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Taking on the Christian Right
L ess than a week after religious conservatives held “Justice Sunday: Stopping the Filibuster Against People of Faith,” a nationally televised rally featuring Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist in Louisville, Kentucky, more than 500 activists, academics, clergy, journalists and other concerned individuals gathered in New York for a conference called “Examining the Real Agenda of the Religious Far Right.”
From April 29-30, presenters offered insights into the rise of the Christian far right. The event was the concept of Ralph S. White, director of institutes at the New York Open Center, sparked by a television program he saw in which a commentator lamented the media’s failure to understand dominionism and reconstructionism within the Christian far right and its relationship to the Republican Party.
the conference, participants stressed the need to take the far right
very seriously. The current battle over federal court nominees,
Chip Berlet of Political Research Associates said in an interview
prior to the conference, “will seem like mild-mannered, civil
discourse” when a Supreme Court justice retires. The religious
right, he said, “started planning to take over the Republican
Party 30 years ago. They’re ready. They’re wound up. This
is it. If they get to appoint Supreme Court justices, they can control
the direction of a lot of policy for the next 20 years.”
Frederick Clarkson, an independent journalist, explained in his presentation that during his 1991 undercover investigation of the Christian Coalition he observed that the group had decided to become a “values-based electoral organization, working within the Republican Party, but not of the party.” They began “building for power,” working across election cycles, becoming organized about organizing and thinking long-term. “Nobody else does this,” he argued.
To combat these trends, Clarkson urged progressives to reclaim not only faith, but history and citizenship as well. Far right Christian leaders often claim that the United States was founded as a Christian nation and that liberals and their “activist” judges thwart the will of the founding fathers to allow things like abortion and same-sex marriage. Not so, says Clarkson. When the framers of the Constitution gathered, they were faced with the challenge of creating a nation out of 13 christian theocracies, each with its own denomination and others outlawed. To do so they made the decision to separate church and state, and declared that there would be “no religious test for public office.” This outraged many religious leaders. In Clarkson’s words, “The Christian right didn’t like the Constitution when it was written and they don’t like it now.”
“The most mobilized force in our democracy is dedicated to ending it. If we don’t know how to elect officials, we are ceding the turf to those who do.… The scariest thing is not the agenda of the christian right; the scariest thing is that we have to change,” he concluded.
Though many conference speakers denounced the right’s claim to represent all people of faith, several identified the perceived disdain for religion on the part of much of the left as a significant obstacle in organizing against the right’s march toward dominion. Berlet insisted on the importance of not labelling and lumping together all religious people. He chided the left for using inflammatory terms like “religious political extremists” that don’t really mean anything and alienate a lot of religious people.
The term dominionism, he explained, “gets away from the kind of labelling that tends to treat Christian conservatives like they’re either stupid or crazy. I don’t think they’re either. They’re very well organized. Dominion is what they want. It’s what most political movements want. But in the sense of biblical passages, it’s related to the text in Genesis, which they understand to mean that they should get to run things.”
In order to reach the religious people in the U.S. who hold relatively progressive social values, Berlet argued, the secular left must think about what attracts people to religion and what they get from it, which includes things like community that the left advocates as well. Progressives must also take the right’s demands and concerns seriously and confront them head-on, Berlet urged, directly challenging their policies on things like health care and poverty and the morality of their outcomes.
According to Union Theological Seminary President Joseph C. Hough, the coordination between the religious and political right has resulted in a union between Christian triumphalism and exclusivism and an abdication of care for the least fortunate and a denial of the “obligation to the poor.” During the course of the conference, this contradiction emerged as a possible opportunity to draw socially-concerned people of faith away from the pro-corporate-dominated religious right.
Jeff Sharlet, who spent several months living undercover with the secretive religious organization known as the Family and wrote about it for Harper ’ s Magazine , further illuminated the appeal and modus operandi of far right religious groups. He emphasized the importance of understanding personal motivations behind political actions and argued that a compelling use of language and narrative and the cultivation of a sense of intimacy are instrumental in drawing people toward groups like the Family. Members frequently use the word “just,” explained Sharlet, conferring not only a sense of righteousness, but also modestness upon personal ambitions. He also explained how the Family’s credo of “Jesus, plus nothing” sanctions everything, promoting not simply a literal interpretation of the Bible, but also a reductionism that validates any personal cause and dispels any self-doubt or criticism. This cultivates a kind of empowering “mood” based on a sense of “spiritual war” between Family members and the world.
The concluding panel discussion titled “Where Do We Go From Here?” reflected a deep ambivalence toward religion, as well as the left’s pervasive general confusion, following the 2004 election, over strategy, tactics, and direction. While some speakers called for a mass occupation of Washington, DC if the Senate should do away with the filibuster, others stressed the need to engage in smaller efforts to find ways to dialogue with religious middle America. Berlet urged the audience to “reach out to neighbors and family in a heartfelt and aggressive way.”
One audience member asked what unifying element the left could harness to match the right’s unifying patriarchal hierarchy. NYU Professor and The Bush Dyslexicon author Mark Crispin Miller called for a revival of the “sense of the common good” that has become so denigrated by the twin assault from the Christian and capitalist right wing. Some participants hinted that its multiplicity of tactics and loose-knit affiliations are the left’s strengths and that coordination among them is still possible.
Crispin Miller acknowledged that it’s going to require a lot of hard work and a “recommitment to democracy,” but he insisted, “If you believe in it, you can win.”
To that end, Berlet, Clarkson, and others have created a website to foster community and alliances among those concerned about the increasing power of the Christian right (www.talk2action.org).
The conference’s one significant weakness was that among the dozen presenters, there was not a single person of color. (The audience was almost entirely white as well.) Though one might argue that the subject of the conference, the Christian far right, is by and large white, it seemed odd to be discussing religion in America in terms of social justice organizing without any representative from a black church, though several of the presenters were involved in the civil rights movement.
Furthermore, with black evangelical minister Rev. Ken Hutch- erson claiming credit for Micro- soft’s backpedaling on its support for a key gay civil rights bill in the Washington State legislature that same week (the software mega- corporation later recanted, following the uproar from employees and gay rights groups, though after the bill had failed by one vote), and Justice Sunday, also including an African-American minister, it would seem critical that voices from all progressive religious constituencies be included in the conversation.
When asked about this, Ralph White attributed it to the fact that the conference was organized very quickly over the Internet. He sought out people who had written specifically about dominionism and reconstructionism. He also said he had turned down numerous interested potential participants, and would love to do similar events with different lineups of speakers around the country.
Susan Chenelle is a writer and editor based in New York and New Jersey. A shorter version of this ar ticle appeared in the Indypendent .
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