My On-Again, Off-Again Romance With Liberalism

In honor of PRA’s late founder Jean Hardisty, please enjoy this article originally published by the Women’s Theological Center (now known as Women Transforming Communities) in March 1996, as part of The Brown Paper series. Republished with permission.

Jean hardisty SLIDE

PRA founder Jean Hardisty

As I sit at my desk working my way through a stack of requests for donations and entreaties to renew my membership in various organizations, I am torn about when to write a check and when to save my money. At the moment, the pressing question for me is whether to support the larger, liberal organizations that do what I think of as “mainstream” liberal work—organizations such as The American Civil Liberties Union, Planned Parenthood, The National Organization for Women, and People for the American Way.

For years I have written these checks, almost as an act of dutiful citizenship. After all, I am glad the organizations are there. I want them to continue to exist. That means I have to do my part to keep them alive. But this seems a rather lazy way to make a decision.

I feel I should decide what I really think about liberalism and its prospects in the 1990s. It is clear that in 1996 liberalism is in eclipse—or at least adrift and demoralized. Meanwhile, the Right is in its glory. It dominates the political arena, with an apparent lock on the new ideas, the money, the organization, and the attention that used to belong to liberalism.

Liberalism is nearly an orphan. It has a bad name in many circles. For the Left, it represents a compromised reformism. For the Right, it is socialism in disguise. For the center, it is a label associated with fuzzy thinking and do-gooder incompetence.

Liberals are divided and seem to have lost confidence in their own ideology. The vicious attacks mounted by the Right have scored points with the public by caricaturing liberal programs, their adherents, and their recipients. After fifteen years of such attacks there is now a proven formula: seize on an example of abuse of a liberal program, market an image of the program’s undeserving recipient (preferably a poor person of color) to the taxpaying public, then sit back and wait for the impact. The “welfare queen,” the Black rapist on furlough, the unqualified affirmative action hire—all have assumed powerful symbolic significance.

In the face of these attacks, liberals themselves seem to know on some level that their programs have not worked as planned. Even in defending them, they are forced to appeal to the spirit in which the programs were based, or the benefits they have delivered to their most deserving beneficiaries. Liberals seem unable to mount a vigorous defense of these programs—on their own terms, across the board, without regard to the worthiness of the recipients. By mounting a weak defense, liberals tacitly concede to their Republican attackers that the programs are at least flawed, perhaps even indefensible.

The Swinging Door

I have seen liberalism’s programs and ideology up close for over thirty years. At fifty, I have reached some clarity about liberalism, especially since I have the advantage of a Left perspective—a set of glasses, if you will, that helps to bring the shortcomings of both liberalism and conservatism into focus. Further, I learned my politics during the Vietnam War, a war waged by liberals as well as conservatives.

I know that domestic social programs are intended as amelioration, not real change. I know that the same men who voted for public housing programs voted for aid to the Guatemalan military. I understand liberalism’s self-serving tendency to preserve the status quo, why big business often has found it a useful ally, why its redistributive measures never really disturb the sleep of the rich. I understand why it tolerates police brutality, a rogue FBI, why NAFTA, why GATT. I know all that.

Yet as the Right picks off liberal programs one by one, I mourn each one as if it were the product of a golden age of liberty, equality, and fraternity. My understanding of liberalism’s shortcomings and its history of opportunism is gone. Liberal programs are bathed with a glow of benevolence, set off by a stark contrast with the anti-social and avaricious agenda of the Right.

Take public housing as an example. As it is defunded by the Right and its real estate sold off, I am torn by two conflicting images. In the back of my mind are the towers of Cabrini Green, a massive, notoriously rundown, and dangerous housing project in Chicago. Here the ultimate effect of a liberal program is to segregate poor Black people in a high-rise ghetto. In fact, the numerous high-rise federal housing projects in Chicago form a “wall” that cordons off poor people from the rest of the city. It is difficult to see the result of this liberal housing effort on behalf of low-income families without assuming a malicious intent behind the program.

But in the front of my mind are other images: a broken-down, substandard house in rural Mississippi transformed into a prefab house with indoor water, electricity, and walls that are tight against the weather. Or a range of housing such as scattered rent-subsidized low-income units, low-rise complexes, and rent-controlled apartments that allow people to live in decent conditions even though they have very little money. It is these images that draw me. Perhaps it is sentimental, but I am compelled by the notion of a society that will not tolerate extreme poverty and that responds with redistributive programs—even though the programs are often flawed and sometimes cynical.

This softness toward liberalism is not easy to admit. It can be especially embarrassing to defend liberalism when I am speaking to progressives. It feels like admitting a weakness in my political commitment to Left, progressive values, the values that demand fundamental systemic change and redistribution of power. But this soft-on-liberalism instinct is grounded in my progressive politics. I see the two in relation to each other. I understand the role that liberalism plays in facilitating the work that progressives do. The Left needs liberals to create the breathing room necessary for us to do our work. Liberals, in turn, are given direction and held to some minimal standard of honesty by the Left.

As a progressive feminist, I want to live in a country that understands that some people cannot manage and that is willing to take responsibility for them. I want a government I can believe in; one that is willing to defy the often malicious intent of local power structures and defend the rights of all its citizens with determination. And I am convinced that only the federal government can deliver that protection. That often means that liberal social programs, administered by the federal government, are the only workable answer to social needs. This doesn’t mean I will get the government I want, but it does mean I cannot afford to throw away the idea of government as an important arbiter of justice.

The Right’s current promotion of states’ rights, which argues that power should be decentralized because only state governments provide for the real needs of local folks, ignores the history of states’ rights as a defense of brutal racial segregation and reactionary social policies. Transferring programs like public housing to the states is a sly method of defunding them. Progressives must be careful, when raising pointed criticisms and mounting protests regarding government programs, that we do not let our anti-government rhetoric feed the anti-government campaign of the Right.

I admit that when looking at liberal programs, I have a tendency to accept liberalism’s most appealing face as reality. I am drawn, for instance, by the 1960s social plan called The War on Poverty. I find a certain poetry, idealism, solidarity, and respect in the words themselves. Even when they turn out to be just words (that stand in ironic contrast to the Vietnam War, which was waged simultaneously) they nevertheless represent a glimpse of ideas and programs propelled by humanity and mutual concern. Perhaps two stories from my own experience will help to explain both my attraction to liberalism as we know it and my ambivalence about it.

In Chicago’s 1982 mayoral race, Harold Washington, a progressive African-American Congressman from the South Side, ran against the machine candidate, Jane Byrne, in the Democratic primary. Washington won. The white machine was stunned, and scrambled to find a candidate to run against Washington in the general election. Since Washington would be the Democratic Party candidate, they would have to find a Republican, but they were hard-pressed to locate one, since Chicago is a one-party town. They did find a rather pathetic man named Bernie Epton, who visibly struggled with emotional instability and barely made it through Election Day. Despite the stark difference in the two candidates’ qualifications, most white voters in Chicago voted for Epton. They preferred the unstable white man with no political experience to the charismatic, experienced, progressive, anti-machine African American. Again, however, Washington won.

Harold Washington (left) and Bernie Epton (right)

Harold Washington (left) and Bernie Epton (right)

There were several reasons for his victory. First, Chicago at that time had a minority population of 45%—a voting block large enough to create a plurality of votes. Second, Washington put together a rare coalition that drew over 90 percent of the African-American vote and most of the Latino vote. And finally, “lakefront liberals”—primarily white, often professional, definitely higher-income residents who lived close to the Lake Michigan waterfront—delivered the balance needed to put him narrowly over the top. Among white voters, only the lakefront liberals defied their race allegiance and voted for the Black man.

For me, the Washington election captured a clear irony about life in Chicago. I was proud that Chicago was no ordinary racist northern industrial city. Chicago is organized. It is perhaps the most organized city in the country—the birthplace of the community organizing style of Saul Alinsky. All of Chicago’s neighborhoods—especially the White neighborhoods—are organized with the goal of empowering working people, and much of this organizing has been done by liberals.

Yet when those organized citizens were called on to vote for a more progressive future, they were not able to make the connections. The community organizing so conscientiously mounted by liberals did not touch the racism of Chicago’s White voters. Unable to address the basic social problems, especially racism, liberalism came up short in an actual test of its effectiveness in creating change.

But liberalism was not a complete failure in Chicago. The lakefront liberals did the right thing. Faint-hearted, arrogant, complicit, and often self-serving, they nevertheless served as the swinging door against which social change could push. Without them, there was no space, no breathing room, no recourse.

Perhaps the lakefront liberals stood to gain under a Washington Administration that would create more space for their business interests than the locked-down machine offered. Perhaps the communities of color that voted so overwhelmingly for Washington were mostly voting against Chicago’s White political machine. But the reality remains. It was the vote of White liberals that put the progressive Mayor Washington over the top.

Another story comes to mind. In the early 1980s the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), a coalition of Leftist political groupings in El Salvador, mounted a credible attempt to overthrow the Salvadoran political establishment. The context for this effort was El Salvador’s history of economic exploitation by an oligarchy of landowners supported by a military trained and armed by the U.S., and a complicit Catholic church hierarchy. El Salvador’s social and economic system was injustice and oppression itself.

The FMLN was explicitly revolutionary. However, it had an arm that operated above ground, in the electoral arena. Always at risk from death squads, some brave people were willing to put themselves at risk by being affiliated publicly with this above-ground group, the Democratic Revolutionary Front, or FDR. The president of the FDR, the late Guillermo Ungo, was well-known in the United States.

In the early 1980s, I was part of a delegation of U.S. foundation staff and donors, led by the director of The Philadelphia Foundation, that went to Central America to meet with humanitarian aid organizations, human rights organizations, and others centrally involved in the conflicts in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. J. Roderick MacArthur, the son of the billionaire donor of the MacArthur Foundation, John D. MacArthur, was part of the delegation. Roderick MacArthur had his own foundation, known as “little MacArthur,” that had been involved in funding organizations opposing government abuses and repression against progressives. Rod MacArthur’s politics were liberal, unusually so for a businessman.

MacArthur met Ungo on that trip and they bonded as prominent businessmen with political concerns. MacArthur was both compelled by Ungo’s story and convinced that there were opportunities for U.S. business in a post-revolutionary El Salvador. When he returned to the U.S., MacArthur arranged to have Ungo come north to tour several cities, meeting with U.S. businessmen. When Ungo reached the Chicago stop on the tour, MacArthur held a reception for him in his Chicago suburban home. It was an opportunity for Ungo to speak to prominent Chicago businessmen. As a courtesy, he invited everyone who had been on the Central America trip to attend.

The meeting was predictably awkward. Ungo was not a charismatic man. The businessmen weren’t sure what the point was, and MacArthur didn’t seem able to sway them to his view. Out of courtesy to MacArthur, the businessmen were politely attentive, but they were not at all open to the revolutionary message of the FMLN, and certainly not able to sign onto MacArthur’s vision of a reformed El Salvador exporting its fabulous beer in profitable quantity to the U.S. The meeting fell rather flat.

Well, I thought, this just illustrates that you can’t promote revolution as a business opportunity. Even to want to do so is so exquisitely liberal! The incident provided more support for my sense of liberalism as complicit and ineffective. Nevertheless, as a result of that meeting, those businessmen were undoubtedly less likely to support a U.S. invasion of El Salvador. They were certainly better informed about the reality of life there, and the unbelievable maldistribution of wealth and the extent of repression. They would no longer give knee-jerk support to U.S. policy toward Central America. Rod MacArthur had made a contribution. He had influenced a sector that is completely inaccessible to progressives. He had begun to create a swinging door against which solidarity work could push.

That Compelling, Illusive Coalition

In June 1982, there was an enormous march in New York City to protest the triumph of the Right Wing of the Republican Party with the election of Ronald Reagan. Reagan’s administration had succeeded in making major changes in the tax structure, lowering the tax rate of the wealthy as one of its first acts in office. The march was so vast that miles of central Manhattan’s streets were filled with people. There were huge puppets, many more than 15 feet high, that eloquently mocked the Republicans and made tongue-in-cheek pleas for decency. A gigantic inflatable whale, emblazoned with the slogan “Save the Humans,” swayed down the packed streets.

Hundreds of thousands protest in New York City on June 12, 1982

Hundreds of thousands protest in New York City on June 12, 1982

There is no accurate count of how many people participated. As usual, the estimate by city officials was absurdly low. Perhaps more important, we don’t have an official record of which sectors of the liberal coalition were represented. But emotionally, I know exactly who was there. Everybody.

Or more accurately, all the White middle class reform movements that dominated and controlled the liberal coalition. The feminists, the gay and lesbian rights movement, the environmentalists, the disability rights movement, the reproductive rights defenders, the liberal unions. The civil rights movement was represented, but in small numbers, reflecting its position within the coalition as just another partner. That march seemed to me the last public display of the united front known as the liberal coalition.

That coalition was the lion that roared. It was a voting block that could propel a liberal to the Supreme Court, stop a war, prevent an invasion, impose curbs on corporate rapacity, force integration, forbid the death penalty, ensure voting rights.

Today it is a fractured remnant of its days of power. The larger, mainstream organizations are bloated, bureaucratic, and riddles with compromise. In order to maintain their programs, they have bowed to donors and corporate sponsors and cleansed themselves of radical voices, excusing their own moderation by pointing to the need to keep themselves alive in a hostile political climate. This applies even to some civil rights organizations. The vigor is gone, the vision is muddled, and the membership is down.

The less-compromised, small organizations are fighting over funds, plagued by professional jealousies and rivalries, and jockeying for position in a context of political defeat and defunding. The leadership is tired and aging and is not being replaced with another generation of dedicated activists.

Perhaps the coalition was doomed from the start. After all, it was frankly reformist, which means that it could take change only so far before it ran into its own contradictions. Nowhere was this more true than on the issue of race. The White-dominated liberal coalition was not about to give up its dearly-held issues because they were not well-suited to the needs of African Americans. Reproductive rights are a perfect example. The demand of African American women for the reproductive rights movement to broaden its agenda to include the concerns of women of color (e.g. that women be assured of the right to have children, as well as not have children) were heard by only a handful of reproductive rights organizations.

But this is just one of the man reasons for the decline of the coalition. Larger events conspired to weaken it and diminish its vision. I don’t pretend to know the exact profile of these forces. Certainly the increased concentration of wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer corporations and individuals under late capitalism has both elevated the individualism so basic to capitalism and defeated the notion of the common good. The attack by the organized and well-funded Right has been successful in undermining the popularity of the liberal vision. And, in any case, it is harder to hold a coalition together when it is undergoing defeat after defeat. By contrast, the Right’s coalition is enjoying victory after victory, and thus finds that continued cooperation and collaboration is visibly rewarded.

With so few victories and so little satisfaction to be had, each member of the liberal coalition now hangs onto whatever pale reformist policies or benefits can be saved. The sectors of the coalition that cannot survive on these remnants, especially working class wage-earners, have been left to make the best of it. The gutting of The Labor Relations Board, The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and The U.S. Civil Rights Commission are just three examples of liberal programs now unable to deliver anything resembling social justice. Is it any wonder that so many working people are seduced by the Right’s vilification of liberalism when liberalism has proved unable to defend them and hasn’t appeared to try very hard?

So, the liberal coalition is fractured, aging, compromised, and lacking in vigor or new ideas. It remains White-dominated and predominantly middle-class. Why, then, do I mourn its passing from the center stage of power? Didn’t it deserve to fade?

Something makes me say: “Yes, but…” A part of me clings to a vision of the liberal coalition as it could have been. Also, frankly, I miss the power. Progressives are used to working at the margins, pushing liberals to redress the heinous injustices created by capitalism, and, when liberals create reformist programs, pushing the envelope to open an opportunity for real change. But without a powerful and effective liberal coalition to pressure, there are very few places for progressive policies to exert influence.

It is true that liberalism plays its own role as an aid to reactionary politics, acting as a buffer for capitalism by protecting it from the wrath of the people it exploits. By providing a veneer of caring and accommodation to human needs as well as profits, liberal programs cloud people’s political consciousness. No doubt about that.

But liberalism also serves as a buffer against fascism. In the 1970s we had the luxury of holding liberalism in disdain because it was a sop that prevented revolutionary social change. In the 1990s, liberalism looks more like a line of defense against the final triumph of the Right.

Come Back, Jimmy

By the end of Jimmy Carter’s administration in the late 1970s, Carter was an easy man to scorn. The populist liberalism of his Presidential campaign had been thoroughly compromised as he “got it” about the Soviet threat. His wobbling political leadership became increasingly neoconservative. It was hard for progressives to find much to like about Carter.

Yet throughout the Reagan administration my mantra was: “Come back, Jimmy. All is forgiven.” What I missed wasn’t a hard-headed political analysis, a shrewd ability to work the system in behalf of social justice goals, an uncompromising commitment to the poor. These we had never had from Carter. What I missed, and had taken for granted, was that the man supported the Bill of Rights.

Carter was a typical liberal in that respect. He understood the role of the Bill of Rights in assuring that in addition to stable democratic institutions, people in the U.S. also have certain concrete rights. Take Article I of the Bill of Rights, the First Amendment. It reads in part: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of people peaceably to assemble…” It is meant to protect the individual’s right to protest government actions. In the United States, freedom of speech is a civil liberty.

This guarantee has always been applied selectively. The free speech of racists has always been better protected than the free speech of campus war protesters. In the recent past, it was often necessary for the courts to intervene to protect Leftists from the violations of their First Amendment rights by law enforcement officers, the FBI, or exceptionally hostile Justice Departments, such as those of the Nixon and Reagan administrations.

Free speech is particularly important to progressives because in my attempt to change the status quo there must be room to unmask and debunk it. Censorship imposed by legal means, or self-censorship in the context of repression, means that the Left’s effectiveness is dramatically limited.

