Not All the Same: Christian Right’s Hobby Lobbyization of State RFRAs

Things hit the fan in the wake of the signing of the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) by Governor Mike Pence (R). He and other defenders of the bill argued that it was the same as the other state RFRAs, as well as the federal RFRA signed by President Clinton. Discrimination was not intended, so what was everyone so upset about?

The claim that the bill did not intend to protect discrimination collapsed, as many publications and LGBTQ civil rights activists (such as the Indiana ACLU) quickly proved that discrimination was exactly the intent. The resulting national controversy compelled Indiana to offer “clarifying” legislation.   But it is revealing how important it was to conservatives that the bill not be seen as discriminatory – using false claims about the federal and other state level RFRAs as a cover. But also revealing is their attempt to reinterpret the intentions of the authors of the federal and other state RFRAs.  This is of a piece with the long-term Christian Right campaign to redefine religious liberty in the country in terms favorable to their theocratic vision.

Indiana Governor Mike Pence (R) is joined by Christian Right leaders as he signs the Hobby Lobbyized RFRA into law.

Indiana Governor Mike Pence (R) is joined by Christian Right leaders as he signs the Hobby Lobbyized RFRA into law.

The way they went about it is instructive. Conservative Republican politicians, their apologists (such as New York Times columnist David Brooks), and allied groups suggested that the bills are essentially the same.  Even some Christian Right leaders like Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council bent the truth, claiming that Indiana merely joined “19 other states in aligning themselves with federal religious freedom law.”  (Even though the state-level Christian Right leaders who backed the bill, and stood behind Gov. Pence when he signed it, have been clear about their intentions.)

The Times’ own reporting cited legal scholars, including Columbia Law School professor Katherine Franke, who said that the Indiana is not the same as the federal law or the Illinois state law supported by President Obama when he served in the Illinois State Senate.

“[Franke] and other legal experts said the Indiana law expands the parties who could ask for relief on religious grounds to include a wider range of corporations, if individuals with ‘substantial control’ of the business share the same religious beliefs.

The Indiana measure also grants parties the right to bring legal action to prevent a ‘likely’ burden on religious belief, even before any burden is imposed. And it expands the situations in which the protection could be invoked to include disputes between private parties engaged in lawsuits, even if they do not involve any direct actions by a government agency.”

The fact is that the federal RFRA, and most of the past state RFRAs, apply only to government actions. The original purpose of the legislation was to restore individual religious liberty taken away by the Supreme Court in the case of Employment Division v Smith, which involved Native Americans being denied state unemployment benefits in Oregon because they had been fired for using the illegal drug peyote in traditional religious ceremonies. The Court ruled that they had no legal recourse, so Congress sought to narrowly set a standard essentially reversing the Smith decision.  A later Court ruling limited the reach of the federal RFRA to the actions of the federal government only, hence the beginning of the state level RFRAs.

However, since the Hobby Lobby v. Burwell Supreme Court ruling in 2014, Christian Right agencies like Alliance Defending Freedom, the Becket Fund, the Mormon Church, and their allies at the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops, have pushed state level RFRAs that extend certain provisions to corporations and individuals allowing measures of discrimination in the face of religious claims that to provide services to LGBTQ people violates their consciences.

The Hobby Lobby case, for the first time, granted a private business religious standing under the First Amendment. In that case, the Hobby Lobby chain of craft stores was allowed to claim a religious exemption from providing employees with healthcare insurance covering four kinds of contraceptives, because the company owners believe (medical science not withstanding) that they are abortifacients.

Borrowing language from the federal RFRA, on which the original case filed by The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty was based, Justice Alito, writing for the majority, said the government’s requirement that Hobby Lobby provide this contraceptive coverage imposed a “substantial burden” on their religious liberty, and that there are ways of accomplishing the “compelling government interest” in ensuring that women have access to these drugs, by the “least restrictive means.”  Justice Ginsburg, writing in dissent, was concerned by the potential sweeping implications of the decision. “The court’s expansive notion of corporate personhood,” Ginsburg wrote, “invites for-profit entities to seek religion-based exemptions from regulations they deem offensive to their faiths.”

The first of these Hobby Lobbyized RFRAs was passed in Arizona, but was ultimately vetoed by the governor. A similar bill was passed and signed into law in Mississippi, while other such bills have been stalled in other states.

Justice Ginsberg’s concerns are being realized in the efforts to insert Hobby Lobbyized provisions into state RFRAs.  What is curious is that are engaging in an odd and easily refutable historical revisionism in claiming that the Hobby Lobbyized RFRAs was the intention all along—even though the federal RFRA was passed in 1993.

The turning point in the national controversy was probably the debacle on ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos, when Governor Pence repeatedly claimed that the Indiana bill was the same as the others, and refused to say whether or not he supported anti-LGBTQ discrimination.

Pence claimed that the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act was signed into federal law by President Bill Clinton more than 20 years ago. And it lays out a framework for ensuring that a very high level of scrutiny is given any time government action impinges on the religious liberty of any American. After that, some 19 states followed that, adopted that statute. And after last year’s Hobby Lobby case, Indiana properly brought the same version that then state senator Barack Obama voted for in Illinois before our legislature. And I was proud to sign it into law last week.”

The Indianapolis Star reported on April 2nd that Pence’s talking points did not square with the facts. Pence is correct except that the Indiana bill is not the same as the federal RFRA and most of the state RFRA’s – including Illinois – but the post-Hobby Lobby timing is telling. The shorthand for the bill around the legislature was “the Hobby Lobby bill.”

In the wake of the controversy over the Indiana bill, Arkansas changed their proposed RFRA before it was passed to ensure that it could only be invoked in cases where the government is a party, just as in the federal version. While the struggle over the definition of religious freedom is far from over, the battle lines are becoming clearer.

Promoting Anti-LGBTQ Bullying in Schools: Focus on the Family’s “Day of Dialogue”

Though framed as a “free-speech initiative” dedicated to preserving students’ “religious freedom,” Focus on the Family’s annual Day of Dialogue functionally serves as an anti-LGBTQ promotional vehicle, encouraging and equipping young Christians to express condemnation of homosexuality and “transgenderism” to their LGBTQ peers.

Day of Dialogue (DoD) emerged as a response to the National Day of Silence (DoS), an annual event organized by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN), which aims to bring attention to anti-LGBTQ bullying and harassment in schools. Participants take a daylong vow of silence, symbolically representing the constant institutional silencing of LGBTQ students and their allies. This year’s DoS will be observed on April 17th. As is true every year, DoD is scheduled to take place the day before.

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Day of Silence: This youth-led advocacy campaign—valued by many as an important time of protest, reflection, remembrance, and solidarity—traces its history back to 1996, when a group of students at the University of Virginia organized the first DoS in response to a class assignment on nonviolent protests. Encouraged by the success of their event, UVA students Maria Pulzetti and Jessie Gilliam made it their mission to turn DoS into a nationwide campaign, and the following year, similar actions took place at nearly 100 college and university campuses. By 2008, students at over 8,000 schools across the country were making their silence felt, and the campaign has become increasingly widespread—DoS events are now organized around the world, in places like Russia, Singapore, and New Zealand.

Beginning in 2005, the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF, formerly known as Alliance Defense Fund) launched the precursor to DoD—“Day of Truth,” an anti-LGBTQ response designed to “counter the promotion of the homosexual agenda.” Focus on the Family (FOTF) took over and rebranded the project in 2010.

Decrying Day of Silence as anti-Christian intolerance, FOTF argues that “students who dare to share a biblical viewpoint are made to feel like they’re doing something illegal.” In effect, they are trying to flip the script on who’s oppressed and who’s oppressive in order to defend anti-LGBTQ bullying. While DoD materials explicitly denounce bullying, as Zach Ford, editor of ThinkProgress LGBT at the Center for American Progress, points out, “Even if DoD participants do not attack or harass their targets, the stigma they encourage through condemning homosexuality helps maintain an unsafe climate for students with consequences that can last a lifetime.”

Sadly, anti-LGBTQ stigma needs no encouragement. While many LGBTQ advocates have celebrating significant legal gains (such as marriage equality) across the country in the last few years, schools continue to be hostile and dangerous environments for LGBTQ young people—who may face bullying or intimidation by fellow students, teachers, administration officials, or other students’ parents. According to GLSEN’s 2013 National School Climate Survey, 74 percent of LGBT youth nationwide were verbally harassed in the past year because of their sexual orientation, and 55 percent because of their gender expression. As a result of feeling unsafe or uncomfortable, 30 percent missed at least one day of school in the past month alone.

