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

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 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

PE cover Winter 2015From 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 article appears in PRA’s upcoming 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.

THE POLITICS OF ANTI-GAY PERSECUTION

GAMBIA, EGYPT, JAMAICA, RUSSIA, WITH A HELPING HAND FROM US RELIGIOUS CONSERVATIVES; GLOBAL LGBT RECAP

The following is reprinted with permission from Religion Dispatches. Follow RD on Facebook or Twitter for daily updates.

Human Rights Day was celebrated this week, on December 10.  Michael Adee celebrated with a post about the International Consultation on the Church and Homophobia, which was held in Jakarta, Indonesia in November.

Inspired by the theme, I John 4: 18 “Perfect Love Casts Out Fear,” the conference offered an introduction to LGBT issues in the context of God’s call to accept and love all persons including those with different sexual orientations and gender identities. Human dignity, human rights and LGBT equality were central to every conversation, presentation and worship service.

Sixty participants from Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Philippines, Jamaica, Angola, Togo, Sweden, Germany, England and the United States attended the conference.

Human-Rights-Day]

Religious conservatives in the US and abroad have labeled American efforts to promote LGBT human rights overseas as imperialism. But activists at a conference coinciding with the third anniversary of a memorandum from President Obama charging US foreign policy agencies to promote LGBT rights said that US efforts have been important to activists promoting equality and facing persecution around the world. Read the Washington Blade’s report here.

On Wednesday, the Daily Beast hosted an event called Quorum: Global LGBT Voices that featured interviews with more than 25 activists from around the world to talk about “what is happening on the front lines of the global fight for equality.” Talks and panel discussions will the broadcast in the coming months. RD contributor Jay Michaelson profiled one of the participants, Cameroonian human rights attorney Alice N’kom.

The International Olympic Committee unanimously voted to add language opposing discrimination on sexual orientation to the Olympic Charter.

Vatican: Pope says Church should help parents ‘stand by’ their gay children

Pope Francis gave an interview with the Argentine daily La Nación in which he reflected on the recent synod of bishops. From the International Business Times:

“We come across this reality all the time in the confessional: a father and a mother whose son or daughter is in that situation. This happened to me several times in Buenos Aires…. We have to find a way to help that father or that mother to stand by their son or daughter,” he said in a wide-ranging interview with the Argentine daily La Nación. While it is important to find ways to welcome gay Catholics, gay marriage is still not on the church’s agenda, Francis said.”

Jamaica: More US conservatives back anti-gay organizing

As we have reported before, American religious conservatives have been actively opposing efforts to decriminalize homosexuality in Jamaica. Last weekend, Liberty Counsel chair Mat Staver and anti-gay author Judith Reisman were the latest to attend an anti-gay event that, in Orwellian fashion, was called the International Human Rights Conference. The conference was hosted by the Jamaica Coalition for a Health Society. Miranda Blue at Right Wing Watch reports:

The groups organizing the conference have opposed efforts to overturn the country’s anti-sodomy laws, which impose up to 10 years imprisonment for gay sex. Jamaica CAUSE, a cosponsor, organized rallies earlier this year to oppose an effort to overturn the law. The main sponsor, Jamaica Coalition for a Healthy Society, also supports keeping the laws. On its website, JCHS provides a document called “Frequently Asked Questions About The Buggery Law” that attributes homosexuality to “economic reasons, direct Satanic influence, media and entertainment enticement, and experiences during incarceration” and cautions, “If determining human rights is separated from morality and based on individual freedom without any restraints, all perversions will in due time become ‘rights’.”

The Washington Blade reports:

The Jamaica Coalition for a Healthy Society, the Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship and Jamaica CAUSE are also organizing a rally at a Kingston park on Dec. 10 that will coincide with International Human Rights Day. They describe the event as “an evening of song, dance and poetry celebrating God the giver of perfect law and rights.”

Recently, Grace Phelps-Roper, a former member of the notoriously anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church and a granddaughter of its founder, traveled to Jamaica with the group Planting Peace, reports Metro Weekly, “to learn about the plight of LGBT people there.”

