The Religious Right Has Been Pushing Anti-Union Right to Work Laws for A Century

“I have enjoyed seeing the unions shrink,” crowed Christian Reconstructionist Gary North on his blog, “Tea Party Economist,” on February 27. The following week, the Wisconsin state legislature rammed through a bill that weakens unions by allowing workers to benefit from union-bargained wages and working conditions without being required to pay any dues or agency fees. A triumphant Gov. Scott Walker (R) signed the new law March 9. The Wisconsin law is not unique, but part of a long-term trend of Religious Right support for Corporate Right actors and robber barons like the Koch Brothers.

 

Wisconsin Teamsters protest the "right to work" law

Wisconsin Teamsters protest the “right to work” law

Such laws, dubbed “right to work” laws in the 1940s by anti-unionists within the Christian Right, were passed long ago in states throughout the anti-union South and West. Now, we are witnessing their resurgence in formerly union-friendly states such as Michigan and Wisconsin. As even North admits, the spin is a ruse: “There is no right to work…But the phrase, “right to work,” has been a political winner for a generation.”

In a New York Times op-ed this last week, scholar and observer of the Right Kevin Kruse shared a bit of history on how Christian Right leaders have long helped business leaders whittle away at the economic freedoms granted to working Americans since the New Deal. Kruse mentioned Billy Graham, who in 1952 listed “union dues” and “labor leaders” among the ills that could not have existed in the Garden of Eden. Graham was throwing fuel on the flames of business leaders’ angst over the profits they were losing to their workers in union collective bargaining agreements. By then, too, the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 had opened the way for states to begin passing legislation designed to weaken unions. All that was needed was the right pitch to sell these new bills.

Enter the label “right to work”, which cynically refers to state bills that remove the requirement for workers in a given workplace to actually pay for the representation and benefits the union provides for them. It is a label that has nothing to do with the right to work or the right to a job (as the name seems to imply).  The likely origin of the label can be seen in a research document from 1962 on the National Right to Work Committee, dug up by our friends at the Center for Media and Democracy, suggesting that the term “right to work” was coined by Vance Muse, a Christian Right activist who “was a protégé of John Henry Kirby, oil and lumberman and one-time President of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM).” The business leaders of the day recognized the public relations value of the term, and the pitch worked in Florida, Arkansas, North Carolina, and so on. “By 1954,” writes historian Bethany Moreton in her 2010 book, To Serve God and Wal-Mart, “the entire South had enacted such legislation.”

On CMD’s blog, PRWatch, Jonas Persson also notes that the ultra-conservative, anti-communist Christian Right group the John Birch Society has been involved with the National Right to Work Committee almost since the inception of both groups. “The leadership of the two groups overlapped heavily,” writes Persson, citing the same 1962 research document that shows the NRTWC was part of a coalition with Birchers—including Fred Koch–and segregationist preachers. The connection with segregationists, Moreton notes, is significant: “segregationist Democrats broke the back of the labor and civil rights Left in the years immediately following the war,” she writes.  Just as industrial unions emphasized organizing across racial lines and unifying blacks and whites in a class struggle, right-to-work was a big part of the Southern business leaders’ political strategy to keep these unions out. (Watch for a forthcoming article by Peter Montgomery in The Public Eye magazine that shows how Christian evangelists such as Billy Graham, and later Jerry Falwell, helped to achieve this.)

Now, with nearly unlimited funding available from the Koch brothers (and other billionaires, such as Republican Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner) for political campaigns focused on finishing unions off, new states are in play on the right to work map. As before, part of the battle is still being fought on religious grounds. As Josh Harkinson reported in Mother Jones in 2011, groups such as Focus on the Family and Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council have been dutifully rallying the evangelical base to side over and over again with business leaders over unions. Already, this public relations war has paid dividends for Walker in Wisconsin, where state employees who once could rely on strong unions to give them a voice with which to bargain find themselves adrift.

But it is not over yet. While Walker cites scripture to rationalize his pre-emptive strikes against organized labor in Wisconsin, at least one Catholic group (the Wisconsin Catholic Conference) testified on the other side in Madison during the debate over right to work, citing scripture in favor of unions. And while that effort ultimately failed, in Missouri the results have been quite different. There, last March, the Interfaith Partnership of Greater St. Louis brought the state’s labor leaders a letter saying that the coalition of religious leaders does not support right to work and would help labor fight it. To the embarrassment of Missouri Republicans, right to work failed in 2014, and though it was re-introduced in February 2015, the state GOP does not have the votes to override the promised veto by Gov. Jay Nixon (D).

Given Walker’s popularity among evangelicals, though, coupled with the Corporate Right’s commitment to bringing down unions, we are likely to see more battles over right to work in the next two years. One need only look at long-term right to work states such as Florida and North Carolina to see what happens when the gains made by unions and collective bargaining are eroded: depressed wages, longer work hours, unchecked racial and anti-LGBTQ discrimination and sexual harassment, and failure to follow health and safety protocols. Yet the Religious Right leaders who are shilling for anti-union policies—the same ones who also say that hardworking Americans deserve government assistance—have never taken any responsibility for such consequences.

Right-Wing Pastors Defy Law, Endorse Candidates

The Religious Right’s Campaign to Deregulate Campaign Finance Law

Five years ago, the Corporate Right struck a major blow to the integrity of the American electoral system. The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision unleashed an unprecedented amount of money from private corporations into national, state, and municipal elections. Now, the Religious Right is seeking to make their own breakthrough—a free-flow of campaign dollars to public candidates through tax-exempt churches.

Pulpit Freedom Sunday is an event organized by Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a right-wing Christian legal group based in Scottsdale, Arizona. The event—which takes place annually during the lead up to Election Day—is part of the Right’s ongoing opposition to campaign finance laws that reduce the exorbitant influence of money in politics, and a significant threat to the maintenance of fair elections.

Beginning in 2008, ADF began recruiting pastors to defy the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits tax-exempt organizations (including religious institutions claiming such status) from endorsing or opposing political candidates. ADF encourages pastors to protest these restrictions, assuring them that participating churches will be provided with free legal defense should the IRS threaten to revoke their tax-exempt status. Last year, over 1,500 pastors from across the country joined in.

The explicit goal of Pulpit Freedom Sunday is to have the 1954 Johnson Amendment declared unconstitutional.

Rev. Steven Baines of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, explains why this is problematic and risky for the maintenance of church/state separations: “Basically what you’re doing when you endorse a candidate from the pulpit is you’re flowing thousands of dollars of non-taxed money to political parties. … They are turning houses of worship into political action committees without risking that taxable income.”

It’s an effective strategy, and one that is gaining popularity. In a September 2014 report, Pew Research revealed that “a growing share of the American public wants religion to play a role in US politics … [and that] churches and other houses of worship should express their views on social and political issues.” According to Pew, between 2012 and 2014, the percentage of Americans subscribing to this view increased from 40 to 49 percent.

Building on the Christian persecution narrative, ADF argues that churches are “being silenced across America.” They warn that “pastors are being censored, the proclamation of God’s Truth is being blocked, and churches are being discriminated against and threatened with punishment. … [O]ur most fundamental freedoms—freedom to exercise religious beliefs, freedom of speech, and freedom of access—are being stripped away at an alarming rate.”

Participating in the annual event in 2012, Bishop Harry Jackson declared to his 3,000-member church in Beltsville, Maryland, “Today we violate our IRS regulations because we believe we need a free pulpit.” He then went on to outline the myriad reasons he would not be voting for Barack Obama on Election Day.

The IRS, however, has yet to take the bait. According to ADF, “[T]he IRS has not punished or censored any pastor or church who has participated in Pulpit Freedom Sunday.”

Christian BewareBut not all churches have evaded prosecution. In 1995, the constitutionality of the Johnson Amendment was put to the test in the case of Branch Ministries Inc. versus Rossotti. During the 1992 presidential campaign season, the Church at Pierce Creek (essentially a subsidiary of Branch Ministries) took out an ad in a few national papers saying, “Christian Beware: Do not put the economy ahead of the Ten Commandments.” It asserted that Governor Clinton supported abortion on demand, homosexuality, and the distribution of condoms to teenagers in public schools. The advertisement stated, “Bill Clinton is promoting policies that are in rebellion to God’s laws,” and concluded with the question: “How then can we vote for Bill Clinton?”

In the fine print at the bottom of the ad it also said, “Tax deductible donations for this advertisement gladly accepted. Make donations to: The Church at Pierce Creek.” 

American United protested this blatant misuse of the church’s non-profit tax-exempt status, and in 1995 the IRS revoked their permit. The American Center for Law & Justice—a right-wing legal advocacy group—filed suit, but Judge Paul Friedman ultimately upheld the IRS’s ruling, rejecting the plaintiff church’s allegations that it was being selectively prosecuted because of its conservative views and that its First Amendment right to free speech was being infringed.

RELATED: See Political Research Associates’ full profile on the American Center for Law & Justice”

The court wrote: “The government has a compelling interest in maintaining the integrity of the tax system and in not subsidizing partisan political activity, and Section 501(c)(3) is the least restrictive means of accomplishing that purpose.”

But Christian conservatives maintain that their rights—rather than the integrity of the tax and electoral systems—are under attack, and in addition to goading the IRS with their Pulpit Freedom Sunday antics, they are attempting new strategies to eliminate the “threat” of the Johnson Amendment. In January 2015, Rep. Walter Jones (R, North Carolina) introduced legislation that aims to “restore the Free Speech and First Amendment rights of churches and exempt organizations by repealing the 1954 Johnson Amendment.”

When Jones introduced the same legislation in 2013, the editorial board of the LA Times responded with an op-ed astutely saying, “Far from needing to be repealed, the ban on politics in the pulpit ought to be enforced more aggressively.” Jones’ legislation, they argue, is misleading. “Churches may have a 1st Amendment right to endorse candidates, but there is no constitutional right to a tax exemption.”

Should ADF, Rep. Jones, and other proponents of the unrestricted use of untaxed money succeed, like with the Citizens United decision—which eliminated campaign spending restrictions for private corporations—repealing the Johnson Amendment would open the campaign funding floodgates. And once again, the tidal wave of new money into our public electoral system would be inscrutable by voters.

