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.
In an interview on VCY America's Crosstalk yesterday, Liberty Counsel chairman Mat Staver criticized President Obama for being “very pro-homosexual” and “pro-Muslim,” and “doing more harm to our foundational, fundamental values than any president in American history.”
Asked by host Jim Schneider about the “really troubling” decision to invite the Dalai Lama to give an opening prayer at the Senate yesterday, Staver responded that the Dalai Lama's presence in the Senate and the choice of Rajiv Shah, a Hindu USAID official, to deliver an address at the National Prayer breakfast showed the president’s “insensitivity to Christianity.”
Staver criticized new IRS rules that allow legally married same-sex couples to jointly file federal tax returns and "pro-Muslim" EEOC guidelines for allowing religious dress in the workplace, which is ironic since Staver purports to represent a "religious liberty" group.
Schneider: We’ve received from the IRS, they issued a video clip that they posted on YouTube giving instructions to those that are so-called same-sex marriage partners, telling them that if they’re marriage took place in a state or country that recognizes so-called same-sex marriage, that they may claim married filing jointly on their return. The IRS is just going full-bore on this regard.
Staver: Well, it is the IRS going full bore. This is the administration focusing on things that are unnecessary and hurtful, rather than focusing on the job that they’re supposed to do.
This is the IRS that has been targeting conservative organizations and Tea Party groups, pro-Israel and pro-family organizations. This is the IRS that refuses to present testimony before Congress. And this is the IRS that now has the proposed rules to silence 501(c)4 organizations, which are going to primarily hurt conservative organizations.
And now, instead of focusing on what they should do, they’re promoting the so-called lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and whatever else of the alphabet you want to add to that, agenda. This is a very pro-homosexual administration, from President Obama right down to all the people that work underneath him. Not only here in America, but they’re pushing this agenda around the world as well. It is a very damaging agenda. This president is doing more harm to our foundational, fundamental values than any president in American history.
Schneider: Two more issues that have happened today, Matt. Today, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the EEOC, issued a very comprehensive statement on religious garb and grooming in the workplace, rights and responsibilities. What’s behind this?
Staver: Well, what’s behind it, obviously, is the president’s pro-Muslim position. And obviously, when you look at the examples, there are examples for all different kinds of religions, and particularly Muslim religions, but I really don’t see much mention at all of Christianity. This is as though Christianity doesn’t exist.
They then moved on to the Dalai Lama’s visit and the Hindu speaker at the National Prayer Breakfast, which Staver said illustrated the president’s “insensitivity to Christianity.”
Schneider: CNSNews.com is reporting that this very morning, the Dalai Lama delivered the opening prayer at the United States Senate, encouraging prayer to Buddha and all other gods. Just really troubling. We’re not a country that’s founded on ‘all other gods,’ are we?
Staver: No, and in fact if you go back to the National Prayer Breakfast just a few weeks ago in Washington, DC, after Ben Carson spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast a year ago, President Obama for six months or so threatened to not return. And unfortunately, some of the leaders, not wanting to have the first president of the Unites States not attend, ultimately caved in to his pressure, and he’s the one, we are told, that selected the person to speak. The person to speak, now, for the very first time in the National Prayer Breakfast history was not a Christian, but I believe was Hindu, and didn’t mention anything about Christianity or God. This was someone who was picked by Obama, and under those circumstances, Obama would have now agreed to come. I would have said, then go ahead and be the first president. It would certainly show some of your insensitivity to Christianity that you’ve been showing ever since you were inaugurated.
Last week’s Tea Party Unity conference call – after an eventful conversation between Don Feder and Rick Scarborough – featured a presentation from Neil Mammen, author of Jesus is involved in politics!: Why aren’t you? Why isn’t your church?
Mammen fielded a question from a caller who asked, “Do you think that we should insist that the next president should have strong religious beliefs to set good examples here in America?” because “Reagan, who ended the Cold War, was by using his Christian beliefs back in the ‘80s, and Obama, who is destroying America with his disbeliefs and his persecution of Christianity here in America, is doing great harm.”
“Who better to run a country than someone who loves that law, who will respect that law, who knows the Lawgiver?” Mammen responded. “So absolutely, yes. And anytime you get somebody who disdains law, doesn’t care for the law, who hates the Lawgiver and doesn’t think he deserves his sceptre, doesn’t think that the law giver knows what’s good for you, for us, then naturally you’re going to get pain, suffering, disease and death.”
Most RWW readers probably had little intention of reading Phyllis Schlafly’s latest column, entitled “Obama’s War on the First Amendment.” But just in case you were interested, we can spare you the time. Its ridiculous nature is encapsulated in one paragraph:
Obama has made it clear that he doesn’t want any expression of religious faith in any public place, including buildings or schools or events. He wants to redefine the First Amendment from “free exercise” to “freedom of worship,” which means you would only be able to go inside your church, shut and perhaps lock the doors, and say a prayer where no one else can hear you.
Actually that transparently false first sentence is enough. No expression of religious faith in any public space? Has Phyllis Schlafly ever listened to an Obama speech? Did she watch either of his inauguration ceremonies? His National Prayer Breakfast addresses?
