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

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“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, http://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, http://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, http://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.

 

#First100Days Crash Course: Week 9

Coinciding with Trump’s first 100 days in Office — a period of time historically used as a benchmark to measure the potential of a new president — PRA will share readings, videos, and tools for organizing to inform our collective resistance based on principles for engaging the regime, defending human rights, and preventing authoritarianism. Daily readings will be posted on our Facebook and Twitter accounts and archived HERE.

Week 9: LGBTQ RIGHTS

Opposition to LGBTQ equality has long been both a fundamental value and useful political tool for many American conservative organizations, especially those associated with the Christian Right. Even as visibility and mainstream acceptance of LGBTQ people grows, homophobia and transphobia continue to serve as key ingredients in the Christian Right’s ongoing “pro-family” campaign, which enforces a Biblically mandated heterosexuality, champions gender essentialism or “complementarity,” and prioritizes procreation.

Featured resources:

Additional Readings:

Media (Click to download):

 

 

Engage: Schools in Transition

 

A guide for parents, students, educators, administrators and other stakeholders are working together to determine the best ways to support transgender students. This guide highlights best practices while offering strategies for building upon and aligning them with each school’s culture.

Check out the guide HERE.

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.

VIDEO: An Unexpected Voice for Gender Justice at Kenyan WCF Meeting

Poster for the African Regional Conference on Families, which took place on September 23-25th.

Poster for the African Regional Conference on Families, which took place on September 23-25th.

Last week, about a hundred people gathered in Nairobi, Kenya, for the African Regional Conference of Families, a regional conference for the World Congress of Families (WCF). The WCF, a U.S.-based international coalition of Religious Right groups dedicated to a very limited notion of “the natural family,” uses its frequent international convenings to develop and disseminate right-wing strategy. WCF uses deceptive “pro-family” rhetoric to promote conservative ideologies, which are then codified into regressive laws and policies that criminalize LGBTQ people and abortion.

Anti-gay and anti-abortion activist Don Feder, WCF’s Coalitions Director and Coordinator of Regional Conferences, opened the gathering with a speech in which he acknowledged WCF as the official sponsor of the Nairobi conference. Aside from presenting the sexual rights movement as a new form of slavery, Feder called on participants to work together to defend the natural family, which he described as “the institution on which the fate of humanity hinges.” But he also denied climate change as a hoax of the sexual revolution—a claim Michael Hichborn of the U.S. anti-abortion Lepanto Institute made the center of his presentation. Sharon Slater of the U.S.-based Family Watch International called on participants to oppose Comprehensive Sexual Education, denouncing the use of condoms and calling for abstinence only sex ed instead.

Other speakers included Alfred Rotich, a Catholic bishop from the Kenyan Conference of Catholic Bishops, who linked abortion to “accompanying vices such as necrophilia, bestiality, pedophilia, same-sex relationships as well as calls for free sex and reproductive health services for children!” Various speakers followed Rotich’s lead in linking LGBTQ issues and calls for greater reproductive rights in Africa with foreign interests and funders.

All of this was a familiar WCF script, but this time things didn’t go as planned. Just after WCF African representative Theresa‎ Okafor repeated the Christian Right claim that trans people are mentally ill—and blamed their identity on contraceptives—Gathoni Muchomba, a renowned Kenyan radio host, took the stage. In addition to being a famous media personality, Muchomba is the director of Gamafrica, a Kenyan NGO that recently launched a new initiative dedicated to supporting children with intersex conditions and their families. Although she was not included on the original list of speakers announced a day before the conference, from the podium, Muchomba issued a surprising call for the inclusion of intersex people in the new National Family Promotion and Protection Policy that was recently proposed by Kenya’s Ministry of Labor, a co-sponsor of the WCF Nairobi meeting.

Muchomba is hardly a traditional LGBTQI ally: she conflates gender identity and sexual orientation; didn’t know the meaning of the LGBTQI acronym; and warned that if Kenya doesn’t address intersex and trans issues, it won’t be able to fight “lesbianism.” And yet she nonetheless used her platform at WCF to bring attention to the suffering of intersex children, and unwittingly advanced the cause of sexual minorities.

Among the people who have motivated Muchomba’s advocacy is James Karanja, an intersex man who was raised as a girl. After declaring his gender identity as an adult, Karanja was treated as an outcast, but he has persisted in fighting for legal recognition as a man so that he can pursue a college education.

During her speech, Muchomba invited Karanja to address the WCF audience directly. Karanja (who does not identify as gay or transgender), told the right-wing gathering about the shame he experienced at his all-girls school, where he woke up at 3am to shower before his classmates arose; how he was later suspended because he was attracted to other girls; and how his mother suffered a mental breakdown after he came out as a man and said he was changing his name.

“I don’t want to see another child go through what I went through,” Karanja told the crowd.

James Karanja tells his story at the World Congress of Families-sponsored African Regional Conference of Families. See video below. (Photo: Political Research Associates)

James Karanja tells his story at the World Congress of Families-sponsored African Regional Conference of Families. See video below. (Photo: Political Research Associates)

WCF delegates heard a number of alarming stories about sexual minorities who are forced to live as outcasts, including a child who was raised as a boy but later came out as a girl, and who, like James, was subsequently forced to leave school. The public sharing of these stories comes just weeks after Kenyan parliamentarian Isaac Mwaura ‎asked lawmakers to consider a bill recognizing and accepting intersex people—a proposal that resulted from Muchomba and Karanja’s activism.

Although Mwaura’s proposed bill and Muchomba’s advocacy suggest advances in intersex and gender rights activism, the WCF poses a dangerous threat to this fragile progress, casting gender and sexual minorities as mentally ill. But amid their forum, Karanja delivered a message they won’t soon forget: that Africa has sexual minorities, and they are not a curse.

Karanja’s speech shocked the audience and was the talk of the conference during lunch and tea breaks. In response to Muchomba’s and Karanja’s unexpected departure from WCF positions, the conference speakers who followed them worked hard to dismiss Karanja’s story. Some blamed his experiences on his failure to obtain hormonal therapy as a child. (Many United Nations human rights bodies have recognized that medically unnecessary, non-consensual surgeries and other interventions on intersex children amount to human rights violations.) In an interview with me, Joshua Nwachukwu, the Nigerian co-founder of the African Organization for Families, a WCF affiliate and co-host of the conference, indicated that Karanja chose to be male. Had he sought medical care, Nwachukwu argued, Karanja “would have remained a girl.”

But some attendees seemed moved to at least reconsider their previous positions. Bishop Rotich told me that Karanja’s story illustrated the need for pastoral resources for caring for intersex people. That suggests the possibility that while African conference-goers may forget the abstract speeches of U.S. culture warriors like Sharon Slater, Don Feder, and Michael Hichborn, Karanja’s strong testimony on the need for dignity, respect, and rights may have a more lasting impact.

On September 23, Kenyan media personality Gathoni Muchomba and James Karanja speak on intersex rights in Nairobi, Kenya, at the World Congress of Families-sponsored African Regional Conference of Families. Karanja’s speech begins at 9:30. (Video filmed by Political Research Associates).

The Christian Right on the Gender Frontier: The Growing Anti-Trans Offensive

Click here to download the article as a PDF.

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

In June 2014, TIME magazine declared that the U.S. had reached the “transgender tipping point” and was venturing toward trans inclusion as its next “civil rights frontier.”1That month’s cover featured Laverne Cox, a Black transgender actress famous for her portrayal of Sophia Burset on the popular television series Orange is the New Black. The accompanying coverage inside the magazine— which included an extensive “Transgender 101” article, a photo essay portraying a diverse range of transgender people and experiences, a nuanced exploration of the various obstacles faced by trans people, and a personal interview with Cox—was hailed by ThinkProgress’ Zach Ford as “perhaps the most positive and in-depth representation of transgender life experiences ever presented in mainstream print media.”2

The following year, a record number of transgender women were killed in the United States.

Who’s Under Attack?

In 2015, 23 trans women3 were murdered in this country. Though not all of these deaths have been labeled “hate crimes,” the shared thread of trans feminine identity is indicative of an undeniably heightened threat to trans women. Research from the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs indicates that the majority of victims of hate violence homicides are trans women,4 and NCAVP described the 2015 crisis as “epidemic” in proportion.5 Unfortunately, the rate of targeted violence and persecution against trans and gender-nonconforming people shows no signs of waning.

People protesting the anti-trans HB 2 head to the North Carolina legislative building during the Moral Monday rally on April 25th, 2016. (Photo: Nathania Johnson via Flickr/CC).

All across the country, and in various areas of public life, manifestations of anti-trans sentiment are actually on the rise, in forms that extend far beyond physical violence. So far, 2016 has seen at least 44 anti-trans bills proposed in 16 states, aimed at putting an already vulnerable community at even greater risk for harassment, abuse, ostracization, and discrimination.6 This unprecedented wave of legislative attacks against trans and gender-nonconforming people isn’t restricted to Red States, rural communities, or the Bible Belt. Neither spontaneous nor coincidental, it’s the result of a nationally coordinated effort led by the Christian Right.