Among other things, churches would be free to function as illicit funnels for political giving. As Matthew Bulger of the American Humanist Association explains, “If a donor gives to a church, with an understanding that the donated funds will go to a specific political candidate, that original donor can receive a tax deduction for giving money to a church and keep his political donations anonymous. Meanwhile, if this donor gave money directly to the candidate those funds wouldn’t be tax-deductible, and the donor would be noted in public records as a supporter of that candidate.”

Restricting the political uses of tax-exempt money doesn’t persecute Christians—it helps preserve democracy.

**To learn more about the Religious Right’s efforts to deregulate campaign finance reform, check out the new report published this week by Common Cause—Unlimited and Undisclosed: The Religious Right’s Crusade to Deregulate Political Spending.

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The Myth of Christian Persecution

Franklin Graham, son of famed evangelical Billy Graham and current president of both the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) and Samaritan’s Purse, is increasingly taking center stage in the Right Wing’s dramatization of “Christianity under siege”—part of a growing manipulation of religious liberty arguments (e.g. Hobby Lobby’s claim that the Affordable Care Act violates their “deeply held religious convictions”) to further blur the division between church and state.

Franklin Graham

Franklin Graham

Addressing the crowd at the Oklahoma State Evangelism Conference earlier this month, Graham claimed that secularists—whom he refers to as “antichrists”—have taken control of America.

“There are storms that are coming,” Graham warned. “The only hope for this country is for men and women of God to stand up and take a stand. We’ve got to take a stand. We cannot back up. We cannot run. We cannot retreat. We need Christians running for school boards. … We need men and women of God who take local elections serious.”

Emphasizing this point, Graham continued, “Who says we can’t be in politics? The gays and lesbians are in politics, I can tell you that. All the anti-God people are in politics. They’re there. Why shouldn’t the church be there? Who says we can’t speak up? Who says our voice can’t be heard?”

Graham’s call for Christians to “take a stand” echoes the demands of last November’s “I Stand Sunday.” The event, which was simulcast around the country, was organized by a coalition of local churches and national right-wing organizations in Houston, Texas as a response to the City of Houston subpoenaing the sermons of five conservative local pastors who were suspected of engaging in political activities beyond the purview of what is allowed for a church to maintain its tax-exempt status. Sponsors of the event included some of the leading right-wing parachurch organizations in the country, including the Family Research Council (FRC) and the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF). Liberty Counsel and the National Organization for Marriage also signed on as partners.

Reporting on the event (which took place two days before the 2014 midterm elections), FRC’s President Tony Perkins wrote, “Last night, with thousands of people packing the pews of Grace Community Church—and tens of thousands more at nearly 800 churches from all 50 states—Houston sent a message to the nation: ‘Don’t mess with the pulpits of America.’… We pray that our nation, which this event proved is ripe for spiritual awakening, will use I Stand Sunday as a launching off point for greater cultural engagement.”

The subpoenas came as part of the prolonged fight over the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), the city’s first housing and workplace nondiscrimination bill protecting LGBTQ people, as well as other targeted classifications, including race, sex, and religion.

Previously one of the only large cities in the U.S. without a nondiscrimination policy, the Houston City Council approved HERO in May 2014 with a vote of 11-6. The ordinance did not pass without a fight, however—groups like Texas Values (an affiliate of Focus on the Family’s CitizenLink network), the Alliance Defending Freedom, and the Family Research Council attacked the ordinance with anti-transgender claims that it would somehow protect predators and sex offenders. There were also threats to recall Mayor Parker and any city council member who voted in favor of the bill.

Following HERO’s passage, an anti-LGBTQ coalition called “No Unequal Rights” led by local and national church groups like the Baptist Ministers Association of Houston and Samuel Rodriguez’s National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference began collecting signatures to challenge HERO with a referendum. When the petition effort failed, opponents of the law filed a lawsuit against the city, demanding the referendum be placed on the ballot.

As part of the discovery process of the Religious Right’s lawsuit against them, the city’s outside counsel issued subpoenas to five pastors in Houston who were suspected of overreaching their tax-exempt restrictions, to collect information related to how the pastors communicated with their congregations about the petition process. Backed by a team of ADF lawyers, the pastors (dubbed the “Houston 5”) claimed their rights were being violated. On both the Left and the Right, many critics (including the ACLU) agreed that the subpoenas were too broad, and they were ultimately withdrawn, but I Stand Sunday—organized to “stand with pastors and churches to focus on the freedom to live out our faith free of government intrusion or monitoring”—went ahead as planned, and the Houston 5 seem likely to the join the cast of bakers and wedding photographers cited by the Christian Right as evidence of allegedly widespread and growing persecution.

I Stand Sunday speakers included FRC’s Tony Perkins; former Governor of Arkansas and then Fox News personality Mike Huckabee; Eric Stanley from the ADF; and Ronnie Floyd, president of the Southern Baptist Convention. Local Houston pastors Magda Hermida, a Cuban immigrant, and Khanh Huynh, a Vietnamese immigrant, also spoke, comparing their experiences of Communist violence and oppression to Mayor Parker’s “marching boots of tyranny.”

Despite the fact that the majority of Americans—and an even greater majority of elected officials—identify as Christian (a recent study by the Pew Forum found that 73% of Americans identify as Christian, and that 92% of current Congressional members identify as such), this mantra of “Christian persecution” is gaining traction around the country.

The City of Charlotte, NC—Franklin Graham’s hometown—is currently considering an expansion to its own nondiscrimination ordinance to include sexual orientation and gender identity. A statement released by BGEA echoed the same anti-transgender claims that were used in Houston, claiming that such protections would give “sexual predators access to children.”

Another Charlotte resident, David Benham, is also working to prevent the expansion of equal rights protections for LGBTQ people there (the vote is scheduled for March 2). Benham has become a leading spokesperson for the “Christian persecution” camp since the HGTV television series that he and his twin brother, Jason, were scheduled to host was canceled after reports emerged of David Benham making anti-gay statements at a prayer rally in 2012 outside of the Democratic National Convention. (Right Wing Watch posted a recording of Benham discussing “homosexuality and its agenda that is attacking the nation.” HGTV also took fire from their viewers over an interview with anti-LGBTQ activist Michael Brown, where David Benham claimed that LGBTQ people were possessed by “demonic forces” and that once he succeeds in recriminalizing abortion, he will next defeat the “homosexual agenda” and Islam.)

Defending his comments, Benham reasserted the theme of persecution, arguing, “[T]here is an agenda that is seeking to silence the voices of men and women of faith.”

In BGEA’s statement about the proposed nondiscrimination ordinance in Charlotte, Benham declared, “What’s going to end up happening, with the result of the language (of the ordinance) is our religious liberties are going to come under attack. … Not only do Christians need to stand up for what’s right, but America needs to protect our children and our children’s children.”

David and Jason Benham also spoke at the I Stand Sunday event in Houston.

Earlier this week, the American Family Association—another I Stand Sunday sponsor—released its new “Anti-Christian Bigotry Map,” which features groups and organizations that “are deeply intolerant towards the Christian religion. … [groups whose objectives are] to silence Christians and to remove all public displays of Christian heritage and faith in America.”

In a press release, AFA’s President Don Wildmon warned, “Across our nation there is a concerted effort to silence Christians who believe in the time-honored definition of marriage and who believe that imposing dangerous and harmful sexual behaviors such as homosexuality or transgenderism on the public and, particularly, on young children is not something that society should encourage.”

Will U.S. prisons soon be overflowing with leaders of the Christian Right? PRA senior fellow Frederick Clarkson reports that any leaders of the Christian Right, from megachurch pastors like Rick Warren to the top prelates in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, have repeatedly threatened civil disobedience (and worse) over marriage equality, reproductive rights, and nondiscrimination laws:

“The notion that freedom is obedience to their particular notion of God’s order … reveals their theocratic world view and sheds light on their preposterous claim that Christianity is ‘unanimous’ with regard to marriage.

“Christian denominations, notably United Church of Christ, Alliance of Baptists, and increasingly others (not to mention other religious traditions) recognize and celebrate same-sex marriages all the time.”

If there is a “concerted effort” to be wary of, it is the Christian Right’s attempt to co-opt the language of religious liberty and the advancement of their myth of persecution, which ultimately serves as a strategy to trump the rights of others and justify discrimination.

UPDATE: Thanks in large part to the support of Franklin Graham and the Benham Brothers, the Charlotte City Council rejected the proposed non-discrimination ordinance on Monday, March 2. Writing from his missionary travels in South Sudan, Graham encouraged his supporters to resist the non-discrimination ordinance, which he referred to as “dangerous” and “preposterous.”

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Know Your Neighbors Hits the Road

With a sweet woman named Rhonda at the wheel, our bus carefully merged onto the highway and headed south toward Colorado Springs. As the sun set behind the Rocky Mountains, Sweet Honey and the Rock’s rendition of “Ella’s Song” played over the speaker system, reminding us in gentle, insistent harmonies, “We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.”

We’d converged on Denver over the previous few days to attend the annual Creating Change Conference, hosted by the National LGBTQ Task Force. Creating Change is one of the premier national gatherings of LGBTQ organizers and activists, and attracts thousands of people from as far away as Uganda and China. While Colorado Springs is a notorious right-wing hub (a recent study ranked it as the fourth most conservative major city in the U.S.), Creating Change offers a safe haven for folks like us. Gender-neutral bathrooms are the norm, workshops topics range from grassroots fundraising to anti-racist organizing, and glitter is everywhere.

… But we who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes—even to Colorado Springs.

As the U.S. Right’s global impact on the lives of women, LGBTQ people, and people of color increases, the pressing question is: “What can we do?” Know Your Neighbors—a collaborative project between PRA and Soulforce—aims to respond.

Know Your Neighbors (KYNship) is dedicated to countering right-wing attacks with reliable analysis, educational programming, cross-issue collaboration, creative engagement of our adversaries, and direct action in order to expose and resist the true agendas of right-wing leaders, institutions, and ideologies, both domestically and internationally. Our goal is to challenge American culture war “exporters” with education and mobilization of social justice activists and organizations based in the same communities.

