The Art of Activism: Erik Ruin

Spotlighting the efforts of artists and organizations who are engaged in the struggle for social justice and are helping build the movement through their work.

This spring’s Public Eye cover artist, Erik Ruin, is a Philadelphia-based printmaker, shadow puppeteer, and paper-cut artist whose work has been called “spell-binding” by The New York Times. He describes his art as oscillating “between the poles of apocalyptic anxieties and utopian yearnings, with an emphasis on empathy, transcendence, and obsessive detail.”

He stumbled upon printmaking and paper-cut art because they were the more affordable, available mediums being deployed by his punk rock peers. The democratic nature of the mediums he works in creates opportunities to challenge and reinvent the “rather hierarchical and elitist infrastructure that often surrounds/presents the art world.” For Ruin, printmaking in particular allows for a highly personal creative process that’s more accessible than a single painting.

Raised in Michigan, Ruin was a member of the UpsideDown Culture Collective in Detroit and other groups of radical-minded artists that eventually coalesced in 2007 to form the international Justseeds Artists Cooperative of printmakers (which began as a solo project of Josh MacPhee in 1998). His work is frequently made in collaboration with other artists and activist campaigns delving into social issues as well as more abstract underlying concepts. For example, “Prisoner’s Song,” his recent audio-visual piece with composer Gelsey Bell, was formulated to explore “what imprisonment and isolation reveals about the nature of humanity.”

Ruin says the connection between his art and activism isn’t always scripted though. Pointing out that activism often focuses on quantifiable goals and campaigns, Ruin is drawn to art-making partly because of its “resistance to utilitarianism,” noting that “the way an image or performance has the potential to impact people is highly subjective, variable and often mysterious even to its maker.”

While artists often use their skills to enrich and amplify the message of social movements, Ruin also observes that “art has the power to speak in different, sometimes stranger and subtler, ways—to say things that are only on the verge of being articulable otherwise.” Although his art often explores more abstract and subjective elements, the labor-intensive physicality of his process—he is currently creating a paper-cut piece more than 100 feet long—intersects with his convictions. “[L]abor and the struggle to be present with what I am depicting is of inherent value to me,” he says. “I feel like the effort to shape and bring forth the figures and landscapes in my work is an extension/reflection/origin of the empathy I hope viewers will experience when viewing it.”

Erik Ruin, Wanderers (Trees), 2014, screen print, 25” x 19”. See more of Erik’s work at

The Artists of The Public Eye

Click here to explore the digitized collection of The Public Eye.

The Public Eye is a quarterly magazine published by Political Research Associates. It has featured over 200 authors and numerous artists and continues to be the gold standard for researchers, activists, academics, and others concerned with how the Right is influencing our daily lives.

Since a re-design in 2013, The Public Eye has featured the work of activist artists both on the covers and inside. Here’s a look back at what some of our featured artists had to say about the “Art of Activism”:

For more than 30 years, David Bacon (whose photography is featured in our Fall 2014 issue) has been writing about and photographing people who are displaced by poverty in Mexico and choose to cross into the United States in search of a better life. David writes: “For me, photography is a cooperative project. For over a decade, I’ve worked with the Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations, a Mexican migrant organization, and California Rural Legal Assistance to document this contradiction…I believe documentary photographers stand on the side of social justice—we should be involved in the world and unafraid to try to change it.”


Nansi Guevara, Muxeres lideres de Brownsville, Texas, 2016, print, 24″ x 18″.

“Art is essential in our fight for justice because we need to be able to first imagine change in our minds in order to create it.”

Nansi Guevara (the cover artist for our Winter 2017 issue) frequently incorporates bright colors, resisting Eurocentric design traditions, and weaves together multiple languages in her art. She sees the creation of new worlds through art as something that’s also essential to activism. Socially conscious artists are at the forefront of movements and change, pushing boundaries and bringing the seemingly invisible to light. They “are the pulse of the community and art has the power to help us imagine a better world. It is essential in our fight for justice because we need to be able to first imagine change in our minds in order to create it.”

Negative media representations of Arabs and Arab Americans influenced Helen Zughaib’s art (featured in our Spring 2015 issue) especially while President Obama was running for office and frequently labeled a Muslim.  “I think that many artists are activists in some way or another,” Zughaib says. “They reflect their times, their environment, visually recording what happens around them. The work that becomes important has its finger on the critical issues of the day.”

Spinney, “Triumph” 13″x20″ screenprint on paper

“To create art is to partake in a huge force that can work to shift our society over time.”

Spinney’s work (featured in our Fall 2015 issue) often approaches serious issues—such as religion, sexuality and identity—informed by their own experiences; their style is a mix of dark topics and more humorous innuendos. When asked about the connection between their art and activism, Spinney said, “My art primarily investigates issues of queerness at the moment. I’m very invested in cultural production—whether or not it appears to possess an immediate focus on tangible change—because I think that to create cultural matter [and] art is to partake in a huge force that can work to shift our society over time.”

“I’m pretty excited that people are starting to see art and culture as part of social movements. To see that it’s all connected.”

Meredith Stern (whose artwork is featured on the front cover of our Winter 2015 issue) embraces the “act locally, think globally” ethos. Stern has had a lifelong connection to grassroots activism but didn’t always feel that movements welcomed art. “It seemed that within activist circles, art and culture were dismissed as unnecessary,” she explains. “But art does play a role in promoting ethics, as a moral compass, and a reflection of society and the people within it.” She believes that with the rise of Occupy and Black Lives Matter, social justice movements are beginning to make room for art. “I’m pretty excited that people are starting to see art and culture as part of social movements. To see that it’s all connected,” she says.

Joshua MacPhee, “___ of the World, Unite!,“
2014. Screen print on paper, 25in x 40in.

“Making art is part of a practice of trying to change the world for the better.”

Joshua MacPhee (our Winter 2016 cover artist) didn’t go to a traditional art school to learn his craft, but rather what he calls “the punk rock school of art,” where he became part of a politicized sub-culture and learned to work in a wide variety of media.

“For me making art is part of a practice of trying to change the world for the better,” said MacPhee. “Sometimes that’s simply constructing an image, sometimes it’s building a big social project that engages directly with lots of participants, sometimes it’s not making art at all, but just going on a demonstration, giving a little money to an organization doing important work, or using the platform art can provide to discuss important issues often not aired in the public sphere.”

Asad Badat (the artist behind the cover of the Summer 2015 issue) writes “If art can get you to change your mind about something or inspire you to have some sort of change in yourself or effect some sort of change in your community, that’s powerful.” These sparks can become the conflagrations of movements.

We look forward to showcasing more activist art in the forthcoming issues. Want to contribute to The Public Eye? Check out our submission guidelines. To subscribe, click here.




The Art of Activism: Nansi Guevara

Click here for a PDF version of this issue.

Nansi Guevara’s art appears on the cover of the Winter 2017 edition of The Public Eye magazine. Subscribe today!

Nansi Guevara, a visual artist and activist based in South Texas, has been creating art for as long as she can remember. “The circumstances in my household, a crafty and costurera mother and a father that left construction materials all over the house, pushed me to utilize these discarded materials for new objects that nurtured my imagination.” She points out that what is now called “DIY” has always been a marker of creativity, and a form of art, rooted in indigeneity, that goes back centuries. It is rasquachismo for border communities—a term coined by Tomás Ybarra-Frausto referring to the celebration of resourcefulness, ingenuity, and “the underdog” in Chicano/a arts. As a self-described Xicana, Mexicana, first generation U.S. American, artist, and muxerista, Nansi uses art to make sense of her and her community’s experiences and evoke emotion and empathy through imagery.

Growing up on the border in Laredo, Texas, exposed her to complex, often contradictory realities. “Since I was a child I couldn’t understand why some people were allowed to cross the [US.-Mexico International] bridge and some were not.” Nansi evokes Chicana feminist theorist Gloria Anzaldua’s concept of nepantla, or “the in-betweenness that we experience as border people,” as the foundation for the sacred knowledge of fronterizas.

Inspired by the queer/women leadership of Black Lives Matter, the dignity and humanity of the Zapatista communities, the indigenous-led movement against the Dakota Access Pipeline in Standing Rock, North Dakota, and other bottom-up, community driven movements for change, Nansi says, “For me it is critical to center the often untold stories, histories, and experiences of people of color and women in this country.” Her art frequently incorporates bright colors, resisting Eurocentric design traditions, and weaves together multiple languages, as in her installation, “Our Tierra Livri.” She says she uses language in her art to “elevate multilingualism and push back against purism and nationalism in language,” which delegitimizes folks for “not speaking in a certain way or not using the ‘right’ language.”

Nansi describes the process of drawing as a medicine to her body and sees the creation of new worlds through art as something that’s also essential to activism. Socially conscious artists are at the forefront of movements and change, pushing boundaries and bringing the seemingly invisible to light. They “are the pulse of the community and art has the power to help us imagine a better world. It is essential in our fight for justice because we need to be able to first imagine change in our minds in order to create it.”

Nansi Guevara, Muxeres lideres de Brownsville, Texas, 2016, print, 24″ x 18″. See more of Nansi’s work at:

Additional samples of Nansi’s work can be found at:

“A History of the War on Drugs”: Public Eye Artist in the News

On September 15, hip-hop artist Jay Z and author and illustrator Molly Crabapple collaborated (along with dream hampton, Jim Batt, and Kim Boekbinder) on a short, animated video, “A History of the War on Drugs, from Prohibition to Gold Rush,” for The New York Times. In the four-minute piece, Jay Z chronicles U.S. drug policy from 1971 to the present day, highlighting these laws’ ineffectiveness and their uneven application across race and class lines. Juxtaposing the mass incarceration of Black and Latino men arrested on petty drug charges with the White bankers and college students whose drug use gets a pass, the video also calls into question who will profit now that some states have legalized the sale of marijuana. The same drug sales that left a generation of men of color in prison will now enrich White entrepreneurs.

The piece is a continuation of Crabapple’s video work on social justice issues, including “broken windows” policing. PRA recently used a still from Crabapple’s viral video explanation of broken windows on the cover of our Spring 2016 issue of The Public Eye. Crabapple’s work accompanied a cover article by activist, lawyer, and author Andrea Ritchie on the right-wing roots of broken windows theory.

The Spring issue of Public Eye featuring a still from Molly Crabapple’s video “How ‘broken windows’ policing harms people of color.”

As Ritchie writes, broken window policing is based on the premise that if small signs of disorder—like broken windows, turnstile jumping or loud music—are left unchecked, they will eventually lead to greater crime. Neoconservative thinkers George Kelling and James Q. Wilson, who popularized the broken windows theory in a 1982 Atlantic article, argued that the stringent enforcement of all misdemeanor laws was necessary in order to maintain safety and avoid community breakdown.

However, in reality, this type of policing manifests as both excessive force towards minor offences and heightened police presence in low-income Black communities—to the extent that it often appears to criminalize Blackness itself. Similar to the drug policing Jay Z and Crabapple discussed in their video, broken window policing doesn’t reduce crime rates, but just assuages White fears of poorer communities of color.

The current culture of policing appears to be based not on the protection of people of color, but rather their criminalization. From the drug wars to broken window policing, it is evident the current law enforcement system is in dire need of reform – immediate reform.

Biblical Economics: The Divine Laissez-Faire Mandate

Public Eye Spring 2015 CoverThis article appears in the Spring 2015 issue of The Public Eye magazine.

In February, the culture warriors at Iowa’s “pro-family” group The Family Leader distributed personalized copies of The Founders’ Bible to every member of the state legislature as part of their lobby day—or as they put it in an invitation letter, the “war with Satan, who has taken many captive in Des Moines.”1 Greg Baker, Director of Ambassador Church Network, told pastors that the goal of “The Iowa Capitol Project” is to help legislators “do what God has asked them to do,” and The Founders’ Bible should help given its “compelling content pertaining to their job at the Capitol.” 2

Most of that “compelling content” —the non-biblical part anyway—comes courtesy of David Barton, the Republican Party activist and self-styled historian whose “Christian nation” revisionism informs the rhetoric of conservative pundits and politicians.3 But Barton’s essays go beyond his claims about the biblical origins of the U.S. Constitution; The Founders’ Bible, a New American Standard Bible translation, is also filled with Barton’s arguments that right-wing economic policies are divinely mandated.

Though Barton’s work has been repeatedly challenged by reputable scholars, including his fellow evangelical Christians, he is no fringe character, but rather a major player within the Republican Party and conservative movement. He was an active member of the GOP platform committee in 20124 and his rhetoric about America’s founding as a Christian nation is promoted by other religious conservatives, from Glenn Beck to Newt Gingrich.

A star-spangled David Barton appears in America: A Call to Greatness (1995). Photo credit: Paige-Brace Cinema, Ltd.

A star-spangled David Barton appears in America: A Call to Greatness (1995). Photo credit: Paige-Brace Cinema, Ltd.

Barton uses his essays and frequent media and public appearances to argue that the Bible, indeed God Himself, opposes minimum wage laws, capital gains taxes and progressive income taxes. He defines the free enterprise system—which he believes is “the economic system set forth in numerous passages in the Bible”—as “one in which ‘prices and wages are determined by unrestricted competition between businesses, without government regulation,’” and sees any policies that penalize productivity and profits as “a completely unBiblical system.”

To most readers, Jesus’ parable of the vineyard is generally understood to be about the gift of God’s grace, a metaphor for the Kingdom of God. In Barton’s exegesis, the story about the landowner who pays workers an equal amount no matter how many hours they worked is a literal handbook for God’s approach to employer-employee relations. Government, he writes, “certainly has no right to tell an employer what to pay an employee, including with a so-called minimum wage.”5

Yes, this is a Bible the Koch brothers can love.

Reconstructionism, the Christian Right and the Tea Party

Barton is one of the figures examined by religious studies professor Julie Ingersoll in Building God’s Kingdom: Inside the World of Christian Reconstruction,6 forthcoming from Oxford University Press in August. Christian Reconstructionism is hardly a household word. However, its ideology has infused not only the Christian Right but also the Tea Party and the conservative movement in general. Those familiar with Reconstructionism may associate it most often with the idea that government should enforce Old Testament law and its harsh punishments. But, Ingersoll argues, what’s gone largely unnoticed is “The degree to which Christian Reconstructionists understand a biblical worldview to be rooted in economics.” For Reconstructionists, she writes, the very idea of God’s sovereignty is expressed in terms of property rights.

Christian Reconstructionism is grounded in the writing of R.J. Rushdoony, whose magnum opus, The Institutes of Biblical Law, was published in 1973. Rushdoony, who died in 2001, was also active in the homeschooling movement and founded the Chalcedon Foundation, a Reconstructionist think tank. His ideas continue to be promoted by acolytes, including his son-in-law, author Gary North, and Gary DeMar, president of American Vision.

In their book Christian Reconstruction: What It Is, What it Isn’t, North and DeMar write, “Reconstructionists believe in a ‘minimal state.’ The purpose of getting involved in politics, as Reconstructionists see it, is to reduce the power of the State.”7 Sound familiar?

“Without a doubt, Reconstructionists have been advocates for, and activists within, the Tea Party,” Ingersoll notes. North is a former staffer for Ron Paul,8 and is currently helping Paul promote a curriculum for homeschoolers that North helped develop.9 That North-Paul connection, like the larger homeschooling movement—Rushdoony was an early advocate of homeschooling—is one of the streams by which Reconstructionist thinking has come to pervade the Christian Right and the Republican Party. And while Home School Legal Defense Association Chairman Michael Farris disavowed the application of Old Testament law in the U.S., he served with a number of Reconstructionists on the steering committee of The Coalition on Revival, a group founded in 1984 to bridge theological divides on the Christian Right. COR’s 1986 “A Manifesto for the Christian Church” proclaimed a dominionist message: that the Bible is the only measure of truth and applies to every sphere of life, including law, government and economics. “All theories and practices of these spheres of life are only true, right, and realistic to the degree that they agree with the Bible,”10 the Manifesto argued. Among the “social evils” that the Manifesto’s signers pledged to oppose was “Statist-collectivist theft from citizens through devaluation of their money and redistribution of their wealth.”

But the Reconstructionist influence has spread well beyond the COR. As Frederick Clarkson noted in The Public Eye back in 1994,11 dominionist thinking has proliferated even among evangelical leaders who might disavow the Reconstructionist label. Gary North, wrote Clarkson, claimed that “the ideas of the Reconstructionists have penetrated into Protestant circles that for the most part are unaware of the original source of the theological ideas that are beginning to transform them.” Reconstructionists have integrated their theology with Pentecostal and charismatic religious networks such as the New Apostolic Reformation and groups like International Transformation Network, as well as among religious leaders who embrace dominionist doctrines such as “Seven Mountains” theology, which holds that the right kind of Christians are meant to control societal spheres of influence such as education, entertainment, business and government.

Billy Graham himself told revival attendees that the Garden of Eden was a paradise with “no union dues, no labor leaders, no snakes, no disease.”

Even in 1994, Clarkson argued, dominionism was no longer “the exclusive revolutionary vision of Christian Reconstructionist extremists,” but had “achieved virtual hegemony over many forms of Christian fundamentalism.” That certainly holds true 20 years later.

David Barton is a good example. Ingersoll says she considers Barton “Reconstructionist-lite”12: someone heavily influenced by Reconstructionist thinking even though he doesn’t publicly identify with the term and may depart from some of its more extreme positions. Barton’s rhetoric about biblical law applying to every aspect of life, including civil government, reflects that influence, as does his Christian-nation revisionism when it comes to American history. Barton has plenty of company, as evidenced by the prevalence of Reconstructionist rhetoric about the role of government at conservative political gatherings, such as the March 19 Pennsylvania Pastors Network gathering at which Barton spoke.

Barton’s insistence that the Bible provides authoritative instruction for every aspect of life, including tax policy, echoes COR’s Manifesto and Rushdoony’s insistence that “authority is not only a religious concept but also a total one. It involves the recognition at every point of our lives of God’s absolute law-order.” That includes economics. In The Institutes of Biblical Law, Rushdoony says, “The child has no right to govern his parents, the student their school, nor the employees their employer.”13

According to this “biblical worldview,” unions and the laws supporting workers’ rights and ability to organize interfere with God’s economic plan. Barton says the Bible disapproves of “socialist union kind of stuff.”14

There have been many examples of this playing out in current domestic politics. In 2012, dominionists associated with the New Apostolic Reformation’s Reformation Prayer Network urged “prayer warriors” to pray that God would “break the power and control” of California’s largest unions and that “financial contributions of unions intended to manipulate the voice of the vote would be shut up and shut down.”15

Christian Right leaders such as the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins have cheered on Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s relentless attacks on the state’s unions.16 And in February, Gary North gloated over Walker’s anti-labor “right to work” legislation as representing what he called “a death spiral for unions in America.”17

The Deep Roots of Anti-Unionism

This hostility toward unions has been part of the Christian Right from the movement’s earliest days. Author Jeff Sharlet has written that Pat Robertson’s father was among the members of Congress who were told by Abraham Vereide, founder of the National Prayer Breakfast and The Fellowship Foundation (aka The Family), that God wanted them to break the spine of organized labor.18 And in a March 14, 2015 commentary in The New York Times,19 Princeton University professor Kevin Kruse places Vereide within a larger context of corporate titans recruiting religious leaders to evangelize on behalf of unrestricted capitalism in the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s. One of them, writes Kruse, was Billy Graham himself, who told revival attendees that the Garden of Eden was a paradise with “no union dues, no labor leaders, no snakes, no disease.”

The Christian Coalition’s 1990 leadership manual quotes four biblical passages of the “slaves-obey-your-masters” variety, which president Ralph Reed, stunningly, used as a model for modern employer-employee relations.

