Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Anatomy of a Bloviation

Albert Mohler has a longish review of a new book by Paige Patterson:

The American denominational landscape has experienced significant shifts in recent times, but one major story stands out among them all—the massive redirection of the Southern Baptist Convention. America’s largest evangelical denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention was reshaped, reformed, and restructured over the last three decades, and at an incredibly high cost.

Was it worth it? That is one of the crucial questions addressed by Paige Patterson in his new essay, Anatomy of a Reformation: The Southern Baptist Convention 1978-2004. Published in booklet form, Patterson’s analysis offers an invaluable insider’s perspective on the Southern Baptist controversy and its meaning. Patterson, now president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, was one of the key architects of the plan to change the direction of the Convention. Born to Southern Baptist aristocracy, Patterson was the son of T. A. Patterson, a prominent Texas pastor who later became executive secretary of the Baptist General Convention of Texas. Surrounded from boyhood by Baptist preachers, theologians, and denominational leaders, Patterson quickly gained both an intuitive and an educated understanding of Baptist identity.

Wonder if Patterson will have nice things to say about Bruce Prescott?

Didn't think so.
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The Erosion of Civil Discourse

Anna Quindlen, in her Newsweek column of May 30, writes that among the legacies of the terrorist attacks on 9/11/01, is that "America has become a country that sets its young people the terrible example of closed minds. The terrorists want to kill infidels. We only aim to silence them." Quindlen bemoans the fact that America has been "hijacked by those who cannot tell the difference between opponents and enemies, between disagreement and heresy, between discussion and destruction."

As a country that aspires to be a constitutional democracy, this is more than just bad news. Democracy requires the type of informed consent that can only be achieved through vibrant and often tumultuous debate. Closed minds slam shut the door of civil discourse and block the path to civil society.

Oppose the war in Iraq and we become traitors. Challenge the increase in political repression and the decrease in civil liberties and we are allies of the terrorists. Call for basic human rights in the treatment of prisoners and we are soft on crime. Ask that immigrants and undocumented workers be treated fairly and we are throwing open our borders to criminals. Suggest that access to abortion is an integral part of reproductive rights for women and we become baby killers. Protest the demonization and scapegoating of gay people and we want to destroy the sanctity of marriage. Suggest that religious supremacy is toxic to pluralist democratic society and we spit in the face of God.

At the root of this problem is the wedding of dualistic demonization and moral supremacy. It’s not just the dualism of “I’m right and your wrong.” It raises the stakes to “I’m the guardian of the morality and the society that you seek to destroy for evil purposes.” That’s a box that’s hard to get out of. What sane person would debate the devil incarnate?

This paradigm is operational in both religious and secular spheres of society, from the speeches of our President and certain Congressional leaders, to the guiding lights of the Christian Right, to television talk shows, to the lack of debate on college campuses. I tend to see dualistic demonization most frequently used as a tool of the Political Right. When I see it used by the Political Left, I think it needs to be opposed as well.

If we want to preserve the idea of democratic civil society, we all need to agree to certain ground rules regarding the boundaries of acceptable civil discourse. I don’t mean good manners. Non-violent civil disobedience may be bad manners to some, but it is one of the tools democratic civil society needs to protect. I mean claiming the intent of my opponent is evil and destructive. I have no problems seeing evil in the world, nor in arguing that the outcome of certain policies would be destructive. But when any of us assumes our opponent is inherently evil and intentionally seeks to destroy all that is good--we have driven a nail through the heart of democracy.

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Monday, May 30, 2005

Standing Up to Rush Limbaugh

One of the most polarizing men in America is at it again. But this time one of the victims of his latest smear job is standing up to the bully in an essay on Salon.com.

Valerie Kaur and her dad used to be Rush Limbaugh fans. No more.

"In mid-May," she writes, "I played an Iraqi prisoner in the opening night of the play Abu Ghraib, an original student production at Harvard University... My father called to wish me luck. Imagine his disappointment when I told him what Limbaugh had said about me in his radio program that day:

"'Here you have these dunces ... at Harvard now doing a playing on the travesties of Abu Ghraib, and you know this is going to get back to the people in Baghdad, the insurgents and this sort of thing. It's just typical. These people hate the country, folks. I'm telling you: There's an anti-American bias in the American left.'"

"My dad, who has voted Republican all his life, was shocked. 'But this is beyond partisan politics!' he said. 'Has he seen the play?'"

"No, and Limbaugh still has not seen the show. Neither... has Bill O'Reilly, who lambasted the play on his television program... "

Abu Ghraib, which has a cast of 15 students, was written and directed by Harvard sophomore Currun Singh. It tells the stories, "of a soldier whose friends were killed in war, of an insurgent filled with hatred for Americans, of the sergeant who turned in the incriminating photographs from Abu Ghraib."

Kaur, who is studying ethics at the Harvard Divinity School, reports that these are "factual accounts."

"My character," she writes, "is based on a real Iraqi prisoner, Huda Alazawi, arrested by American soldiers in December 2003 after she inquired after her missing brother. They detained her at Abu Ghraib overnight, and in the morning they threw his dead body at her feet."

Thanks to Valerie Kaur for her courage in standing up to Limbaugh and O'Reilly -- and to Salon.com for giving her the space to tell her story.

[Crossposted from FrederickClarkson.com]

UPDATE: Illinois High School Kids Challenge Rush to Debate.

Nationally syndicated radio demagogue Rush Limbaugh not only picks on college student productions of plays he has not seen, but he picks on high school students he knows nothing about. Kate N. Grossman, a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times wrote that Limbaugh recently claimed "that Evanston Township High School students 'don't know anything about World War II' and 'they've probably never heard the name Adolf Hitler' because they're so focused on a multicultural curriculum."
"The comments prompted a response Friday from ETHS Superintendent Allan Alson, who wrote in a letter to the Review that Limbaugh 'spoke inaccurately and unconscionably about Evanston Township High School and its students....'"

"Some Evanston kids want to show Limbaugh what they know. They want to debate him on American history." [More]
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Sunday, May 29, 2005

UCC to Affirm Same-Sex Marriage?

From the United Church News:
At [the United Church of Christ's] biennial national gathering, about 1,000 elected delegates from the church's 39 regional Conferences and national Covenanted Ministries will debate three different marriage-related proposals. One from the UCC's Southern California - Nevada Conference asks the General Synod to affirm full civil and religious marriage equality for same-gender couples. If passed, the UCC's General Synod would become the first mainline Christian body to support such a measure.

A second counter resolution, offered by eight geographically-diverse congregations, asks the Synod to affirm "traditional" marriage as "between one man and one woman." A third proposal, by the Central Atlantic Conference, calls for a time of church-wide prayer, conversation and study on the issue.

The possible divisions over this are no joke. From the same story:
On May 21, the Penn Northeast Conference held a "day of dialogue" among its 156 churches (including its one and only ONA church) to discuss controversial issues facing the General Synod.

"Of the people who showed up," says the Rev. Alan C. Miller, Conference Minister, "by far the largest attendance was at the same-sex marriage discussion."

"Eighty percent of those gathered were against the same-sex marriage resolutions and offered support for the one-man, one-woman resolution," Miller says. "I think our General Synod delegates were surprised that the reaction - the percentage - was that great against the resolutions."

Miller says one church already has voted to leave the UCC simply because the issue is being considered. "And we've already been informed that three other churches will vote out if this passes," he says.

And from a related story:

The UCC's Calvin Synod says it might consider leaving the denomination if a proposed resolution affirming same-gender marriage equality is passed by the church's General Synod during its biennial meeting in Atlanta July 1-5.


However the resolution passed by the Calvin Synod, comprised of 29 churches and more than 2,500 congregants, claims the Bible records "the constant opposition of God-fearing people to all sexual relations outside the bonds of marriage" and calls unions between homosexual persons to be "unholy abominations, unfit for the sight of the Lord and the righteous."

It denies that same-gender marriage meets the definition of marriage, declares that such "heresy is intolerable" to its members and ministers and calls on the UCC to "disavow this heresy."

The Calvin Synod comes from Hungarian Protestants taken in by the UCC after the failed uprising against the Soviet occupation in 1956. If you didn't quite catch it, they're quite a bit more conservative than the church at large.

Oddly enough, in my own area, the reaction is somewhat more muted:

The Rev. Marja Coons-Torn, Penn Central Conference Minister, says she has received letters from concerned members about the marriage equality measure, but the tone has been civil.

"We certainly have opposition to it here and I am hearing from people who are opposed to it," Coons-Torn says. "But I have to tell you that it's in pretty respectful ways."