The Know Your Neighbors (KYNship) bus tour in Colorado Springs, February 2015

The Know Your Neighbors (KYNship) bus tour in Colorado Springs, February 2015

After months of planning and strategizing, the close proximity of this year’s Creating Change venue to Colorado Springs offered an exciting opportunity for KYNship to step into action.

… Because we who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.

So 27 of us—a cross-section of activists, progressive faith leaders, researchers, and educators—set out to learn, share, and connect, driven by a shared understanding that marriage equality in the U.S. does not equal freedom for all. Ongoing violence and persecution experienced by people of color and trans and gender-nonconforming people, the continued exploitation of poor and working class LGBTQ folks, and the erasure of disabled, femme, undocumented, indigenous, and young people in this movement demonstrate our shortcomings and the tremendous amount of work yet to be done.

While the onslaught of attacks on human and civil rights may come from any direction, the most robust opposition over the past few decades has emerged from the U.S. Right. Organizations like Focus on the Family—which made Colorado Springs its home in 1991—are at the forefront of this offensive, and their reach extends far beyond the city limits. Focus on the Family’s influence alone can be felt in over 150 countries around the world.

Bringing a bus full of social justice organizers and activists to its doorstep—including one of Uganda’s leading LGBTQ activists—was too good of an opportunity to pass up.

… Because we who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.

Over the span of four hours, KYNship took an inspiring group of Creating Change attendees (and Rhonda) on an educational tour of Colorado Springs. We explored the history, structure, mechanisms, and contemporary trends of the U.S. Right, highlighting its global impact on LGBTQ people, women, people of color, young people, and reproductive rights. We examined the intersections of these oppressions, the role of the U.S. Right in their perpetuation, and discussed effective strategies for resistance.

Upon returning to Denver, we exited the bus with new knowledge, deeper understanding, stronger analysis, and a new sense of community in our collective commitment to resisting the Right as part of our ongoing pursuit of justice and liberation for all people.

Indeed, we even forged kinship and community with our fearless driver, Rhonda.  Upon our return to the conference hotel, Rhonda approached the KYNship leadership team with a big smile. “I learned so much tonight! You know, my daughter… she’s gay too, and the folks you all were talking about—they make her life awfully hard sometimes. Thank you all so much for what you’re doing!”

This tour was both the beginning of a much bigger project to challenge U.S.-based culture warriors and the continuation of a long history of bold and brilliant resistance to right-wing oppression.

… Because we who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.

Creating Change is over now, and the group of us that came together for KYNship’s first project have all returned home. Each of our home communities contain their own networks of committed social justice organizers and activists—and their own elements of right-wing opposition. In some cases (like with Focus on the Family), the targets of our resistance are more obvious. But in many situations, key players in the global export of U.S. culture wars maintain a low profile here in the U.S., or present themselves as far more moderate than their international campaigns reveal them to be. Groups like the World Congress of Families in Rockford, Illinois and people like Sharon Slater in Gilbert, Arizona often fly under the radar of even the most well informed activists.

KYNship is eager to step into that gap, supporting local social justice activists in identifying key opposition leaders in their communities, understanding the local and global impact of their work, and strategizing principled and effective modes of confrontation and resistance. Please visit www.KYNship.org to learn more and get involved!

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U.S. Theologian Wants Martyrs Against America

Last year, I published an article in The Public Eye magazine in which I summarized a disturbing trend among some thinkers and leaders of the Christian Right—a vision of theocratic political resistance that includes violence and civil war. Some of them are concerned that they are losing on the issues of marriage equality and abortion, on which they claim the future of Christendom rests. These thinkers and leaders are considering their options, from varying degrees of accommodation and acceptance, to massive resistance and revolution.

What happens along this spectrum of response may define much of the history of our time. One of the words on which this history may hang is “martyr.” A discussion about its use by theocratic theologian Peter Leithart has broken out in the blogosphere. The low-profile Leithart may not have expected that people would take his prophetic call for martyrs so seriously.

Peter Liethart

Peter Liethart

 

The roots of the current brouhaha go back to July 3, 2013, when David Lane, a leading Christian Right political operative, published an essay titled “Wage War to Restore a Christian Nation.” His post (written on the far right news site World Net Daily), which was later scrubbed from the website, was a clarion call for contemporary religious war against the supposedly pagan government of the United States.

Lane’s apparent break with the gleaming vision of a theocratic America was remarkable because he is such a pivotal figure on the contemporary Christian Right. As Rachel Tabachnick recently reported here at Political Research Associates, Lane was the principal organizer of The Response, a prayer rally for political dominion and candidate training last month in Baton Rouge, Louisiana—headlined by Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal (R). Lane has been a key organizer of scores of Christian Right political development events, called Pastors Policy Briefings, over the past two decades. Lane has also been in the news recently as the organizer of a controversial trip to Israel for Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus and 60 members of the RNC.

Lane is fond of quoting from Birmingham, Alabama-based theologian Peter Leithart’s book Between Babel and Beast, especially Leithart’s views on the need for Christian martyrs to confront what he calls the heresy of Americanism. And that is what he did in his unsuccessfully hidden op-ed:

“American Christianity has not done a good job of producing martyrs… Christians must risk martyrdom and force Babel to the crux where it has to decide either to acknowledge Jesus an imperator and the church as God’s imperium or to begin drinking holy blood.”

But when writer Bruce Wilson recently attributed Leithart’s words to Lane at the Huffington Post, Leithart took to the blog at First Things (founded by neoconservative Catholic priest John Richard Neuhaus)—apparently to create a diversion in the form of correcting the record.

When Christians are faithful witnesses,” Leithart explained, “they are an irritant to the powers that be. And the powers that be want them out of the way.”

If they can get Christians to get out of the way on their own with articles like Wilson’s, so much the better,” he declared suggesting complicity between Wilson and the mysterious, unnamed “they.”

If they can’t, sterner measures might be necessary,” Leithart darkly continued. “This isn’t imaginary. It’s the history of early Christianity in its relation to the Roman Empire. It’s the history of dozens of countries in the present day.”

The idea that writer Bruce Wilson is a tool of a creeping; Christianity-persecuting cabal is just conspiracy theory. And of course, Leithart presents no evidence for the insinuation on which his conspiracy theory relies.

In any case, Leithart claims that the quotation at issue “has made the rounds in the feverish backwaters of leftist watchdog groups, with their nightmares about a theocratic takeover of the federal government. Every time it’s quoted, the implication is that I’m advocating violence. People see the word “martyr” and think “suicide bomber.” 

He cites no one, including Wilson, who says that Leithart is advocating violence. The problem is not with the unnamed groups and individuals who accurately quote Leithart’s words. The problem lies with Leithart’s words and the ideas that they express. Let’s consider them.

Leithart can quibble about unnamed people misunderstanding the word “martyr” but he can’t hide the obviously violent and theocratic implications behind his use of the Latin words imperator and imperium in this context. He says that Christians must compel the rest of society to acknowledge Jesus as a contemporary analog of the Roman imperial government, and his particular totalist view of God and his church—or else.

Leithart doesn’t acknowledge it, but he also addressed the matter of martyrdom at First Things (which calls itself America’s most influential journal of religion and public life”) in 2013. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s Windsor decision, which struck down key portions of the Defense of Marriage Act, Leithart saw battle lines being drawn between conservative notions of Christianity and the emerging culture and law of the United States. He and others reject this emerging version of America.

In Greek, martyria means ‘witness,’ specifically, witness in a court,” he wrote. “At the very least, the decision challenges American Christians to continue to teach Christian sexual ethics without compromise or apology.”

The only America that actually exists,” he continued, “is one in which ‘marriage’ includes same-sex couples and women have a Constitutional right to kill their babies. To be faithful, Christian witness must be witness against America.”

Leithart’s make-or-break vision would either end what he describes as anti-Christian tyranny or, failing that, build a new Christian nation—or nations and new notions of the definition of Christendom. His call for martyrs to provoke society to the point of violence—or accept a theocratic imperium—is exactly the kind of demagogic threat that people are concerned about.

Leithart now insists that his notion of Christian martyrdom is to be carried out “peaceably”—by proclaiming “the truth about the unborn and the truth about marriage, regardless of what the Supreme Court has said or will say in the next few months.”

Martyrdom doesn’t involve killing,” he insists. “It’s jolly defiance, ready to be slandered, insulted, beaten, killed for the one who died for me.”

The degree and manner of civil disobedience envisioned by various elements of the Christian Right remains to be seen. There are clear tensions between those who can apparently live with the social changes taking place in the country and those who can’t. There are also those who see the so-called culture war as not about single issues, but about the survival their particular vision of Christendom itself, and whether or not their kind of Christians are willing to fight for it.

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The Response: A Christian Right Rally for Dominion

The Christian Right hopes that the mass prayer rally tomorrow, January 24, at Louisiana State University will be one of the largest in recent history.  Organizers are also seeking a thousand clergy willing to be trained to run as Christian Right candidates for office at all levels of government—the controversy when the event was announced last December (when they included claims that natural disasters are the result of abortion and support for marriage equality) notwithstanding.

The event, known as The Response, will be hosted by Governor Bobby Jindal (R-LA) and is a follow-up to the large prayer rally in 2011—also called The Response—that served as the de facto launch of the presidential campaign of Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX).  Some 30,000 people turned out for the 2011 event, which was unprecedented in the history of American politics.

But whether or not the organizers are able to meet the expectations and the high bar set in 2011—the numbers will not tell the whole story.

Organizers of the Jan 24, 2015 "The Response" in Baton Rouge, LA, hope to beat the turnout of the 2011 "The Response" in Houston, TX

“The Response” in Houston, TX in 2011

The Response in 2011 was largely organized by top leaders of the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR), a movement that has evolved from historic Pentecostal and Charismatic evangelicalism. Many of the NAR leaders are open about seeking cultural and political dominion over the rest of society, as Rachel Tabachnick detailed in her groundbreaking study in The Public Eye.