It’s one thing to disagree with the Obama administration’s position requiring insurance coverage of contraception, and to take a position that private corporations have the right to exempt themselves from laws that company owners say violate their religious beliefs. It’s another to make the ludicrous leap that the administration is out to force all religious expression behind closed doors.
In her column, Schlafly says “Make no mistake; we are in a war for religious liberty.” Clearly, in Schlafly’s war, truth is already a casualty.
Last month, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus called for Michigan GOP committeeman Dave Agema to resign over anti-gay, anti-Muslim comments. Apparently, the Iowa Republican Party didn’t get the message. Barely a week after the Agema controversy broke, the Iowa GOP picked an anti-gay crusader to be the state party co-chair.
Danny Carroll, a former state representative who took over as the Iowa GOP’s co-chair on February 3, is a lobbyist for The Family Leader, the right-wing social issues group run by Bob Vander Plaats, who is considering running for Senate. While Vander Plaats’ over-the-top rhetoric is better known, Carroll is equally adamant in his opposition to gay rights and his Christian-nation view of government.
Back in 2010, Danny Carroll, then the head of Iowa Family Policy Center, refused to endorse the candidacy of Republican Terry Brandstad even after he won the gubernatorial primary because of what he saw as Brandstad’s insufficient opposition to gay rights. Brandstad merely wanted to pass a state constitutional amendment overturning the Iowa Supreme Court’s 2009 marriage equality ruling; Carroll’s preferred candidate, Vander Plaats, led a campaign to target and oust the judges behind the ruling. Carroll assured Vander Plaats’ supporters that they were “answering to God Almighty.” After the election, Vander Plaats was hired to head The Family Leader, a new umbrella group that encompassed the Iowa Family Policy Center.
At a Family Leader conference last year, Carroll insisted that more important than the breakdown of families was the “crisis is in the definition of family” – that is, the growing acceptance of same-sex marriage. He said the group was pushing for a state constitutional amendment on marriage equality because “just about every problem facing society today could be fixed, eliminated or significantly reduced if we held up marriage between one man and one woman for life.”
Over the past several years, Carroll has used his influence in Iowa to back candidates who share his far-right views. In 2008, he co-chaired Mike Huckabee’s presidential campaign in Iowa. In 2012, he went for Michele Bachmann, who he declared was “biblically qualified” for the presidency.
But Carroll’s first choice in 2012 was maybe even further to the right than Bachmann: He backed the short-lived presidential campaign of Alabama Judge Roy Moore, who became famous for defying a court order to remove a monument of the Ten Commandments from a government building, and who now wants to hold a Constitutional Convention to pass an amendment banning same-sex marriage. When Moore dropped out of the race, Carroll lamented, “He’s a great guy. I love him and respect him. He’s a hero, that’s for sure. And he’s an honorable person. I can’t say anything negative against Judge Moore. Just the reality of politics, I guess.”
Carroll seems to share Moore’s leanings. In a speech in 2010, Carroll blamed the Supreme Court ruling banning school-organized prayer for recent teen suicides in Iowa and railed against legal abortion and gambling. He said these trends could only be reversed by electing people “who will stand up and unashamedly and without apology assure us that they will be guided by absolute and timeless Christian morals that comes from a regular reading of God’s Word.”
“I am through apologizing for what this country was founded on: a firm conviction that a free people cannot be self-governed unless they have a strong conviction to religion and morality,” he added.
In an interview with radio host Jan Mickelson earlier this month, Carroll agreed with Mickelson’s assessment that his appointment to serve alongside the Ron Paul-supporting state party chair A.J. Spiker represented “a marriage between the Paulistas and the evangelicals, or the Teavangelicals” in Iowa. In a possible signal that the party was patching things up, Carroll last week endorsed Brandstad’s reelection bid.
Carroll is hardly alone as a hard-right social conservative in the state-level leadership of a party that just last year proposed softening its image to expand its base. As Brian noted last month, it was odd that Priebus singled out Agema, since anti-gay sentiment is a common feature among RNC committee members. In fact, in Iowa, Carroll will be serving alongside RNC committeewoman Tamara Scott, who once warned that gay marriage will lead to man-Eiffel Tower marriage and who blamed the recession in part on legalized same-sex marriage.
Is it possible to talk about human rights abuses in Russia in the context of the Olympics and not once mention Russia’s anti-gay laws, the rising tide of anti-gay violence, or the controversy over the impact that Russia’s anti-gay “propaganda” law might have on athletes and visitors? Sure, if you’re Sen. Ted Cruz speaking at an event hosted by the Heritage Foundation.
Cruz, darling of the Religious Right and Tea Party, slammed Russia’s “increasingly autocratic” president at the January 28 Heritage event. He portrayed Vladimir Putin as a tyrant systematically working to crush Ukrainian independence and reassemble the old Soviet Union. And of course he took the opportunity to slam the Obama administration, which he said was not standing up forcefully for human rights.
Following Cruz to the microphone was Katrina Lantos Swett, Vice Chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Swett, a “proud Democrat,” detailed a litany of anti-democratic laws adopted in Putin’s Russia, including “religious freedom” and “extremism” laws that give the government wide latitude to discriminate against minority religions, including Muslims, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Pentecostal Christians. She said the Russian government is undermining civil society with severe restrictions on protests and the return of Soviet-era tactics like sentencing dissidents to psychiatric treatment. Swett did mention the anti-gay “propaganda” law in her list of Putin’s anti-democratic actions.