Homo lockerAnd the consequences of an anti-LGBTQ climate are real and devastating: students who have experienced prejudice-motivated bullying and victimization are more likely to attempt suicide, become clinically depressed, or contract a sexually transmitted disease by early adulthood.

In response to overwhelming evidence that LGBTQ young people are disproportionately targeted for bullying and harassment (and the tragic consequences of this persecution), social justice advocates have been rallying support for the Student Non-Discrimination Act (SNDA) since 2010.

Modeled after Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which addressed discrimination on the basis of sex, SNDA would expressly prohibit discriminatory treatment towards students on the basis of their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity in public schools. While federal statutory protections currently address discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, and disability, no such federal protections exist for LGBTQ people. As the National Center for Lesbian Rights explains, SNDA seeks to address this discrimination loophole [for public school students] by providing them with “meaningful legal recourse and effective remedial option in a manner that is similar to other civil rights claims made under the 14th Amendment.”

However, the Religious Right—backed by a coalition of right-wing legal institutions, including ADF, the American Center for Law & Justice (ACLJ), Liberty Council, and The Becket Fund—argues that Christians are the true victims of persecution in need of protection—in bakeries, in flower shops, and in schools across the country (reinforcing their false framework of Christianity vs LGBTQ people, which completely discounts the hundreds of thousands of LGBTQ people who are also Christian). This is the oppositional force behind the so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) laws that are cropping up in state after state—laws that functionally aim to redefine religious liberty as a right to discriminate on the basis of an individual’s beliefs or non-beliefs. This corruption of religious freedom protections from something that once served as a shield to protect individual beliefs into something that is increasingly used as a sword of religious authoritarianism is a threat to anyone who falls outside of the Religious Right’s narrowly defined moral vacuum and the very foundation of pluralism the U.S. was built upon.

While bullying, harassment, violence, and isolation continue to prematurely end the lives of LGBTQ young people, the organizers of DoD insist that young Christians are the real martyrs. As part of their ongoing effort to paint Christians as innocent victims of the “homosexual agenda,” ADF has pledged to provide pro-bono legal assistance to any DoD participants who “encounter unconstitutional roadblocks to their free speech rights.”

Sadly, free speech is only a privilege of the living. Had suicide not robbed us of their presence, Taylor Alesana, Tyler Clementi, Blake Brockington, Seth Walsh, Maddie Beard, and countless other young LGBTQ victims of suicide would probably have a lot to say about who is being persecuted and who is not.

The overlooked Indiana outcomes that could haunt the Christian Right

I think there are two underreported features of the fallout from Indiana that we should make sure do not get lost in the hoo ha.

One is that people are getting it that religious freedom does not and must not equal the right to discriminate. The other is that people are also broadening and deepening their understanding of what they basically already know:  the Christian Right’s view on these things is not shared by all of Christianity.

The Indiana RFRA, as originally written, allowed people to invoke their religious beliefs to deny commercial services to LGBTQ people – but Republican political leaders did not want to admit it. History may recognize Governor Pence’s disastrous interview with George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s This Week as a turning point, not only in the battle over the state’s RFRA, but in the struggle over the definition of religious freedom in our times.

Stephanopoulos repeatedly sought to get Pence to say how the bill did not constitute discrimination and whether or not he himself supported discrimination, but each time the Governor awkwardly weaseled his way out of answering the question.

Meanwhile, the state faced economic boycotts, street demonstrations, a skeptical press, and the RFRA faced a rising chorus of denunciation from a wide range of groups and individuals across the country—including the Republican Mayor of Indianapolis.

The state legislature and Gov. Pence quickly changed course and passed a “clarification,” while publicly explaining that their religious freedom law did not equal discrimination and that this was not their intention.

While not perfect, the legislative clarification barred a religious liberty defense by businesses accused of discrimination for refusing to provide services, goods, facilities or accommodations based on sexual orientation or gender identity – although it does allow religious non-profit organizations to continue to discriminate.

The Christian Right, which had supported the original bill, was outraged. What good is a religious freedom bill if it doesn’t give you the right to discriminate?  That is the question – since a central strategy of the Christian Right in recent years has been to reframe issues of reproductive rights and homosexuality in terms of religious freedom.

I reported here (before the Indiana RFRA blew up) that 50 Catholic and evangelical leaders, including National Organization for Marriage founder Robert P. George and Baptist megachurch Pastor Rick Warren, signed a 2015 anti-marriage equality manifesto that essentially argued that anyone who supports or in any way accommodates same-sex marriage cannot call themselves a Christian.

They also claimed that acceptance of marriage equality is the result of a “deceptive pseudo-freedom that degrades our ­humanity.  Genuine freedom,” they concluded, “is found in ­obedience to God’s order.”

This notion is not unique to the pre-Indiana ideologues. Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council denounced the clarification.

Remarkably, he blamed “Big Business” and “the intolerant Left” for “gutting” religious freedom in Indiana, and empowering “the government to impose punishing fines on people for following their beliefs about marriage.”

Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, who leads the religious liberty committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the bishops are undeterred.

“Individual or family-owned businesses as well as religious institutions should have the freedom to serve others consistent with their faith,” Lori said in a statement.

What Lori meant of course, is that people who believe as he does should have the right to refuse service to people they do not approve of.

A second feature of the Indiana debacle, which we should not lose sight of, is that the Christian Right is losing the battle for the public perception that its views on religious freedom and LGBTQ people represent all of Christianity.

The Christian Right has never represented all of Christianity of course, and the Indiana episode provided us with an outstanding example.

Even before the sports organizations, businesses, and celebrities, one of the first national organizations to speak out against the Indiana RFRA was The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), a mainline Protestant denomination with a half-million members, headquartered in Indianapolis.

The church’s denunciation of the bill was widely reported. Ultimately, the Disciples pulled their 2017 convention out of the state in protest over the law, the likely inadequacies of the then planned clarification, and the state’s lack of anti-discrimination protections for sexual orientation and sexual identity.

“As a Christian church, we affirm and support religious freedom,” General Minister and President Sharon Watkins said in a prepared statement. “It is, in fact, a core principle…  We are also strongly committed to an inclusive community — just as Jesus welcomed all to the table.”

The Christian Right’s strategy has suffered some powerful losses of late. It is good to take notice.

UPDATE: Since I first published this piece, the Disciples of Christ has decided to return their 2017 convention to Indianapolis.  Sharon Watkins wrote:

Locating our assembly in Indianapolis, now that our concerns have been addressed, positions us more strongly as a moral voice in the movement for equal protection under the law for all.

The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) will continue to advocate for wholeness and dignity for all people. We are a church of an open table where all are welcome in Christ’s name.

Indianapolis is now a more welcoming place for all our assembly-goers than it was when we originally decided on Indianapolis for our 2017 site.

Christian Right Culture Warriors Don’t Understand the Word “Family”

U.S. conservatives culture warriors have a busy 2015 scheduled. Pope Francis will be in Philadelphia in September for the World Meeting of Families, and then the international culture-warring World Congress of Families will be in Utah in October. At these meetings, the word “family” will be used to demonize LGBTQ individuals and women. Oddly, the meaning of the word “family” will be assumed but not defined.

On Human Rights Day 2014, I joined a panel to speak before the United Nations under the theme “Love is a Family Value.” The theme was nicely chosen to debunk the misuse of the phrase “family values” by anti-LGBTQ and anti-women’s health activists who claim that sexual minorities and women’s rights are anti-family. To them, defending the “traditional family” means demonizing sexual minorities, women, and those who advocate equality and justice for all human beings.

It is important to define what is meant by “family,” because as the U.S. Right’s talking points are exported around the globe verbatim, there is no nuance as the words take on different meanings in different cultures. U.S. conservatives are quick to define it in narrow and gendered terms: the man should control the woman, while the woman should care for children, and thus father, mother, and children. As U.S. culture warriors working on the international scene, such as Sharon Slater of Family Watch International, advocate for their flawed interpretation abroad, the words are even more damaging than they are in the Western world, where they can be tossed aside as obvious rhetoric and hyperbole. In African communities, the word “family” means something very different. Across the continent in various nations, communities, and cultures, the phrase “extended family” does not even exist. Rather, “the family” encompasses every person to whom you are related, regardless of how remote—brothers, sisters, cousins, aunties, uncles, nieces, nephews, second cousins, second cousins twice removed, etc. The list is endless.

