Roy Moore & Ron Paul: The Politics of Secession, Nullification, and Marriage Equality

Roy Moore, the elected Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court has been in the news lately for his efforts to block same sex marriage in the state—notwithstanding a federal judge’s ruling that Alabama’s anti-marriage equality law is unconstitutional.  Moore claims that federal courts, short of the U.S. Supreme Court, do not have the authority to interpret the Constitution against the laws and constitution of the state. Moore’s efforts are being discussed as nullification, and are even being compared to Gov. George Wallace’s attempt to prevent the integration of the Alabama public schools in the 1960s.

A slow motion showdown may be brewing over Moore’s notion of state sovereignty vs. the supremacy of federal law that extends beyond the matter at hand. Moore told Fox News Sunday that he does not recognize the authority of the federal courts regarding, among other things, marriage. If, as seems likely, the U.S. Supreme Court makes marriage equality the law of the land this term, he says he will “recuse” himself from matters involving same-sex marriage.  Contrary to some published reports, this does not mean he will defy the U.S. Supreme Court.  He knows that if he did so, he would be removed from the bench, just as he was a decade ago when he installed and refused to remove a monument to the Ten Commandments from the state courthouse in Montgomery – in defiance of a federal court order.  Moore is too wily to try that again.

Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore

Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore

At this writing, there is a lot of legal wrangling in both state and federal courts over the issuing of same-sex marriage licenses in Alabama.  Some counties are complying with the rulings and issuing licenses to couples, and some are not.

But looking beyond the current confusion, Moore has apparently decided to use his position to speak out about what he considers a creeping federal tyranny, while taking pains not to jeopardize his seat.

Taking a similar approach is Moore’s longtime ideological ally Michael Peroutka, (the one-time presidential candidate of the theocratic Constitution Party, and recently-elected Republican member of the Anne Arundel County ((Maryland)) Council).  When the Council voted on a resolution to seek federal funding for public school programs, all members (both Democrats and Republicans) voted in favor, except for Peroutka who abstained. The Capital Gazette reported, “Peroutka said he took issue with federal money being sent to local schools because the Constitution does not give the federal government the authority to “be involved in any education at all.”

“Federal programs are driving the agenda here in our local schools,” Peroutka said. “They’re driving the agenda with a lot of money.””

Michael Peroutka

Michael Peroutka

All of this may portend a struggle that will play out differently than one might think. The situation may be more complicated than just the country generally, and the conservative South in particular, reaching acceptance of marriage equality.

Groups and individuals involved in the wider movements of the Christian Right and contemporary libertarianism, on which PRA has reported over the past two years, have advocated varying degrees of nullification and secession; and have envisioned vary degrees of political tension, violence and civil war. Peroutka and Moore may lack the votes in their respective governmental institutions for nullification over marriage and other issues, but they can be voices for building a movement which could one day be capable of carrying it out.

It is not clear yet how organized or capable the movement is currently, but it is worth noting that former Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX)  spoke at a gathering in January at the Mises Institute, in Auburn, Alabama, called “Breaking Away: The Case for Secession”.

“I would like to start off,” Paul declared, “by talking about the subject and the subject is secession and, uh, nullification, the breaking up of government, and the good news is it’s gonna happen.  It’s happening,”

Meanwhile, judge Moore and Peroutka seem to be taking the long view—but others are not.  Among these is another longtime Peroutka friend and ally, Michael Hill, head of the theocratic and White supremacist Alabama-based League of the South.  Peroutka, as PRA reported last year, was a member of the board of directors of the League for several months in 2014, before quietly leaving, apparently in preparation for his run for office. His membership in the League was a major issue in the campaign. Peroutka said he resigned his membership but did not renounce the League itself. After Peroutka won the election, Hill celebrated his friend’s victory.

Hill has called for the formation of death squads to kill American government officials and journalists, and for White men of all ages to become “citizen soldiers” in a great modern defense of archaic notions of Christendom.  He has as gone so far as to organize a paramilitary group.

