Thursday, June 24, 2010

Holy war How an unholy alliance of Catholics, Mormons, and evangelicals seeks to control our lives

Published in the Portland Phoenix, the Boston Phoenix, and the Providence Phoenix

And so it came to pass, Roman Catholics, Mormons, and evangelical Protestants have banded together to battle, well, the rest of us — the heathens, the godless liberals, the Hitchens-reading progressives.

If you are unmarried and have sex, you're one of us. If you are married and use birth control, you are among the damned. If you are gay, you are especially damned. And if you are straight and favor gay rights, you're just as fucked.

This triple entente of sky-god worshipers — call them the Unholy Alliance — have amassed an almost unlimited treasury with which to wage war on abortion rights, birth control, and legislation that might support women's or gay equality.

The rest of us can run, but none of us can hide from the Unholy Alliance. From California to Maine, the Alliance has done a hell of a job killing same-sex marriage. There is no way to deny the unholy triumph.

The weirdness of all this is that each faith's tradition holds as a central belief that the others are not true believers; Catholics go further, believing that Mormons are not even Christians.

There are similarities among the three, of course — a professed desire to do good in the world, and to help people be part of something larger than themselves. As a result, many interfaith groups work together to fight hunger, poverty, and low-quality health care, bringing to bear their congregations' numbers and wealth to make others' lives better.

Now, though, as religious leaders from these sects — previously suspicious of each other — collectively redirect those resources to gender and sexual politics, they are looking beyond doing good in this world, toward creating what they view as God's world.

To really understand what's happening, we have to look beyond rhetoric and into theology. At the heart of this political work is an unwavering approach toward sin. Most faiths teach that there are certain practices that followers should shun, such as the Jewish and Muslim ban on eating pork. But some teachings in conservative sects go deeper, asking followers not only to refrain from forbidden behaviors themselves, but to work to prevent others from engaging in them.

A good example of this comes from Elmer Towns, the 77-year-old evangelist who in 1971 co-founded Liberty University with Jerry Falwell. "We no longer believe the Bible is the means of authority for how people should live," he laments to the Phoenix over the phone from his home in Virginia. "Sin is sin."

Towns would prefer Americans to live more godly lives — whether they are believers or not. "America has always been, let the minority have their say — let the majority have their way," he says. (He is careful to note Jesus's Biblical urging to "love your neighbor as yourself," but still sees the active purging of society's moral wrongs as "God's work.")

It is an aggressive and prescriptive interpretation of the concept of being one's brother's keeper. While some, like Towns, won't come out and say it directly, their line of argument is clear: not only are we responsible for our own salvation, but we must endeavor to save others, even from themselves. The consequences of failure are severe: true followers of each of these three faiths believe that, if one of their flock is aware of a sin, even one committed by others, and does not act to prevent it and reform the sinner, then the believer is as guilty of the sin as the person who actually committed it. And it is true that there is no better way to impose a set of restrictions across the entire population than by law.

What it looked like
This phenomenon was first seen in modern America during the '70s and '80s with the rise — and then fall — of the Moral Majority. Towns recalls the criticism directed at Falwell then for suggesting that evangelicals, Mormons, and Catholics "join together not for salvation purposes but for ethics and for family."
Driven by their shared objections to what they view as the excesses of modern culture, the churches were driven into each others' arms.

Towns cites Falwell as an example of a religious-political leader who "felt he had a mandate from God to bring this nation back" to a remembered glory. (It won't surprise you that Towns is a fan of the Tea Party movement, although he doubts its chances of success.)

The collaboration resurfaced and drew national attention in 2008, with California's gay-marriage debate, though it had begun to come together in 2006, when President George W. Bush nominated conservative judges John Roberts Jr. and Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court.

"They recognize that the Supreme Court plays a very important role in shaping political and cultural dialogue," says Chip Berlet, senior analyst at Public Research Associates, a Boston-area progressive think-tank that watches the political actions of the religious right. The Unholy Alliance solidly backed Roberts and Alito, seeing them as like-minded activists who would continue to shift government toward churchly goals, particularly on gay-rights and abortion issues.

