Event Denounces Conservative Christians as “Fascists”

on July 3, 2007

UCC ministers and authors of Steeplejacking: How the Christian Right is Hijacking Mainstream Religion, John Dorhauer and Sheldon Culver appeared at a June 6th program in Manhattan entitled, “Nationalists, Fascists, and Fanatics: The Christian Right’s Threat to the Future of Democracy in America.” Also present were Talk2Action blogger Fred Clarkson and Michelle Goldberg, journalist and the author of Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism. Chris Hedges, author of the bestselling American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America, was originally scheduled as a presenter but did not attend.

Culver said that renewalists were motivated by material, not biblical principles. She claimed, “And we have …finally realized … ultimately this is not about silencing the bishops—that’s been done for quite some time … it [the goal] has been to take the property and assets of the local church: [it has] nothing to do with theology … nothing to do with biblical interpretation, but to take the property and assets.”

She also suggested that violence (or the threat thereof) was a part of the evangelical movements. When Dorhauer stated that many progressive pastors would find themselves “calculating … [that] for the good of the church” it was better they not make political pronouncements, Culver interjected that their motivation for restraint was “… sometimes for safety too! Violence is a part of this.” Without specifically mentioning who the perpetrators and victims of ecclesial violence were, she continued, “One of the key methods that as we started analyzing what was happening in two particular churches it became very obvious that the fundamental mechanism was abuse.”

Further commenting on the hard-ball tactics of theologically orthodox Christian groups, Culver said, “[T]he methodology basically is abusive. And it’s a few loud voices that sound as though they are absolutely sure about what they believe and what we should believe.… And most of the mainstream churches aren’t willing to fight, they don’t want to get into fights.” Thus, concluded Culver, “People have been terribly hurt by the misinformation and the accusations, the spreading of dissension.” She said local church congregants are often hurt by renewalists because “most of the people who are there don’t have any idea what’s occurring, and… end up saying, ‘I don’t know what I believe anymore.’ [They are] Eighty-five, 90 years old and have lost their faith, and that’s very hard for us.”

Initially more timid than Culver, Michelle Goldberg described her perceptions of some evangelical trends, but stated that “having written a book about the Christian right you don’t want to be in the position of trying … to insist that … everybody needs to be alarmed.” (“They [readers] do [need to be alarmed]!” interjected Culver.) According to Goldberg, “[T]hat doesn’t mean that we are on the verge of theocracy, but it does mean that there has been a kind of subtle shift … [that] is cumulatively causing problems.”

Much like something from a recent Star Wars film, Goldberg described how, unlike Christian liberals, Christian conservatives are very willing to be blissfully co-opted and manipulated by the Republican Party. She marveled at the malleability of Conservative Christians in the hands of Washington’s Right-Wing politicos, reflecting that the two “main structural differences [between right-wing Christians and their left-wing cousins] … I see as a journalist … not as a historian by any stretch of the imagination,” were discovered during her “eavesdropping on a conference call that the Family Research Council does with leaders of conservative churches all over the country…You have Tony Perkins and … he basically gives you your marching orders for the month. He [Tony Perkins] goes, “I’ve been talking to the Republican leadership, I’ve been talking to my friends at the Whitehouse we need you to tell your congregants.…”

Goldberg asserted that religious leftists were above succumbing to political temptation. She explained, “I don’t think you could really have that kind of coordination [on the left] because I don’t think that many religious liberals really want to go to a church that’s taking actual marching orders from the Democratic leadership council.”

In Chris Hedges’ absence, the inevitable analogies between more orthodox Christians and Nazis only arose during the question and answer session. One participant, playing off of Goldberg’s earlier comments, stated, “[20th century author Eric Fromm] talks about… how the young Hitler was hardened and toughened and became more extreme and he says one of the things that made him more extreme was that so many people…in Germany tried to appease him and he saw right through it … and … it increased his hatred of them.… And what I see in the Democratic Party is an attempt to co-opt the evangelical political block by giving them some concessions.… Mara Vanderslice, whom Michelle brought up; I think she’s part of the culture of appeasement.”

In response, Fred Clarkson provided a lengthy critique of present-day appeasers. He gravely warned, “This is the area of appeasement, make no mistake.… What happens when we have evangelical movements in the church? Not just evangelicals in the church, but people who say ‘We want to bring things back to the way they ought to be in the church, the true orthodox Christianity, that somehow all those … people have somehow abandoned and they don’t believe in God and Jesus, and we have to bring it back.’ How do you appease people like that?” Specifying a political example of the supposed Hitler-esque appeasement attempts, Clarkson said, “In order to include pro-life Democrats, you can no longer stand for your own principles. That’s appeasement. And that’s the advice the Democratic Party leaders are getting now.”

