The Right’s “Gender Ideology” Menace Rolls to Africa

CitizenGO Africa recently announced that Nairobi, Kenya would be the first city on the continent to host the so-called #FreeSpeechBus. The bus, infamous for its explicitly anti-transgender messages, will likely roll through Nairobi in conjunction with the World Congress of Families’ regional gathering scheduled to take place on May 15, 2018.

CitizenGO was launched in 2013 as the online petition platform of HazteOir, a right-wing organization based in Madrid, Spain with Catholic roots. The initiative claims to have almost 9 million members, and works to advance an anti-LGBTQ, anti-abortion agenda in Europe, the U.S., and increasingly throughout the Global South. In addition to CitizenGO-initiated petitions, a wide range of right-wing organizations use the platform to promote their own causes, including the World Congress of Families and Americans United for Life.

Since its founding in 2013, CitizenGO has gained its greatest notoriety for its anti-trans “Free Speech Bus,” which toured the U.S. in 2017 emblazoned with the slogan “It’s Biology: Boys are boys … and always will be. Girls are girls … and always will be. You can’t change sex. Respect all.” The American version of the bus was preceded by a similarly styled bus in Madrid, which carried the message, “Boys have penises, girls have vaginas. Don’t let them fool you. If you’re born a man, you’re a man. If you’re a woman, you will continue to be so.” The bus has also made appearances in France, Germany, Italy, Mexico, Chile, and Colombia.

 

CitizenGO Africa recently announced on Facebook that Nairobi, Kenya would be the first city on the continent to host the so-called #FreeSpeechBus.

Though it’s often portrayed as an isolated element of the Christian Right’s standard fare anti-LGBTQ agenda, the #FreeSpeechBus is actually part of a much larger, multi-faceted movement against what the Right has dubbed “gender ideology.” As Gillian Kane recently outlined in The Public Eye, “gender ideology is a right-wing invention that intentionally misrepresents feminist, queer, and gender theory in order to justify discrimination against women and LGBTQ people.” The term was fabricated by the Vatican in the mid-1990s in an effort to paint gender as a newly invented concept that is dangerous and destabilizing to children, families, and society at large, as well as antithetical to science and reason.

 

In February 2018, HazteOir and CitizenGO hosted the first International Conference on Gender, Sex and Education, featuring a slate of anti-LGBTQ “experts,” including several representatives from American right-wing groups. Glenn Stanton from Focus on the Family argued that “gender theory” is a lie and the idea of a gender spectrum is false. Rubén Navarro, head of the Geneva office of Alliance Defending Freedom, warned of the encroachment of “gender ideology” into international laws and policies. Miriam Ben-Shalom, an American anti-trans lesbian activist linked transgender activists to pedophilia. Ultimately, the event aimed to advance the idea that “gender ideology” is a conspiracy — the latest plot designed by radical homosexual activists to destroy families, contradict biology, erase Biblical gender roles, and persecute Christians.

The irony is that both sides argue that gender is a socially constructed concept. For progressive feminists, LGBTQ activists, and gender theorists, constructs of gender that strictly prescribe roles for men and women are perceived to have been wrongly imposed on individuals who may possess myriad identities and expressions of gender, apart from one’s sex or sexual characteristics. Sources of these impositions include various patriarchal institutions that are understood to have disrupted naturally occurring gender variance and equanimity through systems of violence and domination.

For the Right, “gender theory” is perceived as a contemporary concept aimed at erasing unique and definitive feminine and masculine characteristics that are exclusively tied to one’s biological sex (and limited to male and female). This framework fails to take into account the existence of intersex people, and denies the gender variance that is most often observed in transgender and genderqueer people, but also manifests in a multitude of diverse expressions of gender among cisgender people as well. Ignoring all this, the Right suggests that the acknowledgement of these realities is an LGBTQ conspiracy designed to destroy families and sexualize children. They call it “gender ideology,” and they’re effectively using it to instigate a sort of moral panic that ultimately distracts societies from real structural issues, such as poverty, disease, government corruption, and growing inequalities.

The effectiveness of this strategy was especially evident in voters’ surprising rejection of Colombia’s landmark peace agreement in 2016. On October 2, 2016, Colombians were summoned to vote in a referendum aimed at terminating the long-standing conflict between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The war had spanned more than 50 years, resulting in the deaths of more than 220,000 Colombians and displacing nearly seven million people. But despite strong public support for peace, 50.2 percent voted to oppose the referendum.

Anthropologist Winifred Tate reported that those who opposed the peace agreement circulated pamphlets declaring, “Colombia is in danger! Of falling under the control of a communist dictatorship and the imminent passage of a gender ideology.” Many credit the success of the “no” campaign with their effective mobilization of homophobia and fear of expanded LGBTQ rights by linking their cause to a national debate over new, more progressive gender and sexuality education materials for high schools produced by Colombia’s Ministry of Education.

To the Right, the “gender ideology” menace is rapidly expanding its reach globally, and the CitizenGO bus has become something of a big orange mascot for the movement. But it doesn’t roll without resistance.

In Madrid, a judge banned the bus from traveling through the city on the grounds that it was discriminatory and could provoke hate crimes. In the U.S., counter protestors greeted the bus’s arrival on every stop of its attempted tour. In Bogota, the LGBTQ activists splashed multicolored paint on the vehicle.

Kanyali Mwikya, a program advisor at the Kenya Human Rights Commission, responded to the news of the pending visit of the bus to Nairobi, warning CitizenGO, “Human rights defenders shall not sit quietly as you bring this hate speech bus to Nairobi. Like in every part of the world where this bus of hate has visited, get ready for counter action against you [sic] campaign of disinformation and evil!”

Whether the bus is ultimately stymied or not, though, the Right’s anti-“gender ideology” strategy is already taking hold and will likely continue to develop as one of the key sources of right-wing resistance to gender, sexual, and reproductive rights globally.

When Silence Equals Death

On Friday, December 15, the Washington Post reported that the Trump administration has prohibited the Center for Disease Control (CDC) from using the terms “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based,” and “science-based.”

CDC Director Brenda Fitzgerald rebutted the claim in a Facebook post on Sunday, saying, “I want to assure you that CDC remains committed to our public health mission as a science- and evidence-based institution. As part of our commitment to provide for the common defense of the country against health threats, science is and will remain the foundation of our work.”

Fitzgerald neglected to address the other five words included on the originally reported list, which was disclosed to the Post by an anonymous CDC analyst, and confirmed by other CDC officials.

When CDC was founded in 1946 (then called the Communicable Disease Center), its primary objective was fighting and preventing the spread of malaria. Today, CDC is the nation’s top public health agency, and is looked to as a global leader in the prevention and control of “infectious and chronic diseases, injuries, workplace hazards, disabilities, and environmental health threats.”

In her Facebook post, Fitzgerald went on to assert that “CDC has a long-standing history of making public health and budget decisions that are based on the best available science and data and for the benefit of all people — and we will continue to do so.”

It’s true that CDC has historically served as a reliable source of science- and evidence-based research, and has played a critical role in protecting and promoting public health. As a federal agency, however, it is susceptible to the priorities and politics of the White House. The history of the AIDS epidemic is a tragic example of what can happen when those in power insert their oppressive ideologies and agendas into institutions that are otherwise intended to keep us safe.

The first reported AIDS cases emerged in 1981, and it quickly became evident that a national health crisis was developing. On April 23, 1984, CDC announced 4,177 reported cases in the United States, and 1,807 deaths. But as more and more people succumbed to AIDS, the White House remained silent, refusing to address what was at the time dismissed and derided as “the gay disease.”

AIDS research was chronically underfunded throughout the early years of the epidemic. When doctors at the CDC and the National Institute of Health requested more funding for their work on AIDS, they were routinely denied it. Historian and journalist Michael Bronski highlights a striking contrast in priorities: “Between June 1981 and May 1982 the CDC spent less than $1 million on AIDS and $9 million on Legionnaires Disease. At that point more than 1,000 of the 2,000 reported AIDS cases resulted in death; there were fewer than 50 deaths from Legionnaires Disease.”

By the time President Reagan finally began addressing the issue of AIDS in earnest, it was 1987. Over 36,000 Americans had been diagnosed and nearly 60 percent of them had died. Reagan declared that AIDS was ”public health enemy No. 1,” but insisted that the crisis was as much a moral issue as it was a medical one, recommending that abstinence was the best form of prevention.

His commentary reflects the influence of the newly established Moral Majority, which was founded and lead by right-wing evangelical Jerry Falwell, who once declared, “AIDS is the wrath of God upon homosexuals.” Whether or not Reagan agreed with Falwell that AIDS was some sort of God-ordained punishment for LGBTQ people, his silence made him complicit in the deadly politicization of homophobia.

Despite significant advancements in the field of HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment, the world is still without a cure, and the disease continues to have devastating consequences. According to the World Health Organization, “Since the beginning of the epidemic, more than 70 million people have been infected with the HIV virus and about 35 million people have died of HIV.” It’s estimated that 36.7 million people were living with HIV at the end of 2016.

Luiz Loures, deputy director of UNAIDS, notes, “AIDS spreads most quickly wherever people are being discriminated against.” Though the medical community has thoroughly debunked the notion of HIV/AIDS being a “gay disease,” the association — and its attached negative stigma — remains high.

In Russia, the spread of HIV is currently being described as “catastrophic.” According to the United Nations’ UNAIDS program, in 2015 Russia had the third-highest number of new HIV infections globally. In December 2016, the Russian Federal AIDS Center reported that there were more than 1.1 million diagnosed cases of HIV in Russia.

Speaking about the situation in Russia, Sylvia Urban of the umbrella group German AIDS Service Organization observes that issues of sexuality in general and homosexuality, in particular, are taboo. Anti-LGBTQ oppression and violence in the country have been on the rise in recent years, further emboldened by the passage of Russia’s Anti-Propaganda Law in 2013, which banned “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations to minors.”

In an eerie echoing of Reagan’s 1987 comments, Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church and a trusted advisor to President Putin, has called for “moral education” in response to the country’s AIDS crisis, stressing that the “establishment of family values, ideals of chastity and marital fidelity” should be at the forefront of curbing the virus. Vadim Pokrovskiy, head of the Russian Federal AIDS Center, blames this Kremlin-approved “conservative approach” for the fact that the number of HIV-infected Russians has more than doubled in the last decade.

I’ve previously described Russia’s Anti-Propaganda Law as a slow death sentence for the way it effectively isolates LGBTQ people from one another, restricting access to any evidence that they are not alone. The law, along with the culture of stigma-fueled silence that it reinforces, is also a death sentence for the way that it fails to curtail the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Government-sanctioned silence, whether it be in the form of neglectful indifference or outright censorship has serious, and sometimes deadly consequences, especially for the most vulnerable among us.

The Russian Orthodox Church was a key player in the passage of the Anti-Propaganda Law, and here in the U.S., the Christian Right’s fingerprints are all over the CDC’s censorship. The banned vocabulary list is part of a thinly veiled effort to advance a familiar agenda — one that aims to erase transgender people out of existence, eliminate abortion access, and maintain the status quo (i.e. White supremacy, Christian hegemony, and 1% economics).

Government-sanctioned silence, whether it be in the form of neglectful indifference or outright censorship has serious, and sometimes deadly consequences, especially for the most vulnerable among us.

Religious Freedom and the Christian Right’s Masterpiece of Manipulation

Photo: United States Supreme Court. Joe Ravi/Wikimedia Commons.

Throughout history, people have used religion to justify a myriad of injustices. In the United States, for example, some Christians used their faith to defend slavery and segregation, citing scriptural references as moral justification for the dehumanization and genocide of Black and indigenous people until, ultimately, the government intervened. Earlier today at the U.S. Supreme Court, the Christian Right once again attempted to justify injustice, asserting that religious freedom grants them the right to discriminate against LGBTQ people. But before gay wedding cakes were ever up for debate, we saw the Christian Right manipulate religious freedom to enable racial discrimination, too.

In 1970, Bob Jones University (BJU), a fundamentalist Christian school in Greenville, South Carolina, came into conflict with the IRS over issues of racial discrimination (at the time, the school did not admit Black students). School officials argued that since they didn’t accept federal funding, they were free to operate according to their own will, proclaiming that their discriminatory policies were a matter of religious freedom. However, the Civil Rights Act of 1969 disrupted the legality of racial discrimination, and in 1976, the IRS rescinded BJU’s tax exempt status, which they only regained in February 2017 by reorganizing under the existing 501(c)3 status of Bob Jones Elementary. In its decision, the IRS affirmed that discrimination on the basis of race or ethnicity is illegal, and therefore BJU was not justified in denying admission to Black students.

In an interview with religious historian Randall Balmer, longtime BJU administrator Elmer L. Rumminger explained that the IRS actions against his school “alerted the Christian school community about what could happen with government interference” in the affairs of evangelical institutions. “That was really the major issue that got us all involved.”

The Moral Majority was founded a few years later, formally establishing the Christian Right’s most powerful political coalition of the time. Paul Weyrich, the late conservative Christian political activist and co-founder of the Heritage Foundation, was one of the architects of the movement. In the mid-1970s he wrote, “The new political philosophy must be defined by us [conservatives] in moral terms, packaged in non-religious language, and propagated throughout the country by our new coalition…  When political power is achieved, the moral majority will have the opportunity to re-create this great nation.”

