Trading Principles for Power: The U.S. Christian Right’s Endorsement of Authoritarian Leaders

Building on parts one and two of this series, Cole Parke examines the relationship between the U.S. Christian Right and authoritarian leaders.

On Friday, August 4, Paul Kagame celebrated a landslide victory in Rwanda’s presidential election, securing his third seven-year term as the small, East African country’s leader with nearly 99% of the vote. It was an unsurprising result, given that his candidacy was essentially uncontested. The two individuals who attempted to challenge Kagame’s reign, Frank Habineza, head of the opposing Democratic Green Party of Rwanda (DGPR), and Diane Rwigara, a human rights activist, have accused Kagame’s party, the Royal Patriotic Front (RPF), of using “indirect” methods of intimidation to push its opponents out of the political race, effectively nullifying their efforts toward a fair and open democratic process.

As I reported in part two of this series, Kagame set the terms of this victory in motion in 2015 when he successfully altered the Rwandan constitution in order to extend his presidency (he has already been in office since 2000, and unofficially assumed the role six years earlier in 1994). Under the newly amended constitution, he has the option of running for two additional five-year terms. The European Union and the U.S. State Department both condemned the revision, saying Kagame should step down and “foster a new generation of leaders in Rwanda,” but the president continues to be defended, supported, and often times venerated by American religious, business, and political leaders, including megachurch pastor Rick Warren, Chicago-area businessman and multimillionaire Joe Ritchie, and Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe.

Rick Warren with Paul Kagame at Saddleback Church — Saddleback Church Photo

This team of American promoters—all of whom are conservative, evangelical Christians—provides a degree of immunity for a man whose leadership is described as repressive and anti-democratic, and whose actions have earned him accusations of human rights violations from groups such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Global Witness. Warren, Ritchie, and Inhofe have unprecedented access to Kagame (both Warren and Ritchie actually serve on his Presidential Advisory Council, which meets twice a year), and yet none of them have used their positions to confront or protest Kagame’s gross abuse of power.

The Christian Right has a long history of betraying their principles for the perks of power, and Kagame isn’t the only authoritarian leader benefiting from this sort of endorsement.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has been hailed a hero by a whole cast of American Christian Right leaders. Bryan Fischer, former spokesperson for the American Family Association, has called Putin a “lion of Christianity;” Scott Lively (infamous for his role in bringing about Uganda’s “Kill the Gays” bill), has lavished praise upon him; and the World Congress of Families has positioned Putin as a savior of Christianity.

Nearing the end of his second presidential term (the Russian constitution mandates that a person may not hold the position “for more than two terms in a row”), in a maneuver not unlike Kagame’s 2015 constitutional manipulation, Putin realigned the government’s power structure in order to make the Prime Minister the preeminent position, and at the conclusion of his presidential term he stepped into the role. He subsequently resumed the presidency, having worked around the restriction preventing individuals from serving more than two consecutive terms, and is now nearing the conclusion of his third.

In an early July Facebook post, Franklin Graham, head of Samaritan’s Purse and heir to his father’s legacy as CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, rejected the growing mountain of evidence that Russia interfered with the 2016 U.S. election. “The media and enemies of President Trump have tried to drive a wedge between Russia and the United States,” he wrote. “Our country needs Russia as an ally in the fight against Islamic terrorism. Join me in praying for President Trump and President Vladimir Putin.”

After the inauguration, Graham proclaimed, “Donald Trump’s there because God put him there,” Despite clear deviations from what a “model Christian” might look like, President Trump (a man who is twice divorced, rarely attends church, and has bragged about assaulting women) successfully garnered the support of numerous right-wing evangelical leaders who undoubtedly influenced the selection of Christian Right golden child Mike Pence as vice president. The effect of these endorsements was starkly evident: exit polls from last year’s presidential election revealed that Trump managed to win over 81 percent of white, self-described evangelicals.

This propping up of authoritarian leaders under the guise of their election being “God ordained” (even when the democratic merits of the process are questionable) serves to perpetuate some of the gravest violations of human rights in the world.

