The Christian Right Does Not Want Us to Celebrate this Day

In the heat of our political moment, we sometimes don’t see how our future connects deeply to our past. But the Christian Right does — and they do not like what they see. The Christian Right has made religious freedom the ideological phalanx of its current campaigns in the culture wars. Religious freedom is now invoked as a way of seeking to derail access to reproductive health services as well as equality for LGBTQ people. But history provides little comfort for the theocratic visions of the Christian Right.

The first national Day of the New Year will be one that most of us have never heard of. Authorized by Congress in 1992, Religious Freedom Day has been recognized every January 16th by an annual presidential proclamation commemorating the enactment of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom in 1786.

This seemingly obscure piece of Revolutionary-era legislation is so integral to our history that Thomas Jefferson asked that his tombstone recognize that he was the author of the bill, along with the Declaration of Independence and the founding of the University of Virginia as one of the three things for which he wished to be remembered.

It is worth taking a moment to understand why Jefferson thought it was that important.

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

Jefferson drafted the bill in 1777 but it took a decade to be finally pushed by the then-member of the House of Delegates, James Madison. It is regarded as the root of how the framers of the Constitution approached matters of religion and government, and it was as revolutionary as the era in which it was written. The bill 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.” As the founding documents were developed it became ever clearer that the right to believe differently from the rich and the powerful is a prerequisite for free speech and a free press – and that this is what religious freedom is all about.

Following the dramatic passage of the Statute in 1786, Madison traveled to Philadelphia, where he served as a principal author of the Constitution in 1787. As a Member of Congress in 1789 he was also a principal author of the First Amendment, which passed in 1791.

Jefferson knew that many did not like the Statute, just as they did not like the Constitution and the First Amendment, both of which sought to expand the rights of citizens and deflect claims of churches seeking special consideration. So before his death, Jefferson sought to get the last word on what it meant.

The Statute, he wrote, contained “within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohametan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination.”  So with this clear and powerful statement Jefferson, almost 200 years ago, refutes the contemporary claims of Christian Right leaders, many of whom insist that the U.S. was not only founded as a Christian nation, but according to their understanding of Christianity. Jefferson further explained that the legislature had rejected proposed language that would have described “Jesus Christ” as “the holy author of our religion.” This was rejected, he reported, “by the great majority.”

The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom does not fit the Christian Right’s narrative of history. Nor does it justify their vision of the struggles of the political present, or the shining theocratic future they envision. Indeed, Religious Freedom Day has got to be a dark day for the likes of Tony Perkins, who argues that Christians who favor marriage equality are not really Christians. That is probably why on Religious Freedom Day 2014, Perkins made no mention of what it is really about — and instead used the occasion to denounce president Obama’s approach to religious liberty abroad.

Religious Freedom Day provides an opportunity for us to think dynamically about the meaning of religious freedom in our time – even as the Christian Right seeks to redefine it beyond recognition.

Religious Freedom Day provides an opportunity for us to think dynamically about the meaning of religious freedom in our time – even as the Christian Right seeks to redefine it beyond recognition. The web site that comes up first in a Google search for Religious Freedom Day adds to the misinformation. The group behind ReligiousFreedomDay.com is a small evangelical Christian Right agency called Gateways to Better Education that treats the Day as an opportunity to evangelize. They insist that “Religious Freedom Day is not ‘celebrate-our-diversity day.’” Gateways is part of a wider movement with a long history of efforts to hijack, or compromise, public schools in order to evangelize children. (This is detailed in a book by Katherine Stewart, The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children.)

Nevertheless, in his 2015 proclamation, President Obama declared that religious freedom “protects the right of every person to practice their faith how they choose, to change their faith, or to practice no faith at all, and to do so free from persecution and fear.”

“The Coalition for Liberty & Justice is a broad alliance of faith-based, secular and other organizations that works to ensure that public policy protects the religious liberty of individuals of all faiths and no faith and to oppose public policies that impose one religious viewpoint on all.”

That’s why it was so significant that in 2015, progressives took a big, bold step to reclaim this progressive legacy of the revolutionary, founding era. The 60 organizational members of the Coalition for Liberty and Justice (including PRA) decided to seize the day. We took to the op-ed pages and social media and launched the conversation that has continued to this day.

More than two dozen organizational members of the Coalition contributed op-eds, blog posts, and a storm of posts on Facebook and Twitter. The Coalition’s “Twitter Storm” reached some 590,000 Twitter accounts and more than six million impressions. In two hours on January 16th alone, there were more than 1,500 tweets and 552 individual contributors. Among the Coalition members that participated were Americans United for Separation of Church and State, National LGBTQ Taskforce, Secular Coalition for America, and the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. Bloggers at Daily Kos contributed a wide variety of thoughts about religious freedom and the Day. The Center for American Progress suggested three ways to celebrate.

The executive director of the Joint Baptist Committee on Public Affairs, J. Brent Walker, took to The Huffington Post to discuss how “Jefferson’s radical Virginia statute created a vital marketplace for religion that must be based on voluntary belief, not government assistance.”

It is, he said, up to religious communities to persuade others of their views, and to “count on government to do no more than to protect our right to do so.”

It would be an understatement to say that the outpouring was broad, diverse, and enthusiastic.

Let’s do it again in 2016.

 

“Faith-Washing” Right-Wing Economics: How the Right is Marketing Medicare’s Demise

This article appears in the Fall 2015 issue of The Public Eye magazine.
Click here for a printable PDF.

Click here for a printable PDF.

If you have worked all your adult life and are now receiving Medicare health benefits, you may be vexed to find that the third-largest federal program1 may not cover everything you need. Indeed, as PBS reported in July, “Medicare certainly does not cover long-term custodial care in nursing homes or other institutional settings.”2 Despite its limitations, the federal benefit program remains among the most popular government initiatives in U.S. history, even among Tea Party Republicans, who found a rallying cry in one South Carolina man’s infamous 2009 demand to establishment politicians: “Keep your government hands off my Medicare.”3 A 2011 Marist poll showed that 70 percent of those identifying themselves with the Tea Party opposed any cuts to Medicare.4 More recently, an April 2015 poll from Reuters/Ipsos showed that 80 percent of all Republican voters opposed cutting either Medicare or Social Security.5

Medicare’s broad popularity presents a problem for conservative candidates who are racing each other to eliminate the program as we know it. Some politicians want to cut Medicare as a means of shrinking the welfare state; others want to redirect Medicare’s vast payroll deduction revenues into the hands of private corporations. (Private contractors already administer at least one category of Medicare benefits.6)

President Barack Obama participates in a discussion about poverty during the Catholic-Evangelical Leadership Summit on Overcoming Poverty, at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., May 12, 2015. From left, moderator E. J. Dionne, Jr., Washington Post columnist and professor in Georgetown's McCourt School of Public Policy, Robert Putnam, professor of public policy at the Harvard University John F. Kennedy School of Government and Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute. Photo: White House photo by Pete Souza

President Barack Obama participates in a discussion about poverty during the Catholic-Evangelical Leadership Summit on Overcoming Poverty, at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., May 12, 2015. From left, moderator E. J. Dionne, Jr., Washington Post columnist and professor in Georgetown’s McCourt School of Public Policy, Robert Putnam, professor of public policy at the Harvard University John F. Kennedy School of Government and Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute. Photo: White House photo by Pete Souza

Either way, following the demise of Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign—helped along by Romney’s mocking of poor and working class voters as “entitled” “victims”7—conservatives from across the ideological spectrum have been in search of a new marketing strategy: one that downplays the take-from-the-poor, give-to-the-rich foundations of their policies. Whether and how factional disputes between the Tea Party’s “Freedom Caucus” and the GOP leadership in the House of Representatives can be managed remains to be seen. As William Greider recently wrote8 in The Nation, “The party can’t deal with the real economic distress threatening the nation as long as rebellion is still smoldering in the ranks. Of course, that suits the interests of the country-club and Fortune 500 wing of the party—the last thing they want is significant economic reform.”

In the throes of this turmoil, the free market or “country-club” conservatives are test-marketing a new brand: a Christian-inflected, contemporary remix of the 1980s’ and ’90s’ “compassionate conservatism.” Even as candidates like Jeb Bush (who wants to “phase out” Medicare9), Sen. Marco Rubio (a Florida Republican who has said he wants to raise the retirement age10), and former candidate Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (who proposed cutting $15 million from his state’s Medicare program11) sharpen blades to slash retirement security, a chorus of voices preaching Christian love and generosity toward the poor is rising from two groups whose connections with each other are not widely understood—the Christian Right and what we might call the free market fundamentalists.

Though this new brand may be meant to appeal to those—including many Christians—uncomfortable with rhetoric that demonizes vulnerable people, conservative groups pushing this new poverty narrative aren’t breaking with free market and Christian Right leadership. They have no plans to redress income inequality. Instead, responding to internal pressure from both the Tea Party Producerist Right (whose “makers and takers” frame blames both the undeserving poor and liberal elites as drivers of a system that takes from “real,” productive Americans) and external pressure from the economic populist Left, the Christian Right and free market fundamentalists are changing the packaging on their long-shared policy agenda12 of cutting the government benefits on which vast numbers of people rely.

During this primary season, right-wing populists such as Donald Trump and Sarah Palin have grabbed headlines with the racist implication that everyone who isn’t a “maker” is to blame for keeping the United States from greatness. From a public relations standpoint, this sort of unrestrained demagoguery—dangerous as it is – could polish the shine on the relaunch of compassionate conservatism. But when we turn down the volume on these deliberately offensive antics, it becomes easier to recognize how the new right-wing slogans about poverty pose a serious threat.

This isn’t an entirely new phenomenon. Neoliberal conservatives like Bush, neoconservatives such as Rubio, and free market libertarians like Walker benefit from the decades-long Christian Right re-education of Evangelical voters, around half of whom now believe that capitalism is a Christian system.13 These politicians make the demolition of seniors’ retirement security seem like a tragic inevitability, as uncontrollable as the weather, rather than the political choice that it is.

