Tuesday, December 27, 2005
Putting the Christian Right in its proper place in the political spectrum as a component of the broader U.S. Political Right is an important step in developing an effective response. This also allows us to evaluate the threat posed by domininionist and theocratic tendencies in the Christian Right. Some people see this better when presented in outline of chart form, so this entry in the series is constructed along those lines.
The Christian Right is a series of social movements with participants that have been mobilized into political participation through the Republican Party as part of a larger set of coalitions that include social conservatives, moral traditionalists, neoconservatives, militarists, etc. The Republican Party and the Christian Right, however, represent just a portion of the entire spectrum of the U.S. Political Right, so we provide a full chart of these sectors below.
The Christian Right plays multiple roles in the political system: as a social movement made up of people with shared grievances; a political movement with a specific set of electoral and legislation goals on the federal and state level; and a coalition partner in conservative politics.
Christian Right: Multiple Roles in Political System
• Social Movement
• Political Movement
• Coalition Partner
The Christian Right itself is made up of different sectors that exist in a coalition that may seem monolithic, but which actually has fracture points where wedge issues can be developed as part of an effective counter-strategy.
Christian Right: Multiple Internal Sectors
• Christian Conservatives
• Christian Nationalists
• Christian Theocrats
Within the Christian Right, it is primarily the Christian Nationalists and Christian Theocrats who pursue a type of dominionism that has theocratic aspects. The degree of dominionist authoritarianism varies by sector. Christian Reconstructionism is the major theopolitical ideology behind Hard Dominionism, but it is a subset of it. So there are nested subsets.
All Hard Dominionist Christian Theocrats are also Soft Dominionist Christian Nationalists, but not all Soft Dominionist Christian Nationalists are Hard Dominionist Christian Theocrats. All Christian Reconstructionists are Hard Dominionist Christian Theocrats and Christian Nationalists, but not all Hard Dominionist Christian Theocrats are Christian Reconstructionists. Whew!
Degree of dominionist authoritarianism:
• Soft Dominionist – Christian Nationalists
• Hard Dominionist – Christian Theocrats
• Christian Reconstructionist
Dominionists of all varieties can also have a complicated mix of attributes. These include thetheology and style of religious practice; and the view of biblical End Times prophecy.
Theology and style of religious practice:
• Mainstream Protestant denominations (Methodist, Episcopal, Lutheran)
View of biblical End Times prophecy:
The Christian Right is just one of several sectors that comprise the Political Right in the United States. The chart below shows where it fits, dividing the Christian Right into hard and soft dominionists. Christian Conservatives are the bridge between the Secular Right and the Dominionists and Theocrats, but it is a weak bridge. Christian Conservatives are listed in the Chart below as part of the Religious Right.
SECTORS OF THE POLITICAL RIGHT IN THE UNITED STATES:
• Corporate Internationalists–Nations should control the flow of people across borders, but not the flow of goods, capital, and profit. Sometimes called the “Rockefeller Republicans.” Globalists.
• Business Nationalists–Multinational corporations erode national sovereignty; nations should enforce borders for people, but also for goods, capital, and profit through trade restrictions. Enlists grassroots allies from Patriot Movement. Anti-Globalists. Generally protectionist and isolationist.
• Economic Libertarians–The state disrupts the perfect harmony of the free market system. Modern democracy is essentially congruent with capitalism.
• National Security Militarists–Support US military supremacy and unilateral use of force to protect perceived US national security interests around the world. A major component of Cold War anti-communism.
• Neoconservatives–The egalitarian social liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s undermined the national consensus. Intellectual oligarchies and political institutions preserve democracy from mob rule. The United States has the right to intervene in its perceived interests anywhere in the world.
• Religious Conservatives Play by the rules of a pluralist democratic republic. Overwhelmingly Christian, with a handful of conservative Jews and Muslims and other people of faith. Moral traditionalists. Cultural and social conservatives.
• Christian Nationalism (Soft Dominionists)–Biblically-defined immorality and sin breed chaos and anarchy. America’s greatness as God’s chosen land has been undermined by liberal secular humanists, feminists, and homosexuals. Purists want litmus tests for issues of abortion, tolerance of gays and lesbians, and prayer in schools. Overlaps somewhat with Christian theocracy.
• Christian Theocracy (Hard Dominionists)–Christian men are ordained by God to run society. Eurocentric version of Christianity based on early Calvinism. Intrinsically Christian ethnocentric, treating non-Christians as second-class citizens. Implicitly antisemitic. Includes Christian Reconstructionists.
• Patriot Movement (Regressive Populists)–Secret elites control the government and banks. The government plans repression to enforce elite rule or global collectivism. The armed militias are one submovement from this sector. Americanist. Often supports Business Nationalism due to its isolationist emphasis. Anti-Globalist, yet support unilateralist national security militarism. Repressive towards scapegoated targets below them on socio-economic ladder.
• Paleoconservatives–Ultra-conservatives and reactionaries. Natural financial oligarchies preserve the republic against democratic mob rule. Usually nativist (White Nationalism), sometimes antisemitic or Christian nationalist. Elitist emphasis is similar to the intellectual conservative revolutionary wing of the European New Right. Often libertarian.
• White Nationalism (White Racial Nationalists)–Alien cultures make democracy impossible. Cultural Supremacists argue different races can adopt the dominant (White) culture; Biological Racists argue the immutable integrity of culture, race, and nation. Segregationists want distinct enclaves, Separatists want distinct nations. Americanist. Tribalist emphasis is similar to the race-is-nation wing of the European New Right.
• Extreme Right (Ultra Right)–Militant forms of revolutionary right ideology and separatist ethnocentric nationalism. Reject pluralist democracy for an organic oligarchy that unites the homogeneic nation. Conspiracist views of power that are overwhelmingly antisemitic. Home to overt neofascists, neonazis, Christian Identity, Creativity (Church of the Creator), National Alliance.
