Frederick Clarkson

Don't let bigoted campaigns sour you to the revolutionary idea of religious freedom

On January 16 we celebrate Religious Freedom Day to commemorate what may be the most revolutionary and liberatory idea in the history of civilization. It was the reason many joined the American Revolution. It’s the first freedom in the First Amendment. But despite all this, we as a society have forgotten or taken its power for granted.

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Religious Freedom Is a Progressive Value and a Cornerstone of Our Democracy

(Editor's note: The following article is adapted from the author's speech at the New York Society for Ethical Culture and first appeared at PoliticalResearch.org)

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This Hate Group That Rioted in Charlottesville Believes They Are Christian Crusaders for the South

Among the groups leading the recent Unite the Right march in Charlottesville, Virginia was the League of the South – an Alabama-based theocratic, neo-confederate group that has long advocated for southern secession.

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Religious Freedom Is a Progressive Value

To read press coverage about it, one might think that religious freedom is a concern only for religious and political conservatives, and not one of the most liberatory ideas in history. One would also think religious freedom and civil rights are at odds with one another. Indeed, U.S. history is filled with examples of such competing claims, as resistance to everything from African American civil rights to marriage equality have been cast as matters of religious freedom. But stepping back from the heat of our political moment, there is a different, more fully accurate, story to be told, one I think that as progressives, we need to know and be able to tell.

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A Dystrumpian Vision for LGBTQ People

Many are called but few are chosen during any presidential transition. That’s why it’s illuminating to consider who Donald Trump has chosen from the parade of possibilities for his transition team and senior administration appointments so far— and what they may portend for LGBTQ people.

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How One of the Most Extreme Groups Within the Religious Right Is Remaking the GOP Race for the Presidency

Historians may someday see the 2016 election season as the turning point in how our society understands the Dominionist movement that is seeking to recast society in its own image.  The herald of this new understanding is—ironically, as I will discuss below—a Washington Post commentary by historian John Fea, titled:  “Ted Cruz’s campaign is fueled by a dominionist vision for America.”  The Post’s publication of Fea’s piece follows years of both scholarly and journalistic tip-toeing around this elephant on the table of American public life – a dynamic modern theocratic religious and political movement that prior conventional wisdom notwithstanding is not fringe. 

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There's a Big Anniversary This January That the Christian Right Doesn't Want You to Know About

In the heat of our political moment, we sometimes don’t see how our future connects deeply to our past. But the Christian Right does — and they do not like what they see.

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Bombshell Report Blew Open Sex Abuse Scandal at Major Christian Right University -- Total Silence Ensued

One of the deep scandals of our time, and apparently times past, is that sex abuse, particularly of children, has been so tolerated and covered-up. What's more, it is clear that the problem is not limited to the Catholic Church, where the problem is of such extraordinary depth and breadth. It is deeply ingrained in more of society than most of us who were not affected by these things can easily believe. In the past year, I have written a bit about the difficulties the Southern Baptist Convention has had contending with its problems. (Here, here, and here.)

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GOP Sen. Candidate Todd Akin Arrested 8 Times for Anti-Abortion Extremism -- "Had to be Carried Out by Police"

Rep. Todd Akin (R-MO) has become notorious for his comments about rape, but there are many other good reasons to consider him one of the most recklessly dangerous pols in the nation. Fresh revelations about his criminal record and his approval of proponents of anti-abortion violence  are now coming out almost daily. Josh Glassteter at People for the American Way's Right Wing Watch has come up with video that demonstrates how this is so.  The National Journal is now reporting that Akin was arrested at least 8 times in connection with anti-abortion protests in he 80s -- including an instance in which he was blocking access to a clinic, refused to leave and had to be  "carried out by police."

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Corporate Media's Go-To 'Expert' on Latino Evangelicals Actually a Right-Wing Political Operative

This article originally appeared at Public Eye, the Web site of Political Research Associates.

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Right-Wing Rhetoric Heats Up, As Talk of Nazis Enters the Conversation

In March of this year, Eric Metaxas, author of a bestselling biography of the anti-Nazi German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer gave a presentation about his book to a small audience at a bookstore near the White House in Washington DC. 