Inclusive families

It is this family I am obliged to defend—and my gay uncle, niece, or cousin is still part of my family just as my child is! In my language for instance, umuntu wandi (literally, “my person”) is used for the family. What holds an African family together is not who one has sex with (as the Right wants us to believe), but love. When my friend David Kato was murdered, his family was broken, and stood by him. This picture is visible across Africa when LGBTQ people are killed—their families are destroyed too.

The Christian Right wants us to accept its definition of the family as final. Yet the family grows as humans learn to value other people’s humanity. Not long ago, women, Native Americans, and people who looked like me were considered less human. In fact, millions of Africans were exported as natural goods across the globe. Those who stood up to defend Black people were labeled as destroyers of civilization and the tradition upon which America was founded. The Bible, and in some cases the Koran, were also used to justify slavery, subordination of women, and colonization of Black people. Lucy Stone, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and (my daughter’s favorite) Susan B. Anthony were all accused of destroying the family. Dr. King, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, and many White allies who fought for equality of the races were considered terrorists by the U.S. Christian Right. But such demonization did not stop them from demanding justice for the entire human family—today, these human rights defenders are idolized for doing what was right though not popular!

Love is a human and family value and ought not to be a crime—it is inherent in each one of us. To deny others the ability to love and to be loved is to rob them of their family life. It is to force them into hating themselves, as well as into life-denying situations, and ultimately to sentence them to death. It is this reality that racists and religious fundamentalists still fail to accept. It was once a crime for Blacks to marry Whites here in the U.S. and in various European colonies. Sacred scriptures (and the mantra of defending traditional family values) were corrupted to justify such injustice. Many families and lives were lost as a result. But today, interracial marriages are celebrated just as any other marriage—even if there are still those individuals or religions who believe it is wrong.

Love is what makes a family. Throughout the Christian traditions, the Church has always understood the “family” as diverse. One good example is “the family” we find in religious communities (convents and monasteries) in various Christian Churches. In the Roman Catholic tradition for example, monks and nuns belong to the specific family. His Holiness Pope Francis belongs to a family of Jesuits—just as countless other monks and nuns do. One makes the choice to commit to such a lifestyle. If defending the traditional family means forcing everyone into heterosexual marriage, then monks and nuns can be said to be a threat to the family.

The Center for Families & Human Rights’ headline of our meeting at the U.N. was accurate:  “LGBT Activists Meet at UN, Promise to Keep Fighting.” Until hate is conquered by love across the globe, we will fight to defend love as a family value. Just as the world fought slavery, racism, sexism, and many other isms, we will keep fighting to defend the human family from any form of discrimination.

RELATED: Click the image to watch Rev. Dr. Kapya Kaoma speak at the U.N. on families.

RELATED: Click the image to watch Rev. Dr. Kapya Kaoma speak at the U.N. on families.

Like the rainbow, the human family has always been diverse! Anti-gay activists should understand that homophobia does not defend families, it destroys it. To defend the family should mean supporting loving relations in human communities. We are one human family—Black, White, Brown, Asian, straight, gay, bisexual, lesbian, transgender, etc.—we all have a special place in the human family. To claim to defend the family while destroying our fellow human beings because of who they love and commit to live their lives with is hypocritical. We all have the duty to defend love over hate. 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 special rights or benefits. They are just seeking to take their own family’s rightful place at the table, free from fear or 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!

The Campaign to Undermine Pro-LGBTQ Churches

The Presbyterian Church (USA) has recently been in the news for its historic approval of marriage equality. But in these news stories, you may have noticed that Christian Right organizations that are unhappy with the outcome are promoting the idea that people are leaving this and other churches because of their support for equal rights, and for rejecting the Right’s corrupt and redefined version of religious freedom. As is often the case, the Christian Right’s claims don’t hold much water.

The Presbyterian Church (USA), or PCUSA, is the fourth major denomination of mainline Protestantism to support marriage equality, following in the steps of the United Church of Christ, The Episcopal Church, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. While these developments make news, generally unreported is that these churches came to their positions after years of careful deliberations, discussion and debate.  Unlike most of the opponents of marriage equality, these churches have democratic governance structures.

Also largely unreported is how outside Christian Right agencies have exploited the democratic polities of the mainline churches, in an effort to degrade their capacities to advance social justice.

The reasons for all this have everything to do with the successes of what the churches call their “social witness” across the 20th Century. From the enactment of child labor laws, to advancing the African-American civil rights movement, to ending the war in Vietnam, to elevating the role of women and of LGBTQ people, the major denominations of mainline Protestantism have provided moral authority, leadership, and resources that were vital to these movements for social change.

And yet, if you read most of the media you might be led to believe that the only reasons people leave these churches is because of their positions on such things as ordination of women and gay people; reproductive justice, and/or and marriage equality. The decline in membership in these churches is painfully real. But there is much more to the story of why people leave the churches and people they love.

One of the primary reasons for the departures is a sustained pressure campaign by external interests, seeking to pit mainline Christians against one another; manipulate democratic processes to be unnecessarily divisive; and ultimately diminish and displace these historic denominations which have held a place at the center of American culture for centuries.

One of the main agents in this war of attrition has been the Washington, DC-based Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), funded by the same group of conservative foundations that brought the likes of the Heritage Foundation to Washington, DC. IRD has been primarily funded by neoconservative and Christian Right interests that view the mainline churches as obstacles to their regressive, and sometimes overtly theocratic, political agendas.

For many years, IRD served as the hub of a national network of conservative denominational factions called the Association for Church Renewal. These organizations, which call themselves “renewal” groups, variously seek to neutralize church tendencies of which they don’t approve; drive out staff they don’t like; and seek to take over the churches, but failing that – take  as many churches and assets out of the denominations as possible.

Media of all sorts have tended to treat group spokespersons as credible voices of dissent, while turning a blind eye to the malevolent intentions of many of these groups and individuals. For example, James Tonkowich a minister in a schismatic denomination that split with PCUSA in 1970, served as the president of IRD from 2006-2009. He characterized the mainline churches as marked by “division, polarization, and discord.”  By 2012, he had not only became a Catholic, but claimed that the best way for Protestant churches to solve their problems was to, like Tonkowich, also become Catholic.

In short, the Christian Right’s narrative that mainline church membership is declining primarily because of differences over things like marriage equality unravels when subjected to scrutiny.

In the largest study of its kind ever conducted, scholars at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research at Hartford Seminary debunked the narrative in 2007.  Noting media reports claiming people were leaving churches over issues related to homosexuality, the study found that the main reason people left churches was not due to theology or ideology, but because of unhappiness in the wake of bitter in-house conflict. “Congregations that have experienced major conflict,” the study concluded, “are quite likely to have declined in attendance.” But, the study continued, “congregations with no conflict during the previous two years are least likely to decline and most likely to grow.”

The antidemocratic elements that lead and underwrite IRD have been pleased to exploit the internal debates and manipulate the mechanisms of democratic governance in the mainline churches to achieve their larger ends. Their efforts have worked to some degree. But not nearly as well as they had hoped.

My On-Again, Off-Again Romance With Liberalism

In honor of PRA’s late founder Jean Hardisty, please enjoy this article originally published by the Women’s Theological Center (now known as Women Transforming Communities) in March 1996, as part of The Brown Paper series. Republished with permission.

Jean hardisty SLIDE

PRA founder Jean Hardisty

As I sit at my desk working my way through a stack of requests for donations and entreaties to renew my membership in various organizations, I am torn about when to write a check and when to save my money. At the moment, the pressing question for me is whether to support the larger, liberal organizations that do what I think of as “mainstream” liberal work—organizations such as The American Civil Liberties Union, Planned Parenthood, The National Organization for Women, and People for the American Way.

For years I have written these checks, almost as an act of dutiful citizenship. After all, I am glad the organizations are there. I want them to continue to exist. That means I have to do my part to keep them alive. But this seems a rather lazy way to make a decision.

I feel I should decide what I really think about liberalism and its prospects in the 1990s. It is clear that in 1996 liberalism is in eclipse—or at least adrift and demoralized. Meanwhile, the Right is in its glory. It dominates the political arena, with an apparent lock on the new ideas, the money, the organization, and the attention that used to belong to liberalism.