An early election-season example of this narrative came from Jeb Bush in a July 22 interview, in which he argued that Medicare should be preserved for those already receiving the benefit, but “we need to figure out a way to phase out this program for others and move to a new system that allows them to have something—because they’re not going to have anything.”14

But Jeb’s concerns amount to crocodile tears. As Trump parades through city after city, spewing hate-filled rhetoric, Bush coolly explains how he will enact policies that will cause millions of future seniors to become destitute. By the standards of progressive economic populists, there are no “good guys” among the current roster of conservative candidates. They may differ on message and tactics, but as historian Geraldo Cadava wrote of Bush in a September essay in The Atlantic, “do not mistake his moderate tone, performance of goodwill, or marketability to Latino voters for an entirely different message than his cruder primary opponents.”15

Whose safety net?

“It’s time to declare peace on the social safety net,” announced Arthur C. Brooks, president of the free market think tank American Enterprise Institute (AEI), at Georgetown University’s May 12 Catholic-Evangelical Leadership Summit on Overcoming Poverty, before calling the social safety net “one of the greatest achievements of free enterprise.” Sharing the stage with Brooks were Robert Putnam, a best-selling author and Harvard political scientist whose latest book examines the diminishing prospects for economic mobility in the U.S.16; veteran Washington Post political commentator E.J. Dionne; and President Barack Obama.17 But Brooks did not mean to express approval of direct government benefits such as Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid, TANF, and food stamps. Instead, his declaration of “peace” was the opening gambit for a broader argument to weaken these highly popular government programs.

“The safety net should be limited,” Brooks said, “to people who are truly indigent, as opposed to being spread around in a way that metastasizes into middle class entitlements and imperils our economy.” Brooks did not mention that AEI scholars spent the 1980s, ‘90s and 2000s publishing commentaries and reports pillorying people who apply for public assistance.18 Perhaps the most famous of these scholars is AEI’s W.H. Brady Scholar Charles Murray (coauthor of the noxious 1994 tome The Bell Curve), whose 1984 book, Losing Ground: American Social Policy 1950-1980, provided the intellectual basis for the Welfare Reform Act of 1996, which effectively ended the federal welfare system. Murray’s arguments helped shape the myth of the “welfare queen.” (“Poor, uneducated, single teenaged mothers,” he wrote, “are in a bad position to raise children, however much they may love them.”) Brooks’ comparison of government aid to metastatic cancer echoed those earlier waves of AEI antagonism.

It also underscored an implied threat. Brooks went on: “If you don’t pay attention to the macro-economy and the fiscal stability you will become insolvent. And if you become insolvent you will have austerity. And if you have austerity the poor always pay.” Such statements help make the increasingly precarious middle class fear that government direct aid programs that help their fellow citizens will lead to an economic tailspin. And if Brooks and his peers can effectively frighten the middle class away from defending the social safety net, there will be no constituency left that is strong enough to defend it.

But what will certainly remain are the largely invisible government aid programs for the wealthy and corporations: the billions in public subsidies that allow businesses to profit. That’s the cruel irony at the heart of free market fundamentalism. As political scientist Suzanne Mettler wrote in her 2011 book, The Submerged State: How Invisible Government Policies Undermine American Democracy, privatizing social welfare programs can appear like a more efficient use of taxpayer dollars, and, as such, part of a Reaganite reliance on market-based policy. “Yet, in fact,” she wrote, “such policies function not through free market principles of laissez-faire but rather through public subsidization of the private sector.”19 Because the gigantic subsidies Mettler describes primarily benefit the wealthy corporations that support conservative think tanks such as AEI, conservative intellectuals like Brooks never talk about cutting them. 

Cloaking cruelty with catchphrases

Brooks’ threat of austerity may appear less directly racist than the “bad parent” attacks on African Americans that Murray and others used to pass welfare reform during the 1990s.20 Instead of demonizing the poor outright, this time around Brooks melds Christian rhetoric with economic-speak to offer a more paternalistic, “colorblind” characterization.

“Every one of us made in God’s image,” he said, “is an asset to develop.”21 Brooks is vague about how poor Americans (whom he describes as “the least of these, our brothers and sisters”) can become “assets” in a capitalist sense. But he seems convinced that free enterprise will save them from poverty. Brooks concluded his Georgetown remarks, “That’s a human capital approach to poverty alleviation.” In his recent book, The Conservative Heart: How to Build a Fairer, Happier, and More Prosperous America, Brooks expands on this Christian-lite evangelizing about the sacredness of work: “Work with reward is always and everywhere a blessing.”22

So, instead of welfare or government jobs, Brooks is proposing that work in the private sector will help poor people lift themselves out of poverty. Jeb Bush expressed a version of this idea at a Republican women’s event in late September, saying, “Our message is one of hope and aspiration…It isn’t one of division and get in line and we’ll take care of you with free stuff. Our message…says you can achieve earned success.”23 But this strategy has already spectacularly failed, particularly for communities of color. In a May 2015 New York Times article, Patricia Cohen reported how African Americans who used to be able to make a middle-class living at government jobs have increasingly fallen into more precarious economic situations as their agencies have been privatized.24

Brooks’ use of “brothers and sisters” and “the least of these,” is just one example of how neoliberals have been adapting their language to better appeal to conservative Christians in recent years. The Christian Right has become such an important part of the conservative firmament that other factions of the Right are often obliged to cast their arguments in religious terms, weaving religious ideas directly into mainstream policy debates. And the most glaring example of this shift is that, whenever the public discourse turns to a criticism of income inequality, Corporate and Christian Right intellectuals turn to their new narrative: one that laments the existence of poverty while at the same time prescribing mythic free market capitalism—rather than jobs programs or tangible government supports such as Medicare—as its cure.

Arthur Brooks speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. Photo: Wikimedia // Need to confirm if this is also Gage Skidmore

Arthur Brooks speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland.
Photo: Wikimedia

The billionaires’ Christian scholars

Conservative billionaire2s who have invested hundreds of millions in the U.S. political system, such as the Koch brothers, the Kern family, the DeVoses, and others, now fund a caravan of Christian social scientists, theologians, and scholars to serve as their free market evangelists. The most high-profile of these wealthy backers are the Koch Brothers; not only has AEI received funds from both the Charles Koch Foundation and Donors Trust (a dark-money organization that allows wealthy donors to give anonymously to conservative causes25), but David Koch also served on AEI’s National Council as recently as 2014.26

Brooks and other Christian free market surrogates use biblical language sanctifying the “dignity of work” and the entrepreneurial spirit, and craft slogans to market the Corporate and Christian Right policy goal of dismantling retirement security and health coverage for seniors. But many conservative donors want more than a catchphrase; they also expect a return on their investment in politics. They also want access for themselves to the largesse of the state. Christian Right groups have been working with free market groups since the 1980s to shrink government programs for the needy and move the funds from these programs into the hands of unaccountable, private religious charities.27

Writers in this magazine and elsewhere have documented this trend of ending direct government aid to the poor and elderly in favor of private charity, starting with the 1996 Welfare Reform Act and continuing to the “compassionate conservatism” that WORLD magazine editor Marvin Olasky helped brand for President George W. Bush.28 As Bill Berkowitz wrote for The Public Eye in 2002, “Stripped of alliteration, ‘compassionate conservatism’ is the political packaging of the Right’s long-term goals of limited government, privatization, deregulation and the creation of a new social contract.”29

One tool that “compassionate conservatives” invented for redirecting state funds into private hands was the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. PRA has reported on this office’s funneling of federal grants to religious nonprofits under Bush, and on its continued lack of transparency and accountability under Obama.30

In the Georgetown panel discussion with Obama and Putnam, as well as in his book The Conservative Heart, Brooks updated compassionate conservatism to draw a sharp divide between what he considers the legitimate “safety net” and the abuse of it in “middle class entitlements.” “Help should always come with the dignifying power of work,” Brooks said.

Perhaps hearing Brooks’ remarks as yet another version of the Right’s attack on government assistance programs, Obama responded with a defensive question, asking, “What portion of our collective wealth and budget are we willing to invest in those things that allow a poor kid, whether in a rural town…in Appalachia or in the inner city, to access what they need both in terms of mentors and social networks, as well as decent books and computers and so forth, in order for them to succeed?”31 Obama was giving Brooks a chance to show his support for equality of opportunity for all people, not just for corporations. Brooks offered no response.

Occupy D.C. protesters outside the 2012 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, D.C. Photo: Flickr / www.GlynLowe.com

Occupy D.C. protesters outside the 2012 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, D.C.
Photo: Flickr / www.GlynLowe.com

Charity vs. collective action

Free market neoliberals from both sides of the aisle have not historically concerned themselves with the problems of the poor. Indeed, as the late political scientist Jean V. Hardisty and Northeastern University law professor Lucy A. Williams pointed out in their 2002 essay, “The Right’s Campaign Against Welfare,” the New Right coalition that brought Ronald Reagan to power popularized the idea that there were fewer people living in poverty than government data showed, and that anyone still in need of aid after Reagan’s implementation of supply-side economic policies, such as tax cuts for businesses, was simply abusing the system. “As a result of a decade of message development,” Hardisty and Williams wrote, “the Right was able to augment the justification for the elimination of federal social programs; they should be defunded not simply because they tax our paychecks, but because they destroy recipients’ character.”32

But conservative Christians have a more complex relationship to poverty. Care for the poor is unquestionably a central tenet of Christ’s teachings, and free market ideologues know that even the most profit-motivated Christian has been taught to give back a percentage of his or her income and time to those in need. Christian Reconstructionism33 and its “softer” counterpart, Christian Dominionism, the intellectual movements that undergird much of the Christian Right,34 offer a set of solutions for how a Christian government should treat the poor. As religion scholar Julie J. Ingersoll writes in her 2015 book Building God’s Kingdom: Inside the World of Christian Reconstruction, many of these “solutions,” which are rooted in a strictly literal interpretation of God’s law in the Bible, have filtered into the policy platforms of conservative political figures, most notably Ron Paul, Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, and Rick Santorum.

According to the Reconstructionist and Dominionist worldview, only the elect, or God’s chosen few in the church, get to govern.35 These elect see it as their duty, Ingersoll writes, to “transform every aspect of culture to bring it in line with [the] Bible.”36 This follows from a Calvinist interpretation of the Bible, which posits that only the elect will get into Heaven.