Weyrich could be thought of as the original “make America great again” evangelist — a man who was committed to an idealized notion of what America once was and dedicated his entire life to reinstating the dominance of a white, middle class, Christian patriarchy. The contemporaries of the now-defunct Moral Majority continue to weaponize religious freedom to advance the Right’s overarching goals of maintaining and advancing cultural, economic, and political dominance, at the expense of those who have been historically marginalized, including women, LGBTQ people, poor people, and non-Christians.

The Civil Rights Act prevented the Right from successfully manipulating religious freedom into a tool of racial oppression in the 1970s, but without federal protections1 against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, LGBTQ people remain especially vulnerable, and the Right is well positioned to exploit that vulnerability to its fullest extent.

Religious freedom was initially designed to protect religious minorities and nonreligious people, shielding them from the dominant culture’s religious imposition and preserving the separation of church and State.

As PRA research analyst Frederick Clarkson has carefully documented, religious freedom was initially designed as an important strategy for protecting religious minorities and nonreligious people, shielding them from the dominant culture’s religious imposition, and preserving the separation of church and State. Again, the Christian Right is manipulating this progressive value to justify discrimination against those who are not aligned with their particular ideological views. Increasingly, religious freedom is being used to deny the right of LGBTQ people and women to have agency over their own lives and bodies and to live according to their own beliefs and values.

The Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby ruling in 2014 enabled the large, family-owned chain of craft stores the right to claim a religious exemption from providing employees with healthcare insurance that covered four kinds of contraceptives, based on the company owners’ belief (medical science notwithstanding) that they are abortifacients. This was the first time a private business was granted religious standing under the First Amendment, which dangerously expanded the notion of corporate personhood, granting for-profit entities legal justification for religion-based discrimination.

Today, this corruption of religious freedom is being tested again as the Supreme Court hears the case of Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. Jack Phillips, a professional baker and the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop in Denver, Colorado, refused to make a wedding cake for Charlie Craig and David Mullins, a gay couple who sought out his services in 2012. Phillips’ refusal violated Colorado’s Anti-Discrimination Act, which prohibits businesses open to the public from discriminating against customers on the basis of race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. According to Phillips (who is represented by the right-wing Christian legal group, Alliance Defending Freedom), making the cake would have forced him to “use my creativity, my talents and my art for an event — a significant religious event — that violates my religious faith.”

Unfortunately, Jack Phillips, like many fundamentalist Christians, sees LGBTQ people not simply as people who are LGBTQ but as people who believe that they’re LGBTQ. Because he makes a distinction between the sexual orientation of Charlie Craig and David Mullins and their humanity, he feels justified in refusing to serve them. From his perspective, he’s not discriminating against a gay couple — he’s rejecting the notion that Charlie and David’s queerness is an inherent part of who they are.

This is dangerous, and (in Colorado) it’s illegal. A person’s religious faith does not give them the right to decide whether or not another person’s identity is real, and it certainly doesn’t give them the right to discriminate.

The Moral Majority disbanded in 1979, but the strength and influence of the Christian Right has continued to steadily expand, thanks to the leadership of organizations like Focus on the Family, Family Research Council, Alliance Defending Freedom, the Heritage Foundation, and others. Over the last 30 years, these groups have built inroads at all levels of governance, from local school boards to the White House, and they ultimately endeavor to establish and enforce a brand of Christian nationalism that fundamentally disregards the rights and liberties of LGBTQ people, women, and non-Christians (as well as Christians who interpret and live out their faith differently than those who are fundamentalists).

Fortunately, they haven’t yet succeeded. And so those who are called by their faith and moral convictions to fight for justice and equality for all people must remember that religious freedom is their right, too, and they must reassert and reclaim its progressive foundation.

Footnotes

1 Under the Obama administration, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission adopted the position that LGBTQ discrimination was covered under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex. The Trump administration reversed this decision in July 2017.

 

Attacking Trans People in Defense of “Austerity”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Both Perkins’ and Trump’s language harkens back to one of the oldest tricks in the Right Wing’s playbook: Set up a dichotomy between the “deserving” and the “undeserving,” and drive a wedge between them. As PRA’s late founder Jean Hardisty explained in her 2015 essay, “My On-Again, Off-Again Romance with Liberalism,” the Right has a proven formula for undercutting efforts toward equity: “seize on an example of abuse of a liberal program, market an image of the program’s undeserving recipient (preferably a poor person of color) to the taxpaying public, then sit back and wait for the impact. The ‘welfare queen,’ the Black rapist on furlough, the unqualified affirmative action hire — all have assumed powerful symbolic significance.”

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

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

Between Trump and Putin: The Right-Wing International, a Crisis of Democracy, and the Future of the European Union

Click here for a PDF version of this article

This article appears in the Spring 2017 edition of The Public Eye magazine.

“So. Washington is ours. Chișinău is ours. Sofia is ours. It remains but to drain the swamp in Russia itself.” Right-wing Russian ideologue Alexander Dugin posted this pronouncement as his Facebook status on November 13, 2016.1 Each of the cities he named is the capital of a country—the U.S., Moldova, and Bulgaria, respectively—that had recently elected a leader espousing at least some views that are favorable to Moscow. And each had elections that took place amid concerns about Russian influence.

Alexander Dugin is a Russian political scientist who might be seen as a Russian counterpart to U.S. Alt Right leader Richard Spencer. (Photo: CC BY-SA 4.0 via Alexander Dugin)

Knowing who Dugin is makes his post-U.S. electoral victory cheer more chilling. Dugin, who might be seen as a Russian counterpart to U.S. Alt Right leader Richard Spencer, made an early endorsement of then-candidate Trump in February, 2016 through Katehon, an illiberal “think tank” headed by Russian oligarch Konstantin Malofeev, a man known for conceiving and financing conservative Christian initiatives.2 Dugin is also on the U.S. individual sanctions list for his role in the Ukraine crisis—specifically for his leadership in the Eurasian Youth Union, which, as the Department of the Treasury reported, “actively recruited individuals with military and combat experience to fight on behalf of the self-proclaimed [Donetsk People’s Republic] and has stated that it has a covert presence in Ukraine.”3 Perhaps most notably, Dugin is also a chief proponent of neo-Eurasianism: an ideology encapsulating Russian “traditionalism” (including the rejection of feminism, “globalism,” and LGBTQ rights) and the belief that Russia has a Manifest Destiny of its own—a mystical calling not only to take dominion of Eurasian spaces from the Baltic to the Pacific, but also to revive the West’s Christian roots.

One of the more striking features of the 2016 U.S. election was the convergence of the rhetoric and talking points of President Donald Trump and his supporters with those of the Kremlin. And in the tangled and ongoing investigation of Russian involvement with U.S. and European elections, these ideological connections and motivations have gone far less noticed.

While in Soviet times the Kremlin’s Marxist ideology attracted its share of Western sympathizers, post-Soviet Moscow has, if you will, dialectically emerged at the center of a “traditionalist international” around which many right-wing fellow travelers are rallying. There is an older history of American conservative attraction to Russian Christians and anti-Communists. Paleoconservative leader Pat Buchanan, a contemporary apologist for Russian President Vladimir Putin, noted as much in a post-Crimea paean to Putin, when he wrote that “The ex-Communist Whittaker Chambers who exposed Alger Hiss as a Soviet spy, was, at the time of his death in 1964, writing a book on ‘The Third Rome’”—the conviction that, after the original Roman Empire, and “the Second Rome” of Constantinople, Moscow inherited the mantle of Christian empire.4

This fascination with Russian conservatives and Russia’s conservative potential was also shared by some of the direct ideological ancestors of today’s U.S. White nationalists, such as Francis Parker Yockey, a mid-century U.S. Far Right leader and avowed antisemite, who called for Western-Soviet cooperation in fighting Zionism. Since that time, post-Soviet Russia has become a right-wing state that has cultivated, through the efforts of the Russian Orthodox Church as well as right-wing intellectuals like Dugin, a loose right-wing international, as I wrote in The Public Eye in 2016.5

Given this context, it’s unsurprising that the most toxic elements of the U.S. Right are drawn to Putinist Russia. In 2004, for example, White supremacist David Duke declared, “Russia has a greater sense of racial understanding among its population than does any other predominantly White nation.”6 Duke has since cultivated ties with Russia, among other things maintaining an apartment in Moscow that he has sub-leased to fellow White supremacist activist Preston Wiginton .7

Interest in Russia among the global Right has grown steadily in recent years, accelerating since the beginning of Putin’s third term in 2012. Photo: CC BY 4.0 via The Kremlin)

Interest in Russia among the global Right has grown steadily in recent years, accelerating since the beginning of Putin’s third term in 2012. Since then, the Russian state has not only coordinated more closely with the Russian Orthodox Church, but has also come increasingly to portray itself, with a high degree of success, as the global standard bearer for “traditional values” conservatism.8 While Russia cultivates ties to Westerners on both the Far Left and the Far Right, Russia’s leading ideologues and soft power institutions—such as think-tanks, government-backed non-governmental organizations, and university centers—promote right-wing, neo-Eurasianist traditionalism. This ideology rejects modern liberalism as a “rootless,” culture-destroying globalism, and offers in its place a “multipolar” world order with strengthened national sovereignty, weakened supranational institutions (such as the European Union), and a rejection of universal human rights, with women’s rights, the rights of ethnic and religious minorities, and LGBTQ rights particularly threatened.

Russia’s embrace of this anti-feminist, anti-LGBTQ, anti-“globalist” “traditionalism” has coincided with a period in which the Russian state, concerned about “color revolutions” and NATO expansion, has increasingly sought to weaken Western institutions. Putin’s agenda in this regard is not only to strengthen Russian power at the expense of the West, but also to undermine belief in the viability of liberal democracy itself. The means by which Russia pursues this agenda include cultivating ties with Western anti-democratic forces, inundating the West with propaganda, and employing other active measures, including hacking, in influence campaigns. What does Russia’s central role in rising global right-wing populism mean for the prospects of the EU, particularly in light of Brexit and Trump’s ascendancy to the U.S. presidency? The stakes are high this year. While the results of the Dutch and French elections have been encouraging for the future of the EU and NATO, an important German election is yet to come, and the threat of disinformation originating in both Russia under Putin and the United States under Trump remains serious.

Evaluating Dugin’s Claim: The International Appeal of Russian Illiberalism

Russian interference and influence in Europe, including the promotion of far-right “traditionalism,” should be of concern to defenders of human rights in light of the West’s current crisis of democracy.9 The future of the EU, after Brexit, is very uncertain. Should the EU be abandoned by another major player, the kind of illiberal, authoritarian, right-wing populism represented by Russia would continue to spread, to the detriment of democracy and human rights.10 That’s already happening in places such as Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, of the right-wing populist Fidesz Party, openly admires Putin and has recently moved to shut down Central European University. Indeed, European elites themselves have begun to express a need to protect their countries and values not only from Russia, but potentially also from the United States, in which a Russian influence campaign helped elect an illiberal president about whom Alexander Dugin and other Russian elites have often been enthusiastic.11 In this regard, it is salient that the U.S. right-wing Breitbart News Network is seeking to expand into European markets, bringing the same narratives of xenophobia and religious traditionalism that helped mobilize Trump’s supporters. While Breitbart has not yet opened new offices in Germany or France, these plans seem not to have been tabled.12

To be sure, the enthusiasm of the Russian political establishment for the Trump administration has faded in recent weeks. In addition to disagreeing with Russia over Syria, the Trump administration has ham-handedly tried to distance itself from Russia after National Security Advisor Michael Flynn was forced to resign in February for failing to disclose that he discussed a possible lifting of Russian sanctions with Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak during the transition period. Russian politicians also became more cautious, even as they and Russian media rallied to the defense of Flynn. (In 2015 Flynn spoke at the 10th anniversary gala of the Russian propaganda network RT in Moscow, where he sat at Putin’s table. At a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism on May 8, fired former Acting Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates confirmed that the Department of Justice believed Flynn to be compromised.)

But the shared illiberal agenda of Trump and Putin remains a threat to Europe. This April at a G7 meeting, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson—who in 2013 received the Russian Order of Friendship from Putin—unnerved many in Europe when he asked, “Why should U.S. taxpayers care about Ukraine?” Such a statement aids Putin’s goal of undermining democracy, even if Tillerson has also proven willing to give at least lip service to criticizing Russian aggression.13

And even apart from an immediate normalization of U.S.-Russian relations on Russian terms—something it seems the Trump team at least initially desired, and which would be geopolitically destabilizing as it would weaken NATO—the Trump administration is far more amenable to Dugin’s ideological goals than a Clinton administration would have been. With this in mind, Dugin’s declarations—that Washington, Chișinău, and Sofia are Russia’s—seem like more than mere braggadocio, even if they are inflated. Will Dugin be declaring “Berlin is ours” this fall?

