By Frederick Clarkson | 11 March 2018
Much of my work for the past few years has involved challenging the Christian Right’s effort to hijack religious freedom to accomplish their various ends. But it also happens that much discussion of religious freedom, centers not on what it is, but what it isn’t. That’s why I was pleased to be able to discuss it at the New York Society for Ethical Culture recently. You can read my prepared remarks, here, which have also been republished by AlterNet.
Here are a few excerpts:
It is… clear that the struggle for religious freedom is far from over. I think that some of what we face today has to do with our taking religious freedom for granted—and some very savvy exploitation of our unwariness by the theocratic strategists of the Christian Right.
As it happens, I have spent much of my life studying various elements of the Christian Right—and one lesson that has stood out for me, is what an influential theocratic theorist named Gary North calls “the dilemma of democratic pluralism.”
By this he means that those of us who embrace democratic pluralism, have to, as a matter of philosophical principle, tolerate those who do not share our values and in fact are dedicated to their destruction. Naturally, these are things that we would rather not see, and the Dominionists are usually (but not always) wise enough not to show their hands. That is part of why for decades, we have heard variations on the story that the Christian Right is dead, dying, or greatly diminished.
But whaddya know?
They are now making national policy in close collaboration with the White House. Too many of our religious and political leaders and certainly the media, turned a blind eye to their growing political strength and pooh-poohed their unambiguous theocratic vision.
This turning a blind eye to political reality has worked to the advantage of the Christian Right because they know that our tolerance and wishful thinking can sometimes be exploited. Because they know we live in the dilemma of democratic pluralism, they know that it can be challenging for us to recognize the threats to our values and our way of life. This causes us great cognitive dissonance. And so as a society, we have been very creative in finding ways not to see it. Sometimes people dismiss them as crazy, extremists who cannot be taken seriously. It is a variation on the idea of “it can’t happen here.” In fact it is happening, and has been happening for a long time.
…religious freedom is something that just about everyone says they are for, but we really don’t agree on what it means. I define it as the right to believe as you will, and to change your mind as often as you like without the undue influence of government and religious institutions and the rich, and the powerful.
But there are others who are seeking to use the idea of religious freedom to undermine it. As envisioned Thomas Jefferson and James Madison religious freedom is an idea that seeks to prevent government from enforcing the doctrines of powerful religious factions. But that idea is being undermined by the contemporary Christian Right, and we have our work cut out for us to restore this foundational principle of democracy in our lifetime.
Let’s make no mistake about what’s going on.
This weekend in Washington, DC, for example, [Feb 24-25] you have probably seen something about CPAC—the Conservative Political Action Conference where the president spoke and has received a lot of media attention. But what has not received much attention is a big prayer rally being held at the Trump Hotel a few blocks from the White House. It is called The Turnaround and it is intended to defend Trump, whom some evangelical Christians believe has been chosen by God to help them advance what they call “biblical decrees.” They see themselves as raising-up an “Army of Special Forces” on his behalf.
While the media ignored this ominous event, Peter Montgomery of Right Wing Watch was publishing authoritative dispatches from the Trump Hotel. Journalist Bill Berkowitz later discussed all this with Rob Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State and me in an article at Truthout. The organizers of the event called The Turnaround, were all leaders in the Dominionist element of Pentecostalism called the New Apostolic Reformation, which as been rising in plain sight for decades, and has been all in for Trump. Here is part of what I told Berkowitz.
Clarkson told me that his understanding, after reading the promotional material for the event, was “that they intend to fill the atmosphere in Washington with ‘biblical decrees’ and that this is part of what organizer Sheets calls his answer to the ‘divine call to war.’”
“And when Sheets and other apostles leading this event say a divine call, they mean it,” Clarkson added. “I have seen Chuck Pierce stop the proceedings at an event to say he was receiving a word from God, and people gasp and hang on his every nuance. This may seem strange to those outside of these networks, but for many of their followers, this is their experience of the living God. Thus, it is no small thing when the living God, speaking through his apostles and prophets is calling for ‘enforcing kingdom rule’ and raising up an ‘Army of Special Forces.’”
According to Clarkson, “Pentecostalism is the only growth sector in Christianity in the US and the New Apostolic Reformation is the most politically dynamic element of the Christian Right.” However, the movement has not received much media attention. “They adhere to an urgent and animating vision of dominion, such that they are able to believe that God has chosen an ungodly man to accomplish his purposes,” Clarkson added.
“One does not have to take their hyperbolic utterances seriously, but no one should have any doubt that their followers do,” Clarkson pointed out. “Holding the event in the five-star Trump hotel a few blocks from the White House is plenty of proof of the truth that they are carrying out the will of God and must stand up to Trump’s opponents, who must also be seen as the opponents of God.”
While the media focused its attention on CPAC, The Turnaround, went relatively unreported. “For decades, the broad theocratic movement we call Dominionism has been rising in plain sight, and now is a close ally of the president of the United States, enjoying access to power that ostensibly more moderate evangelicals can only dream of,” Clarkson declared.
Frederick Clarkson is Senior Research Analyst at Political Research Associates and has written about politics and religion for over thirty years.
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