The Alliance opposed Obama's nomination of Sonia Sotomayor and are working to block Elena Kagan's appointment, seeing them as too liberal. "If Obama gets to appoint the people he wants to appoint," Berlet says, "it will shift the political scene over the next 30 years" — and not in a way the religious right are hoping for.

When Proposition 8, which set to outlaw same-sex marriage in California, was placed on that state's ballot in 2008, the Unholy Alliance was again at the forefront. Led by the Mormon church, Catholic and evangelical leaders also donated church funds and urged followers to contribute time and money to the campaign.

In Maine last year, the same thing happened, led this time by the Roman Catholic bishop of Portland, Maine, Richard Malone, who personally testified before lawmakers in opposition to a bill that would legalize same-sex marriage. When it passed, Malone spearheaded the repeal effort, issuing letters to be read from pulpits statewide, and ordering special collections during services to send their proceeds to "defend marriage." Evangelicals were prominent in the campaign, and the Mormon-linked National Organization for Marriage provided two-thirds of the funding. (Nationwide outcry against this overt political action by churches led to a backlash; see sidebar, "Paying Taxes?")

In the national health-care debate, the Alliance — often in the form of the Family, an evangelical group with ties to many members of Congress (and Maine governor John Baldacci, a former congressman), — stepped in to protect the godly from the godless. Berlet sums it up neatly, saying their argument was that big government is really a form of collectivism, which leads to totalitarianism, which leads to authoritarianism, in which a person is substituted for (or alternately believed to actually be) a god. And so, in their eyes, Obama's desire to expand government's role in health-care is evidence that he is both Stalin and Hitler.

The underpinning 
Scholars of the intersection of religion and politics agree that this development is both new and startling. But they also see a rationale: "Religion fundamentally has moral values and principles," says Roger Keller, Richard L. Evans Chair of Religious Understanding at Brigham Young University. "When those get tweaked by social issues . . . that's what normally draws people into the political arena."

"It's the emotional appeal based on references that are largely Biblical and widely recognized in an evangelical culture in which every political action has to be linked to a Biblical background," says Berlet.

Rhys Williams, director of the McNamara Center for the Social Study of Religion at the Jesuit-run Loyola University Chicago, says there is a core belief that "politics has to be moral and we want to get our religious views in there." He characterizes the political aspirations of religious movements as "a way of protecting the public sphere as part of their image of what a moral society looks like."

Williams says, in an aside, that many of these individuals may not have problems with homosexuals as people, but rather object to any form of public approval, such as having those relationships recognized by the government as in any way similar to heterosexual marriage.

And while the focus of moralist social reformers has shrunk over the past century (giving up on Prohibition; reining in zealotry around the content of television shows and musical recordings), the conflict between the godly and the rest of us is likely to continue for some time.

Keller says part of this battle is theological: "Some of them are trying to save their neighbors." A converted Mormon who is a former Presbyterian and Methodist minister, he has a more detached view than some of his co-religionists; he argues that his beliefs don't give him the right to say what the government should impose on others. "I shouldn't ask the government to do the job of defining for everybody my moral standards."

But Keller admits, "often, religious organizations don't make that kind of distinction."

That may be dangerous, warns Traci West, a professor of ethics and African-American studies at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey. Codifying in law a specific prohibition, she says, demonstrates lack of the humility most religions preach. "Christians ultimately never know who is right based on who is saved," she says. "It is only God who separates the wheat from the chaff."

As a result, she suggests an alternative faith-based approach to morals: urging the government to protect "some common values of supporting each other to be caring and respectful across our differences, which of course we're going to have."

Looking forward 
And so we come down to the crux of the matter: those who believe the United States should be "a Christian nation," and those who want it to remain the open, pluralistic society it has always been. "We shall be as a city upon a hill," John Winthrop wrote of the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. "The eyes of all people are upon us." But America as a whole was created as bigger than that, with tolerance and mutual understanding of our differences underpinning the communal ability to be a far greater whole than the sum of our parts. (That's also, by the way, the origin of Ben Franklin's "Join, or Die" cartoon, which is one basis for the Gadsden "Don't Tread on Me" flag so widely waved by Tea Partiers today.)