NAR leaders were prominently involved in organizing the event, notably Alice Patterson, Doug Stringer, and Jim Garlow, who headed the campaign for the anti-marriage equality Proposition Eight in California.  Numerous NAR leaders played roles or were prominently present at the event, including Samuel Rodriguez of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference and NAR’s central figure, C. Peter Wagner.  Doug Stringer is said to be the principal organizer for this year’s The Response in Baton Rouge.

The Christian Right had hoped to rally around one candidate for the GOP nomination—and Rick Perry was their great, White, hope—and The Response was a way to give their blessing without actually formally endorsing the candidate.  The honorary co-chairs of The Response included Focus on the Family founders James and Shirley Dobson, The Urban Alternative president Tony Evans, the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission president Richard Land,  Concerned Women for America CEO Penny Nance, Family Research Council president Tony Perkins, and National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference president Samuel Rodriguez.

But like the best laid plans of mice and men, Perry’s 2012 presidential campaign faltered, even with the help of several smaller events which were also organized under the rubric of The Response in key states.  The Christian Right did not manage to find a plausible candidate against the eventual nominee, Mitt Romney.

A lot of the same organizations and money behind the 2011 event is also involved in this year’s event, notably from the American Family Association and United In Purpose/Champion the Vote.  These groups guided by political operative David Lane, and have been organizing state level events called Pastors Policy Briefings for years, particularly in Iowa, South Carolina, and Florida, early states on the Republican presidential nomination calendar.  The Pastor Policy Briefings are all-expense-paid events for clergy and their spouses, intended to ground conservative clergy in the dominionist worldview of the organizers, and to showcase candidates who are likely to appeal to the Christian Right.

Training Theocratic Candidates in the Name of Liberty

This time, although Gov. Jindal is the host and keynote speaker, the event seems to be more about movement-building than about propelling the ambitions of a single potential candidate.  At the end of 2014, Jindal sent a letter to a reported 100,000 pastors (presumably gleaned from the Pastor Policy Briefings) with the aim of getting a thousand of them to come to Baton Rouge the day before and attend something called The Issachar Training to prepare to run for office. Jindal claimed that the Lord has a role for them to play “in protecting Religious Liberty in our nation.” He also said this can be achieved by clergy engaging “in the public square with Biblical values… to reset the course of American governance,” and thereby bring “America back to God.”

The Issachar Training and The Response, while technically unrelated, are both funded by the American Renewal Project of the AFA, led by Lane.

“The thought that came to me,” Lane told the Christian Examiner, “if the Lord called 1,000 pastors to run for an elective office, and each of them had an average of 300 volunteers, that would be 300,000 grass root, precinct-level, evangelical conservatives coming from the ground up, engaged in the political process. It would change America!”

“Nobody’s confused that politicians are going to save America,” Lane continued. “These engaged evangelicals would be voting for their biblically-based conservative values.”

Same Event, Different Year

Contrary to some reports, this year’s event is not just “similar” to the 2011. In addition to the sponsoring organizations and organizers being the same, so are the details.

“Isn’t just like The Response — it is The Response,” said PRA fellow Rachel Tabachnick, who wrote about The Response in 2011.  “They are using the same web site and many of the video endorsements from 2011—including one by Samuel Rodriguez.”

“They also didn’t bother to update their prayer guide from 2011,” she added.

Indeed, the prayer guide became a national controversy soon after the December announcement of the Baton Rouge rally, because it suggested that natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina were God’s punishment for legal abortion and growing support for marriage equality in the United States.  In order to avoid worse and more, they claimed, repentance is necessary.  The prayer guide was quickly scrubbed from The Response web site — but not before the contents had been documented and exposed:

“We have watched sin escalate to a proportion the nation has never seen before.  We live in the first generation in which the wholesale murder of infants through abortion is not only accepted but protected by law. Homosexuality has been embraced as an alternative lifestyle.  Same-sex marriage is legal in six states and Washington, D.C.  Pornography is available on-demand through the internet. Biblical signs of apostasy are before our very eyes.  While the United States still claims to be a nation ‘under God’ it is obvious that we have greatly strayed from our foundations in Christianity.

“This year we have seen a dramatic increase in tornadoes that have taken the lives of many and crippled entire cities, such as Tuscaloosa, AL & Joplin, MO.  And let us not forget that we are only six years from the tragic events of hurricane Katrina, which rendered the entire Gulf Coast powerless.”

Although The Response pulled back the controversial rhetoric, there is no indication that they have in any substantive way changed their views—any more than the candidates they train are likely to hold views much different than these.  The idea of taking cultural and political dominion in order to save America from God’s wrath is not new, and whether David Lane et al succeed in getting a thousand pastors to abandon their pulpits to become politicians remains to be seen.  But the determination of the Christian Right to develop and sustain a theocratic electoral capacity seems undiminished.

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Natural Deception: Conned By the World Congress of Families

Click here for the full issue.

Click here for the full issue.

From Russia to Nigeria to Australia, a seemingly innocuous definition of the “natural family” is quietly being used as the basis of new laws to justify the criminalization of abortion and LGBTQ people. Pushing this definition is the World Congress of Families, a network of conservative religious leaders from a variety of faiths—and their high-level government friends.

 

**This report appears in PRA’s Winter, 2015 issue of The Public Eye magazine**

In November 2014, the Christian Right group World Congress of Families (WCF) found itself in the unusual position of having to publicly defend itself. Unlike prominent advocacy groups such as the Family Research Council or Alliance Defending Freedom, the Illinois-based WCF has seldom sought the spotlight, preferring a behind-the-scenes role in its campaign to impose a narrow, Christian Right definition of family as the international norm.

Responding to criticism following the announcement that WCF will host its ninth international summit in Salt Lake City in October 2015, Stanford Swim (a WCF board member and major donor) asserted that WCF’s political agenda and ideology were being unfairly scrutinized by local activists and media.1

Children perform at the World Congress of Families conference in Madrid, Spain in 2012. Photo courtesy of HazteOir.org.

Children perform at the World Congress of Families conference in Madrid, Spain in 2012. Photo courtesy of HazteOir.org.

In fact, WCF’s activities and global influence have received relatively scant public scrutiny. This is of concern because, contrary to Swim’s claim that WCF “does not spread fear,” the organization is leading a global legislative and public relations campaign against LGBTQ and reproductive rights. WCF has become a power player on the Religious Right by building bridges between U.S. groups and their international counterparts and fostering a global interfaith coalition of conservative religious orthodoxies. While Political Research Associates 2 and other researchers have monitored WCF’s attempts to rewrite international law using a narrow, Religious Right definition of the family,3 until recently, only a handful of gender justice groups understood WCF’s project.

That changed abruptly in June 2013, when global events forced WCF into the U.S. activist spotlight.4 That month, Russia passed its now notorious Anti-Propaganda Law, which banned “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations to minors” and prompted a surge in violent attacks on LGBTQ people throughout the country. (The law especially emboldened a right-wing vigilante group, “Occupy Pedophilia,” which uses social media to “ambush” gay people by luring them into meetings and then assaulting them on camera.5 Online footage of these horrific attacks quickly went viral.6)
News of the law, along with graphic evidence of its impact, spurred American and European LGBTQ activists to action. Outraged Westerners launched a hastily conceived media counteroffensive, in which gay bar owners and their patrons emptied bottles of Russian vodka in the streets; LGBTQ sports enthusiasts threatened to boycott the 2013 Sochi Olympics; and one of the U.S.’s largest LGBTQ advocacy groups, Human Rights Campaign, mass-produced t-shirts proclaiming “Love Conquers Hate” in Russian.

While the initial wave of outrage largely took aim at Russia and its leaders—LGBTQ magazine The Advocate named Putin its 2014 Person of the Year and described him as “the single greatest threat to LGBTs in the world”—it obscured the culpability of U.S. groups. Rather than being the brainchild of a few homophobic Kremlin insiders, Russia’s Anti-Propaganda Law emerged from a years-long, carefully crafted campaign to influence governments to adopt a Christian-Right legal framework, coordinated by an international network of right-wing leaders under the aegis of WCF.

Through large international convenings (its 2007 gathering in Warsaw attracted nearly 4,000 participants 7), smaller regional events, and closed-door meetings with government officials and religious leaders, WCF has woven a tight, powerful web of right-wing ideologues and activists and has provided them with the tools to grow their numbers and expand their influence. WCF’s success is especially evident in Russia,8 but its influence also reaches other countries including Nigeria, Australia, and Poland—and international institutions such as the United Nations.

WCF maintains a regionally-based network of allies, who tailor WCF’s messages to resonate with local communities and package the “natural family” agenda in whatever way will most effectively hook their audience. All around the world, the “natural family” is a solution in search of a problem.

With its doctrine of preserving what it regards as the “natural family,” WCF is waging a campaign at local, national, and international levels to ensure that male dominance, heteronormativity (the belief that heterosexuality is the only acceptable sexual orientation), and religious hegemony are core tenets of civil society. “The WCF has created a cultural framework, under the banner of the family, that is inclusive enough to appeal to a broad base,” said Gillian Kane, senior policy advisor at Ipas, an international reproductive justice advocacy group. “But it is also so narrowly writ that most of their initiatives and arguments don’t hold up under international law.”

WCF, however, is gradually chipping away at international laws designed to protect human rights, posing a direct threat to LGBTQ people, women’s reproductive freedom, single parents, mixed families, and other family structures that do not fit into the parameters of WCF’s “natural family.” At best, those who are deemed “unnatural” by WCF standards could be excluded from the rights and privileges granted to “natural families.” At worst, they could be fined or otherwise punished by the state.

ORIGINS AND AGENDA

WCF is a project of the Howard Center for Family, Religion & Society, based in Rockford, Illinois, about a two-hour drive from Chicago. It was founded in 1997 by conservative scholar Allan Carlson, who currently serves as president of both organizations. Carlson has authored nearly a dozen books, including The Natural Family Where It Belongs: New Agrarian Essays, published in 2014 and dedicated to Pitirim Sorokin. (Sorokin is one of many WCF links to Russia: the Russian-born conservative sociologist inspired much of Carlson’s understanding of the family 9).

