Tony Perkins Pops Off

 


Tony Perkins speaking at the Values Voter Summit in Washington D.C. on October 7, 2011. Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr.

Paul Rosenberg recently published an essay at Salon that challenged the myth that the United States was founded as a Christian Nation. The occasion was the then-forthcoming annual celebration of Religious Freedom Day, which commemorates the enactment of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. The Statute, written by Thomas Jefferson and shepherded into law by James Madison in 1786, is generally regarded as the taproot of how the Framers of the Constitution and the First Amendment approach religion and government.  Rosenberg interviewed me for his story, and we agreed that that the Christian Right generally, and the Family Research Council (FRC) in particular, is promoting the myth of a Christian nation that never was. I believe that this is a serious weakness in the justifications the Christian Right uses to advance its contemporary agenda.  It is an effort to press the Framers of the Constitution into their service with the false claim that the Framers held to a certain “Christian worldview” –– and that they forged the Constitution and the First Amendment to establish and advance it.

Tony Perkins, president of FRC responded by devoting the entirety of his regular Washington Update missive to slamming us.  But out of the fog of Perkins’ remarkable tangle of distortions and falsehoods, his essay inadvertently underscores my point about the weakness of the Christian nationalist claim.

First, let’s note that the Christian Right generally avoids talking about the Constitution because of the well-established history that the Framers deliberately did not include anything about God, Christianity, or religion at all in the nation’s charter, except to state in Article VI that there shall be no religious tests for public office.  But Perkins, writing “with the aid of FRC senior writers” rests his case with this:

Our own Constitution closes with the words, “In the year of our Lord, 1787.” That’s a reference to Jesus! The signers not only embraced Christianity, they anchored our most important document in it.

Common sense tells us that the style of the dating of a document does not define its contents or the intentions of the authors.  However, historian John Fea of the evangelical Messiah College has written about this very point.

I am often asked about this reference when answering questions about my book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction.

The phrase “Year of our Lord,” which is the only reference to God in the United States Constitution, was, of course, a standard eighteenth-century way of referencing the date.

Then he explains:

We know that the phrase “Year of our Lord” was not included in the draft of the Constitution that was approved by the Convention.

No one knows for sure how it got in there, but it is clear that it was added afterward, perhaps as some speculate, as a “scrivener’s touch.”

Second, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom that so guided the Framers of the Constitution, was intended to guarantee the rights of conscience of individual citizens, declaring:  “…all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”

And when Jefferson wrote “all” he meant everyone, including, as he later wrote “the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination.” This idea–that one’s religious identity should be neither an advantage nor a disadvantage under the law––was central to the intent of Madison and the Framers and cannot be undone with false claims and interpretations of convenience.

Anyone who wishes to get the real story should consult legitimate histories by contemporary historians (such as John Ragosta’s Religious Freedom: Jefferson’s Legacy, America’s Creed.)

Third, Perkins regales us with the spectacle of setting up and knocking down of a strawman

Thomas Jefferson, meanwhile, was so proud of writing the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom that it’s included on his tombstone! Does that sound like someone who doesn’t believe in expressions of faith?

Like Jefferson, Paul Rosenberg and I are not opposed to expressions of faith, and there is nothing in Rosenberg’s essay that suggests otherwise. It is certainly true that Jefferson had his authorship of the Virginia Statute engraved on the monument that marks his grave. As a matter of fact, John Ragosta and I discussed that very point in an interview at Religion Dispatches, published on January 8, 2018.  Jefferson certainly believed, as do Rosenberg and I, that the right to believe as you will, to think differently than powerful government and religious institutions, and from the rich and the powerful, is essential to democracy.

Another strawman is Perkins’ claim:

One minute the Left is rushing to write our obituary — and the next, we’re powerful enough to create a theocracy!

There have certainly been many obituaries for the Christian Right published over the years, but none of them have been written by me or by Paul Rosenberg. In fact, I have criticized such unfounded claims many times over the years. As recently as December 28, 2017, for example, I tweeted “Nota bene for the New Year. The Christian Right is not dead, dying or diminished.” I also have never written and do not believe that they are “powerful enough to create a theocracy” – although I maintain that they have not only been effectively building for power,  but their theocratic intentions are unambiguous, and they are not to be underestimated (as my new article in The Public Eye makes clear.)

But of course, I could be wrong this time.

Tony Perkins and most of the Christian Right hitched their wagons to the political fortunes Donald Trump and losing Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore. It was a big risk given the long shadows on their characters including credible accusations of serial sexual predation. Trump and Moore were featured speakers at the 2017 Values Voter Summit hosted by the FRC and other leading organizations of the Christian Right last fall. Most of the Christian Right stood by Moore throughout his campaign, and continue to stand by Trump, who in his first year in office has managed to become the most unpopular president in modern American history. And there are indications it may get worse. Polls show that once overwhelming White evangelical support for Trump is slipping. What’s more, some evangelical leaders are concerned that Trump, Moore and the evangelicals who supported them may have severely damaged the reputation of evangelicalism itself. The editor of Christianity Today, the leading magazine of evangelicalism wrote that in the wake of the Roy Moore fiasco, “No one will believe a word we say, perhaps for a generation. Christianity’s integrity is severely tarnished.”

It’s possible that such reactions are overwrought. As bad as things may look for Trump and evangelicalism right now, Christianity has withstood worse. What’s more, the political climate could change quickly, as sometimes happens. Part of the strength of the Christian Right has been its ideological adaptability, its political resilience, and its attention to the details of building for political power.

Whatever the future may hold for religious and political leaders, they intend to wield the power they have now in ways that will affect many people.

There could hardly be a better example of the stakes in the contemporary struggle over the meaning of religious freedom than the recent formation of the federal Department of Health and Human Service’s “Conscience and Religious Freedom Division” within its Office for Civil Rights. The division will oversee enforcement of federal laws that allow medical providers to refuse to provide or to even be indirectly involved in care that conflicts with their moral or religious conscience.  This is understood to mean an expansive policy tilt to the discriminatory doctrines of the Christian Right and Roman Catholic Bishops on such matters as reproductive choice, gender identity and sexual orientation.

Jefferson, Madison and the leaders of their generation sought to prevent favored factions from being able to use the government to enforce their doctrines on everyone else. And yet this is exactly what the FRC and their allies are trying to do.

A Manual to Restore a Christian Nation that Never Was

Click here for a PDF.

This article appears in the Winter 2018 edition of The Public Eye magazine.

In October 2017, I was perusing the exhibit area of the Values Voter Summit, the annual political conference of the Family Research Council (FRC), when I was buttonholed by John Méndez, national coordinator for the Christian Right giant’s network of church-based political committees. As a white-haired White guy in a blazer, I must have seemed like a good prospect, because he wanted to know if I was interested in forming such a committee in my church.

He reached under the display table and pulled out a box containing copies of Culture Impact Team Resource Manual: a 200-page three-ring binder of instructions and resources for setting up such groups in local churches. He gave me two copies: one for my pastor, whose buy-in would be essential for organizing a Culture Impact Team, or “CIT.” They were so bulky they barely fit in my conference tote bag. But I was glad I managed. Originally published in 2011, the manual—which includes, among other things, sample voter guides and instructions for church-based voter registration drives—has served as the primer for church-based, Christian Right political action for the past seven years. It certainly played a role in the 2016 elections, and will no doubt continue to be used for the foreseeable future.

Originally published in 2011, the Culture Impact Team resource manual has served as the primer for church-based, Christian Right political action for the past seven years.

While the manual has been promoted at other conferences and is available to download online, it’s gathered little notice beyond the Christian Right. Nevertheless, it has been an important grassroots playbook and ideological manifesto of lasting significance, serving as both the contemporary blueprint for a central element of the infrastructure of today’s Christian Right and an integrated historical and theological justifications for its political agenda.

After Donald Trump received 81 percent of the White evangelical vote in the 2016 presidential election, there was substantial polling and reporting on what issues concerned this demographic. But there was comparatively little reporting on the theological and historical justifications that underlie those issues and animate the movement more broadly. Similarly, there has not been much reporting on how the Christian Right has been organized, and how the church-based model encouraged by the manual may be playing a role.

But alongside this influence, the manual inadvertently reveals an underappreciated weakness. It illuminates the Christian Right’s dynamic political theology but also shows how its theological justifications rest in part on false historical interpretations. These assumptions, which generally fall under the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation, have become commonplace in conservative evangelical culture, even as the anti-democratic ideology and distorted historical narrative in the manual expose a cracked and vulnerable foundation that can’t support the movement forever.

 

The Maturation of a Movement

The Values Voter Summit is FRC’s annual Christian Right political conference in D.C.

