Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal would like to be president, so he spent the weekend at Liberty University doing what a Republican presidential wannabe does: courting Religious Right leaders by assuring them that he is one of them and shares their vision for America. Jindal spoke at Liberty’s commencement address on Saturday, where he spouted Religious Right talking points about the “war” on religious liberty by a “left” that wants to “silence people of faith.” And on Friday night, he spent two hours talking about his faith in a session with politically influential pastors organized by Christian-nation zealot David Lane.
The Washington Post’s Tom Hamburger reports that Jindal talked the pastors through his conversion from Hinduism to Protestantism in high school, while not spending much time on his conversion to Catholicism a few years later in college. Jindal positions himself solidly in the conservative religious coalition by calling himself an “evangelical Catholic.” According to the Post,
The visiting pastors flew to Lynchburg over the weekend at the invitation of the American Renewal Project, a well-funded nonprofit group that encourages evangelical Christians to engage in the civic arena with voter guides, get-out-the-vote drives and programs to train pastors in grass-roots activism. The group’s founder, David Lane, has built a pastor network in politically important states such as Iowa, Missouri, Ohio and South Carolina and has led trips to Israel with Paul and others seeking to make inroads with evangelical activists.
The group that Lane invited to Lynchburg included Donald Wildmon, a retired minister and founder of the American Family Association, a prominent evangelical activist group that has influence through its network of more than 140 Christian radio stations.
As regular RWW readers know, the Post’s description, while accurate, only begins to describe David Lane, who we reported last year is “an anti-gay, anti-choice, anti-Mormon, Christian-nation absolutist who has declared war, not only on secularism and separation of church and state, but also on establishment Republicans who don’t embrace his vision of an America in which the Bible serves as ‘the principle textbook' for public education and a ‘Christian culture’ has been ‘re-established.’” Lane believes Christians “must be retrained to war for the Soul of America and quit believing the fabricated whopper of the ‘Separation of Church and State.’” He says America must repent for breaking the founders' covenant with God or face the wrath of God, which he said last year would include car bombings in Los Angeles, Des Moines, and Washington, D.C. as a consequence of abortion rights, the national debt, and “homosexuals praying at the inauguration.”
Jindal’s personal appeal to Religious Right leaders may encourage them to take a closer look at his record. Given his hostility to abortion rights and LGBT equality and his record of privatizing public education, using tax dollars to promote creationism, and rejecting Medicaid expansion, far-right pastors will probably like what they see.
Fox News pundit Todd Starnes joins the parade of right-wing outrage about the Home & Garden Television Network pulling the plug on a show featuring David and Jason Benham after Right Wing Watch reported on David’s anti-gay activism. Starnes posted a story about HGTV’s decision, then promoted it with a tweet that said,
Won't be long before the LGBT activists demand Christians be deported... http://t.co/chlEEe0ovx— toddstarnes (@toddstarnes) May 8, 2014
Hmm, you mean the way Family Research Council spokesman Peter Sprigg said in 2008 that he would like to export homosexuals from the U.S. because homosexuality is destructive to society? Sprigg apologized for using language that “did not communicate respect for the essential dignity of every human being as a person created in the image of God.” But since then he has said that gay sex should be criminalized.
Religious Right groups are celebrating yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling upholding sectarian prayer at official public meetings – like city council sessions – and narrowly defining what would amount to unconstitutional religious coercion of people attending. The case is Town of Greece v. Galloway.
Though divided on their reasoning, the Court’s five conservative Justices upheld a practice in which, month after month, year after year, town leaders reached out to Christians and Christians only to offer opening prayers at town meetings, prayers that were often quite sectarian in nature. The very few exceptions were in response to this lawsuit. Although town leaders said that members of other religions could lead the opening prayer if they asked to, they had hardly let that be widely known, and they continued to reach out only to Christians.
SCOTUSblog’s Lyle Denniston characterized the Court’s ruling as “[s]topping just short of abandoning a historic barrier to religion in government activity.” Conservative and religious groups hostile to church-state separation are gushing over the ruling and hope it is a sign of more to come.