“I spent twenty years learning why God hates gays, preaching that they’re ‘beasts’ and ‘depraved,’ and protesting anyone who dared to speak up for them,” Phelps stated. “When I heard about the young people living in Jamaican sewers because their parents kicked them out for being gay, my heart hurt for them. I know what that’s like, being rejected by your family for not going along with their beliefs. There’s an irony there that I couldn’t ignore: that I share a fate with the very people I was taught to dehumanize so fiercely. I wanted to meet them, to see their plight for myself, and help tell the world their story.”

An Anglican priest who invited LGBT people to attend his service in commemoration of Human Rights Day, and washed the feet of two lesbians, is reportedly facing some backlash from his congregation and “questions” from the Jamaica Council of Churches.

Gambia: President whips up anti-gay sentiment with public rally

Gambian political leaders stepped up their ongoing campaign against LGBT people this week. President Jammeh was among thousands of Gambians who took part in a march to denounce homosexuality. Marchers also criticized attempts by donor nations to promote LGBT rights. From a report in the Daily Observer in Banjul:

Protesters, who started the procession at the National Assembly through State House carried placards and banners bearing; “Homosexuality is Inhuman”; “Even cows don’t do it!” “Homosexuality is forbidden in Islam”. It was calculated move by the demonstrators in a way to show to Gambian development partners and the rest of the world that the West African nation is one of God-fearing people who will under no circumstances accept homosexuality, lesbianism and the likes.

At the July 22nd Square in Banjul where demonstrators gathered to mark the end of the procession, a petition against homosexualism was read on behalf of protesters by the permanent secretary at the Ministry of Lands and Regional Government, Saihou Sanyang.

It reads: “Your Excellency Mr. President, it is important to contextualise such a lofty statesmanship within the overall provisions of the Constitution of the Republic of The Gambia 1997. This, in clear terms and provisions has stipulated that The Gambia is an independent sovereign state on equal status with all other nations irrespective of geographic size, economic or political might or wherewithal.

It is on the basis of principles of the equality, self-determination, and mutual co-existence that our foreign policies, which are but extensions of our domestic policies, are based. It is important to state that the spirit of the Constitution irrespective of its legalistic architecture in both its totality and otherwise is not the voice of the philosophical, religious, ethical, moral, and social values. As a country of religious people who live by the dictate of Allah as commanded in the religious preachings and their protractors, the stance on the principle of secularity in no way admits or accepts the principle to immoralities.

“Your Excellency Mr. President, it goes without saying that our intolerance with the unnatural and abominable malpractices of homosexuality and lesbianism on the one hand, and the other, our government’s position are not negotiable. It is on the basis of such religious, social, moral and ethical upbringing built on high moral grounds that we stand by our government’s position to zero tolerance to either homosexuality or lesbianism or both. There shall not be any turning point and that the people are ready for eventuals in good defence of the people and country’s independence”.

Russia: ‘Pro-Family’ allies promote Putin’s geopolitical agenda

BuzzFeed reported this week that, according to leaked emails between right-wing activists, “Russian nationalists and social conservatives appear to be working together to use links with ‘pro-family’ organizations in the U.S. and around the world to promote Russia’s geopolitical agenda.” The leaked emails include documents related to the “pro-family” summit held in Moscow in September which American religious conservatives helped organize and participated in.

The spreadsheet shows confirmed attendance at the conference “gala” from government officials, religious leaders, and activists from around 50 countries. These include France’s Aymeric Chauprade — a member of the European Parliament from the far-right Front National party — the Hungarian Minister of State for Family Affairs Katalin Veresné Novák, and Kyrgyzstan’s First Lady, Raisa Atambaeva. The guest list notes that several members of parliament from European countries had been “recommended” for the event by Russian MP Yelena Mizulina, author of the so-called “gay propaganda” law. Nineteen are identified as coming from the United States — including the National Organization of Marriage’s Brian Brown — most of whom were “recommended” by the World Congress of Families….

Russians invited include Igor Shchegolev – a senior aide to Putin – and Father Tikhon, an Orthodox monk said to be Putin’s confessor, but the list including their names does not indicate whether they accepted the invitation.

Chile: Marriage equality bill introduced

The Washington Blade’s Michael Lavers reports that lawmakers in Chile introduced a bill to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples.