Dugin is not a latter-day Rasputin, the peasant healer who was widely believed to hold undue influence over the last Romanov royal family. But, despite some assertions to the contrary from those seeking to downplay Dugin’s significance, he is also far from a fringe figure. Nina Kouprianova—the estranged wife of Alt Right leader Richard Spencer who writes pro-Putin and anti-Ukrainian commentary under the name Nina Byzantina—has translated some of Dugin’s far-right political theory into English, bolstering Dugin’s influence among American White supremacists. While Kouprianova has downplayed the relationship between Dugin and Putin,14 the latter’s foreign policy is clearly informed by Dugin’s worldview in ways that are relevant to Russian influence in European and U.S. politics, as Eurasia expert Casey Michel explains:

If Dugin’s name is at all familiar, it’s likely due to his neo-fascist screeds, posited as geopolitical analysis, that have begun swirling international trends. As Spencer is to the alt-right, so, too, is Dugin to the modern incarnation of “Eurasianism,” a geopolitical theory positing Russia as the inheritor of “Eternal Rome” and one of the primary ideological bulwarks pushing the Kremlin to carve eastern Ukraine into the fanciful entity of “Novorossiya.” While much of Dugin’s influence on the Kremlin has been over-hyped, Dugin’s Foundations of Geopolitics remains assigned to every member of Russia’s General Staff Academy [the premier Russian institution for continuing training of high-ranking military officers]. And despite Kouprianova’s claims that “there is no evidence of communication between” Dugin and Putin, Charles Clover, in his masterful history of Eurasianism, noted that Putin and Dugin met a few months after the former ascended to the presidency. “Soon,” wrote Clover, “there were sponsors, contacts, and open doors” for Dugin.15

Dugin was also reportedly a part of the entourage that accompanied Putin on his visit to the Orthodox Christian holy site Mt. Athos in Greece in May 2016.16 But however personally close to Putin Dugin may be, what should concern us most here is the spread of a “traditionalist” ideology that, following in the footsteps of early 20th Century fascism, rejects liberal democracy and individual moral autonomy. Contemporary Eurasianism, like interwar Eurasianism and other Russian schools of thought related to the 19th Century ideologies of Slavophilism and Pan-Slavism, posits a special destiny for Russia in uniting the peoples of the large Eurasian landmass that runs roughly from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean, in addition to a messianic role in the revival of Western civilization’s Christian roots.17

Click here a printable PDF.

Click here to read Chris Stroop’s 2016 article, “A Right-Wing International?”

In Putin’s third term in particular, Russia has positioned itself at the center of the right-wing international that propounds a “traditionalist” ideological tendency, and Dugin has emerged as one of the broader movement’s leading ideologues. As recent reports from NATO and Political Capital (a Hungarian think tank whose website describes it as “committed to the basic values of parliamentary democracy, human rights and a market economy”) have documented, Eurasianist ideology not only informs Russian foreign policy (such as Russia’s use of hybrid warfare, a military strategy that entails cyber and covert operations, including Russia’s use of troops without insignia in its invasion of Crimea and its officially-denied direct support for and presence in the rebel campaigns against the Ukrainian state), but also holds some attraction for Europeans disillusioned with austerity, immigration, and secularism.18

In light of the above, what are we to make of Dugin’s claim that Russia has won Washington, Chișinău, and Sofia? It is certainly overstated with respect to the latter. Bulgarian President Rumen Radev has called for the easing of EU sanctions against Russia, but also recently stated that he supports retaining Bulgaria’s membership in the EU and NATO, both of which Russia seeks to weaken.19 Sabra Ayres, a fellow with the International Women’s Media Foundation who researches Russian soft power tactics in Bulgaria and other parts of Europe, said that her research has not turned up any evidence of a significant Russian effort to see Radev elected.20

Pro-Russian Moldovan President Igor Dodon goes much further than Radev, however. Dodon openly declares that he aspires to be “a dictatorial leader, the same as Putin,” and claims to have received the blessing of Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and all Russia. Dodon achieved a narrow electoral victory (initially contested with claims of voting irregularities) over Western leaning rival Maia Sandu. He’d campaigned on a platform of moving to scrap Moldova’s EU association agreement—over which Moscow actually sanctioned Moldova in July 2014, banning the import of Moldovan wine, fruit, and vegetables—and integrating Moldova into the Moscow-centered Eurasian Economic Union. Dodon’s campaign was rife with anti-immigrant and homophobic rhetoric and marked by widespread disinformation, much like Donald Trump’s.21

With respect to President Trump, the U.S. intelligence community released a report in January expressing high confidence that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign targeting the 2016 U.S. election that was intended to undermine U.S. confidence in the democratic process and to damage Hillary Clinton’s prospects. The CIA and FBI also have high confidence that in its effort, which involved hacking both Republican and Democratic targets but releasing damaging information only about Democrats, Russia “aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances.” Statements made at recent Senate hearings have confirmed these findings, and on May 8, before the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper actually stated that the Russians behind the influence campaign targeting the 2016 U.S. election “must be congratulating themselves for having exceeded their wildest expectations.”22 In addition, the U.S. intelligence community reported in January that the same techniques that were used in this campaign—a blend of “covert intelligence operations—such as cyber activity—with overt efforts by Russian Government agencies, state-funded media, third-party intermediaries, and paid social media users or ‘trolls’”—are likely to be applied “to future influence efforts worldwide, including against US allies and their election processes.”23

In light of what is now known about the Russian role in the U.S. election, it is very plausible that Russia’s influence campaign played a key role in Trump’s Electoral College victory. The same type of Russian campaign appears to have swung Georgia’s 2012 presidential election, and there is no reason the same strategy cannot continue to effectively undermine other countries’ democratic processes unless vigilance is exercised and countermeasures are taken.24

Russian leaders perceive such actions as defensive. They push conspiracy theories about opposition to corruption and undemocratic policies in former Soviet republics such as Ukraine and Georgia being funded by liberal U.S. philanthropist George Soros, who has of late become a bugbear of Trump supporters and the U.S. Right as well. The Russian regime also rejects homegrown East European and post-Soviet efforts to protect universal human rights and work toward functional democracy as Western imports. While Russia’s reactions to perceived Western aggression have been disproportionate and unjustifiable, the West might have helped to stave off the current state of affairs if its leaders had taken Russia’s concerns about NATO expansion into consideration earlier.

Russian Soft Power and Information Warfare in Western Europe

Hacking is one of the most powerful tactics the Kremlin uses to influence other countries’ electoral processes, as the U.S. has been too slow to recognize. Germany and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have been recent targets of Russian hacking according to Germany’s intelligence services, and Germany has likewise expressed concerns about disinformation and possible hacking ahead of its parliamentary election slated for fall 2017.25

Hacking, however, is by no means the only tactic Russia uses to gain influence and sow disinformation in the West. In order to assess the outcomes of recent European elections and the prospects for upcoming European elections, we need to be aware of other methods of influence Russia employs. These include:

  • infiltration by spies;
  • hiring Western PR firms (in the past including Kissinger Associates and Ketchum) to help manipulate Western media and improve the Kremlin’s reputation among Westerners26;
  • supporting Eurasianist and pro-Kremlin think tanks, such as the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute in Berlin (which is funded through a foundation headed by the Russian oligarchs Natalia Yakunina, the chairperson, and Vladimir Yakunin, the vice-chairman27);
  • establishing cultural centers at universities through the Russkiy Mir foundation, which promotes not only benign cultural exchange but also Eurasianist ideology and the Kremlin line on Ukraine;
  • financing Far Right Western politicians and parties, such as Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France28;
  • promoting social conservatism and pro-Moscow views through representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church; and,
  • taking advantage of the West’s relative openness to flood the media with disinformation through “troll armies” and propaganda outlets such as RT, which had a $380 million budget in 2011.29

Russia has also played a role in facilitating relationships between right-wing European parties, for example with respect to the European Alliance for Freedom, a coalition that seeks to undermine the EU and liberal norms in the European Parliament.30

Through all of these methods, Russia looks to capitalize on pre-existing weaknesses. Russia did not create discontent with the neoliberal European establishment, explains Italian legal expert Pasquale Annicchino, a research fellow at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies and senior research associate at the Cambridge Institute on Religion & International Studies; Euroskepticism is homegrown. One might add that the situation is exacerbated by a refugee crisis due overwhelmingly to failed U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. Nevertheless, Annichino streses, Russia has proven capable of capitalizing effectively on the rising right-wing populist mood and exercises influence among politically extreme European groups.31

Annicchino has also done some of the most interesting research on how the Russian Orthodox Church has helped promote hardline conservatism in Europe by making common cause with traditionalists of other Christian confessions. Marcel Van Herpen, director of the Cicero Foundation and author of Putin’s Propaganda Machine: Soft Power and Russian Foreign Policy, has shown that the Russian Foreign Ministry and Orthodox Church often coordinate with the goal of promoting a “traditional values” agenda and attacking universal human rights at the UN and in other international settings.32

One case Annicchino has studied, the Lautsi controversy at the European Court of Human Rights, particularly illuminated this dynamic, when in 2011 the supranational court overturned a prior ruling that the compulsory display of crucifixes in Italian schools was a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights. The legal expertise that secured the 2011 ruling—greeted by conservatives as a triumph over secularism—was largely derived from American evangelicals and delivered through amicus curiae briefs filed by the European Center on Law and Justice—an organization co-founded by U.S. Christian Right advocate Jay Alan Sekulow to serve as a sister organization to his American Center on Law and Justice.33 Meanwhile, Annicchino writes, “the Russian Orthodox Church was at the forefront of the diplomatic battle,” with major representatives, including Patriarch Kirill, writing to the Vatican and to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in support of the original Italian law requiring the display of crucifixes in public schools. In this manner, the Moscow Patriarchate courted favor with conservative European Christians.

To Annicchino, the entire case is emblematic of what is sometimes referred to as the “new ecumenism”: the cooperation of distinct churches in pursuit of common goals.34 Another example may be found in the close ties between the Russian Orthodox Church with traditionalist European Catholics cultivated in particular by the ROC’s Chair of the Department of External Church Relations, Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev), who regularly meets with Catholic cardinals in Europe and has a particularly intimate relationship with the Institute for Ecumenical Studies at Switzerland’s University of Fribourg, where he oversees exchange programs.35

Meanwhile, Italy’s Far Right Northern League has made no secret of looking to Russia not only as an economic partner, but also as a model for “the protection of the family.”36 It has created a cultural exchange program, the Lombardy-Russia Cultural Association, which receives funding from the Voice of Russia (since 2014 integrated into the publishing empire Sputnik, an increasingly important Russian propaganda outlet). The honorary president of the association is Alexey Komov, a right-wing advocate with substantial ties to both U.S. and Russian conservative coalitions, as the World Congress of Families’ regional representative for Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States; the Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society’s representative to the United Nations; and a member of the Russian Orthodox Church’s Patriarchal Commission on the Family and the Protection of Motherhood and Childhood.37

The alliance of the Russian Orthodox Church with European and American Christian conservatives is just one example of the means by which Russia cultivates the Western Far Right.

The new ecumenism Annicchino describes also exemplifies what is sometimes called “bad ecumenism”: that is, interfaith activity designed to achieve domination and undermine pluralism rather than promote the common good. Such bad ecumenism has played no small part in ushering in the rise of right-wing fellow travelers around Moscow.38 The alliance of the Russian Orthodox Church with European and American Christian conservatives is just one example of the means by which Russia cultivates the Western Far Right, but it is an important one.39

Russia, Right-Wing Populism, and the European Political Landscape in 2017

In engaging in the kinds of activities described above, the Russian Orthodox Church pursues not only its own ends, but helps to advance Russian influence in the West. With this context in mind, we can step back to consider what Russian influence may mean in the current European political landscape.

During the lead-up to the Dutch election on March 15, the prospects for Geert Wilders’ Far Right Party for Freedom (PVV) concerned many. While Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s Center Right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) won with 21.3 percent of the vote, the Labor Party (PvdA) suffered considerable losses, and the PVV came in second with 13.1 percent. While the Far Right populist bullet was dodged in the Netherlands, negotiations toward a governing coalition are ongoing, and the surge for Wilders’ PVV is concerning.

But what of a Russian role? According to Van Herpen, with respect to the Dutch general election, there was no real need for Moscow to do more than continue to produce propaganda and disinformation.40 Wilders cannot be openly pro-Russian due to anti-Russian sentiment in the Netherlands related to the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 by Russia-backed separatists in Donbas using the Russian Buk missile system, and the Kremlin also knows that it must not appear to be too cozy with Wilders if it wants to see his party succeed.41 As a Euroskeptic party, however, PVV’s relative success is a threat to the EU. The Dutch vote against approval of the Ukraine-European Union Association Agreement in April 2016 is also relevant context.

Meanwhile, the French election represented a high stakes test for the viability of the European Union and the post-war order. When I interviewed Van Herpen in January, the race was expected to come down to a contest between Marine Le Pen and François Fillon of the center-right Republicans. Moscow’s affinity for Le Pen, leader of the far Right National Front, has been evident for some time, but Van Herpen noted that Russia could “wait and see” with respect to the French general election, since both Le Pen and Fillon have pro-Russian views.42

The race between Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron represented a high stakes test for the viability of the European Union and the post-war order. (Photo: CC BY-SA 4.0 via Copyleft)

Of course, the contours of the French election changed in ways that confounded early forecasts. While Fillon’s prospects receded, center-right En Marche! party candidate Emmanuel Macron surged in the polls, overcame an initial Russian propaganda campaign, and faced Le Pen in the May 7 runoff, coming away with a resounding victory (just over 66 percent of the vote), although unusually low turnout for France (74 percent) indicated widespread dissatisfaction with both candidates.