The Becket Fund signaled that it hopes yesterday’s decision will just be the first step in further dismantling rulings upholding church-state separation. From Deputy General Counsel Eric Rassbach:
“The Court’s landmark decision today echoes the wisdom of the Founders. Not only did the Court uphold the centuries-old practice of legislative prayer, it also started the work of bringing the entire law of church and state onto a firmer foundation in the words of the Constitution.”
David Corman, senior counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, which represented the Town of Greece:
“Opening public meetings with prayer is a cherished freedom that the authors of the Constitution themselves practiced,” he said. “Speech censors should have no power to silence volunteers who pray for their communities just as the Founders did.”
The American Family Association’s Bryan Fischer celebrated the ruling as a “monster win” and said it was proof that “we are fighting a winnable war,” because the “Supreme Court has ruled that you can have sectarian prayers, prayers in the name of Jesus Christ, to open any legislative session, any lawmaking body – a county commission can do it, a city council can do it, a state government can do it.”
Fischer he went on at great length endorsing Justice Clarence Thomas’s position that the First Amendment does not limit states’ constitutional right to, for example, declare the Southern Baptist Church to be the official state church and force people to support the church with taxes. Fischer, in fact, called Thomas “a stud on the issue of religious liberty.” (Fischer says he wouldn’t personally support coercive state establishment, but he supports Thomas’s constitutional analysis, and says it should be applied to interpret that the federal government has no right to tell public schools whether and how prayer is permitted.) Fischer is delighted that the Supreme Court’s majority decision discussed the fact that the Continental Congress opened with “emphatically Christian” prayer.
Hallelujah! Today YOU helped score a VICTORY at the U.S. Supreme Court, reaching the pinnacle of seven years of work and prayer with The Pray In Jesus Name Project.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that it's OK for pastors to pray "in Jesus' name" at city council meetings.
"The court today has upheld our first and most fundamental freedom. The court has rejected the idea that as citizens we must check our faith at the entrance to the public square. We applaud the majority on the court for getting that right. This is an historic victory for all Americans of faith and for the common-sense reading of the Constitution itself. The Court's affirmation of the right of Americans to practice their faith in public life and the public square is a major win for the religious liberty we have always cherished.”
Ralph Reed of the Faith and Freedom Coalition called it a victory that would empower Religious Right activists to push elected officials to bring sectarian prayer into more official settings:
Reed also announced that, armed with today’s Supreme Court decision, Faith & Freedom Coalition would redouble its efforts to encourage opportunities for prayers offered at meetings by town boards, city councils, and county commissions nationwide. The organization has in the past mobilized public support for local officials who have allowed such prayers at government meetings.
“Speech honoring God and invoking His blessing on our land should be welcomed, not treated with hostility,” said Reed. “With today’s decision, the government officials that faith-based voters help to elect can provide a forum for such expressions without fear of being reversed by future courts.”
Concerned Women for America celebrated, saying the decision “lifts up the best in our country.” CWA President Penny Nance managed to slam what she said has been “a push to establish atheism as the official religion of our land” and claim that the Supreme Court’s ruling was a win for everyone, “even the staunchest atheists.”
Those who object to these practices do not seek to exercise their religious liberty; they merely feel hostile towards other people’s religious practices and seek to silence them. They seek to silence those with whom they disagree….
The Founders of this great nation benefited and relied heavily on prayer to seek the guidance they needed to establish the foundations of our nation. When the first Congress met on September 7, 1774, it began with an amazing prayer “in the name and through the merits of Jesus Christ, Thy Son and our Savior.” No religious oppression or favoritism followed from that practice, only the blessings of freedom and liberty, including the freedom of religious thought, belief, or even non-belief.
Everyone wins, including the staunchest atheists, when we allow the free exercise of religion or non-religion according to a person’s conscience.
Fox News pundit Todd Starnes, who specializes in promoting fictitious threats to religious freedom, declared that “the Obama administration has been waging a war against people of the Christian faith,” somehow neglecting to mention that the Obama administration had actually weighed in on the side of the Town of Greece and its overwhelmingly Christian prayers. Starnes said it is “always a good day when the anti-Christian folks get smacked down by the Supreme Court” but said the fact that it was a 5-4 decision should be a “wake-up call” for Americans that elections matter.