See the Chart at the PRA website
Chart is copyright 2005, Political Research Associates
This all may seem overwhelming at first, but in a nation where many people have elaborate systems for tracking sports scores or soap opera plots, it is a reasonable expectation that people who want to successfully challenge dominionists and theocrats can walk up the learning curve and appreciate the view from the top.
Wednesday, December 21, 2005
In the Christian Right, more leaders than followers have consciously embraced dominionist ideas. The tendency toward a “dominionist impulse,” however, has continued to become more widespread since the 1970s, making a discussion of theocracy not only legitimate, but necessary. Conscious or unconscious–dominionism is a real threat to democracy.
Author Bruce Barron warned of a growing “dominionist impulse” among evangelicals in his 1992 book Heaven on Earth? The Social & Political Agendas of Dominion Theology. Barron, with a Ph.D. in American religious history, is also an advocate of Christian political participation, and has worked with conservative Christian evangelicals and elected officials. Barron is smart, courteous, and not someone you would debate without doing a whole boatload of homework. Disrespect him at your own risk.
I have discussed the Christian Right with Sara Diamond, William Martin, and Bruce Barron. The first three essays in this series are based on their work, reflecting a broad range of political and spiritual viewpoints. Along with my colleague Frederick Clarkson, it is authors Diamond, Barron, and Martin who built a firm foundation for the use of the terms dominionism and dominion theology.
Barron is worried by the aggressive, intolerant, and confrontational aspects of dominion theology; and is especially concerned that these ideas have seeped into the broader Christian evangelical community. Dominion theology is not a version of Christianity with which Barron is comfortable.
In his book, Barron looks at two theological currents: Christian Reconstructionism and Kingdom Now, and explains that “Many observers have grouped them together under the more encompassing rubric of ‘dominion theology.'” Christian Reconstructionism evolved out of the writings of R.J. Rushdoony; while Kingdom Now theology emerged from the ministry of Earl Paulk.
“While differing from Reconstructionism in many ways, Kingdom Now shares the belief that Christians have a mandate to take dominion over every area of life,” explains Barron. And it is just this tendency that has spread through evangelical Protestantism, resulting in the emergence of “various brands of ‘dominionist’ thinkers in contemporary American evangelicalism,” according to Barron.
The distinction is crucial. Dominion theology (Christian Reconstructionism, Kingdom Now, and a handful of smaller theologies), has generated a variety of versions or “brands” of “dominionism” adopted by a number of leaders in the Christian Right who would not describe themselves as “dominionist;” and most certainly would reject the theological tenets promulgated by a “dominion theology” such as Christian Reconstructionism.
Beginning in the 1960s, and gathering force in the 1970s, the “dominionist impulse” rode along a wave of discontent among evangelicals and fundamentalists. They were upset with secular society, especially federal court decisions and government legislation and regulations they felt intruded too far into the personal–and religious–life. Their concern over social, cultural, and political issues involving pornography, school prayer, abortion, and homosexuality prompted participation in national elections since the 1970s.
This social movement of conservative Christian evangelicals was mobilized by the Christian Right, who joined with ultraconservative political operatives to take over the Republican Party. In this coalition, there are a wide variety of theological tendencies and disputes that are temporarily set aside in favor of organizing to achieve a specific political agenda. This coalition also sets aside disputes over how the End Times of biblical prophecy play out. This means that the primarily “postmillennialist” Christian Reconstructionists work on projects with the primarily “premillennialist” evangelical constituency of the Christian Right.
Open advocates of dominionism declare that “America is a Christian Nation,” and that therefore Christians have a God-given mandate to re-assert Christian control over political, social, and cultural institutions. Yet many dominionists stop short of staking out a position that could be called theocratic. This is the “soft” version of dominionism.
The “hard” version of dominionism is explicitly theocratic or “theonomic,” as the Christian Reconstructionists prefer to be called. For America, it is a distinction without a difference.
According to Barron, “Unlike the Christian Right, Reconstructionism is not simply or primarily a political movement; it is first and foremost an educational movement fearlessly proclaiming an ideology of total world transformation.” Barron also “observed a discomforting triumphalism within dominion theology, especially its takeover rhetoric.” In this usage, “triumphalism” simply means when it comes to religions belief, it’s my way or the highway. One God, one religion, one folk, one nation–a Christian Nation–love it or leave it.
Barron notes that Christian Reconstructionism has “intellectual substance, internal coherence, and heavy dependence on Scripture,” and this has helped “Reconstructionist philosophy win a hearing in many sectors of the Christian Right.” For example, Barron found the “idea of Christian dominion, though with less emphasis on biblical law, has been echoed within the Charismatic movement, that segment of American Christianity identified by its free-spirited, demonstrative worship and its practice of spiritual gifts such as tongue speaking and prophecy.”
One well-known Charismatic preacher is Pat Robertson, who reaches millions of viewers weekly through his “700 Club” television program. “Robertson’s explicit emphasis on the need to restore Christians to leadership roles in American society mirrors what” Barron called, “a dominionist impulse in contemporary evangelicalism.”
Who is a dominionist?
Barron argued that “in the context of American evangelical efforts to penetrate and transform public life, the distinguishing mark of a dominionist is a commitment to defining and carrying out an approach to building society that is self-consciously defined as exclusively Christian, and dependent specifically on the work of Christians, rather than based on a broader consensus.”
Around World War II it was the sentiment of many evangelical Protestants in the United States that they needed to find a way to co-exist with an increasingly pluralistic society, and thus they began to self-identify as “evangelicals” to distinguish themselves from the more doctrinaire and intolerant wing of “fundamentalism.”
Barron believes that the “all-encompassing agenda” of the dominionists “puts them at odds with those more moderate evangelicals who work for social change yet still affirm the pluralistic nature of a society in which all ideas–be they Christian or anti-Christian, derived from or opposed to biblical law–have an equal right to be heard and to compete for public acceptance.”