North Carolina proved the strength and viability of this effort in March 2016, when the state’s General Assembly approved House Bill 2 (HB 2),7 which invalidated the recent expansion of nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ individuals in the city of Charlotte, and additionally prevented all municipalities in the state from adding any new protections. Charlotte’s ordinance would have, among other things, granted transgender individuals the right to use public facilities that correspond to the gender with which they identify.

Governor Pat McCrory signed the bill—described by Sarah Preston, acting Executive Director of the ACLU of North Carolina, as “the most extreme anti-LGBT bill in the nation”—following a one-day special session called expressly for the purpose of eliminating Charlotte’s expanded nondiscrimination ordinance, costing taxpayers $42,000.8 (It should be noted that HB 2 was an attack on more than just LGBTQ people. The bill also gutted the North Carolina Equal Employment Practices Act, which had provided core anti-discrimination protections for workers, making North Carolina one of only two states in the country without any state law protecting private sector employees from workplace discrimination. Additionally, HB 2 gave the state the power to override local efforts to increase the minimum wage.9)

McCrory had previously stated that Charlotte’s nondiscrimination policy would “create major public safety issues by putting citizens in possible danger from deviant actions by individuals taking improper advantage of a bad policy.”10

These talking points reflect the handiwork of the coalition of national players behind the bill. Over the last several years, right-wing opponents of social justice have steadily honed their anti-trans tactics and rhetoric. We’re now seeing the effects of their well-resourced, diligent campaigning.

His/Her/Hirstory: How did we get here?

A frontier is often understood to be that edge between the known and the unknown, the settled and the wild. For some, it’s a place of adventure and possibility, but for others—especially those who already live there—familiar territories that are suddenly deemed “frontiers” can quickly become places of great danger.

TIME’s use of the term “frontier” in its 2014 “transgender tipping point” cover story might have foreshadowed this pending surge of anti-trans attacks. A frontier is often understood to be that edge between the known and the unknown, the settled and the “wild.” For some, it’s a place of adventure and possibility, but for others—especially those who already live there—familiar territories that are suddenly deemed “frontiers” can quickly become places of great danger, thanks to the encroachment of invading pioneers.

And in this contemporary gender frontier, the Christian Right is on the attack, using flawed religious rhetoric and claims of “protecting women and children” to support an onslaught of transphobic violence and oppression.

The tropes at play are familiar. In the 1970s, Anita Bryant’s anti-gay “Save Our Children” campaign equated homosexuality with pedophilia in order to mobilize voters to repeal a Florida county’s anti-discrimination ordinance that protected gay and lesbian citizens in employment, housing, and public accommodations. Today’s opponents to nondiscrimination protections for transgender people echo similar fear-mongering myths.

Nondiscrimination Protections for LGBTQ People (click here to expand)

Currently, federal law prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability, and pregnancy or childbirth.78
In July 2014, President Obama signed Executive Order 13672, expanded these protections to include “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” in hiring and employment on the part of federal government contractors and sub-contractors. These categories of protection also exist for the federal civilian workforce.

Some states and municipalities have also elected to independently expand nondiscrimination protections to include sexual orientation and gender identity, but 32 states still lack clear, fully inclusive nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people.79

The Equality Act, proposed in 2015, would change this by establishing explicit, permanent protections against discrimination based on an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity in matters of employment, housing, access to public places, federal funding, credit, education and jury service. Additionally, it would prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex in federal funding and access to public places.

But the manipulation of people’s protective instincts toward those regarded as vulnerable dates back much further than 1977. In the aftermath of HB 2, Honor Sachs, assistant professor of history at Western Carolina University, outlined in The Huffington Post how throughout history false accusations of rape and sexual assault have been deployed to negate the social and political advances of minority groups when those in power feel threatened. To catalyze violence against indigenous populations during the 17th and 18th centuries, Native Americans were depicted as “savage” and “predatorial” and therefore a threat to sexually vulnerable Anglo-American women. From the 19th century into the mid-20th century, Whites justified the lynching of countless Black men in the name of avenging alleged sexual assaults against White women (as with Emmett Till)11. Subsequently, the same line of reasoning was used to rationalize racially segregated facilities in the Jim Crow South.

This racialized thread, woven tightly into the “protective” narrative, helps make one thing very clear: conservative rhetoric about protecting women rarely has anything to do with actually protecting women.

Conservative rhetoric about protecting women rarely has anything to do with actually protecting women.

The modern version of this old claim is encapsulated in the rebranding of trans-inclusive nondiscrimination laws as “bathroom bills.” Because existing and proposed efforts to extend nondiscrimination protections to trans and gender-nonconforming people include public spaces, the opposition has chosen to highlight the fact that public spaces include public bathrooms. The message being deployed is that these nondiscrimination laws would “allow men into women’s bathrooms.”

 

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Right-wing campaigns, such as the recent #KeepNCSafe campaign supporting North Carolina’s HB 2, re-brand non-discrimination bills as “Bathroom Bills” and manipulate fear of violence against (non-transgender) women.

Initially, these warnings aimed to bring into question the “authentic” gender of trans women, suggesting that gender is fixed and immutable. However, factions of the Right gradually recognized (thanks, in part, to the visibility—and popularity—of trans women like Laverne Cox) they were swimming against the current of trans visibility and acceptance.

In March 2016, the Human Rights Campaign published research that indicates 35 percent of likely voters personally know or work with a transgender person, as compared to just 22 percent the previous year.12 As more and more people become familiar with the transgender “frontier,” it is increasingly difficult to pass off falsehoods about trans people as indisputable. In order to attract more moderates and expand their base, the Christian Right needed to present a more nuanced message.

Many anti-trans activists have begun focusing more on the theoretical risk of male sexual predators taking advantage of nondiscrimination laws designed to protect trans people by dressing up as women and pretending to be transgender in order to gain access to women. It’s basically the 2.0 version of an Anita Bryant-style witch hunt—rather than paint all trans people as personally deviant and dangerous, opponents suggest that granting nondiscrimination protections to trans people will effectively enable the deviant and dangerous behavior of others.

In February 2016, anti-trans opponents went so far as to stage such a scenario. The previous December, the Washington State Human Rights Commission had added “gender identity” to the state’s pre-existing public accommodation protections.13 Opponents quickly introduced several pieces of legislation to overturn the protections, but when they failed to advance, conservatives instead pushed for a voter initiative. As part of their effort to garner support, opponents sought to incite “bathroom panic” by recruiting a non-transgender man to enter a women’s locker room at a Seattle public pool.14

The Human Rights Commission responded to the stunt with a statement explaining, “Men cannot go into the women’s locker room, as this man claimed he had the right to do. Only women, including transgender women, can go into the women’s locker room. Persons who enter the wrong gender-segregated facility for nefarious purposes can be asked to leave in no uncertain terms. And they would have no recourse.”15

As Sunnivie Brydom, managing editor for The Advocate, notes, “There has never been a verifiable, reported instance of a trans person harassing a cisgender person, nor have there been any confirmed reports of male predators ‘pretending’ to be transgender to gain access to women’s spaces and commit crimes against them.”16

Facts and clarifications, however, seemingly do little to dissuade these anti-trans attacks. The Family Policy Institute of Washington (FPIW), a Focus on the Family affiliate, persisted in claiming, “[P]eople of any sex can enter a locker room of the opposite sex and defend their right to be there based on gender identity, a subjective concept that is impossible to prove.”17

Increasingly, right-wing opponents are attempting to “prove” that their manufactured risks are viable. According to YWCA Pierce County CEO Miriam Barnett, trans rights advocates have reported that the anti-trans alliance coordinating Washington’s repeal effort (primarily led by FPIW under the name “Just Want Privacy”) has instructed men gathering signatures to position themselves outside of women’s bathrooms. If a woman declines to sign, they are encouraged to follow her in, ostensibly to demonstrate how dangerous trans-inclusive bathroom policies are.

Using these sorts of scare tactics and provocations, the repeal effort targeting the 2015 expansion of nondiscrimination protections gained substantial momentum, but ultimately the campaign failed to gather the necessary number of signatures to qualify for the ballot.18 Nonetheless, LGBTQ activists remain wary. Kris Hayashi, Executive Director of the Transgender Law Center, warns, “I anticipate seeing much worse going into 2017.”19

Who’s Behind It All?

A national coalition of Christian Right powerhouse organizations has been plotting this campaign since long before the concept of a “post-marriage equality moment” even existed. Not merely a response to the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision on same-sex marriage or Laverne Cox’s celebrity status, this recent wave of anti-trans attacks has deep social, political, and theological roots. Three key groups leading the effort are Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council, and the Alliance Defending Freedom.

Focus on the Family (FOTF) is one of the most powerful Christian Right parachurch organizations in the country. With annual revenue of over $88 million20 and 13 international offices (in addition to its massive headquarters in Colorado Springs), FOTF’s influence is truly global.