"If it came to an up-or-down vote on the [Southern California - Nevada] resolution, probably our delegation is not yet at the point where they will be able to support it wholeheartedly," Coons-Torn says. "Many, if not most people, might be able to support civil unions but can't go all the way in supporting the word `marriage.'"

For any of you who know Pennsylvania, this result is almost bizarre. Since when is Northeast PA more stuck in the mud than Central?

In any case, if the "pro" resolution passes, it will cost the UCC in division and lost revenue for the national church. It is, in other words, a live issue.

It would be easy to write down the controversy over the original resolution to stupid right-wing reaction. Easy, but inaccurate.

The UCC is generally more conservative than its reputation would indicate, and the Biblical Witness Fellowship, loosely affiliated with Richard Scaife and the Institute on Religion and Democracy, has managed to keep low level discontent simmering. But still, I'd estimate that only 5-10% of its member churches are so homophobic that they would actually walk out of the denomination over this debate. Perhaps another 10% are opposed to same-sex marriage, but would be content to simply vote "no". The remainder of the people, I think, would be fairly evenly divided between those who wonder if we as a church are ready to make this affirmation and those who think we should have made it years ago. And since General Synod tends to skew liberal, I'd call the vote pretty close to 50-50.

More generally, the difficulty with getting a resolution like this passed is the diverse nature of most mainline Protestant churches. Simply put, we've got that 5-10% still within the denomination. The corresponding 5-10% of liberal congregations has been all but pushed out of the Southern Baptist Convention, and it never did turn up in the non-denominational affiliations.

That lack of homogeneity may hurt mainline denominations politically, and it sure as hell frustrates any kind of progressive agenda they may have. But it's a price I'm willing to pay. Because for all that it doesn't take us in the direction I'd like to go in terms of policy, in the terms of faith, it's absolutely the proper direction. I'll take ideological impurity and faithful living over the abandonment of gospel tolerance and diversity any day of the week. Leave the political unity to the Southern Baptists.
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Thursday, May 26, 2005

Showdown in Florida: GOP Theocrat vs. Moderate

One of America's most militant antiabortion activists plans to launch a primary challenge against a longtime moderate Republican leader of the Florida State Senate. Randall Terry, founder of Operation Rescue, and "spokesman" for the parents of Terri Schiavo was publicly asked by two locally prominent Republicans to challenge incumbent Jim King in the GOP primary. The announcement came in a series of press conferences in Jacksonville, St. Augustine and Daytona Beach. Terry says he will run if he can raise $15,000 in the next three weeks. But given the high profile announcement, it seems likely he will run no matter what happens.

The Associated Press reports that "King is one of the nine Republicans who helped block a bill in the last legislative session aimed at keeping Schiavo alive.... King, who has served in the Legislature since 1986 and was Senate president in 2003 and 2004, did not return phone calls Thursday for comment. He has said he would run for another four-year term in 2006, his last chance before term limits would block another run."

Terry who has a knack for news, is a Christian nationalist and a theocrat and one of the most polarizing men in American politics. Jim King epitomizes the moderate, business wing of the Republican Party. He has been a top leader in both the Florida House and Senate. The race will likely be one of the highest visibility races in the nation, and will throw into sharp relief the difference between the theocratic Christian Right and and mainstream Republicanism. Among other things, King is pro-choice, was a leader in promoting death with dignity legislation in Florida, and is a supporter of public education.

There is much I could write about Randall Terry, (and I did in my book Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy) but as the campaign begins, it is worth noting that in the 1990s, Terry was a national leader in The Constitution Party (formerly the U.S. Taxpayers Party) and in a 1994 op-ed in The Washington Post, went so far as to denounce Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition as "the mistress of the Republican Party." Now that Terry is a wannabe Republican office holder, it will be interesting to hear how he explains that one.

[Crossposted from FrederickClarkson.com]

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Wednesday, May 25, 2005

What Can the Left Learn from the Right?

I think there are a lot of things the Left can learn from the Right -- which has been doing most of the political innovation and best organizing in the U.S. over the last quarter century.

One place the Left can look to for some lessons is The Leadership Institute. Founded by conservative movement activist Morton Blackwell, it has been teaching young conservatives how to be campus activists, journalists, and provocateurs for a generation. Progressives have never bothered to even try to match the Institute -- leaving the field of well organized campus activism largely to the Right. Its not that there are not some good organizations of the center and the left that do some training, its just that they are not so focused, funded, and effective.

Anyway, there is an excellent and important article on Salon.com based on reporter Jeff Horowitz's experience attending a Leadership Institute training. The article is so full of valuable insights, I think it is one of the most important articles anyone will read or write about politics this year.

The Leadership Institute, Horowitz reports, is "a nonpartisan 501(c)(3) charity, drawing the overwhelming majority of its $9.1 million annual budget from tax-deductible donations. Despite its legally required 'neutrality,' the institute is one of the best investments the conservative movement has ever made. Its walls are plastered with framed headshots of former students -- hundreds of state and local legislators sprinkled with smiling members of the U.S. Congress, and even the perky faces of two recently crowned Miss Americas. Thirty-five years ago, Blackwell dispatched a particularly promising 17-year-old pupil named Karl Rove to run a youth campaign in Illinois; Jeff Gannon, a far less impressive student, attended the Leadership Institute's Broadcast Journalism School."

"Over the last 25 years," Horowitz continues, "more than 40,000 young conservatives have been trained at the institute's Arlington, Va., headquarters in everything from TV makeup for aspiring right-wing talking heads to prep courses for the State Department's Foreign Service exam. Classes are taught by volunteers recruited from the ranks of the conservative movement's most talented organizers, operatives and communicators."

"The Leadership Institute has succeeded," Horowitz concludes, "in part, because it's had little to no competition from the left." That has started to change. The Center for Progressive Leadership has recently been launched as an answer to The Leadership Institute. The Center's web site says it is "the first national political training institute dedicated to building the next generation of progressive political leaders. Through intensive training programs for youth, activists, and candidates, CPL provides individuals with the skills and resources needed to become effective political leaders."

Meanwhile, Horowitz raises many interesting questions about the efficacy of the Left's political and electoral organizing on many fronts, for example: "Chris Stio, an institute staffer who directed the Bush-Cheney field operations in northeast Michigan, warns his students not to buy into second-term crowing about America's irrevocable slide into conservatism. 'Enough people were yelling and screaming about the president that if they'd actually picked up the phone book and started calling, they might have won,' he says. 'They went to concerts, they bashed the president, but they didn't work. If enough people had, maybe we'd have a different president. The election was not inevitable. And too many think it was.'"

There is much to learn from The Leadership Institute -- not that other sectors of society should ape their style and their tactics. First, we should understand what their tactics are -- such as deliberate provocations intended to upset and throw liberals off balance; rigging student referenda; and so on. Second, we should be planning to create training institutes of our own, although the Center seems to be a good start. But more importantly, we need to develop a culture of learning about politics and citizenship instead of reusing the same old ineffective tactics in the same old ways year after year.

It is long past time to talk about these things. Fortunately there is a diary on The Daily Kos summarizing the article and leading to discussion. When Talk to Action's phase II goes live in a few weeks, it will be the place for exactly the kinds of focused and thoughtful conversations and debatees we need to have about tactics and strategy, the lessons we can learn from the Right, and what works and does not work in response.

[Crossposted from FrederickClarkson.com]
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Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Faith in Action

Bill Gallagher of the Niagra Falls Reporter has written a story about the Calvin College professors who protested President Bush's speech at the school's commencement. His comments about one of the professors, David Crump, caught my attention:

David Crump, a professor of religion at Calvin, was one of the leaders of the faculty protest. He told the Detroit Free Press he felt compelled to speak out because "the largest part of our concern is the way in which our religious discourse in this country has been largely co-opted by the religious right and their wholesale endorsement of this administration."

I spoke with Crump and discussed the faculty letter and politicians who cloak themselves in religion. He struck me as a soft-spoken, committed person whose conscience led him to action. Crump has taught at Calvin for eight years and he's up for a tenure appointment this summer. Speaking out like he does requires more guts than Bush, Rove and a division of Busheviks have ever displayed.

Crump said he's tired of all evangelicals being lumped together and people "naturally associating us with the right wing."

David Crump and the other dissenting professors at Calvin College have given hope and encouragement to a lot of other evangelicals who are tired of being lumped together with the right wing. When so many Christians do little more than give lip service to a faith that risks everything for Christ, thanks for having the courage to put your faith in action.