So evangelicals can work for conservative social change without being “dominionist,” and some can be our allies in building broad opposition to dominionism as an impulse in the Christian Right. This is aided in part by an intractable contradiction among practitioners of hard forms of dominion theology.
As Sara Diamond explains, ultimately, “Dominionist thinking precludes coalitions between believers and unbelievers….” This creates an irresolvable contradictory tension. “The Christian Right wants to take dominion,” notes Diamond, but it also wants to work within “the existing political-economic system, at the same time.” The broader the Christian Right stretches as an electoral coalition, the more obvious it becomes that some of its key leaders want a theocracy rather than a democracy. Hard-line dominionists want to overthrow the existing political-economic system and replace it with a theocracy. That’s a real hard sell to most of our neighbors.
In the United States today, there is a struggle between democracy and theocracy–as Fred Clarkson so aptly puts it in the title of his book. This is obvious to many of us, perhaps, but it is largely being ignored by the mainstream media and most Christian evangelicals. This is a wedge issue that can only be effective if we learn how to distinguish among the many different theological, political, organizational, and other aspects of Christian belief and political participation. Using terms such as “dominionism” and “theocracy” in a cautious and careful way allows us to broaden the conversation, and broaden the coalition that seeks to defend the dream of democracy against the nightmare of theocracy.
Monday, December 12, 2005
The term “dominionism” is used different ways by different people. When new terms are developed, that is to be expected. If we are to use words and phrases to discuss ideas, however, it pays to be on the same page concerning how we define those terms. This is especially true in public debates.
In her 1989 book Spiritual Warfare, sociologist Sara Diamond discussed how dominionism as an ideological tendency in the Christian Right had been significantly influenced by Christian Reconstructionism. Over the past 20 years the leading proponents of Christian Reconstructionism and dominion theology have included Rousas John (R.J.) Rushdoony, Gary North, Greg Bahnsen, David Chilton, Gary DeMar, and Andrew Sandlin.
Diamond explained that “the primary importance of the [Christian Reconstructionist] ideology is its role as a catalyst for what is loosely called ‘dominion theology.'” According to Diamond, “Largely through the impact of Rushdoony’s and North’s writings, the concept that Christians are Biblically mandated to ‘occupy’ all secular institutions has become the central unifying ideology for the Christian Right.” (italics in the original).
In a series of articles and book chapters Diamond expanded on her thesis. She called Reconstructionism “the most intellectually grounded, though esoteric, brand of dominion theology,” and observed that “promoters of Reconstructionism see their role as ideological entrepreneurs committed to a long-term struggle.”
So Christian Reconstructionism was the most influential form of dominion theology, and it influenced both the theological concepts and political activism of white Protestant conservative evangelicals mobilized by the Christian Right.
But very few evangelicals have even heard of dominion theology, and fewer still embrace Christian Reconstructionism. How do we explain this, especially since our critics are quick to point it out?
The answer lies in teasing apart the terminology and how it is used.
Christian Reconstructionism is a form of theocratic dominion theology. Its leaders challenged evangelicals across a wide swath of theological beliefs to engage in a more muscular and activist form of political participation. The core theme of dominion theology is that the Bible mandates Christians to take over and “occupy” secular institutions.
A number of Christian Right leaders read what the Christian Reconstructionists were writing, and they adopted the idea of taking dominion over the secular institutions of the United States as the “central unifying ideology” of their social movement. They decided to gain political power through the Republican Party.
This does not mean most Christian Right leaders became Christian Reconstructionists. It does mean they were influenced by dominion theology. But they were influenced in a number of different ways, and some promote the theocratic aspects more militantly than others.
It helps to see the terms dominionism, dominion theology, and Christian Reconstructionism as distinct and not interchangeable. While all Christian Reconstructionists are dominionists, not all dominionists are Christian Reconstructionists.
In its generic sense, dominionism is a very broad political tendency within the Christian Right. It ranges from soft to hard versions in terms of its theocratic impulse.
Soft Dominionists are Christian nationalists. They believe that Biblically-defined immorality and sin breed chaos and anarchy. They fear that America’s greatness as God’s chosen land has been undermined by liberal secular humanists, feminists, and homosexuals. Purists want litmus tests for issues of abortion, tolerance of gays and lesbians, and prayer in schools. Their vision has elements of theocracy, but they stop short of calling for supplanting the Constitution and Bill of Rights.
Hard Dominionists believe all of this, but they want the United States to be a Christian theocracy. For them the Constitution and Bill of Rights are merely addendums to Old Testament Biblical law. They claim that Christian men with specific theological beliefs are ordained by God to run society. Christians and others who do not accept their theological beliefs would be second-class citizens. This sector includes Christian Reconstructionists, but it has a growing number of adherents in the leadership of the Christian Right.
It makes more sense to reserve the term “dominion theology” to describe specific theological currents, while using the term “dominionism” in a generic sense to discuss a tendency toward aggressive political activism by Christians who claim they are mandated by God to take over society. Even then, we need to locate the subject of our criticisms on a scale that ranges from soft to hard versions of dominionism.
As I have written elsewhere, crafting an appropriate response depends on what sector of the Christian Right we are criticizing.
Originally posted on Talk2Action.org
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Saturday, December 03, 2005
A series of conferences and seminars focusing on the issue of “dominionism” are being held in New York City by the Graduate Center, CUNY and the New York Open Center
Dominionism is a term popularized by sociologist Sara Diamond. Those, like me, who study the Christian Right use the term to explain a political tendency that has mobilized tens of millions of conservative Christians into public political participation.
The two conferences held to date were extremely successful. Speakers included Karen Armstong, Joan Bokaer, Charles Stroizer, Jeff Sharlet, Frederick Clarkson, Esther Kaplan, Craig Unger, and myself. The wide range of expertise provided attendees with a broad range of issues related to dominionism: fear and rage in fundamentalist movements; dominionist influence on U.S. policies; the Bush administration’s promotion of theocracy; the relationship between elite fundamentalism and pragmatic dominionism; how to confront the religious right while respecting religious faith; and millennialist and apocalyptic influences on dominionism.