In a series of articles on “transgenderism” originally published in 2008, FOTF reveals a remarkable depth of awareness regarding some of the deep internal rifts within the LGBTQ community:

For decades, lesbian, gay and bisexual activist (LGB) leaders worked hard to keep those who called themselves “transgender” or “transsexual” as far out of the public eye as possible. By their own admission, the last thing they wanted was a bunch of “drag queens” and cross-dressers to scare away potential allies and ruin any hope for their community to achieve its political goals. So the activists only portrayed homosexuals in favorable and non-threatening ways.

But recent years have seen a sea-change in attitudes about cultural acceptance of homosexuality. And LGB activists believe that sufficient political gains have been won at the local, state and federal levels that they can now turn their attention to adding the “T”—for transgender—to the LGB acronym that represents their community.21

Indeed, anti-trans dissonance has long plagued the LGBTQ justice movement, leaving trans and gender-nonconforming people especially susceptible to attack. Contemporary consequences of this internal strife became particularly evident during what became known as the “ENDA debacle” of 2007. After over two decades of legislative advocacy, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) appeared to finally be gaining the necessary support to extend federal nondiscrimination protections to include LGBTQ people. However, when certain LGBTQ power players and political insiders became concerned that the bill didn’t have quite enough votes to pass, they dropped “gender identity” from the list of protected statuses in an attempt to make it more palatable to those legislators who were still on the fence, thereby leaving out trans and gender-nonconforming people. The revision was soundly rejected by a coalition of progressive organizations and activists who refused to deprioritize some of the most vulnerable members of the LGBTQ community. In any case, the revised bill failed.

There’s no such thing as a discreet family dispute when you’re a political movement representing millions of LGBTQ people. Of course, Christian Right groups were paying attention, and FOTF has sought to exploit these rifts. From its sprawling 45-acre campus, FOTF has captained the Christian Right’s advances against trans and gender-nonconforming people for years. But this went relatively unnoticed until recently, in part, because many of FOTF’s anti-trans attacks have been mislabeled. For example, James Dobson, founder and longtime president of FOTF, has been warning parents against letting their young boys embrace feminine characteristics since as far back as the 1970s. Critics accuse him of being homophobic, but in reality, he’s also tapping into the undercurrents of transphobia. For Dobson and his followers, the fear wasn’t just about men loving—or even having sex with—other men. What’s also at play is a deeper fear that such a relationship would entail men behaving like women.

For Dobson and his followers, the fear wasn’t just about men loving—or even having sex with—other men. What’s also at play is a deeper fear that such a relationship would entail men behaving like women.

Now those undercurrents have swelled into a raging river, and though LGB activists may finally be prepared to “turn their attention to adding the ‘T,’” as FOTF puts it, the Christian Right already has an established infrastructure and anti-trans game plan, putting them light years ahead. With the help of its political arm, the Family Policy Alliance (formerly CitizenLink), FOTF is mobilizing its constituents across the country, depicting trans-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances as “insanity,” and arguing that they will allow “sexual predators” access to young girls.22

Family Policy Alliance (FPA) is a multi-million dollar operation that oversees a national network of 38 state-based “family policy councils” collectively committed to restricting access to abortion and reproductive justice, resisting efforts toward LGBTQ equality, and redefining religious freedom into a dangerous tool of oppression.23 All but four of the states considering anti-trans legislation this year have an FPA-affiliated family policy council.

FPA says it provides its state-based affiliates, like the previously mentioned Family Policy Institute of Washington, with “training, funding and strategic coordination to engage in elections, advance pro-family legislation, mobilize churches on critical issues and be a voice for biblical citizens within their states.”24

North Carolina’s affiliate is the North Carolina Family Policy Council (NCFPC). In the case of NCFPC, FPA has played an especially significant role in supporting the group financially. According to the most recently available tax filings from both organizations, FPA contributed nearly $170,00025 to NCFPC in 2013, which amounts to approximately one third of NCFPC’s operating budget that year.26

John Rustin, president of the NCFPC (whose total compensation in 2013, incidentally, was just shy of $170,000) wrote a letter to Gov. McCrory following the passage of Charlotte’s trans-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinance, demanding that the General Assembly call a special session to overturn it and “preempt any other municipality or county in the state from enacting a similar ordinance.”27 And that is exactly what happened.

While FOTF taps into the motivating elements of fear in order to advance the Christian Right’s anti-trans agenda, the Family Research Council (FRC) attempts to provide the intellectual backing for their campaign.

FRC, a Christian Right political advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., came into existence during the same time period as FOTF, and the two organizations have remained in close relationship throughout their shared history; from 1988-1992 FRC was even subsumed as a division of FOTF. Today, the two function as organizational partners, collaborating on numerous projects.28

In June 2015, FRC laid out a five-point plan for “responding to the transgender movement.” The position paper was co-authored by Peter Sprigg, a senior fellow at FRC, and Dale O’Leary, a Catholic writer based in Avon Park, Florida. Sprigg, a proponent of so-called “reparative therapy”—a psychological treatment based on the assumption that homosexuality is a mental disorder that can and should be fixed or changed—has argued that transgender people suffer from “delusions.29 O’Leary claims that “same-sex attraction is a preventable and treatable psychological disorder,”30 and has suggested that “sexual liberationists” are “targeting children” in order to expose them to “molesters and exhibitionists masquerading as sex educators.”31

Ignoring trans-affirming positions from the American Medical Association32, the American Psychological Association33, and the American Psychiatric Society34, the two dredged up obscure and outdated scientific theories in an attempt to pathologize transgender people, then outlined a strategy for advancing anti-trans public policy.35 Specifically, FRC argues 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.

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].”36

Sprigg and O’Leary, like most other right-wing opponents of trans and gender-nonconforming people, draw many of their arguments from Dr. Paul McHugh, professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University. In that position, McHugh has actively worked against the medical treatment of trans people since the 1970s. In a 1992 essay published in The American Scholar, a quarterly literary magazine, McHugh actually indicates that part of his incentive for taking over Johns Hopkins’ psychiatry department in 1975 was to shut down the institution’s Gender Identity Clinic, which since 1966 had been at the forefront of transgender medicine.37

“It was part of my intention, when I arrived in Baltimore in 1975, to help end it,” he wrote.38 In 1979, he succeeded.

But he didn’t stop there. As a member of the American College of Pediatricians, a right-wing breakaway group that split from the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2002,39 McHugh recently helped author a new position statement claiming that respecting transgender children’s identities causes them harm and is akin to “child abuse.”40

The American College of Pediatricians was founded in 2002 when a small group of anti-LGBTQ physicians and other healthcare professionals split from the 60,000 member American Academy of Pediatrics.

The American College of Pediatricians was founded in 2002 when a small group of anti-LGBTQ physicians and other healthcare professionals split from the 60,000 member American Academy of Pediatrics.

As I have written elsewhere, Sprigg, O’Leary, and McHugh also selectively highlight the scholarship of a small group of highly controversial academics and activists described by their critics as “Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists” (TERFs). Although most categorized as TERFs reject the label and consider it to be insulting, they openly espouse the notion that trans women “aren’t really women,” and that real womanhood is exclusively determined on a natal, biological level. These arguments (key elements of what’s called “gender essentialism”) align themselves with and fuel the flames of right-wing transphobia, providing the Right an intellectual foundation upon which to build an argument that would appeal to both conservatives and certain sectors of the Left.41

Much like the example of the 2007 ENDA debacle, TERF scholarship is merely an outgrowth of anti-trans trends that have been consistently prevalent in feminist circles for decades. The Right has simply become more adept at exploiting them.

Rounding out the hearts-and-minds campaign work of FOTF and FRC is the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a right-wing Christian legal group based in Scottsdale, Arizona.

ADF was founded in 1994 by five of the Christian Right’s top strategists of the day, including FOTF’s James Dobson. Today, ADF counts more than 3,000 “allied attorneys” on its roster, all of whom are working to “preserve and defend” their definition of religious freedom, which they consider “our most cherished birthright.” ADF claims that its army of Christian Right lawyers has racked up 47 victories at the U.S. Supreme Court since it was launched in 1994, and has played a role in “hundreds of international legal matters affecting religious freedom.”42

Founded in 1994 under the name “Alliance Defense Fund,” ADF’s initial goal was to collect money from Christian Right donors and parcel it out to other, already established groups that were active in courts.43 Over time, however, ADF has come to dominate the smaller organizations it once served to support. Acknowledging this shift, in 2012 ADF changed its name to “reflect the organization’s shift in focus from funding allied attorneys to litigating cases.”44

And ADF continues to grow, both in terms of the size of its coffers and the scope of its work. From 2001 to 2013, annual contributions and grants increased from $14.7 million to $38.9 million.45 With that growth, ADF’s strategy has also expanded, now reaching far beyond the courtroom, aggressively implementing its agenda in statehouses, churches, and schools.

In 2014, ADF teamed up with FOTF to promote a “Student Physical Privacy Policy” for schools, which provides model guidelines supposedly designed to protect students in areas such as bathrooms and locker rooms.46 In reality, “physical privacy rights” as outlined in these policies clearly do not apply to all students; instead, they encode trans-exclusionary guidelines and subject transgender students to further scrutiny and interrogation when it comes to their privacy.