Gary Bauer made the same point:
Here's the good news: The Supreme Court today upheld public prayers, even Christian prayers, at government meetings in 5-to-4 decision.
But that is the bad news too! The free exercise of religion depends on just one vote….
Now a win is a win. But don't miss the fact that this victory for religious liberty was won by the narrowest of margins. One more liberal appointment and the Supreme Court could easily ban prayers before town council meetings and legislative sessions. If that were to happen, our Pledge of Allegiance and the national motto would surely be next.
Your vote at the ballot box has a direct impact on our federal courts. Federal judges, including those on the Supreme Court, are appointed (by the president) and confirmed (by the Senate) by the men and women we elect to public office.
In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court today overturned a ruling by the Second Circuit appeals court and upheld the practice of an upstate New York town that begins its council meetings with prayers that are almost always given by Christian clergy. Religious Right groups are celebrating the ruling; Ralph Reed announced that his Faith and Freedom coalition would use the ruling to “redouble its efforts” to encourage more prayers at city and county government meetings. Both the decision and the Religious Right's responses are likely to invite more religiously divisive church-state conflicts.
Justice Clarence Thomas used his concurring opinion to argue, as he has before, that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment does not apply to the states at all; in other words, he believes there is no constitutional reason that a state cannot have an official religion. Fortunately, the decision in this case is far narrower than that.
It is, as Justice Stephen Breyer says in the opening sentence of his dissent, a “fact-sensitive” case. It did not revolve around the question of whether legislative prayer is unconstitutional – the Court has previously upheld legislative prayer in Marsh v Chambers – but in part whether the way clergy were invited to give prayers to open town council meetings was sufficiently inclusive. In Breyer’s words,
“The question in this case is whether the prayer practice of the town of Greece, by doing too little to reflect the religious diversity of its citizens, did too much, even if unintentionally, to promote the ‘political division along religious lines’ that ‘was one of the principal evils against which the First Amendment was intended to protect.’” [quoting from the Court’s 1971 decision in Lemon v Kurtzman]
Also at issue was whether a town council meeting, at which members of the public are appealing to councilmembers for specific action, is more susceptible to being a coercive environment than a prayer given by a chaplain to a group of lawmakers about to start their legislative day. For example, the council hears debates on individual applications from residents and business owners seeing zoning permits and other licenses. In her dissent, Justice Elena Kagan recognizes that the Court has upheld the historical tradition of legislative prayer, but writes that the town hall meetings in Greece are a kind of hybrid, “occasions for ordinary citizens to engage with and petition their government, often on highly individualized matters.” That, she says, requires special care that each member of the community is respected as an equal citizen, something the Town of Greece has not done.
While the plaintiffs in the Town of Greece case did not argue that town leaders were motivated by religious bias, they argued that the selection process led almost exclusively to prayers being given by Christian ministers, and to prayers that were not just ceremonial invocations but quite explicitly sectarian. Kagan writes that town meetings need not be religion-free zones, saying that “pluralism and inclusion in a town hall can satisfy the constitutional requirement of neutrality,” but concluded that the board of the Town of Greece did nothing to recognize religious diversity, and that its practice “does not square with the First Amendment’s promise that every citizen, irrespective of her religion, owns an equal share in her government.” She offers a hypothetical of a Muslim resident coming before the board to see a zoning variance to build an addition on her home:
“But just before she gets to say her piece, a minister deputized by the Town asks her to pray ‘in the name of God’s only son Jesus Christ.’ She must think – it is hardly paranoia, but only the truth—that Christian worship has become entwined with local governance. And now she faces a choice—to pray alongside the majority as one of that group or somehow to register her deeply felt difference….She does not wish to be rude to her neighbors, nor does she wish to aggravate the Board members whom she will soon be trying to persuade. And yet she does not want to acknowledge Christ’s divinity, any more than many of her neighbors would want to deny that tenet. So assume she declines to participate with the others in the first act of the meeting—or even, as the majority proposes, that she sands up and leaves the room altogether…At the least, she becomes a different kind of citizen, one who will not join in the religious practice that the Town Board has chosen as reflecting its own and the community’s most cherished beliefs. And she thus stands at a remove, based solely on religion, from her fellow citizens and her elected representatives.