“Retirement is not a Biblical concept. That is a pagan concept.” – Tea Party “Historian” David Barton

A recent example of this vision came in a July 6 video interview that self-styled Tea Party “historian” David Barton gave,37 in which he helped amplify the conservative chorus for cutting Medicare. “Retirement is not a Biblical concept,” Barton said. “That is a pagan concept.” Barton seems to be in favor of doing away with retirement altogether. But despite this hardline—and surely unpopular—position, Barton’s political star appears to be on the rise. In September, Texas senator and GOP presidential candidate Ted Cruz hired Barton to lead his superPAC. Time will tell whether Barton can parlay his grassroots Tea Party network into votes for Cruz.38 But with Barton granted such an influential platform, other Christian Dominionists will likely be emboldened to promote their version of biblical government.

Faith-washing inequality

Since even a shrunken, limited government would have to remain as part of a Dominionist transformation, in recent years the Christian Right has had to address the sticky question of how government should behave toward the poor—especially within the context of unfettered global capitalism. In other words, how can the Christian Right reconcile Christ’s admonition in Matthew 25:40 to care for “the least of these” with a system of global capital that allows the one percent to hoard trillions while 16.4 million U.S. children are living in poverty?

Enter the Koch brothers and Christian free enterprise. As Peter Montgomery wrote in The Public Eye’s Spring 2015 issue, “The Koch brothers, who describe themselves as libertarians uninterested in social conservatives’ culture wars, are more than willing to use Christian Right voters as well as mountains of cash to achieve their anti-government, anti-union ends.”39 Through the use of obscurely-named trust funds such as Themis, ORRA, and EvangCHR4,40 the fossil-fuel tycoons have established the Christian free market think tank Institute for Faith, Work and Economics (IFWE), which has set about resolving this area of potential tension between the Corporate and Christian Right.

Koch-funded theologians have developed a scripture-based argument to address populist anger over economic inequality, blending the Christian Right’s traditional Calvinist hierarchies with an economically Darwinist framework that says it is correct and just for wealth to accrue to those who manage it best.

Beyond advocating simple charity, IFWE theologians have developed a scripture-based argument to address populist anger over economic inequality, blending the Christian Right’s traditional Calvinist hierarchies—the preordained, saved “elect” vs. the rest of us41—with an economically Darwinist framework that says it is correct and just for wealth to accrue to those who manage it best.

IFWE’s Anne Rathbone Bradley, an economist and former advisor to Charles Koch,42 offers the fullest version of this argument, writing in a recent paper, “Why Does Income Inequality Exist?,”43 that people are simply “created differently, and some of us will earn higher incomes than others.”

Much of Bradley’s theological justification for this claim rests on her Calvinist interpretation of the Bible’s “Parable of the Talents,” and how it provides for what she calls “a diversity in income.” Also known as The Parable of the Bags of Gold, Matthew 25:14-30 tells of three servants and their master, who, before departing on a journey, leaves the servants to guard his wealth. To the first, he gives five bags of gold. To the second, he gives two. And to the third, only one—“each according to his ability.” Upon his return, he finds his first two “good and faithful” servants have invested and doubled the amount of gold that each was given. The third buried his master’s gold in the ground and naturally retrieved only what was given to him. This servant, who merely saved the money, was chastised as wicked and lazy, and sentenced to be thrown “outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

People are simply “created differently, and some of us will earn higher incomes than others.” – IFWE’s Anne Rathbone Bradley, former advisor to Charles Koch

Bradley sees in this parable a lesson about God-granted “diversity in abilities,” which in turn justifies and normalizes income inequality. Those who gain wealth have done so because they applied their God-given abilities. Those who have not lack the ability to do so. Bradley’s interpretation also rationalizes the perpetuation of income inequality because, had the master “given each man an equal amount, putting equality over ability,” Bradley writes, “he would have squandered his resources” by limiting his potential profits. (AEI’s Arthur Brooks echoed this point in a July interview with The Christian Post, saying, “I think Christians, in particular, can design their own thinking about politics around the 25th Chapter of Matthew, and thinking about people with less, and especially people with less power.”4546)

Using the Parable of the Talents to inform policy decisions is just the latest in a long series of Christian and Corporate Right intellectual projects. Marvin Olasky emphasized the importance of the business-faith alliance in a 2010 essay titled “Prophets and Profit,” in a Heritage Foundation anthology called Indivisible: Social and Economic Foundations of American Liberty. “Social conservatives who revere the Bible can learn much about how to apply it from economic conservatives who share a realistic outlook,” he wrote. “Economic conservatives also can learn from biblically motivated conservatives the importance of ethical and other non-economic factors in determining economic success.”47

And for those who find themselves on the short end of the “talents”- and profits-stick? For those, Bradley and fellow IFWE theologian Art Lindsley prescribe charity, citing Proverbs 14:30 in their book, For the Least of These: A Biblical Answer to Poverty: “whoever is kind to the needy honors God.” But they make clear that the Bible’s instructions for people don’t apply to governments, or government aid.48 Such arguments help set the table for political debates that devalue the role of government and make it easier for conservative politicians to carve into programs such as Medicare.

Christian free enterprise has thus made significant inroads in policy circles. The “bad guys” in their poverty narrative may have changed; they are no longer the “welfare queens” of the Reagan era so much as liberals accused of a “lack of civility”49 for calling free market capitalists greedy, or progressives labeled fiscally irresponsible for refusing to cut Medicare. But the narrative follows a familiar formula—one that Jean Hardisty identified in her 2000 book Mobilizing Resentment: Conservative Resurgence from the John Birch Society to the Promise Keepers: “skillful leaders recruiting discontented followers by offering simple explanations, complete with scapegoats, for their resentments.”50 We can see the progress this new coalition has made when even the President of the United States is compelled to defend the country’s continued investment in established public benefits on a stage with the head of the American Enterprise Institute.

SIDEBAR: Jay W. Richards: The Free Market's Culture Warrior (click to expand)

One of the “skillful” leaders—as PRA founder Jean Hardisty characterized right-wing strategists who mobilize conservatives’ resentment against poor people and communities of color—who has gone largely unremarked in the mainstream press is Jay W. Richards, a conservative Catholic who currently holds an assistant research professorship at The Catholic University of America’s School of Business and Economics. Richards has been a guest lecturer at the anti-choice, anti-LGBTQ Family Research Council as well as a former visiting fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation. Richards, who earned his Ph.D in philosophy and theology from Princeton Theological Seminary, has also worked stints as a fellow at other right-wing think tanks, including the anti-evolution Discovery Institute, where he edited a book defending creationist curricula. He has authored around half a dozen other books, including the 2009 Money, Greed, and God: Why Capitalism Is the Solution and Not the Problem.63 From his current perch at Catholic University, Richards now focuses on the Christian defense of free market capitalism.

When he isn’t building bridges between the Corporate and Christian Right, Richards is a culture warrior. He expresses transphobic, homophobic, and anti-abortion views on his social media pages. On April 10, he posted an article bearing a photo of concrete gargoyle-demons on his Facebook and Twitter pages with the caption, “The subject few are willing to broach: The Attack on Marriage Is Diabolical”—a suggestion that the devil is behind the push for same-sex marriage. On May 24, he snarked on Facebook and Twitter about the news of the Boy Scouts allowing gay troop leaders by commenting, “Sticking a crow bar in the Overton Window” next to the article title, “‘Be Prepared’: ‘Gay Men’ with Boy Scouts in Tents,” equating openly gay Scout leaders with sexual predators entering Scouts’ tents.

More recently, though, Richards has shifted his emphasis from social and cultural sniping to economic and political issues. The Christian Right is increasingly turning to Richards as a thought leader on reconciling biblical economics with homophobic, white nationalist-tinged Producerism.

Moment of opportunity

Christian Right politicians sometimes acknowledge a personal wish to help the poor. Former Virginia Congressmember Frank Wolf, speaking at an AEI event in May 2013, offered such a platitude: “I am compelled because of my faith,” he said, “to have compassion for the weak and vulnerable in our midst.”51

Working class and poor people form a diverse grassroots base that can mobilize to win political power; they may not be quite as “weak and vulnerable” as Wolf supposes. Leaders on the Right have in some ways learned to harness this power. While the 2008 economic crash led, on the Left, to the Occupy movement and the Wisconsin pro-labor uprisings of 2011 and 2012, the Tea Party used populist anger over the economy to marshal White working-class voters to sweep the state and federal legislatures in 2010. But after Mitt Romney’s defeat in the 2012 presidential campaign, following his tone-deaf comments about working Americans “who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it,”52 conservative candidates are working harder than ever to appeal to working-class voters.

As historian Bethany Moreton, author of the 2009 book To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise, has observed, Tea Party leaders gained ground by building a voter base through local town hall events and involvement with White cultural institutions such as conservative churches and corporations like Walmart. Because Tea Party populism included Christian free market principles among its broadly shared core values, it has been difficult for dissenting Left groups such as the union-backed Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart) and the Fight for 15 movement to disrupt Tea Party populism with a call for better treatment of workers. Thanks to Walmart’s cultural innovation of “blending Christian service ideals with free market theories,” Moreton has written,53 the company has given rise to an entire low-wage workforce in the retail sector that prefers Christian ideas about charity to collective action or government reform. “The same retail workers that progressive unions sought to organize,” writes Moreton of Walmart’s exponential growth in the 1970s and ‘80s, “report that they are more likely to turn to God for help on the job than to a union, a feminist organization, or a government agency.”

But where there are still unions, the grassroots political power of the working class still militates toward the Left. In the face of a jobless recovery and historic inequality, economic justice arguments are making an impact. The 2009-2014 decline in median wages across all income groups,54 along with high-profile demonstrations by low-wage workers, has left the Corporate Right politically vulnerable. An August Gallup poll showed that one in five U.S. workers worry they will have their hours and wages cut at work (up from the teens before the 2008 recession).55 Meanwhile, the rich keep getting richer: between 2009 and 2012, one study showed that the top one percent captured 95 percent of total income growth.56

Even in non-union regions and sectors of the workforce, movements for economic justice have gotten more sophisticated, sometimes with an analysis that appeals to Christians. The North Carolina-based Moral Mondays movement, for example, has built a robust activist base through progressive pastors and faith leaders calling for broad-based economic justice, investment in public education, and an end to inequality. Further, about a year ago, the Fight for 15 fast-food campaign began involving home care workers,57 who represent a workforce, two million strong, of mostly low-wage women, immigrants, and people of color. Although home care workers’ campaign for public support—a moral appeal called Caring Across Generations—has been underway for years, they had never before combined forces strategically to stand with other low-wage workers. The marriage of a bad mood among the voting public with effective economic justice organizing has created a moment of opportunity for mass political mobilization.