Hill sees himself and his comrades as part of a long line of such “citizen soldiers,” invoking historic battles with Islamic armies going back to the Battle of Tours in the 8th century. His role models for warriors for Christendom, however, are the White Westerners who fought against Black liberation movements in Southern Africa in the 1970s.

“So if Western men in past times were willing to fight for their civilization in remote areas of the world,” he asked, “shouldn’t we expect them to be just as willing to fight for that civilization here at its very heart – the South? … The traditions and truths of Western Christendom are anathema to the [Obama] regime,” he concluded. “The tyrants’ regime and Western Christendom cannot coexist—that is not possible. One must win and the other must disappear. It is indeed the ultimate Zero Sum game.”

Michael Hill is treating the federal judge’s overturning of the “Sanctity of Marriage” amendment to the Alabama state constitution as the last straw. While the League says it supports judge Moore’s effort to defend the state constitution against the alleged federal tyranny, Hill declared that he no longer considers himself an American and called for violent secession of the South from “the American monstrosity.”

Hill also joined theologian Peter Leithart of Birmingham and prominent Christian Right political organizer David Lane, in explicitly declaring his opposition to “Americanism.”

“Yes, many of our citizens have, wittingly or unwittingly, embraced Americanism for either survival or profit,” Hill declared. “I have not, and I intend to convince my fellow Southerners to join my side. I do not intend to leave Alabama or the South… I intend to fight, and if necessary kill and die, for their survival, well-being, and independence.”

A Moscow – Montgomery Axis?

As it happens, the League has been receiving encouragement from elements in Russia, particularly some who support Ukrainian separatists. He addressed, via Skype, a red/brown conference of anti-globalism activists, in Moscow in December 2014.  Hill told the conference that he sees American southern nationalism as an “historic ‘blood and soil’ movement” – an overt reference to 20th century ultra-German nationalism and Naziism.

Hill reports that he also emphasized the League’s “direct Southern nationalist challenge to the political, economic, and financial engine of globalism – the Washington, DC/European Union alliance.”

While the League has been networking with separatist movements around the world for a long time, the relationship with and support for pro-Russian, Ukrainian separatists has been growing.  On his Facebook page last year, Hill cast the situation as a battle between the “decadent West,” meaning the U.S. and the European Union (EU), and supposedly traditionalist Russia—which he described as “conservative, Orthodox, anti-Muslim and anti-PC.”

“We Southerners, as Christian traditionalists,” he concluded, “ought to sympathize with those in Ukraine who would object to closer ties with the USA-EU regimes simply because of what they now stand for: multiculturalism, tolerance, and diversity; anti-Christian policies from abortion to homosexuality; open borders and the demographic displacement of native Whites; an aggressive foreign policy, including war, in the name of spreading liberal democracy. On the other hand, Russia today stands against such things.”

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Know Your Neighbors Hits the Road

With a sweet woman named Rhonda at the wheel, our bus carefully merged onto the highway and headed south toward Colorado Springs. As the sun set behind the Rocky Mountains, Sweet Honey and the Rock’s rendition of “Ella’s Song” played over the speaker system, reminding us in gentle, insistent harmonies, “We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.”

We’d converged on Denver over the previous few days to attend the annual Creating Change Conference, hosted by the National LGBTQ Task Force. Creating Change is one of the premier national gatherings of LGBTQ organizers and activists, and attracts thousands of people from as far away as Uganda and China. While Colorado Springs is a notorious right-wing hub (a recent study ranked it as the fourth most conservative major city in the U.S.), Creating Change offers a safe haven for folks like us. Gender-neutral bathrooms are the norm, workshops topics range from grassroots fundraising to anti-racist organizing, and glitter is everywhere.

… But we who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes—even to Colorado Springs.

As the U.S. Right’s global impact on the lives of women, LGBTQ people, and people of color increases, the pressing question is: “What can we do?” Know Your Neighbors—a collaborative project between PRA and Soulforce—aims to respond.

Know Your Neighbors (KYNship) is dedicated to countering right-wing attacks with reliable analysis, educational programming, cross-issue collaboration, creative engagement of our adversaries, and direct action in order to expose and resist the true agendas of right-wing leaders, institutions, and ideologies, both domestically and internationally. Our goal is to challenge American culture war “exporters” with education and mobilization of social justice activists and organizations based in the same communities.