Everything about that situation, I think, infringes the First Amendment…That the Town Board selects, month after month and year after year, prayergivers who will reliably speak in the voice of Christianity, and so places itself behind a single creed. That in offering those sectarian prayers, the Board’s chosen clergy members repeatedly call on individuals, prior to participating in local governance, to join in a form of worship that may be at odds with their own beliefs. That the clergy thus put some residents to the unenviable choice of either pretending to pray like the majority or declining to join its communal activity, at the very moment of petitioning their elected leaders. That the practice thus divides the citizenry, creating one class that shares the Board’s own evident religious beliefs and another (far smaller) class that does not. And that the practice also alters a dissenting citizen’s relationship with her government, making her religious difference salient when she seeks only to engage her elected representatives as would any other citizen.”
Kagan writes that the Court majority opinion reflected “two kinds of blindness.” First, it missed the difference between traditional legislative prayer and the setting of the town council, a difference she described as a “chasm,” and the fact that the prayers in Greece are mostly addressed to the public rather than lawmakers. She said the majority “changes the subject” rather than addressing the sectarian content of the prayers delivered in Greece, such as those invoking “the saving sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross” or “the plan of redemption that is fulfilled in Jesus Christ.” These are not, as she says, the recitation of “God save the United States and this honorable Court” invoked at the beginning of Supreme Court sessions.
Kagan cites George Washington’s well-known letter to the Newport Hebrew Congregation, in which he assured members of that congregation that the First Amendment does not simply tolerate people of minority faiths, rather all possess the same “immunities of citizenship.”
For me, that remarkable guarantee means at least this much: When the citizens of this country approach their government, they do so only as Americans, not as members of one faith or another. And that means that even in a partly legislative body, they should not confront government-sponsored worship that divides them along religious lines. I believe, for all the reasons I have given, that the Town of Greece betrayed that promise. I therefore respectfully dissent from the Court’s decision.
Breyer also joined Kagan’s dissent, as did Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor. The case is Town of Greece v. Galloway.
David Barton, an influential conservative activist who helped write the Republican Party’s 2012 platform, argues that the Bible opposes the minimum wage, unions and collective bargaining, estate taxes, capital gains taxes, and progressive taxation in general. Should a company whose owners share Barton’s views be allowed to ignore laws that protect workers by claiming that those laws violate the company’s religious beliefs?
That’s a questions being asked as the U.S. Supreme Court considers whether it will recognize for the first time ever that for-profit corporations can make religious freedom claims under federal law.
When an actual human being goes to court with a claim that the federal government is violating their freedom to practice their religion, judges consider several questions in applying the Religious Freedom Restoration Act: Does the law or policy in question place a substantial burden on the person’s religious exercise? If so, can it be justified because the law is advancing a compelling government interest and doing so in the least restrictive way?
That’s pretty straightforward, even if individual cases require tough judgment calls about what constitutes a substantial burden and a compelling government interest. But what happens when a for-profit corporation claims a law violates its exercise of religion? Can a business have a religious conscience?
That crucial question is being considered by the Supreme Court in two cases brought by for-profit corporations claiming their religious freedom is violated by a requirement that their insurance plans include comprehensive contraception coverage. In Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores and Conestoga Specialties Corp. v. Sebelius, business owners say their companies should not be required to provide their employees with insurance that covers kinds of contraception that violate the business owners’ religious beliefs or what they say are the religious beliefs of the corporation itself.
Legal scholars have weighed in on both sides of the claim. While federal courts have never recognized a for-profit corporation’s right to make a religious exercise claim, they have also never explicitly ruled that there is no such right. In the cases now before the Supreme Court, two appeals courts disagreed with each other. The Tenth Circuit sided with Hobby Lobby but the Third Circuit said, “[W]e simply cannot understand how a for-profit secular corporation—apart from its owners—can exercise religion.”