As you can imagine an incredible amount of information came out of these panels and discussions. So much so that I figured it would be worth compiling a mini-crash course on dominionism. Although oversimplified, the following is a summary of the basic definitions and explanations offered in the conference presentations.
- Christianity is a religious belief system with two main wings in the United States: Protestantism and Roman Catholicism.
- Evangelicals are mostly Protestant, and they share a particular approach to Christianity.
- Fundamentalists are generally evangelicals who practice a more doctrinaire, orthodox, demanding, and judgmental form of their faith. Many fundamentalists see the world in dualistic terms, with the forces of good battling the forces of evil.
- Some Christians, especially evangelicals, declare they have been “born again” after an intense religious experience through which they come to accept the earthly power of the Holy Spirit.
- Premillennial Dispensationalism is a particular theological timetable explaining prophecies in the Bible. This view is especially popular among evangelicals.
- One version of Premillennial Dispensationalism suggests the clock has started ticking on the countdown to the approaching apocalyptic End Times and the Battle of Armageddon that pits Godly Christians against evil agents of God’s chief rival, the satanic Antichrist.
- Some Premillennial Dispensationalists, especially those who are “born again,” also believe that at some point in the End Times they will experience the Rapture, an event during which devout Christians are swept up into a heavenly protective embrace while God punishes the sinners left behind on earth.
- The Christian Right is a politicized social movement made up primarily of evangelicals and fundamentalists, many of who are premillennial dispensationalists, and a significant portion of whom are wound up with apocalyptic expectation and energy.
- Dominionism is a political tendency that channels the apocalyptic religious energy of conservative evangelicals into participation in elections and legislative campaigns. Not all dominionists are alike, however; and there are three main branches:
- Christian Conservatives – They play by the rules of a democratic republic, and so our response should be to develop better ideas and carry out better grassroots organizing campaigns.
- Christian Nationalists – They erode pluralism, and we must defend separation of church and state, but also engage in a discussion of the legitimate boundaries when religious beliefs intersect with participation in a secular civil society.
- Christian Theocrats – They want to replace democracy with an authoritarian theocratic society run by a handful of Christian men. They seek to supersede the Constitution and Bill of Rights with Old Testament Biblical law. We must oppose them and not give an inch in our defense of democracy against theocracy.
There are more events planned, stay tuned to the Open Center’s website and of course the DefCon blog for more info.
An edited DVD of Examining the Real Agenda of the Religious Far Right is now for sale through the NY Open Center. Call 212-219-2527 X 170 or email email@example.com
Originally posted on Campaign to Defend the Constitution DefConAmerica
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Wednesday, November 30, 2005
In a September 1994 plenary speech to the Christian Coalition national convention, Rev. D. James Kennedy said that “true Christian citizenship” involves an active engagement in society to “take dominion over all things as vice-regents of God.”
Kennedy’s remarks were reported in February 1995 by sociologist and journalist Sara Diamond, who wrote that Kennedy had “echoed the Reconstructionist line.”
More than anyone else, it was Sara Diamond who popularized the use of the term “dominionism” to describe a growing political tendency in the Christian Right. It is a useful term that has, unfortunately, been used in a variety of ways that are neither accurate nor useful. Diamond was careful to discuss how the small Christian Reconstructionist theological movement had helped introduce “dominionism” as a concept into the larger and more diverse social/political movements called the Christian Right.
Dominionism is therefore a tendency among Protestant Christian evangelicals and fundamentalists that encourages them to not only be active political participants in civic society, but also seek to dominate the political process as part of a mandate from God.
This highly politicized concept of dominionism is based on the Bible’s text in Genesis 1:26:
“And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” (King James Version).
“Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth and over all the creatures that move along the ground.'” (New International Version).
The vast majority of Christians read this text and conclude that God has appointed them stewards and caretakers of Earth. As Sara Diamond explains, however, some Christian read the text and believe, “that Christians alone are Biblically mandated to occupy all secular institutions until Christ returns–and there is no consensus on when that might be.” That, in a nutshell, is the idea of “dominionism.”
Just because some critics of the Christian Right have stretched the term dominionism past its breaking point does not mean we should abandon the term. And while it is true that few participants in the Christian Right Culture War want a theocracy as proposed by the Christian Reconstructionists, many of their battlefield Earth commanders are leading them in that direction. And a number of these leaders have been influenced by Christian Reconstructionism, which is a variant of theocracy called theonomy.
William Martin is the author of the 1996 tome With God on Our Side, a companion volume to the PBS series. Martin is a sociologist and professor of religion at Rice university, and he has been critical of the way some critics of the Christian Right have tossed around the terms “dominionism” and “theocracy.” Martin has offered some careful writing on the subject. According to Martin:
“It is difficult to assess the influence of Reconstructionist thought with any accuracy. Because it is so genuinely radical, most leaders of the Religious Right are careful to distance themselves from it. At the same time, it clearly holds some appeal for many of them. One undoubtedly spoke for others when he confessed, ‘Though we hide their books under the bed, we read them just the same.’ “
According to Martin, “several key leaders have acknowledged an intellectual debt to the theonomists. Jerry Falwell and D. James Kennedy have endorsed Reconstructionist books.”
Before he died in 2001, the founder of Christian Reconstuctionism, R. J. Rushdoony, appeared several times on Christian Right televangelist programs such as Pat Robertson’s 700 Club and the program hosted by D. James Kennedy, writes Martin.
