“Faith-Washing” Right-Wing Economics: How the Right is Marketing Medicare’s Demise

This article appears in the Fall 2015 issue of The Public Eye magazine.
Click here for a printable PDF.

Click here for a printable PDF.

If you have worked all your adult life and are now receiving Medicare health benefits, you may be vexed to find that the third-largest federal program1 may not cover everything you need. Indeed, as PBS reported in July, “Medicare certainly does not cover long-term custodial care in nursing homes or other institutional settings.”2 Despite its limitations, the federal benefit program remains among the most popular government initiatives in U.S. history, even among Tea Party Republicans, who found a rallying cry in one South Carolina man’s infamous 2009 demand to establishment politicians: “Keep your government hands off my Medicare.”3 A 2011 Marist poll showed that 70 percent of those identifying themselves with the Tea Party opposed any cuts to Medicare.4 More recently, an April 2015 poll from Reuters/Ipsos showed that 80 percent of all Republican voters opposed cutting either Medicare or Social Security.5

Medicare’s broad popularity presents a problem for conservative candidates who are racing each other to eliminate the program as we know it. Some politicians want to cut Medicare as a means of shrinking the welfare state; others want to redirect Medicare’s vast payroll deduction revenues into the hands of private corporations. (Private contractors already administer at least one category of Medicare benefits.6)

President Barack Obama participates in a discussion about poverty during the Catholic-Evangelical Leadership Summit on Overcoming Poverty, at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., May 12, 2015. From left, moderator E. J. Dionne, Jr., Washington Post columnist and professor in Georgetown's McCourt School of Public Policy, Robert Putnam, professor of public policy at the Harvard University John F. Kennedy School of Government and Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute. Photo: White House photo by Pete Souza

President Barack Obama participates in a discussion about poverty during the Catholic-Evangelical Leadership Summit on Overcoming Poverty, at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., May 12, 2015. From left, moderator E. J. Dionne, Jr., Washington Post columnist and professor in Georgetown’s McCourt School of Public Policy, Robert Putnam, professor of public policy at the Harvard University John F. Kennedy School of Government and Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute. Photo: White House photo by Pete Souza

Either way, following the demise of Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign—helped along by Romney’s mocking of poor and working class voters as “entitled” “victims”7—conservatives from across the ideological spectrum have been in search of a new marketing strategy: one that downplays the take-from-the-poor, give-to-the-rich foundations of their policies. Whether and how factional disputes between the Tea Party’s “Freedom Caucus” and the GOP leadership in the House of Representatives can be managed remains to be seen. As William Greider recently wrote8 in The Nation, “The party can’t deal with the real economic distress threatening the nation as long as rebellion is still smoldering in the ranks. Of course, that suits the interests of the country-club and Fortune 500 wing of the party—the last thing they want is significant economic reform.”

In the throes of this turmoil, the free market or “country-club” conservatives are test-marketing a new brand: a Christian-inflected, contemporary remix of the 1980s’ and ’90s’ “compassionate conservatism.” Even as candidates like Jeb Bush (who wants to “phase out” Medicare9), Sen. Marco Rubio (a Florida Republican who has said he wants to raise the retirement age10), and former candidate Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (who proposed cutting $15 million from his state’s Medicare program11) sharpen blades to slash retirement security, a chorus of voices preaching Christian love and generosity toward the poor is rising from two groups whose connections with each other are not widely understood—the Christian Right and what we might call the free market fundamentalists.

Though this new brand may be meant to appeal to those—including many Christians—uncomfortable with rhetoric that demonizes vulnerable people, conservative groups pushing this new poverty narrative aren’t breaking with free market and Christian Right leadership. They have no plans to redress income inequality. Instead, responding to internal pressure from both the Tea Party Producerist Right (whose “makers and takers” frame blames both the undeserving poor and liberal elites as drivers of a system that takes from “real,” productive Americans) and external pressure from the economic populist Left, the Christian Right and free market fundamentalists are changing the packaging on their long-shared policy agenda12 of cutting the government benefits on which vast numbers of people rely.

During this primary season, right-wing populists such as Donald Trump and Sarah Palin have grabbed headlines with the racist implication that everyone who isn’t a “maker” is to blame for keeping the United States from greatness. From a public relations standpoint, this sort of unrestrained demagoguery—dangerous as it is – could polish the shine on the relaunch of compassionate conservatism. But when we turn down the volume on these deliberately offensive antics, it becomes easier to recognize how the new right-wing slogans about poverty pose a serious threat.

This isn’t an entirely new phenomenon. Neoliberal conservatives like Bush, neoconservatives such as Rubio, and free market libertarians like Walker benefit from the decades-long Christian Right re-education of Evangelical voters, around half of whom now believe that capitalism is a Christian system.13 These politicians make the demolition of seniors’ retirement security seem like a tragic inevitability, as uncontrollable as the weather, rather than the political choice that it is.

An early election-season example of this narrative came from Jeb Bush in a July 22 interview, in which he argued that Medicare should be preserved for those already receiving the benefit, but “we need to figure out a way to phase out this program for others and move to a new system that allows them to have something—because they’re not going to have anything.”14

But Jeb’s concerns amount to crocodile tears. As Trump parades through city after city, spewing hate-filled rhetoric, Bush coolly explains how he will enact policies that will cause millions of future seniors to become destitute. By the standards of progressive economic populists, there are no “good guys” among the current roster of conservative candidates. They may differ on message and tactics, but as historian Geraldo Cadava wrote of Bush in a September essay in The Atlantic, “do not mistake his moderate tone, performance of goodwill, or marketability to Latino voters for an entirely different message than his cruder primary opponents.”15

Whose safety net?

“It’s time to declare peace on the social safety net,” announced Arthur C. Brooks, president of the free market think tank American Enterprise Institute (AEI), at Georgetown University’s May 12 Catholic-Evangelical Leadership Summit on Overcoming Poverty, before calling the social safety net “one of the greatest achievements of free enterprise.” Sharing the stage with Brooks were Robert Putnam, a best-selling author and Harvard political scientist whose latest book examines the diminishing prospects for economic mobility in the U.S.16; veteran Washington Post political commentator E.J. Dionne; and President Barack Obama.17 But Brooks did not mean to express approval of direct government benefits such as Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid, TANF, and food stamps. Instead, his declaration of “peace” was the opening gambit for a broader argument to weaken these highly popular government programs.

“The safety net should be limited,” Brooks said, “to people who are truly indigent, as opposed to being spread around in a way that metastasizes into middle class entitlements and imperils our economy.” Brooks did not mention that AEI scholars spent the 1980s, ‘90s and 2000s publishing commentaries and reports pillorying people who apply for public assistance.18 Perhaps the most famous of these scholars is AEI’s W.H. Brady Scholar Charles Murray (coauthor of the noxious 1994 tome The Bell Curve), whose 1984 book, Losing Ground: American Social Policy 1950-1980, provided the intellectual basis for the Welfare Reform Act of 1996, which effectively ended the federal welfare system. Murray’s arguments helped shape the myth of the “welfare queen.” (“Poor, uneducated, single teenaged mothers,” he wrote, “are in a bad position to raise children, however much they may love them.”) Brooks’ comparison of government aid to metastatic cancer echoed those earlier waves of AEI antagonism.

It also underscored an implied threat. Brooks went on: “If you don’t pay attention to the macro-economy and the fiscal stability you will become insolvent. And if you become insolvent you will have austerity. And if you have austerity the poor always pay.” Such statements help make the increasingly precarious middle class fear that government direct aid programs that help their fellow citizens will lead to an economic tailspin. And if Brooks and his peers can effectively frighten the middle class away from defending the social safety net, there will be no constituency left that is strong enough to defend it.

But what will certainly remain are the largely invisible government aid programs for the wealthy and corporations: the billions in public subsidies that allow businesses to profit. That’s the cruel irony at the heart of free market fundamentalism. As political scientist Suzanne Mettler wrote in her 2011 book, The Submerged State: How Invisible Government Policies Undermine American Democracy, privatizing social welfare programs can appear like a more efficient use of taxpayer dollars, and, as such, part of a Reaganite reliance on market-based policy. “Yet, in fact,” she wrote, “such policies function not through free market principles of laissez-faire but rather through public subsidization of the private sector.”19 Because the gigantic subsidies Mettler describes primarily benefit the wealthy corporations that support conservative think tanks such as AEI, conservative intellectuals like Brooks never talk about cutting them. 

Cloaking cruelty with catchphrases

Brooks’ threat of austerity may appear less directly racist than the “bad parent” attacks on African Americans that Murray and others used to pass welfare reform during the 1990s.20 Instead of demonizing the poor outright, this time around Brooks melds Christian rhetoric with economic-speak to offer a more paternalistic, “colorblind” characterization.

“Every one of us made in God’s image,” he said, “is an asset to develop.”21 Brooks is vague about how poor Americans (whom he describes as “the least of these, our brothers and sisters”) can become “assets” in a capitalist sense. But he seems convinced that free enterprise will save them from poverty. Brooks concluded his Georgetown remarks, “That’s a human capital approach to poverty alleviation.” In his recent book, The Conservative Heart: How to Build a Fairer, Happier, and More Prosperous America, Brooks expands on this Christian-lite evangelizing about the sacredness of work: “Work with reward is always and everywhere a blessing.”22

So, instead of welfare or government jobs, Brooks is proposing that work in the private sector will help poor people lift themselves out of poverty. Jeb Bush expressed a version of this idea at a Republican women’s event in late September, saying, “Our message is one of hope and aspiration…It isn’t one of division and get in line and we’ll take care of you with free stuff. Our message…says you can achieve earned success.”23 But this strategy has already spectacularly failed, particularly for communities of color. In a May 2015 New York Times article, Patricia Cohen reported how African Americans who used to be able to make a middle-class living at government jobs have increasingly fallen into more precarious economic situations as their agencies have been privatized.24

Brooks’ use of “brothers and sisters” and “the least of these,” is just one example of how neoliberals have been adapting their language to better appeal to conservative Christians in recent years. The Christian Right has become such an important part of the conservative firmament that other factions of the Right are often obliged to cast their arguments in religious terms, weaving religious ideas directly into mainstream policy debates. And the most glaring example of this shift is that, whenever the public discourse turns to a criticism of income inequality, Corporate and Christian Right intellectuals turn to their new narrative: one that laments the existence of poverty while at the same time prescribing mythic free market capitalism—rather than jobs programs or tangible government supports such as Medicare—as its cure.

