When the Exception Is the Rule: Christianity in the Religious Freedom Debates

When historians recount the history of separation of church and state in our time, one of the signature events may be a federal court case that didn’t even make it to the Supreme Court. It didn’t need to.

PE cover Summer 2015This article appears in the Summer 2015 issue of The Public Eye magazine.

The 2014 case of General Synod of the United Church of Christ v. Cooper was a landmark event because, although the case was ostensibly about opposition to marriage equality, the decision upheld foundational notions of religious equality and equal protection under the law that bind this diverse and often fractious nation. It at once affirmed the equal standing under the law of all religious and non-religious points of view and showed that the Christian Right does not represent all of Christianity.

At issue was a 2012 amendment to the North Carolina state constitution that provided that same-sex marriages were invalid. Together with the state’s General Statutes, this amendment effectively criminalized the performance of same-sex marriage ceremonies. The upshot of the subsequent legal fight was that the million-member United Church of Christ (UCC), an historic Protestant denomination with roots dating back to the Plymouth Colony and more than 5,000 local churches, won a clear victory for both marriage equality and religious liberty.

Protesters gather in Washington, D.C., for the Stand Up For Religious Freedom rally. Photo via Flickr and courtesy of the American Life League

Protesters gather in Washington, D.C., for the Stand Up For Religious Freedom rally. Photo via Flickr and courtesy of the American Life League

“By depriving the Plaintiffs of the freedom to perform religious marriage ceremonies or to marry,” the UCC complaint read in part, “North Carolina stigmatizes Plaintiffs and their religious beliefs.” The complainants also argued that the law relegated same-sex couples “to second-class status.” Along with same-sex couples, the plaintiffs included religious denominations and clergy from several traditions, including the Alliance of Baptists, the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis. The complaint continued:

The laws forbidding same-sex marriage tell Plaintiffs that their religious views are invalid and same-sex relationships are less worthy, thus humiliating each Plaintiff and denigrating the integrity and closeness of families and religious organizations, depriving Plaintiffs of the inclusive religious community of family units they wish to establish.1

As a result, clergy in the UCC and fellow complainants,2 who routinely perform same-sex marriage ceremonies, could have been subject to criminal prosecution. “We didn’t bring this lawsuit to make others conform to our beliefs,” UCC general counsel Donald C. Clark, Jr. told The New York Times, “but to vindicate the right of all faiths to freely exercise their religious practices.”3

The case had a complicated legal trajectory, but the final decision came from U.S. District Court Judge Max O. Cogburn Jr., who, after the Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal by the State of North Carolina in another case, declared in his written decision: “It is clear…that North Carolina laws…threatening to penalize those who would solemnize such marriages, are unconstitutional.”

This case did not fit the culture war narrative as promulgated by the Christian Right, wherein religious liberty debates simply pit secularism against Christianity.4 It demonstrated that religious freedom is neither owned, nor entirely defined, by the Christian Right.

Many religious freedom cases turn on claims by conservative religious groups or individuals—or corporations—that various public policies and the rights of others, with which they disagree, violate their constitutional rights. Most famously, such claims have been made regarding businesses providing services such as cakes and flowers for same-sex marriages or providing contraception through insurance packages.

Religious liberty is only possible in the context of religious pluralism.

But Cogburn’s ruling, in addition to finding for the right to perform same-sex marriages, also underscored an idea that transcends the issues of the day: that religious liberty is only possible in the context of religious pluralism. By undermining the Christian Right’s narrative about how Christianity is under attack due to the advance of LGBTQ rights and marriage equality, it also cast into sharp relief what Christian Right leaders usually mean when they talk about religious liberty: not a broad understanding of religious freedom for all believers, but rather a narrowly-defined, theocratic religious supremacism.

The implications of the ruling weren’t lost on the Right. A caller to the Washington Watch radio program hosted by Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council (FRC), asked him about the “Christian organization” that he heard had filed the suit. “I would use that term ‘Christian’ very loosely,” Perkins replied. “Here’s a test of what is a true religious freedom: a freedom that’s based on orthodox religious viewpoints. It has to have a track record; it has to come forth from religious orthodoxy.”5 In April 2015, Mike Huckabee, the former Republican governor of Arkansas, similarly told a group of ministers participating in an FRC-organized conference call that supporting marriage equality meant opposing Christianity. Raising the stakes, he further warned that trends to legalize same-sex marriage across the country would lead to the “criminalization of Christianity.”6

The UCC case highlighted the rise of a distinctly theocratic politics at the highest levels of government and indeed, constitutional law, in which theocratic elements are reframing so called culture war issues involving homosexuality and reproductive justice as issues of religious liberty. It might be hard to see, given the nature of press coverage, but the culture wars have always been about more than abortion and the definition of marriage. Recent legal battles over religious liberty help to illuminate how that’s so.

The Ministry of Truth

Though you might not know it to read the news about religious freedom debates, not all Christian—let alone all religious—leaders share the same concerns as Huckabee and Perkins. J. Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (BJC), a longtime leading proponent of religious liberty in Washington, D.C., represents much of the Baptist world beyond the conservative Southern Baptist Convention. The BJC does not have a formal position on marriage equality, but the organization disagrees with the conflation of religious freedom with anti-marriage equality activism. Religious liberty in the U.S., Walker wrote in the Joint Committee’s monthly newsletter, is protected “like no other place in the world.” Providing LGBTQ people with “goods and services in the marketplace is an act of hospitality,” he continued, that need not “indicate approval of their nuptial decisions or their sexual orientation.”7

In a stark contrast to Walker, Perkins’s and Huckabee’s talk about religious freedom echoes the late theocratic theologian R.J. Rushdoony, one of the most influential evangelical thinkers of the 20th Century. “In the name of toleration,” Rushdoony objected in his 1973 opus, Institutes of Biblical Law, “the believer is asked to associate on a common level of total acceptance with the atheist, the pervert, the criminal and the adherents of other religions.”8 Many other recent leaders of the Christian Right do not in fact believe in civic equality for those with whom they religiously disagree or otherwise do not approve. And they usually ignore those who represent major religious institutions that hold different views, like Rabbi Steven Fox, Chief Executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, who, along with other Reform rabbis, declared in a statement regarding marriage equality, “There is no more central tenet to our faith than the notion that all human beings are created in the image of the Divine, and, as such, [are] entitled to equal treatment and equal opportunity.”9

As complicated as these issues can be, what is clear is that when we talk about religious freedom, we do not all mean the same thing. The United States, which led the way on Enlightenment-era approaches to the rights of individual conscience and separation of church and state in a pluralist society, is still trying to get it right. While civil liberties and civil rights need not be seen as mutually exclusive, navigating the conflicting interests of personal conscience and the public interest is fraught even in the best of times. This task is made more difficult when not everyone shares the values and vision of religious pluralism and constitutional democracy, and indeed may see those values as obstacles to their own ends.

The idea of religious exemptions is not new. While they have a longer history than the last 100 years, in the 20th Century, exemption debates famously included issues like how to deal with conscientious objection to military service; requirements for safety features on horse-drawn Amish buggies driven on public roads; and even legal requirements to seek medical treatment for children instead of relying on prayer. In more recent years, lawyers have litigated church zoning laws, regulations regarding religious homeschools and “troubled teen” group homes, vaccination requirements, and more.10

One of the guiding principles in weighing these decisions has been Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on religion, race, sex, and national origin. But even the Civil Rights Act created what are called “ministerial exceptions” for religious groups.11

SIDEBAR: A Christian Root of Religious Exemption (click to expand)

George W. Bush’s first major action in what would become his signature faith-based programming and policy development came when he was governor of Texas in the mid-1990s, when he championed claims of religious exemption from state regulation.1 Bush was influenced in this by author and WORLD magazine editor Marvin Olasky, a man whose political vision originates from the dynamic school of modern Christian theocratic thought called Christian Reconstructionism.2

The vehicle for this newfound religious exemption from standard state regulation was a newly created entity: the Texas Association of Christian Child Care Agencies, the board of which comprised members of the very organizations it was supposed to oversee. The entity was not a broad coalition of religious child-care agencies but rather a narrow group of explicitly Christian facilities and programs.3

Although an evangelical addiction program called Teen Challenge originally brought the matter of state regulation of Christian social services to the fore, the political hot potato was the Corpus Christi-based Rebekah Home for Girls, headed by fundamentalist Baptist radio evangelist Lester Roloff. His Rebekah Home had become notorious for its abusive disciplinary practices. An investigative report in the Texas Monthly found that Roloff’s girls were “often subjected to days in locked isolation rooms where [Roloff’s] sermons played in an endless loop.” They also endured exhaustive corporal punishment. “Better a pink bottom than a black soul,” Roloff famously declared at a 1973 court hearing. But the abuse was both pervasive and profound. Texas Attorney General John Hill submitted affidavits from sixteen girls who, the Texas Monthly reported, “said they had been whipped with leather straps, beaten with paddles, handcuffed to drainpipes, and locked in isolation cells.”4

The situation eventually led to a standoff that pitted against each other the interests of those who believe in the necessary role of government in protecting people from the likes of Roloff, and those who adhered to a flinty fundamentalist suspicion of government. The 1979 event, which Roloff called “the Christian Alamo,” featured hundreds of supporters and barricades to keep state officials off his compound. Roloff died in 1982, and the Rebekah Home moved out of state, but later returned, following Bush’s deregulation of Christian social services.5

The case is additionally important because Roloff’s lawyer was David Gibbs III, whose legal work—along with that of his father, David Gibbs, Jr., and the Christian Law Association—is one of the first Christian Right legal organizations to use religious liberty as an argument for exemption from government regulation. Gibbs was also the lead attorney in the Terri Schiavo case, where a family conflict over Schiavo’s long dependency on life support became a celebrated cause among Christian anti-abortion activists.6

One contemporary window into this difference of worldview, and the related difference in interpretations of religious freedom, is a 2015 manifesto by Evangelicals and Catholics Together. Since 1994, the influential group has fostered dialogues among an evolving cast of leading American Catholics and evangelicals, agreeing on some things, disagreeing on others, and seeking ways to move forward as a joint activist body. Via its periodic manifestos, the conversation has arguably been one of the formative ideological engines of the contemporary Christian Right.

The 2015 manifesto was apparently written in anticipation of the Supreme Court’s consideration of marriage equality in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges. The authors, including prominent Southern Baptist Pastor Rick Warren and Catholic neo-conservative strategist Robert P. George, declared that “Genuine freedom is found in ¬obedience to God’s order.” They place marriage equality under the rubric of “false freedom” that they say inevitably leads to “coercion and persecution of those who refuse to acknowledge the state’s redefinition of marriage.” They claim their speech is already being “policed” and that their “dissent” is being “assiduously suppressed.”7

Elements of the Christian Right are now seeking to expand the definition of a religious organization, and the extent to which religious exemptions extend to individual beliefs and religious institutions. The contemporary Christian Right’s notion that individuals and institutions should have the right to choose which laws they will respect and which ones they won’t is arguably one of the more extraordinary developments in American legal history. They are not only claiming the right to be selective about complying with the law, but are also claiming the right to determine the criteria by which such decisions are made.

In recent years this notion has dramatically influenced U.S. political and legal discourse. Those who embrace what theocratic evangelicals call a biblical worldview or what Catholics call the magisterium of the Church see their particular religious traditions as the sources of law to which all law must conform. Despite their many differences, these conservative believers have adopted a common platform regarding issues—as they define them—of life, marriage, and religious liberty.12 But there are deep repercussions to each of these major coalitional tenets that are not always well reflected in public discourse.

The current wave of state legislation allegedly seeking to protect the rights of conscience of people opposed to homosexuality generally and marriage equality in particular, may be best understood as abuses of the historic idea of religious freedom.

On a wide range of matters—from abortion and contraception to LGBTQ civil rights and federal labor laws—the Christian Right, in both its evangelical and Catholic expressions, is seeking to find new approaches to ensuring that the law does not apply to them.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), for example, offered an amendment to the 2015 congressional budget that sought to apply the broad framing of the Christian Right’s political agenda to the relationship between the federal government and private contractors. “Federal agencies,” Inhofe’s amendment read in part, “do not discriminate against an individual, business, or organization with sincerely-held religious beliefs against abortion or that marriage is the union between one man and one woman.”13 The amendment was unsuccessful, but it epitomizes the contemporary thinking of the Christian Right.

The current wave of state legislation allegedly seeking to protect the rights of conscience of people opposed to homosexuality generally and marriage equality in particular, may be best understood as abuses of the historic idea of religious freedom. Or, as it’s often put, it’s conservatives using the idea of religious freedom to justify discrimination.

Inhofe’s amendment, for example, would not have protected the religious beliefs of those individuals and institutions whose conscience compels them to respect reproductive rights and moral consciences, or those who honor and celebrate same-sex marriages. In fact, major, historic religious traditions and institutions support the very rights opposed by the Christian Right. Thus when the Christian Right (and the politicians who pander to it) invoke religious freedom, often they’re using it as an excuse to deny religious freedom to others.

It’s also worth underscoring that, as a practical matter, the “religious” in “religious freedom” genericizes what is almost exclusively an initiative of conservative Christian institutions.

Religious Justifications for the Indefensible

Some of the most widely publicized contemporary religious freedom conflicts involve individual florists and bakers refusing to provide flowers or cakes for same-sex weddings. The notion that these private businesses’ denial of service amounts to a religious freedom battleground is based on the claim that the proprietors’ faith forbids them from supporting something contrary to their particular beliefs about God. Almost exclusively, this has meant their particular notion of Christianity.

Such claims may not ultimately prevail, but within living memory, religious justifications have often been successfully used to justify discrimination of many kinds. Politicians and preachers alike cited Christianity and the Bible to support generations of racial segregation in the U.S. But while the argument that religious beliefs should protect racial discrimination has lost its standing, the broader idea that faith merits exemptions from other anti-discrimination measures lives on.

In the 1983 landmark Supreme Court case of Bob Jones University v. United States, the federal government took the view that the Christian fundamentalist school was not entitled to its federal tax exemption if it maintained its policy against interracial dating. The case became a cause célèbre among the then-budding Christian Right, and was credited by New Right strategist Paul Weyrich and historian Randall Balmer, among others, as the catalyst that politicized conservative evangelicals.14 The case, which began during the Nixon administration, was used as a political cudgel against Democratic President Jimmy Carter, turning many evangelicals against one of their own.

Bishop Salvatore Cordileone a the Marriage March in Washington, D.C., 2013. Photo via Flickr and courtesy of American Life League

Bishop Salvatore Cordileone a the Marriage March in Washington, D.C., 2013. Photo via Flickr and courtesy of American Life League

Bob Jones University argued that to censure an institution over this issue was a violation of religious freedom under the First Amendment. But the Supreme Court ultimately decided against them, declaring: “Government has a fundamental, overriding interest in eradicating racial discrimination in education…[which] substantially outweighs whatever burden denial of tax benefits places on [the University’s] exercise of their religious beliefs.” The Court made clear, however, that its verdict dealt “only with religious schools—not with churches or other purely religious institutions.”15

Expanding the Definition of Ministry

A more recent Supreme Court case involved the expansion of the definition of religious ministry in ways that serve to broaden the set of institutions that qualify for exemptions from federal laws and regulations. Whereas these exemptions historically applied to a few highly specific cases, now a great range of religiously owned institutions is able to invoke them. There is a distinct trend in this regard, away from individual rights of conscience, and toward the rights of religious institutions.

This was on vivid display in 2015, when the Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco (following Catholic prelates in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Honolulu, and Oakland), declared that teachers—and perhaps all employees—in the Archdiocese’s schools would be required to conform to Catholic teaching in their personal lives.16 Cordileone wanted unionized employees to accept contract and faculty handbook language that condemned homosexuality, same-sex marriage, abortion, contraception and artificial insemination. He also said that Catholic school employees must not publicly contradict Church teachings.17 Union leaders were concerned that the Archbishop was attempting to reclassify not only teachers but all employees of the school as part of the church’s ministry.18

Liberty Institute called for organizations to “religify” their organizational documents in order to fall under the definition of a ministry so they can circumvent civil rights laws.

As chair of the Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), Cordileone is a leading culture warrior in the church. He was one of at least 50 prelates who signed the Manhattan Declaration, the historic 2009 manifesto which formally aligned Catholic and evangelical leaders on a shared 21st Century culture war agenda.19

The underlying legal justification for Catholic bishops to impose religious doctrine on school employees was the unanimous 2012 decision of the Supreme Court in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In that case, a mainline Lutheran school had fired a kindergarten teacher over issues arising because of a disability, leading to a discrimination claim by the dismissed teacher. The church argued that the government had no right to intervene in its employment decisions because the teacher served in a ministry capacity. The Court agreed, and in so doing, expanded the definition of which employees are covered by the term—and who would then be exempt from normal employment protections.

Religious institutions themselves have long enjoyed a “ministerial exemption” from certain labor laws. Hosanna-Tabor expanded that and opened the door to further expansion. Catholic and evangelical colleges and universities may be among the first to walk through that door, as they are increasingly claiming creeping violations of institutional religious liberty—from concerns about the Obama administration’s “contraception mandate” (which may apply to church-related colleges and universities, the Hobby Lobby decision notwithstanding) to a 2014 ruling by the National Labor Relations Board that permits unionization of employees at religious and other private universities.20

The reasons for religious freedom exemptions in churches’ employment practices are understandable. As Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in his opinion, “Requiring a church to accept or retain an unwanted minister, or punishing a church for failing to do so, intrudes upon more than a mere employment decision…By imposing an unwanted minister, the state infringes the Free Exercise Clause, which protects a religious group’s right to shape its own faith and mission through its appointments.”

However, calling a kindergarten teacher of numerous subjects, including math and social studies, a minister was a significant stretch. The teacher in question spent only a few minutes each day leading students in prayer or teaching religion for short intervals across the week. Nevertheless, this was sufficient in the view of the court, which decided not to “adopt a rigid formula for deciding when an employee qualifies as a minister.”21

Advocates for expanded exemptions for religious institutions in this area, such as the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, saw the decision as a “stunning victory” and a departure from “the usual focus on the religious rights of individuals.”22

Still, much was left unresolved. Although the decision drew a bright line—that government may not interfere with personnel decisions regarding persons in ministry—the extent to which religiously-affiliated institutions such as schools, charities, hospitals, and perhaps even for-profit businesses can define employees as ministers is now a fair question. And it’s one that’s certain to be tested as conservative religious movement leaders seek to carve out zones of exemption from the advance of secular law. leaders certainly see many opportunities in broadening the legal definition of ministry.

