Dominionism Rising: A Theocratic Movement Hiding in Plain Sight

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This article appears in the Summer 2016 edition of The Public Eye magazine.

In June 2016, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) held a private meeting with conservative movement leaders to plot his political future. Attendees afterwards cast him in the role of Ronald Reagan, who’d lost the 1976 Republican presidential nomination to Gerald Ford but led a conservative comeback in 1980 that made Jimmy Carter a one-term president. The thinking was that Cruz did well enough in the 2016 Republican presidential primaries before losing to celebrity billionaire Donald Trump that he could plan to run again in 2020 or 2024. “He was with kindred spirits,” said Brent Bozell, the conservative activist who hosted the meeting, “and I would say most people in that room see him as the leader of the conservative movement.”1

The rise of Ted Cruz is a singular event in American political history. The son of a Cuban refugee and evangelical pastor, Cruz was raised in the kind of evangelicalism-with-a-theocratic-bent that has come to epitomize a significant and growing trend in American public life. That is, dominionism: a dynamic ideology that arose from the swirls and eddies of American evangelicalism to animate the Christian Right, and become a defining feature of modern politics and culture.

Dominionism is the theocratic idea 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. The term describes a broad tendency across a wide swath of American Christianity. People who embrace this idea are referred to as dominionists. Although Chip Berlet, then of Political Research Associates, and I defined and popularized the term for many in the 1990s2, in fact it had (along with the term dominion theology) been in use by both evangelical proponents and critics for many years.3

Dominionism Defined (click to expand)
Dominionism is the theocratic idea that regardless of theological view, means, or timetable, Christians are called by God to exercise dominion over every aspect of society by taking control of political and cultural institutions.

Analyst Chip Berlet and I have suggested that there is a dominionist spectrum running from soft to hard as a way of making some broad distinctions among dominionists without getting mired in theological minutiae.106 But we also agree that:

  1. Dominionists celebrate Christian nationalism, in that they believe that the United States once was, and should once again be, a Christian nation. In this way, they deny the Enlightenment roots of American democracy.
  2. Dominionists promote religious supremacy, insofar as they generally do not respect the equality of other religions, or even other versions of Christianity.
  3. Dominionists endorse theocratic visions, insofar as they believe that the Ten Commandments, or “biblical law,” should be the foundation of American law, and that the U.S. Constitution should be seen as a vehicle for implementing biblical principles.107

Of course, Christian nationalism takes a distinct form in the United States, but dominionism in all of its variants has a vision for all nations.

In many ways, Ted Cruz personifies the story of dominionism: how it became the ideological engine of the Christian Right, and how it illuminates the changes underway in American politics, culture and religion that have helped shape recent history.

Ted Cruz’s father, Rafael, who served as his son’s principal campaign surrogate during his senate and presidential campaigns, has been a profound and colorful influence. The elder Cruz was a member of the Texas board of the Religious Roundtable,4 a leading Christian Right organization of the late 1970s.5 “Our conversation around the dinner table centered around politics—as to why we had to get rid of this leftist progressive called Jimmy Carter,” Rafael Cruz told an interviewer. “Ted got a dose of conservative politics from a biblical worldview for a whole year when he was nine years old.”6 That was the year the Religious Roundtable hosted the historic National Affairs Briefing conference in Dallas. It was held in tandem with the 1980 Republican National Convention, and attended by some 17,000 conservative Christians. It was there that Ronald Reagan famously declared: “I know you can’t endorse me, but I endorse you and what you are doing.”7

Some see Ted Cruz as not only following in the footsteps of Reagan, but fulfilling a religious destiny. “Talk to me about your son and his rise. This must be a thing of God. It’s meteoric,” David Brody, chief political correspondent for the Christian Broadcasting Network, asked Rafael Cruz in an interview in 2013, during Ted’s first year as senator8. Evangelical historian John Fea explained why Cruz might be viewed this way. During a sermon at the New Beginnings church in Bedford, Texas, in 2012, Rafael had described his son’s Senate campaign as the fulfillment of biblical prophecy that “God would anoint Christian ‘kings’ to preside over an ‘end-time transfer of wealth’ from the wicked to the righteous.”

“According to his father and [New Beginnings Pastor Larry] Huch, Ted Cruz is anointed by God to help Christians in their effort to “go to the marketplace and occupy the land … and take dominion” over it, Fea continued. “This ‘end-time transfer of wealth’ will relieve Christians of all financial woes, allowing true believers to ascend to a position of political and cultural power in which they can build a Christian civilization. When this Christian nation is in place (or back in place), Jesus will return.”9

Ted Cruz's religious political conservatism comes largely from his Father's belief in Evangelical Seven Mountains dominionism. Photo by CBN News

Ted Cruz’s religious political ambitions owe much to his father’s belief in Seven Mountains dominionism. (Photo by CBN News)

Rafael Cruz and Huch have long embraced a strain of evangelical theology called Seven Mountains dominionism, which calls for believers to take control over seven leading aspects of culture: family, religion, education, media, entertainment, business, and government. The name is derived from the biblical book of Isaiah 2:2 (New King James Version): “Now it shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established on the top of the mountains.”

Seven Mountains dominionism (popularly abbreviated as 7M) emerged in the 2000s through a campaign in the form of popular books, videos, sermons, and seminars.10 It has spread like wildfire across Pentecostalism ever since.

The Cruzes are close to Christian nationalist author and longtime Texas Republican leader David Barton, who headed a super PAC in support of Cruz’s presidential bid. Barton embraces 7M11 even while disingenuously12 claiming the term dominionism is an invention of liberals intended to smear Christians. “It’s like saying ‘Oh, you’re a Nazi, oh, you’re an anti-Semite, you’re a bigot, you’re a racist, you’re a Dominionist,’” he said in a 2011 radio broadcast.13

Ted Cruz has, perhaps shrewdly, neither publicly affirmed nor denied the dominionism that surrounds him. He is a longtime member of a prominent Houston Baptist congregation, but his embrace of the dominionist vision is evident to those who are paying attention. When Cruz speaks of religious liberty, says John Fea, he means it as “a code word for defending the right of Christians to continue to hold cultural authority and privilege.” Cruz, according to Fea, is engaged in the “dominionist battle” of our time.14

When Cruz speaks of religious liberty, says John Fea, he means it as “a code word for defending the right of Christians to continue to hold cultural authority and privilege.”

All of this was pretty hot stuff and dominionism would no doubt have become more of an issue had Ted Cruz’s 2016 campaign lasted longer. But Cruz is 45 years old in 2016 and appears to have a bright—and perhaps historic—political future. He won statewide office on his first try and has benefited from being underestimated. Since arriving in the Senate in 2103, he has made a show of sticking to his principles, much to the chagrin of his colleagues. But following his presidential run, Cruz is now one of the best known politicians in the country and possible heir- apparent to the Reagan revolution. No small achievement for a freshman senator.

Meanwhile Cruz and other national pols comprise the tip of a very large, but hard to measure political iceberg. There are untold numbers of dominionist and dominionism-influenced politicians and public officials at all levels of government and who even after leaving office, shape our political discourse. Roy Moore, the elected Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, has been a rallying figure for dominionists of all stripes for the better part of two decades. Most recently, he has led efforts to exempt Alabama from federal court ordered compliance with marriage equality, citing his view of “God’s law.” Moore’s fellow Alabaman, Justice Tom Parker, has been on the court since 2004, and has employed theocratic legal theorist John Eidsmoe as his chief of staff.15 Others at the top of recent American political life have included Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Mike Huckabee,16 and Newt Gingrich.17 Other prominent elected officials in the dominionist camp include Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R-TX),18 Gov. Sam Brownback (R-KS),19 Sen. James Lankford (R-OK),20 and Rep. Steve King (R-IA).21

Prominent politicians’ involvement in dominionism is certainly the most visible evidence of the movement’s advances over the past half-century, but it’s not the only result. Dominionism is a story not widely or well understood. Because this is so, it is important to know what dominionism is and where it came from, so we can see it more clearly and better understand its contemporary significance.

Two Streams into the Mainstream

There are two main expressions of dominionism, each influential far beyond their foundational thinkers. Briefly, Christian Reconstructionism, founded by the late theologian R.J. Rushdoony (1916-2001) advances the idea that Christians must not only dominate society, but institute and enforce Old Testament biblical law. Unlike the doctrines developed within specific denominations, Christian Reconstructionism has been a movement of ideas that transcends denominations and has influenced far more people than those who ever adopted the label. One of the movement’s main contributions has been to provide a biblical rationale for political action for the Christian Right and a theory of government and public policy development.

Christian Reconstructionism has been a movement of ideas that transcends denominations and has influenced far more people than those who ever adopted the label.

Religion scholar Michael McVicar has found that Rushdoony’s writings began to reflect an interest in dominion in the late 1950s.22 His vision of how to bring forth “dominion men,” via advancement of a “Biblical worldview” helped lead conservative evangelicals towards aggressive political engagement since the 1970s. Rushdoony is also credited with laying the foundation for, among other things, the modern homeschooling movement and fighting for maximum latitude for private Christian schools on issues like accreditation—normally a matter of government oversight, but something Rushdoony compared to government tyranny.23

The other main strain of contemporary dominionism (which in turn has also been deeply influenced by Reconstructionism) is 7M dominionism, advocated by Pentecostals of the New Apostolic Reformation.24 7M is rooted in a Pentecostal movement of the 1940s, according to an academic book by John Weaver published in 2015.25 The Latter Rain movement taught that there would be an outpouring of supernatural powers in a coming generation, allowing them to subdue or take dominion over nations. The Latter Rain movement promised this would happen along with the restoration of “the neglected offices in the contemporary church of apostles and prophets.”26 Teachings about the supernatural authority of the apostles have provided key theological and structural elements of contemporary dominionism. These teachings, previously rejected as “deviant” by Pentecostal denominations are now so ubiquitous that they are more tolerated than opposed.27

Latter Rain theology was revived under the under aegis of longtime Fuller Theological Seminary professor C. Peter Wagner, who organized a global network of hundreds of apostles. Many of these apostles lead groups of non-denominational churches and ministries called “apostolic networks,” which sometimes comprise tens of thousands of members. Today, NAR theology and its apostles and prophets have assumed an increasingly high profile in religious and civic life in the U.S. They were well known in the past decade, for example, for mass rallies named TheCall, led by Lou Engle, who is also internationally known for his anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ activism.28 They have also gained political influence. For example, several leading apostles were among the three-dozen “conveners” of a June 2016 meeting at which Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump courted the support of some 1,000 evangelical leaders.29

Within the NAR, the justification for the offices of apostle and prophet is based on the biblical book of Ephesians (4:11). They are said to complement or complete the offices of minister, teacher and evangelist into what is called the “five-fold ministry.” Apostles and prophets are top leaders, usually operating outside of denominations—which they are intent on dissolving in the name of Christian unity. They, respectively, lead these non-denominational networks, and offer guidance with prescient thoughts and sometimes direct revelations from God. Sometimes, the roles are combined.30 This is a very different religious environment than any other sector of Christianity and underscores the way that doctrines among the dominion-minded can be rather fluid, even as they see themselves headed toward the same or similar goals.

Dominionism, even as it evolves, is not a passing fashion but an historic trend.

It is important to underscore that dominionism, even as it evolves, is not a passing fashion but an historic trend. This trend featured fierce theological battles in the 1980s that pitted the largely apolitical pre-millennial dispensationalism that characterized most of 20th century evangelicalism31 against a politicized, dominion-oriented postmillennialism.