FRC was founded in 1983 and soon became the political and policy arm of James Dobson’s Focus on the Family. It later became independent, and under the leadership of Tony Perkins, has grown into Washington, D.C.’s premier Christian Right political organization. It serves as the national hub of some three-dozen state Family Policy Councils, most of which are also affiliated with Focus on the Family’s current political offshoot, Family Policy Alliance. All also partner with the Christian Right legal network, Alliance Defending Freedom.1 Taken together, they constitute the leading coalition of the evangelical wing of the Christian Right. FRC’s Values Voter Summit has become Washington’s most important Christian Right political conference, drawing major political figures, including, in 2017, President Donald Trump and then Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore. Since Trump’s election, FRC has grown even more influential, becoming a guiding force in policy and personnel development in the administration. As Perkins told The New York Times in 2017, “I’ve been to the White House I don’t know how many more times in the first six months this year than I was during the entire Bush administration.”2

Unsurprisingly, the administration is festooned with Christian Right figures, notably Vice President Mike Pence, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. All of these, along with other top administration officials, attend a weekly Bible study led by Christian nationalist pastor Ralph Drollinger. (An additional Drollinger-led Bible study is attended by many Members of Congress.)3 Cabinet members’ embrace of Christian nationalism has profound policy implications. DeVos, for example, has long viewed school privatization schemes as a way to “advance God’s kingdom”4 and Trump’s education plan seeks to redirect billions of dollars in federal funds away from “failing government schools” towards private, including religious, schools.5

Trump has also rewarded this constituency in other ways. His appointment to the Supreme Court of Neal Gorsuch, an appellate court judge who sided with Hobby Lobby stores in the company’s historic suit against the contraception coverage mandate in the Affordable Care Act, delighted the Christian Right.6 They were similarly gratified when Trump issued an executive order on religious liberty, prompting Attorney General Sessions to draft religious liberty guidelines for all federal departments,7 allowing religious employers “to employ only persons whose beliefs and conduct are consistent with the employers’ religious precepts”—a dictate interpreted by many as allowing federal contractors to discriminate against LGBTQ people.

In a fundraising letter, FRC identified Trump’s executive order as its top accomplishment of 2017. But long before the Christian Right joined the top ranks of governmental power, it was reshaping itself, drawing on the lessons of the past in pursuit of permanent dominance in American public life. The manual epitomizes this, weaving detailed theological and historical justifications into a narrative in which today’s conservative evangelicals are carrying forward the mission of both God and the leaders of the American Revolution. This grounding provides church CITs with the direction and know-how to build an effective grassroots infrastructure. The goal is to turn parishioners into voters, voters into activists, and activists into issue specialists and candidates who might implement godly principles in law.

Church-Based Political Committees

The Family Research Council offers a variety of “Culture Impact Tools” to help Church members influence “our culture, our public policy, and our elected officials.”

The CITs are the basic unit of the Family Policy Councils/Family Policy Alliance state political network. FRC claims to have nearly 5,000 such groups. While there is no independent confirmation of that number, nor of how active the groups are, FRC has dedicated a number of national staff to develop and maintain this network. FRC president Tony Perkins has gone so far as to declare, “Operating under the authority of the church’s leadership, CITs serve as the command center for a church’s efforts to engage the culture.”8

The job of CITs is to create and build upon extant church political committees, across denominational lines: with a Baptist focus but an ecumenical intent. In 2011, when the manual was released, FRC was reorganizing and refocusing their political base in the run-up to the 2012 election season and beyond, and CITs were the building blocks to make that possible.

The manual was compiled by Kenyn Cureton, FRC Vice President for Church Ministries and a former official of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. Cureton has been with FRC since 2006, and claims a network of 41,000 activist pastors, recruited under the rubric of Watchmen on the Wall, who are also encouraged to form CITs. In a training video, Cureton explains that once established, CITs work to inform, equip, alert, and mobilize church members on public policy and electoral engagement.

To that end, his manual includes sample voter guides—an updated version of voter engagement materials he’d originally developed with Richard Land of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission—as well as instructions for how churches should use them. The collaboration behind that project itself illustrates an evolution in Christian Right strategy, from externally organized partisan political development to building an ecumenical political program with a common message to be shared among different movement groups, and which is compatible with existing church thought and structure.

A more recent example of this occurred between FRC and the Texas-based Christian Right group Vision America. Together the two groups mapped the nature and level of engagement of individual congregations, with their permission and, notably, for their internal use. As Vision America’s John Graves and Rebecca Berry explained in a 2016 CIT training video, they partnered with individual churches’ CIT leaders to compare congregations’ membership lists against a database of registered voters. The national groups obtained data for voter mobilization, and the pastors and individual CITs received a portrait of their congregation’s political participation that could help them organize their church towards maximum political impact.

A 21st Century Approach

Many of the CIT tactics explained in the manual may seem like contemporary takes on old ideas, recalling the efforts of the Christian Coalition in the 1980s and ‘90s. Key to the Coalition’s method was obtaining and comparing church membership lists with voter registration and mailing lists of anti-abortion, gun rights, and other issue groups to create voter files for political and electoral development. In the 1990s, the Coalition built on an earlier concept called “in-pew voter registration” with events they called “Citizenship Sundays.” Today’s CITs stage an annual event of the same name, similarly aimed at voter registration.9 (In 2016, the event was held on September 18, shortly before registration for the November election closed.)

There are subtle, but important differences in these approaches though, that shed light on how the movement has grown. Since the decline of the Christian Coalition and other national groups with aging leaders, and especially since Barack Obama’s election in 2008, the Christian Right has needed to reorganize, thanks to generational changes in leadership, institutionalization of a fractious but dynamic movement, and the typical adaptations that any social and political movement faces after losing a national election. This has partly meant revising, retooling and updating the mechanics of their political operations. And the primary distinction between the old and new forms of organizing is where the movement thrust is coming from.

Since the decline of the Christian Coalition and other national groups with aging leaders, and especially since Barack Obama’s election in 2008, the Christian Right has needed to reorganize.

The Christian Coalition worked primarily outside of churches in its effort to mobilize conservative Christians into politics, sometimes alienating pastors and congregations with tactics like aggressively leafleting church parking lots with voter guides during Sunday services. The approach of today’s Christian Right is to work primarily from within: the manual encourages individual churches to connect their resources with a greater public movement, in their own way, at their own pace. It’s a method intended to have longer-term effects, as Christian Right activism becomes more of an organic part of local congregations’ beliefs and actions that flow from them. A Facebook post by the South Dakota FRC affiliate, Family Heritage Alliance, epitomized this when promoting a seminar on CITs in November 2017: “The Culture Impact Team is indigenous to your church. Focusing on the local church allows us to be able to come along side you to be a source of information, equipping, alerting, and mobilizing you and your church as we engage our communities, state and nation.”10

The Christian Coalition worked primarily outside of churches; today’s Christian Right works from within.

But even as FRC and its affiliates assure churches that they are in control, they see them as a potent part of their political plans; the Family Heritage Alliance hoped to train its state’s CITs to fight religious liberty issues as a 2018 priority.11

Similar efforts are ongoing in other states. In 2012, FRC teamed up with their Ohio state political affiliate (Citizens for Community Values), the Alliance Defending Freedom, and Focus on the Family’s political unit, then called CitizenLink (now Family Policy Alliance), to organize six CIT training conferences to prepare for the 2012 election and in anticipation of a referendum on marriage equality in 2013.12 In 2014, FRC organized a series of 12 rallies for pastors across North Carolina, partly with the intention of organizing CITs.13

In August 2015, a Baptist church in Louisiana hosted a “pastors luncheon” to promote the formation of new CITs in other congregations. The event featured as speakers Tony Perkins (who headed the state’s FRC/Focus on the Family political affiliate before becoming the national FRC leader); then-Senator David Vitter (R-LA); and Mike Johnson,14 an attorney who’d be elected as state representative that fall. Johnson’s appearance at this catalytic event demonstrated another role that the CITs play: providing an electoral base—and arguably a launching pad––for aspiring Christian Right pols who go on to advance their agenda. Shortly after his election, Rep. Johnson proposed a bill titled the Marriage and Conscience Act, similar to Indiana’s controversial 2015 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which would have made it easier for businesses to claim religious exemptions to anti-discrimination laws. The bill was tabled, but Johnson went on to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he serves on the House Judiciary Committee.

On January 16, 2016—Religious Freedom Day—FRC hosted a national four-hour seminar called the Free to Believe Broadcast.

And on January 16, 2016—Religious Freedom Day—FRC hosted a national four-hour seminar called the Free to Believe Broadcast.15 Republican Presidential candidates Jeb Bush, Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, Marco Rubio, Carly Fiorina, Rick Santorum and Donald Trump were slated to send video messages about their views on religious freedom.16 Speakers included FRC leaders as well as Ronnie Floyd, the President of the Southern Baptist Convention. Some 160 churches hosted viewings and discussion groups in all 50 states.17 The announcement declared that churches should “Use this event to gather a group of believers interested in joining or forming a Culture Impact Ministry in your church.”18

The Myth of Christian Nationalism

All of this organization is in service of a seamless theological and pseudo-historical narrative, which both mobilizes lay conservative Christians and provides the framework for their political agenda. When the manual approvingly quotes Richard Land as saying that it is up to Christians to “restore once again to America a biblically based legal system that protects all human life from conception to natural death,”19 its author is appealing for the restoration of a Christian nation that never was––what historian Frank Lambert calls a “usable past” that justifies the politics of the present.20

This usable past suggests a transcendent vision of a Christian nation, mandated by God and ordered by the Founding Fathers. It’s a powerful appeal, yet one based on self-serving distortions of history. This feature of the movement—one that stokes much of its followers’ passion—may also contain the seeds of its undoing.