Well before the first round of the election on April 23, French officials began preparing for a Russian influence blitz on behalf of Le Pen.43  Their foresight proved wise, as France was subjected to a fake news onslaught in which Russian propaganda outlets played a key role. After Macron’s initial surge, Sputnik published a claim that Macron is a closeted gay man with “a very rich gay lobby” behind him, and his campaign has also been targeted by hackers suspected of being part of a Russian influence campaign.44 Yet this failed to keep Macron out of the runoff, and an eleventh-hour assault of leaked documents and disinformation also failed to prevent Macron from winning in a landslide as projected by the polls.

A notable lesson from the election is that France seems comparatively well inoculated against the toxic effects of fake news, both institutionally and culturally. For example, France enforces a blackout on election coverage in the 44-hour period leading up to a presidential election, which in this case limited the impact of the last-minute document dump meant to harm Macron’s candidacy. The French-language edition of Sputnik covered the leaks, but the French public collectively shrugged. Culturally, as Johan Hufnagel, managing editor of the left-wing newspaper Libération, recently stated, “We don’t have a Fox News in France,” adding that French voters “were mentally prepared after Trump and Brexit and the Russians.”45

Of course, Le Pen’s nearly 34 percent of the French vote, an unprecedented result for the National Front, is nothing to sneeze at, and defenders of human rights must take it as a reminder that the forces of nationalism and right-wing populism are still powerful. At the same time, in an attempt to make herself more appealing during the campaign for the runoff, Le Pen announced that she would temporarily step aside as leader of the National Front in order, ostensibly, to bring together the entire French people. She has since announced that she will “recreate her National Front into a broader ‘patriotic’ party that would seek power in parliamentary elections next month.”46 Perhaps this is why, despite Le Pen’s espoused desire to withdraw France from the EU and her post-election claim to represent “patriots” over “globalisation supporters,” U.S. White nationalist Richard Spencer took to Twitter to whine that whatever emerges from the National Front will be most likely “become a cucky, GOP-like party.”47 Spencer also tweeted that “we’ve seen the limits of the typical Euro-Right nationalist parties,” suggesting “a global political party for White people” as one alternative going forward.48

“Because Merkel is the last powerful defender of the EU and of sanctions against Russia, the Kremlin will do its utmost best to remove her by influencing the election process by disinformation and, eventually, hacking.”

As encouraging as the French results are, there is still cause for concern. Just as defenders of Western institutions and norms may learn from what happened in France, so may purveyors of disinformation, including the Russian government. Russia will surely pull out all the stops to influence the German federal election scheduled for September 24, 2017. As Van Herpen argues, “Because Merkel is the last powerful defender of the EU and of sanctions against Russia, the Kremlin will do its utmost best to remove her by influencing the election process by disinformation and, eventually, hacking.” 49 Van Herpen’s book also notes the considerable affinity for Russia across the German political spectrum, including in Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) as well as among right-wing nationalist forces, such as Alternative for Germany (AfD).50 Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has a warm personal relationship with Putin, and Russian soft power has a significant presence in Germany, including through the Kremlin-backed think tank Dialogue of Civilizations in Berlin, one of the founders of which was Russian oligarch Vladimir Yakunin. Should the German political landscape shift enough to remove Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) from the next governing coalition, this will likely result in a Germany more willing to support Russian interests at the expense of robust support for democratic norms and supranational institutions. In a very real sense, then, Angela Merkel may be said to be the current leader of the free world—the United States under Trump has certainly abdicated the right to make any such claim for the American president—and Merkel’s removal from office would, at best, lead to increased destabilization and uncertainty for the EU’s future.

The Trump Factor: Why the 2016 U.S. Election Bodes Ill for Europe

Donald Trump speaking to supporters in Phoenix, Arizona, 2016.
(Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr).

At this point we may be disposed to ask the best known of the Russian “accursed questions”: what is to be done?51 Coming on the heels of the UK’s Brexit vote, Trump’s dubious, undemocratic, and quasi-covertly Russia-backed election to the U.S. presidency has certainly changed the picture relative to the European political landscape.52 America’s European allies have reason to be uncertain about the new administration’s willingness to honor Article 5 of NATO’s charter, which provides for collective defense, with an attack against one ally considered an attack against all. In the aftermath of the U.S. election, Britain was reportedly so concerned about the possibility that Moscow holds compromising material on Trump that it “sought reassurance from the CIA that the identity of British agents in Russia will be protected when intelligence is shared.”53 Israel’s intelligence services reportedly expressed similar concerns that information shared with the United States might be passed to Moscow.54 The departure of Flynn from the Trump administration and the open disagreement between the United States and Russia over Syria may have gone some way to assuage these concerns, but it is clear that serious questions remain about Russian influence on Trump himself.

Not too long ago, human rights advocates held out hope that the United States might be able to aid our European allies in pushing back against disinformation and influence campaigns from the Kremlin. On December 23, 2016, Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act, which provided for the creation of a Global Engagement Center “to lead, synchronize, and coordinate efforts of the Federal Government to recognize, understand, expose, and counter foreign state and non-state propaganda and disinformation efforts aimed at undermining United States national security interests.”55 Under Trump, we cannot expect much good to come from any efforts that might begin under the aegis of this Center; even if in light of recent developments Trump has become more cautious about his repeatedly stated goal of improving relations with Russia, he is unlikely to go out of his way to counter Russian propaganda. In addition, on May 9, 2017, Trump sent shockwaves through the U.S. by firing FBI Director James Comey in what appears to be an attempt to shut down the FBI’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia and possible criminal activities (although the nominal reason provided by the Trump administration has to do with Comey’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email case).

Melissa Hooper, Director of Human Rights and Civil Society at the Washington- and New York-based nonprofit Human Rights First, had been among those hoping for a robust U.S. response to Russian influence after the 2016 election. Hooper previously worked with NGOs through the ABA Rule of Law Initiative as director for Russia and Azerbaijan. While based in Russia, Hooper became increasingly dismayed at the negative impact of the illiberal legislative efforts of Putin’s third term, including the 2012 “foreign agents” law that requires independent groups that engage in any “political activity” to register as “foreign agents” if they receive any funding from sources outside Russia.56 Having noticed Russia’s influence on the spread of illiberalism in Europe—for example, in Hungary under Orbán—Hooper came to Human Right First with concerns about the possibility of counteracting this trend.57

With funding from the Jackson Foundation, she organized a series of informal policy discussions throughout 2016—at Columbia University, Stanford University, and Human Rights First’s Washington, D.C., location—with experts from fields including advocacy, journalism, scholarly research, and technology, to consider approaches to countering Russian disinformation, influence, and support for far-right extremism in Europe. I participated in the last of these discussions, in December 2016, and the mood in the wake of Trump’s dubious win was far from cheery. Although proposed solutions involve both private and public actors and institutions, we participants were all clearly aware that the results of the U.S. election would make the task much more difficult. Nevertheless, there are steps that can be taken. As Hooper later explained to me:

We hope to act as a convener of civil society, so that with a unified voice we can help technology companies identify where they are contributing to threats rather than reducing them—in the areas of disinformation and publication of false stories, personal safety of rights workers, and the proliferation of hate speech targeting minority groups. And we hope we can then partner with companies to make sure their responses and proposed solutions are comprehensive, accessible, and effective.58

For his part, Van Herpen supports debunking Russian disinformation and creating counter-narratives that can prove attractive. He points to the website StopFake.org, which was founded at Kyiv’s Mohyla University and which is devoted to debunking Russian disinformation relative to the hybrid war in Ukraine. Van Herpen also believes that Western governments should impose stricter standards on Russian media produced for Western consumption and that Western states should invest in Russian-language media. With Breitbart planning to expand to Germany and France, Europe may soon be facing an onslaught of disinformation not only from Russia, but also from the United States.59

“Draining the Swamp” of Western Liberalism: A Russian-American Enterprise?

In light of Trump’s election and the potential expansion of Breitbart into European markets, Europe now faces a dual Russian-American onslaught of right-wing populist disinformation and fake news, sure to be backed up in cyberspace by Russian and American trolls and bots. The U.S. election results confirm that the power of media manipulation and post-truth politics to erode liberal democratic norms must not be underestimated. And it is significant that far-right Russian and American ideologues have already been collaborating in media manipulation for some time.

The neo-Eurasianist ideologue quoted at the beginning of this article, Alexander Dugin, has become a beloved comrade of America’s neo-Nazis, White nationalists, and Christian nationalists. Dugin has, for example, given a lecture at Texas A&M University at the invitation of Preston Wiginton (delivered via Skype because sanctions prevented him from traveling to the U.S.).60 Less well known, however, is that as a regular presence on the Russian outlet Tsargrad TV, Dugin has interviewed American conspiracist purveyor of fake news Alex Jones, of Infowars infamy. Tsargrad TV was founded by “God’s oligarch” Konstantin Malofeev, and it employs former FOX News producer Jack Hanick, who, along with his family, recently converted to Russian Orthodoxy.61

In a segment from the program “Our Point of View” (Nasha tochka zreniia) uploaded to YouTube by the official Tsargrad TV account on December 20, 2016, Dugin tells Jones “there is a political elite that is organizing a color revolution against us.” Referring to this elite as “the global dictatorship,” Dugin adds “Clinton, Soros, the Obama Administration—that which is called the Deep State, will also organize a color revolution against Trump, not wanting to recognize the democratic victory of the American people.” He added, “We need to think about how all of us together—Americans, Russians, Europeans—what we can do to oppose this elite.”62 Jones agreed with Dugin’s call to oppose “globalism,” asserting it is a matter of “survival.”63

For Dugin, “draining the swamp” has much more to do with a desire to wage extremist culture wars than it does with rooting out political corruption.

With this context in mind, we can return to Dugin’s words quoted at the beginning of this article: “It remains but to drain the swamp in Russia itself.” There’s no need to guess Dugin’s meaning, since he’s told us himself—and in English, no less—on the site of Katehon, a Eurasianist “think tank” whose supervisory board’s president is none other than Konstantin Malofeev.64 For Dugin, “draining the swamp” has much more to do with a desire to wage extremist culture wars than it does with rooting out political corruption (something that U.S. columnist Amanda Marcotte argues was also the implicit promise to Trump supporters all along).65

On November 14, 2016, Katehon published Dugin’s essay, “Donald Trump: The Swamp and the Fire,” along with an illustration featuring European political leaders, including Angela Merkel and François Hollande, caricatured as swamp creatures. Dugin’s essay opens with this pronouncement:

“The Swamp” is to become the new name for the globalist sect, the open society adepts, LGBT maniacs, Soros’ army, the post-humanists, and so on. Draining the Swamp is not only categorically imperative for America. It is a global challenge for all of us. Today, every people is under the rule of its own Swamp. We, all together, should start the fight against the Russian Swamp, the French Swamp, the German Swamp, and so on. We need to purge our societies of the Swamp’s influence.

Dugin goes on to claim that “anti-Americanism is over” thanks to the election of Trump, and to call for “a Nuremberg trial for liberalism, the last totalitarian political ideology of Modernity.”

Dugin goes on to claim that “anti-Americanism is over” thanks to the election of Trump, and to call for “a Nuremberg trial for liberalism, the last totalitarian political ideology of Modernity.”  Once representing the “apocalyptical monsters” of capitalism and Communism, Russia and America, in Dugin’s view, now represent “two eschatological promises”—that is, in Dugin’s understanding of “traditionalism,” an illiberal Russia and America working to destroy liberalism would bring the world into better alignment with God’s ostensible plans for humanity.66

Like Dugin, Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, is given to violent rhetoric. In a 2014 speech he gave via Skype for a conference held at the Vatican, Bannon bizarrely and inaccurately described World War II as a war of “the Judeo-Christian West versus atheists,” which led to the relatively benign Pax Americana. Bannon added that, since the end of the Cold War, both sides face “a crisis both [sic] of our church, a crisis of our faith, a crisis of the West, a crisis of capitalism.” He predicted that “we’re at the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict” in which the “church militant” will have to play a role, lest modern “barbarity” “eradicate everything that we’ve been bequeathed over the last 2,000, 2,500 years.”67

Dugin and Bannon would undoubtedly disagree on certain matters regarding capitalism and Islam. Because Russia is home to large Muslim populations of different ethnic backgrounds, and the Russian state mobilizes Muslim leadership to pursue its traditional values agenda domestically—just as it does leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church and other faiths—Russia cannot overtly support wholesale Islamophobia, despite frequent ethnic Russian opposition to the construction of new mosques. Nevertheless, both Dugin and Banon call for a violent international fight against secularism and liberalism. It also is not clear precisely how and in what manner President Trump may change U.S.-Russian relations, as he has received some pushback on his foreign policy agenda, and has upset the Russian political establishment with his actions in Syria. It is clear, however, that many Russian and American conservative leaders and ideologues continue to see potential for Russian-American global collaboration in the right-wing international in pursuit of Far Right ends. Let us hope that European governments and international institutions—and, more broadly, democratic norms and universal human rights—will ultimately prevail against the onslaught.