Progressives, therefore, are dependent on liberals’ commitment to the First Amendment. Liberals serve as a buffer protecting us from the Right and its history of attacking First Amendment freedoms. For instance, it is liberal legislators who stand in the way of laws banning the burning of the flag. It is liberals who defend “sacrilegious” art. It is liberal lawyers and judges who defend the rights of “communist sympathizers” and anti-war demonstrators, and keep the airwaves open for the likes of Angela Davis and Allen Ginsberg. Without that liberal commitment to the Bill of Rights, the voice of the Left could and would be silenced.

That is not to say that liberals won’t cut and run. If the accused is too politically unpopular or the cause too radical, liberals will hide behind the justification that these defendants or causes threaten national security, and they’ll allow the Bill of Rights to go. Sometimes they’ll cave in under threats by the Right to tar them with the brush of radicalism. In these cases, only progressives will stand up and fight for our guaranteed rights.

Nevertheless, right now we need liberal lawyers, judges, journalists, curators, abortion providers, legislators, teachers, unionists, affirmative action officers, and day care advocates. We need the breathing room and protection they provide for progressives. So each time one of them is won over by the Right’s prejudice, myth, irrational belief, inaccurate information, pseudo-science, and outright lies, or each time a liberal resigns from office or retires from the bench (to be replaced by a credentialed Rightist, of course), I worry a bit more. It doesn’t matter whether I particularly like, respect, or admire liberals. I care about them because they are endangered, and I care about what that means for me and for our society.

But is it a Relationship?

Liberalism will raise your hopes and ultimately break your heart. Does that mean that it commands no loyalty? Should it be trashed because it is spineless and flawed? My answer is an unequivocal “maybe.”

It won’t do to say that liberalism could be a useful framework for a late capitalist society if only it wouldn’t act so much like liberalism. It is what it is. Nevertheless, it can be more or less effective according to the principles to which it holds.

The principle of “maximum feasible participation” is an example of the boundaries of liberalism’s potential as an open, humane, and egalitarian ideology. Maximum feasible participation calls for the people who are the recipients of liberal programs to also design, control, and implement the programs. It moves “good works” a step further toward actual power sharing.

Maximum feasible participation was an idea that was barely tried, then abandoned by liberals as unworkable. It is at exactly this juncture that liberalism reveals its intrinsic limitations. There is a crucially important distinction between addressing grievances and inequities with humanitarian aid on one hand, and in solving them through redistributing power on the other. All those who are dispossessed, whatever race, class, or gender, will be given only relief by liberal programs. They will not obtain true justice.

But when true justice is not available—in this country, for lack of the ability of progressives to compete effectively in the struggle for power—humanitarian aid makes a difference. It is this difference that the Right is killing off, program by program. The Right knows that without liberalism’s programs, there is less chance for even the myth of social change, not to mention its reality, to thrive. If they can eliminate the swinging door, then it will be even easier to redistribute power upward. This is one of the reasons that right-wing strategists spend so much time demonizing liberals, especially feminists, environmentalists, gay and lesbian rights activists, and supporters of multiculturalism.

Liberalism has not proved able to stand up to the reactionary onslaught by the Right. Is that surprising? Should progressive people put time and energy into defending liberalism and its programs? Yes – we must. As a strategic response to the current assault by the Right on every democratic principle, it is an important place to put time and energy.

At the same time, it is crucial that progressives continue to work for a more radical vision of social justice and redistribution of power and wealth. Liberalism is in retreat in part because it is not receiving the sort of pressure from progressives that forced it to pursue reform aggressively in the 1970s. Progressives often set the agenda for liberals, by taking direct confrontational action against unjust laws and policies. It is progressives whose public education truly unmasks the structural and individual racism, repression, and other forms of injustice within the U.S. system.

At the moment, the progressive vision lacks the clarity and certainty of the 1930s or the 1960s. But there is an important distinction between our current muddled state, when clarity and unity are diminished, and the death of the vision altogether. We must not confuse the two. To say that the Left is struggling to find its way in a dramatically restructured political environment is accurate. But the fundamental principles around which the Left organizes its radical critique—liberty, equality and fraternity in the service of justice for those whose voices are not heard—are as alive and needed as ever.

Progressives must analyze how the Left became such a weak force. This promises to be a difficult process of self-criticism. Further, more and more people will have to come to the table to help to refine the progressive vision and correct its flaws and omissions. Meanwhile, liberal reforms have to be defended and pressure has to be applied to the few liberals still standing to keep them from waffling or quitting. This is not best done by disdaining or ignoring them.

Like it or not, progressives now must work with liberals, as well as with any other left-leaning sectors such as the Greens, to form a united front against the agenda of the Right. Pat Buchanan’s demonstrated ability to draw 30 percent of the vote in state after state in the recent presidential primaries is just one indicator of how important such a front is.

So, progressives, if you are angry and bitter over the loss of another liberal program killed off without even so much as a debate, don’t apologize. Don’t assume you have become soft on liberalism. This is a natural reaction – a product of this moment in history. And try not to dwell on those years past when there was more certainty, more idealism, and more hope; when working for real change was like moving downstream riding a current of historical inevitability. Now we are swimming against a tide that is thick with peril. The voice in the bubble of this cartoon is no longer saying “Follow that dream!” Now it is saying, “Time is running out. Focus. Get it together. Unite!”

Thanks to Rosario Morales, Dick Levins, Clarissa Atkinson, Denise Bergman, Pat Rathbone, Ruth Hubbard, and Francine Almash for their comments.

 

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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Drawing Lines Against Racism and Fascism

Crypto-fascists and pro-White separatists are entering and recruiting from progressive circles. This essay offers some guidelines for identifying and dealing with this growing problem.

For a printable brochure version, see bottom.

In the not-so-distant past, one had little problem identifying a White separatist. Generally, they came in two styles: white hoods and burning crosses, or oxblood Doc Martens and swastika tattoos. Both were usually shouting vulgar epithets about African-Americans, Jews, and LGBTQ folks. And their relationship with the Left was usually in the form of breaking either bookstore windows or activists’ bones—if not outright murder.1 Barring them from progressive spaces was an act of physical self-preservation—not a show of political principles in drawing a line against ideological racism and fascism.

Today, White separatists don’t always come in such easily identifiable forms, either in their dress or politics. A part of the White separatist and related Far Right movement has taken some unusual turns.2 Some fascists seek alliances with ultranationalist people of color—a few of whom, in turn, consider themselves fascists. New types of groups embrace White separatism under a larger banner of decentralization. For many decades, the Far Right has disguised or rebranded its politics by establishing front groups, deploying code words, or using other attempts to fly under the radar.3 As the years pass by, some of these projects have taken on lives of their own as these forms have been adopted by those with different agendas. Simultaneously, there is a revival of fascist influence within countercultural music scenes. And intertwined with these changes is a renewed attempt on the part of some White separatists to participate in, or cross-recruit from, progressive circles.

This essay was written after a multi-year collaboration with a number of anti-fascist activists; we have struggled to understand this new phenomenon and craft ways to deal with it. I will attempt to: explain why Far Right actors should not be allowed to participate in progressive circles, suggest criteria regarding where the line should be drawn in defining which politics are problematic enough to take action against, and offer suggestions on how to communicate with and encourage individuals who may want to leave those movements.

The Impact of the Far Right’s Presence on Progressive Circles 

It can be tempting for progressive activists to ignore the presence of Far Right political and cultural actors in progressive spaces, particularly if they are not actively engaged in explicitly hateful and/or openly political organizing. This argument is heard almost every time a call for exclusion is made. Additionally, some people may ask why it is not adequate for organizations to simply declare that they are opposed to racism and fascism. Yet these are mistaken approaches; they underestimate the effect of Far Right groups and their ideologies, misunderstand how these groups often portray themselves, and don’t acknowledge that ideologies are propagandized and spread by real people.

Tolerating the Far Right’s presence allows its followers to engage in a number of damaging actions, including: cross-recruiting (either openly, or by promoting Far Right ideas that are packaged as left-wing ideas to convince people that their ideas are ours), spreading Far Right talking points among progressive activists, compromising progressive groups’ security or privacy, and engaging in cultural work that spreads fascist ideas, especially within counter-cultural scenes.

Fascists have targeted animal rights/animal liberation political groups for infiltration and cross-recruitment for many years, much to the ire of anti-racist and other intersectional activists in these circles.

Fascists have targeted animal rights/animal liberation political groups for infiltration and cross-recruitment for many years, much to the ire of anti-racist and other intersectional activists in these circles.

Far Right cross-recruiting from the Left has long been a problem, and some Far Right groups are now in a renewed period of doing it—while intentionally disguising and/or soft-selling their real aims. In recent years, this has been observed in anti-war, progressive populist, radical Left, anarchist, environmental, animal rights, anti-Zionist, counter-cultural, and religious­ (especially esoteric, occult, and neopagan Heathen) circles.4 Some begin by repeating a sophisticated left-wing critique of problems with contemporary society, draw upon Leftist symbols and cultural orientation, and then offer racial separatism (along with the rest of the Far Right package) as the answer to these problems. European New Right ideologue Alain de Benoist—who promotes ecology and denounces capitalism, the consumer society, and imperialism—is a prime example.5

Others pick up on specific issues closely associated with the cultural Left and hitch them to the Far Right. For example, in Germany there is what Rolling Stone describes as an online “Nazi vegan cooking show.” As one of the show’s hosts states, “The left-wing doesn’t have a prior claim to veganism,” and “industrial meat production is incompatible with our nationalist and socialist world views.” Simone Rafael, editor of a German blog that monitors the extreme Right, describes this new “nipster” (Nazi hipster) milieu: “They use subjects like globalization and animal protection as entry points, and then offer a very simple worldview that makes complex subjects very easy to understand.” But, he continues, “In the end, it’s always about racism and anti-Semitism and nationalism.”6

Open political participation by the Far Right in progressive circles allows Far Right actors to teach their talking points to non-fascist activists. Over the years, the Far Right organization around Lyndon LaRouche has duped a variety of progressives into adopting their talking points, especially during the Iran-Contra affair in the late 1980s. More recently, right-wing critiques of the Federal Reserve gained traction within the Occupy Wall Street movement. The most benign of these ideas were grounded in Libertarian economics, but they quickly slid into (non-bigoted) conspiracy theories, and from there into thinly veiled—or even openly—antisemitic arguments. And for decades, environmentalists have struggled against fascist and other xenophobic interpretations of environmentalism.7

Others on the Far Right take a more subtle approach, often by claiming not to be political at all. For example, some try to sell White separatism as an individual choice as opposed to a political stance. This is actually a ruse. If some White people have the personal desire to be physically separate from people of color, they can move to the countryside and form racially exclusive communes. Instead, this argument has been heard in urban, left-wing settings as a form of propaganda arguing for the compatibility of White separatist and fascist politics with progressive ones under the banner of “autonomy.”

In a related fashion, certain skinhead concerts are promoted using the phrase “No Politics,” which signals that the bands playing may actually hold views sympathetic to fascism, and that Far Right activists and music fans are welcome—while simultaneously mollifying venue owners who may have concerns about the show. These ostensibly apolitical stances act as an entryway for, and protection of, Far Right ideas and spaces.8

Allowing Far Right participation can also pose a security risk. Far Right actors may use such opportunities to collect personal information on progressive activists and information about their organizations. This has been an ongoing problem, in particular for antifascist and other groups that monitor the Far Right.

Counter-Culture Fascism

Historically, fascism has had a strong cultural orientation, and since the 1970s, a prime location for fascist activism has been in the counter-cultures. (I am referring here to the more self-consciously political, post-WWII subcultures, including punk, skinhead, hippie, metal, neo-folk, industrial, and techno). The most famous success has been the creation of the Nazi skinhead milieu, but racist activism continues today among different musical scenes. Fascists tried to achieve political dominance in the counter-culture, and have occasionally been successful.  During the height of the Nazi skinhead movement, for example, they dominated the punk scene in certain cities.9

The circulation of obscure fascist imagery and themes by a number of neo-folk and goth bands has encountered resistance from anti-fascist fans, who regard it as a form of crypto-fascism. Tours by the band Death in June, in particular, have been met with boycott calls.

The circulation of obscure fascist imagery and themes by a number of neo-folk and goth bands has encountered resistance from anti-fascist fans, who regard it as a form of crypto-fascism. Tours by the band Death in June, in particular, have been met with boycott calls.

In the past, counter-cultures have been carrier groups and social bases for anti-capitalism, anti-racism, feminism, ecology, queer politics, and a variety of other progressive political movements. Counter-cultures are inherently “radical” in the sense that they seek to negate the current social reality and try to create an alternative. Politically, though, they are not intrinsically Left or Right. Fascism—as distinct from most other types of right-wing politics—seeks a radical transformation of the current Western social order (based on liberal­ism and democracy) and as such can appeal to counter-culturalists just as much as Marxism or anarchism can.

Therefore, the presence of Far Right attitudes in these counter-cultural scenes—even when they do not directly translate into fascist organizing—also has negative effects. Instead of a progressive, pro-queer, and feminist milieu, an atmosphere filled with reactionary social attitudes can become dominant. Even when the bands aren’t committed Nazis, a Far Right-leaning scene further repels the participation of those targeted by the Right. To give two concrete examples: few women may wish to attend concerts glorifying rape, and few Jews want to be entertained by bands playing neo-Nazi cover songs.

Four Lines of Exclusion

In recent years, antifascist activists in different cities have confronted the problem of crypto-fascists and pro-White separatists by calling for these individuals and groups to be excluded from progressive political circles, including conferences, organizing and cultural spaces, music venues, book fairs, and demonstrations.10 Such calls have not always been well-received; frequently other progressive activists, unfamiliar with these forms of Far Right politics, want to know how and where the line may be drawn against these groups.

When bringing up exclusions, the question of “free speech” inevitably comes up. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees the protection of speech from interference by the government. To call for excluding a group, individual, or band is not to be mistaken for a call for the government to ban or otherwise violate the Constitutional rights of fascist and related groups. (Even from a realpolitik perspective, these kinds of restrictions often end up being used against progressives in rather short order.) But it is legal—and always has been under the First Amendment—for non-governmental political groups to decide who may attend private gatherings or be published in their media; free speech does not guarantee your right to crash anyone’s party, join their organization, or attend their meetings. Likewise, media are under no obligation to publish articles representing everyone’s viewpoints. Freedom of speech means that the government cannot suppress individuals from holding their own meetings or expressing political opinions publicly—it does not dictate that Far Right activists must be given open access to progressive events.

In addition, when identifying whom to exclude, simplistic rhetorical disavowals cannot be taken at face value; today it is nearly impossible to find almost anyone who will accept the label “racist” or “fascist.” Even hooded Klan members will publicly declare that they are not “racists” and do not “hate” others.11

These following four points of exclusion have differing levels of complexity. The adoption of White separatism as consistent with a political program is the most concrete and clear-cut. While antisemitic and related narratives are relatively easy to identify even when coded, not everyone is familiar with them, and some activists unknowingly use them. The use of fascist symbolism and imagery is complicated and has to be judged on a case-by-case basis. And last, the question of dealing with left-wing media, which promote problematic writers and speakers, can be the most complicated question when deciding about taking action.

1) Anyone who actively promotes or endorses the idea of White separatism should be treated as a Far Right activist. This includes those who accept the promotion of White separatism as a stance compatible with their political worldview.

Today, neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan are no longer the only groups that endorse White separatism. This is partly due to the secessionist fever that has spread across the U.S. Right, uniting Right Libertarians, conspiracy theorists, Christian theocrats, Sovereign Citizens, neo-Confederates, and traditional White separatists. New groups advocate “pan-secessionist” ideology, and seek to unite the right-wing secessionists with those traditionally closer to the Left, like (bio)regional separatism in Vermont and Cascadia, former Leftist Kirkpatrick Sale’s decentralist Middlebury Institute, and nationalist organizing by those who, in the old anti-imperialist terminology, are “oppressed nations” (Native Americans, African-Americans, Latinos, and other people of color).12

However, the most contentious question today is the direct participation of people of color in groups that espouse White separatism as part of their ideology.13 Loosely organized groups like National-Anarchists, Attack the System, and New Resistance, which actively embrace White separatism as part of their decentralized schema, should be excluded from progressive circles—including people of color who are members of these groups.14 This also includes members of groups that are multi-racial, but which promote this political view.

In addition to these groups, some people of color are involved in openly fascist circles. Neo-Nazi groups are active in countries such as Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Colombia, Mongolia, and Malaysia; and members of these movements reportedly have ties in the United States.15

A Malaysian skinhead's t-shirt advertises Combat-18 -- a notoriously violent neo-Nazi skinhead organization which originated in Britain.

A Malaysian skinhead’s t-shirt advertises Combat-18 — a notoriously violent neo-Nazi skinhead organization which originated in Britain.

In the past, Leftists excluded White people affiliated with groups that espoused White separatism, such as White Aryan Resistance (WAR) and Aryan Nations. But this new secessionism is more complicated; for example, it has led to the spectacle of people of color advocating for the legitimacy of White separatism—by claiming either that all separatism is good separatism, or that a program of complete reciprocal racial separatism requires that all groups have their own geographical enclave.

Cooperation between racial separatists of differing backgrounds is a long-standing tradition. In the 1930s, when Mississippi’s arch-racist Senator Theodore Bilbo publicly called for the expulsion of African-Americans to Africa, members of Marcus Garvey’s movement (themselves proponents of African-American emigration to Africa) approached Bilbo as a potential collaborator. The Nation of Islam (NOI) also has a history of associating with White nationalists, including the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party; Malcolm X cited these associations as one of the reasons he became disgruntled with NOI. WAR’s Tom Metzger has supported and donated money to NOI and has addressed the New Black Panther Party (NBPP). In Florida, one Black separatist organization even held joint demonstrations with a local Klan group.16

However, calling for the exclusion of all supporters of White separatism should not be mistaken for a call for progressives to exclude activists who endorse nationalist forms of separatism for people of color, including Black, Native American, or Latino nationalists. It is only the advocacy of White racial separatism that is at issue. While the acceptance of what is called the “right to national self-determination” of racial and ethnic minorities as congruent with larger left-wing goals is not without its critics (including myself), it has a long-established history on the U.S. Left, and its advocates have included the Black Panther Party, the American Indian Movement, and the Young Lords. However, irrespective of the debates around it, national self-determination by an oppressed group of people is completely different from the “right” of White separatism. However, White separatism has never had a place in the Left, and its structural function is to reinforce—and not attempt to escape (regardless of whether this would work in practice or not)—existing social hierarchies. In the United States, White people as a group are firmly in control of the majority of economic resources and social power. White separatism is comparable to espousing gated communities for the rich: its purpose is to physically express existing hierarchical social and economic structures.17

2) Ideological antisemitism, Islamophobia, and other demonizations of minority groups—whether explicit or coded—should not be tolerated.