“Pat Robertson makes frequent use of ‘dominion’ language” says Martin, “his book, The Secret Kingdom, has often been cited for its theonomy elements; and pluralists were made uncomfortable when, during his presidential campaign, he said he ‘would only bring Christians and Jews into the government,’ as well as when he later wrote, ‘There will never be world peace until God’s house and God’s people are given their rightful place of leadership at the top of the world.’ ”
Martin also points out that “Jay Grimstead, who leads the Coalition on Revival, which brings Reconstructionists together with more mainstream evangelicals, has said, ‘I don’t call myself [a Reconstructionist],’ but ‘A lot of us are coming to realize that the Bible is God’s standard of morality . . . in all points of history . . . and for all societies, Christian and non-Christian alike. . . . It so happens that Rushdoony, Bahnsen, and North understood that sooner.’ He added, ‘There are a lot of us floating around in Christian leadership James Kennedy is one of them-who don’t go all the way with the theonomy thing, but who want to rebuild America based on the Bible.'”
So let’s choose our language carefully, but let’s recognize that terms such as “dominionism” and “theocracy,” when used cautiously and carefully, are appropriate when describing anti-democratic tendencies in the Christian Right.
Originally posted on Talk to ActionTalk2Action
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Tuesday, November 22, 2005
First Iconium is a predominantly African-American congregation with a special mission to serve the cause of equality, justice, and human rights. They enthusiastically welcomed us, an audience that included Black, Latino, Asian, and White conference attendees from a wide variety of social, political, and religious movements.Keith Jennings, coordinator of Iconium’s Social Justice Ministry, strode to the podium and told us that while the gospel choir sang of Jesus, he wanted us to understand this was just one way to affirm our collective humanity. He welcomed us all, and recognized that in the audience there were believers and non-believers, and that some were straight and some were gay, but he said that everyone who was struggling for justice and basic human rights was welcome in the sanctuary of the church he attended.
Around the world there is a growing movement that uses a human rights framework to expand the protections offered by civil and constitutional rights.
It is easy to see that the Christian Right seeks to deny civil rights to those individuals its leaders label as sinful. The Christian Right undermines constitutional rights as it continues to breach the wall of separation between church and state. At Talk to Action, we also argue that basic human rights are being trampled by the policies promoted by the Christian Right in the United States.
By articulating a human rights framework, we begin with the benchmark set by the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which elaborates a clearer picture of what is meant by freedom of religion:
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change [his or her] religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest [his or her] religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
As the brackets suggest, this was an imperfect document, yet it sparked a new movement that we join in progress.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights set a critical standard when it linked equal protection under the law to not just acts of discrimination, but also “incitement” to discrimination:
All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.
The Christian Right has attacked the rights of women as well as gay men and lesbians in a concerted effort to impose their theological views on the secular body politic–and the bodies of millions of people in our society. Furthermore, the relentless “incitement to such discrimination” by the Christian Right is itself a violation of basic human rights. It is ironic that the Christian Right has sown the foul wind of discrimination while claiming Biblical justification (Hosea 8:7, KJV).
Finally, the issue of dignity is central to our outlook here at Talk to Action. We note that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states clearly:
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.
Not just rights, but dignity. Click over to the Guidelines page at Talk to Action where this essay was first posted, and you will see that dignity is a core part of our process. Dignity is a basic human right. We take that seriously here, and it means that we will strive to not demonize people swept up by the windstorm of fear and resentment sown by the leaders of the Christian Right; even if we believe they eventually “shall inherit the wind” (Proverbs 11:29, KJV).
OK, so I have been citing Biblical text just to make some of you restless. But here’s the deal: the right to dignity flows in all directions. Honoring the right to dignity means we not only must respect the right to hold sincere religious beliefs when we criticize the policies of the Christian Right; but we must do the same with our own allies.
In practice, this means learning to listen without offense to quotes from not only the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the U.S. Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, but also the Five Books of Moses in the Judaic Pentateuch, the Old and New Testaments in the Bible, the Koran, the sacred texts of Buddhism, Hinduism and any other religious texts our allies find meaningful. And, yes, any secular text that our allies find meaningful. To borrow from feminist theory…it’s not “either/or” it’s “both/and.”
The issue is not secular belief versus spiritual faith; the issue is how to craft a pluralist civil society that honors the dignity of both secular philosophy and spiritual faith, while insisting that theological claims alone should never dictate public policies. That’s why we say we are challenging theocracy; because that’s what the Christian Right is increasingly sowing: a theocratic society.
It is up to us to see that they reap the whirlwind generated by a unified human rights movement defending civil and constitutional rights–but demanding human dignity as well.
We want rights and dignity–bread and roses.
Originally posted on Talk to ActionTalk2Action
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Friday, October 14, 2005
A group of ultraconservative political operatives have harnessed a particular reading of Biblical prophecy, known as Premillenial Dispensationalism, (embraced by tens of millions of evangelical Christians) and transformed these beliefs into campaigns to deny basic rights to groups of people framed as sinful and subversive.
Premillennial means a belief that Jesus Christ returns in the End Times and, after a series of confrontations and battles against evil, he reigns over an earthly utopia for a thousand years…a millennium. Therefore, Christ returns before (“pre”) the Godly millennial kingdom. Dispensations are epochs, or blocks of history, during which certain things happen. Premillennial Dispensationalists think that we are poised on the edge of that historic epoch during which the End Times preface the second coming of Christ and his millennial reign.
A large portion of Christian evangelicals who hold these specific theological beliefs also believe that devout and Godly Christians, before the tremendous confrontations or “Tribulations” that culminate in a huge global Battle of Armageddon, will be spared injury or death when they are brought away from Earth and held in God’s protective embrace in an event called the “Rapture.”
It is easy to poke fun at these types of religious beliefs, but it is deeply offensive and provocative in a way that undermines a serious and important public debate over the proper boundaries for religious belief and public policy decisions. It is not accurate to dismiss Christians who hold these beliefs as ignorant, uneducated, or crazy. Social scientists have thoroughly refuted these stereotypes with polling data and in-depth interviews. In addition, it is not fair to ask people of faith simply to abandon their beliefs when they step into the Public Square or political arena.
It is also not fair, however, for those in the Religious Right to use God as a trump card in public policy debates.