After testing the waters in a handful of districts, ADF launched an all-out offensive in December 2014. ADF announced that it had emailed public school superintendents nationwide to preemptively “advise them of a recommended policy and letter that protects the physical safety and privacy of students in restrooms and locker rooms while providing a solution for school officials concerned about students struggling with their sexual identity.” ADF also warned that any school district supporting trans-inclusive policies “would clearly expose itself—and its teachers—to tort liability.”47 At the same time, ADF promised pro bono legal defense to schools choosing to adopt ADF’s model policy.

Within weeks of ADF’s announcement, the Gloucester County School Board in Virginia adopted ADF’s model policy.48 The policy was subsequently used to deny Gavin Grimm, a transgender male student at Gloucester High School, access to the boys’ restroom. The ACLU filed a lawsuit against the district, and in April 2016, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled in favor of Grimm, concluding that Title IX protects the rights of transgender students to use sex-segregated facilities that are consistent with their gender identity.49

Nonetheless, thanks to joint outreach efforts made by ADF and FOTF,50 school boards across the country are now equipped with the language, tools, and resources to adopt new, trans-exclusionary policies, writing oppression and discrimination into their student handbooks.

ADF is highly involved in the current outbreak of anti-trans legislative efforts, too. Like their discriminatory school policy, ADF has drafted a model state level bill, the language of which is evident in anti-trans legislation proposed in Kentucky, Nevada, Minnesota, Texas, and elsewhere.51

The Transphobic Roots of Homophobic Theology

A fourth key player on the frontlines of anti-trans attacks is the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). With more than 15 million members, the SBC is the largest Protestant denomination in the country, and has often been considered a bellwether for Christian conservatism.52 In 1976, the denomination’s Executive Committee passed its first resolution on homosexuality, declaring that affiliated churches and agencies should not “afford the practice of homosexuality any degree of approval through ordination, employment, or other designations of normal life-style (sic).” Since then, the denomination has passed more than 40 resolutions dealing directly or indirectly with LGBTQ people.53

In a 1992 editorial published in the Christian Index, Albert Mohler (who previously served as vice chairman of FOTF’s board of directors) wrote that “Southern Baptists no longer have the false comfort” of regarding homosexuality “as someone else’s problem. The moral and theological integrity of our denomination is at stake, at every level.”54

With this declaration, Mohler, now president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS) in Louisville, Kentucky, positioned himself as an early leader in the SBC’s anti-LGBTQ crusade. In the subsequent decades, he has continued to write, preach, and aggressively campaign against LGBTQ people. Of the various topics covered on his website—which features a personal blog, regular commentary, and recordings from his two different radio programs—homosexuality is second only to theology in the list of categories, with nearly 400 different entries.55

Albert Mohler, considered one of the most influential evangelicals of all time, has a long history of preaching and campaigning against LGBTQ rights. Photo by James Thompson via Flickr, License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Albert Mohler, considered one of the most influential evangelicals of all time, has a long history of preaching and campaigning against LGBTQ rights. Photo by James Thompson via Flickr, License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

In response to LGBTQ activist and writer Matthew Vines’ controversial 2014 book, God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships, which made a case for LGBTQ equality from a Christian perspective, Mohler organized a formal response in the form of a free e-book titled God and the Gay Christian? A Response to Matthew Vines.56 Four other SBTS professors contributed to the text, including Denny Burk. 

Burk, a professor of biblical studies at SBTS’s Boyce College, has previously encouraged Christians to stop using the phrase “gay Christian” because, he suggested, it’s an impossible contradiction in terms. “Christians never speak of ‘lying Christians,’ ‘adulterer Christians,’ ‘fornicating Christians,’ ‘murderer Christians,’ or ‘thieving Christians,’” he wrote.57 In more recent years, Burk has graduated from the long established anti-gay school of theology, making a name for himself as one of the Christian Right’s leading anti-trans pioneers.

Reflecting on TIME’s transgender “tipping point” pronouncement in a June 2014 blog post, Burk wrote, “Just as homosexuality has been mainstreamed, so the revolutionaries seek to mainstream transgender (sic) as well.” “Christians,” he continued, “are going to have to meet the transgender challenge as a matter of great pastoral and missional urgency. We must be clear about what the Bible teaches and be faithful to live that message out in a culture that is increasingly out of step with biblical norms.”58

A resolution “On Transgender Identity” authored by Burk and adopted by the SBC’s Resolutions Committee in 2014 reinforces patriarchal and misogynistic notions of “complementarity”: the notion that men and women have different but complementary roles in relationships, family life, work, and society. It also declares that gender identity is “determined by biological sex and not by one’s self-perception.” Burk’s resolution further describes transgender and intersex people as “psychological” and “biological” manifestations of “human fallenness” respectively, and expresses opposition to any form of physical gender transition, as well as any governmental or cultural validations of transgender identities. The document is the latest in a long string of anti-LGBTQ resolutions issued by the denomination.59

The Southern Baptist Convention’s 2014 resolution describes transgender and intersex people as “psychological” and “biological” manifestations of “human fallenness”.

In October 2015, Burk presented at the “first-ever” evangelical conference on the subject of “transgenderism” in Louisville, Kentucky. Convened by the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC), a network of thousands of conservative Christian counselors who oppose the disciplines of psychology and psychiatry, and the complementarity-focused Council for Biblical Manhood & Womanhood, the event focused on “Transgender Confusion and Transformational Christianity.”

As reported by Zack Ford at ThinkProgress, in Burk’s lecture, “A Gospel-Centered Assessment of Gender Identity, Transgender, and Polygamy,” the Southern Baptist professor dismissed all research60 that has determined gender identity to be a biological phenomenon and that has found there are serious mental health consequences to denying a person’s gender identity. According to Burk, “The task of parenting—the task of discipling—requires understanding those [gender] norms and to inculcate those norms into our children and to those who want to follow Christ, even those who have deep conflicts about these things.”61

Complementarity: Gender Essentialism’s Favorite Formula

The theological roots of the Christian Right’s assault on trans and gender-nonconforming people date much further back—long before anyone felt compelled to insert anti-trans language into official church doctrine. In 1987, the Council for Biblical Manhood & Womanhood (CBMW) was founded to promote the views of complementarity—specifically that “men and women are complementary, possessing equal dignity and worth as the image of God, and called to different roles that each glorify him.”62

The theological roots of the Christian Right’s assault on trans and gender-nonconforming people date much further back—long before anyone felt compelled to insert anti-trans language into official church doctrine.

Initially, complementarity was used as a core argument for the one-man-one-woman marriage proponents: that God’s design and intention was for wedded partners to create a balance between the unique characteristics predicated by their biological sex as the only appropriate formula for a legal marriage. But with the fight for same-sex marriage equality more or less behind us (unless, of course, you happen to be in the market for a gay wedding cake in a conservative, one-bakeshop town), the Christian Right is unearthing the deeper roots of gender essentialism for its current anti-trans offensive.

Another contributor to Mohler’s e-book response to Matthew Vines was Owen Strachan, a young champion of complementarity. The 34-year-old took over as Executive Director of CBMW in 2012, and in 2014 was promoted to President.63 Under his leadership, the organization has more than tripled its annual revenue,64 exponentially increased its social media presence, and launched a new international outreach program, hosting events in the Dominican Republic, Brazil, Canada, and England.65

Screenshot from a promotional video for the 2015 “Transgender Confusion and Transformational Christianity” conference. Full video at: https://vimeo.com/117870540

At CBMW’s 2016 conference in Louisville on “The Beauty of Complementarity,” Strachan declared that he “would rather die” than let a young transgender girl share the restroom with his daughter (ironically specifying that such an occasion shouldn’t happen “without me in there”). He went on to reject and deny the existence of trans people, instead reiterating the strictly defined roles of gender essentialism. “Men are called to lead, provide, and protect,” he explained, “and women are called to nurture, support, and follow.”66

Strachan has since stepped down as CBMW’s president. Denny Burk, author of SBC’s resolution “On Transgender Identity,” has assumed leadership of the organization.67

Religious Freedom and the Anti-Trans Legal Offensive

Despite the anti-trans campaigns, progress is still evident. In May, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch took a bold stand for transgender people, announcing that the Department of Justice was suing North Carolina for violating federal civil rights protections with its passage of HB 2. Speaking to the people of North Carolina, her home state, Lynch said, “You have been told that this law protects vulnerable populations from harm. That is just not the case. What this law does is inflict further indignity for a population that has already suffered far more than its fair share. This law provides no benefit to society, and all it does is harm innocent Americans.”68

The lawsuit seeks to establish HB 2 as discriminatory under Title VII and Title IX of the Civil Rights Act and in violation of the Violence Against Women Act.

Title IX has been a primary point of contention in the fight for trans equality since the Obama administration expanded the reach of its protections in April 2014—less than two months before Laverne Cox graced the cover of TIME. Under the new guidelines, Title IX prohibits discrimination in publicly funded schools not only on the basis of sex, but also on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, immigration status, and disability.

