How the Right is Co-Opting #BlackLivesMatter to Roll Back Repro Rights

The Right Wing’s success in reframing and co-opting social justice movements for the advancement of its own agenda has derailed more than one progressive campaign. With skillfully manipulative messaging, improved healthcare access and reproductive freedom have been redefined as murderous, genocidal crusades; LGBTQ people have been twisted into dangerous, perverse threats to women and children; economic justice efforts are distorted as handouts for lazy, work-averse people.

The Right’s new target? Black Lives Matter.

With the Black Lives Matter movement sparking actions, demonstrations, and conversations around the country, the Right is carefully plotting strategies to divert energy and attention away from racial justice, seeking to preserve the status quo at all costs, and—if they’re crafty enough—gain ground on their own conservative agenda.

As protesters marched and demonstrated from coast to coast following the non-indictment of Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson—the man responsible for the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager—the Right hastily put forward alternative narratives. Among them is an emerging effort to convert the “Black Lives Matter” rallying cry into an anti-abortion campaign.

In December, the Illinois Family Institute—one of many state-based conservative “family policy councils” working to implement a right-wing social and political agenda at the state level—published a blog post entitled, “’Black Lives Matter’ … or do they?” The author, Fran Eaton (a White woman), argued that “the real threat to America’s Black community are abortionists much more than law enforcement officers.” Eaton claims that since the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, “16 million tiny Black lives have perished in abortion clinics.”

too many aborted billboardTo back up her reframing of the Black Lives Matter movement, she turns to two of the anti-abortion camp’s favorite Black surrogates: Ryan Bomberger, co-founder of the Radiance Foundation, and Alveda King, niece of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and director of African American Outreach at the anti-choice Catholic organization Priests for Life.

Bomberger’s organization is infamous for its controversial “Too Many Aborted” billboard campaigns, which began cropping up around the country in 2010. Signs proclaiming “Black Children are an Endangered Species” and “Abortion Makes Three-Fifths Human Seem Overly Generous” were placed in predominantly Black neighborhoods, making no secret of their strategy to target Black women.

bomberger graph

Infographic from the Radiance Foundation

 

As Dorothy Roberts outlined in her seminal 1998 book, Killing the Black Body, there is indeed a long and devastating history of women’s fertility and reproduction being controlled by the state, particularly among communities of color. In some cases, these attacks on reproductive freedom have been furthered not just by conservative White legislators, but also by Black spokespeople.

Sadly, this multi-pronged, insider/outsider assault continues still today, as exemplified by Bomberger and King’s efforts to further restrict access to safe and healthy abortions that are free from shame and condemnation. Increasingly, these ongoing attacks are taking shape in the form of “race and sex-selective abortion bans”—laws that would prevent healthcare providers from performing abortions if they suspect the person seeking care is doing so based on the anticipated race or sex of the fetus.

Race & Sex-Selective Abortion Bans—Stealing the Civil Rights Act

Prior to 2010, only two states banned sex-selective abortions: Illinois passed a ban in 1979, and Pennsylvania passed a similar law in 1982. Beginning in 2008, however, leaders in the anti-choice movement began mobilizing constituents behind this new tactic.

In 2008, Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ), proposed H.R. 7016, the Susan B. Anthony Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act (PRENDA). In a press conference, Franks claimed his strategy was to simply extend standard civil rights protections, encapsulated in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, to unborn Americans. “Sex and race discrimination are already forbidden,” he said. “We took everything applicable from the 1964 Civil Rights Act and applied it to the unborn.”

Franks was joined by Alveda King and several other anti-choice spokespeople, including Steven Mosher, head of the right-wing Population Research Institute. In an article published shortly after H.R. 7016’s introduction, Mosher wrote:

I propose that we—the pro-life movement—adopt as our next goal the banning of sex- and race-selective abortion. By formally protecting all female fetuses from abortion on the ground of their sex, we would plant in the law the proposition that the developing child is a being whose claims on us should not depend on their sex.

This sense of contradiction will be further heightened among radical feminists, the shock troops of the abortion movement. They may believe that the right to abortion is fundamental to women’s emancipation, but many will recoil at the thought of aborting their unborn sisters. How can they, who so oppose patriarchy and discrimination on the basis of sex, consent to [the] ultimate form of patriarchy and discrimination, namely, the elimination of baby girls solely on account of their sex? Many, it is safe to predict, will be silent, while others will raise their voices, but with less conviction.

While the pro-aborts are stammering and stuttering, we pro-lifers will be advancing new moral and logical arguments against the exercise of the “right” to an abortion solely on the grounds of sex or race. For those who are immune to moral arguments, we can also use the examples of China and India, where sex-selective abortion is creating enormous societal problems. The debate over sex- and race-selective abortion will also help to focus the public’s attention on how unregulated the abortion industry is. In these and other ways, the debate over this legislation will not subtract from, but add to, the larger goal of reversing Roe v. Wade and, ultimately, passing a Human Life Amendment. – “A New Front in the Abortion Wars

Franks, considered one of the most conservative members of Congress, has persisted in his efforts, reintroducing the bill in 2008, ’09, ’11, ’12, and ’13. In 2013, Franks also proposed the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which would ban abortions after 20 weeks based on the medically-disputed theory that fetuses can feel pain at that point. That bill, which still lacked sufficient support when it was re-introduced in January of this year, will likely be back up for consideration soon.

Franks’ home state of Arizona is the only state to have passed a race-selective abortion ban. This legislation is currently being contested by the ACLU on behalf of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

As NAPAWF explains:

These bills are part of a deceptive attempt to slip anti-choice measures under the radar. They claim to promote racial and gender equity, when in reality they aim to chip away at reproductive rights by exploiting negative stereotypes about women of color. Using the language of equality, anti-choice conservatives hope to foster nontraditional alliances with true advocates for women and people of color, in order to gain broad support for their agenda.

As in Illinois, Arizona has its own family policy organization, the Center for Arizona Policy (CAP). CAP was originally known as the Arizona Family Research Institute, and from 1988-1993, Franks served as the organization’s executive director. Now one of the most influential political groups in the state, CAP is a member of CitizenLink, a nationwide network of right-wing state level lobbying groups and the policy arm of Focus on the Family. CitizenLink currently lists “fully associated” groups in 38 states.