The Howard Center was birthed from the Rockford Institute, a conservative think tank devoted to “analyzing the damage done to America’s social institutions by the cultural upheaval of the 1960’s.”10 Carlson joined the Institute’s staff in 1981, serving as its president from 1986-1997. For many years, according to the Howard Center’s own website, the organization exclusively conducted research, disconnected from activism. But in 1995, that began to change.

That year, Carlson was invited to Moscow by Anatoly Antonov and Victor Medkov, sociologists at Lomonosov Moscow State University.11 His hosts were concerned about the demographic shifts they were witnessing in Russia’s post-Soviet era—popularly referred to as the “demographic winter.”12 As the country struggled to weather political turmoil and economic hardship, the national birthrate was plummeting, alcoholism was on the rise, and—correspondingly—so was the national death rate.

Carlson’s work on the ”demographic winter” has proven to be particularly effective in garnering favor with Russia’s conservative leadership. In Russia and other parts of Europe, a combination of population anxiety and growing anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant sentiment has offered WCF a favorable political context in which to advance its anti-abortion, “natural family” agenda.

While significant demographic shifts are underway in Russia and many other Western nations, ample research13 has repudiated nativists’ arguments that these changes will result in “global catastrophe” (as WCF communications director Don Feder has warned).14 What drives right-wing concerns over Russia’s demographics are xenophobia and Islamophobia; as Russia’s overall population has plummeted, its indigenous Muslim population has grown—now comprising 21-23 million, or about 15% of Russia’s total population.15 Russia has also become an increasingly popular destination for immigrants and refugees. As of 2013, according to the U.N. Population Division, Russia was second only to the United States in its immigrant population—the two nations have 46 million and 11 million immigrants, respectively.16

What Antonov and Medkov meant by a “demographic winter” was that the qualities and characteristics of what it means to be Russian were in danger of being redefined as something other than White and Orthodox.17 Anxious to reassert whiteness and Russian Orthodox religious practice as fundamental qualities of Russianness, Antonov, Medkov, and Carlson’s team at the Howard Center determined that they needed to “use [their] talents and resources to create new coalitions to promote the natural family worldwide.”18

They convened the first World Congress of Families in Prague in March 1997. More than 700 delegates from 200 organizations across 43 nations gathered to forge a new interfaith alliance of conservative religious orthodoxies, including Russian Orthodox, LDS (Mormon), conservative Catholic, and conservative evangelical participants, as well as a few Orthodox Jews and Muslims.19

The WCF I convening produced more fear. A declaration published at its conclusion warned, “[C]ultural revolutions, materialism and sexual permissiveness have resulted in a destruction and denigration of moral values … extra-marital relationships, adultery and divorce proliferate leading to widespread abortion, illegitimacy and single-parent children.”20

The declaration specifically named “the United Nations, its N.G.O.s and agents” as key adversaries, claiming that the U.N. and its allies had “pursued dangerous philosophies and policies that require population control, limitation of family size, abortion on demand, sterilization of men and women and have sought to persuade Third World countries to adopt such policies.” It condemned policies that subvert “the legal and religious status of traditional marriage,” as well as those that promote contraception and abortion, “state welfare systems,” comprehensive sexual education, non-marital cohabitation, “homosexual unions,” and single parenting.21

This declaration constituted WCF’s opening salvo in what has become an extended campaign to interrupt trends toward more expansive human rights at the U.N. by recruiting, influencing, and emboldening conservative delegates. WCF’s project at the U.N. is to form a consolidated and increasingly powerful voting bloc prepared to take direction from U.S.-based right-wing leadership.

In May 1998, at a planning session for WCF II (its second international convening), a group of 25 religious leaders including evangelicals, mainline Protestants, Roman Catholics, Russian Orthodox, Mormons, Muslims, and Jews came together to define their common cause: protection and promotion of the “natural family.” From WCF’s planning documents:

The natural family is the fundamental social unit, inscribed in human nature, and centered around the voluntary union of a man and a woman in a lifelong covenant of marriage, for the purposes of:
▪ satisfying the longings of the human heart to give and receive love;
▪ welcoming and ensuring the full physical and emotional development of children;
▪ sharing a home that serves as the center for social, educational, economic, and spiritual life;
▪ building strong bonds among the generations to pass on a way of life that has transcendent meaning;
▪ extending a hand of compassion to individuals and households whose circumstances fall short of these ideals.22

With this collection of principles, designed to appeal to the broadest possible “traditional values” audience, WCF positioned itself as an umbrella organization for groups and individuals around the world (whether Christian or not) committed to codifying highly restrictive criteria for who counts as “family,” and who does not. The policy statement identifies underpopulation as “the demographic problem facing the 21st Century,” promotes “the large family as a special social gift,” and regards “religious orthodoxy as the source of humane values and cultural progress.”

Well-known and well-funded American organizations such as Focus on the Family, Family Research Council, Alliance Defense Fund (now called Alliance Defending Freedom), Americans United for Life, and the National Organization for Marriage signed on as dues-paying partners, expanding WCF’s reach. (For all its influence, WCF remains small, with only five full-time employees and a modest budget—the Howard Center’s 2012 IRS filings reported total revenue of just $523,870.23)

WCF also has a regionally-based network of allies to spread its agenda: Theresa Okafor, director of the Foundation for African Cultural Heritage; in Mexico, Latino leaders such as Enrique Gomez Serrano, board president of Red Familia (Spanish for “Family Network”); and in Russia, Russian leaders such as Alexey Komov, director of external affairs of the Russian Orthodox Church. These allies tailor WCF’s messages to resonate with local communities, packaging the “natural family” agenda in whatever way will most effectively hook their audience.

In Russia, for example, WCF manipulates deep-seated racial prejudices to mobilize demographic winter anxieties. In Africa, WCF exploits neocolonial concerns, arguing that racist Westerners are trying to abort Africa’s Black babies. All around the world, the “natural family” is a solution in search of a problem.

USING THE U.N.

The WCF considers the United Nations an adversary and has chosen to fight for its “natural family” agenda inside that institution. In a 1999 address to the World Family Policy Forum—an event organized by the now-closed World Family Policy Center and hosted at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah—Allan Carlson outlined his plans:

It is time to bring to the United Nations and to other international settings the shared truth of history … It is time to move this view of the family as the fundamental social unit to the very heart of international deliberations, so that it might guide the creation of laws and public policies in our respective nations.

This focus on the U.N. was evident at the WCF II, convened in Geneva, Switzerland, in November 1999. During its opening plenary, Carlson noted that 51 years earlier, delegates to the newly formed U.N., meeting in the same hall, had approved the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Carlson emphasized the language used in Article 16, which declares, “The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.”24

Carlson and WCF sought to co-opt the UDHR’s language into a public relations push for a restrictive U.N. definition of family that could then be used to assail women and LGBTQ people through the U.N. and other international organizations.25

U.S. conservatives have long held suspicious, if not openly hostile, attitudes toward the United Nations. The “signature campaign” of the Far Right, anti-communist John Birch Society—launched in 1958—seeks to get the U.S. out of the United Nations. The JBS describes the institution as a “socialistic global government” controlled by “global power elites.”26

Historically, hostility toward the U.N. often went hand-in-hand with Cold War-era opposition to Russia. Since the mid-90s, though, WCF and other elements of the U.S. Right have taken a different approach. Following advances made in the fight for abortion rights and other reproductive justice issues at the U.N.’s International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo (1994) and in Beijing (1995), right-wing strategists began to see the U.N. as a key battleground. Writing in 2006, researcher Pam Chamberlain described a “flocking to the U.N.” in which “12 NGOs opposed to abortion or comprehensive sexuality education … gained consultative status since the Cairo and Beijing U.N. conferences in 1994. All of them are associated with the U.S. Christian Right.”

At the same time, WCF developed an affinity for post-Soviet Russia, a country its leaders increasingly depict as a model of moral purity. Larry Jacobs, a strident opponent of abortion and LGBTQ rights, had joined WCF in 2003 as managing director.27 At a WCF gathering in Melbourne in September 2014, Jacobs said, “The Russians might be the Christian saviors to the world; at the U.N. they really are the ones standing up for these traditional values of family and faith.”28

Jacobs was referring to the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC)’s June 2014 convening in Geneva. The council adopted the “Protection of the Family” resolution, a resolution requiring the Council to host a panel and produce a report on protecting families.29 While the resolution itself (co-sponsored by WCF’s “natural family” friends from Russia) has no immediate policy implications, its potential precedent-setting language fails to acknowledge that—in the words of many progressive NGOs and delegates, “various forms of the family exist.” The UNHRC’s Russian-led conservative voting bloc saw to it that the more inclusive phrasing never made it into the resolution.30

Ultimately, that same conservative voting bloc—including every African delegate on the Council (representing 12 of the 26 affirming voices)—passed the resolution.

Human rights advocates have expressed fear that the resulting panel and report will be used to further marginalize diverse family structures, such as those led by single parents, grandparents, or LGBTQ people. Commenting on the resolution, Geneva Advocacy Director at Human Rights Watch Julie de Rivero said, “[I]t is a travesty for the U.N. to ignore [the] reality” that “families come in all shapes and forms. Insinuating that different types of families don’t exist can do nothing but harm the children and adults around the world who live in those families.”31

One of the primary leaders behind the “Protection of the Family” resolution was Sharon Slater, president of Family Watch International (FWI), chair of the U.N. Family Rights Caucus, and longtime member of WCF. Slater traces the beginning of her political activism to WCF II, held in Geneva, Switzerland in 1999. Slater writes that WCF “changed the direction of my life, as I learned about the assaults in almost every area of family life and was instilled with the hope that if we all worked together, we could effectively stop many of these attacks.”32

The so-called “attacks” Slater refers to include comprehensive sex education curricula and policies to support condom distribution, access to abortion, and LGBTQ families.