Dr. C. Peter Wagner, founder of the dominionist New Apostolic Reformation and a longtime professor of church growth at Fuller Theological Seminary,23 observed that “not only churches, but ministries supported by the church are included in [the Hosanna-Tabor] ruling. Schools are specifically mentioned, but how about a number of other kinds of ministries attached to our churches and apostolic networks? I would think they would fall under the same umbrella.”24

Mormon Elder Dallin H. Oaks, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the church, said he found “comfort” in Hosanna-Tabor, against thethreat” of governmental actions that he believes “are overshadowing the free exercise of religion by making it subordinate to other newly found ‘civil rights.’”25

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York came to a similar conclusion when he discussed the core issue in the landmark case of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. (discussed below) a few years later. The so-called contraception mandate, he declared, was primarily about “the raw presumption of a bureau of the federal government to define a church’s minister, ministry, message and meaning.”26

This year, Jeff Mateer of the Liberty Institute, a Texas-based legal advocacy group, began preparing manuals for what the Institute suggested is an inevitable wave of anti-religious legal attacks against everything from churches to frat houses to for-profit corporations.27 They called for organizations to “religify” their organizational documents, from bylaws to employee job descriptions, to specifically reflect doctrine so that they may fall under the definition of ministry. This, they suggested, would be part of an inoculation against civil lawsuits and government regulation.28

We have become familiar with how, when the goals of the Christian Right conflict with the rights of others, the conflict is framed as an attack on Christianity or, more broadly, religion. Seen from their perspective, there’s logic to this argument. Conservative Christians have long understood that the origins and trajectory of religious freedom in America run against the hegemony of conservative Christian churches that enjoy a close relationship with the state and its leaders.

Turning Phrases

Many of the contemporary legal struggles rest on the definition of particular terms and phrases originating in federal legislation or Supreme Court decisions. In addition to ministry, one of the key terms on which religious exemptions to state and federal laws now turn is the phrase “sincerely held religious belief.” The current use of the phrase is rooted in the federal 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA),29 which enjoyed overwhelming support in Congress and was signed into law by President Bill Clinton. RFRA was an answer to the Supreme Court’s 1990 decision in Employment Division v. Smith, which had upheld the right of the State of Oregon to deny unemployment benefits to Native American employees fired for using peyote in a religious ritual. Here Congress sought to restore the rights of Native Americans for whom peyote was part of their religious practice. More broadly, Congress wanted to reaffirm that a person’s sincerely held religious belief may not be substantially burdened unless the government can justify the law with a compelling state interest, and show that the law is narrowly crafted to protect that interest via the “least restrictive means” possible.30

A later Supreme Court decision limited the scope of the law to the federal government, leading some states to pass state-level versions of RFRA.31 Most of these laws were simply intended to replace the loss of the federal RFRA, but in the past few years, modified state RFRAs have been introduced with the obvious intention of justifying discrimination against same-sex couples by businesses and even government agencies.

Concepts that meant one thing in the federal RFRA have come to take on new meanings when applied at the state level in the wake of the 2014 Hobby Lobby case.

Concepts that meant one thing in the federal RFRA have come to take on new meanings when applied at the state level in the wake of the 2014 Hobby Lobby case (and the related Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. vs. Burwell). That Supreme Court decision extended, for the first time, religious rights to a “closely held” private corporation, stating that the company—not a church, or school, but a chain of craft stores—did not have to offer certain contraceptives via the company health plan because the owners of the company believed these contraceptives to be abortifacients (a position contradicted by every major medical organization in the country). The Court held that Hobby Lobby was exempt from the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that insurance packages cover these contraceptive options because, as Justice Samuel Alito put it in the majority opinion, requiring the corporation to provide this contraceptive coverage imposed a “substantial burden” on companies’ sincerely held religious beliefs.

The four dissenting justices said the majority opinion expanded the federal RFRA to protect companies in ways unintended by Congress. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote, “The court’s expansive notion of corporate personhood invites for-profit entities to seek religion-based exemptions from regulations they deem offensive to their faiths.” She said, for example, that a company could decide that covering vaccinations or paying the minimum wage violates their religious beliefs. She also noted a past religious freedom challenge from a restaurant chain that didn’t want to serve African-Americans, and that of a photography studio that didn’t want to take pictures at a lesbian couple’s commitment ceremony.

Ginsberg’s concerns are being realized in the efforts to insert “Hobby Lobbyized” provisions into state RFRAs. Conservative supporters of these bills have claimed that the state and federal RFRAs are all the same. This is not only false, but transparently so. The shorthand in the Indiana legislature for the state RFRA was “the Hobby Lobby bill.”32 The fact is that the federal RFRA—and until recently, most state RFRAs—applies only to government actions. The Hobby Lobbyized state RFRAs added language—at the behest of Alliance Defending Freedom, The Becket Fund, the Mormon Church, and allies at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops—that sought to extend exemptions to third parties, such as corporations and individuals, on the grounds that providing services to LGBTQ people violates their consciences. In some cases the language may be broad enough to claim religious exemptions from standing civil rights laws in the manner that concerned Justice Ginsberg.

Indiana conservatives were open about their goals: they intended the state’s new Religious Freedom Restoration Act to provide a faith-based defense against discrimination claims, should a business decline to provide services on account of their beliefs.33 But, faced with widespread public outcry, the state’s governor and legislature were compelled to amend the law to explicitly state that their RFRA did not provide a license to discriminate against LGBTQ people. This in turn led to loud objections from Christian Right leaders, who correctly understood that the original bill would do just that. Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council said the clarification made matters worse by forcing “religious businesses and even nonprofits deemed ‘not religious enough’ to participate in wedding ceremonies contrary to their owners’ beliefs. If the government punishes people for living their faith, there are no limits to what government can control.”34

A New Era for Religious Exemptions

Tony Perkins speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. Photo via Flickr and courtesy of Gage Skidmore

Tony Perkins speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. Photo via Flickr and courtesy of Gage Skidmore

As this article was going to press, the Supreme Court recognized marriage equality as a “fundamental right” in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges. The court was silent on the matter of exemptions, but Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the 5-4 majority, emphasized that religious institutions and individuals “may continue to advocate” in opposition.

“The First Amendment ensures that religious organizations and persons are given proper protection as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths,” he wrote, “and to their own deep aspirations to continue the family structure they have long revered.”35 The question of what constitutes “proper protection” may well lead to a continuation of the Christian Right’s approach to advocacy for many kinds of religious exemptions, albeit on a vastly altered playing field.

Perkins shed light on this strategy in a column in The Patriot Post:

The clash between religious liberty and same-sex “marriage” continues to explode in businesses across America, where shop owners, B&Bs, and other vendors try to come to grips with the government’s twisted definition of “tolerance.” Faced with losing their jobs, businesses, and life savings, most Christians want to know: isn’t there anything we can do?

There is. In at least 10 states, conservatives are fighting back with a string of Religious Freedom Restoration Acts (RFRAs), [which] give men and women of all faiths a powerful tool to stop the government from walking all over their beliefs on issues like marriage and sexuality.36

There will always be tensions in reconciling religious beliefs with the rights of others, but there will also always be people who will exploit the normal strains of a religiously plural society for their own political ends. The issues of the so-called culture wars have been recast as a battle over the definition of religious liberty. There is a deep, dominionist agenda in play here, with the battle over religious liberty at its cutting edge, and it is not limited to matters before the courts.

We live in theocratic times. Not in the sense that the United States has become a theocracy, but in that the uneasy theocratic coalition we refer to as the Christian Right remains one of the most powerful and dynamic religious and political movements in American history. Like any other large coalition, the interests of the main players are sometimes in conflict. But they remain bound together by a shared opposition to religious pluralism, the rights of individual conscience, and the separation of church and state.

Historian and Christian Right theorist Gary North argues that the ratification of the Constitution signified a clean “judicial break from Christian America.” He was referring to the proscription of “religious tests for public office” in Article VI, which he correctly observed erected a “legal barrier to Christian theocracy” that led “directly to the rise of religious pluralism.”37 Article VI is, of course, not the only codified barrier to Christian theocracy. But the theocratic activists of modern America are patient revolutionaries. For the rest of us, learning how to recognize, anticipate, and respond to the Christian Right’s theocratic agenda remains one of the central tasks of our time.

Frederick Clarkson is Senior Fellow for Religious Liberty at Political Research Associates. He is the author of Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy (Common Courage Press, 1997). 


[1] General Synod of the United Church of Christ v. Cooper, 760 F.3d 352 (4th Cir. 2014), http://uccfiles.com/pdf/complaint.pdf.

[2] Central Conference of American Rabbis, “Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) Joins Federal Lawsuit Challenging North Carolina’s Same-Sex Marriage Ban,” June 4, 2014, http://ccarnet.org/nc-press-release/.

[3] Michael Paulson, “North Carolina’s Gay-Marriage Ban Is Challenged by Church,” New York Times, April 28, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/29/us/churchs-lawsuit-challenges-north-carolina-ban-on-same-sex-marriage.html?_r=2.

[4] Frederick Clarkson, “The New Secular Fundamentalist Conspiracy!,” The Public Eye, 2008, http://www.politicalresearch.org/2008/03/05/the-new-secular-fundamentalist-conspiracy/.

[5] Brian Tashman, “Tony Perkins, Arbiter Of Christianity, Says Pro-Gay Christians Don’t Have Same Religious Rights As Conservatives,” Right Wing Watch, May 8, 2014, http://www.rightwingwatch.org/content/tony-perkins-arbiter-christianity-says-pro-gay-christians-dont-have-same-religious-rights-co.

[6] Nick Gass, “Mike Huckabee: U.S. moving toward ‘criminalization of Christianity’,” Politico, April 24, 2015, http://www.politico.com/story/2015/04/mike-huckabee-us-criminalization-of-christianity-117310.html.

[7] J. Brent Walker, “Reflections: Do states need religious freedom legislation?,” Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, February 19, 2015, http://bjconline.org/reflections-do-states-need-religious-freedom-legislation/.

[8] Rousas John Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law, (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1973), 294.

[9] Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, “Reform Movement Welcomes Ruling in Marriage Equality Cases,” June 26, 2013, http://www.rac.org/reform-movement-welcomes-ruling-marriage-equality-cases.

[10] Dr. Jay Michaelson, “Redefining Religious Liberty: The Covert Campaign Against Civil Rights,” Political Research Associates, March 21, 2013, http://www.politicalresearch.org/2013/03/21/redefining-religious-liberty-the-covert-campaign-against-civil-rights/; see Brief Amici Curiae of Julian Bond, The American Civil Liberties Union et al. at 32, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, No. 13-354 (Jan. 28, 2014).

[11] Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, “The Religious Exemption to the Employment Non-Discrimination Act,” civilrights.org, August 1, 2001, http://www.civilrights.org/lgbt/enda/religious-exemption-1.html.

[12] Frederick Clarkson, “Christian Right Seeks Renewal in Deepening Catholic-Protestant Alliance,” The Public Eye, 2013, http://www.politicalresearch.org/2013/07/23/christian-right-seeks-renewal-in-deepening-catholic-protestant-alliance/.

[13] Zack Ford, “Senator proposes Budget Amendment That Would Force The Government To Hire Anti-Gay Employers, ThinkProgress, March 25, 2015. http://thinkprogress.org/lgbt/2015/03/25/3638630/inhofe-discrimination-amendment/.

[14] Book excerpt: Linda Wertheimer, “Evangelical: Religious Right Has Distorted the Faith,” NPR, June 23, 2006, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5502785; Randall Balmer, Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts Faith and Threatens America, (New York: Basic Books, 2007).

[15] Bob Jones University v. United States, 461 U.S. 574 (1982).

[16] LGBTQ Nation, “Catholic archdiocese of Cincinnati to tweak teacher contract morality clauses,” March 10, 2015, http://www.lgbtqnation.com/2015/03/catholic-archdiocese-of-cincinnati-to-tweak-teacher-contract-morality-clauses/; Victoria Colliver, Hundreds march against S.F. archbishop’s ‘morality clauses,’ San Francisco Chronicle, March 31, 2015.

[17] Lisa Leff, “San Francisco archbishop wants teachers to not contradict church,” CBS News, February 6, 2015, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/san-francisco-archbishop-wants-teachers-to-not-contradict-church/.

[18] Julia Carrie Wong, “‘I want education, not indoctrination’: Catholic Teachers and Students Protest Archdiocese,” SF Weekly, April 27, 2015, http://www.sfweekly.com/thesnitch/2015/04/27/i-want-education-not-indoctrination-catholic-teachers-and-students-protest-archdiocese.

[19] Frederick Clarkson, “Christian Right Seeks Renewal in Deepening Catholic-Protestant Alliance.” http://www.politicalresearch.org/2013/07/23/christian-right-seeks-renewal-in-deepening-catholic-protestant-alliance/

[20] Scott Jaschik, “Big Union Win,” Inside Higher Ed, January 2, 2015, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2015/01/02/nlrb-ruling-shifts-legal-ground-faculty-unions-private-colleges; Adelle M. Banks, “Religious college presidents agree on ‘calling’ and common threats to their schools,” Religion News Service, February 3, 2015, http://www.religionnews.com/2015/02/03/religious-college-presidents-agree-calling-common-threats-schools/.

[21] Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission et al., 565 U.S. ___ (2012).;  See also, Frederick Clarkson, “Papering Over the Differences, The Political Alliance Between Evangelicals and the Catholic Right,” Conscience, Vol. XXXIII – No. 2, 2012, http://www.catholicsforchoice.org/conscience/current/PaperingovertheDifferences.asp.

[22] Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, “Hosanna-Tabor: A Big Victory for Religious Freedom,” January 20, 2012. http://www.irfalliance.org/hosanna-tabor-a-big-victory-for-religious-freedom/   The IRFA became a project of the Center for Public Justice in September 2014. The CPJ is a self-described “Christian-democratic” and “principled pluralist” organization.

[23] Rachel Tabachnick, “Spiritual Warriors with an Antigay Mission: The New Apostolic Reformation,” The Public Eye, March 22, 2013, http://www.politicalresearch.org/2013/03/22/spiritual-warriors-with-an-antigay-mission/.

[24] C. Peter Wagner, “Can the Government Tell the Church What to Do?,” Communion With God Ministries, February 14, 2012, http://www.cwgministries.org/blogs/can-government-tell-church-what-do-c-peter-wagner.

[25] Elder Dallin H. Oaks, “Hope for the Years Ahead,” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, April 16, 2014, http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/transcript-elder-dallin-oaks-constitutional-symposium-religious-freedom.

[26] Timothy Dolan, “Let Freedom Ring…!,” United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, September 10, 2012, http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/religious-liberty/upload/Let_Freedom_Ring_9_8_12_JCS1.pdf.

[27] Liberty Institute, “Religious Liberty Audits, https://www.libertyinstitute.org/religious-liberty-audits?.

[28] Jeff Mateer, “A Ready Defense: How to Protect Your Ministry or Faith-Based Business from Legal Attack and Ruin,” Liberty Institute, May 14, 2015, http://blog.libertyinstitute.org/2015/05/a-ready-defense-how-to-protect-your.html; Liberty Institute, “Religious Protections Guide,” https://www.libertyinstitute.org/audit; for discussion, see Frederick Clarkson, “When in Doubt, Religify! Fear Mongering About Religious Liberty,” Political Research Associates, May 29, 2015, http://www.politicalresearch.org/2015/05/29/when-in-doubt-religify-fear-mongering-about-religious-liberty.

[29] Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, Pub. L. No. 103-141, 107 Stat. 1488 (1993).

[30] Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990).

[31] Richard Fausset and Alan Blinder, “States Weigh Legislation to Let Businesses Refuse to Serve Gay Couples,” New York Times, March 5, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/06/us/anticipating-nationwide-right-to-same-sex-marriage-states-weigh-religious-exemption-bills.html.

[32] Kristine Guerra and Tim Evans, “How Indiana’s RFRA differs from federal version,” IndyStar.com, April 2, 2015, http://www.indystar.com/story/news/politics/2015/03/31/indianas-rfra-similar-federal-rfra/70729888/; Public Rights / Private Conscience Project, “RFRA FAQ,” Columbia Law School, http://web.law.columbia.edu/sites/default/files/microsites/gender-sexuality/rfra_faq_for_website.pdf.

[33] Zack Ford, “Conservatives Admit the Truth on Indiana ‘Religious Liberty’ Bill,” ThinkProgress, January 6, 2015, http://thinkprogress.org/lgbt/2015/01/06/3608286/indiana-license-to-discriminate/.

[34] Family Research Council, “Religious Freedom Should Not Be Held Hostage to Big Business, Family Research Council Urges Veto,” April 2, 2015, http://www.frc.org/newsroom/religious-freedom-should-not-be-held-hostage-to-big-business-family-research-council-urges-veto.

[35] Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S.__ (2015).

[36] Tony Perkins, “Georgia Peaches a Fit Over Senate Bill,” The Patriot Post, February 23, 2015, http://patriotpost.us/opinion/33349.

[37] Frederick Clarkson, Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy, (Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press, 1997), 84-85.

Sidebar Endnotes

[1] John Gibeaut, “‘Welcome to Hell’: How allegations of child abuse at a Texas church home for problem kids could threaten a major part of President Bush’s faith-based initiative,” ABA Journal, August 2001.

[2] Michelle Goldberg, Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism (New York: Norton, 2006), 109-114.

[3] Pamela Colloff, “Remember the Christian Alamo,” Texas Monthly, December 2001, http://www.texasmonthly.com/story/remember-christian-alamo.

[4] Colloff, “Remember the Christian Alamo.”

[5] Colloff, “Remember the Christian Alamo.”

[6] Frederick Clarkson, “Tragedy on the national stage: conservative intervention into the Terri Schiavo case was a disservice to everybody,” Conscience XXVIII, no. 3 (2007); Frederick Clarkson, “Papering Over the Differences, The Political Alliance Between Evangelicals and the Catholic Right,” Conscience XXXIII, no. 2 (2012), http://www.catholicsforchoice.org/conscience/current/PaperingovertheDifferences.asp. Gibbs III now has his own legal organization, the Texas-based National Center for Life and Liberty, which describes itself as “a ministry organization that defends life and liberty freedoms nationwide.” (National Center for Life and Liberty, “About,” www.ncll.org/about.)

[7] Evangelicals and Catholics Together, “The Two Shall Become One Flesh: Reclaiming Marriage,” First Things, March 2015, http://www.firstthings.com/article/2015/03/the-two-shall-become-one-flesh-reclaiming-marriage-2; see Frederick Clarkson, “Previewing the next anti-marriage equality manifesto,” LGBTQ Nation, Febraury 15, 2015, http://www.lgbtqnation.com/2015/02/previewing-the-next-anti-marriage-equality-manifesto/.

Religious Right Leaders Strategize: Who Needs SCOTUS When You Can Control Everything Else?

Last week, hundreds of “God fearing, freedom loving Americans” gathered at Skyline Wesleyan Church—a conservative megachurch in the San Diego area—for the “Future Conference: What You Thought Was Coming … Is Here Now.”

Michael Brown, author of Navigating as a Christian in an LGBT Dominated World," speaks at the 2015 Future Conference.