If the Supreme Court sets a new precedent granting for-profit corporations a soul, so to speak, where will it end? Law professors Ira Lupu and Robert Tuttle warn that it would produce “a massive redistribution of legal leverage away from employees and to their employers.” And, they write, “If Hobby Lobby’s claims prevail…other employer claims under RFRA will be very difficult to deny. Some current cases involve objections to coverage of all pregnancy prevention services. In the future, others may involve protection of employees with respect to different medical services, collective bargaining, family leave, or invidious discrimination.”
The Becket Fund, the conservative legal group representing Hobby Lobby, dismisses concerns about opening the floodgates to all kinds of religious objections, saying it hasn’t happened under RFRA to date. But of course, no Court has yet invited the flood of objections by giving business owners the right to claim corporate exemptions for religious belief.
Justice Elena Kagan raised this concern during oral argument, asking Hobby Lobby’s lawyer Paul Clement about employers who might have religious objections to sex discrimination laws, minimum wage laws, and child labor or family leave laws. Clement said he doubted the “parade of horribles” would happen. But Justice Kagan replied that if the Court were to adopt his argument, “then you would see religious objectors come out of the woodwork with respect to all of these laws." Solicitor General Paul Verrilli noted that if the Court grants corporations a right to make free exercise claims, judges will have to grapple with potential harm to employees and other third parties.
But it’s not just employees who could be hurt by such a ruling – it could be companies themselves. David Gans, writing for Slate, made an interesting observation: corporate America is staying out of this case almost completely, which is surprising given its eagerness to use federal courts to promote corporate interests. Gans says that not a single Fortune 500 company filed a brief in the case. Neither did the Chamber of Commerce or the National Federation of Independent Business. The corporate voices that did weigh in — the U.S. Women’s Chamber of Commerce and the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce — oppose Hobby Lobby’s claims because recognizing a corporate right to the free exercise of religion would “wreak havoc in corporate boardrooms.”
Gans cites a brief from a group of corporate law scholars “who argued that Hobby Lobby’s argument would eviscerate the fabric of corporate law” because ascribing a business owner’s religious views to the corporation would treat the owner and company as one and the same. “Such an unprincipled, idiosyncratic exception from corporate law fundamentals, the scholars argued, would breed confusion in the law, lead to costly litigation, and undermine critical aspects of corporate law designed to spur creativity and innovation.”
Mary Ann Glendon, a law professor who serves on Becket’s board, has argued that if we want businesses to behave responsibly, “they must be treated as having some moral agency.” The Supreme Court, she says, “should take the opportunity to confirm that businesses can and should have consciences.” It’s a nice thought. But given right-wing efforts to merge the Tea Party and Religious Right, and foster a growing belief that far-right economics and anti-government ideology are grounded in religious dogma, it seems highly unlikely that the consequence of giving conservative business leaders a powerful new tool for undermining government regulation would be more socially responsible corporate behavior.
Notorious anti-gay activist Fred Phelps has died, according to news reports.
Fred Phelps was the founder and patriarch of Westboro Baptist Church, which he and his family members used as a base for attention-grabbing protests at funerals of people who had died from AIDS, at gay-rights rallies and marches, at churches he deemed insufficiently anti-gay, and later at the funerals of American soldiers (based on the “logic” that America itself is vile and hated by God for its growing acceptance of LGBT people).
It is hard to know how much pain Phelps caused individual LGBT people and their families, particularly young people struggling with their sexuality and/or faith, with his denunciations. But he certainly failed in his mission to frighten or harass Americans away from support for equality. In fact he may have accelerated the trend by putting such an unappealing face on anti-gay bigotry that many American Christians wanted nothing to do with him.
Phelps did allow other anti-gay leaders to posture that he was the face of hatred, not them. But the substance of their message to gay people is similar: repent or be damned – it’s just that Phelps framed it as “God hates fags” while people like Bryan Fischer say God loves them and wants them to abandon their demonic lifestyle. They may have disagreed on rhetorical strategy, but they shared their hostility to an America in which LGBT people are treated equally under the law. In the end, other anti-gay religious leaders, even ones who distanced themselves from Phelps’s rhetoric, were tainted by him.