“On July 4, 1776 in Philadelphia,” Cureton writes in the manual, “our Founding Fathers signed a document declaring our independence from the tyranny of those who would enslave the minds, the souls, the lives of men. But what many Americans don’t realize is that with the same document, we not only declared our independence from Great Britain, we just as strongly declared our dependence upon Almighty God.”

This argument is part of the manual’s larger conflation of God and the intentions of the Founding Fathers, deployed to justify contemporary Christian Right views of what the Constitution requires on such matters as religious freedom and separation of church and state.

The manual’s conflation of God and the intentions of the Founding Fathers is deployed to justify Christian Right views on separation of church and state.

History doesn’t bear out the argument that the United States was founded as a Christian nation. God, the Bible, and Christianity are nowhere mentioned in the Constitution. The sole reference to religion is in Article VI, which proscribes religious tests for public office, and thereby established a principle of religious equality that has, over time, similarly precluded religious tests for citizenship, voting, or for immigrants and refugees.

Because the story of the Constitution does not bear out their claims, Christian nationalists usually avoid talking about it and often rely on the Declaration of Independence as proof that the country was founded as a Christian Nation, to be governed under biblical laws. The revolutionary language of the Declaration and religious references it employs are often artfully fused with the intentions of the Framers of the Constitution. But in fact, the Framers’ approach to matters of religion and government are not rooted in the Declaration of Independence at all.

The Declaration was a revolutionary manifesto announcing the separation of the colonies from the British Empire, intended to rally people to revolt against the greatest military force in the world at that time. Given the daunting political complexity of the task, the signers of the Declaration were glad to invoke the deity. But when it came time to create a system of government, the Framers of the Constitution made no appeal to God or Christianity in producing the nation’s charter a decade later. As historically important as the Declaration surely is, it was not, then or now, constitutionally or legally significant. In the manual, Cureton employs a standard tactic of Christian nationalist revisionism by erasing distinctions between the signers of the Declaration with the Framers of the Constitution, calling them all “Founding Fathers” to suggest that these men operating in different times and circumstances all agreed and that they meant what Cureton claims.

A statue of Thomas Jefferson, author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, in Colonial Williamsburg, VA.

The actual story of religious liberty in the U.S. is far different than Cureton and his ilk would have us know. Its origin is found not in the Declaration’s appeals to God, but rather in the work of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. After serving as the principal author of the Declaration in 1776, within a year of his returning to Virginia, Jefferson wrote and introduced in the state legislature what became the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. The point was to promote religious equality under the law, such that citizens may believe as they will and that this “shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”21 There is nothing in the Virginia Statute holding a special place for Christianity or that otherwise supports Cureton’s claims.22 As historians Edwin S. Gaustad and Leigh E. Schmidt wrote in their classic, The Religious History of America, the development of religious freedom in Virginia “determined the course that the nation itself chose to follow.”23

Christian nationalists seek to obscure the historical reality of the nature and purpose of the Virginia Statute, probably because it is an indictment of exclusionary and oppressive forms of religion that rings as true today as it did in the 18th Century. Although Christian nationalism continues to hold for many a certain misty-eyed nostalgia for something that never was, it has been debunked, including by evangelical historians.24

Nevertheless, these ideas are the fundamentals of Christian nationalist ideology and are part of what FRC wants its grassroots activists to build upon. And the failure of most of the rest of society to engage with this body of misinformation has effectively ceded the public debate, treating these distortions as esoteric matters best left to the academy and the most persistent advocates of separation of church and state.

The failure of most of the rest of society to engage with this body of misinformation has effectively ceded the public debate.

History is powerful. That’s why it is important for the rest of us not just to know how the Religious Right is wrong, but also that the Framers of the Constitution intended to inoculate the country against the ravages of religious supremacism.

Dominionism and the Culture Mandate

Other key texts in the manual refer to the “cultural mandate” or the “cultural commission”—terms that in other contexts are used interchangeably with the “dominion mandate.” This idea derives from the biblical book of Genesis, in which God declares that man shall “have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” Over the past half-century, the phrase has become the watchword for the religious vision of Dominionists, who believe that, regardless of theological camp, means, or timetable, God has called conservative Christians to exercise dominion over society by taking control of political and cultural institutions.25

This frank theocratic language is remarkable in itself since so much of what we hear is couched in vaguer terms like “family values” and “values voter.”

The implications of these terms, considered the foundation for a “biblical worldview” (used interchangeably with a “Christian Worldview”) and the activities related to attaining Christian domination over every area of life, are discussed in the manual. This frank theocratic language is remarkable in itself since so much of what we hear is couched in vaguer terms like “family values” and “values voter.” Cureton’s essays in the manual, by contrast, epitomize contemporary Dominionism, as when he writes:

This God-given responsibility and authority to have dominion is all inclusive. As vice-regents of God, we are to bring His sovereign rule (i.e., His Kingdom) to bear on every sphere of our world, not just the sacred, but also the secular. God’s dominion is to hold sway over all human endeavors and institutes, such as religious practice, ethics, education, government, science, medicine, the arts, the environments, entertainment, etc.26

The manual’s worldview was given voice at the 2017 Values Voter Summit, when plenary speaker Dr. Frank Wright, CEO of the D. James Kennedy Center for Christian Statesmanship in Washington, D.C., explained the biblical justification for political action. “[T]he Great Commission and the Cultural Mandate together comprise the ethic of Christian cultural engagement,” Wright declared. He emphasized that God is sovereign over all of the institutions of culture, “including and maybe especially government and politics.”27 Wright’s Center for Christian Statesmanship seeks to train members of Congress and staff in this approach to government and governing.

Wrong on Religious Liberty

Writing in the manual, Cureton equates religious liberty solely with advancing the mission of conservative evangelical Christianity, especially on abortion, sexuality, gender, and marriage. As Cureton sees it, religious freedom amounts to this: that “God has given every human being the basic freedom of being able to relate to and worship Him both privately and publicly, a freedom which is enshrined in our First Amendment.”28 No mention is made of the religious freedom of others.

As Cureton sees it, religious freedom amounts to this: that “God has given every human being the basic freedom of being able to relate to and worship Him.

Such a narrow and self-serving claim relies on a shaky foundation not supported by history. A focus of this revisionist campaign is a long-term siege against Thomas Jefferson’s famous phrase, “wall of separation between church and state,” and related constitutional principles. Historian John Ragosta writes that prior to the modern notion of Christian nationalism, the idea of separation of church and state was little questioned. It had been central to Supreme Court jurisprudence since 1879.29

In keeping with this siege on the metaphorical wall, Cureton grossly distorts the idea of church-state separation, its history and the motives of its defenders. The distortions involve the claim that religion generally and Christianity in particular need protection from the alleged creeping tyranny of the secular state. Unfortunately, these and other such claims have not been contested as widely as befits their central role in the religious and political identity of members of the Christian Right.

In 1802, President Jefferson wrote to the Baptist Association of Danbury, Connecticut, to assure this religious minority of his support for religious freedom. At the time, Connecticut had yet to disestablish the Congregational Church, and Baptists were effectively second-class citizens. Jefferson promised them, in a letter vetted by his Attorney General, that they could be so assured because the First Amendment had erected a wall of separation between church and state.

But Cureton claims, in one of several essays in the manual, that the “true meaning of Jefferson’s ‘wall’” is that he intended it as “a protection of people of faith from government intrusion.”30 This echoes a long-debunked notion that the metaphor was intended as a “one-directional wall” to protect religion from government, when in fact the purpose was for the protection of both from one another.31 Cureton is evidently aware of this, complaining that the Supreme Court has “ignored the original intent of the Founding Fathers” and “trashed four centuries of America’s Judeo-Christian heritage” in “declaring a two-way ‘Wall of Separation’ between church and state.”32

Unsurprisingly, Cureton, therefore, claims that the so-called “culture war” is a war against both Christian beliefs and against “our nation’s Christian heritage.”33 He questions the patriotism of anyone who holds different views. “Nobody,” he concludes, “ought to claim to be a good citizen, a patriot who takes Christianity out of culture, God out of government.”34

This dualistic framing pits the people of God against a secular government whose actual purpose is to protect the rights of all. Indeed, Cureton claims that defenders of church-state separation are trying to silence Christians who speak out about the issues of the day:

[H]ave you noticed how the critics cry foul, claiming “Separation of Church & State,” and saying “You don’t have a right to speak about public policy and law! Go cower in your church, lock yourself in your little stained glass prison, and stay there!”35

Of course, few if any ever say such things. And consistent with Cureton’s method, he cites no examples of anyone who ever has.