This entry is cross-posted from the Mainstream Baptist blog.
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Dobson's Choices

James Dobson, head of Focus on the Family doesn't like the filibuster deal. He wanted the GOP Senate majority to end the Senate rule that allows members to filibuster presidential judicial nominees that they find to be extreme or unqualified. Dobson wanted to pack the federal Appeals courts with Christian Rightists -- and President Bush was all too happy to nominate them. That moderate Republicans were willing to buck Majority Leader, Sen. Bill Frist (R-TN) as well as the president on the so-called "nuclear option," (ending the filibuster rule) should send a clear signal that the Senate will not destroy all comity and deliberative sense, and use raw majoritarianism to impose its will.

At issue were seven nominees viewed too extreme by the Democrats (and probably some Republicans) who had been threatened with a filibuster. In the deal, the Democrats agreed not to filibuster five, and reserved the right to filibuster the other two, and any future nominees only under "extraordinary circumstances,'' the definition of which is left open to interpretation. (Blue Mass Group has the whole memo of understanding among the 14 Senators.)

"This Senate agreement represents a complete bailout and betrayal by a cabal of Republicans and a great victory for united Democrats," Dobson said. "Only three of President Bush's nominees will be given the courtesy of an up-or-down vote, and it's business as usual for all the rest. The rules that blocked conservative nominees remain in effect, and nothing of significance has changed. Justice Clarence Thomas, Justice Antonin Scalia, and Chief Justice William Rehnquist would never have served on the U. S. Supreme Court if this agreement had been in place during their confirmations. The unconstitutional filibuster survives in the arsenal of Senate liberals."

"We are grateful to Majority Leader Frist for courageously fighting to defend the vital principle of basic fairness," Dobson continued. "That principle has now gone down to defeat. We share the disappointment, outrage and sense of abandonment felt by millions of conservative Americans who helped put Republicans in power last November. I am certain that these voters will remember both Democrats and Republicans who betrayed their trust."

As usual, Dobson engages in demagogic and revisionist versions of history. In fact, Thomas, Scalia and Rehnquist were never threatened with filibusters, and any Senator could have filibustered their nominations if they had chosen to do so. (There are alot of people who wish some Democrats had had the courage to do so.) But Dobson not only lost some of his choices for the federal bench. He may have blown some political capital with his high handedeness. His lobbying campaigns, including ads targeting Senators in their home states, rankled not only liberals but conservatives.

USA Today reports: "James Dobson: Who does he think he is, questioning my conservative credentials?" Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., said in an interview. Dobson, head of the conservative group Focus on the Family, criticized Lott for his efforts to forge a compromise in the fight over the judges. Lott is still angry. "Some of his language and conduct is quite un-Christian, and I don't appreciate it," the senator said.

The Los Angeles Times, detailed the deal and its implications: "For their part, Republicans agreed not to lend their votes to the drive, led by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), to change the rules of the Senate to prevent future Democratic filibusters... During Bush's first term, Democrats filibustered 10 of the president's 52 appellate court nominees, complaining he had chosen conservative ideologues without consulting with the minority party. Bush resubmitted seven of the filibustered nominees, and Democrats said they again planned to block them... As part of the agreement, two of Bush's nominations - of William Myers to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco and of Henry Saad to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Detroit -- would remain stalled. The other five filibustered nominees, including Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla Owen and California Supreme Court Justice Janice Rogers Brown -- would proceed to a floor vote. Owen's vote was expected Tuesday."

Of course five of the previously too egregious seven candidates will go forward for a vote by the full Senate, where there is a good chance that they will be confirmed. Americans United for Separation of Church and State is targeting Janice Rogers Brown and William Pryor for defeat when they come up for a vote on the Senate floor.

[Crossposted from FrederickClarkson.com]
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Monday, May 23, 2005

Opening the Door to Theocrats on the Bench?

A few weeks ago, top leaders of the Christian Right distinguished themselves by claiming that those who oppose some of President Bush's judicial nominations are opposed to people of faith, even anti-Christian. This rhetorical campaign culminated in a rally for religious bigotry led by Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council which was Orwellianly titled "Justice Sunday."

The insulting claims outraged Christians and members of other faith traditions who opposed some of the president's extreme judicial nominees -- and placed into sharp relief the attitudes and intentions of the Christian Right and its allies in Congress.

At issue of course, was the effort by the GOP majority in the Senate to end the filibuster, a tactic that allows the minority to block votes on nominations and legislation that they consider to be particularly eggregious. The issue comes to a head this week, and all sides are making a final effort to influence Senators to take thier side in the final showdown.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State has a good summary report on whats at stake. It concludes that the current fight "... has everything to do with what type of country we’ll leave the next generation. Will it be a multi-faith republic where people of all faiths (and none) live together in peace thanks to the separation of church and state or will it be a quasi-theocracy where the Religious Right has been handed the power by federal courts to meddle in everyone else’s lives? We must make every effort to see that it is the former, not the latter."

FaithfulAmerica.org -- the advocacy arm of the National Council of Churches (NCC) is urging mainstream Christians to speak up and to speak out.

The NCC is urging people to "SEND A MESSAGE to your Senator saying the filibuster is NOT anti-faith and that preserving it is an important way for every voice to be heard. We must never allow social and religious fundamentalists of any faith to silence the voices of those holding different beliefs."

The Interfaith Alliance is holding various events in Washington, DC over the next few days.

Click here to take action in support of the filibuster.

The key swing votes in the Senate are said to be Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, John Warner of Virginia, Mike Dewine of Ohio, and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska.

For more on mainstream religious responses to the filibuster battle and the nominees at issue, check out this report by Chuck Currie.
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Friday, May 20, 2005

The Weakest Link

How one looks at the strengths and weaknesses of any worthy opponent has everything to do with the strategy one adopts in any struggle. The principle is the same whether the matter at hand is a military battle, a business plan in a competitive marketplace, or even sizing up an opposing little league team. (Strong pitching? Weak defense? Power hitters? Good running game?) Like any movement, the Christian Right has its strengths and weaknesses. Any competent counter-strategy, locally or nationally, has got to have at least a back-of-the-envelope analysis, grounded in facts, and presented in calm, rational language.

One of the key ingredients in the ideology of the Christian Right is the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation. And somehow this intention of the Founding Fathers has been thwarted by (pick one) -- liberals, judicial tyrants, the ACLU, secular humanists, all of the above. This idea is tremendously powerful. It asserts that "the Christians," (however one may define Christians), are the intended rulers of the nation, because that's what The Founding Fathers, and by extension, by implication, the Constitution sought to accomplish. In some versions, God intended that America be a Christian nation. Its a powerful piece of political and religious mythology that feeds into another powerful myth -- that Christians are persecuted in the U.S. The effect is to make people feel that something has been unustly, unrighteously taken from them and that that something must be "restored" or "reclaimed." Its a powerful narrative and it flows quite naturally from the mouths of D. James Kennedy, David Barton, Roy Moore, Pat Robertson, and many more. There is a large industry of text books, seminars, speech and power point presenters that inform and popularize the movement. Christian nationalism is integral to the political events sponsored by the Christian Coalition and it is a recurrent theme on Christian television and radio.

But for all of the work that has gone into crafting this narrative, and as popular a notion as it is, there is a problem: the facts of history do not support the myth of Christian nationalism. This is one of many aspects of the Christian Right that has ben largely ignored and has gone largely unanswered by the rest of society during its march to power.

I have written about this over the years, but since this turned out to be one of the main topics when Dr. D. James Kennedy and I appeared on the NPR interview show Fresh Air recently, arguably the issue is now on the national agenda, or at least pretty close.

To some, the question of whether America was founded as a Christian nation, may seem academic, and perhaps even unimportant in the face of the urgent affairs of state in Washington, DC and elsewhere.

But I think that it is very important and deserves our urgent attention. The reason is that Christian nationalism is a powerful ingredient of the political and religious identity of the theocratic Christian Right. It is a powerful, quasi-religious myth that helps to animate their politics. It helps to prop up their attack on the separation of church and state and the idea that Christians, (only of the correct sort of course), should be our elected and appointed government officials -- among other things. What if many members of the voters who support the Christian Right realize that they have been had? That history does not support Christian nationalism? What if the rest of us, who support religious equality and separation of church and state are able to gain the upper hand in the telling of our story as a nation? It is a story that can be told by all of us, in our lives, in our writings, in our communities, in our medida.

There are many flaws in the argument for Christian nationalism, mostly because of lack of evidence. Advocates for Christian nationalism resort to two main tactics. One is to cherry pick quotes from various of the founding fathers (often out of context, sometimes fabricated), that tend to support their view. The other is to cite the Declaration of Independence, which invokes the "Creator." Much is made of the Declaration for this reason. Given the importance of the Declaration in our history, and the way we revere the document, it is a shrewd choice. But the Declaration does not prove what D. James Kennedy sought to use it to prove -- that America was founded as a Christian nation.