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Right-Wing Official Pushes Bible Death Message at Obama

As president Obama made his way to the podium before his State of the Union address on Tuesday night there was a poignant reminder of the culture of hate and violence that has marked our public life in recent years.  Obama paused for a sustained greeting and hug with Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) who had just announced her resignation from Congress to complete her recovery from an assassination attempt.  

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Doing the Reich Thing

Since his late entry to the Massachusetts governor’s race in January, Robert Reich has confounded skeptics and mobilized a network of volunteer activists that invites comparisons to Robert Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign. Win or lose, he hopes his effort will jumpstart a revival of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.

Although Reich has never run for elected office before, he has considerable name recognition as labor secretary in the first Clinton administration, a prolific author and frequent television commentator. Still, he stunned the experts by flooding the party caucuses and electing hundreds of delegates to the state democratic convention. (Full disclosure: I was one of them). Reich is running neck-and-neck with State Treasurer Shannon O’Brien for the lead in the polls for the September 17 Democratic primary.

Reich is connecting with audiences by presenting himself as a battle-hardened public servant and unabashedly declaring progressive positions on issues from health care to public education to gay marriage. He is now barnstorming the state with a caravan of supporters called the “Reich Reform Express.” He speaks openly of “social justice,” tough enforcement of environmental laws, and addressing the “inordinate power” of corporations in the political process. Reich, who stands less than 5 feet tall, steps up to the microphone on a small platform and jokes, “As a candidate, I stand on my platform.”

He faces three formidable rivals in the primary: O’Brien, state Senate President Tom Birmingham, and former state Sen. Warren Tolman. The winner will face Republican Mitt Romney, best known for his stint as head honcho of the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. The Green Party is also fielding a gubernatorial candidate for the first time, physician Jill Stein.

I sat down with Reich just before the state Democratic convention to talk about his campaign and his critics.


You have been a sharp critic of corporate power and its influence in society and government. How do you see that playing out in the campaign?

The public is sick and tired of corporations that are self-serving, executives who are making fortunes and, at the same time, laying off their workers and overriding the democratic -- “small d” -- will of the public. I plan to reduce influence-peddling and the kind of back-scratching that has characterized the place for so long. ... I think the public will get behind that kind of an agenda. I don’t think that’s a hard sell at all.

How will you respond to the inevitable charge from the business community that “Reich is just another anti-business liberal. He will cost us jobs and raise taxes”?

Quite the contrary. Good businesses are very supportive of efforts that rein in big and irresponsible businesses. It’s the good businesses that suffer, as much as anyone, because they can’t compete when big or politically well-connected businesses horn in on their markets and get special favors from the legislature. No, I’m not anti-business at all. I’m anti- the kind of business that uses its power to corrupt the democratic process.

Progressives are feeling kind of homeless in Massachusetts. In the last presidential election, Ralph Nader got about 7 percent -- one of his highest totals in the country. But of the more than 4 million registered voters in Massachusetts, only about 4,000 are members of the Green Party. Almost half of the registered voters are independents, and less than a third declare themselves as Democrats. What do you think is going on?

I think a lot of people are trying to figure out whether it is worth trying to get back involved with the Democratic Party -- or whether the Democratic Party is basically dead, and they have to look elsewhere. I am of the view that it is still possible to revitalize the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. And that is what, in my own modest way, I’m trying to do here in Massachusetts. Now, I don’t know that I will be successful. I hope so. The polls are very encouraging. The momentum is there. But my long-term hope is that we can revive a Democratic Party in which progressives feel welcome.

Why do you think that progressive ideas can power your candidacy, when the conventional wisdom says they can’t?

Well, the conventional wisdom is absolutely wrong.

How do you see yourself as a progressive?

Labels mean far less than someone’s record and what they actually stand for. My record is very clear. As secretary of labor, I fought very hard to raise the minimum wage over the opposition of the Republican leadership in both houses of Congress; to fight sweatshops at home and abroad; to give people better pension protection and more opportunities for lifelong learning. I have been a strong advocate for affordable health care, affordable housing and early childhood education. I am very committed to getting money out of politics and ending all forms of discrimination regarding sexual orientation, gender, race, ethnicity and religion. Now if any of this is thought to make me a progressive or a liberal, then I accept the label.