 

Endnotes

1 Alexander Dugin’s Facebook page, accessed January 17, 2017, https://www.facebook.com/alexandr.dugin/posts/1359831577360212. While Dugin is clearly using the same rhetoric as Donald Trump and his supporters with respect to “drain the swamp” (and numerous other talking points), a more literal translation of the verb he uses, “высушить,” would be “dry out,” which fits better with the other metaphor he frequently invokes in this context, that of fire.

2 Alexander Dugin, “Russian Geopolitician: Trump is Real America,” Katehon, February 2, 2016. http://katehon.com/article/russian-geopolitician-trump-real-america .

3 “Treasury Announces New Designations of Ukrainian Separatists and their Russian Supporters,” US Department of the Treasury, March 11, 2015, https://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/Pages/jl9993.aspx.

4 Patrick Buchanan, “Whose Side is God on Now?” Patrick J. Buchanan – Official Website, April 4, 2014, http://buchanan.org/blog/whose-side-god-now-6337. For more details, see Christopher Stroop, “The Russian Origins of the So-Called Post-Secular Moment: Some Preliminary Observations,” State Religion and Church 1:1 (2014), 59-82, https://www.academia.edu/5949640/The_Russian_Origins_of_the_So-Called_Post-Secular_Moment_Some_Preliminary_Observations .

5 Christopher Stroop, “A Right-Wing International? Russian Social Conservatism, the US-Based World Congress of Families, and the Global Culture Wars in Historical Context,” The Public Eye, winter 2016, 4-10, https://www.politicalresearch.org/2016/02/16/russian-social-conservatism-the-u-s-based-wcf-the-global-culture-wars-in-historical-context/.

6 David Duke, “Is Russia the Key to White Survival?,” DavidDuke.com, October 23, 2004, http://davidduke.com/is-russia-the-key-to-white-survival/.

7 Casey Michel, “Meet the Moscow Mouthpiece Married to a Racist Alt-Right Boss,” The Daily Beast, December 20, 2016, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/12/20/meet-the-moscow-mouthpiece-married-to-a-racist-alt-right-boss.html.

8 For a recent summary take, see Casey Michel, “How Russia Became the Leader of the Global Christian Right,” Politico, February 9, 2017, http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/02/how-russia-became-a-leader-of-the-worldwide-christian-right-214755.

9 For a timely consideration of Russian influence and disinformation relative to Europe, and the Soviet historical context, see Marcel H. Van Herpen, Putin’s Propaganda Machine: Soft Power and Russian Foreign Policy (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016). On Putinist Russia as an exporter of right-wing ideology, see Stroop, “A Right-Wing International?”

10 On Hungary’s move to close down Central European University, see David Matthews, “Central European University Fights for Survival in Hungary,” The Times Higher Education, March 29, 2017, https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/central-european-university-fights-for-survival-in-hungary.

11 Klaus Brinkbäumer, “Europe Must Defend itself against a Dangerous President,” Der Spiegel, February 5, 2017, http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/a-1133177-amp.html.

12 Emily Flitter, “Exclusive: Riding Trump Wave, Breitbart News Plans US, European Expansion,” Reuters, November 9, 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-election-trump-strategy-idUSKBN1342TP.

13 Olivia Beavers, “Tillerson Asks European Diplomats why US Taxpayers Should Care about Ukraine,” The Hill, April 11, 2017, http://thehill.com/homenews/administration/328385-tillerson-asked-european-diplomats-why-us-taxpayers-should-care-about.

14 For the claim that Dugin does not advise Putin, see Kouprianova’s tweet: https://twitter.com/NinaByzantina/status/808108740645912576, last accessed January 17, 2017.

15 Michel, “Meet the Moscow Mouthpiece.”

16 Simon Shuster, “Exclusive: Putin Aide Vladislav Surkov Defied EU Sanctions to Make Pilgrimage to Greece,” Time, September 2, 2016, http://time.com/4476005/vladislav-surkov-putin-athos-greece-sanctions/.

17 For more details see Stroop, “A Right-Wing International?”

18 Vira Ratsiborynska, “When Hybrid Warfare Supports Ideology: Russia Today,” Research Division – NATO Defense College, Rome. No. 133, November 2016, 5-9, http://www.ndc.nato.int/news/news.php?icode=994. “The Russian Connection. The Spread of Pro-Russian Policies on the European Far Right,” Political Capital Institute, March 14, 2014, 4-6, http://www.riskandforecast.com/useruploads/files/pc_flash_report_russian_connection.pdf. And see Stroop, “A Right-Wing International?” for more on how Russia attracts right-wing fellow travelers from the West.

19Kerin Hope and Henry Foy, “Pro-Russian Presidential Candidates Win in Bulgaria and Moldova,” Financial Times, November 14, 2016, https://www.ft.com/content/3b75e064-aa59-11e6-809d-c9f98a0cf216.

20 Sabra Ayres, email interview with author.

21 Anna Nemtsova, “Igor Dodon is Vladimir Putin’s Moldovan Mini-Me,” The Daily Beast, October 29, 2016, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/10/29/igor-dodon-is-vladimir-putin-s-moldovan-mini-me.html. It is important to remember that the breakaway Moldovan region of Transnistria remains occupied by a small contingent of Russian troops and represents one of a number of intractable post-Cold War “frozen conflicts.”

22 Demetri Sevastopulo, “Trump was warned twice on risk of Russia blackmailing Flynn,” Financial Times, May 9, 2017, https://www.ft.com/content/8880e674-3433-11e7-99bd-13beb0903fa3.

23 Office of the Director of National Intelligence, “Intelligence Community Assessment: Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections,” January 6, 2017, ii-iii, https://www.dni.gov/files/documents/ICA_2017_01.pdf.

24 Melik Kaylan, “The Other Time Vladimir Putin Swung an Election,” Politico, Nov 4, 2016, http://www.politico.eu/article/vladimir-putin-replicates-his-georgia-model-in-the-us/.

25 Justin Huggler, “Germany Accuses Russia of Cyber Attack on Ukraine Peace Monitors, as Kremlin Dismisses US Intelligence Claims as a ‘Witch Hunt,’” The Telegraph, January 9, 2017, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/01/09/germany-accuses-russia-cyber-attack-ukraine-peace-monitors-kremlin/. Kate Connolly, “German Spy Chief Says Russian Hackers Could Disrupt Elections,” The Guardian, November 29, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/nov/29/german-spy-chief-russian-hackers-could-disrupt-elections-bruno-kahl-cyber-attacks.

26 See Van Herpen, Putin’s Propaganda Machine, 49-50; Dennis Lynch, “Russia, Ketchum End Controversial Nine-Year Public Relations Partnership,” International Business Times, March 11, 2015, http://www.ibtimes.com/russia-ketchum-end-controversial-nine-year-public-relations-partnership-1844092.

27 Management, Dialogue Of Civilizations Endowment Fund, 2017, http://dofc-foundation.org/management/. On Russia’s “NGO diplomacy,” see also “The Russian Connection,” 5.

28 “The Russian Connection” (p. 5) argues, however, that in many cases “the gains from the trade-off for Far Right parties are not necessarily financial, as commonly assumed, but more valuable professional, organizational and media assistance, i.e., access to networks and political know-how.”

29 The most comprehensive treatment of all the methods listed in this paragraph is Van Herpen, Putin’s Propaganda Machine. For the RT budget figure, see p. 71.

30 “The Russian Connection,” 6.

31 Pasquale Annicchino, personal interview with author, December 24, 2016. Full disclosure: Annicchino and I are both senior research associates with the Postsecular Conflicts research initiative at the University of Innsbruck.

32 Van Herpen, Putin’s Propaganda Machine, 138-146.

33 The ACLJ has also been involved in efforts to criminalize homosexuality in African countries. See Kapya Kaoma, “Beyond Lively and Warren: U.S. Conservative Legal Groups Changing African Law to Persecute Sexual Minorities and Women,” Political Research Associates, April 22, 2014, https://www.politicalresearch.org/2014/04/22/beyond-lively-warren-u-s-conservative-legal-groups-changing-african-law-to-persecute-sexual-minorities-women/#sthash.RDyAiJfy.dpbs.

34 Pasquale Annicchino, “Winning the Battle by Losing the War: The Lautsi Case and the Holy Alliance between American Conservative Evangelicals, the Russian Orthodox Church and the Vatican to Reshape European Identity,” Religion and Human Rights 6 (2011), 213-219, esp. 216-218.

35 See reports from the University of Fribourg’s Center for Ecumenical Studies at http://www.unifr.ch/iso/de/memoria/anderson/news_2013 and http://www.unifr.ch/iso/assets/files/Hilarion_50_D.pdf.

36 “The Russian Connection,” 7.

37 Nico Hines and Pierre Vaux, “Why Putin is Meddling in Britain’s Brexit Vote,” The Daily Beast, June 8, 2016, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/06/08/why-putin-is-meddling-in-britain-s-brexit-vote.html. Komov is currently listed as honorary president on the association’s website: http://www.lombardiarussia.org/index.php/associazione/chi-siamo. For more on the influence of Komov, see Stroop, “A Right-Wing International?” See also Cole Parke, “Natural Deception: Conned by the World Congress of Families,” Political Research Associates, January 21, 2015, https://www.politicalresearch.org/2015/01/21/natural-deception-conned-by-the-world-congress-of-families/.

38 Christopher Stroop, “Bad Ecumenism: The American Culture Wars and Russia’s Hard Right Turn.” The Wheel 6 (summer 2016), 20-24.

39 While commentators such as Van Herpen present the Russian Orthodox Church—at least in terms of its elite leadership—as essentially a branch of the Russian state, Brandon Gallaher, Lecturer of Systematic and Comparative Theology at University of Exeter and a specialist in Russian Orthodoxy, stressed to me that the church does pursue its own goals but that in its attempt to promote what it sees as Christian values it has allowed itself to become dependent on the Russian state to the point of cooptation. Brandon Gallaher, personal interview with author, January 13, 2017.

40 Marcel van Herpen, email interview with author.

41 Marcel van Herpen, email interview with author..

42 Moscow has cultivated a relationship with Le Pen, whom Putin met at the Kremlin on March 24, for some time, and could only be very pleased by Le Pen’s promise to abandon the EU.

43 Emily Tamkin, “French Intelligence Agency Braces for Russian Bots to Back Le Pen,” Foreign Policy, February 8, 2017, http://foreignpolicy.com/2017/02/08/french-intelligence-agency-braces-for-russian-bots-to-back-le-pen/.

44 Andrew Higgins, “It’s France’s Turn to Worry about Election Meddling by Russia,” New York Times, April 17, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/17/world/europe/french-election-russia.html?_r=0

45 Quoted in Rachel Donadio, “Why the Macron Hacking Attack Landed with a Thud in France,” New York Times, May 8, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/08/world/europe/macron-hacking-attack-france.html.

46 Charles Bremner and Adam Sage, “Landslide Victory for Marcon,” The Times of London, May 8, 2017, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/edition/news/landslide-for-macron-fns37zvpq.

47 Richard Spencer’s Twitter, May 7, 2017, https://twitter.com/RichardBSpencer/status/861300992419258370.

48 Richard Spencer’s Twitter, May 7, 2017, https://twitter.com/RichardBSpencer/status/861291632817303552; https://twitter.com/RichardBSpencer/status/861293328909967360

49 Marcel van Herpen, email interview with author.

50 Van Herpen, Putin’s Propaganda Machine, esp. chapters 12, 13, and 14.

51 The other two are “Who is to blame?” and “Who beats whom?”

52 With respect to Brexit, while the Kremlin did not overtly back the Vote Leave campaign, it was given preferential treatment in Russian propaganda outlets RT and Sputnik. Hines and Vaux, “Why Putin is Meddling in Britain’s Brexit Vote.”

53 Tim Shipman, et al. “Trump Wants Putin Summit in Reykjavik. Britain Fears Leak of its Secrets to Moscow,” The Times, January 15, 2017, http://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/trump-wants-putin-summit-in-reykjavik-rc909n9t0.

54 Sheera Frenkel, “Spy Agencies around the World are Digging into Trump’s Moscow Ties,” BuzzFeed, January 13, 2017, https://www.buzzfeed.com/sheerafrenkel/spy-agencies-around-the-world-are-digging-into-trump-moscow?utm_term=.rkgP7xyO9#.fqBQMJo0O.

55 S.2943 – National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017, section 1287, https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/senate-bill/2943/text.

56 “Russia Government vs. Rights Groups. The Battle Chronicle,” Human Rights Watch, February 21, 2017, https://www.hrw.org/russia-government-against-rights-groups-battle-chronicle.

57 Melissa Hooper, personal interview with author, December 27, 2016.

58 Melissa Hooper, personal interview with author.

59 Flitter, “Exclusive: Riding Trump Wave.”

60 Michel, “Meet the Moscow Mouthpiece.”

61 Joshua Keating, “God’s Oligarch,” Slate, October 20, 2014, http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/foreigners/2014/10/konstantin_malofeev_one_of_vladimir_putin_s_favorite_businessmen_wants_to.html.

“Jack Hanick and His Family Have been Received into Orthodoxy in Moscow,” Pravoslavie.ru, May 10, 2016, http://www.pravoslavie.ru/english/93209.htm.