Liberalism is nearly an orphan. It has a bad name in many circles. For the Left, it represents a compromised reformism. For the Right, it is socialism in disguise. For the center, it is a label associated with fuzzy thinking and do-gooder incompetence.

Liberals are divided and seem to have lost confidence in their own ideology. The vicious attacks mounted by the Right have scored points with the public by caricaturing liberal programs, their adherents, and their recipients. After fifteen years of such attacks there is now a proven formula: seize on an example of abuse of a liberal program, market an image of the program’s undeserving recipient (preferably a poor person of color) to the taxpaying public, then sit back and wait for the impact. The “welfare queen,” the Black rapist on furlough, the unqualified affirmative action hire—all have assumed powerful symbolic significance.

In the face of these attacks, liberals themselves seem to know on some level that their programs have not worked as planned. Even in defending them, they are forced to appeal to the spirit in which the programs were based, or the benefits they have delivered to their most deserving beneficiaries. Liberals seem unable to mount a vigorous defense of these programs—on their own terms, across the board, without regard to the worthiness of the recipients. By mounting a weak defense, liberals tacitly concede to their Republican attackers that the programs are at least flawed, perhaps even indefensible.

The Swinging Door

I have seen liberalism’s programs and ideology up close for over thirty years. At fifty, I have reached some clarity about liberalism, especially since I have the advantage of a Left perspective—a set of glasses, if you will, that helps to bring the shortcomings of both liberalism and conservatism into focus. Further, I learned my politics during the Vietnam War, a war waged by liberals as well as conservatives.

I know that domestic social programs are intended as amelioration, not real change. I know that the same men who voted for public housing programs voted for aid to the Guatemalan military. I understand liberalism’s self-serving tendency to preserve the status quo, why big business often has found it a useful ally, why its redistributive measures never really disturb the sleep of the rich. I understand why it tolerates police brutality, a rogue FBI, why NAFTA, why GATT. I know all that.

Yet as the Right picks off liberal programs one by one, I mourn each one as if it were the product of a golden age of liberty, equality, and fraternity. My understanding of liberalism’s shortcomings and its history of opportunism is gone. Liberal programs are bathed with a glow of benevolence, set off by a stark contrast with the anti-social and avaricious agenda of the Right.

Take public housing as an example. As it is defunded by the Right and its real estate sold off, I am torn by two conflicting images. In the back of my mind are the towers of Cabrini Green, a massive, notoriously rundown, and dangerous housing project in Chicago. Here the ultimate effect of a liberal program is to segregate poor Black people in a high-rise ghetto. In fact, the numerous high-rise federal housing projects in Chicago form a “wall” that cordons off poor people from the rest of the city. It is difficult to see the result of this liberal housing effort on behalf of low-income families without assuming a malicious intent behind the program.

But in the front of my mind are other images: a broken-down, substandard house in rural Mississippi transformed into a prefab house with indoor water, electricity, and walls that are tight against the weather. Or a range of housing such as scattered rent-subsidized low-income units, low-rise complexes, and rent-controlled apartments that allow people to live in decent conditions even though they have very little money. It is these images that draw me. Perhaps it is sentimental, but I am compelled by the notion of a society that will not tolerate extreme poverty and that responds with redistributive programs—even though the programs are often flawed and sometimes cynical.

This softness toward liberalism is not easy to admit. It can be especially embarrassing to defend liberalism when I am speaking to progressives. It feels like admitting a weakness in my political commitment to Left, progressive values, the values that demand fundamental systemic change and redistribution of power. But this soft-on-liberalism instinct is grounded in my progressive politics. I see the two in relation to each other. I understand the role that liberalism plays in facilitating the work that progressives do. The Left needs liberals to create the breathing room necessary for us to do our work. Liberals, in turn, are given direction and held to some minimal standard of honesty by the Left.

As a progressive feminist, I want to live in a country that understands that some people cannot manage and that is willing to take responsibility for them. I want a government I can believe in; one that is willing to defy the often malicious intent of local power structures and defend the rights of all its citizens with determination. And I am convinced that only the federal government can deliver that protection. That often means that liberal social programs, administered by the federal government, are the only workable answer to social needs. This doesn’t mean I will get the government I want, but it does mean I cannot afford to throw away the idea of government as an important arbiter of justice.

The Right’s current promotion of states’ rights, which argues that power should be decentralized because only state governments provide for the real needs of local folks, ignores the history of states’ rights as a defense of brutal racial segregation and reactionary social policies. Transferring programs like public housing to the states is a sly method of defunding them. Progressives must be careful, when raising pointed criticisms and mounting protests regarding government programs, that we do not let our anti-government rhetoric feed the anti-government campaign of the Right.

I admit that when looking at liberal programs, I have a tendency to accept liberalism’s most appealing face as reality. I am drawn, for instance, by the 1960s social plan called The War on Poverty. I find a certain poetry, idealism, solidarity, and respect in the words themselves. Even when they turn out to be just words (that stand in ironic contrast to the Vietnam War, which was waged simultaneously) they nevertheless represent a glimpse of ideas and programs propelled by humanity and mutual concern. Perhaps two stories from my own experience will help to explain both my attraction to liberalism as we know it and my ambivalence about it.

In Chicago’s 1982 mayoral race, Harold Washington, a progressive African-American Congressman from the South Side, ran against the machine candidate, Jane Byrne, in the Democratic primary. Washington won. The white machine was stunned, and scrambled to find a candidate to run against Washington in the general election. Since Washington would be the Democratic Party candidate, they would have to find a Republican, but they were hard-pressed to locate one, since Chicago is a one-party town. They did find a rather pathetic man named Bernie Epton, who visibly struggled with emotional instability and barely made it through Election Day. Despite the stark difference in the two candidates’ qualifications, most white voters in Chicago voted for Epton. They preferred the unstable white man with no political experience to the charismatic, experienced, progressive, anti-machine African American. Again, however, Washington won.

Harold Washington (left) and Bernie Epton (right)

Harold Washington (left) and Bernie Epton (right)

There were several reasons for his victory. First, Chicago at that time had a minority population of 45%—a voting block large enough to create a plurality of votes. Second, Washington put together a rare coalition that drew over 90 percent of the African-American vote and most of the Latino vote. And finally, “lakefront liberals”—primarily white, often professional, definitely higher-income residents who lived close to the Lake Michigan waterfront—delivered the balance needed to put him narrowly over the top. Among white voters, only the lakefront liberals defied their race allegiance and voted for the Black man.

For me, the Washington election captured a clear irony about life in Chicago. I was proud that Chicago was no ordinary racist northern industrial city. Chicago is organized. It is perhaps the most organized city in the country—the birthplace of the community organizing style of Saul Alinsky. All of Chicago’s neighborhoods—especially the White neighborhoods—are organized with the goal of empowering working people, and much of this organizing has been done by liberals.

Yet when those organized citizens were called on to vote for a more progressive future, they were not able to make the connections. The community organizing so conscientiously mounted by liberals did not touch the racism of Chicago’s White voters. Unable to address the basic social problems, especially racism, liberalism came up short in an actual test of its effectiveness in creating change.

But liberalism was not a complete failure in Chicago. The lakefront liberals did the right thing. Faint-hearted, arrogant, complicit, and often self-serving, they nevertheless served as the swinging door against which social change could push. Without them, there was no space, no breathing room, no recourse.

Perhaps the lakefront liberals stood to gain under a Washington Administration that would create more space for their business interests than the locked-down machine offered. Perhaps the communities of color that voted so overwhelmingly for Washington were mostly voting against Chicago’s White political machine. But the reality remains. It was the vote of White liberals that put the progressive Mayor Washington over the top.

Another story comes to mind. In the early 1980s the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), a coalition of Leftist political groupings in El Salvador, mounted a credible attempt to overthrow the Salvadoran political establishment. The context for this effort was El Salvador’s history of economic exploitation by an oligarchy of landowners supported by a military trained and armed by the U.S., and a complicit Catholic church hierarchy. El Salvador’s social and economic system was injustice and oppression itself.

The FMLN was explicitly revolutionary. However, it had an arm that operated above ground, in the electoral arena. Always at risk from death squads, some brave people were willing to put themselves at risk by being affiliated publicly with this above-ground group, the Democratic Revolutionary Front, or FDR. The president of the FDR, the late Guillermo Ungo, was well-known in the United States.