The Declaration, written in 1776 was a revolutionary manifesto, a political document used to rally people to rise up in revolt against the king of England. But the Constitution makes no mention of God or of Christianity. In fact, the only mention of religion in the Constitution is to state in article 6 that there will be no religious tests for public office. What this meant was that one's religious orientation would not be a factor in determining criteria for public officials. By logical extension, it also meant that religion would be irrelevant to one's status as a citizen. It meant that for the first time in the history of the world, we would have a nation based on religious equality.

The Constitution was written and signed by many of the same men who wrote and signed the Declaration. If they had wanted to include God and Christianity in the nation's charter, they certainly could have done so. But they didn't, and for very good reasons. And this is the problem faced by the Christian nationalists. The Constitution and everything about its history and development belies the assertions of the Christian nationalists. They did not invoke God or declare a Christian nation, it starts out simply, "We the People of the United States" -- no deities, no higher law. There would only be what "we the people" decided would be our laws and our governing principles, and how they would evolve over time. And thats why the Christian Right invokes the Declaration to anchor their argument. They have nio choice -- the Constitution does not suppor thier argument. Their argument is that weak, and they are that desperate. So far, they have pretty much gotten away with it.

The Christian Right of the 18th century opposed ratification of the Constitution when it was sent to the legislature for ratification. Part of the opposition centered on the lack of acknowledgement of God and Christianity in the Constitution. The Christian Right of the 18th century didn't like the Constitution when it was written -- and they don't like it now. So they pretend.

It is long past time for a more concerted effort to challenge the Christian Right on its misrepresentations of our history. I talked alot about Christian nationalism and what's wrong with it in my book Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy. (I also highly recommend The Godless Constitution, by Isaac Kramnick.) We have to challenge a form of historical revisionism that the late theocratic theologian R.J. Rushdoony called "Christian revisionism."

We do not need to start from scratch. The battle has been underway for some time. Just today, blogger Bruce Prescott links to a story in the Houston Chronicle that details how mainstream Baptists are taking on Christian theocrat Rick Scarborough. "I think he's a very dangerous man," said [David] Currie, also a former pastor and a devout Baptist, in a recent interview. "That whole 'Christian nation' movement is attempting to undermine the absolute strength and genius of this country, and that's the First Amendment.... To make judges a religious issue is ludicrous."

Let's step into the fray. Let's start to see ourselves as part of the story of our nation -- and not allow the Christian Right to twist our history in support of their contemporary theocratic agenda.
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Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Uniting to Defend the Four Freedoms

We all need to spend some time considering how best to defend liberty and freedom, and what unites us as a nation concerned with democratic values. In doing so, we need to commit to a process that respects civil liberties, and civil rights, and civil discourse.

= = =

My Dad wouldn't talk with me about World War II except to say it was brutal and bloody and that he lost many friends. So when he swapped war stories in the basement with his drinking buddies, I would sit in the dark at the top of the stairs and listen....

Today, the four freedoms that millions fought to defend are under attack--in part because we forget why people fought World War II, we deny what led to the Holocaust, we fail to live up to the promise of the civil rights movement, and we refuse to heal the wounds of the Vietnam War era....For many in our country, the four freedoms remain only a dream, but at least in 1945 it was a dream worth fighting for. How many of us today are willing to stop shouting and just talk with each other about how best our nation can defend the four freedoms? I learned how his hands and feet had been frostbitten during the Battle of the Bulge, and that one of his Bronze Star citations was for taking out a Nazi machine gun nest. He thought the Germans were decent people whose big mistake was not standing up to the thugs like the Brownshirts who broke the windows of Jewish-owned stores on Kristalnacht. As I remembered this, I watched mountains of broken glass being swept up in Oklahoma City as the death count rose.

News of the bombing reached our family on vacation in coastal Georgia. I had been writing about the historic and social roots of the militia movement and, after visiting a museum preserving a former rice plantation, had talked with my son about how the Ku Klux Klan had formed as a militia during the economic and cultural turmoil following the Civil War. I had little doubt that the blast was somehow linked to the armed militia movement.

Reports of the carnage at the Oklahoma City federal building, the selfless efforts of rescue crews, and the horror of even some militia members, mingled eerily with stories commemorating the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe and the 20th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War. I found history lessons connecting these events in an old brass-bound wooden chest, inherited after we buried my Dad at Arlington Cemetery 20 years ago. Inside were brittle photos of a young lieutenant, a dried flower sent to my Mom from "somewhere in Belgium," crumbling newspaper clippings on the fighting near Bastogne, and a leather case filled with war medals.

Like many White Christians in the late 1950s, Dad held stereotyped views about Blacks and Jews. His actions spoke differently, though, and were the durable lesson. When neighbors in Hackensack, New Jersey, told him that our town was not ready for the Little League team he coached--with a Black player, a Jewish player, and a Jewish assistant coach--Dad simply said he had picked the best, and shut the door. He told me he had seen Jews and Blacks die along with everyone else fighting the Nazis; then he pointedly invited the entire team and their families to our yard for a very public picnic. Later, the stones crashing through our windows at night merely hardened his resolve.

In the 1960s we moved up the commuter rail line to Hillsdale, New Jersey. My brother went to military school and played in the marching band. In college he was sports editor of the campus newspaper and joined ROTC. After graduation he shipped out to fight in Vietnam. I went to church-basement coffee houses and marched with the civil rights movement. In college I edited the campus newspaper and joined the anti-war movement. After the killings at Kent State and Jackson State in 1970, I editorialized in favor of a student strike.

The next year, after a commemoration of Kent and Jackson, a professor sent me his Korean war medals as an act of protest against our government's policies. He felt a need to stand up, and his conscience told him that "it is all of us that are guilty--we who sit there and do nothing." We sent the newspaper with a story about the medals to the printers, then I sat up all night trying to unravel conflicting emotions over family expectations, my hope for my brother's safe return from war, career plans, and what my personal moral obligations demanded of me, given my views about peace and social justice. When morning came, I quietly joined other anti-war protestors and engaged in my first act of non-violent civil disobedience at a federal building near Denver.

My Dad was Grand Marshall of Hillsdale's Memorial Day parade. When a tiny peace group in the early 1970s asked to participate, it created a furor. Dad was a lifelong Republican, pro-war, and anti-communist, and his idea of America came right out of a Norman Rockwell painting. He told the town officials that if the peace marchers followed the rules, they were entitled to march. And they did. Mom told me he came home from the debate shaking his head, asking how people could forget those who gave their lives to defend such rights.

Reunited as a family one Thanksgiving, we all toasted my brother's safe return from Vietnam with the crystal wine glasses my father brought back from Germany. It was a mirrored tableau of Rockwell's "Freedom From Want," a painting of a family sharing abundant food. The "Four Freedoms" series appeared as Saturday Evening Post covers during World War II; and as corny and steeped in stereotyping as they were, the theme helped unify and rally our nation at a time of crisis. Sure, politicians had other more cynical and pragmatic justifications for the war, but most Americans were willing to fight because they believed in the four freedoms.

Years later, battling cancer, my Dad was determined to don his uniform one last time on Memorial Day. As I helped him dress, I asked him about the war. His only reply was to hand me one of his medals. Inscribed on the back were the words "Freedom from Fear and Want. Freedom of Speech, and Religion." The four freedoms. My Dad fought fascism to defend these freedoms, not just for himself, but for people of different religions and races, people he disagreed with. . .even people he was prejudiced against.

Today, the four freedoms that millions fought to defend are under attack--in part because we forget why people fought World War II, we deny what led to the Holocaust, we fail to live up to the promise of the civil rights movement, and we refuse to heal the wounds of the Vietnam War era.

Freedom of speech needs to be defended because democracy depends on a public dialogue to build informed consent. This is impossible when the public conversation--from armed militia members to talk-show hosts to mainstream politicians--is typified by shouting, falsehoods, and scapegoating. The Nazi death camps proved that hateful speech linked to conspiracy myths can lead to violence and murder. The solution is not censorship, but citizenship--people need to stand up and speak out in public against the bigots and bullies. Democracy works. The formula for democracy is straightforward: over time, the majority of people, given enough accurate information, and access to a free and open debate, reach the right decisions to preserve liberty. Thus democracy depends on ensuring freedom of speech.

Freedom from fear is manipulated by those demanding laws that would undermine freedom of speech. The same agencies that spied on the civil rights and anti-war movements are again peddling the false notion that widespread infiltration of social movements is effective in stopping terrorism. Meanwhile, demagogues fan the flames of fear to urge passage of even more authoritarian crime control measures--while doing little to find real societal solutions that would bring freedom from fear to crime-ridden communities.