While not directly accusing evangelicals of the brainwashing, propaganda, and pseudo-science the Nazi regime was known for, Goldberg had earlier stated, “this political movement which has a kind of revisionist history of the United States … when I went to home schooling textbook conventions you would see these kind of libraries full of books that looked exactly like the kind of textbooks you studied but … they … are filled entirely with falsehoods and distortions.… So you have all of these institutions that this movement has created… what the Creation Museum is to the Smithsonian so the institutions of this movement are to the, you know, the kind of mainstream institutions of American life: Regent University and Graduate and Law School, or the Medical Institute for Sexual Health…a…bogus medical institute, or some of these Christian nationalist legal societies.”

Goldberg discussed her concerns over studying the Bible in public schools, saying, “this has become is kind of a ‘Trojan horse’ for a heavily Christian nationalistic Bible course.…[T]hey try to teach about America’s founding as a Christian nation and the ‘founders never intended to separate church and state’ and they’re teaching about the literal truth of the book of Genesis.”

Worse still, Goldberg asserts the government has been quietly “infiltrated” (a word generally used for foreign nationals acting as agents on behalf of their government and at the detriment of our own, and not in reference to American citizens) by evangelicals. “Under the bush administration … is the gradual infiltration and replacement from these … ideologically driven institutions instead of people from these real institutions. It used to be that the department of justice would hire civil rights lawyers with some background in … human rights instead of hiring people from Liberty University or Regent University or Ave Maria University.”

In addition to this assertion that Christian colleges are not “real,” and that their graduates are inexperienced and poorly educated, Goldberg suggested that their “primary interest is transforming… civil rights to something that is mostly interested in investigating discrimination against Christians, which has now become kind of the central focus of our erstwhile civil rights movement and justice department.” Speaking of the recent nomination of Dr. Holsinger, Goldberg was appalled that “someone who is quite important in the renewal movement in the United Methodist Church, who’s quite involved in kind of trying to purge gay people from the church, and you know, make the church more homophobic, and started a ministry to convert gay people to heterosexuality—which is one of the many kind of bogus scientific kind of infrastructures that I tend to write about—looks like he’s going to become our next surgeon general.”

Unlike Goldberg’s broader cultural observations, Clarkson, Dorhauer, and Culver presented how they perceived the Religious Right to operate on a denominational scale. At the panel discussion’s outset, Clarkson elaborated on the founding and intentions of some religious right organizations. He gave “a quick introduction to one of the groups that they [Dorhauer and Culver] have looked at, and the source of much of the trouble…an organization called the Institute on Religion and Democracy … started in the early 1980s by neoconservative democrats… [who] believed in a hawkish foreign policy.”

Clarkson stated that like “anyone who is a totalitarian of some sort” a conservative Christian “understands that dilemma of democratic pluralism and will exploit it at every opportunity. Because a liberal is an easy mark: “Oh, you’re intolerant aren’t you liberals?!” and the liberal goes, “Oh, I don’t want to be intolerant! I don’t want to paint myself that way!”” He added that, “the Right has used this very successfully.”

Clarkson said that because “One of the principle obstacles to a hawkish foreign policy in the U.S. and the institution that perhaps more than any other ended the Vietnam War were the mainline protestant churches.” Consequently, “the IRD was created…to neutralize and marginalize and systematically take apart the mainline churches…” Dorhauer later concurred, saying “To effectively silence the prophetic witness of the progressive church is really what the goal of the IRD has been.”

As articulated in their book, Culver and Dorhauer asserted that the religious right had completed “steeplejacking takeovers” in many churches. While Dorhauer admitted that “most of the members that we mention in these takeover attempts of which we write have no idea that the IRD even exists,” he suggested that, counter-intuitively, the organization’s relative anonymity “in some ways … is what makes the IRD so effective and so pernicious and so powerful.”

Specifically, Dorhauer accused the IRD of training “activists [who] are then deployed to work in local churches or to train people to work in local churches.” These “acitivists,” he says, intentionally “introduce … wedge issues … to literally inflict fear and anger into the membership of the church.”

Dorhauer mused that rather than being locally lead, covert conspiracy controlled the events in many mainline denominations. He described an instance where “we realized that these documents that were being purportedly written by individuals actually were written by somebody behind the scenes who never identifies himself.”

Culver added that “the IRD and … [its] Reader’s Digest article that came out January 1983… literally decimated the reputation of the NCC and WCC.” She said that one aim of the renewal groups is “undermining persons’ commitments to their local churches.” Besides the IRD, she mentioned that “One of the most active and really vicious has been the Presbyterian Layman, and they have been just extraordinarily successful in causing a lot of damage in the Presbyterian Church in the United States.”

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