The Phelps family has inspired some truly creative activism by pro-equality activists, who used their appearances to raise funds for progressive organizations, and who created visually striking walls of “angels” to keep Phelps family protesters out of view of grieving family members.
Fred Phelps’s decision to protest military funerals may have accomplished the most in terms of helping more Americans view anti-gay bigotry as broadly un-American. He may have left exactly the legacy he didn’t want.
Given Matt Barber’s own penchant for extremely harsh rhetoric, it’s not surprising that his newish website BarbWire has become a home for anti-gay hostility and Religious Right alarmism over the impending death of religious freedom in America.
Today’s offering comes from Gina Miller, who is described as “a conservative Christian political writer and radio/television voice professional.” Miller’s article, “Why Are Christians (Really) the World’s Most Persecuted Group?” was written in response to a column from Middle East Forum that BarbWire had linked to. Its author had argued that Christians are persecuted because Christianity is the world’s biggest religion, it seeks converts, and is a religion of martyrdom. No, Miller says, Satan is the reason Christians are persecuted. And Satan is operating through a lot of channels.
Islam, she says, is Satanic.
Islam is a demonic, militant-political-religious ideology born of the children of Ishmael, and like them, it has greatly proliferated. It is one of Satan’s premiere deceptions, tyrannically ensnaring countless millions of people….
Those who adhere to Islam naturally have a demonically-inspired hatred for the people of the Lord, but as the Bible says, they hate everyone. However, it is with the deepest of hatreds that they regard Christians and Jews, because their hatred is Satan’s hatred, and it goes well beyond simple dislike or disagreement on principles. It goes to the heart of the spiritual essence of the foundational struggle, to the basic forces of darkness and light.
But it’s not just Islam. Every non-Christian religion is Satanic, she says, and so are liberal Christians:
From the beginning of time, Satan and the other fallen angels (demons) have made war against the Lord and His creation. It is their sole mission to steal, kill and destroy what God has made and to keep as many people as possible from the knowledge of salvation through Jesus. In this mission, they have heaped deception upon deception for mankind. They have created countless false doctrines and distractions to mislead and deceive people into taking the path to Hell. The world’s false religions—all those whose foundation is not solely the Gospel of Christ—lead to one place: eternal damnation and separation from God. This includes false, so-called “Christian” religions that deny Christ as the only Way to salvation, and instead, rely on traditions of men and on works to “earn” salvation, something we could never earn.
The frenzied, irrational hatred people of the world have for Christians is inspired by, and based in, Satan’s hatred for God and His people. It’s a demonic hatred found in people who have rejected the Lord. Have you ever noticed that there is not the same deep hatred for non-Christians and non-Christian religions? Satan doesn’t hate his own work; he aggressively promotes and supports it. Supernatural hatred for Christians and Jews exists because they are God’s people, the real deal, chosen by Him from the foundation of the world to be miraculously reconciled to Him. We simply remind Satan of his eternal defeat and the fact that his time as “the god of this world” is short and growing to a close. He is furious in his great loss.
And, of course, supporters of church-state separation (described by Miller as people who want to “eradicate all vestiges of Christianity in America”) are Satanic:
At the same time, as we watch our world marching inexorably toward the horror of the very last days and the period of great tribulation, those of us who put our trust in the Lord must not lose courage or hope. The Word of the Lord is true, and every bit of it will come to pass. This is why we see such a feverish effort by satanically-inspired people to eradicate all vestiges of Christianity in America today. The campaign has its source in the demonic realm.
Barber himself is no stranger to such rhetoric. He has said Satan is behind the marriage equality movement and the Obama administration’s support for LGBT equality.
Ah, Friday night at CPAC. If you weren’t joining the “drunken yuck monkeys” whose loutish behavior so incensed Matt Barber, and you weren’t attending the white nationalist party whose invitation was shared by the Southern Poverty Law Center, you could catch an advance screening of Persecuted, a movie scheduled for release later this year. Some of us who attended the screening felt pretty persecuted ourselves by being forced to watch the trailer over and over and over again in the half hour before show time. Maybe that was a plan to put us on emotional edge for this “thriller” about religious liberty in America being destroyed by the sinister forces of freedom, equality, and religious pluralism.