Freedom of religion is twisted by those seeking to make their private religious views into laws governing the public. But it is also abused by liberal critics who patronize sincere religious belief as ignorance, and litter the landscape with hysterical and divisive direct mail caricaturing all religious conservatives as zealots. Freedom of religion means we must have a serious debate on the issues with our devout neighbors, while condemning the theocrats who claim to speak for God as they pursue secular political goals.

Freedom from want has been shoved aside in a mean-spirited drive to punish the hungry, the poor, the children, the elderly, the disabled, the infirm, the homeless, the disenfranchised.

For many in our country, the four freedoms remain only a dream, but at least in 1945 it was a dream worth fighting for. How many of us today are willing to stop shouting and just talk with each other about how best our nation can defend the four freedoms?

Ported from Chip Berlet's Blog
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Saturday, May 14, 2005

When the State Becomes the Church

What happens when church merges with state? What happens when government agencies promote one religious view over another? What happens when one version of Christianity is promoted over another by government agents?

Look no further than the United States Air Force Academy at Colorado Springs, Colorado where conservative evangelical Christianity is aggressively promoted, and cadets of other faiths are frequently insulted, forced to choose between mandatory academy functions and their religious holidays, and now, a Lutheran chaplain has been fired for daring to criticize the culture of religious bigotry, and religious supremacism protected and enforced on campus.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State has been on the case for months, and so now are major newspapers in the nation. The Washington Post, for example, reported that "Amid a rising chorus of complaints about preferential treatment for evangelical Christians -- and command pressure on non-evangelicals -- among the 4,000 cadets, a Pentagon task force is visiting the Colorado Springs campus this week to study the religious atmosphere and propose possible remedial steps." But the fired chaplain, Capt. MeLinda Morton has not been asked to brief the taskforce.

The Post continues that surveys of cadets and alumni, "have shown that some students said they felt a heavy and sometimes offensive emphasis on evangelical Christianity, with praise for cadets who pronounce their 'born-again' status and insults aimed at Jews, Roman Catholics and non-evangelical cadets.
One staff chaplain reportedly told newly arrived freshmen last summer that anyone not born again 'will burn in the fires of hell.'"

"'Such slurs have been heard for decades on the campus, according to Mikey Weinstein of Albuquerque, a 1977 academy graduate who said he has repeatedly complained to the Air Force brass about the 'religious pressure' on cadets. 'This is not Christian versus Jew,' Weinstein said. 'This is the evangelical Christians against everybody else.'"

"The Air Force's new attention to the issue stems from an earlier scandal at the school in which female cadets said commanding officers ignored or played down numerous cases of sexual assault by male students."

"As part of its response to the sexual assault charges, the academy asked a team from Yale Divinity School to visit the campus during the summer training for incoming freshmen."

"'We were asked to study the quality of cadet-centered pastoral care,'" said Yale Prof. Kristen Leslie. 'What we found was this very strong evangelical Christian voice just dominating. We thought that just didn't make sense in light of their mission, which was to protect and train cadets, not to win religious converts.'"

"Morton, who was executive officer of the squadron of 16 chaplains at the academy, said she shared the concerns expressed by the study group from Yale."

"'The evangelicals want to subvert the system,' Morton said. 'They have a very clear social and political agenda. The evangelical tone is pervasive at the academy, and it's aimed at converting these young people who are under intense pressure anyway.'"

This is what happens when church and state are merged. Government officials will use their positions to promote their religious and religiously informed political views; they will punish and purge those who disagree; and they will persecute those in the weakest position who do not go along. They feel justified in doing so, because they claim that their religious views require them to do so.

Similar justifications were made in years past to justify institutional racism and second class citizenship for African-Americans. Racial supremacy is no longer in fashion. But religious supremacism is on the rise -- promoted by the leaders of the Christian Right and their allies in Congress and the White House.

Let's keep the spotlight on the outrageous conduct of the religious supremacists at the Air Force Academy. Religious bigotry by agencies and senior officers of the federal government must be condemned in no uncertain terms, and a culture of religious equality maintained.

[Crossposted from FrederickClarkson.com]
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Friday, May 13, 2005

On the Value of Health Care

A very special thanks to Robert Parham for his article in Ethics Daily on Looking First Hand at America's Health Care Crisis.

Robert is undergoing treatment for leukemia and writes from his first-hand experience with the sticker shock associated with the astronomical costs of his health care and medicines.

America has been in a health care crisis for more than a decade. Too many of us have closed our eyes to the needs of brothers and sisters who have lost health insurance, have inadequate health insurance, or have never attained the elite status of being covered by health insurance.

I've talked about this issue with many moderate Baptist laity and deacons who are completely blind to this ever expanding problem. Most Baptist clergy, both moderate and fundamentalist, are very much aware of the problem but few feel convicted to speak out about it. In too many minds universal access to health care has become associated with "communist" or "socialist" ideals that have been derided as creating a "nanny" state. They are not much convicted to speak out against the stern-father "police" state that has been created since 9-11 either.

Perhaps Robert Parham and others like him will help some of us find our voice on this issue.
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Amway's Victims

I suspected that Amway was a pyramid scheme with a lot of hapless victims. Too many fundamentalist ministers that I knew were so heavily invested and so blindly committed to it that it was impossible for them to make objective judgments about it.

Now, thanks to Bill Berkowitz at the Working for Change website, I've got a statistic to quote for the success rate of Amway distributors. Here it is:

"99 percent of those recruited into Amway Quixtar motivational organizations lose money."

So who is making money? The article says a Dateline investigation confirmed that,

"The company is merely a front for a hidden pyramid business based on selling books, tapes, and registrations to seminars and rallies to new recruits, with nearly all participants losing money."

I encourage readers to scan Berkowtiz article and download the free book mentioned in the article.

(Note: This entry is cross-posted from the Mainstream Baptist blog)
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Thursday, May 12, 2005

Dissidents or Extremists?

When we lump together all political candidates and movements outside the "mainstream" as "extremists" of the left and right we are not only stifling a potentially valuable debate, but also using a theoretical model that has been seriously challenged in academia during the last 20 years. After World War II a number of scholars looked at the popular appeal of fascism and communism and concluded that mass movements threatened the stability of society. Shocked by the acquiescence of most Germans to the Nazi genocide of Jews and liquidation of other groups, these scholars saw warning signs in the Red Scare of the McCarthy Period, the Presidential campaign of ultraconservative Republican Barry Goldwater, Jr., and the Populist Party movement of the late 1800s. The scholars concluded that people swept along by social movements were psychologically-dysfunctional grumblers who couldn’t play by the rules of democracy, and instead turned to irrational behavior to make their voices heard. The idea that extremists of the left and right threatened society was a dominant frame in sociology and the other social sciences until the mid 1970s.

I was not a neutral observer. I joined the Civil Rights movement through my Presbyterian Church youth group while I was in high school in the mid 1960s. When I went to college it was clear that many young sociologists were unhappy with the idea that people who joined mass movements were psychologically dysfunctional extremists (or “wing nuts”) on the fringes of the political system. Many of us had joined these movements. An increasing number of sociologists became participant-observers of various left-wing social movements that cascaded out of the civil rights struggle: student rights, the movement against the war in Vietnam, women’s rights, the ecology movement, farm worker rights, gay rights. In part because more academics were actively involved in these movements of dissent, a new set of social movement theories emerged in sociology that looked at participants in social movements as intelligent and rational people with shared grievances. As dissident activists they sought social change through demonstrations, sit-ins, and other forms of mass organizing outside the boundaries of typical electoral or legislative campaigns.

Eventually I dropped out of college to be a full-time left-wing social movement participant, and spent time as a journalist in the underground/alternative media of the 1970s. I am still a progressive political activist, and it is still my job to convince you that my ideological goals are worthwhile and my policies would benefit the common good, but if I do that by unfairly labeling my opponents using stereotypes, demonization, or scapegoating, then I am cheating. These techniques are toxic to a democratic process.

As I became a serious analyst of right-wing social and political movements, I returned to scholarly analysis using sociology and social movement theory. While most of the groups and movements originally studied using this scholarly lens were on the political left, an increasing number of scholars used this lens to look at the political right. Among the early authors who studied the political right using social movement theories were Sara Diamond, Kathleen Blee, Jerome Himmelstein, and Rebecca Klatch. Now there are scores serious books on right-wing movements such as Rick Perlstein’s excellent book on the Goldwater campaign or Lisa McGirr’s illuminating study of the suburban roots of the New Right.

The picture of social movements that has emerged is complex. There are a wide range of ideologies and methodologies. Skillful leaders mobilize resources, test the political opportunities opened and closed by the state, frame ideas in ways that resonate with broader populations, and develop cultures that support and energize participants. At the same time, movement participants often ignore the proclamations of their leaders and pick and choose among various policy positions. Some movements institutionalize themselves with social movement organizations such as national headquarters, think tanks, and alternative media. Other movements never sink institutional roots and are like whirlwinds that appear suddenly in a burst of energy and dissipate leaving only memories and debris.