Perhaps the best news, if it can be called that, is this: Williams predicts that the positions that are aggressively defended by religious organizations, and their mutual alliances, are likely fairly solid now, having retreated to the most basic fundamental human ideas of family, marriage, and sex.

The energy with which those positions will be held, however, worries Keller, who likens churches "imposing" their doctrines on government to the religious-political connections in Iran's government, which is largely run by clerics acting behind the elected lay politicians.

West, as might be expected of a scholar of African-American culture in northern New Jersey, sees America as a "very pluralistic society" in which all types of people must learn to coexist. Opposing same-sex marriage is, to her, supporting "destruction of family life"; she says she wants to ask church leaders who oppose it, "Why that sense of urgency?" — especially when the Catholic Church, in particular, is facing significant obstacles both financial and scandalous in places as far-reaching as Germany, Ireland, and Wisconsin.

But she acknowledges that faith and religious teachings will always be in the political discussion. The question is whether dogma and belief spread themselves into the secular realm of backroom deals. "It's a fine line between standing up for what I believe is true about how we should live as a society because I am inspired by my faith" and prescribing "things in law should be aligned with my faith," says West. "Spending money to shape public policy to fit your religious tradition crosses the line."

sidebar: The Future of the Unholy Alliance

Stem-cell research arose as a controversy not long ago, because researchers were experimenting with embryonic stem cells, which required destroying embryos (which were usually surplus eggs fertilized through artificial insemination, and later donated by their parents). That furor has largely quieted down, mainly it turns out stem cells donated by consenting adults have a lot more promise than previously thought — nearly as much, in many cases, as embryonic ones. Now scientists are focusing on understanding and expanding the capabilities of adult stem cells; at some point they may seek to return to embryonic work, but that may be decades in the future.

Or will there even be an Unholy Alliance to take on issues like this?

Fred Karger, a leader in the movement to expose the exact size of religious contributions to political campaigns, says he thinks the alliance "will unravel without any outside help," observing the Mormons' public retreat in the face of public outrage after the Prop 8 campaign. "The Catholic Church will be right behind them," Karger predicts, saying that even though their efforts succeeded in repealing same-sex marriage in Maine, the backlash did "tremendous damage to their reputation."

We should be so lucky.

sidebar: Pulling Political Churches' Nonprofit Exemptions
We might think we're safe from this religious injection into politics, because of the Constitution's separation of church and state. But there's a loophole: while the government cannot favor one religious tradition over another, there is no legal structure that prevents religious groups from wielding political might. (Some Republicans have, at various times in the past decade, introduced federal legislation that would actually protect the ability of churches to spend on political matters. Fortunately, it hasn't gotten anywhere — yet.)

Religious organizations, at present, get automatic certification from the IRS as nonprofit groups. There are some rules limiting how much political activity nonprofits can have, but churches — most notably the Catholic Church — don't pay those rules much mind, preferring instead to wield significant political muscle both in person and with money.

Particularly in response to the religious war waged on same-sex marriage, there have been a number of public campaigns to revoke nonprofit status for churches that break the rules.

Some — including the Phoenixin a 2009 editorial — have argued that religious groups should have to apply for tax-exempt status (rather than automatically receiving it), and that their lobbying efforts and related spending should be made public.