The turning point in this theological struggle was the 1973 publication of Rushdoony’s 800-page Institutes of Biblical Law, which offered what he believed was a “foundation” for a future biblically based society, and his vision of generations of “dominion men” advancing the “dominion mandate” described in the biblical book of Genesis.32 The Institutes sought to describe what a biblically-based Christian society would look like. It included a legal code based on the Ten Commandments, and the laws of Old Testament Israel. This included a long list of capital offences—mostly religious or sexual crimes.33 But Rushdoony and other leading Reconstructionists did not believe that “Biblical Law” could be imposed in a top down fashion by a national theocracy. They thought the biblical kingdom would emerge from the gradual conversion of people who would embrace what they consider to be the whole word of God, and that this could take hundreds, thousands or even tens of thousands of years. Rushdoony and many Reconstructionists also believed strongly in a vastly decentralized form of government. Theorist Gary North writes, for example, that, “It isn’t possible to ramrod God’s blessings from the top down, unless you’re God. Only humanists think that man is God.”34

The Institute of Biblical Law, Vol 2: Law and Society was published by Chalcedon in 1973. Photo by EXILED TV via Youtube

The Institutes of Biblical Law, Vol 1 was published in 1973. (Photo by EXILED TV via Youtube)

Nevertheless, Reconstructionist thinkers could not prevent others from feeling a greater sense of urgency about moving up the time-table,35 or from taking dramatic political action, or in the case of anti-abortion activists, even committing vigilante violence.36 Indeed, the Institutes and the Reconstructionist works that followed provided a justification for political action that pulled many evangelicals from the political sidelines and into the fray. They also provided an optimistic theology of inevitable victory, suggesting therefore that political action was not only possible but necessary. In the longer term, it also established the often unacknowledged ideological framing for the Christian Right, the basis for 21st Century politics, and the possibility of a Ted Cruz as a major figure in public life.

 

The Battle for the Bible

One influential body of Reconstructionist thought was published by Gary North in the mid-1980s. A ten-volume series, called “Biblical Blueprints” and written by different authors, sought to flesh out and update the vision by engaging contemporary matters from education to economics and from politics to divorce. By the late 1980s, a dynamic conversation was well underway about the nature of conservative Christian political action—what it could reasonably expect to accomplish, on what timeframe, by what means, and whether it was necessary at all. These and other Reconstructionist authors were discussed in evangelical leadership circles. But controversy broke out in 1987 following a major critical report in Christianity Today that detailed their theocratic agenda. This article introduced Christian Reconstructionism, and the terms dominion, dominion theology and dominionism to many evangelicals.37 A still wider public learned about Reconstructionism the same year when PBS broadcast a series on the Religious Right by Bill Moyers.38

A still from Bill Moyer's documentary ' God and Politics - On Earth As It Is in Heaven'. Pictured from left to right: Bill Moyers, and Dr. R.J. Rushdoony. Picture via http://billmoyers.com/content/earth-heaven/

A still from Bill Moyer’s documentary ‘God and Politics – On Earth As It Is in Heaven’. Pictured from left to right: Bill Moyers, and Dr. R.J. Rushdoony. (Picture via http://billmoyers.com/content/earth-heaven)

Books by prominent evangelical authors and academics opposing dominion theology soon followed, including one by Hal Lindsey, the bestselling evangelical author of his time.39 Evangelical religious historian Bruce Barron warned of a growing “dominionist impulse.”40

This was perhaps the height of the battle over evangelical theology, in which the premillennial dispensationalist camp—which believed that in the End Times, true Christians would be “raptured” into the clouds, and Jesus would return to defeat the forces of Satan—was challenged by the post-millenialist Christian Reconstructionists—who argued that Jesus could not return until the world had become perfectly Christian and the faithful had ruled for 1,000 years. One of the longstanding consequences of this difference had been that premillennialists were disinclined to political action, while the postmillennial position required it in order to build nations based on biblical principles or even biblical laws. Christian Reconstructionist authors brought an additional and epochal piece to the puzzle, by outlining for the first time what Christian or biblical governance should look like.

An additional strain of dominionist thought has also been deeply influential in the wider evangelical community. The popular 20th century theologian Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984) sold some three million books, some of which are still in print. Together with his son Frank, he also made a series of influential films. Schaeffer’s 1981 book, A Christian Manifesto, published at the dawn of the Reagan era, famously served as a catalyst for the evangelical wing of the antiabortion movement, the broader Christian Right, and the creeping theocratization of the Republican Party.41

A Christian Manifesto was published by Crossway Books in 1982. Photo: Crossway Books

A Christian Manifesto was published by Crossway Books in 1982. (Photo: Crossway Books)

Schaeffer advocated massive resistance to what he saw as a looming anti-Christian society. His work inspired dominionist political action even though he claimed to support religious pluralism and oppose overt theocracy. One major difference between Schaffer and the Reconstructionists is that while they agreed about the threat to Christianity, Schaeffer did not believe in the contemporary applicability of Old Testament laws and Rushdoony’s slow motion approach to dominion. Instead, Schaeffer emphasized the need for militant Christian resistance to what he called “tyranny.”

Schaeffer argued that “the common people had the right and duty to disobedience and rebellion if state officials ruled contrary to the Bible. To do otherwise would be rebellion against God.”42

According to historian John Fea, “Schaeffer played an important role in shaping the Christian Right’s belief in a Christian America,” drawing an ideological plumb line from the Bible to the Declaration of Independence, via the theologians of the Protestant Reformation.43 Schaeffer said that the situations that justified revolution against tyranny in the past are “exactly what we are facing today.” The whole structure of our society, Schaeffer concluded, “is being attacked and destroyed.”44

To fight that trend, Schaeffer advocated what he called “co-belligerency”: strategic partnerships that set aside theological differences in order to cooperate on a shared political agenda. (Thirty years later, the best expression of co-belligerency may be the 2009 Manhattan Declaration, a three-part platform declaring “life, marriage and religious liberty” as conservative believers’ defining concerns. This agenda is now shared by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, much of the evangelical Christian Right, and allied politicians in the Republican Party.45)

But Schaeffer didn’t articulate a political agenda much beyond the issues of what would later be called the culture war. He believed America was founded as a Christian nation, but he remained in the premillennialist camp and so effectively ceded the playing field of law and public policy to Rushdoony, who offered a standard by which all others would be measured.

Nevertheless, Schaeffer’s work probably caused more people to turn to overt dominionism than any other thought leader before or since. For many, Schaeffer was the beginning of a theological journey from antiabortion activism to dominionism. Randall Terry, the founder of the antiabortion direct action group Operation Rescue, in the 1980s said, “You have to read Schaeffer’s Christian Manifesto if you want to understand Operation Rescue.”46 But by the 90s, he was wondering what would come next. In his own 1995 book, The Sword: The Blessing of Righteous Government and the Overthrow of Tyrants, Terry seemed to supply the answer, demonstrating the influence of his conversations with Gary North.47 “I gladly confess that I want to see civic law in America (and every nation) restored to and based on the Law given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai,” Terry wrote. He considers it to be “flawless, infallible and unimprovable—the very best we could possibly build on.”48

Schaeffer’s work probably caused more people to turn to overt dominionism than any other thought leader before or since.

Although some writers have tended to lump all dominionists together, dominionists have differences and disagreements about means and ends, just like any other movement. (They also change over time.) For example, Rushdoony opposed the civil disobedience advocated by Schaeffer and left the board of the Rutherford Institute, the public interest law firm he had started with John Whitehead, because Whitehead and fellow director Gary North supported the tactic. And while North supported non-violent direct action, he disagreed with the vigilante murder of abortion providers as advocated (and ultimately committed) by fellow Christian Reconstructionist Paul Hill.49

But it is the broad vision that dominionists share that should be of greatest interest and concern to those outside the movement. C. Peter Wagner traces the lineage of his version of dominion theology “through R.J. Rushdoony” and theologians of the Protestant Reformation in his 2008 book, Dominion! How Kingdom Action Can Change the World.50 Wagner adopted an old concept: “sphere sovereignty,” the idea that all areas of life must be brought under a comprehensive biblical worldview. While Rushdoony called this “theonomy,” Wagner’s 7M theology offered a contemporary version with a Pentecostal twist. (There is some metaphorical flexibility in this sector as the term “mountains” is sometimes used interchangeably with “spheres” or “gates.”) Reflecting the trend away from premillennialism, Wagner emphasized the “primacy” of the cultural (or dominion) mandate, over evangelism.51

7M provides a popularized vision of the reconstructed society that does not require an advanced degree in theology to understand.

Part of the significance of the convergence of these strains of dominionism is that 7M provides a popularized vision of the reconstructed society that does not require an advanced degree in theology to understand. “[W]e have an assignment from God to take dominion and transform society,”52 Wagner simply declares. This break with the archaic and esoteric language of the Latter Rain and Christian Reconstructionist writers, and even Francis Schaeffer, has enabled the dominionist movement to broaden and deepen its reach. This synthesis and more palatable approach was decades in the making. There had been Pentecostal and Reconstructionist dialogues over the years that allowed Reconstructionist thought leaders to see that it was possible get wider swaths of Christianity to adopt their foundational ideas. After one such dialogue in Dallas in 1987,53 Christian Reconstructionist pastor Joseph Morecraft exclaimed, “God is blending Presbyterian theology with Charismatic zeal into a force that cannot be stopped!”54

Dominionism Reframed as Religious Liberty

The emergence of religious liberty as one of the central issues of our time stems from multiple sources.55 But the issue is far from being just a disagreement about how to balance the religious freedom of some with civil and constitutional rights of others. In fact, religious freedom has long been seen by dominionist strategists as a weakness of constitutional democracy that they can exploit to advance their agendas.

The U.S. approach to religious freedom was largely an outgrowth of the thinking of Thomas Jefferson, whose Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom was drafted in 1777, and finally passed under the legislative leadership of James Madison in 1787. The bill, which helped inform the Constitution’s and later the First Amendment’s approach to religion, provided that one’s religious identity “shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”56 Dominionist leaders generally recognize that Jeffersonian notions of religious freedom and the society they envision are almost entirely mutually exclusive ideas. So they have chosen to be smart about it.

“We must use the doctrine of religious liberty,” Christian Reconstructionist theorist Gary North declared in 1982, “to gain independence for Christian schools until we train up a generation of people who know that there is no religious neutrality, no neutral law, no neutral education, and no neutral civil government. Then they will get busy in constructing a Bible-based social, political and religious order which finally denies the religious liberty of the enemies of God.”57

“We must use the doctrine of religious liberty … to gain independence for Christian schools until we train up a generation of people who know that there is no religious neutrality, no neutral law, no neutral education, and no neutral civil government. Then they will get busy in constructing a Bible-based social, political and religious order which finally denies the religious liberty of the enemies of God.” – Gary North, 1982

North believes that the Constitution generally, and specifically the proscription against religious tests for public office included in Article 6, are “legal barrier[s] to Christian theocracy.” But he envisions a day when biblically correct Christians gain enough political power to be able to amend the Constitution to limit access to the franchise and civil offices to “communicant members of Trinitarian churches.”58

Rushdoony was not interested in religious freedom except insofar as it had implications for “Christian freedom.” In 1980, after many years of legal advocacy for Christian homeschooling and private schools, Rushdoony asked a protégé, attorney John Whitehead, to create a public interest law firm, the “Christian Rights Foundation.” The organization that emerged was ultimately named the Rutherford Institute, after the 17th century theologian Samuel Rutherford, who asserted that even the King of England must obey God’s laws. The Institute was to be strategic and not parochial. It would represent any kind of Christian and even groups that were “heretical and non-Christian” (the Church of Scientology was mentioned as one example) in cases that would have precedential value for advancing their vision of Christianity.59

Dominionist theorists view the Jeffersonian idea of religious equality under the law as inherently tyrannical. “There are two major stages in the attack on religious liberty,” Rushdoony declared in 1965. “First is the state is secularized in the name of freedom and second, every prerogative of the church is attacked in an indirect manner so that … its right to exist is denied.”60 This is the thinking that informs many contemporary claims of attacks on the religious liberty and fears of persecution by a secular totalitarian government.

