The Fundamentalist (No. 57)

1. Marginalized Religious Right Looks to Take Over Republican Party. Again.

As the results of the presidential and congressional elections sink in for the religious right, few in the upper echelons of the movement's leadership seem to realize their own contribution to the downfall of the Republican Party. They refuse, not surprisingly, to acknowledge that "values voters" didn't hold the keys to Republican victory and that their single-minded orthodoxy and blind devotion to the hapless Sarah Palin helped lead their party to defeat. But nimbleness and flexibility have never been the movement's strengths, and as its leadership plans its next steps the movement still seems stuck in the past.

The problem, movement stalwarts insist, is that the Republican Party is not conservative enough. Really.

Of course, the religious right has proved time and again that its political acumen shouldn't be underestimated. And although it’s still licking its wounds from the presidential race, the religious right did succeed in trampling the rights of LGBT people in four states. But aside from holding on to Michele Bachmann's (R-McCarthy-ville) seat, there were few silver linings on the electoral front.

Recognizing its marginalized, minority status, the religious right is emphasizing its self-image as a group of defenders of righteousness, under siege by radicals, feminists, and LGBT people. Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council is predicting that Christians will be persecuted. Charles Colson of Prison Fellowship warned that "the attacks on Christianity these days are only going to intensify in the months ahead. But we must press on all the more to make a winsome witness. Those who would banish Christianity from American life are risking the very survival of American society."

2. Atheists in Foxholes Ask Obama for Protection from Discrimination.

Americans serving in the military who are atheist, agnostic, or practice no religion might beg to differ with Colson's assertion that Christianity is under siege. In light of service members' stories of aggressive evangelizing, the ostracizing of nonbelievers, and the failure of the military to investigate complaints by non-theists of discrimination, the Secular Coalition of America (SCA) and the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers (MAAF) are asking the incoming Obama administration to consider changes to military regulations to protect their rights and ensure the implementation of procedures for investigating complaints.

Although a military directive prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion and affirms the right of service members to practice a religion, the it is "silent on how to handle nonreligious Americans who make up 21 percent of the armed forces," said SCA Executive Director Lori Lipman Brown. "Non-theists have no recourse when religion is forced upon them in both formal and informal settings affecting their daily work and their careers and, in some cases, their safety."

According to Jason Torpy, president of the MAAF, most people who contact his organization "fear reprisals and don't speak up publicly." Prayer, he added, "bookends nearly every military ceremony ... and exhortations to find faith and attend church are common."

"We need an overhaul and it needs to come from the top down," said former Army 1st Lt. Wayne Adkins, who served as a public affairs officer in Iraq and witnessed disparagement of nonbelievers by chaplains and officers to members of the press. "Atheists don't ask for much. ... What we do ask is that our leaders refrain from publicly disparaging us, from calling us liars, cowards, lesser soldiers, simply because we don't share their belief in the supernatural."

3. Religious Right Keen on Republican Leadership Positions.

As Minority Whip Roy Blunt of Missouri and Conference Chair Adam Putnam of Florida step down, conservatives are taking credit for forcing leadership changes that movement honcho Richard Viguerie claims will lead to conservatives seizing control of the party apparatus. While Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio is expected to retain his post, Eric Cantor of Virginia and Mike Pence of Indiana, a religious-right favorite, are expected to run for Blunt's and Putnam's vacated positions.

At the Republican National Committee, Newt Gingrich hopes to stage a comeback, but Mike Huckabee, who sometimes appeared with Gingrich at Rediscovering God in America events during the primary season, is lobbying for his former campaign manager to get the post. Meanwhile, Huckabee, who is thought to be eyeing another run in 2012, is off to Iowa to promote his new book and has launched his Vertical Politics Institute, "dedicated to finding solutions to the many challenges our nation faces today. We will focus on the following issues: Tax Reform, Energy Independence, Controlling Spending, Health Care Reform, Arts and Education, Sanctity of Life, Traditional Marriage, Environment and Nation Security."

Back in Alaska, Sarah Palin denies that she doesn't know Africa is a continent, and that she demanded the swag from Nieman Marcus, she also said she'll listen to what God has to say about running for president in 2012.

4. Dangerous Culture Wars in California.

The Very Rev. Scott Richardson, dean of St. Paul's Cathedral in San Diego, who has many LGBT members in his congregation and opposed Proposition 8, was verbally harassed before the election at a San Diego City Council meeting at which he spoke against Proposition 8. Several people "came up to me and said, you're an abomination, you're a false prophet, you're going to hell," Richardson told me last week.

I asked Richardson, an Episcopal priest, what he thought of prayer and fasting movements against abortion and same-sex marriage, and the employment of the language of spiritual warfare for political mobilization.

"When you get people fasting, drenched in prayer, lying prostrate on ground -- it's very dramatic. People are off their food; the zeal is pretty incredible," he said. "It's intended to shift people into a different kind of space. Hey, I'm for spiritual renewal, I'm all for prayer and fasting. I don't oppose that at all, but I would disagree on what the spiritual renewal looks like." Deployment of "spiritual warfare has a polarizing effect, sociologically, us versus them. Instead of me being a faithful pastor with a different perspective, I'm an abomination."

5. Looking Ahead at Abortion Issues in the Obama Administration.

Obama has signaled he will reverse Bush executive orders restricting stem-cell research and requiring an emphasis on abstinence rather than on condom use in the global AIDS relief program. Obama has also said he will reverse the global gag rule, which prohibits international family-planning organizations receiving U.S. aid from discussing the availability of abortion with their clients. All these Bush executive orders were considered great victories by the religious right, and while they are powerless to stop Obama from reversing them, Obama's election has provided them fundraising fodder.

This week the Family Research Council began raising money for its new effort, "Our Finest Hour: The FRC Plan to Reverse the Threat to Our Values and Freedom." The FRC promises to build a "Capitol Hill Firewall" by "supplying conservative and genuinely centrist members of Congress with the facts and answers they will use to stop the radical agenda of the Left"; a "Supreme Court Firewall" to encourage the Senate to reject "radical judicial activist nominees"; and a "National Firestorm of facts through a media strategy that will expose the extremism of leaders in the White House and Congress. FRC will prepare a conservative, pro-family comeback as Americans see the true liberal agenda."

But the FRC, which is boasting that the religious right has risen from the ashes before, is facing a much different political and media environment and progressive infrastructure than it has in the past. In addition, the religious right faces competition from more centrist evangelical and Catholic activists who will be vying for Congress' attention, particularly with proposals to reduce abortions. Even Obama himself -- who was criticized by some centrist evangelicals for not talking about abortion reduction enough on the campaign trail -- has developed a relationship with a prominent proponent of abortion reduction, the conservative mega-church pastor Joel Hunter, who prayed with Obama on election night.

Some observers, like Dan Gilgoff at Beliefnet, point to the abortion-reduction advocates as evidence of an emerging religious left. But the abortion reduction advocates, like Hunter and the signatories of last year's Come Let Us Reason Together paper from the Third Way, tend to be center-right, with their rhetoric focusing more on the moral tragedy of abortion rather than on the personal autonomy of women. There is a real religious left building out there, too, as evidenced by the thoughtful essays compiled in the new book edited by Frederick Clarkson, a longtime chronicler of the religious right, Dispatches from the Religious Left: The Future of Faith and Politics in America. The "new evangelicals" have gotten a lot of press, but the new organizing of the religious left should start getting some attention now, too.

Contact me at tapthefundamentalist at gmail dot com.

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