With the exception of Oklahoma, every other state to have successfully passed sex-selective abortion bans thus far (Arizona, Kansas, North Dakota, South Dakota, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania) has one of these CitizenLink-affiliated groups working hard to derail movements toward social justice and advance the Right’s fundamentalist Christian agenda.

The Right’s media-messaging machine is well resourced and ready to co-opt and distort all struggles for social justice, including the Black Lives Matter movement. With high-profile Black surrogates like Bomberger and King out in front, and national support from organizations like Focus on the Family, CitizenLink, Radiance Foundation, and Americans United for Life, the anti-abortion movement is gaining ground—already this year, state lawmakers have introduced more than 300 bills designed to chip away at civil liberties and reproductive freedom.

It can be difficult to translate truth from the Right’s manipulative reframing, but Monica Simpson, executive director of SisterSong, offers an easy litmus test: “If those who oppose abortion truly believed that black lives matter, they would be standing beside reproductive justice activists, and join our unequivocal assertion that the right to choose an abortion is just as important as the right to have children and parent them in healthy, thriving communities. Equality and justice can never be rooted in stigma, shaming, or violence, and it’s time the anti-choice movement recognized that.”

The Right’s Dangerous Duo: Robert P. George & Rick Warren

On April 30th, Biola University—ranked among the most conservative schools in the country—will play host to a conversation between famed academics Robert  “Robbie” P. George and Cornel West entitled “The Cost of Freedom: How Disagreement Makes Us Civil.” George has been described as “this country’s most influential conservative Christian thinker.” West, on the other hand, is a world-renowned progressive political philosopher and race theorist. The two affirm a deep and mutual friendship, and have shared classrooms and stages across the country for nearly a decade, seeking to exemplify fruitful dialogue across political and ideological and differences.

It’s a curious rapport, but in a society and culture that often promotes either antagonism or avoidance rather than deep and thought-provoking engagement within conflict, it is a rare and exciting thing to witness. The real story to pay attention to, though, is the relationship between George and the event’s moderator—the anything-but-moderate evangelical megachurch pastor, Rick Warren.

 

Robert P George (left) and Rick Warren (right) discuss religious freedom at the Berkley Center in 2013

Robert P George (left) and Rick Warren (right) discuss religious freedom at the Berkley Center in 2013

For many years, George operated outside of public view, establishing tremendous networks of influence amongst powerful leaders in academia, religion, and politics. As popular conservative leaders and pundits captured the public’s attention, George was quietly and methodically writing their script. As the conservative Catholic journal Crisis explained in a 2003 article: “He runs a kind of free-lemonade stand of advice for senators, congressmen, Catholic bishops, and evangelical leaders” who are looking for effective arguments against women’s bodily autonomy or equal rights for LGBTQ people.

He is the vice chairman of the conservative Ethics & Public Policy Center, chairman emeritus of the National Organization for Marriage (which recently disclosed its plan to go global with their anti-LGBTQ work), sits on the board of directors for The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty (the Green Family’s legal counsel in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby), co-founded the right-wing Witherspoon Institute (responsible for the thoroughly debunked but still destructively anti-LGBTQ Regnerus study), and serves on the editorial boards for multiple conservative publications, including the LDS (Mormon )Church-owned Deseret News. In 2012, George was appointed to the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom, where he serves as vice chair.

In 2009, George finally stepped into the spotlight as the primary author of The Manhattan Declaration: A Call of Christian Conscience, a manifesto signed by approximately 150 of America’s leading right-wing religious and political activists calling for a rededication to the fight for “the sanctity of life, traditional marriage, and religious liberty.” As PRA research fellow Fred Clarkson observed, The Manhattan Declaration’s distinct achievement—beyond serving as an anti-LGBTQ, anti-woman rallying cry—was “to broaden and deepen the emerging alliance between conservative Roman Catholics and right-wing evangelical Protestants.”

Indeed, the Declaration’s signatories make up a who’s who list of the U.S. Religious Right, including prominent anti-gay culture warrior Rick Warren. Warren was also invited to speak at “Humanum: An Interreligious Colloquium on the Complementarity of Man and Woman” in November 2014—a Vatican-sponsored event that George served as a key organizer for. 

Now, the two men are experimenting with their own version of complementarity, each playing distinct roles in the manipulation of religious liberty arguments (e.g. Hobby Lobby’s claim that the Affordable Care Act violates their “deeply held religious convictions”)—the Right’s newest attack strategy against civil rights for women and LGBTQ people. In his usual behind-the-scenes way, George has been acting as one of the primary strategists, writing the script for the state-by-state Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) saga playing out across the country, while Warren—always a sucker for the spotlight—has taken on the task of mobilizing his cast of “purpose-driven” characters to act out George’s drama.

With talk of civil disobedience and martyrdom, Warren is mobilizing his followers to fight for the “fundamental human right” of religious liberty—a right that he insists is being threatened by the steady expansion of rights and protections for women and LGBTQ people. (Not surprisingly, Warren’s concern for human rights is ideologically selective—in addition to being a strident opponent of marriage equality, he has said of homosexuality that it is “not a natural way of life and thus not a human right.”)

Though Rick Warren presents himself as a moderate, it’s no secret that he is a fundamentalist conservative known for his opposition to LGBTQ equality and women’s reproductive freedom. He is the founder and senior pastor of Saddleback Church, a Southern Baptist megachurch based in Lake Forest, California that boasts an average weekly attendance of 20,000 people.

In addition to having multiple branches throughout Southern California, Saddleback has also branched out globally. In 2005, Warren announced his “P.E.A.C.E. Plan” to address what he calls the “five global giants” of spiritual emptiness, corrupt leadership, poverty, disease, and illiteracy. Concentrating on twelve strategic “Gateway Cities” around the world, including Accra, Amman, Buenos Aires, Mexico City, and Moscow, the P.E.A.C.E. Plan is rapidly expanding Warren’s reach and influence around the world.