In the early 1980s, I was part of a delegation of U.S. foundation staff and donors, led by the director of The Philadelphia Foundation, that went to Central America to meet with humanitarian aid organizations, human rights organizations, and others centrally involved in the conflicts in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. J. Roderick MacArthur, the son of the billionaire donor of the MacArthur Foundation, John D. MacArthur, was part of the delegation. Roderick MacArthur had his own foundation, known as “little MacArthur,” that had been involved in funding organizations opposing government abuses and repression against progressives. Rod MacArthur’s politics were liberal, unusually so for a businessman.

MacArthur met Ungo on that trip and they bonded as prominent businessmen with political concerns. MacArthur was both compelled by Ungo’s story and convinced that there were opportunities for U.S. business in a post-revolutionary El Salvador. When he returned to the U.S., MacArthur arranged to have Ungo come north to tour several cities, meeting with U.S. businessmen. When Ungo reached the Chicago stop on the tour, MacArthur held a reception for him in his Chicago suburban home. It was an opportunity for Ungo to speak to prominent Chicago businessmen. As a courtesy, he invited everyone who had been on the Central America trip to attend.

The meeting was predictably awkward. Ungo was not a charismatic man. The businessmen weren’t sure what the point was, and MacArthur didn’t seem able to sway them to his view. Out of courtesy to MacArthur, the businessmen were politely attentive, but they were not at all open to the revolutionary message of the FMLN, and certainly not able to sign onto MacArthur’s vision of a reformed El Salvador exporting its fabulous beer in profitable quantity to the U.S. The meeting fell rather flat.

Well, I thought, this just illustrates that you can’t promote revolution as a business opportunity. Even to want to do so is so exquisitely liberal! The incident provided more support for my sense of liberalism as complicit and ineffective. Nevertheless, as a result of that meeting, those businessmen were undoubtedly less likely to support a U.S. invasion of El Salvador. They were certainly better informed about the reality of life there, and the unbelievable maldistribution of wealth and the extent of repression. They would no longer give knee-jerk support to U.S. policy toward Central America. Rod MacArthur had made a contribution. He had influenced a sector that is completely inaccessible to progressives. He had begun to create a swinging door against which solidarity work could push.

That Compelling, Illusive Coalition

In June 1982, there was an enormous march in New York City to protest the triumph of the Right Wing of the Republican Party with the election of Ronald Reagan. Reagan’s administration had succeeded in making major changes in the tax structure, lowering the tax rate of the wealthy as one of its first acts in office. The march was so vast that miles of central Manhattan’s streets were filled with people. There were huge puppets, many more than 15 feet high, that eloquently mocked the Republicans and made tongue-in-cheek pleas for decency. A gigantic inflatable whale, emblazoned with the slogan “Save the Humans,” swayed down the packed streets.

Hundreds of thousands protest in New York City on June 12, 1982

Hundreds of thousands protest in New York City on June 12, 1982

There is no accurate count of how many people participated. As usual, the estimate by city officials was absurdly low. Perhaps more important, we don’t have an official record of which sectors of the liberal coalition were represented. But emotionally, I know exactly who was there. Everybody.

Or more accurately, all the White middle class reform movements that dominated and controlled the liberal coalition. The feminists, the gay and lesbian rights movement, the environmentalists, the disability rights movement, the reproductive rights defenders, the liberal unions. The civil rights movement was represented, but in small numbers, reflecting its position within the coalition as just another partner. That march seemed to me the last public display of the united front known as the liberal coalition.

That coalition was the lion that roared. It was a voting block that could propel a liberal to the Supreme Court, stop a war, prevent an invasion, impose curbs on corporate rapacity, force integration, forbid the death penalty, ensure voting rights.

Today it is a fractured remnant of its days of power. The larger, mainstream organizations are bloated, bureaucratic, and riddles with compromise. In order to maintain their programs, they have bowed to donors and corporate sponsors and cleansed themselves of radical voices, excusing their own moderation by pointing to the need to keep themselves alive in a hostile political climate. This applies even to some civil rights organizations. The vigor is gone, the vision is muddled, and the membership is down.

The less-compromised, small organizations are fighting over funds, plagued by professional jealousies and rivalries, and jockeying for position in a context of political defeat and defunding. The leadership is tired and aging and is not being replaced with another generation of dedicated activists.

Perhaps the coalition was doomed from the start. After all, it was frankly reformist, which means that it could take change only so far before it ran into its own contradictions. Nowhere was this more true than on the issue of race. The White-dominated liberal coalition was not about to give up its dearly-held issues because they were not well-suited to the needs of African Americans. Reproductive rights are a perfect example. The demand of African American women for the reproductive rights movement to broaden its agenda to include the concerns of women of color (e.g. that women be assured of the right to have children, as well as not have children) were heard by only a handful of reproductive rights organizations.

But this is just one of the man reasons for the decline of the coalition. Larger events conspired to weaken it and diminish its vision. I don’t pretend to know the exact profile of these forces. Certainly the increased concentration of wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer corporations and individuals under late capitalism has both elevated the individualism so basic to capitalism and defeated the notion of the common good. The attack by the organized and well-funded Right has been successful in undermining the popularity of the liberal vision. And, in any case, it is harder to hold a coalition together when it is undergoing defeat after defeat. By contrast, the Right’s coalition is enjoying victory after victory, and thus finds that continued cooperation and collaboration is visibly rewarded.

With so few victories and so little satisfaction to be had, each member of the liberal coalition now hangs onto whatever pale reformist policies or benefits can be saved. The sectors of the coalition that cannot survive on these remnants, especially working class wage-earners, have been left to make the best of it. The gutting of The Labor Relations Board, The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and The U.S. Civil Rights Commission are just three examples of liberal programs now unable to deliver anything resembling social justice. Is it any wonder that so many working people are seduced by the Right’s vilification of liberalism when liberalism has proved unable to defend them and hasn’t appeared to try very hard?

So, the liberal coalition is fractured, aging, compromised, and lacking in vigor or new ideas. It remains White-dominated and predominantly middle-class. Why, then, do I mourn its passing from the center stage of power? Didn’t it deserve to fade?

Something makes me say: “Yes, but…” A part of me clings to a vision of the liberal coalition as it could have been. Also, frankly, I miss the power. Progressives are used to working at the margins, pushing liberals to redress the heinous injustices created by capitalism, and, when liberals create reformist programs, pushing the envelope to open an opportunity for real change. But without a powerful and effective liberal coalition to pressure, there are very few places for progressive policies to exert influence.

It is true that liberalism plays its own role as an aid to reactionary politics, acting as a buffer for capitalism by protecting it from the wrath of the people it exploits. By providing a veneer of caring and accommodation to human needs as well as profits, liberal programs cloud people’s political consciousness. No doubt about that.

But liberalism also serves as a buffer against fascism. In the 1970s we had the luxury of holding liberalism in disdain because it was a sop that prevented revolutionary social change. In the 1990s, liberalism looks more like a line of defense against the final triumph of the Right.

Come Back, Jimmy

By the end of Jimmy Carter’s administration in the late 1970s, Carter was an easy man to scorn. The populist liberalism of his Presidential campaign had been thoroughly compromised as he “got it” about the Soviet threat. His wobbling political leadership became increasingly neoconservative. It was hard for progressives to find much to like about Carter.

Yet throughout the Reagan administration my mantra was: “Come back, Jimmy. All is forgiven.” What I missed wasn’t a hard-headed political analysis, a shrewd ability to work the system in behalf of social justice goals, an uncompromising commitment to the poor. These we had never had from Carter. What I missed, and had taken for granted, was that the man supported the Bill of Rights.

Carter was a typical liberal in that respect. He understood the role of the Bill of Rights in assuring that in addition to stable democratic institutions, people in the U.S. also have certain concrete rights. Take Article I of the Bill of Rights, the First Amendment. It reads in part: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of people peaceably to assemble…” It is meant to protect the individual’s right to protest government actions. In the United States, freedom of speech is a civil liberty.

This guarantee has always been applied selectively. The free speech of racists has always been better protected than the free speech of campus war protesters. In the recent past, it was often necessary for the courts to intervene to protect Leftists from the violations of their First Amendment rights by law enforcement officers, the FBI, or exceptionally hostile Justice Departments, such as those of the Nixon and Reagan administrations.