Corporate efforts to push back against government regulation and to engage religious leaders as public spokespeople were reenergized in the wake of a 1971 memo by Lewis Powell written just months before his nomination to the Supreme Court. In the memo, Powell warned against the “attack” on the American free enterprise system coming from the nation’s campuses, pulpits, media and arts. Powell called for an aggressive long-term political, intellectual and cultural campaign by American business interests to attack their critics, resist regulation and promote the idea that economic freedom is “indivisible” from other rights.20

It is hard to imagine a memo having greater impact. Powell’s manifesto sparked a massive investment in right-wing infrastructure building by conservative funders and strategists, many of whom came to be called “The New Right.” Among them were Paul Weyrich, Richard Viguerie and Howard Phillips. These strategists started building the institutional infrastructure that still undergirds the right-wing movement, through powerful organizations like The Heritage Foundation. And, as political scientist Richard J. Meagher wrote for The Public Eye in 2009, they worked to bring conservative evangelicals into their political organizing, hoping that social issues and a “pro-family” platform could help secure their commitment to the Republican agenda.21

By the end of the decade, these New Right leaders had recruited Jerry Falwell and helped him launch the Moral Majority. From that national pulpit, Falwell argued that “the free enterprise system of profit [should] be encouraged to grow, being unhampered by any socialistic laws or red tape.”22 Rus Walton, the late former director of the Plymouth Rock Foundation, included a Christian political agenda in his book One Nation Under God that included abolishing minimum wage laws and compulsory education; instituting right-to-work legislation; ending social services; and applying anti-trust laws to trade unions.23

As Paul Weyrich wrote in the Conservative Digest in 1979, “The alliance on family issues is bound to begin to look at the morality of other issues such as…the unjust power that has been legislated for union bosses.”24

Weyrich’s prediction certainly seemed to be true. In 1990, the nascent Christian Coalition published a leadership manual for its local leaders, co-authored by its then-president Ralph Reed. In a section titled “God’s Delegated Authority in the World,” the manual says, “God established His pattern for work as well as in the family and in the church.”25 The manual quotes four biblical passages of the “slaves-obey-your-masters” variety, which Reed, stunningly, used as a model for modern employer-employee relations:

“Of course, slavery was abolished in this country many years ago, so we must apply these principles to the way Americans work today, to employees and employers: Christians have a responsibility to submit to the authority of their employers, since they are designated as part of God’s plan for the exercise of authority on the earth by man.”

The New New Right

Today’s equivalent of the “New Right,” one could argue, is the huge, opaque network of political organizations funded by the Koch brothers and their pro-corporate, anti-regulation allies.26 The Koch brothers, who describe themselves27 as libertarians uninterested in social conservatives’ culture wars, are more than willing to use Christian Right voters as well as mountains of cash to achieve their anti-government, anti-union ends.28

One of the Koch brothers’ many projects is the LIBRE Initiative,29 which was created to promote laissez-faire economics among American Latinos—this year LIBRE has been cheerleading30 for state passage of “Right to Work” legislation31—and to serve as a vehicle for deceptive advertising trashing Democratic candidates.32 Former National Association of Evangelicals official John Mendez, who directs LIBRE’s faith outreach, told ThinkProgress last year that his job is to put LIBRE’s free-market message “in a theological context.”33 As Mendez told ThinkProgress, “In Scripture it tells us of dependency on God, not dependency on Man…To whom you’re dependent on is who you belong to. So you should not be dependent on government.”

Mendez elaborated in an interview with the Pacific Justice Institute last year that, “we come in and inform them and teach them on those principles of economic freedom and free enterprise from not only a constitutional perspective, but also a biblical perspective.”34

Mendez works with both Tea Party35 and Christian Right groups who are organizing politically, offering advice on how conservatives can reach out to Latinos. Last year, for example, he participated in Ralph Reed’s “Road to Majority” conference and took part in a “Watchmen on the Wall”36 conference organized by Family Research Council and Vision America Action.37 In 2013, he led a “prayer gathering” in advance of a prayer breakfast to help “unite” Virginia’s clergy around their state legislature and inform the religious leaders “of their biblical role and constitutional rights in shaping Virginia.”38

One of the other right-wing organizations formed in the wake of President Barack Obama’s election is the Freedom Federation, a coalition of Christian Right political groups and dominionist “apostolic” ministries and organizations. Tucked among them is the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity (AFP), which preaches a small-government gospel.39 The presence of AFP may explain why the coalition’s founding “Declaration of American Values” included, in addition to predictably conservative positions on social issues, opposition to progressive taxation.

AFP’s Tim Phillips, a former business partner of Ralph Reed, spoke at the Freedom Federation’s Awakening conference a few years ago, along with anti-tax and anti-government activist Grover Norquist, in order to encourage religious conservatives to prioritize shrinking the size of government.40

The Man Who Doesn’t Work Doesn’t Eat

Perhaps even more central to the Reconstructionist philosophy than opposing unions is hostility to government social service spending. North and DeMar are not out to minimize the state simply to save money or prevent government overreach—rhetoric you might hear at a Tea Party function—but because they believe the Bible has delineated clear areas of jurisdiction for the family, church and government. And, they argue, the Bible leaves charity, like education, to the individual and the church, with no biblically legitimate role for government.41

A particularly clear example of what Reconstructionists call “sphere sovereignty”—the idea that God granted the family, the church and government authority over specific areas of life—can be found42 in the writings of Michael Peroutka,43 a former Constitution Party presidential candidate who runs the Institute on the Constitution. Peroutka was elected last year to the Anne Arundel County Council in Maryland as a Republican,44 despite the fact that he’s argued that the Maryland General Assembly is an invalid government body since it has passed laws that Peroutka believes violate “God’s law.”45 Peroutka also believes that, given the government’s only legitimate, biblically-sanctioned role is to protect “God-given rights,” then “It is not the role of civil government to house, feed, clothe, educate or give health care to…ANYBODY!”

John Lofton, the late right-wing pundit and spokesperson for Peroutka’s Institute on the Constitution, had a similar message in 2012, writing that “it is crystal clear that in God’s Word He gives NO AUTHORITY to civil government (Caesar) to give health, education or welfare to ANYBODY. If people need help, it is the role of the Church—God’s people—to provide this help and NOT government.”46

David Barton sounds similar themes. Last July he appeared on Trinity Broadcasting Network’s “Praise the Lord.”47 In addition to promoting his theories about Jesus’s views on various taxes, Barton declared, “It’s not the government’s responsibility to take care of the poor and needy, it’s the church’s responsibility.” He added, “What we’re doing right now is for the first time in America we have ignored what the Bible says. The Bible says you don’t work, you don’t eat.”

If that has a familiar ring, it’s because some Republican lawmakers quoted that verse to support cuts in spending on food stamps in 2013. One of them was Rep. Stephen Fincher of Tennessee, who also said, “The role of citizens, of Christianity, of humanity, is to take care of each other, not for Washington to steal from those in the country and give to others in the country.”48 (His rhetoric equating taxation for social services with theft apparently did not apply to his family’s farming operations, which have received millions of dollars in federal farm subsidies.49)

Star Parker, a frequent speaker at Christian Right political gatherings, similarly equates taxation with theft. Like many conservative activists, Parker has a conversion story. Her shtick is to denigrate recipients of government assistance by describing herself as having once been lazy and dependent on government handouts until someone confronted her that her lifestyle was not pleasing to God. She suggests that anyone willing to work hard can make it like she did. Today, she calls redistribution of wealth “a violation of scripture.”50

Star Parker speaking at the Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans, Louisiana. Credit: Gage Skidmore.

Star Parker speaking at the Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans, Louisiana. Credit: Gage Skidmore.

Parker’s rhetoric goes beyond bootstraps hectoring. Like other Christian Right activists, she portrays concerns about income inequality as sinful covetousness. Noting that African Americans are traditionally a religious group, she asks, “Why does a people so inclined to turn to God so readily violate the Tenth Commandment’s prohibition on covetousness and measure themselves in terms of what others have? And then use this sin to justify violating the Eighth Commandment and give government license to steal what others have in order to redistribute?”51

“Perhaps more fundamentally,” she asks, “how can a church-going people buy into the materialism of socialism?”

It may not be surprising to hear this kind of language from people at the far right of the evangelical political movement. But similar rhetoric can be heard from people widely considered to be among the reasonable centrists of the evangelical community. Rick Warren is often held as the model of moderate, politically engaged evangelicalism (although PRA readers know to treat that notion skeptically52). Warren told NPR in 2012, “The primary purpose of government is to keep the peace, protect the citizens, provide opportunity. And when we start getting into all kinds of other things, I think we invite greater control. And I’m fundamentally about freedom.”53 More pointedly, as journalist Sarah Posner noted that same year, Warren has called the social gospel “Marxism in Christian clothing.”54

The Meaning of “Socialism”

“Socialism,” one of the chief rallying cries against health care reform, gets thrown around a lot by conservatives grousing about the Obama administration and progressive policies in general. Ingersoll offers a useful insight into the Christian Right’s use of the term:

“When scholars, or liberal activists and commentators, hear the label “socialist,” they understand it to mean a political and economic system where the government centralizes ownership and control in the hands of the state, eliminating private property. When the Reconstructionists use the term, they mean a system in which salvation (in its earthly historical manifestation) is thought to be found in government and in politics; a system that by its very nature seeks to replace God. In this view the legitimate role of government in the economy is limited to ensuring that people deal honestly with one another. Tea Partiers and Reconstructionists see socialism in the “government takeover” of major functions of other institutions. But it is also much broader than this, as socialism is understood as a systematic world and life view.”55

North, notes Ingersoll, sees the world as a binary: “either faith in God or faith in man. It is either Christianity or Marxism.”56 In this conceptualization, writes Ingersoll, “‘socialism’ is when the civil government usurps authority ‘legitimately granted’ to the individual, the family, and the church.”

The social gospel—a strain of progressive-minded Christianity concerned with the promotion of social and economic justice—particularly annoys religious conservatives. And that can play out even within the Republican Party. In January, Ohio’s Republican Governor John Kasich cited Matthew 25, in which people facing the final judgment are asked whether they fed the hungry and clothed the naked, to defend his decision to accept Medicaid expansion in the state. Some conservatives and right-wing activists were beside themselves.57

Gary DeMar responded to Kasich by saying, “Jesus is not describing the development of government programs…Governments can’t legitimately be charitable and magnanimous with other people’s money.”58 He continued, “They are organizing politically to impose the covetousness prohibited by the tenth commandment.”

The notion that looking to government for economic assistance is a form of idolatry is an idea we have heard elsewhere in the public arena, notably in the ultimately unsuccessful Senate campaign of Sharron Angle, who said entitlement programs “make government our God.”59 Also a few years ago from then-Sen. Jim DeMint, who told The Christian Broadcasting Network’s David Brody that many Tea Party members may have been motivated by “a spiritual component”:

“I think some have been drawn in over the years to a dependency relationship with government and as the Bible says you can’t have two masters and I think as people pull back from that they look more to God. …The bigger God gets the smaller people want their government because they’re yearning for freedom.”60

It’s not only Christian Reconstructionists and conservative evangelicals working to give right-wing economic policies a religious grounding. Catholic writer Michael Novak, formerly ensconced at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism back in 1982. Thirty years later, Rep. Paul Ryan defended the massive social spending cuts in his proposed budget in 20121 as a reflection of Catholic principles—a claim vigorously challenged by Sister Simone Campbell, Executive Director of the national Catholic social justice lobby group NETWORK,2 who continues to oppose Ryan’s approach to poverty and his interpretation of Catholic social justice teachings. READ MORE...

It’s not only Christian Reconstructionists and conservative evangelicals working to give right-wing economic policies a religious grounding. Catholic writer Michael Novak, formerly ensconced at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote “The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism” back in 1982. Thirty years later, Rep. Paul Ryan defended the massive social spending cuts in his proposed budget in 2012 as a reflection of Catholic principles—a claim vigorously challenged by Sister Simone Campbell, Executive Director of the national Catholic social justice lobby group NETWORK, who continues to oppose Ryan’s approach to poverty and his interpretation of Catholic social justice teachings. Click here to read more…

DeMint now heads The Heritage Foundation, a right-wing marketing behemoth that is among the institutions that seek to merge the philosophies and organizing energies of the Christian Right and the economic right-wing. One manifestation of that work is “Indivisible: Social and Economic Foundations of American Liberty,” a publication and project devoted to convincing conservative activists that free-market conservatism and traditional values conservatism go hand in hand, as Justice Lewis Powell urged more than 40 years ago. Among the highlights are anti-gay activist Bishop Harry Jackson, writing that the minimum wage is a form of coercion that “reminds me of slavery,” and WORLD magazine editor-in-chief Marvin Olasky, arguing, “Those who esteem the Bible should also applaud St. Milton Friedman and other Church of Chicago prelates, because their insights amplify what the Bible suggests about economics.”61

A Powerful Combination

Advocates for social and economic justice who watch with dismay as right-to-work laws take effect in formerly strong labor states,62 as Republicans propose savage cuts to social spending,63 and as inequality skyrockets in the wake of tax giveaways to the wealthy—what David Barton might call biblically-mandated rewards for profit-makers—are up against a brutally powerful coalition.

For more than half a century, groups of pro-business, anti-regulation, anti-social spending conservatives have built an infrastructure designed to gain and hold political power and have enlisted religious leaders as spokespeople for laissez-faire economic policies. Their efforts have been buttressed by the parallel rise and spread of dominionist theology, grounded in Christian Reconstructionist ideology that unrestricted free-market capitalism is mandated by the Bible and that God grants no role for the government in education or care for the poor. This ideology provided fertile ground for the anti-government zealotry of the Tea Party and the belief that a radically limited role for the federal government is not only a constitutional mandate but also a biblical one. Any long-term strategy for rebuilding progressive political power and reclaiming the legacy of the New Deal must grapple with the realities and motivating power of these intertwined economic, ideological and religious ideologies.

peter montgomery squaredPeter Montgomery is a Washington, D.C.-based writer and editor. He is a senior fellow at People For the American Way and contributes to its Right Wing Watch blog, and is an associate editor for online magazine Religion Dispatches.

End Notes

1 (2015). “The Iowa Capital Project.” The Family Leader. Online at

2 Ibid.

3 “Barton’s Bunk: Religious Right ‘Historian’ Hits the Big Time in Tea Party America.” People for the American Way. Online at

4 Peter Montgomery (2012). “Election 2014: 6 Right-Wing Zealots and the Crazy Ideas Behind the Most Outrageous Republican Platform Ever.” Alternet. Online at

5 David Barton (2012). The Founders’ Bible. Edited by Brad Cummings and Lance Wubbels. Newbury Park: Shiloh Road Publishing.

6 Julie Ingersoll (2015). Building God’s Kingdom: Inside the World of Christian Reconstructionism (forthcoming). Oxford University Press. Online at

7 Gary North and Gary DeMar (1991). Christian Reconstruction: What It Is, What It Isn’t. Institute for Christian Economics. Online at

8 Adele M. Stan (2011). “5 Reasons Progressives Should Treat Ron Paul with Extreme Caution— ‘Cuddly’ Libertarian Has Some Very Dark Politics.” AlterNet. Online at–_%27cuddly%27_libertarian_has_some_very_dark_politics?page=entire.

9 Sarah Posner (2013). “The Christian Fundamentalism Behind Ron Paul’s Home-school Curriculum.” The Guardian. Online at

10 Jay Grimstead (1986). “A Manifesto for the Christian Church.” The Coalition on Revival Online at Worldview.pdf.

11 Frederick Clarkson (1994). “Christian Reconstructionism: Theocratic Dominionism Gains Influence.” The Public Eye. Online at

12 Julie Ingersoll in discussion with Peter Montgomery, February 25, 2015.

13 Steven Brint and Jean Reith Schroedel (2009). Evangelicals and Democracy in America; Volume II Religions and Politics. New York: Russell Sage Foundation. Online at,+the+student+their

14 Peter Montgomery (2011). “Jesus Hates Taxes: Biblical Capitalism Created Fertile Anti-Union Soil.” Religion Dispatches. Online at

15 Vicki Nohrden (2012). “California Fastforward Prayer Guide.” The Reformation Prayer Network. Online at

16 Russell Berman (2015). “Scott Walker, Anti-Union Man.” The Atlantic. Online at

17 Gary North (2015). “Public Sector Unions in Wisconsin Are Dying.” The Tea Party Economist. Online at

18 Jeff Sharlet (2009). “This Is Not A Religion Column: Biblical Capitalism.” Religion Dispatches. Online at

19 Kevin Kruse (2015). “A Christian Nation? Since When?” The New York Times. Online at

20 Lewis F. Powell Jr. (1971). “Confidential Memorandum: Attack of America Free Enterprise System.” Reclaim Democracy! Online at

21 Richard J Meagher (2009). “Political Strategy and the Building of the GOP Coalition.” The Public Eye. Online at

22 Robert Scheer (1981). “The Armageddon Profit: Falwell with Reagan, and preaching at a Moral Majority meeting.” The Age. Online at,750980.

23 Russ Walton (1993). One Nation Under God. The Plymouth Rock Foundation. Online at

24 Paul Weyrich (1979). “Building the Moral Majority.” Conservative Digest. pp 18-19.

25 Peter Montgomery (2011). “Jesus Hates Taxes: Biblical Capitalism Created Fertile Anti-Union Soil.” Religion Dispatches. Online at

26 Matea Gold (2014). “Koch-backed political network, built to shield donors, raised $400 million in 2012 elections.” The Washington Post. Online at

27 Paul Blumenthal (2014). “Koch Brothers Fund Group That Contradicts Their Ideology in 2014 Election Push. The Huffington Post. Online at

28 Kenneth P. Vogel (2015). “The Kochs put a price on 2016: $889 million.” Politico. Online at

29 “The Libre Initiative: The Koch Brothers’ focus on Latino Voters.” People For the American Way. Online at

30 The LIBRE Initiative. Twitter Post. February 28, 2015. 12:41p.m. Online at

31 (2015). “Press Release: “Right to Work” Laws Associated with Stronger Growth.” The LIBRE Initiative. Online at

32 Ed Morales (2014). “The Koch Brothers’ Latino Front.” The Progressive. Online at

33 Alice Ollstein (2014). “Inside the Koch Brothers’ Multi-Million Dollar Campaign To Win Over Latinos.” ThinkProgress. Online at

34 John Mendez, interviewed by Brad Dacus. Pacific Justice Institute. May 22, 2014. Online at

35 (2013). “John Mendez of Libre Initiative speaks to MyLiberty.” MyLiberty. Online at

36 John Mendez interviewed by Christian Post. (2014). “John Mendez on the Christian Post.” Youtube. Online at

37 (2014). “Join us tomorrow in Denver…” Family Research Council. Online at

38 (2013). “The LIBRE Initiative Invites you to the Pre event Prayer meeting.” Facebook Event. Online at

39 Kyle Mantyla (2009). “When The Going Gets Tough, The Rights Starts A New Group.” People For the American Way. Online at

40 Peter Montgomery (2011). “Tea Party Jesus: Koch’s Americans for Prosperity Sidles Up to Religious Right for 2012 Campaign.” AlterNet. Online at

41 Gary North and Gary DeMar (1991). Christian Reconstruction: What It Is, What It Isn’t. Institute for Christian Economics. Online at

42 Michael Peroutka (2013). “Is Our Government Really “Broken”?” The American View. Online at

43 Frederick Clarkson (2015). “Roy Moore & Ron Paul: The Politics of Secession, Nullification, and Marriage Equality.” Political Research Associates. Online at

44 Nathalie Baptiste (2014). “GOP’s Neo-Confederate Theocrat Wins Council Seat in One of Richest U.S. Counties.” The American Prospect. Online at

45 Frederick Clarkson (2014). “Party-Switching Theocrat Wins Primary, Claims Maryland Legislature is Invalid and Talks Revolution. “ Political Research Associates. Online at

46 John Lofton (2012). “God Gives Government NO Authority To Help The Needy…NONE.” The Christian Post. Online at

47 David Barton interviewed by Matt and Laurie Crouch, Praise the Lord. July 10, 2014. Online at

48 Sheryl Gay Stolberg (2013). “On the Edge of Poverty, at the Center of a Debate on Food Stamps.” The New York Times. Online at

49 Andrew Kaczynski (2013). “These Republicans Who Votes To Cut Food Stamps Personally Received Large Farm Subsidies.” BuzzFeed News. Online at

50 Kyle Mantyla (2008). “Star Parker Brings the Crazy.” Right Wing Watch. Online at

51 Star Parker (2011). “Why Do Blacks Still Let Obama Off the Hook?” Online at

52 Frederick Clarkson (2015). “Will Our Prisons Overflow with Christians?” Political Research Associates. Online at

53 Barbara Bradley Hagerty (2012). “Christian Debate: Was Jesus for Small Government.” National Public Radio. Online at

54 Sarah Posner (2012). “That Not-So-Mystifying Rick Warren.” Religion Dispatches.

55 Julie J Ingersoll (2015). Building God’s Kingdom: Inside the World of Christian Reconstructionism (forthcoming). Oxford University Press. Online at

56 Gary North (1987). Liberating Planet Earth. Dominion Press. Online at

57 Joseph Farah (2015). “John Kasich Defends Obamacare- With Bible!” WND. Online at

58 Gary DeMar (2015). “Republican Governor John Kasich Says Bible Supports Obamacare.” Godfather Politics. Online at

59 Anjeanette Damon (2010). “Sharron Angle’s views rooted in biblical law.” Las Vegas Sun. Online at

60 Jim DeMint interviewed by David Brody, The Christian Broadcasting Network. April 21, 2010. Online at

61 “Indivisible: Social and Economic Foundations of American Liberty.” The Heritage Foundation. Online at

62 Mariya Strauss (2015). “The Religious Right Has Been Pushing Anti-Union Right to Work Laws For A Century.” Political Research Associates. Online at

63 Paul Krugman (2015). “Trillion Dollar Fraudsters.” The New York Times. Online at


How Colorblindness Co-Evolved with Free-Market Thinking

Click here to see the full neoliberalism issue of The Public Eye magazine

Click here to see the full neoliberalism issue of The Public Eye magazine

As White supremacists shifted tactics in response to mass social movements, they needed a mass electoral base. Neoliberals helped build it for them—and colorblindness helped wipe out some inconvenient historical truths.