The millionaire pastor travels extensively as part of his dominionist agenda, spreading his dangerous right-wing ideologies wherever he goes by developing close relationships with government leaders, business leaders, and religious leaders, including many prominent anti-LGBTQ pastors. When launching his “Purpose Driven Living” campaign in Uganda in 2008, Warren proclaimed to a crowd of cheering church leaders, “The future of Christianity is not Europe or North America, but Africa, Asia, and Latin America.” Warren was also one of the key U.S. culture warriors responsible for Uganda’s infamous “Kill the Gays” legislation. He eventually denounced the bill after he came under fire in U.S. media, which prompted vitriolic anti-LGBTQ Ugandan pastor Martin Ssempa to pen an open letter to Warren demanding to know why he was saying things contrary to what he’d said in Uganda.

Despite these PR missteps, Warren hasn’t shied away from the international scene in the least. Sometimes referred to as “America’s pastor,” he is also arguably aspiring to be “Africa’s pastor,” too.In an email to supporters sent out in May 2014, Warren announced that he will host an “All-Africa Purpose Driven Church Leadership Training Conference” in Kigali, Rwanda later this year. He is calling for leading African evangelicals from each of the continent’s 54 countries to join him, as well as 54 other American pastors whom Warren has enlisting to join him, in order to “adopt” these new “purpose driven” recruits. This will be the first of five continent-wide conferences over the next five years—Warren’s final campaign before retiring from Saddleback in 2020.

Rwanda ranks among the world’s poorest countries, and has been the focus of much of Warren’s international work since he first visited at the invitation of President Paul Kagame in 2005. Kagame enlisted Warren’s help in making the small African nation the first “purpose-driven country” after reading the famous pastor’s bestseller, A Purpose Driven Life. Warren now sits on Kagame’s Presidential Advisory Council, and claims Rwanda as his “home,” pointing to his Rwandan diplomatic passport as proof.

That Kagame has been accused of numerous human rights violations by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and others seems not to have deterred Warren, who has hosted him multiple times as a guest of honor at Saddleback’s main campus. After all, the notion of “human rights” is an ambiguous one for Warren, reserved primarily for straight Christians facing “persecution” here in the U.S.

To be clear, the real threat—both in the U.S. and around the world—is the Christian Right’s attempt to co-opt the language of human rights and religious liberty, and (under the guise of “civil discourse”) advance their myth of persecution, which ultimately serves as a strategy to trump the rights of others and justify discrimination. Robert P. George and Cornel West might be the duo attracting the most attention tonight, but as backlash against gains made by women and LGBTQ people grows, the ones to really watch will be Robbie and Rick.

Anti-Choicers in Colorado Push to Protect the Not-Yet-Conceived

Last November, Colorado voters rejected a constitutional amendment that would have defined personhood as inclusive of fetuses. This victory for reproductive rights, however, was won amid a slew of attacks on Coloradans’ reproductive freedom. Now, many of Colorado’s Republican lawmakers, armed with shoddy science, are pushing an agenda that prioritizes not only the not-yet-born, but the not-yet-conceived.

These lawmakers are working to ensure the demise of the Colorado Family Planning Initiative, a program focused on reducing rates of unintended pregnancy, particularly among teens and younger adults. The program makes long-acting reversible contraceptives (LARCs), such as intrauterine devices (IUDs), available at low or no cost to Colorado residents otherwise unable to afford such methods. IUDs and implants are highly effective, and because they last several years, they can be more practical for people unable to easily access a clinic to obtain short-term contraceptives such as birth control pills. However, the upfront cost of an IUD—ranging from $500 to well over $1000—is often prohibitive, and many on the Right want to keep it that way.

Colorado Rep. K.C. Becker wears earrings shaped like I.U.D.s in support of the

Colorado Rep. K.C. Becker wears earrings shaped like IUDs in support of the Family Planning Initiative.

With help from the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation, which furnished the state with a grant to the tune of approximately $25 million, Colorado has been able to defray the costs of more than 30,000 LARCs for low-income, uninsured, and underinsured people who can become pregnant. But the pilot period funded by the grant is coming to a close, and the grant is not being renewed, leaving the program’s fate uncertain. State Representative K.C. Becker (D-Boulder) has introduced a bill that would provide $5 million in state funding for the program, but the legislation—which enjoys Republican co-sponsorship—faces strong opposition from certain Republican lawmakers. Senator Kevin Lundberg (R-Berthoud), for instance, erroneously claims that IUDs are abortifacients, which, under current state laws, would make them ineligible for state funding except in cases involving life endangerment, rape, or incest.

Lundberg and his allies are propelled by post-Hobby Lobby v. Burwell momentum. In January, Hobby Lobby served as precedent for a federal judge to approve requests from three Colorado companies wanting to circumvent the Affordable Care Act by offering employee health plans without coverage for sterilization or contraceptives. They also have substantial backing from right-wing organizations, including Focus on the Family (headquartered in Colorado Springs), Colorado Right to Life, and Personhood USA.

sdf

Reproductive Justice—“the right to have children, not have children, and to parent the children we have in safe and healthy environments”—is a conceptual framework developed by women of color collective SisterSong. The founders of the movement describe it as “an intersectional theory emerging from the experiences of women of color whose multiple communities experience a complex set of reproductive oppressions.”

Given that the termination of this program would most affect the reproductive autonomy of low-income women, many of whom are of color, this is certainly a Reproductive Justice issue.

Crucially, when applied to the conflict in Colorado, this framework does not allow for easy demarcation between right and wrong. While access to LARCs is a critical component of full bodily autonomy for people who can become pregnant, it certainly does not guarantee bodily autonomy—indeed, programs meant to enhance access can further endanger bodily autonomy, especially for women of color. I wrote extensively about how programs which on the surface seem to be providing greater choice to women, often turn out to be little more than right-wing initiatives pushing a eugenics agenda among women of color.