Antisemitism is a main theoretical plank for fascists and other Far Right actors, and Holocaust denial has always been a tactic with the goal of re-legitimizing fascism in the eyes of the public. Those who deny the Holocaust—one of the best-documented events of the last century—have no place in progressive political circles. The same goes for those who repeat traditional Nazi-era antisemitic conspiracies, such as that Jews control the government, banking system, or the mass media. This includes the propaganda group If Americans Knew or the American Free Press newspaper, which, while repeating classical antisemitic narratives, deploy code words such as “Zionists,” “Jewish neocons,” or the “Frankfurt School”—instead of “the Jews.”18 

Those who demonize other racial, ethnic, and religious minorities—in particular, those who blame Muslims for attempting to “destroy the West” (a claim more common in Europe) or call undocumented Latin American migrants “disease-carrying gang members”—should also be excluded.

However, excluding people based on this stance should be reserved for those who have been documented as having intentionally and repeatedly used these slanders, and who have been confronted about them. Some activists unwittingly use these demonizing narratives and are ignorant of their origins. Activists should not be excluded for actions and statements that might be considered antisemitic, Islamophobic, transphobic, racist, patriarchal, or otherwise but that fall short of clear-cut, intentional, repeated, and ideologically motivated demonization (i.e., as part of the deployment of a thought-out political philosophy). Many real progressives have made statements that others have, at one time or another, believed to be biased; discussions are needed about what constitutes racism, sexism, etc. not just for collective self-clarification, but also so that activists have an opportunity to change their own beliefs when necessary. 

3) Social and cultural groups (including bands and artists) that traffic in sustained fascist references should be excluded from progressive circles.

Many cultural actors in particular deny being openly fascist or racist, but on investigation promote a sustained amount of imagery, references, and concepts based on and derived from fascism and other forms of ideological racism, and are deploying them in order to disseminate this ideology. This must be separated from passing or ignorant references: usage of historical examples, non-ideologically motivated attempts to shock, or ironic usage.

In one recent example, an activist, who had recently been released from prison for environmentally motivated property destruction, ran a blog concerned with spiritual and cultural matters. The blog was also filled with fascist imagery such as swastikas, as well as black suns and runes used by the Nazis—alongside quotes from mystical fascist philosophers. The activist was also alleged to have made statements denouncing “forced multi-culturalism” and endorsing White separatism. This is an example of a person who should be excluded from progressive circles.19

However, the main focus of this problematic cultural work concerns bands and other musical projects. Sometimes, these are crypto-fascist projects engaging in conscious attempts to create a Far Right cultural milieu, as some neo-folk and black metal bands are alleged to be doing. Others are part of the “Rock Against Communism” (RAC) format. In the 1980s, RAC was promoted as a front group by explicitly Nazi musicians but has more recently been adopted by a variety of actors, including some people of color. (This is similar to the Sovereign Citizen movement, which also originated in White supremacist circles but which today has many people of color as adherents.20)

However, the question of how to determine whether a band should be excluded is a complicated affair; it has been debated for decades without a clear consensus arising. Because of the complexity of the subject, this will be dealt with separately in a forthcoming essay.

4) Any groups that provide an active platform for Nazi, fascist, and related speakers should be treated in a similar fashion as those sympathetic to White separatism.

This includes those who hold events for these speakers. For example, members of the Eugene, Oregon-based Pacifica Forum—which started as a progressive anti-war speaker series but later came to host antisemites and, eventually, outright neo-Nazis—should be treated as a Far Right organization. (Pacifica Forum members attended Occupy events in Eugene and Portland, Oregon, attempted to use a left-wing bookstore in Portland to host an antisemitic speaker, and one was a board member at an annual co-operative conference.)21

This question can be far trickier when it comes to periodicals, book presses, and online media. For example, many left-wing media have published antisemitic and crypto-antisemitic authors such as Alison Weir, Israel Shamir, and Gilad Atzmon; a well-known left-wing press even published Atzmon’s book.22 However, to what extent it is feasible to hold these publications and presses accountable is up for debate. 

Renunciation and Reintegration 

Antifascist activists sometimes have a “search and destroy” mentality about their opponents; they want to document their target, locate and confront it, and create a situation where it will go away. But this, too, can turn into its own problem: people don’t disappear, and once politicized, they tend to remain so. An organizer from Portland, Oregon’s Coalition for Human Dignity told me that antifascists’ inability to provide an alternative for young White youth attracted to the Nazi skinhead movement was one of his group’s greatest failings in confronting the surge of Nazi organizing in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Organized racist and fascist groups have long been involved in pagan, and in particular Heathen, religious circles. This in turn has helped galvanize Heathen circles to consciously resist racist elements, and to analyze structural racism more generally.

Organized racist and fascist groups have long been involved in pagan, and in particular, Heathen, religious circles. This in turn has helped galvanize Heathen circles to consciously resist racist elements, and to analyze structural racism more generally.

It is not infrequent for Far Right activists to become disenchanted with and wish to exit their political milieu, which can have negative social and professional effects on their lives. Sometimes, young people experiment with different identities and views without a serious commitment to them. Other times, progressive activists have been drawn into these Far Right groups and, once confronted, are willing to abandon them. Therefore, it is important to allow people to return to (or enter) progressive circles. If their Far Right affiliations are revealed, and they abandon these politics but are prevented from being allowed into non/anti-racist circles, there is a higher likelihood they will return to their prior beliefs—if for no other reason than simply because it will be a familiar social circle.

Progressive groups should come up with their own criteria for people who want to move away from Far Right politics and toward progressive political communities. Recommendations for this include: 1) requiring the person make a public statement disavowing Far Right views, and posting it in their former group’s media; 2) turning over all Far Right books, t-shirts, buttons, etc. to antifascists—especially patches or other insignia of any organizations they were members of; 3) removing all Far Right contacts on social media, and not attending events (either social, cultural, or political) hosted by these individuals or groups; 4) making a sincere statement of why their former views were problematic, with apologies made to anyone hurt by their actions. (The letter written by former White nationalist Derek Black, son of Stormfront founder Don Black, is exemplary.23) If they want to become actively involved as progressive political organizers, they should also 5) be required to go through a debrief to provide information about their former Rightist group’s structures, membership, recruiting tactics, and beliefs.

The same approach should be applied to organizations and media with a history of providing a platform for Far Right and related (antisemitic, Islamophobic, etc.) figures. They should also be able to change policy, apologize for their past, and be treated as a regular publication or platform again.

The evidence shows that Far Right cross-recruiting and participation in progressive circles will not go away, and progressives should adopt policies—and have plans ready—to deal with anyone who falls under the above four categories who wants to enter, attend, or participate in any progressive organizations, physical spaces, events, or demonstrations.

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 endNOTES

1. For such a small political movement, White nationalists are fantastically violent, although exact numbers are difficult to come by. A 2012 Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) report lists “100 plots, conspiracies and racist rampages since 1995.” The SPLC’s Heidi Beirich calculated that users of the White nationalist Stormfront website “have murdered close to 100 people” between 2009 and 2014. See SPLC, Terror on the Right, 2012, http://www.splcenter.org/sites/default/files/downloads/publication/terror_from_the_right_2012_web_0.pdf; Heidi Beirich, “White Homicide Worldwide,” 2014, http://www.splcenter.org/sites/default/files/downloads/publication/white-homicide-worldwide.pdf.

The victims of these White nationalist and neo-Nazi attacks have varied, and include government workers, unsuspecting members of the public, and their own family members—but also political opponents, whether progressive or merely anti-racist. The most famous attack on Leftists was the 1979 Greensboro massacre, a joint operation of Klansmen and neo-Nazis, in which five participants at a Communist Workers Party-organized anti-racist march in Greensboro, North Carolina were killed. (One of the participants in the massacre, Frazier Glenn Miller, was arrested in 2014 for murdering three people at Jewish community centers in Kansas.) In 1998, two anti-racist skinheads were murdered in Las Vegas by Nazi skinheads. And in 2011 in Norway, Anders Behring Breivik murdered sixty-nine people at a socialist youth group’s retreat.

On the Greensboro Massacre, see Jill Williams, “Truth and Reconciliation Comes to the South: Lessons from Greensboro,” Public Eye, Spring 2007, vol. 22, no. 2, http://www.publiceye.org/magazine/v21n2/reconciliation.html; on Miller, see Spencer Sunshine, “Frazier Glenn Miller & The Ongoing Trend of Former-Military Neo-Nazi Murders,” April 17, 2014, http://www.politicalresearch.org/2014/04/17/frazier-glenn-miller-the-ongoing-trend-of-former-military-neo-nazi-murders/; on the Las Vegas murders, see Lynda Edwards, “Death in the Desert,” Orlando Weekly, June 17, 1999, http://www.orlandoweekly.com/orlando/death-in-the-desert/Content?oid=2263332; on Breivik, see John Nichols, “Glenn Beck’s ‘Hitler Youth’ Slur on Norway Victims Confuses WWII Sides,” July 26, 2011, Nation blogs, http://www.thenation.com/blog/162287/glenn-becks-hitler-youth-slur-norway-victims-confuses-wwii-sides#.

2. A note on the terminology used in this essay: “progressive” refers to the whole spectrum of political actors, from liberal Democrats to radical Leftists, who have a social justice approach that is critical of capitalism, and who oppose systems of oppression based on race, religion, sexual orientation, gender, etc. “Far Right” includes all right-wing elements which have a racial component to their ideology; therefore even libertarians, who usually would not fall under this term, will be included here if they embrace White separatism as congruent with their politics.

3. Code words are discussed in an interview with Martin Lee and former PRA senior analyst Chip Berlet; see “Transcript: #26-98 When ‘Populism’ Has a Right-Wing Agenda,” Making Contact, July 1, 1998, http://www.radioproject.org/transcript/1998/9826.html.

4. For the anti-war movement, see “The Gulf War” section of Chip Berlet, Right Woos Left, February 27, 1999, http://www.politicalresearch.org/1999/02/27/right-woos-left; for progressive populists, see Spencer Sunshine, “The Right Hand of Occupy Wall Street: From Libertarians to Nazis, the Fact and Fiction of Right-Wing Involvement,” Public Eye, Winter 2014, 9–14, 18, February 23, 2014, http://www.politicalresearch.org/2014/02/23/the-right-hand-of-occupy-wall-street-from-libertarians-to-nazis-the-fact-and-fiction-of-right-wing-involvement/; for the radical Left, see “What is the Third Position?,” http://www.publiceye.org/fascist/third_position.html; for anarchists, see Spencer Sunshine, “Rebranding Fascism: National-Anarchists,” Public Eye, Winter 2008, vol. 23, no. 4, 1, 12­–19 (posted online January 28, 2008), http://www.politicalresearch.org/2008/01/28/rebranding-fascism-national-anarchists/; for environmentalism, see  Janet Biehl and Peter Staudenmaier, Ecofascism: Lessons from the German Experience (Edinburgh: AK Press, 1995), http://www.spunk.org/texts/places/germany/sp001630/ecofasc.html; for animal rights, see Panthères Enragées, “International Animal Rights Gathering,” August 22, 2013, http://pantheresenragees.noblogs.org/post/2013/08/22/international; for anti-zionism, see Center for New Community, “Neo-Nazi Infiltration of Anti-Globalization Protests” (press release, dated June 21, 2002), June 28, 2002, http://interactivist.autonomedia.org/node/1039; for counter-cultures, see Graham D. Macklin, “Co-opting the Counter Culture: Troy Southgate and the National Revolutionary Faction,” Patterns of Prejudice, vol. 39, no. 3, September 2005, http://slackbastard.anarchobase.com/?p=2439; for esoteric and occult tendencies, as well as Heathens, see Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, Black Sun: Aryan Cults, Esoteric Nazism, and the Politics of Identity (New York: New York University Press, 2002).

5. See Sunshine, “Rebranding Fascism.”

6. Thomas Rogers, “Heil Hipster: The Young Neo-Nazis Trying to Put a Stylish Face on Hate,” Rolling Stone, June 23, 2014, http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/news/heil-hipster-the-young-neo-nazis-trying-to-put-a-stylish-face-on-hate-20140623.

7. For an extensive discussion of LaRouchite influence on progressive politics, see Berlet, Right Woos Left; for Edward Flaherty’s critique of ten myths about the Federal Reserve, see http://www.publiceye.org/conspire/flaherty/Federal_Reserve.html; for fascism and the environmental movement in general, see Biehl and Staudenmaier, Ecofascism; and for one high-profile fight over xenophobic interpretations of environmentalism, see Michelle Nijhuis, “Immigration controversy engulfs Sierra Club board election,” Grist, March 2, 2004, http://grist.org/article/nijhuis-sierra/.

8. Roddy Moreno, singer for the antifascist Oi! band The Oppressed, said: “I find most people who talk about no politics mean left-wing politics but seem to have no problem with right wing politics. Fuck the government and fuck the police are political statements but no one says a word when bands sing about these things but as soon as a band says fuck the Nazis and fuck the racists you get accusations of “POLITICS”. At the end of the day life is political and it’s hard to ignore life.” See “An interview with Roddy Moreno,” January 14, 2012, http://torontosharp.blogspot.com/2012/01/interview-with-roddy-moreno.html.

The blog No Condemned 84 in Toronto described their opposition to the “no politics” approach this way: “This isn’t about being ‘PC,’ and this isn’t just about one dodgy band either—it’s about a disturbing agenda being pushed by the fence-sitters and closet-fascists who, under the deceptive banner of ‘no politics’ want to make our scene a safe zone for nazi bullshit. This isn’t a coincidence—it’s been a conscious strategy of the nazis after being forced underground in previous decades: infiltrate the ‘apolitical’ fold and recruit amongst the fence-sitters; after all, if you already listening to nazi bands and claim ‘anti-antifa,’ how much farther do you have to go?  The fascists smell easy pickings.” In another post they are more blunt: “All ‘no politics’ means for these lowlifes is: boneheads welcome.” (“Fence-sitters” are skinheads and others who associate with both racists and anti-racists, either refusing to make their own stance clear on the matter or alternating their views; “boneheads” are Nazi skinheads.) See “Sleeping With the Enemy: Condemned 84’s Affair with the Extreme Right,” May 23, 2013, https://condemned84.wordpress.com/2013/05/23/sleeping-with-the-enemy-condemned-84s-affair-with-the-extreme-right/; “Légitime Violence Interview with Russian neo-Nazi,” June 11, 2013, https://condemned84.wordpress.com/2013/06/11/legitime-violence-in-their-own-words/.

9. For an overview of the Nazi skinhead movement, see “Racist Skinheads: Understanding the Threat,” http://www.splcenter.org/get-informed/publications/skinheads-in-america-racists-on-the-rampage.

10. For examples, see, respectively: Rose City Antifa facebook post on the Cascadia Rising Bioregional Confluence, April 9, 2014, https://www.facebook.com/rose.cityantifa.3/posts/1484366921779755; Sasha, “The New Face of the Radical Right?,” April 29, 2014, http://earthfirstjournal.org/newswire/2014/04/29/the-new-face-of-the-radical-right/; One Peoples Project, “Brooklyn Show Next Weekend Sparking Concerns,” August 24, 2014, http://www.onepeoplesproject.com/index.php/arts-culture/hate-music/1449-brooklyn-show-next-weekend-sparking-concerns; “NATA Unwanted at Anarchist Bookfair, 4/20 Conference, or seemingly anywhere else,” April 8, 2013, http://nycantifa.wordpress.com/2013/04/08/nata-unwanted-at-anarchist-bookfair-420-conference-or-seemingly-anywhere-else/; @ndy, “When White nationalists attack! New Right @ Gaza solidarity rally, Sydney, November 24,” December 7, 2012, http://slackbastard.anarchobase.com/?p=33191.

11. See for example, Tiffany Willis, “This Biracial Woman Confronts A Klansman. He Tells Her ‘I’m Not Racist’ (VIDEO),” June 23, 2014, http://www.liberalamerica.org/2014/06/23/this-biracial-woman-confronts-a-klansman-he-tells-her-im-not-racist-video/.

12. Rachel Tabachnick and Frank L. Cocozzelli, “Nullification, Neo-Confederates, and the Revenge of the Old Right,” Public Eye, Fall 2013, 2–8, posted online November 22, 2013, http://www.politicalresearch.org/2013/11/22/nullification-neo-confederates-and-the-revenge-of-the-old-right/.

13. Many scholars consider “White separatism” to be either synonymous with or a subset of “White supremacy.” However, a return to White supremacy—as practiced by Nazi Germany, apartheid South Africa, or the Jim Crow South—was abandoned by many hardline U.S. racist groups, even self-proclaimed Nazis, decades ago; for most of them, their new goal is racial separatism (although the exact details vary). During the 1980s and 1990s, when openly racist groups like White Aryan Nations (WAR) and the Aryan Nations called for a separate White state, referring to them as White supremacist was less complicated, partly because of their vicious, derogatory views of people of color and Jews, and open Nazi references. However, the concept of White separatism has continued to evolve and expand out of the traditional racist White Right, and now groups are endorsing the notion for others without necessarily promoting it as their own central political goal. Using the term “White supremacist” to label a multi-racial group that endorses White separatism is a complicated affair—and one not likely to be easily understood by progressive activists who are unfamiliar with the more recent twists-and-turns of the Far Right. Therefore, it is time to reexamine the simple conflation of White supremacy and White separatism.