But power is an addictive drug, and human rights are often deemed expendable, especially for those with dominionist aspirations. (As PRA senior research fellow Frederick Clarkson explains, dominionism is the theocratic idea that “Christians are called by God to exercise dominion over every aspect of society by taking control of political and cultural institutions.”)

In 2008, TIME’s David Van Biema profiled Rick Warren, describing him as, “the U.S.’s most influential and highest-profile churchman.” Van Biema also observed that Warren is “near giddy over occupying a globetrotting-catalyst status normally reserved for ex-Presidents.” In the interview, Warren boasted, “It’s the most amazing thing; I’ve had to add a new hat: my statesman hat. I had a call the other day from a President in Africa asking me to contact a President in Asia to set up a meeting.”

In the interview, Warren also boasts of his business hat: “I put this unbelievably big deal together. The bottom line was $300 million. A guy called me and asked me, ‘Would you call this person?,’ and I said, ‘Well, it’s not my role or anything I aspire to,’ but out of it came this huge deal.”

What Warren—and other Christian Right leaders—fail to ask is, “Who’s served and who’s harmed in the making of these deals, in the negotiation of political priorities, and in the propping up of dictators?” But this is what dominionism looks like: when a leader of the Christian Right starts wearing a “statesman hat” and a “businessman hat” on top of his “pastoral hat,” and insistently ignores the dangerous, anti-democratic cost of his evangelical convictions.

Dancing with Dictators

As was outlined in part one of this series, evidence shows that American corporate entities are taking advantage of the U.S. Christian Right’s pre-existing relationships with political, religious, and business leaders in Africa in order to advance their economic goals. The dynamic serves to benefit expansion-hungry corporations with increased access to cheap labor and natural resources, and their financial investment (even if the in-country benefactors are primarily the pre-existing economic elite) ingratiates constituents to the pre-existing political elite. But what’s in it for the evangelical brokers in the middle? Here in part two, we examine their curious role.

Pastor Rick Warren at Saddleback Church, September 4, 2005. (Photo: Pastor Rick Warren / Wiki Commons)

California megachurch pastor Rick Warren has played an especially key role in supporting this convergence of church, state, and business on the continent as part of his PEACE Plan development model. According to a report published by the conservative think tank, Hudson Institute, Warren has been “centrally involved” in the process of ushering U.S. corporate interests into Rwanda thanks in large part to his relationships with Christian evangelical businessmen like Joe Ritchie and Dan Cooper.

Warren is quick to distance himself from the trappings of wealth, reminding people, “I drive a 12 year old Ford, have lived in the same house for the last 22 years, bought my watch at Wal-Mart, and I don’t own a boat or a jet.” Nonetheless, he enjoys substantial closeness with many of America’s business elite.

Given this closeness, it’s not surprising that he would be unfazed by the wealth of Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame (Kagame ranks among the top ten richest leaders in Africa, with an estimated net worth of $500 million). However, it is concerning that Warren relentlessly defends Kagame, even as accusations of human rights violations continually mount against him.

President Kagame’s repressive and anti-democratic rule in Rwanda wins him attention from such groups as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Global Witness. In its 2017 report on Rwanda, Human Rights Watch wrote,

The Rwandan government continues to limit the ability of civil society groups, media, and international human rights organizations to function freely and independently and criticize its policies or practices.

Military and police arbitrarily arrested and detained people in unofficial detention centers, torturing and ill-treating some of them.

The international community’s concern over political repression under Kagame’s leadership was amplified after he successfully altered the Rwandan constitution in 2015 in order to extend his presidency (Kagame has already been in office since 2000). The European Union and the U.S. State Department both condemned the vote, saying Kagame should step down and “foster a new generation of leaders in Rwanda.” In August 2017 Kagame will run for a third seven-year term, and under the newly amended constitution, he has the option of running for two additional five-year terms after that.

The Rwandan constitution also includes Article 114, which states, “A former President of the Republic cannot be prosecuted for treason or serious and deliberate violation of the Constitution when no legal proceedings in respect of that offence were brought against him or her while in office.” This essentially creates lifelong immunity for Kagame — but only in Rwanda. As Stephen Smith, professor of African studies at Duke University, reported in The New York Times, “Mr. Kagame can’t leave office without risking arraignment by the International Criminal Court.” This no doubt serves as further motivation for the extension of his hold on the presidency.

Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda at the World Economic Forum on Africa in Cape Town, South Africa, June 11, 2009. (Photo: Copyright World Economic Forum / Eric Miller)

Kagame’s previous election in 2010 was marred by murder, censorship, and a concerning lack of significant opposition or audible dissent. In the lead up to the election, the opposition Green Party’s deputy leader, André Kagwa Rwisereka, was murdered, as was Jean-Léonard Rugambage, deputy editor of Umuvugizi, a local newspaper that was suspended from publication by the state-run Media High Council after printing a story alleging government involvement in the shooting of a former Rwandan army commander in South Africa. The BBC reported in a 2014 documentary, “Rwanda’s Untold Story,” that in the last 15 years, a dozen prominent Rwandan exiles have been killed or have disappeared.

Nonetheless, Warren remains relentless in his defense of Kagame and insistently denies any corruption or wrongdoing in the country. His support for Kagame serves to help generate support for Kagame’s business goals and give the appearance that he is an upright Christian despite his human rights abuses and anti-democratic efforts.

In 2009, Warren hosted Kagame at Saddleback Church, honoring him with the “International Medal of Peace,” an award that has also been presented to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and former U.S. President George W. Bush. Recently, Warren participated as a keynote speaker at the annual “Rwanda Cultural Day” in San Francisco in September 2016. During his remarks, Warren doubled down in his defense of Kagame, outlining and dispelling what he’s determined to be the main factors motivating Rwanda’s critics (a group that he describes as small, but loud), including guilt, envy, shame, and resentment.

In 2013, Forbes published a feature on Warren in which he explains his relationship to money: “The Bible teaches that we are to love people and use money, but we often get that reversed and you start loving money and using people to get more money. Money is simply a tool to be used for good.”

Kagame’s human rights violations, along with his calculated efforts to disintegrate Rwanda’s democracy, are a clear contradiction to most any definition of “good.” So what motivates Warren’s steadfast support? His 12-year-old Ford suggests that he isn’t getting any major financial kick-backs out of the deal, but money isn’t the only motivator.

Just as the Christian Right has developed alliances with unlikely political comrades here in the U.S. in order to advance its social agenda, American culture warriors like Rick Warren are angling for increased political access in geographies that offer promising opportunities for dominionist expansion. (For more on dominionism, see PRA Senior Fellow Frederick Clarkson’s Public Eye article, “Dominionism Rising: A Theocratic Movement Hiding in Plain Sight.”)

While Warren helps facilitate connections for Rwanda with U.S. corporations, Kagame is helping to connect Warren with other African leaders. Thanks to these links, Warren has already launched PEACE Plan campaigns in 11 additional countries, furthering the advancement of a development model that could have disastrous effects on the human rights of LGBTQI people and women.

Religion, Money, & Politics: An (un)Holy Trinity

As with anti-LGBTQ and anti-abortion culture wars, the exportation of American economic ideologies to the Global South (and the strategies and tactics employed to impose them on others) has a long history of violence and destruction. From Nestle’s deadly exploitation of African mothers in the 1970s to the United Fruit Company’s role in inciting Guatemala’s 36-year long civil war, American corporations have consistently and relentlessly exploited the Global South for the sake of increased profits and power.

Rwanda President Paul Kagame. Photo: Veni via Flickr.

These two channels of influence — one being religious and one being economic — are typically seen as independent of one another, but evidence suggests that a growing alliance is forming between the U.S. Christian Right, their evangelical allies in the corporate world, and the political leaders they seek to make into pawns of their agenda.

President Paul Kagame of Rwanda definitely understands the tagteam value of both religious endorsement and corporate backing. In 2008 he told TIME that he’s not very religious but has “a good sense of what faith is about and the usefulness of it.” Tapping into some of those useful attributes, Kagame includes among his closest allies two extremely powerful conservative American evangelicals: megachurch pastor Rick Warren and Joe Ritchie, a Chicago-based businessman and multimillionaire.

