1. Dog-Whistle Confirmation Process: "Judicial Activism" and the Religious Right.
As soon as President Barack Obama announced the nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, the religious right began to grumble with more than a hint of -- surprise, surprise -- bitterness. Call it lingering resentment over Bork that will never go away; call it the frustration of being sidelined from the Beltway fray; call it a need to have something to say and a way to raise money.
Sotomayor's life story is a classic of up-by-the-bootstraps conservatism that would be told and retold all over wingnut radio had she been a Republican nominee: the hardworking widowed mother, the Nancy Drew inspiration, Catholic school, scholarships to college, law school, a career as a crime-fighting prosecutor and corporate lawyer before becoming a judge. But Family Research Council president Tony Perkins said in a statement, "A compelling personal story is no substitute for allegiance to the Constitution and its sound application to public life."
The best ammunition the religious right has -- and it is a thin reed, to be sure -- is off-the-cuff remarks Sotomayor made in 2005 about how policy is made in appellate courts. This truism is not an endorsement of the dreaded "legislating from the bench," nor is it a call to disregard legal precedent. Yet the religious right is already accusing her of "judicial activism," which is to say that she's a baby-murderer (because for them Roe is a classic example of judicial activism) who endorses a radical homosexual agenda (because the Massachusetts Supreme Court decision invalidating a same-sex marriage ban is another).
Jay Sekulow, the head litigator of Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice (and a prominent evangelical endorser of Mitt Romney in 2008), immediately raised concerns about Sotomayor "legislating from the bench." The American Family Association's news service warned that she is not just an "extreme liberal ideologue but also an unethical jurist."
While Sotomayor's views on abortion and gay marriage remain unknown, she has issued several decisions on religious-freedom issues that should hearten proponents of religious liberty, something the religious right claims to endorse. Church-state separation activists, meanwhile, remain guarded about her nomination until more is known about her views on the establishment clause.
Nonetheless, the religious-right base is unafraid of smearing her and of revealing its true intentions. Richard Viguerie, one of the movement's godfathers, crowed in a statement, "This is an enormous opportunity for conservatives to define President Obama as a radical liberal in a way that Republicans have so far failed to do."
2. Court Decision on Proposition 8 Thrills Religious Right.
Had the California Supreme Court overturned Proposition 8 yesterday, religious-right activists would have used it as a demonstration project for their "judicial activist" argument. Instead, they were pleased that court decided to"uphold democracy."
But while the battle will continue at the ballot box in California (and in legislatures and courts around the country), it's worth noting that it's not just the religious right that supported Proposition 8. Recall that pastors frequently touted as "new" and less divisive evangelicals, like Saddleback's Rick Warren and the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference's Samuel Rodriguez, supported the gay-marriage ban. When Democrats seek "common ground" with these evangelicals on issues like LGBT rights, their efforts actually enable the religious right by giving cover to religious objections to the full equality of marriage.
In an implicit rebuke to those small-bore common-ground efforts that would include LGBT people in a hate-crimes bill but not support marriage rights on religious grounds, a group of LGBT-rights activists recently drafted The Dallas Principles, a call to action for gaining full LGBT civil rights. Lane Hudson, one of the drafters of the document, said, "Religious beliefs should not be used to confirm nor deny civil rights. ? We invite everyone to get on board with the idea that civil law should treat all people the same. Just as I would fight for freedom of religion, I would hope religious people would fight for equal protection under the law."
3. Stymied Politically, Religious Right Turns to Prayer.
As tough economic times cause a decline in fundraising for many nonprofits, the religious right sees the need for inexpensive retooling of its mobilization strategy.
One new effort focuses on cultivating new believers out of panic that America will turn into Sodom. The Family Research Council last week announced "Call 2 Fall," a nationwide day of prayer, repentance, and fasting, to be led by pastors on July 5. FRC president Tony Perkins claimed the event "has nothing to do with public policy. It is a call to the church. The problem in America is not political, but a spiritual problem. It is incumbent on church to assume responsibility."
The event bears a strong resemblance to The Call, a traveling prayer assembly organized by evangelical Lou Engle. Perkins even spoke to one of Engle's gatherings when it landed on the National Mall this summer. Like The Call, Call 2 Fall is driven by Joel 2, a Bible chapter that followers believe demands fasting, sexual purity, repentance, and spiritual warfare in preparation for Christ's return.