Religious liberty arguments, which can at once cloak and advance a conservative religious agenda, are increasingly ubiquitous on the Christian Right, and are sometimes intended to baffle liberals. In 2011, C. Peter Wagner seemed to make a surprising case for religious tolerance to a National Public Radio audience. “I’m sorry that some radicals speak up strongly against having a mosque in their neighborhood,” he said, “and I don’t think that’s patriotism. I think America needs to make room for liberty.”61  But Wagner knows there is no actual room for religious liberty in a dominionist society, as he made clear when the NPR listeners weren’t tuned in:

“Dominion has to do with control. Dominion has to do with rulership,” Wagner declared at an NAR conference in 2008. “Dominion has to do with authority and subduing, and it relates to society. In other words, what the values are in Heaven need to be made manifest here on earth. Dominion means being the head and not the tail. Dominion means ruling as kings. It says in Revelation Chapter 1:6 that He has made us kings and priests—and check the rest of that verse; it says for dominion. So we are kings for dominion.”62

Rushdoony's stream of Dominionism holds that Christians must dominate society, and institute and enforce Old Testament biblical law. Photo by EXILED TV via Youtube

Rushdoony’s stream of Dominionism holds that Christians must dominate society, and institute and enforce Old Testament biblical law. (Photo by EXILED TV via Youtube)

Significantly, Rushdoony and the late Howard Phillips, the Christian Reconstructionist founder of the Constitution Party, did considerable organizing around the Bob Jones University tax case—the cause celebre of the 1970s and early ‘80s that is widely credited with galvanizing the Christian Right as a political movement. In the landmark case of Bob Jones University v. United States, the Supreme Court ruled that the Greenville, South Carolina-based school was not entitled to federal tax exemption if it maintained its policy against interracial dating. The case epitomized the Reconstructionist and Schaefferite view of the perpetual showdown between a “biblical worldview” and “secular humanism.” The case is a forerunner to today’s efforts to gain exemption from the law based on religious liberty claims.63

Today, the major issues of the culture war have been substantially reframed in terms of religious liberty, as the co-belligerents seek to declare their individual and institutional religious consciences are violated in various ways, and therefore are exempt from what jurists call the “generally applicable laws.” The results have been mixed.

The religious freedom argument deployed against contraception and abortion won a major victory in the Supreme Court case of Hobby Lobby v. Sebelius, where the court held that closely held corporations have a right to freedom of conscience sufficient for the evangelical family-owned Hobby Lobby chain not to have to include certain contraceptives in their employees’ health insurance.

In the case of Obergefell v. Hodges, religious liberty arguments could not overcome the civil rights argument for marriage equality,64 but similar arguments have informed state-level versions of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which have sometimes sought for example, to exempt businesses from having to provide services related to same-sex marriages.

Dominion by Majority

Dominionist theorists and contemporary leaders know that they need to move carefully, lest they provoke powerful opposition. Some leading dominionists will go so far as to say that they do not seek a theocracy when that is clearly their goal. For example, C. Peter Wagner, in his book, Dominion!, says he wants to get his people “into positions of leadership” to reshape the country “from top to bottom.”65

Dominion!: How Kingdom Action Can Change the World was published by Chosen Books in February 2008. Photo: Chosen Books

Dominion!: How Kingdom Action Can Change the World was published by Chosen Books in February 2008. (Photo: Chosen Books)

Wagner’s successor as the convener of the United States Coalition of Apostolic Leaders (USCAL), Joseph Mattera, takes the same approach.66 USCAL is one of several NAR leadership groupings that teach that Christians of the right sort must hold governmental power and implement a biblical approach to the law.67

Mattera, who pastors a church in Brooklyn, New York, adds that the historic evangelical goal of universal conversion is unnecessary to achieve dominion. One of the “keys to dominion,” he says, is prolific reproduction and indoctrination of Christian children. Christians, he believes, should seek to multiply faster than those who are limiting the size of their families, so their children would “have more influence… [and]…more votes than anybody else and we would have the most power on the earth.”68 (Mattera’s gradualism is not limited to waiting for babies. His regional Apostolic Leadership team includes Democratic New York City Councilman Fernando Cabrera,69 who has also taught at Mattera’s Leadership Institute on waging a “Kingdom Revolution” to advance a “biblical worldview.”70 They waged an unsuccessful Democratic primary effort in 2014 against five candidates in an apparent effort to make the Democratic-dominated Council more conservative.71 Cabrera himself ran an unsuccessful Democratic primary challenge to his incumbent state senator in 2014,72 and tried again in 2016 with backing from charter school development interests.73)

Christian Reconstructionists involved in the natalist Quiverfull movement have a similar view. As Kathryn Joyce explained in Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement, they envision themselves producing arrows in God’s quiver in the war for dominion.74 Although certainly not all homeschoolers are Christian dominionists, those who are understand the concept of Quiverfull as a metaphor for their role in this epochal struggle. “The womb is such a powerful weapon,” Nancy Campbell, who has six children and 35 grandchildren, told National Public Radio, “it’s a weapon against the enemy.” Families in her church have an average of 8.5 children. Campbell said, “My greatest impact is through my children. The more children I have, the more ability I have to impact the world for God.”75

Additionally, Quiverfull children are usually homeschooled, and as religion scholar Julie Ingersoll explained in her 2015 book on Reconstructionism, that’s also part of Rushdoony’s long-term plan. As Rushdoony wrote, “the explicit goal of Christian education is dominion.”76 The Reconstructionists, Ingersoll concludes, are building a “separate and distinct subculture in which they can raise their large families without the influence of ‘humanism.’”77

For the Apostles and Prophets who comprise Mattera’s USCAL, 7M roads to dominion are just as clear. The government officials that emerge from their ranks must be informed by a “biblical worldview” and their “every purpose must be to establish or further the Kingdom of Jesus on earth.”78

This may be a less peaceful process than Wagner and some 7M roaders would have us believe. Many dominionists of all stripes anticipate deepening political tensions, violence and even religious or secessionist war, especially in the wake of legal and social acceptance of marriage equality and permanent access to legal abortion.79 Gary North thought this was likely. He predicted in 1989 that as the dominionist movement rose, the idea of constitutionally protected religious pluralism “will be shot to pieces in an ideological (and perhaps even literal) crossfire” as Christians and humanists continue to square off in “an escalating religious war.”80 [emphasis in the original]

One contemporary example will suffice. David Lane, a leading Christian Right electoral organizer, declared in a 2013 essay that religious war may be on the horizon.81 Meanwhile he has shifted the electoral emphasis of his Mississippi-based American Renewal Project. (The group hosts all-expenses paid policy briefings for clergy and their spouses, featuring top politicians like Gov. Mike Pence (R-IN), Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), Gingrich, Huckabee, Cruz, and often David Barton. Republican presidential contender Donald Trump addressed one such event in August 2016.82) They are currently recruiting and training clergy with a dominionist vision to run for office at all levels.83 Lane’s own pastor, Rob McCoy, won a city council seat in Thousand Oaks, California, in 2016.84 Lane’s vision is clear: “I don’t think there’s any such thing as a separation of church and state. This was not established as a secular nation, and anybody that says that it is, they’re not reading American history. This was established by Christians for the advancement of the Christian faith. My goal is to return—to restore a biblically based culture and a Judeo-Christian heritage.”85

Ted and Rafael Cruz along with David Barton at the Pastor’s Conference, Iowa Renewal Project, Marriott Hotel, Des Moines, Iowa, July 19 & 20, 2013. (Photo by Bruce Wilson via Youtube)

Lane reprised the theme of his inflammatory essay in dog whistle fashion in 2015, invoking the names of two warriors of Old Testament Israel. “We just need a Gideon or Rahab the Harlot to stand,” he declared.86 But one does not invoke these biblical figures to call for religious revival, elect candidates to city council, or to advance a legislative agenda. The biblical Gideon leads an Israelite army in an ethnic cleansing of the Midianites who were oppressors and worshiped false gods. (Lane’s piece was titled, “To Retake America, We Must Defeat Her False Religion.”) Rahab sheltered two Israelite spies in preparation for the sacking of the city of Jericho by Joshua’s army, resulting in the massacre of everyone but Rahab and her family.

It is worth noting that NAR events often begin with processions of young men marching to the military beat of drums and blowing Shofars—ram horns used for battle signals in ancient Israel.87

The Smears of August

The election of 2008 saw the first major party candidate for national office who had been obviously influenced by dominionist thought. GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin was a longtime member of an NAR-affiliated church, and had been mentored in politics by Alaskan Apostle Mary Glazier for two decades. The revelation of these ties when Palin came onto the national stage resulted in explosive, if short-lived, media attention.88

Sarah Palin's vice presidential candidacy highlights Dominionism's influence on GOP thinking. Photo by Gage Skidmore via Flickr. License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

Sarah Palin’s vice presidential candidacy highlights Dominionism’s influence on GOP thinking. (Photo by Gage Skidmore via Flickr. License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/)

Controversy erupted again in the run up to the 2012 election primary season. Media reports about dominionist influences on GOP presidential contenders Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) and Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX)89 threatened to make dominionism a household word. It was reported that, among other things, Bachmann’s law school mentor at Oral Roberts University was Christian Reconstructionist John Eidsmoe.90 (Reconstructionist Herb Titus also served on the school’s small law school faculty.) And leading NAR figures staged an unprecedented prayer rally of some 30,000 people in Houston to launch Gov. Perry’s campaign, to which even C. Peter Wagner traveled from Colorado to attend.

The thought that dominionism might become an issue in the presidential campaign must have sent Republican-oriented PR shops into panic mode. Journalists, scholars and activists who had written about dominionism were soon subjected to a wide-ranging smear campaign that featured nationally syndicated columnists from The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and The Washington Post.91 This effort sought to discredit the idea that dominionism was a real thing or, even if real, that it was of much significance. The real purpose of those using the term, the columnists alleged, was to tar evangelicals. Lisa Miller of the Post wrote, “‘Dominionism’ is the paranoid mot du jour.”92 Bachmann and Perry’s campaigns ultimately lost traction for other reasons. And in spite of many vigorous responses to the columnists’ pooh poohery,93 media coverage of dominionism collapsed even as dominionist thought continued to animate and sustain the Christian Right.

Dominionism denial exists within a wider context of a culture of doubt and denial about the strength and resiliency of the Christian Right itself.94 It can be difficult to take dominionism seriously if you think that the movement it drives is dead, dying, or deeply diminished. That said, it is also true that some writers use have used the term dominionism as an all-purpose epithet and have thereby unfairly broad-brushed people who do not embrace the harsh theocratic future envisioned by some.

But these distracting outliers are not as significant as the writing about dominionism from a wide variety of points of view that has been published over more than four decades. For example, in 1996, Rice University sociologist William Martin published With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America as a companion volume to the PBS documentary series by the same title.95 Authors of hundreds of books96 and articles97 have discussed dominionism before and since 2011. (Dominionism denial nevertheless resurfaced as Ted Cruz’s presidential prospects rose in 2016 and the role of dominionism began to be discussed.98)

In any case, ideas about dominion, dominionism, and dominion theology and the terms themselves, have been a central part of the discussion of evangelicalism and the development of the Christian Right for decades. This will continue, regardless of what politically motivated dominionism denialists may publish next.

Deliver us from Hillary

Dominionism now appears to be a permanent feature of politics at all levels. For three presidential elections in a row, dominionist politicians have played prominent roles. Following Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin in 2008, Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry in 2012, and the remarkable run of Ted Cruz in 2016, dominionists are among the most prominent politicians in the country and enjoy significant public support and acceptance as a legitimate part of the political mix.

dominionists are among the most prominent politicians in the country and enjoy significant public support and acceptance as a legitimate part of the political mix.

While Senator Cruz’s campaign was supported by leading NAR figures and most other Christian Right leaders, there was always a Plan B as well. One NAR prophet said God had told him in July 2015 that he will use Donald Trump to “expose darkness and perversion.”99 Donald Trump also enjoyed significant support from other Christian Right figures, notably 7M theorist Lance Wallnau (who also sits on the board of an NAR political arm, the Oak Initiative100).

Wallnau sought to explain the paradox of evangelical Christians supporting Trump from early on even though he didn’t seem like a good fit. Trump, as has been much discussed, was a longtime supporter of abortion and LGBTQ rights, a thrice-married philanderer, a failed casino magnate with ties to organized crime,101 and someone whose Christian credentials were dubious at best. Nevertheless, Wallnau suggested that God could use Trump to achieve his purposes even though he was a flawed vessel. Wallnau recalled the story of Cyrus, the King of Persia in the biblical book of Isaiah who, as had been earlier prophesied, freed the Jews who had been captive in Babylon for 70 years, and helped to build the temple in Jerusalem. God used the pagan Cyrus, as Wallnau put it, as a “wrecking ball” for his purposes.102 Wallnau thought God would use Trump to challenge “an increasingly hostile anti-Christian culture”103 and “deliver us from Hillary.”104

Some dominionists believe God will use Trump to deliver them from a liberal Clinton. Photo by Gage Skidmore via Flickr. License https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

Some dominionists believe God will use Trump to deliver them from a liberal Clinton. (Photo by Gage Skidmore via Flickr. License https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/)

Wallnau’s story makes clear that at least some 7Mers do not require moral or doctrinal conformity to accept someone as a co-belligerent, or even as a leader, as long as they can help  get them part of the way down the road to dominion. It also underscores that while the various doctrines feeding into the dominionist movement are clear, the degree to which they are adopted, and the means and timeline by which dominionists may seek to achieve their goals, will vary according to individual and factional interests.