For the transition from White supremacy to White separatism, see Betty A. Dobratz and Stephanie L. Shanks-Meile “White Power, White Pride!” The White Separatist Movement in the United States (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1997). See also

Mattias Gardell, Gods of the Blood: The Pagan Revival and White Separatism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003).

14. For National Anarchism, see Sunshine, “Rebranding Fascism”; for Attack the System, see Matthew N. Lyons,  “Rising Above the Herd: Keith Preston’s Authoritarian Anti-Statism,” New Politics, April 29, 2011, http://newpol.org/content/rising-above-herd-keith-prestons-authoritarian-anti-statism; for New Resistance, see “Neo-Nazi Leader James Porrazzo Mixes Racism with Leftist Ideology,” Intelligence Report,  no. 148, Winter 2012, http://www.splcenter.org/get-informed/intelligence-report/browse-all-issues/2012/winter/the-fourth-position.

15. While this may seem like an oxymoron to many readers, it should be remembered that Adolf Hitler’s Nazi party was mostly fixated on killing and persecuting other Europeans (such as Ashkenazi Jews, Romani and Sinti, and Slavs), in addition to leftists, disabled people, and queer folks—many of the latter sharing the same Aryan background as their perpetrators. In sharp contrast to the positions of U.S. neo-Nazis, Black people did not loom large in the original German Nazis’ imagination.

In fact, the Nazis sought alliances in Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America. One otherwise traditional U.S. neo-Nazi group, Rocky J. Suhayda’s American Nazi Party, uses this fact to actively solicit the financial support of sympathetic people of color; see Southside Chicago Anti-Racist Action, “Infiltrated: The American Nazi Party In Illinois,” April 20, 2013, http://southsideantifa.blogspot.com/2013/04/infiltrated-american-nazi-party-in.html.

There is growing documentation regarding the profusion of neo-Nazi groups in Latin America and Asia. For Brazil, see Cnaan Liphshiz, “Brazil thwarts neo-Nazi bomb plot,” May 24, 2009, Haaretz, http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/news/brazil-thwarts-neo-nazi-bomb-plot-1.276586; for Chile, Colombia, and elsewhere in Central and South America, see Javier Duque, “Neo-Nazism in Latin America,” June 24, 2012, http://www.theprisma.co.uk/2012/06/24/the-nazi-shadow-in-latin-america/; for Mexico, see Elizabeth Rosales, “Youth Neo-Nazi Group in Mexico,” June 30 2014, http://www.sandiegored.com/noticias/54669/Youth-Neo-Nazi-Group-in-Mexico/; for Mongolia, see Tania Branigan, “Mongolian neo-Nazis: Anti-Chinese sentiment fuels rise of ultra-nationalism,” Guardian, August 2, 2010, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/aug/02/mongolia-far-right; for Malaysia, see Nick Chester, “Meet the Malaysian Neo-Nazis Fighting for a Pure Malay Race,” Vice, May 18, 2013, http://www.vice.com/read/the-malaysian-nazis-fighting-for-a-pure-race.

One Center for New Community article describes two New York City bands associated with the RAC scene as “nationalist supporters of the Colombian death squads. They also have strong ties with a variety of neo-Nazi groups both in the United States and in Latin America, including Tercera Fuerza in Columbia, a neo-Nazi paramilitary organization.” See MJ Olahafa, “Neo Nazi Show Cancelled in NYC,” October 8, 2010, http://imagine2050.newcomm.org/2010/10/08/neo-nazi-show-cancelled-in-nyc/.

Like all philosophies, National Socialism can be reinterpreted and appropriated by people of different backgrounds. Therefore the mere fact that activists are not White does not mean that they cannot be Nazis: after all, racist ultra-nationalists come in all backgrounds, whether or not they appropriate Nazi aesthetics and narratives.

16. On NOI’s connection to the Ku Klux Klan, the American Nazi Party, and Tom Metzger, see Martin A. Lee, “American Black Muslims, Neo-Nazis, Foreign Muslim Extremists Join Forces,” Intelligence Report, no. 105, Spring 2002, http://www.splcenter.org/get-informed/intelligence-report/browse-all-issues/2002/spring/the-swastika-and-the-crescent/strange; on Malcolm X, see his 1965 speech “There’s a worldwide revolution going on,” in Bruce Perry, ed., Malcolm X: The Last Speeches (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1989), 119­­–26.

Metzger attended a NBPP rally in 1993, and an undated online video shows him giving a speech to the group, in which he recounts the history of cooperation between Black and White racial separatists. See “The New Black Panther Party is Unlike its Namesake of the 1960s,” Intelligence Report, no. 100, Fall 2000, http://www.splcenter.org/get-informed/intelligence-report/browse-all-issues/2000/fall/snarling-at-the-white-man, and “Tom Metzger Addresses The New Black Panther Party,” uploaded July 4, 2009, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rZ5OHDJ_9FQ.

The Florida groups were the Pan-Afrikan International (PAIN) and John Baumgardner’s local Klan outfit. See Kirsten Gallagher, “2 Opposites Attract To Seek ‘Separatism,’” Orlando Sentinel, March 30, 1992, http://articles.orlandosentinel.com/1992-03-30/news/9203300164_1_ku-klux-klan-descendants-of-african; see also Gardell, Gods of the Blood, 115–17.

17. One recent example shows how complex this situation sometimes is: a Native American man who is a member of Attack the System (a pro-White separatist pan-secessionist group) was uninvited from speaking at a bioregionalism conference in Portland, Oregon. However, this disinvitation only happened after an antifascist group—that had been asked to present at the same conference about (White) White separatists attempting to participate in bioregionalist movements—refused to speak alongside him. (His support for Native American self-determination was not at issue; his support for White separatist views was.) See Rose City Antifa, Facebook post.

Similarly, a handful of people of color also belong to National-Anarchist groups—a movement which was created as an explicitly “entryist” tactic to spread a fascist, White separatist ideology inside progressive circles, but which has recently has been moving closer to a pan-secessionist position. (Entryism is the strategy of entering other political groups in order to either take them over or break off with a part of their membership. There can be a fine line, however, between intentional entryism and an existing member of group being converted to a new ideology.) All together, the result is that today we are confronted with people of color trying to inject into progressive circles the same core values that 1980s and 1990s U.S. neo-Nazis held: a commitment to White racial separatism and antisemitic narratives, including Holocaust Denial.

Ideas that uphold systemic oppression and racial privilege should be rejected, no matter the identity of the person espousing them. Advocates of oppression can be found among all groups of people.

18. It should be noted that many contemporary conspiracy theories—such as some about the Federal Reserve and the Bilderbergs—have origins mixed up in antisemitic theories, but no longer identify either Jews or a subset of Jews as the active agents of the conspiracy. Therefore, care must be taken in distinguishing between a coded antisemitic theory and one that has moved far enough away from this thinking to be no longer considered as such—even though it may still be legitimately criticized on political grounds as flawed. For permutations of antisemitic conspiracy theories, see Chip Berlet and Matthew N. Lyons, Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort (New York: Guilford Press, 2000), 192-96.

19. “Former ELF/Green Scare Prisoner ‘Exile’ Now a Fascist,” August 5, 2014, http://nycantifa.wordpress.com/2014/08/05/exile-is-a-fascist/.

20.  See Kevin Carey, “Too Weird for The Wire: How black Baltimore drug dealers are using white supremacist legal theories to confound the Feds,” Washington Monthly, May/June/July 2008, http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2008/0805.carey.html.

21. For background on the Pacifica Forum, see CJ Ciaramella, “University to address Pacifica controversy,” Daily Emerald, January 8, 2010, http://dailyemerald.com/2010/01/08/university-to-address-pacifica-controversy/; for its involvement in the Occupy movement, see Spencer Sunshine, “20 On the Right in Occupy,” February 13, 2014, http://www.politicalresearch.org/2014/02/13/20-on-the-right-in-occupy/; for the bookstore incident, see “Rose City Antifa: Statement on Anti-Semites and their Collaborators,” June 25, 2009, http://portland.indymedia.org/en/2009/06/392268.shtml; for the co-op board, see “Confronting Bigotry in Our Movement: A Call for Reflection and Support,” https://www.scribd.com/doc/109889899/Confronting-Bigotry-in-Our-Movement.

22. Alison Weir, see Spencer Sunshine, “Campus Profile—Alison Weir: If Americans Knew,” http://www.politicalresearch.org/campus-profile-alison-weir-if-americans-knew/; this is a section from Chip Berlet, Debra Cash, and Maria Planansky, eds., Constructing Campus Conflict: Antisemitism and Islamophobia on U.S. College Campuses 2007–2011 (Boston: Political Research Associates, 2014), http://www.politicalresearch.org/resources/reports/; on Shamir, see Will Yakowicz, “His Jewish Problem,” Tablet, May 16, 2011, http://tabletmag.com/jewish-news-and-politics/67305/his-jewish-problem; on Atzmon, see “Not Quite ‘Ordinary Human Beings’—Anti-imperialism and the anti-humanist rhetoric of Gilad Atzmon,” http://threewayfight.blogspot.com/p/atzmon-critique_09.html; on the Left-wing press, see “Zero Authors’ Statement on Gilad Atzmon,” Lenin’s Tomb, September 26, 2011, http://www.leninology.co.uk/2011/09/zero-authors-statement-on-gilad-atzmon.html.

23. “Derek Black Email to Mark Potok, July 15, 2013,” http://www.splcenter.org/blog/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/Derek-Black-letter-to-Mark-Potok-Hatewtach.pdf. His letter is worth quoting:

“I acknowledge that things I have said as well as my actions have been harmful to people of color, people of Jewish descent, activists striving for opportunity and fairness for all, and others affected. It was not my intention then, and I will not contribute to any cause that perpetuates this harm in the future. Advocating for redress of the supposed oppression of whites in the West is by its nature damaging to all others because of the privileged position of white people in these societies. … It is impossible to argue rationally that in our society, with its overwhelming disparity between white power and that of everyone else, racial equity programs intended to affect the deep-rooted situation represent oppression of whites. … I do not believe advocacy against ‘oppression of whites’ exists in any form but an entrenched desire to preserve white power at the expense of others. I am sorry for the damage done by my actions and my past endorsement of white nationalism.”

Religious Right Rolls Out the Red Carpet for Netanyahu

The night before addressing a joint session of Congress—a controversial event that has garnered a great deal of attention from both the Left and the Right—Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke to an estimated crowd of 16,000 people at the annual policy conference of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) declaring, “For 2,000 years, my people, the Jewish people, were stateless, defenseless, voiceless… [T]oday, we are no longer silent; today, we have a voice. And tomorrow, as prime minister of the one and only Jewish state, I plan to use that voice.”

With U.S. foreign aid to Israel surpassing $3 billion last year (more aid than any other country in the world receives), it should be obvious that many of the key players invested in protecting and expanding Israel’s statehood are here in the United States. What might be surprising is that the majority of pro-Israel Americans aren’t Jewish. In fact, many of them could even be described as anti-Jewish.

Christian Zionism flags

A Pew Research Center study published in October 2013 revealed that the Christian Zionist perspective has especially widespread acceptance among American evangelicals, with roughly 82% of White evangelicals subscribing to the belief that God gave the land of Israel to the Jewish people. By contrast, only 40% of American Jews believe the same. How and why did this come to be?

AIPAC has long been seen as the primary voice for Israeli interests on Capitol Hill, but they are not alone. In 2006, John Hagee, pastor of Cornerstone Church—a megachurch based in San Antonio, Texas, founded Christians United for Israel (CUFI), which now claims to be the largest pro-Israel organization in the country. CUFI has been described as the “Gentile arm” of AIPAC, but many argue that Christian Zionists like Hagee actually function as the more powerful element of the pro-Israel lobby. (Following Israel’s “Operation Protective Edge“ offensive against Gaza last summer,, which claimed the lives of over 2,100 Palestinians and approximately 75 Israelis, Netanyahu said, “I consider CUFI to be a vital part of Israel’s national security.”)

Hagee’s commitment to Israel began in 1978, when he first visited there as a tourist. As he explains it, “I went to Israel as a tourist and came back a Zionist.” This conversion experience catalyzed the launch of the first “Night to Honor Israel” event in San Antonio in 1982. On average, CUFI currently stages 40 “Night to Honor Israel” events every month in cities across the country. While CUFI’s financials are exempt from public disclosure due to the organization’s classification as a church, it’s reported that since 1981 these events have raised almost $80 million for the express purpose of supporting Israel.

Evangelical support for Israel has a long history, but Israel’s link to the U.S. Religious Right can be traced back to 1978, when then Prime Minister Menachem Begin began cultivating a relationship with famed U.S. conservative evangelist Jerry Falwell, who made his first official trip to Israel at Begin’s invitation. The following year, in 1979, Begin’s government gifted Falwell with a Learjet to assist in his advocacy efforts on behalf of Israel. That same year, Falwell launched the Moral Majority, an organization that would finally succeed in asserting the Christian Right as a dominant voice in U.S. politics, forever altering the political landscape of America.

Seeking to expand Israel’s ties to this emerging hub of political power, in the early 1980s, Israel’s Ministry of Tourism began recruiting U.S. evangelical religious leaders for free “familiarization” tours (something like a birthright trip for Christians). These trips essentially functioned like a pro-Israel phone tree; participants on the familiarization tours were equipped with the knowledge and tools to later lead their own tours, thus creating opportunities for more and more Christians to visit—and become supporters of—Israel. The result was an increase in tourism dollars and, more importantly, a growing corps of non-Jewish Israel supporters in the United States.

This form of pro-Israel evangelism continues:

  • Last summer, the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) initiated a “Christians in Solidarity with Israel” trip to “stand in support of the nation’s right to defend itself from those who would deny their right to exist.”
  • In August 2014, CUFI coordinated a group of 51 pastors—one from each state and the District of Columbia—on a tour of Israel, during which they met with senior Israeli officials and donated blood to “help the wounded.”
  • Last month, the American Family Association—classified a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center—hosted an all-expense paid trip for members of the Republican National Committee.
  • Later this year, the right-wing Family Research Council is coordinating its first trip to Israel. Participants—who will be joined by FRC President Tony Perkins, former Senator Rick Santorum, and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal—will have the opportunity to “build strategic relationships with political and spiritual leaders in Israel” and “gain a better understanding of Israel’s important role in today’s geopolitical affairs.”
  • Liberty Counsel—a legal organization dedicated to “advancing religious freedom, the sanctity of human life, and the family”—merged with Christians in Defense of Israel last year, and will be facilitating its own tour of Israel in May, which will include “briefings by Israeli government, military, business, and academic leaders.”

Leaders of these trips largely subscribe to a version of Christian Zionism that promotes activism attempting to hasten the second coming of Jesus, and helping Jews along with the role they are supposed to play in the drama of the End Times. As PRA fellow Rachel Tabachnick recently explained:

“In recent decades, leaders embracing Dominion Theology have often rejected Christian Zionism, but some Charismatic Christians have embraced a different form of dominionism that couples aggressive Christian triumphalism with “pro-Israel” activism. In this hybrid narrative, Jews must be converted (particularly in Israel) to bring about Jesus’ kingdom on earth.”

Despite its antisemitic undertones, Israel’s government recognizes that it benefits greatly from right-wing evangelical ties to American political leadership (the vast majority of whom are Christian). Additionally, Israel wants to protect its multibillion dollar tourism industry—a large portion of which is provided by Christian pilgrimages facilitated by American Right Wing leaders.

Those same leaders are celebrating Netanyahu’s visit this week, and threatening against any resistance to their agenda. Last month, John Hagee issued this warning: “I am a student of world history, and you can wrap up world history in 25 words or less and here it is: the nations that blessed Israel prospered and the nations that cursed Israel were destroyed by the hand of God. … If America turns its back on Israel, God will turn his back on America.”

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While Fischer Takes the Blame, RNC Israel Trip Will Be Led By An Even More Influential Christian Nationalist

Much has been made of RNC chairman Reince Priebus and 60 members of the Republican National Committee taking a trip to Israel under the sponsorship of the SPLC-certified hate group American Family Association (AFA). But while AFA has tried to minimalize the controversy by firing Director of Issue Analysis Bryan Fischer (although he’ll continue hosting their radio program), the right-wing operative actually hosting the trip is a less known, but much more significant player.

This duplicity of those on the Right known for loudly declaring their love for Israel in an effort to inoculate their activism from charges of Christian supremacism has become increasingly transparent thanks to the RNC’s trip. Waving Israeli flags at rallies may no longer be enough to camouflage an agenda that attacks the rights of American Jews and those of other faiths

The host of the RNC’s trip, and the man we should be more concerned about, is David Lane, head of the American Renewal Project at the AFA. While Bryan Fischer has received most of the public notoriety for declaring that only Christians should have free exercise of religion and that immigrants should be forced to convert to Christianity, David Lane’s work has successfully flown under the radar—until now.

Christian Right political operative David Lane

Christian Right political operative David Lane

David Lane: Wage War to Restore a Christian America

Lane just finished up his duties organizing The Response in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, a religio-political rally headlined by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) and funded by AFA.  Lane, a self-declared political operative, has mostly stayed out of the limelight for the last decade, while hosting over 10,000 pastors in more than 10 states encouraging pastors to run for office, known as “Pastors’ Policy Briefings” or “Pastors and Pews.”  These briefings are often held over a couple of days in luxury hotels, with all-expenses-paid for pastors and their spouses, and have featured numerous politicians. For example, one event last year in Iowa featured Texas Senator Ted Cruz (R) (and his father) and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul (R), and was also attended by billionaire brothers Dan and Farris Wilks. Another Iowa event on the schedule for this coming March will include Jindal and Cruz.

As noted by PRA Fellow Frederick Clarkson, Lane’s rhetoric has become increasingly militant. An article by Lane later removed from the WorldNetDaily website was titled “Wage War to Restore a Christian America.”