The Know Your Neighbors (KYNship) bus tour in Colorado Springs, February 2015

The Know Your Neighbors (KYNship) bus tour in Colorado Springs, February 2015

After months of planning and strategizing, the close proximity of this year’s Creating Change venue to Colorado Springs offered an exciting opportunity for KYNship to step into action.

… Because we who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.

So 27 of us—a cross-section of activists, progressive faith leaders, researchers, and educators—set out to learn, share, and connect, driven by a shared understanding that marriage equality in the U.S. does not equal freedom for all. Ongoing violence and persecution experienced by people of color and trans and gender-nonconforming people, the continued exploitation of poor and working class LGBTQ folks, and the erasure of disabled, femme, undocumented, indigenous, and young people in this movement demonstrate our shortcomings and the tremendous amount of work yet to be done.

While the onslaught of attacks on human and civil rights may come from any direction, the most robust opposition over the past few decades has emerged from the U.S. Right. Organizations like Focus on the Family—which made Colorado Springs its home in 1991—are at the forefront of this offensive, and their reach extends far beyond the city limits. Focus on the Family’s influence alone can be felt in over 150 countries around the world.

Bringing a bus full of social justice organizers and activists to its doorstep—including one of Uganda’s leading LGBTQ activists—was too good of an opportunity to pass up.

… Because we who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.

Over the span of four hours, KYNship took an inspiring group of Creating Change attendees (and Rhonda) on an educational tour of Colorado Springs. We explored the history, structure, mechanisms, and contemporary trends of the U.S. Right, highlighting its global impact on LGBTQ people, women, people of color, young people, and reproductive rights. We examined the intersections of these oppressions, the role of the U.S. Right in their perpetuation, and discussed effective strategies for resistance.

Upon returning to Denver, we exited the bus with new knowledge, deeper understanding, stronger analysis, and a new sense of community in our collective commitment to resisting the Right as part of our ongoing pursuit of justice and liberation for all people.

Indeed, we even forged kinship and community with our fearless driver, Rhonda.  Upon our return to the conference hotel, Rhonda approached the KYNship leadership team with a big smile. “I learned so much tonight! You know, my daughter… she’s gay too, and the folks you all were talking about—they make her life awfully hard sometimes. Thank you all so much for what you’re doing!”

This tour was both the beginning of a much bigger project to challenge U.S.-based culture warriors and the continuation of a long history of bold and brilliant resistance to right-wing oppression.

… Because we who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.

Creating Change is over now, and the group of us that came together for KYNship’s first project have all returned home. Each of our home communities contain their own networks of committed social justice organizers and activists—and their own elements of right-wing opposition. In some cases (like with Focus on the Family), the targets of our resistance are more obvious. But in many situations, key players in the global export of U.S. culture wars maintain a low profile here in the U.S., or present themselves as far more moderate than their international campaigns reveal them to be. Groups like the World Congress of Families in Rockford, Illinois and people like Sharon Slater in Gilbert, Arizona often fly under the radar of even the most well informed activists.

KYNship is eager to step into that gap, supporting local social justice activists in identifying key opposition leaders in their communities, understanding the local and global impact of their work, and strategizing principled and effective modes of confrontation and resistance. Please visit www.KYNship.org to learn more and get involved!

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U.S. Theologian Wants Martyrs Against America

Last year, I published an article in The Public Eye magazine in which I summarized a disturbing trend among some thinkers and leaders of the Christian Right—a vision of theocratic political resistance that includes violence and civil war. Some of them are concerned that they are losing on the issues of marriage equality and abortion, on which they claim the future of Christendom rests. These thinkers and leaders are considering their options, from varying degrees of accommodation and acceptance, to massive resistance and revolution.

What happens along this spectrum of response may define much of the history of our time. One of the words on which this history may hang is “martyr.” A discussion about its use by theocratic theologian Peter Leithart has broken out in the blogosphere. The low-profile Leithart may not have expected that people would take his prophetic call for martyrs so seriously.