The Virtual Reality of “Christian Worldview Glasses”

Cureton and his ilk believe that there are three areas of God-ordained governance: civil government, the family, and the church.36 And while he insists that the godly institution of civil government must be obeyed, he also says that when it strays out of conformity with God’s laws, it is incumbent on Christians to resist. How far this resistance should go is the question.

The influential evangelical theologian Francis Schaeffer’s 1981 book, A Christian Manifesto, served as a catalyst for the evangelical anti-abortion movement, the broader Christian Right, and the creeping theocratization of the Republican Party.37 Cureton cites the book in denouncing an apolitical stance on the part of some conservative Christians as “unbiblical,” declaring that, “it is in fact a heresy, a doctrine of demons.” The answer, Cureton asserts, is “to recover a biblically based worldview that rightly places all of life under the rule of God.”38

While Schaeffer claimed to support religious pluralism and to oppose theocracy, his work inspired the political activism of many who later became full-fledged Dominionists. Although he didn’t share the belief, held by Christian Reconstructionist followers of theologian R.J. Rushdoony, that society should eventually be reorganized according to Old Testament biblical laws, he nonetheless warned of a profound threat to contemporary Christianity by secular government and called for massive resistance.

Cureton, like many others, follows in Schaeffer’s harsh rhetorical wake, calling judges “black robed tyrants” who are engaged in “radical secularization” of the public square, promoting homosexuality, which he calls a “deceptive perversion,” and attacking the “sacred institution of marriage.”39

Cureton’s manual thus casts the ordinary struggles of public life in terms of religious war. And in so doing, it does not just idly employ military and apocalyptic rhetoric the way some people speak of politics as a horserace. Rather, the meaning is more literal, as he states, “we are soldiers on a battlefield of a much grander scale fighting in a War that has been waged since the beginning of time with an enemy that desperately seeks to stop God’s kingdom from coming…”40

“It is only when you put on your ‘Christian worldview glasses,’” Cureton declares, “that you can see the current culture war for what it really is.”41

Following this, Cureton denounces the idea of religious tolerance, and anything other than a “black and white” view of good and evil, as a “subtle, sinister brainwashing process” that seeks “peaceful co-existence with evil.”42 Therefore, he concludes, sometimes, “we must stand up to our government …if the government commands what God condemns, then you are obliged to disobey.”43

Justifying what he calls the “last resort” of Christian civil disobedience, he attributes a quote to George Washington: “Government… is a troublesome servant and a fearful Master.”44 Tellingly, it’s a line taken from a larger statement that the Washington Library at Mt. Vernon has debunked as “spurious.”45

The Manual for Theocratic Dominion

The religious vision of the manual, of conservative Christians laboring toward political dominion, and the many Christian Right catchphrases it deploys, are familiar to anyone engaged in public life. Many of its false historical claims are also familiar. Taken together they provide a clear snapshot of the ideological presumptions of the Christian Right and merit careful study as well as the development of thoughtful responses.

Culture Impact Teams serve as the ground troops of a formidable political army, now waging its war from the center of politics and government, where they’ve been empowered to advance a dangerous suite of theocratic and persecutory policies. What’s often lost amid the consternation over Trump’s support among White evangelicals, is that it they are not just a mystifying demographic, but a politically well-organized one as well. When people refer to “the base,” they are an important element; when they refer to the infrastructure of the Christian Right, CITs make up its foundation. And when we say that the Christian Right is promoting theocratic Dominionism, FRC’s manual is Exhibit A in demonstrating how this ideology is shaping national policy, as well as the Christian Right’s plan to continue building their base into the future.

End notes

1 Frederick Clarkson, EXPOSED: How the Right’s State-Based Think Tanks Are Transforming U.S. Politics, The Public Eye, Winter 2013. See FRC State Family Policy Councils; Focus on the Family’s political arm, Family Policy Alliance’s State Family Policy Councils.

2 Jeremy Peters, Trump Keeps His Conservative Movement Allies Closest, The New York Times, August 2, 2017.

3 Katherine Stewart, The Museum of the Bible Is a Safe Space for Christian Nationalists, The New York Times, January 6, 2018; Peter Montgomery, Leader Of Trump Cabinet Bible Studies Aggressively Expanding Right-Wing Proselytizing To Government Officials, Right Wing Watch, November 27, 2017.

4 Katherine Stewart, Betsy DeVos and God’s Plan for Schools, The New York Times, December 13, 2016.

5 Kristina Rizga, Betsy DeVos Wants to Use America’s Schools to Build “God’s Kingdom”: Trump’s education secretary pick has spent a lifetime working to end public education as we know it, Mother Jones, March/April 2017.

6 Steve Vladeck, Hobby Lobby and executive power: Gorsuch’s key rulings, CNN, February 1, 2017.

7 Department of Justice, Office of Public Affairs, Attorney General Sessions Issues Guidance On Federal Law Protections For Religious Liberty, October 6, 2017.

8 Tony Perkins, Doubting Thomas: Libs Take on Jefferson’s Legacy, Washington Watch, January 15, 2018.

9 Rebecca Berry and John Graves, Pastors 2028 Project – Practical Implementation, You Tube, Posted March 10, 2016; See Culture Impact Team training video 10.

10 Family Heritage Alliance, Culture Impact Training, Rapid City, Facebook, retrieved January 7, 2018.

11 Dana Ferguson, Conservative group will wait for new governor to push transgender bill, Argus Leader, September 27, 2017.

12 Brian Tashman, Anti-Gay Groups Prepare for Potential Ohio Referendum on Marriage Ban, Right Wing Watch, July 27, 2012.

13 Posmo, Rabid anti-gay “Pastors 4 NC”, BlueNC, June 27, 2014.

14 Brian Blackwell, Culture Impact Teams help churches influence society, The Message, April 1, 2015.

15 Free to Believe Broadcast, Family Research Council, YouTube, January 16, 2016.

16 John Wright, WATCH LIVE: Eight GOP Presidential Candidates to Speak During Anti-Gay Web Hatecast, Towleroad, January 16, 2016.

17 Family Research Council, Family Research Council’s Free to Believe Nationwide Broadcast to Reach Over 160 Churches in 50 States, January 14, 2016.

18 Free to Believe, Culture Impact web site.

19 Kenyn Cureton, unbylined essay, “Biblical Basis: Firm Foundation for Cultural Impact Ministry,” Pgs. 18-19. Included in Kenyn Cureton, Culture Impact Team Resource Manual: How to Establish a Ministry at Your Church, Family Research Council, 2011.

20 Frank Lambert, Separation of Church & State: Founding Principle of Religious Liberty, Mercer University Press, 2014. Pg. 13.

21 Quotes from Thomas Jefferson, Monticello.

22 John Ragosta, Religious Freedom: Jefferson’s Legacy, America’s Creed, University of Virginia Press, 2013; Edwin S. Gaustad, Sworn on the Altar of God: A Religious Biography of Thomas Jefferson, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996.

23 Edwin S. Gaustad and Leigh E. Schmidt, The Religious History of America, Revised Edition, Harper Collins, 2002. Pg. 123.

24 See John Fea, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? A Historical Introduction, Westminster John Knox Press, 2011. Passim.

25 Frederick Clarkson, Dominionism Rising: A Theocratic Movement Hiding in Plain Sight, The Public Eye, Summer 2016.

26 Kenyn Cureton, unbylined essay, “Biblical Basis: Firm Foundation for Cultural Impact Ministry,” Pgs. 3-4.

27 Frank Wright, Video Archive, Values Voter Summit, 2017.

28 Kenyn Cureton, Culture Impact Team Resource Manual: How to Establish a Ministry at Your Church, Family Research Council, 2011. Pg. 24

29 John Ragosta, Religious Freedom: Jefferson’s Legacy, America’s Creed, University of Virginia Press, 2013. Pgs. 1-3.

30 Kenyn Cureton, Culture Impact Team Resource Manual: How to Establish a Ministry at Your Church, Family Research Council, 2011. Pg. 37.

31 Robert Boston, Sects, Lies and Videotape: David Barton’s Distorted History, Church & State, April 1993.

32 Kenyn Cureton, unbylined essay, “Christian Citizenship Sunday: How you Can Have Maximum Patriotic Impact,” 2011. (Pg. 8 of an unpaginated document).

33 Kenyn Cureton, unbylined essay, “Biblical Basis: Firm Foundation for Cultural Impact Ministry,” Pg. 1.

34 Kenyn Cureton, unbylined essay, “Christian Citizenship Sunday: How you Can Have Maximum Patriotic Impact.” (Pg. 8 of an unpaginated document).

35 Kenyn Cureton, unbylined essay, “Christian Citizenship Sunday: How you Can Have Maximum Patriotic Impact.” (Pg. 4 of an unpaginated document).