Homophobia lies at the core of the Call 2 Fall effort. Other conveners include Larry Stockstill, the pastor who oversaw the attempted "rehabilitation" of Ted Haggard; Bishop Wellington Boone, author of the pamphlet "The Rape of the Civil Rights Movement: How Sodomites Are Using Civil Rights Rhetoric to Advance Their Preference for Sexual Perversion"; and Bishop Harry Jackson, who most recently has been leading a crusade against the D.C. City Council's recognition of out-of-state same-sex marriages.
Not surprisingly, Jackson portrayed the effort as one pitting Sodomites against Christians. "What we need is something like the civil-rights movement of the last century that brought liberty and freedom to African Americans as a discriminated people in the nation," said Jackson in a teleconference with reporters. "We need to recognize that if we do not violently -- in terms of spiritual violence, not physical violence -- violently, aggressively seek God, we -- the Christian community -- are going to be an oppressed people discriminated against and put down by this culture. God has ordained that we turn this around."
4. Progressive Christians Building an Infrastructure for Progressive Seminarians.
While the religious right is retooling in the pews, a new progressive Christian organization is providing tools to clergy to counter their efforts.
In the wake of the 2004 election, the Beatitudes Society was launched as a bulwark against the dominant -- or shall we say domineering -- voice of the religious right in politics. Named for the passages in the Gospel of Matthew that culminate in the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes Society provides educational tools to seminarians to preach and advocate on what the group considers to be the heart of a progressive vision of the New Testament: Jesus' command to care for the poor, the meek, the least of these.
According to the society's executive director, the Rev. Anne Howard, "We haven't done a good job of equipping seminarians to have discourse on social, cultural, and political issues." With chapters at 20 seminaries across the country, the Beatitudes Society aims to remedy that gap.
In most seminaries, Howard added, religious training is focused on the pastoral, rather on social and public policy. And seminaries don't emphasize how social-justice work is different from charity. "Usually churches do charity work," she said, "but we don't want to question why we need soup kitchens or homeless shelters." The Beatitudes Society doesn't aim to influence elections, Howard said, but rather to "stand back and question government" and to affect public policy.
The group has just hired Kimberly Knight, a recent graduate of the Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, to head up its online organizing. "We want to be able to serve [the seminarians] after school, when they're out there and it's easy to get quiet," she told me. "If they preach a sermon that questions dominant ethos, we want to help them with that."
Such an infrastructure has been attempted, but "it hasn't had the same moxie as the conservative grip on media and organizing," Knight said. "If we are nurturing now, 10, 20 years of emerging leaders who are entering congregations, that changes what's going on in those congregations. It makes an impact, not a short-term impact, a commitment to a longer vision."
"I would never say we're here to defeat the religious right, or bash the religious right, that would pose a false debate," Howard said. "We will always have religious conservatives. I am more concerned about silent religious progressives. I am more concerned about their silence than I am about the religious right's voice."
5. Evangelical Environmentalist: Oxymoron?
Evangelical environmentalist Richard Cizik was on Capitol Hill last week, urging passage of global warming legislation as the House Energy and Commerce Committee was marking up the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009. Hear that? An evangelical environmentalist.
But in a sign of continuing evangelical distrust of the secular left, it's a matter of some debate about whether evangelicals who support what they call "creation care" should call themselves environmentalists. Rusty Pritchard, co-founder of the creation care conference Flourish, eschewed the label at last week's gathering in Atlanta, reported Christianity Today editor David Neff.
Restoring Eden founder Peter Illyn, who serves on the Flourish board and spoke at the organization's conference, took the opposite stance. He said last week that he was "irked by that attitude" that rejects the term environmentalist. "I embrace it fully," he said.
Illyn and Cizik are rejecting the dominionism of the religious right, which commands believers to take dominion over God's creation and which denies the human cause of global warming. Still, both see global warming in judgmental and apocalyptic terms, turning to the Book of Revelation to show that God will destroy those who destroy the earth (Revelations 11:18). Their argument, though, is an earthly one, not one about heaven and hell.
"One of the great surprises of the faith for me," Cizik added, referring to when he had his "conversion" to environmental advocacy in 2002, "was what happens to me in an afterlife is not the central framing question that centuries of theological tradition have supported."
Illyn told me that when he preaches on Revelation 11:18, "I call that the bullshit moment. Because people say, 'bullshit.' And then you give them time to look through the Bible, the Bible that they brought in, that they've had next to their bed all these years, and you see them have this almost crestfallen look. But it's right there in our Scripture."