Later that year, Slater co-founded FWI. Officially registered at the U.N. as Global Helping to Advance Women and Children (Global HAWC), FWI enjoys Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) consultative status and is thus able to participate in meetings on economic and social issues. Over the last 15 years, Slater has taken on increasingly prominent roles as a campaigner as a foil to human rights advocates—in the U.S. and internationally, including at the U.N., where she often collaborates with Carlson and other WCF affiliates.

FEAR OF A DARKER PLANET: FROM NATIVISM TO NATALISM

WCF’s influence at the U.N. relies heavily on its longstanding ties with Russia, one of the five permanent members on the U.N. Security Council. Carlson’s work on the ”demographic winter”—the idea that abortion, birth control, homosexuality, feminism and other ”unnatural” deviations have led to dangerous population decline and a crisis for the ”natural family”—has proven to be particularly effective in garnering favor with Russia’s conservative leadership.

Carlson argues that declining birth rates threaten the decline of civilization—Western civilization. As researcher and journalist Kathryn Joyce puts it, “The concern is not a general lack of babies, but the cultural shifts that come when some populations, particularly immigrant communities, are feared to be out-procreating others.”33 Put another way, the demographic winter thesis cultivates racism and xenophobia in support of exclusionary “natural family” policies. A main objective of the WCF’s demographic scare tactics is to convert nationalism into natalism, and thereby mobilize a larger anti-abortion, “natural family” base. (Natalism prioritizes human procreation, including public policies that reward birthing children.)

This perspective is commonplace among WCF and its affiliates. Following WCF’s 1997 congress in Prague, Cathy Ramey, associate director of the U.S. anti-abortion organization Advocates for Life Ministries, explained what she’d learned: “As native citizens reject marriage and child-bearing, other non-native groups will simply move in and replace the historic population.”34 Speaking at WCF V, John Mueller, a researcher at the Ethics and Public Policy Center—a neoconservative think tank in Washington, DC, argued that “fertility would rise and remain above the replacement rate, not only in the United States but also most other countries, by ending legal abortion.”35

In Russia and other parts of Europe, a combination of population anxiety and growing anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant sentiment has offered WCF a favorable political context in which to advance its anti-abortion, “natural family” agenda. Carlson and his network have fanned the flames of “demographic winter” anxieties throughout the region.

In June 2011, WCF hosted the Moscow Demographic Summit, describing it as the “world’s first summit to address the international crisis of rapidly declining birthrates.”36 More than 500 people attended, including Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church; Russian First Lady Svetlana Medvedeva; members of the Russian Duma; and a host of right-wing American scholars and activists.

Within two weeks of the event, President Medvedev—whose wife, Medvedeva, had recently teamed up with the Russian Orthodox Church on a new anti-abortion campaign—signed a law requiring abortion providers to devote 10 percent of any advertising to describing the dangers of abortion to a woman’s health, and making it illegal to describe abortion as a safe medical procedure.37 This was the first new legislative restriction placed on abortions in the country since the fall of Communism.38

Four months later, in October 2011, the Russian Duma passed a law further restricting abortions to within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, with exceptions for cases up to 22 weeks in instances of rape or medical necessity. The new law also tacked on a mandatory waiting period of two to seven days before an abortion can be performed, a common tactic used by anti-abortion activists in the U.S.

Russian leaders are by no means mere pawns in the Right’s “natural family” campaign. Referencing a book on family genealogy authored by Aleksandr Putin (a distant cousin of President Vladimir Putin) Russian journalist Vladimir Shvedov notes that extended families “are gradually returning to the consciousness of our much-suffering people,” because in Russia as in any country, “the greatness of the nation … is built upon the ancient foundation of the old families.”39 The country’s post-Soviet identity crisis has thus provided fertile ground for the vigorous promotion of the “Russian family.”

Nonetheless, the U.S. Right’s influence on these Russian debates is unmistakable. In 2011, the New York Times noted that “contention over abortion [in Russia] has begun to sound like the debate in the United States.”40 And when President Putin signed a law in December 2013 completely banning abortion advertising, Steven Mosher, president of the Population Research Institute and a regularly featured speaker at WCF events, was not the least bit shy about claiming credit: “PRI has played a role in helping to turn Russia back to life. I participated in the first [WCF] Demographic Summit at the Russian State Social University in Moscow in May, 2011. We talked with senior Russian leaders about the need to protect life. Not long thereafter, a law was passed banning abortion of unborn babies older than 12 weeks.”41

Alexey Komov, WCF’s representative to Russia, agreed, calling the WCF’s Demographic Summit a “catalyst” for Russia’s anti-abortion movement. Komov, who organized the 2011 Moscow Demographic Summit, was subsequently appointed to a position with the Department for External Relations of the Russian Orthodox Church, further strengthening WCF’s ties to Russian Orthodox leadership.42

THE AFRICAN CAMPAIGN

In recent years, WCF has expanded its influence not only in Russia but also in Africa, where it works closely with public intellectuals and conservative leaders who act as spokespeople for WCF’s “natural family” campaign. Perhaps most prominent is Theresa Okafor, a leading anti-choice advocate in Nigeria and the recipient of WCF’s 2014 Natural Family Woman of the Year award.

In Africa, debates over sexual health and rights are frequently tied to issues related to population. Development economists generally agree that for economic growth in Africa to continue in such a way that poverty rates decrease, birthrates must drop significantly.43 U.N. reports indicate that population growth in Africa is so high that the continent’s population is expected to more than triple by 2100, rising from 1.2 billion to 4.2 billion 44—a daunting forecast for a continent that also has the highest poverty rate in the world. (In Okafor’s native Nigeria, more than 60 percent of the population lives in absolute poverty—up from 54.7 percent in 2004.45) Okafor, however, denies the need for comprehensive sex education, contraception, and access to safe abortions. She instead argues that Africa needs to rid itself of the “negative cultures” being imposed on it from the West.

Speaking at the World Public Forum Dialogue of Civilizations in 2012 (described by a local news outlet as “the first pro-family conference in Africa.”), Okafor explained her view—that poverty in Africa is the result of corrupt governments, poor resource management and distribution, and “the sinister agenda to downsize and control Africa.” According to Okafor, as Europeans face falling birthrates, they feel “threatened” by Africa’s growing population and economy and thus seek to promote contraception and abortion among Africans.46

Okafor’s statements contrast sharply with demographic winter ideas that Carlson and WCF promote in Europe, Australia, the U.S., and elsewhere. This highlights WCF’s cynical manipulation of racial resentments within different political contexts. In Russia, WCF points to declining White birthrates and growing numbers of immigrants, Muslims, and people of color to stoke White fears of decreasing dominance over non-White and non-Christian minorities. In Nigeria, WCF plays to neocolonial resentments, suggesting that Western nations are seeking to restrict the growth and prosperity of African nations by “downsizing” Black African populations through increased access to abortion and contraception and the “promotion” of homosexuality. Whether rhetorically aligned with European racism or African nationalism, WCF’s solution remains constant: it offers its “natural family” campaign, knowing full well that what follows may include restricted reproductive rights and criminalization or persecution of LGBTQ people.

As Political Research Associates’ Rev. Dr. Kapya Kaoma has documented, the U.S. Religious Right has a long history of promoting anti-choice, anti-LGBTQ “pro-family” ideologies in Africa (at the expense of African women and LGBTQ people).47 But WCF was one of the first to package its agenda in a UN-ready, policy-friendly format. The expansion of this campaign from local and regional levels to the international realm represents a grave threat to LGBTQ and reproductive justice globally.

Speaking at WCF IV in Madrid in 2012, Okafor noted that many of the recent anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQ gains made in Nigeria are thanks to networking coordinated by WCF. She specifically named Sharon Slater’s FWI as being “instrumental to many of the victories we celebrate.”48 (Such “victories” include the repeal of a 2012 reproductive rights law in Nigeria’s Imo State, the enactment of a requirement that all condom packages include warnings indicating that they are not “100% safe,” and the passage of a bill criminalizing same-sex marriage.)

According to Okafor, the Global Family Policy Forum for U.N. delegates hosted by WCF-affiliate FWI in Gilbert, Arizona, in 2011 was of particular importance, noting that it was there that the African voting bloc—which unanimously voted against adding more inclusive language to the definition of “family” used in the UN’s newly adopted “Protection of the Family” resolution—successfully “consolidated their positions.”

Where WCF has been successful in persuading national governments to adopt its “natural family” model, there has followed increased persecution of LGBTQ people and decreased access to abortion and reproductive healthcare. In African countries that accept Okafor’s WCF-endorsed narrative and political agenda, we may see growing levels of poverty and—thanks to further restrictions on comprehensive sex education and healthcare options—increased risk for transmission of HIV/AIDS and other STIs.

BRINGING THE FIGHT BACK HOME

Although it is based in the U.S. and has an entirely White, American board of directors, WCF has held its previous global convenings outside the U.S. But WCF IX is scheduled for October 27-30, 2015 in Salt Lake City, Utah. The Sutherland Institute, a right-wing think tank based in Salt Lake City (whose acting CEO and prominent right-wing philanthropist, Stanford Swim, sits on WCF’s board of directors) will host the event, which is expected to draw about 3,000 people.

The theme of WCF IX is expected to be “religious liberty,” which the U.S. Religious Right has been endeavoring to redefine as a sanction to discriminate in the public sphere (particularly against women and LGBTQ people).49 U.S. Christian Right groups have been testing similar “religious freedom” strategies overseas. WCF, as an umbrella organization for right-wing groups, is seeking to orchestrate the coordinated proliferation of this strategy internationally. Many of its member organizations, including the Alliance Defending Freedom and FWI will be in attendance. ADF announced in October 2014 that it is “in the process of transitioning into an international religious liberties organization.” The announcement added that ADF will soon be establishing advocacy offices in: Strasbourg, France, focusing on the European Commission on Human Rights; Geneva, focusing on the United Nations Human Rights Commission; and Brussels, focusing on the European Union.50

If WCF IX goes forward as planned, those who support LGBTQ rights and reproductive justice may see a surge of new legislative assaults, at home and around the world. Yet the event also provides a unique opportunity to challenge WCF’s “natural family” campaign right where it started, in the U.S.