As to the future of America – and the collapse of this once-Christian nation – Christians must not only be allowed to have opinions, but politically, Christians must be retrained to war for the Soul of America and quit believing the fabricated whopper of the “Separation of Church and State,” the lie repeated ad nauseum by the left and liberals to keep Christian America – the moral majority – from imposing moral government on pagan public schools, pagan higher learning and pagan media.

Lane frequently quotes Christian Reconstructionist Peter Leithart’s call for Christian martyrs, and says“Christianity has always been persecuted beginning in Acts 4 and throughout 2000 years of history.” According to Lane, the only exception is in the U.S., where Christians have had religious and civil liberty for about 200 years, but he adds that Christian America is now in ruins, “destroyed by liberal secularists.”  He equates the supposed failure of Christian America to fight back against secularism with the failure of the church of Germany to fight back against the rising Nazi party.

Gene Mills, head of the Tony Perkins-founded Louisiana Family Forum, presents Governor Bobby Jindal with the "Gladiator Award"

Gene Mills, head of the Tony Perkins-founded Louisiana Family Forum, presents Governor Bobby Jindal with the “Gladiator Award”

Events organized by Lane have also featured calls for like-minded Christians to “take back” government and society.  One of the organizers of The Response in LA was Gene Mills, head of the Tony Perkins-founded Louisiana Family Forum.  During his speech, Mills challenged the audience to take back the “seven mountains” from “enemy occupation.” This is a reference to a campaign marketed internationally for like-minded Christians to take control over society by taking dominion over arts and entertainment, business, education, family, government, media, and religion.  Mills presents annual awards each year to politicians who support the organization’s agenda, a number that he says has quadrupled during his tenure.  This past year he awarded the sword for the “Gladiator Award” to Gov. Jindal.

A Christian Nationalist Rewriting of History

AFA’s Bryan Fischer, at the heart of the RNC trip controversy, is known for his virulent homophobia. In Fischer’s version of Nazi history, Adoph Hitler himself was an active homosexual, who recruited other homosexuals.  Therefore, in his version of history, homosexuals were not victims but the villains of the Holocaust.

Lane has taken politicians to Israel, including former Texas Governor Rick Perry (R) and Rand Paul, and is credited with helping the latter improve his credentials with evangelicals.  This past November, Lane hosted a group of “political and faith leaders” on a trip to Europe, including former Arkansas Governor and Fox News personality Mike Huckabee, as well as pastors from Iowa and South Carolina. The trip was dubbed “The Journey: A Spiritual Awakening,” and the itinerary included sites related to the lives of Pope John Paul II, Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher, and concluded at the Ronald Reagan Library.

Also on the trip was Floyd Brown, founder of Citizens United and the political operative behind the infamous Willie Horton ad and the ExposeObama website. Brown wrote about the trip in an article titled “Huckabee Declaring Holy War?,” and quotes Huckabee as calling for resistance against tyranny.  But the tyranny they claim to be fighting is that of President Obama’s administration and the “cultural Marxism” that Lane believes is part of a communist plot to indoctrinate Americans.

Stops at Auschwitz and Birkenau were also included, but they were spun by Lane and Huckabee and (as well as in coverage of the trip by conservative media) as a warning to rise up against encroaching threats in America.  An article in the Christian Post about the trip equated the actions of the Nazis with America today, saying, “The comparison to America could not be more blantant. The article quoted Austrian-born Kitty Werthmann, president of the North Dakota chapter of the Eagle Forum, the anti-ERA organization founded by Phyllis Schlafly, who gives speeches based on her claimed experiences in Nazi-occupied Austria and portraying Hitler as a leftist who abolished free enterprise and insisted on “equal rights for women”

Inoculating Christian Nationalism with Christian Zionism


Many Christians feel affinity with the Holy Land and the state of Israel, but Christian Zionism refers to activism attempting to hasten the second coming of Jesus, and helping Jews along with the role they are supposed to play in the drama of the end times. In recent decades, leaders embracing Dominion Theology have often rejected Christian Zionism, but some Charismatic Christians have embraced a different form of dominionism that couples aggressive Christian triumphalism with “pro-Israel” activism. In this hybrid narrative, Jews must be converted (particularly in Israel) to bring about Jesus’ kingdom on earth.

Although this brand of Charismatic dominionism is sweeping the globe like wildfire, many Jewish leaders either remain unaware of its agenda, or are hesitant to criticize the religious bigotry of those labelled pro-Israel.  The Israeli flag waving, shofar blowing, and Messianic music are sometimes mistaken as affection, when these are actually expressions of Christian triumphalism and a strategy to build Messianic congregations and communities. (Messianics are Jews who convert to Christianity but retain trappings of Judaism and a Jewish identity.)

This coupling of Christian nationalism with pro-Zionist activism is most visible among the modern-day “apostles” of the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR), many of whom helped David Lane organize, market, and lead The Response prayer rallies headlined by Rick Perry in 2011 and Bobby Jindal last week.  At both of these events, a designated “prayer for Israel” segment of the program included overt calls for the conversion of Jews.  At the Perry event in 2011, the call was made by Apostle Don Finto and Marty Waldman, rabbi of one of the nation’s largest Messianic congregations.  Finto is known for his role in promoting the “Israel Mandate” directing Christians to support Messianics.

The leader of the afternoon segment of Perry’s 2011 all-day prayer rally was Mike Bickle, head of the International House of Prayer (IHOP) in Kansas City, an international youth-oriented ministry that also prioritizes the Israel Mandate.  The Response events were patterned after, and incorporated leaders from, TheCall, a tax-affiliated ministry of IHOP led by Lou Engle. TheCall holds large-venue events around the world that include prayers for conversion of Jews, including TheCall Jerusalem in 2008.

At David Lane’s prayer rally last weekend, the Prayer For Israel speakers included Rosemary Schindler, a distant relative of Oskar Schindler and a prominent speaker among Christian Zionists and Messianics. Last year, Rosemary married Jim Garlow, a pastor who organized support for California’s Proposition 8. Another speaker at Lane’s rally shouted, “We declare as a united body, revival in the land of Israel in the name of Jesus!”  (Garlow also spoke at both Perry and Jindal’s rally.)

This shift in theology has resulted in ugly undertones of religious bigotry among people who claim to love Israel, and a new acceptability in evangelizing Jews.  For example, the Messianic Jewish Bible Institute (MJBI), led primarily by NAR apostles and Messianics (including Rabbi Marty Waldman), featured Glenn Beck in 2012 at their annual gala and fundraiser. The following year the event featured former President George W. Bush.

The RNC’s trip with Lane will be accompanied by popular Messianic writer Joel Rosenberg, who also calls for the evangelization of Jews and has recently immigrated to Israel.  The Haaretz article also quoted David Lane from a past interview with Glenn Beck saying “Restoring America to our Judeo-Christian heritage and re-establishing a Christian culture is the only way that we get out of where we are.”

Haaretz published an op-ed I wrote in August, 2011, when Glenn Beck was hosting events in Israel.  Beck had already alienated many American Jews with the promotion of virulently anti-Semitic writers and an attack on George Soros using anti-Semitic memes. His anti-Semitic words caused a protest from 400 rabbis, representing all four branches of Judaism. In the op-ed, I warned that Beck’s embrace by Israeli leaders would be further indication to Americans that support for Israel is linked to an extremist political agenda in the United States—one that threatens to further alienate both Jews and Christians, Democrats and Republicans.  Likewise, Reince Priebus and the RNC’s trip with David Lane risk further alienating not only American Jews, but all Americans who value religious pluralism and the separation of church and state.

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Opening Pandora’s Box: The Rise & Fall of the Right’s School Voucher Pioneer

Click here for the full issue.

Click here for the full issue.

Polly Williams, the Wisconsin African American lawmaker behind the nation’s first school voucher program, believed vouchers could help students of color in urban Milwaukee. Conservative donors and right-wing think tanks saw her program as opening the door to the privatization of public education. Education reform has come to mean different things to different people: from improving public education to privatizing it out of existence.

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

Polly Williams, the “mother of school choice,” passed away on November 9, 2014.  The moniker dates back to the late 1980s, when Williams broke ranks with her fellow African American and Democratic state legislators to partner with conservatives on Milwaukee’s school voucher program, the first of its kind in the nation.1  The Milwaukee voucher program was signed into law in 1990 by Republican Governor Tommy Thompson.2 A quarter-century later, conservative pro-privatization funders and advocates continue to advance their free-market agenda as if it is the salvation of the nation’s most underserved students. Vouchers, once stigmatized by their use in fighting integration of schools, are being marketed as the vehicle of a “New Civil Rights Movement.”

Polly Williams became an instant celebrity within the conservative-dominated world of school vouchers, although she did not share their privatization agenda. Williams supported a limited program targeting the city’s poorest families, sometimes referred to as “charity vouchers” or compensatory vouchers3 by her conservative allies. Those allies saw an opportunity to use urban students of color as a wedge to break down the alliances defending public education. They also viewed it as an opening that could be expanded over time to employ “universal vouchers”, or vouchers for students of families in all income brackets, and ultimately the privatization of public education.

Young students in Philadelphia in 2011 demonstrate support for privatization programs. Image via Pennlive.com. Photo used with the permission of PA Media Group 2011. All rights reserved.

Young students in Philadelphia in 2011 demonstrate support for privatization programs. Image via Pennlive.com. Photo used with the permission of PA Media Group ©2011. All rights reserved.

But by the late 1990s, Williams had been pushed aside, just as she feared that students of color from low-income families would be pushed aside by the diverging agenda of her White conservative partners. Within a few years, Williams was ridiculed by her former allies, described as “irrelevant” and no longer useful.

Nevertheless, upon her death, the school privatization leaders and organizations reclaimed her—memorializing her for her role as a pioneer while omitting her later disillusionment with the movement.

Williams’ alienation from the movement she helped birth offers a cautionary tale for those who believe that vouchers, tuition tax credits for private schools—or even quasi-public charter schools—may offer a magic bullet to equitable education for underserved urban children.

Whose interests are served?

In 1995, Milton Friedman, an economist and the intellectual dean of the school privatization movement, stated, “Vouchers are not an end in themselves; they are a means to make a transition from a government to a market system.”  School privatization’s “New Civil Rights” theme appears to be little more than a public relations campaign that camouflages this shift.  Privatization advocates and their funders have appropriated the language of civil rights and use the dissatisfaction of underserved communities to promote the marketization of public education, an agenda that promises to leave many students of color behind.

Our nation has “consistently and purposefully underserved students of color,” notes Julian Vasquez Heilig, Professor of Educational Policy and Planning at University of Texas-Austin, in a 2013 Texas Education Review article on the current reframing of school choice as a civil rights issue.4 Heilig adds that the school choice movement depends heavily on African American and Latino leaders such as Williams. Janelle Scott, a professor in the graduate school of education and the African American Studies Department at the University of California-Berkeley, writes in Critical Studies in Education about the tension between exposing the drivers of privatization while simultaneously understanding the limited options of underserved urban families:

In raising questions about the lack of commitment to eradicating structural inequalities by the managers of choice, I do not denigrate the individual choices parents of color are making for their children within the policy framework largely dictated by an elite invested in privatizing public education … What is important is to illuminate the elite networks that are funding and paving the way for educational policy to be radically altered along business models.5

The neoliberal privatization movement has presented “choice” as a civil rights effort—and as the only option for changing the status quo for these historically underserved students of color. It does so despite the preponderance of evidence that, as the authors of one educational study from 2002 wrote, “school choice, on average, does not produce the equity and social justice that proponents spin.”6

From the time of desegregation forward, disillusionment with integration and the failure to improve education in many urban communities led to the development of “independent black schools.”  These were neighborhood private schools owned and operated by African Americans, often run on shoestring budgets, and often featuring Afrocentric or multicultural curricula.  In 1984, Dr. Joan Davis Ratteray founded the Institute for Independent Education to organize these schools, which numbered almost 300 by 1990 and were attended primarily by the children of Black middle-class parents.

Polly Williams sent her children to one of Milwaukee’s independent, nonsectarian, Black private schools.  Hoping to expand access for poor students whose parents could not afford the tuition, Williams advocated for a voucher program that would be limited to the lowest income families and to nonsectarian schools. She was, from the outset, concerned that raising income caps and including religious schools within voucher programs would again leave behind the poorest students.

Yet once Williams opened the door, the juggernaut of privatization began to roll through—a movement that blames teachers and teachers’ unions for low educational outcomes of students in underserved schools and fails to address (or even rejects) the role of structural inequalities in these same communities.

Ratteray was also a school choice supporter, and wrote a rousing op-ed in the New York Times supporting it. However, as the experiment in Milwaukee came to fruition, Ratteray grew wary of vouchers as an economic incentive. She described the existing independent Black schools as being the result of a social need, not a business venture.  “If you put on it this idea that each kid will bring a certain amount of money, it will change that,” Ratteray warned.7 Her words proved prophetic.

“School choices” or opportunities for profit

The term “school choice” encompasses a broad range of programs, from charter schools to vouchers.  The more accurate term, “private school choice,” refers to programs that use public funding to pay or subsidize tuition for private school students.  “Public school choice,” meanwhile, includes a variety of programs that allow students to attend schools outside their assigned district, magnet schools, and charter schools, the single most rapidly expanding sector of choice. (Charters are technically public but are independently operated, sometimes by for-profit corporations, and are exempt from many state and local regulations. See related sidebar, “Monetizing Charter Schools.”)

In the category of “private school choice,” there are now approximately 40 programs in 19 states, plus Washington, DC, and state legislatures are continuing to introduce bills for new or expanded programs.  Advocates claim there is great public demand, despite the fact that a 2013 Gallup poll indicated that opposition to the use of public funds for private schools is at 70%, its highest level ever recorded in that survey.8

What’s more, as documentation accumulates showing that vouchers have failed to improve education outcomes, privatization advocates increasingly point to the budget savings that these programs supposedly provide.9

In addition to vouchers, the category of private school choice now includes tuition tax credit programs, a legislative maneuver that lets business redirect taxes owed to the state toward “scholarships” for student tuition at private and religious schools. These tax credit programs, sometimes referred to as “neovouchers” or back-door vouchers, have received less public scrutiny than vouchers, even as they currently comprise the largest private school choice programs in numbers of students. (See related sidebar on tax credit programs.)

School choice’s segregationist roots

Before African American and Latino children became the focus of a multi-million dollar, pro-privatization public relations campaign, vouchers had a distinctly racist heritage. As author Kevin Kruse explains in White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism, vouchers were part of a deliberate strategy in the 1950s and 1960s to circumvent school desegregation: “In the event of court-ordered desegregation, school buildings would be closed, and students would instead receive grants to attend private, segregated schools.”10

“Massive Resistance” was the name adopted by the united effort of White leaders and politicians to prevent desegregation. “Freedom-of-choice” plans were used in several states to perpetuate segregation, as they allowed students to “choose” their school while, in effect, retaining segregated Black and White schools.11

Some locations followed through with their threats to close public schools.  Prince Edward County, in Virginia, closed down its entire public school system from 1959 to 1964. Prince Edward only reopened integrated schools following the Supreme Court’s 1964 ruling in Griffin v. County School Board of Prince Edward County that Virginia’s tuition grants for sending white students to private schools were unconstitutional.12

The privatization agenda was birthed by segregationists in the 1950s, but it was kept alive in subsequent decades by Milton Friedman and sustained by wealthy conservative donors (and the infrastructure built with their dollars).  School privatization became a key part of the “devolution” of government, advocated by conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, Manhattan Institute, Cato Institute, Heartland Institute, and the 50-state network of self-described “free market” think tanks coordinated through the State Policy Network.13 The names of the major funders of school choice, including the Bradley Foundation and the DeVos and Walton families, should automatically raise red flags for progressives.

“In retrospect, it seems strange that so many liberals bought an idea that emanated from conservative think tanks and conservative thinkers,” education scholar and anti-privatization activist Diane Ravitch wrote.14

Williams’ “unholy alliance”

Annette “Polly” Williams was elected to the Wisconsin State Assembly in 1980 and served until 2010.  She also ran the 1984 and 1988 Wisconsin statewide campaigns for Rev. Jesse Jackson’s presidential bid. In the late 1980s, despite intense objections from her fellow Democratic legislators and organizations such as the NAACP, Williams joined forces with conservatives to push through the nation’s first voucher program.

What Are Tuition Tax Credit Programs?

Tuition tax credit programs, sometimes called neovouchers, are “private school choice” programs.1 Individuals or corporations receive credit against their state taxes for funding “scholarships” used to pay private school tuition (or to attend a public school outside the student’s district). The largest corporate tax credit program in dollars and in numbers of students is in Florida, where companies can receive a 100% credit against their state taxes for the amount given to the nonprofits, which distribute the tuition funds.

Businesses are often lauded in local papers for their “donations,” but these contributions cost the company nothing in states with a 100% credit, and very little or nothing in states like Pennsylvania, where a company is credited 75% for a one-year and 90% for a two-year contribution (plus federal deduction). Claims of tax savings for states have largely been based on one 2008 Florida report in which key figures affecting the calculation were admitted to be guesses by the authoring agency.2

Most of the 14 states with tax credit programs do not require the participating schools to administer standardized tests or adhere to requirements on curriculum and teacher qualifications. The majority of these students attend religious schools (currently 81.5% in Florida). While many of these schools are excellent, a significant percentage use Christian fundamentalist curricula, (such as A Beka, Bob Jones University Press and other textbooks) that promote Young Earth creationism, hostility toward other religions, and revisionist history.

From the 1960s through the 1980s, activists and legislators proposed a variety of programs to provide public funding to Milwaukee’s independent Black private schools, some of which were in serious financial jeopardy.  Activists in the effort were largely liberal until the 1980s and 1990s, when conservatives and religious leaders began to capitalize on the idea as a model that could open the door to a larger voucher program.