Infamously known for its 1994 genocide, in which an estimated 800,000 people were killed in the span of 100 days, Rwanda is now described as a model of stability and economic development. Rwanda has also become the favorite poster child of Rick Warren’s international work. In 2004, he declared Rwanda the first “Purpose Driven” country, affixing his famous branding to one of the world’s most well-known resurrection stories (though it’s still ranked among the most impoverished nations).

Sometimes referred to as “America’s pastor,” Warren is also arguably aspiring to be “Africa’s pastor.” Though he’s based in Lake Forest, CA, Warren claims Rwanda as his “home,” pointing to his Rwandan diplomatic passport as proof (a perk bestowed upon him by President Kagame for his service on the Presidential Advisory Council). His influence is increasingly expanding across the continent; in May 2014, Warren announced plans to host an “All-Africa Purpose Driven Church Leadership Training Conference” in Kigali, Rwanda. The conference is currently anticipated to be held in the fall of 2018.

Rick Warren. Photo: Steve Jurvetson via Flickr.

Rwanda has served as a testing ground for Warren’s “PEACE Plan,” a multi-pronged development model which brings together business, government, and churches, as a “three-legged stool.” Warren emphasizes that he isn’t a politician or a businessman, but in Rwanda he has extensive connections across both sectors, as well as with religious leaders. Through these relationships, Warren is increasingly able to integrate his conservative theological, cultural, and political agenda into all realms of society. Making a case for the blurring of lines between churches, corporations, and the state – a slippery slope with dangerous implications for sexual minorities and women. He argues that without church involvement, public-private partnerships would fall over, like a two-legged stool.

Joe Ritchie, Kagame’s other favorite American evangelical, is the one who originally ushered Warren into the inner circles of the small nation’s business and political elite. In 2003, Ritchie, who serves as the co-chair of Rwanda’s Presidential Advisory Council (PAC) and is the founding CEO of the Rwandan Development Board shared with Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame a copy of the famous pastor’s bestseller, A Purpose Driven Life. Kagame subsequently invited Warren to join the PAC, “a special team of Rwandans and friends of Rwanda whose mission is to advise the President on Rwanda’s strategic development, choices and initiatives.” The Council typically meets twice a year, and over the course of its existence has included such notable members as Britain’s former prime minister, Tony Blair, and AT&T board member, Scott Ford (another American evangelical Christian)

In Prospects for Prosperity: Rwanda and the Entrepreneurial Society, a 2008 report published by the conservative think tank Hudson Institute, the authors write, “It would be impossible to fully appreciate current levels of American business interest in Rwanda without understanding the way in which an informal, yet significant, group of peers has facilitated that interest.” This group, led by Joe Ritchie and his business partner at Fox River Financial Services, Dan Cooper, established the U.S.-based “Friends of Rwanda,” a loosely organized group of “like-minded investors, business leaders, and civic leaders who have taken an interest in Rwanda.”

The authors go on to say that Warren “has been centrally involved in coordinating activity with and through this network.”

According to the American Enterprise Institute, Ritchie and Cooper’s Friends of Rwanda network played a critical role in “spreading the idea that Rwanda is a good place to do business, and not just a place for do-gooders to come help.” The two are credited with brokering Rwanda’s first breakthrough deal with retail giant Costco for coffee exports. Not long after, Starbucks followed suit (again, with help from Ritchie and Cooper).

American corporate investment has certainly offered a stabilizing force to Rwanda’s post-genocide economic development, but a marriage between government, business, and religion is one to be wary of.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision in 2014, which effectively granted individual conscience protections to corporations, expanded the slippery slope of corporate personhood that Citizens United initiated in 2010. The decision made clear how blurry the lines between church, state, and corporate entities have become in the United States. As a result of Hobby Lobby, the Christian Right has secured a loophole by which to manipulate the constitutional right to religious freedom (previously only applicable for individuals and religious institutions) into a right to discriminate that is now being applied in increasingly broad terms, granting businesses and medical providers the ability to deny services and care to otherwise unprotected classes of people (such as LGBTQ people).

American Christian Right organizations like the Alliance Defending Freedom, a legal organization based in Arizona, are already developing strategies for how to apply this same anti-LGBTQ, anti-abortion tactic internationally. ADF already claims an “active presence in the various regions of Africa.” In countries where the Religious Right enjoys the support of both political and corporate allies, we can anticipate that legalized discrimination under the guise of “religious freedom” will soon become the norm.