Depending on the audience, WCF’s strategy for promoting the “natural family” varies, but the impact of its campaign is the same across the globe: increased persecution of LGBTQ people, further restrictions on access to abortion, and an increasingly exclusionary definition of what kind of families deserve recognition and rights. With its far-reaching influence, streamlined structure, and ability to alter its message quickly, WCF is establishing itself as a vanguard for the Right’s global anti-choice and anti-LGBTQ agendas.

WCF IX provides a venue for WCF and other Christian Right leaders to continue expanding their international influence. If WCF IX goes forward as planned in Salt Lake City, those who support LGBTQ rights and reproductive justice may see a surge of new legislative assaults, at home and around the world.

However, the event also provides a unique opportunity for activists to challenge the expanding influence of WCF’s “natural family” campaign right where it started, here in the U.S. “Keep in mind that the work of WCF is in response to positive legal gains made by the sexual and reproductive rights and LGBTQ communities,” said Kane. “There is ample room for human rights defenders to challenge the WCF’s regressive agenda.” Activists who support reproductive justice and LGBTQ rights should use this opportunity to draw the public’s attention to the real policy agenda that this supposedly “pro-family” network is pushing.

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Footnotes

1. Stan Swim, “World Congress of Families does not spread fear,” Salt Lake Tribune, Nov. 9. 2014, http://www.sltrib.com/opinion/1793725-155/family-wcf-families-congress-law-munson
2. Jennifer Butler, “For Faith and Family: Christian Right Advocacy at the United Nations,” The Public Eye, Summer 2000, http://www.politicalresearch.org/2000/09/01/for-faith-and-family-christian-right-advocacy-at-the-united-nations/#.
3. Kathryn Joyce, “Missing: The ‘Right’ Children,” Nation, Feb. 14, 2008, http://www.thenation.com/article/missing-right-babies.
4. In August 2014, the Human Rights Campaign—America’s largest LGBTQ political advocacy group—published a report describing WCF as “one of the most influential American organizations in the export of hate.” See: “New HRC Report Exposes The World Congress of Families,” Aug. 25, 2014, http://www.hrc.org/blog/entry/exposed-the-world-congress-of-families.
5. “Hunted: The War Against Gays in Russia,” http://www.hbo.com/documentaries/hunted-the-war-against-gays-in-russia#/.
6. Benjamin Bidder, “Viral Vigilantism: Russian Neo-Nazis Take Gay Bashing Online,” Spiegel Online International, Nov. 14, 2013, http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/russian-skinheads-abuse-gays-and-post-video-to-social-networks-a-933549.html.
7. Austin Ruse, “World Congress of Families Pledges Solidarity with Europe,” Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute, http://t.c-fam.org/en/issues/marriage-and-family/553-world-congress-of-families-pledges-solidarity-with-europe.
8. In 2014, plans were well underway for WCF’s next major convening—WCF VIII—to be held in Moscow, September 10-12. In March, however, WCF announced that it was canceling the event purportedly due to concerns over Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. But the event actually went ahead as scheduled, only slightly disguised by the use of a different name: “Large Families and the Future of Humanity International Forum” (held on the exact dates that WCF VIII was originally scheduled).
9. John Ballyntyne, “A third way? Allan Carlson’s vision of a family-centered economy,” News Weekly, Nov. 8, 2005, http://newsweekly.com.au/article.php?id=3576.
10. “John A. Howard Ph.D.,” http://profam.org/people/xthc_jah.htm.
11. Allan Carlson, “On the World Congress of Families: Presentation to the Charismatic Leaders Fellowship Jacksonville, Florida,” Jan. 12, 2005, http://profam.org/docs/acc/thc.acc.020112.wcf.htm.
12. According to Devin Burghart, vice president of the Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights, “Demographic winter is a relatively new phrase that describes the old alarmist ‘birth dearth’ concept–the idea that we’re facing declining birthrates which is supposed to portend all sorts of cataclysmic events.” See Bill Berkowitz, “Right-Wing Groups Use Decline of White Birthrates to Stoke Fear of Homosexuality, Feminism and Abortion,” AlterNet, June 29, 2010, http://www.alternet.org/story/147352/right-wing_groups_use_decline_of_white_birthrates_to_stoke_fear_of_homosexuality,_feminism_and_abortion.
13. Nancy Folbre, “The Underpopulation Bomb,” New York Times, Feb. 11, 2013, http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/02/11/the-underpopulation-bomb.
14. Don Feder, “The Cultural Roots of Demographic Winter,” Rhodes Forum, http://rhodesforum.org/popular/4082-the-cultural-roots-of-demographic-winter.
15. “Russia’s Growing Muslim Population,” Stratfor, Aug. 8, 2013, http://www.stratfor.com/image/russias-growing-muslim-population.
16. See: United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, http://www.un.org/en/development/desa/population/migration/publications/wallchart/index.shtml.
17. Katheryn Joyce, “Review: Demographic Winter: The Decline of the Human Family,” The Harvard Divinity Bulletin (Spring 2008), http://kathrynjoyce.com/articles/review-demographic-winter-the-decline-of-the-human-family/.
18. “Frequently Asked Questions,” The Howard Center for Family, Religion & Society, Jan. 9, 2007, http://profam.org/THC/xthc_faq.htm.
19. Jennifer Butler, “For Faith and Family.”
20. “A Declaration From The World Congress of Families To The Governments of the Globe,” The Howard Center for Family, Religion & Society, Mar. 22, 1997, http://worldcongress.org/WCF1/wcf1_declaration.htm.
21. “A Declaration From The World Congress of Families.”
22. Allan Carlson, “On the World Congress of Families.”
23. U.S. Department of the Treasury, Internal Revenue Service, Form 990, (Washington, DC: 2012), http://www.guidestar.org/FinDocuments/2013/541/788/2013-541788267-0a1444bd-9.pdf.
24. “World Congress of Families,” The Howard Center for Family, Religion & Society, http://profam.org/docs/acc/thc_acc_frc.christian.democracy.htm.
25. In contrast to WCF’s anti-LGBTQ definition of family, Amnesty International argues that Article 16 of the UDHR—which also states, “Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.”—can be interpreted as a prohibition against discrimination based on gender or sexual orientation. See: “Marriage Equality,” Amnesty International, http://www.amnestyusa.org/our-work/issues/lgbt-rights/marriage-equality.
26. “United Nations,” John Birch Society, http://www.jbs.org/issues-pages/united-nations.
27. Prior to joining the WCF staff, Jacobs served as president of Healthy Beginnings, a conservative Christian pregnancy center with an explicit anti-choice agenda targeting “disadvantaged young women … experiencing unplanned pregnancies.” During his tenure there, Jacobs told a local newspaper that his dream was to spread the Healthy Beginnings model nationally, using faith-based grants made available under President Bush’s administration. Instead, WCF has given Jacobs the opportunity to spread his anti-choice agenda globally. See: Peter Bronson, “Angels in Lab Coats,” Enquirer, Aug. 19, 2001, http://enquirer.com/editions/2001/08/19/loc_bronson_angels_in.html.
28. Brian Tashman, “World Congress of Families Praises Russian Laws ‘Preventing’ Gays from ‘Corrupting Children,’” Right Wing Watch, June 3, 2013, http://www.rightwingwatch.org/content/world-congress-families-praises-russian-laws-preventing-gays-corrupting-children.
29. J.Lester Feder, “U.N. Human Rights Council Adopts Resolution On ‘Protection Of The Family,’” BuzzFeed, June 26, 2014, http://www.buzzfeed.com/lesterfeder/un-human-rights-council-adopts-resolution-on-protection-of-t#.vqye5d3N9.
30. Jay Michaelson, “At the United Nations, It’s Human Rights, Putin-Style,” Daily Beast, June 26, 2014, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/06/26/at-the-united-nations-it-s-human-rights-putin-style.html.
31. J.Lester Feder, “U.N. Human Rights Council.”
32. Sharon Slater, “The Family Watch,” Apr. 2, 2012, http://www.familywatchinternational.org/fwi/newsletter/0573.cfm.
33. Kathryn Joyce, “Missing: The ‘Right’ Children.”
34. Cathy Ramey, “A World Views Conference: Prague’s international Congress of the Family focuses on cultural disaster,” Life Advocate, May/June 1997, http://www.lifeadvocate.org/5_97/cover_s.htm.
35. John D. Mueller, “How do nations choose ‘demographic winter’? Is America doing so?” Remarks to The World Congress of Families V, Panel on “Family and Demography”, Amsterdam, Netherlands, Aug. 11, 2009, accessible via http://worldcongress.org/wcf5.spkrs/wcf5.mueller.htm.
36. World Congress of Families News, Jan./Feb. 2012, Vol. 6 No. 1, http://worldcongress.org/wcfnl/wcfnl.cur.pdf.
37. Sophia Kishkovsky, “Russia Enacts Law Opposing Abortion,” New York Times, July 16, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/15/world/europe/15iht-russia15.html.
38. “Russia Passes First Anti-abortion Law,” SIECUS, July 2011, http://www.siecus.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=Feature.showFeature&featureid=2018&pageid=483&parentid=478.
39. Paul Goble, “Putin Family Values,” The Interpreter, Apr. 17, 2014, http://www.interpretermag.com/putin-family-values/.
40. Sophia Kishkovsky, “Russia Enacts Law Opposing Abortion.”
41. Steven Mosher, “Russia Considers Banning Abortions as Abortion Decimates Its Population,” Life News, Dec. 23, 2013, http://www.lifenews.com/2013/12/23/russia-considers-banning-abortions-as-abortion-decimates-its-population/.
42. World Congress of Families News, Jan./Feb. 2012.
43. See, for example: Steven W. Sinding, “Population, Poverty and Economic Development,” Jan. 2008, http://www.cgdev.org/doc/events/04.07.09/Population_Poverty_and_Econ_Dev_Sinding.pdf.
44. “World Population Prospects: The 2012 Revision,” United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, http://esa.un.org/unpd/wpp/index.htm.
45. “Nigerians living in poverty rise to nearly 61%,” BBC, Feb. 13, 2012, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-17015873. According to UNESCO, “Absolute poverty measures poverty in relation to the amount of money needed to meet basic needs such as food, clothing, and shelter.” See: “Poverty,” UNESCO, http://www.unesco.org/new/en/social-and-human-sciences/themes/international-migration/glossary/poverty/.
46. “Theresa Okafor: Looking to the Future: Overpopulation or Global Depopulation,” YouTube, Dec. 19, 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Lp7-D2u6qk.
47. Rev. Dr. Kapya Kaoma, American Culture Warriors in Africa: A Guide to the Exporters of Homophobia and Sexism (Cambridge: Harvard Bookstore, 2014).
48. “WCF VI-Madrid 2012-Conquistas del movimiento provida y profamilia en el mundo. Theresa Okafor,” YouTube, July 10, 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FGS12eVZq1Y.
49. Jay Michaelson, Redefining Religious Liberty: The Covert Campaign Against Civil Rights, Political Research Associates, Mar. 2013, http://www.politicalresearch.org/2013/03/21/redefining-religious-liberty-the-covert-campaign-against-civil-rights/.
50. World Congress of Families News, Nov. 2014, Vol. 8 No. 7, http://worldcongress.org/files/9414/1582/4595/WCF_News_November_2014.pdf.