In addition to her Republican allies in the state legislature, Williams’ partnerships with conservatives included the Bradley Foundation and its former president Michael Joyce; former GOP Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson, a champion of conservative welfare reform; and George and Susan Mitchell, Wisconsin’s leading pro-voucher advocates. (Williams described these partnerships as an “unholy alliance” in an interview with the Heartland Institute, an interview in which she was also described as the “Rosa Parks of vouchers.”15)

In 1988, Gov. Thompson vetoed legislation to increase funding for the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) and provide additional teachers to reduce class size—but he included a voucher program proposal in his state budget. The Bradley Foundation provided research, polls, publications, and a legal defense of the voucher program.

In an effort to make the plan more palatable to Wisconsin legislators, Thompson reduced the scope of his statewide voucher plan for 1989 to include only non-sectarian schools in Milwaukee County. Thompson assured voucher advocates that once the bill passed, the program could be expanded.

Williams became the public face of the pro-voucher movement, speaking at such conservative bastions as the Heritage Foundation, Hoover Institute, and the California State Republican Convention. Yet as Williams went public with her concerns about the raising of income caps and universal vouchers, the conservative backlash mounted.

Polly Williams rejected Thompson’s plan, but she introduced a bill that would pass and be signed into law in April 1990: the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP). (Thompson even held a symbolic re-enactment of the signing in one of Milwaukee’s independent Black community schools.)

Virtually overnight, Williams became the public face of the pro-voucher movement, speaking at conservative bastions like the Heritage Foundation, Hoover Institute, and the California State Republican Convention. Williams also gave high-profile interviews, including one on 60 Minutes and one with Rep. Newt Gingrich’s GOPAC, which aired on the Christian Broadcast Network.16

In his book Freedom of Choice: Vouchers in American Education, author Jim Carl noted that there was a moment when it seemed that conservatives and liberals might converge in agreement on the concept of compensatory vouchers. Carl described it as a program “with attributes originally championed by left-liberal policy makers, free-school advocates, and community activists from the 1960s.”17 But, as Carl points out, “social conservatives of various stripes did not wish to stop at nonsectarian, compensatory vouchers.”18

Likewise, it would not be long before the agenda of Polly Williams and that of her conservative allies would diverge.

The alienation of Polly Williams

Of all the partners in the “unholy alliance,” Michael Joyce and the Bradley Foundation were among the most unlikely allies for the African American community.  The Bradley Foundation had been a longtime funder of author Charles Murray, including his book The Bell Curve and its discredited theory of Black intellectual inferiority. For decades, the Bradley Foundation has been at the epicenter of reactionary policies, including welfare reform, opposition to affirmative action, and claims that “moral poverty,” rather than structural inequity, is the source of social ills in poor urban communities.  The Bradley Foundation has also provided millions to the Heritage Foundation, Heartland Institute, Free Congress Foundation, and other conservative think tanks.19

In 1992, the Bradley Foundation collaborated with Partners Advancing Values in Education (PAVE), a nondenominational organization founded from the dissolution of the Milwaukee Archdiocesan Educational Foundation.20 Funded by Bradley and several Wisconsin businesses, the program provided vouchers for students, including those attending religious schools, and was designed to “ratchet support for expanding the publicly funded choice program.”21 To garner Protestant and Jewish support, the new program was not limited to Catholics.  In 1995, Gov. Thompson followed through with his plans to gradually extend the program, and by the 1998-99 school year, 70% of the students in the MPCP attended religious schools.22

Polly Williams speaks about school choice programs in Wisconsin in 1998. Photo by Meg Jones and courtesy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Polly Williams speaks about school choice programs in Wisconsin in 1998. Photo by Meg Jones and courtesy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Williams was also concerned about the raising of income caps for the voucher program, as this gradually shifted funding toward families who were already sending their children to private schools. She objected to universal vouchers, stating, “Eventually, low-income families would be weeded out due to the large volume of families wanting to participate.”23

In a 2002 interview, Williams explained the parameters under which she supported vouchers and which, by that time, had led to rifts with her former allies. Ironically, the interview was with George Clowes, senior fellow at Heartland Institute addressing education policy. Clowes later wrote a report for Heartland responding to the lack of improvement in educational outcomes in the Milwaukee voucher program and disillusionment of some school reformers. Referencing Milton Friedman, Clowes called for a shift from “charity vouchers” for needy students to universal vouchers.

Journalist Bruce Murphy, who published a 2001 article about Williams and her growing disillusionment with Milwaukee’s program, wrote that Williams understood school choice as an experiment. “Our intent was never to destroy the public schools,” Williams told Murphy.  Murphy, himself a former teacher and principal at one of Milwaukee’s independent Black private schools, describes the conservative strategy as a “two-fer”—an agenda to eliminate teachers’ unions and build the myth of school privatization as a cheaper education alternative.24

As Williams went public with her complaints, the conservative backlash mounted. From 1990 to 1997, Williams received speaking honorariums and expenses totaling $163,000, more than any other Wisconsin legislator.  By 2000, this figure had dropped to just $400.25

In 1998, Williams gave a frank interview for a chapter in The Politics of School Choice, co-written by a professor at Regent University. Williams expressed her concern that school choice was becoming a program for middle-class Whites who did not need public assistance:

The whites that promote Reverend Floyd Flake (school choice advocate in Jamaica, Queens, New York) are out to replace public education for their own children, not for blacks.  I have a black agenda for black parents.26

Michael Joyce, of the Bradley Foundation, had formerly claimed that “the Lord God” had led him to support Williams.27 By 2001, however, Joyce claimed that Williams had told him she didn’t much like White folks, and that she kept referring to school choice as “a Catholic movement.”28 Joyce added, “She was poised to be and could have been the leader of school choice.  But she stepped aside and Fuller became the leader.”

Fuller is Dr. Howard Fuller, who replaced Polly Williams as the African American standard-bearer for the movement. Fuller and Williams attended the same high school, and later shared concern about the future of underserved children in Milwaukee as well as their opposition to universal vouchers.

Fuller is a former superintendent of the Milwaukee Public Schools with a previous history as a Black nationalist. In 1969, using the name Owusu Sadukai, Fuller initiated Malcolm X Liberation University “as a way of providing Black students with a revolutionary alternative to mainstream Black colleges.”29

In 1995, Fuller became the director of the Bradley Foundation-funded Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University and founded the Black Alliance for Educational Options, also heavily funded by Bradley and by Walmart heir John Walton.30 Fuller continues today to serve as a major spokesperson for school choice and is currently on several boards, including the Milwaukee Region Teach for America.

Meanwhile, by 2006, Williams had shifted her efforts to supporting her city’s public school system.  She formed the African American Education Council and worked with Milwaukee’s teachers’ union, the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association (MTEA), and the Milwaukee Board of School Directors to develop a strategic plan for improving MPS.31

Following the election of Republican Gov. Scott Walker in 2010 and his efforts to dramatically expand the voucher program, Williams again vocally objected. “They have hijacked the program,” Williams said in 2013.32 George Mitchell, a major pro-voucher donor, immediately responded, describing Williams as “irrelevant” and saying he had had no dealings with Williams after about 1994 or 1995.33 “Polly was useful to the school choice movement because of her race and her party affiliation,” Mitchell told a reporter.3435

Although Williams was discarded by her allies, her name and face were still used throughout conservative media as an African American Democratic supporter of school vouchers.  Sean Hannity lauded her in his 2002 book Let Freedom Ring: Winning the War of Liberty over Liberalism. In 2013, Jeanne Allen of the Center for Education Reform included Williams on a list of “venerable Davids against the Goliaths of education.”36

Following her death in November 2014, Polly Williams was memorialized as the “mother of school choice.” In a post on the American Federation for Children (AFC) website, Chairman Betsy DeVos described Williams’ legacy as living on in the lives of “hundreds of thousands of children across the country who benefit from school choice.”37 That post, along with most media coverage of Williams’ death, omitted any mention of her later disillusionment with voucher programs.38

The bad news about “choice”

The school privatization movement has brought together an odd array of political bedfellows.  Some are drawn by the prospects of profiting from the conversion of education into a multi-billion dollar industry.  Others are ideologues, opposed to public education on either libertarian or religious grounds.  Yet another group is comprised of religious leaders, perhaps not ideologically opposed to public education but anxious to use vouchers or neovouchers to fill the desks of their own schools. Ironically, in some districts, charter schools (see related sidebar) have even drawn students away from private religious schools.

Recently, more religious leaders have promoted privatization programs as a way to save religious schools with dwindling enrollment.  The 2011 conference of the National Leadership Roundtable of Church Management, a Catholic organization, called for an aggressive strategy to implement tuition tax credit programs or neovouchers in all 50 states.  Speaker B. J. Cassin, founder of Cassin Educational Initiative Foundation, told the audience, “Think of the effect if all Catholic schools, not just the ones that we mentioned here, had the ability to have this kind of revenue come in [from tax-credits]; it changes the environment completely.”39 Like many other promoters of privatization, Cassin frames his agenda as altruism: “We have a social justice issue that we are presenting, and part of that is to eliminate the discrimination of the inner city kids.”40

Monetizing Charter Schools

Charter schools are technically a “public school choice,” but operated by an outside group that is not bound by some of the same local and state regulations as traditional public schools.1 Today charter schools are the fastest growing sector of school choice, with more than two million students attending over 6,000 charter schools.

Charters were originally intended to foster innovative approaches to teaching in small, autonomous schools. Excellent charter schools exist; overall, however, charters have failed to outperform traditional public schools. According to a recent study, Pennsylvania charter schools covered less material in both math and reading than did traditional public schools (the equivalent of 29 days of reading and 50 days of math).2

Charter schools have become a primary vehicle for the monetization of education.  Although most states require charters to be run by nonprofit organizations, many contract out the management of charters to for-profit companies, sometimes with little separation between the charter board and the for-profit management.3 In some cases, the buildings and facilities are purchased by the for-profit arm and leased back to the nonprofit, or even resold by the for-profit to an investment company.4 Entertainment Properties, Inc., a publicly traded real estate investment trust (REIT), now owns the buildings and/or facilities of 60 charter schools.5 According to an Ohio investigation, 40 percent of that state’s charter schools pay lease to a for-profit entity or out-of-state landlord. Rising lease costs are taking increasingly large percentages of the schools’ budgets, with one school paying more than 80 percent of its total budget in lease to a for-profit entity. 6

In Florida and Pennsylvania, the two states with the largest private school choice programs (both are corporate tax credit programs or neovouchers), many of the students who receive neovoucher money attend fundamentalist Christian, conservative evangelical, or nondenominational schools.  Both Florida and Pennsylvania tout their tax credit programs as providing an opportunity for minority students to access a better education.

But instead of the Afrocentric curricula supported by Williams and Fuller, the A Beka and Bob Jones University curricula used in many of these schools are written with little regard for the heritage of children of color.  Their textbooks promote nonfactual and revisionist history as well as Young Earth creationism and climate change denial.41

Most vouchers and neovouchers fund students attending schools with no curricula requirements or public accountability.  Georgia’s tax credit program, which allows for donations from both individuals and corporations, makes it a criminal offense to track how that money is spent.  Georgia’s program also promised to designate scholarships for students in “failing public schools” from low socioeconomic levels, but as a 2012 New York Times article exposed, the program has “[benefited] private schools at the expense of the neediest children.”42 In Georgia and elsewhere, these programs are showing signs of re-segregating students by both race and income. Many of the students subsidized by these programs were already enrolled in private schools.

Michael W. Apple, a professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education, says that universal vouchers, or voucher programs for which all income levels are eligible, expose the privatization movement’s hidden agenda. “They want to minimize public schools and eventually eliminate as many government services, public employees and public institutions as possible,” writes Apple.43 In Educating the ‘Right’ Way: Markets, Standards, God, and Inequality, Apple argues that “placing schools in a market does not interrupt the stratification of education, except for a very limited group of students. Instead, as study after study has shown, existing hierarchies are simply recreated.”

International examples include Chile, where vouchers were part of the reforms initiated during the rule of Augusto Pinochet and with the assistance of the “Chicago Boys,” economists trained under Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago.  Research on Chile’s program indicates that vouchers failed to produce improved average educational outcomes, but exacerbated stratification and inequality.44

Although excellent private schools exist, multiple studies have dispelled the myth that private schools academically outperform public schools on average.45 A 2006 study not only “[challenged] assumptions of private school superiority overall” but also found substantial differences among various kinds of private schools. The poorest performers were conservative Christian schools.

The “New Civil Rights” brand

In his 2003 book Voucher Wars, attorney Clint Bolick recounts how he anticipated legal challenges to the Milwaukee voucher program and contacted Polly Williams to offer legal representation. Bolick describes Bradley Foundation president Michael Joyce as having been wary of Williams but understanding the “necessity of their temporary alliance”; he describes Joyce as pursuing school choice as “a ‘silver bullet’ issue: the type of program that could destroy a key pillar of the welfare state.”46

Bolick was known for his work against race-based affirmative action. However, as the need grew for legal defense of emerging school choice programs, Bolick turned his attention to it and co-founded the libertarian, public interest law firm Institute for Justice in 1991 with seed money from David and Charles Koch.47

Branding education privatization as a civil rights effort has been a deliberate strategy. In his book, Bolick describes how he helped orchestrate the mainstream media’s first use of civil rights language in defense of school choice while discrediting a voucher opponent as “blocking the schoolhouse doors to minority schoolchildren.”48 In 2002, Dick DeVos addressed the Heritage Foundation, emphasizing the need for his audience (wealthy, white conservative donors and activists) to remain behind the scenes and have other faces as the public advocates of school choice.49

As a 2001 Economist article spelled out, the strategy of linking the privatization movement to the wishes and activism of “poor blacks, not rich whites” has helped disguise the people actually behind these campaigns.50

Another primary goal of the privatization movement is to drive a wedge between two pillars of the Democratic Party: African American voters and teachers’ unions.  The same Economist article, “Blacks v. Teachers,” touted this growing wedge. While the article may have been premature in celebrating the success of both vouchers and charter schools, efforts to drive a wedge between Black voters and the teachers’ unions have been remarkably successful.

At the 2008 Democratic National Convention, for example, a pre-convention event for the Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) essentially became an hour-long attack on teachers’ unions.  At the DNC in 2012, Convention Chairman Antonio Villaraigosa, Newark Mayor Cory Booker (now a U.S. Senator), and Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson (and husband of Michelle Rhee), headlined a screening of the fictional movie Won’t Back Down, which promotes parent trigger bills, a mechanism for replacing unionized public schools with non-union charters.  A model bill for the “Parent Trigger Act” and much of school choice and privatization legislation is designed and promoted by the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, which coordinates with the State Policy Network and has become notorious for promoting “stand your ground” legislation and propagating climate change denial.

Current Trends

Despite its failure to improve educational outcomes, Wisconsin’s voucher program is now 25 years old and continues to grow. Today, the program includes about 30,000 students and represents the second largest de facto school district in the state.

Characterized by instability and lack of accountability, Milwaukee’s voucher program has resulted in numerous stories like one in 2013 in a local paper51 about a minister and his wife who accepted $2.3 million in taxpayer funding only to close their Lifeskills Academy abruptly during the school year. Although their house in Wisconsin was foreclosed, the couple moved to a gated community in Florida, where they opened another school. Available test results showed that in the 2011-2012 school year, only one student in their Lifeskills Academy tested proficient for grade level in reading, and none in math.

Polly Williams bemoaned the co-opting of her voucher vision by national conservative figures, including Grover Norquist, William Bennett, and Lamar Alexander (who was Secretary of Education from 1991-1993).  Now a U.S. Senator, Lamar Alexander is poised to take the helm of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP).  In early 2014, Alexander introduced a bill in the Senate that would redirect $24 billion of federal education funding and incentivize states to use the money to fund 11 million school vouchers for students in poverty. These could be used for private schools or even homeschooling.52 On her website, Ravitch wrote simply:  “Bottom line: the Alexander plan will destroy public education in the U.S.”53

In the same post, Ravitch quotes a Pennsylvania Republican who warns that Alexander’s package only includes $2,100 dollars per voucher, meaning that the “School District of Record” must provide the rest of the tuition.  Ravitch continues, “Do not be fooled: this is not a conservative plan.  This is a radical plan.  It will send public dollars to backwoods churches and ambitious entrepreneurs.”

The marketing of both private school choice and public charters promises to escalate over the next two years, masquerading as the best option for underserved children. This continues even as traditional public schools are stripped of funding, teachers, art and music programs, libraries, and more.  In Reframing the Refrain: Choice as a Civil Rights Issue, Julian Vasquez Heilig closes with a warning about where we may be headed:

So if you are a “choice” proponent interested in civil rights—understand that in markets there are winners and losers.  In the case of choice, the long-term losers in a large-scale market-oriented education continue to be historically underserved students of color and special populations.54

Heilig continues, “Moving our schools from the public sector to the private sector is a false choice.”

The story of Polly Williams serves as a cautionary tale about the dangers of partnering with school choice donors, politicians, and think tanks. Those concerned about the future of public education should not be fooled: the agenda of these players is about privatization and market-based reform.  Williams continues to be used as the face of a movement that never intended to fulfill her personal vision.  But once she opened the door for her right-wing allies, it could not be closed.