Peter Liethart

Peter Liethart

 

The roots of the current brouhaha go back to July 3, 2013, when David Lane, a leading Christian Right political operative, published an essay titled “Wage War to Restore a Christian Nation.” His post (written on the far right news site World Net Daily), which was later scrubbed from the website, was a clarion call for contemporary religious war against the supposedly pagan government of the United States.

Lane’s apparent break with the gleaming vision of a theocratic America was remarkable because he is such a pivotal figure on the contemporary Christian Right. As Rachel Tabachnick recently reported here at Political Research Associates, Lane was the principal organizer of The Response, a prayer rally for political dominion and candidate training last month in Baton Rouge, Louisiana—headlined by Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal (R). Lane has been a key organizer of scores of Christian Right political development events, called Pastors Policy Briefings, over the past two decades. Lane has also been in the news recently as the organizer of a controversial trip to Israel for Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus and 60 members of the RNC.

Lane is fond of quoting from Birmingham, Alabama-based theologian Peter Leithart’s book Between Babel and Beast, especially Leithart’s views on the need for Christian martyrs to confront what he calls the heresy of Americanism. And that is what he did in his unsuccessfully hidden op-ed:

“American Christianity has not done a good job of producing martyrs… Christians must risk martyrdom and force Babel to the crux where it has to decide either to acknowledge Jesus an imperator and the church as God’s imperium or to begin drinking holy blood.”

But when writer Bruce Wilson recently attributed Leithart’s words to Lane at the Huffington Post, Leithart took to the blog at First Things (founded by neoconservative Catholic priest John Richard Neuhaus)—apparently to create a diversion in the form of correcting the record.

When Christians are faithful witnesses,” Leithart explained, “they are an irritant to the powers that be. And the powers that be want them out of the way.”

If they can get Christians to get out of the way on their own with articles like Wilson’s, so much the better,” he declared suggesting complicity between Wilson and the mysterious, unnamed “they.”

If they can’t, sterner measures might be necessary,” Leithart darkly continued. “This isn’t imaginary. It’s the history of early Christianity in its relation to the Roman Empire. It’s the history of dozens of countries in the present day.”

The idea that writer Bruce Wilson is a tool of a creeping; Christianity-persecuting cabal is just conspiracy theory. And of course, Leithart presents no evidence for the insinuation on which his conspiracy theory relies.

In any case, Leithart claims that the quotation at issue “has made the rounds in the feverish backwaters of leftist watchdog groups, with their nightmares about a theocratic takeover of the federal government. Every time it’s quoted, the implication is that I’m advocating violence. People see the word “martyr” and think “suicide bomber.” 

He cites no one, including Wilson, who says that Leithart is advocating violence. The problem is not with the unnamed groups and individuals who accurately quote Leithart’s words. The problem lies with Leithart’s words and the ideas that they express. Let’s consider them.

Leithart can quibble about unnamed people misunderstanding the word “martyr” but he can’t hide the obviously violent and theocratic implications behind his use of the Latin words imperator and imperium in this context. He says that Christians must compel the rest of society to acknowledge Jesus as a contemporary analog of the Roman imperial government, and his particular totalist view of God and his church—or else.

Leithart doesn’t acknowledge it, but he also addressed the matter of martyrdom at First Things (which calls itself America’s most influential journal of religion and public life”) in 2013. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s Windsor decision, which struck down key portions of the Defense of Marriage Act, Leithart saw battle lines being drawn between conservative notions of Christianity and the emerging culture and law of the United States. He and others reject this emerging version of America.

In Greek, martyria means ‘witness,’ specifically, witness in a court,” he wrote. “At the very least, the decision challenges American Christians to continue to teach Christian sexual ethics without compromise or apology.”

The only America that actually exists,” he continued, “is one in which ‘marriage’ includes same-sex couples and women have a Constitutional right to kill their babies. To be faithful, Christian witness must be witness against America.”

Leithart’s make-or-break vision would either end what he describes as anti-Christian tyranny or, failing that, build a new Christian nation—or nations and new notions of the definition of Christendom. His call for martyrs to provoke society to the point of violence—or accept a theocratic imperium—is exactly the kind of demagogic threat that people are concerned about.