There are a couple remarkable things about this panel, other than finding myself in agreement with Cruz about something (Putin is an anti-democratic strongman).
First, in his 26-minute speech and during the Q&A, at an event about human rights and the Olympics, Cruz did not breathe a word about the raging controversy over Russia’s attacks on the rights and lives of LGBT people. The closest Cruz came was mentioning, as an example of Putin’s efforts to crush dissent, his moves against “a punk rock band.” Cruz joked about his unwillingness to say the band’s name (Pussy Riot).
Second, Cruz is clearly at odds with anti-gay and anti-abortion leaders in the U.S. who have been busily praising Putin as the defender of traditional values and savior of Christianity. Liberty Counsel’s Matt Barber, for example, has said Putin is being allowed to “out-Christian our once-Christian nation.” The American Family Association’s Bryan Fischer has called Putin “the lion of Christianity, the defender of Christian values, the president that’s calling his nation back to embracing its identity as a nation founded on Christian values.”
In fact there is a whole gaggle of Religious Right leaders who have, as Miranda has reported, fallen all over themselves to praise Putin and his anti-free-speech, anti-gay crackdown. And some of them have done more than just praise Putin. Brian Brown of the National Organization for Marriage traveled to Russia to build support for anti-gay legislation. The Illinois-based Howard Center for Family, Religion, and Society is excited about heading to Moscow for its 2014 “World Congress of Families” summit.
Cruz was eager to criticize the Obama administration for not advocating more strongly for human rights in Russia, but what does he have to say about his Religious Right pals who are actively praising and enabling Putin’s anti-democratic moves? And who have attacked the Obama administration’s efforts to promote the human rights of LGBT people abroad? We’re listening.
Among the many court cases challenging contraception requirements under the Affordable Care Act, the case involving the Little Sisters of the Poor has been, and continues to be, a strange one. The latest wrinkle came on Friday in what SCOTUSblog’s Lyle Denniston calls a “partial win” for the order of nuns.
The Little Sisters, represented by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, appealed to the Supreme Court to prevent the group from having to sign a form documenting its religious objection to providing contraception coverage while its broader challenge to the law moves through the courts. The Tenth Circuit had rejected a similar request.
Under the Obama administration’s accommodation for religious groups, that form would exempt the organization from providing or paying for contraception coverage, and that responsibility would pass to the group’s insurer. In a brief to the Supreme Court, the Solicitor General’s office said that by Becket’s reasoning, a Quaker couldn’t be required to attest to his religious objections before being absolved of military obligations. But Becket insisted that the form acted as a “permission slip” that would trigger contraception coverage, and that would make the nuns complicit.
What makes this argument even stranger is the fact that the Little Sisters’ insurer is classified as a “church plan,” which is exempt from enforcement of the ACA requirement. So whether or not the Little Sisters signed the form, their lay employees would still not have access to coverage.
On Friday, the Supreme Court granted the Little Sisters’ request for an injunction, with a proviso. The group did not have to sign the government’s religious objection form, but it did have to notify the Department of Health and Human Services of its religious objections by letter. The Becket Fund declared victory and announced itself “delighted” by the Court’s compromise.
So, to recap: requiring a religious organization to sign a form opting out of providing contraception coverage is religious tyranny, but requiring a religious organization to send a letter to HHS stating its objections to providing contraception coverage is a victory for religious freedom.
Just wait until the Supreme Court hears the more far-reaching Hobby Lobby case, in which Becket and its client seek to establish the principle that for-profit companies can opt out of laws protecting their employees if those laws conflict with the religious beliefs of the corporation’s owners.
January 16 is Religious Freedom Day, which commemorates the Virginia General Assembly’s approval of Thomas Jefferson’s historic Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, a precursor to the religious liberty protections in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
In this year’s Religious Freedom Day proclamation, President Barack Obama writes,
Today, America embraces people of all faiths and of no faith. We are Christians and Jews, Muslims and Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs, atheists and agnostics. Our religious diversity enriches our cultural fabric and reminds us that what binds us as one is not the tenets of our faiths, the colors of our skin, or the origins of our names. What makes us American is our adherence to shared ideals -- freedom, equality, justice, and our right as a people to set our own course.
America proudly stands with people of every nation who seek to think, believe, and practice their faiths as they choose. In the years to come, my Administration will remain committed to promoting religious freedom, both at home and across the globe. We urge every country to recognize religious freedom as both a universal right and a key to a stable, prosperous, and peaceful future.
As we observe this day, let us celebrate America's legacy of religious liberty, embrace diversity in our own communities, and resolve once more to advance religious freedom in our time.
Melissa Rogers, a widely respected advocate for religious liberty who currently serves as special assistant to the president and executive director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, also published a reflection on Religious Freedom Day.
Rogers celebrates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which passed Congress by unanimous consent in 2000 with backing from a politically and religiously diverse coalition. RLUIPA (pronounced R-loopa) has helped Christians, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, people who practice Native American traditional religions and others protect their ability to meet and worship, and has helped people in prisons, jails, mental institutions, and state-run nursing homes preserve their religious freedom.
