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

Advertisements

Portland Gives Joint Terrorism Task Force the Boot

BY SUSAN CHENELLE

City Is The First In U.S. To Withdraw

On April 28 the Portland, Ore. City Council voted 4-1 to withdraw its police officers from the Joint Terrorism Task Force with the FBI, making Portland the first U.S. city to do so. The decision brought joy to most of those in the city council gallery, marking a victory in a long battle to protect the civil liberties of all Portland citizens.

The resolution calls for the two officers currently assigned to the JTTF to be withdrawn within 90 days and reassigned to the Portland Police Bureau’s Criminal Intelligence Unit. It also lays out protocols for responding to emergency situations. For five years, a coalition of groups, including the ACLU of Oregon and Copwatch of Portland, repeatedly raised concerns about the Portland Police Bureau’s participation in the JTTF. As Dan Handelman of Copwatch and Peace and Justice Works told The Indypendent, they began organizing among those likely to be targeted—labor, faith, civil rights, and peace and justice groups—and met with them to strategize on how to testify before the city council.

Oregon state law prohibits state and local police from collecting and maintaining files on the political, religious and social activities of individuals or organizations unless there is evidence of criminal activity. The city’s open government laws also require that overtime for the officers assigned to the JTTF couldn’t be approved without going through the city council. The coalition asked that the officers be pulled from the JTTF and the Memorandum of Understanding between the city and the FBI be publicly reviewed.

The turning point came with the election of Mayor Tom Potter, a former Portland police chief. After weeks of negotiations with the FBI, he decided to support the resolution, as the bureau refused to give him the same top-secret clearance the two officers serving on the task force had. With insufficient oversight, Potter understood it would be impossible to ensure that the Portland officers adhered to Oregon law.

“When we look at our history, we see examples that when we blindly give people power, that sometimes the power is misused,” Potter said during the hearing.

Portland citizens had good reason to be wary of the JTTF’s actions. Last year the FBI wrongly detained Brandon Mayfield, a Muslim resident of a Portland suburb, for 14 days in connection with the Madrid bombings, and later apologized.

Handelman himself has had his own run-ins with the JTTF. During 1998 criminal hearings for protesters arrested during a demonstration, a “Criminal Intelligence Report” identified him as the leader of the Peace and Justice Works Iraq Affinity Group, and as a “non-criminal” who had “been very active in calling for, arranging, and sponsoring these demonstrations concerning U.S. involvement with Iraq.” Because none of Handelman’s activities were criminal, the report was in violation of state law and a previous judgment against the city for spying on another Copwatch member.

The danger of these reports, according to Handelman, is that “who knows how far they are disseminated.” He urged activists, particularly those participating in Critical Mass demonstrations, to submit requests to find out if the FBI has files on them.

In December, the ACLU of Oregon submitted a Freedom of Information Act request on behalf of 17 organizations and individuals, including Handelman. As Andrea Meyer, Legislative Director of the ACLU of Oregon told The Indypendent, the FBI says it has files on nine of the 17. The ACLU is still waiting to receive the files.

WHAT IS A JTTF?

A Joint Terrorism Task Force is an on-going arrangement through which participating federal, state and local law enforcement agencies share information and resources related to terrorism. The number of JTTFs has nearly doubled since September 11, 2001, at least 66 JTTFs nationwide, consisting of more than 2,300 personnel. In 2002, the FBI established a National Joint Terrorism Task Force involving nearly 30 law enforcement agencies. JTTFs have been widely criticized for targeting environmental, animal-rights and anti-war activists around the country. One New York Times report revealed that a classified FBI memo advised local police agencies “to report any suspicious activity at protests.” The ACLU has filed FOIA requests in 10 states to try to find out if JTTFs are being used to spy on people.

DOES NEW YORK HAVE A JTTF?

Yes. The concept of sharing resources among law enforcement agencies was first implemented in New York City in 1979 with the first JTTF formed in 1980. More than 130 NYPD officers currently serve on New York’s JTTF. It came under serious scrutiny during the Sept. 11 hearings for failing to prevent the attacks on the World Trade Center despite numerous warnings. The Handschu Consent Decree had provided some protections for New Yorkers against the monitoring of legitimate political activity similar to those in Oregon, until it was rescinded in 2003. Many observers fear the JTTFs are updated versions of police “Red Squads” and the FBI’S Cointelpro, used to suppress domestic dissent in recent history. —S.C.

Originally published in MAY 11-25, 2005 THE INDYPENDENT

A Clear-Cut Fight: Battle of the Biscuit Forest Heats Up

BY SUSAN CHENELLE

A 30-foot tripod erected in front of the Forest Service’s regional headquarters brought mid-day traffic in downtown Portland to a halt on March 30. The apparatus suspended a pod 20 feet above Second Avenue bearing an activist named “Pax,” and a banner reading, “Burned Forests Are Alive-Stop Biscuit Logging.” This direct action by Stumptown Earth First! was the latest confrontation in an intense few weeks that have seen 49 arrests in the two-year battle to save the trees of southern Oregon’s Siskiyou National Forest.