Arthur Brooks speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. Photo: Wikimedia // Need to confirm if this is also Gage Skidmore

Arthur Brooks speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland.
Photo: Wikimedia

The billionaires’ Christian scholars

Conservative billionaire2s who have invested hundreds of millions in the U.S. political system, such as the Koch brothers, the Kern family, the DeVoses, and others, now fund a caravan of Christian social scientists, theologians, and scholars to serve as their free market evangelists. The most high-profile of these wealthy backers are the Koch Brothers; not only has AEI received funds from both the Charles Koch Foundation and Donors Trust (a dark-money organization that allows wealthy donors to give anonymously to conservative causes25), but David Koch also served on AEI’s National Council as recently as 2014.26

Brooks and other Christian free market surrogates use biblical language sanctifying the “dignity of work” and the entrepreneurial spirit, and craft slogans to market the Corporate and Christian Right policy goal of dismantling retirement security and health coverage for seniors. But many conservative donors want more than a catchphrase; they also expect a return on their investment in politics. They also want access for themselves to the largesse of the state. Christian Right groups have been working with free market groups since the 1980s to shrink government programs for the needy and move the funds from these programs into the hands of unaccountable, private religious charities.27

Writers in this magazine and elsewhere have documented this trend of ending direct government aid to the poor and elderly in favor of private charity, starting with the 1996 Welfare Reform Act and continuing to the “compassionate conservatism” that WORLD magazine editor Marvin Olasky helped brand for President George W. Bush.28 As Bill Berkowitz wrote for The Public Eye in 2002, “Stripped of alliteration, ‘compassionate conservatism’ is the political packaging of the Right’s long-term goals of limited government, privatization, deregulation and the creation of a new social contract.”29

One tool that “compassionate conservatives” invented for redirecting state funds into private hands was the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. PRA has reported on this office’s funneling of federal grants to religious nonprofits under Bush, and on its continued lack of transparency and accountability under Obama.30

In the Georgetown panel discussion with Obama and Putnam, as well as in his book The Conservative Heart, Brooks updated compassionate conservatism to draw a sharp divide between what he considers the legitimate “safety net” and the abuse of it in “middle class entitlements.” “Help should always come with the dignifying power of work,” Brooks said.

Perhaps hearing Brooks’ remarks as yet another version of the Right’s attack on government assistance programs, Obama responded with a defensive question, asking, “What portion of our collective wealth and budget are we willing to invest in those things that allow a poor kid, whether in a rural town…in Appalachia or in the inner city, to access what they need both in terms of mentors and social networks, as well as decent books and computers and so forth, in order for them to succeed?”31 Obama was giving Brooks a chance to show his support for equality of opportunity for all people, not just for corporations. Brooks offered no response.

Occupy D.C. protesters outside the 2012 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, D.C. Photo: Flickr / www.GlynLowe.com

Occupy D.C. protesters outside the 2012 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, D.C.
Photo: Flickr / www.GlynLowe.com

Charity vs. collective action

Free market neoliberals from both sides of the aisle have not historically concerned themselves with the problems of the poor. Indeed, as the late political scientist Jean V. Hardisty and Northeastern University law professor Lucy A. Williams pointed out in their 2002 essay, “The Right’s Campaign Against Welfare,” the New Right coalition that brought Ronald Reagan to power popularized the idea that there were fewer people living in poverty than government data showed, and that anyone still in need of aid after Reagan’s implementation of supply-side economic policies, such as tax cuts for businesses, was simply abusing the system. “As a result of a decade of message development,” Hardisty and Williams wrote, “the Right was able to augment the justification for the elimination of federal social programs; they should be defunded not simply because they tax our paychecks, but because they destroy recipients’ character.”32

But conservative Christians have a more complex relationship to poverty. Care for the poor is unquestionably a central tenet of Christ’s teachings, and free market ideologues know that even the most profit-motivated Christian has been taught to give back a percentage of his or her income and time to those in need. Christian Reconstructionism33 and its “softer” counterpart, Christian Dominionism, the intellectual movements that undergird much of the Christian Right,34 offer a set of solutions for how a Christian government should treat the poor. As religion scholar Julie J. Ingersoll writes in her 2015 book Building God’s Kingdom: Inside the World of Christian Reconstruction, many of these “solutions,” which are rooted in a strictly literal interpretation of God’s law in the Bible, have filtered into the policy platforms of conservative political figures, most notably Ron Paul, Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, and Rick Santorum.

According to the Reconstructionist and Dominionist worldview, only the elect, or God’s chosen few in the church, get to govern.35 These elect see it as their duty, Ingersoll writes, to “transform every aspect of culture to bring it in line with [the] Bible.”36 This follows from a Calvinist interpretation of the Bible, which posits that only the elect will get into Heaven.

“Retirement is not a Biblical concept. That is a pagan concept.” – Tea Party “Historian” David Barton

A recent example of this vision came in a July 6 video interview that self-styled Tea Party “historian” David Barton gave,37 in which he helped amplify the conservative chorus for cutting Medicare. “Retirement is not a Biblical concept,” Barton said. “That is a pagan concept.” Barton seems to be in favor of doing away with retirement altogether. But despite this hardline—and surely unpopular—position, Barton’s political star appears to be on the rise. In September, Texas senator and GOP presidential candidate Ted Cruz hired Barton to lead his superPAC. Time will tell whether Barton can parlay his grassroots Tea Party network into votes for Cruz.38 But with Barton granted such an influential platform, other Christian Dominionists will likely be emboldened to promote their version of biblical government.

Faith-washing inequality

Since even a shrunken, limited government would have to remain as part of a Dominionist transformation, in recent years the Christian Right has had to address the sticky question of how government should behave toward the poor—especially within the context of unfettered global capitalism. In other words, how can the Christian Right reconcile Christ’s admonition in Matthew 25:40 to care for “the least of these” with a system of global capital that allows the one percent to hoard trillions while 16.4 million U.S. children are living in poverty?

Enter the Koch brothers and Christian free enterprise. As Peter Montgomery wrote in The Public Eye’s Spring 2015 issue, “The Koch brothers, who describe themselves as libertarians uninterested in social conservatives’ culture wars, are more than willing to use Christian Right voters as well as mountains of cash to achieve their anti-government, anti-union ends.”39 Through the use of obscurely-named trust funds such as Themis, ORRA, and EvangCHR4,40 the fossil-fuel tycoons have established the Christian free market think tank Institute for Faith, Work and Economics (IFWE), which has set about resolving this area of potential tension between the Corporate and Christian Right.

Koch-funded theologians have developed a scripture-based argument to address populist anger over economic inequality, blending the Christian Right’s traditional Calvinist hierarchies with an economically Darwinist framework that says it is correct and just for wealth to accrue to those who manage it best.

Beyond advocating simple charity, IFWE theologians have developed a scripture-based argument to address populist anger over economic inequality, blending the Christian Right’s traditional Calvinist hierarchies—the preordained, saved “elect” vs. the rest of us41—with an economically Darwinist framework that says it is correct and just for wealth to accrue to those who manage it best.

IFWE’s Anne Rathbone Bradley, an economist and former advisor to Charles Koch,42 offers the fullest version of this argument, writing in a recent paper, “Why Does Income Inequality Exist?,”43 that people are simply “created differently, and some of us will earn higher incomes than others.”

Much of Bradley’s theological justification for this claim rests on her Calvinist interpretation of the Bible’s “Parable of the Talents,” and how it provides for what she calls “a diversity in income.” Also known as The Parable of the Bags of Gold, Matthew 25:14-30 tells of three servants and their master, who, before departing on a journey, leaves the servants to guard his wealth. To the first, he gives five bags of gold. To the second, he gives two. And to the third, only one—“each according to his ability.” Upon his return, he finds his first two “good and faithful” servants have invested and doubled the amount of gold that each was given. The third buried his master’s gold in the ground and naturally retrieved only what was given to him. This servant, who merely saved the money, was chastised as wicked and lazy, and sentenced to be thrown “outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

People are simply “created differently, and some of us will earn higher incomes than others.” – IFWE’s Anne Rathbone Bradley, former advisor to Charles Koch

Bradley sees in this parable a lesson about God-granted “diversity in abilities,” which in turn justifies and normalizes income inequality. Those who gain wealth have done so because they applied their God-given abilities. Those who have not lack the ability to do so. Bradley’s interpretation also rationalizes the perpetuation of income inequality because, had the master “given each man an equal amount, putting equality over ability,” Bradley writes, “he would have squandered his resources” by limiting his potential profits. (AEI’s Arthur Brooks echoed this point in a July interview with The Christian Post, saying, “I think Christians, in particular, can design their own thinking about politics around the 25th Chapter of Matthew, and thinking about people with less, and especially people with less power.”4546)

Using the Parable of the Talents to inform policy decisions is just the latest in a long series of Christian and Corporate Right intellectual projects. Marvin Olasky emphasized the importance of the business-faith alliance in a 2010 essay titled “Prophets and Profit,” in a Heritage Foundation anthology called Indivisible: Social and Economic Foundations of American Liberty. “Social conservatives who revere the Bible can learn much about how to apply it from economic conservatives who share a realistic outlook,” he wrote. “Economic conservatives also can learn from biblically motivated conservatives the importance of ethical and other non-economic factors in determining economic success.”47

And for those who find themselves on the short end of the “talents”- and profits-stick? For those, Bradley and fellow IFWE theologian Art Lindsley prescribe charity, citing Proverbs 14:30 in their book, For the Least of These: A Biblical Answer to Poverty: “whoever is kind to the needy honors God.” But they make clear that the Bible’s instructions for people don’t apply to governments, or government aid.48 Such arguments help set the table for political debates that devalue the role of government and make it easier for conservative politicians to carve into programs such as Medicare.

Christian free enterprise has thus made significant inroads in policy circles. The “bad guys” in their poverty narrative may have changed; they are no longer the “welfare queens” of the Reagan era so much as liberals accused of a “lack of civility”49 for calling free market capitalists greedy, or progressives labeled fiscally irresponsible for refusing to cut Medicare. But the narrative follows a familiar formula—one that Jean Hardisty identified in her 2000 book Mobilizing Resentment: Conservative Resurgence from the John Birch Society to the Promise Keepers: “skillful leaders recruiting discontented followers by offering simple explanations, complete with scapegoats, for their resentments.”50 We can see the progress this new coalition has made when even the President of the United States is compelled to defend the country’s continued investment in established public benefits on a stage with the head of the American Enterprise Institute.