 

California’s “Shoot the Gays” Ballot Initiative Serves as Permission Slip for African Conservatives

The news that a Christian lawyer named Matt McLaughlin submitted a proposed ballot initiative in California that would require the execution of all LGBTQ people may sound laughable in the United States, but McLaughlin’s goal might not actually be to see the initiative signed into law. It may, in fact, be meant as a signal to countries all over the world where U.S. conservative Christians are encouraging the passage of similar anti-LGBTQ laws, essentially saying that if people in the U.S. are “considering” such a law, they should be free to do the same.

The “Sodomite Suppression Act” ballot initiative in California says, “in the fear of God, that any person who willingly touches another person of the same gender for purposes of sexual gratification be put to death by bullets to the head or by any other convenient method.”

Matt McLaughlin and the text of his “Sodomite Suppression Act”

 

It’s practically a foregone conclusion that McLaughlin will not succeed in collecting the required number of signatures to get his initiative on the ballot, but that doesn’t mean he’s without company here in the U.S. Just as Scott Lively received roughly 19,000 votes in his failed gubernatorial campaign in Massachusetts last year, McLaughlin will have some people who share similar views, both here and—importantly—in Africa. The concern should be that while his initiative is scoffed at in the U.S., the American culture warriors who are actively pursuing legislative persecution of both sexual minorities and women’s reproductive freedom in countries like Uganda, Nigeria, Kenya, Malawi, and Russia will leverage the fact that it has been proposed (and therefore given the serious consideration that America’s democracy requires) in order to sway foreign leaders and communities—people who may not realize how simple it is to pay a few dollars to get a ballot initiative in California proposed.

It was not long ago that (then) little-known U.S. right-wing evangelical Scott Lively traveled to Uganda and called on their Parliament to pass extreme anti-LGBTQ laws as a strategy for protecting young people from “homosexual recruitment” and the nation from “the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah.” Aside from being heralded in Uganda as a “Man of God,” Lively’s talking points were adopted by Africans such as Pastor Martin Ssempa, Stephen Langa of the Family Life Network, and, of course, by Parliamentarian David Bahati—recently elevated to a full cabinet position in the Museveni administration—who became the author and sponsor of the infamous 2009 “Kill the Gays” bill.

Despite the increase in violence against sexual minorities in Uganda, Bahati sees nothing wrong with the bill—something he recently told VICE Magazine. On a subsequent visit to the U.S., Bahati also told Rachel Maddow that he saw nothing wrong with executing gays for “aggravated homosexuality.” Citing the Bible, Bahati argued that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).

The Anti Homosexuality Act—as it’s officially titled—was signed into law in February 2014 before getting struck down by the Constitutional Court of Uganda for technical reasons. While LGBTQ activists in Uganda deserve to celebrate this important victory, members of Uganda’s Parliament have pledged to revive it in the near future.

Because McLaughlin’s proposed initiative is rooted in (his version of) Evangelical Christianity, U.S. Christian conservative leaders have a moral obligation to oppose it. But U.S. conservative leaders are so timid to stand up against bigotry. It took months of intense public pressure and scrutiny before The Fellowship (aka “The Family”) and U.S. megachurch pastor Rick Warren were forced to denounce the “Kill the Gays” bill—the legislation Warren himself exported on his 2008 visit to Uganda, during which he rejected sexual minorities’ rights as human rights. U.S. conservatives claim that militant homophobes like McLaughlin and Lively are not representative of their positions—that they are merely fringe characters. Yet when such militant actors use the name of Christianity to export ideologies that hurt our fellow human beings, these same so-called “moderate” Christian conservatives keep quiet (while simultaneously demanding that every U.S. Muslim should denounce Islamic Fundamentalists!).

McLaughlin’s initiative may be extreme, but it clearly illustrates how American culture wars ride on religion. The dangerous fire of religiously-sanctioned homophobia and sexism is currently burning across African nations in the name of God. The legislation pushed for and created by U.S. conservatives in Uganda and Russia now serves as models for other nations—similar laws have subsequently passed in The Gambia and Nigeria, and unless all U.S. people of conscience immediately begin working here at home to contain these homegrown culture warriors, their spread of anti-human rights poison abroad will only increase.

