clinton administration’s efforts to “change welfare as we know it.” Called Charitable Choice, it was the first time Congress gave explicit legislative direction to federal agencies to provide religious institutions with grants and contracts to carry out federal programs on an equal basis with other groups—without requiring that religious groups separate out their religious agendas.1 Critics presciently observed this risked problematic entanglements between church and state. Even President Clinton was concerned enough to issue signing statements as Charitable Choice provisions were added to federal legislation. On one such occasion, he said that his administration would not “permit governmental funding of religious organizations that do not or cannot separate their religious activities from [federally funded program] activities,” because such funding would violate the Constitution.2

Senators John Ashcroft (R-MO) and Dan Coats (R-IN) led the successful effort to insert Charitable Choice into the 1996 welfare reform bill.3 The intentions of backers varied, as they still do, but the effect has been to begin to privatize government-funded services, and in particular to increase the capacity of conservative Christian institutions to provide such services in the U.S. and around the world. But its birth was a relatively quiet moment in American legislative history. As David Kuo, an aide to Sen. Ashcroft and later the Deputy Director of the original White House office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives in the Bush administration, recounts, they picked the name “Charitable Choice” because it sounded innocuous. “It didn’t draw attention to anything religious,” he recalled:

Charitable choice was something anyone could support and few people could justify voting against. The name just worked. The bill was drafted within months. Most religious groups loved it. Scarcely a peep came from liberal advocacy groups. The lack of liberal objection likely also came from the perception that it was just a small, relatively insignificant amendment. The greatest pushback came from other compassionate conservatives who wanted the bill to allow for more religious content.4

Once the Charitable Choice precedent was set, follow-up efforts to pass more expansive legislation did not succeed. But President George W. Bush was able to implement a more limited program5 via executive order, which was subsequently continued and expanded under President Obama. This effort created a dozen offices6 within the White House and a number of federal departments—most prominently, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), but also including the Departments of State and Homeland Security, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Agency for International Development. These programs have taken money out of existing, primarily social service programs and redirected the funds to religious agencies. But since many of the conservative Christian bodies that wanted to receive Faith-Based Initiative funds lacked the institutional capacity and experience to be eligible, there was an early emphasis on training, capacity building, and technical assistance so that groups that wanted to become eligible could be shoehorned in.7

This redirection of resources also tended to politically empower religious organizations and leaders, such as prominent evangelical pastor Rick Warren, whose economic view tends toward laissez-faire neoliberalism.8 Warren’s popularity has helped in recent years to strengthen the political constituency for free-market policies.

None of this was a coincidence, since one of the driving forces behind this reorientation of federal policy was a secretive, business-oriented network of conservative Christianity known as The Family. The group made news during the 2008 election campaign when such major figures as Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John McCain were shown to have varying degrees of a relationship with the powerful network. Later, the sex scandal involving Sen. John Ensign (R-NV) was shown to involve a Family-owned condo called the C Street House, which also gained national notoriety.9

The Family

Jeff Sharlet, in his 2008 book The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, exposed the historic relationship between elements of conservative Christianity and the anti-labor, anti-government deregulation agenda (and other elements) of the business lobby. Founded as a political network of anti-labor Christian businessmen, the organization has vastly expanded into a quiet, behind-the-scenes “old boys” network of people who use their personal relationship with Jesus to facilitate business and political dealings in the U.S. and many other countries.10

Sharlet explained that “faith-based initiatives are as liberal as they are fundamentalist, their privatization of social services an exercise of the unstated conviction of classical liberalism that the free market is absolute and yet requires a government subsidy. They are to religion,” Sharlet continued, “what Clinton-era ‘free trade’ deals were to labor: a ‘rationalization’ in the name of ‘efficiency.’”11

Indeed, the federal funds redirected to faith-based services have enjoyed a certain de facto exemption from standard levels of accountability and transparency. The notion of exemptions for religious organizations from federal laws and policies has been expanded in the wake of the Hobby Lobby v. Burwell decision of the U.S. Supreme Court. The Hobby Lobby decision likely portends future efforts to widen the range of exemptions along with the range of organizations qualified to claim them.

