On April 29 and 30, liberal activists gathered in New York City for a weekend conference on "Examining the Real Agenda of the Religious Far Right." The program consisted of speeches with alarmist titles like "The Rise of Dominionism in U.S. Government," "Is an Unholy American Theocracy Here?," "Christian Jihad," and "Fundamentalism: The Fear and The Rage." There were no conservative Christians on the program.
The conference was sponsored by People for the American Way, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, and the National Council of Churches (NCC), along with the left-wing periodicals The Nation and The Village Voice. It was organized by the New York Open Center and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.
The tone of the speakers was often quite shrill. "Jim Jones [the 1970s cult leader who led followers in a mass suicide] has gone mainstream!" cried journalist Katherine Yurica. "Today we are living in a nation governed by an unholy cult!" Yurica maintained that the Republican Party had gained power through "Hitlerian tactics." She insisted that evangelical leaders from Billy Graham to Jerry Falwell "had to have read Hitler's Mein Kampf." She explained, "I say this confidently because anyone who has learned to quack like a duck has studied ducks!"
"Our liberties are at stake!" declared the Rev. Bob Edgar, the NCC general secretary. Edgar added that "these may be the darkest times in our history." (It was not clear who or what constituted the "we" for which Edgar spoke. Was it America, the NCC, or the political left that had entered "the darkest times"? Perhaps Edgar's failure to make a distinction among those three was a revealing moment.) According to the NCC leader, all of the gains of the civil rights movement are imperiled by "those in power in Washington" who are "taking us back to the 1940s."
Joan Bokaer, the founder of Cornell University's Theocracywatch.org, decried the rise of an American Taliban, evidenced for her in the fine levied upon CBS for its complicity in the Janet Jackson "wardrobe malfunction" during the Super Bowl half-time show. Dr. Charles Strozier, a history professor at the City University of New York, described the "basically neo-fascist schemes of the new Republicans."
"We've got a police state-plus going on here!" cried author Mark Crispin Miller. Miller also claimed that there was "significant Christian extremism in the Pentagon" and that the U.S. Air Force Academy is "like a madrassah."
Without elaborating, writer Jeff Sharlet claimed that the government of Norway is controlled "through and through" by Doug Coe's Virginia-based Christian group known as the International Foundation. According to Sharlet, the unifying philosophy for Focus on the Family, the National Association of Evangelicals, and other evangelical groups and leaders is "what they see as the unbreakable bond between Christ and capitalism."
Much of the conference focused on "Christian Dominionism" or "Reconstructionism," a very small and marginal movement that urges Christians to "take dominion" of the state and institute divine law over America. While conference speakers admitted that the vast majority of American evangelicals were not Reconstructionists, they stressed that this movement was "very influential."
An essay by columnist John Sugg, distributed at the conference, claimed that the "nationwide movement" of Reconstructionism has "established a beachhead in the White House." The essay referred to the Presbyterian Church in America and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church as "Reconstruction-occupied territory." Citing authors Frederick Clarkson and Daniel Levitas, Sugg reported that "Reconstructionists have taken over the Southern Baptist Convention's national leadership" and that Reconstructionism "has been the driving force behind the Christian Right for some time."
Speakers at the conference saw evidence of the vast power of the "theocrats" on every side: in the "Christian nation" rhetoric of some conservatives, in the expressed belief of some prominent officials that governments ultimately derive their authority from God, in President Bush's description of terrorism as "evil," in Bush's promotion of a "culture of life," in widespread opposition to euthanasia, in the Texas Republican Party platform's support of a smaller federal government, in recent tax cuts and alleged declines in government social welfare spending, in the growth of the national debt, and in the elevation of Rick Santorum, a social conservative, to a leadership position among his fellow Senate Republicans.
The speakers condemned Republican policies on Iraq, Israel, taxes, the size of government, abortion, and gay rights, among other topics. At times the animosity towards President Bush became quite personal. Strozier made unsubstantiated accusations regarding Bush's sex life. Yurica called the president a "coward" and a liar, to hearty applause. She said that she identified Bush with "the evil," and she saw him as driven by an obsessive fear that his "real nature will be revealed." Miller declared, "You can't call George Bush a Christian!" (He made the same pronouncement about conservative commentators Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity.) Sharlet, however, made a point of repudiating that judgment as inappropriate.
Socially engaged religious conservatives were repeatedly attacked for being "anti-democratic" and "anti-American." Noting recent political successes of social conservatives, Frederick Clarkson lamented that "the people who are best at democracy are the people who are dedicated to ending democracy."