SIDEBAR: Jay W. Richards: The Free Market's Culture Warrior (click to expand)

One of the “skillful” leaders—as PRA founder Jean Hardisty characterized right-wing strategists who mobilize conservatives’ resentment against poor people and communities of color—who has gone largely unremarked in the mainstream press is Jay W. Richards, a conservative Catholic who currently holds an assistant research professorship at The Catholic University of America’s School of Business and Economics. Richards has been a guest lecturer at the anti-choice, anti-LGBTQ Family Research Council as well as a former visiting fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation. Richards, who earned his Ph.D in philosophy and theology from Princeton Theological Seminary, has also worked stints as a fellow at other right-wing think tanks, including the anti-evolution Discovery Institute, where he edited a book defending creationist curricula. He has authored around half a dozen other books, including the 2009 Money, Greed, and God: Why Capitalism Is the Solution and Not the Problem.63 From his current perch at Catholic University, Richards now focuses on the Christian defense of free market capitalism.

When he isn’t building bridges between the Corporate and Christian Right, Richards is a culture warrior. He expresses transphobic, homophobic, and anti-abortion views on his social media pages. On April 10, he posted an article bearing a photo of concrete gargoyle-demons on his Facebook and Twitter pages with the caption, “The subject few are willing to broach: The Attack on Marriage Is Diabolical”—a suggestion that the devil is behind the push for same-sex marriage. On May 24, he snarked on Facebook and Twitter about the news of the Boy Scouts allowing gay troop leaders by commenting, “Sticking a crow bar in the Overton Window” next to the article title, “‘Be Prepared’: ‘Gay Men’ with Boy Scouts in Tents,” equating openly gay Scout leaders with sexual predators entering Scouts’ tents.

More recently, though, Richards has shifted his emphasis from social and cultural sniping to economic and political issues. The Christian Right is increasingly turning to Richards as a thought leader on reconciling biblical economics with homophobic, white nationalist-tinged Producerism.

Moment of opportunity

Christian Right politicians sometimes acknowledge a personal wish to help the poor. Former Virginia Congressmember Frank Wolf, speaking at an AEI event in May 2013, offered such a platitude: “I am compelled because of my faith,” he said, “to have compassion for the weak and vulnerable in our midst.”51

Working class and poor people form a diverse grassroots base that can mobilize to win political power; they may not be quite as “weak and vulnerable” as Wolf supposes. Leaders on the Right have in some ways learned to harness this power. While the 2008 economic crash led, on the Left, to the Occupy movement and the Wisconsin pro-labor uprisings of 2011 and 2012, the Tea Party used populist anger over the economy to marshal White working-class voters to sweep the state and federal legislatures in 2010. But after Mitt Romney’s defeat in the 2012 presidential campaign, following his tone-deaf comments about working Americans “who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it,”52 conservative candidates are working harder than ever to appeal to working-class voters.

As historian Bethany Moreton, author of the 2009 book To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise, has observed, Tea Party leaders gained ground by building a voter base through local town hall events and involvement with White cultural institutions such as conservative churches and corporations like Walmart. Because Tea Party populism included Christian free market principles among its broadly shared core values, it has been difficult for dissenting Left groups such as the union-backed Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart) and the Fight for 15 movement to disrupt Tea Party populism with a call for better treatment of workers. Thanks to Walmart’s cultural innovation of “blending Christian service ideals with free market theories,” Moreton has written,53 the company has given rise to an entire low-wage workforce in the retail sector that prefers Christian ideas about charity to collective action or government reform. “The same retail workers that progressive unions sought to organize,” writes Moreton of Walmart’s exponential growth in the 1970s and ‘80s, “report that they are more likely to turn to God for help on the job than to a union, a feminist organization, or a government agency.”

But where there are still unions, the grassroots political power of the working class still militates toward the Left. In the face of a jobless recovery and historic inequality, economic justice arguments are making an impact. The 2009-2014 decline in median wages across all income groups,54 along with high-profile demonstrations by low-wage workers, has left the Corporate Right politically vulnerable. An August Gallup poll showed that one in five U.S. workers worry they will have their hours and wages cut at work (up from the teens before the 2008 recession).55 Meanwhile, the rich keep getting richer: between 2009 and 2012, one study showed that the top one percent captured 95 percent of total income growth.56

Even in non-union regions and sectors of the workforce, movements for economic justice have gotten more sophisticated, sometimes with an analysis that appeals to Christians. The North Carolina-based Moral Mondays movement, for example, has built a robust activist base through progressive pastors and faith leaders calling for broad-based economic justice, investment in public education, and an end to inequality. Further, about a year ago, the Fight for 15 fast-food campaign began involving home care workers,57 who represent a workforce, two million strong, of mostly low-wage women, immigrants, and people of color. Although home care workers’ campaign for public support—a moral appeal called Caring Across Generations—has been underway for years, they had never before combined forces strategically to stand with other low-wage workers. The marriage of a bad mood among the voting public with effective economic justice organizing has created a moment of opportunity for mass political mobilization.

Whose vision will prevail?

Industrialist donors are not waiting around for the Christian Right to step in and help them sell their policy agenda of dismantling government benefits. Instead, as demonstrated above, they have begun recruiting—and funding—experienced Christian scholars and public relations experts to make their case in the media and on college campuses. The Koch-funded IFWE is one center for this activity; so is the Foundation for Economic Education, a project of the ultraconservative Mackinac Center for Public Policy run by libertarian leader Lawrence Reed58; and the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that takes aim at mainline churches with funding from neoconservative and Christian Right groups.59

But their victory is by no means assured. Communities of color who were pilloried and thrown off the welfare rolls under President Bill Clinton’s Welfare Reform Act were, it turns out, the canaries in the coal mine. Now, most of the White workforce finds its wages cut; many have had to go on food stamps or apply for other benefits. Indeed, 40.2 percent of 2013 food stamp recipient household heads were White60; in addition, more than half of 2013 Medicare beneficiaries were White in all states except Hawaii and the District of Columbia.61

Now, while Producerist right-wing populists like Trump demonize immigrants and liberal elites as moochers (and worse62), some Corporate and Christian Right leaders are offering another line: that everyone flourishes according to his or her talents. This approach could appeal to those conservative Christians unconvinced by market logic and resistant to the mean-spirited attacks of Trump and the Tea Party..

Christian Right and Corporate Right thought leaders like Barton, Bradley, and Brooks may use gentler language that strikes a chord with some conservatives, but the policies they promote bespeak a different vision. The elitism that undergirds their collaboration is fundamentally at odds with the equality of economic opportunity that liberals, and even some Republicans, hold as a core value.

In a world where the Parable of the Talents justifies regressive economic policy, those who lack property are left to fend for themselves.

The coalition of Christian conservatives and free market fundamentalists promotes a vision that elevates property rights—rather than human rights—to the level of sacred principle. With wages continuing to fall even as the business world recovers from the Great Recession, it is clear that enacting policy according to this principle leads to profit for a few, and suffering for many.

In a world where the Parable of the Talents justifies regressive economic policy, those who lack property are left to fend for themselves. But there is another way. It is not enough for those who desire economic justice to ridicule or denounce the overtly racist rhetoric of a Donald Trump. Politicians also need to hear a full-throated rejection of the narratives that treat poor people, immigrants, and people of color as “the least of these” or “assets to develop.” Such messages infantilize everyone who may one day rely on widely supported social safety nets; they are also portents of the broader benefit cuts that conservatives hope to enact. Now that billionaires have already purchased many of the mechanisms of democracy, people who do not want a future without programs such as Medicare and Social Security must act quickly to join and strengthen the collective movements that can defend them.

Mariya Strauss is PRA’s Economic Justice Researcher. 

Jaime Longoria contributed research and reporting to this article.


1 “The Facts on Medicare Spending and Financing,” The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, July 24, 2015, http://kff.org/medicare/fact-sheet/medicare-spending-and-financing-fact-sheet/.

2 Philip Moeller, “Medicare coverage for aging parents’ care is not nearly enough,” PBS.org, July 22, 2015, www.pbs.org/newshour/making-sense/medicare-coverage-aging-parents-care-nearly-enough/.

3 Philip Rucker, “Sen. DeMint of S.C. Is Voice of Opposition to Health-Care Reform,” The Washington Post, July 28, 2009, https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/07/27/AR2009072703066_2.html.

4 David Weigel, “Poll: 70 percent of ‘Tea Party Supporters’ oppose Medicare cuts,” Slate, April 19, 2011. http://www.slate.com/blogs/weigel/2011/04/19/poll_70_percent_of_tea_party_supporters_oppose_medicare_cuts.html

5 Amanda Becker, “Americans don’t like big government–but like many programs: poll”, Reuters, April 30, 2015. http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/04/30/us-usa-election-libertarians-idUSKBN0NL15B20150430

6 Suzanne Mettler, The Submerged State: How Invisible Government Policies Undermine American Democracy (Chicago Studies in American Politics), (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), Kindle Locations 333-335.

7 Molly Moorhead, “Mitt Romney says 47 percent of Americans pay no income tax,” PolitiFact.com, September 18, 2012, http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2012/sep/18/mitt-romney/romney-says-47-percent-americans-pay-no-income-tax/.

8 William Greider, “Why Today’s GOP Crackup Is the Final Unraveling of Nixon’s ‘Southern Strategy’,” The Nation, Oct. 12, 2015, http://www.thenation.com/article/why-todays-gop-crackup-is-the-final-unraveling-of-nixons-southern-strategy/.

9Jeb Bush: We Need to “Phase Out” Medicare  [Video] Retrieved September 21, 2015, from https://youtu.be/Ry_fRjLyE68.

10 Jonnelle Marte, “Marco Rubio’s plan to fix America’s Retirement System,” The Washington Post, May 13, 2014, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonkblog/wp/2014/05/13/marco-rubios-plan-to-fix-americas-retirement-system/.

11 “Walker had proposed forcing tens of thousands of participants in the state program to enroll in private plans through the federal Medicare Part D benefit.” See: Jason Stein and Patrick Marley, “GOP Lawmakers Restore SeniorCare Benefits,” Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, May 21, 2015, http://www.jsonline.com/news/statepolitics/joint-finance-to-deal-today-with-troubled-wedc-cuts-to-seniorcare-b99504512z1-304551231.html.

12 For a fuller discussion of how free market economic ideologues co-evolved with the Christian Right, see: Kim Phillips-Fein, Invisible Hands: The Businessmen’s Crusade Against The New Deal. (New York: W.W. Norton, 2010).

13 Kevin M. Kruse, “A Christian Nation? Since When?,” The New York Times, March 14, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/15/opinion/sunday/a-christian-nation-since-when.html?_r=0 and http://religiondispatches.org/capitalism-and-christianity/.