A central question we must ask when we look at any dissident social movement is whether it is ultimately reformist or revolutionary. We need to recognize that the First Amendment protects calls for revolution that are rhetorical and not part of an active conspiracy to overthrow the government. And we need to understand that populist reform-oriented dissident movements on the left and right are situated between revolutionary groups and mainstream electoral political movements. These are important concepts for ensuring respect for civil liberties.

All too often government agencies decide that the way to find terrorists or other protestors engaged in criminal acts is to send swarms of infiltrators and agents into dissident mass movements. This is a bad idea no matter whether the target is on the left or right. It chills free speech and disrupts constitutionally protected political activity. Labeling all dissidents as "extremists" can lead citizens into ignoring abuses of government power. Even the label "terrorist" has been overused. Vandalism is not terrorism. Non-violent civil disobedience is not terrorism. Today, if a follower of the non-violent methods used by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. chose to highlight a call for political reform by kneeling down to pray in the crosswalk of a busy intersection in Washington, D.C., they would fit one definition of terrorism circulated by the Justice Department.

Spin-doctors and political strategists use the term "extremism" as a hyperbolic rhetorical frame of reference to demonize their opposition by sticking labels on them. This shrill strategy shifts political debate away from a candidate's policies, plans, goals and vision of the future—ideas that could help form the basis of informed consent for a voter in a democratic society. It also marginalizes the type of populist political dissent and creative opposition to the status quo that makes a society flexible enough to meet the challenges the future always delivers. It is time to rehabilitate dissent and reject labels that demonize dissenters and unfairly lump together all social and political movements outside the current—and temporary—political center.

Adapted from Yale Politic magazine, February 2005.

Ported from Chip Berlet's Blog
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Politicizing Church Discipline

Al Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Seminary, has been cozying up to politicians for so long that he is now confusing church discipline with political party discipline. In an article entitled "Should a church discipline members over politics?" Mohler says,

The right form of the church requires a common commitment to certain shared convictions. These commitments are irreducibly theological, but come with inevitable political consequences. Until recently, our domestic political debates have failed to reach a point of crisis with regard to these consequences, but crisis cannot be rejected as a possibility. In such cases, the church must maintain its witness and convictional commitments. A church should exercise discipline against a member who, while claiming to be a Christian, would vote for Adolf Hitler -- or David Duke.

It has long been a practice of political parties to discipline its members over how they vote. Until the recent sad events at East Waynesville Baptist Church, to my knowledge, it has never been the practice of Baptist churches to discipline members over how they vote.That is the chief reason why when Baptists send representatives to associational, state and national conventions we call them "messengers" and not "delegates." Historically, Baptists have strongly advocated and respected the right of persons to vote in accord with their own conscience.

Frankly, it is not out of the realm of possibility that some members of the church that I pastored in Houston did vote for David Duke during a presidential primary. While I strongly disagree with the way they voted, they are not accountable to me or their church for the way they cast their ballot.

For people living in a democratic society, the voting booth is sacred space. Each person must examine his or her own conscience and give an account to God alone for the way they cast their ballot.

If Mohler and others on the Religious Right would ever learn to recognize that, in a democracy, the right to vote is a sacred duty and a solemn responsibility, then both major political parties would surely be united in demanding that every citizen have equal access to the ballot box, that every vote be counted, and that every ballot be tabulated by accurate and publicly verifiable means.

It's the democracy part that hangs them up. Their theocratic impulses blind them to the link between the inalienable rights of conscience and the sacredness of the ballot box.

(This blog is cross-posted from the Mainstream Baptist blog.)
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Rise to the Occasion

The level of conversation in the media is rising regarding the Christian Right. One good example was a recent interview, on the nationally syndicated radio program, Democracy Now! with Amy Goodman, titled The Christian Right and the Rising Power of the Evangelical Political Movement. The program featured an interview with journalist Chris Hedges and Rev. Joseph Phelps, of Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, who hosted a counter event to the Christian Right's rally for religious bigotry, Justice Sunday.

Here is some of what was said:

Phelps: "...it's obvious that they're trying to get out a very clear message. And the message, it seems to me, is a message of domination. Of trying to conflate the Bible and the Constitution and create a whole new entity, which many of us fear would be a form of religious right theocracy."

Hedges: "Christian America... this is an America where people like you and me have no place. And you don't have to take my word for it, turn on Christian broadcasting, listen to Christian radio. Listen to what they say about people like us....""....It's not a matter that we have an opinion they disagree with. It's not a matter of them de-legitimizing us, which they are. It's a matter of them demonizing us, of talking us -- describing us as militant secular humanists, moral relativists, both of which terms I would not use to describe myself, as a kind of counter-militant ideology that is anti-Christian and that essentially propelled by Satan that they must destroy."

Phelps: "Well, in their system, women -- they will talk a game about women having, you know, an equal role, but it's a silent role. It's a silent role. They can't speak in Church. They can't teach any children over then about the age of 10. So, that's part of the problem here is they're unwilling to talk. They're unwilling to talk with their own women. They're unwilling to talk with the fellow Baptists like me, like you. I have tried to enter into dialogue for years with Dr. [Albert] Mohler, [President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary] with others in our city. They're not interested in dialogue, because, in their construct, they have the answer."

Phelps raises an important point. There is much talk about the need for dialog. And dialog can be a good thing. But what about those who are not interested in dialog? What about those who are interested in power and domination? It is certainly important to dialog with those whom we can -- but we must also to rise to the occasion and counter the drive for power by the theocratic Christian Right which has been in high gear for about 15 years.

Thanks to Jesus Politicsfor calling attention to this program.

[Crossposted from FrederickClarkson.com]
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Wednesday, May 11, 2005

George Washington Slapped Here

President George Washington seemingly saw it coming, and took a preemptive slap at evangelists who would try to hijack the National Day of Prayer and Thanksgiving for their particular brand of religion.

“The National Day of Prayer goes back to the Continental Congress with George Washington, when he set aside a day of prayer," evangelist Franklin Graham stated on a recent broadcast of Fox News Channel's "Hannity and Colmes,” in a story reported on May 10, 2005 by Allie Martin of Agape Press. "So this goes back to the very beginning and the foundations of this nation."

Graham was right about that. But he slipped when he implied that our country’s founders, including President Washington, intended America’s first national day of prayer to be limited to folks of any particular religious sect or creed. Graham broadly suggested that the day was for people of the “Judeo-Christian tradition,” especially Evangelicals.

In fact, President George Washington used his first proclamation of a national day of prayer and thanksgiving to take a preemptive slap at anyone who might try to hijack the holiday for their own sectarian purposes.

When President George Washington proclaimed America’s first national Thanksgiving Day in 1789, he recommended that the primary blessing for which the people of the United States ought to express gratitude is the peaceful establishment of a federal government that promotes “safety and happiness” by respecting everyone’s “civil and religious liberty.” Washington explained that we ought to be thankful, first and foremost, for being a nation of laws governed by a constitution which establishes no state religion, but respects the right of all to worship and pray as they choose.

Specifically, Washington gave thanks “for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted, for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge.” Our nation’s first president also stated that people ought to use this first national day of prayer and thanksgiving to supplicate God “to render our national government a blessing to all the People, by constantly being a government of wise, just and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed.”

So, according to President Washington’s first Thanksgiving Proclamation, which he signed in New York City on October 3, 1789, the United States isn’t intended to be a nation ruled by any one religious sect’s narrow interpretation of the Bible, but by “a government of wise, just and constitutional laws.” And, according to Washington, the National Day of Prayer is an open invitation for everyone, not just people of any favored sect or creed, to give thanks for civil and religious liberties which are guaranteed by our national constitution. For that great American tradition, we can all truly be thankful. -- Jonathan Hutson
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Franklin Graham Against Interfaith Prayer

Agape Press reports that Franklin Graham has weighed in against our Interfaith Days of Prayer (here and here).

Like Dobson and most other leaders of the Religious Right who wrongly proclaim that the U.S. is a "Christian Nation," they only want liberty for their own brand of religion.
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Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Religious Equality in America

How to deal with the matter of religion and public life was one of the central questions facing the framers of the Constitution as they invented a new nation. For 150 years, the colonies had, for the most part, been little theocracies, run by different established churches. The framers knew well the problems posed by religious supremacism, although they certainly did not call it that in those days. They understood what can happen when religions wield state power. And they knew that in order to bind together the potentially fractious new nation they needed to inoculate it against the ravages of religious bigotry and worse -- the religious warfare that had wracked Europe for a millennium.

