It Ain't Breaking, But it Will Always be News
Frederick Clarkson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Wed Apr 11, 2007 at 12:21:05 AM EST
It is currently fashionable to talk about the "think tanks" of the right, and new ones of the sorta left. But the success of the right has always been about much more than think tanks. And contrary to certain of the Conventional Wisdom in the Democratic Party, a few think tanks are not a panacea in response to the right in general, and the religious right in particular. The evidence is as fresh as the day's news -- just about every day for those with eyes to see and ears to hear.  But today, I am taking the long view.  

Join me on the flip.

One of the reasons the religious right will have staying power as a political and social movment for a long time to come, is the creation of a variety of sustainable institutions that have a vision for the long term. I have been witness to the development of some of them, and have had occasion to write about them from time to time as well.

I was asked to write an assessment of the state of the religious right in 2001, for The Public Eye magazine. It appeared in the Winter issue -- well before 9/11 so distorted our national discourse. But the major themes are as true now as they were then:

Several main trends are evident in the current fortunes of the Christian Right. First, the major institutions of the Christian Right, once bastions of fire and brimstone rhetoric and a transcendent vision of the once and future Christian Nation, have become practitioners of political compromise and coalition building. This is especially true in the case of national electoral politics. Second, the Christian Right has been largely incorporated into the Republican Party apparatus. Finally, and perhaps most important, the Christian Right is now largely institutionalized throughout society. The movement has come a long way in a short time. This is not to say that one of the most dynamic social/political movements of the latter part of the 20th century has necessarily lost its energy and edginess. Nor is it without fractures and schisms. In many respects it is still growing and finding new and distinctive forms and expressions. But the quiet institutionalization of the Christian Right is a far more dramatic, if less visible trend than any single clash in the culture war.

Two items in the news lately stand out as excellent examples. Pat Robertson's Viginia Beach, VA-based Regent University and Tom Monaghan's Ave Maria University, which is still under construction near Naples, Florida.

Regent University is currently in the news because Monica Goodling, a graduate of the law school, figures prominently in the scandals at the Justice Department; and as Max Blumenthal first reported, there are 150 Regent U grads spread throughout the Bush administration. Regent U., now 25 years old claims more than 5,000 students in nine academic schools, two campuses and distance education "reaching around the globe."

Ave Maria University is in the news in part, because its founding dean was fired and suddenly rehired; and because the fledgling school is profiled in the current issue of Mother Jones magazine. Suddenly, the religious right and the consequences of several decades of methodical building for power; creating lasting institutions; making ideological adjustments and inventing new ways of doing electoral politics -- have caught people's attention.

That's a good thing.

Tom Monaghan has been deeply involved in the development of the Catholic Right for many years, and his plans for developing Ave Maria U. have been well-known for a long time, as well as what kind of a school it would be. And Regent U. has been producing lawyers for many years now. Former Attorney General John Ashcroft teaches there. But many otherwise well-informed and thoughtful progressives and Democrats have no idea the role of Regent, of the trajectory of the Catholic right in America, as epitomized by Tom Monaghan.

(While we are on the subject, it is worth noting at least two more: Patrick Henry College, just outside Washington, DC, founded by Chrstian right leader Michael Farris, has received a lot of attention because it caters to students coming out of conservative Christian home schooling, and seeks to shape the views and careers of Chrsitian rightists headed into politics and government. Also Liberty University, founded by Jerry Falwel in Lynchberg, VA in 1971, now has several thousand undergradate and grad students -- including a law school. Now back to our main story.)

According to its web site:

Ave Maria University began as Thomas S. Monaghan’s dream to build an institution of Catholic higher education that would be faithful to the Magisterium and could produce the future faithful educators, leaders, and mentors that our challenged society needs. Through his initial financial donation of $250 million, in partnership with a generous donation of land from the Barron Collier Family in Southwest Florida, the dream began to take shape

Here at Talk to Action, we have written quite a bit about Catholic Right financier Tom Monaghan. Frank Cocozzelli profiled him and references him often in his ongoing series on the Catholic Right.