Premillennial Dispensationalism and a belief in the Rapture have only recently been steered toward a particular ultraconservative agenda. For many decades the evangelicals who held these beliefs were wary of too much political participation, which they saw as pulling them away from their religious obligations and devotions. Most felt that God’s plan for the End Times would reveal itself without the need for political activism. After all, God in the millennial utopia would ultimately reward devout Christians, and this was especially true if they believed the Rapture would protect them from all harm during the End Times confrontations.
In the 1970s a group of right-wing political operatives, seeking to rollback the economic policies and social safety net woven by the Roosevelt Administration, decided to recruit evangelicals into their political movement to take over the Republican Party. In doing so they pushed political debate in our country away from democracy and toward theocracy.
Evangelicals, however, require a Biblically based reason for their actions. Christian Right leaders, including Jerry Falwell, Tim LaHaye, Paul Weyrich, James Dobson, and Pat Robertson, provided the justification by arguing that, according to the Bible, Christians had an obligation to struggle against evil in the political arena, and to purify and restore the sanctity of secular society.
The leaders of the Religious Right mobilized millions by arguing there was no compromise with evil. The political operatives provided long lists of who was evil and how these sinners were subverting God’s plan for America. They presumed to speak for God and country. Moreover, they created a politicized religious movement willing to strip away rights from persons categorized as sinful. This type of demonization and scapegoating is toxic to democracy. It erodes the concept of informed consent and masks prejudice and bigotry with a veneer of religious devotion.
Because the leaders of the Religious Right have mobilized such a large voter base, they regularly have meetings with powerful political leaders, including the President. Today the Religious Right plays a major role in shaping foreign and domestic policies.
We can change this situation. The Religious Right does not speak for all Christians or even all evangelicals. The leaders of the Religious Right sometimes argue for policy positions that make their own followers uncomfortable. In a constitutional democracy, the ideal path for the nation is always open to debate; and the idea of God is too big for small minds to shackle. If we want to defend the Constitution, we must learn the religious beliefs of those evangelicals who dominate the Religious Right, treat them respectfully, and yet engage them in a critical public conversation over the appropriate boundaries for civic political debate set by the founders and framers of our nation.
Ported from Campaign to Defend the Constitution
Post comments at: DefCon America
Friday, September 30, 2005
There is a new major effort to combat the Religious Right that is trying to be respectful of spiritual belief, yet sharply critical of Dominionism and Theocracy.
Launched only a few days ago, the website is a combination resource center and blog that proclaims:
“The Campaign to Defend the Constitution combats the growing influence of the religious right over American democracy, education, and scientific progress and leadership.”
As one post explained:
“We are dealing with a powerful group driven by a specific agenda, who seek to control many different facets of our culture. As their power has grown, the religious right has alienated, frightened, or infuriated millions of Americans along the way. DefCon is here to unite these Americans. Regardless of what drove you to fight the religious right, it is imperative we realize that advancements of their agenda anywhere increase their power everywhere.”
DefCon has already sent a letter to all 50 governors urging them to “keep science curricula based on science, not religious rhetoric.” The group has published “Islands of Ignorance: The Top 10 Places Where Science Education is Under Threat.”
Everyone concerned about the Religious Right, defending the Constitution, and respecting separation of religion and state should log on, join the debate, and make a donation. I plan to do all three.
OK, so I seem to be contradicting my last post. But when a new idea comes along that changes reality, I get to change my tune.
Post comments at: Talk2Action
Monday, September 12, 2005
Less than a third of Americans think the Democratic Party is friendly toward religion. According to a Pew Research Center poll conducted in July of 2005, only 29% of those surveyed thought Democrats were “religion-friendly;” down from 40% in 2004. More than half of those surveyed–55%–thought the Republicans were friendly toward religion.
At the same time, 45% of those polled thought that “religious conservatives” had too much control over the Republican Party, while 44% thought that “non-religious liberals” had too much control over the Democratic Party.
These results can be interpreted in many ways, but I think they show that the Democratic Party and its allies need to spend more time thinking about how the average American perceives their attitude toward religion. In reality, millions of people of faith are loyal Democrats. In the past few years, however, many Democratic Party leaders have demonstrated their inability to discuss religion, politics, and the Christian Right using language that teaches rather than trashes. Every week I get postal mail and e-mail solicitations for donations that use demonizing buzz phrases such as “Radical Religious Right,” or “Religious Political Extremist.” That type of rhetoric may scare some people into writing checks in the short run, but it makes it harder in the long run for grassroots organizers to build a broad-based movement for social change that includes people in progressive, liberal, and centrist religious groups.
I do worry about the Christian Right. I worry about separation of church and state. I worry about theocracy and the tendency toward Dominionism that leads some in the Christian Right to seek a form of Christian nationalism that would rewrite Consitutional protections for those with whom they disagree or see as sinful. Frankly, George W. Bush scares me. He owes the Christian Right a bunch of political favors for their electoral support, and he has been delivering.
Most Christian evangelicals, however, are not part of the Christian Right. I know from talking with evangelicals and fundamentalists across the country that they are offended by the rhetoric from some liberal and Democratic Party leaders who do not seem to be able to talk about religion without chewing on their foot.
I have this fantasy about kidnapping a busload of liberal inside-the-beltway pundits and driving them to some town in Middle America where they have to learn how to talk to voters who think that going to a church, or synagogue, or mosque or other place of worship is a normal part of life. The pundits won’t be given a ticket back to Dupont Circle until they don’t flinch when someone says words like “faith,” “prayer,” or “blessing.”
I suspect some will have to walk back to the Potomac.
Like I said, it’s just a fantasy, but rhetoric is important. If we are to change the perception that Democrats are not friendly to religion, then a good first step is changing language that is offensive.