36 Kenyn Cureton, unbylined essay, “Biblical Basis: Firm Foundation for Cultural Impact Ministry”, Pg. 19.

37 Charles S. Broomfield, Francis A. Schaeffer: The Force Behind the Evangelical Takeover of the Republican Party in America, University of Missouri – Kansas City, 2012.

38 Kenyn Cureton, unbylined essay, “Biblical Basis: Firm Foundation for Cultural Impact Ministry”, Pg. 2.

39 Kenyn Cureton, unbylined essay, “Christian Citizenship Sunday: How you Can Have Maximum Patriotic Impact.” (Pgs. 5-8 of an unpaginated document).

40 Kenyn Cureton, unbylined essay, “Biblical Basis: Firm Foundation for Cultural Impact Ministry”, Pg. 7.

41 Kenyn Cureton, unbylined essay, “Biblical Basis: Firm Foundation for Cultural Impact Ministry”, Pg. 7.

42 Kenyn Cureton, unbylined essay, “Biblical Basis: Firm Foundation for Cultural Impact Ministry,” Pg. 15.

43 Kenyn Cureton, unbylined essay, “Christian Citizenship Sunday: How you Can Have Maximum Patriotic Impact.” (Pg. 4 of an unpaginated document).

44 Kenyn Cureton, unbylined essay, “Christian Citizenship Sunday: How you Can Have Maximum Patriotic Impact.” (Pg. 4 of an unpaginated document).

45 Digital Encyclopedia, “Spurious Quotations,” Mount Vernon.

The Christian Right’s Growing Allegiance to Trump

Donald Trump speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr.

As Donald Trump exited the stage after addressing the 2016 Values Voter Summit (VVS) in Washington, DC a year ago, the Rolling Stone’s “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” blasted from the speakers. The audience gathered together for the Family Research Council’s annual conference offered both Trump and then-Governor Mike Pence standing ovations, even though Senator Ted Cruz had won the traditional VVS presidential straw poll each of the previous three years, with Ben Carson consistently coming in second. The thousands cheering in the hotel ballroom were early evidence that evangelicals (who make up the country’s biggest and most powerful religious voting bloc) were gradually coalescing behind Trump. Indeed, come Election Day they turned out in force: exit polls from the 2016 presidential election revealed that the Trump/Pence ticket managed to win over 81 percent of White, self-described evangelicals.

On Friday, the crowd will likely offer an even more enthusiastic reception to now-President Trump. Announcing the president’s confirmed attendance, Family Research Council leader Tony Perkins said, “Values voters have waited eight years for a leader who puts America’s mission first and respects the values that made America into a great nation. … Since the early days of the campaign, President Trump allied himself with values voters, promising to put an end to the 8 years of relentless assault on the First Amendment.”

Perkins emphasized some of the actions taken by the Trump administration that are perceived as major victories for the Christian Right, including Trump’s executive order on religious liberty, which LGBTQ advocates described as a “license to discriminate,” and last week’s directive from U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions that further codified the Right’s redefinition of religious freedom. For LGBTQ people, these actions effectively legalize discrimination, and further embolden the violence and persecution that has been on the rise ever since Trump’s election.

Perkins also praised the Trump administration’s attack on reproductive freedom last week. The new mandate from the Health & Human Services Department significantly increases the range of employers and insurers that can invoke “religious beliefs and moral convictions” to avoid the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that birth control pills and other contraceptives be covered at no cost to patients. According to the Obama Administration, which instituted this coverage, more than 55 million women relied on the provision.

Values Voter Summit is Family Research Council’s annual conference.

CNN has described the Values Voter Summit (VVS) “one of the conservative movement’s marquee annual events,” and Fox News talk show host Sean Hannity called it “the premier conservative event now in the country.” This year’s gathering will feature notable right wing celebrities such as Roy Moore, Steve Bannon, Michele Bachmann, and Everett Piper, and breakout sessions range in topic from “Radical Islamic Supremacy” to “Transgender Ideology.”

Trump’s return to the stage indicates the strength of the Christian Right’s allegiance to a man who stands in stark contrast to what most might assume “values voters” hold as fundamental characteristics of a “model Christian” — Trump is twice divorced, rarely attends church, and has bragged about sexually assaulting women. But his ascension and continued popularity within Christian Right circles reveals the true underpinnings of their agenda: misogyny and White supremacy.

As researcher and sociologist Alex DiBranco explained in the Winter 2017 edition of The Public Eye, “Abortion, contraception, and sexuality education all threaten the enforcement of traditional gender roles,” therefore threatening the dominance of White, male power and control. To appeal to a broader base, however, the Christian Right has adopted the framework of “protecting women” (the same language used to promote discriminatory anti-trans legislation.

Trump’s unfamiliarity with the Christian Right and its evolving tactics is especially evident in his clumsy navigation of abortion rights — one of the Christian Right’s traditional bread-and-butter issues. DiBranco writes,

Set on proving that his “pro-choice” days were behind him, during the 2016 campaign Trump denounced Planned Parenthood as an “abortion factory” and selected hardline reproductive and LGBTQ rights opponent Indiana governor Mike Pence as his running mate. In his eagerness, Trump unknowingly violated the Christian Right’s strategic deployment of a “kinder, gentler” image when he announced that women who obtained an illegal abortion should face “punishment.” Although Trump backpedaled to mollify anti-abortion groups that claim to protect women, his original statement was characteristic of the anti-woman vitriol of his campaign.”

Though VVS attendees may try to distance themselves from that sort of vitriol, and may even denounce groups that are more blatant in their racist and sexist values such as those aligned with the Alt Right, they have always had more in common with people like Richard Spencer and Milo Yiannopoulos than they’d care to admit.

The Christian Right has aligned themselves with Trump not because he shares in their commitment to restricting the rights of women and LGBTQ people; the Christian Right has pledged allegiance to Trump because they value the preservation of White, male, nativist dominance.

 

 

Attacking Trans People in Defense of “Austerity”

Family Research Council sent a strong anti-trans message via Twitter on July 20th, ahead of Trump’s tweet on Wednesday announcing a ban on trans service members.

On July 24, 2017, the Family Research Council (FRC), a right-wing political advocacy group based in Washington, DC, issued an Action Alert to its members, enlisting their support in denying healthcare to military personnel who are transgender. FRC argued that providing medically necessary treatment to trans people is “a distraction from the military’s purpose and undermines readiness, recruitment, and retention.” The appeal went on to suggest that trans-affirming care would be a waste of taxpayer money — money that could be better put to use purchasing more fighter jets and missiles.

Two days later, President Trump announced via Twitter that he was reversing a policy that’s been under review since June 2016 which would have allowed transgender individuals to openly serve in the military. Trump argued that the military “cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail.” Though it’s entirely unclear how Trump’s new decree will be put into effect (a point highlighted by Republican Senator John McCain), according to his tweets, trans people will not be allowed to serve “in any capacity.”

Despite McCain’s observation that “major policy announcements should not be made via Twitter,” Trump’s preferred mode of communication has once again stolen headlines, distracting attention away from the Christian Right engineers of the surge in anti-trans attacks.

In June 2015, FRC laid out a five-point plan for “responding to the transgender movement,” which specifically argues against allowing trans people the right to serve in the military, in addition to withholding gender-affirming healthcare, access to gender transition procedures (often understood to be life-saving for transgender people), legal recognition, and protection from discrimination.This position paper was co-authored by Dale O’Leary, a Catholic writer based in Avon Park, Florida, and Peter Sprigg, a senior fellow at FRC who has advocated for so-called “reparative therapy” and argues that transgender people suffer from “delusions.”

Ignoring trans-affirming positions from the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, and the American Psychiatric Society, O’Leary and Sprigg dredged up obscure and outdated scientific theories in an attempt to pathologize transgender people, and then outlined a strategy for advancing anti-trans public policy. As longtime transgender rights activist Brynn Tannehill explains, it’s a plan “to legislate transgender people out of existence by making the legal, medical, and social climate too hostile for anyone to transition [from one gender to another].”

In their 2015 “Washington Watch” newsletter, FRC had used a different strategy in voicing opposition to trans service members by stating trans people are “confused” about biology and not fit to serve due to “mental illness.”

Working in conjunction with Focus on the Family, the Alliance Defending Freedom, and other leading Christian Right organizations, FRC advances its anti-LGBTQ, anti-abortion agenda through reports such as the one authored by O’Leary and Sprigg, as well as lobbying efforts, media work, and high-profile conferences, namely the annual Values Voter Summit. The 2016 Values Voter Summit featured appearances by both Trump and then-Governor Pence. It was the first time a Republican presidential ticket has ever spoken at the summit, and a foreshadowing of the degree of influence FRC would come to command under the new administration.

From the start of this administration, FRC has played a key role in shaping the new political landscape; Trump’s transition team included FRC senior fellow Ken Blackwell as domestic policy chair, and Kay Cole James, a former FRC vice president, was a co-lead on management and budget affairs for the transition team. The organization is now using its close proximity to the president and vice president to further advance its anti-trans agenda.

