Trump, Cruz, & Dominionism: Some Christian Right Leaders Fear a Crack-Up

The 2016 Republican presidential campaign has transformed American politics, likely forever. Everyone is making adjustments, but two recent illuminating episodes suggest that some Christian Right leaders are finding the changes to be unusually awkward and challenging.

trump cruzThe Christian Right, as a voting bloc, has never united behind a single candidate during the Republican presidential primaries (with the exception of Ronald Reagan’s and George W. Bush’s unopposed second-term races). Still, we tend to forget that the movement has never been monolithic and that there have always been political tensions between rival candidates and factions. But the factional tensions are different this year. And there are two main reasons for this.

The first tension is related to the unique, and uniquely divisive, candidacy of Donald Trump. Evangelical think tanker Michael Cromartie, in a curiously overwrought speech, widely-discussed in the evangelical press, has gone so far as to call it a conservative “crack-up.”  The second is the specter of Dominionism as it relates to Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) and his campaign. 

The Christian Post recently reported on the eyebrow-raising remarks of evangelical think tanker Michael Cromartie at a luncheon sponsored by the neoconservative Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington DC.  (IRD is best known for its efforts to degrade the historic communions of mainline Protestantism.)  Cromartie runs the Evangelicals in Civic Life program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC) in Washington, DC.

Cromartie is upset that the “new branding” of evangelicalism and the Christian Right is being ruined by evangelical and conservative leaders who support Trump. He said the movement has benefited from the rise of Jim Daly of Focus on the Family, and megachurch pastors and authors Tim Keller and Rick Warren. He believes that they better “present” the movement’s goals than such founding Christian Right figures as James Dobson, D. James Kennedy and Jerry Falwell, Sr.

But this rebranding, Cromartie says, has been undone because of the pro-Trump activities of noted Southern Baptists such as megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress, Liberty University president Jerry Falwell, Jr., and former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee.

The Christian Post continued:

“In the last six or seven or eight years, we now have new leaders to replace those leaders, so that it’s a new branding of evangelicals in our society,” Cromartie stated. “Now, that is all out the window, ladies and gentleman, when Jerry Falwell Jr. has the audacity to come out and endorse Donald Trump, when Robert Jeffress goes on and sells his soul every week on Fox News, encouraging the candidacy of Donald Trump.”

“If this is not a crack up,” Cromartie observed,” I don’t know what it is.”

As if to underscore his confusion about all this, Cromartie also cited blogger Matt Walsh, whose hyperbolic post “Let’s Remember The Cowardly Conservative Leaders Who Betrayed Us For Trump” leaves readers with little doubt that the faction fighting is getting bitter.

Speaking of Falwell and Jeffress, Walsh declared:

“They now promote Trump in direct defiance of Scripture, which clearly stipulates that anyone who desires to be a leader must be noble, respectable, temperate, and dignified (and probably not someone who brags about his adultery and thinks the nation’s largest abortion provider is ‘wonderful [sic]).  To claim Trump belongs in any of these categories is blasphemy.”

“Our ‘leaders’” he continued, “have subjugated themselves to the American Kim Jong Un simply for the publicity and the ratings and the chance to be friends with a billionaire celebrity.”

Meanwhile, the candidacy of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), and his unexpected emergence as the leading candidate of both the Christian Right and much of the GOP establishment as an alternative to Trump is causing the movement other kinds of indigestion.

Catholic neoconservative strategist Robert P. George is apparently worried about how voters will react to the way Senator Cruz relates his religious views to public policy. Specifically, he is worried about Ted Cruz and Dominionism.

At the beginning of the presidential primary season four years ago, the Christian Right was similarly worried that Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) and Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX) were receiving press attention for their well-established involvements in the theocratic politics of Dominionism.

In that race, those two candidates both dropped out early. But with Cruz actually having a shot at the nomination, George apparently hopes to squelch the emerging discussion about Cruz and Dominionism before it goes any further. This may be why he was featured in a recent article in Christianity Today, which sought to smear researchers who have published about Cruz’s dominionist roots, namely evangelical historian John Fea, evangelical psychology professor Warren Throckmorton, Daily Beast writer Jay Michaelson, and myself.

In the article, George claimed:

“The contemporary religious Left’s version of McCarthyist red-baiting is to smear opponents by labeling them ‘dominionists.’ … Ted’s not a dominionist; he’s a constitutionalist.”