Reproductive Justice advocate and activist Natasha Vianna challenges directed attempts at lowering teen pregnancy rates, writing, “Across the country, young girls of color are often being coerced and forced onto long-acting contraception like the IUD. This is not teen pregnancy prevention, this is abuse.” As Vianna aptly underscores, to treat teen pregnancy as inherently negative or harmful to young people who become pregnant is far more damaging than teen pregnancy itself is. Indeed, teen pregnancy need not be damaging at all, and resources spent “ending” it would be better devoted to ensuring that young parents have the resources and support necessary to parent without making sacrifices in other areas of their life.

Similarly, in “Women or LARC First? Reproductive Autonomy and the Promotion of Long-Acting Reversible Contraceptive Methods,” Anu Manchikanti Gomez, Liza Fuentes, and Amy Allina identify the relationship between reproductive oppression, particularly racism in family planning settings, and insufficiently careful promotion of LARCs. The authors cite studies, history, and current events to substantiate the claim that care providers respond differently to patients who are profiled as members of “high risk populations,” often directing these patients toward particular contraceptive methods. The report adeptly situates this phenomenon in “the long-standing devaluation of the fertility and childbearing of young women, low-income women and women of color in the United States, and the perception that these women have too many children.”

A study undertaken by Philliber Research Associates shows that in Colorado in 2008 (just prior to the onset of the initiative), unintended pregnancies occurred at disproportionately high rates among Latina women, African American women, and other women of color: groups whose reproduction is consistently demonized and pathologized. Consequently, unintended pregnancy can be used as a coded way to discuss population control among communities of color. The connections the authors draw between LARCs and coercive sterilization of populations of color must not be overlooked: while LARCs are, of course, reversible, they are costly to remove, and whether the initiative funds their removal—or whether their removal would be affordable after the program’s termination—is not clear.

Furthermore, a key aspect of the argument presented in “Women or LARC First?” is that LARCs ought not to be presented to patients as the ideal contraceptive, yet this is exactly the approach taken by Greta Klinger, the family planning supervisor for Colorado’s Department of Public Health and Environment. Klinger told the Washington Post, “If you have a drug that is 20 times more effective than other drugs, you will always start with that as your first option…What we did (in the Colorado Family Planning Initiative) is kind of flip the mindset, so rather than introducing all contraception as being on the same playing field, we said, ‘Let’s start with what is most effective.’”

Given that the appropriateness of LARCs must be evaluated on a patient-by-patient basis, it would seem that Klinger is most concerned with cost-effectiveness. It is telling that coverage of Colorado’s initiative tends to highlight both Colorado’s steep decline in teen pregnancy rates and the estimated amount of public funds saved in accordance with this decline. Mother Jones reports a state estimate of between $49 million and $111 million saved by Medicaid based on the number of births prevented. Moreover, a report issued by the Guttmacher Institute and co-authored by Klinger herself uses as a metric of success the numbers of infants receiving services through the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children. Cost-benefit analyses such as this, when applied to reproduction, have eugenic implications.

Without question, there is value in programs that make contraceptive methods accessible and affordable to anyone who wishes to use them; these initiatives are no less than necessary. However, their conception and implementation must be careful, critical, and fully contextualized in the United States’ eugenic past and present. The impetus for such programs cannot be eliminating Medicaid costs or controlling populations (however coded the articulation of the latter goal may be). On the contrary, these projects must be impelled by the liberatory vision that SisterSong’s framework maps for us: a vision that strains against reproductive oppression and strives for a world in which all  people have full control over their reproductive lives.

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

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

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

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

Inclusive families

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like the rainbow, the human family has always been diverse! Anti-gay activists should understand that homophobia does not defend families, it destroys it. To defend the family should mean supporting loving relations in human communities. We are one human family—Black, White, Brown, Asian, straight, gay, bisexual, lesbian, transgender, etc.—we all have a special place in the human family. To claim to defend the family while destroying our fellow human beings because of who they love and commit to live their lives with is hypocritical. We all have the duty to defend love over hate. It is not long ago that Jews and Tutsis were robbed of their place in the human family! The result is genocide. Is it not time we stood together and said enough is enough, one more life is too much?

Sexual minorities are not pleading for special rights or benefits. They are just seeking to take their own family’s rightful place at the table, free from fear or persecution. It is this family value that we must all protect, defend and uphold—for love is a family value worth defending and, in the case of many African sexual minorities, worth dying for!

How Indiana Is Making It Possible to Jail Women for Having Abortions

Public Eye Spring 2015 CoverThis article is part of the upcoming Spring 2015 issue of The Public Eye magazine

On February 3, 2015, an Indiana jury found Purvi Patel, a 33-year-old Indian-American woman, guilty of two crimes, one of which is feticide for attempting a self-abortion. This Monday, March 30, Patel will be sentenced. The prosecution and verdict in this case demonstrate that, despite their claims to the contrary, the real result of the anti-abortion movement —if not the intended goal—is to punish women for terminating pregnancies.

The anti-choice movement’s long-term strategy goes beyond just limiting access to abortion. It also includes passing feticide laws that recognize fertilized eggs, embryos and fetuses as having a separate legal status and creates special penalties for causing them harm.1

As historian and legal scholar Reva B. Siegel has documented, many “pro-life” activists promote anti-abortion measures as “women-protective,” ensuring “women’s informed consent, women’s health, women’s welfare, and women’s freedom.”2 Feticide laws fall into this category: They are presented as a means of protecting both pregnant women and their “unborn” children, and they have overwhelmingly been introduced in the wake of violence against pregnant women. No Indiana law, including its feticide law, has ever been proposed and enacted that claimed it could or should be used as a basis for prosecuting and incarcerating women who have abortions. 3

Yet, as a result of the Patel case, such a law now apparently exists in Indiana.

Purvi Patel is led out of the courtroom in handcuffs after being found guilty of felony neglect and feticide on Tuesday, Feb. 3, 2015. Photo by Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune

Purvi Patel is led out of the courtroom in handcuffs after being found guilty of felony neglect and feticide on Tuesday, Feb. 3, 2015. Photo by Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune

The Patel case began when a 33-year-old woman went to a Mishawaka, Indiana emergency room in July 2013, bleeding and seeking help. Patel, who helps run her family’s restaurant and cares for her ailing parents and grandparents,4 eventually told health-care workers that she had miscarried. She explained that she had disposed of the fetal remains in a trash bin. After police found the remains they arrested Patel on the charge of “neglect of a dependent.”