Michael Brown, author of “Can You Be Gay and Christian?,” gives a speech called Navigating as a Christian in an LGBT Dominated World at the 2015 Future Conference.

For four days, Skyline’s $12 million “worship center” served as host to some of the Religious Right’s leading voices as they outlined the impending doom brought on by “secular totalitarianism,” “homosexual fascists,” and other “evil, anti-family” elements of society. Major themes of the conference included religious liberty, “militant Islam,” abortion, pornography, marriage, and “biblical economics.”

Spend a day listening to right-wing news outlets, and you would likely hear many of the same inflammatory talking points covered by the 50+ speakers featured at the conference. Terrorism “experts” reported on the threat of ISIS, Christian educators discussed the encroachment of civil rights legislation on their freedom to discriminate, anti-LGBTQ activists outlined strategies for moving forward after the Supreme Court rules on marriage equality, communications and media professionals offered tips for more effective promotion of right-wing rhetoric… it was a seemingly endless stream of dire warnings, grave threats, and galvanizing calls to action.

The content, though substantive, was not the most compelling feature of the gathering; rather, it was the diverse cast of characters, representing a vast array of institutions and organizations, all coming together in one place for a singular event and openly associating themselves with an event put on by the U.S. Coalition of Apostolic Leaders (USCAL), the American organizing body of the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR).

NAR disciples seek to take dominion over the “Seven Mountains” of society:

  1. Arts and Entertainment
  2. Business
  3. Education
  4. Family
  5. Government
  6. Media
  7. Religion

NAR is a hierarchical network of “apostles” that seeks to “remake the theology and structure of Christianity in a theocratic mold.” (See PRA’s profile of NAR.) Just four years ago, Religious Right leaders were reluctant to openly affiliate themselves with this extremely controversial movement, but it seems that NAR’s dominionist agenda is no longer a thing seen to be shameful.

USCAL is part of the U.S.-based International Coalition of Apostolic Leaders (ICAL), which was conceived in 1999 and initially led by C. Peter Wagner. ICAL’s mission is to “connect apostles’ wisdom and resources in order that each member can function more strategically, combine their efforts globally, and effectively accelerate the advancement of the Kingdom of God into every sphere of society.”

To clarify, this “advancement of the Kingdom of God” is a theocratic mandate to exert authority over what they see as the power sources of society. Specifically, NAR disciples refer to the various spheres of society as the “Seven Mountains,” consisting of arts and entertainment, business, education, family, government, media, and religion. You can be sure that each of these spheres was well represented at the Future Conference.

USCAL was officially launched in November 2014. Joe Mattera—who declares that his mission is to “influence leaders who influence nations”—currently serves as the national convener. Mattera boasts that through his books, weekly writings, and regular mainstream media appearances, he reaches “thousands of leaders in more than 130 nations.”

This new American division of ICAL already claims approximately 300 “significant leaders” as dues-paying members from both religious and corporate realms (the annual fee for regular members is $450). Among them is Jim Garlow, senior pastor of Skyline Church.

Garlow, who was a key leader on the anti-LGBTQ side of California’s 2008 Prop. 8 marriage equality battle, served as the principal organizer of the Future Conference—USCAL’s first large-scale national event. He has been a prominent apostle in the NAR movement for many years, and stacked last week’s line-up (56 speakers in all) with his fellow NAR comrades. The program included some of the most infamous NAR leaders in the world: Joe Mattera, Lou Engle, Dennis Peacocke, Harry Jackson, and Lance Wallnau.

Wallnau—a business consultant, leadership coach, and “growth strategist” based in Dallas, Texas—functions as one of the leading Seven Mountains promotional speakers, and has referred to the concept as a template for warfare. His presentation on the final evening was the Future Conference’s culminating event.

With the enthusiasm of a high school football coach trying to rally his underdog team to victory, he delighted the crowd with sloppy dry erase board diagrams, self-aggrandizing stories, a candid sense of humor, and a fiery passion. He began his speech by reviewing the doom and gloom that previous speakers had covered—“We’ve got people being martyred, killed… homosexuals are taking over… Muslims are attacking… the economy is collapsing… what’s left to traumatize you with?!”

The intention of this design, however, became increasingly evident as Wallnau laid out the Seven Mountains strategy—a plan to ultimately gain control over all realms of society. This was a long-awaited salve for an audience filled with fearful, demoralized individuals. If they weren’t already convinced upon arrival, by day four, conference participants seemed thoroughly persuaded of the fact that their country, their families, and their faith was under attack. Wallnau had a solution, and the crowd of several hundred (plus countless more watching the livestream remotely) laughed, cheered, applauded, and amened with enthusiasm and relief.

“We are losing the battle of culture!” Wallnau shouted as he paced the stage. He then proceeded to make his case for the New Apostolic Reformation: Christians, he explained, have been too disconnected, pursuing their own paths and ministries. “We are in need of a centralized hub,” he declared.

During a 2008 interview on Pat King’s Extreme Prophetic TV broadcast, Wallnau claimed that it would only take 3-5% of people aggressively working in any given location to create a tipping point and gain control over the Seven Mountains. That small group of leaders, however, must be unified.

According to Wallnau, the LGBTQ community’s success has come because they have been more connected and unified than Christians in their efforts to create societal change.[1] But contrary to what some might believe, Wallnau’s unifying strategy isn’t dependent on top-down domination; instead, he promotes domination from within. “Our people should be sitting at the gates [of influence],” he explained, “and we should be ruling—not instead of, but in the midst of.”

“We need be getting our people up those mountains,” and through the establishment of what he calls “micro churches”—small strategic prayer groups within institutions of power across all Seven Mountains—Wallnau asserts that those leaders will be able to “hear from heaven and legislate what God wants them to do.”

“Proximity is power,” he explained. Indeed, a member of Skyline Church’s pastoral team is currently based full time in Washington, DC, where he facilitates a weekly prayer group for Congressional staff members. The Jefferson Gathering, as it’s called, is convenes every Wednesday night in the Capitol.

“This is a whole different level of strategic alignments,” Wallnau asserted.

And these alignments aren’t limited to the United States. NAR’s relational networks, and the movement’s emphasis on “taking dominion” over society, are deeply influential throughout the world. In Uganda, for example, Lou Engle, an NAR apostle and featured speaker at the Future Conference, staged TheCall Uganda in 2010 to promote the Anti-Homosexuality Bill amidst heated debate over its death-penalty provision. And in Singapore, Lawrence Khong—one of the country’s leading anti-LGBTQ activists and part of the original group of apostles responsible for the formulation of ICAL—has hosted Jim Garlow at his megachurch on multiple occasions to further advance his efforts against LGBTQ equality.

As increasing numbers of Religious Right leaders (many of them affiliated with highly influential organizations such as Alliance Defending Freedom, Family Research Council, and National Organization for Marriage) continue to align themselves with NAR’s Dominionist agenda, unifying themselves around this “centralized hub,” we can anticipate that the future—much like the present—will be marked by the continued oppression of LGBTQ people, women, Muslims, and countless others.


[1] As well as being unified, Wallnau declared that LGBTQ activists are like Nazis, who will just keep coming at you (no matter “what you offer as a sacrifice out of love”) because they’re motivated to “annihilate the opposition.” This association was especially poignant given the number of comparisons made throughout the conference between the atrocities inflicted on Jews during the Holocaust and the current experience of Christians in the Middle East.

Charleston Massacre An Attack on Christianity? Yes, But Not How the Christian Right Says

This is a tricky time for the Christian Right. Immediately following the mass murder at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Charleston, South Carolina, some Christian Right leaders jumped onto the airwaves to claim the shooting was an example of the campaign against religious freedom in America. It turns out they were onto something, just not what they had thought it was. There has been an eerily-telling silence since then.

Rev. E.W. Jackson

Rev. E.W. Jackson said on Fox & Friends June 18th that the Charleston shooting was part of a “growing hostility” towards Christianity.

The horrific Charleston massacre in which nine people were killed has tended to derail the Christian Right’s narrative of how faith and Christianity are under attack in America. On its face, this would seem to be an unlikely consequence of the episode, since it happened at a Wednesday evening Bible study at the church. This is significant in part because the constellation of dubious claims about the persecution of Christians and the threat to religious liberty in America is at the center of the Christian Right’s approach to politics and public policy—and is increasingly the go-to gambit of conservative Republican politicians trying to demagogue their way into office – or out of a difficult issue of public policy.

Nevertheless, it would seem that this episode would fit the narrative: Christians killed right in their own church. Isn’t that in line with what the Christian Right is saying about Christianity being under a wide-ranging siege in America?

Several prominent Christian Right leaders have tried to cast the assassinations in these terms, but it was a hard case to make. The tragedy seemed to be so much more about race.  Surviving witnesses reported that the young White supremacist Dylann Roof simply said, “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”

Rick Santorum, GOP presidential candidate and a vocal conservative Catholic said the mass murder was a “crime of hate” but that it was also part of a broader “assault on our religious liberty.”

Rev. E.W. Jackson, Senior Fellow for Church Ministries at the Family Research Council, the 2012 GOP candidate for Lt. Governor of Virginia, and an African American, created a stir with his surprising reaction. He said that people shouldn’t “jump to conclusions” that the Charleston massacre was “some sort of racial hate crime.”  He also suggested the murders are part of the “growing hostility and antipathy to Christianity and what this stands for, the biblical worldview about sexual morality and other things.”

Other Christian Right leaders were more careful.  Their own hyperbole notwithstanding, they know conservative Christians are not being killed for their faith in the U.S.  It is obvious that the mass murder of African American Christians in their own church makes their claims of persecution appear shallow.

But arguably the murders of nine people at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston were indeed an attack on Christians for their faith, but not in a way that fits with the Christian Right narrative. The Charleston massacre is just the latest in a long line of White supremacist attacks on Black churches.  Arsons and bombings punctuated the Civil Rights Movement, but such attacks stretch through much of the length of American history. The Black church has historically been an institution where African Americans could organize on behalf of their own interests in relative safely. That is part of why the churches also became targets. The Emanuel AME itself was burned to the ground in 1822 in the years before all Black churches were banned and driven underground.

This poses problems for the Christian Right.  If they are going to say that this was an attack on Christianity, they have to say why this church and these particular Christians were attacked—just as they would if an evangelical or Catholic Church had been attacked. It was not random. In the explanatory manifesto he published on a web site created for the occasion, Dylann Roof wrote:

“I chose Charleston because it is most historic city in my state, and at one time had the highest ratio of blacks to Whites in the country. We have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the internet. Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me.”

But the mostly-White leaders of the Christian Right can’t zero-in on the racist reasoning that led him to target the most prominent African American church in Charleston and its politically influential pastor – at least not without displacing themselves from the center of their own persecution narrative.

Clearly it was not just any Christian church, nor Christianity in general, that was under attack in Charleston. It was the Black church, African American Protestantism generally, and the Emanuel A.M.E. Church, pastored by Rev. Clementa Pinckney in particular. This church was involved in a planned slave rebellion in 1822, and the institution it has come to be in Charleston has epitomized the African American story in the South for nearly 200 years.  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously preached there during the Civil Rights movement.

The Mother Emanuel congregation (as it is known locally) is part of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, a member of the mainline National Council of Churches (NCC).  The NCC comprises 45 million people in 37 denominations, including, the Presbyterian Church (USA), The Episcopal Church, and the United Church of Christ.  What’s worse, these African American Christians tend to vote Democratic and their pastor, Rev. Clementa Pinckney, was a prominent Democratic State Senator and a rising star in state politics. The assassination of Pinckney and fellow members of his Bible study group undermines much of the Christian Right’s narrative because the narrative discounts as non-Christian many of those with whom they religiously and politically disagree. The Christian Right’s list of infidels often includes Democrats, liberals, and even mainline Christians – such as the members of Emanuel AME.

Indeed, these are the kinds of Christians that the Christian Right would rather not have to acknowledge even exist; let alone come to define the story anti-Christian persecution in America.

That this was a carefully planned political assassination is hard to dispute. But it is also hard to dispute that this was an attack on Christianity of the kind that believes in the empowerment and equality of all people, and advancing social justice is at the core of this particular church’s mission.  It is hard for the Christian Right to co-opt the legacy of the African American Civil Rights Movement, as is currently the fashion, while ignoring the assassination of nine Black Christians who were killed both for their race and for their progressive faith.

And that is why after some initial claims that the Charleston massacre was part of a wide ranging attack on Christianity and a threat to religious liberty in America, we just aren’t hearing such claims anymore.

Terror Network or Lone Wolf?

Disparate Legal Treatment of Muslims and the Radical Right

Click here to see the full issue.

Click the image to see the full issue

This article appears in the Spring 2015 issue of The Public Eye magazine.

In April 2014, an armed encampment formed at the Nevada cattle ranch of Cliven Bundy as news spread through militia networks about the confrontation between the 67-year-old rancher and the Bureau of Land Management. The BLM began to impound Bundy’s cows after he’d failed to pay grazing fees for approximately 20 years, claiming the federal government had no right to regulate the public land where he brought his livestock. Confronted with this armed encampment, the federal officials backed down, ultimately returning Bundy’s cows. He was not arrested for the confrontation,1 and as of December, he bragged to reporters, he was continuing to graze his cattle, for free, on federal land.2 Most media accounts treated Bundy as just a cantankerous oddball or, as an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times put it, “a scofflaw with screwy ideas about the Constitution.”3

Michigan Militia members, bearing guns and a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag, participate in a statewide militia training event called the WOLF Challenge. Image via Photobucket and courtesy of Southeastern Michigan Volunteer Militia (SMVM).

Michigan Militia members, bearing guns and a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag, participate in a statewide militia training event called the WOLF Challenge. Image via Photobucket and courtesy of Southeastern Michigan Volunteer Militia (SMVM).

More attention has been paid to the U.S. Far Right in recent years, but the media and federal representatives rarely use the word “terrorism” to describe their actions. When Larry McQuilliams, who followed the racist Phineas Priesthood ideology, shot more than 100 rounds at the Austin, TX, police station, federal courthouse, and Mexican Consulate, Austin police used the label, calling him an “extremist” and “American terrorist,” but media reports shied away from such terms, emphasizing his personal struggles.4 At the recent White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, the focus was primarily on the threat of global jihad,5 and the 2014 Congressional Research Service report on countering violent extremists discussed only Muslims (although it claimed the material applied to all forms of extremist thought).6 This February, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) did release a report on the sovereign citizen movement, one element of the Far Right, but it amounted to barely three pages of substantive text and offered few recommendations for action.7

In the nearly 14 years since 9/11, more people have died in the U.S. from politically-motivated violence perpetrated by right-wing militants than by Muslim militants.8 As in the McQuilliams episode, the majority of these assaults target people who work for the government, particularly law enforcement,9 but perpetrators rarely receive harsh penalties unless they kill or severely injure someone. The disparity between treatment of Muslims and right-wing militants highlights the centrality of political power and vulnerability as factors shaping law enforcement anti-terrorism measures. The “War on Terror” creates tremendous political and social vulnerability for Muslims in the U.S. by associating U.S. Muslims with global jihad.

Right-wing militants, in contrast, benefit from the power of mainstream conservatives. For example, in 2009, the domestic terrorism unit of the DHS released a report10 indicating that right-wing activity posed the most significant terrorism threat in the United States, and that such activity was likely to increase during the Obama administration. Conservative bloggers declared the report was politically motivated and painted all conservative activists as potential terrorists, and conservative politicians reacted negatively as well.11, 12 As a result, the report was taken out of circulation, but the report’s analysis and predictions have since proven accurate.13

The ways in which federal law enforcement agencies describe and classify “terrorism” obscures the extent of violence 
by, and even local policing of, right-wing and Christian mili
tants. To begin with, there is 
some inconsistency in how different types of incidents are labeled in practice by different federal offices, even within DHS, which complicates internal communication.14 The Department of Justice (DoJ) is the lead agency for domestic law enforcement, and they classify “international terrorism” and “domestic terrorism” separately15 (see diagram). The distinction, however, lies more in motivation or organizational affiliation than in geography; for example, a terrorist incident in the U.S. will be characterized as international if the perpetrator is seen as motivated by Islamist beliefs, and domestic if motivated by militant right-wing beliefs. (It’s also a difference that becomes clear when reading the lists of official “terrorism” cases—a list that does not include, for instance, the murder of abortion provider Dr. George Tiller.)

Figure 1. FBI/DoJ Classifications of Terrorism

Figure 1. FBI/DoJ Classifications of Terrorism

“Terrorism,” unmodified, is used to refer to international terrorism, involving people or plans that include a demonstrated or attributed link to an international entity. Cases involving Muslims that clearly originate in the U.S. are classified as “homegrown” international terrorism, even though any links to international networks or entities may exist only in the eyes of law enforcement.

The Congressional Research Service defines “domestic terrorists” as “people who commit crimes within the homeland and draw inspiration from U.S.-based militant ideologies and movements.”16 This somewhat confusing FBI and DoJ distinction between “homegrown” and “domestic” terrorism produces interesting contradictions: in domestic cases involving Christian militants, antisemitism is cast as a U.S.-based ideology, but in “homegrown” cases, it’s evidence of global jihad among Muslims.

The DoJ lists 403 cases of (international) terrorism from September 2001 through March 201017: 11 percent non-Islamist (mostly FARC or Tamil Tigers), 45 percent Islamist, and 44 percent undetermined (mostly cases of fraud or financial misconduct involving someone with an “Arab-sounding” name). The Islamist category includes 30 cases considered to be “homegrown.”

The FBI and DoJ do not provide publicly accessible lists of domestic terrorism cases, which complicates direct comparisons between domestic and homegrown cases. The data that do exist on domestic terrorism, or politically motivated violence, result from examining local, state, and federal law enforcement activity to identify relevant cases. A few nonprofit institutes track domestic political violence and terrorism cases, although their definitions and exact lists vary. For the purposes of this report, I have drawn upon the two most extensive and widely cited.

The Southern Poverty Law Center focuses primarily on right-wing activity, and has the most detailed and comprehensive list.18 The period from September 2001 through December 2010 lists 50 cases, almost double the number of “homegrown” Islamist cases in a similar period, and 21 of the 50 took place in 2009 and 2010, following President Obama’s inauguration. All 50 domestic cases involve elements of the Far Right, from Christian Identity to various militia movements to the KKK and other white supremacist groups. Terrorist acts often involved significant caches of weapons and explosives, with targets ranging from the murder of government representatives to assaults on synagogues or mosques and other Islamic centers.

According to the New America Foundation,19 which tracks cases explicitly classified as terrorism within the U.S., only 41 percent of jihadist plots in the U.S. since 9/11 involved weapons, and in almost one-third of those cases, the weapons were supplied by U.S. government agents. By contrast, 89 percent of domestic terrorism cases involved weapons, and in 92 percent of these cases the arms were acquired without assistance from government agents.