Dominionism, like the Christian Right itself, has come a long way from obscure beginnings. What is remarkable today is that the nature of this driving ideology of the Christian Right remains obscure to most of society, most of the time. Dominionism’s proponents and their allies know it takes time to infuse their ideas into the constituencies most likely to be receptive. They also know it is likely—and rightly—to alarm many others.

What is remarkable today is that the nature of this driving ideology of the Christian Right remains obscure to most of society, most of the time.

Religion scholar Michael McVicar recounts an illuminating anecdote from that pivotal 1980 gathering of the Religious Roundtable addressed by Ronald Reagan. During the meeting, Robert Billings, one of the founders of the Moral Majority, privately observed to Gary North that, “If it weren’t for his [Rushdoony’s] books, none of us would be here.” North replied, “No one in the audience understands that.” Billings replied, “True. But we do.”

“Insiders knew about Rushdoony’s influence, even if the rank and file did not,” McVicar concludes. That continues to be true. The role of dominionism is largely hidden in plain sight from those most affected, on all sides.105

Endnotes

1 Jonathan Swan, “Top conservatives meet at secret dinner to discuss Cruz’s future,” The Hill, June 15, 2016.

2 See Chip Berlet, “How We Coined the Term “Dominionism”, Daily Kos, September 2011,

3 Michael J. McVicar, Christian Reconstruction: R.J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism, University of North Carolina Press, 2015. Pgs. 197-206.

4 Jonathan Tilove, “For evangelical voters, Rafael Cruz may be Ted’s best apostle,” Austin American-Statesman, July 31, 2015,

5 William Martin, With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America, Broadway Books, 1996, Pg. 199.

6 David Brody, “Like Father, Like Son: The Man Ted Cruz Calls ‘Hero,’” Christian Broadcasting Network, May 1, 2015,

7 Michael J. McVicar, Christian Reconstruction: R.J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism, University of North Carolina Press, 2015. Pg. 144; Sara Diamond, Roads to Dominion: Rightwing Movements and Political Power in the United States, The Guilford Press, 1995. Pg. 233.

8 Jonathan Tilove, “For evangelical voters, Rafael Cruz may be Ted’s best apostle,” Austin American-Statesman, July 31, 2015,

9 John Fea, Religion News Service, “Ted Cruz’s campaign is fueled by a dominionist vision for America,” The Washington Post, February 4, 2016. See also, John Fea, “The Theology of Ted Cruz: Questions raised by the candidate’s God-and-country vision,” Christianity Today, April 1, 2016.

10 Notably: Johnny Enlow, The Seven Mountain Prophecy: Unveiling the Coming Elijah Revolution, Creation House, 2008; and Lance Wallnau, The 7 Mountain Mandate: Impacting Culture Discipling Nations, DVD, Morningstar, August, 2009.

11 Kyle Mantyla, “David Barton Advocates Seven Mountains Dominionism,” RightWingWatch, April 4, 2011. See also John Fea, Religion News Service, “Ted Cruz’s campaign is fueled by a dominionist vision for America,” The Washington Post, February 4, 2016.

12 Kyle Mantyla, “It Is Dominion We Are After. World Conquest … And We Must Never Settle For Anything Less,” Right Wing Watch, August 26, 2011, .

13 Kyle Mantyla, “Barton: ‘Dominionism’ Just A Term Made Up To Smear Christians,” Right Wing Watch, November 1, 2011.

14 John Fea, Religion News Service, “Ted Cruz’s campaign is fueled by a dominionist vision for America,” The Washington Post, February 4, 2016.

15 Nina Martin, “This Alabama Judge Has Figured Out How to Dismantle Roe v. Wade: His writings fuel the biggest threat to abortion rights in a generation,” Pro-Publica, October 10, 2014.

16 Julie Ingersoll, “Huckabee Channels Rushdoony,” Religion Dispatches, April 8, 2011.

17 Peter Montgomery, “Why Newt Gingrich is Christian Nationalists’ Dream Veep,” RightWingWatch, July 7, 2016; Bruce Wilson, “Gingrich In Video Which Claims the Constitution Is Based On the Old Testament,” Huffington Post, March 4, 2012; Mariah Blake, “Newt’s Last Prayer: Christian Dominionists Go Gingrich: The candidate’s most useful supporters have been evangelicals who believe that government should be rooted in biblical law,” The Nation, February 28, 2012.

18 David R. Brockman, “The Radical Theology That Could Make Religious Freedom a Thing of the Past: Even devout Christians should fear these influential leaders’ refusal to separate church and state,” The Texas Observer, June 2, 2016.

19 Rachel Tabachnick, “Spiritual Warriors with an Antigay Mission: The New Apostolic Reformation,” The Public Eye, Spring 2013.

20 Eric W. Dolan, “Oklahoma’s senator-elect to use ‘biblical worldview’ to defeat the national debt,” Raw Story, November 7, 2014.

21 Kyle Mantyla, “Steve King Proves That America is a Christian Nation,” RightWingWatch, May 31, 2013.

22 Michael J. McVicar, Christian Reconstruction: R.J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism, University of North Carolina Press, 2015. Pgs. 124-125.

23 Julie J. Ingersoll, Building God’s Kingdom: Inside the World of Christian Reconstructionism, Oxford University Press, 2015. Pgs. 91-97.

24 Rachel Tabachnick, “Spiritual Warriors with an Antigay Mission: The New Apostolic Reformation,” The Public Eye, Spring 2013.

25 John Weaver, The New Apostolic Reformation: History of a Modern Charismatic Movement, McFarland &Company, 2016. See also, Rachel Tabachnick, “Dominionism Taught By Forerunners of the New Apostolic Reformation Since the Late 1940s,” Talk to Action, November 3, 2011, and Michael J. McVicar, Christian Reconstruction: R.J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism, University of North Carolina Press, 2015. Pgs. 199-201.

26 Jack W. Hayford, The Charismatic Century: The Enduring Impact of the Azusa Street Revival, Warner Faith, 2006). p. 182-183. See also, Rachel Tabachnick, “Spiritual Warriors with an Antigay Mission: The New Apostolic Reformation,” The Public Eye, Spring 2013.

27 Rachel Tabachnick, “Dominionism Taught By Forerunners of the New Apostolic Reformation Since the Late 1940s,” Talk to Action, November 3, 2011.

28 Rachel Tabachnick, “Spiritual Warriors with an Antigay Mission: The New Apostolic Reformation,” The Public Eye, Spring 2013.

29 Tim Alberta, “Top Evangelicals Send Invites for Trump Meeting,” National Review, May 24, 2016. Participating NAR leaders included Joseph Mattera, Cindy Jacobs, Harry Jackson, Steve Fedyski, and Jim Garlow.

30 John Weaver, The New Apostolic Reformation: History of a Modern Charismatic Movement, McFarland &Company, 2016. Pgs. 261, 266 and passim.

31 See for example, Frederick Clarkson, Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between theocracy and Democracy, Common Courage Press, 1997. Pgs. 97-103; Fritz Detwiler, Standing on the Premises of God: The Christian Right’s Fight to Redefine America’s Public Schools, New York University Press, 1999. Pgs. 134-136; 242.

32 Michael J. McVicar, Christian Reconstruction: R.J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism, University of North Carolina Press, 2015. Pg. 5 and passim.

33 Frederick Clarkson, Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between theocracy and Democracy, Common Courage Press, 1997. Pg. 81; Michael J. McVicar, Christian Reconstruction: R.J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism, University of North Carolina Press, 2015. Pgs. 230-231.

34 Gary North, “What Are Biblical Blueprints?,” January 26, 2016.

35 Frederick Clarkson, Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between theocracy and Democracy, Common Courage Press, 1997. Pg. 90.

36 When journalist Jerry Reiter infiltrated the ranks of antiabortion militancy, future assassin Paul Hill was surprised that he had never heard of R.J. Rushdoony and Gary North. Jerry Reiter, Live from the Gates of Hell: An Insider’s Look at the Antiabortion Underground, Prometheus Books, 2000. Pgs. 34-36.

37 Rodney Clapp, “Democracy as Heresy,” Christianity Today, February 20, 1987.

38 Bill Moyers, “On Earth As It Is In Heaven,” December 23, 1987. (Film clip includes quotes from Rushdoony interview, plus transcript of the show.)

39 Michael J. McVicar, Christian Reconstruction: R.J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism, University of North Carolina Press, 2015. Pg. 204.

40 Bruce Barron, Heaven on Earth? The Social & Political Agendas of Dominion Theology, Zondervan Publishing House, 1992; See also, Chip Berlet, “The Christian Right, Dominionism, and Theocracy – Part Three,” Talk to Action, December 12, 2005.

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

42 Francis A. Schaeffer, A Christian Manifesto, Crossway Books, 1981. Pg. 97.

43 John Fea, America: Founded as a Christian Nation?, John Knox Press, 2011. Pgs. 55-56.

44 Francis A. Schaeffer, A Christian Manifesto, Crossway Books, 1981. Pg. 101-102.

45 Frederick Clarkson, “Christian Right Seeks Renewal in Deepening Catholic-Protestant Alliance,” The Public Eye, Summer 2013.

46 Frederick Clarkson, Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between theocracy and Democracy, Common Courage Press, 1997. Pg. 93.

47 James Risen and Judy L. Thomas, Wrath of Angels: The American Abortion War, Perseus Books, 1998. Pg. 299.

48 Randall Terry, The Sword: The Blessing of Righteous Government and the Overthrow of Tyrants, The Reformer Library, 1995. Pg. 8 and passim.

49 Michael J. McVicar, Christian Reconstruction: R.J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism, University of North Carolina Press, 2015 Pgs. 160-161.

50 C. Peter Wagner, Dominion! How Kingdom Action Can Change the World, Chosen Books, 2008. Pg.59; See also Frederick Clarkson, Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between theocracy and Democracy, Common Courage Press, 1997. Pgs. 106-107.

51 C. Peter Wagner, Dominion! How Kingdom Action Can Change the World, Chosen Books, 2008. Pg. 60.

52 C. Peter Wagner, Dominion! How Kingdom Action Can Change the World, Chosen Books, 2008. Pg. 46.

53 Michael J. McVicar, Christian Reconstruction: R.J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism, University of North Carolina Press, 2015. Pg. 200.

54 Frederick Clarkson, Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between theocracy and Democracy, Common Courage Press, 1997, pgs. 106-107.

55 Frederick Clarkson, “Christian Right Seeks Renewal in Deepening Catholic-Protestant Alliance,” The Public Eye, Summer 2013.

56 For a discussion of the Statute, see Frederick Clarkson, “When Exemption is the Rule: The Religious Freedom Strategy of the Christian Right,” Political Research Associates, January 2016. Pg. 25.

57 Gary North, “The Intellectual Schizophrenia of the New Christian Right,” in James B. Jordan, “The Failure of the American Baptist Culture,” Christianity and Civilization, Geneva Divinity School 1982. p. 25. See also, Julie J. Ingersoll, Building God’s Kingdom: Inside the World of Christian Reconstructionism, Oxford University Press, 2015. Pgs. 240-241.

58 Gary North, Political Polytheism: The Myth of Pluralism, Institute for Christian Economics, 1989. Pg. 621.

59 Michael J. McVicar, Christian Reconstruction: R.J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism, University of North Carolina Press, 2015. Pgs. 170-175.

60 Julie J. Ingersoll, Building God’s Kingdom: Inside the World of Christian Reconstructionism, Oxford University Press, 2015. Pg.18.

61 Terry Gross, “A Leading Figure in the New Apostolic Reformation,” Fresh Air, (transcript), October 3, 2011.

62 Rachel Tabachnick, “C. Peter Wagner’s Denials About Dominionism and Demonization of Other Religions,” Talk to Action, October 4, 2011. See also Rachel Tabachnick, “Spiritual Warriors with an Antigay Mission: The New Apostolic Reformation,” The Public Eye, Spring 2013.