62 “Александр Дугин: о борьбе с глобализмом [Наша точка зрения],” YouTube video, December 20, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Eve4ba78TO8, last accessed January 17, 2017.

63 “Наша точка зрения: Алекс Джонс о борьбе Трампа,” YouTube video, December 20, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3iNFjW85P40, last accessed January 17, 2017. Although uploaded separately, one after another on December 20, 2016, it is clear that this clip follows immediately upon the previously cited clip.

64 Per Katehon’s website: http://katehon.com/about-us, last accessed January 19, 2017.

65 Amanda Marcotte, “‘Drain the Swamp’—of all Those P.C. liberals! Turns Out Trumpers Don’t Care about Lobbyists or Plutocrats,” Slate, December 21, 2016, http://www.salon.com/2016/12/21/drain-the-swamp-of-all-those-p-c-liberals-turns-out-trumpers-dont-care-about-lobbyists-or-plutocrats/.

66 Alexander Dugin, “Donald Trump: The Swamp and the Fire,” Katehon, November 14, 2016, http://katehon.com/article/donald-trump-swamp-and-fire.

67 Providing minimal commentary, Feder reprints Bannon’s speech in its entirety: J. Lester Feder, “This is How Steve Bannon Sees the Entire World,” BuzzFeed, November 15, 2016. https://www.buzzfeed.com/lesterfeder/this-is-how-steve-bannon-sees-the-entire-world?utm_term=.jcmbxBX3N#.jk64yNxb2, last accessed January 19, 2017.

 

Chechnya’s LGBTQ Assault and the Consequences of “Pro-Family” Contradictions

Chechnya is a small, independent republic of the Russian Federation. (Map: Wikicommons CC BY-SA 3.0)

In early April, reports of atrocities being committed against LGBTQ people began to emerge out of Chechnya, a small, independent republic of the Russian Federation that is predominantly Muslim. Novaya Gazeta — an independent Russian newspaper — broke the story that Chechen authorities had detained and tortured over 100 gay and bisexual men aged 16-50 over the previous few months as part of a “prophylactic purge.” At least four men are reported to have been killed, including a 17-year-old who was allegedly thrown from a building after his family was told to “wash the shame” away.

One man who managed to escape said, “They kill people. They do what they want. They know that nobody will come after them because the order has come from above to ‘cleanse the nation’ of people like us.” The man went on to reveal that the families of those imprisoned are eventually summoned to the prison and tasked with carrying out their own relative’s execution.

Alvi Karimov, a spokesman for Chechnya’s pro-Putin leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, denied the original reports, calling the article “absolute lies and disinformation.”

“You cannot arrest or repress people who just don’t exist in the republic,” Karimov insisted. He reiterated this sentiment in a subsequent interview with The New York Times: “I said before, and I repeat now, in Chechnya we just don’t have this problem.”

Heda Saratova, a human rights official with the local government, agreed with Karimov’s assessment: “I never saw them with my own eyes,” she said of gay men. “And I never heard of them. I never thought of them. In my 50 years, I have never seen a gay man.”

“I see flies, I see mosquitoes, but I have never seen a gay man.”

Emphasizing her point, she said, “I see flies, I see mosquitoes, but I have never seen a gay man.”

Of course, we know without a doubt that LGBTQ people exist in Chechnya, as they do everywhere. Queer erasure, however, has a long historic precedent, and serves as a form of violence in its own right, functioning to further isolate, alienate, and silence an already marginalized community.

Using rhetoric almost identical to Karimov in response to a journalist’s question about LGBTQ rights in Rwanda, President Paul Kagame recently said, “It hasn’t been our problem, and we don’t intend to make it a problem.”

In 2007, former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaking at Columbia University said, “In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals like in your country. We don’t have that in our country. In Iran, we do not have this phenomenon. I don’t know who’s told you that we have it.”

Throughout history, homosexuality and gender nonconformity have been stigmatized and are often deemed to be punishable transgressions. In order to escape detection and persecution in hostile environments, many LGBTQ people are forced into closeted existences. Depending on factors such as one’s race, class, or geography, the act of “coming out” and living openly as an LGBTQ person can carry varying levels of risk.

In the United States, sodomy was classified as a felony in every state prior to 1962, with punishments including lengthy terms of imprisonment and/or hard labor. Prior to the Supreme Court’s Lawrence v. Texas decision in 2003, 14 states still had anti-sodomy laws. Meanwhile, LGBTQ people are still criminalized in over 70 countries worldwide. In many cases, the anti-LGBTQ laws in these nations are actually relics of the colonial era, during which England’s first civil sodomy law, the Buggery Act of 1533, was imposed upon colonized territories.

In Chechnya, it’s reported that security agents have lured in victims by posing online as gay men looking for dates. Following the passage of Russia’s notorious Anti-Propaganda Law in 2013, which banned “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations to minors,” similar tactics were used by a Russian right-wing vigilante group, “Occupy Pedophilia.” The group used social media to “ambush” gay people by luring them into meetings and then assaulting them on camera; online footage of these attacks quickly went viral.

Even when individuals avoid arrest or persecution, Russia’s Anti-Propaganda Law is akin to a slow death sentence as it effectively isolates LGBTQ people from one another, restricting access to any evidence that there are others in the world who share their identities. Under the law, the only information regarding LGBTQ people made available to young people is condemnatory, and activist efforts to offer positive, affirming visibility have been squelched (often with violence).

To erase core parts of a person’s identity is to dehumanize them. 

To erase core parts of a person’s identity is to dehumanize them. Under current international human rights law, however, the humanity of LGBTQ people is not protected. Despite decades of advocacy, sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) remain unprotected statuses. This, in large part, is due to aggressively organized opposition efforts at the United Nations and the Organization of American States led by Religious Right groups, including many American organizations such as the Alliance Defending Freedom, Family Watch International, United Families International, C-Fam, Family Research Council, and the International Organization for the Family.

The World Congress of Families XI meeting in Budapest, Hungary is on May 25 -28.

Later this month, from May 25-28, representatives of these same groups will be convening for the 11th World Congress Families (WCF) in Budapest, Hungary, alongside thousands of other religious leaders, elected officials, scientists, and scholars from around the world. From its headquarters in Rockford, Illinois, WCF promotes conservative ideas regarding the traditional nuclear family, and serves as an umbrella organization for a network of groups and individuals that make up a who’s who list of right-wing power players leading the charge against LGBTQ people and reproductive justice around the world.

The vision for what would eventually become WCF was first formulated by its future president, Allan Carlson, on a trip to Russia in 1995. The organization remains deeply connected to some of the most influential religious and political leaders in Russia, and through these relationships WCF has played a key role in formulating and promoting anti-LGBTQ and anti-abortion legislation there.

Nonetheless, in a recent interview, WCF Managing Director Larry Jacobs insisted, “We are not anti-gay. Homosexuals are the people that need a natural family the most. We are the ones that want to help the victims of the sexual revolution, the victims of divorce, the victims of people who have lived a promiscuous lifestyle. I think the question about homosexuality is ‘how do we deal with brokenness?’”

However, the organization has yet to condemn the attacks on LGBTQ people in Chechnya, and following Russia’s passage of the Anti-Propaganda Law, Jacobs described the developments as “very exciting.” Now, similar laws are cropping up elsewhere. Human Rights First reports that “legislators from Eastern Europe to Central Asia have emulated the Russian Duma by introducing nearly identical versions of the law in their legislative bodies.”

Natalia Antelava, an investigative journalist based in Tbilisi, Georgia, says of Putin: “He has very much positioned himself as a protector of family values, not just in Russia but the region and the world. As a result, this entire region has become much more dangerous to be gay.” (Only after being pressured by Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, last week did Putin reluctantly agree to pursue an investigation into the reports coming out of Chechnya.)

In the press release announcing Budapest as the host city for its next international gathering, WCF declared Hungary to be “one of the most family-friendly countries in Europe,” pointing to the nation’s adoption of new constitutional provisions in 2011 that restricted the rights of LGBTQ people and people with disabilities, and severely undermined sexual and reproductive health and rights. This, according to WCF, made Hungary’s government “the hero of pro-family and pro-life leaders from all over the world.”

Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who is scheduled to address WCF XI, has introduced some limited improvements with respect to freedom of assembly and the annual Budapest LGBTQ Pride march. However, Orbán has also warned LGBTQ communities against exhibiting overly “provocative behavior,” and in March 2016, Hungary blocked a Europe-wide agreement aimed at tackling LGBTQ discrimination.

As WCF’s brand of “family-friendly” continues to expand its global influence, the threat to LGBTQ people and reproductive justice grows along with it, and as the horrific reports coming out of Chechnya make clear, the “pro-family and pro-life” movement can, in fact, be deadly.

 

Profile on the Right: Paul McHugh

Dr. Paul McHugh, professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University (and former director of the school’s Department of Psychiatry as well as the psychiatrist-in-chief at the Johns Hopkins Hospital), has positioned himself as a go-to source for right-wing Christian organizations when it comes to anti-transgender campaigns. His title and affiliation with a reputable university has been used to bolster the Christian Right’s argument—that biological sex is binary and immutable (thus erasing intersex and transgender realities)—and provide a pathway for their ideologies, cloaked in scientific disguise, to reach the secular and political mainstream. Paul McHugh’s recommendations around transgender healthcare run counter to those made by the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Society, and the American Academy of Pediatrics, among others.

As PRA researcher Cole Parke noted in their October 2016 Public Eye article on the anti-trans strategy of the Christian Right, McHugh has actively worked against the medical treatment of trans people since the 1970s. In an essay published in The American Scholar, McHugh indicates that part of his incentive for taking over Johns Hopkins’ psychiatry department was to shut down the institution’s Gender Identity Clinic, which had been at the forefront of transgender medicine since 1966.

McHugh indicates that part of his incentive for taking over Johns Hopkins’ psychiatry department was to shut down the institution’s Gender Identity Clinic, which had been at the forefront of transgender medicine since 1966.

“It was part of my intention, when I arrived in Baltimore in 1975, to help end it,” he wrote. In 1979, he succeeded.

McHugh has continued to be a prominent voice for anti-trans policies and practices. When the Family Research Council (FRC) laid out its five-point plan for “responding to the transgender movement” in 2015, they included statements made by Paul McHugh to support their argument against providing trans people with gender-affirming healthcare, access to gender transition procedures (often understood to be life-saving for transgender people), legal recognition, protection from discrimination, and the right to serve in the military.

McHugh also has a platform as member of the American College of Pediatricians (ACP), a small right-wing breakaway group that split from the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2002 and was later called a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2012. McHugh co-authored an ACP position statement last year (updated most recently in January 2017) called “Gender Ideology Harms Children.” It urges “healthcare professionals, educators and legislators to reject all policies that condition children to accept as normal a life of chemical and surgical impersonation of the opposite sex.”

While McHugh’s work is cited as fact by the Christian Right, his own sources are questionable. Among McHugh’s primary sources for the ACP position paper is Sheila Jeffreys, a feminist scholar with no medical background. She is also notably among a small group of highly controversial anti-trans academics and activists described by their critics as “Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists” (TERFs). The collusion between the Christian Right and anti-trans feminists demonstrates that anti-trans medical professionals such as McHugh draw from any material that furthers their political agenda, regardless of its credibility.

McHugh’s work has continued to be deployed as factual evidence on both the local and state levels in opposition to trans-affirming legislation. He even admitted that his 2016 non-peer-reviewed report on sexuality and gender—published in The New Atlantis, a right-wing journal—was merely an “opinion piece.”

The Human Rights Campaign recently drilled down on this failure to engage in rigorous peer review as part of a new website called “McHugh Exposed,” launched just ahead of the Earth Day “March for Science” in April 2017. This comes on the heels of McHugh jointly filing an amicus brief to the Supreme Court opposing Virginia trans student Gavin Grimm in his case regarding access to the restroom appropriate to his gender identity. In March 2017, the Supreme Court reversed its decision to hear the case, and vacated a lower court’s ruling in favor of Grimm. How Title IX protections extend to trans students remains open to interpretation.

McHugh’s arguments are in direct opposition to that of the 66,000-member American Academy of Pediatrics, which put out a statement in March 2017 stating that “policies excluding transgender youth from facilities consistent with their gender identity have detrimental effects on their physical and mental health, safety and well-being….Transgender children should be supported, nurtured and cared for, whether in their homes, in their schools or through policies enacted at the state and federal levels.”

Since McHugh’s New Atlantis report was published last fall, almost 700 members of the Johns Hopkins medical community—including individuals from the university’s schools of Medicine, Nursing, and Public Health—have publicly called on Johns Hopkins to disavow what they call his “False LGBT Reports.”

He “has been on a misguided crusade against LGBT patients and communities,” which is “causing significant harm to LGBT communities within Hopkins and beyond.”

The petition states that McHugh not only fails to uphold Johns Hopkins’ values of justice and scientific rigor, but also that he “has been on a misguided crusade against LGBT patients and communities,” which is “causing significant harm to LGBT communities within Hopkins and beyond.”

The Christian Right frequently calls upon scientists and medical professionals on their roster to provide expert witness in the fight against LGBTQ and reproductive justice. Paul McHugh is a prominent one, with over four decades of practice advocating against trans-affirming healthcare.