**This article appears in PRA’s Fall, 2014 issue of The Public Eye magazine, a special edition on neoliberalism and the Right**

The following is an edited extract from a new essay in the 20th anniversary re-issue of the authors’ book, Racial Formation in the United States, 3rd edition (New York: Routledge, 2014).

The hegemony of neoliberal economics is matched and underwritten by the racial hegemony of colorblindness. In the U.S., neoliberalism is as much a racial project as a class project. Although it was developed by big capital, it owes its ascent to the mass electoral base that only right-wing racial ideology could provide. It is the convergence of neoliberalism with colorblindness—the right-wing racial ideology of the post-civil rights era—that accounts for the success of neoliberalism.

In the United States, neoliberalism is as much a racial project as a class project.

In order to acquire a mass base, neoliberalism had to undo the New Deal coalition, which had held power—under both Democratic and Republican administrations—from the 1930s to the 1970s. The New Deal had been politically and morally complicit with Jim Crow and indeed could not have been implemented without deference to the “solid South.” But in the post-World War II period, and in many ways because of the war itself, that complicity was no longer politically viable. The Black Movement challenged it and ultimately overthrew it, splitting the Democratic Party in the process and transferring the South, as Lyndon Johnson lamented, to the Republican column.

The rise of neoliberalism in the United States depended on the containment of the political challenge of the Black Movement and other social justice movements: other movements of people of color, the Feminist Movement, and eventually the environmental and LGBTQ movements, as well.

Containment meant more than restricting the reach of demands for greater racial equality and for a vastly expanded democracy. It also meant resisting the demands of the 1960s movements for the redistribution of wealth and power. The threat that the Black Movement and its allies posed to the New Deal coalition was quite severe. It involved the prospect of a full-fledged social democratic system in the United States, serious commitments to full employment, substantial curtailment of U.S. imperial adventures, and recognition of race- and gender-based demands for full-scale social equality and inclusion.

Capital, the Republican Party, and the Right Wing of the Democratic Party all united against those demands. Colorblind politics were developed from about 1970 as the post-civil rights racial ideology of this new coalition, this new power-bloc. As colorblindness became hegemonic, this new racial ideology incubated and buttressed neoliberalism, as well.

Genealogy of Colorblind Politics

During the 1970s, neoliberal politics was invented through a series of experiments with racial reaction. These experiments took form as “massive resistance,” the rise of the “New Right,” and neoconservatism.

Nothing in the early phases of racial reaction pointed toward what would become “colorblind” racial ideology. The initial response to civil rights demands had been driven by racist rage and full-throated rejectionism in the form of massive resistance. After segregation was ruled illegal by the Supreme Court, southern states and local governments sought to outflank Brown and the decisions that followed it through a strategy of education privatization. (Incidentally, massive resistance anticipated many of today’s battles over public education, engineering closures of public school systems and establishing private, largely White, schools.)

But the massive resistance approach, for the most part, collapsed quickly. It was opposed by the majority of Americans; private segregationist groups, it turned out, could not afford to dispense with public education; and the federal government acted to undo massive resistance, albeit unevenly. In response to this failure, the organized opposition to civil rights reform had to regroup.

White supremacists had to make strategic concessions to win allies outside the South and to operate effectively within the national party system (both parties). The core task they faced was developing a New Right. This required what we call rearticulation. This concept refers to the ideological appropriation of elements of an opposing position.

In the early post-civil rights years, the New Right learned to make use of the deep-seated racism of the White working and middle classes, without explicitly advocating racial “backlash.” The rise of code word strategies was the first attempt at this. It was an effort to race-bait less explicitly, while making full use of the traditional stereotypes. Code words like “get tough on crime” and “welfare handouts” reasserted racist tropes of Black violence and laziness, often without having to refer to race at all.

But the use of code words was ultimately inadequate. Code words could not mobilize a mass base for racial reaction, especially one that would incorporate not only Whites of the Jim Crow South but also centrist Whites across the nation.

In order to reach out further, the New Right developed the ideologically grounded reverse racism (or reverse discrimination) framework. This took shape over the 1970s. Reverse racism had several advantages over code words. The most important of these was the claim that racially inclusive reform policies—notably affirmative action—were unfair to Whites: they were portrayed as “punishing” Whites who were merely seeking a job, admission to a university, or a federal contract. In seeking to overcome the legacy of past racism, it was charged, ostensibly anti-racist policy and state actions were themselves guilty of racism with Whites as the “new victims.”

Racism was thus recast as something that could affect anyone, something that was practiced as much by Blacks as by Whites. A whole century of White supremacy—with Whites as the subjects of racism, and Blacks and other people of color as the objects—was thus peremptorily dismissed. And that was only taking the post-emancipation period into consideration. When the entire structural legacy of slavery was taken into account—massive theft of life and labor, ongoing denigration and exclusion, not to mention torture and terror past and present—the chutzpah of the “reverse racism” claim mounted to the very heavens.

A racist animus bubbles beneath the hegemonic racial ideology of colorblindness. Photo courtesy of Wissotzky.

A racist animus bubbles beneath the hegemonic racial ideology of colorblindness. Photo courtesy of Wissotzky.

The concept of “reverse racism” was presented to Whites as an effort to protect them from “unfair” claims on the part of Blacks or other people of color. The agenda was to consolidate and expand the New Right’s mass base among Whites without appealing to racist tropes as the code words approach had done. Attacking affirmative action and other civil rights reforms as unfair to Whites (as “racial quotas” and supposedly “preferential treatment” of non-Whites, etc.) worked to defend existing systems of racial inequality and domination much more effectively than use of code words.

Colorblind racial ideology came later still. It represented a step beyond “reverse racism” because it repudiated the concept of race itself. Colorblindness built upon earlier articulations of post-civil rights right-wing ideology. Of course, code words did not disappear. Reverse racism charges did not disappear. Colorblindness simply advanced racist ideology to the next level, one premised on the concept of race “neutrality.”

To dismiss the immense sociohistorical weight of race, to argue that it is somehow possible, indeed imperative, to refuse race consciousness and simply not to take account of it, is by any rational standard a fool’s errand. But because colorblindness more successfully rearticulated Black Movement demands, because it expressed a sort of anti-racism “lite,” an aspirational post-racism, and most of all because it overlapped with the repudiation of the welfare state and was consistent with neoliberal individualism, colorblind racial ideology turned out to have political legs.

Racial Neoliberalism

Colorblindness advanced the neoliberal agenda piece by piece through successive presidential administrations, both Republican and Democratic. Reagan’s efforts were crucial. His iconic comment in his first inaugural address—“In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem”—distilled a political orientation that was hostile to civil rights, the welfare state, taxation (though Reagan did raise taxes several times), and unions.

George H. W. Bush maintained this approach, balancing the “mainstream” Republicanism of Wall Street with the New Right ferocity of his political gunslinger, Lee Atwater. Atwater became famous for the Willie Horton political ads (on behalf of Bush) and the “White hands” ads (on behalf of reactionary North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms). These attacks on presidential candidate Michael Dukakis and on North Carolina senatorial candidate Harvey Gantt invoked centuries-old racist themes: the criminal Black predator and the unqualified (presumably “lazy” and undeserving) Black worker, respectively. Without explicitly stating it, Republicans were coming out in opposition to civil rights and to racial equality while reframing themselves as the White people’s party.

Bill Clinton brought a more Democratic version of neoliberalism to the political arena. He campaigned for reelection in 1996 on a promise to “end welfare as we know it.” Propelled by the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, Lyndon Johnson had expanded the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program. Thus the Great Society had partially undone the New Deal’s exclusion of Blacks and Latinos from the welfare system. Commonly known as “welfare,” AFDC was the principal source of federal aid for poor people. It was the only federal program that directly provided cash to Blacks. AFDC had evolved out of the Social Security Act of 1935, slowly developing over the decades into its Great Society version of cash support for the poor and excluded, though still heavily stigmatized. Clinton sought White support by attacking this program.

Neoliberalism gave its adherents permission to ignore the “others”: the darker nations, the poor, both of the United States and the entire planet. It required colorblind racial ideology for this purpose.

Privatizing Welfare

Although it assisted many Whites as well, AFDC was seen as a Black program. It had always been means-tested, unlike Social Security itself and Medicare, which were “entitlements.” It was punitive and was subject to constant right-wing stigma, but it stood in sharp contrast to the 1935 law, which had been crafted by Dixiecrats and western Republicans to exclude Black and Brown recipients, in provisions FDR had never questioned.

Clinton’s proposal substituted for AFDC the much more punitive Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act (PWORA), which effectively privatized the welfare system. This was neoliberalism with a Democratic face.

George W. Bush implemented a hardcore neoliberal agenda that outdid Reagan on several fronts. He attempted to privatize Social Security. His effort failed, but only because it sought to apply the same rough treatment to an entitlement valued by Whites that Clinton had successfully applied to a program associated with Blacks.

Obama has also been under constant pressure to restrict entitlements, and he has sometimes capitulated to this pressure. Well-aware of the cauldron of racist animus that bubbles beneath the hegemonic racial ideology of colorblindness, Obama has avoided racial politics as far as possible. And like Clinton, he has deployed a more liberal version of neoliberalism, so to speak. We can question his judgment, but like him, we must recognize both the hegemony of colorblindness and the hegemony of neoliberalism—in other words, the combined power of structural racism and capital.

In its abandonment of all egalitarian social policy commitments in favor of a “free market” ideology (which was anything but free in practice), in its repudiation of the welfare state, in its passionate embrace of market fundamentalism, neoliberalism struck at the heart of the Black Movement’s demands for economic redistribution and political inclusion. Adopting the evolving racial “common sense” of colorblindness, neoliberalism was able to build a mass base composed of working- and middle-class Whites who were threatened by racial equality and racial democracy.

These Whites, or their parents and grandparents, had benefited from the welfare state under the New Deal when it was a Whites-only affair (and when it was quite anti-immigrant as well). But when the Black Movement and its allies sought to extend the welfare state to communities of color—when in the mid-1960s they sought to lift New Deal restrictions on social investment in those communities— many Whites got off the freedom train.

Neoliberalism gave its adherents permission to ignore the “others”: the darker nations, the poor, both of the United States and the entire planet. It required colorblind racial ideology for this purpose. The containment of civil rights was not the goal of the neoliberal project. Indeed the neoliberal objective was larger than that. It was to dismantle the welfare state, to limit taxation and other forms of regulation of capital, and to ensure the docility and desperation of the “others”: the poor, the workers who were increasingly people of color but also White people, women, and even the middle classes.

Toward A Market-Based Hegemony

This was the neoliberal agenda. Restricting the welfare state, abandoning and punishing the poor, the neoliberal argument went, was not about race, since we are all colorblind now. These policies were presented as an effort to treat everyone alike, to apply the same market-based rules to all. If you disagreed with this, you were the “real racist.”

Neoliberalism required a racial ideology that repudiated the movement agenda of state-enforced equality and the extension of democratic rights to people of color (women, labor, imperial subjects, LGBTQ people…). The exhortation to be colorblind avoided a regression to overt White supremacy or a reversion to explicit policies of Jim Crow segregation. Repelling, repressing, and rearticulating the Black Movement’s (and allied movements’) agendas would not be enough for this purpose.

In order to achieve hegemony for the neoliberal project of reinforced social inequality in a U.S. rid of its welfare state, with all the redistributive dimensions of social rights finally repudiated, it would be necessary not only to oppose demands for racial justice and racial democracy; it would be necessary to take race off the table. It would be necessary to become “colorblind.”

Michael Omi is Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies and the Associate Director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society (HIFIS) at the University of California, Berkeley. Howard Winant is Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he is also affiliated with the Black Studies, Chicana/o Studies, and Asian American Studies departments. Winant is the founding director of the University of California Center for New Racial Studies (UCCNRS), and the author of a number of books, including The New Politics of Race: Globalism, Difference, Justice (UMinn Press, 2004).

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Rumblings of Theocratic Violence

Some Christian Right activists have lost hope that a Christian Nation can be achieved in the United States through the formal political process—including a high-level GOP operative. They are calling for martyrs and thinking about religious war.

As its long-held dream of a national "return to Christ" seems to fade, the Christian Right is considering violent and secessionist alternatives. Photo courtesy of Chris Wieland.

As its long-held dream of a national “return to Christ” seems to fade, the Christian Right is considering violent and secessionist alternatives. Photo courtesy of Chris Wieland.

“If the American experiment with freedom is to end after 237 years,” wrote Republican campaign strategist David Lane in an essay published on a popular conservative website in 2013, “let each of us commit to brawl all the way to the end.” Quoting Winston Churchill from the darkest days of the German bombing of Britain during World War II, Lane added that “upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization.”1

Such rhetoric is so common on the farther reaches of the Right that it can be easy to dismiss. But something has changed in recent years. Such disturbing claims are appearing more frequently, more prominently, and in ways that suggest that they are expressions of deeply held beliefs more than provocative political hyperbole.2 What’s more, there are powerful indications in the writings of some Christian Right leaders that elements of their movement have lost confidence in the bright political vision of the United States as the once and future Christian nation—and that they are desperately seeking alternatives.

The 59-year-old Lane, who generally keeps a low media profile, epitomizes the trend. Lane has been a key strategist in the conservative movement and a behind-the-scenes power broker and adviser to GOP presidential candidates for two decades.3 His main vehicle has been “Pastors’ Policy Briefings,” in which conservative Christian clergy and their spouses are provided expenses-paid trips to (usually) closed-door, invitation-only conferences. Speakers at these events included top GOP politicians and office holders, as well as Christian Right ideologues such as David Barton and experts in the mechanics of church-based electoral mobilization. During the 2010 midterm elections, such events were held in six states (Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Iowa). The elections swept unprecedented numbers of Christian conservatives into state legislatures and the Congress, largely under the rubric of the Tea Party, helping catalyze the successful effort to oust three pro-marriage equality justices of the Iowa Supreme Court.4

The Iowa Renewal Project, which hosted a briefing in October 2013, is one of several state-level units of the American Renewal Project—which is, in turn, a political development and mobilization project of the Mississippi-based American Family Association. Its most prominent figures are founder Don Wildmon and the abrasive radio host Bryan Fischer. Lane told the Dallas Morning News that the goal of the event, which featured Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus and U.S. Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Ted Cruz (R-TX),5 was the same as the others: “the mobilization of pastors and pews to restore America to our Judeo-Christian heritage and re-establish a Christian culture.” Lane said: “We’ve been in 15 states now, largely under the radar, and we’ve had 10,000 pastors plus spouses that we’ve put up overnight and fed three meals. The purpose is to get the pastors—the shepherds in America—to engage the culture through better registration and get out the vote.”6

In one sense, little has changed since the methods that have defined the Christian Right were developed in the latter part of the twentieth century. But the heyday of high-profile, mediagenic leaders like Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, Pat Robertson, and Phyllis Schlafly—and their national organizations—is long gone. Their legacy is a generation of hands-on political operatives who now sustain a more decentralized Christian Right. No one now qualifies as the “leader” of the Christian Right. Instead, a constellation of smaller, electorally focused organizations has emerged, and others have evolved.

Lane’s method turns on the role of clergy in inspiring, sustaining, and expanding the electoral capacity of Christian conservatives. By Lane’s analysis, about half of eligible evangelical voters are either not registered or do not vote—and he believes pastors are the key to changing this, and thereby to sustaining the Christian Right’s strategic capacity for skillful voter mobilization, and exercising outsized political influence en route to dominant political power and governmental authority.7 As such, Lane epitomizes the long-haul political vision of the Christian Right. He has promoted Mike Huckabee at similar events since his runs for statewide office in Arkansas in the 1990s, and as a presidential candidate in 2008.8 Lane also masterminded the 2011 prayer rally that drew 30,000 people to launch Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s short-lived 2012 campaign for president.

Like many other evangelicals, especially those influenced by the Neocharismatic movement known as the New Apostolic Reformation,9 Lane is counting on a revival—another Great Awakening—to sweep Christians of the right sort into positions of power. This would result in the kind of Christian nation that he and his close ally, the historical revisionist (and accused fabulist) David Barton—whose books and interpretations are influential among conservative evangelicals—believe was intended by the nation’s founders. Barton is well known, for example, for his claim that the constitutional doctrine of separation of church and state is a “myth,” as well as the variation that the wall is “one directional,” that is, intended only to protect the church from the state.10 A Bartonesque Christian nationalism is the vision that animates Lane’s work across the election calendar.11

But for all the energy he invests in traditional electoral work, Lane clearly is not convinced that his shining vision of America is likely—or even possible. Hence his doubt-filled essay about “the American experiment with freedom” possibly ending. The piece, “Wage War to Restore a Christian Nation,” was published on World Net Daily (WND), a leading and influential news site of the farther secular and religious Right. WND quickly removed the essay in June 2013 after bloggers called attention to it,12 but Lane soon demonstrated that it was not an aberration. He told conservative Iowa radio talk show host Steve Deace the following month that “car bombs in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C. and Des Moines, Iowa” would be merciful punishment from God for legalized abortion and for “homosexuals praying at the Inauguration [of President Obama’s second term].” Without such divine mercy, Lane suggested, America might “get judgment like Nazi Germany.”13

Lane’s apparent lack of confidence that the Christian Right’s efforts to establish theocratic governance can succeed by using the tools of democracy epitomizes his belief that martyrdom and elections are not mutually exclusive, and that horrific confrontations lie ahead. Indeed, Lane opened his WND essay with a quote from a leading thinker who does not believe that the U.S. can be salvaged via conventional politics: the theologian Peter Leithart, 55, a Christian Reconstructionist (hardline theocrat) who makes even David Barton seem meek and mild by comparison.14 “Throughout Scripture,” Leithart declared in a passage from his 2012 book Between Babel and Beast, “the only power that can overcome the seemingly invincible omnipotence of a Babel or a Beast is the power of martyrdom, the power of the witness to King Jesus to the point of loss and death.”15

“You ask,” Lane wrote in his WND essay, elaborating on Leithart’s theme, “‘What is our goal?’ To wage war to restore America to our Judeo-Christian heritage with all of our might and strength that God will give us. You ask, ‘What is our aim?’ One word only: victory, in spite of all intimidation and terror.”

Lane’s essay is a clarion call for a contemporary religious war against the supposedly pagan government of the United States. And his notion of war is not just a metaphor for politics. He even called for a contemporary “Gideon” and a “Rahab the Harlot” to rise to the occasion. Gideon is the Biblical figure who leads an Israelite army in an ethnic cleansing of the Midianites who were both oppressors and worshiped false gods. The story of Rahab turns on how she sheltered two Israelite spies in preparation for the sacking of the city of Jericho by Joshua’s army, resulting in the massacre of everyone but Rahab and her family. One does not invoke Gideon and Rahab in this way if one is simply calling for religious revival, or seeking to advance a legislative agenda.16

Coming from a top GOP operative, such exhortations to religious war are extraordinary. Lane’s articulation demonstrates an alarming degree of militancy at a high level of American politics. As such, it is a bellwether of an ideological reorganization, or at least reconsideration, now taking place within the Christian Right. It sounds like an expression of the cognitive dissonance experienced by a man whose job is to mobilize political constituencies toward common goals—but who doubts that the enterprise can succeed.