Just as neoliberals claim that the free market is more “efficient” than government, there has been a similar claim about faith-based social service delivery.12 But there was little evidence for this. Indeed, John DiIulio Jr, the first director of the faith-based office under President Bush, has said there is no evidence that faith-based agencies perform any better than non-religious providers of social services.13

Similarly, David Kuo revealed that there was no evidence to support another of the claims used to justify Charitable Choice, (later renamed the Faith-Based Initiative)—that there was discrimination against religiously based grant applicants, particularly with regard to hiring practices. In many ways, they were proposing a solution in search of a problem. “Alarmed, we looked under every rock and rule and regulation and report. Finding these examples became a huge priority. Without them, the powerful political rhetoric of government discrimination against faith-based groups of religious hiring would have to disappear … If President Bush was making the world a better place for faith-based groups, we had to show it was a really bad place to begin with. But in fact, it really wasn’t that bad at all.”14

Kuo later became disaffected, and wrote a book about it.15 He had hoped that Bush’s campaign promise of “compassionate conservatism”—providing $8 billion new dollars for fighting poverty in the U.S.—would come true. But he found himself helping direct a vast amount of faith-based patronage money and activities designed to influence electoral outcomes in key states under the direction of the White House political team. Even more galling, there was no real increase in anti-poverty funds for anti-poverty work. Kuo did, however, observe a lot of cronyism and self-dealing leading to a variety of scandals.16

As a presidential candidate, Obama promised to clean up the faith-based program and hold federal grantees accountable. “If you get a federal grant, you can’t use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help and you can’t discriminate against them,” Obama said during a July 2008 campaign speech. But a 2014 investigation by Andy Kopsa in The Nation magazine found that “little has changed.”

Kopsa writes: “An entire federally funded evangelical economy took root during the Bush years, and under Obama it continues to thrive.” Kopsa documented, for example, tens of millions of dollars going to fund ineffective, religiously based abstinence and AIDS education programs in the U.S. and in Africa, as well as millions going to religiously based, anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers in the U.S., also for abstinence education. Millions more have been diverted from Medicaid programs to fund heterosexual marriage promotion via state affiliates of Focus on the Family (FOF) and the Family Research Council (FRC). Kopsa reported, for example, that The Family Leader, a politically important Christian Right organization in Iowa (and the state FOF and FRC affiliate), took $3 million in federal funds to conduct “Healthy Marriage Workshops” while simultaneously waging a campaign to amend the state constitution to ban same-sex marriage. “After being outed in the press as an HHS grantee in 2010,” Kopsa reported, “the group denied using federal money inappropriately but requested to opt out of their last year of funding.”17

And all this happened even as the Obama administration strengthened the proscription against federal funding of abortion. The Obama administration, in the course of seeking to pass the Affordable Care Act, declared its intention to make the legislation “abortion neutral.” Yet in a remarkably Orwellian redefinition of “neutral,” it adopted the anti-abortion provisions of the Hyde Amendment, which in the 1970s had proscribed using federal Medicaid funds to provide abortions.18

Transpartisanship

Kuo, like Ashcroft and Coats, was a member of The Family (aka The Fellowship), a semi-secret society of what Sharlet calls “elite fundamentalists.” Since its founding as an anti-labor organization of Christian businessmen in the early 20th century, The Family has grown to become a behind-the-scenes network of power and influence extending across party lines. In many ways, it is as transpartisan as neoliberalism itself and an increasingly important transmitter of neoliberal ideology.

The Family’s most public role is as the host and organizer of the National Prayer Breakfast, at which every president since Eisenhower has been a featured speaker. But The Family mostly functions as a quiet broker of conservative Christian ideas, personnel, and relationships. Sharlet describes the morphing of elite business and Christian fundamentalism this way: “[E]lite fundamentalism, certain in its entitlement, responds in this world with a politics of noblesse oblige, the missionary impulse married to military and economic power. The result is empire. Not the old imperialism … Rather the soft empire of America that across the span of the twentieth century recruited fundamentalism to its cause even as it seduced liberalism to its service… .”19

The use of religious institutions to promote the privatization of a variety of government services has been shrouded in a faith-based fog. As David Kuo observed, it became easier for political appointees to direct federal funds to politically favored groups while resisting press and Congressional scrutiny. And, as Andy Kopsa demonstrated, transparency and accountability are shockingly lacking, even in an administration that has promised both.