Whose vision will prevail?

Industrialist donors are not waiting around for the Christian Right to step in and help them sell their policy agenda of dismantling government benefits. Instead, as demonstrated above, they have begun recruiting—and funding—experienced Christian scholars and public relations experts to make their case in the media and on college campuses. The Koch-funded IFWE is one center for this activity; so is the Foundation for Economic Education, a project of the ultraconservative Mackinac Center for Public Policy run by libertarian leader Lawrence Reed58; and the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that takes aim at mainline churches with funding from neoconservative and Christian Right groups.59

But their victory is by no means assured. Communities of color who were pilloried and thrown off the welfare rolls under President Bill Clinton’s Welfare Reform Act were, it turns out, the canaries in the coal mine. Now, most of the White workforce finds its wages cut; many have had to go on food stamps or apply for other benefits. Indeed, 40.2 percent of 2013 food stamp recipient household heads were White60; in addition, more than half of 2013 Medicare beneficiaries were White in all states except Hawaii and the District of Columbia.61

Now, while Producerist right-wing populists like Trump demonize immigrants and liberal elites as moochers (and worse62), some Corporate and Christian Right leaders are offering another line: that everyone flourishes according to his or her talents. This approach could appeal to those conservative Christians unconvinced by market logic and resistant to the mean-spirited attacks of Trump and the Tea Party..

Christian Right and Corporate Right thought leaders like Barton, Bradley, and Brooks may use gentler language that strikes a chord with some conservatives, but the policies they promote bespeak a different vision. The elitism that undergirds their collaboration is fundamentally at odds with the equality of economic opportunity that liberals, and even some Republicans, hold as a core value.

In a world where the Parable of the Talents justifies regressive economic policy, those who lack property are left to fend for themselves.

The coalition of Christian conservatives and free market fundamentalists promotes a vision that elevates property rights—rather than human rights—to the level of sacred principle. With wages continuing to fall even as the business world recovers from the Great Recession, it is clear that enacting policy according to this principle leads to profit for a few, and suffering for many.

In a world where the Parable of the Talents justifies regressive economic policy, those who lack property are left to fend for themselves. But there is another way. It is not enough for those who desire economic justice to ridicule or denounce the overtly racist rhetoric of a Donald Trump. Politicians also need to hear a full-throated rejection of the narratives that treat poor people, immigrants, and people of color as “the least of these” or “assets to develop.” Such messages infantilize everyone who may one day rely on widely supported social safety nets; they are also portents of the broader benefit cuts that conservatives hope to enact. Now that billionaires have already purchased many of the mechanisms of democracy, people who do not want a future without programs such as Medicare and Social Security must act quickly to join and strengthen the collective movements that can defend them.


Mariya Strauss is PRA’s Economic Justice Researcher. 

Jaime Longoria contributed research and reporting to this article.


Endnotes:

1 “The Facts on Medicare Spending and Financing,” The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, July 24, 2015, http://kff.org/medicare/fact-sheet/medicare-spending-and-financing-fact-sheet/.

2 Philip Moeller, “Medicare coverage for aging parents’ care is not nearly enough,” PBS.org, July 22, 2015, www.pbs.org/newshour/making-sense/medicare-coverage-aging-parents-care-nearly-enough/.

3 Philip Rucker, “Sen. DeMint of S.C. Is Voice of Opposition to Health-Care Reform,” The Washington Post, July 28, 2009, https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/07/27/AR2009072703066_2.html.

4 David Weigel, “Poll: 70 percent of ‘Tea Party Supporters’ oppose Medicare cuts,” Slate, April 19, 2011. http://www.slate.com/blogs/weigel/2011/04/19/poll_70_percent_of_tea_party_supporters_oppose_medicare_cuts.html

5 Amanda Becker, “Americans don’t like big government–but like many programs: poll”, Reuters, April 30, 2015. http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/04/30/us-usa-election-libertarians-idUSKBN0NL15B20150430

6 Suzanne Mettler, The Submerged State: How Invisible Government Policies Undermine American Democracy (Chicago Studies in American Politics), (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), Kindle Locations 333-335.

7 Molly Moorhead, “Mitt Romney says 47 percent of Americans pay no income tax,” PolitiFact.com, September 18, 2012, http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2012/sep/18/mitt-romney/romney-says-47-percent-americans-pay-no-income-tax/.

8 William Greider, “Why Today’s GOP Crackup Is the Final Unraveling of Nixon’s ‘Southern Strategy’,” The Nation, Oct. 12, 2015, http://www.thenation.com/article/why-todays-gop-crackup-is-the-final-unraveling-of-nixons-southern-strategy/.

9Jeb Bush: We Need to “Phase Out” Medicare  [Video] Retrieved September 21, 2015, from https://youtu.be/Ry_fRjLyE68.

10 Jonnelle Marte, “Marco Rubio’s plan to fix America’s Retirement System,” The Washington Post, May 13, 2014, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonkblog/wp/2014/05/13/marco-rubios-plan-to-fix-americas-retirement-system/.

11 “Walker had proposed forcing tens of thousands of participants in the state program to enroll in private plans through the federal Medicare Part D benefit.” See: Jason Stein and Patrick Marley, “GOP Lawmakers Restore SeniorCare Benefits,” Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, May 21, 2015, http://www.jsonline.com/news/statepolitics/joint-finance-to-deal-today-with-troubled-wedc-cuts-to-seniorcare-b99504512z1-304551231.html.

12 For a fuller discussion of how free market economic ideologues co-evolved with the Christian Right, see: Kim Phillips-Fein, Invisible Hands: The Businessmen’s Crusade Against The New Deal. (New York: W.W. Norton, 2010).

13 Kevin M. Kruse, “A Christian Nation? Since When?,” The New York Times, March 14, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/15/opinion/sunday/a-christian-nation-since-when.html?_r=0 and http://religiondispatches.org/capitalism-and-christianity/.

14 Tara Culp-Ressler, “Jeb Bush Quietly Suggests ‘Phasing Out’ Medicare,” ThinkProgress.org, July 23, 2015, http://thinkprogress.org/health/2015/07/23/3683804/jeb-bush-medicare/.

15 Geraldo L. Cadava, “Will Latino Voters Support Jeb Bush?,” The Atlantic, September 1, 2015, http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/09/jeb-bush-inadequate-latino-ties/402748/.

16 As Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig points out, Putnam’s latest book suffers from an unwillingness to confront the root causes of inequality; yet Putnam is still viewed by many as an authority on the subject. See: Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig, “Lost Opportunity,” Democracy Journal 38 (Fall 2015), http://www.democracyjournal.org/38/lost-opportunity.php?page=all.

17 “Obama at Georgetown: Now is the Time to Invest in Helping the Poor,” Georgetown University, May 12, 2015, https://www.georgetown.edu/news/poverty-summit-2015-with-obama.html.

18 One example of this reviling of the poor can be found in this white paper from an AEI scholar: Nicholas Eberstadt, “American Exceptionalism and the Entitlement State”, American Enterprise Institute, January 5, 2015, https://www.aei.org/publication/american-exceptionalism-entitlement-state/.

19 Suzanne Mettler, The Submerged State: How Invisible Government Policies Undermine American Democracy (Chicago Studies in American Politics), (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), Kindle Edition (Locations 410-413).

20 Jean V. Hardisty, Mobilizing Resentment: Conservative Resurgence from the John Birch Society to the Promise Keepers, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999).

21 Brooks is referring to a strain of neoliberal economics that focuses on maximizing what late 20th century economists such as Gary Becker termed “human capital,” or the education and job skills of members of a given population. The human capital of a country is one yardstick that international financiers such as the World Bank uses to measure how developed that country is for the purposes of calculating how much austerity to impose on that country as part of economic restructuring. See: http://www-wds.worldbank.org/external/default/WDSContentServer/WDSP/IB/1995/03/01/000009265_3970702134116/Rendered/PDF/multi0page.pdf.

22 Arthur C. Brooks, The Conservative Heart: How to Build a Fairer, Happier, and More Prosperous America, (New York: HaperCollins, 2015), 68, http://www.amazon.com/dp/0062319752/.

23 Sean Sullivan, “Jeb Bush: Win Black Voters with Aspiration, Not Free Stuff,” The Washington Post, September 24, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-politics/wp/2015/09/24/jeb-bush-win-black-voters-with-aspiration-not-free-stuff/.

24 Patricia Cohen, “Public-Sector Jobs Vanish, Hitting Blacks Hard,” New York Times, May 24, 2015, http://mobile.nytimes.com/2015/05/25/business/public-sector-jobs-vanish-and-blacks-take-blow.html.

25 Andy Kroll, “Exposed: The Dark-Money ATM of the Conservative Movement,” Mother Jones, February 5, 2013, http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2013/02/donors-trust-donor-capital-fund-dark-money-koch-bradley-devos.

26 Center for Media and Democracy, “Ties to the Koch Brothers,” SourceWatch.org, http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php/American_Enterprise_Institute#cite_note-7.

27 Joseph E. Lowndes, From the New Deal to the New Right: Race and the Southern Origins of Modern Conservatism, (Michigan: Yale University Press, 2008).

28 Ben Koons, “Compassionate Conservatism: An interview with Marvin Olasky,” The Princeton Tory, April 22, 2012, http://theprincetontory.com/main/compassionate-conservatism-an-interview-with-marvin-olasky/.

29 Bill Berkowitz, “Tilting at Faith-based Windmills,” The Public Eye, July 1, 2002, http://www.politicalresearch.org/2002/07/01/tilting-at-faith-based-windmills/#sthash.fLhY6V1P.dpbs.

30 Clarkson, Frederick. “An Uncharitable Choice: The Faith-Based Takeover of Federal Programs,” The Public Eye, Fall 2014, http://www.politicalresearch.org/2014/10/10/an-uncharitable-choice-the-faith-based-takeover-of-federal-programs/.