Christian Right leaders and activists have been particularly provoked by the Supreme Court's 2013 ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act. Photo courtesy of Southern Reformation.

Christian Right leaders and activists have been particularly provoked by the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act. Photo courtesy of Southern Reformation.

As a result, at least some of the historic culture warriors of the Christian Right seem to be considering an ostensibly unlikely coalition with the Neo-Confederate movement. The coalition would lead their followers in religious and political directions in which violence is as likely as the outcomes are uncertain. It is an unlikely coalition, not necessarily because the Christian Right and most Neo-Confederates differ much on issues, but because Christian nationalism is so fundamentally at odds with the notion of fracturing the nation due to a loss of hope and faith in the role of the United States in God’s plan.

Witness Against America

The accelerating advance of LGBTQ rights, especially marriage equality, has become a flashpoint for the Christian Right’s revolutionary impulses. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s striking down part of the Defense of Marriage Act in United States v. Windsor in 2013, Peter Leithart took to the influential blog of the journal First Things (founded by the late neoconservative Catholic thinker Richard John Neuhaus) to declare that the decision “presents American Christians with a call to martyrdom.”17

In 2013, influential GOP operative David Lane wrote an essay titled “Wage War to Restore a Christian Nation,” a clarion call for a contemporary religious war against the supposedly pagan government of the United States. Lane later told a radio host that car bombs in U.S. cities would be “merciful judgement” from God for the nation’s tolerance of legalized abortion and homosexuality.

Leithart is the former dean of graduate studies at New Saint Andrew’s College, whose founder and eminence grise is Douglas Wilson. (Leithart remains an adjunct fellow at the school, which is based in the university town of Moscow, Idaho.) In 2012, Leithart struck off on his own, founding a small school and related think tank, Trinity House, in Birmingham, AL. It seeks to serve as a center for a new Reformed Protestantism, called Federal Vision, whose leading lights include Neo-Confederate authors Wilson and Steven Wilkins.18

Together, Wilson and Wilkins have probably done more than anyone to construct the theology now animating much of the Neo-Confederate movement. Wilkins was one of the founders of the League of the South, the leading organization of contemporary Neo-Confederatism.19 As scholars Edward Sebesta and Euan Hague have written, the League views the Civil War as a “theological war” that continues in contemporary America. The heart of their argument is that the old Confederacy was an orthodox Christian nation fighting for the future against the heretical and tyrannical Union states.  Sebesta and Hague also report that that New York Times best-selling author Thomas E. Woods, a traditionalist Catholic and a founder of the League, has argued that “struggles against liberalism, big government and the New World Order comprise ‘Christendom’s Last Stand.’”20

Wilson and Wilkins are notorious for a booklet they published that claimed that slavery was not so bad. Nick Gier, a professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Idaho, observes that they made a number of historically inaccurate but ideologically significant claims, notably that, “By the time of the [Civil] War, the leadership of the South was conservative, orthodox, and Christian,” and that the leadership of the North had become “radical and Unitarian.” While the Confederates were righteous, “the abolitionists in the North were ‘wicked’ and ‘driven by a zealous hatred for the Word of God.’”21

In his First Things piece , Leithart avoids calling too directly for Christians to risk their lives (perhaps because of the flap over David Lane’s essay). But his call to martyrdom is clear enough. “In Greek, martyria means ‘witness,’ specifically, witness in a court,” he wrote. “At the very least, the decision challenges American Christians to continue to teach Christian sexual ethics without compromise or apology. But Windsor presents a call to martyrdom in a more specific sense. There will be a cost for speaking the truth, a cost in reputation, opportunity, and funds if not in freedoms. [Supreme Court Justice Antonin] Scalia’s reference [in Windsor] to the pagan Roman claim that Christians are ‘enemies of mankind’ was probably not fortuitous.”

“The only America that actually exists,” he continued, “is one in which ‘marriage’ includes same-sex couples and women have a Constitutional right to kill their babies. To be faithful, Christian witness must be witness against America.”22

“If America is to be put in its place—put right,” he concluded (in David Lane’s hair-raising invocation of a passage from Leithart’s book Between Babel and Beast), “Christians must risk martyrdom and force Babel to the crux where it has to decide either to acknowledge Jesus an imperator and the church as God’s imperium or to begin drinking holy blood.”23

In Between Babel and Beast, Leithart declared that Christians must respond to the heresy of “Americanism,” by which some conflate the nation with Christianity itself. He called for repenting of Americanism and beginning to cultivate “believers who are martyrs in the original sense of ‘witness’ and in the later sense of men and women ready to follow the Lamb all the way to an imperial cross.”24

Significantly, Leithart has also proposed “the end of Protestantism” in a way that suggests a growing affinity for the kind of Catholicism expressed by George Weigel—a U.S. Catholic culture warrior, neoconservative, signer of the Manhattan Declaration, and fellow First Things blogger. Leithart also proposes the related notion of a “Reformational Catholicism,” which foresees a Rome-based Christian unity.25 He envisions this mutual accommodation as a kind of Christian maturity necessary for Christendom not only to survive but to prevail.

Leithart’s make-or-break vision would either end what he describes as anti-Christian tyranny or, failing that, build a new Christian nation—or nations. He is less concerned with the ups and downs of single issues than with the long-term advance of Christendom. This is consistent with the revolutionary visions of an influential Catholic thinker, Father C. John McCloskey, who believes that regional American strongholds of conservative Christianity may be necessary in light of the culture of religious pluralism and the constitutional doctrine of separation of church and state.

Ending the Tyrannical Regime

The accelerating advance of LGBTQ rights, especially marriage equality, has become a flashpoint for the Christian Right’s revolutionary impulses. “The only America that actually exists,” Christian theocrat Peter Leithart has written, “is one in which ‘marriage’ includes same-sex couples and women have a Constitutional right to kill their babies. To be faithful, Christian witness must be witness against America.”

McCloskey, a 61-year-old priest in the conservative order Opus Dei, is best known for his role in the religious conversions of Gov. Sam Brownback (R-KS), Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, and various other prominent and influential conservatives, including Newt Gingrich, Robert Bork, economist Lawrence Kudlow, financier Lewis Lehrman, and the late journalist Robert Novak.

McCloskey told columnist Terry Mattingly in July 2013 that “the United States is no longer a Christian country.” Because this is so, he explained, traditionalists will need to cluster in states that are more congenial to their views on such matters as abortion, marriage, parents rights, and homeschooling. “No one in this country has ever really suffered for their faith in any meaningful way,” McCloskey said. “Those days are ending, especially in certain states . . . Among Catholics, we may soon find that many are Americans more than they are Catholics.”26

Leithart has called for Christians to "risk martyrdom and force Babel" and either acknowledge Jesus or "begin drinking holy blood." Photo courtesy of Zac Calvert

Leithart has called for Christians to “risk martyrdom and force Babel” and either acknowledge Jesus or “begin drinking holy blood.” Photo courtesy of Zac Calvert

McCloskey predicted in 2001, and again in 2012, that conservative Catholics and evangelicals would need to band together in a civil war of secession. The “secession of the ‘Culture of Life’ states,” he predicted, would emphasize “the fundamental issues of the sanctity of marriage, the rights of parents, and the sacredness of human life,” and that the secession would precipitate “a short and bloody civil war” that would break the country into what he calls “the Regional States of America.”27 He repeated this general view in an essay in January 2014, in which he discussed separating from the “tyrannical regime” in Washington, D.C.28 McCloskey, a fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Faith and Reason Institute, has not said how he thinks this might happen, but he has said that the civil war may be all over by 2030. (Unsurprisingly, McCloskey has favorably reviewed one of the books of the prominent Catholic Neo-Confederate Thomas E. Woods, a founder of the League of the South.29)

McCloskey, like the rest of the Republican-oriented Christian Right, believes that the current electoral strategy of seeking political control of the Red states might sufficiently reduce the number of abortions without having to overturn Roe. But he avers that while people from those states who seek abortions “retain the option of traveling to the nearest blue state,” there is “much hope in this area for at least regional decreases in abortions.”30

Centuries of political and military conflict between Christian factions are being set aside in favor of strategic alliances that target the culture and constitutional structure of religious pluralism—and the supposedly “tyrannical” federal government. It may be more a matter of how, rather than when, the conversation about secession unfolds.

McCloskey finds encouragement in nullificationist activity in the Red states against what he considers “unjust laws” that protect abortion rights and access. He points to Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback,31 who in 2013 signed legislation that defined life as beginning at conception as part of a bill that severely restricts, but doesn’t ban, abortion.32 Brownback has promoted nullification as a strategy of resistance to what is viewed as federal intrusions on state sovereignty regarding, among other things, gun control.33

“The red state/blue state dichotomy could—perhaps sooner than we might think—result in states opting to pull out of the union,” McCloskey wrote in January 2014. He wondered about what secession might mean for a superpower such as the United States, and about how the armed forces might react.“[B]ut ultimately,” he concluded, “the protection of innocent life trumps any tyrannical regime.”34 McCloskey has said he hopes that it will not come to the violence he has predicted, but for more than a decade he has openly said that a conflict with what he calls “the atheistic American Herods” is probably inevitable.35

This kind of thinking is not new within the farther reaches of the religious and political Right. The Christian Right theorist and prolific author Gary North, for example, wrote about the long-term revolutionary implications of what he and others were doing. North objected to the 1994 assassination of a Florida abortion provider and his escort by a fellow Christian Reconstructionist, Paul Hill, who had also authored a manifesto in which he called for Christian militias to rise up against the federal government.36 North argued that the assassination was premature and that the foundation for theocratic Christian revolution had not been properly laid. Nevertheless, North felt that something serious was already underway. “For the first time in over 300 years,” he wrote in 1987, “a growing number of Christians are starting to view themselves as an army on the move.  This army will grow.” He concluded: “We are self-consciously firing the first shot.”37

It is not clear that the Christian Right is any more ready to revolt now than it was in 1994 —a period that was marked by a wave of arsons, bombings, and assassinations against abortion providers, as well as the rise of the militia movement. (Post 9/11, these violent movements were largely neutralized by federal law enforcement.) But as the 2009 Manhattan Declaration and other compacts created between Christian conservatives in recent decades have shown, the religious wars that have pitted Christian factions against one another for millennia, politically and militarily, are being resolved in favor of strategic alliances against the culture and constitutional structure of religious pluralism, and against the allegedly “tyrannical” federal government.38 Thus the Catholic/evangelical conversation may be taking a surprising turn.

It may be more a matter of how, rather than when, the conversation about secession unfolds. Some see restoring the Christian nation (which arguably never was) as a hopeless cause. Others hope that a revival-powered wave of Christian nationalism will propel a profound cultural and political transformation. But if such a transformed America is not to be, a coalition with the avatars of Confederate revivalism will become more appealing, and will be well-aligned with McCloskey’s vision of the secession of conservative states.

Theology of Neo-Confederatism

Those who have long lived at the intersections of the Christian Right and the Neo-Confederate movement will find much in common with the culture warring, secessionist, violent visionary sensibilities of Lane and McCloskey, if variations on the theology of Neo-Confederatism gain further traction. Pastor David Whitney, 56, who leads the small Cornerstone Evangelical Free Church in Pasadena, MD (near Washington, D.C.), may epitomize the trend.

Though not widely known, Whitney is a well-connected figure on the Far Right. He is chaplain of the Maryland chapter of the League of the South and is a signatory of the “Covenant” of the six-year-old Southern National Congress, which openly seeks an “independent republic.”39 He travels the country as the senior instructor at the Institute on the Constitution, which offers theocratic interpretations of U.S. history, and he is a perennial candidate for political office who has run on the Republican and Constitution Party tickets. In 2014 he ran in a Democratic primary for county council.

Like Lane and McCloskey, Whitney is revealing himself to be increasingly revolutionary.40 He declared on Independence Day 2010, for example, that if government does not conform to God’s law, “the people have a right to secede” from the “wicked regime in Washington, D.C.” and its “despicable and evil tyranny.” He believes that we therefore may eventually have to make the “same difficult decision which our forebears reached on that hot July day in Philadelphia.”41

Whitney has become only more overtly militant since then. In February 2011, he threatened secession in testimony before the Judicial Proceedings Committee of the Maryland State Senate. For example, he claimed that passage of marriage-equality legislation would delegitimize the state government, such that state laws should not be obeyed; that the state courts and executive branch have no authority; that taxes should not be paid; and that “we should from this point forward consider it as our Founders considered King George III.” If the legislation passed, he said, “multitudes” would want to secede from the state.42 While there is no obvious secessionist uprising seeking to fracture Maryland in the wake of the passage of marriage-equality legislation, that issue is hardly Whitney’s only concern—and his seething sensibility has taken a turn to vigilantism.

In a June 2013 sermon, he justified the murder of abortion providers. In discussing a Christian’s duty to defend life, he said that this included the prevention of “the murder of the unborn” and that “we need to understand that there is such a thing as Biblically justifiable homicide.”43 This places him in a distinct lineage of justification for murder that goes back at least to Paul Hill and was specifically rejected as a legal defense by the Florida courts. Hill had advocated the notion of justifiable homicide for more than a year before he decided to take action himself.44

A May 2013 sermon helps to establish the context for Whitney’s notions of extrajudicial killings.  “When you talk to people about God’s law being restored in America,” he declared, “they say, ‘Awww, you’re some ayatollah. Awww, you want a theocracy.’” He explained that, “Well yes, I want obedience to God’s law because that is where liberty comes from. Liberty comes from God’s law.  Tyranny comes when God’s law is rejected by a society as it has been rejected in our day.” He went on to say that any law that “contradicts God’s law… is not law at all.”45

Consistent with his deeply theocratic bent, Whitney wrote in February 2014 that we should “restrict citizenship” to Christians of the right sort: Christians who—whether voting or serving as jurors, government officials, or “in the Militia”—operate according to “God’s Law.”46 In October 2013, he preached that “God’s word is wise in how to structure a human civil government. Because if a human civil government allows a tyrant to control an army, you are going to lose your freedom. It’s only when you, the people, are armed in a militia structure that you can prevent that kind of tyranny from overwhelming the country.”

In a sermon in March 2014, Whitney called for imprecatory prayer against the White House staff (presumably including President Obama), apparently because of the Affordable Care Act. “There are many enemies that we could pray against them that God would do unto them what they are seeking to do unto us,” he told his congregation. “There are those, including those in the White House, through their death panels, who intend to kill us. May God do to them what they intend to do to us.”47

Such Words as These

It could be argued that the so-called culture wars have been long on metaphor and relatively short on violence. That would be fair, even when we consider the violence directed against LGBTQ people and the four decades of arsons, bombings, and assassinations directed at abortion providers since Roe. But the protagonists of the story of the various elements of the Christian Right see themselves as playing a different role than that cast by visionaries of perpetual social progress. There are also clear tensions between those who can live with the social changes taking place in the country, those who can’t, and those who do not see the battle as one of single issues, but one of the survival of Christendom—and whether or not Christians are willing to fight for it.

Taken singly, the views of any of the Christian Right leaders described here would not necessarily signal a trend. But taken together, the commonalities of their views take the edge off of their many differences and reveal distinct, overlapping factions of a dynamic movement towards the ideas of nullification and secession—and the possibility of violence and revolution.

One does not have to believe that secession or revolution of any kind would be successful, or that widespread violence is likely anytime soon, to recognize that the political tensions preceding any major matters of nullification, and moves towards secession by any state, would likely beget violence of many kinds. Which is why ignoring Lane, Leithart, McCloskey, Whitney, and their like—or assuming that they are anything less than deadly serious—could be an error of historic significance.

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1 David Lane, “Wage War to Restore a Christian Nation,” World Net Daily, June 6, 2013.
2 This is also different than, but not necessarily mutually exclusive with, “eliminationist” rhetoric as described in David Neiwert, The Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Radicalized the American Right, (PoliPointPress, 2009).
3 Grace Wyler, “10 Evangelical Powerbrokers Behind Rick Perry’s Prayer Rally To Save America,” Business Insider, Aug. 5, 2011,
4 Eric Eckholm, “An Iowa Stop in a Broad Effort To Revitalize the Religious Right,” New York Times, Apr. 3, 2011,; Grace Wyler, “10 Evangelical Powerbrokers Behind Rick Perry’s Prayer Rally To Save America,” Business Insider, Aug. 5, 2011,
5 Bruce Wilson, “Ted Cruz Anointed by Pro-Religious War, Antigay Pastors,” Talk to Action, Oct. 11, 2013,
6 Wayne Slater, “Ted Cruz headed to Iowa to speak with influential conservative pastors,” Dallas Morning News, June 6, 2013,; David Brody, “EXCLUSIVE: Evangelical Pastors Ready to Mobilize for 2014 Election, Say ‘America Has Left God,’” The Brody File, CBN, Feb. 25, 2013,
7 David Brody (guest host for Glenn Beck), interview with David Lane, “David Lane on Glenn Beck Show,” The Blaze, Dec. 3, 2012,
8 Huckabee was also featured at the February 2014 Pastors’ Policy Briefing in North Carolina. See Sarah Posner, “The Revival of the Pastors’ Policy Briefings,” Religion Dispatches, Mar. 1, 2011.’_policy_briefing.
9 Rachel Tabachnick, “Spiritual Warriors with an Antigay Mission: The New Apostolic Reformation,” Public Eye, Mar. 22, 2013,
10 Rob Boston, “Sects, Lies and Videotape:  David Barton’s Distorted History,” Church & State (April 1993). For more on Barton and Christian nationalism, see also, Frederick Clarkson, “History is Powerful:  Why the Christian Right Distorts History and Why it Matters,” Public Eye, Spring 2007,
11 David Brody, “Revival in America? Time to Get off the Sidelines!” Christian Broadcasting Network, Aug. 1, 2013,
12 Denise Oliver Velez, “Rand Paul’s outreach coordinator declares ‘holy war’ on us,” Daily Kos, June 16, 2013,
13 Brian Tashman, “David Lane Predicts Car Bombings in LA, DC and Des Moines over Gay Inauguration Prayers,” Right Wing Watch, July 23, 2013,
14 Frederick Clarkson, “Christian Reconstructionism: Theocratic Dominionism Gains Influence,” Public Eye (March/June 1994),
15 Lane, “Wage War to Restore a Christian Nation.”
16 Lane often calls for the rise of Gideons and Rahabs in his published writings, notably in David Lane, “Will a Gideon or the Harlot please stand?” Christian Response Alerts, Oct. 17, 2012,
17 Peter J. Leithart, “A Call to Martyrdom,” First Things, July 2, 2013,
18 Leithart’s father, Paul Leithart, is a longtime leader of the John Birch Society, including current membership on the National Council.
19 Mark Potok,“Doug Wilson’s Religious Empire Expanding in the Northwest:  A religious empire based in Idaho is part of the far-right theological movement fueling neo-Confederate groups,” Intelligence Report (Spring 2004),; Nick Gier, “Douglas Wilson, Southern Presbyterians, and Neo-Confederates,” Talk to Action, Jan. 11, 2008,
20 Edward H. Sebesta and Euan Hague, “The U.S. Civil War as a Theological War: Confederate Christian Nationalism and the League of the South,” Canadian Review of American Studies (2002), 270.
21 Nick Gier, “Douglas Wilson, Southern Presbyterians, and Neo-Confederates,” Talk to Action, Jan. 11, 2008,
22 Peter J. Leithart, “A Call to Martyrdom,” First Things, July 2, 2013,
23 David Lane, “Wage War to Restore a Christian Nation,” World Net Daily, June 6, 2013, citing Peter J. Leithart, Between Babel and Beast: America and Empires in Biblical Perspective (Cascade Books, 2012), 152.
24 Lane, “Wage War to Restore a Christian Nation,” citing Leithart, Between Babel and Beast, xiii.
25 Peter J. Leithart, “The End of Protestantism,” First Things, Nov. 8, 2013, Interestingly, David Lane organized a private dinner for clergy with Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-LA) so they could hear his story of conversion from Hinduism to “evangelical Catholicism”:  Tom Hamburger, “Bobby Jindal, raised Hindu, uses Christian conversion to woo GOP base for 2016 run,” Washington Post, May 12, 2014,
26 Terry Mattingly, “John Paul II and the death of Christian America,” Press-Republican, July 8, 2013,
27 C. John McCloskey III, “2030 Revisited,” The Catholic Thing, Mar. 15, 2012,; Frederick Clarkson, “God is My Co-Belligerent: Avatar Priests, Hijacked Theologians, and Other Figures of Right-Wing Revolt,” Religion Dispatches, July 23, 2012,;  For more on McCloskey, see Frank L. Cocozzelli, “The Politics of Schism in the Catholic Church,” Public Eye, Fall 2009,
28 C. J. McCloskey, “Hope for the Pro-life Movement,” Truth and Charity Forum (2014), See also Frank Cocozzelli, “Opus Dei Priest’s Secessionist Roadmap to Theocracy,” Talk to Action, Apr. 1, 2014,
29 C. John McCloskey, “Battle for Marriage Heats Up in California,” National Catholic Register, Sept. 4, 2005,
30 C. J. McCloskey, “Hope for the Gospel of Life in America,” Truth and Charity Forum, June 12, 2013,
31 C. J. McCloskey, “Hope for the Gospel of Life in America,” Truth and Charity Forum, June 12, 2013,
32 Katie McDonough, “Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback signs sweeping anti-choice bill into law,” Salon, Apr. 22, 2013,
33 Rachel Tabachnick and Frank Cocozzelli, “Nullification, Neo-Confederates, and the Revenge of the Old Right,” Public Eye (Fall 2013),
34 C. J. McCloskey, “Hope for the Pro-life Movement,” Truth and Charity Forum, Jan. 13, 2014,
35 Quote is from C. J. McCloskey, “The 40th Anniversary of Roe v. Wade and Dr. Nathanson the Prophet,” Truth and Charity Forum, Jan. 14, 2013, Also see C. J. McCloskey, “2030: Looking Backwards,” CatholiCity (May 2000),
36 Frederick Clarkson, Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy (Common Courage Press, 1997), 141-142.
37 Gary North, “What Are Biblical Blueprints?” in Gary DeMar, Ruler of the Nations: Biblical Blueprints for Government (Dominion Press, 1987), 270.
38 Frederick Clarkson, “Christian Right Seeks Renewal in Deepening Catholic-Protestant Alliance,” Public Eye (Summer 2013),
39 “The Southern National Covenant,” Southern National Congress,
40 Frederick Clarkson, “Two Neo-Confederate Leaders Join Republican & Democratic Parties to Run For Office,” Political Research Associates, Feb. 27, 2014,
41 Clarkson, “Two Neo-Confederate Leaders Join Republican & Democratic Parties to Run For Office.” The sermon was taken down after PRA exposed it. However, the relevant audio clip of Whitney’s July 4, 2010, sermon survives: see “David Whitney on the God-given right to secede,” YouTube,
42 David Whitney, “Pastor Whitney testifies before Maryland Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee,” American View, Feb. 23, 2011,
43 Adele M. Stan, “Anti-Choice Proponent of ‘Justifiable Homicide’ Vies for Spot on Democratic Council,” RH Reality Check, Feb. 28, 2014, The church has taken down this sermon (and others) since PRA ran the original story, but we have a copy.
44 Clarkson, Eternal Hostility.
45 David Whitney, “The Price of Liberty,” Sermon, May 5, 2013. Retrieved from The link to this sermon is no longer available, but PRA has the excerpt posted on YouTube. See “David Whitney says if it’s not God’s law, it’s ‘pretend law,’” YouTube,
46 David Whitney, “Rethinking Citizenship,” Western Journalism Center, Feb. 21, 2014,
47 David Whitney, “The American View Sermon Series – March 16, 2014,” Mar. 16, 2014,