About a month later, county prosecutors added the charge of “feticide.” According to a sworn statement in support of the arrest, Patel sent text messages to a friend indicating that she had obtained two drugs from Hong Kong in an attempt to end her pregnancy and that she had taken some amount of those drugs.5 The feticide charge was based on the claim that Patel “did knowingly terminate a human pregnancy, to wit: her own pregnancy, by ingesting medication,” and that this conduct was not a legal abortion performed in accordance with Indiana abortion law.6

To many observers, it was a shocking new application of Indiana’s feticide law, which was intended to criminalize “knowing or intentional termination of another’s pregnancy.”7 Turning this law into one that can be used to punish a woman who herself has an abortion is an extraordinary expansion of the scope and intention of the state’s law. Nevertheless, a jury convicted Patel on both the feticide and neglect charges; she now faces as many as 70 years in prison.

Even assuming Indiana’s feticide law could somehow become an abortion criminalization law, many people were initially baffled by how Patel could be charged with two seemingly contradictory charges: feticide for ending a pregnancy and also child neglect for giving birth to a baby and then failing to care for it. The state’s explanation took the interpretation of the feticide law to an even further extreme as prosecutor Ken Cotter argued, “a person can be guilty of feticide even if the fetus in question survives, as long as a deliberate attempt was made to ‘terminate’ the pregnancy ‘with an intention other than to produce a live birth or to remove a dead fetus.’”8

Put another way, Indiana’s feticide law is now an abortion criminalization law that not only can be used to punish a woman who ends her pregnancy, but also can be used to punish a woman who even attempts to end her own pregnancy.

This should raise alarm for numerous reasons. To begin with, attempts to end one’s own pregnancy are not extraordinary. One study of abortion patients found that 2.3 percent reported having used misoprostol or other substances, such as vitamin C or herbs, to attempt to end a pregnancy at some point in their lives.9 Another study found that the overall percentage to be higher at 4.6 percent, with even greater percentages in Texas,10 where more than half of all abortion clinics have been forced to close as a result of restrictive abortion legislation.11 (Seven percent of abortion patients in Texas, and 12 percent of such patients near the U.S.-Mexico border, reported having first taken steps in an attempt to terminate their own pregnancies.12)

Another reason for concern is the vagueness of the interpretation of this law.

What constitutes “a deliberate attempt” to terminate a pregnancy? In another Indiana case, 34-year-old Bei Bei Shuai was arrested for attempted feticide because prosecutors construed her attempt to kill herself while pregnant as an attempt to terminate a pregnancy.13 Suicide is not a crime in Indiana or any other state. Nevertheless, Shuai, a Chinese immigrant who survived and gave birth to a baby who lived for several days, was arrested on both feticide and murder charges. Massive public pressure eventually helped get both charges dropped, but not before Shuai spent a full year locked up in state custody and another year under a form of house arrest that required her to wear an electronic monitor for which she had to pay $12 per day.14

There is also the matter of what else might constitute “a deliberate attempt” to end a pregnancy. If a woman suffers an unexplained miscarriage or stillbirth, would the fact that she had previously searched for information about using medications like misoprostol to end a pregnancy15 be used against her? In the Patel case, the state had no physical proof that Patel had actually taken—or even purchased—any medication, apart from text messages allegedly discussing these matters.16 (For the record, the state similarly had no actual proof that the fetus had been born alive, relying instead on a scientifically invalid and widely discredited “float test” to persuade the jury otherwise.17)

What the Patel case demonstrates is that both women who have abortions and those who experience pregnancy loss may now be subject to investigation, arrest, public trial and incarceration. Indeed, Patel has consistently said that she experienced a miscarriage18 that she, like most women in this situation, was unprepared to handle.19 Pregnancy loss is not uncommon: some 15-20 percent of all known pregnancies end in miscarriage;20 one percent of pregnancies—approximately 26,000 each year—result in stillbirth.21 Following the Patel case, however, any miscarriage or stillbirth could be investigated as feticide (an “illegal” self-abortion).

While the scope of Indiana’s feticide law may be vague, the message the Patel case sends is anything but. As an NBC South Bend affiliate summarized it, the verdict broadcast the warning that “there is no room in society today for do-it-yourself abortions.”22

The outcome of this case is noteworthy and alarming for another reason as well. It directly contradicts the repeated claims of anti-abortion leaders that their efforts will not lead to punishing women. Several years ago, 17 anti-choice leaders participated in an online symposium hosted by the conservative magazine National Review, addressing the question of whether there should be “jail time for women who seek abortions.”23 Overwhelmingly the writers assured readers that this was not their goal and moreover, that it would never happen.24 One of the contributors, Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the national anti-choice group Susan B. Anthony List, argued that fears of women being prosecuted and jailed were just a pro-choice tactic to malign abortion opponents. 25

“The fact of the matter is that compassion for women before abortion was legal and compassion for them after unborn protections are enforced will drive the law,” said Dannenfelser. “The focus of such laws is on protection, not punishment.”26

Another essay contributor, Anne Hendershott, promised, “No one wants to send a woman who has had an abortion to prison—she will suffer enough from her decision.”27 And Tom McClusky, vice president of government affairs for the Family Research Council, flatly called the threat of criminalizing abortion under feticide laws “ludicrous.”28

These writers are not alone. Anti-abortion organizations have routinely downplayed or denied the threat. An Ohio Right to Life webpage, “Overturning Roe v. Wade,” assures readers that “no one is interested in sending women to jail.”29 Generations for Life, the youth arm of the Pro-Life Action League, likewise insists that “the idea of punishing women who have abortions could not be further from anti-choicers’ minds.”30 And legal advocacy organization Americans United for Life has maintained that, “if Roe is overruled, no woman would be prosecuted for self-abortion.”31

But in Indiana, the prosecution of Purvi Patel for an alleged self-abortion is exactly what happened.

