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The Right-Wing Think Tank Where Christine O' Donnell Learned Her ABCs of Homophobia

The real story of Christine O'Donnell's time at the Claremont Institute is how thoroughly she absorbed its viciously antigay politics.
 
 
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In the past few weeks, Delaware Congressional candidate Christine O'Donnell has come under ridicule for seeming embellishments to her résumé. A CV posted on the networking site LinkedIn transformed a 2001 summer seminar she attended in rented space at Oxford University into a term of study at the school, and represented a week-long fellowship at the right-wing think tank the Claremont Institute as graduate coursework at Claremont Graduate University. Although, at O'Donnell's request, the profile has since been taken down—her campaign claimed the enhanced resume was a fake posted to embarrass her ( a charge LinkedIn expressly would not confirm, and other sources seem to refute), the real story is what O'Donnell actually did learn at the Claremont Institute, and how thoroughly the candidate absorbed its viciously antigay politics.

The Claremont Institute, which shares no official affiliation with the consortium of seven interconnected schools that make up Claremont Colleges but which lists a number of Claremont McKenna College faculty as fellows or scholars, works on a number of projects, including hawkish advocacy for ballistic missile defense programs. But its most feverish passion seems to be opposition to gay rights, evident in the Institute's advocacy against gay teachers or Boy Scout leaders and in support of "reparative" gay conversion therapy. The Institute, which publishes the right-wing Claremont Review of Books , was founded in 1979 by students of Harry Jaffa, a philosophy professor who studied under neocon patriarch Leo Strauss and the author of Barry Goldwater's famous call for "extremism in defense of liberty." The institute praises extremism in its own right, this year bestowing its Statesmanship Award on Dick Cheney. O'Donnell's fellow Tea Partier, Sharron Angle, claims that in 2004 she was awarded its Ronald Reagan Freedom Medallion.

But like many right-wing institutions investing in conservatism's future, the institute focuses on new faces in the movement, offering two fellowships for young conservative leaders, including the Lincoln Fellowship O'Donnell was awarded in 2002. Participant lists for the fellowship are a catalogue of Congressional staffers, state Republican party operatives and conservative pundits in the making, including Andrew Breitbart, who went on from his fellowship to accuse former USDA appointee Shirley Sherrod of racism against whites this summer, and National Review's Kathryn Jean Lopez. One past participant, Brian Lee, a former staffer for the staunchly anti-choice Congressman Jeff Fortenberry, called the institute a premier "training ground for a lifetime campaign in the trenches of political warfare." Another, 2009 fellow Jon Fleischman of FlashReport.com, compared the fellowship to "taking the ‘red pill' " of The Matrix . The Institute itself says it is targeting "rising stars of the conservative movement … to teach them how to be ‘able and orthodox teachers.'"

Political orthodoxy lessons for Lincoln Fellows come from Institute associates, including Jaffa, a Lincoln scholar and professor emeritus at Claremont McKenna and Claremont Graduate University, who continues to be one of the Institute's most prominent faces. Other notable Institute mainstays include conservative pundit and former Bush I drug czar William Bennett, a fellow Straussian who made headlines in 2005 for suggesting black abortions could lower crime rates, and Ken Masugi, who became a speechwriter for Alberto Gonzales. But it's Jaffa who has shaped the culture of the Institute—so much so that Institute followers are nicknamed "Jaffanese Americans"—and one of the core values he's inculcated is a venomous homophobia.

In a series of similar essays stretching over decades, Jaffa's chief mode is using Lincoln or other founding fathers to further antigay arguments, charging in "the premier publication" of the institute's Center for the Study of Natural Law, that the same natural understanding of morality that declares slavery wrong, because of the natural understanding of shared humanity, also must declare homosexuality wrong, because of the natural understanding of differences between the sexes. If sodomy is not condemned as unnatural, Jaffa wrote in a 1993 debate over a book review, then nothing is unnatural, and nothing is wrong. The resulting slippery slope from accepting gay rights, he has argued in numerous articles and letters, would justify slavery, genocide, cannibalism and, predictably, the atrocities of Hitler and Stalin. Not one to shrink from bombastic analogies, in 1989 Jaffa contributed an article for the Claremont Colleges' weekly magazine, Collage, composed of an imagined conversation (modeled, he explained, on Thucydides) between Ted Bundy and a victim, wherein Bundy justifies murder and rape because other biblical sins, namely sodomy, were no longer condemned by society.

 
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