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. 


Throughout
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



.