Dealing with Dangerous Theocratic Extremists

norman rockwell

The Four Freedoms: Freedom of Worship by Norman Rockwell, 1943

For almost a decade, the evangelical Protestant Christian Right and the American Roman Catholic bishops have forged a lasting alliance to carve out vast arenas of American life where religious institutions, individuals, and even businesses are free to discriminate, evade labor laws, and otherwise evade federal civil rights laws, all in the name of religious liberty.  Together these conservative forces seek to challenge not only a century or more of social advances, but also many of the premises of the Enlightenment that lie behind the very definition of religious liberty the Founders of this nation had in mind.

The goal of these forces is to impose a conservative Christian social order inspired by religious law.  When Christian Right leaders talk about religious liberty, they often really mean theocratic supremacism of their own religious beliefs inscribed in government. For me, that sounds like someone is flirting with theocratic ideas.

A key aspect of the religious right’s long-term strategy is to take the time-honored principle of religious exemption, intended to protect the individual right of conscience, and expanding it to apply to whole institutions, even for-profit businesses – as seen in the Supreme Court’s 2014 Hobby Lobby decision. This strategy is designed to fragment the common public sphere and to carve out vast segments of American life where civil rights, labor law and other core protections simply do not apply.

To achieve this goal, the Christian Right seeks to remove religious freedom as an integral part of religious pluralism and constitutional democracy, and redefine it in such a fashion as to justify discrimination by an ever wider array of “religified” (yes, that is a word) institutions and businesses. The Christian Right has sought to undermine and evade labor law by carefully building on the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.  The court ruled in that case that the religious duties of a teacher fired in a discriminatory way insulated the mainline church school from anti-discrimination laws under the longstanding exemption of clergy under the Civil Rights Act and opened the door to expanding the definition of “ministry,” so that many more employees can be exempted from the protections of the law.

The Christian Right is already actively engaged in doing this – via a tactic termed “religification” by which an organization rewrites mission statements, contracts, and job descriptions in an attempt to exempt institutions from the law in as many ways as possible.  All this will undoubtedly face further court tests, but “religification” is already happening. For instance, the Southern Baptist manual suggests assigning employees duties that involve ministerial, teaching, or other spiritual qualifications – duties that directly further the religious mission. In this regard, if a church receptionist answers the phone, the job description might detail how the receptionist is required to answer basic questions about the church’s faith, provide religious resources, or pray with callers. While the courts may not buy the idea that a receptionist can be reasonably construed as a minister in the legal sense, this is the kind of thinking that is permeating the conservative Christian world in the wake of Hosanna-Tabor.

What I see going on here is particularly perverse. The receptionist’s job ordinarily has nothing ministerial about it, and being protected by labor laws, for example, in no way constitutes a real dangerous anti-religious attack. But by seeking to “religify” itself, the church is effectively trying to roll back the rights of others – both secular employment law protections and their own religious freedom. After all, one could even be a good, believing Southern Baptist receptionist and still feel religiously oppressed by being forced to follow someone else’s bureaucratic religious script.

But a transformational moment in the contemporary Christian Right’s approach to religious freedom has pretty much flown under the radar. I am referring to the 2009 publication of the Manhattan Declaration:  A Call to Christian Conscience – a manifesto linking three interrelated themes: (1) freedom of religion, (2) sanctity of life, and (3) dignity of marriage.  The Declaration is the culmination of decades of theological and political development, in which conservative Roman Catholic and evangelical Protestant strategists (joined by the Mormon Church and Orthodox Christianity) has resulted in finding sufficient common theological and political ground to wage not only the short term battles of the culture wars, but also to envision a twenty-first century notion of Christian cultural conservatism – and a way to get there.  These actors in various combinations, and sometimes in alliance with elements of Orthodox Judaism, have been tactical partners over time.  This coalition is nonetheless a real achievement that crystallized a strategic direction deploying “religious freedom” to roll back advances in LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning) rights and reproductive justice.

In spite of its authors’ hyperventilating claims to be staking out new historical ground, the 4,700 word Declaration essentially rehashes anti-gay and anti-abortion messages that have been heard from Religious Right leaders for decades. The document insists that opposing legal abortion and marriage equality for gay couples are the two most important moral issues facing the country and that advocates for choice and gay equality are out to destroy religious liberty in America.

This basic message, was written by Princeton University law professor Robert George, evangelical leader and admitted Watergate co-conspirator Charles “Chuck” Colson, and  Beeson Divinity School dean Timothy George, echoes speeches that have been heard again and again by the likes of James Dobson, Tony Perkins, and many of the other familiar Religious Right leaders who were among the original signers.