The ACLU of North Carolina flagged this element of the potential harm caused by HB 2, noting in a press release that in addition to eliminating protections for LGBTQ people, the bill “jeopardizes the more than $4.5 billion in federal funding that North Carolina receives for secondary and post-secondary schools under Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination, including discrimination against transgender students.”69

Interpretation of this new policy had remained uncertain, but the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision in favor of Gavin Grimm (the transgender male student seeking equal access to male bathroom facilities), issued in April 2016, established a clear legal precedent.70

The Christian Right anticipated this. According to a report from the Human Rights Campaign, within months of the 2014 change dozens of religious colleges and universities had applied for and been granted a “religious exemption” from the law. George Fox University, a privately owned conservative Quaker school in Oregon that receives federal funding, was one of the first to do so — a reactionary measure taken to prevent a transgender male student, Jayce M., from living in campus housing designated for male students.71

Paul Southwick, a lawyer representing Jayce, argued that George Fox didn’t have any policies or theological positions prohibiting a student from transitioning or expressing a transgender identity.72 Denny Burk, author of SBC’s anti-trans resolution, recognized the risk of this loophole. Upon introducing his initial draft of what would become the SBC’s new policy, he explained, “the resolution will be a reference point for Southern Baptist colleges, hospitals, and other institutions that may be facing legal challenges for their stance on this issue.”73

The ADF also understands the significance of establishing a theological precedent for anti-trans legal offensives. In May 2016, ADF filed a lawsuit designed to exclude trans students from using the bathroom that aligns with their gender identity, arguing that the current policy of Illinois’ Township High School District 211, which grants students the right to access bathroom facilities that align with their gender identity, is illegal because it violates the rights of non-trans students.74

In the suit, ADF lays out many of the familiar arguments about privacy and “protecting” girls, but it also includes a new, religious argument, one that builds on the revised standard established by the Supreme Court’s 2014 Hobby Lobby decision. Using this new precedent, ADF argued in Illinois that many parents have “sincerely held religious beliefs about modesty and other religious doctrines”; if their children share bathroom facilities with trans students, the ADF argued, these beliefs would be violated. Therefore, the policy interferes with parents’ ability “to freely live out their religious beliefs.”75

In 2004, ADF President Alan Sears told supporters, “One by one, more and more bricks that make up the artificial ‘wall of separation’ between church and state are being removed, and Christians are once again being allowed to exercise their constitutional right to equal access to public facilities and funding.”76

Twelve years later, Sears and his team are still relentlessly chipping away. As PRA senior research fellow Frederick Clarkson laid out in his 2016 report, When Exemption is the Rule: The Religious Freedom Strategy of the Christian Right, their ultimate goal is to “impose a conservative Christian social order inspired by religious law.”77 To be clear, that conservative Christian social order has no place for trans and gender-nonconforming people, so for it to be realized, it’s necessary to erase their existence.

Existence as Resistance

As the Christian Right attempts to forcefully construct its idealized vision of how the world should be (to the detriment of all who fail to fall in line), they cannot ignore the reality that bad things happen. Sexual assault and rape happen. Children are abused. Women experience untold amounts of violence. None of this can be refuted; however, our notions of who or what is to blame can vary dramatically.

Front and center in the Christian Right’s anti-trans offensive is the notion that increased rights, protections, and access for trans people will equate to increased violence, abuse, sexual assault, and rape (specifically for women and children). Such falsehoods shift blame away from the patriarchal and racist structures that perpetuate the culture of violence that continuously inflicts harm and eliminates any sense of sustained safety for women, children, queer people, trans people, disabled people, and countless others. These structures are essential to the maintenance of the Christian Right’s dominance.

Yet the very existence of trans people challenges this dominance by refuting the narrative that God’s design is limited to two distinct, immutable genders—the primary premise used by the Christian Right to propagate homophobia and transphobia around the world. As trans communities assert their rights, gaining visibility and some measure of social acceptance, the Christian Right is inevitably fighting tooth and nail to defend its world view.

 

Endnotes

1 Katy Steinmetz, “The Transgender Tipping Point,” TIME Magazine, May 29, 2014, http://time.com/135480/transgender-tipping-point/.

2Zach Ford, “Why Time’s Profile Of Laverne Cox Is A Big Step Forward For Transgender Equality,” ThinkProgress, May 29, 2014, http://thinkprogress.org/lgbt/2014/05/29/3442571/time-transgender/.

3 This total doesn’t account for individuals whose deaths were not reported or investigated, nor for victims who were misgendered or not regarded as trans women in death. Diana Tourjee, “’He’s Not Done Killing Her’: Why so Many Trans Women were Murdered in 2015,” Broadly, December 16, 2015, https://broadly.vice.com/en_us/article/hes-not-done-killing-her-why-so-many-trans-women-were-murdered-in-2015.

4 National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, “Hate Violence Against Transgender Communities,” http://www.avp.org/storage/documents/ncavp_transhvfactsheet.pdf,

5 National Advocacy for Local LGBTGH Communities, “An open letter from LGBTQ organizations in the Unites States regarding the epidemic violence that LGBTQ people, particularly transgender women of color, have experienced in 2015,” March 1, 2015, http://www.avp.org/storage/documents/webversion_ncavp_ma_national2015.pdf.

6 Stephen Peters, “New HRC Report Reveals Unprecedented Onslaught of State Legislation Targeting Transgender Americans,” Human Rights Campaign, February 22, 2016, http://www.hrc.org/blog/new-hrc-report-reveals-unprecedented-onslaught-of-state-legislation-targeti.

7 Steve Harrison, “N.C. Gov Pat McCrory signs into law bill restricting LGBT protections,” The Charlotte Observer, March 23, 2016, http://www.charlotteobserver.com/news/local/article67845317.html#storylink=cpy.

8 “ACLU-NC Denounces Passage of Most Extreme Anti-LGBT Bill in the Nation,” American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, March 23, 2016, https://acluofnorthcarolina.org/blog/aclu-nc-denounces-passage-of-most-extreme-anti-lgbt-bill-in-the-nation.html.

9 North Carolina Justice Center Fact Sheet, “HB2 Guts Core Worker Anti-discrimination Protections,” March 2016, http://www.ncjustice.org/sites/default/files/Factsheet_HB2_0.pdf.

10 Steve Harrison, “McCrory: If Charlotte approves LGBT protections, ‘immediate’ state response likely,” The Charlotte Observer, February 22, 2016 http://www.charlotteobserver.com/news/politics-government/article61307857.html.

11 Honor Sachs, “The Old Threadbare Lie Behind North Carolina’s HB2,” Huffington Post, April 7, 2016 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/honor-sachs/the-old-threadbare-lie-behind_b_9568054.html.

12 “HRC National Survey of Likely Voters,” Human Rights Campaign, 2015, http://www.hrc.org/resources/hrc-national-survey-of-likely-voters.

13 Valerie Richardson, “Transgender people in Washington state to use restrooms based on identity, not anatomy,” The Washington Times, December 31, 2015, http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2015/dec/31/transgenders-in-washington-state-to-use-restrooms-/?page=all.

14 Alison Morrow, “Seattle man tests transgender rule by undressing in women’s locker room,” USA Today, February 17, 2016, http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2016/02/17/transgender-rule-washington-state-man-undresses-locker-room/80501904/

15 Zack Ford, “No, Transgender Protections Do Not Justify Men In Women’s Restrooms. A State Agency Just Said So,” ThinkProgress, February 29, 2016, http://thinkprogress.org/lgbt/2016/02/29/3754688/washington-transgender-protections/.

16 Sunnivie Brydom, “Texas Doubles Down on Transphobic Legislation, Adding $2,000 Fine for ‘Wrong’ Bathroom Use,” The Advocate, March 10, 2015, http://www.advocate.com/politics/transgender/2015/03/10/texas-doubles-down-transphobic-legislation-adding-2000-fine-wrong-ba

17 Just Want Privacy, “Why do we need this initiative?,” https://justwantprivacy.org/why-do-we-need-this-initiative/.

18 Joe Connelly, “I-1515, The ‘Bathroom Initiative,’ Fails to Make November Ballot,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 7, 2016, http://www.seattlepi.com/local/politics/article/I-1515-the-bathroom-initiative-fails-to-make-8346927.php.

19 Kris Hayashi, interview with author, July 8, 2016.

20 990 form for Focus on the Family, 2013, http://www.guidestar.org/FinDocuments/2014/953/188/2014-953188150-0bc03f69-9.pdf.

21 Focus on the Family Issue Analysts, “’Trangenderism’ Brings chaos from Order,” Focus on the Family, http://www.focusonthefamily.com/socialissues/sexuality/transgenderism/transgenderism-brings-chaos-from-order.

22 Jim Daly, “Not in My Shower,” Focus on the Family, May 20, 2008, http://jimdaly.focusonthefamily.com/not-in-my-shower/?_ga=1.144130421.1548367314.1458137817.