This is as silly as it is wrong.  What’s more, although former PRA Senior Analyst Chip Berlet and I may have defined and popularized the terms “Dominionism” and “dominionist” in the 90s as a way to describe a tendency that is evident across a wide swath of evangelicalism, we have always sought to apply it fairly and accurately.

Nevertheless, George and the authors of the article did not offer a single example of the supposedly McCarthyist-style uses of the term by those of us named in the article or anyone else.

Also ignored by the authors and George is the fact that the term was part of the debate about Christian Reconstructionism in the evangelical community for years before Berlet and I used it for wider publics.1  The term has also been objectively employed in many scholarly books and articles.

As I recently told journalist Bill Berkowitz, who wrote about the discussion of Cruz and Dominionism for Truthout, “The question of whether Cruz is a Dominionist will linger because the available evidence suggests that he is.” John Fea has detailed how, in addition to Cruz’s own statements, Cruz’s father Rafael (who is also his principal campaign surrogate) is openly a 7 Mountains Dominionist, as is the head of Cruz’s Super PAC – revisionist historian David Barton. One of Cruz’s foreign policy advisers, Jerry Boykin of the Family Research Council, is also a well-known 7 Mountains Dominionist and a longtime board member of a 7 Mountains political project called The Oak Initiative.

The public debate about the Christian Right is usually limited to the tripartite agenda of what they term “life, marriage, and religious liberty” as put forth in The Manhattan Declaration.  But their agenda has always been broader and deeper than that, which is why Robert P. George, the principal author of the Declaration (and current Vice Chairman of EPPC) does not want to risk us talking about the political and economic dimensions of what they mean by “taking dominion” over society. This, combined with the bitterness of some about evangelical support for Trump, may very well signal a period of disunity rather than the politically homogenized evangelicalism preferred by Washington, DC think tanks and power brokers.


 

[1]  These usages are discussed in Christian Reconstructionism:  R.J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism by Michael J. McVicar, University of North Carolina Press, 2015.; page 204.

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.

Growing Mormon-Catholic Alliance: Quiet Partners Behind Christian Right’s Religious Discrimination Agenda

While Tony Perkins, Brian Brown, Bryan Fischer, and other Christian Right pundits of the more shrill variety may be easy to ignore as they demand a right to discriminate on Fox News, there is a more dangerous coalition emerging. One of the primary drivers of the movement to corrupt and redefine religious freedom isn’t someone in a shouting match on cable news, but a decades-long alliance of top Mormons and Catholics.

While Mormons and Catholics may seem like unlikely allies, from a political perspective they bring complementary strengths to their partnership. The Mormon Church has an amazing amount of wealth on hand (it’s estimated to be worth over $40 billion – gathered from real estate and commercial holdings, mandatory tithing collections from members, and even a theme park in Hawaii) and a world-class grassroots mobilization and recruitment force. The Catholic Church and related groups, on the other hand, enjoy a much higher approval rating with the American public (62 percent) and thus can put a more popular face on public political campaigns.

Mormon Apostle Dallin H. Oaks (center) speaks with Francis Cardinal George, Archbishop of Chicago, (right) and Princeton University Professor Robert P. George (left) at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty Canterbury Medal Dinner in New York City, 16 May 2013.

Mormon Apostle Dallin H. Oaks (center) speaks with Francis Cardinal George, Archbishop of Chicago, (right) and Princeton University Professor Robert P. George (left) at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty Canterbury Medal Dinner in New York City, 16 May 2013.

The political allegiance between Mormons and Catholics dates back at least to the 1990s in Hawaii, during the first U.S. battle over same-sex marriage. As I previously reported, while the Mormons could—and did—provide funding and volunteers to that campaign, the more popular Catholic Church acted as the coalition’s public face. The Catholic Church and other visible allies would thereby absorb any public backlash directed towards the coalition, while the Mormons could push their agenda without any serious consequences to their public image. The strategy was effective, and one they repeated during California’s Proposition 8 fight.

The alliance grows stronger with each passing year. Epitomizing the relationship is Princeton professor Robert P. George, one of the most influential Catholic conservative activists in the country, who partnered with the Mormon Church to create the National Organization for Marriage (NOM). He also joined the editorial advisory board of the Mormon Church-owned newspaper, the Deseret News. George is also the founder of the Witherspoon Institute (responsible for the debunked Mark Regnerus study – which was reported first by the Deseret News), was the primary author of the anti-LGBTQ Manhattan Declaration, and is one of the top national strategists leading the charge to redefine religious freedom into a sword religious institutions can use to force their doctrinal positions on individuals. This week, Mormon Church-owned Brigham Young University awarded George an “honorary Doctor of Law and Moral Values” degree, calling him “one of the most able and articulate advocates of the proposition that faith and reason are not incompatible.”