In a press release following Trump’s Twitter announcement, FRC’s president, Tony Perkins (who blames the high rate of suicide among LGBTQ people on the confusion caused when individuals who “recognize intuitively that their same-sex attractions are abnormal” are offered contradictory messages of affirmation from pro-LGBTQ advocates) applauded the president “for keeping his promise to return to military priorities – and not continue the social experimentation of the Obama era that has crippled our nation’s military.”

Perkins went on to say, “The last thing we should be doing is diverting billions of dollars from mission-critical training to something as controversial as gender reassignment surgery. … As our nation faces serious national security threats, our troops shouldn’t be forced to endure hours of transgender ‘sensitivity’ classes and politically-correct distractions like this one.”

Both Perkins’ and Trump’s language harkens back to one of the oldest tricks in the Right Wing’s playbook: Set up a dichotomy between the “deserving” and the “undeserving,” and drive a wedge between them. As PRA’s late founder Jean Hardisty explained in her 2015 essay, “My On-Again, Off-Again Romance with Liberalism,” the Right has a proven formula for undercutting efforts toward equity: “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.”

The Right’s new portrait of liberalism run amok is the “delusional” trans person, whose only real delusion is that employees deserve non-discrimination protections and healthcare coverage from their employer. Trump’s description of trans people as being a “burden,” and FRC’s suggestion that trans inclusion is a “distraction” is simply the newest chapter in the Right’s fear-inducing mythology of parasitic, undeserving “takers” in American society. This inhumane framing serves as justification for gatekeeping economic opportunities and civil rights for marginalized people and conceals how destructive so-called austerity can be.

Click here to learn more about the Christian Right’s agenda against transgender people.

The Christian Right’s Love Affair with Anti-Trans Feminists

Photo by Mr.TinDC via Flickr.

Photo by Mr.TinDC via Flickr.

 

Intersectionality /ˌintərˈsekSHənˈalitē/ noun the linking of different systems of power and oppression (e.g. racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, ableism, etc.), which can occur at different levels—individual, interpersonal, family, community, and institutional.

Since American professor Kimberlé Crenshaw first introduced the term in 1989, “intersectionality” has become 21st Century activism’s favorite buzzword. Nearly 30 years later, though, social justice organizers are still struggling to get it right; meanwhile, the Right is more than happy to exploit our yet-to-be-fully-realized aspirations, effectively taking advantage of internal conflicts and rifts to further advance an agenda that does deep, deep damage to all of us.

In this current political moment of heightened anti-trans targeting, when school boards and legislatures across the country are debating whether or not transgender people should be allowed access to public facilities, one wedge of particular note and intrigue is the Right’s assertion that the bathroom hysteria they’ve whipped up isn’t an anti-trans campaign, but rather a pro-woman one. As Joseph Backholm, executive director of the right-wing Family Policy Institute of Washington State, argues, the “transgender phenomenon” isn’t just an attack on women’s privacy, but a “war on womanhood” itself. And under the guise of feminism, they’re ready to go to battle, their patriarchal battle cry being, “Protect our girls!”

The Right is selectively highlighting and leveraging the scholarship of a fringe group of highly controversial academics collectively labeled “Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists” (TERFs).

Although there’s a strong and growing presence of trans-feminist thought and activism, the Right is selectively highlighting and leveraging the scholarship of a fringe group of highly controversial academics collectively labeled “Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists” (TERFs), a term coined in 2008 by cisgender women seeking to name a dangerous vein in the feminist movement and assert themselves as trans allies, distinct from their anti-trans counterparts.

Although most categorized as TERFs reject the label (as well as the term cisgender) and consider it to be insulting, they openly espouse their anti-trans notion that trans women “aren’t really women”—that real womanhood is exclusively determined on a natal, biological level. These arguments (key elements of what’s called “gender essentialism”) align themselves with and fuel the flames of right-wing transphobia. TERFs also maintain that trans men are simply women who are “traitors,” but like the Right, most of their venom is saved for trans women.

The current surge of anti-trans attacks cropping up in legislatures and school boards across the country has come as a shock to many LGB activists. Still basking in the glow of last year’s marriage equality victory, many failed to realize that the trickle-down justice strategy of mainstream gay rights organizations was inherently flawed. That 2015 was also a year in which more trans women were killed by acts of extreme violence in the U.S. than any year prior on record makes this painfully evident.

In response to laws like North Carolina’s HB 2 (described by Sarah Preston, acting executive director of the ACLU of North Carolina, as “the most extreme anti-LGBT bill in the nation”), activists quickly mobilized resistance against some of the most obvious targets—people like Gov. Pat McCrory and other Republican leaders responsible for hastily forcing the law through the state’s legislature. Others attempted to pull back the curtain, calling out the role of national right-wing organizations like the Alliance Defending Freedom, a massive and deep-pocketed network of conservative lawyers that has spent the last two decades manipulating and redefining religious freedom in order to advance their Christian Right agenda.

As noted above, however, the forces at play in this current anti-trans offensive are not exclusively right-wing operatives. TERF scholarship laid a cultural and intellectual foundation upon which the Right could build an argument that would appeal to both conservatives and certain sectors of the Left.

Comic strip by Barry Deutsch: leftycartoons.com.

Comic strip by Barry Deutsch: leftycartoons.com.

In June 2015, the Washington, D.C.-based Family Research Council (FRC) laid out a five-point plan for “responding to the transgender movement.” The right-wing group’s position paper was co-authored by Peter Sprigg, a senior fellow at FRC, and Dale O’Leary, a Catholic writer based in Avon Park, Florida. Sprigg has argued that transgender people suffer from “delusions” and he is a proponent of so-called “reparative therapy.” O’Leary depicts transgender people as “liars” and suggests that “sexual liberationists” are “targeting children” in order to expose them to “molesters and exhibitionists masquerading as sex educators.”

Ignoring trans-affirming positions from the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, and the American Psychiatric Society, the two dredged up obscure and outdated scientific theories in an attempt to pathologize transgender people (thereby justifying their persecution), and then outlined a strategy for advancing anti-trans public policy. Specifically, FRC argues against providing trans people with access to gender-affirming healthcare, life-saving gender transition procedures, legal recognition, protection from discrimination, and the right to serve in the military.

But Sprigg and O’Leary didn’t come up with their anti-trans strategy all by themselves. Among the various sources upon which they drew in order to make their case against “transgenderism” was Janice Raymond, a lesbian scholar and infamous anti-trans activist.

Journalist Tina Vasquez documents that in 1980,

Raymond wrote a report for the Reagan administration called “Technology on the Social and Ethical Aspects of Transsexual Surgery,” which informed the official federal position on medical care for trans people. The paper’s conclusion reads, “The elimination of transsexualism is not best achieved by legislation prohibiting transsexual treatment and surgery, but rather by legislation that limits it and by other legislation that lessens the support given to sex-role stereotyping.”

Janice Raymond's 1979 book, The Transsexual Empire, has been considered extremely transphobic and even constituting hate-speech.

Janice Raymond’s 1979 book, The Transsexual Empire, has been considered extremely transphobic and even constituting hate-speech.

Another example of right-wing players building off of TERF scholarship features Dr. Paul McHugh, professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University. As a member of the American College of Pediatricians, a right-wing breakaway group that split from the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2002, McHugh co-authored a new position statement this past March that claims that respecting transgender children’s identities causes them harm and is akin to “child abuse.”

Among McHugh’s primary sources? Sheila Jeffreys, another lesbian scholar and anti-trans activist who, like Janice Raymond, is deemed a TERF by advocates for trans justice. Jeffreys recently retired after 24 years of teaching at the University of Melbourne but remains highly influential. She refers to gender-affirmation surgery (also known as gender-reassignment surgery) as a form of mutilation and describes the “practice of transgenderism” as harmful and a “human rights violation.”

While the Right lays siege to some of the most vulnerable members of the LGBTQ community (made especially vulnerable by historic and ongoing neglect and exclusion by the mainstream gay and lesbian movement), it’s TERFs who may actually be guilty of drafting their talking points, adding fuel to the fire of this dangerous anti-trans frenzy.

 

 

 

TDOR 2014 and the Right-Wing Roots of Anti-Trans Violence

Since 1999, Nov. 20th has been set aside as Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR). TDOR provides space to remember and honor those who have been killed due to anti-transgender hatred or prejudice. The annual event originated when trans activists and allies came together to mourn the loss of Rita Hester, a Black trans woman who was brutally murdered in Allston, Massachusetts on Nov. 28, 1998. Beyond a few transphobic mentions in the local media (the Boston Globe referred to Hester as “a man who sported long braids and preferred women’s clothes,” while the Boston Herald called her a “transvestite” and “a large man who lived as a woman”), her death garnered little attention, let alone outrage.

transgender day of remembrance PRA

While significant legal advances have been made for the LGBTQ community in the 15 years since Hester’s murder, trans people continue to experience horrific and disproportionate rates of violence. As the official TDOR website states:

“We live in times more sensitive than ever to hatred based violence, especially since the events of September 11th. Yet even now, the deaths of those based on anti-transgender hatred or prejudice are largely ignored. Over the last decade, more than one person per month has died due to transgender-based hate or prejudice, regardless of any other factors in their lives. This trend shows no sign of abating.”