Free speech is particularly important to progressives because in my attempt to change the status quo there must be room to unmask and debunk it. Censorship imposed by legal means, or self-censorship in the context of repression, means that the Left’s effectiveness is dramatically limited.

Progressives, therefore, are dependent on liberals’ commitment to the First Amendment. Liberals serve as a buffer protecting us from the Right and its history of attacking First Amendment freedoms. For instance, it is liberal legislators who stand in the way of laws banning the burning of the flag. It is liberals who defend “sacrilegious” art. It is liberal lawyers and judges who defend the rights of “communist sympathizers” and anti-war demonstrators, and keep the airwaves open for the likes of Angela Davis and Allen Ginsberg. Without that liberal commitment to the Bill of Rights, the voice of the Left could and would be silenced.

That is not to say that liberals won’t cut and run. If the accused is too politically unpopular or the cause too radical, liberals will hide behind the justification that these defendants or causes threaten national security, and they’ll allow the Bill of Rights to go. Sometimes they’ll cave in under threats by the Right to tar them with the brush of radicalism. In these cases, only progressives will stand up and fight for our guaranteed rights.

Nevertheless, right now we need liberal lawyers, judges, journalists, curators, abortion providers, legislators, teachers, unionists, affirmative action officers, and day care advocates. We need the breathing room and protection they provide for progressives. So each time one of them is won over by the Right’s prejudice, myth, irrational belief, inaccurate information, pseudo-science, and outright lies, or each time a liberal resigns from office or retires from the bench (to be replaced by a credentialed Rightist, of course), I worry a bit more. It doesn’t matter whether I particularly like, respect, or admire liberals. I care about them because they are endangered, and I care about what that means for me and for our society.

But is it a Relationship?

Liberalism will raise your hopes and ultimately break your heart. Does that mean that it commands no loyalty? Should it be trashed because it is spineless and flawed? My answer is an unequivocal “maybe.”

It won’t do to say that liberalism could be a useful framework for a late capitalist society if only it wouldn’t act so much like liberalism. It is what it is. Nevertheless, it can be more or less effective according to the principles to which it holds.

The principle of “maximum feasible participation” is an example of the boundaries of liberalism’s potential as an open, humane, and egalitarian ideology. Maximum feasible participation calls for the people who are the recipients of liberal programs to also design, control, and implement the programs. It moves “good works” a step further toward actual power sharing.

Maximum feasible participation was an idea that was barely tried, then abandoned by liberals as unworkable. It is at exactly this juncture that liberalism reveals its intrinsic limitations. There is a crucially important distinction between addressing grievances and inequities with humanitarian aid on one hand, and in solving them through redistributing power on the other. All those who are dispossessed, whatever race, class, or gender, will be given only relief by liberal programs. They will not obtain true justice.

But when true justice is not available—in this country, for lack of the ability of progressives to compete effectively in the struggle for power—humanitarian aid makes a difference. It is this difference that the Right is killing off, program by program. The Right knows that without liberalism’s programs, there is less chance for even the myth of social change, not to mention its reality, to thrive. If they can eliminate the swinging door, then it will be even easier to redistribute power upward. This is one of the reasons that right-wing strategists spend so much time demonizing liberals, especially feminists, environmentalists, gay and lesbian rights activists, and supporters of multiculturalism.

Liberalism has not proved able to stand up to the reactionary onslaught by the Right. Is that surprising? Should progressive people put time and energy into defending liberalism and its programs? Yes – we must. As a strategic response to the current assault by the Right on every democratic principle, it is an important place to put time and energy.

At the same time, it is crucial that progressives continue to work for a more radical vision of social justice and redistribution of power and wealth. Liberalism is in retreat in part because it is not receiving the sort of pressure from progressives that forced it to pursue reform aggressively in the 1970s. Progressives often set the agenda for liberals, by taking direct confrontational action against unjust laws and policies. It is progressives whose public education truly unmasks the structural and individual racism, repression, and other forms of injustice within the U.S. system.

At the moment, the progressive vision lacks the clarity and certainty of the 1930s or the 1960s. But there is an important distinction between our current muddled state, when clarity and unity are diminished, and the death of the vision altogether. We must not confuse the two. To say that the Left is struggling to find its way in a dramatically restructured political environment is accurate. But the fundamental principles around which the Left organizes its radical critique—liberty, equality and fraternity in the service of justice for those whose voices are not heard—are as alive and needed as ever.

Progressives must analyze how the Left became such a weak force. This promises to be a difficult process of self-criticism. Further, more and more people will have to come to the table to help to refine the progressive vision and correct its flaws and omissions. Meanwhile, liberal reforms have to be defended and pressure has to be applied to the few liberals still standing to keep them from waffling or quitting. This is not best done by disdaining or ignoring them.

Like it or not, progressives now must work with liberals, as well as with any other left-leaning sectors such as the Greens, to form a united front against the agenda of the Right. Pat Buchanan’s demonstrated ability to draw 30 percent of the vote in state after state in the recent presidential primaries is just one indicator of how important such a front is.

So, progressives, if you are angry and bitter over the loss of another liberal program killed off without even so much as a debate, don’t apologize. Don’t assume you have become soft on liberalism. This is a natural reaction – a product of this moment in history. And try not to dwell on those years past when there was more certainty, more idealism, and more hope; when working for real change was like moving downstream riding a current of historical inevitability. Now we are swimming against a tide that is thick with peril. The voice in the bubble of this cartoon is no longer saying “Follow that dream!” Now it is saying, “Time is running out. Focus. Get it together. Unite!”

Thanks to Rosario Morales, Dick Levins, Clarissa Atkinson, Denise Bergman, Pat Rathbone, Ruth Hubbard, and Francine Almash for their comments.

 

The Religious Right Operative Who Helped Write Utah’s Nondiscrimination Law

Was the non-discrimination/religious freedom law in Utah really the “historic compromise” it’s being touted as, or a Trojan Horse for the Religious Right’s agenda? There now seems to be little doubt with the discovery that one of the law’s authors has spent years working with the country’s most prominent Religious Right leaders and groups to advance right-to-discriminate laws across the country.

After my article last week asserted that the much-hailed Utah LGBTQ rights law was really an attempt by the national Religious Right to gain legitimacy for their agenda to redefine religious liberty as a religious license to legally discriminate, many have begun looking into how the bill actually came into existence.

As Queer Nation recently pointed out, Robin Fretwell Wilson, a law professor at the University of Illinois, has a long history of seeking to develop loopholes in civil rights laws. In 2014, as the proposed RFRA in Arizona was causing national headlines for its provisions allowing both private and government individuals to opt-out of civil rights and public accommodation laws if done so for religious beliefs, Wilson and the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) teamed up to send a letter to Arizona Republican Governor Jan Brewer, claiming the law was being “egregiously misrepresented.” ADF (formerly known as the Alliance Defense Fund back when it was working as part of the legal team defending California’s Prop 8, which stripped marriage rights from same-sex couples), was one of the authors of the Arizona bill. Following massive protests and national outcry, that bill was eventually vetoed by Governor Brewer, but less than a month later a nearly identical bill became law in Mississippi and ADF has worked to pass similar legislation in over a dozen states since.

Robin Fretwell Wilson

Robin Fretwell Wilson

In 2008, Wilson teamed up with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty—the group behind the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby case—to co-edit their book Same-Sex Marriage and Religious Liberty: Emerging Conflicts, where she claimed states must proactively pass “conscience clauses” for religious freedom—the right for individuals, business owners, and government employees to use their religious opinions to legally discriminate against others.1

Wilson was more explicit in an op-ed to The New York Times, following the state legislature’s passage of same-sex marriage in 2011. “Without such [individual religious exemptions],” Wilson argues, “groups that hew to their religious beliefs about marriage would be at risk of losing government contracts and benefits and would be subject to lawsuits from private citizens.” She goes on to claim that organizations receiving government funding should never be in danger of losing those tax dollars just because they discriminate against LGBTQ people.