As we know, Tom Monaghan has a plan, and he uses his wealth, in alliance with similarly-mind ultra-orthodox Catholic CEOs to lay the foundation for a more theocratic society. Their primary method is to underwrite educational systems steeped in pre-Vatican II notions of Catholicism. The mission of both the Ave Maria University, and Law School, is to churn out future corporate executives, lawyers, judges and political leaders who would increasingly graft his version of natural law principles unto American jurisprudence.

But education and community are only parts of his plan. Equally as important is his desire to influence American federal elections. And to that end, Monaghan has financed pols with simpatico views on natural law theocracy and anti-labor, laissez-faire economics.

But the news has been the upheaval at AMU, notably the firing of the founding provost, a personal friend of the Pope,and then his rehiring 48 hours later.

Bill Berkowitz reports:

Details of the original firing are still murky. At first it appeared that Fessio, founder of Ignatius Press in San Francisco (the primary English-language publisher of Pope Benedict XVI) and the University of San Francisco's Ignatius Institute, wasn't up to the task of enrolling enough students or raising the necessary money for building the first new Catholic university in the U.S. in 40 years. Then, it seemed that the former student and longtime friend of the current Pope (formerly Cardinal Josef Ratzinger) may have been let go because of his comments to the California Catholic Daily suggesting that homosexuality has biological roots.

Fessio told the publication that "same-sex activity is considered disordered. If there are ways of detecting diseases or disorders of children in the womb, and a way of treating them that respected the dignity of the child and mother, it would be a wonderful advancement of science." Is it unclear, however, which part of these comments would upset Monaghan.

But that news apparently came and went after the Mother Jonesstory, well worth a read, went to press:

Essentially, Monaghan plans to draw a line in the sand against a trend he deems evil. Even as the rapidly growing church lists right worldwide and a few rock-ribbed Catholic orders-most notably Opus Dei-are surging, American Catholics are becoming ever more progressive. Thirty-seven percent favor an easing of the church's abortion policies, according to a recent cnn/USA Today/Gallup Poll, and fifty-five percent support the ordination of women. Meanwhile, several Catholic universities-among them Holy Cross and St. Scholastica-have gone so far as to play host to the dread Vagina Monologues.

Monaghan's campaign may be a first in Catholic history. For centuries, the church's schools have always been headed up by a religious order-the Benedictines, for instance, or the Jesuits. Monaghan, though, is stealing a page from Protestant evangelicals such as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell and invoking a decidedly corporate structure. "I'm a businessman," he's pronounced. "I get to the bottom line.... And the bottom line is to help people get to heaven." To conservatives, Monaghan is a deep-pocketed savior.

Florida governor Jeb Bush, a converted Catholic, made Ave Maria Town a special tax district like Disney World, giving the self-appointed Board of Supervisors (run by Monaghan's development partner) wideonging powers and exempting the town from state and local laws. John DiIulio Jr., once George W. Bush's director of faith-based initiatives, is on the university's board of regents, and Pope Benedict XVI-who has bemoaned the "dictatorship of relativism"-sees great hope in Monaghan's school. A former student of the pope, Reverend Joseph Fessio, is the provost there, and when Fessio visited Rome recently, he reported that the pope asked, "How's Ave Maria?"

It's a question that few people can answer. The university insists that all interviews-with Monaghan, students, or faculty-be arranged through a PR office. When I sent in my request, noting that I'm a believing Catholic, I got the cold shoulder. "Why should I grant interviews to someone who's going to kick the shit out of us?" publicist Rob Falls asked me. He added, "The campus is private."

And so I trespassed in silence, mostly, until one Saturday evening when I saw a procession of students wandering the temporary campus, saying the rosary.