63 Frederick Clarkson, “When Exemption is the Rule: The Religious Freedom Strategy of the Christian Right,” Political Research Associates, January 2016; Peter Montgomery, Striking A Balance: Advancing Civil and Human Rights While Preserving Religious Liberty, The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund, February 2016.

64 Sarah Pulliam Baily, Here are the key excerpts on religious liberty from the Supreme Court’s decision on gay marriage,The Washington Post,  26, 2015.

65 C. Peter Wagner, Dominion! How Kingdom Action Can Change the World, Chosen Books, 2008 pg. 15.

66 Joseph Mattera, “Announcing: The United States Coalition of Apostolic Leaders!,” February 25, 2015.

67 Joseph Mattera, “How to Frame a Nation with the Law of God,” Spirit Life Magazine, September 11, 2012.

68 Joseph Mattera, “The Keys to Dominion,” Let Your Kingdom Come conference, New Generation Church, Riga, Latvia. 2007. Ledyaev also led an antigay project called Watchmen on the Walls, in which American antigay activist Rev. Scott Lively played a leading role. See Casey Sanchez, “Latvian Anti-Gay Movement Spills Over to U.S.,” Intelligence Report, Fall 2007. See also Rachel Tabachnick, “The Christian Dominionists Who Benefit from David Tyree’s Fame,” Political Research Associates, August 1, 2014.

69 Christ Covenant Coalition, Council and Leadership.

70 Leadership Institute, City Action Coalition, 2015.

71 Anna Merlan, “Surprise: Anti-Abortion & Anti Gay-Marriage Groups Are Uniting to Donate Lots of Money Against Gay City Council Candidates,” The Village Voice, September 9, 2013; Chris Bragg, “Bronx councilman’s gay problem: Fernando Cabrera blames ‘liberal’ media outlets for his loss last week in a Democratic state Senate primary, and for skewing his words,” Crain’s New York Business, September 14, 2014.

72 Ballotpedia, Fernando Cabrera.

73 Diane Ravitch, Diane Ravitch’s Blog, July 16, 2016.

74 Kathryn Joyce, Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement, Beacon Press, 2009.

75 Kathryn Joyce, “Arrows for the War,” The Nation, November 9, 2006.

76 Julie Ingersoll, Building God’s Kingdom: Inside the World of Christian Reconstructionism, Oxford University Press, 2015. Pg. 82.

77 Julie Ingersoll, Building God’s Kingdom: Inside the World of Christian Reconstructionism, Oxford University Press, 2015. Pg. 239.

78 US Coalition of Apostolic Leaders, Statement of Faith.

79 Frederick Clarkson, “Rumblings of Theocratic Violence,” The Public Eye, Summer, 2014.

80 Gary North, Political Polytheism, pg. 227; Frederick Clarkson, Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy, Common Courage Press, 1997. Pg. 85.

81 Frederick Clarkson, “Rumblings of Theocratic Violence,” The Public Eye, Summer, 2014.

82 Jennifer Jacobs, “Trump Goes Traditional With Florida Meeting of Evangelical Leaders,” Bloomberg, August 9, 2016.

83 Ralph Hallowell, “500 pastors heed call to run for office, restore Christian values in U.S.,” The Washington Times, November 12, 2015.

84 David Lane, “These Are the ‘Hidden Costs’ of Christian Disengagement,” Charisma, June 28, 2016.

85 Tom Gjelten, “Conservative Pastors Deliver Sharp Criticism Of Same-Sex Marriage,” National Public Radio, June 29, 2015.

86 David Lane, “To Retake America, We Must Defeat Her False Religion,” Charisma, September, 16, 2015.

87 See, for example, the procession of the shofars and drums entering Lou Engle’s TheCall, Nashville, July 7, 2007, Shofar, You Tube. Mark Kelly, “55,000 answer ‘The Call’: Rally calls America to pray & fast,” Baptist Press, July 9, 2007.

88 Laurie Goodstein, “YouTube Videos Draw Attention to Palin’s Faith,” The New York Times, October 24, 2008, “Palin, Muthee, and the Witch – Journalists Miss the Major Story,” Talk to Action, September 20, 2008; Bruce Wilson, “Olbermann Wants To Know About Palin’s Religious Beliefs. Well, Keith…,” Talk to Action, November 25, 2009.

89 Forrest Wilder, “Rick Perry’s Army of God: A little-known movement of radical Christians and self-proclaimed prophets wants to infiltrate government, and Rick Perry might be their man,” The Texas Observer, August 3, 2011, “A Christian Plot for Domination?: Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry aren’t just devout—both have deep ties to a fringe fundamentalist movement known as Dominionism, which says Christians should rule the world,” Daily Beast, August 14, 2011; Ryan Lizza, “Leap of Faith: The making of a Republican front-runner,” The New Yorker, August 15, 2011; Paul Rosenberg, “The Biggest Religious Movement You Never Heard of: Nine Things You Need to Know About Rick Perry’s Prayer Event,” AlterNet, August 5, 2011.

90 Julie Ingersoll, “Bachmann’s Law School Mentor Asserts Biblical Roots of American Political System,” Religion Dispatches, August 10, 2011,

91 Charlotte Allen, “Politics and religion can mix: Every time a Republican candidate for high office surfaces who is also a dedicated Christian, the left warns in apocalyptic tones that if you vote for him, America will sink into a ‘theocracy.’ Nonsense,” Los Angeles Times, August 28, 2011; Ross Douthat, “American Theocracy Revisited,” The New York Times, August 28, 2011; Michael Gerson, “A holy war on the Tea Party,” The Washington Post, August 22, 2011.

92 Lisa Miller, “‘Dominionism’ beliefs among conservative Christians overblown,” The Washington Post, August 11, 2011.

93 See for example, Joe Conn, “Dominionism And Democracy: Religious Right Radicals’ Growing Role In The Presidential Election Sparks A Debate Over What Kind Of America They Want,” Church & State, October 2011; Adele Stan, “Rampant Denial About the Threat Posed By Christian Dominionists, Perry and Bachmann: High-profile attacks on progressive reporting about Christian dominionism speak to the power of truth-telling,” AlterNet, August 22, 2011; Peter Montgomery, “Paranoia and the Progressive Press: A Response to WaPo’s Religion Columnist,” Religion Dispatches, August 23, 2011; Rob Boston, “Special Delivery: Fourteen Writers Remind Jim Wallis That The Religious Right Is A Real Problem,” Wall of Separation, Oct 6, 2011.

94 See Frederick Clarkson, “The New Secular Fundamentalist Conspiracy!,” The Public Eye, Spring, 2008; Frederick Clarkson, “The Religious Right: Still Not Dead,” Religion Dispatches, March 15, 2016.

95 William Martin, With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America, Broadway Books, 1996. Pg. 216.

96 These include, Frederick Clarkson, Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between theocracy and Democracy, Common Courage Press, 1997; Fritz Detwiler, Standing on the Premises of God: The Christian Right’s Fight to Redefine America’s Public Schools, New York University Press, 1999; Chip Berlet and Matthew N. Lyons, Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort, The Guilford Press, 2000; Jeff Sharlet, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, HarperCollins, 2008; Michelle Goldberg, Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, W.W. Norton & Company, 2006; Kathryn Joyce, Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement, Beacon Press, 2009; Max Blumenthal, Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement that Shattered the Party, Nation Books, 2010; Katherine Stewart, The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children, Public Affairs, 2012; Kapya Kaoma, American Culture Warriors in Africa: A Guide to Homophobia and Sexism, Harvard Book Store, 2014.

97 The Public Eye alone has published six major essays related to dominionism before and since August 2011. Chip Berlet and Margaret Quigley, “Theocracy and White Supremacy: Behind the Culture War to Restore Traditional Values,” The Public Eye, 1992; Frederick Clarkson, “Christian Reconstructionism: Theocratic Dominionism Gains Influence, The Public Eye, Spring 1994,”; Frederick Clarkson, “The Rise of Dominionism: Remaking America as a Christian Nation,” The Public Eye, Winter 2005; Michael J. McVicar, “The Libertarian Theocrats: The Long, Strange History of R.J.Rushdoony and Christian Reconstructionism,” The Public Eye, Fall 2007; Rachel Tabachnick, “Spiritual Warriors with an Antigay Mission: The New Apostolic Reformation,” The Public Eye, Spring 2013; Peter Montgomery, “Biblical Economics: The Divine Laissez-Faire Mandate,” The Public Eye, Spring 2015.

98 For example, Robert Gagnon and Edith Humphrey, “Stop Calling Ted Cruz a Dominionist: The Christian candidate’s faith influences his platform, but not in the ways most critics assume,” Christianity Today, April 6, 2016, Bill Berkowitz, “Why Are Evangelicals Fighting Over Ted Cruz’s Religious Beliefs,” Truthout, April 20, 2016.

99 Brian Tashman, “Self-Proclaimed Prophet: God Using Donald Trump To ‘Expose Darkness And Perversion,’” RightWingWatch, July 30, 2015.

100 Evelyn Schlatter, “Student Group at Harvard Sponsors Anti-Gay Religious Speakers,” Hatewatch, March 29, 2011.

101 David Cay Johnston, “Just What Were Donald Trump’s Ties to the Mob:I’ve spent years investigating, and here’s what’s known,” Politico, May 22, 2016.

102 Lance Wallnau, “Gift 2 10 Prophetic Insights about Trump; Gift 3 What is a ‘chaos’ candidate? And why America needs one,” 2016; See also, C. Peter Wagner, “I Like Donald Trump,” Charisma News, June 10, 2016.

103 Lance Wallnau, “Trumptation,” May 6, 2016.

104 Stephen Strang, “Is Donald Trump America’s Cyrus? with Lance Wallnau,” Charisma Podcast Network, May 7, 2016.

105 Michael J. McVicar, Christian Reconstruction: R.J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism, University of North Carolina Press, 2015. Pgs. 144-145.

106 Chip Berlet, “Christian Dominionism,” Research for Progress; Frederick Clarkson, “The Rise of Dominionism: Remaking America as a Christian Nation,” The Public Eye, Winter 2005.

107 Frederick Clarkson, “The Rise of Dominionism: Remaking America as a Christian Nation,” The Public Eye, Winter 2005.

A Forthcoming Fortnight of Demagoguery

Religious liberty is already a central feature of the 2016 election campaign.  But the Unites States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) intends to enlarge and escalate the debate when it wages its fifth annual Fortnight for Freedom this summer. The campaign will feature two weeks of events—from June 21st to July 4th—in most, if not all, of the Catholic dioceses around the country. Their aim is to highlight interest in, and mobilize support for, their religious freedom agenda. The beginning date is significant because it falls on the date the Church commemorates the martyrdom of St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More—English Catholic leaders who defied and were executed by the King in the 16th Century. The campaign will include a nine-city tour of relics of these “martyrs of the English reformation.”

Image via YouTube.

Image via YouTube.

In preparation for the campaign, the bishops recently released a ten minute video produced by the Knights of Columbus, titled “The Right to Religious Freedom.”  If the video is any indication, Church leaders are urging their flock to militancy – warning of the threat to religious freedom in America and in the world; mixing soft-focus Catholic evangelism with edgy political propaganda that by any reasonable standard has more in common with the garish partisanship of election years than thoughtful commentary on contemporary issues.  Indeed, the video’s claims that religious persecution and martyrdom may be at hand play into the hyperbolic Christian Right narrative of a looming tyranny in America – a tyranny that the faithful must prepare to resist, violently if necessary.

It is worth focusing on and answering a few themes of the Christian Right’s current campaigns, which are well crystalized in this election year video. The USCCB’s Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty’s tweet announcing the video states: “New video on #TheLittleSistersofthePoor & what Catholic Church teaches on religious freedom!” Another tweet calls it a “conversation starter.”