Christian leaders of all traditions and faiths must stand up against homophobia—they must condemn any promotion of hatred in the name of religion. Like McLaughlin, Edward Onwong’a Nyakeriga of Kenya’s Republican Liberty Party wants execution by stoning or life imprisonment for sexual minorities. Under the premise of “protecting” traditional family values, Nyakeriga argues the law is necessary to stop “sexual rights activists” from imposing “their values of sexual promiscuity on the people of Kenya.” As McLaughlin reveals (again), these words are taken directly from U.S. conservative talking points.

But conservative talking points have bodies—U.S. anti-human rights Christian conservatives are actively exporting their ideologies to Africa, where they are unquestioningly received as scientific truths. Depending on how the Supreme Court rules on same-sex marriages next month, U.S. Conservative ideologies may soon be history. Due to the number of losses Christian conservatives have suffered—and continue to suffer—in U.S. courts, accompanied by their failure to sell their anti-human rights agenda to young evangelicals, American culture warriors know they are fighting a losing battle. But this does not mean they will be out of business soon—their campaign is already globalized, and their talking points have found an eager market in Africa.

As eyes are set on the U.S., well-known and little-known U.S. conservatives such as Warren, Lively, and Sharon Slater have been waging anti-human rights battles on foreign grounds for many years. We all know that Pastor Warren (reluctantly) opposed the “Kill the Gays” bill when speaking on U.S. soil, but when is he going to condemn homophobia while he is visiting Rwanda? Hence, as long as the U.S. Right continues to dump its expired arsenal of homophobia and sexism on African soil, sexual minorities and women will be the direct victims of the same.

On a continent where over 90% of the population identifies as religious, African homophobia is covered in religiously coded messages. The efforts of human rights defenders alone won’t put out the fire of homophobia and sexism—religious leaders must also play a part. American evangelical religious leaders and para-church organizations operating in Africa—from World Vision to Pastor Warren’s PEACE Plan to Franklin Graham’s Samaritan’s Purse—have a moral obligation to speak out against religiously sanctioned violence directed toward sexual minorities and women. Their voices will determine who lives and who dies. These groups may claim to be oblivious to the persecution of sexual minorities and women in Africa, but religiously sanctioned homophobia and sexism continues to destroy and claim lives there.

While evangelical Christians of good conscience need to oppose anti-human rights positions advocated for by U.S. Christian extremists both at home and abroad, they also have the duty to demand that all evangelical organizations operating in Africa denounce homophobia and sexism. Keeping silent when lesbians are raped and gays are arrested and killed across the continent is not Christ-like—it is shameful and a betrayal of our biblical faith and family values. Mr. McLaughlin provides Pastor Warren and all evangelical pastors and scholars with an opportunity to honor the sacred humanity of all persons by denouncing his initiative as un-Christian.

 

Christian Right Leaders Escalate Anti-LGBTQ Threats

As marriage equality has advanced around the country, and the U.S. Supreme Court is set to rule on the issue in June, threatening language is escalating on the Christian Right.   If these culture warriors actually follow through with their threats, the story of our time may turn on terms like civil disobedience, martyrdom and even civil war.  The operative word here is, “if.”

supreme court cross

In recent years, we have repeatedly heard threats of civil disobedience from Christian Right Leaders – everyone from the signers of the historic, 2009 Manhattan Declaration (which included top Roman Catholic prelates and evangelical and organized Christian right leaders), to Rick Warren.  We have heard predictions of civil war, revolution, and martyrdom from the likes of Catholic thinker John McCloskey, theocratic evangelical intellectual Peter Leithart, and even Christian Right electoral activist David Lane. We have also heard calls for political assassinations and secessionist civil war from White Southern Christian Nationalists, Michael Hill, David Whitney, and Michael Peroutka.

