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Backwards Christian Soldiers

Susan Chenelle May 11, 2005

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

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

The current battle over federal court nominees, as Chip Berlet of Political Research Associates told The Indypendent, “will seem like mild-mannered, civil discourse” when a Supreme Court justice retires. The religious right, he said, “Started planning to take over the Republican Party 30 years ago. They’re ready. If they get to appoint Supreme Court justices, they can control the direction of a lot of policy for the next 20 years.”

Frederick Clarkson, an independent journalist, explained in his presentation that, during his 1991 undercover investigation of the Christian Coalition, he observed that the group had decided to become a “values-based electoral organization, working within the Republican Party, but not of the party.” They began “building for power,” working across election cycles, becoming organized about organizing and thinking long-term. “Nobody else does this,” he argued.

To combat these trends, Clarkson urged progressives to reclaim not only faith, but history and citizenship as well. Far right Christian leaders often claim that the United States was founded as a Christian nation and that liberals and their “activist” judges thwart the will of the founding fathers by allowing things like abortion and same-sex marriage. Not so, says Clarkson. When the framers of the Constitution gathered, they were faced with the challenge of creating a nation out of 13 Christian theocracies, each with its own denomination with other sects outlawed. To do so they made the radical decision to separate church and state. This outraged many religious leaders. “The Christian right didn’t like the Constitution when it was written,” said Clarkson, “and they don’t like it now.”

Though many conference speakers denounced the right’s claim to represent all people of faith, several identified the perceived disdain for religion on the part of much of the left as a significant obstacle in organizing against the right’s march toward dominion.

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

The term Dominionism itself, Berlet said, “gets away from the kind of labeling that tends to treat Christian Conservatives like they’re either stupid or crazy. Dominion is what they want. It’s what most political movements want. But in the sense of biblical passages, it’s related to the text in Genesis, which they understand to mean that they should get to run things.”

Clarkson echoed the idea: “The most mobilized force in our democracy is dedicated to ending it. If we don’t know how to elect officials, we are ceding the turf to those who do. The scariest thing is not the agenda of the Christian right. The scariest thing is that we have to change.”

The concluding panel discussion, titled “Where Do We Go From Here?” reflected this ambivalence. While some called for a mass occupation of Washington, D.C. if the Senate should do away with the filibuster, others stressed the need to find ways to dialogue with religious middle America.

NYU professor and author of The Bush Dyslexicon Mark Crispin Miller called for a revival of the “sense of the common good” that has become so denigrated by the twin assault by the Christian and capitalist right. Miller acknowledged that it’s going to require a lot of hard work and a “recommitment to democracy,” but he insisted, “If you believe in it, you can win.”