31 President Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President in Conversation on Poverty at Georgetown University,” The White House—Office of Press Secretary, May 12, 2015. https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/05/12/remarks-president-conversation-poverty-georgetown-university.

32 Jean V. Hardisty and Lucy A. Williams, “The Right’s Campaign Against Welfare,” From Poverty to Punishment: How Welfare Reform Punishes the Poor, Applied Research Center, Gary Delgado, ed., 2002, http://www.jeanhardisty.com/writing/articles-chapters-and-reports/the-rights-campaign-against-welfare/.

33 Leo P. Ribuffo, The Old Christian Right: The Protestant Far Right from the Great Depression to the Cold War, (Philadelphia, Pa: Temple University Press, 1983).

34 Chip Berlet, “The Roots of Dominionism,” Political Research Associates, http://www.publiceye.org/christian_right/dom_roots.html.

35 Peter Montgomery, “Biblical Economics: The Divine Laissez-Faire Mandate,” The Public Eye, April 21, 2015, http://www.politicalresearch.org/2015/04/21/biblical-economics-the-divine-laissez-faire-mandate/.

36 Julie J. Ingersoll, Building God’s Kingdom: Inside the World of Christian Reconstruction, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 49.

37 “RWW News: David Barton Says God Opposes Retirement Because It ‘Is A Pagan Concept.’”  YouTube video, 1:55.  Posted by “RWW Blog,” July 6, 2015, http://www.rightwingwatch.org/content/barton-god-opposes-retirement-because-it-pagan-concept

38 Zachary Mider, “PAC Built by Ted Cruz Mega-Donors Gets Evangelical Leader,” Bloomberg Politics, September 9, 2015, http://www.bloomberg.com/politics/articles/2015-09-09/pac-built-by-ted-cruz-mega-donors-gets-evangelical-leader.

39 Peter Montgomery, “Biblical Economics: The Divine Laissez-Faire Mandate,” The Public Eye, April 21, 2015, http://www.politicalresearch.org/2015/04/21/biblical-economics-the-divine-laissez-faire-mandate/.

40 In an August 22, 2015 blog post at PRWatch, Lisa Graves, Executive Director of the Center for Media and Democracy and an expert on the Koch brothers, wrote that EVANGCHR4 “is legally tied to a mysterious limited liability corporation called ‘ORRA LLC,’ which received more than $5 million from the Kochs’ Freedom Partners operation.” Graves also established that Family Research Council Action, the nonprofit arm of the Family Research Council, received funding from EVANGCHR4 between June 2013 and May 2014, when disgraced TV reality star Josh Duggar was head of FRC Action. See: http://www.prwatch.org/node/12914.

41 Researcher Chip Berlet explained the basis of Calvinist theocracy in this magazine in 2004: “These ‘Elect’ were originally thought to be the only people going to Heaven. To the Calvinists, material success and wealth was a sign that you were one of the Elect, and thus were favored by God. Who better to shepherd a society populated by God’s wayward children?” See: http://www.publiceye.org/magazine/v18n3/berlet_calvinism.html.

42 Lisa Graves, “Josh Duggar-led Group Funded via Koch Brothers Freedom Partners Operation,” PR Watch, August 22, 2015, http://www.prwatch.org/node/12914.

43 Anne R. Bradley, “Why Does Income Inequality Exist? – Part Two,” Institute for Faith, Work & Economics, June 5, 2012, http://tifwe.org/resources/income-inequality/part-two/.

44 Ibid.

45 Napp Nazworth, “Arthur Brooks: Conservative Policies Help the Powerless, Christians Can Lead the Way (Interview),” The Christian Post, July 15, 2015, http://www.christianpost.com/news/arthur-brooks-conservative-policies-help-the-powerless-christians-can-lead-the-way-interview-141520/.

46 Contrary to the teachings of the “prosperity gospel” popularized in the mid-2000s, this version of Christian capitalism says that those of any faith, not just Christianity, can become wealthy. Where Prosperity Gospel held no hope for non-Christians, this defense of inequality encourages the listener to aspire: if I have the right skill sets and abilities, I too can one day “flourish,” or amass wealth.

47 Marvin Olasky, “Profit: Prophets and Profit,” in Indivisible: Social and Economic Foundations of American Liberty, (Washington, D.C.: Heritage Foundation, 2010), 41.

48 Anne R. Bradley and Arthur W. Lindsley, Eds., Forward by Arthur C. Brooks, For the Least of These: A Biblical Answer to Poverty, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014), http://www.amazon.com/For-Least-These-Biblical-Poverty/dp/0310522994#reader_0310522994.

49 Jim Wallis and Jay Richards: The Common Good and the Church. YouTube video. Posted by “Henry Center,” July 6, 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nnV7jvroX6U.

50 Jean V. Hardisty, Mobilizing Resentment: Conservative Resurgence from the John Birch Society to the Promise Keepers, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999), 12.

51 “Competing Visions of the Common Good: Rethinking Help for the Poor,” American Enterprise Institute, May 23, 2013, http://www.aei.org/events/competing-visions-of-the-common-good-rethinking-help-for-the-poor/.

52 David Corn, “Secret Video: Romney Tells Millionaire Donors What He REALLY Thinks of Obama Voters,” Mother Jones, September 17, 2012, http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/09/secret-video-romney-private-fundraiser.

53 Moreton, Bethany and Voekel, Pamela. “Learning from the Right: A New Operation Dixie?” in Katz, Daniel and Greenwald, Richard A., eds., Labor Rising: The Past and Future of Working People in America, (New York: The New Press, 2012), 26-36.

54 National Employment Law Project, “Occupational Wage Declines Since the Great Recession,” NELP Data Brief, September 2015, http://www.nelp.org/content/uploads/Occupational-Wage-Declines-Since-the-Great-Recession.pdf.

55 Rebecca Riffkin, “One in Five Employed Americans Worried About Wage Reduction,” GALLUP.com, August 31, 2015, http://www.gallup.com/poll/185000/one-five-employed-americans-worried-wage-reduction.aspx.

56 Estelle Sommeiller and Mark Price, “The Increasingly Unequal States of America: Income Inequality by State, 1917 to 2012,” Economic Policy Institute, Jan. 26, 2015. http://www.epi.org/publication/income-inequality-by-state-1917-to-2012/.

57 “Mr. Reed runs Mackinac (pronounced MAK-in-aw), the largest of the right’s state-level policy institutes. The center started its training program eight years ago, and it has alumni in nearly every state and 37 countries, from Uruguay to Nepal.” See: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/17/us/politics/17thinktank.html?ex=1321419600&en=3b6af3fbfa4ff01e&ei=5090&partner=rssuserland&emc=rss%C2%A0&_r=0.

58 Frederick Clarkson, “The Campaign to Undermine Pro-LGBTQ Churches,” Political Research Associates, March 29, 2015, http://www.politicalresearch.org/2015/03/29/the-campaign-to-undermine-pro-lgbtq-churches/#sthash.tmXZsvUY.dpbs.

59 Alissa Scheller and Arthur Delaney, “Who Gets Food Stamps? White People, Mostly,” The Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/02/28/food-stamp-demographics_n_6771938.html.

60 The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, “Distribution of Medicare Beneficiaries by Race/Ethnicity,” http://kff.org/medicare/state-indicator/medicare-beneficiaries-by-raceethnicity/#map.

61 Jen Hayden, “Trump supporters behaving badly, several immigration activists assaulted at rallies,” Daily Kos, September 14, 2015, http://www.dailykos.com/story/2015/09/14/1421139/-Trump-supporters-behaving-badly-several-immigration-activists-assaulted-at-rallies.

62 Kyle Mantyla of Right Wing Watch reviewed Money, Greed, and God in 2010, and summarized its premise: “As Richards explains, any inequality that results from unrestricted, deregulated free trade is part of God’s will because the entire system of free market capitalism is God’s means of working his will in the world.” See: http://www.rightwingwatch.org/content/random-book-blogging-money-greed-and-god.

 

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.

The Religious Right Has Been Pushing Anti-Union Right to Work Laws for A Century

“I have enjoyed seeing the unions shrink,” crowed Christian Reconstructionist Gary North on his blog, “Tea Party Economist,” on February 27. The following week, the Wisconsin state legislature rammed through a bill that weakens unions by allowing workers to benefit from union-bargained wages and working conditions without being required to pay any dues or agency fees. A triumphant Gov. Scott Walker (R) signed the new law March 9. The Wisconsin law is not unique, but part of a long-term trend of Religious Right support for Corporate Right actors and robber barons like the Koch Brothers.

 

Wisconsin Teamsters protest the "right to work" law

Wisconsin Teamsters protest the “right to work” law

Such laws, dubbed “right to work” laws in the 1940s by anti-unionists within the Christian Right, were passed long ago in states throughout the anti-union South and West. Now, we are witnessing their resurgence in formerly union-friendly states such as Michigan and Wisconsin. As even North admits, the spin is a ruse: “There is no right to work…But the phrase, “right to work,” has been a political winner for a generation.”

In a New York Times op-ed this last week, scholar and observer of the Right Kevin Kruse shared a bit of history on how Christian Right leaders have long helped business leaders whittle away at the economic freedoms granted to working Americans since the New Deal. Kruse mentioned Billy Graham, who in 1952 listed “union dues” and “labor leaders” among the ills that could not have existed in the Garden of Eden. Graham was throwing fuel on the flames of business leaders’ angst over the profits they were losing to their workers in union collective bargaining agreements. By then, too, the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 had opened the way for states to begin passing legislation designed to weaken unions. All that was needed was the right pitch to sell these new bills.

Enter the label “right to work”, which cynically refers to state bills that remove the requirement for workers in a given workplace to actually pay for the representation and benefits the union provides for them. It is a label that has nothing to do with the right to work or the right to a job (as the name seems to imply).  The likely origin of the label can be seen in a research document from 1962 on the National Right to Work Committee, dug up by our friends at the Center for Media and Democracy, suggesting that the term “right to work” was coined by Vance Muse, a Christian Right activist who “was a protégé of John Henry Kirby, oil and lumberman and one-time President of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM).” The business leaders of the day recognized the public relations value of the term, and the pitch worked in Florida, Arkansas, North Carolina, and so on. “By 1954,” writes historian Bethany Moreton in her 2010 book, To Serve God and Wal-Mart, “the entire South had enacted such legislation.”