In 2010, Wilson authored a paper in the Northwestern Journal of Law & Social Policy titled Insubstantial Burdens: The Case for Government Employee Exemptions to Same-Sex Marriage Laws, in which she lamented that (at that point) “not a single state has shielded the government employee at the front line of same-sex marriage, such as the marriage registrar who, if she has a religious objection to same-sex marriage, will almost certainly face a test of conscience.” She concludes with what she believes to be a fair scenario: “Same-sex marriage applications comprise a miniscule part of the overall workload in the local marriage registrar’s office. If that office is staffed by three clerks, Faith, Hope, and Charity, and only Faith has a religious objection to assisting with same-sex marriage applications, allowing Faith to step aside when no hardship will result for same-sex couples is costless.” This, of course, ignores the vast implications of allowing a publicly-funded government employee to deny civil rights to citizens—not to mention the real threat of “Hope” and “Charity” following “Faith’s” lead. Wilson also took it a step further in her 2014 paper, Marriage of Necessity: Same-Sex Marriage and Religious Liberty Protections, where she advocates for the Religious Right to focus on inserting its corrupted view of religious freedom into state laws.

Wilson is also famous for co-writing an op-ed in The Washington Post in 2014 with Bradford Wilcox, claiming that if women want to stop being sexually abused, they should just get married. Co-author Bradford Wilcox is currently the head of the Religious Right’s “National Marriage Project.” But until 2012 he was a director at the Witherspoon Institute, where he played an integral role in the creation of the thoroughly-debunked study by Mark Regnerus, which claimed that children of same-sex parents turn out much worse than children of opposite-sex parents. Wilcox not only acted as an advisor on the project, but was a paid consultant.

And speaking specifically about the Utah law she helped write, Wilson went so far as to lay out that “if the religious right does not believe that they are going to have those [religious exemption] protections, it cannot push forward the other rights.”

Wilson’s true motives in writing Utah’s “compromise” SB296 law are clear.

LGBTQ supporters of the law are arguing that the religious exemptions in SB296 do not undermine the workplace/housing protections for LGBTQ people. But that misses the entire point of the critique of the bill. It didn’t matter what legalese actually went into the law. In fact, it behooved Wilson, the Mormon Church, ADF, and the other Religious Right actors to make the bill appear favorable to LGBTQ people who desperately need workplace and housing protections.

No, the real agenda was to obtain the endorsement of LGBTQ groups. The Religious Freedom Restoration Acts currently being pushed through state legislatures, particularly in the South, are vulnerable to court challenges. But now that the Religious Right has high-profile endorsements of their false framework of religious freedom and LGBTQ rights being opposed to each other, unfortunately, the ability of LGBTQ activists and organizations to oppose RFRAs and other efforts to codify discrimination—all dressed up in the language of “religious freedom”—has been curtailed.

[1] Same-Sex Marriage and Religious Liberty: Emerging Conflicts. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2008.

Utah LGBTQ Rights Bill a Trojan Horse for Religious Right’s Agenda

There were both cheers and tears as many in the Utah LGBTQ community celebrated the passage of a workplace and housing nondiscrimination law in the conservative Utah legislature. But behind closed doors, I suspect it’s actually the leaders of the Religious Right who are cheering the hardest.

As someone who began as an activist in the Utah LGBTQ community, and fought for years alongside countless others for full workplace and housing protections, I was overjoyed at the possibility that 2015 might finally be the year we stepped closer to equality. Too many LGBTQ Utahns, myself included, have faced that discrimination firsthand. But once the legislation was unveiled, my heart sank. While there is much to be happy with in the legislation, and the protections it offers to some of the most vulnerable citizens in the Beehive State, the law also contains a tiny Trojan Horse individual religious exemptions clause.

The Utah bill is being called a “model” to be used in states around the nation, but we must be forewarned. The individual religious exemption in the law, as small and seemingly noninvasive as it is, could put the civil liberties of everyone at stake for decades to come.

Religious freedom is important, and as a principle has existed since before the writing of the U.S. Constitution. The 13 original colonies were a fractured bunch of near-theocracies, with various Christian sects dominating different colonies—to the detriment of anyone not a member of the particular sect in power locally. Thanks to the wisdom of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, the principle of religious freedom in the Constitution set in motion of the disestablishment of the state churches, and the advantages they held in the public sphere. Jefferson’s famous Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which predated the Constitution and was the first such law to be enacted in the world, said one’s beliefs or non-beliefs cannot “enhance, diminish, or impact” one’s “civil capacity.” Individuals were shielded from the tyranny of churches who had previously sought to force them to adhere to their beliefs, and religions were shielded from governments elevating one religion over another.

It has taken us a long time to make it work and, in truth, we are still working on it.

But the Religious Right has launched a campaign to redefine the meaning of religious liberty, stripping away those protections and once again giving religions the power to circumscribe the rights of individual conscience.

This coalition, led by right-wing groups such as Alliance Defending Freedom (formerly known as Alliance Defense Fund), the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, and Liberty Counsel, is systematically working the courts and state legislatures to enact religious exemptions—essentially a right of religious institutions and individuals to decide which laws they will or will not follow.

In practical terms, this could play out as a business owner invoking faith to deny service to a LGBTQ couple, or refusing to hire Jewish employees. Or a man refusing to promote women to managerial positions because he doesn’t believe men should be subservient to women. We cannot allow such freedom of conscience to become a legal sanction for these and other forms of discrimination.

Mormon Apostle Dallin H. Oaks (right) receives the Becket Fund's "Canterbury Medal"

Mormon Apostle Dallin H. Oaks (right) receives the Becket Fund’s “Canterbury Medal”

One of the Religious Right leaders heavily involved in this campaign is Dallin H. Oaks, one of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints’ (Mormon) senior leaders and member of their Quorum of 12 Apostles. The Mormon church frequently finds itself at odds with members of other faiths who don’t believe it to be a true Christian religion. However, unlike some of his brethren in the all-male leadership, Oaks is deeply involved in the work with the Religious Right. He sits on the board of the international culture warring organization World Congress of Families. He received the 2013 “Canterbury Medal” for his “defense of religious liberty from the Becket Fund. In speeches before conservative groups, Oaks frequently extols the benefits of individuals being able to use their faith as an excuse to dodge pesky civil rights laws.

That’s why, when just a few weeks ago Oaks held a press conference to announce that he and the Mormon church were ready to endorse a statewide nondiscrimination law for LGBTQ people if only the leaders of the local LGBTQ community would sit down and negotiate a “compromise,” many were suspicious.

Oaks was up front about what he was looking for. He and other leaders of the Mormon church enumerated the religious exemptions they wanted included with a nondiscrimination law, including a right for government and health care workers to deny service to LGBTQ people.

SB296, the bill that resulted from those negotiations, was hailed by equality groups and the Mormon church as a “historic compromise” of nondiscrimination and religious freedom. The bill does indeed ban workplace and housing discrimination against LGBTQ people in Utah. But buried underneath those important protections, is a small clause guaranteeing the right of individuals to express faith-based anti-LGBTQ views at work.

It’s a small exemption. Seemingly inconsequential in comparison to the benefits the new law could bring. Viewed purely as a standalone piece of legislation, SB296 does a lot more good than bad and it’s unsurprising to see so many social justice-minded people supporting it.

But the equality movement cannot survive if we view legislation through a short-term and narrow lens. To do so is to ignore the context of the long-term consequences of the Religious Right’s national agenda—which only needs to get a foot in the door to get the ball rolling.

Oaks’ goal with the nondiscrimination law was not to pass full individual religious exemptions all at once. To use the analogy of the unfortunate amphibian, the frog will jump out of the pot if put directly into boiling water. But turn the heat up slowly, and the frog cooked to death. For the LGBTQ community to endorse the Religious Right’s corrupt redefined version of religious freedom, even in this one seemingly minor way, opens the door for the expansion of religious exemptions in both breadth and number.

And as if to confirm this suspicion as quickly as possible, within two hours of the “compromise” SB296 passing the Utah legislature, conservatives in the Utah House of Representatives had also passed two other bills that had not been part of the negotiations: one granting county clerks the right to refuse to perform any marriage they opposed on religious grounds, and the other paving the way for full individual religious exemptions in the public marketplace.

It’s a victory for the Right not only in the success of imposing their agenda into law, but in winning the larger PR battle at a critical moment in time.

As I discussed in Resisting the Rainbow: Right-Wing Responses to LGBTQ Gains, the Mormon church has only ever given in to pressure by the LGBTQ community when its back is against the wall in a public relations battle. After months of heavy protesting over their involvement in California’s Prop 8, they endorsed a municipal nondiscrimination law in Salt Lake City in 2009. In 2010, after 2nd-in-command Mormon leader Boyd K. Packer claimed that there was no way God would allow people to be born gay, protests around the church’s headquarters garnered international attention and prompted Packer’s comments to be officially stricken from the church’s records.

