Tea Party and the Right

When You Hear Conservatives Talking About Religious Liberty, Watch Out

“Religious liberty” might sound nice, but it conceals a hard-line agenda.

At the dawn of the Tea Party revolution, many conservatives were optimistic. The prevailing attitude among reporters and insiders alike was that the Republican Party had shed its misguided moralism and embraced hard-nosed economic realism as its core platform. Political author Dick Morris wrote, “No longer do evangelical or social issues dominate the Republican ground troops….There is still a litmus test for admission to the Republican Party. But no longer is it dominated by abortion, guns and gays. Now, keeping the economy free of government regulation, reducing taxation, and curbing spending are the chemicals that turn the paper pink.”

New York Times reporter Kate Zernike, author of Boiling Mad: Inside Tea Party America, agreed. “For decades, faith and family have been at the center of the conservative movement. But as the Tea Party infuses conservatism with new energy, its leaders deliberately avoid discussion of issues like gay marriage or abortion.”

Yet despite its focus on libertarianism, this new Republican bloc has spent the last three years fighting with unprecedented aggressiveness on the very social issues it was supposedly unconcerned with. Between 2011 and 2013, Republicans enacted 205 anti-abortion laws, more than they had in the prior 10 years combined (189). The Kansas house passed a bill that would give any individual, even essential government employees and hospital workers, the right to deny service to gay people. Though the bill did not pass the senate, similar bills are being introduced in at least nine other states, according to Mother Jones.

So what had changed? More than anything, it was the way that opposition to abortion and gay rights was justified: in the words of BuzzFeed’s McKay Coppins, “in terms of protecting religious freedom instead of enforcing ‘family values.’” This change made Republicans appear more moderate, but actually signaled a rightward shift. Conservative ideas of religious liberty posited that the government’s eventual goal was the oppression of conservative Christians, and compromise on any religious liberty issues—which encompassed abortion, gay rights, and the Affordable Care Act—would be a violation of Christian faith. The notion of religious liberty thus gave small-government politics a cosmic imperative.

The Rhetoric ofReligious Liberty

In the last few years, Republicans have become more and more focused on not “paying for abortions.” In February, Jeff Jimerson, one of the chief petitioners for a ballot measure in Oregon that would outlaw using state funds to pay for an abortion, summarized this view in the New York Times. Jimerson said, "We don't want to make this a pro-life thing. This is a pro-taxpayer thing. There are a lot of libertarians in Oregon, people who don't really care what you do, just don't make me pay for it."

Jimerson’s views happen to be in line with the official 2012 GOP platform, which opposed “using public revenues to promote or perform abortions or fund organizations which perform or advocate it” and said the party would not “fund or subsidize health care which includes abortion coverage.”

On the surface, this position may seem a softer stance, perhaps one that could offer a place for abortion rights with a conscience exemption. This makes it all the more strange that the last three years have seen renewed anti-abortion efforts at the state level. Stranger still, the laws passed during the last three years have done very little to block the government from funding abortions: the four most popular restrictions in 2013 were laws that limited insurance coverage, banned abortion pills, instituted 20-week bans, and restricted the function of abortion providers.

How did opposing paying for abortions lead to the largest anti-abortion rights push in memory? According to New York Times reporter Jeremy Peters, “by framing the abortion debate in terms of fiscal conservatism, [Republicans] can make a connection to the issue they believe will ultimately decide who controls Congress next year — the Affordable Care Act.”

Eric C. Miller, professor of communication ctudies at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, noted in an analysis of a recent Bobby Jindal speech that, “When he takes up the claim that ‘the freedom to exercise your religion in the way you run your business’ is ‘under assault,’ for instance, you can bet that he’s talking about abortion. You can also bet that a Hobby Lobby anecdote is about to drop. Here the freedom to run a business according to conscience routinely stands in for the less marketable freedom-to-not-provide-comprehensive-health-insurance-for-female-employees.”

Besides worrying that the ACA’s contraception mandate would force religious employers to fund birth control, conservatives also expressed concerns that the ACA would create a “financial windfall” for Planned Parenthood, and that it would “entangle taxpayer funds in abortion coverage.”

All of these concerns can be encompassed by objections to the state funding abortion. Because of this, legislation that attempts to prevent government funding of abortion is often also anti-Obamacare legislation. As Jimerson’s petition website claims, “This initiative would prohibit public funds in Oregon from being used to pay for…government-subsidized health insurance plans created by ObamaCare.”

Still, why all the anti-abortion laws that seem to have no connection to the ACA? In fact, the fight against the ACA has simply caused conservatives to connect liberty with anti-abortion laws more generally, not just ones that directly deal with “paying for abortions.”

The evangelical Christian minister David Barton said that people who are “pro-abortion” are really “pro-socialism.” This is, “they're pro bigger government, less individual rights and responsibilities.” In Barton’s mind, pro-choice ideas are always connected to big government liberalism, and libertarianism is thus pro-life. In this environment, fighting government, fighting the ACA, and fighting abortion have been so connected that a blow against abortion rights is a blow against the ACA, and also the (imagined) repressive state, even when the specifics of the law have everything to do with restricting individual freedom and nothing to do with the ACA at all.