14 Tara Culp-Ressler, “Jeb Bush Quietly Suggests ‘Phasing Out’ Medicare,” ThinkProgress.org, July 23, 2015, http://thinkprogress.org/health/2015/07/23/3683804/jeb-bush-medicare/.

15 Geraldo L. Cadava, “Will Latino Voters Support Jeb Bush?,” The Atlantic, September 1, 2015, http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/09/jeb-bush-inadequate-latino-ties/402748/.

16 As Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig points out, Putnam’s latest book suffers from an unwillingness to confront the root causes of inequality; yet Putnam is still viewed by many as an authority on the subject. See: Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig, “Lost Opportunity,” Democracy Journal 38 (Fall 2015), http://www.democracyjournal.org/38/lost-opportunity.php?page=all.

17 “Obama at Georgetown: Now is the Time to Invest in Helping the Poor,” Georgetown University, May 12, 2015, https://www.georgetown.edu/news/poverty-summit-2015-with-obama.html.

18 One example of this reviling of the poor can be found in this white paper from an AEI scholar: Nicholas Eberstadt, “American Exceptionalism and the Entitlement State”, American Enterprise Institute, January 5, 2015, https://www.aei.org/publication/american-exceptionalism-entitlement-state/.

19 Suzanne Mettler, The Submerged State: How Invisible Government Policies Undermine American Democracy (Chicago Studies in American Politics), (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), Kindle Edition (Locations 410-413).

20 Jean V. Hardisty, Mobilizing Resentment: Conservative Resurgence from the John Birch Society to the Promise Keepers, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999).

21 Brooks is referring to a strain of neoliberal economics that focuses on maximizing what late 20th century economists such as Gary Becker termed “human capital,” or the education and job skills of members of a given population. The human capital of a country is one yardstick that international financiers such as the World Bank uses to measure how developed that country is for the purposes of calculating how much austerity to impose on that country as part of economic restructuring. See: http://www-wds.worldbank.org/external/default/WDSContentServer/WDSP/IB/1995/03/01/000009265_3970702134116/Rendered/PDF/multi0page.pdf.

22 Arthur C. Brooks, The Conservative Heart: How to Build a Fairer, Happier, and More Prosperous America, (New York: HaperCollins, 2015), 68, http://www.amazon.com/dp/0062319752/.

23 Sean Sullivan, “Jeb Bush: Win Black Voters with Aspiration, Not Free Stuff,” The Washington Post, September 24, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-politics/wp/2015/09/24/jeb-bush-win-black-voters-with-aspiration-not-free-stuff/.

24 Patricia Cohen, “Public-Sector Jobs Vanish, Hitting Blacks Hard,” New York Times, May 24, 2015, http://mobile.nytimes.com/2015/05/25/business/public-sector-jobs-vanish-and-blacks-take-blow.html.

25 Andy Kroll, “Exposed: The Dark-Money ATM of the Conservative Movement,” Mother Jones, February 5, 2013, http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2013/02/donors-trust-donor-capital-fund-dark-money-koch-bradley-devos.

26 Center for Media and Democracy, “Ties to the Koch Brothers,” SourceWatch.org, http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php/American_Enterprise_Institute#cite_note-7.

27 Joseph E. Lowndes, From the New Deal to the New Right: Race and the Southern Origins of Modern Conservatism, (Michigan: Yale University Press, 2008).

28 Ben Koons, “Compassionate Conservatism: An interview with Marvin Olasky,” The Princeton Tory, April 22, 2012, http://theprincetontory.com/main/compassionate-conservatism-an-interview-with-marvin-olasky/.

29 Bill Berkowitz, “Tilting at Faith-based Windmills,” The Public Eye, July 1, 2002, http://www.politicalresearch.org/2002/07/01/tilting-at-faith-based-windmills/#sthash.fLhY6V1P.dpbs.

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

31 President Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President in Conversation on Poverty at Georgetown University,” The White House—Office of Press Secretary, May 12, 2015. https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/05/12/remarks-president-conversation-poverty-georgetown-university.

32 Jean V. Hardisty and Lucy A. Williams, “The Right’s Campaign Against Welfare,” From Poverty to Punishment: How Welfare Reform Punishes the Poor, Applied Research Center, Gary Delgado, ed., 2002, http://www.jeanhardisty.com/writing/articles-chapters-and-reports/the-rights-campaign-against-welfare/.

33 Leo P. Ribuffo, The Old Christian Right: The Protestant Far Right from the Great Depression to the Cold War, (Philadelphia, Pa: Temple University Press, 1983).

34 Chip Berlet, “The Roots of Dominionism,” Political Research Associates, http://www.publiceye.org/christian_right/dom_roots.html.

35 Peter Montgomery, “Biblical Economics: The Divine Laissez-Faire Mandate,” The Public Eye, April 21, 2015, http://www.politicalresearch.org/2015/04/21/biblical-economics-the-divine-laissez-faire-mandate/.

36 Julie J. Ingersoll, Building God’s Kingdom: Inside the World of Christian Reconstruction, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 49.

37 “RWW News: David Barton Says God Opposes Retirement Because It ‘Is A Pagan Concept.’”  YouTube video, 1:55.  Posted by “RWW Blog,” July 6, 2015, http://www.rightwingwatch.org/content/barton-god-opposes-retirement-because-it-pagan-concept

38 Zachary Mider, “PAC Built by Ted Cruz Mega-Donors Gets Evangelical Leader,” Bloomberg Politics, September 9, 2015, http://www.bloomberg.com/politics/articles/2015-09-09/pac-built-by-ted-cruz-mega-donors-gets-evangelical-leader.

39 Peter Montgomery, “Biblical Economics: The Divine Laissez-Faire Mandate,” The Public Eye, April 21, 2015, http://www.politicalresearch.org/2015/04/21/biblical-economics-the-divine-laissez-faire-mandate/.

40 In an August 22, 2015 blog post at PRWatch, Lisa Graves, Executive Director of the Center for Media and Democracy and an expert on the Koch brothers, wrote that EVANGCHR4 “is legally tied to a mysterious limited liability corporation called ‘ORRA LLC,’ which received more than $5 million from the Kochs’ Freedom Partners operation.” Graves also established that Family Research Council Action, the nonprofit arm of the Family Research Council, received funding from EVANGCHR4 between June 2013 and May 2014, when disgraced TV reality star Josh Duggar was head of FRC Action. See: http://www.prwatch.org/node/12914.

41 Researcher Chip Berlet explained the basis of Calvinist theocracy in this magazine in 2004: “These ‘Elect’ were originally thought to be the only people going to Heaven. To the Calvinists, material success and wealth was a sign that you were one of the Elect, and thus were favored by God. Who better to shepherd a society populated by God’s wayward children?” See: http://www.publiceye.org/magazine/v18n3/berlet_calvinism.html.

42 Lisa Graves, “Josh Duggar-led Group Funded via Koch Brothers Freedom Partners Operation,” PR Watch, August 22, 2015, http://www.prwatch.org/node/12914.

43 Anne R. Bradley, “Why Does Income Inequality Exist? – Part Two,” Institute for Faith, Work & Economics, June 5, 2012, http://tifwe.org/resources/income-inequality/part-two/.

44 Ibid.

45 Napp Nazworth, “Arthur Brooks: Conservative Policies Help the Powerless, Christians Can Lead the Way (Interview),” The Christian Post, July 15, 2015, http://www.christianpost.com/news/arthur-brooks-conservative-policies-help-the-powerless-christians-can-lead-the-way-interview-141520/.

46 Contrary to the teachings of the “prosperity gospel” popularized in the mid-2000s, this version of Christian capitalism says that those of any faith, not just Christianity, can become wealthy. Where Prosperity Gospel held no hope for non-Christians, this defense of inequality encourages the listener to aspire: if I have the right skill sets and abilities, I too can one day “flourish,” or amass wealth.

47 Marvin Olasky, “Profit: Prophets and Profit,” in Indivisible: Social and Economic Foundations of American Liberty, (Washington, D.C.: Heritage Foundation, 2010), 41.

48 Anne R. Bradley and Arthur W. Lindsley, Eds., Forward by Arthur C. Brooks, For the Least of These: A Biblical Answer to Poverty, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014), http://www.amazon.com/For-Least-These-Biblical-Poverty/dp/0310522994#reader_0310522994.

49 Jim Wallis and Jay Richards: The Common Good and the Church. YouTube video. Posted by “Henry Center,” July 6, 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nnV7jvroX6U.

50 Jean V. Hardisty, Mobilizing Resentment: Conservative Resurgence from the John Birch Society to the Promise Keepers, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999), 12.

51 “Competing Visions of the Common Good: Rethinking Help for the Poor,” American Enterprise Institute, May 23, 2013, http://www.aei.org/events/competing-visions-of-the-common-good-rethinking-help-for-the-poor/.

52 David Corn, “Secret Video: Romney Tells Millionaire Donors What He REALLY Thinks of Obama Voters,” Mother Jones, September 17, 2012, http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/09/secret-video-romney-private-fundraiser.

53 Moreton, Bethany and Voekel, Pamela. “Learning from the Right: A New Operation Dixie?” in Katz, Daniel and Greenwald, Richard A., eds., Labor Rising: The Past and Future of Working People in America, (New York: The New Press, 2012), 26-36.

54 National Employment Law Project, “Occupational Wage Declines Since the Great Recession,” NELP Data Brief, September 2015, http://www.nelp.org/content/uploads/Occupational-Wage-Declines-Since-the-Great-Recession.pdf.

55 Rebecca Riffkin, “One in Five Employed Americans Worried About Wage Reduction,” GALLUP.com, August 31, 2015, http://www.gallup.com/poll/185000/one-five-employed-americans-worried-wage-reduction.aspx.

56 Estelle Sommeiller and Mark Price, “The Increasingly Unequal States of America: Income Inequality by State, 1917 to 2012,” Economic Policy Institute, Jan. 26, 2015. http://www.epi.org/publication/income-inequality-by-state-1917-to-2012/.

57 “Mr. Reed runs Mackinac (pronounced MAK-in-aw), the largest of the right’s state-level policy institutes. The center started its training program eight years ago, and it has alumni in nearly every state and 37 countries, from Uruguay to Nepal.” See: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/17/us/politics/17thinktank.html?ex=1321419600&en=3b6af3fbfa4ff01e&ei=5090&partner=rssuserland&emc=rss%C2%A0&_r=0.

58 Frederick Clarkson, “The Campaign to Undermine Pro-LGBTQ Churches,” Political Research Associates, March 29, 2015, http://www.politicalresearch.org/2015/03/29/the-campaign-to-undermine-pro-lgbtq-churches/#sthash.tmXZsvUY.dpbs.