Since I’m writing about a movie few people have seen, I will say for the record, SPOILER ALERT.
But first a little context: Bemoaning the dominance of liberals in Hollywood is a familiar theme at right-wing conferences like CPAC and the Values Voter Summit. But conservatives in Hollywood are organizing. And they’re working hard to convince studios to produce more films with “pro-family” and religious themes. (Son of God and Noah are examples.) A Friday morning panel on the topic featured actor and former U.S. Senator Fred Thompson; Persecuted producer Daniel Lusko; Gerald Molen, a producer of Dinesh D’Souza’s 2016: Obama’s America and his upcoming film America; and D’Souza himself. If anyone had qualms about having Dinesh D’Souza being held up as a “values” icon, they kept it to themselves.
But back to Persecuted, which features Thompson, Dean Stockwell, Bruce Davison, and James Remar. The cast includes a couple of well-known Christian performers, comedian Brad Stine and singer Natalie Grant. As in real life, Fox News’s Gretchen Carlson plays a journalist.
As a movie, the film is Preposterous. But as an insight into the paranoia and worldview of Religious Right activists, Persecuted is as fascinating as it is disturbing.
The plot revolves around an evil senator who is obsessed with a piece of legislation, “The Faith and Fairness Act.” It’s never clear exactly what the Act does, but it seems to force all religions to operate under a single umbrella organization, and to allow members of any faith the ability to preach in others’ houses of worship. It thus combines the Religious Right’s fear that liberals are itching to silence Christian broadcasters by reviving the long-defunct Fairness Doctrine, and their resentment that people view them as intolerant for believing their faith is the only avenue to truth and God.
Standing tall against this plot is evangelist John Luther (John Calvin/John Wesley and Martin Luther?). Luther is sort of a Billy Graham figure who has overcome a past of drug abuse to become a national figure. His ministry, we are told, reaches more people than the evening news. Early in the movie, the evil Senator Harrison tries to bully Luther into backing his legislation at a religious rally; when Luther refuses to compromise his faith for the senator’s political gain, Harrison puts in motion an elaborate plot to destroy him. The also-evil president of the United States is in on the scheme: he looks a little bit like Ted Kennedy and sounds more than a little bit like Bill Clinton.
The plan involves murdering a teenage girl and framing Luther as her rapist and murderer. While Luther is on the run, Harrison corrupts the rest of the ministry’s leadership with promises of “earmarks” and personalized tax breaks, and they throw the ministry’s support behind the senator’s new law.
Somehow, Luther, the most hunted man in America, is able to sneak into the launch event for Sumac, the new organization that brings together Jews, Christians, and Muslims and brings to fruition Sen. Harrison’s “dream of a tradition of faith as diverse as our skins.” If the point about the dangers of diversity and religious pluralism isn’t obvious enough, the senator says America is “no longer a Christian nation…it never has been,” echoing a statement by President Obama that caused spluttering outrage among right-wing Christian leaders. By the way, in the movie, the whole governmentally-forced-religious-merger thing is justified as a response to the threat of terrorism.
Still with me? Luther has an amazing knack for evading government agents disguised only by sunglasses and a hoodie, and shows a remarkable ability to outrun professional killers even with a bullet in his back. Eventually, with help from his dad (confusingly, and without explanation, a Catholic priest), another young priest, some honorable FBI agents, and Gretchen Carlson, Luther is able to clear his name, but at great price: his father is killed by Secret Service assassins.
The movie doesn’t quite wrap things up in a happy-ending bow. There’s a climactic scene in which the good FBI agents come to the rescue, and Luther, despite having nearly bled to death, manages to kill the murderous Secret Service agent. Next thing we know, he is making his post-recovery return to his ministry’s headquarters, where all the sell-out executives are still in place, telling him how much money has been pouring in along with cards from well-wishers. Luther glares at them, grabs his Bible, and heads to the White House, where the sinister president introduces Luther at a press conference and, as he is headed to the podium, whispers in his ear to say nice things.