23 Frederick Clarkson, “Exposed: How the Right’s State-Based Think Tanks are Transforming U.S. Politics,” PRA Eyes Right Blog, Nov. 25, 2013, http://www.politicalresearch.org/2013/11/25/exposed-how-the-rights-state-based-think-tanks-are-transforming-u-s-politics/#sthash.RwAzpLUQ.dpbs.

24 Paul Weber, “About Us,” Family Policy Alliance, 2016, http://familypolicyalliance.com/about-us/.

25 990 form for CitizenLink, 2013, http://www.guidestar.org/FinDocuments/2014/200/960/2014-200960855-0ba97027-9O.pdf.

26 990 form for North Carolina Family Policy Council, 2014, http://www.guidestar.org/FinDocuments/2014/561/751/2014-561751596-0be99b27-9.pdf.

27 Jon Rustin, “Why a Special Session to Repeal Charlotte’s Ordinance changes is Necessary,” NC Family Policy Council, March 2, 2016, http://www.ncfamily.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/160302-Charlotte-SOGI-Ordinance-Ltr.pdf.

28 “History of Family Research Council: Thirty Years of Advancing Faith, Family and Freedom,” Family Research Council, http://www.frc.org/historymission.

29 Zach Ford, “Family Research Council: Transgender People Need Therapy, Not Nondiscrimination Protections,” Thingprogress, February 26, 2013, http://thinkprogress.org/lgbt/2013/02/26/1643041/family-research-council-transgender-people-need-therapy-not-nondiscrimination-protections/.

30 Dale O’Leary, “The ‘Transsexual’ Delusion,” May 13, 2016, https://daleoleary.wordpress.com/2011/01/09/the-%E2%80%9Ctranssexual%E2%80%9D-delusion/#comment-1527.

31 Dale O’Leary, The Gender Agenda (Lafayette, Louisiana: Vital Issues Press, 1997), 211.

32 “LGBT Health Resources: Resources and Literature for Clinicians on LGBT Health Topics,” American Medical Association, http://www.ama-assn.org/ama/pub/about-ama/our-people/member-groups-sections/glbt-advisory-committee/glbt-resources/lgbt-health-resources.page.

33 American Psychological Association Council of Representatives, “Transgender, Gender Identity, & Gender Expression Non-Discrimination,” August 2008, http://www.apa.org/about/policy/transgender.aspx.

34 Jack Drescher and Ellen Haller, American Psychiatrist Association’s Caucus of Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Psychiatrists. “Position Statement on Discrimination Against
Transgender and Gender Variant Individuals,” July 2012, https://www.psychiatry.org/home/search-results?k=transgender.

35 Jacob Brogan, “The FRC’s Anti-Trans Policy Paper Is Basically a Flag of Surrender,” Slate, June 24, 2015, http://www.slate.com/blogs/outward/2015/06/24/the_family_research_council_s_anti_trans_policy_paper_is_intellectually.html.

36 Brynn Tannehill, “And Then They Came for Transgender People,” Huffington Post, February 18, 2016, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/brynn-tannehill/and-then-they-came-for-tr_b_9258678.html.

37 “Sexchange,” Baltimore Style, http://baltimorestyle.com/3347/fe_sexchange_jf07/.

38 Steve Sailer, “’1984:’ First Time a Tragedy, Second Time as Farce,” The Unz Review, June 2, 2015, http://www.unz.com/isteve/1984-first-time-as-tragedy-second-time-as-farce/.

39 Hatewatch Staff, “Meet the Anti-LGBT Hate Group that Filed an Amicus Brief with the Alabama Supreme Court,” Southern Poverty Law Center, November 13, 2015, https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2015/11/13/meet-anti-lgbt-hate-group-filed-amicus-brief-alabama-supreme-court.

40 Michelle A. Cretella, Quentin Van Meter, and Paul McHugh, “Gender Ideology Harms Children,” American College of Pediatricians, March 21, 2016, http://www.acpeds.org/the-college-speaks/position-statements/gender-ideology-harms-children.

41 Cole Parke, “The Christian Right’s Love Affair with Anti-Trans Feminists,” PRA Eyes Right Blog, August 11, 2016, http://www.politicalresearch.org/2016/08/11/the-christian-rights-love-affair-with-anti-trans-feminists/#sthash.hHrJSj8z.dpbs.

42 “Who We Are,” Alliance Defending Freedom, https://www.adflegal.org/about-us.

43 Rob Boston, “With Millions in Assets And Hundreds of Attorneys, Christian Right Is Waging War on the Church-State Wall,” Alternet, March 5, 2013, http://www.alternet.org/belief/millions-assets-and-hundreds-attorneys-christian-right-waging-war-church-state-wall.

44 Alberto Carosa, “The Remnant Interviews CEO of Alliance Defending Freedom,” The Remnant, May 8, 2014, http://remnantnewspaper.com/web/index.php/articles/item/624-the-remnant-interviews-ceo-of-alliance-defending-freedomculum.

45 Josh Israel, “The 800-Pound Gorilla of the Christian Right,” Thinkprogress, May 1, 2014, http://thinkprogress.org/lgbt/2014/05/01/3429448/alliance-defending-freedom/.

46 Jeremy D. Tedesco, J. Matthew Sharp, and Rory T. Gray, “Student Physical Privacy Policy,” Alliance Defending Freedom, December 4, 2014, http://www.adfmedia.org/files/StudentPhysicalPrivacyPolicy.pdf.

47 “ADF recommends Policy to Protect Student Privacy in Restrooms, Locker Rooms,” Alliance Defending Freedom, December 5, 2014, http://www.adfmedia.org/News/PRDetail/?CID=82478.

48 VA. School District Policy Respects All Children’s Privacy, Safety Needs,” Alliance Defending Freedom, December 19, 2014, http://www.adfmedia.org/News/PRDetail/?CID=82681.

49 G.G. v. Gloucester County School Board, April 19, 2016, https://www.aclu.org/cases/gg-v-gloucester-county-school-board.

50 “Tell A School- Share the Student Physical Privacy Policy,” TrueTolerance: a project of Focus on the Family, http://www.truetolerance.org/tell-a-school-share-the-student-physical-privacy-policy/.

51 Rachel Percelay, “A ‘Religious Freedom’ Legal Powerhouse is Leading the National Fight Against Transgender Students,” MediaMatters, November 5, 2015, http://mediamatters.org/research/2015/11/05/a-religious-freedom-legal-powerhouse-is-leading/206588.

52 Trevin Wax, “What to Make of Southern Baptists’ Declining Numbers,” Religious News Service, June 16, 2015, http://religionnews.com/2015/06/16/make-southern-baptists-declining-numbers-commentary/.

53 Tyler Lopez, “Southern Baptists Unleash Judgement, Resolution After Resolution,” Slate, June 12, 2014, http://www.slate.com/blogs/outward/2014/06/12/southern_baptist_convention_condemns_trans_community.html.

54 David Roach, “SBC’s Homosexuality Stance Reinforced by 1992 Amendment,” Baptist Press, July 21, 2014, http://www.bpnews.net/43006/sbcs-homosexuality-stance-reinforced-by-1992-amendment.

55 Albert Mohler, “Topics,” http://www.albertmohler.com/topics/.

56 Albert Mohler, “God and the Gay Christian?: A Response to Matthew Vines,” http://www.amazon.com/God-Gay-Christian-Response-Conversant-ebook/dp/B00KBA8L9Q.

57 Kyle Mantyla, “Just Say No… To The Phrase ‘Gay Christian,’” Right Wing Watch, September 28, 2011, http://www.rightwingwatch.org/content/just-say-no-phrase-gay-christian.

58 Denny Burk, “A Resolution on Transgender for the SBC,” June 2, 2014, http://www.dennyburk.com/a-resolution-on-transgender-for-the-sbc/.

59 “On Transgender Identity,” Southern Baptist Convention, 2014, http://www.sbc.net/resolutions/2250/on-transgender-identity.

60 Boston University Medical Center, “Transgender: Evidence on the Biological Nature of Gender Identity.” ScienceDaily, www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/02/150213112317.htm.

61 Zack Ford, “How the Southern Baptist are Still Completely Failing Transgender People,” ThinkProgress, October 31, 2014, http://thinkprogress.org/lgbt/2014/10/31/3587156/erlc-transgender/.

62 “Our History,” Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, http://cbmw.org/about/history/.

63 ‘Owen Strachan Appointed President of CBMW,” Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, May 12, 2014, http://cbmw.org/topics/news-and-announcements/owen-strachan-appointed-president-of-cbmw/.

64 Nonprofit Report, Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, Jun 14, 2016, http://www.guidestar.org/profile/36-3635678.

65 Matt Damico, “CBMW Announcement: Owen Strachan Resigns as CBMW President,” Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, July 12, 2016, http://cbmw.org/topics/news-and-announcements/cbmw-announcement-owen-strachan-resigns-as-cbmw-president/.

66 Owen Strachan at the 2016 CBMW T4G Pre-Conference, “The Goodness and Truthfulness of Complementarity,” April 11, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AUBeqe5donQ.