59 Alissa Scheller and Arthur Delaney, “Who Gets Food Stamps? White People, Mostly,” The Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/02/28/food-stamp-demographics_n_6771938.html.

60 The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, “Distribution of Medicare Beneficiaries by Race/Ethnicity,” http://kff.org/medicare/state-indicator/medicare-beneficiaries-by-raceethnicity/#map.

61 Jen Hayden, “Trump supporters behaving badly, several immigration activists assaulted at rallies,” Daily Kos, September 14, 2015, http://www.dailykos.com/story/2015/09/14/1421139/-Trump-supporters-behaving-badly-several-immigration-activists-assaulted-at-rallies.

62 Kyle Mantyla of Right Wing Watch reviewed Money, Greed, and God in 2010, and summarized its premise: “As Richards explains, any inequality that results from unrestricted, deregulated free trade is part of God’s will because the entire system of free market capitalism is God’s means of working his will in the world.” See: http://www.rightwingwatch.org/content/random-book-blogging-money-greed-and-god.


Big Questions About Templeton: How the Philanthropic Giant Legitimizes Faith Healing

Click here to print the magazine version

Click here to print the magazine version

This article appears in the Summer 2015 edition of The Public Eye magazine.

On May 18, 2012, Christianity Today, the most influential magazine within evangelicalism, reported that there were “credible reports” that Christian evangelist Heidi Baker had healed the deaf and raised people from the dead where she was working in Mozambique.1 Baker claimed that “100% of the deaf in the Chiure area” of the country had “been healed through prayer.” In addition, Baker argued that “scores” of people had been resurrected and the blinded and disabled “restored.”2

Such a report must have struck some Christianity Today readers as oddly out of place; the magazine has long been known for approaching the miraculous much more cautiously than competitors like Charisma, the leading magazine for Charismatic and Pentecostal believers.i Yet Christianity Today’s coverage of Baker’s activities could not have been more credulous; the magazine valorized Baker’s missions and healing activities in Africa, stopping just short of declaring her an evangelical saint.3

John Templeton introduces the 2011 John M. Templeton Jr. Lecture on Economic Liberties and the Constitution. Photo via Flickr and by Jeff Fusco, use courtesy of the National Constitution Center.

John Templeton introduces the 2011 John M. Templeton Jr. Lecture on Economic Liberties and the Constitution. Photo via Flickr and by Jeff Fusco, use courtesy of the National Constitution Center.

In the course of the article, two academics were quoted regarding Baker: Indiana University’s religious studies professor Candy Gunther Brown and Michael McClymond, a theology professor at St. Louis University. Both academics were quite flattering in their description of Baker. For example, Brown commented that “‘Heidi is a hero to young women,’ so much so that scholars joke about ‘Heidiolatry.’”4 Indeed, Brown had been so intrigued by Baker’s claims that she “sought to verify them scientifically.” Thus Brown and a small team traveled to Mozambique and tested 24 Mozambicans “before and after healing prayer.” Brown found “statistically significant improvements in hearing and vision”5—an astounding claim, given that previous studies concerning the efficacy of prayer have reported mixed results at best.6

The lion’s share of Brown’s funding came from the John Templeton Foundation’s Flame of
 Love Project, which contributed $150,000 dollars to her research.7 
The Templeton Foundation was founded by billionaire Sir John Templeton, who made his fortune 
in mutual funds. Templeton had a 
keen interest in religion, his own
beliefs an eclectic union of Presbyterianism, New Thought, and Eastern influences; he borrowed
 from sources ranging from Nor
man Vincent Peale to Ramakrishna. Many of the traditions Templeton drew from emphasize spiritual exploration, “mind over matter” ideology, and positive thinking.8 Today, the $3.34 billion-endowed John Templeton Foundation awards some $100 million in grants yearly to organizations and projects that study the intersection of religion and science.9 There’s the eight-year, $9.8 million grant given to Duke University’s Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health, as well as a nearly $2.2 million grant awarded to the University of Pennsylvania for the establishment of a Positive Psychology Center, which afforded the Foundation the opportunity to exercise important influence over this emerging school of psychology.10

In general, the Foundation has sought to create a rapprochement between science and religion—from healthcare to biology, positive psychology to theology.

While this goal has been heavily criticized by many scientists (for instance, prominent physicist Sean Carroll11), the Foundation has made a major name for itself in academia, thanks in part to increasing competition for research funds among academics. This article seeks to trace the impact of the Templeton Foundation by exploring a slice of its influence on research into the Charismatic and Pentecostal movements.

The Templeton Foundation

The origins of the Foundation can be traced to the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, founded in 1972 and given “each year…to a living person who has shown extraordinary originality in advancing humankind’s understanding of God.”12 The Prize originally operated like a Nobel Prize for religion,13 though today it is as likely to be awarded to scientists as to theologians or other spiritual leaders.14 At the time that Templeton formed his Foundation in the mid-‘80s, writes journalist Nathan Schneider, “conventional wisdom . . . held that religion would retreat as science secularized the world.”15 Templeton sought to forestall this decline. What allowed the Foundation’s religion and science agenda to take off, however, was Harvard planetary scientist Charles Harper’s 1996 decision to join the Foundation as its executive director. Harper took Templeton’s ideas and visionary speculations and shaped them “into a package of programs that could begin to look credible to the scientific community.”16

Much ink has been spilled about the Templeton Foundation’s influence on research in the hard sciences. Zoologist and outspoken secular activist Richard Dawkins has quipped that the Templeton Prize is usually given “to a scientist who is prepared to say something nice about religion.”17 Jerry Coyne, a prominent American biologist, condemned Templeton’s mission as a “serious corruption of science” and warned of the “cronyism that has always infected Templeton,”18 particularly in relationship to its study of “Big Questions,” a somewhat vague field of inquiry centered on quandaries like the nature of free will, consciousness, and evil.19 Sean Carroll’s criticisms of Templeton are somewhat more measured; he does not think there is any hard evidence that “Templeton works in nefarious ways to influence the people it funds.” For Carroll, the problem isn’t that Templeton is anti-science, but rather that “their views on science are very wrong.”20 Quantum physicist Michael Brooks echoes these views in the New Scientist, contending that Templeton does a disservice not so much to science as to religion, by advancing a conception of religion so “stripped-down, vague and wooly” that it “puts the new Templeton religion comfortably beyond assault from questioners.”21

Google’s research director called Brown’s methodology “a perfect example of how not to do experiment design.”

Within the hard sciences, a firm ideological line has developed between critics of the Foundation—many of whom are New Atheists—and supporters of the Foundation, which can sometimes lead to charges of partiality and anti-religious prejudice. Yet even Jeffrey Schloss, a Templeton trustee, has admitted that without the Foundation, there would “be a bit less accommodationist fluff that proposes integration [between religion and science] at the expense of rigor.”22

While the Foundation’s influence on the hard sciences has often been the focus of criticism, the social science- and healthcare-related research in which it engages can be far more problematic. The more subjective nature of the social sciences—and, to a lesser extent, healthcare—may make these fields more vulnerable to pseudoscientific concepts and dubious methodologies.

The ready acceptance of pseudoscience undergirds Templeton’s “history of seeding fields of study almost from scratch,” as Nathan Schneider describes it.23 In the early 1990s, the Foundation began heavily funding the National Institute for Healthcare Research (NIHR), an organization established “to ‘objectively’ examine the role that religion and spirituality might play in physical and mental health.”24 At the time, hardly any medical schools offered courses on religion. But today, after two decades of Templeton-promoted research, three-quarters of U.S. medical schools utilize spirituality within their curricula.25 This development was facilitated by a combination of awards given to NIHR researchers; an NIHR-derived, multi-volume literature review of religion and health research; and numerous Templeton Foundation-funded programs concerning the intersection between science, religion, and medicine.26

And it is the NIHR’s research that helped pave the way for Christianity Today to claim there were scientifically “credible reports” of faith healing in Mozambique.

Intercessory Prayer and The Stepp Study

At a Templeton-sponsored conference in the mid-1990s, Margaret Poloma, a sociologist who studied Charismatic and Pentecostal religious movements, met bioethicist Stephen Post, who would go on to create the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love (IRUL).27 Poloma and Post soon became Templeton grantees themselves, and by 2007 both had become co-directors (along with two other academics) of the Flame of Love (FOL) Project,28 the goal of which was to establish “a new interdisciplinary field of study [called] Godly Love.”29 The exact parameters of the science of Godly love are rather unclear; even Anthea Butler, who has been involved with the Templeton Foundation’s Project on Global Pentecostalism,30 told Schneider that initially “nobody in the field could figure out what the hell [Poloma] was talking about.”31

As defined by Poloma and her Templeton-sponsored colleagues, Godly love is “the dynamic interaction between divine and human love that enlivens and expands benevolence.” To put it simply, the key takeaway is that while neither God Himself nor His interactions with human beings are measurable phenomena, individuals’ perceptions of interactions between human beings and God can be measured.32

The Flame of Love Project, which received an initial Templeton grant of more than $2.3 million,33 was a massive undertaking, funding ten academic books (by significant figures in their respective fields), scores of academic articles, conference presentations, and book chapters.34 Among these projects was Brown’s prayer research: the “Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Proximal Intercessory Prayer… on Auditory and Visual Impairments in Rural Mozambique,” known as the STEPP study for short. The study focused on Iris Ministries (now Iris Global), which Baker and her husband founded, along with the closely aligned Global Awakening ministry.35

Brown’s STEPP project is a part of a long line of academic “prayer studies” conducted in recent years, not all of which have found prayer to have positive effects. Many of these studies sought to evaluate “distant healing” or “distant intentionality”—the act of praying for others often referred to as “intercessory prayer.”36 As of 2005, three studies had been conducted on remote intercessory prayer’s effect on heart patients. Two of these studies concluded that the prayed-for group fared better than a control group. However, the third found no difference. Another study—a relatively well regarded, Templeton-funded $2.4 million project directed by Herbert Benson—studied 1,802 patients recovering from coronary artery bypass graft surgery and concluded that “distant prayer” had no effect. And, as Dr. Richard Sloan, a leading critic of prayer research, points out, researchers claiming benefits from prayer may have succeeded simply because they tested for so many different health benefits that simple random chance produced the positive results.37

If one were to accept the prayer studies’ premises and conclusions, one would still encounter other basic problems with conforming prayer-based research to the scientific method. How can researchers, for example, be sure that it is intercessory prayer performed by study participants that is helping, and not the prayers of concerned outsiders?