On CMD’s blog, PRWatch, Jonas Persson also notes that the ultra-conservative, anti-communist Christian Right group the John Birch Society has been involved with the National Right to Work Committee almost since the inception of both groups. “The leadership of the two groups overlapped heavily,” writes Persson, citing the same 1962 research document that shows the NRTWC was part of a coalition with Birchers—including Fred Koch–and segregationist preachers. The connection with segregationists, Moreton notes, is significant: “segregationist Democrats broke the back of the labor and civil rights Left in the years immediately following the war,” she writes.  Just as industrial unions emphasized organizing across racial lines and unifying blacks and whites in a class struggle, right-to-work was a big part of the Southern business leaders’ political strategy to keep these unions out. (Watch for a forthcoming article by Peter Montgomery in The Public Eye magazine that shows how Christian evangelists such as Billy Graham, and later Jerry Falwell, helped to achieve this.)

Now, with nearly unlimited funding available from the Koch brothers (and other billionaires, such as Republican Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner) for political campaigns focused on finishing unions off, new states are in play on the right to work map. As before, part of the battle is still being fought on religious grounds. As Josh Harkinson reported in Mother Jones in 2011, groups such as Focus on the Family and Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council have been dutifully rallying the evangelical base to side over and over again with business leaders over unions. Already, this public relations war has paid dividends for Walker in Wisconsin, where state employees who once could rely on strong unions to give them a voice with which to bargain find themselves adrift.

But it is not over yet. While Walker cites scripture to rationalize his pre-emptive strikes against organized labor in Wisconsin, at least one Catholic group (the Wisconsin Catholic Conference) testified on the other side in Madison during the debate over right to work, citing scripture in favor of unions. And while that effort ultimately failed, in Missouri the results have been quite different. There, last March, the Interfaith Partnership of Greater St. Louis brought the state’s labor leaders a letter saying that the coalition of religious leaders does not support right to work and would help labor fight it. To the embarrassment of Missouri Republicans, right to work failed in 2014, and though it was re-introduced in February 2015, the state GOP does not have the votes to override the promised veto by Gov. Jay Nixon (D).

Given Walker’s popularity among evangelicals, though, coupled with the Corporate Right’s commitment to bringing down unions, we are likely to see more battles over right to work in the next two years. One need only look at long-term right to work states such as Florida and North Carolina to see what happens when the gains made by unions and collective bargaining are eroded: depressed wages, longer work hours, unchecked racial and anti-LGBTQ discrimination and sexual harassment, and failure to follow health and safety protocols. Yet the Religious Right leaders who are shilling for anti-union policies—the same ones who also say that hardworking Americans deserve government assistance—have never taken any responsibility for such consequences.

Right-Wing Pastors Defy Law, Endorse Candidates

The Religious Right’s Campaign to Deregulate Campaign Finance Law

Five years ago, the Corporate Right struck a major blow to the integrity of the American electoral system. The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision unleashed an unprecedented amount of money from private corporations into national, state, and municipal elections. Now, the Religious Right is seeking to make their own breakthrough—a free-flow of campaign dollars to public candidates through tax-exempt churches.

Pulpit Freedom Sunday is an event organized by Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a right-wing Christian legal group based in Scottsdale, Arizona. The event—which takes place annually during the lead up to Election Day—is part of the Right’s ongoing opposition to campaign finance laws that reduce the exorbitant influence of money in politics, and a significant threat to the maintenance of fair elections.

Beginning in 2008, ADF began recruiting pastors to defy the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits tax-exempt organizations (including religious institutions claiming such status) from endorsing or opposing political candidates. ADF encourages pastors to protest these restrictions, assuring them that participating churches will be provided with free legal defense should the IRS threaten to revoke their tax-exempt status. Last year, over 1,500 pastors from across the country joined in.

The explicit goal of Pulpit Freedom Sunday is to have the 1954 Johnson Amendment declared unconstitutional.

Rev. Steven Baines of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, explains why this is problematic and risky for the maintenance of church/state separations: “Basically what you’re doing when you endorse a candidate from the pulpit is you’re flowing thousands of dollars of non-taxed money to political parties. … They are turning houses of worship into political action committees without risking that taxable income.”

It’s an effective strategy, and one that is gaining popularity. In a September 2014 report, Pew Research revealed that “a growing share of the American public wants religion to play a role in US politics … [and that] churches and other houses of worship should express their views on social and political issues.” According to Pew, between 2012 and 2014, the percentage of Americans subscribing to this view increased from 40 to 49 percent.

Building on the Christian persecution narrative, ADF argues that churches are “being silenced across America.” They warn that “pastors are being censored, the proclamation of God’s Truth is being blocked, and churches are being discriminated against and threatened with punishment. … [O]ur most fundamental freedoms—freedom to exercise religious beliefs, freedom of speech, and freedom of access—are being stripped away at an alarming rate.”

Participating in the annual event in 2012, Bishop Harry Jackson declared to his 3,000-member church in Beltsville, Maryland, “Today we violate our IRS regulations because we believe we need a free pulpit.” He then went on to outline the myriad reasons he would not be voting for Barack Obama on Election Day.

The IRS, however, has yet to take the bait. According to ADF, “[T]he IRS has not punished or censored any pastor or church who has participated in Pulpit Freedom Sunday.”

Christian BewareBut not all churches have evaded prosecution. In 1995, the constitutionality of the Johnson Amendment was put to the test in the case of Branch Ministries Inc. versus Rossotti. During the 1992 presidential campaign season, the Church at Pierce Creek (essentially a subsidiary of Branch Ministries) took out an ad in a few national papers saying, “Christian Beware: Do not put the economy ahead of the Ten Commandments.” It asserted that Governor Clinton supported abortion on demand, homosexuality, and the distribution of condoms to teenagers in public schools. The advertisement stated, “Bill Clinton is promoting policies that are in rebellion to God’s laws,” and concluded with the question: “How then can we vote for Bill Clinton?”

In the fine print at the bottom of the ad it also said, “Tax deductible donations for this advertisement gladly accepted. Make donations to: The Church at Pierce Creek.” 

American United protested this blatant misuse of the church’s non-profit tax-exempt status, and in 1995 the IRS revoked their permit. The American Center for Law & Justice—a right-wing legal advocacy group—filed suit, but Judge Paul Friedman ultimately upheld the IRS’s ruling, rejecting the plaintiff church’s allegations that it was being selectively prosecuted because of its conservative views and that its First Amendment right to free speech was being infringed.

RELATED: See Political Research Associates’ full profile on the American Center for Law & Justice”

The court wrote: “The government has a compelling interest in maintaining the integrity of the tax system and in not subsidizing partisan political activity, and Section 501(c)(3) is the least restrictive means of accomplishing that purpose.”

But Christian conservatives maintain that their rights—rather than the integrity of the tax and electoral systems—are under attack, and in addition to goading the IRS with their Pulpit Freedom Sunday antics, they are attempting new strategies to eliminate the “threat” of the Johnson Amendment. In January 2015, Rep. Walter Jones (R, North Carolina) introduced legislation that aims to “restore the Free Speech and First Amendment rights of churches and exempt organizations by repealing the 1954 Johnson Amendment.”

When Jones introduced the same legislation in 2013, the editorial board of the LA Times responded with an op-ed astutely saying, “Far from needing to be repealed, the ban on politics in the pulpit ought to be enforced more aggressively.” Jones’ legislation, they argue, is misleading. “Churches may have a 1st Amendment right to endorse candidates, but there is no constitutional right to a tax exemption.”

Should ADF, Rep. Jones, and other proponents of the unrestricted use of untaxed money succeed, like with the Citizens United decision—which eliminated campaign spending restrictions for private corporations—repealing the Johnson Amendment would open the campaign funding floodgates. And once again, the tidal wave of new money into our public electoral system would be inscrutable by voters.

Among other things, churches would be free to function as illicit funnels for political giving. As Matthew Bulger of the American Humanist Association explains, “If a donor gives to a church, with an understanding that the donated funds will go to a specific political candidate, that original donor can receive a tax deduction for giving money to a church and keep his political donations anonymous. Meanwhile, if this donor gave money directly to the candidate those funds wouldn’t be tax-deductible, and the donor would be noted in public records as a supporter of that candidate.”

Restricting the political uses of tax-exempt money doesn’t persecute Christians—it helps preserve democracy.

**To learn more about the Religious Right’s efforts to deregulate campaign finance reform, check out the new report published this week by Common Cause—Unlimited and Undisclosed: The Religious Right’s Crusade to Deregulate Political Spending.

 Share on Twitter Button  Share on Facebook Button

 

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.

 Share on Twitter Button  Share on Facebook Button

 

The Nullification of Religious Liberty

It’s true. Religious liberty is under sustained attack in America—but not in the way the Christian Right would have us believe. A theocratic (and sometimes Neo-Confederate) movement within the broader Christian Right is targeting the religious liberty of those they don’t agree with. Marriage equality is currently on the front lines of this historic assault. And while it has not always been framed as an issue of religious liberty by LGBTQ activists and progressive allies, that is changing—even as advances in marriage equality in the courts and federal policy are causing some Christian Right leaders to discuss potential state-level nullification.

United Church of Christ's Rev. J. Bennett Guess

United Church of Christ’s Rev. J. Bennett Guess

But the narrative promoted by the Christian Right—that they are upholding religious liberty against a creeping secular totalitarianism—is unraveling. People are getting wise to how the religious liberty of those, religious or non-religious, who wish to marry the person of their choice is being stricken by organized theocratic factions bent on using any tool they can find to ensure that only their definition of marriage and of religious liberty prevails.

An historic example came last week. The mainline United Church of Christ (UCC) won their federal court challenge to a North Carolina law which banned same-sex marriage. The UCC, the first national Christian denomination to recognize same-sex marriage back in 2005, noted that North Carolina’s Amendment One not only made it illegal for their members to marry as same-sex couples, but also made it illegal for their clergy to perform the religious ceremony— even if that ceremony carried no legal weight. The federal judge recognized this infringement of true religious liberty, and made that clear in his ruling for the plaintiffs.