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Endnotes

  1. Williams’ program is described as the first voucher program in the nation, but it was preceded by programs used by states to fight desegregation.  In 1964, the Supreme Court found county and local tuition grants and tax credits used to fund White students in private schools to be unconstitutional.
  2. The program that passed was added to the Budget Amendment Bill by Democratic Senator Gary George, but drawn from previous bills authored by Polly Williams. Pro- and anti-voucher activists and education scholars credit Williams. See John F. Witte, The Market Approach to Education: An Analysis of America’s First Voucher Program (Princeton University Press, 2000).
  3. Matthew J. Brouillette, “Vouchers,” School Choice in Education: A Primer for Freedom in Michigan (Mackinac Center, 1999), http://www.mackinac.org/2081.
  4. Julian Vasquez Heilig, “Reframing the Refrain: Choice as a Civil Rights Issue,” Texas Educational Review Vol. 1 (2013), pp.83-94, http://txedrev.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/Heilig_Reframing-the-Refrain_TxEdRev.pdf.
  5. Janelle T. Scott, “A Rosa Parks moment? School choice and the marketization of civil rights,” Critical Studies in Education, 54:1 (2013), 5-18.
  6. S. Wells, J. Slayton, & J. Scott, (2002). “Defining democracy in the neoliberal age: Charter school reform and educational consumption,” American Education Research Journal 39:2 (2002), 337-361.
  7. Mark Walsh, “Black Private Academies Are Held Up as Filling Void Seen as ‘Response to Desperate Situation,’” Education Week, Mar. 13, 1991, http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/1991/03/13/10180005.h10.html.
  8. “Which way do we go? The 45th annual PDK/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools,” Gallup, Kappan 95:1 (Sept. 2013), http://pdkintl.org/noindex/2013_PDKGallup.pdf.
  9. Jeff Spalding, The School Voucher Audit: Do Publicly Funded Private School Choice Programs Save Money? Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice (2013), http://www.edchoice.org/Research/Reports/The-School-Voucher-Audit–Do-Publicly-Funded-Private-School-Choice-Programs-Save-Money-.aspx
  10. See Kevin Kruse, White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism (Princeton University Press, 2007).
  11. “Virginia’s ‘Massive Resistance’ to School Desegregation,” University of Virginia’s Digital Resources for United States History, http://www2.vcdh.virginia.edu/xslt/servlet/XSLTServlet?xml=/xml_docs/solguide/Essays/essay13a.xml&xsl=/xml_docs/solguide/sol_new.xsl&section=essay.
  12. “The Closing of Prince Edward County Schools,” Virginia Historical Society, http://www.vahistorical.org/collections-and-resources/virginia-history-explorer/civil-rights-movement-virginia/closing-prince.
  13. Fred Clarkson, “Exposed: How the Right’s State-Based Think Tanks are Transforming U.S. Politics, The Public Eye (Fall 2013), http://www.politicalresearch.org/2013/11/25/exposed-how-the-rights-state-based-think-tanks-are-transforming-u-s-politics/.
  14. Ravitch is quoted in Adam Bessie, “G.E.R.M. Warfare: How to Reclaim the Education Debate From Corporate Occupation,” Project Censored 2013 (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2012), 289.
  15. “The Model for the Nation: an exclusive interview with Annette Polly Williams,” Heartland Institute, Aug. 30, 2002, http://news.heartland.org/newspaper-article/2002/08/30/model-nation-exclusive-interview-annette-polly-williams.
  16. Jim Carl, Freedom of Choice: Vouchers in American Education (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2011), 117.
  17. Carl, Freedom of Choice, 32
  18. Ibid, 133.
  19. Erica Lasden, Community Voice or Captive of the Right? The Black Alliance for Educational Options (People for the American Way, July 2003), http://www.pfaw.org/sites/default/files/file_237.pdf.
  20. “The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation and School Choice,” Center for Strategic Philanthropy and Civil Society Teaching Case, Sanford School of Public Policy, Duke University, Jan. 2007, http://cspcs.sanford.duke.edu/sites/default/files/BradleyChoicefinal_0.pdf.
  21. Bolick, 45.
  22. “Milwaukee Parental Choice Program,” Wisconsin Legislative Audit Bureau, Feb. 2000, http://legis.wisconsin.gov/lab/reports/00-2tear.htm.
  23. “The Model for the Nation.”
  24. Interview with Bruce Murphy, Dec. 12, 2014.
  25. Bruce Murphy, “The Rise and Fall of Polly Williams,” Urban Milwaukee, Jun. 27, 2001, http://urbanmilwaukee.com/2001/06/27/murphys-law-the-rise-and-fall-of-polly-williams/.
  26. Hubert Morken and Jo Renee Formicola, The Politics of School Choice (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999), 205.
  27. Alex Molnar, “The Real Lesson of Milwaukee’s Voucher Program,” Education Week, Aug. 6, 1998, archived at https://web.archive.org/web/*/http://epsl.asu.edu/EPRU/articles/EPRU-9708-38-OWI.doc.
  28. “The Rise and Fall of Polly Williams.”
  29. Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission Final Report, May 25, 2006, p. 77, http://www.greensborotrc.org/pre1979_labor.pdf. Also see Larry Miller’s review of Fuller’s recent autobiography for Fuller’s explanation of why he partnered with prominent conservative think tanks and funders, accessible at https://millermps.wordpress.com/2014/11/21/howard-fuller-autobiography-no-struggle-no-progress-a-critique-3/.
  30. Community Voice or Captive of the Right?
  31. Action Plan to Improve Milwaukee Public Schools: 2007-2012 (2007), http://www.milwaukeepartnershipacademy.org/pubs/mps_strategic_plan_7-26-07.pdf.
  32. Patrick Marley, “Past school voucher advocate rips Gov. Walker’s Plan,” Journal Sentinel, May 16, 2013, http://www.jsonline.com/blogs/news/207753841.html.
  33. Daniel Bice, “School choice advocate George Mitchell blasts ex-lawmaker Annette Polly Williams,” Journal Sentinel, May 29, 2013, http://www.jsonline.com/watchdog/noquarter/school-choice-advocate-george-mitchell-blasts-ex-lawmaker-annette-polly-williams-b9922201z1-209452781.html.
  34. Bice, “School choice advocate.”
  35. George Mitchell continued his critique on the blog Right Wisconsin: “Williams was instrumental in getting the original program to Gov. Tommy Thompson’s desk. But from that day forward Williams was, directly and indirectly, an opponent … The addition of religious schools to the program evoked her racial and religious bigotry … She complained that ‘whites’ and ‘Catholics’ were going to take over the program.”  For more, see George Mitchell, “Where the Journal Sentinel Fails, Again,” Right Wisconsin, May 21, 2013, http://www.rightwisconsin.com/perspectives/208281431.html.
  36. Jeanne Allen, “A Nation at Risk No More,” Center for Education Reform, https://www.edreform.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/ANationatRiskManifestoFINAL.pdf.
  37. “American Federation for Children Mourns the Loss of School Choice Pioneer Annette ‘Polly’ Williams,” American Federation for Children, Nov. 10, 2014, http://www.federationforchildren.org/american-federation-children-mourns-loss-school-choice-pioneer-annette-polly-williams/.
  38. Rachel Tabachnick, “The Right’s School Choice Scheme,” The Public Eye (Summer 2012), http://www.politicalresearch.org/2012/08/01/the-rights-school-choice-scheme/.
  39. See the publication on the 2011 conference, “From Aspirations to Actions: Solutions for American Catholic Schools,” p. 41.
  40. “From Aspirations to Actions,” 41.
  41. One of many examples is Bishop Victor Curry in Florida, a vocal advocate of the state’s corporate tax credit program. The school run by his ministry includes 120 students with tuition provided by the program and uses A Beka curricula.
  42. Stephanie Saul, “Public Money Finds Back Door to Private Schools, New York Times, May 21, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/22/education/scholarship-funds-meant-for-needy-benefit-private-schools.html.
  43. Michael W. Apple, “Cannot vouch for vouchers,” FightingBob.com, Apr. 11, 2004, http://www.fightingbob.com/article.cfm?articleID=200.
  44. See Chang-Tai Hsieh and Miguel Urquiola, “The effects of generalized school choice on achievement and stratification: Evidence from Chile’s voucher program,” Journal of Public Economics 90 (2006), 1477–1503, http://www.columbia.edu/~msu2101%20/HsiehUrquiola%282006%29.pdf; and Patrick J. McEwan, Miguel Urquiola, and Emiliana Vega, “School Choice, Stratification, and Information on School Performance: Lessons from Chile,” Economia (Spring 2008), http://www.columbia.edu/~msu2101/McEwanUrquiolaVegas%282007%29.pdf.
  45. Christopher Lubienski and Sarah Theule Lubienski, Charter, Private, Public Schools and Academic Achievement: New Evidence from NAEP Mathematics Data (National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education, Jan. 2006), http://www.ncspe.org/publications_files/OP111.pdf.
  46. Bolick, 23. Bolick points out that Gov. Tommy Thompson was, not coincidentally, pursuing welfare reform at the same time.
  47. Bolick, 35.
  48. Bolick, 27.
  49. Rachel Tabachnick, “Strategy for Privatizing Public Schools Spelled Out by Dick DeVos in 2002 Heritage Foundation Speech, Talk to Action, May 3, 2011, http://www.talk2action.org/story/2011/5/3/12515/58655.
  50. “Blacks v teachers,” Economist, Mar. 8, 2001, http://www.economist.com/node/526704.
  51. Erin Richards, “Leaders of closed Milwaukee voucher school are now in Florida,” Journal Sentinel, Jan. 15, 2014, http://www.jsonline.com/news/education/leaders-of-closed-milwaukee-voucher-school-are-now-in-florida-b99185323z1-240384541.html.
  52. “Alexander Proposes 11 Million $2,100 “Scholarships for Kids,” Jan. 28. 2014, http://www.help.senate.gov/newsroom/press/release/?id=b52ee7f7-d826-4677-ad4a-0a8e94130ac3.
  53. “Lamar Alexander Proposes Sweeping Voucher Legislation,” Jan. 28, 2014, http://dianeravitch.net/2014/01/28/lamar-alexander-proposes-sweeping-voucher-legislation/.
  54. Vasquez Heilig, “Reframing the Refrain.”

 

Tuition Tax Credits

  1. Kevin G. Welner, NeoVouchers: The Emergence of Tuition Tax Credits for Private Schooling (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008).
  2. Kevin Welner, “How to Calculate the Costs or Savings of Tax Credit Voucher Policies,” National Education Policy Center, http://nepc.colorado.edu/files/NEPC-PolicyMemo_NeoVouchers.pdf.

 

Monetizing Charters

  1. Multiple Choice: Charter School Performance in 16 States (Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), 2009), http://credo.stanford.edu/reports/MULTIPLE_CHOICE_CREDO.pdf.
  2. Valerie Strauss, “A dozen problems with charter schools,” Washington Post, May 20, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2014/05/20/a-dozen-problems-with-charter-schools/.
  3. Noah Pransky, “Charter schools making big profits for private companies,” WTSP, Aug. 22, 2014, http://www.wtsp.com/story/news/investigations/2014/08/21/charter-school-profits-on-real-estate/14420317/.
  4. Marian Wang, “Charter School Power Broker Turns Public Education Into Private Profits,” ProPublica, Oct. 15, 2014, http://www.propublica.org/article/charter-school-power-broker-turns-public-education-into-private-profits.
  5. “Public Charter Schools List,” EPR Properties, http://www.eprkc.com/portfolio-overview/public-charter-schools-list/.
  6. Catherine Candisky and Jim Siegel, “Charter school’s lease deal scrutinized,” Columbus Dispatch, Oct. 12, 2014, http://www.dispatch.com/content/stories/local/2014/10/12/charters-lease-deals-scrutinized.html.

Meet Joe Scheidler, Patriarch of the Anti-Abortion Movement

Click here for the full issue.

Click here for the full issue.

Nearly 30 years later, anti-abortion activists still work from Joe Scheidler’s blueprint. Could Scheidler’s story provide any clues to where the faults might lie in their strategy?

 

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

Abortion has been legal—with restrictions—in all 50 states for nearly 42 years, and anti-abortion activist Joe Scheidler has been fighting to make it illegal again for just as many of them. Still comfortably ensconced in his Chicago home, Scheidler, at 87 years old, is father, “Godfather,” and leader to generations of zealots. They continue using tactics Scheidler designed as they protest in the legislature, outside clinic doors, and even across the ocean, all with the goal of criminalizing—and removing access to—safe, legal abortion.

Now that the anti-abortion movement has grown more powerful in the last few years than it has been at any point in the history of legal abortion, it is worth examining where Joe Scheidler’s architecture is still being used—and where it might be decaying or vulnerable.1 Although the days of having a clinic door physically blocked by human bodies or of having abortion providers picketed at their own homes are mostly a thing of the past, today’s assault on legal abortion differs only slightly from these methods.

Joe Scheidler

Joe Scheidler

AN ANTI-ABORTION HOW-TO MANUAL

Pro-Life Action League (PLAL), the anti-abortion advocacy group Scheidler founded in 1980, may not have the name recognition of Operation Rescue (the militant anti-abortion group best known in the 1990s for blocking abortion clinics and terrorizing patients and providers), or National Right to Life Committee (an umbrella group for the state and local affiliates of the national pro-life movement). Still, PLAL has had a profound impact on the movement. Scheidler’s 1985 book, Closed: 99 Ways to Stop Abortion2, became the handbook of those hoping to put abortion providers out of business with tactics ranging from creating mild nuisances to outright harassment and borderline stalking.

Those tactics haven’t changed much in the 29 years since the book was published. Some of the book’s tips, like “conduct a blitz”—coordinating a group of anti-abortion activists to enter a clinic and refuse to leave until the police arrive, all the while attempting to talk patients in the waiting room out of undergoing abortion—no longer can be legally attempted. But other tactics detailed in Closed, such as protests at hospitals, medical offices, or other businesses affiliated with abortion providers, still happen with great frequency. Meanwhile, so-called “sidewalk counseling” has become the signature activity of choice for abortion opponents, using scripts that are often based on the “Chicago-style” training method established by Scheidler and his colleagues.

Groups such as 40 Days for Life promote a constant clinic presence, in some cases even at buildings that only refer for, rather than actually offer, abortions on site. Other organizations, either national or local in scope, trade the allegedly silent (but often actually quite audible) prayers for graphic signs, amplified street preaching, and chasing of potential clinic patients and staff all the way to the building’s entrance.

These groups are also gaining the advantage in the courts. For years, local buffer zones were able to provide an element of protection for clinic patients in some cities across the country. But the Supreme Court’s decision in June of 2014 to eliminate Massachusetts’ buffer zone has led to new efforts to tear down remaining patient safety areas, and to even bolder anti-abortion activity outside abortion clinics.

Anti-abortion activists still document license plates at clinics3, as Scheidler encourages in Chapter 60 of Closed. They still gather in large groups, and while they may not physically block the clinic doors, they instead line the sidewalks on each side as near to the door as possible, 4 using their numbers and presence to bar the entrance. They still write complaints about providers and clinics to file with local departments of health, and they still wait on the streets to document a medical emergency on the rare occasion that an ambulance may be called to the building.

INSPIRING ACTIVISTS AND CRIMINALS

The inspiration for much of this activity belongs to Scheidler. Trained first as a Benedictine monk and next as a journalist, Scheidler began his anti-abortion activism career first with Illinois Right to Life Committee and next with another anti-abortion group called Friends for Life. Scheidler claims he was forced out of both positions due to his unwillingness to work with boards or wait for permission from others to engage in his activist stunts. Scheidler used his severance pay to establish Pro-Life Action League, where he could act on his own impulses without being curbed by anyone out of fear of potential lawsuits.

And lawsuits there were. Most famously, Scheidler became the accused in NOW v. Scheidler, 5 a class-action lawsuit filed in 1986 by the National Organization for Women and a large number of abortion providers, declaring that a multi-state activist network called the Pro-Life Action Network (PLAN), also founded by Scheidler, was conspiring with other anti-abortion activists and groups in a plot to close clinics through “racketeering.”

The racketeering charges never stuck, but Scheidler’s “Godfather” moniker did, and although it evokes the Mafia’s history of shady activities, he continues to claim it.

PLAN, according to Scheidler, was a coordinated effort to organize other anti-abortion groups from across the country who were willing to take direct, physical action against clinics. Scheidler writes in Chapter 68 of Closed, “Go National: Join the Activist Network,” that activists are encouraged to work in national networks to move from “random picketing and sidewalk counseling” to “blitzes of abortion clinics, picketing of doctors’ and clinic operators’ homes, vigils … a national day of rescue … and a national day of amnesty for the unborn, during which efforts would be made to close down as many abortion clinics across the country as possible.” PLAN’s national conventions occurred annually from 1984 to at least 1997, 6 and Scheidler credits the Atlanta conference in 1987 as being the birthplace of Randall Terry’s Operation Rescue.

Terry was just one of many anti-abortion activists who attended yearly PLAN conventions who would eventually go on to block clinics and harass patients and clinic workers, or worse. As part of PLAN, Scheidler introduced the idea of “regional directors” to coordinate their shared mission to end abortion. Starting with PLAN’s 1985 convention in Appleton, Wisconsin, he only welcomed attendees who espoused “militant” anti-abortion activism, according to James Risen and Judy L. Thomas’s book Wrath of Angels: The American Abortion War. 7

Some of those attendees and their close contacts would become the most notorious and often jailed activists of their time. John Ryan, the original “rescuer” of St. Louis, Missouri, attended the early conventions to explain his tactics in clinic blockading, and eventually formed Pro-Life Direct Action League. 8 Joan Andrews, the movement “martyr” who served years 9 in prison for criminal trespass at clinics in multiple states, 10 attended when she was not in jail. Don Treshman of Rescue America, 11 Andrew Burnett 12 of Advocates for Life Ministries of Portland, Oregon 13 and Chris Slattery,14 who was an Operation Rescue member in New York City before starting a chain of crisis pregnancy centers 15 there, all attended or spoke at the yearly gatherings.

Francis (Franky) Schaeffer, son of evangelical theologian Francis Schaeffer, was not just a PLAN convention speaker; he worked closely with Scheidler and wrote the foreword for the 1993 edition of Closed. In his foreword, Schaeffer praised Scheidler and his use of “direct action” against clinics, comparing him to Mother Theresa in Calcutta or Jesus driving the money changers from the temple. “We cannot wait for the ‘abortion problem’ to be solved for us,” he writes. “Street by street, neighborhood by neighborhood, we must fight this necessary battle until legalized abortion is relegated to the barbaric past, along with slavery and cannibalism!”

Franky Schaeffer has since renounced his role 16 in helping to forge the powerful alliance of Catholics and evangelicals in what is now the social conservative movement, citing his belief that the leaders were more interested in winning and retaining Republican majorities than ending legal abortion.