Leithart now insists that his notion of Christian martyrdom is to be carried out “peaceably”—by proclaiming “the truth about the unborn and the truth about marriage, regardless of what the Supreme Court has said or will say in the next few months.”

Martyrdom doesn’t involve killing,” he insists. “It’s jolly defiance, ready to be slandered, insulted, beaten, killed for the one who died for me.”

The degree and manner of civil disobedience envisioned by various elements of the Christian Right remains to be seen. There are clear tensions between those who can apparently live with the social changes taking place in the country and those who can’t. There are also those who see the so-called culture war as not about single issues, but about the survival their particular vision of Christendom itself, and whether or not their kind of Christians are willing to fight for it.

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

Click here for the full issue.

Click here for the full issue.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whose interests are served?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“School choices” or opportunities for profit

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

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

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

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

School choice’s segregationist roots

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

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

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

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

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

Williams’ “unholy alliance”

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

What Are Tuition Tax Credit Programs?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The alienation of Polly Williams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The bad news about “choice”

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

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

Monetizing Charter Schools

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The “New Civil Rights” brand

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

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

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

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

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

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

Current Trends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Endnotes

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

 

Tuition Tax Credits

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

 

Monetizing Charters

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

The Response: A Christian Right Rally for Dominion

The Christian Right hopes that the mass prayer rally tomorrow, January 24, at Louisiana State University will be one of the largest in recent history.  Organizers are also seeking a thousand clergy willing to be trained to run as Christian Right candidates for office at all levels of government—the controversy when the event was announced last December (when they included claims that natural disasters are the result of abortion and support for marriage equality) notwithstanding.

The event, known as The Response, will be hosted by Governor Bobby Jindal (R-LA) and is a follow-up to the large prayer rally in 2011—also called The Response—that served as the de facto launch of the presidential campaign of Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX).  Some 30,000 people turned out for the 2011 event, which was unprecedented in the history of American politics.

But whether or not the organizers are able to meet the expectations and the high bar set in 2011—the numbers will not tell the whole story.

Organizers of the Jan 24, 2015 "The Response" in Baton Rouge, LA, hope to beat the turnout of the 2011 "The Response" in Houston, TX

“The Response” in Houston, TX in 2011

The Response in 2011 was largely organized by top leaders of the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR), a movement that has evolved from historic Pentecostal and Charismatic evangelicalism. Many of the NAR leaders are open about seeking cultural and political dominion over the rest of society, as Rachel Tabachnick detailed in her groundbreaking study in The Public Eye.

NAR leaders were prominently involved in organizing the event, notably Alice Patterson, Doug Stringer, and Jim Garlow, who headed the campaign for the anti-marriage equality Proposition Eight in California.  Numerous NAR leaders played roles or were prominently present at the event, including Samuel Rodriguez of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference and NAR’s central figure, C. Peter Wagner.  Doug Stringer is said to be the principal organizer for this year’s The Response in Baton Rouge.

The Christian Right had hoped to rally around one candidate for the GOP nomination—and Rick Perry was their great, White, hope—and The Response was a way to give their blessing without actually formally endorsing the candidate.  The honorary co-chairs of The Response included Focus on the Family founders James and Shirley Dobson, The Urban Alternative president Tony Evans, the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission president Richard Land,  Concerned Women for America CEO Penny Nance, Family Research Council president Tony Perkins, and National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference president Samuel Rodriguez.

But like the best laid plans of mice and men, Perry’s 2012 presidential campaign faltered, even with the help of several smaller events which were also organized under the rubric of The Response in key states.  The Christian Right did not manage to find a plausible candidate against the eventual nominee, Mitt Romney.

A lot of the same organizations and money behind the 2011 event is also involved in this year’s event, notably from the American Family Association and United In Purpose/Champion the Vote.  These groups guided by political operative David Lane, and have been organizing state level events called Pastors Policy Briefings for years, particularly in Iowa, South Carolina, and Florida, early states on the Republican presidential nomination calendar.  The Pastor Policy Briefings are all-expense-paid events for clergy and their spouses, intended to ground conservative clergy in the dominionist worldview of the organizers, and to showcase candidates who are likely to appeal to the Christian Right.