“With this bill we are looking to eradicate the historic discrimination that affects people simply for loving and living with someone of the same sex,” said the Movement for Homosexual Integration and Liberation in its press release. “Respect for family diversity is at the heart of this bill that we celebrate with backing throughout the political world and also with the broad support of citizen organizations.”

The same-sex marriage bill’s introduction comes against the backdrop of the ongoing debate on a separate measure that would allow gays and lesbians to enter into civil unions.

Egypt: Anti-gay persecution cheered on by tabloid TV

We have been reporting on Egyptian officials using anti-gay persecution as political distraction and a way to mollify Islamist factions. Morals police reportedly arrested men at a Cairo bathhouse on Sunday and accused them of “perversions.” A reporter for a pro-regime TV channel that instigated the raid gloated over the arrest and posted photographs of the men on Facebook. At the Guardian, Brian Whitaker examines the ways Egyptian governments have made political use out of anti-gay persecution, “even though homosexuality is not actually illegal in Egypt.” He recounts the Mubarak regime’s use of sensational trials as a diversion from economic and political problems and concludes, “It seems very likely that the crackdown under President al-Sisi is occurring for similar reasons: to distract attention from bigger issues, to show that while suppressing the Muslim Brotherhood the regime is still capable of playing the ‘morality’ card, or a combination of both.”

United Kingdom: Activists resist deportation of Ugandan lesbian

Activists in the UK continue to press the case of a lesbian seeking asylum in the country who won a last-minute, but possibly temporary, reprieve from deportation to Uganda this week. She told PinkNews that she would rather die in a British detention center than be returned to Uganda. “Campaigners say Ms Twikireze was forced to undergo ‘a torturous exorcism’ ritual in Uganda as a young child in a bid to ‘cure’ her from being gay.”

A Catholic monk who is the director of a Scotland-based charity was arrested for distributing anti-gay leaflets in Cambridge.

Japan: Zen Buddhist temple offers same-sex couples symbolic wedding ceremonies

Japan does not legally recognize marriage by same-sex couples, but a Zen Buddhist temple in Kyoto offers symbolic ceremonies. The Advocate notes that the temple’s website includes this statement:

“Shunkoin Temple is against any forms of ‘Human Rights Violations’ in the world. No religion teaches how to hate others. Religion teaches how to love and respect others.”

Scotland: Episcopal Church warns priests away from soon-to-be-legal marriages

The Scottish Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops warned its clergy that even though same-sex couples will be able to legally marry on December 31, the church does not permit clergy to perform or enter into a same-sex marriage.

South Korea: Protesters occupy city hall after nondiscrimination charter dropped

LGBT protesters occupied City Hall in Seoul this week after the government dropped plans to enact a human rights charter that would have banned anti-gay discrimination. According to Pink News, the charter was to have been enacted on Human Rights Day – December 10 – but “after it picked up flack from church groups and conservatives, the planned charter was postponed indefinitely.”

New Zealand: first gay judge on high court

Matthew Muir has become the first openly gay member of the country’s highest court.

Australia: Gay man becomes chief minister of capital territory

Andrew Barr was appointed Chief Minister of the Australian Capital Territory, making him the country’s first openly gay government leader.

PRA addition:

United Nations Panel Speaks on African LGBTQ People

Rev. Dr. Kapya Kaoma, senior religion and sexuality researcher at Political Research Associates, spoke on a panel at the United Nations about the struggle of the African LGBTQ community. Video of the panel is available here.

Defending the “traditional family” has come to mean demonizing sexual minorities. Not long ago, people who looked like me were considered less human, and millions were exported as natural goods across the world. But the people of good conscience stood up, and forced the world to demand justice for the entire human family and not just for the chosen few. Love is a human and family value, it ought not to be a crime—it is an intrinsic value inherent in each one of us. To deny others the ability to love and to be loved is to rob them of their humanity. It is to force them into hating themselves as well as life denying situations and ultimately sentencing them to death!

We all have the duty to defend the family! Like the rainbow, our human family has always being diverse! Persecution, rejection and demonization of LGBTQ persons weaken the family—it doesn’t protect or strengthen it. We are one human family—black, white, Latinos, yellow,  straight, gay, bisexual, lesbian, and transgender—we all have a special place in the human family.