During the Biscuit Fire of 2002 approximately 500,000 acres of the Wild Siskiyou River area burned to varying degrees. Though Forest Service scientists stated that the fire was beneficial to the overall health of the forest, the Bush administration responded with the so-called “Biscuit Fire Recovery Project,” a plan to cut down 20,000 acres of trees—the largest single logging project in Forest Service history. This includes approximately 9,000 acres of latesuccessional reserve (LSR), or old-growth trees previously safeguarded by the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan. The project is based on two premises: that it’s simply a salvage operation to cut down dead trees, and that removing the burned trees will help prevent future fires. Activists contend that fires are a necessary part of the life cycle of a forest, that many trees are burned but not dead, that even dead trees serve important functions, and that logging will make fires more likely, by removing relatively fire-proof older trees and leaving easily combustible branches and younger trees behind.

As Laura, a member of Wild Siskiyou Action, told The Indypendent, using “salvage” as an excuse, this project is the first to threaten the inventoried roadless areas, land that had been protected by the Roadless Rule enacted during the final months of the Clinton administration. In order to “salvage” the trees within the 13 square miles of roadless areas included in the Biscuit timber sale, the Forest Service must build access roads within the area. As a result the area will no longer be roadless and, by definition, no longer protected by the Roadless Rule.

Two lawsuits questioning the legality of this timber sale are underway. The first, filed by the Siskiyou Project, the Sierra Club and others, argues that the project violates the National Forest Plan and the Roadless Rule. The second, brought by the Cascadia Wildland Project, National Forest Protection Alliance, Native Forest Network, and Klamath Forest Alliance, charges that logging protocols have been violated and pertains to the entire Biscuit region, not just the oldgrowth areas. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals denied a request for a temporary restraining order on March 25; the plaintiffs are now seeking a preliminary injunction to halt logging until the trial begins.

In the meantime, logging continues. John West of the Silver Creek Timber Company said he hoped to have half the trees on the ground before the end of March. Since the Fiddler Mountain timber sale began on March 7, activists affiliated with Wild Siskiyou Action, the Oxygen Collective and other groups have staged numerous rallies, roadblocks and tree sits that have blocked logging trucks for several hours at a time. As Laura of Wild Siskiyou Action explained, these disruptions make the timber sale substantially more expensive for the Forest Service and the logging companies. She claims that some loggers are already refusing to work in areas where there have been protests.

To reinforce their own skills and to bring in new faces and ideas, Wild Siskiyou Action held a skillshare camp from April 1-8. The camp featured workshops on non-violent philosophy and direct action, rope climbing, road blockades and more, and culminated in a direct action.

And they are already looking beyond the Fiddler Mountain sale. “Beyond Fiddler, there are five other LSR timber sales that could be logged,” Laura explained. “I was just out on the coast, hiking those sales, and there hasn’t been any activity yet, but we’re keeping an eye on that. If they start going into those other sales, we’re going to be there.”

OREGON WOMEN’S BRIDGE BLOCKADE
BY SUSAN CHENELLE

On March 14, 20 women were arrested for blocking the Green Bridge over the Illinois River. Among those arrested was a nine months pregnant Stacy Williams, supported by her midwife and birthing team. For Harriet Smith, 85, Dot Fisher, 76, and Joan Norman, 72, it was their second arrest of the week. While they stood on the bridge, Becky White hung below them, suspended on a small platform by a rope system that blocked the convoy of logging trucks for nearly seven hours.

Most of the women were released within 24 hours; however, Norman refused bail and remained in jail until she was given an emergency medical release on March 29. Norman says it wasn’t just her multiple medications and the special breathing machine she requires that made her too much trouble to be kept locked up, it was that she was counselling her sister inmates to stand up for their rights as well.

“Now is one of the most desperate times, and someone has to sit down and say no. We have to use our civil liberties. They’re the only ones we have left,” she insists. “Timber companies are only doing what we created them to do – make a profit. We need to make laws to regulate companies or we become their slaves. If I have to go to jail, so do they.”

Originally published in the APRIL 6-19, 2005 THE INDYPENDENT

No Quiero Taco Bell

Originally published in the March 16, 2005, issue of The Indypendent.

Supermodel Safari

by Susan Chenelle
Originally published in the Fall 2003 issue of Bitch.

Among the small handful of New York Times articles covering Africa on any given day, on April 22, 2003, international editors found this gem to be newsworthy: “In Remotest Kenya, a Supermodel Is Hard to Find.” As Marc Lacey reported, Elite Model Management scout Lyndsey McIntyre “had visions of the supermodels Iman and Alek Wek in her head when she arrived in this remote village near the Somalia border, where she had heard the girls were tall, slim and striking.” The object of her safari was “a new African supermodel with a breathtaking new look[,] a slinky figure [and] straight white teeth.”

This was no easy task. McIntyre, whom the article describes as a 37-year-old British blond, had the highest of standards to meet: ”If I’m going to pull someone out of the bush, she has to be the type who when she walks into a room people’s jaws hit the floor.” However, she faced not only aesthetic challenges (lazy eyes, girls “tall but far too plump for the runway”), but the locals’ wariness. In the predominantly Muslim area McIntyre was visiting, parents worried that their daughters’ images would be used to sell alcohol and tobacco. Others “believe that photographs steal their souls or take years off their lives.” If they only knew.

