Submitting to the Christian Right

Last fall, when then-Congressman Alan Grayson of Florida aired a campaign ad calling his Republican opponent Daniel Webster "Taliban Dan," a collective, dismissive groan rumbled from the political commentariat. "Has Alan Grayson gone too far?" pondered Politico. But the question, despite the ad's shortcomings, should have been: Is Dan Webster, an evangelical Christian and staunch social conservative, too radical for the United States Congress?

Whatever the wisdom of using the term "Taliban Dan," Grayson was onto something that should have, if properly examined, provided clues to the Republican-controlled Congress' fixation with cutting off funding to Planned Parenthood. That such a question doesn't get asked is a function of how Congress has already gone too far -- and not in Grayson's direction. The Webster campaign should have given ample evidence that the Tea Party was full of religious zealots bent on undermining the rights of women. By failing to fully interrogate so-called social conservatism and understand its religious motivations, the press and pundits continue to provide cover for candidates with an extreme agenda, which they're far from finished carrying out.

Despite how commonly November's elections were cast as the Tea Party's first electoral victory, they actually represented the dominance not just of Christian-right activists in the Republican base but of Christian-right candidates. Religious zealotry plays an equal if not more significant role in Tea Party politics than its obsession with budget deficits and government spending. After all, an October 2010 survey found that more than 80 percent of Tea Party activists identified as Christian, and 57 percent of those "also consider themselves part of the conservative Christian movement."

Although Webster hasn't, as a freshman, put himself in the forefront of the anti-Planned Parenthood crusade, the treatment of the "Taliban Dan" ad is emblematic of how the press and political watchdogs have been duped into whitewashing the religious zealotry that underlies the GOP's legislative goals. Without a full understanding of those religious beliefs -- and how those beliefs define women and their role as wives and mothers -- we have only a surface understanding of the motivation behind the anti-Planned Parenthood efforts. It is not solely about shutting down Planned Parenthood's federal funding because the organization provides abortion services (indeed federal funding of abortion is already banned by the Hyde Amendment). It's about shutting down Planned Parenthood because it provides contraceptives. That is a target because, as Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota has put it, "an arrogant corrupt Washington elite" has "declared war on marriage, on families, on fertility, and on faith." (Emphasis added.)

The world from which Webster emerges is one, but by no means the only, evangelical subculture promoting women as hyper-fertile wives and mothers in obedient service to God. Webster is a protégé of the highly controversial evangelist Bill Gothard, founder of the Institute in Basic Life Principles (whose board of directors is chaired by another House Republican, Sam Johnson of Texas). Gothard's other, probably most famous disciples are the Duggars, stars of the TLC reality show 19 Kids and Counting, the anti-contraception poster family.

Depicted as a wholesome, if large, all-American family on cable television, the Duggars were honored at last year's Values Voters Summit with a "Pro-Family Entertainment" award. There, they were lauded for using their television show "to make Christ known and make others see that the Bible is the owner's manual for life." Their promotion of Gothard's teachings includes, among other things, prohibiting their teenaged children from dating and requiring courtship instead. They're schooled to save their hearts for the mate God chooses for them.

That the Duggars have become mainstream heroes to the religious right demonstrates how, despite evangelical criticism of Gothard's controversial teachings, and the apparent rejection of their views by the rank and file, they are nonetheless glorified in the conservative activist culture. The anti-Planned Parenthood activism of the GOP, to turn Bachmann's words on their head, demonstrates how arrogant religious-right political elites have declared war on American women.

By presenting themselves as mainstream, Webster and the Institute in Basic Life Principles succeeded in convincing gullible campaign-ad watchdogs of the harmlessness of their beliefs. Factcheck.org (which accused Grayson of "lowering the bar") described IBLP as a "non-denominational Christian organization that runs programs and training sessions" and accepted, without question, an IBLP spokesperson's own anodyne description of the organization as "a religious-based program" designed "to support parents in raising their children to love the Lord Jesus Christ." PolitiFact, the partner of National Public Radio in rating campaign ads for accuracy, labeled Grayson's ad "false." They were both wrong.

In the short clip, Webster repeats, "Wives, submit yourself to your own husband," and, "She should submit to me. That's in the Bible." As religion scholar Julie Ingersoll wrote after Webster protested that his words were taken out of context, "Webster has not claimed that he does not believe that the appropriate relationship of wives to husbands is submission -- only that that was not what he was talking about in the segment."

Indeed, submission is a central tenet of Gothard's teachings. His evangelical critics have described the insular world of Gothard's organization as "a culture of fear" and Gothard's teachings as a "parody of patriarchalism," the "basest form of male chauvinism I have ever heard in a Christian context," and "anti-woman." The core of Gothard's authoritarian teachings is a chain of command of spiritual authority from God to the husband and father, who is responsible for seeing to his wife's and children's obedience in order to ensure their eternal salvation. ATI families, a former Gothard follower told me, "basically ate, breathed, lived, and slept ATI and Mr. Gothard."

In service of the anti-Planned Parenthood agenda, Gothard's acolytes continue to spread misinformation about contraception. Michelle Duggar has recounted how, early in her marriage, she became pregnant while on the pill and that the pill then caused her to miscarry. This folklore fulfills two common religious-right myths about oral birth control: that it is both ineffective and harmful. Duggar says that this incident led her to follow God's will and forego contraception altogether. As she told the Values Voters Summit last year, "Our motto is obey first, understand later." For religious-right political elites -- although not, apparently, most evangelical women, since they use birth control at about the same rates as American women in general -- Duggar is the model Christian woman, the model that is driving GOP policy.

Even though Speaker John Boehner relinquished the House-passed Planned Parenthood defunding measure as part of the budget compromise reached with the White House earlier this month, Republicans and their anti-choice allies are using senators' votes against the defunding measure as ammunition in their quest to retake control of the Senate in 2012. The Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-choice group that targeted Democrats last election cycle over their votes for health-care reform, has already announced plans to run campaign ads against Democratic Sens. Ben Nelson, Bob Casey, and Claire McCaskill, who all voted against defunding.

For his part, Webster, who boasts about his vote to defund Planned Parenthood, is also working in other ways to advance his religious beliefs in Washington. He is co-sponsoring a resolution supporting the designation of Ten Commandments Weekend "to recognize the significant contributions the Ten Commandments have made in shaping the principles, institutions, and national character of the United States." In telling a Baptist news site in his home state of the intense interest of House freshmen in the multiple Capitol Hill Bible studies available, he noted, "There are a lot of quality people up here that have a strong belief in the Lord."

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