It is this family value we must all defend and protect! It is not long ago that Jews and Tutsis were robbed of their place in the human family! The result is genocide. Is it not time we stood together and said, enough is enough—one more life is too much?

Sexual minorities are not pleading for sympathy, special rights or benefits—they are just taking their own place at the family table. They want the ability to live, love and to be loved without fear of persecution! It is this family value that we must all protect, defend and uphold—for love is a family value worth defending and in the case of many African sexual minorities, worth dying for!

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Kapya Kaoma Speaks at United Nations About LGBTQ Africans’ Struggle

On last week’s Human Rights Day (Dec 10), PRA’s senior religion and sexuality researcher Rev. Dr. Kapya Kaoma spoke on a panel at the United Nations about LGBTQ and intersex people’s experience of family and the role of the family in the fight for equality.

Below are an excerpt of his remarks, and full video of the “Love is a family value: Supporting all families and family members” panel.

Defending the “traditional family” has come to mean demonizing sexual minorities. Not long ago, people who looked like me were considered less human, and millions were exported as natural goods across the world. But the people of good conscience stood up, and forced the world to demand justice for the entire human family and not just for the chosen few. Love is a human and family value, it ought not to be a crime—it is an intrinsic value inherent in each one of us. To deny others the ability to love and to be loved is to rob them of their humanity. It is to force them into hating themselves as well as life denying situations and ultimately sentencing them to death!

PRA senior religion and sexuality researcher Rev. Dr. Kapya Kaoma

PRA senior religion and sexuality researcher Rev. Dr. Kapya Kaoma

We all have the duty to defend the family! Like the rainbow, our human family has always being diverse! Persecution, rejection and demonization of LGBTQ persons weaken the family—it doesn’t protect or strengthen it. We are one human family—black, white, Latinos, yellow,  straight, gay, bisexual, lesbian, and transgender—we all have a special place in the human family.

It is this family value we must all defend and protect! It is not long ago that Jews and Tutsis were robbed of their place in the human family! The result is genocide. Is it not time we stood together and said, enough is enough—one more life is too much?

Sexual minorities are not pleading for sympathy, special rights or benefits—they are just taking their own place at the family table. They want the ability to live, love and to be loved without fear of persecution! It is this family value that we must all protect, defend and uphold—for love is a family value worth defending and in the case of many African sexual minorities, worth dying for!

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Old Time Revisionism—Southern Baptists Seek to Redefine Separation of Church and State

A conference at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington, DC a few months ago provided a platform to launch a trial balloon for revising the Christian Right’s contentious and often bizarre approach to separation of church and state. Russell Moore, head of the powerful Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), told participant at AEI’s first Evangelical Leadership Summit that they need to “reclaim” the phrase “separation of church and state,” a term he admitted that “we long ago tossed overboard.”

This is a development worth exploring in some detail.

Russell Moore,

Russell Moore, head of SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission

The Baptist Press reported that Moore declared that separation of church and state “does not mean secularization.” Rather, “It means that the state is limited and does not have lordship over the conscience …” It’s a variation on the old Manichean framing, pitting religion vs. the secular—as if they were mutually exclusive ideas.

Historically, the separation of church and state has been considered to be a necessary prerequisite for the true meaning of religious liberty. The Framers of the Constitution recognized that creating a new nation would require finding a way for people of all faiths (as well as those with no faith) to live in peace and be treated as equals. (Given the history of religious warfare, bigotry, and persecution, that was a tall order, and we are clearly still working on it.)

The secular state does not mean a place where there are no religious people, nor is it opposed to religion generally or to any particular religion, and it is certainly not seeking “lordship” over anyone’s consciences. Rather, the secular state is intended to be neutral in matters of religion—allowing every citizen the freedom to choose for themselves what they will or will not believe in.

And this is where Moore’s argument gets even more slippery.