Candy Gunther Brown and her team sought to address some of these issues by looking at a more immediate form of prayer known as proximal intercessory prayer (PIP), which focuses on physical healing (primarily through laying-on of hands, per Charismatic tradition). Moreover, Brown argued that one must distinguish between PIP and other proximal healing techniques, such as “Therapeutic Touch,” since they had a “different healing mechanism.”38 Her study looked at the effect of “direct-contact prayer,” involving touch and the laying-on of hands, on subjects’ vision and hearing.39 Brown and her colleagues claim to have found “statistically significant” findings in visual and auditory improvements across the tested populations.40

Brown argued that the findings of the study were significant enough to warrant further study, which would “assess whether PIP may be a useful adjunct to standard medical care for certain patients with auditory and/or visual impairments, especially in contexts where access to conventional treatments is limited.” She continued:

The implications are potentially vast given World Health Organization estimates that 278 million people, 80% of whom live in developing countries, have moderate to profound hearing loss in both ears, and 314 million people are visually impaired, 87% of whom live in developing countries, and only a tiny fraction of these populations currently receive any treatment.41

In other words, Brown was suggesting that work like Baker’s might serve as an effective treatment strategy in medically underserved developing nations.

Unfortunately for the study’s subjects, however, Brown’s claims were not all they appeared to be. Peter Norvig, former division chief of computational sciences at NASA’s Ames Research Center and current director of research at Google, declared that Brown’s study suffered from several fatal design problems: it lacked a randomized control group; there was no double-blinding in the study; and the sample size for the treatment group was only 24 people.42 According to Norvig, “Rather than choose a cross-section of subjects, the experimenters specifically chose subjects from rural Mozambique who were attending an evangelical revival meeting—subjects who would be favorably inclined to (consciously or unconsciously) demonstrate a benefit from prayer.”43 Brown’s research methodology was so flawed that Norvig called it “a perfect example of how not to do experiment design.”44 Psychologist Jean Mercer, a leading authority on pseudoscience in the social sciences, further criticized Brown and her colleagues for introducing too many confounding variables into the study through their “amateurish methods of assessing hearing and vision.”45

Heidi Baker pays a Christmas visit to Iris Ministries' Zimpeto Children's Center in Maputo, Mozambique. Photo from Wikimedia Commons and courtesy of user Wunder

Heidi Baker pays a Christmas visit to Iris Ministries’ Zimpeto Children’s Center in Maputo, Mozambique. Photo from Wikimedia Commons and courtesy of user Wunder

Despite the ethical and methodological problems associated with Brown’s study, it received plentiful funding from the Templeton-sponsored FOL project ($150,000), as well as from the Lilly Endowment ($50,000) and Indiana University Bloomington ($50,000), Brown’s home university and a premier institution of higher learning.46 Brown also used the STEPP study as the basis of her 2012 book Testing Prayer, which was published by Harvard University Press. Such scholarly trajectories are becoming increasingly common for Templeton academics in a wide variety of fields. It is startling to see how many Templeton-connected academics end up publishing their work through Oxford or Harvard University Press. A 2014 report enumerating IRUL-produced books (i.e., works published or edited by IRUL associates) includes seven titles published by Oxford University Press, and another three in press or under review by that prestigious publisher.47 While not as many Templeton-associated academics seem to have linked themselves with Harvard University Press, some of those who have published through it have close links with the Foundation or are major figures in the Foundation’s history. For instance, Charles Taylor, whose A Secular Age was a major Harvard University Press publication in 2007, won the Templeton Prize for the same year.48

Templeton and The New Apostolic Reformation

Brown represents a particularly extreme example of distorted research engendered by Templeton money and legitimized by a major academic publisher. However, the methodological flaws in the STEPP study point to problems pervading the Flame of Love project as a whole— problems the Templeton Foundation should have recognized. The “Godly love” study that anchored the larger FOL project was based on the “Great Commandment to love God and love neighbor as self.”49 The researchers proposed that Godly love—the interaction between humanity and what is perceived as the divine—can be studied through figures known as exemplars: individuals who are supposed to be unusually benevolent within their own communities, and who have often received awards and honors (both secular and religious) for meritorious acts of service.50 These individuals were held up as the best embodiment of the Great Commandment. This research relied on what is known in the social sciences as an inductive/phenomenological method, which sought to “better understand” the subjective experiences of exemplars.51 While there is nothing inherently wrong about such a research process—anthropology, for instance, often relies on the phenomenological approach—it made the Flame of Love project unusually open to political propagandizing, since the subjective experiences studied depended almost entirely on which “Godly exemplars” were chosen to represent the idea of Godly love.

Many of the Godly exemplars
 profiled by Flame of Love are as
sociated with the New Apostolic
 Reformation (NAR), a right-wing
 Charismatic and Pentecostal 
movement organized around parachurch groups known as apostolic networks. The NAR is committed to the principle of spiritual warfare against evil spirits that it believes threaten the well-being of Christians. One such exemplar is Che Ahn, who founded the evangelical organization The Call along with Lou Engle, the Charismatic evangelist associated with the 2009-2010 Ugandan“Kill the Gays” bill.52 Poloma herself describes the two men’s close friendship in glowing terms.53

Ahn (like Heidi Baker, another exemplar) is a member of the Revival Alliance, a powerful apostolic network that oversees six other major apostolic networks.54 The leaders of five of these six subordinate ministries, along with several of their spouses, are among Flame of Love’s highlighted Godly exemplars. The STEPP study, too, is marked by such connections: Alliance member Randy Clark, founder of the evangelical Global Awakening ministry, has worked closely with Stephen Mory, one of the study’s co-authors.55 Moreover, Candy Gunther Brown herself has served on the board of directors of the Global Medical Research Institute, a prayer research organization that originated as a Global Awakening initiative, though independent of that ministry.56 Subjects for the STEPP study were primarily recruited at meetings cosponsored by Global Awakening and Baker’s Iris Ministries.57

The Revival Alliance leaders’ work incorporates some shocking ideas about a variety of issues, particularly mental healthcare. Baker is known for “‘expelling’ demons from children.”58 Another couple has helped promote the supernatural healing of autistic children59 through a particular form of Charismatic exorcism, or deliverance, called Sozo.60 As I wrote in my 2015 book The Failure of Evangelical Mental Health Care, Sozo’s healing practices seem little different from the long-discredited practice of recovered memory therapy. (Sozo leaders and proponents also maintain, in terms akin to the increasingly discredited diagnosis of multiple personality disorder, that individuals with bipolar disorder have “parts,” or people living inside of them who need to be integrated into a core personality.ii)

While the Flame of Love Project was ostensibly a scientific enterprise, in practice the project served primarily as a public relations project celebrating NAR leaders, as well as providing an academic justification for many of their beliefs and policy priorities, including their economic agenda. The Templeton Foundation has enjoyed a friendly association with a variety of right-wing groups and think tanks that share its support for open markets and entrepreneurship; the Heritage

Foundation, for instance, received more than $1 million in Templeton funding between 2005 and 2008, while the Cato Institute received more than $200,000.61 Relatively speaking, grants to conservative think tanks represent only a minor portion of the Foundation’s philanthropy, but even prominent conservative political voices like The National Review have pointed to the Foundation as a funder of right-wing policy drivers.62 Transformationalism, the NAR’s unique form of conservative economics, fits in well with the Templeton agenda; it promises a solution to global poverty rooted in the belief that the marketplace is the best foundation for economic reform.63

Flame of Love co-director Margaret Poloma was herself so well regarded in the NAR movement that Charismatic leader John Arnott (yet another exemplar) entrusted her with the task of mediating a conflict between his ministry and John Wimber, a major evangelical leader who was critical of Arnott.64 At the time when Poloma engaged in this mediation process, she was conducting academic research on the Toronto Blessing, a revival that Arnott was leading.65 Most academics would seek to avoid conflicts of interest like this, but in the Flame of Love universe it is common for academics studying the intersection of religion and science to blur the lines between the academic study of revivalistic culture and participation in that culture.

In addition to all the methodological dilemmas in the STEPP study and Flame of Love’s elaborate ties to the group they purport to study, there’s a further conflict of interest in how the results of this research are ultimately presented. The Southern Medical Association, which publishes the Southern Medical Journal, in which Brown’s paper first appeared, has twice received contributions—$98,889 in 2006 and $73,673 in 2007—from the John Templeton Foundation.66

The Future

After Sir John Templeton’s death in 2008, the heir to his legacy was Jack Templeton, an evangelical doctor with abundant conservative political connections who had been active in fighting same-sex marriage and defending the Iraq War. He and his wife Josephine contributed $1 million to the fight to pass California’s anti-same-sex marriage Proposition 8.67 Jack Templeton was also the second- largest donor to the Red White and Blue Fund (RWB), a super-PAC that supported Rick Santorum’s 2012 presidential primary campaign.68 The younger Templeton passed away in May 2015,69 but before his death, both critics and Templeton grantees worried that Jack would steer the Foundation further to the right, and perhaps further away from mainstream science.70

The Foundation did shift its focus during Jack Templeton’s reign, but not as anticipated. Previous areas of specialization, such as “spiritual information” and “humility theology,” were replaced with the paradigm of “Big Questions,” in which philosophy and cosmology tended to receive more emphasis.71 There remained a guiding interest in faith and medicine, but the projects approved under the younger Templeton often concentrated more on the intersection of faith and psychology than on prayer studies. While not always perfect, this work was certainly more scientifically rigorous than the Flame of Love Project. Now, with the death of Jack Templeton, it’s unclear what direction the Foundation will take. Moreover, serious repercussions from the Foundation’s earlier work remain. Though the scientific community has rallied in recent years to protest the dangers of creation science and intelligent design theory, this focus on conservative responses to hard science has led many to overlook the more pressing dangers posed by right-wing influences on healthcare and social science research. Pseudo-science supporting faith healing can lead directly to the injury or death of those treated, if placebos or harmful treatments are used in place of tested and effective medical care.72 
While the influence of fundamentalism is diminishing, the Charismatic and Pentecostal movements continue to gain power among the Christian Right, with growth rates unrivaled in the Christian world.73 When it comes to scientific debates, these movements are not focused primarily on evolution or cosmology, but on faith healing. It is likely that this issue area—and not the waning conflict over evolutionary biology or cosmology—will represent one of the most important scientific battlegrounds on which 21st Century conservative Protestants will make their stand.

Candy Gunther Brown herself has contended that “divine healing is the single most important category [of pentecostal religious practice]…for understanding the global expansion of pentecostal Christianity.”74 And Brown is correct to point out that it is precisely in “regions of the world where poverty and sickness seem most overwhelming”—mostly regions with a colonial legacy—that Pentecostalism has seen its most rapid growth.75 As a result, this conflict may have far more immediate human costs than the creation science conflicts of the 20th Century.