 

 

Pro-LGBTQ Smokescreens for Anti-Muslim Attacks

Two activists with placards at London’s vigil in memory of the victims of the Orlando gay nightclub terror attack. Photo: Alisdare Hickson via Flickr.

In a press release issued after last year’s Pulse Nightclub massacre in Orlando, Florida, where a Muslim-American gunman killed 49 people at a gay dance club, Donald Trump said, “Hillary Clinton can never claim to be a friend of the gay community as long as she continues to support immigration policies that bring Islamic extremists to our country who suppress women, gays and anyone who doesn’t share their views.”

His solution? Ban Muslims.

“When I am elected,” he said, “I will suspend immigration from areas of the world when there is a proven history of terrorism against the United States, Europe or our allies.”

“I don’t want them in our country,” he declared. Less than a year later, Trump’s recent executive order—regarded by many as a “Muslim ban”—went into effect.

As Dylan Matthews reported in Vox, Trump’s post-Orlando rhetoric is a favorite trick of the European Far Right. The strategy of invoking LGBTQ rights as just cause for anti-Muslim policies first gained popularity in 2002 when Dutch activist Pim Fortuyn, an openly gay man, rose to political prominence based, in part, on his advocacy for zero immigration. Fortuyn, who aspired to be the Netherlands’ next Prime Minister, once argued, “In Holland, homosexuality is treated the same way as heterosexuality. In what Islamic country does that happen?”

Like Trump, Fortuyn was described as a demagogue and populist, and in the weeks leading up Holland’s 2002 election, a journalist for The Guardian observed, “Fortuyn believes he dares to say what most people are thinking. On 15 May he will discover whether his instincts are right. If they are, the ripples of his success will radiate far beyond the Netherlands’ borders.” But before the Dutch could cast their ballots, Fortuyn was assassinated by a lone shooter: a vegan animal rights activist who later confessed that he killed Fortuyn in order to “protect Muslims.”

Fortuyn’s contemporary, Geert Wilders, leader of the Netherlands’ far-right Party for Freedom, is keeping his mentor’s legacy alive, using the same twisted trade-off that pits gays (as well as women and Jews) against Muslims. In a recent op-ed, Wilders argued, “Islam is a totalitarian ideology. Muslims are its victims. … [T]he more Islamic apostates there are, the less misogyny, the less hatred of gays, the less anti-Semitism, the less oppression, the less terror and violence, and the more freedom there will be.”

Dubbed “the Dutch Donald Trump,” Wilders promises to return the Netherlands to its White, Christian roots. In a rare interview with NPR last December, Wilders said, “Donald Trump did the job in America, and I hope that here in Europe, we will see a patriotic spring in Holland and also in Germany, in France—in many other countries where parties like mine are getting stronger every day.”

While his European admirers cheer him on, Trump has issued an onslaught of regressive executive orders. His actions have encompassed a wide range of targets including health care, the environment, immigrants, refugees, and, of course, Muslims.

Shortly after last week’s anti-Muslim executive order, rumors began to circulate that LGBTQ people would be next on the list. The White House issued a statement indicating that Trump was not seeking to roll back the protections for LGBTQ federal workers that Obama established by way of executive order in 2014, but this small concession was no kind of victory. LGBTQ Muslims and LGBTQ immigrants are still squarely in the crosshairs of the Trump Administration, and outside of the federal workforce, LGBTQ workers in more than 20 states remain vulnerable to discrimination.

Meanwhile, a draft order on “religious freedom” obtained by The Nation on February 1 included language that would “create wholesale exemptions for people and organizations who claim religious objections to same-sex marriage, premarital sex, abortion, and trans identity.” Legal experts described the document as “sweeping” and “staggering,” and argued that it may be in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution.

The threat of the proposed First Amendment Defense Act (FADA) also looms. FADA is the most threatening chapter in the Christian Right’s ongoing effort to redefine religious freedom in order to impose oppressive ideologies and justify discrimination. The law, which Trump has vowed to pass, would open the door to widespread discrimination against LGBTQ people (and countless others) by granting legal protections to people, businesses, or institutions that believe “marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman, or that sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage.” Specifically, it prevents the government from revoking tax-exempt status, issuing fines or penalties, canceling contracts or grants, or “otherwise discriminat[ing] against such a person.”

Any supposedly “pro-gay” concessions made by the Trump Administration should be seen for what they really are: a smokescreen through which to push through other regressive attacks on Muslims, immigrants, women, and other marginalized and threatened communities.

The ACLU’s Ian Thompson, a legislation representative specializing in LGBTQ policy, warns that FADA “would impact LGBTQ people everywhere,” even in states where LGBTQ people are otherwise protected by civil rights ordinances that include sexual orientation and gender identity.

So regardless of whether or not Trump moves forward with the draft religious freedom executive order (or something close to it), LGBTQ rights are still at grave risk, and any supposedly “pro-gay” concessions made by the Trump Administration should be seen for what they really are: a smokescreen through which to push through other regressive attacks on Muslims, immigrants, women, and other marginalized and threatened communities.

 

 

A Dystrumpian Vision for LGBTQ People

Co-authored by Scot Nakagawa

San Francisco City Hall. Photo: Tom Hilton via Flickr.

Many are called but few are chosen during any presidential transition. That’s why it’s illuminating to consider who Donald Trump has chosen from the parade of possibilities for his transition team and senior administration appointments so far— and what they may portend for LGBTQ people.

The Christian Right, with few exceptions, backed the Trump ticket, with over 80 percent of White evangelicals voting for him, and now they’re being rewarded with traditional forms of political patronage. They’re scoring major appointments and have won a say in personnel and policy decisions on a scale far surpassing anything seen since the movement first arrived in Washington with the Reagan administration in 1980.

Since Trump himself has never held the kinds of values or displayed the kind of personal behavior prized by conservative Christians—and barely passes as any kind of a Christian at all—he and his backers needed a theological rationale for the Christian Right’s support. They found justification in biblical examples of God-anointed leaders who were ungodly themselves but who nevertheless delivered for God’s people. Christian Right leaders presented Trump in this way, it was broadly accepted by their followers, and Trump is now evidently making good on the deal.

Let’s look first at two early warnings from which all the rest flows.

The first is an important campaign promise affecting LGBTQ people. In November 2016, Trump told 60 Minutes that he was “fine” with gay marriage; at the Republican National Convention he described himself as “a supporter” of the LGBTQ community, and said he considers marriage equality a “settled” matter. But none of those statements amount to promises to LGBTQ people, to whom he is sending mixed messages He has also promised the Christian Right he would consider appointing justices who would overturn Obergefell v. Hodges, the decision that guarantees same-sex couples the right to marry.

Secondly, Trump has also positioned himself in the camp of establishing dangerously broad religious exemptions from all laws aimed at ensuring LGBTQ civil rights. He promised he would sign the First Amendment Defense Act (FADA) if it reached his desk. FADA, which was first introduced in 2015 and now has substantial support in both houses of Congress, would legalize discrimination in the name of “religious belief or moral conviction,” requiring nothing more than someone’s say so. The scope of the Act appears to primarily affect government departments and agencies, and federal contractors and grantees, including entities that may require federal accreditation or licensing, such as universities and hospitals. And maybe more.

Under FADA, denial of service could take many forms beyond matters of wedding cakes, flowers, and photographers, to include allowing hospitals to refuse treatment to LGBTQ people (or their children), businesses to refuse health benefits to a same-sex partner, and child welfare workers to keep a child in foster care as opposed to placing them with a loving and qualified same-sex couple. If that’s not enough, FADA exempts non-profit organizations and businesses from non-discrimination standards. The proposal’s implications go well beyond issues of direct discrimination. FADA might allow federal employees to refuse being involved in processing federal benefits and rights claims to which they conscientiously object, such as any involving married same-sex couples. The bill exempts “any person regardless of religious affiliation, including corporations and other entities regardless of for-profit or nonprofit status” from following non-discrimination codes on the basis of religious beliefs.

If this is the benchmark approach to policy (regardless of the immediate future of the legislation itself) the federal government will be leading efforts to reverse historic gains of recent decades—attacking the basis for LGBTQ freedom and the dignity and rights of everyone else for whom a religious justification for denying service can be made.

But there’s more.

Trump’s selection of Mike Pence as his vice president was a transformational moment in the campaign, and arguably in American history. Pence may be best known for his theocratic political identity, proudly explaining at the 2010 Values Voter Summit in 2010, for example, that he is “a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order.” Donald Trump, via his son Donald Jr., reportedly called an aide to his first choice for veep, Governor John Kasich of Ohio, and told him that a president Trump would put Kasich in charge of both foreign and domestic policy, while the president himself would be in charge of “making America great again.” Pence hasn’t said whether he got the same deal, but his role as chair of the transition team suggests that he is already among the most powerful vice presidents in American history.

This does not bode well.

Pence’s tenure as governor of Indiana was marked by his signing a version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a law that would make discrimination against same-sex couples legally defensible. Pence signed the Act in the company of his state’s Christian Right leadership, marking him as a movement leader himself. Following national outcry, the legislature passed an amendment that explicitly stated that such discrimination was not the intent of the law.

Unsurprisingly, given both Trump and Pence’s history and views, much of the Christian Right agenda, particularly with regards to anything that affects LGBTQ people, will probably come wrapped in the flag of religious freedom. Some leading indicators of the direction the administration will take in this regard are visible in the transition team that’s proposing staff for the new administration and the appointments and nominations that have resulted from their work so far.

Ken Blackwell heads domestic issues for the transition team. A longtime Christian Right pol from Ohio, he is Senior Fellow for Human Rights and Constitutional Governance at the Family Research Council, the leading Christian Right lobby in Washington, D.C. Blackwell also serves on the board of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a Christian Right legal group that promotes religion based exemptions from the law.

Ed Meese leads the transition team for the Office of Management and Budget. He is one of the architects of FADA and served as Attorney General in the Reagan administration. He is joined by Kay Cole James, the former dean of the Pat Robertson School of Government at Regent University and a former head of the federal Office of Personnel Management. These figures know how the federal government works and how to ensure their people are well represented among the 4,000 positions that need to be filled in the West Wing of the White House, and throughout the federal government over the course of the Trump administration and beyond.

Ken Klukowski serves on the part of the transition team focusing on executive authority, responsible for “protecting constitutional rights.” He is the senior counsel for the Texas-based First Liberty Institute (formerly the Liberty Institute), a leading Christian Right legal group focused on religious exemptions from the law, especially LGBTQ rights. He is also the senior legal editor for Breitbart News.

Dr. Ben Carson is one of twelve vice-chairs of the transition team and Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Carson is a Christian Right leader and anti-LGBTQ ideologue known for harsh rhetoric in support of his beliefs. Carson has associated being LGBTQ with polygamy, pedophilia, and bestiality. He thinks that transgender people are “the height of absurdity” and he claims that marriage equality is a Marxist plot that may lead the country to go the way of the Roman Empire. He has characterized the kind of public housing he would oversee at HUD as “communism” and as Secretary he could undermine if not reverse the Obama administration’s efforts to curb discrimination against LGBTQ people in housing.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) is a vice-chair of the transition team and Trump’s nominee for Attorney General. A senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sessions is also a co-sponsor of FADA. The Huffington Post headlined an article about his nomination, “Pick Any LGBTQ Rights Issue. Jeff Sessions Has Voted Against It.” His Senate chief of staff, Rick Dearborn, is the executive director of the transition team.

Rep. Tom Price (R-GA) is nominated to be Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Price’s House voting record received a 0% rating from the Human Rights Campaign. He is a co-sponsor of FADA and supports a constitutional amendment to overturn Obergefell v. Hodges.

Betsy DeVos, Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, is a longtime financier of Christian Right projects, particularly in the area of school privatization. Politico reports that DeVos has said her work in education is intended to “advance God’s kingdom.” She and her family, heirs to the Amway corporate fortune, have a long record of underwriting Christian Right and anti-LGBTQ projects and organizations for the same reason. They have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to organizations that believe in “conversion therapy”; they are major backers of Focus on the Family, whose founder, James Dobson, called the battle against LGBTQ rights a “second civil war.” (Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr., who steadfastly supported Trump through the campaign, was Trump’s first choice for secretary. Falwell said he declined in order to attend to other obligations.)

President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team and top level appointments should be taken as clear indicators of the direction of the Trump administration with regard to the dignity and civil rights of LGBTQ people. And if past is prologue, what Mr. Trump says may not be nearly as important as what he does. Continued vigilance regarding what his appointees do in his name will be vital.

Frederick Clarkson is Senior Fellow at PRA. Scot Nakagawa is a Senior Partner of ChangeLab, a national racial justice think-act laboratory, and served as Fight the Right Organizer of the National LGBTQ Task Force.

Religious Freedom is a Progressive Value

Click here to download the article as a PDF.

This article appears in the Winter 2017 edition of The Public Eye magazine.

To read press coverage about it, one might think that religious freedom is a concern only for religious and political conservatives, and not one of the most liberatory ideas in history. One would also think religious freedom and civil rights are at odds with one another.1)Joe Davidson, “Civil rights or religious liberty — what’s on top?,The Washington Post, September 9, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/powerpost/wp/2016/09/09/commission-says-religious-liberty-should-not-top-civil-rights/. Indeed, U.S. history is filled with examples of such competing claims, as resistance to everything from African American civil rights to marriage equality have been cast as matters of religious freedom. But stepping back from the heat of our political moment, there is a different, more fully accurate, story to be told, one I think that as progressives, we need to know and be able to tell.