Based on the statistics and analysis of available cases, there are significant differences in the procedures, charges, and penalties in domestic (non-Islamist) and homegrown (usually Islamist) cases. Despite the greater prevalence of incidents and deaths resulting from right-wing violence, U.S. Muslims experience more aggressive surveillance, greater use of informants, more severe charges, and greater use of restrictive confinement once incarcerated.

The differential treatment of right-wing and Muslim cases draws attention to the political contexts surrounding terrorism-related law enforcement, as these disparities only make sense within politically-driven calculations. Mainstream conservative politicians and media personalities protest depictions of right-wing militants as anything more than troubled but patriotic Americans, while Muslim men—particularly young men— are constantly monitored as intrinsic security risks. In the process, Muslims lose Constitutional protections for belief, speech, and association—forced to inhabit an ambiguous territory as “un-American” and presumptively foreign.


The disparate treatment of the two groups of alleged terrorists begins before charges are ever filed, with how the two are investigated. Covert surveillance is, by definition, difficult to prove unless specific prosecutions or other evidence bring it into public view. A report by the New York University School of Law20 describes systematic surveillance of Muslim communities by the NYPD, FBI, and other law enforcement entities in the U.S. The widespread use of informants in homegrown terrorism cases also indicates an ongoing undercover presence. No evidence exists of similar routine surveillance of communities with significant right-wing activity, and reports and other materials about the Right produced by the FBI, DHS, and Congressional Research Service all emphasize the right to freedom of speech and expression, including the importance of differentiating beliefs from actions. Based on available case summaries, the majority of domestic terrorism prosecutions occur after the perpetrator has taken concrete action or as a consequence of other law enforcement contact, which suggests a low level of ongoing surveillance of right-wing movements.

The New America Foundation data indicate that 46.8 percent of Islamic terrorism cases involve use of an informant but only 27.5 percent of non-Islamic cases do.21 According to a report by Columbia University Law School and Human Rights Watch, 50 percent of federal counterterrorism convictions resulted from informant-based cases, and almost 30 percent were stings.22 (A “sting” refers to a case in which an informant or undercover agent actively developed the case, leading defendants to escalate their activity and often providing explosives or other materials.) The Columbia Law School report found that all but four of the high-profile homegrown terrorism plots of the last 10 years were FBI sting operations. While informants play a role in domestic cases, there is little recent evidence of right-wing cases being built through stings (although there is some history of FBI stings with environmental activists in the early 2000s).

A 2009 case in Newburgh, NY, that became known as the Newburgh Four23, 24 provides an example of an FBI sting operation. Newburgh is a small, formerly industrial city about 60 miles north of New York City, with a substantial African-American population and relatively high poverty rate. In 2011, the city was declared the murder capital of New York state. In the winter of 2009, an FBI informant developed a relationship with an openly antisemitic Muslim man who had a history of drug addiction. The informant offered him $250,000 plus additional luxuries if he would gather a group of Muslims to carry out a terrorist attack.

The man recruited three friends, each of whom had significant financial needs. Each received small amounts of cash during the time the informant guided them in developing a plan to attack Stewart Air National Guard Base and bomb a local synagogue, using explosives and a vehicle provided by the informant. The men were arrested after the informant delivered the men and the explosives to cars provided by the FBI. All four were charged with conspiracy, attempt to use weapons of mass destruction, and plotting to kill U.S. government employees, and were sentenced to 25 years in prison. A judge rejected an appeal based on entrapment, accepting the government’s rationale that the men would have eventually committed terrorism on their own—a theory called “radicalization” that has been used in multiple prosecutions of accused Muslim terrorists.

In contrast, the participation of informants and undercover agents in right-wing cases has been much more limited, and does not involve either initiating a plot or being the only source of weapons or explosive materials. In 2002, Larry Raugust, an anti-government militant well known to law enforcement, gave an explosive device to an undercover agent; he ended up pleading guilty to 15 counts of making bombs, and served just over five years in a federal prison.25 Similarly, in 2005, Gabriel Carafa, a man with ties to the neonazi World Church of the Creator and a racist organization called The Hated, was arrested after he and another man asked an informant to build them a bomb. They were charged with selling 11 guns illegally to police informants and providing 60 pounds of urea for use in building a bomb; Carafa was sentenced to seven years and his accomplice to 10.26 In both of these cases, not only did the defendants acquire their own weapons and explosive materials, but the men had extensive histories of right-wing activism.

The Internet plays an increasingly central role in the development and communication of beliefs, as well as law enforcement monitoring of potentially violent activity. However, the consequences of posting beliefs that signal the potential for violence varies considerably by religion. Adel Daoud was a socially isolated 17-year-old Muslim boy in suburban Chicago who found refuge online. In 2012, he began to post on message boards and write emails relating to violent jihad, at which point the FBI drew him into planning an attack with an undercover agent. In 2013, the agent drove Daoud to a jeep filled with fake explosives, and he was arrested after he tried to trigger the explosives outside a bar they had agreed to target. He was charged with attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction, and the case is still in court.27

Compare that to the 2010 case of 26-year-old Justin Carl Moose, who described himself as the “Christian counterpart to Osama bin Laden” and posted threats of violence against abortion providers along with information about the use of explosives on his Facebook page. The FBI were tipped off, and Moose pled guilty to distributing information on the manufacture and use of explosives. He was sentenced to 30 months in prison and was released early, despite having demonstrated knowledge of explosives and his alignment with a movement that has an extensive track record of murders and destruction of medical facilities.28


As the five cases described above suggest, the charges and prison sentences faced by defendants in right-wing terrorism cases are significantly lower than those in homegrown cases. The key difference is usually in the specific charges brought. Many right-wing acts of violence are simply never prosecuted as “terrorism,” which has significant consequences due to terrorism “adjustments” to sentencing guidelines that increase the penalty for any given offense.29 Domestic cases largely involve charges of weapons possession (including explosives and/or assault weapons), murder, or attempted murder; most of these are filed and prosecuted at the state and local level.

While weapons possession may sound like a minor offense, and often results in sentences of less than 10 years, the actual quantity of weapons involved can be considerable. David Burgert, the leader of a militia-style group called Project 7 who was wanted for assaulting police officers, was found with 25,000 rounds of ammunition and multiple pipe bombs; he was sentenced to seven years.30 In a separate case, a series of raids on militia members in rural Pennsylvania netted 16 bombs and at least 73 other weapons, but none of the militia members served more than three years in prison.31 The quantity of armaments involved in many of the right-wing terrorism cases calls for a response of a corresponding order of magnitude, especially in light of the sentences given to Muslims who never independently obtained a weapon of any kind.

Marchers with the Project SALAM Journey for Justice protest the incarceration of Mohammed Hossain and Yassin Aref, Muslim men convicted of providing material support for terrorism as part of an FBI sting. Photo via Flickr, courtesy of Vanessa Lynch, orangeinkeducation.wordpress.com.

Marchers with the Project SALAM Journey for Justice protest the incarceration of Mohammed Hossain and Yassin Aref, Muslim men convicted of providing material support for terrorism as part of an FBI sting. Photo via Flickr, courtesy of Vanessa Lynch, orangeinkeducation.wordpress.com.

Homegrown terrorism cases, on the other hand, are prosecuted using a wider and more severe array of charges. Sixteen of the 30 homegrown cases listed by the DoJ included conspiracy charges, which can carry high sentences even in the absence of a completed criminal act.

Prosecutors may combine both “conspiracy” and “attempt to commit” charges in cases in which no actual violence took place, including sting cases where the only weapons involved were provided by FBI agents or informants. Domestic terrorism cases that include charges of attempt to assault or murder almost always base the charge on the active use of a weapon—usually shooting at a law enforcement officer but sometimes activating an explosive device.

The issue of conspiracy charges throws into stark relief the demonization and excessive surveillance of American Muslims. In 2008, five men were convicted of conspiracy to murder members of the U.S. military, and four of the five were convicted of possession of firearms. Four of the men were sentenced to life and the other to 33 years, even though no actual assault or violence took place. The case of the Fort Dix Five, as it came to be known, was primarily built through the use of an informant who actively guided the youngest of the five men—then just 19 years old—to collect videos depicting jihad-oriented violence, develop a hazy “plot” to attack Fort Dix, and recruit his friends to participate. The evidence at trial included a map of Fort Dix that one of the defendants had used to deliver pizza, and the claim that paintball games and camping trips were “jihadi training.”32 However absurd this may sound, this interpretation of both paintball and camping while Muslim has been used in other trials, and notes from the NYPD’s surveillance of the Brooklyn College Islamic Society include references to “militant paintball trips.”33

The 2010 Hutaree militia case provides a very interesting contrast to this treatment of Muslims. In 2008, the FBI planted an informant with the Hutaree militia group in Michigan, and followed their activities for two years before initiating an arrest with charges of seditious conspiracy and attempt to use weapons of mass destruction based on the group’s plan to kill police officers and plant bombs at their funerals. A judge dismissed the conspiracy charges and dropped all charges against six of the nine defendants on the grounds that their hatred of law enforcement was not evidence of a conspiracy.34 Three men in the group pled guilty to weapons possession, and two of them were released on just two years’ supervision.35 While the informant taped conversations with the militia members, he does not appear to have conducted a sting operation. When Muslims express hostility towards the U.S. government or law enforcement, this has been treated as evidence of radicalization and intent to engage in acts of terrorism, but, at least in this case, a U.S. judge heard these same sentiments much differently when uttered by right-wing activists.

The majority of cases of homegrown terrorism analyzed in the report by Columbia, and a significant percentage of international cases, involve charges of material support for terrorism.36 The original statute on material support for terrorism,37 passed in 1994 after the first World Trade Center bombing, criminalized the provision of weapons, physical goods, money, or training to terrorists and terrorist organizations, but included specific free speech protections and exemptions for humanitarian aid.38 Subsequent versions of the law removed the free speech protection, narrowed the humanitarian aid exception, broadened the scope of what counts as “material support,” and increased the penalties for conspiracies and attempts to provide support. The material support statute applies to “designated terrorist organizations,” but the FBI’s list of designated terrorist organizations, available on its website, includes no domestic organizations of any ideological 
bent. As a result, material support charges have no analog among domestic terrorism cases, despite 
the existence of longstanding right-wing organizations associated with political violence.39 In
 blunt terms, if a person gives money to the KKK, they will not be prosecuted for material support to terrorists. Although it might technically be possible to bring such charges, in practice, it simply doesn’t happen.

But the material support statute has become central to the prosecution of Muslims accused of terrorism. One of the more prominent prosecutions on material support concerned the Holy Land Foundation, a large Muslim charity in the U.S. that provided aid to zakat (charitable) committees in the West Bank and Gaza. The zakat committees were not involved in violent activities but supported the social services instituted by Hamas, which was designated a terrorist organization in 1997. This secondhand connection to the social services arm of Hamas resulted in the use of material support charges to close down the Holy Land Foundation and convict the senior administrators on terrorism-related charges in 2009, with sentences from 15 to 65 years.40

The Holy Land Foundation case is not an outlier or an isolated example. In fact, 65 percent of the homegrown cases analyzed in detail by Columbia included charges of conspiracy and/or attempt to provide material support to terrorists, resulting in sentences ranging from five to 30 years in prison. The Columbia analysis of all terrorism prosecutions conducted by the DoJ from 2001 to 2011 found that more than 25 percent involved charges of material support or conspiracy, indicating that these charges are more common among homegrown cases than genuinely international ones.

Beyond individual cases, the surveillance of Muslim communities, the use of informants, and the question of material support create a fear that limits development of community support for those caught in terrorism prosecutions, effectively isolating family members of accused or convicted “terrorists.”

While the discourse of terrorism situates Muslims accused of violence as part of a worldwide terror network, their right-wing counterparts are usually depicted as “Lone Wolves,” acting alone.


The limited data available on domestic cases makes a direct comparison of the conditions of incarceration difficult, although some inferences can be made. The U.S. penal system has developed stringent conditions of confinement and management that can be applied under a variety of circumstances, especially at the federal level. The federal system includes the Administrative Maximum Penitentiary (ADX) Florence supermax prison in Colorado, where almost all prisoners are held in solitary confinement for 23 hours of every day. According to the Bureau of Prisons, in 2013 the ADX was holding 41 prisoners designated as “terrorists,” the majority of whom are of Muslim background. The UN Committee Against Torture has raised the question as to whether the extensive use of solitary confinement in the U.S. constitutes a form of torture.41 (See sidebar: Brutality Made Visible)

While virtually all U.S. prisons have the structural capacity for solitary confinement, the federal system has the additional ability to impose two highly restrictive forms of communication control. Communication Management Units (CMUs) were created in 2006 to isolate certain prisoners from contact with the outside world; all forms of communication with family, friends, and other prisoners are limited, and physical contact with family and friends is completely banned. Muslims make up over two-thirds of prisoners in CMUs, even though they account for only six percent of the total federal prison population.42 Special Administrative Measures (SAMs) also restrict a prisoner’s communication and contact with others in ways that vary from case to case, and have become routine in terrorism cases, including during pre-trial detention.43 Since the vast majority of cases formally designated as “terrorism” in the U.S. are “homegrown,” these extreme forms of control and confinement overwhelmingly affect Muslims. Almost 50 percent of the homegrown cases reviewed by the Columbia Law School report involved significant pre-trial solitary and/or restricted communication, which had a negative effect on the development of a legal defense. These high levels of isolation and control of communication are justified by the portrayal of Muslims living in America as representatives of global terrorist networks.

While there are no comparable reports on the conditions in which right-wing terrorists are held in U.S. prisons, the disproportionate use of pre-trial solitary, SAMs, CMUs, ADX, and other highly restrictive settings with Muslims indicates differential treatment, as does the extent of organized community support for incarcerated right-wing activists.

For prisoners who are not subject to isolation and restrictions on communication, contact with the outside world can be a vital source of affirmation, in addition to mundane assistance like commissary credits or care packages. Organizations on the Right openly provide support for and maintain contact with incarcerated individuals who share their political perspective, even those convicted of murder, such as Scott Roeder44, 45 and Timothy McVeigh.46 The anti-abortion movement, in particular, generally does not sever ties to those who have been incarcerated for violence against abortion providers. This level of organization reflects how much right-wing violence is grounded in social movements, even if individual perpetrators appear to be lone actors.

SIDEBAR: Brutality Made Visible

Terrorism trials have drawn some attention to the use of harsh pre-trial detention as a method for extracting guilty pleas, and of solitary confinement for prisoners convicted of terrorism. However, extended pre-trial confinement has become the norm for low-income Americans who cannot afford bail, and solitary confinement is used extensively throughout U.S. jails and prisons, including for people awaiting trial.

In 2010, 76 percent of defendants in federal district courts were detained pre-trial, up from 59 percent in 1995.1 The Center for Constitutional Rights currently has a class action lawsuit on behalf of prisoners at a California prison who are serving indeterminate sentences in SHU (Security Housing Unit, a form of solitary confinement), usually on the basis of their alleged gang membership or affiliation. Five hundred men in the CCR lawsuit have been in SHU for at least 10 years.2

Incarceration practices based on extreme methods of control and isolation also predate the “War on Terror”: the federal supermax prison ADX Florence opened in Colorado in 1994, and special administrative measures (SAMs) to control communication and contact began in 1996. Over the last 10 years, the process of resource adaptation has become bidirectional, as institutional architecture designed for the War on Terror has been used for other purposes. The use of military vehicles on the streets of Ferguson was a nationally visible example of militarized policing, but it’s not the only one. Away from the public eye, “intelligence fusion centers,” which bring together multiple levels of law enforcement, were originally intended to monitor terrorism threats but have instead focused the majority of their activity on drug and immigration cases.3

As these examples demonstrate, repressive measures and violations of civil or human rights spread outward from their original context, whether the example is solitary confinement for alleged gang members or expanded intelligence gathering systems brought to local police. Similarly, the procedures and processes permitted in federal terrorism trials also create precedents that could be drawn upon in other circumstances.


While the discourse of terrorism situates Muslims accused of violence as part of a worldwide terror network, their right-wing counterparts are usually depicted as “Lone Wolves,” acting alone. As a result, the social and organizational contexts for right-wing violence are systematically erased.

When the authors of the April 2009 DHS report on right-wing extremism put out a draft version for review, the Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties argued for a narrow definition of “right-wing extremist” that would be limited to persons known to have committed violence themselves and exclude those who were members of or who donated money to organizations with well-known histories of violence, such as the KKK.47 The DHS report maintained a broader definition that included groups and social movements, but the overall trend has been toward viewing perpetrators of right-wing violence as isolated actors. The February 2015 DHS report on right-wing extremists, for example, focused exclusively on the sovereign citizen movement, which was described as engaging in low levels of often spontaneous violence that take a highly individualized and non-symbolic form, such as a threat or assault towards a specific individual law enforcement officer or government representative.48 For example, the DHS report describes an incident in which a sovereign citizen in Alaska conspired to murder an Internal Revenue Service officer and a judge who oversaw legal proceedings against him.

The individualized “Lone Wolf ” model of viewing right-wing violence reflects an intentional change in strategy by right-wing militant groups. In 1987, the government indicted a core group of 14 visible national leaders within right-wing militant movements, all associated with the 1983 Aryan World Congress, on charges of conspiracy to overthrow the U.S. government. They were acquitted at trial, but the experience led one of the men, Louis Beam, to republish an essay he had written calling for “leaderless resistance” as a way to evade infiltration and surveillance.49 Over the past 10-15 years, most incidents of right-wing violence have been carried out by individuals or small groups, in keeping with the philosophy of leaderless resistance and Lone Wolf action. However, a decision to act alone does not mean acting outside of social movement frameworks, philosophies, and networks.

Research has shown that, at the time they engage in political violence, the majority of so-called Lone Wolves are over 30 years old. A comparison of case descriptions shows that many have had significant histories of participation in hard-right movements.50 Preliminary findings from a study of individual radicalization point to the importance of social ties with other militants as a key element of the radicalization process, again casting doubt on the model of the isolated actor.51 Another study found that organizations whose members commit violence have higher levels of interconnection with other movement organizations than groups not associated with violence.52 The findings from these two studies fit with the age and movement experience of Lone Wolves while challenging the model of the isolated actor. Scott Roeder, Dr. Tiller’s assassin, saw himself as acting as part of a movement even if he was not representing a specific organization.

Scott Roeder, Dr. Tiller’s assassin, saw himself as acting as part of a movement even if he was not representing a specific organization.

Politically, the organizational and national contexts for right-wing activists disappear in the focus on the individual, while the individuality and immediate social context for the actions of Muslims are rendered invisible by the focus on the global.