The values embodied in RLUIPA are universal ideals. Department of Justice attorneys have provided technical assistance on issues involving construction of places of worship to government officials in Spain, Indonesia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and other countries wrestling with these same issues. In 2012, the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, Tennessee won the right to move into its new mosque with the help of a RLUIPA suit brought by the Department of Justice. On the day of the court decision, the mosque’s Imam, Sheikh Ossama Bahloul, remarked that America’s dedication to religious freedom can serve as a model for others around the world, and added: “I think this is an opportunity for us all to celebrate the freedom and liberty that, in fact, exist in America and to teach our young people to believe even more in the U.S. Constitution.”
People For the American Way and PFAW Foundation celebrate religious freedom by working to uphold the First Amendment’s twin pillars of religious liberty: the Establishment Clause, which mandates the separation of church and state and prevents government from playing religious favorites, and the Free Exercise Clause, which protects individuals’ right to worship and exercise their faith free from government interference.
Religious liberty is central to the American Way, but it has also become a rallying cry for Religious Right leaders and their political allies, who all too often portray criticism as persecution, and policy disagreement as tyranny. That poisons our political climate.
Like other constitutional guarantees, religious liberty is fundamental but not absolute, particularly when it comes into tension with other principles like equality under the law or protecting public health. Advocates for religious freedom frequently disagree about how to apply religious liberty principles in specific cases, and where courts should draw the lines in cases balancing competing interests. These are complex and often very contentious issues. People For the American Way Foundation’s “12 Rules for Mixing Religion and Politics” set out principles for bringing religion and religious values into the public arena in ways that are constructive rather than divisive.
The American Family Association has jumped on board a mini-controversy over an Instagram photo posted by Beyonce in which the singer sits in front of the image of Jesus in an Andy Warhol rendition of The Last Supper at a Miami juicebar.
In an interview with the Christian Post, AFA president Tim Wildmon took the opportunity to link the Instagram photo to the Duck Dynasty contraversy, claiming that the lack of an outcry over the juicebar photo proves the existence of a "double-standard" for Christians.
Is nothing sacred anymore? This is clearly an act of disrespect towards Jesus Christ, whom Beyoncé covers up with her pose. This had to be done intentionally. However, you will not see the media condemn her for offending Christians in the same way they did Phil Robertson for offending homosexuals because there is a double-standard. Christians are the only group in America you can bash with impunity.
h/t Miami New Times
If you’re already tired of the Duck Dynasty flap, I have some bad news for you: Religious Right leaders aren’t going to drop it. On Christmas Eve, while millions of Americans were finishing Christmas preparations and gathering with loved ones, Janet Porter and Rick Scarborough were holding an emergency conference call to launch Porter’s latest gimmicky scheme: sending rubber ducks to A&E executives to protest the suspension of Phil Robertson.
Porter has been warning about a war on American Christians for years – she even wrote a book called The Criminalization of Christianity. So she clearly sees this as her (current) last chance to save America. Faith2Action has launched a website MailTheDuck.com, at which you can hand over your contact information to Porter so that she can send a postcard on your behalf to Nancy Dubuq, CEO of A&E Networks, declaring “You Can’t Camouflage Anti-Christian Bigotry!” The postcard demands an apology and warns of a boycott until Robertson is reinstated. You can also fork over some cash if you want to send a rubber duck or ten to A&E to be sure they get the message.
The opening image of the website is, unfortunately, a big lie. It’s a picture of Robertson with the word FIRED stamped across it. In fact, Robertson hasn’t been fired for making offensive comments in a magazine interview, just suspended. Americans who have wanted to get their Duck on this week have been able to watch a Duck Dynasty marathon. Even WND, in its story on the project, notes: “According to Entertainment Weekly, sources close to the show report nine of the 10 remaining episodes of season four have already been shot, and the network has no plans to cut out the footage featuring the senior Robertson.”
But on the conference call Porter and Scarborough had with activists, freedom was hanging by a thread. Robertson’s suspension is “an atrocity,” “an attack on religious liberty” and an effort to “shut down Christians.” Faith itself is at risk of “being declared unlawful.” Porter even compared Robertson to the famous Chinese activist who stood in front of a tank (yeah, that’s just the kind of risk Robertson took by spouting off to GQ magazine). Porter says Americans can courageously stand with Robertson by sending millions of ducks (probably made in China, come to think of it) to A&E.
Porter mentioned that she is working on a documentary about anti-Christian persecution. A caller who described herself as a former lesbian urged Porter to include the story of Lisa Miller, the woman who became a far-right folk hero when she kidnapped her child and fled the country rather than obeying court ordered custody arrangements involving Miller’s former partner. Porter said Miller’s story is part of her film project.
Back to the ducks. In addition to Scarborough’s Vision America, Porter’s new project is being cosponsored by the dominionist Oak Initiative (Porter is a board member) and by Liberty Counsel, the Religious Right legal group that used to represent Lisa Miller. Of course, Porter and Scarborough aren’t the only ones trying to cash in on the Duck Dynasty controversy. Among those who have launched petitions are the National Organization for Marriage and Mike Huckabee. Huckabee and Porter are longtime allies; she declared his 2008 presidential candidacy anointed by God.
Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, a centrist Democrat facing a tough re-election campaign, launched a new political ad this month, and both the ad and the responses to it have highlighted the challenges of mixing religion and politics in ways that respect religious freedom, pluralism, and the spirit of the Constitution.
In Pryor’s new ad, he doesn’t talk about political issues or his opponent; he just talks about the Bible.
“I’m not ashamed to say that I believe in God and I believe in His word. The Bible teaches us no one has all the answers. Only God does. And neither political party is always right. This is my compass, my north star. It gives me comfort and guidance to do what's best for Arkansas. I’m Mark Pryor, and I approve this message because this is who I am and what I believe.”
The centrality of faith in Pryor’s life is well-known. But the ad was slammed by Brad Dayspring at the National Republican Senatorial Committee, who mockingly suggested the ad contradicted comments Pryor had made last year: “The Bible is really not a rule book for political issues. Everybody can see it differently.” But I don’t see the contradiction. In both, Pryor seems to be acknowledging that even people who look to the Bible for guidance can disagree on particular policy positions. Dayspring’s attack drew a surprising rebuke from Pryor’s Republican opponent, Rep. Tom Cotton, who called the NRSC response “bizarre and offensive.”
The ad has drawn a mixed response from progressive commentators. Ed Kilgore at the Washington Monthly praises Pryor for “basically saying the Bible teaches some humility and reserves wisdom and final judgment to Gold Almighty, not to his self-appointed representatives on earth.” But Paul Waldman at the American Prospect takes issue with Pryor’s “I’m not ashamed” line, suggesting it is a dog-whistle for those who believe the Religious Right’s charge that Christianity is under attack in America.
Waldman notes, however, that the ad could have been a lot worse, reminding us of this notorious Rick Perry ad from 2012 which starts with very similar “I’m not ashamed” language but then gets “much more vulgar.”
A more recent example of the “a lot worse” school of religion and politics came from Rep. Paul Broun of Georgia, who is currently running for the Senate. In a six-minute speech from the floor of the House of Representatives in September, he mixed personal religious testimony with Christian-nation claims that the government should be run according to his interpretation of the Bible.
Broun’s remarks start with a core Christian Reconstructionist principle: that God ordained family, church and government and gave each a specific area of authority. But, he says, because of “this mistaken idea that we’re supposed to have a separation of church and state, the family and the church have abdicated a lot of its duties over to government.” (Reconstructionists believe that God did not authorize government to be involved, for example, in education or the reduction of poverty; that role is meant for family and church.)
Broun calls the Bible “the basis of our nation,” and says the fact that we aren’t running society accordingly will mean the death of our Republic. The founding fathers, he says, were “Bible-believing Christians” who believed that “every aspect of life should follow the dictates of God’s inerrant word. That’s what I believe in. That’s what we should all believe in.”
This message is not new for Broun. Last year Kilgore wrote about a Broun speech in which he said that evolutionary science is “from the pit of hell” and that the Bible is a “manufacturer’s handbook” that “teaches us how to run all of public policy and everything in society,” as well as our lives as individuals. “That’s the reason as your Congressman I hold the Holy Bible as being the major directions to me of how I vote in Washington, D.C.”
There are important distinctions between Pryor’s ad and Broun’s speeches. It is helpful to look at them through the prism of People For the American Way Foundation’s 12 Rules for Mixing Religion and Politics. These “rules of the road” are meant to generate a broader conversation about how we can create and sustain a civic space that reflects the principles of the Constitution and the values of respectful civic discourse, one that welcomes the participation of people of all faiths and people of none. Consider this passage from the 12 Rules:
Public officials are free to talk about their faith, the role it plays in their lives, and how it influences their approach to issues, but must not use the power of their office to proselytize or impose particular religious beliefs or practices on others.
Pryor’s ad seems to be intended to keep to the appropriate side of this rule, where Broun clearly violates the rule by proselytizing from the floor of the House.
In addition, Broun, like David Barton and other Religious Right leaders, claims that the right-wing position on every political issue finds some grounding or justification in the Bible, which should be the final word on every policy matter. Broun’s insistence that every aspect of law and society should fit his interpretation of the Bible also violates another rule, “It is appropriate to discuss the moral and religious dimensions of policy issues, but religious doctrine alone is not an acceptable basis for public policy.” In contrast, Pryor’s ad explicitly says that he doesn’t claim to have all the answers, even though he uses the Bible as his moral compass.
A Religious Right critic of Pryor’s ad broke another of PFAW Foundation’s rules: “Religion should not be used as a political club.” As blogger Jeremy Hooper noted, Andrea Lafferty of the Traditional Values Coalition was “outraged” by Pryor’s ad. She said his claim to be guided by the Bible “the furthest thing from the truth” because he had voted for the Employment Non Discrimination Act, which protects people from being discriminated at work based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. Lafferty is of course free to believe that fairness is not a biblical value; but she shouldn’t denigrate the sincerity of Pryor’s faith because he disagrees.