Laying Siege to the Last Abortion Clinic in Mississippi

By Michelle Goldberg
The Public Eye Magazine – Fall 2006

On Tuesday, July 18th, for the first time in ten years, protesters arrived on Dr. Joseph Booker’s block in Jackson, Mississippi. They went door to door, ringing bells and telling people that their neighbor, the state’s last abortion provider, is a baby killer. A few weeks before that, protestors showed up at the Raleigh, North Carolina, home of Susan Hill, the owner of the Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the clinic where Booker works. Soon the death threats started coming. “There is a feeling that things are ramping up,” Hill says. “The protestors that we see in various places are more vocal, screaming, not just protesting.” In her experience, clinic violence is often preceded by just this kind of heightened rhetoric.

The last abortion clinic in Mississippi is under siege. In mid-July, Operation Save America — previously known as Operation Rescue — held a week of protests outside the Jackson Women’s Health Organization. The next week, another anti-abortion group called Oh Saratoga! commenced its own seven days of demonstrations. Impatient for a change in the Supreme Court, anti-abortion forces are determined to make Roe v. Wade functionally irrelevant in the state, and they believe they’re getting close

A decade ago, there were six clinics in Mississippi. Yet the combination of constant harassment and onerous regulations led one after another to shut down, and since 2004, Jackson Women’s Health Organization has stood alone. Closing it would be the biggest victory yet in the anti-abortion movement’s long war of attrition. This makes Mississippi an alluring target.

Operation Save America is not what it used to be and on the surface its Mississippi sojourn certainly didn’t look victorious. There were at most a few hundred demonstrators in Jackson. That meant that women coming to the clinic had to brave a gauntlet of shouting people, many holding massive photos of aborted fetuses. But this was a far cry from the days when Operation Rescue brought tens of thousands of protestors to cities like Wichita and Buffalo during the early 1990s, where they tried, and sometimes succeeded, in physically shutting clinics down.

Clinic blockades are far less frequent these days, due largely to both a public backlash and a legal crackdown. Not long after Operation Rescue’s most high-profile demonstrations, a number of abortion providers were murdered, and their deaths sent the militant wing of the movement into disrepute. Then in 1994, partly in response to the killing of Florida abortion doctor David Gunn, President Bill Clinton signed the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act. FACE makes it a federal crime to use “force, threat of force or physical obstruction” to block access to reproductive health services, and imposed prison sentences and fines up to $250,000. The law also allows clinics and health care workers to bring civil suits against violators.

“We’ve been sued for millions and millions of dollars,” says Flip Benham, the head of Operation Save America. A Texan with ruddy, sun-cured skin, and short brown hair, he has the hearty manner of a high school football coach. “Thanks to the media, we’ve been painted with the broad brush stroke of being violent folks because of a few loose cannons, who aren’t even Christian, who blew up abortion mills and killed abortionists. So what happens is, folks are afraid. There are new laws in place now that weren’t there in the 1990s, like FACE.”

The result has been a drastic decline in Operation Rescue’s fortune and its clout. As legal judgments piled up, Benham, who took over the group’s leadership in 1994, changed the group’s name to Operation Save America in an attempt to get out of paying. It didn’t work. “Planned Parenthood came into our office and confiscated every computer, every file, every piece of paper, every pencil that we had,” he says.

Yet Benham and his crew can still make life difficult for reproductive health workers in Mississippi. The protests create a constant, low-level state of emergency among the clinic’s staff, intimidate many of the patients, and add to the tension that plague doctors already living with the omnipresent threat of violence.

Hill owns five clinics throughout the country, and she has to be on constant alert. Over the years, her facilities have been subjected to 17 arsons or firebombings, as well as butyric acid attacks and anthrax threats. One of the doctors who was murdered, David Gunn, worked for her. “Fortunately we’ve been safer in the last few years for whatever reasons,” says Hill. “Thank God there haven’t been the shootings.”

By and large, the people who showed up in Jackson so far are not nearly as belligerent as their rhetoric. Historically, though, the doctors who’ve been targeted by protests — especially protests that demonize them personally — are the most likely to be assaulted or killed by extremists. “All we can say is, when protests at a clinic go up, that’s when there tends to be a shooting,” says Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation. “There seems to be some link.” Many of the abortion providers who have been shot, including George Tiller in Wichita, Kansas, Dr. George Patterson in Mobile, Alabama, Gunn and John Britton in Pensacola, Florida, and Barnett Slepian outside Buffalo, New York, were first the subject of repeated demonstrations and threats. Their names were put on hit lists and wanted posters, and information about them circulated throughout the violent wing of the anti-abortion movement.

Even if the movement’s extreme wing wasn’t represented in Jackson, it has some support there. The most faithful of the Jackson clinic demonstrators is a local man named C. Roy McMillan, who sees protesting abortion as his full-time job and says he’s been arrested 65 times. McMillan is one of thirty-four signatories to a 1998 statement that calls the murder of doctors who perform abortions “justifiable…for the purpose of defending the lives of unborn children.” He describes the late Paul Hill — the murderer of gynecologist Dr. John Britton and his escort, retired Air Force Lt. Col. James Herman Barrett — as a friend.

So Dr. Booker has reason to worry. He’s long been one of the gynecologists singled out by militant anti-abortion forces. He’s been stalked repeatedly, and during the 1990s, he was put under the protection of federal marshals. “We were very fearful he was going to be killed,” says Smeal. He had a police escort during the recent protests, but if he’s fearful, he won’t admit it. A 62-yearold black man with a trim, white-streaked mustache and goatee, and a stud in his left ear, Booker says anti-abortion harassment has been increasing but he dismisses the protesters as “more bark than bite. If you don’t get intimidated, they get frustrated and don’t show up as much.” A Pittsburgh native who was educated in San Francisco, he describes himself as “a Yankee, pro-choice, outspoken, and black. And that’s a bad combination in Mississippi.”

Race is an omnipresent issue at the protests, though it shows up in unexpected ways. The clinic’s staff and most of the patients are black; the majority of the protestors are white. Still, the demonstrators see themselves as the heirs of the civil rights movement — they carry pictures of Martin Luther King, Jr., compare the pro-choice movement to the KKK and call abortion “black genocide.” What they generally refuse to do, though, is support government measures that might ease the burdens of poverty in the state’s poor, black communities — or help women better control their reproductive lives. Mississippi’s high rate of unplanned pregnancies, says McMillan, is due to the “moral degeneration of the black culture, and I submit it’s caused by the welfare mentality.”

The protests are just one side of the vise that the Jackson Women’s Health Organization and the women it serves are caught in. Both are also being squeezed by an ever-expanding panoply of anti-abortion legislation that’s made Mississippi the most difficult state in America in which to terminate a pregnancy. Even as the Jackson Women’s Health Organization hangs on, the state offers the country’s clearest view of the religious Right’s social agenda in action. It’s a harbinger of what a post-Roe America could look like.

On July 19, a white taxi that says “Choose Life” on its side pulled into the parking lot of the Jackson Women’s Health Center. Out jumped one of the clinic’s surgical technicians. Her boyfriend is a cab driver, and his boss, the owner of Veterans Taxi, has emblazoned the anti-abortion message on every car in his fleet. Opposition to abortion is everywhere in this state — more than an ideology, it’s part of the atmosphere. Recently, Mississippi came close to following South Dakota and banning most abortions; many expect it will do so during the next legislative session. The local government leads the nation in antiabortion legislation. Mississippi is one of only two states in America where teenagers seeking abortions need the consent of both parents, forcing some mothers to go to court to help their daughters override a father’s veto.

Many cars have “Choose Life” license plates; the state gives much of the proceeds from the plates to Christian crisis pregnancy centers. More than two-dozen such centers operate in the state. They look very much like reproductive health clinics, and they offer free pregnancy tests and ultrasounds, but they exist primarily to dissuade women from having abortions. Like other crisis pregnancy centers nationwide, those in Mississippi tell their clients that abortion increases the risk of breast cancer, infertility and a host of psychiatric disorders, none of which is true. And although the women who come to them are virtually all both sexually active and unprepared for motherhood, they also counsel against contraception, believing that abstinence is the only answer for the unwed. At Jackson’s Center for Pregnancy Choices, which gets around $20,000 a year in money from the Choose Life plates, a pamphlet about condoms warned, “[U]sing condoms is like playing Russian roulette…In chamber one you have a condom that breaks and you get syphilis, in chamber two, you have an STD that condoms don’t protect against at all, in chamber three you have a routinely fatal disease, in chamber four you have a new STD that hasn’t even been studied…”

According to Barbara Beavers, a former sidewalk protestor who now runs the Center for Pregnancy Choices, as many as 40 percent of the pregnancy tests the center administer come back negative. Some of the women who take them live with their boyfriends, making a commitment to abstinence unlikely. But Beavers is unapologetic about her opposition to birth control, in part because she thinks a woman whose contraception fails might feel more entitled to an abortion. “They think, it wasn’t their fault anyhow, so let’s just go ahead and kill it,” she says.

Already, places like the Center for Pregnancy Choices are leading public dispensers of reproductive health advice in Mississippi. The schools teach either abstinence or nothing at all. Besides private physicians, the only places that provide birth control prescriptions are the Jackson Women’s Health Organization and the offices of the State Department of Health.

For women seeking to avoid pregnancy, there are other hurdles. According to a survey by the Feminist Majority Foundation, of 25 pharmacies in Jackson, only two stock emergency contraception (EC). Even when the pharmacies do carry EC, individual pharmacists may refuse to dispense it; Mississippi is one of eight states with “conscience clause” laws protecting pharmacists who refuse to dispense contraceptives. Dr. Booker says he has written several EC prescriptions, only to find his patients unable to fill them.

Not surprisingly, Mississippi has the third highest teen pregnancy rate in the country, and the highest teenage birth rate. It is tied with Louisiana for America’s worst infant morality rate. According to The National Center for Children in Poverty, more than half of the state’s children under 6 live in poverty. The immiseration of Mississippi’s women and children isn’t solely the result of diminished reproductive rights, of course. But it’s clear that enforced ignorance and lack of choices play a major role. “You would be surprised what they don’t understand about their own bodies,” Betty Thompson, the former director of the Jackson Women’s Health Organization, says about the clinic’s patients.

For the anti-abortion movement, though, Mississippi isn’t lagging behind the rest of the nation. Rather, it’s the vanguard. “We’re not waiting for the president, we’re not waiting for the Congress, we’re not waiting for the Supreme Court to be packed,” says Benham, the head of Operation Save America. “This issue can’t be won from the top down. When you’re on the streets and you see these battles won over and over again, when you see the statistics of abortion dropping, you begin to realize hey, this battle is being won.”

Indeed, the same strategy at work in Mississippi is being used all across the country. According to the National Abortion Federation, 500 state-level anti-abortion bills were introduced last year, and 26 were signed into law. The number of abortion providers dropped 11 percent between 1996 and 2000, and almost 90 percent of U.S. counties lack abortion services.

Abortion rights won’t disappear in America in one fell swoop, and they can’t be protected by a single Supreme Court precedent. Congress’s ban on adults taking a minor who is not their child across state lines for an abortion, and South Dakota’s attempt to ban abortion outright, are making headlines. But the more gradual erosion of rights often escapes people’s view. Through a combination of militant street actions and punitive legislation, Roe v. Wade is being hollowed out from the inside. The right to an abortion doesn’t mean much if there’s no way to get one.

Michelle Goldberg is a contributing writer for and the author of Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism.

The Roots of the I.Q. Debate: Eugenics and Social Control

**This article appeared in the March, 1995 issue of The Public Eye magazine.

“Whatever the Jukes stand for, the Edwards family does not. Whatever weakness the Jukes represent finds its antidote in the Edwards family, which has cost the country nothing in pauperism, in crime, in hospital or asylum service.”
-Albert E. Winship,
Heredity: A History of the Jukes-Edwards Families
Boston, 1925

During the first three decades of this century, a small but influential social/scientific movement known as the eugenics movement extrapolated from the new science of human genetics a complex set of beliefs justifying the necessity for racial and class hierarchy. It also advocated limitations on political democracy. The eugenicists argued that the United States was in immediate danger of committing racial suicide as a result of the rapid reproduction of the unfit coupled with the precipitous decline in the birthrate of the better classes. They proposed a program of positive and negative eugenics as a solution. Positive genetics would encourage the reproduction of the better-educated and racially superior, while a rigorous program of negative eugenics to prevent any increase in the racially unfit would include compulsory segregation and sterilization, immigration restriction, and laws to prohibit inter-racial marriage (anti-miscegenation statutes).

I will argue that the eugenics movement of the early 20th-century was primarily a political movement concerned with the social control of groups thought to be inferior by an economic, social, and racial elite. I reject the contention that the movement was primarily scientific and apolitical. I have looked here primarily at the organized eugenics movement and its leading figures, rather than at the average rank-and-file follower within the movement.

My interest in the eugenics movement stems from my fear that the basic principles of the eugenics debate, even its most discredited aspects, are resurfacing in the 1990s. To revisit the eugenics movement of the early 20th-century is to be reminded of the harm the movement intended toward those members of society least able to defend themselves. History, in this case, may help to provide an antidote to contemporary manifestations of eugenicist arguments–the I. Q. debate and the right’s anti-immigrant campaign.

Any historical appraisal of the eugenics movement needs to step carefully to avoid imposing the values of the late 20th-century upon eugenicists, especially concerning the question of motivation. The legitimate, scientific framework of the eugenics movement, a mainstream view at the beginning of the century, has been for the most part abandoned by scientists in the years since then.

Similarly, to a great extent, racialist thinking, and in particular white supremacy, was neither questioned nor challenged among the white-dominated intelligentsia of the time. At the same time, the fact that white supremacist views were more acceptable in white society at the turn of the century still allows for gradations of focus and virulence; the question of the extent to which hereditarian arguments may have functioned as a pretext for a movement primarily concerned with the continuation of social and political dominance by upper-class, Protestant men of Anglo-Saxon background is unavoidable.

The roots of the eugenics movement have been traced variously to social Darwinism; social purity, voluntary motherhood, and the perfectionists; the naturalist tradition; Malthus and the neo-Malthusians; and the Progressive political and social movement.

This paper emphasizes instead that the roots of the eugenics movement can be traced to the 19th-century scientific racism movement. “Scientific racism” is a term capable of diverse definitions. For this discussion, I have adopted a slightly modified version of historian Barry Mehler’s definition:

“[Scientific racism is] the belief [often based on skin color, country of origin, or economic class] that the human species can be divided into superior and inferior genetic groups and that these groups can be satisfactorily identified so that social policies can be advanced to encourage the breeding of the superior groups and discourage the breeding of the inferior groups.”

It is possible to argue that notions of control by a racial and economic elite were key to the eugenics movement without embracing reductionist or conspiratorial theories that do damage to the diversity and scope of the movement.

It has been the diversity of the eugenics movement–the wide range of followers it was able to encompass–that has proved most difficult to explain. The eugenics movement was not monolithic: conservatives, progressives, and sex radicals were all allied within a fundamentally messianic movement of national salvation that was predicated upon scientific notions of innate and ineradicable inequalities between racial, cultural, and economic groups.

These scientific notions tended to maintain the status quo by obscuring the racial and class basis of poverty and advancement in the United States. The middle- and upper-class professionals of Anglo-Saxon descent who were leaders in the eugenics movement acted in and out of their own interests.

Those interests led to the development of a political program in which an extreme economic conservatism was marked by a virulent anti-communism linked to an embrace of the untrammeled, unregulated capitalist state. Some eugenicist leaders rejected democracy in favor of the corporate state and, in the 1920s and 1930s, several leaders of the eugenics movement were active in the promotion of German and Italian fascism.

The eugenics movement put forth a coherent, consistent social program in which eugenical sterilization, anti-immigrant advocacy, and anti-miscegenation activism all played crucial roles in the primary eugenicist goal of advancing social control by a small elite. Particularly now, when familiar eugenicist arguments echo within contemporary scientific and political circles, questions of motivation and intent are compelling.

Background of the Movement

The American eugenics movement came into being primarily through the efforts of Charles Benedict Davenport, a biologist with a Ph.D. from Harvard University. While at Harvard as an instructor in the 1890s, Davenport became familiar with the early eugenicist writings of two Englishmen, the independently wealthy Francis Galton and his protégé Karl Pearson.

By 1869, Galton had published several articles and a book, Hereditary Genius, which argued that human traits, and particularly great ability, can be inherited from previous generations.

It was not until 1883 that Galton coined the term “eugenics,” and it was 1904 before he formulated his classic definition of eugenics as “the study of agencies under social control that may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations, either physically or mentally.”

Galton had been tremendously influenced by his cousin, Charles Darwin, whose study of human evolution,The Origin of Species, was published in 1859. The eugenicists, led by Galton in England and Davenport in the US, were fascinated more by the idea of the inheritability of human traits than by Darwin’s focus on the evolution of species over time.

Charles Darwin thought highly of his cousin’s book on the inheritance of genius; he wrote, “I do not think I ever in all my life read anything more interesting and original.”