Dallin H. Oaks, one of the Mormon Church’s 12 Apostles, has been deeply involved in the effort to redefine religious freedom. He sits on the board of the World Congress of Families, an international culture-warring collection of Religious Right organizations that works all over the world to use (redefined) religious freedom arguments to enact anti-LGBTQ and anti-reproductive health laws (such as the Russian law that criminalizes any positive speech about homosexuality). In recognition of his work with WCF and frequent speeches before conservative groups extoling the benefits of using one’s faith as an excuse to dodge pesky civil rights laws, Oaks received the 2013 “Canterbury Medal” for his “defense of religious liberty” from The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a conservative Catholic legal organization responsible for the Hobby Lobby ruling at the Supreme Court and one of the top groups in the Right’s religious freedom campaign.

Speaking earlier this month at the Mormon Church’s semi-annual General Conference to all 15 million members worldwide, Oaks quoted a speech given by Philadelphia Catholic Archbishop Charles Chaput at Brigham Young University. “Speaking of ‘concerns that the LDS and Catholic communities share,’ such as ‘about marriage and family, the nature of our sexuality, the sanctity of human life, and the urgency of religious liberty,’ he [Chaput] said this: ‘I want to stress again the importance of really living what we claim to believe. That needs to be a priority—not just in our personal and family lives but in our churches, our political choices, our business dealings, our treatment of the poor; in other words, in everything we do.’” Chaput continued, in his speech to BYU, “Religion is to democracy as a bridle is to a horse.”

“Religion is to democracy as a bridle is to a horse.” – Archbishop Charles Chaput

Another of the Mormon Church’s top leaders, Henry B. Eyring, met with Chaput and Pope Francis in November 2014 at the Vatican. Eyring described their strengthening alliance and mutual dedication to opposing civil liberties for LGBTQ people and women, saying “I think the thing was, even with other faiths, they have exactly the same feeling that the root of good society is good families.” Another of the Mormon 12 Apostles, D. Todd Christofferson, will be one of the featured speakers later this year at the Catholic’s anti-LGBTQ World Meeting of Families, where the Pope will also be speaking.

The crowning, and perhaps most insidious, achievement thus far of the Mormon-Catholic alliance is the much-hailed Utah nondiscrimination/religious freedom law. While the Christian Right’s state-level Hobby-Lobbyized RFRAs (with their overt anti-LGBTQ intentions) have generated a significant national backlash (particularly in the cases of Indiana and Arizona) and are susceptible to court challenges, the Utah RFRA “lite” law actually won endorsements from LGBTQ groups. The Mormon Church enlisted the help of Christian Right operative Robin Fretwell Wilson, who works closely with right-wing Catholic groups like The Becket Fund and Alliance Defending Freedom, to co-write the law. The end product was a bill written in such a way that LGBTQ groups hungry for a “win” in a Red state could claim victory in the form of a watered-down nondiscrimination law. The price—knowingly or otherwise—was the endorsement by high-profile LGBTQ groups of the Right’s false contention that religious freedom is somehow at odds with LGBTQ rights, requiring a compromise – or, as some LGBTQ groups described the creation of Utah’s law, “a collaboration.” Such endorsements have set a dangerous precedent for the advancement of RFRAs and other efforts to corrupt actual religious freedom in various state legislatures. Right-wing groups can (and do) point to LGBTQ support in Utah as a means of mainstreaming their agenda and deflating their opposition.

Catholic news agencies have hailed the “Mormon law” as a model to be repeated across the country. If that happens, we may well see more such pyrrhic victories, in which gains in non-discrimination legislation are overwhelmed by the emerging “right to discriminate” on the basis of religious convictions.. This is where compromising on the true meaning of religious freedom could lead. We may also see the Mormon Church emerge as a more prominent—albeit less public—partner of the evangelical and Catholic elements of the Christian Right as they continue their quest to corrupt the meaning of religious freedom.

Christian Right Doubles Down in the Face of Catholic Progress

Despite subsequent backtracking, the Catholic world is abuzz with news that the Synod of Bishops could be taking steps toward a dramatic overhaul in the church’s long-standing doctrine on LGBTQ people, as well as its view on divorced members.