“We are thrilled by this clear victory for both religious freedom and marriage equality in the state of North Carolina,” said the Rev. J. Bennett Guess, a UCC national officer. “In lifting North Carolina’s ban on same-gender marriage, the court’s directive makes it plain that the First Amendment arguments… were both persuasive and spot-on. Any law that threatens clergy who choose to solemnize a union of same-sex couples, and threatens them with civil or criminal penalties, is unconstitutional.”

But even as the court victories pile up— the backlash has also begun.

In response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last week to let stand seven lower court rulings legalizing marriage equality, a leading Republican presidential prospect for 2016, and perhaps the leading politician on the Christian Right, has come out in favor of state nullification of decisions of the Court. Former Governor Mike Huckabee (R-AR) says he hopes that “somewhere there will be a governor who will simply say, ‘No, I’m not going to enforce that.’”

Miranda Blue at Right Wing Watch reports that Huckabee told Iowa conservative talk show host Steve Deace that states should have also ignored Roe v. Wade, and the Court’s rulings banning school-sponsored prayer. “Well, the courts have spoken,” Huckabee declared, “and it’s an important voice, but it’s not the voice of God and the Supreme Court isn’t God.”

“When Deace pressed him on the ‘maelstrom’ that would be set off if state governments simply ignored court rulings on marriage,” Blue’s article continues, “Huckabee responded that it was in fact the courts that have set off a ‘constitutional crisis’ by ruling in favor of marriage equality.”

Rachel Tabachnick and Frank Cocozzelli documented the rise of modern unconstitutional nullification efforts in a recent article in The Public Eye magazine. I followed up with an essay detailing public predictions by Christian Right leaders of violence that would likely follow from the political tensions generated if states defied federal laws, regulations and court decisions. A glimpse of how such tensions are building is revealed in how Republican religious and political leaders are now being forced to try and walk back and manage the blossoming Neo-Confederate surge. This was on vivid display at the 2014 Values Voter Summit in Washington, DC, where radio talk show host Mark Levin explicitly warned against the Neo-Confederate temptation.

The Huckabee interview was significant, in part, because Deace is a powerful voice in Iowa where the first presidential party caucuses will be held. Huckabee, along with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), and Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-LA) have been the main headliners over the past year at Pastor Policy Briefings, organized by the American Renewal Project, which has been one of the main organizing vehicles of the Christian Right for the past decade. Huckabee has frequently headlined these events over the years, while hosting a show on Fox News on Sunday nights. All of which may make him the most trusted and well-known political leader of the Christian Right.

Huckabee’s remarkable view also invites potentially unflattering comparisons to the segregationist southern governors of the Civil Rights era. Gov. George Wallace (D-AL) for one, drew the scorn of Martin Luther King, Jr. in his famous I Have a Dream speech: “I have a dream that one day in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”

Although Huckabee shrewdly did not use the words—nullification and interposition were exactly what he meant.

Huckabee thus brings a decidedly Christian Reconstructionist element to the openly nullification-supportive wing of the GOP, which to date has been identified primarily with Gov. Sam Brownback (R-KS) and former Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX).

Uncoincidentally, Deace suggested in a column on The American View (the website of Neo-Confederate politician Michael Peroutka) in August that a breakup of the GOP is imminent, given the tensions between the so-called establishment and movement conservatives. He also foresees the possibility of a breakup of the U.S. itself, between what he calls “government states” and “liberty states.” According to Deace, officials of the latter “will be pressured by their constituents to defy the feds’ immoral edicts, and defend the people’s freedom instead. This will take America down a dark path it last walked in the 1850s.” He thinks a religious revival like the Great Awakenings of the 18th and 19th centuries may be the only hope. Such dark appraisals are not uncommon these days.

But in the small world that is politics, these leaders and activists are part of a profound and wide-ranging ranging conversation about the religious and political future that is becoming both increasingly urgent and increasingly public. It is also clear that whatever their differences, they agree that the religious liberty of those who disagree with them on the leading issues of the culture war, are but collateral damage in the creating a more theocratic union – if in fact they think it is a union that they still want, or think is even possible.

 Share on Twitte Button  Share on Facebook Button

VVS14 Analysis: Glenn Beck, Mark Levin Try to Quell Christian Right Neo-Confederates

The Christian Right’s annual trade show, Values Voter Summit, is a good place to check the vital signs of the movement that is often—and wrongly—declared dead or dying. And this year’s conference offered a peek into the struggle by Christian Right leaders to tamp down the Neo-Confederate and secessionist ideology growing in, and threatening to break, their ranks.

Right-wing media personality Glenn Beck holds up The Bible and Rules for Radicals at VVS14

Right-wing media personality Glenn Beck holds up The Bible and Rules for Radicals at VVS14

Some critics tend to cast the Christian Right movement as monolithic, when in actuality it has always been at just as fractious and dynamic as it has been powerful and influential. And yet, its considerable successes are sometimes obscured by its leaders’ perennial fear that they may ultimately fail to “restore” their notion of the Christian Nation—and that an evil darkness will fall upon the land. (Yes, much of the public rhetoric at the Values Voter Summit was that prosaic.)

But a deepening shadow of doubt has crept across the Christian Right’s vision of a shining city on a hill since at least 2012 election. Some leaders of the Religious (and non-religious) Right are revealing their loss of faith in American nationhood, and are turning to Neo-Confederate alternatives, including support to secede from the Union (including by some candidates), and a movement to nullify federal laws, regulations and court decisions—all with the full understanding of the political tensions and violence that would likely accompany most of these efforts.

This Neo-Confederatization of elements of the political and Religious Right is such a problem that the State Policy Network of business/libertarian think tanks, (which work in close coalition with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)) issued a PR manual in 2013 which urged members to avoid language that smacks of “extreme views,” advising: “Stay away from words like radical, nullify, or autonomy,” and especially “states’ rights.”

At the Values Voter Summit, we saw a continued effort to hold the fractious Christian Right movement together, and sharp warnings to those who are considering or turning to these Neo-Confederate options. All of which suggests that the leaders may be more worried about their cohesion than meets the eye.

But rather than deliver the main message themselves, the conference leaders left it to popular, non-evangelical co-belligerents: New York right-wing radio host Mark Levin, who is Jewish, and Mormon right-wing broadcaster Glenn Beck.

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, staged a conversation with Levin during a conference plenary which offered some thoughts about how to proceed in the face of Christians being “silenced,” and their religious freedom being “under assault” from so many directions.

Perkins observed (at about 17:30 in the YouTube video) that President Obama has described Islam as a religion of peace, and that the problem we have with Islam is not just far away but right here at home.

“How can we fight an enemy,” Perkins asked, that “transcends not only our international foreign policy but our domestic policy. We are at risk here at home, and we cannot come to the point where we can truly speak the truth because political correctness has basically blinded us to that truth.”

“Well, we need to reject political correctness,” Levin replied on cue. “We need to reject the attempt by the Left to keep us in little boxes, or to move us out to extremes. We are the heart of America,” he declared, jabbing his index finger into the air for emphasis.

“Our belief system is the heart of America. We are the majority of America. And they treat us like we are some minor cult. We are not some minor cult. I don’t need to be lectured by Barack Obama about any damn thing let alone religion or Islam…. I think we need to fight this effort to silence us…. We need to speak out. We need to stand up.”

Levin’s solution is to cast the Religious Right as mainstream America.

At VVS14, right-wing radio host Mark Levin chastises the growing Neo-Confederate movement among the Christian Right

At VVS14, right-wing radio host Mark Levin chastises the growing Neo-Confederate movement among the Christian Right

“You know, I view the political spectrum quite differently,” he explained. “We are in the middle! You’ve got the radical leftists who’ve taken over the Democrat Party [sic]. You have… this Neo-Confederate group out there,” he said, pointing and waving to his right, “that doesn’t really believe in the Constitution and keeps talking about secession and so forth. We are traditional conservatives who embrace the Constitution, who embrace our heritage. This president does not—from his values to his comments to his attacks on my country—does not represent me, period!”

Likewise, Glenn Beck urged the evangelical conference attendees not to succumb to the temptation of “rage” at anti-Christian persecution and the threats to religious freedom in our time. Jesus, he said, was about a “revolution through peace and love” not violence. “Which spirit is leading you,” he wondered. “Which spirit is leading all of us?” You could hear a pin drop in the carpeted room as Beck failed to answer his own rhetorical question.

That the popular Beck was featured to deliver this sermon suggests that conference leadership recognizes they may have led their people over a hate and fear mongering bridge too far. Part of their task now seems to be to bring them back from the Neo-Confederate temptation.

Pointing to the example of Martin Luther King, Jr., Beck said “the Lord would never tell us to do something out of hate, or vengeance, or rage.” He emphasized the need to come together as Americans in the face of the external threat of ISIS, and not to hate one another. Not even LGBTQ people, he said.

Like Levin, Beck sought to position the Christian Right and the conservative movement generally—not as the Right, but as ideologically middle America. He did it in a sly slam on the Tea Party (at about 43:35 in the YouTube video), in which he held up a copy of legendary progressive and civil rights movement organizer Saul Alinsky’s 1971 book, Rules for Radicals—which had been promoted by Tea Party leaders—notably Dick Armey (head of the Koch brothers bankrolled group Freedom Works)—as a manual for anti-establishment disruption.

Beck didn’t mention any of this back story, but stuck to the old Manichean story line. Alinsky had jokingly dedicated the book to Lucifer, giving Beck the opening to read from the book’s dedication, which he said offers a “tip of the hat to the first radical known to man who rebelled against the establishment and did it so effectively that at least he won his own Kingdom—Lucifer.” He claimed that “for many in America, this [Rules for Radicals] is their Scripture.”

We have a choice, he declared, between The Bible and Rules for Radicals.

In fairness, Alinsky was obviously being humorous and provocative, and was not really dedicating his book to Satan. But Beck’s target was not Alinsky so much as the colorfully disruptive and often overtly hate-mongering Tea Partiers, many of whom are conservative Christians, with whom VVS leaders seek to contrast themselves as the mainstream of the GOP (if not America itself). They wish to be seen not as the party of mean spiritedness—but as the standard bearers of religious freedom.