These principles are not marginal. Most Americans believe in them. They want better schools. They want more affordable health care. They don’t want to be in a society that discriminates. And they certainly don’t want to be in a society in which the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer, and the middle class is barely holding on. That’s not the kind of place we want our children to grow up in. There are many people who describe themselves as conservatives, or even Republicans, who buy into these ideals.

Some of your critics say, “Bob Reich is a visionary; he doesn’t know Beacon Hill.” How do you take your outsider status to push an agenda through the legislature?

Exactly the way I did it when I began at the Labor Department. I was not a Washington insider. I was not an insider to the labor movement. But I hired talented people. I worked very, very hard. I made the kind of deals that had to be made without compromising my principles. ... What you need is tenacity, a certain degree of cunning, a thick hide, a willingness to fight and take a stand, and to go and really communicate well with the public about why you are doing it and what you want to accomplish. ... These are precisely the same qualities I will bring to Beacon Hill. I don’t owe anybody anything. I can start fresh. I can make some fundamental changes that may be far more difficult for people to make if they are part of that entrenched, insider culture.

Other critics say Bob Reich is too intellectual, too liberal, too left. They wonder if he can connect with regular people. I saw in the Boston Globe that Mitt Romney’s spokesman nicknamed your new book, “Das Kapital.” This could be a tough race for a progressive.

This race is going to be fought on the basis of who is going to make the best governor. People know what I did as secretary of labor. They know I worked hard for working people. Truck drivers, bus drivers and taxi drivers pass me on the street and give me a thumbs-up. Obviously conservative Republicans will call me names. Big deal. You know, I used to say when I was secretary of labor that if the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page didn’t excoriate me every two or three weeks, I started to worry that I wasn’t doing my job. ...

I have spent half of my life in academia and spent the other half of my life in public service. I have fought some very tough fights and won most of them. Anybody who accuses me of being an ivory tower intellectual is not paying attention to the half of my life when I was in the trenches. Public management is not easy. I have run a department of the federal government whose annual budget is larger than the state of Massachusetts’. We had to downsize. We had to do more with less, and we had to face a very hostile Congress. Those were difficult times.

How does that translate into talking to ordinary people -- the cab drivers and bus drivers?

My cabinet colleagues went to the great capitals of the world for international conferences. But as labor secretary, I went to industrial cities like Buffalo and Cleveland. My job was to represent blue-collar workers and the working families, and I spent huge amounts of time doing just that.

I did not have the advantage of growing up in a rich household. I never got an inheritance. I had to work my way to where I am. I relied on education -- went to a wonderful public school -- and that’s why I’m so committed to education as an avenue of upward mobility. ...

It is very important to think big and give people a sense of hope. ... So it’s important to operate on two levels. Talking to real people about very particular issues they have, but also to set a large-scale agenda -- that’s the essence of leadership.

Frederick Clarkson writes about politics and religion. He is the author of "Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy" (Common Courage Press).