67 Matt Damico, “CBMW Announcement: Denny Burk Named CBMW President,” Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, July 20, 2016, http://cbmw.org/public-square/cbmw-announcement-denny-burk-named-cbmw-president/.

68 David A. Graham, “’State-sponsored Discrimination’: Loretta Lynch Takes on North Carolina’s Bathroom Bill,” The Atlantic, May 9, 2016, http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/05/state-sponsored-discrimination-loretta-lynch-takes-on-north-carolinas-hb2/481986/

69 American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, “ACLU-NC Denounces Passage of Most Extreme Anti-LGBT Bill in the Nation,” March 23, 2016, https://acluofnorthcarolina.org/blog/aclu-nc-denounces-passage-of-most-extreme-anti-lgbt-bill-in-the-nation.html.

70 “Federal Court of Appeals Rules in Favor of Transgender Student in Virginia Restroom Access Case,” American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, April 19, 2016 https://acluva.org/18447/federal-court-of-appeals-rules-in-favor-of-transgender-student-in-virginia-restroom-access-case/

71 Sarah Warbelow and Remington Gregg, “Hidden Discrimination: Title IX Religious Exceptions Putting LGBT Students at Risk,” Human Rights Campaign, http://hrc-assets.s3-website-us-east-1.amazonaws.com/files/assets/resources/Title_IX_Exemptions_Report.pdf.

72 Scott Jaschik, “Not the First Exemption,” Inside Higher ED, July 15, 2014, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2014/07/15/george-fox-previously-won-exemption-title-ix-so-it-could-discriminate-against.

73 Denny Burk, “A Resolution on Transgender for the SBC,” June 2. 2014, http://www.dennyburk.com/a-resolution-on-transgender-for-the-sbc/.

74 “51 Families Sue Feds, Chicago-area School District for Violating Student Privacy,” Alliance Defending Freedom, May 4, 2016, http://www.adflegal.org/detailspages/press-release-details/51-families-sue-feds-chicago-area-school-district-for-violating-student-privacy.

75 Students and Parents for Privacy v. United States Department of Education, May 4, 2016, http://www.adfmedia.org/files/SPPcomplaint.pdf.

76 Religious Right Research: Alliance Defending Freedom,” Americans United for Separation of Church and State, https://www.au.org/resources/religious-right/alliance-defense-fund-adf.

77 Frederick Clarkson, “When Exemption is the Rule: The Religious Freedom Strategy of the Christian Right,” Political Research Associates, January 12, 2012, http://www.politicalresearch.org/when-exemption-is-the-rule-the-religious-freedom-strategy-of-the-christian-right/#sthash.v1MRBEvp.dpbs.

78 “Laws Enforced by EEOC,” U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, https://www.eeoc.gov/laws/statutes/.

79 “Why the Equality Act?” Human Rights Campaign, http://www.hrc.org/resources/why-the-equality-act.

Left Behind: The Christian Right’s Continued Culture War Promotion Through Hollywood

“The goal of this movie was to not be preachy,” said Paul Lalonde, writer and producer of the new Left Behind movie released last weekend. “You get too preachy, it turns people off. That’s what’s kept faith-based movies in the church basements and out of the theaters.” But the latest Christian Right film to hit the big screen preaches little else other than a reinforcement of the Right’s culture wars.

left behind

The new film, starring Nicolas Cage, follows the action-packed first few hours following the Rapture, when pre-millennial conservative evangelicals believe good Christians will rise to Heaven in accordance with Biblical prophecy, beginning a period of tribulation on Earth that ends with the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. Audiences won’t even meet the Antichrist until the sequel, so those unfamiliar with the book series might miss how Left Behind feeds into right-wing conspiracy theories, opposes peace and social justice, and promotes culture wars-ideology.

Lalonde, CEO of Cloud Ten Pictures and producer of the original low-budget Left Behind films, founded another production company, Stoney Lake Entertainment, to do the reboot and focus “on producing big budget faith-themed films for a wider audience.” “I think it can open a lot of doors that would not have otherwise be opened,” Lalonde told Glenn Beck’s The Blaze, which spent extensive time on set during the filming. “People are fascinated by it. People are fascinated by the idea of the rapture.”

“What makes ‘Left Behind’ different is that it is a contemporary story that could actually happen at any moment,” explains Lalonde. “It’s also a historical account in a sense, because it’s based on a true story, it just hasn’t happened yet.” According to the Pew Research Center, 41% of Americans expect that Jesus Christ will return by 2050. Lalonde himself has “no doubt we are living in the end times [before the Rapture] so therefore it could happen tomorrow that the church is going to be called home and caught up in the air and taken to heaven and that’s what this movie’s about.”

Lalonde’s maxim to not be “too preachy” in the pursuit of mainstream appeal sums up the strategy of not only the new Hollywood movie but the entire franchise of Christian Right adult and children’s books, films, graphic novels, and video games. Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’ fictional imagining of the Rapture graphically portrays the disaster of car and plane crashes, emotions of families torn apart, and heroes fighting against an evil overlord—a winning combination that has sold 65 million books, secured regular top spots on bestseller lists, and landed a cover story in Time magazine in 2002.

But these books intend more than entertainment; interwoven with the high-tech weaponry, romances, and disasters, LaHaye and Jenkins spin a tale intended to thrill believers, push political agendas, and bring the “unsaved” to Christ by giving them a peek at the suffering awaiting nonbelievers.

When he recruited Jenkins to co-author the Left Behind books, LaHaye was already an established Christian Right leader known for supporting creationism and anti-LGBTQ beliefs. He founded or helped to found a series of right-wing organizations, including the Institute for Creation Research, Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, the Council for National Policy, and the Coalition for Traditional Values. He capitalized on his high profile as Left Behind’s author to win over the Christian Right to George W. Bush’s presidential candidacy, and supported education and research on prophecy and pre-tribulation (the period before the Rapture).

Here’s just a brief overview of the series’ political agendas for the blissfully unaware:

The Antichrist rises to power as the secretary-general of the United Nations by promising world peace, expressing and reinforcing right-wing fears of takeover by secular world government and aversion to promoting peace. (“I’ve opposed the United Nations for 50 years,” LaHaye boasts, indicating the storyline was no accident.) According to LaHaye, Jesus does not promise peace, he promises the sword—so any politician promising world peace could be the Antichrist himself. People unacquainted with this belief system sometimes find it difficult to wrap their minds around the idea of being anti-peace, especially since conservative evangelicals typically know better than to voice public criticism in those terms.

Social justice and humanitarian action also fall under the shadow of collaboration with the Antichrist. Religious scholar Glenn Shuck described the Antichrist of the Left Behind series: “His ungodly traits include a silver-tongue, a handsome face, and a devilish charm that he uses to soothe the world during its time of crisis. To unbelievers he seems like a saint or even the Messiah. He works to correct economic inequalities, attempts to end poverty and cure dreaded diseases, and leads the world onto a path of total disarmament.”

In the midst of the battle against the Antichrist, LaHaye and Jenkins work in traditional culture war issues through their array of characters. They slip in an argument about the evils of abortion here, an unpleasant lesbian woman who cannot be saved there. Left Behind: The Kids, a series of 40 short books, provides an opportunity to discuss how the Antichrist’s public schools “persecute” Christian youth for their beliefs, deploying arguments similar to real-world evangelical critiques around issues like school prayer.

Then we have the role of Israel and the Jewish people. The Left Behind narrative, in short: Israel’s preordained role in the Second Coming includes its bloody destruction, while 144,000 Jewish witnesses play their part in publicly converting to Christ. For those interested in how Jews and Israel factor into millennial theology in the present-day Christian Right movement, see Rachel Tabachnick’s 2010 article in The Public Eye magazine, “The New Christian Zionism and the Jews: A Love/Hate Relationship.”

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Conservative Sex-Ed Agenda Fosters Homophobic Environment in Schools

Last month, colorful flags waved proudly and vibrantly in Pride parades across the country. In the U.S., a total of 19 states have legalized same-sex marriage (with more states likely to join soon). Yet too often when we discuss attacks on LBGTQ people, attention focuses solely on same-sex marriage or workplace discrimination. All the while, right-wing groups are also actively targeting public school classrooms under the guise of “religious liberty,” advancing a deeply discriminatory and homophobic agenda.

I'm Gay Not StupidArguably, the most well-known and successful recent use of the “religious liberty” argument is the recent Hobby Lobby Supreme Court case, which has resulted in the devastating loss of comprehensive contraceptive access and basic health care coverage. The implications of the ruling, however, extend far beyond health care, as right-wing groups are also using the “religious liberty” frame to oppose comprehensive sex education and policies that work to make schools safer spaces for LGBTQ students. Instead, they advocate for curricula teaching that abstinence until heterosexual marriage is the only correct method; that same-sex attraction is wrong; that questioning gender identity is unnatural; and that discriminatory environments are permitted and, in some cases, even, to be encouraged.