Religious freedom is a powerful idea—the stuff from which revolutions are sometimes made. It includes the right of individual conscience—to believe or not believe as we choose, without undue influence from government or powerful religious institutions, and to practice our beliefs free from the same constraints. It’s no surprise that the first part of the First Amendment guarantees freedom of belief. The right to believe differently from the rich and powerful is a prerequisite for free speech and a free press.2)Frederick Clarkson, When Exemption is the Rule: The Religious Freedom Strategy of the Christian Right, Political Research Associates, January 2016, https://www.politicalresearch.org/when-exemption-is-the-rule-the-religious-freedom-strategy-of-the-christian-right/. Grounding our politics, journalism, and scholarship in a clear understanding of what it means and where it came from could serve as both an inoculation and an answer to the distorted, self-serving claims of the Christian Right.

Click here to read PRA’s 2016 report, “When Exemption is the Rule: The Religious Freedom Strategy of the Christian Right.”

It was religious freedom that allowed for Quakers, evangelicals and Unitarians to lead the way in opposition to slavery in the 19th Century. Religious freedom also allowed Catholics and mainline Protestants to guide society in creating child labor laws early in the 20th Century, and later made it possible for religious groups and leaders to help forge wide and evolving coalitions to advance African American Civil Rights and women’s equality, to oppose the Vietnam War, and eventually fight for LGBTQ civil and religious rights.

Such coalitions aren’t always easy. When North Carolina Disciples of Christ minister Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, a leader in the progressive Moral Mondays movement, was asked about squaring religious freedom and marriage equality, he looked to the lessons of history and the wisdom of his own religious tradition. Working within a coalition that had long included LGBTQ advocates, Barber noted that the Christian Right was trying to “divide our ranks by casting doubt either among the LGBTQ community or among the African American community about whether our moral movement truly represented them.”

Rev. Dr. William Barber speaking at a Moral Monday rally in 2013 (Photo via Wikimedia Commons).

In the last century the NAACP had faced a similar challenge over the question of restrictions on interracial marriage. They ultimately opposed the bans, he wrote, as a matter of upholding “the moral and constitutional principle of equal protection under the law.” Faced with yet another fear-based tactic today, Barber wrote, “our movement’s position had to be the same.” He found his response in the First Amendment, which guarantees the right of churches, synagogues, and mosques to discern for themselves “what God says about marriage,” free from governmental attempts to enforce its preferred religious doctrines.3)The Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, The Third Reconstruction: Moral Mondays, Fusion Politics, and the Rise of a New Justice Movement, (Boston: Beacon Press, 2016), p. 91.

The Revolutionary War era Virginians who created our approach to religious freedom understood religious freedom to be synonymous with the idea of the right of individual conscience. James Madison wrote that when the Virginia Convention of 1776 issued the Virginia Declaration of Rights (three weeks before the Declaration of Independence), the delegates removed any language about religious “toleration” and declared instead “the freedom of conscience to be a natural and absolute right.”4)John Ragosta, Religious Freedom: Jefferson’s Legacy, America’s Creed, (Charlottesville:University of Virginia Press, 2013), p. 61. Madison was joined in supporting the rights of conscience by evangelical Presbyterians and Baptists who also insisted on a separation of church and state for fear that mixing would corrupt both.

Invoking the words of the Founders may seem hokey or sound archaic to some. But they knew that the freedom they were seeking to establish was fragile, and likely to be opposed in the future. Understanding the through line that connects the struggles for religious freedom at the founding of the country to today’s helps us fight to defend the principle from redefinition and cooptation.

Such an understanding helped the United States Commission on Civil Rights in 2016 when it issued a major report on issues involving religious exemptions from the law. “Religious liberty was never intended to give one religion dominion over other religions or a veto power over the civil rights and civil liberties of others,” said Commission Chair Martin R. Castro, who also further denounced the use of religious liberty as a “code word” for “Christian supremacy.”5)Martin R. Castro, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Peaceful Coexistence: Reconciling Nondiscrimination Principles with Civil Liberties, September 7, 2016, http://www.usccr.gov/pubs/Peaceful-Coexistence-09-07-16.PDF, p. 29.

The Commission found that overly broad religious exemptions from federal labor and civil rights laws undermine the purposes of these laws and urged that courts, legislatures, or executive agencies narrowly tailor any exemptions to address the need without diminishing the efficacy of the law.6)U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, “The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Releases Report: Peaceful Coexistence: Reconciling Nondiscrimination Principles with Civil Liberties,” PR NewsWire, September 7, 2016, http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/the-us-commission-on-civil-rights-releases-report-peaceful-coexistence-reconciling-nondiscrimination-principles-with-civil-liberties-300324252.html.

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

Religious freedom advocates of the colonial era faced powerful entrenched interests who actively suppressed religious deviance and dissent that might upset their privileges. In the Virginia colony attendance was required at the Sunday services of the Church of England, and failure to attend was the most prosecuted crime in the colony for many years. Members of these Anglican church vestries were also empowered to report religious crimes like heresy and blasphemy to local grand juries. Unsurprisingly, the wealthy planters and business owners who comprised the Anglican vestries were able to limit access to this pipeline to political power. Dissenters from these theocratic dictates were dealt with harshly.7)John Ragosta, Religious Freedom: Jefferson’s Legacy, America’s Creed, (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2013), p. 40-73. In the years running up to the Revolution, Baptists and other religious dissidents in Virginia were victims of vigilante violence. “Men on horseback would often ride through crowds gathered to witness a baptism,” historian John Ragosta reports. “Preachers were horsewhipped and dunked in rivers and ponds in a rude parody of their baptism ritual… Black attendees at meetings––whether free or slave––were subject to particularly savage beatings.”8)John A. Ragosta, Wellspring of Liberty: How Virgin’s Religious Dissenters Helped Win the American Revolution & Secured Religious Liberty, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 5.

This was the context in which Jefferson drafted the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom in 1777, which took nearly a decade to become law. The statute effectively disestablished the Anglican Church as the state church of Virginia, curtailing its extraordinary powers and privileges. It also decreed that citizens are free to believe as they will and that this “shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.” The statute was the first in history to self-impose complete religious freedom and equality, and historians as well as Supreme Court justices widely regard it as the root of how the framers of the Constitution (and later the First Amendment) approached matters of religion and government.9)John Ragosta, Religious Freedom: Jefferson’s Legacy, America’s Creed, (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2013), p. 99.

John Ragosta, author of Religious Freedom:  Jefferson’s Legacy, America’s Creed.

The principle of religious equality under the law was a profoundly progressive stance against the advantages enjoyed and enforced by the ruling political and economic elites of the 18th Century. Then, for example, as John Ragosta writes in Religious Freedom: Jefferson’s Legacy, America’s Creed, “Marriages had to be consecrated by an Anglican minister, making children of dissenters who failed to marry within the Church of England (or pay the local Anglican priest for his cooperation) subject to claims of bastardy, with potentially serious legal consequences.”10)John Ragosta, Religious Freedom: Jefferson’s Legacy, America’s Creed, (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2013), p. 46.

Such abuses may seem like a relic of the past, but in recent years some Christians have tried to outlaw the religious marriages of others. In 2012 Christian Right advocates in North Carolina sought to build on existing laws limiting marriages to heterosexual couples by amending the state constitution, using language that would effectively criminalize the performance of marriage ceremonies without a license. This meant that clergy from varied religious traditions, from Judaism to Christianity to Buddhism, would be breaking the law if they solemnized religious marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples. And the motive was explicitly religious. State Senator Wesley Meredith, for example, cited the Bible in explaining, “We need to regulate marriage because I believe that marriage is between a man and woman.”11)Kay Diane Ansley, Catherine “Cathy” McGaughey, Carol Ann Person, Thomas Roger Person, Kelley Penn, and Sonja Goodman v. Marion Warren, in his Official Capacity as Director of the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts. 2016, Case No.: 3:16-cv-114. The United States District Court For The Western District Of North Carolina Asheville Division, http://www.southernequality.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/Ansley-v.-Warren-Complaint.pdf.

This issue was part of the 2014 case General Synod of the United Church of Christ vs. Resinger, wherein a federal judge declared that laws that deny same-sex couples the right to marry in the state, prohibit recognition of legal same-sex marriages from elsewhere in the United States, “or threatens clergy or other officiants who solemnize the union of same-sex couples with civil or criminal penalties” were unconstitutional.12)Max O. Cogburn, “Memorandum of Decision and Order,” General Synod of the United Church of Christ vs. Resinger, October 10, 2014. It was an historic victory for a progressive version of religious liberty but one soundly rooted in the history of religious freedom. Clergy could now perform same-sex marriage ceremonies “without fear of prosecution,” said Heather Kimmel, an attorney for the UCC.13)Anthony Moujaes, “UCC victorious in lawsuit as judge strikes down N.C. gay marriage ban,” UCC News, October 9, 2014, http://www.ucc.org/north-carolina-marriageequality-10102014.
Jefferson and his contemporaries saw religious freedom as the key to disentangling ancient, mutually reinforcing relationships between the economic and political interests of aristocrats and the institutional imperatives of the church: what Jefferson called an unholy alliance of “kings, nobles, and priests”—meaning clergy of any religion—that divided people in order to rule them. He later wrote that his Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was “intended to put down the aristocracy of the clergy and restored to the citizens the freedom of the mind.”14)John Ragosta, Religious Freedom: Jefferson’s Legacy, America’s Creed, (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2013), p. 20.

A quarter-millennium later, we are still struggling to defend religious freedom against erosion and assaults by powerful religious institutions and their agents inside and outside of government. Aspiring clerical aristocrats debase the idea of religious freedom when they use it as tool to seek exemptions from the generally applicable laws of the United States—particularly those that prohibit discrimination.

Religious freedom and civil rights are complementary values and legal principles necessary to sustain and advance equality for all. Like Rev. Barber, we must not fall for the ancient tactic of allowing the kings, nobles and priests of our time to divide and set us against one another.

We have come a long way since the revolutionaries who founded our country introduced one of the most powerfully democratic ideas in the history of the world. The struggle for religious freedom may never be complete, but it remains among our highest aspirations. And yet the kinds of forces that struggled both for and against religious freedom in the 18th Century are similar to those camps today. We are the rightful heirs of the constitutional legacy of religious freedom; the way is clear for us to find our voices and reclaim our role.

 

References   [ + ]

1. Joe Davidson, “Civil rights or religious liberty — what’s on top?,The Washington Post, September 9, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/powerpost/wp/2016/09/09/commission-says-religious-liberty-should-not-top-civil-rights/.
2. Frederick Clarkson, When Exemption is the Rule: The Religious Freedom Strategy of the Christian Right, Political Research Associates, January 2016, https://www.politicalresearch.org/when-exemption-is-the-rule-the-religious-freedom-strategy-of-the-christian-right/.
3. The Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, The Third Reconstruction: Moral Mondays, Fusion Politics, and the Rise of a New Justice Movement, (Boston: Beacon Press, 2016), p. 91.
4. John Ragosta, Religious Freedom: Jefferson’s Legacy, America’s Creed, (Charlottesville:University of Virginia Press, 2013), p. 61.
5. Martin R. Castro, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Peaceful Coexistence: Reconciling Nondiscrimination Principles with Civil Liberties, September 7, 2016, http://www.usccr.gov/pubs/Peaceful-Coexistence-09-07-16.PDF, p. 29.
6. U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, “The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Releases Report: Peaceful Coexistence: Reconciling Nondiscrimination Principles with Civil Liberties,” PR NewsWire, September 7, 2016, http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/the-us-commission-on-civil-rights-releases-report-peaceful-coexistence-reconciling-nondiscrimination-principles-with-civil-liberties-300324252.html.
7. John Ragosta, Religious Freedom: Jefferson’s Legacy, America’s Creed, (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2013), p. 40-73.
8. John A. Ragosta, Wellspring of Liberty: How Virgin’s Religious Dissenters Helped Win the American Revolution & Secured Religious Liberty, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 5.
9. John Ragosta, Religious Freedom: Jefferson’s Legacy, America’s Creed, (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2013), p. 99.
10. John Ragosta, Religious Freedom: Jefferson’s Legacy, America’s Creed, (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2013), p. 46.
11. Kay Diane Ansley, Catherine “Cathy” McGaughey, Carol Ann Person, Thomas Roger Person, Kelley Penn, and Sonja Goodman v. Marion Warren, in his Official Capacity as Director of the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts. 2016, Case No.: 3:16-cv-114. The United States District Court For The Western District Of North Carolina Asheville Division, http://www.southernequality.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/Ansley-v.-Warren-Complaint.pdf.
12. Max O. Cogburn, “Memorandum of Decision and Order,” General Synod of the United Church of Christ vs. Resinger, October 10, 2014.
13. Anthony Moujaes, “UCC victorious in lawsuit as judge strikes down N.C. gay marriage ban,” UCC News, October 9, 2014, http://www.ucc.org/north-carolina-marriageequality-10102014.
14. John Ragosta, Religious Freedom: Jefferson’s Legacy, America’s Creed, (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2013), p. 20.