Revolutionary Cookbooks and Theocratic Revolution

While the trial of alleged Oklahoma City bomber Tim McVeigh has focused national attention on the threat of neo-nazi violence in the U.S., there is much more far-right violence in the United States than is generally reported. From bombings to political assassination, these crimes are less often the acts of "lone nuts" and more likely to be the result of cold calculations of people acting on their ideas. The persistent attacks on health facilities that provide abortions provides a case study in how seemingly inexplicable and unrelated violence over the past 15 years has been carried out in large part by people who have also publicly called for the over throw of the government of the United States in their books, newsletters and public pronouncements.In the first 6 months of 1997 there have been a dozen arsons at womens health centers around the country. According to federal statistics, there have been about 200 arsons and bombings at womens health centers in the U.S. over the past 15 years. Episodes of stalking, harassment, death threats and bomb threats number in the thousands. In an attack against the Lovejoy Surgicenter in Portland, Oregon in May, a 55 gallon drum of fuel oil was siphoned into a clinic in the dead of night and set ablaze, causing an estimated $500,000 damage. Such violence generally comes about because of the desire to enforce what some people believe to be "Gods laws," and to wage a long term guerrilla war if necessary to create a more theocratic society.A Terror Manual In Every Home?In one famous example, the shadowy Army of God made news earlier this year when a letter, released by a group calling itself the Army of God (AOG) was sent to the media taking credit for the pipe bombings of an abortion clinic and a gay bar in Atlanta. While law enforcement authorities doubt the "authenticity" of the letter, the letter provided a chilling reminder of another group by the same name. The AOG first emerged in the early 1980s claiming credit for dozens of clinic bombings, arsons and related crimes at abortion clinics. Following the arrest and conviction of several AOG operatives, the group seemed to have disappeared at least calls were no longer made to claim credit for clinic bombings. However evidence of its ongoing activity was literally unearthed by federal agents from the backyard of Oregonian Shelly Shannon in 1994. (Shannon was convicted of the attempted murder of Dr. George Tiller, of Wichita, Kansas, and a series of arson and butyric acid attacks against clinics in three states including an attack on the Lovejoy clinic.) What the Feds found, was the AOG manual, an instruction book on how to blockade, bomb, and otherwise attack clinics. (It also includes the recipe for the same kind of "fertilizer bomb" that was used to blow up the federal building in Oklahoma City.)"This is a manual," according to the anonymously written text, "for those who have come to understand that the battle against abortion is a battle not against flesh and blood, but against the devil and all the evil he can muster among flesh and blood to fight at his side." It also describes the U.S. as a "nation under the power of Evil Satan, who prowls about the world seeking the ruin of the souls of mankind."Anne Bower, editor of the pro-choice magazine The Body Politic, who has studied the AOG, writes that "there is a network of men and women in America who advocate and will attempt violence, even to the point of murder for their cause They see themselves as soldiers in a grand cause, the Army of God." At this point in time, the AOG seems to be less an organization than an idea, but its an idea based on at least one text in common. Don Treshman leader of the Houston-based anti-abortion group Rescue America, (since moved to Baltimore) gave an interview to the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) following the 1994 attempted assassination of Dr. Gary Romalis in Vancouver, British Columbia. Treshman described the still-unsolved shooting of the doctor as a "superb tactic" foreshadowing a possible "major civil war." In this context, he also discussed the AOG manual:CBC: "Its a self-help manual on how to blow-up abortion clinics. Treshman: "Well, it goes into more than that too. I think it covers actions at the abortionists home."CBC: "Its advocating violence."Treshman: "Well, I think its just merely mentioning some ways some people have gone about things."CBC: "How to make a better bomb."Treshman: "Yes. We think that in the spirit of free press its certainly something that every home should have."Covert Action and A Public MartyrThe best known proponent of vigilante violence is former minister Paul Hill, who now sits on death row for the 1994 shotgun murder of a doctor, an escort, and wounding of another escort in Pensacola, Florida. His crimes were preceded by over a year of media celebrity following the 1993 murder of another abortion doctor, David Gunn. Hills notoriety arose from his published argument defending the murder as a "justifiable" use of "lethal force" to protect unborn children. But Hills manifesto went well-beyond arguing the morality of murder -- to call for armed theocratic revolution, or what he called "a defensive war under a lower magistrate," (meaning lower level government officials, such as mayors, governors, even county executives). Insurrection would be "unwise," Hill continued, however, "until there are enough men and resources available to offer a reasonable hope that the effort to overthrow the existing government will be successful." In the meantime, he urged the formation of armed militias, in order to "individually and corporately take all just action necessary to protect innocent life." Hill later told USA Today, "I could envision a covert organization developing, something like a pro-life IRA." Among those who, at the time, endorsed