Law enforcement action shows two substantially different patterns in relation to Muslims and right-wing activists. The (appropriate) concern for protecting free speech and association expressed in law enforcement materials on right-wing organizations and activists stands in stark contrast to the criminalization of both speech and association among Muslims. Reports by the Columbia and NYU schools of law describe the targeting of vulnerable individuals and communities, with informants building relationships with men who have expressed certain political or religious beliefs but who have not independently voiced an intent to commit violence. The cases of the Newburgh Four and the Fort Dix Five illustrate the centrality of informants and the lack of evidence of independent violent action—or the necessary resources for such—in the prosecution of these cases. These cases stand in sharp contrast to the large weapons caches and self-organization of right-wing activists, who, like Larry Raugust, are more likely to give explosives to an informant than to acquire them from one.

The prosecution of Muslims in the absence of independent action has been justified by using a theory of radicalization that argues defendants would have eventually committed terrorism without the assistance of informants. Multiple theories of radicalization exist within the study of militant movements, including some that examine processes across diverse political or religious movements. In law enforcement, models of radicalization have been part of larger frameworks that heighten the fear of hidden dangers.53 For example, the theory of radicalization used in prosecutions of Muslims caught by sting operations derives from a 2007 NYPD report that described a “religious conveyor belt” from belief to action.54 This theory has no support in social science research and situates constitutionally protected beliefs as evidence of the probability to commit violence. The core constitutional principles of freedom of religion and freedom of speech and association are repeatedly violated in relation to Muslims in arguments made in the courts as well as in surveillance practices, recruitment of informants, and day-to-day law enforcement.


Data on militant violence in the U.S. suggest that the primary factors directing federal attention involve political calculations and Islamophobia, not any danger posed by their communities. Speaking anonymously, a former DHS agent compared the FBI’s sting operations in Muslim communities to the practice of police leaving an expensive car unlocked in a poor urban neighborhood: if law enforcement provides a large enough incentive, he suggested, then eventually someone will make criminal use of it.

While it’s politically useful for federal authorities to demonstrate progress on prosecuting terrorism—even if it often involves trumped-up cases—the flip side of that political reality is the conservative politicians and writers who see discussions of right-wing political violence as a threat to their own constituency, downplaying the severity of the threat from the Far Right. A July 2014 study found that law enforcement rated sovereign extremists the number one terrorist threat in the U.S.,55 and the February 2015 DHS report on right-wing extremism documented the extent of assaults on law enforcement and other government personnel.56 But saying this publicly has consistently led to hostile responses from conservative media. The DoJ Domestic Terrorism Executive Committee was re-launched in June 201457 but, as of February 2015, had not yet held a meeting, according to a former DHS analyst. It’s worth noting that right-wing violence has also increased in Europe58 and Israel59 over the past several years, but this trend is similarly invisible across the Western political discourse of terror- ism. In Europe, it was the Charlie Hebdo attacks that became emblematic of terrorism, not the Anders Breivik massacre in Norway, even though Breivik’s attacks were six times deadlier.

Many Muslims convicted of terrorism can only be understood as dangerous if their actual life circumstances are subsumed by a narrative of global jihad.

The differential treatment of Islamic and far-right terrorism cases only becomes explicable through the lens of political calculation. The Right Wing is an entrenched element of the U.S. cultural and political power structure, raising the costs of high profile law enforcement action. The primary targets of federal anti-terrorism investigations have been Muslim men defined by their vulnerability rather than their power. In late February, the latest case to hit the news involved a young man who wanted to go to Syria to fight for ISIS, but his FBI handler had to procure his travel documents, because his mother wouldn’t give him his passport.60

This 19-year-old can only be understood as dangerous if his actual life circumstances are subsumed by a narrative of global jihad. This pattern of systemic targeting and differential prosecution is fully in keeping with well-documented law enforcement practices of racial/ethnic profiling of African Americans and with the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII. The suppression of information about right-wing movements creates a double-erasure in which Muslims can only be seen through the lens of the global “War on Terror,” while right-wing militants continue to be depicted as isolated and troubled individuals instead of social movement actors. This combination may serve a range of political and economic interests, but it does little for the health and safety of the U.S. population.

The FBI and DoJ distinction between “homegrown” and “domestic” terrorism is a political creation and should be ended. The “homegrown” classification locates Muslims as foreign agents operating in the U.S., not as part of the social fabric of this country. The portrayal of U.S. Muslims as potential or actual representatives of global jihad is used to justify the denial of constitutional protections and leads to representing ordinary men—asking religious questions, criticizing the U.S. government, or even going camping with their friends—as a threat to society. It is past time to apply the same constitutional protections to everyone, and develop a response to terrorism based in analysis of patterns of violence instead of political costs and benefits.

Naomi Braine is an Associate Professor in the Sociology Department at Brooklyn College, CUNY, and a lifelong activist in struggles for social justice. Her political and intellectual work has addressed mass incarceration, the “War on Drugs”/drug policy, HIV and collective action, and, more recently, the “War on Terror.”


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  14. Personal Communication with former DHS Agent.
  15. The FBI’s official definitions of terrorism differentiate only between “international terrorism” and “domestic terrorism,” however the list of “terrorism” cases formerly available on the DoJ website includes 28 cases considered “homegrown” and no cases involving the radical right. Online at http://www.fbi.gov/about- us/investigate/terrorism/terrorism- definition.
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  33. Chris Hawley and Matt Apuzzo, “NYPD Infiltration of Colleges Raises Privacy Fears.” October 11, 2011. Online at http://www.ap.org/Content/AP-In- The-News/2011/NYPD-infiltration-of- colleges-raises-privacy-fears.
  34. Julia Greenberg, “Michigan Militia Members Acquitted of Conspiracy; Leader Faces Lesser Charges.” CNN. March 28, 2012. Online at http:// www.cnn.com/2012/03/28/justice/ michigan-militia-trial/.
  35. Southern Poverty Law Center. Terror From the Right: Plots, Conspiracies and Racist Rampages Since Oklahoma City. January 1, 2012. Online at http:// www.splcenter.org/get-informed/ publications/terror-from-the-right.
  36. Human Rights Watch and Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute. Illusion of Justice: Human Rights Abuses in U.S. Terrorism Prosecutions. July 2014. Online at http://www.hrw.org/sites/ default/files/reports/usterrorism0714_ ForUpload_0_0_0.pdf.
  37. Congressional Research Service. Terrorist Material Support: An Overview of 18 U.S.C. 2339A and 2339B. By Charles Doyle, July 19, 2010.
  38. Human Rights Watch and Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute. Illusion of Justice: Human Rights Abuses in U.S. Terrorism Prosecutions. July 2014. Online at http://www.hrw.org/sites/ default/files/reports/usterrorism0714_ ForUpload_0_0_0.pdf.
  39. Steven Chermak, Joshua Freilich, and Michael Suttmoeller, “The Organizational Dynamics of Far-Right Hate Groups in the United States: Comparing Violent to Nonviolent Organizations,” in Studies in Conflict and Terrorism. Routledge, 2013.
  40. Human Rights Watch and Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute. Illusion of Justice: Human Rights Abuses in U.S. Terrorism Prosecutions. July 2014. Online at http://www.hrw.org/sites/ default/files/reports/usterrorism0714_ ForUpload_0_0_0.pdf.
  41. “Submission to the United Nations Committee against Torture.” Human Rights Watch. October 20, 2014. Online at http://www.hrw.org/ news/2014/10/20/submission-united- nations-committee-against-torture.
  42. “CMUs: The Federal Prison System’s Experiment in Social Isolation.” Center for Constitutional Rights. March 1, 2013. Online at http://ccrjustice.org/ cmu-factsheet.
  43. Andrew Dalack, “Special Administrative Measures and the War on Terror: When do Extreme Pretrial Detention Measures Offend the Constitution?” in Michigan Journal on Race and Law, vol 19(2). 2014.
  44. Amanda Robb, “Not A Lone Wolf.” Ms. Magazine. January 1, 2010. Online at http://www.msmagazine.com/ spring2010/lonewolf.asp.
  45. Robin Marty, “Meet Joe Scheidler, Patriarch of the Anti-Abortion Movement.” Political Research Associates. January 23, 2015. Online at http://www.politicalresearch. org/2015/01/23/meet-joe-scheidler- patriarch-of-the-anti-abortion- movement/.
  46. Prior to McVeigh’s execution, there were multiple websites that facilitated communication between McVeigh and his supporters.
  47. Heidi Beirich. Southern Poverty Law Center. Inside the DHS: Former Top Analyst Says Agency Bowed to Political Pressure. January 1, 2011. Online at http://www.splcenter.org/ get-informed/intelligence-report/ browse-all-issues/2011/summer/ inside-the-dhs-former-top-analyst-says- agency-bowed.
  48. Office of Intelligence and Analysis. Sovereign Citizen Extremist Ideology Will Drive Violence at Home, During Travel, and at Government Facilities. Dept. of Homeland Security, February 5, 2015.
  49. Ryan Lenz, “The Age of the Wolf.” Southern Poverty Law Center. February 12, 2015. Online at http://www. splcenter.org/lone-wolf.
  50. Ryan Lenz, “The Age of the Wolf.” Southern Poverty Law Center. February 12, 2015. Online at http://www. splcenter.org/lone-wolf.
  51. Jensen, Michael, Patrick James, and Herbert Tinsley, “Profiles of Individual Radicalization in the United States: Preliminary Findings.” National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism. January 2015. Online at https://www. start.umd.edu/pubs/PIRUS%20 Research%20Brief_Jan%202015.pdf.
  52. Steven Chermak, Joshua Freilich, and Michael Suttmoeller, “The Organizational Dynamics of Far-Right Hate Groups in the United States: Comparing Violent to Nonviolent Organizations,” in Studies in Conflict and Terrorism. Routledge, 2013.
  53. Jeffrey Monaghan, “Security Traps and Discourses of Radicalization: Examining Surveillance Practices Targeting Muslims in Canada.” Surveillance and Society, vol 12(4). 2014.
  54. NYU School of Law Center for Human Rights and Global Justice. Targeted and Entrapped: Manufacturing the “Homegrown Threat” in the United States. 2011. Online at http://www. nlg-npap.org/sites/default/files/ targetedandentrapped.pdf.
  55. David Carter, Steve Chermak, Jeremy Carter, and Jack Drew, Understanding Law Enforcement Intelligence Processes: Report to the Office of University Programs, Science and Technology Directorate, U.S. Department of Homeland Security. National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism. July 2014.
  1. Office of Intelligence and Analysis. Sovereign Citizen Extremist Ideology Will Drive Violence at Home, During Travel, and at Government Facilities. Dept. of Homeland Security, February 5, 2015.
  2. “Reestablishment of Committee on Domestic Terrorism: Statement of Atty. Gen. Eric Holder.” Main Justice. June 3, 2014. Online at http:// www.mainjustice.com/2014/06/03/ reestablishment-of-committee-on- domestic-terrorism-statement-of-atty- gen-eric-holder/.
  3. Vidhya Ramalingam, “The European Far Right Is on the Rise, Again.” The Guardian. February 13, 2014. Online at http://www.theguardian. com/commentisfree/2014/feb/13/ european-far-right-on-the-rise-how-to- tackle.
  4. Inna Lazareva, “Far-Right Extremism on the Rise in Israel as Gaza Conflict Continues.” The Telegraph. July 26, 2014. Online at http://www. telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/ middleeast/israel/10992623/Far- Right-extremism-on-the-rise-in-Israel- as-Gaza-conflict-continues.html.
  5. Marc Santora and Nate Schweber, “In Brooklyn, Eager to Join ISIS, If Only His Mother Would Return His Passport.” The New York Times. February 26, 2015. Online at http://www.nytimes. com/2015/02/27/nyregion/isis-plot- brooklyn-men.html?ref=nyregion&_ r=0.

Sidebar Endnotes:

  1. U.S. Department of Justice. Pretrial Detention and Misconduct in Federal District Courts, 1995-2010. By Thomas H. Cohen. February 2013. Online at http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/ pdmfdc9510.pdf.
  2. “Torture: The Use of Solitary Confinement in U.S. Prisons.” Center for Constitutional Rights. Online at http://ccrjustice.org/solitary-factsheet.
  3. U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Federal Support for and Involvement in State and Local Fusion Centers. October 3, 2012.

The Politics of Stories

Marcy Westerling: 1959 – 2015

Marcy Westerling was a visionary organizer who collaborated with PRA in various ways over the years and joined our board of directors in 2010—just prior to her diagnosis with Stage IV Ovarian Cancer. On June 10, she passed away peacefully at her home while in hospice care. Marcy is widely known as the leader of the Oregon-based Rural Organizing Project (ROP), which she founded in 1992 in response to the anti-LGBTQ campaigns of Lon Mabon, Scott Lively, and the Oregon Citizens Alliance. Descended from Dutch resistance fighters, Marcy saw her work as feminist, anti-fascist, and anti-racist. Having cut her organizing teeth decades earlier with ACORN, she forged close ties with Oregon’s farm worker and immigrant rights movements and led ROP’s mostly small-town and rural community members in developing a strong anti-racist culture. After surviving kidnapping and rape during college, she honored the local women who came to her aid by becoming a leader in the U.S. domestic violence movement. She was a freedom fighter and will be greatly missed. ROP continues its unequaled work under the strong leadership of Cara Shufelt and Jessica Campbell. Memorial gifts are encouraged; a Legacy Fund has been established in Marcy’s honor by the Rural Organizing Project. Visit ROP.org for details.

– PRA executive director Tarso Luís Ramos.

This article by Marcy Westerling was published as a web-exclusive feature
of the Winter/Spring 2011 issue of
The Public Eye magazine.

I always knew that I wanted to organize people to create a more just society. Organizing made sense to me; in fact, it was an obligation—non-negotiable. Although my family was devoutly apolitical, the family lore was not. My father grew up during World War II in occupied Holland, and his family hid Jews in their home. My grandfather was incarcerated under the Nazis. My childhood holidays included relatives who had arrived in this country as refugees from Russian and Nazi pogroms. When they left the room, their stories would be whispered about in snippets.

Former PRA board member Marcy Westerling, who passed away in June 2015.

Former PRA board member Marcy Westerling, 1959 – 2015.

The message to my generation was, “Listen to this, and stay out of trouble.” Our family followed the news and voted, but did little more.

I was a good girl, and I wanted to stay out of trouble. But as I puzzled out my role in this world, the family stories of leadership and resistance inspired my sense of duty. I knew I did not have the courage for war; my poor tolerance for snowball fights seemed an early indicator. I wondered, what if the Resistance had started earlier, well in advance of the violent crisis? Could the need to pick up guns have been avoided? I believe this fundamental question is still relevant today.

As a schoolgirl during the 1970s, a decade of heated debate about racial integration on the East Coast, I started to notice a disconnect between liberal talk—we are all equal; be nice to everyone—and liberal action. For example, I was pulled from the public school when the violence escalated. At my new private school, a few carefully vetted Blacks studied with us privileged Whites. Full integration was good, it seemed, only in theory. The children’s book character Harriet the Spy became my role model. Like her, I observed the world around me. Although I didn’t know the language of “isms,” I began to understand that being “nice” was very different from being fair. I saw that the U.S. had a caste system. Equality, I realized, means little unless you share the wealth—and that was definitely not happening around me.

I might have forgotten my personal commitment to organizing, but during my junior year of college I got a big knock on the head. While living on another continent, I was kidnapped and raped, then denied access to medical care, police, or the courts—that is, until an amazing thing happened.

The women of the town found me. They had been living in the midst of an epidemic of rape, and reporting the attacks just made their woes worse. But they had developed a strategy. When I spoke up—a naïve nineteen year old trained to do so by American movies-of-the-week that explained “what to do if you are raped”—well, they were waiting for just such a public incident. With only a vague newspaper description of me, they divided up the town and went door to door until they found me. They needed me, and they knew that I needed them. By the trial nine months later, they had organized a huge court watch that resulted in a landmark verdict in my case. Women bravely overflowed that courtroom because they knew that in their repressive culture, the risk to each individual would be reduced only if a critical mass of women showed up. The grassroots were building power through numbers. I learned the importance of numbers.

And I learned the importance of having a long-term strategy. The community takeover of the trial was part of a larger strategy to expose and eliminate the abuse of women. The women weren’t improvising from event to event. Their community had a serious problem, and they were committed to addressing it. Despite a gag order barring the media from covering the verdict, that landmark trial had immediate resonance. And fifteen years later, when the country’s national legislature passed a law that said that no woman could claim she had been raped if she was wearing jeans, the law was quickly overturned. Justice for women remains a journey that no single trial could conclude. This is a critical point to remember in our fast-paced society, in which we’re used to instant gratification. (No wonder so many are crushed by Obama’s questionable performance as president. In our current reality, winning the presidency could not be anything but a short-term victory.)

Why am I sharing all this?

I come from the feminist tradition of telling your story as a political act. I became political because of stories. I stay political because of stories. My stories explain why I and the Rural Organizing Project, which I founded in the early 1990s, have prioritized long-term organizing for change over short-term policy successes. At ROP, we measure progress in terms of our relationship with our base; we’re grassroots not just in our membership but in how we function. Our small budget requires little distracting administration and better yet, a genuine reliance on a volunteer culture. To own our organization, to struggle with each new issue as it arises, to share our stories transforms us. Then we, in turn, can transform the world around us.

Although many progressives see “civic participation” as critical to building a just world, I think it is also of value to study resistance movements. Sometimes you participate, and sometimes you resist. When I started in organizing in my home town of Scappoose, Oregon, in the early nineties, it was in resistance to the extreme Right, which was the only loud voice in many small town Oregon communities, as it attempted to define civil rights as “special rights.” I was also resisting an established, urban-based infrastructure that saw little value in rural America. At ROP, we set out to change those two realities by building our own infrastructure: self-governed, small-town groups that we called human-dignity groups. In ROP’s early days, I teamed up with an activist nun on a radio show. She easily declared the human-dignity groups to be a resistance movement. “Ha,” I thought. “She gets it.” By resisting first, we built the infrastructure we needed in order to participate.

My style of organizing includes constant “cold” contact with people I don’t know to see if they have the potential to become “warm” or even “hot.” I can tell when people are getting “warm” not by where they drink their coffee or how they look but by the spark in their eyes when we approach divisive (often manufactured) issues of the day with common sense.

My hands-on organizing for civil rights and social justice in small-town America came to an abrupt halt as I was diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer this past spring. I pulled a short straw and, despite my age, have entered the closing phase of my life at age 51.

Before I headed to cancerland, I had initiated two projects. One was an event that had been in the works since the town-hall meetings about healthcare during the summer of 2009. The meeting in the small town of St. Helens, Oregon, had been a carnival of bad behavior. In another era, the crowd might have started attacking each other with pitchforks. The atmosphere had become so heated that the fire department had to be deputized to maintain calm. Troubled by the jeers on both sides, the long-time head of the hard religious Right in the area had approached me. We talked for more than an hour, and although he and I couldn’t come to an agreement on the healthcare bill, we did agree that access to medical care was important. We decided that it would be incredibly cool to have a sane discussion on how the community might make sure that everyone had healthcare. I took the lead in bringing together good thinkers who would maintain their core values but not be falsely partisan.