It should be a matter for public debate that political appointees in both parties are not only diverting federal funds to pursue political agendas well beyond the intent of Congress but also are deepening the government’s reliance on religious institutions as service providers. These trends do not seem to be aberrations and glitches in a fresh approach to the delivery of government services so much as a transpartisan program of neoliberal transformation of our government’s functions at all levels.

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1. Jeff Sharlet, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power (New York: HarperCollins, 2008), 381.
2. William J. Clinton, “Statement on Signing the Consolidated Appropriations Act, FY 2001,” Dec. 21, 2000, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=1073.
3. Jeff Sharlet, The Family.
4. David Kuo, Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction (New York: Free Press, 2007), 84-86, Kindle Edition.
5. Bill Berkowitz, “Tilting at Faith-Based Windmills: Over a Year in the Life of President Bush’s Faith-based Initiative,” The Public Eye, Summer 2002, http://www.publiceye.org/magazine/v16n2/Berkowitz.html.
6. “Federal Centers for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships,” http://www.whitehouse.gov/administration/eop/ofbnp/offices/federal.
7. David Kuo, Tempting Faith; see also Ted Slutz, “Congregations and Charitable Choice,” The Polis Center, Religion & Community (vol. 4, #5, 2000).
8. Bill Anderson, “Correction from Pastor Rick Warren,” LewRockwell.com, Feb. 2, 2008, http://www.lewrockwell.com/lrc-blog/correction-from-pastor-rick-warren/.
9. Scott Horton, “Inside C Street: Six Questions for Jeff Sharlet,” Harper’s, Sept. 29, 2010, http://harpers.org/blog/2010/09/inside-c-street-six-questions-for-jeff-sharlet/.
10. Frederick Clarkson, “All in The Family,” The Public Eye, Summer 2008, http://www.publiceye.org/magazine/v23n2/book_allin_the_family.html.
11. Sharlet, The Family, 382.
12. Eyal Press, “Lead Us Not into Temptation,” The American Prospect, Dec. 19, 2001, http://prospect.org/article/lead-us-not-temptation.
13. “Testimony of the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Executive Director Americans United For Separation of Church and State,” U.S. House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary Subcommittee on Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties, Nov. 18, 2010. http://judiciary.house.gov/_files/hearings/pdf/Lynn101118.pdf.
14. Kuo, Tempting Faith, 208-209.
15. Kuo, Tempting Faith.
16. Bill Berkowitz, “Faith-Based Initiatives in the Obama Administration?,” Religion Dispatches, June 15, 2009; Rick Cohen,” Fides: Faith and Money in the Bush Administration,” Non-Profit Quarterly, Mar. 21, 2006; Peter Wallsten, Tom Hamburger, and Nicholas Riccardi, “Bush Rewarded by Black Pastors’ Faith: His stands, backed by funding of ministries, redefined the GOP’s image with some clergy,” Los Angeles Times, Jan. 18, 2005, http://articles.latimes.com/2005/jan/18/nation/na-faith18.
17. Andy Kopsa, “Obama’s Evangelical Gravy Train,” Nation, July 2014, http://www.thenation.com/article/180435/obamas-evangelical-gravy-train.
18. Frederick Clarkson, “From Right-Wing to Pro-Choice: The Shifting Goalposts of ‘Abortion Neutrality,’” Religion Dispatches, Dec. 9, 2009, http://religiondispatches.org/from-right-wing-to-pro-choice-the-shifting-goalposts-of-abortion-neutrality/; and Frederick Clarkson, “Anti-Abortion Strategy in the Age of Obama,” The Public Eye, Winter 2009, http://www.politicalresearch.org/2009/12/01/anti-abortion-strategy-in-the-age-of-obama-2/; see also Frederick Clarkson, “More Creeping Religious Rightism in the Democratic Party,” Talk to Action, Dec. 12, 2009, http://www.talk2action.org/story/2009/12/12/1666/2372.
19. Sharlet, The Family, 386.