The reference to the Little Sisters of the Poor involves the Supreme Court case Zubik v. Burwell, and its implications is the focus of the video. The case is a consolidation of seven similar cases questioning whether religiously-affiliated non-profit organizations such as charities and hospitals must conform to the contraception mandate in the regulations under the Affordable Care Act.  The video highlights one of the cases, that of a Catholic order that operates nursing homes. The Little Sisters of the Poor did not want to have to file the simple paperwork requesting a religious exemption from the regulations – claiming that the very act of signing the form that would exempt them from contraception mandates would violate their religious freedom.

The USCCB’s video, however, says little about the substance of the case. The good works of the order are highlighted, while leading Catholic scholars suggest that there is an imminent and inexplicable governmental threat to the rights of the Litter Sisters of the Poor that will lead to a broad and escalating siege against the rights of all.

First they came for the nuns

“A government that doesn’t acknowledge limits on its power to regulate religious institutions is probably going to come after others as well,” Professor Rick Garnett of Notre Dame Law School gravely warns in the video.  As footage of rioting and fire in the night in some unidentified place and time scrolls by in the background, Garnett continues, “Governments that try to squash religious freedom tend to face political fragmentation; political disunity.”  His words thus come across as more of a threat than an observation.

The stakes, in the view of the bishops, are illuminated by Professor David L. Schindler of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute at the Catholic University of America.  “When you are confronted with a tank,” he declares in the video, “it’s clear your freedom is being deprived, and you… have an identifiable enemy.”

Schindler further suggests that the current situation is not “so benign” as it is presented.  He and the bishops seem to be suggesting that if things do not go their way in Zubik, the faithful may have to face military tanks in much the way that reform-minded Chinese students famous did in Tiananmen Square.  In fact, video footage from that episode appears in this video, as well as footage of East Germans breaking through the Berlin Wall.

Thomas Farr. Image via YouTube.

Thomas Farr. Image via YouTube.

Thomas Farr, a Catholic neoconservative who heads the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University also appears in the video, highlighting a running theme on the Christian Right which seeks to conflate domestic issues (such as marriage equality) with anti-Christian genocide abroad. “We can’t love God, we can’t do our job, if we don’t have religious freedom,” Farr declares, “and there are Christians around the world who are being denied that right.”

Such false equivalences and analogies between the horrors of religiously-motivated genocide in the Middle East and domestic issues are the rule rather than the exception for many Christian Right leaders.  In 2015, Farr gave a talk titled “ISIS and Indiana: The Global Crisis of Religious Liberty and Catholic Responsibility,” in which he implied that the terror group ISIS had some bearing on the debate at the time over LGBTQ discrimination in the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Religious liberty, he suggested, is in danger of being “lost in America.” (Farr’s talk was promoted by the USCCB.)

Helen Alvaré, a former staffer at the bishops’ Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, and now a professor of law at George Mason University is similarly apocalyptic in the video, claiming “When religious freedom goes away, and there is no transcendent authority, there is only majority will, then the law is the only norm, and the people in power now, are always the only power.”

Alvaré’s claim that religious freedom is subject to “majority will” ignores the actual constitutional system in which we live. Our system of government is intended to be a check against majoritarianism and factionalism. And it is explicitly intended to prevent the undue entanglements between church and state. Governments, political parties and individual politicians come and go, but only those with conspiracist worldviews believe that the people who populate the government at any given time are the only power. What Alvaré suggests is that her church represents the correct and permanent “transcendent authority,” and therefore their parochial approach to religious freedom should hold sway.

What is religious freedom? It’s all about religious and non-religious pluralism. As Thomas Jefferson put it: when one’s religious identity “shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”

It can be difficult to take seriously the hyperbole and seemingly twisted perspectives of such soft-spoken and scholarly figures as Schindler, Alvaré, and Farr and their sponsors, the leading Catholic bishops in the United States. But it would be foolish to ignore them.

Thomas Farr goes so far as to equate the idea of religious liberty with his own religious identity. He says, “the dignity of the human person, that’s what religious freedom is. Every human being has dignity as a human person because he or she is created in the image and likeness of God.”

In fact, religious freedom has always been defined as having nothing to do with such parochialisms. Indeed, claims like Farr’s are the fount of all theocratic reasoning. His bibliocentric claim that because people are made in God’s image, that this is therefore the meaning of religious liberty, conflates his explicitly religious view with the Enlightenment idea of religious equality when it comes to citizenship. As Thomas Jefferson put it in his landmark Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, one’s religious identity “shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”

Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, who leads the USCCB’s Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty (which organizes Fortnight for Freedom), has denied that he and his fellow bishops are right-wing culture warriors bent on imposing their agenda on everyone else. But he also essentially acknowledged that they want to do just that by, among other things, blocking access to legal and otherwise constitutionally protected contraception and abortion care wherever they can.

Lori has also served as a director and Supreme Chaplain of the Knights of Columbus for a decade. That he and his fellow bishops and the Catholic scholars that appear in this Knights of Columbus-produced video seem to adhere to views that have more in common with the most militant elements of the Christian Right should be fair warning to those who value religious pluralism and constitutional democracy.

Trump, Cruz, & Dominionism: Some Christian Right Leaders Fear a Crack-Up

The 2016 Republican presidential campaign has transformed American politics, likely forever. Everyone is making adjustments, but two recent illuminating episodes suggest that some Christian Right leaders are finding the changes to be unusually awkward and challenging.

trump cruzThe Christian Right, as a voting bloc, has never united behind a single candidate during the Republican presidential primaries (with the exception of Ronald Reagan’s and George W. Bush’s unopposed second-term races). Still, we tend to forget that the movement has never been monolithic and that there have always been political tensions between rival candidates and factions. But the factional tensions are different this year. And there are two main reasons for this.

The first tension is related to the unique, and uniquely divisive, candidacy of Donald Trump. Evangelical think tanker Michael Cromartie, in a curiously overwrought speech, widely-discussed in the evangelical press, has gone so far as to call it a conservative “crack-up.”  The second is the specter of Dominionism as it relates to Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) and his campaign. 

The Christian Post recently reported on the eyebrow-raising remarks of evangelical think tanker Michael Cromartie at a luncheon sponsored by the neoconservative Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington DC.  (IRD is best known for its efforts to degrade the historic communions of mainline Protestantism.)  Cromartie runs the Evangelicals in Civic Life program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC) in Washington, DC.

Cromartie is upset that the “new branding” of evangelicalism and the Christian Right is being ruined by evangelical and conservative leaders who support Trump. He said the movement has benefited from the rise of Jim Daly of Focus on the Family, and megachurch pastors and authors Tim Keller and Rick Warren. He believes that they better “present” the movement’s goals than such founding Christian Right figures as James Dobson, D. James Kennedy and Jerry Falwell, Sr.

But this rebranding, Cromartie says, has been undone because of the pro-Trump activities of noted Southern Baptists such as megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress, Liberty University president Jerry Falwell, Jr., and former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee.

The Christian Post continued:

“In the last six or seven or eight years, we now have new leaders to replace those leaders, so that it’s a new branding of evangelicals in our society,” Cromartie stated. “Now, that is all out the window, ladies and gentleman, when Jerry Falwell Jr. has the audacity to come out and endorse Donald Trump, when Robert Jeffress goes on and sells his soul every week on Fox News, encouraging the candidacy of Donald Trump.”

“If this is not a crack up,” Cromartie observed,” I don’t know what it is.”

As if to underscore his confusion about all this, Cromartie also cited blogger Matt Walsh, whose hyperbolic post “Let’s Remember The Cowardly Conservative Leaders Who Betrayed Us For Trump” leaves readers with little doubt that the faction fighting is getting bitter.

Speaking of Falwell and Jeffress, Walsh declared:

“They now promote Trump in direct defiance of Scripture, which clearly stipulates that anyone who desires to be a leader must be noble, respectable, temperate, and dignified (and probably not someone who brags about his adultery and thinks the nation’s largest abortion provider is ‘wonderful [sic]).  To claim Trump belongs in any of these categories is blasphemy.”

“Our ‘leaders’” he continued, “have subjugated themselves to the American Kim Jong Un simply for the publicity and the ratings and the chance to be friends with a billionaire celebrity.”

Meanwhile, the candidacy of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), and his unexpected emergence as the leading candidate of both the Christian Right and much of the GOP establishment as an alternative to Trump is causing the movement other kinds of indigestion.

Catholic neoconservative strategist Robert P. George is apparently worried about how voters will react to the way Senator Cruz relates his religious views to public policy. Specifically, he is worried about Ted Cruz and Dominionism.

At the beginning of the presidential primary season four years ago, the Christian Right was similarly worried that Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) and Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX) were receiving press attention for their well-established involvements in the theocratic politics of Dominionism.

In that race, those two candidates both dropped out early. But with Cruz actually having a shot at the nomination, George apparently hopes to squelch the emerging discussion about Cruz and Dominionism before it goes any further. This may be why he was featured in a recent article in Christianity Today, which sought to smear researchers who have published about Cruz’s dominionist roots, namely evangelical historian John Fea, evangelical psychology professor Warren Throckmorton, Daily Beast writer Jay Michaelson, and myself.

In the article, George claimed:

“The contemporary religious Left’s version of McCarthyist red-baiting is to smear opponents by labeling them ‘dominionists.’ … Ted’s not a dominionist; he’s a constitutionalist.”

This is as silly as it is wrong.  What’s more, although former PRA Senior Analyst Chip Berlet and I may have defined and popularized the terms “Dominionism” and “dominionist” in the 90s as a way to describe a tendency that is evident across a wide swath of evangelicalism, we have always sought to apply it fairly and accurately.

Nevertheless, George and the authors of the article did not offer a single example of the supposedly McCarthyist-style uses of the term by those of us named in the article or anyone else.

Also ignored by the authors and George is the fact that the term was part of the debate about Christian Reconstructionism in the evangelical community for years before Berlet and I used it for wider publics.1  The term has also been objectively employed in many scholarly books and articles.

As I recently told journalist Bill Berkowitz, who wrote about the discussion of Cruz and Dominionism for Truthout, “The question of whether Cruz is a Dominionist will linger because the available evidence suggests that he is.” John Fea has detailed how, in addition to Cruz’s own statements, Cruz’s father Rafael (who is also his principal campaign surrogate) is openly a 7 Mountains Dominionist, as is the head of Cruz’s Super PAC – revisionist historian David Barton. One of Cruz’s foreign policy advisers, Jerry Boykin of the Family Research Council, is also a well-known 7 Mountains Dominionist and a longtime board member of a 7 Mountains political project called The Oak Initiative.

The public debate about the Christian Right is usually limited to the tripartite agenda of what they term “life, marriage, and religious liberty” as put forth in The Manhattan Declaration.  But their agenda has always been broader and deeper than that, which is why Robert P. George, the principal author of the Declaration (and current Vice Chairman of EPPC) does not want to risk us talking about the political and economic dimensions of what they mean by “taking dominion” over society. This, combined with the bitterness of some about evangelical support for Trump, may very well signal a period of disunity rather than the politically homogenized evangelicalism preferred by Washington, DC think tanks and power brokers.


 

[1]  These usages are discussed in Christian Reconstructionism:  R.J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism by Michael J. McVicar, University of North Carolina Press, 2015.; page 204.

Dominionism is the New Religious Freedom

Historians may someday see the 2016 election season as the turning point in how our society understands the Dominionist movement that is seeking to recast society in its own image.  The herald of this new understanding is—ironically, as I will discuss below—a Washington Post commentary by historian John Fea, titled:  “Ted Cruz’s campaign is fueled by a dominionist vision for America.”  The Post’s publication of Fea’s piece follows years of both scholarly and journalistic tip-toeing around this elephant on the table of American public life – a dynamic modern theocratic religious and political movement that prior conventional wisdom notwithstanding is not fringe.

Ted Cruz speaks to supporters gathered at a late-night campaign stop at Penny's Diner in Missouri Valley, Iowa, in Jan. 2016. Image via Matt A.J. on Flickr.

Ted Cruz speaks to supporters gathered at a late-night campaign stop at Penny’s Diner in Missouri Valley, Iowa, in Jan. 2016. Image via Matt A.J. on Flickr.

Fea, who chairs the History Department at the evangelical Messiah College in Pennsylvania, matter of factly discusses the influence of “seven mountains dominionism” on Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) – who may be the most openly theocratic candidate ever to be a serious contender for a major party presidential nomination.  Perhaps just as remarkably, the Dominionism advocated by the likes of the Cruz family is wrapped in a claim that religious freedom is under assault in the U.S.