Training Theocratic Candidates in the Name of Liberty

This time, although Gov. Jindal is the host and keynote speaker, the event seems to be more about movement-building than about propelling the ambitions of a single potential candidate.  At the end of 2014, Jindal sent a letter to a reported 100,000 pastors (presumably gleaned from the Pastor Policy Briefings) with the aim of getting a thousand of them to come to Baton Rouge the day before and attend something called The Issachar Training to prepare to run for office. Jindal claimed that the Lord has a role for them to play “in protecting Religious Liberty in our nation.” He also said this can be achieved by clergy engaging “in the public square with Biblical values… to reset the course of American governance,” and thereby bring “America back to God.”

The Issachar Training and The Response, while technically unrelated, are both funded by the American Renewal Project of the AFA, led by Lane.

“The thought that came to me,” Lane told the Christian Examiner, “if the Lord called 1,000 pastors to run for an elective office, and each of them had an average of 300 volunteers, that would be 300,000 grass root, precinct-level, evangelical conservatives coming from the ground up, engaged in the political process. It would change America!”

“Nobody’s confused that politicians are going to save America,” Lane continued. “These engaged evangelicals would be voting for their biblically-based conservative values.”

Same Event, Different Year

Contrary to some reports, this year’s event is not just “similar” to the 2011. In addition to the sponsoring organizations and organizers being the same, so are the details.

“Isn’t just like The Response — it is The Response,” said PRA fellow Rachel Tabachnick, who wrote about The Response in 2011.  “They are using the same web site and many of the video endorsements from 2011—including one by Samuel Rodriguez.”

“They also didn’t bother to update their prayer guide from 2011,” she added.

Indeed, the prayer guide became a national controversy soon after the December announcement of the Baton Rouge rally, because it suggested that natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina were God’s punishment for legal abortion and growing support for marriage equality in the United States.  In order to avoid worse and more, they claimed, repentance is necessary.  The prayer guide was quickly scrubbed from The Response web site — but not before the contents had been documented and exposed:

“We have watched sin escalate to a proportion the nation has never seen before.  We live in the first generation in which the wholesale murder of infants through abortion is not only accepted but protected by law. Homosexuality has been embraced as an alternative lifestyle.  Same-sex marriage is legal in six states and Washington, D.C.  Pornography is available on-demand through the internet. Biblical signs of apostasy are before our very eyes.  While the United States still claims to be a nation ‘under God’ it is obvious that we have greatly strayed from our foundations in Christianity.

“This year we have seen a dramatic increase in tornadoes that have taken the lives of many and crippled entire cities, such as Tuscaloosa, AL & Joplin, MO.  And let us not forget that we are only six years from the tragic events of hurricane Katrina, which rendered the entire Gulf Coast powerless.”

Although The Response pulled back the controversial rhetoric, there is no indication that they have in any substantive way changed their views—any more than the candidates they train are likely to hold views much different than these.  The idea of taking cultural and political dominion in order to save America from God’s wrath is not new, and whether David Lane et al succeed in getting a thousand pastors to abandon their pulpits to become politicians remains to be seen.  But the determination of the Christian Right to develop and sustain a theocratic electoral capacity seems undiminished.

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Natural Deception: Conned By the World Congress of Families

Click here for the full issue.

Click here for the full issue.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ORIGINS AND AGENDA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

USING THE U.N.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FEAR OF A DARKER PLANET: FROM NATIVISM TO NATALISM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE AFRICAN CAMPAIGN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BRINGING THE FIGHT BACK HOME

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Footnotes

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s take a look at some recent examples.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Taking Religious Freedom Day Astray

 

Religious Freedom Day may be the most significant national day that most of us have never heard of. It has been celebrated annually, mostly via presidential proclamation, since 1993, and commemorates a foundational moment in the history of religious freedom.