As the American Health Association recommends, comprehensive sex education “utilizes classroom teachers and other professionals who have … received special training that includes addressing the needs to gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth,” empowering students to understand healthy sexual relationships, gender identity, and sexual orientation. Yet, this is a far cry from what sex ed looks like in most public school classrooms. The Guttmacher Institute’s 2014 Sex and HIV Education reports that only 22 states mandate sex education. Of those, only 12 states require discussion of sexual orientation, with three of them mandating inaccurate and anti-LBGTQ information be provided, such as in Mississippi where teachers instruct students that homosexual activity under the “unnatural statute” is illegal.

This lack of comprehensive sex ed often allows a homophobic environment in schools to flourish. Mental Health America reported that teen students hear anti-gay slurs, such as “homo,” “sissy,” and “faggot” about 26 times a day on average, or once every 14 minutes. Boys as young as nine are being called fags, as author C.J. Pacscoe accounts. A different study done in 2001 showed that 31% of gay youth had been threatened or injured at school in that year alone. This kind of harassment and bullying is certainly exacerbated by the lack of comprehensive sexual education in schools, which might otherwise help affirm the experiences of students of all genders and orientations, and foster an atmosphere of questioning and acceptance rather than silencing, shame, and stigma.

Additionally, Alabama, Arizona, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, and Utah have “Don’t Say Gay” laws. For example, Arizona mandates that “no district shall include in its course of study instruction which… (1) promotes a homosexual life-style…(2) portrays homosexuality as a positive alternative life-style.” (Revised in 2011). Texas and Alabama take it a step further –educators must describe homosexuality as abhorrent to the general public and as a criminal behavior.

Indeed, some of the right-wing organizations advocating for these policies are the same players who were involved in the Hobby Lobby case and other efforts to redefine religious liberty as a right to discriminate.  The Alliance Defending Freedom, for example, was not only a leading proponent of the Hobby Lobby case, but it also worked on a religious liberty bill in Arizona that would have allowed businesses to discriminate against LBGTQ people (later vetoed by the governor). ADF has also publicly and falsely claimed that sex-ed curriculum is a plot by Planned Parenthood doctors to perform more abortions in order to make more money.

Aside from endorsing LBGTQ exclusionary sex-ed curriculum bills, right-wing groups have also opposed efforts to promote diversity and a safe environment for LBGTQ students. Southern Poverty Law Center, in collaboration with school stakeholders, organizes a nationwide annual Mix It Up at Lunch Day event to encourage inclusivity, oppose bullying, and promote tolerance in schools. In 2012, however, the American Family Association (AFA), a leading conservative anti-LGBTQ group, charged SPLC with forcing the acceptance of homosexuality in public schools and the oppression of Christian students, by urging schools to abandon anti-LGBTQ policies. The AFA’s opposition gained traction in Maine, where parents, with the support of Project Marriage Maine, challenged Gorham Middle School’s annual Diversity Day for promoting homosexuality after a lesson on gender diversity prompted a student to ask about safer sex practices for same-sex couples.

Finally, it is worth noting how school privatization efforts further enable and exacerbate these problems of biased sexuality education and discrimination against the LBGTQ community. Private Christian schools, for example, which often are the primary beneficiaries of voucher programs, are allowed to teach (or not teach) whatever they want in regards to sexuality—and can even deny admission outright to LGBTQ students—even as many of these schools are still receiving public tax dollars. As PRA fellow Rachel Tabachnick states, “Exclusion policies [that refuse admission to LGBTQ students] can be found in private schools around the country receiving public funding through school choice programs.” Many of these schools are also instructing children that “homosexual unions must be opposed because God opposes them,” and are also teaching “young earth creationism, bigotry toward other religions, revisionist history, and climate change denial.”

So, as we move beyond a month of Pride celebrations, let us not forget how the anti-LGBTQ agenda of conservative right wing groups has infiltrated the American public education system. Rather than emphasizing equality, open-mindedness, and human rights, intolerance and conservative interpretations of the Bible’s outlook on sexual orientation and gender roles are shaping the curricula and policies of public schools across the country.

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Exploiting the Fear of Exploitation: The Truth Behind the Right’s Resistance to Human Trafficking

Here in the United States, rainbow flags are being unfurled across the country in honor of LGBT Pride Month. Meanwhile, in Brazil, fans from around the world are eagerly waving the flags of their countries and favorite teams in anticipation of the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Beyond the flag-waving and weeks of revelry, there may seem to be few connections between the two events, but the U.S. Christian Right will be tracking the events in both San Francisco and Rio de Janeiro very closely.

image credit: http://www.pivotlegal.org/supreme_court_of_canada_will_hear_challenge_to_canada_s_prostitution_laws

image credit: http://www.pivotlegal.org/supreme_court_of_canada_will_hear_challenge_to_canada_s_prostitution_laws

As with many major sporting events, preparations for the World Cup have been accompanied by lots of media hype about the supposed surge in sex trafficking that plagues these gatherings. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has claimed that the Super Bowl (featuring the other football) is the single largest sex trafficking incident in the United States. At a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing about trafficking and sports events held on January 27, Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) cited a popular statistic from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, claiming that 10,000 prostitutes were transported to Miami for the 2010 Super Bowl.

Yet when questioned, researchers at the Center admit that they have no idea how Ernie Allen, the organization’s former president, derived the number. In fact, in a 2011 report examining the record on sex trafficking related to World Cup soccer games, the Olympics, and the Super Bowl, the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women found that “despite massive media attention, law enforcement measures and efforts by prostitution abolitionist groups, there is no empirical evidence that trafficking for prostitution increases around large sporting events.”

So what is the relationship between quests for athletic glory and hyperbolic increases in human trafficking? In short, the Christian Right has identified the fight against human trafficking as an un-opposable mission by which it can covertly promote restrictive ideologies pertaining to sexuality and bodily autonomy. While they purport to be nobly fighting the exploitation of young children and poor, defenseless women, Christian Right groups advance a surreptitious attack on some of the their favorite scapegoats: LGBTQ people – especially transgender women of color, who are disproportionately targeted by police and “anti-trafficking” efforts.

Consider Project ROSE, a “prostitution diversion” program jointly developed by 15 partner organizations, including the Phoenix Police Department, Arizona State University School of Social Work, and Catholic Charities (its primary funding source). During bi-annual stings, Project ROSE profiles and arrests suspected sex workers, forcing them into faith-based programs without due process or a conviction. Participants who don’t qualify (as was the case with Monica Jones) or refuse to participate in the program, are transferred directly into the criminal punishment system.

image credit: http://www.chethstudios.net/2010/06/fifa-world-cup-south-africa-2010.html

image credit: http://www.chethstudios.net/2010/06/fifa-world-cup-south-africa-2010.html

In a New York Times op-ed published earlier this year, Kate Mogulescu, the supervising attorney of a project at the Legal Aid Society that represents nearly all of the people arrested on prostitution charges in New York City, documented a massive increase in prostitution-related arrests in the lead-up to the 2014 Seattle/Denver Super Bowl showdown. But by the end of the weekend, not a single trafficker had been investigated or prosecuted. Ultimately, the anti-trafficking frenzy hurt the very people that advocates claimed to be protecting. Hundreds of sex workers–who are already vulnerable–found themselves facing jail time, potential deportation, warrants for failure to appear in court, and lifelong criminal records. As Mogulescu observes, “These arrests are not indications of an increase in prostitution activity, but rather of an increase in policing.”

Certainly, the abuse, manipulation, and exploitation of others is unacceptable in any context, and should be confronted and stopped. Yet conservative religious groups, lobbyists, and legislators have done little to curb the harmful elements of the sex trade. Rather, they use anti-trafficking policies to maintain a righteous “tough on crime” image while ignoring the broader systemic issues that put people at risk for exploitation in the first place. The Right’s focus on sex trafficking has far more to do with restricting individuals’ bodily autonomy—and maintaining the poverty-induced subservience of already marginalized people—than with ending the exploitation of vulnerable populations.

As feminist scholar and activist Emi Koyama observes, the youth sex trade is fueled by a variety of “push” and “pull” factors independent of religious morality or women’s empowerment, including poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia/transphobia, family violence, failure of the child welfare system, and the effects of incarceration and deportation on family cohesion. To be truly effective, efforts to combat sex trafficking and its associated human rights violations must be developed in partnership with sex workers and their allies. As Koyama points out, it is “workers organizing among themselves that [has] successfully challenged and transformed exploitative and abusive working conditions, not police officers or politicians.” (Or, I might add, the Christian Right.)

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The Making of God Loves Uganda: A Web Exclusive Interview with Roger Ross Williams

Roger Ross Williams is a television and film writer, director, and producer whose most recent project, the documentary God Loves Uganda, focuses on the work of American evangelical Christian missionaries in Africa. Williams decided to focus on Uganda after a bill that would make homosexuality punishable by death was debated in the country’s Parliament in 2009. His research for the project began with Globalizing the Culture Wars (2009), a report published by Political Research Associates (PRA) and written by PRA’s religion and sexuality researcher, Rev. Dr. Kapya Kaoma.
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