What did they do? Well, in the first place they made no mention of God in the Constitution. What they did do was to put in, Article 6, a key phrase - "...no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States." (Cornell University historian Issack Kramnick details the history of Article 6 in his book The Godless Constitution.)

[ Note : I posted an essay today at the Rockridge Institute's online conference Spiritual Progressives: A Dialogue on Values and Building a Movement. Discussions today focus on such matters as religion and politics and separation of church and state. The conference is ongoing, May 9th-May 20th. Here is my contribution. (I have written about this on my web site and in my book Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy.) ]

What this [ Article 6 ] meant was that for the first time in the history of the world, religious orientation would not be a consideration as to one's qualifications for office. By logical extension, this also meant that one's religious identity would be irrelevant to one's status as a citizen. This clause, set in motion the disestablishment of the churches, by making religious equality the law of the land. It was a radical idea, and it passed overwhelmingly and with little debate. When the Constitution was sent to the state legislatures for ratification, the absence of mention of God and Christianity in the Constitution led the the Christian Right of the day to fight ratification. They lost.

While it was deeply significant that Catholics, atheists, Quakers, and Jews would enjoy equal status as citizens in the United States along with Protestants of various sorts, they key was that people had the right to believe differently. Religious freedom, as we think of it now, is the right of individual conscience. In terms of our role as citizens this is perhaps best framed as religious equality. I believe that when we are grounded in this history and are able to articulate this history and its contemporary meaning, progressives will own the moral and political high ground in the public debate with the theocratic Christian Right.

The First Amendment built on and clarified the implications of Article 6. But what Article 6 did was to establish the right to believe and to think differently without having to answer to a state sponsored religious orthodoxy. The right to believe and therefore to think differently, is a necessary prerequisite for speaking freely and worshipping freely. It is this right to believe differently that is the foundation for every advance in civil and human rights in our history.

It is also the historical fact of our right to believe differently as enshrined in Article 6 that unravels the false claim that the U.S. was founded as a "Christian nation." Indeed, it was Christians, members of established churches, who wrote the Constitution and who ratified it in the state legislatures. In that sense it was Christian political leaders who believed so deeply in the need for religious equality that they disestablished their own churches.

If religious equality is to survive in our time, I believe it is necessary for us to reclaim our history and stand up to the historical revisionism of today's theocratic Christian Right.

-- Frederick Clarkson
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Monday, May 09, 2005

Thou Shalt Not Follow the Crowd

Conserving minority rights as a bulwark against the tyranny of the majority is not just a great American tradition; it’s also a scriptural principle for people of faith to consider when the topic of judicial filibusters comes up.

The U.S. Senate filibuster wasn't designed as a tool for or against people of faith; it's designed to conserve minority rights. And scriptures have something to say about the importance of respecting minority rights in judicial matters.

Senator Chuck Hagel (R-Nebraska) appealed to his colleagues’ sense of fairness on May 8, 2005 when he stated on ABC’s “This Week With George Stephanapoulos” that “you can't give up a minority rights tool” such as the ability of senators to filibuster controversial judicial nominees. Instead, Mr. Hagel pointed to the possibility of a compromise. “You've got 100 United States senators,” he stated. “Some of us might be moderately intelligent enough to figure this out. We would, I think, debase our system and fail our country if we don't do this.”

Mr. Hagel offers one fine example of a conservative political leader defending a system that respects minority rights. But for conservative Christians who may believe that respecting the right of a Senate minority to filibuster against a handful of controversial judicial nominees is somehow “against people of faith,” is there any scriptural teaching which might offer fresh perspective?

Although the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament don’t contemplate U.S. Senate filibusters (and, for that matter, the scriptures don’t claim to lay out for us a manual on how to set up modern governments and court systems), there are passages concerning the virtue of heeding the minority and the dangers of simply pleasing the majority.

Exodus Chapter 23, which describes principles of fairness and mercy in ancient Israel, warns against simply caving in to the majority in judicial matters. “Do not follow the crowd in doing wrong. When you give testimony in a lawsuit, do not pervert justice by siding with the crowd, and do not show favoritism to a poor man in his lawsuit.” (Exodus 23:2-3).

And on the other hand, the passage continues, “Do not deny justice to your poor people in their lawsuits.” (Exodus 23:6) In other words, don’t show favoritism to anyone simply because she is poor or popular, but don’t prevent ordinary folks from getting their day in court either. Be impartial, and don’t play to the crowds.

Further, don’t create a biased court system where the rich could gain undue influence or buy their way out of trouble. “Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds those who see and twists the words of the righteous.” (Exodus 23:8) Bribery and other forms of public corruption make it impossible for ordinary folks to get a fair forum to have their righteous claims heard.

Like the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament also warns against following the will of the majority in judicial matters.

After all, who was Pontius Pilate playing to when he sat in the judge’s seat and considered Jesus’ civil rights? Pilate, you recall, bowed to the will of the majority and to certain religious leaders of his day when he “took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd.” (Matthew 27:24)

Following the will of the majority – even if the crowd is backed by certain religious leaders with their own political agendas – is not necessarily following the will of God.

So what is a theologically consistent position in judicial matters? “Follow justice and justice alone.” (Deuteronomy 16:20)

Is God on the side of the majority political party? Not necessarily; neither the Hebrew Bible nor the New Testament make that claim. Is God on the side of a few outspoken religious leaders of the day? Again, not necessarily.

But scriptures do point to one reliable path toward God. God is always on the side of justice. Those who seek God will find God on the side of justice for the poor, for people wrongly sentenced to death (Exodus 23:7), for foreigners and immigrants (Exodus 23:9), for widows and orphans, and for whoever else comprises the neglected, the despised, and the downtrodden minority of our day.

So instead of seeking God in political polls or party caucuses, and instead of claiming that God endorses any particular partisan viewpoint, let’s seek justice and justice alone. Let’s seek justice for all people without fear or favor, let’s hold the rich and powerful accountable, and let’s have the courage sometimes to stand up to the crowd for the sake of principle. And then we will be blessed, as the words inscribed above the west entrance of the U.S. Supreme Court Building promise, with "Equal Justice Under Law."

Respect for minority rights in judicial matters is not only an important American tradition; it wisely conserves a virtue taught in scriptures.
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PR, Murder, and Constitutional Democracy

During the recent drama surrounding the life and death of Terri Schiavo, it was striking the way that some of the most militant leaders of the antiabortion movement, notably Randall Terry and Fr. Frank Pavone became close advisors of Schiavo's parents, the Schindlers. What the Schindlers may not have known, is that another man whose counsel they accepted, had also been a media advisor to Paul Hill -- a man who advocated the murder of abortion doctors. (This fact was, however, undoubtedly well known to Pavone and Terry.)

Columnist Bill Berkowitz reports that Gary McCullough who is a public relations consultant for Christian Right and antiabortion groups, also served as one of the spokesmen for the Schindlers.

As I reported in my book Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy, McCullough served as a media advisor to Paul Hill in the early 1990s, when Hill's group "Defensive Action," was arguing that killing abortion providers was "justifiable homicide."

Hill himself went on to murder a doctor and his escort. He was executed by the state of Florida for his crimes.

But that was not the only relationship McCullough has had with the violent wing of the antiabortion movement. McCullough and his Washington, DC-based Christian Communication Network have also served as a liaison and a funding conduit for Prisoners of Christ, a support group for antiabortion activists who been convicted of such crimes as murder, arson, and kidnapping. Some of the convicts were members of the violent, antiabortion Army of God.

Here is part of what I reported about this in Salon.com in January 7, 2002. At the time, I was looking into the relationship between Prisoners of Christ and the Christian Right long distance telephone service, LifeLine. The parent company is called AmeriVision.

"AmeriVision says it has donated over $50 million to its "partners" in the 10 years of its existence. One of those partners is Prisoners of Christ -- whose address is a private postal box four blocks from the White House. This reporter called LifeLine in December as a prospective customer and was told that LifeLine had cut checks averaging between $40 and $50 a month to Prisoners of Christ since May of 1996, and that the money flows to a Washington D.C. public relations group called Christian Communication Network headed by Gary McCullough -- the longtime principal of Prisoners of Christ. (McCullough's group maintains a web link to the Prisoners of Christ site.) When Salon called McCullough for comment about the LifeLine connection, he said, "We are a small potato in that pie and I prefer not to comment," then hung up. When Salon contacted LifeLine again for an official response, we were told that under the privacy rules set forth by the Federal Communications Commission, they "cannot give out customer or donor information."

(If you are not a Salon.com subscriber, to view the whole article, you will need to get a "day pass" and then search for my article, "Our Own Terror Cells." Obtaining a day pass simply means watching a short advertisement.