It should come as no surprise that not a single national anti-choice group sounded an objection to the Patel prosecution and its use of Indiana’s criminal laws to punish a woman who allegedly sought to end her own pregnancy.32 A similar, deafening silence was heard when Jennie McCormack, a mother of three in southern Idaho—where there are no longer any abortion providers—was arrested after she used medication obtained online to end a pregnancy.33

The anti-choice movement has not taken any steps to oppose prosecution of pregnant women, in spite of peer-reviewed research that I published with Jeanne Flavin34 establishing that anti-abortion measures, including the feticide laws now in existence in 38 states, are providing the justification for the arrest of pregnant women, including those who have had or who attempted to have abortions.

It is likely that most people in the U.S., whether they identify as “pro-life” or “pro-choice,” don’t want to see any woman locked up for having an abortion35 (including the more than 60 percent of women who have abortions who are already mothers).36 Perhaps this is why anti-abortion organizations work so hard to deny the predictable and inevitable consequences of their efforts: women being locked up.37

The anti-abortion organization Priests for Life insists the “pro-life position has always been that women are victimized by abortion. In fact, we have repeatedly rejected the suggestion that women should be put in jail.”38 On Monday, Purvi Patel will find out at sentencing just how much time she will have to serve in jail or prison. But what the Patel case already demonstrates is that we cannot take Priests for Life and the other “pro-life” organizations at their word when they promise protection and not punishment for women.

UPDATE: On March 30, 2015, the Indiana court sentenced Purvi Patel to 41 years for the crimes of feticide and neglect of a dependent (Patel will serve 20 of the 41 years in prison).

 End Notes

[1] See Lynn Paltrow, Pregnant Drug Users, Fetal Persons, and the Threat to Roe v. Wade, 62 Albany Law Review 999, 1009-1015 (1999).

[2] Reva B. Siegel, Dignity and the Politics of Protection: Abortion Restrictions Under Casey/Carhart Faculty Scholarship Series, Paper 1134 (2008), available at http://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2131&context=fss_papers

[3] See Indiana v. Bei Bei Shuai, Defendant’s Memorandum of Law in Support of Motion to Dismiss, In the Marion Superior Court Criminal Division, Cause No.: 49G03-1103-MR-014478 at 10-14 (March 30, 2011).

[4] Amy Gastelum, An Indiana jury says Purvi Patel should go to prison for what she says was a miscarriage, PRI’s The World (March 13, 2015) available at http://www.pri.org/stories/2015-03-13/indiana-jury-says-purvi-patel-should-go-prison-what-she-says-was-miscarriage

[5] Indiana v. Patel, Supplemental Affidavit in Support of Probable Cause, In the Stat Joseph Superior Court, Cause No 71 DO8-1307-FA-0000-17 (July 17 2013) available at https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/1280086-patelpcaffidavit.html

[6] Indiana v. Patel, Second Amended Information (In the St. Joseph Superior Court, Cause No., 71D08-13 (Dec 8, 2014).

[7] Sandra L. Smith, Fetal Homicide: Woman or Fetus as Victim? A Survey of Current State Approaches and Recommendations for Future State Application. 41 William & Mary Law Review 1845 at 1852-3 (2000) (emphasis added) available at: http://scholarship.law.wm.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1539&context=wmlr

[8] Leon Neyfakh, False Certainty: Why did the pathologist in the Purvi Patel feticide case use the discredited “float test” to show her fetus was born alive?, Slate (Feb 5, 2015). Available at: http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/crime/2015/02/purvi_patel_feticide_why_did_the_pathologist_use_the_discredited_lung_float.html

[9] Rachel K. Jones, How commonly do US abortion patients report attempts to self-induce? 204 Am J Obstet Gynecol 23 (2011) available at: http://www.ajog.org/article/S0002-9378%2810%2901008-2/pdfSummary

[10]  Daniel Grossman, et. al.Self-induction of abortion among women in the United States, 18 Reproductive Health Matters 136 (November 2010), available at http://www.rhm-elsevier.com/article/S0968-8080%2810%2936534-7/abstract

[11] RH Reality Check, Tracking Texas Abortion Access, http://rhrealitycheck.org/tracking-texas-abortion-access-map/ (last updated Oct. 15, 2014).

[12] Daniel Grossman, et. al., The public health threat of anti-abortion legislation, 89 Contraception 73 (2013)

[13]Deepa Lyer and Miriam Yeung. Purvi Patel Isn’t the First Woman of Color to Have Her Pregnancy Put on Trial in Indiana (Updated)!, RH Reality Check (February 2, 2015). Available at: http://rhrealitycheck.org/article/2015/02/02/purvi-patel-isnt-first-woman-color-pregnancy-put-trial-indiana/

[14] National Advocates for Pregnant Women, Thank You! Bei Bei Shuai is Free and More http://advocatesforpregnantwomen.org/blog/2013/08/thank_you_bei_bei_shuai_is_fre.php; Jodi Jacobson, Bei Bei Shuai out on bail but far from free, RH Reality Check (May 22, 2012) available at: http://rhrealitycheck.org/article/2012/05/22/bei-bei-shuai-out-jail-out-on-bail-but-far-from-free/; David Cerola, Bei Bei Shuai case ends after plea agreement, Nuvo (August 2 2013)

[15] See e.g., Women on Waves, Using Medications (Pills) to End an Unwanted Pregnancy in the USA https://www.womenonwaves.org/en/page/711/using-medications-pills-to-end-an-unwanted-pregnancy-in-the-usa (last visited March 25, 2015).

[16] Indiana v. Patel, Supplemental Affidavit in Support of Probable Cause, St.Joseph Superior Court, Cause No 71 DO8-1307-FA-0000-17 (July 17 2013) available at https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/1280086-patelpcaffidavit.html

[17] Supra note 8.

[18] Supra note 4.

[19] Jennifer Gunter, Feticide laws force birth and punish women (September 10, 2014) available at: http://www.kevinmd.com/blog/2014/09/feticide-laws-force-birth-punish-women.html

[20] Raj Rai & Lesley Regan, Recurrent Miscarriage, 368 Lancet 601, 601 (2006).