Most recently, some 200 Christian Right figures signed a renewed pledge of resistance to the anticipated Supreme Court decision favoring marriage equality.  At a press conference, they called this “A Bonhoeffer Moment in America.” The reference is to the famous Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who resisted the Nazi regime and was hanged for his role in an unsuccessful plot to assassinate Adolph Hitler.  Bonhoeffer is increasingly invoked by Christian Right leaders as they compare the situation in the United States to Nazi Germany and cast him—as they choose to define him—as a role model for Christian Right resistance.

The new manifesto says that extending marriage to same-sex couples violates their religious freedom, and that they want to “respectfully warn the Supreme Court” that they would adhere to “higher law.” Their language was (relatively) soft, but clear:  “Make no mistake about our resolve,” they concluded, “ …this is the line we must draw and one we cannot and will not cross.”

Co-authored by Mat Staver of Liberty Counsel and Catholic activist Keith Fournier, signers of the declaration include such well known Christian Right leaders as James Dobson, Jim Garlow, Franklin Graham, John Hagee, William Boykin, and Frank Pavone; Southern Baptist Convention leaders Paige Patterson, Ed Young, Robert Jeffress and Richard Land; leaders of the New Apostolic Reformation, including Alveda King, Samuel Rodriguez, Cindy Jacobs, James Robison, Rick Joyner, and Joseph Mattera; and Republican politicians Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum and Tom DeLay.

Not to be outdone, anti-LGBTQ activist Scott Lively announced that the only way to thwart marriage equality is with the “threat of the mob.” Lively is walking a line as like those who have come before – wanting people to take his call seriously, even as he characterizes it as but a metaphor.

“The elites need to see the angry mob – liberals and conservatives together – surging through the streets, pitchforks and torches held aloft, ready to tear down Frankenstein’s castle with their bare hands if need be. For Christians it’s Jesus and the moneychangers time!  Making a whip of cords like He did with His own hands, and letting these arrogant puppet-masters know we mean to use it (metaphorically speaking).”

“The only way to deter the elites is with the threat of the mob,” Lively concluded. “They need to see the pitchforks and torches to know they’ve gone too far and need to back down.”

There is an art to brushing with incitement to violence.  It is an art with which the Far Right in the U.S. is very familiar.  Anti-choice militants often engage, or threaten to engage, in activities that walk up to or actually transgress personal and property boundaries of many kinds, including violence. But we have also seen the federal courts recognize that threatening language can morph into a “true threat” – as happened in the case of American Coalition of Life Activists v. Planned Parenthood.

As attorney Maria Vullo told me in an interview in 2002, that the case did not harm freedom of speech. “When you cross over the line into threatening violence,” she says, “it’s not free speech.”

Such concerns may take on new meaning since Christian Right leaders frequently compare the current Supreme Court same-sex marriage case, Obergefell v. Hodges, to Roe v. Wade, and may be serious about waging a long term war of attrition against an unfavorable outcome.

Let’s consider for example, the implications of the lawsuit brought by Ugandan LGBTQ activists against Scott Lively – who, as PRA’s senior researcher Rev. Dr. Kapya Kaoma broke in 2009, was one of the leading U.S. culture warriors who promoted the virulent homophobia that led to the “kill the gays” bill in Uganda.

Sexual Minorities of Uganda v. Lively will be tried in September of 2015 in federal court in Springfield, Massachusetts – just two months after the Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges; followed in October by the World Congress of Families in Salt Lake City. The latter will bring together some of the leading anti-LGBTQ militants in the world – some of whom have worked for legislation modeled on Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Law in their home countries.  

The case against Lively, filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), relies on the Alien Tort Statute, which allows foreign victims of crimes under international law access to American courts. SMUG v. Lively is the first such case brought to protect LGBTQ people.

Lively is accused of the crime of “persecution,” as defined under international law as systematically seeking to deprive people of their fundamental rights not only of life, but of equality under the law – including equal rights of speech, assembly, and association. Persecution is defined here as the “severe deprivation of fundamental rights” on the basis of identity, a “crime against humanity.”

Lively’s claim that LBGTQ people are, among other things, predatory pedophiles has fueled rage not because of what people have done, but because of who they are. Even though the Anti-Homosexuality Bill had not yet passed when the lawsuit was filed (it later passed, was then struck down by the courts on procedural grounds, and now may make its return in the Ugandan parliament), SMUG said that vigilantes were acting as though it had.  People feared for their lives and possible arrest, received death threats, and were excluded from HIV-related education and health services. Meetings were raided, and LGBTQ leaders and attendees rounded-up and arrested.