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Thursday, July 21, 2005
Some years ago a group of us returned for a reunion, and now we continue to gather every few years to renew our commitment to social justice and to search for ways in which secular ethics and spirituality can co-exist in these turbulent times.This summer we decided to read a book for discussion, and we picked The Sins of Scripture: Exposing the Bible’s Texts of Hate to Reveal the God of Love, written by Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong. When it came my turn to pick some text to discuss, this is what I selected:
“Anxious because God could not be reduced to a human formula, the leaders of the church contented themselves with the task of enforcing the faith they could not define. If one disagreed with these ever-more-differing explanations, one was simply evil. The problem was not in the words; it was in the hardened hearts of the heretics whose obstinacy and sinfulness prevented them from believing. The stage was thus set not for unity but for a purge. Whenever deviant beliefs were discovered, they had to be rooted out and those who espoused them killed in the service of conformity to the catholic faith. So Christianity turned demonic. Infidels like the Jews were constantly persecuted and Muslims as well as Jews were killed in the Crusades. Heretics were burned at the stake. Religious wars were waged to defeat anyone who did not worship properly. Efforts to force people to conform were accomplished by way of torture first and if that failed by execution” (Spong, p. 228).
For some people this represents the entire history of Christianity—and given this history, I am not surprised when people ask me why I consider myself a Christian. I usually toss off a glib line such as “I am unchurched but not uncouth.” What I mean by saying that phrase is the limits and flaws of all organized religions frustrate me, but I see in each a struggle for the identity of the faith. The lessons I learned from the Christian Bible were about helping the weak and the poor, seeking justice, opposing violence and war, speaking truth to power—all of which led me into the progressive movement. Moreover, I learned to highlight a different history of Christianity based on this perspective. As I learned more about the sacred texts of other major world religions, I came to realize that some members of those faiths highlighted these same concerns. They challenge those in their religion who turn toward demonization and scapegoating.
Spong explains that these different approaches derive from the fact that there are different ways to read sacred text. Peter J. Gomes, a preacher at Harvard University and author of The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart makes a similar argument. Gomes urges us to read the Bible carefully and be aware of what passages represent the contemporary prejudices and norms woven into the text by the all-to-human authors.
Rosemary Radford Ruether, author of several books, explores the need to unpack these prejudices when examining spirituality. She uses an analysis of race, class, and gender that sees them as “interconnected structures that create multiple differences.” The group Equal Partners in Faith is built around this notion.
In the past few weeks, there has been a flurry of media coverage declaring that progressive Christians have finally found their voice. We have had our voices all along, thank you. Glad you folks in the media finally decided to listen.
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Friday, July 01, 2005
We have learned a few things at Political Research Associates (PRA) over the past 24 years of studying U.S. right-wing political and social movements, and we have captured our best advice in a document titled “Ground Rules and Tips for Challenging the Right.” There are three sections–Do Your Homework, Stay Cool in Public, and Keep Organizing–each with several suggestions.
When PRA staff speak in public we often expand on these recommendations, and a blog seems like a good place to enshrine these musings in written form. Over the next few months, I will pick one suggestion and write a short essay around it, with some useful links if I can find them.
To start, let’s look at the following recommendation:
Distinguish between leaders and followers in right-wing organizations.
Leaders are often “professional” right-wingers. They’ve made a career of promoting a rightist agenda and attacking progressives and progressive issues. Followers, on the other hand, may not be well-informed. They are often mobilized by fears about family and future based on information that, if true, would indeed be frightening. This so-called “education” is often skillful, deceitful, and convincing. These followers may take positions that are more extreme than those of the leaders, but on the other hand, they may not know exactly what they are supporting by attending a certain organization’s rally or conference. To critique and expose the leaders of right-wing organizations is the work of a good progressive organizer, writer or activist. In the case of the followers, however, it is important to reserve judgment and listen to their grievances. Do not assume that they are all sophisticated political agents or have access to a variety of information sources.
This does not mean that we should think that followers are dimwitted, ignorant, or crazy. That was a common perception promoted by centrist academics during the 1960s, but since the late 1970s sociologists have shown that people who join social movements–left or right–are remarkably similar to the population from which they emerge. And people in social movements are not mesmerized by crafty leaders, cluelessly following the whims of charismatic demagogues. Demagogues exist, to be sure, but they primarily succeed by swaying large groups of people by developing clever ways to frame ideas and issues.
Frames are necessary but not sufficient to build a movement, but frames are an important tool.
That’s good news for progressives who want to mobilize a counter-movement. We can examine the frames put forward by the Hard Right and devise alternative frames that drive wedges between specific constituencies. We can do that with topical analysis, for example exploiting the tension between Christian conservatives and libertarians on social issues such as abortion and gay rights. And we can recognize that participants have different levels of commitment and loyalty to social movements.
Letha Dawson Scanzoni has produced a useful set of distinctions that explain this in her AlterNet article The Gospel On Gay Marriage
Aggressive Combatants, who mobilize their followers to go to battle against whatever they consider to be the current threat (most recently, same-sex marriage);
Loyal Followers, who consider the Combatants to be their religious authorities, buying their books, tuning in to their broadcasts, accepting their interpretations of the Bible, and responding to their fundraising pleas;
Thoughtful Questioners, who were drawn to the movement by its emphasis on a personal relationship with God and the importance of the Bible in their lives but are not convinced that all issues are settled or that all the answers are already in;
Hurting Strugglers, sincere believers who earnestly practiced their faith and followed the rules they had been taught, yet were faced with some circumstance that turned their well-ordered world upside down — a divorce, a gay child, a pregnant teenager, domestic violence, mental illness, job loss, bankruptcy, a suicide in the family.
These are useful names for important distinctions. As Scanzoni observes, we should be focusing our attention of the last two categories: Thoughtful Questioners and Hurting Strugglers, because they are already in a place where new ideas and new frames have a better chance of finding fertile soil.
I happen to think that a commitment to the idea of civil society means we should be treating people with sincere spiritual belief systems with courtesy and respect–just as I think we should be treating secular ethical and moral belief systems with courtesy and respect. In this case, there are hardball pragmatic reasons to be able to talk with Christian conservatives about moral values…we just might change their minds.