The Roman Catholic Church’s Third Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops convened last week at the Vatican in Rome. From Oct. 5-19, over 250 participants, including scores of Catholic bishops and clergy, lay people, and some Protestant and Orthodox “fraternal” delegates are meeting to “thoroughly examine and analyze the information, testimonies and recommendations received from the particular Churches in order to respond to the new challenges of the family.”

Third Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops

Third Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops

Early this week—midway through the assembly—the Vatican released an interim document that is unusually conciliatory toward LGBTQ people and nonmarital unions, both of which have long been considered contrary to church doctrine. Though the text definitively states that “unions between people of the same sex cannot be considered on the same footing as matrimony between man and woman,” NPR’s Sylvia Poggioli observes that the report as a whole “is a far cry from official church teachings that homosexuality is ‘intrinsically disordered.’”[1]

In the section of the report entitled, “Welcoming homosexual persons,” it’s acknowledged that “there are cases in which mutual aid to the point of sacrifice constitutes a precious support in the life of the partners.” As Box Turtle Bulletin’s Jim Burroway points out, “The idea of gay couples offer[ing] anything ‘precious’ in their relationships has never appeared in an official church document before. And the phrase ‘intrinsically disordered,’ so reflexively deployed in the past, is nowhere to be found.”

Some have gone so far as to suggest this is a “revolutionary change.”

Conservative Catholics were quick to react, however, and the Vatican was forced to clarify that the report was a working document, and that while the Church certainly wants to welcome gays and lesbians in the church, the Vatican has no intention of creating “the impression of a positive evaluation” of LGBTQ people or, for that matter, of unmarried couples who live together. Regardless, at the end of the day Pope Francis will have the final word.

Conservative resistance to any potential shift in the Vatican’s approach to the reality of an ever-expanding understanding of what it means to be family began long before today. Preceding the gathering, a group of leading conservative Catholics and Protestants issued a joint appeal to the Synod, expressing their concern over what they perceive to be grave threats to church teachings on marriage and family. Among the signers is megachurch pastor Rick Warren; Alan Sears, president of Alliance Defending Freedom, a right-wing legal group behind the U.S. Right’s push to redefine the meaning of religious liberty in their favor; Mark Regnerus, sociology professor at University of Texas at Austin and author of deeply controversial and debunked report on same-sex parenting; Patrick Fagan, director the Family Research Council’s Marriage and Religion Research Institute; and countless other Christian Right leaders not only from the U.S. and Europe, but also from Australia and parts of South and Central America. Thomas Farr, former president of the right-wing think tank Institute on Religion & Democracy and current head of Georgetown University’s Religious Freedom Project, was one of the letter’s key organizers.

The letter notes that “marriage and the family are indispensable, both as vehicles of salvation and as bulwarks of human society, and extols upon the Synod to seize this moment as an “opportunity to express timeless truths about marriage” that exemplify “true love, not ‘exclusion’ or ‘prejudice,’ or any of the other charges brought against marriage today.”

Among the many “threats” to marriage, family, and children, the appeal cites cohabitation, divorce, and pornography, urging the church to resist these dangerous trends and stand firm in its commitment to protecting and preserving the “natural family.” Though LGBTQ people are not named explicitly, the letter calls on the Synod to promote legal restrictions that limit marriage to “a conjugal union of one man and one woman.” Additionally, the church is encouraged to create a consortium of attorneys and legislators to support religious freedom in divorce courts, ensuring that judges not be allowed to “ignore or demean the views of a spouse who seeks to save a marriage, keep the children in a religious school, or prevent an abandoning spouse from exposing the children to an unmarried sexual partner.”

Cooperation between Catholics and evangelicals is not a new phenomenon. The 2009 Manhattan Declaration marked a significant departure from historic divisiveness, formalizing the alliance between Roman Catholics and right-wing evangelical Protestants and outlining priorities around three primary areas: abortion, same-sex marriage, and religious liberty. This newest document—notably signed by Robert P. George, creator of the Manhattan Declaration and co-founder of the anti-LGBTQ National Organization for Marriage and the  Witherspoon Institute—is yet another example of these strengthening ties.

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[1] The Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church calls for “respect, compassion and sensitivity” toward LGBTQ people while also calling the “inclination” toward homosexuality “objectively disordered,” and a 1986 document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith called homosexuality a “more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil.”