Consider the large mental healthcare providers who, as I argue elsewhere, base their treatment on practices such as exorcism rather than research-tested mental healthcare interventions. In 2008, Australia was scandalized when Mercy Ministries Australia—a group of large treatment centers for young women, including many suffering from eating disorders—turned out to have based their treatment regimen on the exorcism manual Restoring the Foundations. A constant element of controversy in the ensuing Mercy Ministries scandal was the correct means of delineating the differences between faith healing and healthcare; ministries like Mercy operated in a gray area where either definition could be deemed appropriate, depending on the context.76

But even in situations where the line between faith healing and medicine is clearer, the real and potential influence of the Brown study cannot be ignored. By 2007, writer and Iris Ministries supporter Donald Kantel (who studied under Heidi Baker) claimed that pastors associated with the ministry had raised over 50 people from the dead throughout Southern Africa in a five-year period. The ministry also purported to engage in miraculous healings and supernatural multiplications of food.77 The popularization of “dead raising” teams—groups of people engaged in attempted resurrections—throughout the NAR could certainly not have been hurt by either the Brown study or the Christianity Today treatment that publicized its results. Nor can we ignore the influence of Global Awakening, whose revival events in Brazil, Mozambique, and India attract crowds of 100,000 people at a time; according to Brown, claims of divine healing often reach the thousands during such events.78 Here Brown’s influence is perhaps most marked, as her books are sold by Global Awakening’s own bookstore—a very unusual honor for any academic, particularly a secular academic such as Brown.79

The danger here is not so much that the Templeton study will be utilized to form new healthcare systems based on Brown’s model. Rather, the problem is that Brown’s research, like much of the Flame of Love project, will be utilized as a justification for preexisting Pentecostal and Charismatic healing initiatives in the developing world: a new wrinkle in an old colonial tale. This may not be the future the Templeton Foundation has envisioned for their work; yet it’s the future the Templeton Foundation has helped make possible.

John Weaver is an English lecturer at Binghamton University. His scholarship, including his 2015 book The Failure of Evangelical Mental Health Care, focuses on how evangelical theology informs the mental health beliefs of the evangelical subculture.


i. The Charismatic and Pentecostal movements are Christian theological traditions devoted to the belief in, and practice of, “gifts of the Spirit” in the modern Christian church, such as healing and speaking in tongues. Candy Gunther Brown, much referenced in this article, uses the lowercase term ‘pentecostal’ to refer to “both Pentecostals and second and third-wave Charismatics.” ‘Charismatic’ often refers to a kind of Pentecostal- lite, or alternately to the combined Charismatic and Pentecostal traditions (which is the sense in which I use the term here). As I have argued in The Failure of Evangelical Mental Health Care and in a forthcoming work on the New Apostolic Reformation, the idea that “classical” or traditional Pentecostals are more theologically and politically extreme than Second or Third Wave Charismatics collapses under any sustained historical scrutiny. (See John Weaver, The Failure of Evangelical Mental Health Care, [Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015], 15-16 and Candy Gunther Brown, “Introduction: Pentecostalism and the Globalization of Illness and Healing,” in Global Pentecostal and Charismatic Healing, [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011], 14.)

ii. It is quite clear from the Sozo material that the term “parts” is being used in a semantically identical fashion—albeit with a Christian twist— to the term “alters,” utilized among secular supporters of the increasingly controversial dissociative identity disorder (DID) diagnosis. Monica Pignotti and Bruce Thyer, writing in Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology, have expressed concerns that DID therapy and parts work have not been adequately tested and can in fact cause further illness. (See Monica Pignotti and Bruce A. Thyer, “New Age and Related Novel Unsupported Therapies in Mental Health Practice,” in Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology, eds. Scott O. Lilienfield, Stephen Jay Lynn, and Jeffrey M. Lohr [New York: Guilford Press, 2014], 191-209.)


1. Tim Stafford, “Miracles in Mozambique: How Mama Heidi Reaches the Abandoned,” Christianity Today, May 18, 2012, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2012/may/miracles-in-mozambique.html.

2. Stafford, “Miracles in Mozambique.”

3. Stafford, “Miracles in Mozambique.”

4. Stafford, “Miracles in Mozambique.”

5. Stafford, “Miracles in Mozambique.”

6. Benedict Carey, “Long-Awaited Medical Study Questions the Power of Prayer,” The New York Times, March 31, 2006, http://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/31/health/31pray.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0.

7. Candy Gunther Brown, PhD, Stephen C. Mory, MD, Rebecca Williams MB BChir, DTM&H, Michael J. McClymond, PhD, “Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Proximal Intercessory Prayer (STEPP) on Auditory and Visual Impairments in Rural Mozambique,” Southern Medical Journal, 2010, 864.

8. Nathan Schneider, “God, Science and Philanthropy: Politics of the Templeton Foundation’s ‘Big Questions,’” The Nation, June 21, 2010, http://www.thenation.com/article/god-science-and-philanthropy.

9. Sarah Pulliam Bailey, “John Templeton Jr., president of multi- billion dollar foundation invested in science and religion, has died,” The Washington Post, May 19, 2015, http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2015/05/19/john-templeton-jr-president-of-foundation-invested-in-science-and-religion-has-died/.

10. Templeton Foundation, “Positive Psychology Research,” https://www.templeton.org/what-we-fund/grants/positive-psychology-research.

11. Sean Carroll, “Science and Religion Can’t Be Reconciled, Why I Won’t Take Money from the Templeton Foundation,” Slate, May 9, 2013, http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2013/05/i_won_t_take_money_from_templeton_science_and_religion_can_t_be_reconciled.html.

12. Joseph Charles Kiger, Philanthropic Foundations in the Twentieth Century, (Santa Barbara: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2000), 133.

13. Sunny Bains, “Questioning the Integrity of the John Templeton Foundation,” (Evolutionary Psychology 9, no. 1, 2011), 92-115, 94.

14. Bains, “Questioning the Integrity,” 93-94; the reader should note that the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion subsequently morphed into the Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries About Spiritual Realities, before turning into the Templeton Prize. Please see John M. Cummingham, “Templeton Prize,” Brittanica, N.D. Web. 8 Jun 2015. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/673733/Templeton-Prize

15. Schneider, “God, Science and Philanthropy.”

16. Schneider, “God, Science and Philanthropy.”

17. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006), 19.

18. Jerry Coyne, “Martin Rees and the Templeton Travesty,” The Guardian, April 6, 2011, http://www.theguardian.com/science/blog/2011/apr/06/prize-mug-martin-rees-templeton.

19. Nathan Schneider, “The Templeton Effect,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 3, 2012, http://chronicle.com/article/The-Templeton-Effect/134018/.

20. Carroll, “Science and Religion Can’t Be Reconciled.”

21. Michael Brooks, “Templeton Prize is Bad News for Religion, Not Science,” New Scientist, March 25, 2010, http://www.newscientist.com/blogs/shortsharpscience/2010/03/templeton-prize-is-bad-news-fo.html.

22. Schneider, “God, Science and Philanthropy.”

23. Schneider, “God, Science and Philanthropy.”

24. Richard P. Sloan, Blind Faith: The Unholy Alliance of Religion and Medicine (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2006), 61.

25. Schneider, “God, Science and Philanthropy.”

26. Sloan, “Blind Faith,” 62.

27. Schneider, “God, Science and Philanthropy.”

28. Flame of Love Project, “Project Co-Directors,” https://web.archive.org/web/20091214130623/http://www3.uakron.edu/sociology/flameweb/codirect.html.

29. The University of Akron, “Sociology Researchers Receive $2.3 Million Grant,” uakron.edu, February 4, 2008, http://www.uakron.edu/about_ua/news_media/news_details.dot?newsId=11880&pageTitle=UA%20News&crumbTitle=Sociology+Researchers+Receive+%242.3+Million+Grant.

30. Patheos, “Anthea Butler Biography,” Patheos, http://www.patheos.com/About-Patheos/Anthea-Butler.html.

31. Patheos, “Anthea Butler.”

32. Matthew T. Lee, Margaret M. Poloma, and Stephen G. Post, Introduction to The Science and Theology of Godly Love, ed. Matthew T. Lee and Amos Yong (Dekalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 2012), 5-8.

33. Templeton Foundation, “The Flame of Love: Scientific Research on the Experience and Expression of Godly Love in the Pentecostal Tradition,” https://www.templeton.org/what-we-fund/grants/the-flame-of-love-scientific-research-on-the-experience-and-expression-of-godly-.

34. Institute for Research on Unlimited Love, “Abridged List of Deliverables for the Flame of Love Project,” June 15, 2011, http://unlimitedloveinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/Deliverables-for-the-Flame-of-Love-Project.pdf.

35. Brown et al., “STEPP,” 865.

36. Sloan, “Blind Faith,” 157, 168

37. Sarah Glazer, “Prayer and Healing,” CQ Researcher 15, no. 2 (2005): 27.

38. Brown et al., “STEPP,” 865.

39. Brown et al., “STEPP,” 864-867.

40. Brown et al., “STEPP,” 867.

41. Brown et al., “STEPP,” 868.

42. Peter Norvig, “Evaluating Extraordinary Claims: Mind Over Matter? Or Mind Over Mind?,” Norvig. com, http://norvig.com/prayer.html.

43. Norvig, “Evaluating Extraordinary Claims.”

44. Norvig, “Evaluating Extraordinary Claims.”

45. Jean Mercer, email message to author, April 17, 2015.

46. Brown et al., “STEPP,” 864.

47. Institute for Research on Unlimited Love, “Institute for Research on Unlimited Love – Books Produced,” September 2014, http://unlimitedloveinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/88-Institute-Books-Published1.pdf.

48. Templeton Prize, “Previous Prize Winners: Charles Taylor (2007),” Templetonprize.org, http://www.templetonprize.org/previouswinners/taylor.html.

49. Lee, Poloma, and Post, “Introduction,” 6; currently this is centered in Christianity, but the study is supposed to later extend to other religions.

50. Matthew T. Lee, Margaret M. Poloma, and Stephen G. Post, The Heart of Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 52.

51. Matthew T. Lee and Margaret M. Poloma, A Sociological Study of the Great Commandment in Pentecostalism: The Practice of Godly Love as Benevolent Service (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2009), 59.