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Friday, June 17, 2005
For over thirty years conservative and right-wing foundations and funders have invested in ideas. They have poured over $2 billion into creating a right-wing network and infrastructure, and used that to build a large political machine and a huge populist mass base.
These funds have been spread across a range of ideologies and identities. Business conservatives, Christian evangelicals, libertarians, neoconservatives, military interventionists, anti-union activists, moral traditionalists, and others have been funded to pursue the ideas that facilitate action in the political and social arenas.
Most liberal and progressive foundations refuse to fund basic research, think tanks, alternative media, publishing, and conferences. That’s exactly what conservative and right-wing funders have targeted in a strategic way. And by funding a range of conservative ideas, it is now possible to hear a radio debate on some policy issue where there are three views from the political right, one liberal, and no progressives. That’s balance.
There is nothing new in this complaint. In the mid 1990s activist leader Suzanne Pharr asked Loretta Ross and me to help pull together some progressive strategy sessions at the Blue Mountain conference center in upstate New York. After one meeting we sent a delegation down to New York City to meet with representatives of over one dozen foundations and funders to explain how the political right had invested in the struggle over ideas. We talked about Gramsci’s theory of cultural hegemony, and the importance of being able to field-test slogans, frames, and different ways of explaining ideas and telling stories.
We explained how right-wing funders had shifted away from short-term project grants toward unrestricted grants over many years to guarantee and enhance the survival rate of right-wing think tanks and alternative media. We explained how an echo chamber had been created for conservative and right-wing arguments to challenge progressive and liberal theories and goals. We explained how we were being outmaneuvered. We explained that we were losing. We explained what would happen if we continued to lose in terms of the attack on gay rights, women’s rights, and immigrant rights. We explained that racism and xenophobia would continue to be rebuilt as acceptable public positions. To be fair, a few funders shifted their focus. Most did not.
The Institute for First Amendment Studies, which monitored boycotts by the Christian Right among other things, went under. The reproductive rights magazine Body Politic stopped publishing. The human rights group Northwest Coalition for Human Dignity (itself a merger of two groups) ceased operations.
In the mid 1990s groups such as People for the American Way shifted focus to monitoring legislative and political maneuvers by conservatives in the nation’s capital. This is an important task, but groups such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute, and Political Research Associates (where I work) could not raise the funds to hire more research staff to monitor and analyze the slew of right-wing campaigns being generated by the well-funded right-wing infrastructure.
In the early 1990s there were three progressive researchers who produced books and articles about the rise of the political right and the ascendancy of conservative Christian evangelicals into the political system: Sara Diamond, Russ Bellant, and Fred Clarkson. Not one of them could make a living writing about the rise of the right. Compare them to Ann Coulter, Dinesh D’Souza, and the swarm of right-wing ideologues financed with stipends, grants, and fellowships to do research and write about the political scene.
A real democracy requires the type of informed consent that emerges as many competing ideas struggle for acceptance in the public square. In the culture war, one side has been disarmed.
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Wednesday, June 08, 2005
This past weekend my wife and I traveled to Williams College to attend the graduation of our niece, Abby. The main commencement speaker was Thomas L. Friedman, columnist for the New York Times. The speech was an impressive display of public speaking that matches Friedman’s reputation as a top notch writer. Williams College Commencement 2005
I say this, despite the fact that what Friedman writes in his columns generally drives me crazy. I could provide a big list of my complaints as a journalist on the political left, but instead let me quote from Friedman on what is the heart of real journalism:
“Always remember, there is a difference between skepticism and cynicism. Too many journalists, and too many of our politicians, have lost sight of that boundary line….there [is] a big difference between skepticism and cynicism. Skepticism is about asking questions, being dubious, being wary, not being gullible, but always being open to being persuaded of a new fact or angle. Cynicism is about already having the answers — or thinking you do — answers about a person or an event. The skeptic says, ‘I don’t think that’s true; I’m going to check it out.’ The cynic says: ‘I know that’s not true. It couldn’t be. I’m going to slam him….’ Always remember, real journalists are not those loud mouth talking heads you see on cable television.”
On this matter Friedman and I are in total agreement. I know journalists across the political spectrum who see journalism as a craft that demands adherence to a set of principles. Fairness and accuracy for starters.
For over ten years I have been teaching a summer course on “Strategic Research, Analysis and Reporting” at Z Magazine’s summer institute; a course developed and taught over the years along with progressive journalists Holly Sklar, & Abby Scher. This coming weekend I head down to Wood’s Hole on Cape Cod to teach another session. Here’s how we traditionally open the class:
“Progressives have a long and proud tradition of muckraking, and there are plenty of role models such as Ida M. Tarbell, Nellie Bly, Lincoln Steffens, Upton Sinclair, George Seldes, I.F. Stone, Rachel Carson, Alan Nairn, Deborah Nelson, Laura Washington, Sara Diamond, Russ Bellant, Frederick Clarkson, Trudy Lieberman and many more. If you haven’t heard of one or more of these journalists, get acquainted with their lives and work by doing your own research.”
We assume many of these names are unfamiliar to the mostly young audience, and hope they poke around and learn about their predecessors. All of these investigative journalists were skeptics, not cynics. Some could be acerbic or even harsh, but underneath the bravado was a clear sense that the point of their work was to make society a better place to live.
Skepticism helps us fix what is wrong with our society. Cynicism leads us to question if it is worth the effort. As we embrace skepticism, we need to reject–and criticize–cynicism.
Monday, May 30, 2005
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.
Wednesday, May 18, 2005
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.
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?
Thursday, May 12, 2005
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.
Sunday, May 08, 2005
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 idea or action labelled as “extremist” 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 discussing prejudice, ethnocentrism, or the Christian Right. 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.”
Some 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.
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 people 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.
Friday, May 06, 2005
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.