Yet most media outlets, policymakers, and even the mainstream LG(BTQ) movement, have a long history—that continues to this day—of marginalizing the experiences, contributions, and needs of transgender people and people of color. The 1969 Stonewall Riots—often considered a pivotal moment in LGBTQ history—are frequently claimed by White, gay men as a triumph of their own doing, even though it was primarily trans women of color and homeless youth who led the charge. And whereas Rita Hester’s murder in 1998 was largely ignored, the murder of Matthew Shepard—a young, White, gay man—just two weeks later prompted nationwide vigils and helped lead to the eventual passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 2009. The legislation expanded the 1969 U.S. federal hate-crime law to include crimes motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.

Indeed, disregard for the role of trans people and people of color has plagued the LGBTQ justice movement since its earliest days. Meanwhile, these are the members of our community who bear the brunt of the violence and oppression directed toward LGBTQ people.  In its annual report on hate-violence experienced by LGBTQ and HIV-affected persons in the United States, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP) documented more than 2,000 incidents of anti-LGBTQ violence in 2013, and 18 hate-violence homicides. NCAVP’s findings also reflect the disproportionate impact of this violence: almost three-quarters (72%) of the documented homicide victims were trans women, and more than two-thirds (67%) were trans women of color.

TDOR interrupts this pattern of neglect, insisting that the LGBTQ movement—as well as our broader communities—acknowledge and mourn these lives.

Who Are The Architects of Anti-Trans Violence?

To a certain extent, talking about violence against trans people as a “hate crime” abstracts it from any social or political context, and suggests that these attacks are isolated incidents caused by rogue individuals. As Kay Whitlock has argued in a PRA discussion paper:

“While the hate frame may be powerful in terms of increasing awareness and mobilizing opposition to the threatening, violent actions of individuals and small groups directed against targeted communities, it also, paradoxically, obscures the relationship of such violence to its systemic underpinnings […] It’s so much easier to place the blame for violence directed against entire groups on criminal misfits, loners, and crackpots than to challenge the unspoken public consensus that permits broader cultures and structures of violence to exist.”

And so we must acknowledge—and then challenge—the architects responsible for manufacturing and perpetuating a cultural climate that justifies violence against trans and gender nonconforming people. 

Christian Right Church Leaders

Earlier this year, delegates at the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting in June signed a “Declaration on Transgender Identity.” With 16-plus million members, SBC is the world’s largest Baptist denomination and the largest Protestant body in the United States (in terms of Christian organizations, only the Catholic Church manages to outnumber them). Consequently, SBC’s policy decisions carry tremendous influence.

Unfortunately, the declaration was far from affirming. It states that trans and intersex people are manifestations of “human fallenness” and “contrary to God’s design.” The resolution notes that SBC condemns “acts of abuse or bullying” (unlike many of the document’s other proclamations, the authors couldn’t seem to find any scriptural backing for this piece), but they are quick to note that SBC also opposes hormone therapy and gender affirmation surgery, as well as any legislative or cultural efforts to validate trans people as “morally praiseworthy.”

SBC’s policy arm, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), hosted a conference last month on “The Gospel, Homosexuality, and the Future of Marriage.” At the event, ERLC president Russell Moore—who was recently invited by the Vatican to speak at a conference on the “Complementarity of Man and Woman”—took the opportunity to offer advice to pastors ministering to trans people during a live “Questions & Ethics” session, saying “The people who are coming to you—that biologically male person who says ‘I think I’m a woman,’ or vice versa—that person really experiences that and believes that. … You don’t have to agree with that at all, and I would say we can’t. The Bible teaches us that God created us male and female.”

Right-Wing Parachurch Organizations

Focus on the Family explicitly opposes “the celebration of ‘transgenderism’ as one of God’s gifts.”

On its website, FOTF explains its position: “Because ‘transgenderism’ violates God’s intentional design for sex and sexuality, we believe that this is a cultural and theological battle that we must engage and win. The modern ‘transgender’ movement is systematically working to dismantle the concept of gender as the Bible and the world have always known it to be. If the transgender lobby succeeds, there will be striking consequences for marriage, family and society at large.” Those who fail to follow FOTF’s guidance are told, “[T]he problems associated with transgenderism, like confusion and pain, stem from a lack of parental involvement and guidance.”

Right-Wing Think Tanks & Legal Lobbyists

The Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF, formerly known as the Alliance Defense Fund), a right-wing legal ministry committed to “religious freedom,” has recently taken up the cause of isolating and shaming transgender students. Arguing against a Massachusetts school’s 2013 decision to allow transgender students to access facilities and recreation activities that aligned with their gender identity, ADF’s Jeremy Tedesco warned the policy created “an atmosphere that could result in sexual assaults committed by minors.”

In letters delivered last month to similarly progressive schools in Wisconsin and Rhode Island, ADF suggested that creating inclusive policies for transgender students would “seriously endanger students’ privacy and safety, undermine parental authority, violate religious students’ right of conscience, and severely impair an environment conducive to learning.”

The Family Research Council, a right-wing lobby group based in Washington, DC, similarly argues that gender identity protections would “purposefully threaten the public safety of women and children by creating the legitimized access that sexual predators tend to seek.”

Concerned Women for America has warned its members that the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA)—legislation that would prohibit discrimination in hiring and employment on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity—could force “Christian businessmen” to allow transgender employees to wear male and female clothing alternately, and could “open bathroom doors for predators throughout the nation.”

As Peter LaBarbera, president of Americans For Truth About Homosexuality, put it, “These bills or policies are gifts to predators![emphasis his].

What’s Next?

Denny Burk, professor of Biblical Studies at Boyce College and co-author of the SBC’s anti-trans declaration, has warned that the trans justice movement is “the next phase of the LGBT revolution.” In actuality, the mainstream gay rights movement is already demonstrating a preference for other, international priorities in the post-marriage equality era.

Rita Hester

Rita Hester

Nonetheless, with leaders on the Right conceding defeat on the marriage front, we can expect to see them turning their sights toward other battlefronts, particularly ones they perceive to be winnable.

While it may seem that the trans community is that vulnerable, “winnable” target, what the Right doesn’t recognize is that the power of the gay rights movement—a movement that most would say has beaten the Right—was fueled first by trans women of color. These women—who find themselves at the nexus of White supremacy and heteropatriarchy—were fighting long before Stonewall, and they’ll continue fighting long after Gay Inc. closes its doors. They are fierce and formidable, and, as the Right will soon learn, they are undefeatable.

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Christian Right Undermines Marriage Equality With Religious Supremacism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FRC head Tony Perkins

FRC head Tony Perkins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Christian Right Doubles Down in the Face of Catholic Progress

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

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

Third Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops

Third Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New App Furthers Christian Right’s Redefined Notion of Religious Freedom

The annual Christian Right political program— the Values Voters Summit which convenes on September 26 in Washington, DC— is often seen as a singular event. But like most such conventions, it is in many ways but a convergence of several traveling road shows. The Summit functions for the Christian Right as the kick-off of the home stretch of the 2014 election campaign season. And when the Summit is over, they will go back on the road through election day.

This year, the Family Research Council and other conveners of the Summit have been politically engaged in states where there are competitive races for major office such as governor and the U.S. Senate—while waging a large voter registration and mobilization campaign of their own.  They have also been updating their method of targeting churches for voter development, which used to be done largely by hand.

But now, there is an app for that.

Their strategic voter registration app allows pastors to compare their church membership lists with official voter registration files, so they can see who among their congregants they need to recruit into electoral life.

The behind the scenes communications agency United in Purpose has created or updated several online tools, including motivational and instructional videos aimed at pastors.  The California-based UiP is led by Bill Dallas, an ex-con and Tea Party activist, whose organization has made news in the last few election cycles by engaging in deep data mining, database building, and online tools for the ongoing short and long-term development of the Christian Right.  Their strategic voter registration app,

promoted by the UiP project Champion the Vote, allows pastors to compare their church membership lists with official voter registration files, so they can see who among their congregants they need to recruit into electoral life.

Their analysis is as simple as their goals are ambitious. United in Purpose claims that too few Christians of the right sort are registered, participating in public life, and sufficiently  grounded in a theocratic “Biblical worldview.”

Their effort to turn this around is called Project 75.  The stated mission is to “get pastors across the America to get 75% of their congregation educated in the Biblical worldview and voting accordingly on Election Day.  Of the 90 million Christians in the U.S., only 39 million of them vote in any given election or are even registered to vote. We believe that if Christian voters will make their voices heard on Election Day, we can bring about positive change in America.” 

To achieve their ends, UiP has developed a variety of voter education, registration and development tools with the aim of getting these “campaign materials” into “every ministry department, every Sunday School class, every small group within the church.”

