Backwards Christian Soldiers: Religious Progressives Take on the Christian Far Right

BY SUSAN CHENELLE

Less than a week after religious conservatives held “Justice Sunday,” a nationally televised rally featuring Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, more than 500 activists, academics, clergy, journalists and other concerned individuals gathered at CUNY Graduate Center for a conference co-sponsored by the New York Open Center called “Examining the Real Agenda of the Religious Far Right.”

On April 29 and 30, presenters offered insights into the rise of the Christian far right, explanations of its agenda and ideas on how to organize against it.

The current battle over federal court nominees, as Chip Berlet of Political Research Associates told The Indypendent, “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. 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 by allowing 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 with other sects outlawed. To do so they made the radical decision to separate church and state. This outraged many religious leaders. “The Christian right didn’t like the Constitution when it was written,” said Clarkson, “and they don’t like it now.”

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 labeling and lumping together all religious people. He chided the left for using meaningless, inflammatory terms like “religious political extremists,” noting that they alienated many religious people. However, he didn’t simply call upon the left to watch its language; in order to reach the religious people with relatively progressive social values, Berlet said, the secular left must think about what attracts people to religion and what they get from it. Progressives must also take the right’s demands and concerns seriously, he argued, and confront them head-on, directly challenging the morals of conservative policies on issues like health care and welfare, and their outcomes.

The term Dominionism itself, Berlet said, “gets away from the kind of labeling that tends to treat Christian Conservatives like they’re either stupid or crazy. 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.” Clarkson echoed the idea: “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.” The concluding panel discussion, titled “Where Do We Go From Here?” reflected this ambivalence. While some called for a mass occupation of Washington, D.C. if the Senate should do away with the filibuster, others stressed the need to find ways to dialogue with religious middle America. NYU professor and author of The Bush Dyslexicon Mark Crispin Miller called for a revival of the “sense of the common good” that has become so denigrated by the twin assault by the Christian and capitalist right. 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.”

strong>ONE REASON TO TAKE DOMINIONISM SERIOUSLY
BY SUSAN CHENELLE

The ill-named Constitution Restoration Act of 2005 is a prime example of the Dominionist intent to remake the Constitution in the bible’s image. The bill declares that, “The Supreme Court shall not have jurisdiction to review, by appeal, writ of certiorari, or otherwise, any matter to the extent that relief is sought against an entity of Federal, State, or local government, or against an officer or agent of Federal, State, or local government (whether or not acting in official or personal capacity), concerning that entity’s, officer’s, or agent’s acknowledgment of God as the sovereign source of law, liberty, or government.” In plain English, the bill would enshrine religious beliefs above the Constitution. Previously introduced in 2004, it was reintroduced in the House (H.R. 1070) and Senate (S.520) on March 3, and has been referred to the two legislative bodies’ respective judiciary committees.

If enacted, this provision would attempt to prevent judicial review by the Supreme Court of any decision by any government official or agent made based on his or her religious beliefs. It currently has five co-sponsors in the Senate and 30 in the House. Though its supporters claim that the bill is simply meant to apply to cases like the display of the Ten Commandments or a Nativity scene in a government building, it is so broadly worded that, as Katherine Yurica notes on Yuricareport.com, “if it becomes law, [it] may allow any judge to institute biblical punishments without being subject to review by the Supreme Court or the federal court system.”

Originally published in MAY 11-25, 2005 THE INDYPENDENT

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Author: schenelle

Supervisor of Curriculum and Instruction in Jersey City, NJ. Co-author of Using Informational Text to Teach literature series.

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