Hills view of "justifiable homicide" were Rev. Matthew Trewhella and Rev. Joe Foreman, co-founders of the Milwaukee-based anti-abortion group Missionaries to the Pre-Born. They also founded related project, Prisoners of Christ, which supports people convicted of anti-abortion related crimes, including some known to be connected to the AOG: John Brockhoeft (arson), Don Benny Anderson (kidnapping), and Shelley Shannon.One of the influences on Hill was undoubtedly his friend and ally, Rev. Michael Bray of Bowie, Maryland, who in the late 1980s served 46 months in federal prison for conspiring (scouting the facilities and helping to plan) to bomb seven womens health centers, as well as the Washington offices of the ACLU, and the National Abortion Federation. Bray emerged as a theorist following his release from prison, writing in 1990 for example, that "one of the great political potentials of the Rescue Movement" was revolution under "lesser magistrates" in order to "resist the tyranny of the federal government."Revolution Against Satans KingdomBray was not the first to see the Operation Rescue in revolutionary terms. During the heady days following the big OR demonstrations at the 1988 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta, Christian Right theorist Gary North also sniffed revolution in the air. "[I]n the philosophical war against political pluralism," he wrote, "Christian leaders can see where these protests may be headed, even if their followers cannot". Any "mature" Christian, he argued, must become "a revolutionary against Satans kingdom." North saw that the battle over abortion is really about, "extending the revolution" and that "the abortion question" will never be settled "until Satans kingdom is obliterated." Of course, Satans kingdom is anything that has not come under the control of a Christian fundamentalist government and legal code. By 1994, Bray had authored a book titled A Time To Kill, which fleshed out, according to Bray, "the Operation Rescue dictum: If you believe abortion is murder, then act like it. Bray advocates "the principle of revolution and the goal of establishing or preserving a Christian government," and denounces non-violent pro-life activists who oppose clinic blockades and "assassination." In 1995, Randall Terry, the founder of OR joined the ranks of those issuing revolutionary pronouncements, and distributed a rough draft of a book called The Sword embodying these ideas. He told an OR gathering in Kenner, Louisiana that they may have to "take up the sword" in order to "overthrow regime that oppresses them." He called for a theocratic state founded "on the Ten Commandments," and a "culture based on Biblical Law." The Revolutionary Theocratic PartyTerry has for several years been a leader in the far-right U.S. Taxpayers Party (USTP), whose presidential ticket in 1996 (Howard Phillips and Herb Titus) also called for "resistance" on the part of "lower magistrates" to Supreme Court decisions that they feel are "unconstitutional" --namely Roe v. Wade; the striking down of Colorados Amendment 2 (which would have banned local gay civil rights ordinances), and the decision which required the admission of women to the Virginia Military Institute. USTP was on the ballot in 41 states in 1996. Another USTP leader, Rev. Matthew Trewhella of Missionaries to the Pre-born made news when in 1994 he announced that "plans of resistance" were being made against the federal government, and called for the formation of church-based militias. The Wisconsin USTP openly sold a militia manual which argued that people should "spring immediately and effectively to arms" because of legalized abortion. Thus it was unsurprising when later that year, Newsweek reported that a man who lived in Trewhellas basement in 1990, had planned a "guerrilla campaign of clinic bombings and assassinations of doctors," but left the movement before acting on his plans. Trewhella claimed no knowledge of these plans. The USTPs role as the political party of choice for theocratic revolutionaries is epitomized by Larry Pratt, the head of Gun Owners of America. Pratt, a leading theorist of the militia movement who addressed the USTP national convention last summer, wrote in a 1983 essay that militias were necessary because "[a]nti-Christian governments such as we have in the United States cannot be counted on to keep the peace." Pratt also supported Randall Terrys efforts in 1989 to take ORs finances "underground" to avoid court-ordered fines and judgments resulting from clinic blockades by routing donations for OR through his Committee to Protect the Family Foundation.Pratt, who is a bridge builder among the disparate factions of the far-right, was compelled to take a leave of absence as a co-chairman of Pat Buchanans presidential campaign, after reports linked him with white supremacist groups. Most recently, sounding more like the Montana Freemen than Ralph Reed, Pratt wrote that county sheriffs and other state and local officials need armed militias "to resist any tyrannical act on the part of the federal government."Bombings and assassinations are hallmarks of guerrilla war against any society. What is surprising is how little attention the theoretical works of convicted bombers and assassins and their allies have received. Unless as a society, we become much more familiar with the ideas and theoretical works of anti-democratic forces from neo-Nazis to anti-abortion theocrats, it will be much more difficult to defend democratic values and institutions against them. And it will seem that there are lone nuts are everywhere.Frederick Clarkson is the author of Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy, Common Courage Press, 1997, from which this article is adapted. The book is available in bookstores, or may be ordered by calling 1-800-497-3207.

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