Still, Pryor’s ad is a cautionary tale about the fact that, as he himself has said, the intersection of faith and politics can be difficult to navigate. It can come across as saying, “vote for me because I’m a Christian,” a message that fails to respect America’s constitutional ideals and growing religious pluralism. And it could be seen as uncomfortably close to the message of Mike Huckabee’s 2008 primary campaign against Mitt Romney in Iowa, which essentially boiled down to, “vote for me because I’m the right kind of Christian.” Candidates or campaigns that suggest only Christians, or certain kinds of Christians, are worthy of public office violate the spirit if not the letter of the Constitution’s prohibition on a religious test for public office.
With Christian-nation advocates like David Lane organizing all over the country for the 2014 and 2016 elections, there’s little doubt that the months ahead will bring some downright toxic mixing of religion and politics.
South Carolina state Sen. Lee Bright is currently leading the field of Tea Party primary challengers to Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, all of whom think the very conservative senator is not conservative enough.
To give you an idea of what someone running to the right of Lindsey Graham looks like, Bright wants anyone enforcing health care reform in South Carolina to go to jail, wants the state to have its own currency and has even joked about secession.
At a fundraising event in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on Tuesday, Bright elaborated even further on his far-right beliefs, calling for immigrants to “self-deport,” saying that all social services should be provided by the Church and that able-bodied people relying on food stamps “shouldn’t eat,” and comparing the IRS’s income-tax collection to Nazi Germany.
Bright bashed Graham for participating in the crafting of the Senate’s bipartisan immigration law, saying that he only did so in order to bring more Democratic voters into South Carolina so he could switch parties. “Lindsey Graham would like to be a Democrat, but the numbers aren’t there,” he alleged. “But if you bring all the illegals in and they vote Democrat, then a Democrat can win in South Carolina and just about anywhere in the country.”
Bright added that his immigration solution was “self-deportation,” the draconian idea that if the government makes life miserable enough for undocumented immigrants, they’ll flee of their own will.
Later in the talk, Bright alleged that immigration reform is just a “band-aid” because “a lot” of Americans “won’t work.”
“It’s not politically correct to say this, but we’ve got a lot of people who won’t work,” he said. “And they won’t work because we’ll provide their food, and we’ll provide their housing, and we’ll provide some spending money. We’ve all seen it, the folks in line who are using [food stamps], yet they’ve got the nicest nails and the nicest pocketbook and they get the nicest car.”
Bright acknowledged that there are some Americans who are physically unable to work, but said they should be the responsibility of the Church: “There’s people that are mentally ill, there are people that are disabled. I understand that, though I still think that’s the role of the Church to take care of those folks.
“But able-bodied people, if they don’t work, they shouldn’t eat,” he said.
Finally, Bright voiced his support for the Tea Party dream of abolishing the IRS and income taxes, saying that “there is no other institution in our government that people are more fearful of,” he said. Getting a letter from the IRS, he added, is something out of “Nazi Germany.”
Among the speakers at Larry Klayman’s rally in Washington was Brooke McGowan, a Tea Party activist from North Carolina. She had also spoken at the “We the People” rally on Veteran’s Day. McGowan, who was introduced as a representative of the Tea Party News Network, devoted her remarks to the need for national repentance, declaring that “we are in dire trouble today in America. We are a nation under judgment.” Among the reasons McGowan cited were abortion, religious pluralism, and church-state separation:
“In this nation we have turned away from the God of the Bible, and we’ve told Him He’s simply not welcome here. We have welcomed pluralism, atheism, secular humanism, Wicca, and even Islam, but we’ve told the Holy God to stay away. Legally, we removed God from the public schools over 50 years ago, and then 40 years ago through a court of nine justices, though not unanimous, we determined that His very image, precious life in the womb, could now be legally torn apart, killed, and discarded. Legalized murder began our rapid moral downfall....Now, how can we expect as a nation to stay blessed or even prosper when we willingly stay under this curse?”
McGowan cited the theories of Jonathan Cahn, whose book The Harbinger and movie Isaiah 9:10 Judgment argue that America is experiencing the end-times wrath of God in ways that were foretold in the Old Testament. According to Cahn, the 9/11 attacks were a wake-up call from God, but America didn’t repent, so the 2008 financial crisis was sent our way, but still we as a nation have not repented. If we don’t repent now, we’re looking at a military takeover in 2015.
McGowan pushed right-wing “war on Christianity” themes and a couple of false myths meant to prove it. “Today there is a cold war on Christianity, a civil war,” McGowan said. “Will we repent? How far does it have to go before we give in to His call for repentance?”
“At Walter Reed hospital down the road where our broken and mangled servicemen and women lie, you can’t even speak the name of Jesus or take in a Bible,” she said. “This is a disgrace!”
Actually, it’s a lie.
This afternoon, the Texas State Board of Education gave its final approval to a set of biology textbooks that include scientifically sound teachings about evolution, rebuffing a campaign by creationists to include “biblical principles” in science texts. However, the board delayed its approval of one of the books until a board of experts reviews the complaints of anti-evolutionists.
The Texas Freedom Network, which has been fighting to keep science in the state’s science textbooks, called the vote a “huge win for science education” and noted that “throughout the adoption process, publishers refused to make concessions that would have compromised science instruction on evolution and climate change in their textbooks.” People For the American Way joined TFN earlier this year to deliver 300,000 petitions to the school board urging them to reject attempts to insert creationism into science texts.