Then, just before we were finally ready for our first meeting, I was diagnosed. I was sad to miss such an important conversation about building a resilient community—especially because of another organizing principle I had learned from observing my family. While my grandfather had been a true hero, who had saved many lives while risking his own, he was basically a decent man with backbone. He was also a man of his times: not very evolved when it came to regarding Jews as his equals. Because of my grandfather, I believe in reaching out to decent people like him, with all their flaws, presuming the best and providing political education throughout.

I had also planned to take a road trip through the most conservative and isolated counties of rural Nebraska. Unlike rural Washington, Idaho, and Oregon, this was unfamiliar territory to me. It was a challenge to find a few starter sentences that might keep a prospective ally on the phone. Constructing the road trip refreshed my memories of how we had started my own human-dignity group, Columbia County Citizens for Human Dignity, in 1990, and the endless hours of cold calling to find people who would talk to me. In 2010 I was again starting from scratch. What were the effective opening, middle, and closing lines that would connect me to these people? I was trolling for innovative thinkers and leaders wherever I could find them: among community bankers, safety net programs, the Rotary Club, the Chamber of Commerce. Setting up enough morning, afternoon, and evening stops to fill a five-day journey, as well as the community housing necessary for establishing the deeper relationships I would need to begin talking about difficult issues such as immigrants’ rights and racism, was a challenge. But it happened. Unknown prospects became hosts, empty days became too full, and rural Nebraska promised to be quite the adventure.

When I contacted these barely known people, spread out over hundreds of miles, to tell them I had to cancel, they set up prayer circles for me. Their regret was palpable. The director of one small-town Chamber of Commerce said she had never had the opportunity to be part of something so exciting. She hoped I could reschedule soon. There is a hunger out there.

In both of these projects, values created a bridge across difference.

Recently I learned that I have metastasized cancer in my lungs. Statistically, I am doomed. The crazy thing is that I am doing fine. It is hard, but I stay happy and hopeful—traits that I learned in the pursuit of justice. Early on I wrote a test obituary for myself. It said:

Marcy Westerling: A kickass community organizer dedicated to the notion that small-town America is filled with justice-seeking souls who deserve support and who have the power to bridge the false cultural divides of our times. Derailed by Stage IV ovarian cancer in spring 2010. She trusts others to continue moving rural-inclusive, progressive organizing forward.

The only thing I would change now is to insert the word “momentarily” before “derailed.” There is a lot to be done on this journey called life, this journey toward justice. Count me in.

Marcy Westerling was a founder of Oregon’s Rural Organizing Project (ROP). She was a 2010 Open Society Fellow, a board member of Political Research Associates from 2010 to 2012. She passed away in June of2015.

CitizenLink Prepares to “Muscle Up” for [One-Man-One-Woman] Marriage

The new president of one of the most powerful conservative organizations in the country is well-steeped in the Christian Right’s scheme to redefine the meaning of religious freedom into a weapon designed to roll-back LGBTQ rights and attack reproductive justice. And as the Supreme Court’s marriage equality decision looms, he’s readying a massive response.

CitizenLink announced last week that after nearly 30 years at the helm, Tom Minnery will be stepping down as president, transitioning leadership of the right-wing political advocacy group to Paul Weber, who previously served as vice president of communications and development for one of the Right’s most prominent legal advocacy groups, the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), from 2000-2013.

Outgoing CitizenLink president Tom Minnery (left) and incoming president Paul Weber (right)

Outgoing CitizenLink president Tom Minnery (left) and incoming president Paul Weber (right)

Founded in 2004, CitizenLink is the public policy arm of Focus on the Family, operating out of the same building and under the same executive leadership team. Its mission is to “equip citizens to make their voices heard on critical social policy issues involving the sanctity of human life, the preservation of religious liberties and the well-being of the family as the building block of society.” Essentially, CitizenLink endeavors to insert—and enforce—a conservative biblical worldview into government and civil society.

Weber, who says he was originally recruited into the conservative movement through New Jersey’s CitizenLink affiliate, the Family Policy Council, is excited to “muscle up” CitizenLink’s work, focusing especially on the development and expansion of the nationwide network of Family Policy Councils.

Similar to the national network of conservative State Policy Network groups, there are currently 38 state-based Family Policy Councils formally associated with CitizenLink. Through these affiliates, CitizenLink works to “advance Christian values in laws, elections and our culture.” In the 2014 midterm elections alone, CitizenLink mobilized a huge nationwide effort targeting 21 state and federal races with an aggressive and well-funded field campaign that included nearly 5 million phone calls, 11,000 door knocks, and 2.3 million mailers.

CitizenLink’s campaign efforts include defunding Planned Parenthood, restricting abortion access, enforcing abstinence-only sex ed, resisting marriage equality efforts, countering attempts to curb global warming, and promoting creationism in schools.

In a recent fundraising appeal, outgoing president Tom Minnery conceded that despite the Right’s valiant efforts to restrict the benefits and privileges of marriage to the one-man-one-woman Christian Right model, the Supreme Court will likely rule in favor of marriage equality when they issue their decision in Obergefell v. Hodges later this month. “We need to be prepared for this devastating setback,” he wrote, going on to say, “Despite the court’s ruling, we must look to the future and get ready for the inevitable battles to come.”

Minnery also recommends looking to the past. In CitizenLink’s Spring 2015 newsletter, he reflected on the success of the anti-choice movement in the 40-plus years since Roe v. Wade. The veteran conservative explains that instead of falling into despair and giving up, anti-choice activists “began chipping away at Roe, by supporting smaller bills that limit abortions in many ways. Today, hundreds of those laws are in place around the country.”

In the last four years alone, over 200 laws restricting abortion access have passed in state legislatures (at least one in every state except Oregon), and more than 300 additional regulations have already been proposed in 45 different states this year.

If the Supreme Court rules in favor of marriage equality later this month, Minnery warns that what he calls the “radical Left” will next seek to “shut down the free religious expression of millions of pro-family Americans.” By this, he means that Christian business owners won’t be allowed to discriminate against people based on their sexual orientation. Bakers, florists, and wedding photographers will, indeed, be expected to accommodate the needs of LGBTQ customers in the same way that they serve their heterosexual clientele.

The strategy to use the progressive value of religious freedom to mask discriminatory laws is largely being authored by the Alliance Defending Freedom—the former workplace of new CitizenLink president Paul Weber—and other Christian Right  groups.  While the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) promoted the progressive values of religious pluralism, respect for all beliefs and non-beliefs, and tolerance, the RFRA bills being proposed and promoted by the Christian Right in state legislatures all over the country are designed to legalize religious authoritarianism—in direct contradiction to the original definition of religious freedom.

The strategy to use the progressive value of religious freedom to mask discriminatory laws is largely being authored by the Alliance Defending Freedom—the former workplace of new CitizenLink president Paul Weber—and other Christian Right groups. While the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) promoted the progressive values of religious pluralism, respect for all beliefs and non-beliefs, and tolerance, the RFRA bills being proposed and promoted by the Christian Right in state legislatures all over the country are designed to legalize religious authoritarianism—in direct contradiction to the original definition of religious freedom.

Though many on the Left may scoff, the narrative that “good, God-fearing Christians” are being persecuted by laws that prevent them from discriminating against LGBTQ people is gaining strength and momentum. CitizenLink has played a key role in the effort to redefine religious liberty and oppress LGBTQ people and women across the country by working to advance more repressive, state-level laws essentially granting licenses to discriminate, all under the same name as the more progressive federal Religious Freedom and Restoration Act (RFRA). Simultaneously, through their on-the-ground network of Family Policy Councils, CitizenLink is also fighting legislation that would expand civil rights protections to LGBTQ people, including laws that would prevent employment and/or housing discrimination. The organization was an active part of the RFRA fights in Indiana and Arkansas, and claims credit for the defeat of laws in Idaho and North Dakota that would have provided critical protections to LGBTQ people.

Elliot Mincberg, a senior fellow at People for the American Way, explains, “These [state “religious freedom” bills] are, in part, a component of the far right’s efforts to reframe their decades-long war against every advance in societal acceptance and legal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Americans into a noble effort to protect ‘religious liberty.’”

They are also an echo of the anti-abortion movement’s state-by-state chip away strategy—a nod to the lesson that no defeat is ever final.

Regardless of whether or not the Supreme Court gives same-sex couples the stamp of approval, the Right won’t stop fighting. Paul Weber has already pledged to expand the network of CitizenLink-affiliated Family Policy Councils to all 50 states, and we can anticipate that wherever they are, they’ll be hard at work weakening whatever rights and protections might be gained.

Who Speaks for Conservative Women?

“Feminisms” for Life, Liberty, and Politics

Public Eye Spring 2015 CoverThis article appears in the Spring 2015 issue of The Public Eye magazine.

When the planned vote on a harsh new 20-week abortion ban went off the rails in January, liberal news outlets gloated while conservative commentators fumed over what they respectively called a Republican congresswomen “revolt” or “mutiny.”

At the beginning of the year, GOP leadership scheduled a high-profile vote on the “Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act” to coincide with the 2015 March for Life, the annual protest of Roe v. Wade. They had a Congressional majority and expected smooth passage of the bill. But, to their surprise, female House representatives balked at the bill’s draconian rape and incest exemption, which would have forced survivors to file a police report before they could access an abortion. The Republican dissenters—primarily women, joined by a couple of moderate male allies—thought the provision was tone-deaf and would turn off women and millennial voters.1 The memory of Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” gaffe loomed in the background. Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-NC) chastised her party, arguing that Republicans could no longer afford to appear “harsh and judgmental” now that they control both the House and Senate.2 Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), the legislation’s lead co-sponsor, passionately criticized her party for yet again letting insensitivity about rape derail Republicans’ agenda.3

Most strikingly, the female opposition was led by anti-abortion stalwarts with strong right-wing credentials, namely Ellmers and Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-IN). None of the dissenting congresswomen identify as pro-choice; all had received approval from the Susan B. Anthony List (SBA) and Concerned Women for America (CWA)—two powerful and well-funded right-wing organizations—for their solid track records on limiting abortion rights; and Ellmers and Blackburn had received honors from the libertarian Independent Women’s Forum in 2014.

As an Indiana state legislator, Walorski killed a hate crimes bill by adding fetuses as a protected class, and called for an investigation of Planned Parenthood for allegedly covering up rape.4 Ellmers joined Congress in 2010 on a Tea Party wave, endorsed by Sarah Palin, and was an enthusiastic participant in the Koch-backed attack on healthcare reform.5 Blackburn boasts an unblemished record of over a decade of anti-abortion votes in Congress. And they all appeared untroubled by voting for the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act,” the bill Republicans instead passed for the Roe anniversary. In other words, these women were not the RINOs—Republicans In Name Only— whom you might expect to block an anti- abortion bill.

The controversy’s significance lies in pitting Republican congresswomen not only against the majority of their male colleagues—who, as Abby Scher writes in The Progressive, rely on them as “front- women to sell [the party’s] regressive policies”6—but also against the major conservative women’s movement organizations and female anti-abortion advocates who backed the reporting requirement. And it was not the only incident in the last year that put female politicians and advocacy leaders from organizations such as CWA and SBA at odds, as part of a legitimacy contest over who speaks for conservative women.

A young woman takes part in the 2015 March for Life in front of the Supreme Court of the United States. Photo via Flickr and courtesy of Elvert Barnes.

A young woman takes part in the 2015 March for Life in front of the Supreme Court of the United States. Photo via Flickr and courtesy of Elvert Barnes.


In 1979, the rise of feminism and the Equal Rights Amendment motivated conservative evangelical Beverly LaHaye to found Concerned Women for America, established as an overtly anti-feminist female voice. Yet CWA has clung to relevance over the years, better than infamous anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly, by demonstrating its adaptability in toning down strident anti-feminist language and laying claim to pro-life feminist arguments when convenient, as when a CWA publication asserted in 2003, “Today’s feminists wrongly claim kinship to feminism’s founders, thereby cloaking their radicalism in the early movement’s popularity and moral authority.”7 In Righteous Rhetoric: Sex, Speech, and the Politics of Concerned Women for America, religious studies professor Leslie Dorrough Smith explains the shifting rhetoric was spurred by the need “to appear progressive and yet simultaneously traditional, a move perhaps motivated by its need to recruit and maintain younger members as well as to prove its political relevance” in a society which likes what feminism has accomplished even if it doesn’t always accept the movement itself.8

Sarah Palin’s 2008 vice presidential candidacy and membership in the organization Feminists for Life brought increased attention in recent years to “conservative feminism,” a movement that says it represents the true legacy of “the original feminists,” claiming for itself the banner of the women’s suffragists—rather than that of the conservative women who fought voting rights. Importantly for Republicans, whose base trends older and male, the brand was seen as resonating with youth and women.9 The appeal of conservative feminism neither began nor ended with Palin’s failed campaign. For decades, there have been two streams of conservative movement “feminism”— one for life, and one for liberty. Feminists for Life (FFL), founded in 1972, was the original “pro-life feminist” group, touting its history of supporting women’s rights initiatives such as the Equal Rights Amendment and the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). FFL never achieved the prominence of better-funded Christian Right organization that took over the “protect women” frame as a convenient (albeit substance-free) marketing strategy as Schlafly’s brand of traditional anti-feminism lost appeal. The Independent Women’s Forum (IWF) has pushed a brand of free market feminism, also known as equity feminism, since 1992.10 For the Right Wing to appear legitimate, women’s and women-led organizations must be at the forefront of opposition to abortion rights and other policies affecting women.11


“Since 1973, it’s been the same thing: One side of the abortion wars yells, ‘What about the woman?’ Instead of yelling back, ‘What about the baby?’ Feminists for Life answers the question,” FFL president Serrin Foster explains, insisting that their feminism is not a “strategy” or “ploy.”12 But the anti-abortion movement’s pervasive “abortion as harm to women” frame looks very much like a ploy when deployed by organizations like CWA or SBA. Political Research Associates’ Defending Reproductive Justice Activist Resource Kit describes how Christian Right organizations like CWA, the National Right to Life Committee (founded by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops), Family Research Council, and the extensive crisis pregnancy center network market themselves as concerned for women—not just fetuses—through extensive misrepresentations of the medical hazards of abortion and a fabricated “post-abortion syndrome.”13 (The Christian Right deployed a similar strategy in co-opting the ex-gay movement in the 1990s to put a more compassionate face on their homophobic agenda.14)

FFL’s $300,000 budget—far greater than other small feminist pro-life groups, such as the tiny coalition of secular and Democratic anti-abortion organizations that rallied at the margins of the 2015 March for Life15—is negligible compared to the five or six million dollars in the coffers of Christian Right organizations like CWA (which has millions more in its PAC), SBA, and the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) and American Life League (single-issue anti-abortion organizations both led by women). Anti-abortion advocates point to their marginalized pro-life feminist groups as evidence of the movement’s pro-woman nature, while actually giving most funding to organizations where concern for women is no more than a marketing device.16 Even though Palin’s FFL membership brought attention to the phenomenon of conservative feminism, organizations like SBA and CWA swiftly coopted both the brand and the cash. (This includes donations from the Koch brothers, who fund Christian Right movement organizations with the mobilization capacity and willingness to support “free enterprise” along with their culture wars agenda.)

The Susan B. Anthony List—named for one of conservatives’ favorite “reclaimed” historical feminists—illustrates the financial rewards of using feminism as a brand rather than an ideology. In 1992, FFL leadership founded SBA as a bipartisan, anti-abortion counterpart to EMILY’s List, which helps elect women politicians. But after former FFL president and SBA co-founder Rachel MacNair left for graduate school in the mid-1990s, she says, “Republicans took over.”17 Co-founder Marjorie Dannenfelser, a former Heritage Foundation employee, assumed the SBA presidency and aligned the organization with a network of well-funded Christian Right organizations.18 SBA almost completely stopped backing Democrats and began diverting funds to male candidates running against pro-choice women, prioritizing a hard-right stance over the founding mission of cultivating female candidates.19

In 2013, NARAL Pro-Choice America and the American Bridge Project published a joint report on SBA, finding an extensive anti-woman track record. The organization backs candidates who oppose legal abortion even in cases of rape or incest, who support criminalizing women for obtaining abortions, and who voted against equal pay legislation and VAWA. SBA supported candidate Todd Akin after he stated that “legitimate rape” cannot lead to pregnancy, as well as Indiana Tea Party senatorial candidate Richard Mourdock when he called pregnancies that result from rape a “gift from God.” Then SBA launched a training program to prevent Republican men from continuing to make these public gaffes—a far cry from their founding goal of electing women representatives to fight for women’s interests.20 In Righting Feminism, Ronnee Schreiber suggests that one reason right-wing women’s organizations like CWA and SBA eschew “the strategy of getting more women into public office is that empirical studies suggest that women elected officials tend to be more liberal than their male counterparts within the same party.”21 In order to successfully pursue a hardline agenda against women’s bodily integrity, SBA abandoned its woman-centered founding purpose and updated its mission to include electing “pro-life men” who “oppose pro-abortion women”—a policy that would inevitably decrease the total number of women elected representatives.

U.S. Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. Photo via Flickr and courtesy of Gage Skidmore.

U.S. Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. Photo via Flickr and courtesy of Gage Skidmore.

FFL lost control not only over its child organization, SBA, but the entire “pro- life feminist” brand. Today, CWA and SBA have spawned a new generation of young pro-life “feminists,” beloved by the anti-abortion movement, like Lila Rose, who published an opinion piece in Politico in 2012 titled “Battle Hymn of the Anti-Abortion Feminist.”22 Her organization, Live Action, exploits concern for women and girls to promote its Planned Parenthood sting videos, accusing the clinics of enabling “gendercide,” rape, and human trafficking.23 Rose capitalized on the tragic death of a 24-year-old following an abortion procedure, calling her “the true face of the ‘War on Woman.’”24 Her hardline positions on abortion and contraception belie her claims to care about women, as she blithely opposes even life-saving abortions as “never medically necessary.”25 In its few years of existence, Live Action already has more than double the budget of FFL, with 2013 revenues of nearly a million dollars. In the world of pro-life feminism, FFL demonstrates, it doesn’t pay to live up to the label.