The movie ends with Luther clutching the podium and staring into the camera. Will he speak Truth to power? Will he denounce the president and his money-grubbing ministry colleagues? How soon will filming start on the sequel?
Let’s review the symbolism in Persecuted. The enemies of religious liberty are those who use the language of fairness and equality and those who say America is not a Christian nation. Religious pluralism is portrayed not as a matter of respecting freedom for every faith tradition, but as a deceptive, coercive tool of government to erase religious difference and put all faiths under the politically correct thumb of government. Other religious leaders are either co-conspirators or complicit sheep. The only non-Christians I remember in the film were those sitting silently on the dais as Sen. Harrison launched his religious takeover project. Oh, and about that growing cohort of religions “nones” in America? Luther’s dad tells him at one point that those who believe in nothing must destroy him in order to achieve their goals. And with the exception of some FBI agents, government officials are as soulless and devoid of scruples as the characters on House of Cards.
Luther and his father symbolize the alliance between right-wing evangelicals and conservative Catholics. We aren’t told how it is that Luther’s father came to be a Catholic priest, but perhaps he was an Episcopalian who left for the Catholic Church when his own denomination became insufficiently conservative on sexuality issues. After Luther finds his father murdered, he spends the rest of the cat-and-mouse drama with his dad’s bloody rosary beads wrapped around his hands: a symbol of the shared willingness for martyrdom pledged by conservative evangelical and Catholic signers of the Manhattan Declaration?
It’s hard to say what kind of impact Persecuted might find, but any contribution it makes to our civic discourse is likely to be negative. Its backers clearly hope that a marketing campaign targeting conservative Christians will find an audience and help push a trend toward bigger-budget movies with that audience in mind.
Whether or not Persecuted is a box-office success, it is one more story-telling weapon in the arsenal of the right-wing media machine that is dedicated to promoting the ideology that America was meant by God to be a Christian nation, and that the federal government and the forces of pluralism and “political correctness” are agents of tyranny bent on forcing Christians to bend to their will. Sort of like Ben Carson’s speech at CPAC.
National Journal’s Alex Seitz-Wald reported yesterday on the high visibility at CPAC of those who want Ben Carson to run for president. The Draft Ben Carson for President Committee has a booth in the exhibit area and the shuttle bus I rode between the suburban Maryland conference center and downtown D.C. was plastered with a large banner urging Carson to run.
Carson, an African American pediatric neurosurgeon, has had a fervent right-wing following since he used his appearance with President Obama at the 2013 National Prayer Breakfast to denounce political correctness and suggest that the Bible supports a flat tax. (He made the same case as CPAC last year.) Carson appeals to anti-government conservatives by calling to phase out government poverty assistance and let churches and other charities deal with the fallout. And he appeals to Religious Right activists by claiming there is a "war on God" in America and by denouncing homosexuality and opposing same-sex marriage. He has claimed that the IRS has targeted his family and associates and says the Obama administration is like the Gestapo and wants to shut down Fox News.
The National Journal quotes committee director Vernon Robinson saying that if Carson can draw just 17 percent of the black vote, “the Roosevelt Democratic coalition is destroyed” and it will be impossible for Democrats to win the White House.
Robinson makes the same case in a direct mail piece I received this week. The mailer itself unfolds into a Ben Carson poster, and includes letters from Robinson and from the group’s “national chairman” John Philip Sousa IV. “I am convinced that no 2016 Republican ticket can win without Ben Carson on it,” writes Robinson. “Only Ben Carson can get enough black votes to keep the Democrats from winning the White House.”
Sousa’s letter says Carson is the only candidate who can defeat Hillary Clinton, heal America and unite Americans. “Don’t just sit back and let the Republican establishment pick the next GOP nominee!” Sousa urges, taking direct aim at New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie:
Besides, do you really want a candidate for President who is just another big spending Republican like Christie? And, can you really trust Christie who was pro-abortion before he was pro-life to nominate pro-life judges to the U.S. Supreme Court?
The simple truth is that moderates like McCain and Christie are sure to lose, while conservatives like Ronald Reagan and Ben Carson are sure to win.
Seitz-Wald reports that the committee to draft Carson raised $2.83 million in its first six months of operation.