Moore’s SBC, in alliance with the Roman Catholic bishops, and bodies of conservative evangelicalism, are seeking to craft zones of exemption from reasonable public policies, as we saw in the Hobby Lobby case, and in the introduction of Religious Freedom Restoration Acts (crafted in part by the Alliance Defending Freedom, or ADF) in the states, which seek to limit the scope of LGBTQ civil rights, especially marriage equality.

Historically, religious liberty (or religious freedom) and separation of church and state are about the guarantee of the right of individual conscience, against the excesses of both the state and powerful religious institutions.

Thus it is important to note that what the SBC and the wider Christian Right has “tossed overboard”, is actually the traditional Baptist understanding of the term. Before it departed in the wake of the fundamentalist takeover of the denomination, the SBC was a member of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. Today, the Joint Committee represents 15 Baptist entities in Washington, DC (which takes no position on marriage equality) and summarizes the traditional Baptist view:

“Baptists have valued religious freedom and separation of church and state because they suffered the hard lessons of history. From jail cells in England to stockades in Massachusetts Bay to whipping posts in Virginia, early Baptists experienced firsthand the pain of persecution — the heartache and bloodshed caused by religious zealots armed with the coercive power of government.”

“[R]eligious liberty,” the Joint Committee concludes, “is best protected when church and state are institutionally separated and neither tries to perform or interfere with the essential mission and work of the other. Separation has been good for both church and state.”

Interestingly, Moore also took a more nuanced view of Islam than some of his co-belligerents on the Christian Right, while simultaneously suggesting that the common enemy is actually secular government, which he sees as a religion unto itself.

Moore says that conservative evangelicals, for example, do not have to agree with Islam to oppose local governmental efforts to zone “a mosque out of existence.” But they should do so in order to oppose the “power to the mayor and the city council to hand down theological edicts.” If city government can zone one group out of town “on the basis of what they believe,” Moore insists, “[it] will in the fullness of time drive us all out.”

These are the types of clever arguments that are going to continue to be the stuff of politics for the foreseeable future. But they are a contemporary twist on the same hoary old casting of secular government as the anti-religious devil out to squash all religious expression and to drive institutions from the public square.

One-time Southern Baptist televangelist Pat Robertson claimed in 1993 that the “radical left … kept us in submission because they have talked about the separation of church and state. There is no such thing in the Constitution. It’s a lie of the left, and we’re not going to take it anymore.”

Of course, SBC Baptists have not been alone in making outlandish claims. Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA), a conservative Catholic, recently distinguished himself by claiming “the words ‘separation of church and state’ is not in the U.S. Constitution, but it was in the constitution of the former Soviet Union. That’s where it very, very comfortably sat, not in ours.”  Santorum and his ilk are correct that the phrase does not appear in the Constitution, but the principle certainly is. The U.S. Supreme Court has found it to be a useful and authoritative shorthand phrase to describe the Constitution’s approach to religion and government.

History is Powerful

The battle for the story of religion in America has been a vastly under-appreciated aspect of the so-called culture wars. But Brent Walker of the Joint Committee, for one, has taken on the man who is arguably the leading culture warrior of Christian historical revisionism, David Barton. He notably debunked Barton’s claim that when Thomas Jefferson used the phrase “separation of church and state” in his famous letter to the Danbury Baptists in 1802, Jefferson meant that there is a “one directional wall”—to prevent the government from harming religion, not to prevent religion from capturing the government.

Walker wrote that “there is absolutely nothing in the letter even to hint that” Jefferson thought of the wall of separation between church and state as being “one directional.” In any case, Walker wrote, “most scholars would argue that he was more concerned with the church harming the state than vice versa.”

Russell Moore, nevertheless, sounded decidedly Bartonesque when earlier this year he argued “…that the state has no business in recreating marriage.” He failed to acknowledge that same-sex marriage is sacred in other religious traditions, while urging the federal government to enforce his particular notion of religious marriage, “by holding mothers and fathers to their vows to each other and to the next generation.”

But he then raised one of the wild bogeyman of the debate about marriage equality—that the government would compel a church to marry someone against their will.

“If the state ever attempts to force us to call marriage that which is not marriage in our churches and ceremonies, let’s obey God, even if that means we sing our wedding hymns in the prison block.”