So why did the Mormon church unexpectedly come to the table? Could it be a delayed response to their highly-publicized excommunication of faithful feminist members for asking for a public discussion about why the patriarchal church does not allow female leadership? Unlikely, that was months ago and the discussion has largely died down.

A more plausible explanation is the forthcoming World Congress of Families (WCF) event scheduled for Salt Lake City in October. The international coalition of U.S. culture warriors held a conference last year in Moscow—their name was removed just before the conference started to prevent negative publicity over the situation in Ukraine—where attendees unanimously voted to urge their home countries—like the United States—to pass laws modeled on the Russian anti-LGBTQ law. (That law criminalizes any positive speech about LGBTQ people under the guise of protecting children from “propaganda.”)

WCF attendees and other U.S. conservatives, such as Rick Warren, Sharon Slater, Brian Brown and others, are known around the world for their work in exporting the culture wars abroad, which has resulted in outcomes like the “kill the gays” bill in Uganda.

Dallin H. Oaks is a member of the WCF board of directors.

Thanks to Oaks’ work in helping to pass the “compromise” legislation, the WCF and the Religious Right’s goal of codifying their redefined version of religious freedom into law has taken a giant step forward. Once Pandora’s Box is opened, there’s no shutting it.

Coming Soon to Utah: An International Festival of Bigotry

An international network of some of the world’s most vitriolic Religious Right activists and self-proclaimed orthodox religious leaders is holding its ninth global conference in Salt Lake City, Utah in October 2015. The World Congress of Families’ (WCF) conferences tend to attract thousands of participants and prominent religious and political leaders from all over the world.  If past conferences are any indication, many Americans may be shocked, but not entirely surprised, by the proceedings.

“From Russia to Nigeria to Australia,” as my colleague at Political Research Associates Cole Parke recently explained regarding the WCF IX agenda, “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.” Indeed. It has unleashed a rolling thunder of horrific anti-LGBTQ political activism, legislation, and violence.

Unsurprisingly, the theme of the Salt Lake City conclave will be religious liberty, and the groups involved in the planning of the event are among the best known organizations of the American Christian Right. They include the Alliance Defending Freedom, Focus on the Family, Family Research Council, Americans United for Life, National Organization for Marriage, Eagle Forum, and the Manhattan Declaration. And while the schedule and speakers have yet to be announced, it is worth noting that past participants include top Vatican officials, members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (the top leadership group of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon), and American evangelical and Christian Right leaders.

The Congress will be convening in the wake of the recent dark history of draconian anti-LGBTQ and anti-reproductive health laws in some countries, notably Uganda, Russia, and Nigeria. While WCF and some of its affiliates have cheered and sometimes participated in the development of such legislation, LGBTQ people in those countries have suffered waves of backlash including ongoing harassment, discrimination, prosecution, violence, and murder.

These laws are partly an American cultural export, brought to the world via our own Christian Right.  One of this movement’s cultural ambassadors, Scott Lively, has traveled widely in Eastern Europe, Russia and Africa promoting his views and suggesting legislative solutions. Among his claims are that LGBTQ people are responsible for a range of modern horrors from the Holocaust to the Rwandan genocide.  The virulence of his views have disturbed many of his audiences in different countries. Lively and fellow U.S. culture warriors like Rick Warren and Lou Engle are widely credited, for example, with inspiring the legislation once known as the “kill the gays” bill in Uganda.  While the death penalty provision was eventually taken out, the bill that passed further criminalizes homosexuality and includes potential life imprisonment for some charges.

Russian laws now criminalize blasphemy and “propaganda” (speech) that takes anything other than a negative view of homosexuality and transgender identity.  This situation was considered so oppressive that it was even denounced by one of the America’s leading anti-LGBTQ and anti-abortion political theorists—Robert P. George—who in 2014, served as chairman of the official U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.  George, (the founder of the National Organization for Marriage and the principal author of the Manhattan Declaration) was concerned that the two Russian laws “limit the freedoms of religion and expression and which clearly violate international standards.”

One of the laws penalizes blasphemy with heavy fines and the other prohibits the “promotion of nontraditional sexual relations among minors.”

These laws, George claimed, reflect a growing alliance between the Kremlin and elements in the Russian Orthodox Church that want to restrain both religious and secular dissident voices in public life.

“Besides punishing those who are deemed to have offended the feelings of others, this vaguely worded but sweeping law,” George complained, “gives Moscow’s stamp of approval to certain religious beliefs while criminalizing the expression of others.”

One could certainly say the same thing about the Uganda legislation and other proposed laws that will be praised and recognized as models for the preservation of Christian civilization when WCF IX convenes in Salt Lake City in October.

It should be noted that these international movements are bringing their message to America at the beginning of the 2016 presidential campaign season and thus however they are received by conference attendees, they are also likely to inform our national political conversation.

Will Our Prisons Overflow with Christians?

Many leaders of the Christian Right, from megachurch pastors like Rick Warren to the top prelates in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, have repeatedly threatened civil disobedience (and worse) over marriage equality.  If they follow through on their claims, a summer of “martyrdom” may be at hand if the Supreme Court rules in favor of same-sex marriage this term

The prison industrial complex ought to be thrilled by the prospect of the mass incarceration of Christian Right leaders willing to be martyred for their faith. Prison construction will be booming when the tyrannical Obama regime throws all those opponents of same-sex marriage in the hoosegow.

This is, of course, parody.  But it is also the logical conclusion of the rhetoric and the beliefs of many on the Christian Right.

It is easy to mock those who talk big but don’t deliver. But it is harder to accept the idea that archaic notions of “Christendom” animate the thinking of present day religious and political leaders. But just because it is harder to accept does not make it any less true.

As civil rights movements advance and succeed, inevitably there is backlash.  What form it will take is hard to predict, even though hundreds of Christian Right leaders have repeatedly stated that a pro-marriage equality decision by the Supreme Court is unacceptable. What is less certain is what they actually intend to do about it. Thinkers and leaders of the Christian Right are considering their options, from varying degrees of accommodation and acceptance, to massive resistance and revolution.

Invoking Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” the prominent Christian Right leaders who signed the 2009 Manhattan Declaration promised mass civil disobedience if they did not get their way on marriage, abortion and their redefined notion of religious liberty.  The signers included top conservative evangelical leaders as well as fifty Catholic prelates. These included Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York and such evangelicals as Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals; Tony Perkins, of the Family Research Council; Alan Sears of the Alliance Defending Freedom, and Samuel Rodriguez of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference.

I recently reported here that the fifty Catholic and evangelical signers of a brand new 2015 anti-marriage equality manifesto are drawing a further line in the sand.  Unlike with the Manhattan Declaration, the signers of “The Two Shall Become One Flesh:  Reclaiming Marriage,” are less specific about “whatever courses of action” may be “deemed necessary.”  But they are no less dire in their warning that marriage equality may lead to the destruction of Christendom and the freedoms enjoyed in Western Civilization.

“If the truth about marriage can be displaced by social and political pressure operating through the law,” they declare, “other truths can be set aside as well.”  Marriage equality may lead “to the coercion and persecution of those who refuse to acknowledge the state’s redefinition of marriage… ”.  Their speech is already being “policed” they say, and their “dissent” is being “assiduously suppressed.”

 

The situation is “difficult and dangerous” they declare.  “The same exaltation of false freedom used to justify abortion… is now at work in the revolution of same-sex marriage.”

 

Variants of this notion of “false freedom” permeate the manifesto. Acceptance of marriage equality is the result, they claim, of a “deceptive pseudo-freedom that degrades our ­humanity.  Genuine freedom,” they conclude, “is found in ­obedience to God’s order.”

 

The notion that freedom is obedience to their particular notion of God’s order is not only a howler, but reveals their theocratic world view and sheds light on their preposterous claim that Christianity is “unanimous” with regard to marriage.  Christian denominations, notably United Church of Christ, Alliance of Baptists, and increasingly others (not to mention other religious traditions) recognize and celebrate same-sex marriages all the time.

 

The conservative Catholics and evangelicals behind this latest and similar manifesto do not speak for all of Christianity—and much to their consternation; they also do not speak for all citizens in our democratic, pluralist society.

 

Whether or not any of the leaders of the Cristian Right or of their followers actually engage in civil disobedience and/or other acts of resistance, what is being created is a volatile, fear-driven political climate.