McCullough's web site no longer mentions Prisoners of Christ, however the web archive "Wayback Machine" shows (at the bottom of the page) the link to Prisoners of Christ in October 2001, for anyone who would like to see for themselves.

Since my report on Salon, the Prisoners of Christ list as it was then, is no more. (Domestic terrorists and their apologists have gone out of fashion since 9/11.) However, a similar list of violent offenders is still maintained by the Army of God.

McCullough's Christian Comunication Network continues to operate as a Washington, DC-based PR and consulting firm.

Meanwhile, the issue of how best to describe the various elements of the Christian Right has become an issue, and the role of Paul Hill and a number of antiabortion militants epitomizes the matter. For example, the label "extremist" is widely, loosely and often inaccurately applied to various individuals and sectors of the Christian Right. However, if the term applies to anyone, it ought to apply to Paul Hill and the members of the Army of God, who are truly extremists -- people who have taken extreme action to further their arguably extreme political and religious goals.

But Chip Berlet, writing below, discusses how problematic the use of the words "extremist" and "extremism" can be.

"Ultimately, the concept of 'extremism' is of little value in studying prejudice and ethnoviolence," he writes. "Sociologist Jerome Himmelstein argues the term 'extremism' is at best a characterization that 'tells us nothing substantive about the people it labels,' and at worst the term 'paints a false picture.' Often, analysts use the term 'extremism' in a way that implies that ideas and methodologies are always linked. This is not the case."

Berlet goes on to note that "people and groups that promote supremacy, prejudice, discrimination, bigotry, and hate..." are also sometimes "people and groups that use intimidation and violence against a targeted group or individual based on their perceived identity." Using this kind of language, he says, "teaches people to see the dynamics of societal oppression..." which he sees as vital to comabatting these oppressions.

However, he notes that when we resort to labels like "extremist" we are then allowing people to be dismissive of "ethnoviolence as caused by not-like-us 'extremists' from hate groups." And if Himmselstein is correct, we are obscuring more than we are revealing about those whom we label as extremists. I believe that this kind of one-size-fits all approach to political language is reductionist. It fails to help us distinguis between fact and propaganda, insight and characterization, description and smear job.

Paul Hill and many others in theocratic Christian Right are religious supremacists. They have targeted those who disagree with them, with "intimidation and violence." We don't need empty characterizations like the term "radical religious extremist" (invented by a PR firm to characterize a wide swath of the Christian Right and hate groups) to describe the views and actions of Paul Hill and other antiabortion militants -- whose activites comprise a continuum of organized intimidation.

But it is also important to note that many of the people whom McCullough has represented are overt or covert theocrats -- as committed to the overthrow of constitutional democracy as we know it, as they are to ending the constitutional right to abortion (as I detail in Eternal Hostility.)

It has been my experience over the past ten or fifteen years, that it has been difficult to talk with people about the wider problems of the theocratic Christian Right, because the conversation too often bogs down on what to call "them." But I think that it is far more important that whatever words we use, that we know what they mean, and use them well.

[Crossposted from FrederickClarkson.com]
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Sunday, May 08, 2005

That word: "Extremism"

The rhetoric used by some sincere and well-meaning human relations groups—"extremists of the left and right," "religious political extremists," "radical religious right," etc. — can actually unintentionally undermine civil liberties, civil rights, and civil discourse by demonizing dissent and veiling the complicity we all share in institutionalized forms of oppression in our society: racism, sexism, heterosexism, antisemitism, Arabophobia, and Islamophobia.

In the 1960s the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. at first bristled at being labeled an "extremist" by a group of clergy upset with his brand of activism. King's response was contained in his "Letter From Birmingham Jail." King wrote that he considered the label, and then realized that in their respective days, the Biblical Amos, Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas Jefferson had all been thought of as extremists by mainstream society. King responded, "So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice—or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?"

Two issues are raised by King’s clever reversal of the attack on him as an "extremist." First is that the term "extremist" has only relative meaning in terms of how far outside the "mainstream" norms of society a particular idea or act is located by some observer who claims a "centrist" position. Second, King suggests it is important to determine whether any non-normative idea or action defends or extends justice, equality, or democracy—or whether it defends or extends unfair power or privilege.

Ultimately, the concept of "extremism" is of little value in studying prejudice and ethnoviolence. Sociologist Jerome Himmelstein argues the term "extremism" is at best a characterization that "tells us nothing substantive about the people it labels," and at worst the term "paints a false picture." Often, analysts use the term "extremism" in a way that implies that ideas and methodologies are always linked. This is not the case. We need to separate ideology from methodology. King’s ideas may have been outside the mainstream for his day, but he promoted non-violence; and while civil disobedience often involves a minor criminal act, it is not the same as an act of terrorism. Given the way the term "extremist" is sometimes used, it can serve as a justification for state action that is repressive and undermines Constitutional guarantees. We need to use terms that are more precise.

We are studying people and groups that promote supremacy, prejudice, discrimination, bigotry, and hate. We are studying people and groups that use intimidation and violence against a targeted group or individual based on their perceived identity. This language teaches people to see the dynamics of societal oppression, rather than allowing them to dismiss acts of ethnoviolence as caused by not-like-us "extremists" from hate groups.

Calling the Christian Right "extremists" tends to lump them together with members of organized hate groups. That's a real problem, especially since most people in the Christian Right would willingly join in a coalitions to confront racist and antisemitic hate groups.

One of the reasons the term "religious political extremists" was picked, was that liberals tended to think the term covered everyone from conservative Christian evangelicals to armed neonazi terrorists. That's just plain wrong. it's time to stop using this type of language.

Adapted from Chip Berlet, (2004), "Mapping the Political Right: Gender and Race Oppression in Right-Wing Movements." In Abby Ferber, ed, Home-Grown Hate: Gender and Organized Racism. New York: Routledge.

Ported from Chip Berlet's Blog
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Saturday, May 07, 2005

Sometimes the best compliments...

Come from those who oppose you:
conservatives said their political activism merely expresses their rights as citizens to advocate, vote and participate in government – the same rights liberals and secularists exercise.

Theocracy labeling is "a very subtle attempt to smear evangelical Christians with what we see happening in the Mideast," said Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council.

Tom Minnery, public policy vice president with Focus on the Family, called the charge "ludicrous." He said the conference indicates the left "is vaporizing in a hysteria of ignorance and vindictiveness. We’ve never seen anything like it."

I found the article to be heavy-handed and none-too-balanced, like most of Ostling's stuff. But I'll leave the evaluations to those who actually attended the conference.

At the moment, I need to send a letter to the religion editor at my local paper, letting her know what's come out of this.
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Friday, May 06, 2005

Stop Labeling and Start Organizing!

More than a decade ago I sat in a conference room in Washington D.C. and was told I had to start using the phrase "religious political extremist." This was the new way for people on the political left to frame our opponents on the political right. It made me unhappy. I already had problems with language such as "radical religious right," "lunatic fringe," and "wing-nut." This new phrase just seemed wrong to me.

I'm uncomfortable when I hear people of sincere religious faith described as religious political extremists. What does that term mean? I worry that many people hear it as a term of derision that says we're good and they're bad. There is no topical content. It's a label that says folks are outside the mainstream; and it lumps together leaders and followers, and blurs distinctions within the Christian Right that I think are important. Most conservative Christian evangelicals do not want to impose a theocracy on our country. I'd like to be able to talk to them about the issue of Christian dominionism within the Christian Right.

Polls show that most people in the United States do not agree with the narrow legislative agenda of the leaders of the Christian Right. Polls also show that most people think of themselves as part of an organized religion, and that as many as 100 million of our neighbors think of themselves as Christian evangelicals or "born again." Why would an organizer start out by offending half their potential audience with language that is abrasive?

We need to challenge conservative policies as part of a progressive grassroots organizing effort based on civil and constructive dialog. The whole idea of grassroots organizing is to reach out to people who may not already think they agree with you. As a community organizer, when I heard discussions about slogans, I always asked: "What’s my next line?"

Let's role-play. So here I am knocking on a door in Emporia, Kansas, and when the door opens I lead with "We have to stop the religious political extremists!" What’s my next line? (That's assuming my nose wasn't broken when the door was slammed in my face). Unless the person already agrees with me, there is no constructive next line.

I think it's time to stop using phrases such as "religious political extremist" and "radical religious right." A lot of my friends and allies use this language, but what are friends for if they can't tell you when they think you are wrong? I also think that we should be asking folks in the Christian Right to stop pasting labels on those of us who are liberal or progressive. I’m an equal opportunity curmudgeon.

Over the next few days I will be expanding my arguments for this position.

Ported from Chip Berlet's Blog
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