Eugenicists originally believed in the inheritability of virtually all human traits. Charles Davenport’s work provided a typical list of hereditary traits: eye color, hair, skin, stature, weight, special ability in music, drawing, painting, literary composition, calculating, or memorizing, weakness of the mucous membranes, nomadism, general bodily energy, strength, mental ability, epilepsy, shiftlessness, insanity, pauperism, criminality, various forms of nervous disease, defects of speech, sight, hearing, cancer, tuberculosis, pneumonia, skeletal deformities, and other traits.

Davenport is reported to have hypothesized that thalassophilia, love of the sea, was a sex-linked recessive trait because he only encountered it in male naval officers.

For the most part, the eugenicists emphasized inheritance and trivialized the importance of environment. Stanford University president David Starr Jordan, an important American eugenicist, was typical in his dismissal of environmental arguments:

“No doubt poverty and crime are bad assets in one’s early environment. No doubt these elements cause the ruins of thousands who, by heredity, were good material of civilization. But again, poverty, dirt, and crime are the products of those, in general, who are not good material. It is not the strength of the strong, but the weakness of the weak which engenders exploitation and tyranny. The slums are at once symptom, effect, and cause of evil. Every vice stands in this same threefold relation”

In the same vein, another eugenicist wrote:

“The. . .social classes, therefore, which you seek to abolish by law, are ordained by nature; that it is, in the large statistical run of things, not the slums which make slum people, but slum people who make the slums; that primarily it is not the church which makes people good, but good people who make the Church; that godly people are largely born and not made. . . .”

The US eugenics movement grew out of the American Breeders’ Association (later the American Genetics Association), which was founded in 1903 to apply the new principles of inheritance to the scientific breeding of horses and other livestock. In 1906, at Davenport’s urging, the ABA established a Eugenics Section (later the Committee on Eugenics). Stanford University president David Starr Jordan chaired the committee and Davenport was its secretary. These men and others active in the Committee on Eugenics (including the founders of the Nativist Immigration Restriction League, Robert DeCourcey Ward and Prescott F. Hall; Henry H. Goddard and Walter E. Fernald, who both joined a subcommittee on feeble-mindedness; Alexander Graham Bell; and Edward L. Thorndike) would form the core of the eugenics movement for the next 25 years.

The organized eugenics movement revolved around Davenport’s Station for Experimental Genetics, at Cold Spring Harbor on Long Island, New York, which itself came increasingly to focus on eugenical studies. In 1910, the Eugenics Record Office was established with Davenport as director and Henry H. Laughlin, key eugenicist and leader of the eugenical sterilization movement, as its superintendent. Two other important eugenics organizations were the Eugenics Research Association (with Davenport and Laughlin as its key members) and the American Eugenics Society (AES).

The Eugenics Research Association described itself as a scientific rather than political group and the AES, established in 1921, was visualized as the propaganda or popular education arm of the eugenics movement.

The eugenics movement advocated both positive and negative eugenics, which referred to attempts to increase reproduction by fit stocks and to decrease reproduction by those who were constitutionally unfit. Positive eugenics included eugenic education and tax preferences and other financial support for eugenically fit large families. Eugenical segregation and, usually, sterilization (a few eugenicists opposed sterilization); restrictive marriage laws, including anti-miscegenation statutes; and restrictive immigration laws formed the three parts of the negative eugenics agenda.

Virtually all eugenicists supported compulsory sterilization for the unfit; some supported castration. By 1936, when expert medical panels in both England and the US finally condemned compulsory eugenical sterilization, more than 20,000 forced sterilizations had been performed, mostly on poor people (and disproportionately on black people) confined to state-run mental hospitals and residential facilities for the mentally retarded. Almost 500 men and women had died from the surgery. The American Eugenics Society had hoped, in time, to sterilize one-tenth of the US population, or millions of Americans. Based on the American eugenical sterilization experience, Hitler’s sterilization program managed to sterilize 225,000 people in less than three years.

Eugenics’ Racial Bias

From the beginning, the eugenics movement was a racialist (race-based) and elitist movement concerned with the control of classes seen to be socially inferior. In proposing the term eugenics, Galton had written, “We greatly want a brief word to express the science of improving the stock. . .to give the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable than they otherwise would have had.”

Galton believed that black people were entirely inferior to the white races and that Jews were capable only of “parasitism” upon the civilized nations.

Karl Pearson, Galton’s chief disciple, shared his racial and anti-Semitic beliefs. For example, in 1925, Pearson wrote “The Problem of Alien Immigration into Great Britain, Illustrated by an Examination of Russian and Polish Jewish Children,” which argued against the admission of Jewish immigrants into England.

In the US, the eugenics movement started from a belief in the racial superiority of white Anglo-Saxons and a desire to prevent the immigration of less desirable racial stocks. In 1910, the Committee on Eugenics solicited new members with a letter that read, “The time is ripe for a strong public movement to stem the tide of threatened racial degeneracy. . . .America needs to protect herself against indiscriminate immigration, criminal degenerates, and. . .race suicide.” The letter also warned of the impending “complete destruction of the white race.”

Eugenical News, which was published by the Eugenics Research Association and edited by Laughlin, welcomed racist and anti-immigrant articles. At the Second International Congress on Eugenics in 1921, one of the five classifications of exhibits was “The Factor of Race.”

Similarly, the American Eugenics Society’s “Ultimate Program,” adopted in 1923, placed “chief emphasis” on three goals:

  1. a brief survey of the eugenics movement up to the present time;
  2. working out and enacting a selective immigration law;
  3. securing segregation of certain classes, such as the criminal defective.

The Eugenics Research Association included among the major issues its members addressed “[im]migration, mate selection. . .race crossings, and. . .physical and mental measurement.”

When the World War I-era IQ testing of all soldiers indicated that almost half of all white recruits were morons according to the newly developed Stanford Binet test, as were 89 percent of all black recruits, the eugenics movement seemed more important and believable.

Although some commentators questioned the validity of the test, and noted that questions on such topics as the color of sapphires and the location of Cornell University might reflect qualities other than intelligence, the statistics, when released, created great anxiety and gave the eugenics movement a substantial boost.

19th-Century Scientific Racism

The scientific racism movement of the mid-nineteenth century provided a number of important legacies to the eugenics movement. American scientific racism was primarily preoccupied with the attempt to establish that blacks, Orientals, and other races were in fact entirely different species of “man,” which the scientific racists claimed should be seen as a genus, rather than a species. The theory that the integrity of the human species derived from the creation of one Adam and one Eve was called monogenism or specific unity; monogenists believed that the races arose as a result of the degeneration of human beings since creation. The separate races were essentially the same human material, but different races had degenerated to different extents. Polygenists, by contrast, believed that the races were created separately in a series of different creations. The separate races were entirely different animals. The mid-century theory of polygenism, or specific diversity, was one of the first scientific theories largely developed in the US and was approvingly called “the American School of anthropology” by European scientists.

Harvard Professor Louis Agassiz, a prominent natural historian of the 19th-century, was the most important promoter of polygenism. Agassiz, an abolitionist, insisted that his adoption of polygenism was dictated by objective scientific investigation. Nevertheless, historian Stephen Jay Gould’s translation of Agassiz’s letter to his mother in 1846 shortly after his emigration to the US, reveals a profound, visceral aversion to blacks.

Not surprisingly, Agassiz was also passionately opposed to racial miscegenation. He believed that racial inter-mixture would result in the creation of “effeminate” offspring unable to maintain American democratic traditions. Agassiz wrote:

“The production of half-breeds is as much a sin against nature, as incest in a civilized community is a sin against purity of character. . . .No efforts should be spared to check that which is abhorrent to our better nature, and to the progress of a higher civilization and a purer morality.”

In part because the classic definition of a species revolved around the ability to mate and produce children with each other but not with others, and in part because of a drive toward racial hierarchy, the questions of hybridization and fecundity were of great import to the early American scientific racists. For the eugenicists, these questions were also tremendously important. Much of the early scientific racist rhetoric on hybrids later reappeared in eugenicist writings where it came to form the basis of eugenicist arguments against racial miscegenation. The early concern with fecundity fueled later eugenicist claims that differential racial fecundity was leading to white racial suicide.

The eugenicist recapitulation of earlier scientific racist arguments was not cursory, but deep and enduring. In one of many examples, a 1925 bibliography on eugenics published by the American Eugenics Society recommended the book, Uncontrolled Breeding, Or Fecundity versus Civilization.

At the First International Congress of Eugenics in 1912, author V. G. Ruggeri, despite his concern with race-mixing, put forth Mendel’s monogenism to bolster his own argument in favor of monogenism; and Lucien March spoke on “The Fertility of Marriages According to Profession and Social Position.” The opening of Raymond Pearl’s lecture on “The Inheritance of Fecundity” made clear his position within this tradition:

“The progressive decline of the birth rate in all, or nearly all, civilized countries is an obvious and impressive fact. Equally obvious and much more disturbing is the fact that this decline is differential. Generally it is true that those racial stocks which by common agreement are of high, if not the highest, value to the state or nation, are precisely the ones where the decline in reproduction rate has been most marked.”


Family Studies, Social Darwinism, and Race Suicide

Eugenical family studies were an important component in the movement’s political development; family studies functioned as an objective, scientific basis for the twin myths of a feeble-minded menace and an impending white race suicide. The invention of feeble-mindedness, typically used as a term of art to cover broader issues related to social control, allowed the eugenicists to claim that social (and racial) classes were biological and hence immutable.

The first important eugenicist works in the US were a series of studies of American families supposedly plagued by hereditary feeble-mindedness, beginning with Richard Dugdale’s exposition of the Jukes family, published in 1877.

All of the family studies claimed to prove that a single feeble-minded ancestor could (and did) result in generations of poverty-stricken and degenerate offspring. The families in the studies were rural families, of Anglo-Saxon, Protestant descent, and for the most part, their lineage dated to the colonial settlers. The families were remarkably similar to the eugenicist activists in these traits; the main difference between the two was the poverty of the rural families. The equation by the eugenicists of poverty with degeneracy was quite explicit. Eugenicists believed that poverty was no more than a manifestation of inner degeneracy. Charity was therefore unlikely to lead the pauper out of poverty and, in fact, misguided charity might prove very costly to society. In the heightened tone that is common to writers in the family studies, one eugenicist wrote, “It is impossible to calculate what even one feeble-minded woman may cost the public, when her vast possibilities for evil as a producer of paupers and criminals, through an endless line of descendants is considered.”

Another writer said, for example, “A habit of irregular work is a species of mental or moral weakness, or both. A man or woman who will not stick to a job is morally certain to be a pauper or a criminal.”

In the same vein, a third wrote, “Pauperism and habitual criminality are respectively passive and active states of the same disease.”

Feeble-mindedness for the eugenicists was a designation that created a difference between the eugenicists and the families they studied. One group of social reformers described in detail the nature of the feeble-mindedness which they had found characterized prostitutes:

“The general moral insensibility, the boldness, egotism and vanity, the love of notoriety, the lack of shame or remorse. . .the desire for immediate pleasure without regard for consequences, the lack of forethought or anxiety about the future–all cardinal symptoms of feeble-mindedness–were strikingly evident.”

Thus the prostitute’s failure to adhere to social conventions of behavior for women is here called feeble-mindedness.

The deliberate and even fraudulent misrepresentations of the people in the family studies have been established. Stephen Jay Gould, for example, has shown that H. H. Goddard, author of The Kallikak Family, retouched photographs to make the Kallikaks appear mentally retarded.

Family studies were used to support the myth of the “feeble-minded menace,” which claimed the US was in imminent danger of being swamped by the degenerate and dangerous masses of the feeble-minded. When the feeble-minded menace was linked at the end of the 19th-century to the idea that the better stocks were failing to produce enough children, the idea of race suicide emerged. Race suicide captured the US imagination and lent support to the entire eugenics agenda.

The “race suicide” theory which developed during the first decade of the new century claimed that the greatly lowered birthrate of the better classes, coupled with the burgeoning birthrates of immigrants and the native-born poor, endangered the survival of “the race.” “The race” was clearly a term that referred to the white, Anglo-Saxon race and a deep racism permeated the racial suicide period from its beginning in 1900 to 1910. One classic racial suicide work is Robert Reid Rentoul’s Race Culture; or, Race Suicide? (A Plea for the Unborn), published in New York and London in 1906. Rentoul speaks of the “terrible monstrosities” created by racial intermarriage and points out that the Americans are “poor patriots” for repealing their racial miscegenation statutes.

The concept of the feeble-minded menace provided a way to make the rural families, who were neither institutionalized, foreign, nor “colored,” into people who were “different” from the eugenicists. Underlying the family studies and the myth of the feeble-minded menace was the theory of Social Darwinism, which assumed the existence of a struggle between the individual and society, and of an adversarial relationship between the fit and unfit classes. Eugenical family studies and social Darwinism both involved a transmutation of nature into biology and the eugenics movement frequently acknowledged its debt to Social Darwinism.

The deeply conservative implications of such philosophies included the rejection of government welfare programs or protective legislation on the grounds that such reforms as poorhouses, orphanages, bread lines, and eight-hour days enabled the unfit to survive and weakened society as a whole. From the beginning, the eugenics movement accepted the regressive implications of Social Darwinism. Karl Pearson believed that “such measures as the minimum wage, the eight-hour day, free medical advice, and reductions in infant mortality encouraged an increase in unemployables, degenerates, and physical and mental weaklings.”

Pearson’s friend, Havelock Ellis, known as a sex radical and free thinker, shared Pearson’s elitist views, writing in his 1911 eugenicist book, The Problem of Race Regeneration, “These classes, with their tendency to weak-mindedness, their inborn laziness, lack of vitality, and unfitness for organized activity, contain the people who complain they are starving for want of work, though they will never perform any work that is given them.” Ellis suggested in the same book that all public relief be denied to second generation paupers unless they “voluntarily consented” to be surgically sterilized.

One American eugenicist said harshly:

“The so-called charitable people who give to begging children and women with baskets have a vast sin to answer for. It is from them that this pauper element gets its consent to exist. . . .So-called charity joins public relief in producing stillborn children, raising prostitutes, and educating criminals.”

The economic conservatism of the movement was very clear. Faced with a social problem, the eugenicist leapt to the conclusion that it was the individual who must change to accommodate society (which is one reason why conservative commentators frequently argued that eugenics was a liberal movement committed to the supremacy of the community over the individual). The prevalence of the appeal to economics in eugenics writings led G. K. Chesterton to claim that the eugenicist was, at heart, the employer. Chesterton wrote:

“[N]o one seems able to imagine capitalist industrialism being sacrificed to any other object. . . .[the eugenicist] tacitly takes it for granted that the small wages and the income, desperately shared, are the fixed points, like day and night, the conditions of human life. Compared with them, marriage and maternity are luxuries, things to be modified to suit the wage-market.”

The eugenicists’ family studies were one aspect of the movement’s domestic program of scientific racism. The eugenics movement concentrated on differences: its roots in scientific racism looked to the differences between the white and other races, while the family studies created a distinction between fit and unfit white folks. At the same time, eugenicists and other scientific racists were discovering many different “races” among the foreign immigrants, all previously conceived as members of a single, “white” race.

The Eugenicist Role in Anti-Immigrant Organizing

The involvement of the organized American eugenics movement with the advocacy of immigration restriction was deep and long-standing. Although the organized anti-immigrant movement predated eugenical organizations by a few years, immigration restriction was from the beginning a key component of the eugenics program. For example, the American Eugenics Society published a wide variety of materials on immigration restriction and the 1923 “Original Ultimate Program to be Developed by the American Eugenics Society” listed immigration restriction as one of the top three goals of the society.

The first organized anti-immigrant group, the Immigration Restriction League, was founded in 1894 in Boston by a small group of Harvard-educated lawyers and academics; Prescott Hall and Robert DeCourcey Ward were the driving forces behind the League. The Immigration Restriction League was based on a belief in the superiority of the white races. Ward summed up the group’s philosophy when he wrote “the question [of immigration] is a race question, pure and simple. . . .It is fundamentally a question as to what kind of babies shall be born; it is a question as to what races shall dominate in this country.”

Most eugenicists agreed, and Yale Professor and prominent eugenicist Irving Fisher’s comment that “The core of the problem of immigration is. . .one of race and eugenics” was typical of the eugenicist position.

In the first decade of the century, the men of the Immigration Restriction League became active members of the Eugenics Section of the American Breeders’ Association and other eugenics organizations, focusing their attention primarily on immigration issues. The connection was so compatible that the Immigration Restriction League almost changed its name to the Eugenic Immigration League. Hall and Ward even had sample stationery drawn up with the new name, but found the Board of Directors was unwilling to adopt the name of a movement younger than its own.

In 1918, Davenport and his fellow eugenicist, and virulent racist, and anti-immigration activist Madison Grant (author of The Passing of the Great Race and The Alien in Our Midst) set up the Galton Society. The Society was established for “the promotion of study of racial anthropology” and from the beginning, immigration restriction was “a subject of much interest.”

As John Higham has noted, one strand of nativism in the US derived from a conviction that the immigrant was a political and social radical, importing communistic or anarchistic ideas into the United States. Grant and Davenport both shared this conviction and established the Galton Society in part to bar such foreign radicals. The independently wealthy Grant wrote to the other organizers, “My proposal is the organization of an anthropological society. . .confined to native Americans, who are anthropologically, socially, and politically sound, no Bolsheviki need apply.”

Other prestigious members of the Galton Society included Henry Fairfield Osborn (who wrote the introduction to Grant’s book) and Grant’s friend and protégé, Lothrop Stoddard. Like his friend Grant, Stoddard was a strong anti-communist. His book The Rising Tide of Color argued that Bolshevism was a dangerous theory because it advocated universal equality rather than white supremacy.

H. H. Laughlin, of the Eugenics Research Association and Eugenics Record Office, was also very involved in anti-immigrant work. He produced many pamphlets on immigration, including “Biological Aspects of Immigration,” “Analysis of America’s Melting Pot,” “Europe as an Emigrant-Exporting Continent,” “The Eugenics Aspects of Deportation,” and “American History in Terms of Human Migration.” Because Laughlin had been appointed the Expert Eugenics Agent for the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization by the committee’s chair, Congressman Albert Johnson, many of these nativist pamphlets were published by the Government Printing Office in Washington, DC. In 1923, Johnson, a confirmed eugenicist, was appointed to the presidency of the Eugenics Research Association, a post held before him by Grant.

The immigration restrictionists were motivated by a desire to maintain both the white and the Christian dominance of the US. A year after the eugenicists’ victory in securing passage of the 1924 Immigration Restriction Act, which established entry quotas that slashed the “new immigration” of Jews, Slavs, and southern Europeans, Davenport wrote to Grant, “Our ancestors drove Baptists from Massachusetts Bay into Rhode Island but we have no place to drive the Jews to. Also they burned the witches but it seems to be against the mores to burn any considerable part of our population. Meanwhile we have somewhat diminished the immigration of these people.”

Similarly, the racial nature of the anti-immigration position was not veiled. In 1927, for instance, three years after the restrictive act of 1924 was passed, Grant, Robert DeCourcey Ward, and other eugenicists were still anxious to cut non-white immigration further. They signed a “Memorial on Immigration Quotas,” urging the President and Congress to extend “the quota system to all countries of North and South America. . .in which the population is not predominantly of the white race.”

The early 20th-century eugenics movement, often dismissed as a fad, provided a coherent and consistent political program to enforce the racial, class, and sexual dominance which was perceived to be under attack in American society. Its program has, in large part, reasserted itself in the late 20th-century, at a time when racial and economic elite dominance of US society is again under attack. The continuing vigor of scientific racism in the United States is in part a testimony to its strong, deep roots.

Encountering Holocaust Denial

This article appeared in the September, 1994 issue of The Public Eye magazine.

“The SS guards took pleasure in telling us that we had no chance of coming out alive, a point they emphasized with particular relish by insisting that after the war the rest of the world would not believe what happened.”
— Survivor of Dachau, quoted in Terence DesPres,
The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps

In 1991, college students across the country were confronted with a shocking form of bigotry against Jews: full-page ads in college papers purchased by Bradley Smith, founder of a California organization called the Committee for Open Debate on the Holocaust (CODOH). In the ads, CODOH and its supporters question Holocaust history as presently understood and taught by historians and others. Denial that the Holocaust has been accurately represented is called by critics Holocaust denial or Holocaust revisionism, and by proponents is called Historical revisionism.