When members met in 1994, 17 it was to discuss how much violence is acceptable when it comes to stopping abortion and closing clinics. The battle lines were drawn at that Chicago meeting, as the coalition began to fray over whether it was ever justifiable to commit murder 18 to stop a doctor from performing abortions. While members of PLAN like Burnett in Oregon supported the idea of “Defensive Action,”19 Scheidler and others declined to do so.

Scheidler’s book has a chapter called “Violence: Why It Won’t Work,” in which he explains how violence against an abortion provider or building would make the movement look bad. Even so, he hedges: “We must point out for the sake of proper perspective, however, that no amount of damage to real estate can equal the violence of taking a single human life,” in this case referring to abortion.

He also frequently discusses, in both his writing and in-person remarks, about his continuing support for those who have used violence in the past. “We’ve had trouble with other pro-lifers,” Scheidler told me this summer when I met him in his office in Chicago.20 “We had those who went off the deep end, and then started shooting and bombing and all that stuff. We knew these people, and we had meetings with them. We even have met them after they get out of prison, and so on. They’re still pro-life. They just went too far.”

SHIFTING TACTICS AT THE CLINICS

For himself, however, Scheidler prefers the “direct action” tactics he enthusiastically embraced, such as “blitzes.” Clinics had great difficulty in fending off activists such as Scheidler, other PLAN members, and eventually Operation Rescue. During the 1980s and ’90s, clinic “blitzes,” “rescues,” and barricading became so common that eventually the federal government passed the federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act, ensuring that anti-abortion activists could no longer use “rescue” style tactics to keep clinics closed and patients from passing through the doors.

Ann Scheidler, Joe Scheidler’s wife, helps run PLAL’s office and organizational operations. Photo courtesy of Wendi Kent.

Ann Scheidler, Joe Scheidler’s wife, helps run PLAL’s office and organizational operations. Photo courtesy of Wendi Kent.

While FACE was a blow to PLAL, Scheidler’s manual still offered many other ways to shut down a clinic. Scheidler encouraged hospital pickets 21 for those facilities that either offered abortion care themselves or had doctors on staff that provided those services at unaffiliated clinics. He developed another chilling tactic called “adopting abortionists,” his term for sending cards to a provider or supporter’s home, calling them to try to talk, dropping off business cards at their offices, or, as he suggested in his book, even what many would call stalking.

In one chapter of Closed, Scheidler crows about an activist’s success in using “adoption” tactics:

He accompanied her on lobbying missions to Springfield, following her from one legislator’s office to another and all the time praying for her conversion. He attended her seminars and encouraged his friends to fill up the front rows at every lecture she gave. He challenged her to public debates, organized people to question her at her talks, sent her pro-life literature, and took every opportunity to try to get her to stop promoting abortion. He succeeded.

Decades later, Scheidler’s advice for establishing direct contact with those who perform or support abortion has been mostly discarded, but some of his ideas occasionally reappear. In 2013, Dr. Cheryl Chastine, a reproductive health and abortion provider at South Wind Women’s Center in Wichita, Kansas, received two pieces of mail to her home address, both sent from Pro-Life Action League. The first was a letter from Joe’s wife Ann, Pro-Life Action League’s Vice President, asking her to meet for a cup of coffee to discuss why Dr. Chastine performs abortions. Later, she received an invitation to the League’s Christmas party.

Both mailings came just months after PLAL systematically and methodically pressured 22 Dr. Chastine’s private practice into severing ties with her. PLAL’s tactics included protests, letters to other businesses sharing the space, and threats of more public actions against the building if their professional relationships continued.

Scheidler and PLAL helped design tactics such as pressuring providers, blocking clinics, so-called “sidewalk counseling,” and clinic pickets. But even more current anti-abortion tactics, like conducting public relations campaigns “exposing” Planned Parenthood, have roots in Scheidler’s work.

Scheidler and PLAL helped design tactics such as pressuring providers, blocking clinics, so-called “sidewalk counseling,” and clinic pickets. But even more current, popular anti-abortion tactics, like conducting public relations campaigns “exposing” Planned Parenthood, have roots in Scheidler’s work. As early as the 1980s, PLAL smeared Planned Parenthood as a “threat to children,” and claimed the organization had sinister aims in providing information about sexuality, pregnancy prevention, and “contraceptive drugs and devices.” PLAL also accused Planned Parenthood of potentially giving abortion referrals to young teens without the consent of parents.

Such talking points echo in current campaigns by Live Action,23 a youth-based anti-abortion and anti-birth control movement that primarily engages in hidden camera “gotcha” videos purporting to “expose” Planned Parenthood affiliates and other providers of reproductive health care services. Live Action has been a leader in efforts to pressure Congressional lawmakers into defunding the family planning agency and works with other anti-abortion conservative political organizations like Susan B. Anthony List,24 Students for Life,25 Americans United for Life,26 and others, including PLAL.

THOSE GRAPHIC FETUS IMAGES

Today, Scheidler’s organization may be more the base of the anti-abortion movement than the face of it, but when it does don its public face, it likes to use graphic imagery. PLAL still commits to “counseling” outside clinics in Chicago, as well as training “sidewalk counselors” at yearly national conventions, such as the one held in Minnesota, in 2013, or Alabama, in 2014.27 However, its most public events are the “Face the Truth” tours, which take place for one full week each year during the summer, as well as for one day each month during the spring and fall.

On a Face the Truth tour, members of PLAL place large, graphic images of fetal and embryonic remains along a street or public venue, ranging from abortion clinics to major sidewalks in downtown Chicago. The tours, which PLAL said it began in 2000, are similar to the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform’s (CBR) Genocide Awareness Project, which mounts graphic aborted-fetus displays on campuses and universities, or those of Created Equal, a newer Ohio campaign from Mark Harrington, formerly with CBR.

The goal of such projects, according to Eric Scheidler, Joe’s son and the current executive director of PLAL, is to make people recognize the realities of abortion. The tactic represents an escalation from the early days of picketing at abortion clinics, when Joe Scheidler and others tried to stop patients from entering the building by handing out pamphlets that would often contain similar images.

The images are of grisly post-abortion remains that Scheidler says are real. He often obtained the subjects himself. In Abandoned: The Untold Story of the Abortion Wars,28 author and anti-abortion activist Monica Migliorino Miller details how she and Scheidler, along with a few other activists in Chicago, would remove the remains from a dumpster behind a local clinic, after which Miller would take them home to photograph.29 Later, they would take the remains to churches and ask to hold burials, a ritual that has eventually led to the National Day of Remembrance for Abortion Victims.30

PLAL’S WIDENING SCOPE

For all its influence and reach, PLAL remains a rather lean operation. On its tax documents, it claims only about $1 million 31 in revenue in 2013, mostly from donors it chooses not to disclose, and less than $13,000 in sales from sidewalk counseling tools and other anti-abortion activism products.32 In the same year, PLAL spent about $450,000 on compensation, not including benefits, with over $200,000 of that going to Joe, his wife Ann, and their son Eric. The organization’s biggest expenses are printing, shipping, and postage (perhaps not surprising considering the leaflets, pamphlets, large graphic photos, and other materials PLAL uses in its events).

Considering PLAL’s activism that purposefully pushes the lines of legality, it is surprising that it reported a mere $15833 in legal expenses in 2013.

PLAL’s influence in today’s legal abortion battle landscape isn’t felt only in the U.S. PLAL has long been supportive 34 of Youth Defence, an Irish anti-abortion group that “has been criticized by politicians for adopting the militant tactics of American antichoice activists,” according to Allie Higgins of Catholics for a Free Choice,35 who also reports that Scheidler’s book is used as a handbook for activist tactics by the group. Eric Scheidler joined the group in Ireland 36 for an international pro-life youth event in 2010. This year, the international pro-life youth conference was held in California 37 with Youth Defence, PLAL, and others.

Speaking at this year’s event 38 was Bernadette Smyth of Northern Ireland’s Precious Life. Smyth, who appears to emulate Scheidler’s tactics in her own country, once dismissed criticism of Scheidler’s activities, stating, “Joseph is not guilty of anything but saving women and unborn babies from abortion.”39 In November of 2014,40 a judge found Smyth guilty of harassing the head of the Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast, Ireland.

SCHEIDLER’S LEGACY

Now, 30 years after Scheidler published the definitive handbook on how to close an abortion clinic, there are fewer than 800 abortion clinics left in the country. Those clinics that remain have become even more susceptible to harassment, financial pressure, frivolous lawsuits, medical complaints, and massive anti-abortion PR campaigns.

30 years after Scheidler published the definitive handbook  on how to close an abortion clinic, there are fewer than 800 abortion clinics left in the country. Those clinics that remain are still susceptible to harassment, financial pressure, frivolous lawsuits, medical complaints, and massive anti-abortion public relations campaigns. In other words, they remain susceptible to almost every tactic Joe Scheidler first outlined in 1985.

In other words, they remain susceptible to almost every tactic Joe Scheidler first outlined in 1985. The defensive stance of giving Kevlar vests to clinic providers and forming clinic defense teams has had little positive impact.

With the right to a legal, safe abortion increasingly in jeopardy, the need to proactively fight the evolving tactics of the anti-abortion movement is critical. In the 1980s and 1990s, the threat that Scheidler and his cohorts posed to legal abortion access led to a federal lawsuit that managed to distract and hold off the pro-life movement for more than a decade. That lawsuit also led to the drafting and passage of the FACE Act. Today, abortion rights supporters must consider how to take similar bold action to exploit weaknesses in the anti-abortion movement and stop it from continuing to cut off what legal access remains.

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Robin Marty is a freelance writer, speaker, and activist, and the author of Crow After Roe: How Women’s Health is the New “Separate But Equal” and How to Change That. Robin’s articles have appeared at Bitch Magazine, Rolling Stone, Ms. Magazine, Truthout, AlterNet, BlogHer, RH Reality Check, and Care2.org, and she has spoken at national trainings and conference for NOW, NARAL, the National Conference for Media Reform, and Netroots Nation.

Footnotes

1. See, for example: Janet Reitman, “The Stealth War on Abortion,” Rolling Stone, Jan. 15, 2014, http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/the-stealth-war-on-abortion-20140115.
2. Joseph M. Scheidler, Closed: 99 Ways to Stop Abortion (Charlotte: Tan Books, 1984).
3. Robin Marty, “Tracking License Plates at Abortion Clinics? It’s Not Just Happening in Texas,” Talking Points Memo, Aug. 18, 2014, http://talkingpointsmemo.com/cafe/tracking-license-plates-at-abortion-clinics-it-s-not-just-happening-in-texas.
4. Robin Marty, “Running the Gauntlet,” Politico, June 11, 2014, http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/06/abortion-supreme-court-mccullen-v-coakley-107739.html#.VHyonWTF_38.
5. National Organization for Women, Inc. v. Scheidler, 510 U.S. 249 (S.C. 1994), No. 92-780.
6. “PLAN holds 1997 Convention in Milwaukee,” Life Advocate Nov./Dec., Vol. XII No. 9 (1997), http://www.lifeadvocate.org/11_97/nation.htm.
7. Judy Lundstrom Thomas, “Wrath of Angels Descends,” Interview with Anne Bower, The Body Politic, Vol. 7, No. 11, Dec. 1997, 17.
8. Josh Glasstetter, “Todd Akin Arrested on May 9, 1987 with Radical Anti-Abortion Group,” Right Wing Watch, Oct. 22, 2012, http://www.rightwingwatch.org/content/todd-akin-arrested-may-9-1987-radical-anti-abortion-group.
9. “Pro-Life Leader Joan Andrews Released from Prison,” The Forerunner, Nov. 1, 1988, http://www.forerunner.com/forerunner/X0446_Joan_Andrews_release.html.
10. Brian Caulfield, “Joan Andrews Bell Freed on Unsupervised Parole,” National Catholic Register, Apr. 5, 1998, http://www.ncregister.com/site/article/joan_andrews_bell_freed_on_unsupervised_parole.
11. William Booth, “Doctor Killed During Abortion Protest,” Washington Post, Mar. 11, 1993, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/national/longterm/abortviolence/stories/gunn.htm.
12. “Advocates for Life Ministries to Close,” Ms., Nov. 29, 1999, http://www.msmagazine.com/news/uswirestory.asp?id=1195.
13. “Andrew Burnett Biography,” Life Advocate, http://www.lifeadvocate.org/bio/andrew/bioandrw.htm.
14. “250 Arrested at Jersey Anti-Abortion Protest,” New York Times, Sept. 18, 1988, http://www.nytimes.com/1988/09/18/nyregion/250-arrested-at-jersey-anti-abortion-protest.html.
15. Cynthia L. Cooper, “N.Y. Launches Probe of Crisis-Pregnancy Centers,” Women’s E-News, Jan. 31, 2002, http://womensenews.org/story/health/020131/ny-launches-probe-crisis-pregnancy-centers.
16. Frank Schaeffer, “How My Dad and I Helped Create the Tea Party GOP and Terrorist Extremism,” Patheos, Nov. 15, 2014, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/frankschaeffer/2014/11/how-my-dad-and-i-helped-create-the-tea-party-gop-and-terrorist-extremism.
17. Tamar Lewin, “Death of a Doctor: the Moral Debate–Abortion Doctor and Body Guard Slain in Florida; A Cause Worth Killing For? Debate Splits Abortion Foes,” New York Times, July 30, 1994, http://www.nytimes.com/1994/07/30/us/death-doctor-moral-debate-abortion-doctor-bodyguardslain-florida-cause-worth.html.
18. Joe Scheidler, “Paul Hill Executed,” Pro-Life Action League, Sept 5, 2003, http://prolifeaction.org/hotline/2003/30905.
19. Adam Guasch-Melendez, “Grand Jury Won’t Issue Indictment for Abortion Conspiracy,” The Public Eye, March 1996, http://www.publiceye.org/ifas/fw/9603/conspiracy.html.
20. Robin Marty, “On the Sidewalks of a Chicago Clinic: A battle about how to End Abortion,” Clinic Stories, http://www.clinicstories.com.
21. Andrew Fegelman and Jean Latz Griffin, “Public Funds’ Use Key to Abortion Fight,” Chicago Tribune, Dec. 16, 1992, http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1992-09-16/news/9203240474_1_anti-abortion-pro-life-action-league-cook-county-hospital.
22. Robin Marty, “Working As an Abortion Doctor in the Town Where Dr. Tiller Got Shot,” Think Progress, Feb. 7, 2014, http://thinkprogress.org/health/2014/02/07/3266341/cheryl-chastine-abortion-harassment.
23. “Live Action News,” http://liveactionnews.org/about.
24. “Top 12 Reasons to Defund Planned Parenthood Now,” Susan B. Anthony List, Apr. 8, 2011, http://www.sba-list.org/suzy-b-blog/top-12-reasons-defund-planned-parenthood-now.
25. “Live Action and Students for Life of America Release Winner of “Tell Congress” Video Contest,” Expose Planned Parenthood, Mar. 15, 2011, http://exposeplannedparenthood.net/newsroom/press-releases.
26. “Planned Parenthood Exposed Partners,” http://plannedparenthoodexposed.com/partners.
27. Anne Scheidler, “Scheidlers Headline at Fourth Annual National Sidewalk Counseling Symposium,” Pro-Life Action League, Aug. 15, 2014, http://prolifeaction.org/hotline/2014/nscs2014.
28. Monica Migliorino Miller, Abandoned: The Untold Story of the Abortion Wars (Charlotte: St. Benedict Press, 2012).
29. Priest For Life Image Collection, http://www.priestsforlife.org/resources/monica.
30. Robin Marty, “Let’s Get Visceral: Anti-abortion Activists Plan Memorial Services for Unborn Fetuses, Complete with Tiny Coffins,” In These Times, Sept. 13, 2013, http://inthesetimes.com/article/15615/lets_get_visceral.
31. Pro-Life Action League, Guide Star Report, p.2, http://www.guidestar.org/ViewPdf.aspx?PdfSource=0&ein=36-3081086.
32. “Pro-Life Action Store Products,” Pro-Life League, https://pro-life-action-league-store.myshopify.com/collections/all.
33. U.S. Department of the Treasury, Internal Revenue Service, Form 990, (Washington, DC: 2012), p.10, http://www.guidestar.org/FinDocuments/2013/363/081/2013-363081086-0a0988d5-9.pdf.
34. Angela Nagel, “Why American Pro-Life Dollars Are Pouring Into Ireland,” Atlantic, Jan. 9, 2013, http://www.filmyboxoffice.com/news/why-american-pro-life-dollars-are-pouring-into-ireland.html.
35. Allie Higgins, “Recruiting the Next Generation: How Conservative Groups Influence and Enlist Young People,” Catholics for a Free Choice, 2005, http://www.thefreelibrary.com/Recruiting+the+next+generation%3A+how+conservative+groups+influence+and…-a0136262288.
36. Eric Scheidler, “Eric Visits Ireland to Encourage Pro-Life Youth,” Pro-Life Action League, Nov. 12, 2010, http://prolifeaction.org/hotline/2010/vivalavida.
37. Kristina Garza, “Best Conference Yet,” Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust Blog, Nov. 12, 2014, http://www.survivors.la/blog/2014/11/12/best-conference-yet.
38. “Program Schedule,” Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust Blog, 2014, http://www.survivors.la/-program-schedule.
39. Anne Donald, “Guardian of the Right to Life,” The Herald Scotland, Nov. 19, 1999, http://www.heraldscotland.com/sport/spl/aberdeen/guardian-of-the-right-to-life-1.261598.
40. Henry McDonald, “Anti-Abortion Activist Found Guilty of Harassing Belfast Marie Stopes Boss,” Guardian, Nov. 19, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2014/nov/19/abortion-activist-guilty-harassing-belfast-marie-stopes.

Natural Deception: Conned By the World Congress of Families

Click here for the full issue.

Click here for the full issue.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ORIGINS AND AGENDA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

USING THE U.N.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FEAR OF A DARKER PLANET: FROM NATIVISM TO NATALISM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE AFRICAN CAMPAIGN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BRINGING THE FIGHT BACK HOME

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Footnotes

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s take a look at some recent examples.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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