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

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

 

Considering how central religious freedom is to the Christian Right’s framing of issues ranging from abortion and contraception, to LGBTQ rights, and increasingly even labor concerns, it is seems strange that there is no massive effort on the Right hijack the day for their own purposes. With only a few minor exceptions, they have not. But there is one group worth noting, that generates attention disproportionate to the scale of its activities.

First, a little background.

Religious Freedom Day commemorates the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom—written by Thomas Jefferson in 1777, and campaigned into law by James Madison in 1786. The bill is widely regarded as the taproot of how the founders sought to reconcile the relationship between religion and government, and epitomizes how these towering figures of American constitutional history understood religious freedom. And that makes it a problem for the Religious Right, because the bill can in no way be construed as an excuse to discriminate against anyone, or to exempt anyone from adherence to the law of the land.

I recently wrote that the Christian Right really does not want us to think about Religious Freedom Day—mostly because the Virginia Statue and the history surrounding it does not support their revisionist narrative of history, nor their contemporary religious and political agenda.

Not even close.

The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (PDF) not only disestablished the Anglican Church as the official state church, but it provided that no one can be compelled to attend any religious institution or to underwrite it with taxes; that individuals are free to believe as they will and that this “shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.” The short of it is that religious equality was the basis for how the founders thought about the relationship between religion and government, when they authored and ratified the Constitution, and later, the First Amendment. Religious freedom was intended for individuals to be free from coercion by government and powerful religious institutions.

All which brings us to ReligiousFreedomDay.com, which comes up first in a Google search for Religious Freedom Day. The group behind it is a small California evangelical Christian Right agency called Gateways to Better Education, headed by longtime activist, Eric Buehrer. This group is part of a wider movement with a long history of efforts to hijack, or compromise, public schools in order to promote its religious views and to evangelize children. (This is detailed in The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children, by Katherine Stewart.)

Gateways is unambiguous about its intentions:

“Gateways to Better Education is a nonprofit organization founded in 1991 to help public schools teach about the important contribution the Bible and Christianity make to the world.”

 

They insist that “Religious Freedom Day is not ‘celebrate-our-diversity day.'”

All this might seem like a small thing from a small organization. But Gateways enjoys an outsized significance not only because they turn up at the top of Google searches for Religious Freedom Day. They often enjoy boosts from allied national Christian Right organizations. This year, for example, Citizen Link, the political arm of Focus on the Family has taken-up their cause.

Gateways, founded in 1991, teamed up with the Christian Right legal group, Alliance Defending Freedom (and other Christian Right groups) in 2009 for this project. (Uncoincidentally, 2009 was also the year that top Christian Right and evangelical leaders teamed up with scores of Catholic bishops and top neoconservatives to make religious freedom a core of their common agenda, via The Manhattan Declaration.)

Gateways claims to promote an approach that is legal and constitutional for educators, but those who have taken a closer look are not so sure.

Rob Boston at Americans United for Separation of Church and State reported that their initiative was misleading. The then-new Gateways pamphlet “”Free to Speak,” for example, claimed that “students have an unqualified right to include religious material in their class work and homework,” Boston reported. “The reality is different.”

Indeed, Gateways’ is not merely interested in protecting free expression, but opportunistically turning children into evangelical agents and generating conflicts in the classroom that end up in court.

Boston also reported that Religious Right legal groups had been unsuccessful in their efforts to intervene on behalf of kids who inserted religious content into their work “and either received a poor grade or were told to knock it off.” The resulting consensus, Boston says was, “Teachers and school officials have the right to curb students who wish to use classroom assignments for proselytism. The federal courts tend to defer to teachers in this area; judges really don’t want to grade little Johnny’s homework.”

Gateways and their allies added Religious Freedom Sunday to the program in 2010. The idea was to get churches to promote their religious expression campaign on the Sunday before Religious Freedom Day. (This year Religious Freedom Sunday is January 11th, prior to the official Religious Freedom Day on the 16th) . But Boston once again looked askance at the group’s motives and methods.