The decision whether to run the ads was made by the students running the papers, since most college newspapers are independent of their school’s administration. Those papers that chose to run the ad usually defended their decision as respecting First Amendment guarantees; they were uncomfortable with taking any actions that might be construed as suppressing open debate on this or other issues. As writer Carlos Huerta explains in a 1992 article on the issue of Holocaust revisionism on campus, even several newspapers with a large Jewish presence on the staff chose to run the ads. Although they found the ads offensive, these Jewish students tended to see the issue in terms of freedom of expression.

Papers that chose not to run the advertisement, on the other hand, did so because they found it offensive, inaccurate, or both. Campus and public reaction to either decision was swift–usually set squarely against the decision to publish. Papers that chose to publish the ads were often vilified by their communities and attacked for being anti-Jewish or ignorant of the actual mandate of the First Amendment.

The traditional response to Holocaust revisionism within much of the institutional Jewish community has been either to ignore it or to expose the neo-Nazi connections of deniers, often wishing to avoid engaging in open debate with them, or even acknowledging their existence for fear of lending revisionists any form of legitimacy. In this case, however, many students felt that in choosing to run the revisionist ads, Holocaust revisionism would be more effectively counter-attacked.

Jewish experience has been profoundly shaped and reshaped across the centuries by historical experiences of salvation above all, but also of destruction. A deep sense of identity and mission, coupled with the genius of historical memory, have preserved not only for Jews but the rest of the world, the root experiences of the Jewish people. The act of denying the Holocaust, however, diminishes not just Jews but the experiences of all people; hence it is important to understand the phenomenon of Holocaust revisionism and the role it plays in promoting not only anti-Jewish bigotry but a cynical conspiratorial analysis that encourages the acceptance of scapegoating and demonization.

Holocaust denial is not new; it has been a fringe activity since World War II. However, a combination of shrewd organizing by Holocaust revisionists and the aging of Holocaust survivors has allowed deniers to begin to enter the Western mainstream. This is particularly alarming since it seems that every possible document and eyewitness account exists to prove the truth of the Holocaust, even if the actual totals of those executed can never be known. Yet Holocaust revisionism seems to be growing in acceptance–at least among some members of the public.

What is Holocaust Revisionism?

Revisionism is a major function of serious historians, whose goal is to seek an accurate record of history wherever they find it. Some historians review and reinterpret the Holocaust and genocide in a manner that is not a subterfuge for attacking Jews. This type of historical analysis, although sometimes controversial, is generally regarded by scholars and critics as the only credible form of revisionism regarding the Holocaust. Essentially this is, at its most basic and benign level, the rewriting or reinterpretation of Holocaust history in a manner that argues: “It happened, but there are still things we need to learn about it.” Such scholars usually have little difficulty getting their theories published in books and reputable journals and are frequently cited as reliable sources. Historians such as Lucy Dawidowicz, Charles Maier, Michael Marrus, Arno Mayer, and Christopher Simpson are found in this group.

Within Holocaust revisionism that involves a strain of anti-Jewish bigotry, there are three distinct schools of thought. These can be described as: “It happened, but far from the extent to which they say it did”; “It happened, but other groups suffered just as much as the Jews”; and “It didn’t happen at all.”

The first school, when it is taken seriously at all in academia, is considered to be of questionable credibility by most scholars; members of this school go to great lengths to downplay the Holocaust’s historical significance or imply that the impact and extent of the Holocaust have been magnified to accomplish particular ends, such as justification of US aid to Israel or aid to Jewish refugees from the former USSR. David Irving, author of a number of books on World War II, the accuracy of which are consistently challenged, could be considered a member of this school, although he sometimes drifts into the more nasty schools of Holocaust revisionism.

The second school is a relative of the first. While admitting that the Holocaust did in fact occur, members of this school argue that Jews were only one of several groups of victims. This is a cynical use of other victim groups. For example, these researchers will claim that the non-Jewish Poles or Germans were equal victims to the Jews, and often minimize the impact Nazi policies had on European Jews by emphasizing the impact of those policies on other groups. An example of equalizing the victims of the Holocaust is the comments of former President Ronald Reagan when he visited a cemetery in Bitburg, Germany in which SS members, German soldiers, and Jewish victims of the Holocaust are buried. The visit caused a furor; Reagan’s explanations “compounded his error” by making “no distinction between the fallen German soldiers and the murdered Jews; indeed, he suggested that both were ‘victims of a Nazi oppression whose responsibility was abdicated through the madness of one man, Hitler.'”

The third school, the most unconscionable, is the one that has attracted media attention in the past few years. Proponents of this school completely deny that a conscious attempted genocide of Jews occurred. They generally argue that the Holocaust as a policy of genocide was a fabrication by the Jews. Although its advocates deny they are anti-Semitic, much of the material found in this category vilifies Jews and Judaism. Although their materials have no credibility among serious scholars, the credibility of the actual deniers within the general public is somewhat higher, if only because of ignorance.

To be noted is that some neo-Nazis are Hitler proponents who do not deny the Holocaust but openly bemoan the fact that it was not more effective. While grotesque, they are not Holocaust revisionists.

It should also be noted that there is a legitimate and subtle debate over the use of the word holocaust (Sho’ah) to describe the attempted genocide of the Jews. The word is sometimes adopted to describe an instance of mass murder or ethnocide and has been used by the media to describe large-scale killing in Cambodia or Bosnia. The term holocaust has also been expropriated by anti-abortion protesters to describe the number of abortions since Roe v. Wade in 1973.

Who Denies the Holocaust?

A November 1992 survey (now in dispute) conducted by the Roper Organization for the American Jewish Committee found that fully 22 percent of American adults and 20 percent of high school students thought it was possible that the Holocaust never happened. Another 12 percent weren’t certain whether it was possible or impossible. Because the wording of the questions asked in this poll was flawed, however, Roper conducted a second poll for the AJC in March 1994, using revised questions and a new cohort. Results of the new poll, delivered to the AJC in May 1994, have not yet been released, but it seems certain that the previous poll overestimated the number of people who think the Holocaust never happened. A January 1994 Gallup Poll found that a much lower percentage, approximately 4 percent, of those it surveyed “have real doubts about the Holocaust; the others (19 percent) are just insecure about their historical knowledge or won’t believe anything they have not experienced themselves,” says Frank Newport, Editor of the Gallup Poll.

Contrary to popular belief, Holocaust denial exists not only on the political right, but also among some individuals characterized as moderate or left, although it is the right that is most prominent in the effort to present “another side” to Holocaust history. Most obvious on the right are the predictable suspects: neo-Nazis, skinheads, and members of the various Ku Klux Klans. The most prominent revisionist organizations are the Institute for Historical Review (IHR) and the Liberty Lobby, publisher of Spotlight, a radical right-wing newspaper published in Washington, DC. IHR, Liberty Lobby, and Spotlight magazine will be discussed in greater depth elsewhere in this article.

A nationally known Holocaust revisionist is David Duke, elected a Louisiana state representative although a former Klan leader, who ran as the 1988 presidential candidate of the extreme right-wing Populist Party and as a Republican candidate for President for a brief period in 1991-1992. Although he claims to have put his Klan and neo-Nazi past behind him, as late as 1993 he continued to sell IHR publications through his Louisiana State Assembly office, as well as a tape entitled “The Jewish Question II,” in which he questions the Holocaust “myth.” In addition, he has been reported by Louisiana Republicans as openly asserting that the Holocaust is a hoax dreamed up by Jewish-controlled Hollywood.

A current star of the revisionist lobby is Massachusetts resident Fred Leuchter. His lengthy Leuchter Reportpublicized his studies of “alleged gas chambers” at Auschwitz and other camps, and asserted that no execution chambers existed there. These theories claiming the impossibility of mass gassings were central to his testimony as an “expert witness” at the 1988 trial of Ernst Zundel, a German-Canadian revisionist and neo-Nazi, on trial for violating Canadian laws against publishing and distributing hate propaganda. Although Leuchter does not possess the engineering credentials with which he is often publicly credited, his report quickly became a best-seller on the far right.

Leuchter’s Report has been discredited by Jean-Claude Pressac, a French writer who himself was a Holocaust revisionist at one time. In his most recent book, The Auschwitz Crematoria: The Machinery of Mass Slaughter, Pressac uses documents from recently opened KGB archives to supplement those on file at the Auschwitz Museum archives to illustrate exactly how Nazi extermination techniques worked.

Another segment of the extreme right that continues to claim that the Holocaust is a myth is the Christian Identity movement, which claims that contemporary Jews are not related to the original tribes of Israel, but rather impostors descended from the historic Khazars, a now-dispersed people whose leaders adopted Judaism as a religious belief hundreds of years ago. Identity theology maintains that contemporary Khazar-descended Jews concocted the Holocaust in an effort to cement their reputation as God’s Chosen, while Identity Christians are the real descendants of the tribes of Israel and thus the real Chosen People, not contemporary Jews. IHR and Liberty Lobby publications are distributed through many Identity Christian ministries, book houses, and publications, and members of the movement have approvingly discussed the Holocaust denial movement in their periodicals.

In recent years, some segments of the African American community have also come to question the Holocaust’s relative importance in history, arguing that the genocidal aspects of slavery and the Middle Passage affected more lives and that genocidal policies in the form of racism still continue today. While this debate can be handled with seriousness and sensitivity, and arguments can be made that slavery was a form of “Black genocide,” some proponents use the debate as a cover for anti-Jewish bigotry. This is the case with the most prominent proponents, the Nation of Islam, headed by Minister Louis Farrakhan. Farrakhan himself has been accused of fostering anti-Jewish bigotry through his speeches and by refusing to condemn completely the anti-Jewish rhetoric of his spokespersons, particularly Khallid Abdul Muhammed, who has been giving incendiary speeches at various colleges around the country.

Although Farrakhan has been called a “problem for a broad range of American blacks who rightly fear that his anti-Semitic rhetoric erodes the moral authority of his appeals against racism,” a 1994 Time/CNN poll of 504 African Americans found that 62 percent of those familiar with him said that he was good for the Black community and that 63 percent believed that he spoke the truth. Only a fifth of those questioned considered him anti-Semitic.

Because other aspects of the Nation’s message strongly appeal to the African American community, such as an emphasis on self-reliance, cultural pride, and personal responsibility, many Blacks are prepared to look past Farrakhan’s other, more controversial stands on Jewish relationships with Blacks, and racism against whites. For Jews, however, it is harder, if not impossible, to overlook those stands. Further, many aspects of Farrakhan’s political ideology are so authoritarian, repressive to women, and homophobic that they are perceived as threatening to groups other than Jews.

Four Jewish groups withdrew their sponsorship of the Parliament of the World’s Religions held in Chicago in September 1993, when it was learned that Farrakhan had been invited to speak. In response to an October 1992 Farrakhan visit to Atlanta, Georgia, the Anti Defamation League of B’nai B’ rith (ADL) said, “The fact that the Nation of Islam does some good in the Black community is not a rationale for forgiving its scapegoating of Jews and Judaism.”

Farrakhan, of course, is not the only Black leader to have exhibited anti-Jewish tendencies. A number of rap musicians have also been condemned for including anti-Jewish lyrics in their works. In addition, several Black scholars specializing in Afrocentric studies have sparked comment because their books and articles allege disproportionate Jewish complicity in slavery. One of the most recent incidents involved a book written by Wellesley College professor Tony Martin that chronicles a campaign of alleged persecution against him by Jews at Wellesley. The book was condemned by the school’s president in a letter mailed to faculty, alumni, and students.

A prominent journalist and media personality who has openly questioned and belittled the extent of the Holocaust is Patrick Buchanan, 1992 Republican presidential candidate. Buchanan is known to have “mocked the feelings of Holocaust survivors as ‘group fantasies of martyrdom and heroics,'” and has questioned the capability of the Treblinka concentration camp to have engaged in mass gassings of inmates.

Buchanan also appeared to go out of his way to anger Jews by arguing “the innocence of accused and convicted Nazi executioners.” He has also “suggested that in any case the hunt for old, enfeebled men was of dubious moral value.” For his unwavering support of John Demjanjuk, whose 1988 war crimes conviction was overturned on appeal by the Israeli Supreme Court, Buchanan (as well as Ohio Congressman James Traficant) were praised and embraced in an editorial in the Journal of Historical Review, published by the Institute for Historical Review. During the months leading up to the Persian Gulf War, Buchanan repeatedly referred to war hawks as being in Israel’s “amen corner.”

Buchanan’s friends and colleagues find it difficult to believe he could be a “card-carrying anti-Semite” and, indeed, Buchanan has characterized anti-Semitism as a singular “disease of the heart” in his newspaper column. The problem, his friends say, is his “preference for journalistic swagger over editorial precision.”

Mel Elfin, writing in US News and World Report, commented that in calling Congress “Israeli-occupied territory” and advising that the US not “cave in to ‘Jewish’ pressures,” Buchanan displayed a “callous ignorance” of Nazi-style demagoguery. Elfin concludes: “If [Buchanan] really believes anti-Semitism is a ‘disease of the heart,’ he would be well-advised to avoid providing aid and comfort to those who still consider the Holocaust a myth and for whom group hatred has become a way of life.”

The Institute for Historical Review

The chief organization promoting Holocaust denial is the Institute for Historical Review, a California organization founded in 1978 by Willis Carto, who also founded the extreme right-wing Liberty Lobby. IHR styles itself in fundraising letters as a “voice for historical truth” and a “champion of historical knowledge” because “we have the knowledge, and because we have the determination to see the truth prevail.”

IHR was particularly gleeful over the acquittal of John Demjanjuk by the Israeli Supreme Court in the summer of 1993, claiming that the case is an important vindication of the cause of Holocaust revisionism. Revisionists felt they had been confirmed in their decades-long insistence that eyewitness testimony–even of Jewish Holocaust survivors–must be regarded with the greatest skepticism.

As part of its efforts to gain a mainstream following, IHR publishes the Journal of Historical Review, once a quarterly but now bimonthly. Previously geared to an academic audience, the Journal‘s format changed in 1992 from a 5×8 inch library-sized format to a more glossy, 8½x11 format, using more photographs and a less turgid editorial style. The Journal is now intended to appeal to all “intelligent” readers, and now carries articles on ancient history, culture, art, religion, philosophy, and social issues, as well as its old standby themes of racial issues and World War II history.

An important IHR function is to hold annual private conferences, usually in California, at which the elite of the Holocaust revisionist community are invited to present their “research.” Guests are usually Journalsubscribers and IHR donors. The 1990 conference featured a coup: one of the presenters was John Toland, author of several respected and authoritative books on World War II history, who is not considered to be a revisionist along the lines of the IHR.

IHR first came to public attention in 1980, when it offered a $50,000 reward to anyone who could conclusively prove that Jews had been gassed at Auschwitz. Mel Mermelstein, a survivor, accepted the challenge and submitted voluminous proof, including his own personal testimony. When the evidence was ignored by IHR, Mermelstein sued IHR for the reward.

During the trial, Mermelstein used the same evidence that had been submitted to IHR. The suit was finally settled in Mermelstein’s favor in July 1985, with IHR ordered by the Los Angeles Superior Court to pay the $50,000 reward plus an additional $40,000 for pain and suffering caused to Mermelstein. According to a member of the staff of the Auschwitz Study Foundation, founded by Mermelstein in Huntington Beach, California, IHR did, in fact, pay the judgment.

In 1986, Mermelstein also won a $5.25 million default judgment against former IHR Editorial Advisory Committee member Ditlieb Felderer, a Swedish revisionist who had used his Jewish Information Bulletin to personally attack and libel Mermelstein. In retaliation for both suits, IHR and Liberty Lobby sued Mermelstein in 1986 for libel, but dropped the charges in February 1988. Mermelstein filed yet another lawsuit in October 1988, in response to the Liberty Lobby/IHR suit, charging malicious prosecution on the part of IHR. Although that suit was dismissed in September 1991, Mermelstein filed an appeal in August 1992, with no results to date.

IHR has often been mistaken for other, more credible organizations such as the London-based Institute for Historical Research, whose ideology is far from that of IHR. Organizations with little knowledge of IHR’s work have sometimes been hoodwinked into selling ad space or mailing lists to IHR. For example, IHR was able to get a “Call for Papers” published in the newsletter of the American Historical Association in 1993, which caused an uproar when IHR’s mission was revealed. As a result, the AHA decided to donate the money paid for the ad to the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

In 1980, IHR bought part of the membership list of the Organization of American Historians in order to send every OAH member a sample issue of the Journal of Historical Review, which ultimately caused the OAH to make its policies concerning purchase of its mailing list more restrictive. Ten years later, in 1991, the OAH agreed to publish an IHR “Call for Papers” in its newsletter, a move that enraged many members. OAH editors justified their decision by citing the First Amendment, and stood by it.

IHR presents a public face that avoids overt anti-Jewish bigotry. However, its fundraising letters, mailed to “supporters of truth in history,” reveal its directors’ prejudices quite clearly, as shown in a quote from a March 1992 letter:

The powerful interest groups opposed to historical awareness will not stand idly by while the suppressed facts of 20th century history continue to gain an ever widening audience. With millions of dollars at their disposal, for every dollar we spend to correct the historical record, they’ll spend a thousand more building Holocaust museums and memorials, agitating for school indoctrination programs, backing Hillel groups on college campuses, and funding their vast web of professional snoops, censors, slanderers and media manipulators.

This text embodies a conspiratorial impression of Jewish power and control that reflects a major strain of historic anti-Jewish prejudice.

IHR claims that its founding goal was to follow in the footsteps of Harry Elmer Barnes, once a well-known and respected World War I historian and revisionist whose obsession with conspiracy theories led him to virulent anti-Jewish bigotry and support for Nazi policies during World War II and to a later belief that the Holocaust was a hoax.

In a “fact sheet,” the IHR claims to shed light on suppressed information about key chapters of history, especially 20th-century history, that have special relevance today. It goes on to firmly support the First Amendment right of free speech. In fact, as aptly stated by Deborah Lipstadt, IHR’s actual goal was “to move denial from the lunatic fringe of racial and anti-Semitic extremism to the realm of academic respectability. The IHR was designed to win scholarly acceptance for deniers.”

Mermelstein’s victories have been major defeats for IHR’s cause. Nevertheless, IHR has managed to survive since paying out a $90,000 settlement to Mermelstein, as well as ever-increasing attorneys’ fees. There is some evidence of cost-cutting, however–most notable in the Journal of Historical Review, which lost much of its bulk in 1992. There also are rumors that the IHR is losing donors; and this was before the split with Carto.

Another major setback was a firebombing attack in 1984 that destroyed most of IHR’s files and office equipment at its Torrance, California warehouse and office, and prevented it from publishing the Journalfor several years. Because it had been experiencing some harassment from several alleged members of the Jewish Defense League, IHR’s leaders accused JDL of the arson, but no evidence was found linking JDL to the attack.

In October 1993, Willis Carto was forced out of the Institute for Historical Review in an apparent dispute over funding and ideology. Carto has filed suit in Los Angeles Superior Court to resume control of IHR.

Liberty Lobby/Noontide Press

Often those who get involved with IHR are unaware of its historic connection to Liberty Lobby, a connection which IHR itself is slow to reveal, presumably for the sake of its credibility. Indeed, only Liberty Lobby publicizes the connection, often publishing Holocaust revisionism in Spotlight and even devoting entire issues of that newspaper to the “Holocaust hoax.” In addition, Noontide Press, a Carto/Liberty Lobby outfit, has been run in previous years by Tom Marcellus, current director of IHR. Fundraising letters for IHR have been printed on Noontide Press stationery; both organizations are usually based in the same California cities. If IHR moves, so does Noontide.

A legal connection has also been established. An appeal filed by Liberty Lobby, IHR, and the League for the Survival of Freedom, in an effort to present themselves as separate entities, was dismissed by the United States Court of Appeals in 1988. The appeal was part of Carto’s attempt to sue the Wall Street Journal for calling him an anti-Semite. As Judge Robert Bork (soon to become famous in the failed attempt by the Reagan/Bush Administration to elevate him to the Supreme Court) stated in his opinion, the tactic was designed merely to disassociate the three groups from each other, in order to save their individual reputations. In addition, it probably was done as a financial move, to ensure that suits filed against one would not affect the other two, so that at least one group would survive should there be a legal defeat, as there was in the Mermelstein lawsuit.