As I reported in the recent report, When Exemption is the Rule: The Religious Freedom Strategy of the Christian Right:

“I believe that 2016 is going to be a religious-liberty election,” Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) declared before a raucous crowd of some 7,000 Southern Baptists in October 2015.  “As these threats grow darker and darker and darker, they are waking people up here in Texas and all across this country.”

Unsurprisingly, Cruz features this claim at many of his presidential campaign rallies. This is the new normal.

But of course, Cruz’s notion of religious freedom is all about creating religious exemptions to the legal requirements to recognize the civic equality of LGBTQ people, and the rights of people seeking their sexual and reproductive health care, as well as the rights of people – including many Christians – whose religious views are different than those of the Cruzes and their ilk.

The term “Dominionism” was first popularized in the 1990s by researchers, including Chip Berlet, scholar Sara Diamond, and myself, who needed a term to describe the political aspirations of Christian Rightists who believed that they have a biblical mandate to control all earthly institutions –including government – until the second coming of Jesus. But the idea of conservative Christians gaining political power sufficient to take dominion over society predated our use of the term by decades.

The two main schools of Dominionist thought include Christian Reconstructionism, founded by the late R.J. Rushdoony, which advances the idea not only of the need for Christians (of the right sort) to dominate society, but institute and apply Old Testament “Biblical Law.”

The other, closely related form of Dominionism is advocated by the Pentecostal  New Apostolic Reformation, which exuberantly advocates for Christians to “reclaim the seven mountains of culture”: government, religion, media, family, business, education, and arts and entertainment.

The religious vision and political aspirations of Ted Cruz and his father Rafael are widely known in conservative Christian religious and political circles and are being discussed in his home state of Texas.  So much so, that reporter Jonathan Tilove of the Austin American Statesman wrote last summer about how Raphael Cruz was compelled to insist, “We are not talking about theocracy.”  But Fea reports that the Cruzes are close to Christian Nationalist author, historical revisionist and longtime Texas Republican leader David Barton, who declares that the United States was founded as a Christian Nation but has fallen away from this foundation and must be restored to avoid punishment from God.

Fea writes:

“Anyone who has watched Cruz on the stump knows that he often references the important role that his father, traveling evangelist Rafael Cruz, has played in his life. During a 2012 sermon at New Beginnings Church in Bedford, Texas, Rafael Cruz described his son’s political campaign as a direct fulfillment of biblical prophecy.

The elder Cruz told the congregation that God would anoint Christian “kings” to preside over an “end-time transfer of wealth” from the wicked to the righteous. After this sermon, Larry Huch, the pastor of New Beginnings, claimed Cruz’s recent election to the U.S. Senate was a sign that he was one of these kings.

According to his father and Huch, Ted Cruz is anointed by God to help Christians in their effort to “go to the marketplace and occupy the land … and take dominion” over it. This “end-time transfer of wealth” will relieve Christians of all financial woes, allowing true believers to ascend to a position of political and cultural power in which they can build a Christian civilization. When this Christian nation is in place (or back in place), Jesus will return.

Rafael Cruz and Larry Huch preach a brand of evangelical theology called Seven Mountains Dominionism. They believe Christians must take dominion over seven aspects of culture: family, religion, education, media, entertainment, business and government. The name of the movement comes from Isaiah 2:2: “Now it shall come to pass in the latter days that the Lord’s house shall be established on the top of the mountains.”

Fea also notes that Barton, who runs the Keep the Promise Super PAC that supports Cruz’s campaign, shares this vision:

“Barton’s Christian nationalism is a product of this theological approach to culture. Back in 2011, Barton said that if Christians were going to successfully “take the culture” they would need to control these seven areas. “If you can have those seven areas,” Barton told his listeners to his radio show, “you can shape and control whatever takes place in nations, continents and even the world.”

This is remarkable, in part, because a few years ago, journalists and scholars who wrote about Dominionism found themselves facing a smear campaign by, among others, writers at the same paper in which Fea’s commentary appears. Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson and then-religion writer Lisa Miller were part of this national effort to discredit the idea that Dominionism was a real thing or that even if it was, that it was of much significance. This despite the fact that then-Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX) had made his de facto presidential campaign announcement at a massive prayer rally organized by leaders of the movement for Seven Mountains Dominionism, and that then presidential candidate Rep. Michele Bachman’s (R-MN) mentor at law school was John Eidsmoe, a prominent Christian Reconstructionist theorist, (who now works at the Foundation for Moral Law, founded by Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore.)   Perry’s campaign later imploded, (for reasons other than the Dominionism controversy) and Bachman’s campaign never gained traction, but the episode certainly prefigured current events.

Now, some four years later, former Gov. Perry has endorsed Ted Cruz for president. Cruz has won the Iowa caucuses, and The Washington Post has published a major article about the Seven Mountains Dominionism of Sen. Cruz and his father.  A great transformation in American politics and religion, once pooh poohed by established interests (which also denounced those of us who recognized and wrote about its importance) is now accepted as uncontroverted fact.  And the attack dogs of the various political establishments are not yet snarling.

When Anti-Abortion Propaganda is Accepted as Investigative Journalism

One of the underreported aspects of the current smear campaign against Planned Parenthood is the coarsening and polarizing of our civil discourse that usually accompanies discussions of the culture wars.  This has been especially glaring because the ongoing barrage of false and inflammatory language directed at Planned Parenthood and its staff by anti-abortion groups; and the remarkable disconnect between what is passing for evidence and investigative journalism, and the charges being leveled.

Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) and various staff and affiliates stand accused of “selling” or “trafficking in baby parts.”  They are said to be “profiteering” in a “black market.”  Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) has gone so far as to call Planned Parenthood “an ongoing criminal enterprise.”

David Daleiden

David Daleiden, founder of Center for Medical Progress and former staff member of Live Action.

These serious, but hyperbolically-stated, charges are based largely on short, manipulatively edited videos produced from hidden camera conversations by the anti-abortion group, Center for Medical Progress (CMP), led by founder David Daleiden who previously served as Director of Research for similar group, Live Action. The videos are being used to justify official investigations by Congress and efforts to bar Planned Parenthood from receiving state and federal funds for routine health care services such as breast cancer screenings, pap smears, contraception, and prenatal care.  Federal funds are not used to provide abortion care (except via Medicaid in the cases of rape, incest, and the life of the mother), and many Planned Parenthood affiliates do not even provide abortions. Among those that do, not all are involved in the donation of fetal tissue and organs.  This is the case in New Hampshire, where, in response to the CMP’s videos, the state recently decided not to continue contracting with Planned Parenthood to provide health care services, even though PP is not engaged in fetal tissue research donations and the state Attorney General had already decided that there was no basis for an investigation.

“We do not launch investigations in the state of New Hampshire on rumor,” said Governor Maggie Hassan. “We do not launch criminal investigations in the state of New Hampshire because somebody edits a tape.”

The videos claiming to demonstrate that Planned Parenthood sells fetal tissue and organs for profit actually only show exactly what PPFA says it does. The organization is reimbursed for the costs associated with transporting tissue for purposes of medical and scientific research. Medical ethicists say that the reimbursement rates discussed in the videos are well within the standard range for non-profits. (For-profit medical enterprises get more.)  This is all legal under federal law. And it is worth noting that no one is proposing changing the laws, or investigating anyone other than Planned Parenthood—likely because the research is life-saving and has led to breakthroughs in cancer treatments and other medical advancements.

This isn’t the first time anti-choice groups have used the same methods to smear Planned Parenthood and pressure public officials into investigating the women’s health care provider in search of a justification to make PPFA ineligible to receive federal funds on the same basis as everyone else.  (They call it “defunding Planned Parenthood.”) David Daleiden himself served as Director of Research for Live Action during the big smear campaign against PPFA in 2011.

Vickie Saporta of the National Abortion Federation (the professional association of abortion providers, whose membership includes providers in both the non-profit and for-profit medical community), further connected the dots to a similar effort in the 1990s. She recently wrote in The Washington Examiner that

“In 1999, another anti-abortion group, Life Dynamics, released an ‘undercover’ video claiming that abortion providers were profiting from fetal tissue donation. The allegations led to a congressional hearing in which the star witness confessed to having been paid over $20,000 by Life Dynamics.

He recanted his story, saying under oath that he had lied and that he had no personal knowledge of any instances in which tissue donation programs had violated federal law. Even legislators who opposed abortion doubted his story and credibility. Then Representative — now Senator — Richard Burr, R-N.C., told the witness: ‘I found there to be so many inconsistencies in your testimony … your credibility, as far as this member is concerned, is shot.’

The head of Life Dynamics, Mark Crutcher, admitted that the hearing was a train wreck. It’s no surprise that Crutcher has also been consulting with CMP. Further investigations this time around will find the same thing as last time: That the anti-abortion group and its agents are the ones who acted fraudulently, and that abortion providers have not broken the law.”

The swirl of charges and countercharges can make your head spin, so here is one simple example of the way CMP handles evidence.

Daleiden was recently interviewed by Alisyn Camerota on CNN’s “New Day” show. He said a brochure for StemExpress, a small company that procures human tissues for researchers, proved that Planned Parenthood harvests fetal parts for profit. He urged viewers to visit the CMP web site to see it.

So I did.

What CMP posted is a generic corporate promotional brochure aimed at a wide audience in the medical field. A PPFA official’s endorsement on the brochure is for the professionalism of the company and makes no mention of pecuniary interests.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the current controversy is that few journalists and public officials are seriously scrutinizing this crude propaganda, and are largely allowing an obscure, militant anti-abortion group to cast themselves as investigative journalists rather than highlighting their agenda and dishonest tactics. Daleiden claims to produce investigative journalism and his lawyers (the Christian Right’s American Center for Law and Justice) characterize Daleiden and his CMP colleague Troy Newman (who also leads the militant anti-abortion group Operation Rescue) as “investigative journalists.”  Christianity Today, the major magazine of evangelical Christianity, called Daleiden a “filmmaker.”  These are very generous descriptions of who these men are, and what they do.

Recently the National Abortion Federation obtained a temporary injunction against the Center for Medical Progress, preventing it from publishing confidential material obtained under false pretenses. Among the reasons the injunction was granted are the harassment and death threats against the PPFA staffers who appeared in the videos. In his ruling, Judge William H. Orrick said:

“Critically, the parties do not disagree about NAF’s central allegations: defendants assumed false identities, created a fake company, and lied to NAF in order to obtain access to NAF’s annual meetings and gain private information about its members….[The defendants] unquestionably breached their agreements with NAF…The evidence presented by NAF, including that defendants’ recent dissemination of videos of and conversations with NAF affiliates has led to harassment and death threats for the individuals in those videos, is sufficient to show irreparable injury for the purposes of the temporary restraining order.”

Center for Medical Progress responded:

“The National Abortion Federation is a criminal organization that has spent years conspiring with Planned Parenthood on how to violate federal laws on partial-birth abortion and fetal tissue sales.”

The evidence for this series of charges from CMP? None.

Catholic Democrats & the Group Behind the Anti-Planned Parenthood Videos

Anti-abortion Catholic Democrats have long sought to cast their cause as progressive, but their actions have taken them into common cause with the Religious Right.  This tendency has been on display during the brouhaha over the publication of the first of what promises to be a series of misleading propaganda videos published by an obscure antiabortion group.

The Center for Medical Progress (a Catholic Right group with no relation to the liberal Washington DC think tank, Center for American Progress) has made news for its tabloid claim that Planned Parenthood Federation of America engages in the potentially criminal harvesting of fetal tissue and organs for profit. But the documentation does not substantiate the charges.  In fact, the unedited version of the covertly recorded video and the transcript supports PPFA’s statements that they only engage in the lawful practice of—and with the woman’s consent—donating fetal tissue for medical and research purposes.

Christopher J. Hale, executive director of

Christopher J. Hale, executive director of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good (CACG).

Epitomizing the tendency of anti-choice Democrats to become entangled with religious and political elements who are neither progressive or Democratic, is Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good (CACG) – whose devotion to the cause has been clear since its founding in 2004.