CCR attorney Pamela Spees argued that since Lively first went to Uganda in 2002, no one had done more to strip away human rights protections for LGBTQ people. And although he was not present (as Lively’s attorney from Liberty Counsel noted) when specific criminal acts were perpetrated, nor did he supervise the crimes, Lively nevertheless participated in a wide-ranging conspiracy from which these crimes resulted. Lively was described as a “strategist” and an “architect.”

The nature of the civil disobedience being promised by various elements of the Christian Right in response to a potential pro-marriage equality ruling by the Supreme Court remains to be seen. It may turn out that some are just blowing smoke and will ultimately be able to live with the social changes taking place in the country. But it is likely that others can’t – or won’t. Some certainly believe that the survival of Christendom (as they understand it) is at stake.  And if their actions catch up with their words, there may be violence.

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.

Will Our Prisons Overflow with Christians?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Previewing the Next Anti-Marriage Equality Manifesto

Top leaders of the Christian Right plan to issue a fresh manifesto against marriage equality in March.  It may be the defining document for the anti-marriage equality forces in the run up to the legal show down at the Supreme Court this summer (not to mention the 2016 presidential elections). It is certainly an advance in the evolving alliance between conservative Catholics and conservative evangelicals—and a remarkable expression of their fears about the survival of Christendom as they see it.

David Gibson of Religion News Service, who received an advance copy of the manifesto, reports that it “reads like a declaration of war,” and that it claims “that a faithful Christian witness cannot accommodate itself to same-sex marriage.”  What’s more, “it suggests that believers who accept gay marriage are no longer fully Christian.”

The manifesto, entitled The Two Shall Become One Flesh:  Reclaiming Marriage, has been signed by several dozen Christian Right leaders so far, and will be published in the March issue of the neoconservative magazine First Things, which provided copies to selected reporters.

“If the truth about marriage can be displaced by social and political pressure operating through the law, other truths can be set aside as well,” the signers of the manifesto warn.  This, they assert, can lead “to the coercion and persecution of those who refuse to acknowledge the state’s redefinition of marriage… ”

Evangelical signers of the statement reportedly include megachurch pastor Rick Warren; Timothy George, dean of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University; Mark Galli, editor of the evangelical magazine Christianity Today; and Daniel Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.  Catholic signers include Robert P. George, chairman emeritus of the National Organization for Marriage;  longtime NBC News “Vatican analyst,” George Weigel; and prominent anti-marriage equality activist Maggie Gallagher.

Some of these leaders have been threatening civil disobedience over abortion, marriage equality, and religious liberty since at least the publication of the 2009 Manhattan Declaration.  In the Declaration, the culture-warring leaders of both the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and of conservative evangelicalism threatened massive civil disobedience if they didn’t get their way.

Just before the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Hobby Lobby v. Burwell in 2014, Rick Warren told a Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) gathering that the fight for religious liberty might bring persecution.  He warned that this may require personal sacrifices.  “And,” he declared, invoking Martin Luther King, Jr., “[this] may take some pastors going to jail. I’m in. I willingly said it, I’m in.”

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

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

But for all the big talk over the years, the published quotes from The Two Shall Become One Flesh: Reclaiming Marriage suggests a group of leaders on the eve of a major battle they are about to lose—trying to rally themselves and their followers for the rest of the war.

They remind themselves of their professed “obligation to speak the truth in love,” and express regret for “injustices against those who experience same-sex attraction.”  But their words also drip with scorn for those who do not share their views. Compared with divorce and cohabitation, they claim that “so-called same-sex marriage is a graver threat” to the institution of marriage.  They complain that it is “a parody of marriage” that not only “distorts the Gospel” but “threatens the common good.”

They also complain that “those who refuse to conform are regarded as irrational bigots.”

Perhaps they doth protest too much.

In any case, this group insists that any accommodation of marriage equality violates their religious freedom—for which they have repeatedly indicated that they are willing to fight. How far they are willing to go remains to be seen.

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s take a look at some recent examples.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ex-gay protester

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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