52. Flame of Love Project, “Exemplar Biosketches,” https://web.archive.org/web/20100820171014/http://www3.uakron.edu/sociology/flameweb/research/exempbios.htm; Josh Kron, “In Uganda, Push to Curb Gays Draws U.S. Guest,” New York Times, May 2, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/03/world/africa/03uganda.html?ref=africa&_r=0; the Ugandan “Death To Gays” bill has received considerable attention in the United States thanks to the release of God Loves Uganda, a documentary chronicling the actions of American evangelicals in promoting anti-gay efforts in Uganda. PRA Senior Religion and Sexuality Researcher Kapya Kaoma featured prominently in the film, and the organization has released several detailed major reports detailing evangelical political activities within Africa. Kaoma’s work explores Engle’s actions in Uganda in detail.

53. Margaret Poloma, Main Street Mystics: The Toronto Blessing & Reviving Pentecostalism (Walnut Creek: Altamire Press, 2003), 174-181.

54. Revival Alliance, “Homepage,” revivalalliance.com; “Exemplar Biosketches.”

55. Global Awakening, “WLI Course Catalog,” http://globalawakening.com/component/docman/doc_download/271-wli-course-catalog, 18.

56. Randy Clark, “A Study of the Effects of Christian Prayer on Pain or Mobility Restrictions from Surgeries Involving Implanted Materials” (D.Min. diss., United Theological Seminary, 2013), 167-168.

57. Brown et al., “STEPP,” 865.

58. For a brief introductory look at the links between some of these leaders, notably Baker, and the NAR, see Rachel Tabachnick, “Spiritual Warriors with an Antigay Mission: The New Apostolic Reformation,” Political Research Associates, March 22, 2013, http://www.politicalresearch.org/2013/03/22/spiritual-warriors-with-an-antigay-mission/.

59. Bethel Sozo, “About Bethel Sozo: Autism,” http://bethelsozo.com/about#/4.

60. John Weaver, The Failure of Evangelical Mental Health Care, 75-84.

61. Schneider, “God, Science and Philanthropy.”

62. Schneider, “God, Science and Philanthropy.”

63. Rev. Dr. Kapya Kaoma, “Colonizing African Values, How the U.S. Christian Right is Transforming Sexual Politics in Africa,” Political Research Associates, 2012, http://www.politicalresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/downloads/2012/10/Colonizing-African-Values.pdf.

64. Poloma, “Main Street Mystics,” 243.; “Exemplar Biosketches.”

65. Poloma, “Main Street Mystics,” 243.

66. Conservative Transparency, “Recipient: Southern Medical Association,” http://conservativetransparency.org/recipient/southern-medical-association/.

67. David O’Reilly, “$1 million for their own two cents Bryn Mawr couple are largest individual donors in efforts to ban gay marriage in California,” Philly.com, October 28, 2008, http://articles.philly.com/2008-10-28/news/25263219_1_ban-gay-marriage-heterosexual-marriages-proposition.

68. Phil Hirschkorn and Laura Strickler, “Santorum’s big benefactor,” CBS News, February 9, 2012, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/santorums-big-benefactor/.

69. Pulliam Bailey, “John Templeton, Jr. Has Died.”

70. Schneider, “God, Science and Philanthropy.”

71. Schneider, “The Templeton Effect.”

72. What’s The Harm?, “What’s the harm in believing in faith healing?,” http://whatstheharm.net/faithhealing.html; This website records faith healing deaths that have been reported in the news. The incidents it documents represent a mere fraction of the deaths that have resulted from faith healing practices.

73. Barna Group, “Is American Christianity Turning Charismatic?,” January 7, 2008, https://www.barna.org/barna-update/congregations/52-is-american-christianity-turning-charismatic.

74. Candy Gunther Brown, “Introduction: Pentecostalism and the Globalization of Illness and Healing,” in Global Pentecostal and Charismatic Healing, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 14.

75. Brown, “Introduction,” 7.

76. John Weaver, The Failure of Evangelical Mental Health Care, 86-88.

77. Donald Kantel, “The ‘Toronto Blessing’: Revival and its Continuing Impact on Mission in Mozambique” (Ph.D. diss., Regent University, 2007), 32.

78. Candy Gunther Brown, “Global Awakenings: Divine Healing Networks and Global Community in North America, Brazil, Mozambique, and Beyond,” in Global Pentecostal and Charismatic Healing, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 353.

79. Global Awakening, “Global Awakening Online Bookstore,” http://globalawakeningstore.com/search.php?mode=search&sort=&sort_direction=0&xsearch_e1=Candy%20Gunther%20Brown.

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

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

Rev. E.W. Jackson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christian Right Leaders Escalate Anti-LGBTQ Threats

As marriage equality has advanced around the country, and the U.S. Supreme Court is set to rule on the issue in June, threatening language is escalating on the Christian Right.   If these culture warriors actually follow through with their threats, the story of our time may turn on terms like civil disobedience, martyrdom and even civil war.  The operative word here is, “if.”

supreme court cross

In recent years, we have repeatedly heard threats of civil disobedience from Christian Right Leaders – everyone from the signers of the historic, 2009 Manhattan Declaration (which included top Roman Catholic prelates and evangelical and organized Christian right leaders), to Rick Warren.  We have heard predictions of civil war, revolution, and martyrdom from the likes of Catholic thinker John McCloskey, theocratic evangelical intellectual Peter Leithart, and even Christian Right electoral activist David Lane. We have also heard calls for political assassinations and secessionist civil war from White Southern Christian Nationalists, Michael Hill, David Whitney, and Michael Peroutka.

Most recently, some 200 Christian Right figures signed a renewed pledge of resistance to the anticipated Supreme Court decision favoring marriage equality.  At a press conference, they called this “A Bonhoeffer Moment in America.” The reference is to the famous Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who resisted the Nazi regime and was hanged for his role in an unsuccessful plot to assassinate Adolph Hitler.  Bonhoeffer is increasingly invoked by Christian Right leaders as they compare the situation in the United States to Nazi Germany and cast him—as they choose to define him—as a role model for Christian Right resistance.

The new manifesto says that extending marriage to same-sex couples violates their religious freedom, and that they want to “respectfully warn the Supreme Court” that they would adhere to “higher law.” Their language was (relatively) soft, but clear:  “Make no mistake about our resolve,” they concluded, “ …this is the line we must draw and one we cannot and will not cross.”

Co-authored by Mat Staver of Liberty Counsel and Catholic activist Keith Fournier, signers of the declaration include such well known Christian Right leaders as James Dobson, Jim Garlow, Franklin Graham, John Hagee, William Boykin, and Frank Pavone; Southern Baptist Convention leaders Paige Patterson, Ed Young, Robert Jeffress and Richard Land; leaders of the New Apostolic Reformation, including Alveda King, Samuel Rodriguez, Cindy Jacobs, James Robison, Rick Joyner, and Joseph Mattera; and Republican politicians Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum and Tom DeLay.

Not to be outdone, anti-LGBTQ activist Scott Lively announced that the only way to thwart marriage equality is with the “threat of the mob.” Lively is walking a line as like those who have come before – wanting people to take his call seriously, even as he characterizes it as but a metaphor.

“The elites need to see the angry mob – liberals and conservatives together – surging through the streets, pitchforks and torches held aloft, ready to tear down Frankenstein’s castle with their bare hands if need be. For Christians it’s Jesus and the moneychangers time!  Making a whip of cords like He did with His own hands, and letting these arrogant puppet-masters know we mean to use it (metaphorically speaking).”

“The only way to deter the elites is with the threat of the mob,” Lively concluded. “They need to see the pitchforks and torches to know they’ve gone too far and need to back down.”

There is an art to brushing with incitement to violence.  It is an art with which the Far Right in the U.S. is very familiar.  Anti-choice militants often engage, or threaten to engage, in activities that walk up to or actually transgress personal and property boundaries of many kinds, including violence. But we have also seen the federal courts recognize that threatening language can morph into a “true threat” – as happened in the case of American Coalition of Life Activists v. Planned Parenthood.

As attorney Maria Vullo told me in an interview in 2002, that the case did not harm freedom of speech. “When you cross over the line into threatening violence,” she says, “it’s not free speech.”

Such concerns may take on new meaning since Christian Right leaders frequently compare the current Supreme Court same-sex marriage case, Obergefell v. Hodges, to Roe v. Wade, and may be serious about waging a long term war of attrition against an unfavorable outcome.

Let’s consider for example, the implications of the lawsuit brought by Ugandan LGBTQ activists against Scott Lively – who, as PRA’s senior researcher Rev. Dr. Kapya Kaoma broke in 2009, was one of the leading U.S. culture warriors who promoted the virulent homophobia that led to the “kill the gays” bill in Uganda.

Sexual Minorities of Uganda v. Lively will be tried in September of 2015 in federal court in Springfield, Massachusetts – just two months after the Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges; followed in October by the World Congress of Families in Salt Lake City. The latter will bring together some of the leading anti-LGBTQ militants in the world – some of whom have worked for legislation modeled on Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Law in their home countries.  

The case against Lively, filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), relies on the Alien Tort Statute, which allows foreign victims of crimes under international law access to American courts. SMUG v. Lively is the first such case brought to protect LGBTQ people.

Lively is accused of the crime of “persecution,” as defined under international law as systematically seeking to deprive people of their fundamental rights not only of life, but of equality under the law – including equal rights of speech, assembly, and association. Persecution is defined here as the “severe deprivation of fundamental rights” on the basis of identity, a “crime against humanity.”

Lively’s claim that LBGTQ people are, among other things, predatory pedophiles has fueled rage not because of what people have done, but because of who they are. Even though the Anti-Homosexuality Bill had not yet passed when the lawsuit was filed (it later passed, was then struck down by the courts on procedural grounds, and now may make its return in the Ugandan parliament), SMUG said that vigilantes were acting as though it had.  People feared for their lives and possible arrest, received death threats, and were excluded from HIV-related education and health services. Meetings were raided, and LGBTQ leaders and attendees rounded-up and arrested.

CCR attorney Pamela Spees argued that since Lively first went to Uganda in 2002, no one had done more to strip away human rights protections for LGBTQ people. And although he was not present (as Lively’s attorney from Liberty Counsel noted) when specific criminal acts were perpetrated, nor did he supervise the crimes, Lively nevertheless participated in a wide-ranging conspiracy from which these crimes resulted. Lively was described as a “strategist” and an “architect.”

The nature of the civil disobedience being promised by various elements of the Christian Right in response to a potential pro-marriage equality ruling by the Supreme Court remains to be seen. It may turn out that some are just blowing smoke and will ultimately be able to live with the social changes taking place in the country. But it is likely that others can’t – or won’t. Some certainly believe that the survival of Christendom (as they understand it) is at stake.  And if their actions catch up with their words, there may be violence.

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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