In her 1994 book Who Stole Feminism? How Women Have Betrayed Women, Christina Hoff Sommers applauds the achievements of women suffragists as “classically liberal” feminists, but argues that now U.S. women have achieved equality of opportunity. Equity feminists—Sommers’ term for a form of free market or libertarian feminism—support legal rights for women but deny the existence of structural forces constricting women’s advancement. They chalk present-day disparities in the U.S. up to intrinsic sex differences, condemn “war on women” rhetoric as infantilizing, and argue that valid feminism must focus on “real” oppression in less developed countries.26 Equity feminists accuse “gender feminists”—by which they mean mainstream feminists—of lying about statistics on violence against women and exaggerating rape culture as part of a victimhood narrative. They imply that female students often lie about being raped when they regret “hooking up,” attracting media attention by offering dissident women’s critiques of the rapidly growing movement against campus rape.27

On the other hand, equity feminists suggest that American boys and men suffer at the hands of gender feminists. In 2013, concern over boys’ educational achievements brought Sommers’ message to mainstream media outlets including The New York Times, TIME, and The Atlantic. Their hostility toward gender feminists and skepticism of rape survivors dovetails alarmingly with—and gives the legitimacy of women’s voices to—the misogynist ideology of the Men’s Rights Movement.28

The free market feminist belief in individual empowerment shares ideological similarities with neoliberal feminism, exemplified by works such as Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, and some adherents (including Sommers herself) identify as Democrats,29 although the movement organizations all sit within the conservative network. An American Enterprise Institute (AEI) article, reposted by the Independent Women’s Forum (IWF), argues, “Feminists hate Lean In because, as Republican Party activist Ann Stone commented from the audience, Sandberg ‘stuck a knife in the breast of [female] victimhood big-time.’” One of the largest groups in the movement, the IWF— of which Sommers is the advisory board chair—developed out of a group formed to help defend Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas against Anita Hill’s allegations of sexual harassment.30

Today organized free market feminism is a small and closely interlinked network that, thanks to its economic conservatism, reaps support from right-wing groups like the massive AEI and substantial donations from the Koch family foundations or through Donors Trust/Donors Capital Fund, which Andy Kroll at Mother Jones calls “the dark-money ATM of the right.”31 IWF received $1.8 million from Donors Trust/Capital in 2012 and also receives funding from the well-known conservative Bradley and Scaife foundations. In March 2015, IWF demonstrated support for another infamous Koch-funded organization, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), in honoring CEO Lisa B. Nelson in its “Modern Feminist” feature.32

Like those who claim “pro-life feminism,” free market feminist organizations recognize the value of reaching a younger generation. Sommers’ caricature of gender feminism—as exaggerating the oppression of U.S. women—continues to attract female students 20 years later, while the Clare Boothe Luce Policy Institute ($1.5 million budget) trains young women to “take back feminism.” The small Network of enlightened Women (NeW), whose president is an IWF fellow, also works on campuses. And in 2013, AEI refreshed the equity brand by publishing Sommers’ new book, Freedom Feminism: Its Surprising History and Why It Matters Today, as part of a Values & Capitalism series for Christian college students.

IWF avoids culture war issues such as abortion and LGBTQ rights, though it defends gun rights and opposes education on climate change, which can encourage restrictions on the free market. Though primarily affiliated with conservative organizations, equity feminists include individuals who identify as pro-choice, secular or atheist, or Democratic.33 This keeps them from playing with—and receiving funding from—the larger and more powerful Christian Right operations like CWA. But they at times follow different paths to the same position. For instance, On the Issues summarizes the vehement opposition to VAWA as falling into “two broadly ideological areas—that the law is an unnecessary overreach by the federal government [free market feminism], and that it represents a ‘feminist’ attack on family values [pro-life feminism].”34 CWA also draws on the equity feminist justification for opposing equal pay legislation—that wage disparities result from women’s “choices,” and government regulations that address the income gap would thus interfere with women’s exercise of choice—demonstrating the shared free market influence that helps Christian Right organizations win the Koch brothers’ largesse and protects equity feminism from total isolation.35


When Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ) first introduced the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act in 2013, he modeled the legislation after the NRLC’s proposed bill, which lacked any rape and incest exemption. Defending this, Franks asserted that “the incidence of rape resulting in pregnancy are very low,” triggering swift comparisons to Todd Akin’s famous faux pas in 2012. Republican House leadership went into damage control mode, putting their female colleagues in charge of the floor debate to deflect criticism, with Blackburn as lead co-sponsor.36 They also added a rape and incest exemption, modified with the police-reporting requirement to satisfy anti-abortion organizations including SBA and CWA (which, an Ellmers aide told a constituent on tape, insisted on its inclusion).37

But compromise came with a cost. Though NRLC accepted the weakening of their model bill, its Georgia chapter was outraged by the deal and broke away to form the even more hardline National Personhood Alliance.38 This loss of face likely contributed to the NRLC’s refusal to compromise further and risk denunciation from their right flank. NRLC president Carol Tobias vehemently condemned the congresswomen and men “who metaphorically stabbed a knife in the back of all the pro-lifers who voted for them.”39 Some abortion opponents advocated returning to the original bill, suggesting that the reporting requirement would not be a problem if they removed the exemption altogether.

Despite a meeting between the male Republican leadership and the group of concerned congresswomen—it’s rare for women legislators to rate so much time with the leadership—the impasse between these two influential bodies of conservative women, the elected officials, and the organizational leaders, thwarted compromise.40

The January upset came within a year of another schism that pitted Republican congresswomen against Christian Right women’s organizations. In May 2014, Blackburn, Ellmers, Walorski, and all but two of the Republican women then in Congress ended up on the opposite side of CWA and SBA over legislation for a National Women’s History Museum. (One of the museum’s two female opponents was Tea Party favorite and then representative Michele Bachmann, who herself appears in an exhibit.) Along with Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum, the Family Research Council, and Heritage Action, the conservative women’s organizations denounced the proposed museum as a biased “national shrine to abortion” that would “fuel the radical feminist movement for decades to come.” Blackburn, the lead Republican co-sponsor of the bi-partisan bill, offered CWA president Peggy Nance a seat on the museum’s board to attempt to win the conservative organization’s support. Nance refused unless she or another right-wing leader could serve as chair.41 IWF and its sister organizations stayed out of the fight, but a couple of connections suggested a measure of support for the museum: IWF has praised as a “modern feminist” one of the museum’s three founders, Ann Stone, who still sits on the museum’s board along with a Clare Boothe Luce Policy Institute board member.42

When the museum bill passed with an overwhelming majority, Sarah Mimms at the National Journal summarized the moral: “The message from the Republican majority to the outside groups opposing the bill is clear: You’re not helping.” She warned that, given the widening gender gap between the parties, “Republican opposition to a bipartisan legislation for a museum celebrating the accomplishments of women” would backfire at the polls.43

Despite the conflict over the museum, Ellmers, Walorski, and Blackburn looked like they followed the Palin brand until this January, when the battle over Franks’ abortion bill took the underlying conflicts to a new level. While Christian Right women’s organizations reacted to the Republican congresswomen’s actions as a betrayal, and free market feminist organizations steered clear of the debate, that doesn’t mean the dissident GOP congresswomen are simply more closely aligned with free market feminism. While the less-funded free market or equity feminist network might benefit from embracing the congresswomen’s position, they were founded on and continue to promote a dismissive approach to sexual harassment, rape culture, and violence against women. Contrast that with congresswomen like Ellmers, who has gone against the conservative grain to co-sponsor proposed legislation addressing campus sexual assault. Even on VAWA, while Blackburn, Ellmers, and eight other Republican congresswomen voted no on reauthorization, Walorski and the majority of female GOP representatives (including all female senators) bucked their party and both conservative movement feminisms to vote yes.

The divide among conservative women seems to speak to a larger sense among GOP congresswomen of what their party must do to appeal to women—a serious concern given that “polls showed women tend to see Republicans as ‘intolerant, lacking in compassion and stuck in the past.’”44 In December 2014, Blackburn joined Rep. Susan Brooks (R-IN) and then Rep.-elect Barbara Comstock (R-VA) in a panel at Politico’s Women Rule Summit (co-sponsored by the Tory Burch Foundation and Google), titled “Conservative Feminists: Why It’s Not an Oxymoron.” During the discussion, Brooks, who hails from the same state as candidate Richard Mourdock, was asked to comment on his remarks on rape. “We took a stand as Republican women, and said, ‘This is not our party,’” Brooks said, adding that Republicans shouldn’t allow the GOP to be branded by such remarks.45 This was a marked departure from SBA’s decision to stand behind Mourdock despite his offensive comments.

A conservative women’s movement prioritizing bipartisan work to promote women’s accomplishments and taking a more positive approach to sexual violence—whether motivated by branding or substance—would significantly break with the existing right-wing base, even if it otherwise retains stringently anti-choice and free market positions.

Since Christian Right women’s organizations cater to a male-dominated movement in holding a hardline stance, their position is unlikely to soften. The Republican congresswomen testing out this third way risk incurring the wrath of influential female Christian Right leaders (and their male backers) who stand for ever more extreme right-wing policies. When the Franks bill ultimately failed, anti-abortion blogger Jill Stanek and Students for Life America president Kristan Hawkins promptly organized young women to protest at Ellmers’ office during the March for Life, countering Ellmers’ stated concerns about losing millennial votes with a “new poll,” from right-wing Catholic group Knights of Columbus, purporting to show that millennials are “a pro-life generation.”46 Asked whether Ellmers would face a primary challenge, SBA president Dannenfelser responded decisively: “That tidal wave has already begun….That’s going to happen, and she deserves it.”47

Alex DiBranco studies social movements and nonprofit organizations as a sociology Ph.D. student at Yale, analyzing the U.S. Christian Right and reproductive rights and justice movements. She is a Public Eye editorial board member and has been published in outlets including The Nation, Alternet and RH Reality Check.


1. Paige Winfield Cunningham. (2015). “Renee Ellmers explains stance against abortion bill.” Washington Examiner. Online at http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/renee- ellmers-explains-stance-against- abortion-bill/article/2559085.

2. Ibid.

3. Daniel Newhauser and Lauren Fox. (2015). “GOP Leaders Pull Abortion Bill After Revolt by Women, Moderates.” National Journal. Online at http://www. nationaljournal.com/congress/gop- leaders-pull-abortion-bill-after-revolt- by-women-moderates-20150121.

4. Bill Browning. (2009). “The nexus: Abortion zealot Jackie Walorski and Indiana’s hate crimes legislation.” Huffington Post. Online at http://www. huffingtonpost.com/bil-browning/the- nexus-abortion-zealot_b_157628.html.

5. “The Ten Scariest Republicans Heading to Congress.” People for the American Way. Online at http:// www.pfaw.org/rww-in-focus/the- ten-scariest-republicans-heading-to- congress#ellmers.

6. Abby Scher. (2015). “The New Face Of Republican Women in Congress.” The Progressive. Online at http://www.progressive.org/ news/2015/03/188022/new-face- republican-women-congress.

7. Leslie Dorrough Smith. (2014).Righteous Rhetoric: Sex, Speech, and the Politics of Concerned Women for America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 121.

8. Ibid.

9. Abby Scher. (2008). “Post-Palin Feminism.” Political Research Associates. Online at http://www. politicalresearch.org/2008/12/06/ post-palin-feminism/.

10. Ibid.

11. Lisa Miller. (2011). “A feminine face for the antiabortion movement.” The Washington Post. Online at http:// www.washingtonpost.com/national/ on-faith/a-feminine-face-for-the-anti- abortion-movement/2011/11/02/ gIQAwd7kiM_story.html.

12. Emily Bazelon. (2007). “Suffragette City.” Mother Jones. Online at http://www.motherjones.com/ politics/2007/01/suffragette-city.

13. “Defending Reproductive Justice: Activist Resource Kit.” Political Research Associates. Online at http://www.politicalresearch.org/resources/reports/full-reports/defending- reproductive-justice-activist-resource-kit-2/.

14. (1998). “Challenging the Ex-Gay Movement: An Information Packet.” Political Research Associates. Online at http://www.politicalresearch.org/wp- content/uploads/downloads/2012/11/ ChallengingExGay.pdf.

15. Robin Marty. (2015). “Joining the other side.” Contributoria. Online at https://www. contributoria.com/issue/2015- 02/5489c05855f1bf033400004b.

16. Emily Bazelon. (2007). “Suffragette City.” Mother Jones. Online at http://www.motherjones.com/ politics/2007/01/suffragette-city.

17. Kate Sheppard. (2012). “Susan B. Anthony List Founder: Republicans Hijacked My PAC!” Mother Jones. Online at http://www.motherjones.com/ politics/2012/02/susan-b-anthony-list- sharp-right-turn-rachel-macnair.

18. Monica Potts. (2012). “Susan B. Anthony’s Hit List.” The American Prospect. Online at http://prospect.org/ article/susan-b-anthonys-hit-list.

19. Valerie Richardson. (1992). “Feminist launches PAC for pro-lifers.” The Washington Times. Online at https:// stuff.mit.edu/afs/net/user/tytso/ usenet/americast/twt/news/596.

20. “Susan B. Anthony List’s Anti- Choice Machine.” NARAL Pro-Choice America. (2014). Online at http://www. prochoiceamerica.org/elections/sba- list-report/.

21. Ronnee Schreiber. (2008). Righting Feminism: Conservative Women and American Politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 52.

22. Lila Rose. (2012). “Battle hymn of the anti-abortion feminist.” Politico. Online at http://www.politico.com/ news/stories/0412/74739.html.

23. Remington Shepard and Kevin Zieber. (2012). “Right-Wing Media Hype Discredited Activist’s Latest Bogus Planned Parenthood Attack.” Media Matters. Online at http://mediamatters. org/research/2012/05/29/right-wing- media-hype-discredited-activists- lat/185033.

24. “Defending Reproductive Justice: Activist Resource Kit.” Political Research Associates. Online at http://www.politicalresearch.org/resources/reports/full-reports/defending-reproductive-justice-activist-resource- kit-2/.

25. Laura Bassett. (2013). “Lila Rose: Beatriz Doesn’t Need A Life-Saving Abortion.” Huffington Post. Online at http://www.huffingtonpost. com/2013/05/31/lila-rose-beatriz- abortion_n_3367595.html.

26. Christina Hoff Sommers. (2015). “The Buckley Program at Yale Lecture Series Jan. 22, 2015.” Online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z_ t701RfOEM.

27. Charlotte Hays. (2015). “Caroline Kitchens.” Independent Women’s Forum. Online at http://iwf.org/ modern-feminist/2796105/ CAROLINE-KITCHENS.

28. Arthur Goldwag. (2012). “Leader’s Suicide Brings Attention to Men’s Rights Movement.” Southern Poverty Law Center.Online at http://www.splcenter. org/get-informed/intelligence-report/ browse-all-issues/2012/spring/a-war- on-women.

29. Alex DiBranco. (2015). “Letter to the Editor.” The Public Eye, Winter 2015. Online at http://politicalresearch.org/ resources/magazine.

30. “Independent Women’s Forum.” SourceWatch.org. Online at http:// www.sourcewatch.org/index.php/ Independent_Women%27s_Forum.

31. Andy Kroll. (2013). “Exposed: The Dark-Money ATM of the Conservative Movement.” Mother Jones. Online at http://www.motherjones.com/ politics/2013/02/donors-trust-donor- capital-fund-dark-money-koch-bradley- devos.

32. Charlotte Hays. (2015). “ALEC CEO Lisa B. Nelson.” Independent Women’s Forum. Online at http://iwf.org/ modern-feminist/2796644/ALEC-CEO- LISA-B.-NELSON.

33. “Independent Women’s Forum.” SourceWatch.org. Online at http:// www.sourcewatch.org/index.php/ Independent_Women%27s_Forum.

34. (2010). “Renee Ellmers on Civil Rights.” On the Issues. Online at http:// www.ontheissues.org/NC/Renee_ Ellmers_Civil_Rights.htm.

35. Concerned Women for America staff. (2014). “Paycheck Fairness Act (S.2199) Opposition Letter.” Concerned Women for America. Online at http:// www.cwfa.org/paycheck-fairness-act- s-2199-opposition-letter/.

36. Kathryn Smith and Ginger Gibson. (2013). “Trent Franks: ‘Incidence of rape resulting in pregnancy are very low.’” Politico. Online at http://www. politico.com/story/2013/06/trent- franks-incidence-of-rape-resulting- in-pregnancy-are-very-low-92650. html#ixzz3QRMIwJQA.

37. Miranda Blue. (2015). “Anti-Choice Women’s Groups Reportedly Pushed For Rape Reporting Requirement In Abortion Ban.” Right Wing Watch. Online at http://www.rightwingwatch. org/content/anti-choice-womens- groups-reportedly-pushed-rape- reporting-requirement-abortion-ban.

38. Miranda Blue. (2014). “Spurned Georgia Group Launching Even More Extreme Rival To National Right To Life Committee.” Right Wing Watch. Online at http://www.rightwingwatch. org/content/spurned-georgia-group- launching-even-more-extreme-rival- national-right-life-committee.

39. (2015). “Elected Officials Who Betray Unborn Babies Have to Go.” National Right to Life News Today. Online at http://www.nationalrighttolifenews. org/news/2015/01/elected-officials- who-betray-unborn-babies-have-to- go/.

40. Ed O’Keefe. (2015). “Abortion bill dropped amid concerns of female GOP lawmakers.” The Washington Post. Online at http://www. washingtonpost.com/blogs/post- politics/wp/2015/01/21/abortion-bill- in-flux-as-female-gop-lawmakers-raise- concerns/.

41. Miranda Blue. (2014). “After Complaining Women’s Museum Will ‘Indoctrinate’ Visitors Into Feminism, CWA’s Nance Demands To Chair Museum’s Board.” Right Wing Watch. Online at http://www.rightwingwatch. org/content/after-complaining- women-s-museum-will-indoctrinate- visitors-feminism-cwas-nance- demands-chai.

42. Charlotte Hays. (2013). “Portrait of a Modern Feminist: Ann Stone.” Independent Women’s Forum. Online at http://iwf.org/modern- feminist/2791521/Portrait-of-a- Modern-Feminist:-Ann-Stone.

43. Sarah Mimms. (2014). “Conservative Groups Urge Republicans to Oppose Women’s Museum, Republicans Don’t Listen.” National Journal. Online at http://www.nationaljournal.com/ congress/conservative-groups-urge- republicans-to-oppose-women- s-museum-republicans-don-t- listen-20140507.

44. Abby Scher. (2015). “The New Face Of Republican Women in Congress.” The Progressive. Online at http://www.progressive.org/news/2015/03/188022/ new-face-republican-women-congress.

45. “Conservative Feminism: Why it’s not an oxymoron.” Politico. (2014). Online at https://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=p6V9GhIb0so.

46. Lauretta Brown. (2015). “Millenni- als Protest Ellmers’ Efforts to Delay and Dilute Pro-Life Bill.” CNSNews.com. Online at http://cnsnews.com/news/article/lauretta-brown/millennials-protest-ellmers-efforts-delay-and-dilute-pro-life-bill.

47. Austin Ruse. (2015). “Exclusive: Pro-Life Leaders Call for Ellmers’ Oust- er.” Breitbart.com. Online at http://www.breitbart.com/big-govern- ment/2015/01/22/exclusive-pro-life-leaders-call-for-ellmers-ouster-from-congress/.