Gateways, he says, “is notorious for its unsolicited advice to public schools. The group plays fast and loose with the facts, advising teachers on ways to slip fundamentalist Christianity into the lesson plans. My favorite was a Gateways pamphlet a few years ago featuring a talking Easter Bunny who comes to a public school to advise a teacher on how she can teach kids about the resurrection of Jesus.” (Fortunately, educators, parents, and churches do not need to look to Gateways or the Alliance Defending Freedom for guidance in how to navigate religion and the public schools. Americans United for Separation of Church and State has a free book. Religion in the Public Schools: A Road Map for Avoiding Lawsuits and Respecting Parents’ Legal Rights)

Over the years, Religious Freedom Day has not generated much attention. But times have changed. Religious freedom as a concept is generating more interest today than at perhaps any time since the founding generation. Because this is so it is possible that Gateways and their friends on the Religious Right may this year succeed in generating some distractions from the real meaning of Religious Freedom Day. It is also possible that others of us may also begin to speak out and be heard.

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Seize the Day! (Well, what if we did?)

I recently wrote that the Christian Right does not want us to think about Religious Freedom Day, which commemorates the enactment of Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom in 1786. The bill is widely regarded as the taproot of how the founding generation sought to reconcile the relationship between religion and government.

The enactment of the bill has been celebrated annually, mostly via presidential proclamation, since 1993.

And when I say that the Christian Right does not want “us” to think about it, I mean everyone who is not the Christian Right and their allies, and especially not LGBTQ people and the otherwise “insufficiently Christian.”  I think that is why the Christian Right is mostly so eerily quiet about it, even though religious freedom is so central to their political program.

But what if we did?

What if we seized this day to think dynamically about the religious freedoms we take for granted at our peril; freedom that is in danger of being redefined beyond recognition.  What if we decided to seize this day to consider our best values as a nation and advance the cause of equal rights for all?

If we did, we might begin by recalling the extraordinary challenge faced by the framers of the Constitution when they gathered in Philadelphia. They met to create one nation out of 13 fractious colonies still finding their way after a successful revolt against the British Empire; and contending with a number of powerful and well-established state churches and a growing and religiously diverse population.

Their answer?   Religious equality.  And it is rooted in Jefferson’s bill.

Jefferson wrote the first draft in 1777 — just after having authored the Declaration of Independence in 1776.  And it was James Madison who finally got the legislation passed through the Virginia legislature in 1786, just months before he traveled to Philadelphia to be a principal author of the Constitution.  The Virginia Statute states that no one can be compelled to attend or support any religious institution, or otherwise be restrained in their beliefs, and that this “shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities . . .”

The Constitution, framed according to “The Virginia Plan,” drafted primarily by Madison, contains no mention of God or Christianity.  In fact, the final text’s only mention of religion is in the proscription of “religious tests for public office,” found in Article 6.

In other words — Jefferson’s words— one’s religious identity, or lack thereof, has no bearing on one’s “civil capacities.”

If we thought about the meaning of Religious Freedom Day, we might start thinking about things like that — and not capitulate to the Christian Right’s effort to redefine religious freedom to include a license for business and institutional leaders (both government and civil) to impose their religious beliefs on employees and the public.

If we thought about things like that, then we might consider them in light of a host of initiatives in recent years, often advanced under the banner of religious freedom, but which, in fact, restrict the religious freedom of others.

We might consider, for example, the recent federal court decision in the case of General Synod of the United Church of Christ v. Cooper, which found that North Carolina’s ban on clergy performing marriage ceremonies without first obtaining a civil marriage license, was unconstitutional.

Since state law declared that same-sex couples could not get marriage licenses, this subjected clergy in the United Church of Christ, the Alliance of Baptists, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, among others, to potential prosecution for performing a religious ceremony.

As religious equality advances, so does equal rights for all. So you can see why the Christian Right might not want people—people like us—thinking like Jefferson. And that is why we must.

Religious Freedom Day was the brainchild of some of the town fathers and mothers of Richmond, Virginia, who have since created a museum dedicated to education about the Virginia Statute (PDF).

But we need more than a museum to breathe more life and liberty into the living Constitution.  Not much goes on around the country on Religious Freedom Day. There is no time like the present to seize this day.