It is easy for Moore and his ilk to suggest that Christian martyrs should go to prison out of principle—for something that has never happened and that no has argued should.  But there are a lot of religious and non-religious Americans who are fighting every day for the rights of all, and not just their favorite brands—including a lot of Baptists and, as Jefferson once put it, “Infidels of every Denomination,” and even Moore’s much derided secularists.

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Rick Warren’s Mental Health Program Praised by NYT—Despite Ex-Gay Therapy

Saddleback megachurch pastor Rick Warren and his fellow conservative evangelical leaders are receiving a lot of fame and attention for their new commitment to providing professional services to those with mental health issues. It’s a long overdue conversation, considering that nearly half of all evangelicals reportedly believe mental illness can be cured through prayer and scripture study alone. But while the news media may lavish them with praise, Warren’s programs still put emphasis on discredited and dangerous “ex-gay therapy” for LGBTQ people.

ex-gay protester

In an article praising Rick and Kay Warren for their new endeavor, the New York Times says:

The Warrens have campaigned for mental health treatment among evangelicals. This spring Saddleback, along with the local Roman Catholic diocese and a mental health advocacy organization, held its first conference about mental illness and faith. Some 2,000 people attended, including 600 pastors.

The church’s website now points worshipers to resources for addiction and mental health. Officials at Saddleback have met with the leadership of an evangelical Christian university to create a program that educates students about mental health. This month, Saddleback held its first gathering for members whose loved ones committed suicide. In January, it will sponsor a weekend addressing suicide prevention in adolescents.

However, nowhere in the article does it mention that dark side of the Warrens’ program. PRA gender justice researcher Cole Parke recently explained:

Warren’s conference was arguably intended to address these attitudes and misperceptions surrounding the need for comprehensive, professional medical and therapeutic approaches to healing and wellness…

The catch, though, is that what Warren considers to be “professional approaches to mental health and healing” includes certain approaches that perpetuate hurt and harm rather than work to combat it, and that rely on homophobic “science” and a conservative Christian worldview. The most worrisome example is Saddleback’s Celebrate Recovery program, offering support to people struggling with alcoholism and drug addiction, as well as a wide range of other issues, including codependency, depression, eating disorders, gambling, and sexual abuse. Yet some churches’ volunteer leaders also offer “support” for people who have “same-sex attraction”—the solution to which, ultimately, is to “face the root causes of our same-sex attraction,” and “acknowledge God’s design and desire for our sexuality.”

Additionally, conservative evangelical commitment and support for these dangerous techniques isn’t limited to the United States. U.S. culture warriors have been documented promoting the use of the practice across Africa. PRA senior religion and sexuality researcher, Rev. Dr. Kapya Kaoma, has written extensively about how so-called “conversion therapy” is critical to the agenda of the U.S. Religious Right in countries like Uganda and Nigeria, allowing them to advance anti-LGBTQ legislative packages (such as the “Kill the Gays Bill” in Uganda) by propagating myths about choice and curability regarding LGBTQ people.

Speaking at the golden jubilee celebrations of St. Stephen’s Church in Uganda on November 30, [Uganda’s Speaker of the Parliament Rebecca] Kadaga repeated the U.S. culture warriors’ claim that “computers and books donated to (underfunded and technology starved) schools are installed with software and literature that promote homosexuality in the institutions.” She went on to say, “Homosexuals are recruiting members of religious institutions,” and homosexuals are now “adopting” vulnerable children and turning them gay. “Be very careful because gays are here to distort our heritage. We have discovered that they adopt our children and confine them in gay communities abroad to train them on gay practices. By the time they come back home, they are already influenced by homosexuality and are used to influence others in the community,” Kadaga told her audience.

It may be laudable for these conservative religious leaders to take a more active stance promoting professional mental health care for those in need. But we must recognize that for Warren and these other culture warriors, any good they are doing is dangerously tainted by their continued acceptance of practices which the United Nations Committee on Torture is investigating, and much of the Western world is focused on outlawing.

As Cole Parke concluded, “Health care—including care for mental illness—is a human right. So, too, is the right to live freely and fully regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity. But until Rick Warren affirms both of these human rights, my own ‘faith’ in Saddleback’s efforts to address mental health remains limited at best.”

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