Two days after the release of the first video, Christopher J. Hale (executive director of CACG) published a provocative op-ed in the religion section of The Washington Post online.  He called for progressive and Democratic leaders to join him in denouncing Planned Parenthood, citing the Center for Medical Progress’s crude work of propaganda as the justification for his call to moral action.

“Who will say no,” Hale asked, framing his accusation in the form of a question, “to this growing indifference towards others’ invisible sufferings, toward unseen violence, and toward hidden injustices that has metastasized in our national conscience? Who will speak truth to the rich and powerful and denounce Planned Parenthood’s participation and leadership in this throwaway culture and an economy that debases, excludes, and kills?”

Juxtapose Hale’s accusations with journalists like Robin Abcarian at the Los Angeles Times and Robin Marty at Cosmopolitan, who quickly saw that the video does not support the charges. So did the editorial board of The New York Times, which concluded that “the video campaign is a dishonest attempt to make legal, voluntary and potentially lifesaving tissue donations appear nefarious and illegal.”

It did not take long for Hale’s piece to be seen as an outrageous rush to judgement. Jon O’Brien of Catholics for Choice, writing at The Huffington Post, observed that Hale did not let the facts get in the way of the story he wanted to tell. CACG, said O’Brien, “is so hell-bent on making abortion illegal that they went so far as to equate a woman’s abortion decision with torture and war.”

Nevertheless, Hale is often cited in major media as a representative of liberal Christianity, and is a regular contributor to Time magazine.

Who Is Center for Medical Progress?

If Hale and other anti-abortion Democrats had bothered to look, they would have learned that the Center for Medical Progress has only existed since 2013, and has no record of doing much of anything prior to their release of the propaganda video which prompted Hale’s op-ed.  Hale would also have found out that one of the three founders is Troy Newman, longtime president of the militant anti-abortion organization Operation Rescue (see PRA’s profile here).  What’s more, Robin Marty reported that the tactic of making sensationalized, highly edited undercover videos targeting Planned Parenthood was popularized by Live Action, founded and led by Lila Rose (see PRA’s profile here), and that Daleiden had worked for her.  “David Daleiden” Marty wrote of Center for Medical Progress’s founder, “is the former director of research for Live Action, and according to Breitbart News, he held that position for five years and ‘is no stranger to undercover investigations of Planned Parenthood.’”

Rose, who says her work is driven by her faith, was catechized by the secretive, conservative order Opus Dei while she was in college. She is a popular speaker at Christian Right events, such as the annual Values Voters political conference hosted by the Family Research Council. Rose claimed that the Daleiden video reveals “the unimaginable horror that is Planned Parenthood” including the “exploitation of human life, the cover-up, and the black market profiteering by America’s largest abortion chain” as well as “their contempt for rule of law and human life.”

Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good itself has a curious recent history.  The organization lost its federal tax-exempt status several years ago, and all of its prominent supporters inexplicably disappeared from its web site last year.  It is unclear where its money currently comes from, but CACG now appears to be an unincorporated project of a Washington, DC political PR firm, Matz, Blancato & Associates  – with which it shares a mailing address, and where longtime CACG board member and current chairman Alfred Rotondaro has worked in recent years.  (Blancato also chairs the Italian American Democratic Council, a political action committee of which Rotondaro is treasurer.)  Rotondaro, who has also been a Senior Fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress, is no longer listed on the organization’s web site.  (The Center for American Progress’s publication Think Progress has, however, posted a detailed exposé of what’s wrong with the Daleiden videos and links it to similar video smear products intended to damage Planned Parenthood.) 

The fact is that there is no evidence that PPFA or any of its personnel or affiliates are doing anything that violates the legal and ethical standards regarding donation of tissue and organs for purposes of medical and scientific research. The full transcript of the video, which was released by CMP, shows PPFA’s Senior Director of Medical Services Dr. Deborah Nucatola explaining how patients are not coerced but are informed about the option of donating tissue, and also making it very clear that there is no profit motive.

The fact is that there is no evidence that PPFA or any of its personnel or affiliates are doing anything that violates legal and ethical standards.

Subsequent statements issued by PPFA are consistent with what Nucatola told her undercover interviewers. PPFA states, “[W]e do this just like every other high-quality health care provider does – with full, appropriate consent from patients and under the highest ethical and legal standards.  There is no financial benefit for tissue donation for either the patient or for Planned Parenthood.  In some instances, actual costs, such as the cost to transport tissue to leading research centers, are reimbursed, which is standard across the medical field.”

Indeed, the charges being exploited by anti-abortion groups and opportunistic politicians are based exclusively on a method of employing terms like “selling,” “trafficking,” “haggling,”  “profiteering,” and “black market” to make inflammatory charges that are not supported by the facts.  

Recent reporting suggests that the videos may have been released in collusion with Republican Members of Congress—at least two of whom had seen the first video weeks before its release—and who say they will  initiate an investigation into the allegations.

It was one thing for the ostensibly liberal and Democratic Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good to advocate for their views. But there has always been more to it. “To the untrained eye,” Catholics for Choice explained in a 2009 report on the group, “CACG may just seem like another Catholic social justice organization, focusing solely on traditional Catholic social teaching such as care of the poor, environmental sustainability and economic justice. However, a closer look reveals that a key aim of CACG is to oppose the availability of legal abortion.”

But beyond even this, it is quite another thing for CACG executive director Christopher J. Hale to treat as fact a work of crude political propaganda from a sketchy organization, alleging potentially criminal activity on the part of a respected health care provider – and then to call on Democratic and progressive leaders to  join him in this recklessness.  Hale and others of his ilk may actually believe this video smear job, or, worse, may be willing to employ the lies of a militant, right-wing agency to accomplish their ends – no matter who among their supposed allies may be harmed.

The Past Repeats: Christian Right Turns to Nullification to Counter Marriage Equality

Kansas Governor Sam Brownback (R)

Kansas Governor Sam Brownback (R)

Last year in The Public Eye magazine, Rachel Tabachnick and Frank L. Cocozzelli warned of the trend on the religious and political Right toward the use of “nullification” as a means of resistance by states to federal laws of which they do not approve. So it should come as no surprise that we are now seeing Christian Right leaders turn to nullification tactics in an attempt to thwart the marriage equality ruling at the Supreme Court.

In Kansas, Republican Governor Sam Brownback has issued “EXECUTIVE ORDER 15-05: Preservation and Protection of Religious Freedom,” which seeks to indemnify anti-LGBTQ discrimination under the rubric of the state’s modified version of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Brownback writes in the Order that  “the recent imposition of same sex marriage by the United States Supreme Court poses potential infringements on the civil right of religious liberty” and that, therefore, the state government shall not take  “action against a religious organization, including those providing social services, wholly or partially on the basis that such organization declines or will decline to solemnize any marriage or to provide services, accommodations, facilities, goods, or privileges for a purpose related to the solemnization, formation, celebration or recognition of any marriage, based upon or consistent with a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction…”

WHAT IS NULLIFICATION? Nullification refers to an attempt by a state, city, or municipal government to declare a law written by a higher governing body illegal and/or void within its jurisdiction. The idea of nullification gained notoriety during the civil rights movement, when Southern states attempted to declare federal civil rights laws nullified within their borders. These attempts are almost always unconstitutional. See more here: http://www.politicalresearch.org/2013/11/22/nullification-neo-confederates-and-the-revenge-of-the-old-right/

WHAT IS NULLIFICATION? Nullification refers to an attempt by a state, city, or municipal government to declare a law written by a higher governing body illegal and/or void within its jurisdiction. The idea of nullification gained notoriety during the civil rights movement, when Southern States attempted to declare federal civil rights laws nullified within their borders. These attempts are almost always unconstitutional. See more here: http://www.politicalresearch.org/2013/11/22/nullification-neo-confederates-and-the-revenge-of-the-old-right/

Thomas Witt, the executive director of Equality Kansas responded, saying “Our initial interpretation of this order is simple:  It’s one part scare tactics, one part ducking his constitutional responsibility.” He notes that the section of the Order stating that clergy will not be required to officiate at same-sex marriages is “nothing but political scare tactic.”

Brownback’s solution to a non-existent problem is, of course, consistent with the scare tactics against marriage equality being used elsewhere by Christian Right leaders.  In fact, no church or clergy has ever been required to solemnize any marriage of which they did not approve, including traditional heterosexual marriages.  This remains unchanged nationwide.

“The rest of the order,” Witt added, “is more problematic.”

“The plain language seems to suggest that religious organizations that have contracts to provide taxpayer-funded social services will be able to deny taxpayer-funded services to LGBT Kansans.  We are still having this analyzed by our attorneys, but if this proves to be the case, the Governor should be prepared to find himself on the losing end of more expensive litigation.”

Witt also points out that federally funded institutions like hospitals may not want to jeopardize their funding by invoking a religious freedom to discriminate, or allowing their employees to do so.

Also worthy of note is that Brownback is expanding the definition of sincerely held religious belief to “moral conviction.”  The plain meaning here is that one need not even offer the fig leaf of religious opposition, but merely claim a religiously denatured “moral conviction” of opposition to anything other than traditional marriage.

Governor Brownback told FRC president Tony Perkins (pictured)

Governor Brownback appeared on FRC president Tony Perkins’ (pictured) podcast to defend his attempt to nullify the Supreme Court’s decision on marriage equality.

The implication, Witt also notes, is that in light of the trend towards privatization of government services, state contractors and grantees for adoption services, foster care placement, and Medicaid will be allowed to discriminate. Witt and others also claim that cities and counties also contract with church-connected organizations “to provide low-income medical services, mental health services, nursing homes, homeless shelters, and domestic violence and human trafficking safe-houses,” and thus may also be afforded the right to discriminate. Witt says that by including the phrase “political subdivisions” in his order, the governor has “just declared himself the supreme ruler of every local school board, every state university, every community college, and every independent commission, hospital board, library board, township, city and county in our state.”

There is considerable initial dispute about whether the executive order extends that far (the governor belatedly said it does not). But if it does, the Order could conflict (among other things) with the anti-discrimination policies of major cities such as Lawrence and Topeka.

These are the kinds of legal tangles that are likely to continue to mark resistance to the implementation of marriage equality, whether or not the demagogues who take such actions expect them to succeed or not. Indeed, such political grandstanding is likely to make religious liberty a continuing issue in the 2016 election season.

The Kansas City Star reported that Brownback was interviewed by Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council on his regular podcast. Perkins, noted that “Brownback’s order was similar to one previously issued by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican candidate for president.”

Brownback told Perkins:

“[The Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges] sent a shudder across the faith community across America, saying wait a minute, don’t we have religious liberty protections?”

“And what this, my effort here, is to express that yes, in the state of Kansas you’re not going to see the entities of state government used against your religious liberty protections when it comes to the issue of same-sex marriage,” Brownback said.

The governor said the issue needs to be front and center in the 2016 presidential election and warned that a “very fundamental right (is) being attacked in the United States.”

The partial nullification of federally guaranteed rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution and applied to the states via the Fourteenth Amendment, as articulated by the Supreme Court in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges, may be something we see more of in the next few years.  The court’s holding in the case was simple enough, “The Fourteenth Amendment requires a State to license a marriage between two people of the same sex and to recognize a marriage between two people of the same sex when their marriage was lawfully licensed and performed out-of-State.”

But opponents want to nullify as much of the reach of the rights of same-sex married couples as they can get away with, using the excuse of (and redefined notion of) religious freedom to do so.  Many obstacles will be thrown in the way of full equality by the likes of Sam Brownback.

However, it is worth marking that Brownback was not so unwise as to actually use the word “nullification,” even though that is exactly what he did last year when he signed legislation limiting the reach of federal gun control in the state.  The term has an ugly history as a Supremacy Clause-violating justification for state resistance to federal court decisions requiring equal protection under the law for African Americans. Those stands were taken under the colors of the Confederate battle flag. While Confederate flags are coming down, the Confederate nullification philosophy for which they stood still stands.

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

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

PE cover Summer 2015

Click here to print the magazine version

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ministry of Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Religious Justifications for the Indefensible

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

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

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

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

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

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

Expanding the Definition of Ministry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turning Phrases

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A New Era for Religious Exemptions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Endnotes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sidebar Endnotes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When in Doubt, Religify! Fear Mongering about Religious Liberty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christian Right Leaders Escalate Anti-LGBTQ Threats

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

supreme court cross

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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