Liberty Lobby’s central role in promoting Holocaust revisionism dates to the 1960s, although associates such as Francis Yockey dabbled in this area in the early 1950s. Its involvement seems to have begun with its publication of The Myth of the Six Million, a book which “has become a staple item in the Liberty Library and in the wares of various racist-paramilitarist groups.” In the 1960s it published discussions of Zionism and the Jews in Spotlight whenever possible, and on occasion it attacked ADL. While some criticisms of ADL deserve debate–such as whether or not its close relationship to law enforcement and intelligence agencies has led it to violate the privacy rights of dissidents, or if its high-profile attacks on Black anti-Jewish bigots are disproportionate–the Liberty Lobby critique of ADL falls into the classic pattern of conspiracy theories regarding Jewish power.

In later years, Liberty Lobby published at least two problematic tracts on the Middle East, one written by author Issa Nakleh (who has been a featured speaker at IHR conferences) expounding theories such as “Zionist intrigue as a factor in America’s 1917 intervention,” “dispute of the Holocaust statistic of six million Jewish victims,” and “a conception of East European Jews as Khazars rather than Palestinian semites.”

The Liberty Lobby’s intention to support Holocaust revisionism became clearer in the early 1970s when it began to distribute The Hoax of the Twentieth Century, by Northwestern University professor Arthur Butz. Since then, it has often used Spotlight to promote the IHR, rail against Jewish groups, and protest the opening of the United States Holocaust Museum.

After Carto’s ouster from IHR, he immediately began to plan a new revisionist publication to be published in October 1994. Called The Barnes Report, after revisionist historian and longtime Carto friend Harry Elmer Barnes, the journal is clearly intended as a challenge to the Journal of Historical Review. In an advertising blurb in the August 29, 1994 issue of Spotlight, the newspaper’s Senior Editor Vince Ryan claims that The Barnes Report would be an incorruptible source you know you can trust.


Another Holocaust revisionist organization is the Committee for Open Debate on the Holocaust. Its efforts to place full-page newspaper ads in college newspapers (most recently The Good 5¢ Cigar, the student newspaper of the University of Rhode Island in Kingston, Rhode Island) has garnered extensive news coverage. Essentially a one-man operation, CODOH is run by Bradley Smith, a Korean War veteran and high school graduate who, as a bookseller, was prosecuted and convicted in the 1960s of disseminating obscene material because he sold Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. At the time, he portrayed himself as a fervent believer in freedom of speech and expression, and it is that philosophy, he says, which prompts him to fight so hard for the cause of Holocaust revisionism.

Smith claims to have believed in the Holocaust “myth” until 1979, when someone gave him a copy of an article from the French newspaper Le Monde, written by French Holocaust revisionist Robert Faurisson. The article so impressed him that he underwent a “conversion,” and has since self-published the first two parts of his autobiography, Confessions of a Holocaust Revisionist. He has also been working with the IHR as its spokesman and media director.

Smith founded CODOH in 1987 along with Mark Weber, who is now the editor of IHR’s Journal of Historical Review. In an effort to promote his beliefs, he has appeared on well over 300 radio and television talk shows and began the college advertising effort. According to Smith, accounts of the Holocaust are akin to the stories found in the National Enquirer and other supermarket tabloids.

Smith’s demeanor as a calm, kindly, elderly gentleman helps to sell his message. He is a far cry from the stereotypical alienated fanatic that one typically associates with anti-Jewish and neo-Nazi beliefs. Unfortunately, his opponents often become emotionally overwrought when confronting Smith’s confident lies, and can seem more fanatical than he does.

International Revisionism

Revisionist groups also exist in other countries, notably the Historical Review Press in Great Britain. There are also many individuals who have devoted their lives and careers to attacking the “myth” of the Holocaust. Some of the more famous include the British popular historian David Irving, Canadian high school teachers James Keegstra and Malcolm Ross, right-wing publisher Ernst Zundel, and French university professors Robert Faurisson and Bernard Notin. Both Keegstra and Faurisson have lost their teaching positions because of their beliefs, while Ross still teaches English and mathematics in a Moncton, New Brunswick high school, despite challenges by opponents.

Zundel has been tried twice on the same charges in Canada, for publishing “false news” through the printing and distribution of revisionist books and tracts such as Did Six Million Really Die? He was convicted both times, but each time his conviction was dismissed by the Canadian Supreme Court, most recently in August 1992, on the grounds that the law against spreading false news was too vague and might be used to limit legitimate forms of speech.

Two years after the verdict against Zundel was overturned, he is still publishing his revisionist literature. One of the newest offerings is a 567-page condensation of evidence presented at his trials. In addition, he has begun a satellite television program, as well as short-wave radio broadcasts in English and German, with the latter aimed at his ever-increasing right-wing audience in Germany. Although Zundel is reportedly under investigation by Canadian authorities, no admissible evidence of “hate crimes” has been found. A member of the Ontario Provincial Police commented in a 1993 interview that “Mr. Zundel is very knowledgeable about what he can say.”

Keegstra, a former history and shop teacher, as well as Mayor of Eckville, Alberta, lost both jobs after a long struggle by opponents to oust him. Parents, disturbed by the anti-Jewish tone of their children’s notes from Keegstra’s classes, objected and sought to have him dismissed. They eventually succeeded, but encountered a great deal of opposition from his supporters, who ran the gamut from fellow teachers coming to the aid of one of their own to right-wing ideologues whose views were akin to Keegstra’s.

Keegstra, like Zundel, was tried twice on charges related to spreading hatred and violating the “false news” law. Although an earlier conviction was overturned by the Canadian Supreme Court in 1991, after the second trial in July 1992 Keegstra was convicted of “promoting hatred by teaching his high school students that Jews have conspired to gain control of the world.”

According to a 1985 article in the Jewish monthly Midstream, the frightening aspect of the entire affair was not so much that it happened, but that Keegstra poisoned the minds of his students for 14 years, that he induced them to hate Jews, and that this did not bother the high school principal, who said that Keegstra was a “good teacher” and that he would be “happy to see Keegstra reinstated.” It did not stop one of his antagonists from thinking she could work with him in “trying to make Eckville a decent place to live,” and it failed to disturb the equanimity of the school superintendent, who found Keegstra “most convincing” at the hearing where it was decided to keep him on for another year.

That his teachings had somehow been able to muscle aside the standard history found in mass media and school curriculum on the Holocaust and World War II was also alarming to Jigs Gardner, author of theMidstream article. But for Holocaust revisionists and revisionist sympathizers, mainstream media and Hollywood productions are run by special interest groups (usually meaning Jews) and therefore programming is controlled to convey only the message these groups want the public to hear.

Finally, the neo-fascist cult leader Lyndon LaRouche has questioned the Holocaust by claiming that most Jews died of disease and overwork, a stock-in-trade argument of Holocaust revisionists. Followers of LaRouche and Farrakhan have been making joint appearances in recent months.

These are only a few of the many deniers who have received public attention recently. Unfortunately, their message is sparking increased “debate” over the Holocaust, and the numbers of their supporters seem to be increasing.

Why Holocaust Denial?

Moderate Holocaust denial/revisionism generally takes the form of “wanting to hear both sides of the story,” or questioning the extent of the Holocaust, in the spirit of not wanting to believe something on the scale of the Holocaust could happen. Carlos Huerta believes that the reason for this may be simply that people want to be tolerant, even of the most crackpot opinions. Such individuals, he says, have a sense of American fair play and have difficulty in understanding what they perceive as personal, slanderous attacks against revisionists. They ask the obviously simple question that if revisionism is so wrong and absurd, why not simply expose it as such and end the issue.

As mentioned earlier, however, a number of Holocaust scholars and Jews have declined to debate Holocaust deniers/revisionists, based on their fear that to do so would indicate that Holocaust denial is an acceptable theory. Deborah Lipstadt, a noted author and historian specializing in the Holocaust, explains:

The existence of the Holocaust [is] not a matter for debate. I would analyze and illustrate who they were and what they tried to do, but I would not appear with them. To do so would give them a legitimacy and a stature they in no way deserve. It would elevate their anti-Semitic ideology–which is what Holocaust denial is–to the level of responsible historiography–which it is not.

Lipstadt cites the case of a television program on which she refused to appear but viewed at a later date:

“When the show aired, in April 1992, deniers were given the bulk of the time to speak their piece. Then Holocaust survivors were brought on to try to ‘refute’ their comments. Before the commercial break the host, Montel Williams, urged viewers to stay tuned, so that they could learn whether the ‘Holocaust is a myth or is it truth.'”

Unfortunately, the refusals of experts and survivors to confront the revisionists, while understandable, may allow Holocaust denial a virtually unchallenged forum. This is especially true in the case of call-in talk shows, which pit deniers (who are, ironically, well-prepared and well-read in standard Holocaust history) against well-meaning opponents who may not be well-versed in the subject, but know, through whatever means–experience or reading–the truth of the Holocaust. Such programs can become an exercise in emotionalism, with callers and even talk show hosts losing their tempers as they attempt to confront the deniers with the facts about the Holocaust.

It is not surprising that Holocaust deniers are taking full advantage of most Americans’ tolerance for eccentrics. Brian Siano, in a column in The Humanist, comments:

“With nearly any subject we learn about in school, we retain only the broad outlines. Relatively few of us understand the Holocaust in intimate, working detail. Most people know of Hitler, camps, gas, maybe the number six million, and the vague understanding that the United States put a stop to it. It’s not hard to imagine such a person; lots of them graduate high school every year.

Now imagine someone coming up to this person and saying, ‘That Holocaust stuff is just silly, unscientific nonsense. Have you ever wondered how the Nazis could possibly gas so many people to death? Especially when the gas they used was only an insecticide?'”

Often, in our zeal to hear both sides of an issue, we are eager to question established truths, sometimes in toto. Americans have a fascination with conspiracy theories and so are often willing to entertain even the most crackpot theories in the belief that everyone deserves a fair hearing. On the other hand, we are often too willing to believe “authorities” who claim to be experts on one thing or another and to take what they say as the certified truth. These contradictory behaviors work in the revisionists’ favor.

The increasing numbers of those who engage in Holocaust denial is perhaps emblematic of our own lack of memory of our past, and our preference for dealing with the present and future, rather than the past. As Geoffrey Hartman reflects:

As events “pass into history,” and they seem to do so more quickly than ever, are they forgotten by all except specialists? “Passing into history” would then be an euphemism for oblivion, though not obliteration. That something is retrievable in the archives of a library may even help us to tolerate the speedy displacement of one news item by another. The storage capacity of the human memory is, after all, very limited. But what of the collective memory, with its days of celebration and lamentation, and the duty to keep alive a community’s heritage?

This desire to let the unpleasant past slip away has contributed to controversy in Germany, where theHistorikerstreit, or “Historians’ Debate” over the meaning of Germany’s Nazi past, has prompted bitter dissension among that country’s scholars. The process of vergangenheitsbewaltigung, or “mastering the past,” is a difficult one, forcing scholars to face the evil caused by the Nazis before and during World War II. Unfortunately, such questioning of the past has given rise to a new form of revisionism, in which many Germans are asking why their country should be held solely responsible for what happened 50 years ago and, indeed, why Germans today should be held responsible for “the sins of the fathers.”

The debate in Germany has been prompted by an increase in commemorations of Hitler’s seizure of power and of defeat in World War II as anniversaries reached the 40-and 50-year mark. Charles Maier, in his book exploring the Historikerstreit, The Unmasterable Past, says that although the current historical debate focuses on objections raised by conservative politicians and scholars concerning Germany’s level of blame for the Holocaust, “the right did not open Pandora’s box alone.” Rather, as Jürgen Habermas, a prominent social philosopher, comments in Maier’s book, “the memories [are accumulating] of those who for decades could not speak about their suffering,” and must be spoken. In other words, Holocaust survivors are increasingly talking about their ordeal, forcing us to confront what they endured.

Such confrontations have often prompted those who have little or no interest in world events to question why the Jews seem obsessed with the Holocaust. Says Geoffrey Hartman, “Many think they already know about the Holocaust, and that it has received too much attention. But their attitude is a sign that they have no direct memory of the events and learn about them mainly from ceremonies and the media.” Further, he says, “Life is characterized by a contradictory effort: to remember and to forget, to respect the past and to acknowledge the future.”

What is troubling to all of those who have suffered through the Holocaust, but particularly to Jews, who were the prime targets, is the “careless or calculated rewriting of history” that “prevents many of them from laying their own ghosts to rest.” But, most Jews are determined to keep memory alive, in spite of comments such as those made by Reagan at the Bitburg cemetery, comments that treated the young World War II German conscripts as if their suffering were equal to that of the victims of the Holocaust. Jews “saw the remark as only underscoring the tendency of history to blur the reality of their suffering–an inclination that is also visible in revisionist histories that have held the Jews partly to blame for their own slaughter.”

The experience of the Massachusetts public education group, Facing History and Ourselves (FHO), is an example of this tendency. In 1986, FHO applied for grants from a special program of the Department of Education, the National Diffusion Network, to support its work educating high school students and adults about the forces that can lead to genocide, using the Holocaust and the Armenian genocide as examples. Its grant applications were reviewed by a special panel and rejected on the grounds that “[T]he project itself lacks balance; will former Nazis, etc. be allowed to speak?” After several other attempts, the organization was finally awarded a four-year grant in October 1990.

Holocaust Revisionism & Anti-Semitism

It is possible that Jewish efforts to understand and study the Holocaust are suffering from a backlash effect, similar to the backlash against feminism or even the Black civil rights movement. It takes the form of an attack against ideas that are described as being “pushed down one’s throat,” and perhaps many of those who resent frequent reminders of the Holocaust, but who are not active revisionists, are simply viewing the demands of Holocaust victims as “going too far” and “dwelling too much on the past.”

The deniers play on a desire to avoid that which is unpleasant, and to forget the past and concentrate on the present. Holocaust denial also plays on conscious and unconscious anti-Semitic belief structures. Anti-Jewish sentiment and social prejudice has been a consistent presence in the US and other parts of the world, fostered by negative images of Jews in popular culture, often underestimated by historians.

Although overt prejudice and discrimination against Jews has declined, a covert form still survives, and so may be an important factor in fueling a tendency and/or desire to forget the facts of the Holocaust. Some may reason that the Jews (and other “undesirables”) got their “just deserts” for perceived crimes committed against humanity, such as the murder of Christ or other alleged offenses, including support for socialism or communism or usury. This was in fact the attitude of many while the Holocaust was occurring, and it still is given voice by members of the extreme right. Indeed, Bradley Smith has been quoted as saying, “if God does love the anti-Semites, it might have something to do with way He feels about how some of you guys [Jews] behave.”

But one doesn’t have to be right-wing to believe anti-Jewish conspiracy theories or hold prejudiced views about Jews. As events unfolded during the course of the Keegstra affair, the unconscious prejudice of many Canadians came to the surface. This was usually embodied in the tendency for Christian communities to “denounce the anti-Semitic teachings of a self-proclaimed devout Christian” but to shy away from providing “outspoken moral leadership” on the question of prejudice against Jews.

Post-World War II America frowns on the open display of prejudice against Jews, although polls done in the 1980s indicated that one-third of all Americans believed that “Jews have too much power in the business world; 20 percent that they have too much power in the United States,” opinions which echo the classic beliefs of most bigots.

Vice President Spiro Agnew once complained that the Jews controlled the banks and the media. In addition, there is still a perception that all or most Jews put the interests of Israel and American Jewry ahead of those of the United States, illustrated by the comment of Senator Ernest Hollings, who once referred in debate to Senator Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) as “the Senator from B’nai B’rith.”

In its annual audit of anti-Semitic incidents, the ADL reported that the total number of incidents in 1993 (1,867) is the second highest in the audit’s 15-year history, and an eight percent increase over the 1992 total of 1,730. Acts of a personal nature–harassment, threats, or assaults–increased by 23 percent, while vandalism against properties declined by 8 percent. According to the ADL, “this trend would seem to dovetail with the sense of many observers across the nation that confrontational, ‘in-your-face’ acts of violence, intimidation, and incivility, have been growing and spreading in recent years.”

The audit, however, is but an annual account of overt acts of anti-Jewish bigotry or hostility, not a measure of actual prejudice present in the US today. Other observers say that, although the figures uncovered by the 1993 audit are alarming, they should be taken in perspective. J. J. Goldberg, writing for the New Republic, argues that in reality:

“[Anti-Semitism] is on the decline. Discrimination in housing, jobs, and schooling, once endemic, has all but disappeared. State-sponsored anti-Semitism, long a defining fact of European life, is virtually unknown here. Hostility toward Jews, measured in public opinion polls, has been declining steadily for two generations. Events that seemed sure to provoke broad anti-Semitism, from the Arab oil boycott to the arrests of Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard and Wall Street cheat Ivan Boesky, came and went without a blip.”

The only increase, Goldberg claims, has been in incidents.

While a disturbing number of Americans may not believe or be sure that the Holocaust did happen, 83 percent of adults and 81 percent of students felt that “the main lesson to be learned from the Holocaust is that firm steps must be taken to protect the rights of minorities.” Of note is that 60 percent of adults and 53 percent of high school students agreed that the Holocaust “makes clear the need for the state of Israel as a place of refuge for Jews in times of persecution.”

While the extent and effects of anti-Jewish prejudice in the US are matters of ongoing debate, the ability of Holocaust revisionists to unleash or create anti-Jewish prejudice seems amply demonstrated.

What Should Be Done About Holocaust Denial?

There is no consensus at the moment on how to respond to Holocaust revisionism. Those who see the deniers as virulent anti-Jewish bigots eager to gain a respectable foothold for their distorted interpretations of history cannot agree whether the deniers should have the same First Amendment protections to which others are entitled. Recently, the German government has taken the position that Holocaust denial is forbidden speech. It presented a broad package of bills to combat right-wing violence that includes harsher jail terms for right-wing thugs and punishment for those who deny the Holocaust happened.

Two Rutgers faculty members who published an op-ed piece in the New York Times argue against publishing deniers’ material in student newspapers:

“[The Editors’] decision to print [CODOH’S] ad is based on principle: an aversion to censorship or a belief that hate material should be aired and publicly refuted. Surely their right to publish such ads should not be questioned. They alone must decide what good purpose, if any, is served by printing ads that are intentionally hurtful and obviously false. [Yet] the ads should be rejected.”

Their assertion later in the essay that “if the Holocaust is not a fact, then nothing is a fact” is well taken. Yet, while they defend the students’ right to make their own decision about what should be published, they strongly advise that the ads be rejected. There have been similar discussions in other venues, even on computer bulletin boards and the Internet. One Internet computer node site based in British Columbia is host to the “Holocaust, The” and “Fascism” electronic mailing lists and the “Holocaust FAQ’s,” a text file repository of several sets of “Frequently Asked Questions” about the Holocaust, Holocaust denial, and the Carto/Liberty Lobby empire.

In early 1993, the “Holocaust” list moderator, Ken McVay, sparked a discussion of this same issue by mentioning that he had been asked to post articles from Spotlight that denied the Holocaust, but with refutation, and asked for input from bulletin board subscribers. A number of subscribers vehemently opposed the idea, arguing that it would be a travesty for the list to become another means of distributing revisionist propaganda. Others, including McVay, understood the concerns but focused on the education issue, as does the following posting by David Mandl:

“We’re talking not about helping to spread these documents, but about refuting the wild claims of the ‘revisionists’ whenever necessary. It’s been the subject of some debate whether ‘we’ should just ignore them, thus denying them valuable exposure, or address these claims and expose their lies; I’ve wavered on this question myself. But I think this group is here to confront these ‘people’ head-on and deal with their texts. Do you just stuff your garbage in a closet and ignore it, pretending that the fairy garbageman will take it away some day?”

Eventually, the discussion ended with the posting of the disputed article from Spotlight, with commentary by a subscriber.

Allowing deniers space and time to present their views may indeed be the lesser evil. If such material is suppressed, it takes on the appeal of suppressed “information,” becoming more desirable. The public cannot help wonder what is dangerous about the prohibited material and so try to obtain it any way possible.

It seems, then, that a major challenge posed by Holocaust revisionists lies in determining the most effective response to them. Neither ignoring their existence nor suppressing their speech will make them go away. A middle course, acknowledging and allowing the publication of their theories and swift, calm, and thorough refutation, seems a stronger strategy in confronting revisionist distortions. As expressed by the student editors at Rutgers–how can one fight a devil one cannot see? How, indeed.