Religious Liberty Justifies New Anti-Gay Movement

In 2013, a new brand of “religious liberty” stories circulated around right-wing news outlets. Townhall.com told readers about an “Air Force Officer Forced to Remove Bible From Desk,” a Fox News article titled “Soldier Who Read Conservative Books Now Faces Charges” gained 12,000 likes, and “Investigation: Bakery Forced to Make Lesbian Wedding Cake” made headlines at WorldNetDaily. “Judge Orders Wedding Cake Baker to Serve Gay Couples,” wrote the Drudge Report in December. According to Todd Starnes, a Fox News journalist who popularized many of these stories, “Christians are trading places with homosexuals,” that is, events like the repeal of don’t ask/don’t tell had flipped the narrative of oppression and oppressor.

Accoroding to Starnes, the government was now in the process of staging a war on Christianity. Ken Klukowski, a professor at Liberty University, at the time the director of the Family Research Council’s (FRC) Center for Religious Liberty, accused President Obama of “Chicago-style thuggery” toward Christians in an interview with theChristian Postlast October. Retired Lt. General and Family Research Council vice-president William Boykin accused Obama of, in the words of a Christian Postreporter, supporting a “large and secretive Marxist movement seeking to remove all dependence on God and references to the deity from civil society.”

The FRC, an organization focused narrowly on abortion and same-sex marriage, could thus say without irony, “Our message is simple but enormously important: Everything we care about hinges on religious liberty.” Republican advocacy groups weren’t the only ones obsessed with the idea: every major Republican presidential candidate in 2012 claimed religious freedom was under attack.

The rhetorical transformation did not go unnoticed. Jay Michaelson of Political Research Associates wrote in a report titled “Redefining Religious Liberty” that “Religious conservatives have succeeded in reframing the debate, inverting the victim-oppressor dynamic, and broadening support for their agenda” and that the religious liberty argument represented a “key front in the broader culture war designed to fight the same social battles on new-sounding terms.”

It may have sounded nicer, but the practical implication of religious freedom rhetoric was a more virulent homophobic agenda. Michaelson wrote that this new discourse should not be understood “as an attempt to create not religious exemptions” but rather “ the evisceration of civil right protections themselves. If any individual or business can refuse to recognize a person’s civil rights on the pretext of religious belief, those rights are functionally meaningless.”

Religious Liberty Rhetoric Leads to Government Shutdown

On the eve of the government shutdown, Representative Michelle Bachmann told a reporter from the Washington Examiner, “This is historic, and it's a historic shift that's about to happen, and if we're going to fight, we need to fight now."

Less than a month prior, Bachmann stated, on the radio show of Olive Tree Ministries’ Jan Markell that Obama’s actions as President signaled the rapture: “Rather than seeing this as a negative, we need to rejoice. Maranatha, come Lord Jesus, his day is at hand…. When we see up is down and right is called wrong…these days would be as the days of Noah.”

Bachmann wasn’t the only one to view herself as what the Daily Beast’s Joe McLean called a “modern prophet of the apocalypse.” Four days later, Ted Cruz said at the FRC’s Values Voters Summit that America was “a couple of years” away from the "cliff of oblivion.”

Apocalyptic ideas have been part of America since its founding, and among conservative Christians, they’re experiencing something of a renaissance. According to author Chip Berlet, “Since the early 1990s, a sector of the political right in the United States has embraced a specific set of conspiracy theories revolving around government plans to impose tyranny.”

In the '90s, this synthesis of evangelical Christianity and anti-government paranoia was restricted to the margins: militias, homeschoolers and scattered megachurch pastors. But they gained a wider audience through media: radio shows, websites and books, most notably, the apocalyptic thriller series Left Behind, by Tim LaHaye. In Left Behind, satanic forces and government forcesliterally mix—the antichrist, Nicolae Carpathia, ascends to power by becoming president of the United Nations, and uses that role to bring the world under his control, all with the aid of the (mostly liberal) folks who hadn’t been raptured.Left Behindsold 63 million copies. Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell said Left Behind had a greater “impact on Christianity” than “any book in modern times, outside the Bible.”

Today’s conservatives may not have quite so dramatic a vision of the apocalypse, but Tea Partiers like Bachmann and Cruz seem to have internalized the idea that, to borrow a phrase from progressive Christian blogger Fred Clark, “the abolition of all religion…is exactly what [liberals] are hoping for.” They’ve also made use of the conservative infrastructure LaHaye helped to construct: a group he founded, the Council for National Policy, called the “most powerful conservative group you’ve never heard of” by ABC, designed and built the government shutdown.

According to theNation’s Lee Fang, the CNP’s ad-hoc coalition, the Conservative Action Project, “initially floated the idea of attaching funding for Obamacare to the continuing resolution, and followed up with grassroots organizing, paid advertisements and a series of events designed to boost the message of senators like Ted Cruz.” The justification for these actions was, in the words of the Conservative Action Project, the Affordable Care Act’s “unprecedented  attack on life and religious liberty.”

For conservatives, religious liberty was built on an anti-government, apocalyptic attitude, which posited what Eric C. Miller calls an “overarching conspiracy.” Conservative religious liberty claims rely on the idea that people in power really do desire the end of, or at least dramatic restrictions on, conservative Christianity.

Jay Michaelson wrote, “One recurring theme in the right-wing literature is the sense of a ‘coming storm’…Like the red menace, the secularist danger is imminently looming. The metaphors are appropriately biblical: soon there will be a flood of litigation, a firestorm of controversy. Indeed, these apocalyptic pronouncements resonate closely with…Christian Reconstructionism/pre-millennialism specifically. The ‘coming storm’ and the End Times are not distant from one another.”

Rob Shryock is a freelance journalist covering topics such as evangelical Christian culture, religion in the military and Islamophobia. He frequently writes for Religion Dispatches.