Whether they can sufficiently recover to make the center hold, or whether the Christian Right has tea-partied itself into a stupor of permanent neo-Confederate division, remains to be seen.

 Share on Twitte Button  Share on Facebook Button

“Libertarian Scaife” and His Religious Right Legacy

Richard Mellon Scaife was the “epitome of a libertarian,” or at least, that’s how he was described in the Pittsburgh Tribune Review following his death on July 4. “Libertarian Scaife” is apparently how he wished to be remembered in the city where many of the landmarks bear his famous family’s name. But Scaife’s redefinition as a libertarian is belied by his decades of funding, including as funder of the architect of the religious and political right alliance and religio-political think tanks.

Richard "Dick" Scaife. Image via Fair.org

Richard “Dick” Scaife. Image via Fair.org

The libertarian portrayal of Scaife in the newspaper that he owned, including quotes from his long-time lawyer describing him as the defender of “free speech, freedom of the press, the separation of church and state, a woman’s right to choose, and other individual liberties,” is in contrast with “Citizen Scaife,” the title of the Columbia Journalism Review’s multi-part 1981 profile. The series portrayed Scaife as a “funding father” of the emerging New Right.

At that time, the foundations Scaife controlled were the leading source of seed money for two dozen New Right organizations, and funding for neoconservative military and intelligence think tanks.

And there is another not-so-libertarian legacy of Scaife’s funding that was not mentioned in most of his obituaries.

“Libertarian Scaife” empowered the Religious Right

He did not do it alone, nor was he the first plutocrat to fund the enlistment of amenable religious leaders as partners to roll back the New Deal, or to make use of John Birch Society-style Christian Nationalism to attack unions and the regulatory system.

Today’s constitutional conservatism is a curious marriage of Ayn Rand-style economics to social conservatism, or even a biblical worldview in which American law is to align with biblical law. The plus for plutocratic funders is that this biblical worldview also portrays the Bible as aligned with free market fundamentalism.

That list covers more than a half century and has included Sun Oil’s J. Howard Pew, textile magnate Roger Milliken, and Fred Koch. But few have been better at the behind-the-scenes funding of this partnership than Scaife. The outcome of his actions? An empowered Religious Right, who today prefer the term “constitutional conservative” to describe their wing of the GOP.

The Scaife-controlled foundations—the Sarah Scaife, Allegheny, and Carthage Foundations, run from the 39th floor of the Oxford Centre in Pittsburgh—are at least partially responsible for the consummation of this plutocratic/theocratic partnership. The enigmatic Scaife’s personal activism sometimes conflicted with the unruly offspring of his foundation’s largesse.

The Oxford Centre in Pittsburgh, PA. The Scaife foundations are housed on the 39th floor. Photo by the author.

Oxford Centre, Pittsburgh, PA. The Scaife foundations are housed on the 39th floor. Photo by the author.

Evidence includes a full page ad in the Wall Street Journal in 2011, with a letter by Scaife calling for conservatives to oppose efforts to defund Planned Parenthood. His passing is an opportunity to ask why Scaife and other billionaires have helped to empower, whether intentionally or not, this theocratic-minded offspring that will long outlive them.

Richard Viguerie, leading patriarch of the Religious Right, told a Heritage Foundation audience in April that he was more optimistic than ever that “constitutional conservatives” could take over the Republican Party by 2017. Viguerie insisted that their agenda must go beyond rolling back the New Deal and return a pre-Teddy Roosevelt era, and that the enemy was establishment Republicans like Rep. Eric Cantor. Viguerie suggested that Sen. Rand Paul (R) be given the vice presidential slot on the 2016 ticket in order to bring libertarians on board—not really much of a concession since Paul has himself rejected the libertarian label in the past for that of “constitutional conservative” (and is described as the standard bearer of that movement by his former aid and ghost writer Jack Hunter, a.k.a. the “Southern Avenger”).

Scaife was not a direct funder of Religious Right institutions that are household names (that was left to families like Prince/DeVos and Coors), but he was a major funder of the late Paul Weyrich, shepherd of the Religious Right into GOP politics, and co-founder of the Heritage Foundation, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and the Council for National Policy. Described as the “Robespierre of the Right,” for his purges of the insufficiently conservative, Weyrich left the Heritage Foundation and started what would become the Free Congress Foundation (FCF). Scaife, who had supplied the bulk of the seed money for Heritage and served as vice president of the board until his death, also funded Weyrich’s FCF—sometimes to the tune of over a million dollars a year.

This included in 2001, when the FCF published the manifesto “Integration of Theory and Practice,” calling for a new traditionalist movement of conservatives and right-leaning libertarians, and the following.

“Our movement will be entirely destructive, and entirely constructive. We will not try to reform the existing institutions. We only intend to weaken them, and eventually destroy them. We will endeavor to knock our opponents off-balance and unsettle them at every opportunity. All of our constructive energies will be dedicated to the creation of our own institutions.”

In a 2005 CSPAN interview about his career, Weyrich said that he could not have done what he did without the help of Dick Scaife.

Before Scaife paved the way with millions of dollars for conservative infrastructure, the St. Louis Post Dispatch noted, “there was a world where extremist ideas weren’t repackaged as mainstream by outfits like the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, Judicial Watch, the American Legislative Exchange Council, the Cato Institute or the Federalist Society.”

And Scaife did not stop there. He funded the building of new institutions, but also the destroying of old ones. He extended his impact on American religion by funding entities that undermined denominations and marginalized religious leaders not so amenable to rightwing politics.

Church & Scaife

The Scaife foundations funded the institute that published the First Things magazine of leading neoconservative Father Richard John Neuhaus, and the closely allied Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD)—jokingly referred to during the Reagan administration as “the official seminary of the White House.”

A 2004 exposé by the late Methodist pastor Andrew Weaver was titled “Church & Scaife: Secular Conservative Philanthropies Waging Unethical Campaign to Take Over United Methodist Church.”  Weaver described IRD as a pseudo-religious, neo-conservative organization with a goal of undermining the liberal, social and economic justice mission of mainline Protestant denominations.  Christian Century exposed the fact that 89 percent of IRD’s early funding came from three foundations, and the largest block from the Scaife foundations. Infiltration of the Mainline Protestant denominations came in the guise of renewal groups, as described by PRA fellow Frederick Clarkson, also featured in the documentary “Renewal or Ruin.”

The largest single block of funding for think tanks promoting climate change denial has come from Donors Trust, according to a 2013 study by Drexel University, but a close second is the Scaife foundations at over $39 million dollars (well ahead of the funding from the Koch Brothers’ foundations).

Merging plutocratic interests with religion has been key to promoting climate change denial, including in the 2010 DVD series “Resisting the Green Dragon,” a product of the Cornwall Alliance. The 12-part teaching series, used in churches nationwide and featuring major Religious Right leaders, claims that environmentalism is a religion in opposition to Christianity.  Funding is hidden behind Donors Trust, but the Cornwall Alliance is a project of the James Partnership, founded by E. Calvin Beisner, a fellow with several Scaife-funded entities, including the Atlas Economic Research Institute, Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow, and IRD.

The irreligious Scaife’s molding of religion into the image of right-wing politics was not limited to Christianity.  As reported by the Washington Post, Scaife provided the seed money for former Reagan State Department official Elliot Abrams’ 1997 book “Faith or Fear.”  Sponsorship of the book was suggested by the president of the Hudson Institute and reportedly prompted by Scaife’s concern that most American Jews remain politically liberal.

Islam and immigrants provided a different type of target. The Scaife foundations are major funders of anti-immigrant organizations, but are outspent by Colcom, the leading funder of anti-immigrant causes in the U.S. and founded by Scaife’s sister.

Institutionalized Islamophobia was exposed in PRA’s research report Manufacturing the Muslim Menace, and in Fear, Inc. by the Center for American Progress, with the latter citing the Scaife foundations as the largest single source.

The Pennsylvania Plan

Partnership between free market fundamentalism and religion was extended to the state level through a network of Heritage Foundation-style think tanks in all 50 states.  These are linked through the State Policy Network and ALEC, but also work at the state level with a network of about three dozen state Family Policy Councils, loosely affiliated with the Family Research Council and Focus on the Family.  This infrastructure is described in The Public Eye articles from 1999 and 2013, including coverage of the “Pennsylvania Plan” model of Don Eberly.  Eberly was founder of both the Commonwealth Foundation and the Pennsylvania Family Institute, which work on shared agendas like school privatization.

In a 1989 speech to the Heritage Foundation, Eberly described the need for initiating both free market and religious tanks at the state and local levels.  The Scaife foundations provide funding for both the Commonwealth Foundation and the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy, a similar think tank for the Pittsburgh area.

Scaife’s legacy in Pennsylvania includes an aggressive assault on labor unions.  A PRA report titled “The Well-Funded Anti-Labor Arsenal” tracked $170 million dollars to major anti-union think tanks across the nation over 20 years, where the Scaife foundations provided the largest single block of funding. In 2013, the Commonwealth Foundation launched “Project Goliath,” a plan described with biblical terminology to follow in the footsteps of Wisconsin and Michigan to destroy Pennsylvania’s labor unions.

The Enigmatic Scaife

The libertarian Scaife has been portrayed in obituaries as less zealous in his later years, but the Scaife foundations’ reports show no backing away from right-wing causes, and the efforts to redefine him in his obituaries fail to negate his role as the “funding father” of modern conservatism.  Quoting a column in the St. Louis Post Dispatch,

“Without those early Scaife-paid efforts, there might have been no Fox News, no tea party, no Sarah Palin or Ted Cruz. …Without the Federalist Society, whose members include four justices of the Supreme Court, there would be no corporate personhood decisions like Citizens United and Hobby Lobby.”

I would add that without Scaife’s funding, we might not now live in a nation where the interests of a few plutocratic billionaires successfully masquerade as religion.

 Share on Twitte Button  Share on Facebook Button

VIDEO: Fred Clarkson Explains the Fight for Religious Freedom

The concerted effort by the Religious Right to redefine Religious Freedom is steadily making its way through the courts and legislators. Political Research Associates’ senior fellow, Fred Clarkson, explains why all Americans (religious and non-religious alike), should be paying attention.

 Share on Twitte Button  Share on Facebook Button

Fred Religious Freedom Picture