But perhaps the best measure is with a relatively simple, possibly administrative change. At present, IRS rules limit only religious groups' efforts in support or opposition to "any candidate for elective public office." But same-sex marriage is not a candidate; it is a referendum question. If the IRS prohibition were expanded to ban church efforts regarding, say "any question put to the voting public on a ballot," the stakes would be raised, and the enforcement much clearer.

sidebar: The Keys to Heaven Can Make For Good Fundraising
How much money can the Unholy Alliance bring to bear on campaigns? In California, reports have estimated that as much as half of the $42 million spent to support Prop 8 came from organized religion, or from individuals inspired by appeals from conservative church leaders.
In Maine, the Unholy Alliance and its members gave $2.7 million of the total $3.1 million in cash and in-kind donations generated by Stand for Marriage Maine, according to official campaign-spending reports on file with the state. (As far as organizations go, the National Organization for Marriage, which has been linked to the Mormon Church, gave $2 million; the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland gave another $570,000, including more than $250,000 from dioceses elsewhere in the country. The national Knights of Columbus Catholic service organization gave $50,000. And the evangelical-supported Focus on the Family gave another $120,000.)

But that's not even close to their fundraising capacity. "It's unlimited. It's as big as they want it to be," says Fred Karger, an activist seeking to expose the exact amounts religiously motivated donors have contributed to banning gay marriage. Donations can often be channeled through churches to make them tax-deductible, Karger observes.

And some donors have effectively unlimited resources. Naming vastly wealthy evangelicals Howard Ahmanson Jr. and John Templeton Jr., Karger says they would write checks for any amount, as long as their names were not connected to the funds.

For them — and for everyone — Karger jokes, " 'Give us all your worldly goods or eternity is in jeopardy' is a very effective fundraising tool."

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Press Releases: A call to action

Published in the Portland Phoenix

In this campaign season of railing against government and the status quo, do you actually know much about all the different things your government does? I don’t mean to insult readers by suggesting you don’t know, for example, how much public toll money it will cost to repair the Maine Turnpike bridges over Gorham Road and the I-295 southbound exit ($1 million).

Certainly, some of that is the fault of media outlets, which don’t always do a great job of investigating government actions and uncovering the hidden truths about what those who serve us are really up to — whether good, bad, or (as seems to be most often the case) indifferent.

But this is not a call to action directed at media outlets — they already hear enough of that, and if they’re slacking off the digging, they know it. Quite frankly, ensuring government openness, transparency, and effectiveness is not solely up to the media: It’s up to you.

You are the most effective person for the job. Contrary to popular belief, the media have no special rights to public information — what’s available to reporters is no more or less than what’s available to everybody else. And government officials don’t exactly like media scrutiny all that much: whenever lawmakers and policymakers are considering becoming more open or (as is much more often the case) more secretive, the most persuasive arguments for transparency are not that the media will be shut out, but that the people will be.

Which is why it behooves you not just to rely on media outlets to get you the information you need, but to go out and get it yourself. Right now, all over Maine and across the country, public officials are going about their business without worrying that anyone’s watching — because often, nobody is. Whether you object to a government program or support it (or hate some and like others), go learn more about it, from the source. Keeping government honest is everyone’s business.

Go exercise your right — think about something that matters to you, contact the relevant public agency, and ask for documents on some aspect of the issue. (If you’re stuck, an agency’s annual budget is always a good place to get ideas of what else you might want to learn about.)

Air quality, water quality, bridge maintenance, reports of infectious diseases, pollutant and toxin releases, tractor-trailer accident data, road-building plans, building- and business-inspection records, and all kinds of other information are open to the public — that means you.

For some tips, check out the Portland Phoenix’s blog,, where you can find a link to a PDF of a handout from a Society of Professional Journalists freedom-of-information session I helped organize in Portland last week (I’m the president of the Maine SPJ chapter). If you run into problems, there are some strategies in the handout; SPJ can help, as can the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition, and — especially when it comes to government spending, the Maine Heritage Policy Center’s site at

The overall point is to remember, both as you go to the polls this week and throughout the rest of the year, that people in government agencies work for you. This does not mean you get to harangue or harass them (free-speech principles apply, but so do those of adult decorum). Think about it this way: if you’re their boss, you don’t want to be the rude, mean boss everyone hates and is afraid of. You want to be the effective boss people like working hard for.

Take a few minutes — maybe on the first weekday of every month — to think about some information you’ve been meaning to ask for from your government, and make the call, or send the e-mail. It’s up to you — and not just the media — to keep your government working hard, honestly, and openly.