While Lacey doesn’t completely condone the worldview that motivates McIntyre, he never hints that this “opportunity of a lifetime” might be anything but glamorous or liberating. Rather, he assumes a supposedly objective perspective from which he can pit the absurdity of the supermodel search against the backwardness of the local culture in an amusing “The Gods Must Be Crazy” culture-clash anecdote that makes all of its subjects look fairly ridiculous. He thereby misses what might actually be a worthwhile story and an illuminating discussion of race, sex, and international cultural politics. Instead he invites the reader to join him in his “above-it-all” position from which they both can shake their heads condescendingly at the article’s subjects, without implicating themselves in any part of the political and cultural dynamic portrayed, nor admitting the sexism and racism that informs their own assumption of superiority.

CAFTA on the Skids

BY SUSAN CHENELLE

Mary Sandoval immigrated to the United States 10 years ago “to improve [her] life” and find better opportunities. Before she left Guatemala, she had studied business administration and worked as an accountant. For the last eight years she has made dresses and suits for Leigh Max Fashions in the Garment District, and has seen the effects of so-called “free trade” firsthand. Now that Congress is considering ratification of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), she is speaking out.

“If CAFTA passes, we will lose more jobs,” she says. “Factories will get richer and workers will be exploited. Here in New York, we won’t have jobs, so we won’t be able to help our families back home.”

CAFTA is similar to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) signed 10 years ago by the U.S., Mexico and Canada. CAFTA lowers trade barriers between the seven signatory countries: Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and the U.S. The agreement was signed in May 2004, and Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador have since ratified it, but it has languished in the U.S. Congress amid increasingly contentious debate.

RACING TO THE BOTTOM
When NAFTA was being debated in the early nineties, opponents predicted an ugly “race to the bottom” in which factories would exploit both workers and the environment in order to cut production costs and to keep their contracts with brand-name multinationals like Nike and the Gap. With tariffs and trade quotas eliminated, corporations would be able to move production wherever it was cheapest. Ten years later, it has become clear that this is exactly what has happened.

With so much textile manufacturing already having moved to China and Southeast Asia, Central American factory owners welcome CAFTA in hopes that it will allow them to compete a bit better, due to the comparatively friendlier terms they will have with the U.S. However, critics warn that the trade agreement will simply give owners greater incentive to exploit workers while flooding Central American markets with U.S. agricultural exports.

Sandoval herself fears that the conditions in the textile factory in which her sister-in-law works in Guatemala will get worse. Workers there are already compelled to work 12-hour days with no overtime, she says, because the factory doors are locked at 7 a.m., and not opened until as late as 7 or 9 p.m. Unions are forbidden, and workers receive no benefits.

Congressional Republican leaders would like to get CAFTA ratified by the end of June, but it seems increasingly doubtful that that will happen. Supporters will not introduce a ratification bill until they are sure they have enough votes to pass it. They currently face opposition from Democrats who criticize the lack of labor and environmental protections, as well as from Republicans from states that depend on the sugar and/or textiles industries.

Many of these opponents are historic supporters of trade liberalization, so the switch might seem like a sign of the influence of the growing global movement against such agreements. However, activists are well aware of the likelihood that politicians may be just holding out in order to cut side deals to mitigate the effects of CAFTA upon their constituencies.

GOING ON THE RECORD
Burke Stansbury of the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) said the group’s strategy now is “to get as many people on the record” as possible with their opposition. Rep. Charles Rangel, whose district includes Washington Heights, condemned the version of CAFTA pushed by the Bush administration in a May 27 statement: “The Administration refuses to include even the most basic standards of common decency and fairness for working people.”

Rep. Jose Serrano of the Bronx issued this statement on his website on May 20: “All of us want to help develop the economies of Latin America, but DR-CAFTA promises to do more damage than good, both for workers and the national economies of the United States and the Latin American nations affected.” Congressman Gregory Meeks of Queens has said that he remains “decidedly undecided.”

Business interests have been sending busloads of people to Washington to lobby in support of CAFTA. The New York Times weighed in on May 31 with an editorial urging ratification. In a recent speech, Gov. George Pataki expressed his fears that CAFTA would not be approved.

Mock mark-up in the Senate Finance Committee is scheduled for mid-June but it remains unclear whether or not the legislation will make it out of the committee with a positive recommendation. Observers believe that CAFTA proponents are about 30 votes shy in the House.

Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua are unlikely to move toward ratification until it passes in the U.S. Congress. They do not want to risk the protests that have rocked Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador over ratification.

Many politicians have bemoaned the agreement’s lack of environmental and labor protections, and some have demanded that certain contentious provisions be removed. However, such calls are mostly hot air, since Congress can’t revise the agreement and may only vote “yea” or “nay” on the deal. If CAFTA does come up for a vote, the moment of truth will be when its current critics show whether or not they are willing to stand up to globalization’s powerful proponents and vote against it.

For more info, see: stopcafta.org

Originally published in the JUNE 15-28, 2005 THE INDYPENDENT