Creationists on the school board, in a last-ditch attempt to delay the process, are still holding up one biology book. TFN reported yesterday:
The adoption of the Pearson textbook was held up because an anti-evolution activist appointed to serve as an official state reviewer alleged that it included nearly two dozen factual errors. Some of the alleged “errors” focused on relatively small and almost trivial details — such as whether scientists estimate the age of Earth as 4 billion or 4.2 billion years old. But most dealt with evolution or related concepts and essentially repeated many discredited claims anti-evolution activists have been pushing for decades.
One Republican school board member accused his anti-evolution colleagues of attempting to “hijack” the process by causing the last-minute delay, according to the AP:
Pearson and many other major publishers weren't willing to make suggested major edits and changes, however.
That prompted some of the board's socially conservative members to call for delaying approval of the book because of concerns including how long it took Earth to cool and objection to lessons about natural selection because "selection operates as a selective but not a creative force."
Members outside the socially conservative bloc claimed their colleagues waited until the dead of night to try to impose ideological edits.
"To ask me — a business degree major from Texas Tech University — to distinguish whether the Earth cooled 4 billion years ago or 4.2 billion years ago for purposes of approving a textbook at 10:15 on a Thursday night is laughable," said Thomas Ratliff, a Republican from Mount Pleasant.
He added: "I believe this process is being hijacked, this book is being held hostage to make political changes."
On Wednesday, an oil and gas industry representative objected to another science textbook’s treatment of the harms of fracking and carbon emissions; she gained some allies on the board, but the board ultimately approved the text.
Back in September, we reported on attempts by non-biologist members of the Texas State Board of Education’s biology-textbook review committee to require textbook publishers to insert “creation science based on biblical principles” into high school textbooks used in the state.
People For the American Way joined a campaign led by the Texas Freedom Network to deliver 300,000 petitions to the state board urging them to keep creationism out of science classes.
The next month, TFN reported that none of the 14 major textbook publishers had bowed to pressure to include biblical lessons in the science textbooks they submitted for review to the school board. But the board of education still has to vote to adopt these textbooks, and as TFN notes, “In past years, ideologues on the state board have refused to adopt textbooks simply because they have political objections to factual content.”
The state board will hold hearings on the issue starting this afternoon, leading up to a final vote on the textbooks on Friday. We’re following along via livestream and TFN’s live blog, but in the meantime you can enjoy this video from September’s hearing of former Texas board of education chairman Don McLeroy explaining that including evolution in biology textbooks will actually “strike the final blow to the teaching of evolution” because students will see through the “weak” scientific argument:
A symposium on the 20th anniversary of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act hosted by First Amendment advocate Charles Haynes at the Newseum in Washington D.C. on November 6 demonstrated one premise of People For the American Way Foundation’s 12 Rules for Mixing Religion and Politics – that people who support a core constitutional principle like religious liberty can disagree with how that principle should be applied. In recent years, religious conservatives have increasingly charged that those who disagree with them on this line-drawing are tyrannical enemies of faith and freedom. The RFRA anniversary was a reminder that, as Bill Moyers wrote in his introduction to the 12 Rules, “We can simultaneously share a strong commitment to religious liberty, while disagreeing over the application of that principle in a given circumstance.”
In fact, an almost unimaginably broad coalition worked to pass RFRA in 1993, including People For the American Way and the ACLU, the National Association of Evangelicals and Concerned Women for America, and a huge array of religious and civil rights groups. Also unimaginable in our political climate: RFRA passed the Senate 97-3 and the House unanimously by voice vote. But divisions within the coalition developed just a few years later and persist today.
RFRA was a response to the Supreme Court’s 1990 Smith decision in a case involving Native Americans who were denied unemployment benefits because they had violated state anti-drug laws through the sacramental use of peyote. The Court ruled that as long as the law in question was applied generally and not designed to target a particular religious practice, there was no real recourse for people whose exercise of religion was restricted. The decision toppled long-standing precedent and left advocates for religious liberty deeply concerned that religious minorities would suffer if there were no legal requirement for reasonable accommodation of their beliefs.
RFRA states that if a law places a substantial burden on a person’s exercise of religion, the government must demonstrate that the law is serving a compelling interest and does so in the least restrictive way. In 1997, the Supreme Court upheld RFRA as it applies to the federal government, but not to the states. Efforts to re-mobilize the RFRA coalition to pass a new law failed when civil rights advocates feared that a broad standard could be used to undermine state civil rights laws such as laws against discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Oliver Thomas, a co-chair of the original RFRA coalition, said it is not surprising that RFRA gets less popular as it gets older and its “majestic generalities” get applied in contentious cases. Organizations that were allies in passing RFRA are now on both sides of political and legal disagreements about how its standards should apply in a variety of situations, including the mandate under the Affordable Care Act that insurance plans include contraception, the proposed Employment Non Discrimination Act that just passed the Senate, and the advance of marriage equality. Even among ENDA’s backers there are disagreements about the nature and extent of religious exemptions in the bill.