The Declaration seeks to unify, rally, and mobilize the Christian Right: “We are Christians who have joined together across historic lines of ecclesial differences to affirm our right – and, more importantly, to embrace our obligation – to speak and act in defense of these truths.  We pledge to each other, and to our fellow believers, that no power on earth, be it cultural or political, will intimidate us into silence or acquiescence.” [Emphasis is in the original.]

The document essentially defines religious freedom and declares in part: “Christians confess that God alone is Lord of the conscience.  Immunity from religious coercion is the cornerstone of an unconstrained conscience.  What is true for individuals applies to religious communities as well.”

This foundational idea expresses the rationale for religious exemptions from the law.  Although published in 2009, the Declaration anticipated having to respect the equality of LGBTQ people in, among other things, marriage and employment, and the broad development of anti-discrimination laws generally. The Declaration also foresaw further wrangling over the question of complicity in abortion via efforts to weaken or eliminate conscience clauses, and therefore to compel pro-life institutions (including religiously affiliated hospitals and clinics), and pro-life physicians, surgeons, nurses, and other health care professionals, to refer for abortions and, in certain cases, even to perform or participate in abortions.  We see it in the use of anti-discrimination statutes to force religious institutions, businesses, and service providers to comply with activities they judge to be deeply immoral or go out of business.

Albert Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, explained that although he abhors Roman Catholic doctrine, “we are facing an inevitable and culture-determining decision on the three issues centrally identified in this statement.  I also believe that we will experience a significant loss of Christian churches, denominations, and institutions in this process.  There is every good reason to believe that the freedom to conduct Christian ministry according to Christian conviction is being subverted and denied before our eyes.”

One key message of the Declaration is that when conservative Christians are required to honor federal civil rights laws, profound opposition may be required. Invoking Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” the Declaration calls for resistance to the point of civil disobedience against any legislation that might implicate their churches or charities in abortion, embryo-destructive research or same-sex marriage. This promise of resistance has since been reiterated many times by top Christian Right leaders, such as Rick Warren, Pastor of Saddleback Church; Tony Perkins, President, Family Research Council; and Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University.

George, a prominent Roman Catholic neo-conservative, originated the Declaration.  A key movement strategist, George played a key role in creating the “theoconservative” movement and integrating it into mainstream Republicanism. (Theoconservatives believe that America is rooted in an idea – and that idea is Christianity.) George is also the founder and guiding light of a number of related institutions that have adopted the Declaration’s themes, including the National Organization for Marriage, the Witherspoon Institute, the American Principles Project, and American Principles Action.

The three themes of the Declaration now frame the agendas of the major organizations of the Christian Right from the legal group Alliance Defending Freedom and CitizenLink (the political arm of James Dobson’s Focus on the Family) with its three dozen state affiliates, to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.  The formula promises to define their common platform for the foreseeable future.

Republican control is creating opportunities for its Christian Right base.  Seventy percent of state legislatures, more than sixty percent of governors, fifty-five percent of attorneys general and secretaries of state are in Republican hands. And, of course, Republicans control both chambers of the United States Congress. It is a trend that appears likely to increase.  The Christian Right’s electoral plans for 2016 have long been in evidence. Here is just one brief example.  David Lane of the American Renewal Project has been seeking to run 1,000 conservative Christian clergy for office at all levels in the next few years.  He claims to have held training conferences for clergy in how and why to mobilize their congregations for electoral impact. Such campaigns seek not just to win elections, but to engage conservative Christians as a self-identified electoral force of lasting consequence.

And it could lead to worse. The editors of the Los Angeles Times wrote these words concerning the Manhattan Declaration:Strong words, but also irresponsible and dangerous ones. The strange land described in this statement is one in which a sinister secularist government is determined to force Christians to betray their principles about abortion or the belief that ‘holy matrimony’ is ‘an institution ordained by God.’ The idea that same-sex civil marriage will undermine religious marriage is a canard Californians will remember from the campaign for Proposition 8, as is the declaration’s complaint that Christian leaders are being prevented from expressing their ‘religious and moral commitments to the sanctity of life and to the dignity of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife.’

“This apocalyptic argument for lawbreaking is disingenuous, but it is also dangerous. Did the Roman Catholic bishops who signed the manifesto consider how their endorsement of lawbreaking in a higher cause might embolden the antiabortion terrorists they claim to condemn? Did they stop to think that, by reserving the right to resist laws they don’t like, they forfeit the authority to intervene in the enactment of those laws, as they have done in the congressional debate over healthcare reform? They need to be reminded that this is a nation of laws, not of men – even holy men.”

Sadly, I fear that we are nearing a point where Christian extremists of all stripes will need to be confronted and forced to respect the civil laws, and the civil authorities must reject these efforts to destroy the separation of church and state. These people are lunatic extremists with whom no one can reason.

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