[21] Ruth C. Fretts, Etiology and Prevention of Stillbirth, 193 American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology 1923, 1924 (March 2005).

[22] WNDU NewsCenter 16 Staff, UPDATE: Purvi Patel found guilty on all counts, WNDU.com (March 26, 2015), video: “Purvi Patel’s Fate In The Hands of a Jury” available at: http://www.wndu.com/home/headlines/Jury-out-in-Purvi-Patel-trial-290718931.html

[23] One Untrue Thing, An NRO Symposium, Life After Roe, National Review, Aug. 1, 2007, http://www.nationalreview.com/article/221742/one-untrue-thing-nro-symposium.

[24] Id

[25] Id.

[26] Id.

[27]Id.

[28] Id.

[29] Ohio Right to Life, Overturning Roe v. Wade, http://www.ohiolife.org/overturning-roe-v-wade/ (last visited March 25, 2015).

[30] Generations for Life, Blog, How Much Jail Time for Women Who Have Abortions?, posted by John, July 31, 2007, at 12:00 p.m., http://generationsforlife.org/2007/0731/how-much-jail-time-for-women-who-have-abortions/.

[31] Clarke D. Forsythe, Why the States Did Not Prosecute Women for Abortion Before Roe v. Wade, Americans United for Life, April 23, 2010, http://www.aul.org/2010/04/why-the-states-did-not-prosecute-women-for-abortion-before-roe-v-wade/.

[32] Indeed, the response from the group St. Joseph County Right to Life suggests clear support for such arrests. Right to Life Program Director Jeanette Burdell released a statement regarding Patel’s conviction, writing, “We agree the prosecutor should have pursued this because it involves an innocent human life. Unfortunately, this case shows that our culture and our society have devalued human life to the point where this mother might not have been fully aware of the gravity of her actions. This is the impact of legalized abortion.” See Fox28, Pro Life Group Reacts to Purvi Patel Conviction, Feb. 4, 2015, http://www.fox28.com/story/28029167/2015/02/04/pro-life-group-reacts-to-purvi-patel-conviction.

[33] Jessica Robinson, Idaho Woman Arrested For Abortion Is Uneasy Case For Both Sides, NPR, April 9, 2012, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=150312812.

[34] Lynn M. Paltrow and Jeanne Flavin, Arrests of and Forced Interventions on Pregnant Women in the United States, 1973– 2005: Implications for Women’s Legal Status and Public Healthhttp://jhppl.dukejournals.org/content/38/2/299.full.pdf+html?sid=b0811f36-d4e4-4b51-a830-e175e6eee40c.

[35] See Anna Quindlen, How Much Jail Time for Women Who Have Abortions?, Newsweek, Aug. 5, 2007, http://www.newsweek.com/quindlen-how-much-jail-time-women-who-have-abortions-99537.

[36] Guttmacher Institute, Fact Sheet: Induced Abortion in the United States, July 2014, http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/fb_induced_abortion.html.

[37] See Lynn M. Paltrow, Roe v. Wade and the New Jane Crow: Reproductive Rights in the Age of Mass Incarceration, American Journal of Public Health (2013).

[38] Priests for Life, Letter 263, http://www.priestsforlife.org/lte/lte26.html (last visited March 25, 2015).

My On-Again, Off-Again Romance With Liberalism

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

Jean hardisty SLIDE

PRA founder Jean Hardisty

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Swinging Door

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harold Washington (left) and Bernie Epton (right)

Harold Washington (left) and Bernie Epton (right)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That Compelling, Illusive Coalition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Come Back, Jimmy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But is it a Relationship?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Robin Fretwell Wilson

Robin Fretwell Wilson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coming Soon to Utah: An International Festival of Bigotry

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

“From Russia to Nigeria to Australia,” as my colleague at Political Research Associates Cole Parke recently explained regarding the WCF IX agenda, “a seemingly innocuous definition of the ‘natural family’ is quietly being used as the basis of new laws to justify the criminalization of abortion and LGBTQ people.” Indeed. It has unleashed a rolling thunder of horrific anti-LGBTQ political activism, legislation, and violence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Myth of Christian Persecution

Franklin Graham, son of famed evangelical Billy Graham and current president of both the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) and Samaritan’s Purse, is increasingly taking center stage in the Right Wing’s dramatization of “Christianity under siege”—part of a growing manipulation of religious liberty arguments (e.g. Hobby Lobby’s claim that the Affordable Care Act violates their “deeply held religious convictions”) to further blur the division between church and state.

Franklin Graham

Franklin Graham

Addressing the crowd at the Oklahoma State Evangelism Conference earlier this month, Graham claimed that secularists—whom he refers to as “antichrists”—have taken control of America.

“There are storms that are coming,” Graham warned. “The only hope for this country is for men and women of God to stand up and take a stand. We’ve got to take a stand. We cannot back up. We cannot run. We cannot retreat. We need Christians running for school boards. … We need men and women of God who take local elections serious.”

Emphasizing this point, Graham continued, “Who says we can’t be in politics? The gays and lesbians are in politics, I can tell you that. All the anti-God people are in politics. They’re there. Why shouldn’t the church be there? Who says we can’t speak up? Who says our voice can’t be heard?”

Graham’s call for Christians to “take a stand” echoes the demands of last November’s “I Stand Sunday.” The event, which was simulcast around the country, was organized by a coalition of local churches and national right-wing organizations in Houston, Texas as a response to the City of Houston subpoenaing the sermons of five conservative local pastors who were suspected of engaging in political activities beyond the purview of what is allowed for a church to maintain its tax-exempt status. Sponsors of the event included some of the leading right-wing parachurch organizations in the country, including the Family Research Council (FRC) and the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF). Liberty Counsel and the National Organization for Marriage also signed on as partners.

Reporting on the event (which took place two days before the 2014 midterm elections), FRC’s President Tony Perkins wrote, “Last night, with thousands of people packing the pews of Grace Community Church—and tens of thousands more at nearly 800 churches from all 50 states—Houston sent a message to the nation: ‘Don’t mess with the pulpits of America.’… We pray that our nation, which this event proved is ripe for spiritual awakening, will use I Stand Sunday as a launching off point for greater cultural engagement.”