Yet many people at the NCC-sponsored conference did not seem content to work within the normal democratic process. Bokaer drew enthusiastic applause at two separate times by declaring that, if Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) went ahead with his plan to secure up-or-down votes on all of President Bush's judicial nominees, "I think it's time to get one million people on the streets" of Washington to "shut down the government." Strozier expressed his agreement with an audience member who said, "We need to really push out this administration or we'll reach a point of no return."
"I think John Kerry won this election; I think that he won it handily!," declared Miller to loud applause. He argued that "we have no evidence" that Bush won "other than the official counts," but that "there's several smoking guns" to cast doubt on Bush's victory. Miller also appeared to indicate his support for a revolution, provoking applause by saying, "It's going to take what it took in the Soviet Union, Venezuela, Ukraine, and this country hundreds of years ago."
Edgar shared "The Gospel According to a Religious Progressive." He faulted "the religious left" for having not been active enough in fighting "the religious right." Recalling his previous career as "one of the top-ten most liberal congressmen," the NCC general secretary spoke of how "proud" he had been when the Moral Majority called his uncompromising support of abortion "immoral." Edgar said he "laughed at" that criticism and wore it as "a badge of honor." The NCC, which describes itself as "the preeminent expression in the United States of the movement toward Christian unity," ostensibly takes no position on abortion. Several of its member denominations share the same moral reservations about abortion at which Edgar laughed.
Another featured speaker was Joseph Hough, President of Union Theological Seminary in New York. Hough mocked Southern Baptist leader Richard Land for opposing homosexual practice while not following Old Testament dietary laws. He complained that John 14:6 (Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." NRSV) had been taken out of context to support a "Christian exclusivism." According to Hough, "that one verse is responsible for the Holocaust." Noting that he "strongly support[s]" homosexuality and abortion rights, the seminary president said that he was "fed up with" the strong focus on those issues by conservative Christians. "Not a single leader of the Religious Right and not a single Catholic bishop that I know of" has "uttered a word" against greed, he charged.
The conference demonstrated an interesting symbiosis between secular left-wing activists and liberal church activists. Frederick Clarkson excitedly noted that religious left figures like Jim Wallis and Bob Edgar had denounced a Family Research Council event to mobilize religious support for President Bush's judicial nominees. "This is a dramatic development," Clarkson exclaimed. "The mainline denominations are on the move!" He also called on conference participants to "reclaim faith" from the religious right in a way that includes atheism and agnosticism. Skipp Porteous, a former Pentecostal minister who ultimately "rejected the New Testament as the Word of God" and has "never looked back," called on "the mainline Protestant churches" to "reclaim the Bible." Chip Berlet, editor of Eye's Right! Challenging the Right Wing Backlash, spoke of his appreciation for the NCC as a counter-voice to conservative Roman Catholic and evangelical Protestant clergy.
There were occasional voices of moderation among the more secular speakers. "If we are going to ask the Christian right to stop engaging in demonization, we need to inspect some of our own language," suggested Berlet. He asked conference participants to "avoid terms of derision" such as "extremists" and "radical religious right." Berlet later expressed his disagreement with Bokaer's call to "shut down the government." He drew loud expressions of protest when he urged his audience to "acknowledge that the majority of Americans don't see the world the way we do."
Clarkson similarly encouraged participants to "be civil," noting that "radical religious extremist" is "just an epithet" with no descriptive value. Porteous said that liberals should not be afraid of "proclaim[ing] our ethics and our values" through opposing public indecency and working to reduce the number of abortions. The latter remark provoked a loud "No!" from the audience.
The NCC's Edgar indicated that he has no intention of finding common ground with conservative Christians. When asked by an audience member if "we" should try to reach out to "the religious right" or simply fight it, the NCC leader replied that since "the right already has its structure," the "religious left" should instead focus on organizing itself, "infiltrate[ing] our seminaries," and reaching out to "the middle church, the middle synagogue, the middle mosque." Edgar told his audience of his policy when the NCC is criticized by conservatives. In such instances, he said, he simply sends a memo out to his staff with the instruction: "Find them [the conservatives] irrelevant."
E-mail the Rev. Bob Edgar and comment respectfully on the NCC's sponsorship of this conference and his remarks at it. firstname.lastname@example.org
If your denomination is a member of the National Council of Churches, prayerfully consider presenting a resolution to your church council opposing any nominal or financial support for a body like the NCC that undermines Christian unity rather than promoting it.
If you live in New York, contact your representatives in the state legislature and city council to protest the inappropriate use of tax dollars to fund one religious group (the religious left) in attacking the beliefs of another set of religious people (conservative Christians).
John Lomperis is author and researcher at The Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD).
Read this article on The Institute on Religion and Democracy website (new window will open). Reprinted with permission of the author.