UiP’s Champion the Vote claims that the reason all this is necessary is because, the government is “bent on taking power from the people” and that in order to accomplish this is to “eliminate, silence, or marginalize people of faith.”   They have a generic video  aimed at pastors everywhere, as well as ones created just for pastors in Arkansas and North Carolina.

Screenshot of United In Purpose's new online tools to help pastors find out if their church members are registered to vote.

Screenshot of United In Purpose’s new online tools to help pastors find out if their church members are registered to vote.

Not By Apps Alone

The plan to up conservative Christian voter participation in 2014 has been going on all year. For example, in March United in Purpose convened a national conservative “Voter Mobilization Strategy Summit” in Dallas. The event, UiP explained, “will bring together leaders of conservative organizations from around the country to brainstorm and strategize on how to get out the vote for the 2014 midterm elections.”

The event featured evangelical pollster George Barna, Christian historical revisionist David Barton of Texas-based WallBuilders, Rick Scarborough of Texas-based political organization Vision America, California megachurch pastor (and an organizer of the anti-marriage equality initiative, Prop 8), and right-wing demagogue Glenn Beck.

Vision America has been closely collaborating with Watchmen on the Wall, a “ministry” of  the Family Research Council, to host all expenses-paid “special briefings” for pastors, to “address the biblical, historical, legal and practical involvement of Christians in civil government for the purpose of spiritual renewal.”  They have organized a number of such events since Labor Day, including pastor-focused events in in Arkansas and Florida.  Speakers in Florida include, Rick Scarborough; Fox News host and former Arkansas  Gov. Mike Huckabee, John Stemberger, President of Florida Family Policy Council  (which is the state political affiliate of FRC and Focus on the Family) and Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Jerry Boykin, Craig James,  Kenyn Cureton, and Randy Wilson – all of the Family Research Council.   (All but Stemberger are also speaking at the Values Voters Summit in Washington, DC.)  These organizational partners are planning similar events in Kansas, Iowa and Alaska in October.

Tom Minnery, longtime head of Citizen Link, the national political arm of Focus on the Family recently sent out a fund raising email in an effort to get the final $200,000 of their goal of $2.8 million to “rally” a million voters to the polls. He also claimed to already have “35 trained field directors are recruiting an army of volunteers to make phone calls and knock on doors” in eight states with “key Senate races.”

Of course it is a political year, and organizations always have big goals, whether or not they are able to meet them.  But whatever their numerical goals, they are very clear that the purpose of their “massive election year effort” is in order to take advantage of what they call “an unusual opportunity to shift the balance of power in the Senate” (meaning towards the Republican Party) in the name of the three part agenda of the Manhattan Declaration, “life, marriage, and religious freedom.”

But to look at the conference agenda of the Values Voter Summit itself, religious freedom is first among the three equal agenda items this election year.  For its part, one of the organizational sponsors, the American Family Association’s action arm, goes so far as to say that the purpose of their voter guides and related activities is “to restore religious freedom.”  And they have the United in Purpose voter registration apps for your smart phone too.

The Air War 

The online and church-based political ground game is also enhanced this fall by two national broadcast air strikes in the Fall campaign.  On September 14th, the same groups sponsoring the Values Voter Summit, (the above mentioned plus Concerned Women for America) sponsored a 90 minute national web cast, called Star Spangled Sunday in celebration of the 200th anniversary of the Star Spangled Banner. (Almost all of the speakers are also featured at VVS) It was broadcast from a large church in North Carolina, whose pastor, Rev. Mark Harris, had recently lost the GOP primary for U.S. Senate.  The event received considerable local press coverage. The Charlotte Observer reported that the event was headlined by two possible GOP candidates for president, Huckabee and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX).

“On Sunday night, each delivered a speech that sounded more like a sermon, quoting Scripture and asserting God’s role in America’s survival, through war, Depression and a power-hungry federal government.

“There is no explanation for America other than God’s hand of providence,” said Huckabee, who got cheers and a standing ovation. During the American Revolution, “it was a bunch of farmers and merchants and preachers who took the muskets off their mantels” and defeated what was then the most powerful military in the world.

Huckabee also called on the spirit of the War of 1812 to fire up the audience about America’s current conflict with the radical Muslims of ISIS.

For those who fear that these “sons of Ishmael” – Islamist militants – will prevail in the Middle East, Huckabee said, “I have read the end of the (Bible) and I can tell you that … our flag still stands.””

Star Spangled Sunday was used to promoted and broadcast a United in Purpose video called 1,2,3 Vote, which explains why and how pastors should encourage their congregants to vote.

A similar event called I Pledge Sunday will be broadcast on October 12th to rally conservative Christians in an appeal to political majoritarianism in the home stretch.  “With more than 75% of Americans calling themselves Christians it’s time for the Church to rise up and take action to turn the tide in our nation!  We have the numbers and we have a voice.  If we are silent, we have no one to blame but ourselves for a Godless America.”

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Michigan Seeks to Become Third State to Protect Youth From Ex-Gay Therapy

Conversion or “ex-gay” therapy continues to come under fire, this time in Michigan where Representative Adam Zemke (D-Ann Arbor) has introduced House Bill (HB) 5703to ban “sexual orientation change efforts” for minors. While conversion therapy is not a widespread practice across the state, supporters of HB 5703 indicate that state-sanctioned exposure of even a single child to this type of therapy cannot be accepted. Introduced on July 16, 2014, the bill was referred to the Committee on Health Policy where it awaits action.

A billboard outside of Atlanta advertises the discredited practice of conversion therapy

A billboard outside of Atlanta, paid for by the now defunct Exodus International, advertises the discredited practice of conversion therapy.

If HB 5703 advances in Michigan, the state would join California and New Jersey in banning conversion therapy for minors. Conversion therapy, also known as reparative therapy, for minors is a thoroughly discredited practice that has no proven effect on changing sexual orientation, but a long-documented history of negative psychological effects on individuals. A 2009 report by the American Psychological Association (APA) detailed the mental health problems this therapy can cause, including depressive, anxious, and suicidal symptoms. Survivors of ex-gay therapy, such as 29-year-old Michigan native Patrick McAlvey (who began conversion therapy at age 11), have spoken out about the detrimental influence of this childhood trauma on their lives and healthy sexuality.

Both California’s and New Jersey’s laws survived lawsuits from ex-gay therapy proponents such as the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), who argue that the law prohibits them from respecting clients’ wishes. New Jersey Republican Governor Chris Christie initially expressed qualms about signing his state’s bill, but determined that regardless of parental preferences, children should be protected from a therapy with severe negative psychological consequences and no evidence of benefits or effectiveness. California state senator Ted Lieu (D-Torrance), lead sponsor of the state’s anti-conversion therapy bill, bluntly called the practice “psychological child abuse.”

Since the 1970s, the mental health community has come a long way in its understanding of sexual orientation.  (Until 1973, the APA classified homosexuality as a psychological disorder.)  As PRA’s research on the ex-gay movement has documented, the pseudoscientific ex-gay movement, which presents itself as having a more “compassionate” anti-gay stance, has suffered severe setbacks in recent years. The most well known national ex-gay advocacy organization, Exodus International, closed its doors—and apologized to those it has harmed—in June of 2013.

Other organizations, however, have hastened to fill the gap left by Exodus International’s disbanding, including the Christian Right think tank, the Family Research Council (FRC), and the Exodus breakaway Restored Hope Network. Some conservative state politicians have also continued to endorse reparative therapy. In June 2014, for example, the Texas Republican Party adopted an anti-LGBTQ party platform that “recognize[s] the legitimacy and value of counseling which offers reparative therapy and treatment to patients who are seeking escape from the homosexual lifestyle.” Last year in Maryland, it was discovered that a middle school was screening the film Acception as part of their health curriculum, which actively promotes ex-gay therapy. Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays (PFOX) continue to appear on school grounds, disseminating harmful misinformation about same-sex attraction to vulnerable teens.

Moreover, prominent evangelical Christians continue to peddle programs based on conversion therapy as effective and compassionate mental health care.  As PRA’s LGBTQ and gender justice researcher, Cole Parke, discussed in a recent post, megachurch pastor Rick Warren has recently sought to increase awareness of mental health issues within the evangelical community and hosted a daylong event in March to “encourage individuals living with mental illness, educate family members, and equip church leaders to provide effective and compassionate care to any faced with the challenges of mental illness.”  Yet part of his mental health initiative includes promotion of Saddleback’s Celebrate Recovery program, which, among other things, offers “support” for people who have “same-sex attraction.” What this means, ultimately, is to “face the root causes of our same-sex attraction,” and “acknowledge God’s design and desire for our sexuality.”

The principles and practices of conversion therapy continue to have a tenacious foothold around the country. Celebrate Recovery’s endorsement of harmful and highly dangerous reparative therapy models, and the ongoing activities of PFOX and other groups, demonstrates that despite recent setbacks for ex-gay groups, constant vigilance by LGBTQ advocates and legislation like that introduced in Michigan remain necessary.

**A version of this article originally appeared on the SIECUS website.

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