The subpoenas came as part of the prolonged fight over the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), the city’s first housing and workplace nondiscrimination bill protecting LGBTQ people, as well as other targeted classifications, including race, sex, and religion.

Previously one of the only large cities in the U.S. without a nondiscrimination policy, the Houston City Council approved HERO in May 2014 with a vote of 11-6. The ordinance did not pass without a fight, however—groups like Texas Values (an affiliate of Focus on the Family’s CitizenLink network), the Alliance Defending Freedom, and the Family Research Council attacked the ordinance with anti-transgender claims that it would somehow protect predators and sex offenders. There were also threats to recall Mayor Parker and any city council member who voted in favor of the bill.

Following HERO’s passage, an anti-LGBTQ coalition called “No Unequal Rights” led by local and national church groups like the Baptist Ministers Association of Houston and Samuel Rodriguez’s National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference began collecting signatures to challenge HERO with a referendum. When the petition effort failed, opponents of the law filed a lawsuit against the city, demanding the referendum be placed on the ballot.

As part of the discovery process of the Religious Right’s lawsuit against them, the city’s outside counsel issued subpoenas to five pastors in Houston who were suspected of overreaching their tax-exempt restrictions, to collect information related to how the pastors communicated with their congregations about the petition process. Backed by a team of ADF lawyers, the pastors (dubbed the “Houston 5”) claimed their rights were being violated. On both the Left and the Right, many critics (including the ACLU) agreed that the subpoenas were too broad, and they were ultimately withdrawn, but I Stand Sunday—organized to “stand with pastors and churches to focus on the freedom to live out our faith free of government intrusion or monitoring”—went ahead as planned, and the Houston 5 seem likely to the join the cast of bakers and wedding photographers cited by the Christian Right as evidence of allegedly widespread and growing persecution.

I Stand Sunday speakers included FRC’s Tony Perkins; former Governor of Arkansas and then Fox News personality Mike Huckabee; Eric Stanley from the ADF; and Ronnie Floyd, president of the Southern Baptist Convention. Local Houston pastors Magda Hermida, a Cuban immigrant, and Khanh Huynh, a Vietnamese immigrant, also spoke, comparing their experiences of Communist violence and oppression to Mayor Parker’s “marching boots of tyranny.”

Despite the fact that the majority of Americans—and an even greater majority of elected officials—identify as Christian (a recent study by the Pew Forum found that 73% of Americans identify as Christian, and that 92% of current Congressional members identify as such), this mantra of “Christian persecution” is gaining traction around the country.

The City of Charlotte, NC—Franklin Graham’s hometown—is currently considering an expansion to its own nondiscrimination ordinance to include sexual orientation and gender identity. A statement released by BGEA echoed the same anti-transgender claims that were used in Houston, claiming that such protections would give “sexual predators access to children.”

Another Charlotte resident, David Benham, is also working to prevent the expansion of equal rights protections for LGBTQ people there (the vote is scheduled for March 2). Benham has become a leading spokesperson for the “Christian persecution” camp since the HGTV television series that he and his twin brother, Jason, were scheduled to host was canceled after reports emerged of David Benham making anti-gay statements at a prayer rally in 2012 outside of the Democratic National Convention. (Right Wing Watch posted a recording of Benham discussing “homosexuality and its agenda that is attacking the nation.” HGTV also took fire from their viewers over an interview with anti-LGBTQ activist Michael Brown, where David Benham claimed that LGBTQ people were possessed by “demonic forces” and that once he succeeds in recriminalizing abortion, he will next defeat the “homosexual agenda” and Islam.)

Defending his comments, Benham reasserted the theme of persecution, arguing, “[T]here is an agenda that is seeking to silence the voices of men and women of faith.”

In BGEA’s statement about the proposed nondiscrimination ordinance in Charlotte, Benham declared, “What’s going to end up happening, with the result of the language (of the ordinance) is our religious liberties are going to come under attack. … Not only do Christians need to stand up for what’s right, but America needs to protect our children and our children’s children.”

David and Jason Benham also spoke at the I Stand Sunday event in Houston.

Earlier this week, the American Family Association—another I Stand Sunday sponsor—released its new “Anti-Christian Bigotry Map,” which features groups and organizations that “are deeply intolerant towards the Christian religion. … [groups whose objectives are] to silence Christians and to remove all public displays of Christian heritage and faith in America.”

In a press release, AFA’s President Don Wildmon warned, “Across our nation there is a concerted effort to silence Christians who believe in the time-honored definition of marriage and who believe that imposing dangerous and harmful sexual behaviors such as homosexuality or transgenderism on the public and, particularly, on young children is not something that society should encourage.”

Will U.S. prisons soon be overflowing with leaders of the Christian Right? PRA senior fellow Frederick Clarkson reports that any leaders of the Christian Right, from megachurch pastors like Rick Warren to the top prelates in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, have repeatedly threatened civil disobedience (and worse) over marriage equality, reproductive rights, and nondiscrimination laws:

“The notion that freedom is obedience to their particular notion of God’s order … reveals their theocratic world view and sheds light on their preposterous claim that Christianity is ‘unanimous’ with regard to marriage.

“Christian denominations, notably United Church of Christ, Alliance of Baptists, and increasingly others (not to mention other religious traditions) recognize and celebrate same-sex marriages all the time.”

If there is a “concerted effort” to be wary of, it is the Christian Right’s attempt to co-opt the language of religious liberty and the advancement of their myth of persecution, which ultimately serves as a strategy to trump the rights of others and justify discrimination.

UPDATE: Thanks in large part to the support of Franklin Graham and the Benham Brothers, the Charlotte City Council rejected the proposed non-discrimination ordinance on Monday, March 2. Writing from his missionary travels in South Sudan, Graham encouraged his supporters to resist the non-discrimination ordinance, which he referred to as “dangerous” and “preposterous.”

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Know Your Neighbors Hits the Road

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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