The first part of the anniversary symposium, which included PFAW Foundation Board Member Rabbi David Saperstein, presented an insider view of RFRA’s history: the development of the RFRA coalition, the politics of writing the law and building congressional support. One historical tidbit: coalition members had to work hard to overcome objections raised by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who feared the law might somehow give a weapon to their opponents on abortion rights issues. Rep. Henry Hyde told coalition members that the bill would not move until they addressed the bishops’ concerns.
That history is particularly interesting given that conservative Catholics are now using RFRA to challenge the contraception mandate. A discussion of the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act featured Lori Windham from the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents a number of companies, business owners, and organizations challenging the mandate, and Dan Mach of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, which argues that the contraception requirement does not substantially burden the religious freedom of business owners, and that the Obama administration’s accommodation for religious organizations is more than sufficient. Mach noted that while religious liberty is fundamental, it is not absolute, and should not be used to infringe the rights of others.
Another issue discussed by the panelists was whether RFRA protects for-profit corporations – not the owners, but the corporation itself as an entity. Some of the panelists discussing RFRA’s history agreed that conversation about violations of religious liberty were focused on individual people, not for-profit corporations, though some said the debate on RFRA and related laws assumed that companies would be covered. The Becket Fund’s Windham made a case for including such corporations with RFRA’s protections, saying constitutional rights shouldn’t depend on your tax status. The Constitutional Accountability Center has argued otherwise.
Doug Laycock, a University of Virginia law professor, is among the most prominent legal scholars on religious liberty. He finds himself positioned on differing sides in various culture war battles. Just a day before the anniversary symposium, Laycock argued before the Supreme Court, representing people who are challenging the practice of sectarian prayer at city council meetings in the Town of Greece case. In that case he stood with advocates of strong church-state separation. On other issues, such as whether a business owner should have the right not to provide services related to a same-sex wedding, he stands with religious conservatives who are pushing for broad religious exemptions to anti-discrimination laws.
Laycock dismissed right-wing charges that the Obama administration is waging a war on religious liberty. He said the administration has gone to “remarkable lengths” to accommodate religious organizations on the contraception mandate and said he doubts that opponents will be able to convince judges that the current rule creates a substantial burden under RFRA. Obviously, the Becket Fund and other Religious Right legal groups and their clients strongly disagree. Later this month the Supreme Court will consider whether to accept for consideration four cases involving for-profit companies challenging the mandate. Cases involving non-profits have not advanced as far.
A panel on other current controversies placed them in the context of increasing religious pluralism in America, including the rapid growth of “nones” – people who claim to religious affiliation. One panelist noted that religious and civil rights groups can still find common ground in opposition to laws targeting religious minorities, as many did in opposition to Oklahoma’s anti-Sharia law, which was found unconstitutional earlier this year. But it should be noted that some Religious Right groups have in fact backed such laws, and some opposed the building of the Islamic community center in New York that was deceptively dubbed the “Ground Zero Mosque.”
Laycock worries that culture war battles are weakening Americans’ commitment to religious liberty. He faults conservative religious groups for continuing to fight legal marriage equality for same-sex couples. But he also believes LGBT rights advocates should be more willing to accept broad religious exemptions. Laycock said that conservatives’ dug-in resistance to equality diminishes the incentives for gay-rights activists to accommodate them. The challenge, as he sees it: on issues of sexual morality, one side views as a grave evil what the other side views as a fundamental right. In that climate, tens of millions of Americans believe that “religious liberty” empowers their enemies, and neither side is willing to embrace what Laycock considers “live and let live” solutions.
Marc Stern of the American Jewish Committee agreed with Laycock’s concerns about a winner-take-all approach to religious freedom issues, which he said reflects the broader political climate. But the courts will continue to undertake the balancing act required by the Constitution and by RFRA when constitutional principles come into tension. And, he said, once the courts work through issues regarding contraception and LGBT equality, we will all still need to grapple more with larger cultural and legal questions, such as those involving the growing number of nonbelievers who are reshaping America’s religious landscape.
The anniversary symposium, “Restored or Endangered? The State of Religious Freedom,” was sponsored by The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, Christian Legal Society, American Jewish Committee, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute.
Yesterday afternoon, the Texas State Board of Education held its first hearing on whether to require new high school biology textbooks to teach creationism alongside evolution. One member of the panel appointed by the Texas Education Agency to review potential textbooks –few of whom were actual biologists-- concluded by recommending that high school biology texts be rooted in “bibilical principles.”
Yesterday, People For the American Way sent a letter to the board urging them to reject attempts to inject creationism into science classes. PFAW also joined with the Texas Freedom Network and other groups to deliver 300,000 petitions urging the board to stand up for science.
While most of those who showed up to testify at the hearing supported teaching evolution– our friends at TFN documented many of these on their great live blog of the proceedings – there were some notable exceptions.
One of the first people to speak was Don McLeroy, a former chairman of the State Board of Education who was prominently featured in the documentary The Revisionaries. While most people were allowed just two minutes to speak, the board let McLeroy go on for over ten minutes in a bizarre speech in which he argued that the current textbooks teaching evolution should be approved because their evidence is so “weak” that children will realize that the theory of evolution is just “words” and a “just so story," and thereby strikes a "final blow" to the theory.