When in Doubt, Religify! Fear Mongering about Religious Liberty

Liberty InstituteSo much of the contemporary religious liberty campaign being conducted by the Christian Right is demagogic fear-mongering designed to justify discrimination against other Americans, particularly LGBTQ people. While most of our attention is directed to larger-than-life marriage equality dramas being played out in courtrooms, legislative chambers, and major media outlets, the foundation is being laid for massive resistance to marriage equality and much more.

This is the story of one such effort that has received little attention.

The Liberty Institute, a leading Christian Right legal advocacy group based in Plano, Texas, is rolling out a plan to prepare people for what they suggest is an inevitable wave of anti-Christian legal attacks against everything from churches to frat houses and for-profit corporations. “What’s the solution to protecting yourself from legal attacks?” the Institute rhetorically asks. “In a word: ‘“religify.”” [Emphasis in the original]

“In a world where hostility toward religion is on the rise, it’s not a matter of if but when religious institutions will be faced with damaging, anti-religious legal attacks. That’s why Liberty Institute now offers free-of-charge Religious Liberty Templates and Guides to religious institutions—including churches and synagogues, faith-based charities, orphanages, shelters, sororities, fraternities and faith-based for-profit companies.” [Emphases in the original.]

The Liberty Institute says they want to help these agencies avoid “legal and financial ruin” due to the activities of “individuals and organizations that are offended by traditional religious viewpoints and seek to litigate employment or discrimination claims to further a larger political or cultural agenda.”

Yes, the answer to this alleged “open season on people of faith” is to religify your organization by specifying all of your beliefs, and to act in accordance with those beliefs by integrating them deeply into all institutional policies, from statements of faith to employment manuals to rental agreements for outside groups. The goal is to be able to “prove the sincerity of their faith—and protect themselves from coming legal attacks.”

The Institute draws on detailed understandings of recent Supreme Court cases as sources for this legal groundwork against the coming siege. They point particularly to the 2012 case of Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which disallowed a discrimination complaint by a teacher, declaring that her role was part of the ministry of the church, and her employer therefore was exempt from employment discrimination laws. The decision is widely seen as having opened the door to a wide range of religious exemptions from civil rights and labor laws. The Institute also points to the 2014 decision in Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. & Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Burwell, which for the first time endowed “closely held” for-profit corporations with religious rights under the First Amendment.

There are a lot of problems with the Institute’s approach.  Let’s look at two of them.

In a recent article, the Institute offered six examples of how religious freedom is under attack, and therefore why religious institutions should reorganize using the Institute’s templates. The Institute claims, for example, that Catholic Charities was “forced” to close its adoption services in Boston. This is, unfortunately, typical of the hyperbolic distortion in many such claims. The Institute wrote:

“When a Massachusetts state law was passed stating that homosexuals must be allowed to adopt, Catholic Charities of the Boston Archdiocese made the difficult decision to stop offering adoption services—to avoid violating their sincerely held religious beliefs by providing adoptions to same-sex couples. Then, when the Catholic agency tried to obtain, an exemption from state law, it was denied.”

In fact, same sex couples had been able to adopt since a decision of the State Supreme Judicial Court in 1993. The Boston Globe reported in 2005 that for years, Catholic Charities had been placing children with gay adoptive parents in explicit compliance with Massachusetts anti-discrimination laws. In the wake of the Globe report, the 42-member board of Catholic Charities voted unanimously to continue gay adoptions, but the state’s four Roman Catholic bishops disagreed, and initially said they would seek an exemption from the law. Then-governor Mitt Romney said he did not have the power to grant such an exemption, so the bishops decided to discontinue their adoption program rather than comply with state non-discrimination laws or engage in potentially expensive litigation whose outcome was uncertain.

It should be added that Catholic Charities made its announcement near the expiration of a 20-year contract with the state to provide adoption services. That contract would likely not have been renewed in light of the Bishops’ refusal to obey the law.

Second, it is worth a look at the Institute’s recommended language for revising the policies of religious and other institutions to maximize the possibility of success in defense against lawsuits for violations of civil rights and labor laws.

In their template, Guidelines: Drafting Church Employment and Administrative Policies, Liberty Institute points to several court decisions, especially Hosanna-Tabor, that highlight the court’s recognition of “ministerial exceptions” to governmental regulation. The Supreme Court held in Hosanna-Tabor that the ministerial exception does not apply solely to persons that are traditionally thought of as “ministers.” The Institute believes that this may allow churches to cover most if not all church employees under the legal definition of ministry, and thereby justify broad exemptions from compliance with civil rights and labor laws. One of the ways they suggest accomplishing this is by tailoring job descriptions to emphasize how each position is an expression of their doctrine.

This has immediate implications, for example, on matters of sexual identity. The Liberty Institute’s template titled “Statement of Faith: Marriage and Human Sexuality” advances a strident, exclusivist, and detailed doctrine identifying permanent, heterosexual marriage or celibacy as the only acceptable parameters of human sexuality, adding:

“All of our members, employees, and volunteers must affirm and adhere to this Doctrinal and Religious Absolute statement on marriage and human sexuality to qualify for involvement with the ministry. This is necessary to accomplish our religious mission, goals and purpose.”

The Institute’s Facility Use Policy agreement would even require outside groups and individuals to conform to a given church’s views on faith, marriage, sexuality, and gender identity.

The Liberty Institute is not wrong to anticipate cultural and legal adjustments that will be made as LGBTQ equality advances, particularly in the wake of the marriage equality case currently before the Supreme Court. But people of good will across society will undoubtedly do their best to make adjustments to accommodate the rights of others without necessarily compromising their own views. (Others, perhaps not so much.)

However, the Institute is deeply misguided in its repeatedly articulated, conspiracist view that there is a massive effort to squelch religious belief and expression generally, and Christian belief and expression in particular. It’s an old saw with many today. But it has no more validity today than it did a hundred years ago, when the raging anti-Semite Henry Ford declared that Jews were waging a war on Christmas and Easter in America.

A certain amount of tension over the nature of religious activity and expression in our democratic, religiously plural society is normal. It’s not whether we all agree that matters so much as how we handle our disagreements.

The Vatican’s Hypocrisy Endangers LGBTQ People Worldwide

“If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge him?” Pope Francis told reporters in July 2013. In January 2015, Pope Francis reportedly met with a transgender person, winning praises across the world for his openness. In February, however, the Pope erased any hope of a more progressive Catholic position when he compared gender theory (often used to defend and advocate for transgender rights) to nuclear weapons.

“Let’s think of the nuclear arms, of the possibility to annihilate in a few instants a very high number of human beings,” he was quoted as saying. “Let’s think also of genetic manipulation, of the manipulation of life, or of the gender theory, that does not recognize the order of creation. … God has placed man and woman and the summit of creation and has entrusted them with the earth. The design of the Creator is written in nature.”

The Pope’s words and actions carry tremendous weight, and with them he has the power to either sanction or condemn the ongoing persecution or LGBTQI people around the world. Unfortunately, Pope Francis continues to play hide and seek on this issue—something his predecessor did, too.

Pope Francis celebrated as a progressive leader, but he has not yet acted upon his benevolent words.

Pope Francis is celebrated as a progressive leader, but he has not yet acted upon his benevolent words.

Pope Francis ought to realize that U.S. Roman Catholic leaders and organizations are equally responsible for the fire of homophobia and sexism that is raging in Africa and elsewhere. In 2009, the Vatican came out strongly against the criminalization of sexual minorities. This followed the introduction of Uganda’s infamous “Kill the Gays” bill in Parliament. Then little-known U.S. evangelical Scott Lively traveled to Uganda for an anti-homosexuality conference in March 2009. The very next month, the Ugandan Parliament drafted and introduced one of the most extreme anti-LGBTI laws in the world—the Anti-Homosexuality Act, as it was officially known, called for the death penalty for LGBTI people. Africans such as Pastor Martin Ssempa (for whom megachurch Pastor Rick Warren was a mentor), Stephen Langa of the Family Life Network, and Uganda’s Joint Christian Council (which includes several Roman Catholic Bishops among its members) ensured the passage of the Anti-Homosexuality Act in February 2014. The law was struck down by the Constitutional Court of Uganda on purely technical reasons later that same year, but it still has the potential to pass again—another reason why the Pope’s voice is so desperately needed in the struggle for sexual rights.

On December 10, 2009, the Holy See released a little-known historic statement that opposed “all forms of violence and unjust discrimination against homosexual persons, including discriminatory penal legislation which undermines the inherent dignity of the human person.” With this statement, the Vatican seemed to establish a position in firm opposition to the (not yet extant) “Kill the Gays” bill in Uganda and similar laws elsewhere.

The human rights world applauded the Vatican’s position—but the above words were never uttered by the Pontiff himself or inserted into the Encyclical (the official document of Roman Catholic positions on various issues). Rather than making a bold statement affirming and defending LGBTQI peoples, the Vatican’s posturing outsmarted human rights advocates around the world. By denouncing criminalization of sexual minorities, the Vatican was able to evade responsibility for human rights abuses (laying the blame solely on U.S. conservative evangelicals), while still endorsing the work of U.S.-based Catholic groups such The Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, Human Life International, and Priests for Life, as well as bishops and other church leaders guilty of campaigning for the criminalization of sexual minorities. In Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, and many other African countries, Roman Catholic bishops and priests—with the support of their colleagues in the U.S. and at the Vatican—have been at the forefront of anti-LGBTI campaigns.

Much blame has been placed on the shoulders of conservative American evangelicals, but U.S. Roman Catholic right-wing groups are equally guilty of exporting homophobia and sexism to Africa. This was illustrated in February 2015, when Roman Catholic Bishop Emmanuel Badejo of the Diocese of Oyo in Nigeria claimed that Nigeria’s failure to rescue the kidnapped girls (the Chibok girls taken by the Islamist group Boko Haram) was due to lack of support from the Obama administration, resulting from its opposition to an anti-LGBTI law passed in Nigeria in 2014. While the media cited Bishop Badejo for this statement, the claim was originally made by a U.S. conservative: Rep. Steve Stockman, who in August 2014 argued, “We have information that would help the Nigerian military take back their country and get back those girls. The mistake on our side—the United States’ side—is that we have laws preventing us from sharing that information with the Nigerian military. And one of the reasons is that we don’t like some of the social policy of the Nigerian government.”

The passage of Nigeria’s 2014 anti-LGBTQI law, which applies a 14-year jail sentence for same-sex marriages and prohibits advocacy of sexual minorities’ rights, was celebrated by Nigerian Roman Catholic Bishops. The bishops commended the government for its “courageous and wise decision” to fight “the conspiracy of the developed world to make our country and continent the dumping ground for the promotion of all immoral practices that have continued to debase the purpose of God for man in the area of creation and morality, in their own countries.” Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama went as far as saying “thank God that this bill was passed.” The failure of the Vatican to oppose or counter such statements implies approval; its hide-and-seek game essentially sanctions the persecution of sexual minorities in Africa and other parts of the world.

Pope Francis is continually credited as being a much more “progressive” leader than many of his predecessors, but he has done nothing to oppose anti-LGBTQI laws in Africa, Russia, and Asia. Though celebrated as a champion of people’s rights, Pope Francis is following in the footsteps of his conservative predecessor Benedict XVI, who condemned criminalization and dehumanization of sexual minorities while simultaneously blessing the Ugandan Speaker of Parliament Rebecca Kadaga in 2012—knowing that she had promised to pass the “Kill the Gays” bill into law.

As the World Meeting of Families draws near in Philadelphia, human rights advocates anxiously await a public statement from Pope Francis on human sexuality. If the event centers on the definition of “family values” promoted by U.S. Roman Catholic and evangelical conservatives, then the Pope’s visit will further sanction the demonization, scapegoating, and persecution of LGBTQI individuals around the world. U.S. conservatives—from lesser-known characters like Matt McLaughlin and Scott Lively to big name leaders like Franklin Graham and Rick Warren—are awaiting the Pope’s visit to advance their global anti-human rights agenda.

The Pope’s upcoming visit to the U.S. provides another opportunity for the advancement of human rights for all people. The persecution, violence, and trauma caused by religiously sanctioned homophobia demands a statement from Pope Francis on LGBTQI rights. His words have the potential to either sanction continuous violence, rape, criminalization, persecution, and killings—or bring long-awaited and desperately needed acceptance of sexual minorities across the globe.

We will be watching!

California’s “Shoot the Gays” Ballot Initiative Serves as Permission Slip for African Conservatives

The news that a Christian lawyer named Matt McLaughlin submitted a proposed ballot initiative in California that would require the execution of all LGBTQ people may sound laughable in the United States, but McLaughlin’s goal might not actually be to see the initiative signed into law. It may, in fact, be meant as a signal to countries all over the world where U.S. conservative Christians are encouraging the passage of similar anti-LGBTQ laws, essentially saying that if people in the U.S. are “considering” such a law, they should be free to do the same.

The “Sodomite Suppression Act” ballot initiative in California says, “in the fear of God, that any person who willingly touches another person of the same gender for purposes of sexual gratification be put to death by bullets to the head or by any other convenient method.”

Matt McLaughlin and the text of his “Sodomite Suppression Act”


It’s practically a foregone conclusion that McLaughlin will not succeed in collecting the required number of signatures to get his initiative on the ballot, but that doesn’t mean he’s without company here in the U.S. Just as Scott Lively received roughly 19,000 votes in his failed gubernatorial campaign in Massachusetts last year, McLaughlin will have some people who share similar views, both here and—importantly—in Africa. The concern should be that while his initiative is scoffed at in the U.S., the American culture warriors who are actively pursuing legislative persecution of both sexual minorities and women’s reproductive freedom in countries like Uganda, Nigeria, Kenya, Malawi, and Russia will leverage the fact that it has been proposed (and therefore given the serious consideration that America’s democracy requires) in order to sway foreign leaders and communities—people who may not realize how simple it is to pay a few dollars to get a ballot initiative in California proposed.

It was not long ago that (then) little-known U.S. right-wing evangelical Scott Lively traveled to Uganda and called on their Parliament to pass extreme anti-LGBTQ laws as a strategy for protecting young people from “homosexual recruitment” and the nation from “the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah.” Aside from being heralded in Uganda as a “Man of God,” Lively’s talking points were adopted by Africans such as Pastor Martin Ssempa, Stephen Langa of the Family Life Network, and, of course, by Parliamentarian David Bahati—recently elevated to a full cabinet position in the Museveni administration—who became the author and sponsor of the infamous 2009 “Kill the Gays” bill.

Despite the increase in violence against sexual minorities in Uganda, Bahati sees nothing wrong with the bill—something he recently told VICE Magazine. On a subsequent visit to the U.S., Bahati also told Rachel Maddow that he saw nothing wrong with executing gays for “aggravated homosexuality.” Citing the Bible, Bahati argued that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).

The Anti Homosexuality Act—as it’s officially titled—was signed into law in February 2014 before getting struck down by the Constitutional Court of Uganda for technical reasons. While LGBTQ activists in Uganda deserve to celebrate this important victory, members of Uganda’s Parliament have pledged to revive it in the near future.

Because McLaughlin’s proposed initiative is rooted in (his version of) Evangelical Christianity, U.S. Christian conservative leaders have a moral obligation to oppose it. But U.S. conservative leaders are so timid to stand up against bigotry. It took months of intense public pressure and scrutiny before The Fellowship (aka “The Family”) and U.S. megachurch pastor Rick Warren were forced to denounce the “Kill the Gays” bill—the legislation Warren himself exported on his 2008 visit to Uganda, during which he rejected sexual minorities’ rights as human rights. U.S. conservatives claim that militant homophobes like McLaughlin and Lively are not representative of their positions—that they are merely fringe characters. Yet when such militant actors use the name of Christianity to export ideologies that hurt our fellow human beings, these same so-called “moderate” Christian conservatives keep quiet (while simultaneously demanding that every U.S. Muslim should denounce Islamic Fundamentalists!).

McLaughlin’s initiative may be extreme, but it clearly illustrates how American culture wars ride on religion. The dangerous fire of religiously-sanctioned homophobia and sexism is currently burning across African nations in the name of God. The legislation pushed for and created by U.S. conservatives in Uganda and Russia now serves as models for other nations—similar laws have subsequently passed in The Gambia and Nigeria, and unless all U.S. people of conscience immediately begin working here at home to contain these homegrown culture warriors, their spread of anti-human rights poison abroad will only increase.

Christian leaders of all traditions and faiths must stand up against homophobia—they must condemn any promotion of hatred in the name of religion. Like McLaughlin, Edward Onwong’a Nyakeriga of Kenya’s Republican Liberty Party wants execution by stoning or life imprisonment for sexual minorities. Under the premise of “protecting” traditional family values, Nyakeriga argues the law is necessary to stop “sexual rights activists” from imposing “their values of sexual promiscuity on the people of Kenya.” As McLaughlin reveals (again), these words are taken directly from U.S. conservative talking points.

But conservative talking points have bodies—U.S. anti-human rights Christian conservatives are actively exporting their ideologies to Africa, where they are unquestioningly received as scientific truths. Depending on how the Supreme Court rules on same-sex marriages next month, U.S. Conservative ideologies may soon be history. Due to the number of losses Christian conservatives have suffered—and continue to suffer—in U.S. courts, accompanied by their failure to sell their anti-human rights agenda to young evangelicals, American culture warriors know they are fighting a losing battle. But this does not mean they will be out of business soon—their campaign is already globalized, and their talking points have found an eager market in Africa.

As eyes are set on the U.S., well-known and little-known U.S. conservatives such as Warren, Lively, and Sharon Slater have been waging anti-human rights battles on foreign grounds for many years. We all know that Pastor Warren (reluctantly) opposed the “Kill the Gays” bill when speaking on U.S. soil, but when is he going to condemn homophobia while he is visiting Rwanda? Hence, as long as the U.S. Right continues to dump its expired arsenal of homophobia and sexism on African soil, sexual minorities and women will be the direct victims of the same.

On a continent where over 90% of the population identifies as religious, African homophobia is covered in religiously coded messages. The efforts of human rights defenders alone won’t put out the fire of homophobia and sexism—religious leaders must also play a part. American evangelical religious leaders and para-church organizations operating in Africa—from World Vision to Pastor Warren’s PEACE Plan to Franklin Graham’s Samaritan’s Purse—have a moral obligation to speak out against religiously sanctioned violence directed toward sexual minorities and women. Their voices will determine who lives and who dies. These groups may claim to be oblivious to the persecution of sexual minorities and women in Africa, but religiously sanctioned homophobia and sexism continues to destroy and claim lives there.

While evangelical Christians of good conscience need to oppose anti-human rights positions advocated for by U.S. Christian extremists both at home and abroad, they also have the duty to demand that all evangelical organizations operating in Africa denounce homophobia and sexism. Keeping silent when lesbians are raped and gays are arrested and killed across the continent is not Christ-like—it is shameful and a betrayal of our biblical faith and family values. Mr. McLaughlin provides Pastor Warren and all evangelical pastors and scholars with an opportunity to honor the sacred humanity of all persons by denouncing his initiative as un-Christian.