 

VIDEO: PRA’s Frederick Clarkson Discusses Religious Freedom Day on the David Pakman Show

Political Research Associates’ senior fellow for religious liberty, Frederick Clarkson, joined The David Pakman Show to discuss Religious Freedom Day, and how the definition of religious freedom laid out by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison is now being corrupted by the Christian Right into a weapon that can be used to punish individuals for their beliefs or non-beliefs.

After Marriage Equality Advances, Christian Right Leaders Back Away From Jail Time Pledges

The Christian Right is often long on style and short on substance. Depending on the day many of its leaders may cast themselves as the second coming of the Founding Fathers, the living legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., or even as facing penalties for their beliefs as grim and spectacular as Christian martyrs in history.

Megachurch pastors Rick Warren (left) and David Platt (right) speak on a panel

Megachurch pastors Rick Warren (left) and David Platt (right) speak on a panel by the Southern Baptist Convention’s ERLC

Since at least the publication of the 2009 manifesto, the Manhattan Declaration, the culture-warring leaders of both the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and of conservative evangelicalism have been threatening massive civil disobedience if they don’t get their way.  Some have called for “martyrs.” Still others have threatened outright religious war. For all of this rhetorical maelstrom one does not have to dismiss that there are real threats of political tension and violence to recognize that some top Christian Right leaders are humbugs and windbags.

Let’s take a look at some recent examples.

This past year we have seen the dark warning of government “persecution” border on self-parody. As we reported a few months ago, Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Committee, and megachurch pastors Rick Warren and David Platt put on quite a show on the eve of the denomination’s 2014 annual national meeting.

According to Warren, personal sacrifices will be necessary in the face of this persecution. “And,” Warren declared, invoking Martin Luther King, Jr., the matter of religious freedom “may take some pastors going to jail. I’m in. I willingly said it, I’m in.”

Platt added, “I hear Pastor Rick say, ‘I’m in,’ and I’m with you.  And I want to raise up an army, an entire body of members that says, ‘I’m in,’ who are in regardless of what happens in this case.”

While Warren and Platt were claiming that they were willing to go to jail in defense of their notions of religious freedom, Russell Moore said, “I’m doing everything we can to keep out us out of jail, but there is one thing worse than going to jail.  And that is staying out of jail and sacrificing the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

As marriage equality has advanced, Moore has already begun to back away from any whiff of Christian martyrdom. He recently told evangelical columnist Jonathan Merritt that even if the Supreme Court legalizes same sex marriage nationally this year, it will not make much difference to evangelicals.

If the court were to “redefine marriage,” Moore said Christians should “be ready to offer an alternative vision of marriage and family” that doesn’t include same-sex unions. Interestingly, his vision would be promoted primarily within the church rather than changing laws through political action.

That is an astounding turn around for a signer of the Manhattan Declaration.

We also have Rick Plasterer, a staff writer on religious liberty for the neoconservative Institute on Religion and Democracy which is best known for its decades-long war of attrition against the churches of mainline Protestantism. His rhetoric may be stodgier than the aforementioned Christian Right leaders, but he is no less resolute in his call for civil disobedience.

“It is understood that conscience can have requirements that may conflict with the law,” he wrote on the last day of 2014, “but the requirement that we do not sin is an absolute duty to God, one not open to discussion, regardless of the pain it causes ourselves or anyone else, and regardless of the penalty to ourselves.”

Plasterer claims that religious opponents of LGBTQ people—and not just marriage equality—must be “willing to take whatever penalty is prescribed for however long it is prescribed.” He goes on to compare those who refuse service in public accommodations to LGBTQ people to “conscientious objectors,” who decline as a matter of moral conscience to fight in wars. And yet, he does not call for people to decline to fight wars—only to discriminate against LGBTQ people.

Parenthetically, it is worth underscoring the Manichean false framing that defines his view of religious liberty.

“In denying liberty of conscience,” he claims, “the cultural left (secularists, homosexual activists, and feminists) are demanding that those unbending religious requirements be given up by religious believers in the personal lives.”

In fact, many mainstream religious bodies support the rights of LGBTQ people, and embrace marriage equality. We reported last year, for example, on the landmark federal court decision overturning a North Carolina law which made clergy performing same-sex marriage ceremonies subject to criminal prosecution. The suit was brought by the United Church of Christ, and joined by, among others, the Alliance of Baptists as well as the Central Conference of American Rabbis. There are “secularists” who both favor and oppose marriage equality, just as there are religious people and institutions that favor and oppose it.

No one can require anyone to change their beliefs, but people can be required to obey non-discrimination laws.

But for sheer rhetorical histrionics, it is it is hard to top the claims of Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. On the USCCB web site, Lori announced the annual Fortnight of Freedom, which next year will take place from June 21 to July 4, 2015. It is a campaign intended to highlight the alleged threats to the religious liberty of Catholicism in the context of the three themes of the Manhattan Declaration, life, marriage and religious liberty. It is scheduled, he says, at “a time when our liturgical calendar celebrates a series of great martyrs who remained faithful in the face of persecution by political power—St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher, St. John the Baptist, SS. Peter and Paul, and the First Martyrs of the Church of Rome.”

Unless Lori and his colleagues know something they are not saying, the sly comparison of today’s American Catholic Church to historical figures who were tortured and executed for their faith is beyond preposterous. The historian Tacitus reports that the First Martyrs of the Church of Rome, for example, were “Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.”

And yet, for all the big talk and the false moral equivalences—as Christian Right figures like Moore, Warren, Platt, Plasterer, Lori, and their ilk fancy themselves and their constituencies as following in the tradition of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, and even those whose moral convictions required them to serve out jail sentences as conscientious objectors to war—these men by comparison lead remarkably comfortable lives.

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The Christian Right Does Not Want You to Know About This Day

Jefferson Statue

In the heat of our political moment, we sometimes don’t see how our future connects deeply to our past. But the Christian Right does — and they do not like what they see.

The Christian Right has made religious freedom the ideological phalanx of its current campaigns in the culture wars. Religious freedom is now invoked as a way of seeking to derail access to reproductive health services as well as equality for LGBTQ people, most prominently regarding marriage equality.

But history provides little comfort for the theocratic visions of the Christian Right. And that is where our story begins.

For all of the shouting about religious liberty — from the landmark Hobby Lobby Supreme Court case, to the passage of the anti-gay Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Mississippi, and more — there is barely any mention, let alone any observance, of the official national Religious Freedom Day, enacted by Congress in 1992 and recognized every January 16 by an annual presidential proclamation.

The day commemorates the enactment of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom in 1786.

Why is this seemingly obscure piece of Revolutionary-era legislation so vital? And why doesn’t the Christian Right want you to know anything about it?

The bill, authored by Thomas Jefferson and later pushed through the state legislature by then member of the House of Delegates, James Madison, is regarded as the root of how the framers of the Constitution approached matters of religion and government, and it was as revolutionary as the era in which it was written.

It not only disestablished the Anglican Church as the official state church, but it provided that no one can be compelled to attend any religious institution or to underwrite it with taxes; that individuals are free to believe as they will and that this “shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”

As a practical matter, this meant that what we believe or don’t believe is not the concern of government and that we are all equal as citizens.

Following the dramatic passage of the Statute in 1786, Madison traveled to Philadelphia, where he served as a principal author of the Constitution in 1787. As a Member of Congress in 1789 he was also a principal author of the First Amendment, which passed in 1791.

Thomas Jefferson was well aware that many did not like the Statute, just as they did not like the Constitution and the First Amendment, both of which sought to expand the rights of citizens and deflect claims of churches seeking special consideration.

So before his death, Jefferson sought to get the last word on what it meant. The Statute, he wrote, contained “within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohametan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination.”

That is a powerful and clear statement. Jefferson, almost 200 years ago, refuted the contemporary claims of Christian Right leaders, many of whom not only insist that America was founded as a Christian nation, but that the framers really meant their particular interpretation of Christianity.

Jefferson further explained that the legislature had specifically rejected proposed language that would have described “Jesus Christ” as “the holy author of our religion.” This was rejected, he reported, “by the great majority.”

No wonder the Christian Right does not want us to remember the original Statute for Religious Freedom — it doesn’t fit their narrative of history! Nor does it justify their vision of the struggles of the political present, or the shining theocratic future they envision.

Religious Freedom Day is nothing but bad news for the likes of Religious Right leaders like Tony Perkins, who argue that Christians who favor marriage equality are not really Christians. They can believe that if they want, but it can make no difference in the eyes of the law. That is probably why on Religious Freedom Day 2014, Perkins made no mention of what Religious Freedom Day is really about — instead using the occasion to denounce president Obama’s approach to religious liberty abroad.

This barely commemorated day provides an opportunity for LGBTQ people, and progressives generally, to reclaim a philosophical, legal and constitutional legacy that the Christian Right is busy trying to redefine for their own purposes.

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