While politics necessarily takes on a certain short-term urgency, often driven by the crisis du jour in the media, people across the political spectrum are kidding themselves if they think that one or another scandal, such as Ted Haggard, somehow ultimately discredits the religioius right. Additionally, the fortunes of the religious right are not entirely synonymous with the Republican Party, or the outcomes of one or another state or national election. The movement will exist far beyond the lifetimes of everyone reading this blog post, and the tale of these two universties, among others, are among the reasons why.

It is long past time for people concerned about these things to calm way down; it is possible to sustain a sense of appropriate urgency without getting manic about these things. While people have different psychological make-ups, from what I have observed over 25 years is that this is the main way to be able to pay attention to these things in an ongoing fashion and learn to become effective; without burning out.

It is long past time to get very serious; and take a look at how politics might play out over the long run; consider what it will take for constitutional democracy and the values of democratic pluralism to prevail, and even advance in response to the theocratic movements of our time.

If we are serious about the things we say we care most deeply about; the things we feel are threatened or obstructed by the religious right -- it is incumbent on all of us to consider that when Pat Roberston, Jerry Falwell, Phyllis Schlafly, Tim and Bev LaHaye, James Dobson, Don Wildmon, and others of the founding generation of religious right leaders pass from the scene... there are generations of leaders following in their footsteps, and most of their names, we don't even know yet.

I say all this not because I want to present the religious right as a bogey man; too scary to comprehend or too large and powerful to do anything about. I know that is not so: It is comprehensible, and it is no more scary than any other powerful movement in history (get over it), and that there is much we can do. And if I was not confident of what I am saying, I would not be here telling you about it. I would have filled my bank account and found a nice beach resort to hang out at and watch it all go down. But if you are still reading, odds are, you think a lot like me and a lot of other people who are thinking along similar lines.

Take a few deep breaths. We are in this for the long haul.

is learning to take the short term urgencies in stride and learning to take the long view, even as we deal with the day to day stuff.

by Frederick Clarkson on Wed Apr 11, 2007 at 12:27:35 AM EST

Just look at Bush and Cheney.  Like all ideologues they're impervious to reality, and they aren't capable of changing tactics even when it is clear they are wrong.  Cheney still insists Saddam had ties to Al Qaeda.  They're rejection of things like global warming and evolution is another clue.  People running against them or otherwise debating them should always make light of their basic rigidity.

by strayroots on Wed Apr 11, 2007 at 07:10:49 PM EST

One thing that makes me optimistic about the fortunes of the religious left as opposed to those of the religious right is what appears to be a trend towards secularity and religious diversity.  Most surveys of young people today show that the "millenial" generation is much more secular and religiously diverse than the older generations.  If that trend holds up, then the fundamentalist message of the Religious Right will become very unpopular in the coming decades, and even the modernist message of many mega-churches will fall on deaf ears.

Another trend, which you pointed out in your Publik Eye piece, is the growing connectivity between the Religious Right and the Republican party.  While it's true that electoral defeat for Republicans doesn't equal the disappearance of the Religious Right, it's also likely that this marriage of convenience won't come without a price.  The spat between James Dobson and Richard Cizik could be an omen of things to come, even though it's essentially a political debate.  At some point, I wonder if the voices of Cizik, Wallis, and others will cause people to start turning away from the Religious Right, as they realize that it's theological/political message is too narrow?  It seems at least plausible.

by PlantingLiberally on Thu Apr 12, 2007 at 11:26:03 AM EST

It takes education, plain and simple.

Getting kids to realize that the knowledge gained through their own eyes and hands can be just as valid as what teacher tells them-which actually requires time for exploratory play in elementary school. Getting kids to understand that yes, the world is way bigger than they are, but that it's okay to try to figure the great big world out for oneself rather than just accept all the answers from someone else. Getting kids to realize that "human" is a very large word, no matter how small the dictionary definition looks at first glance.

A bit of general cult-proofing wouldn't hurt, either.

The things taught when one is very young stick around. Best to give the following generations the best chance to know what these people and those following after them are really selling before they ever hear the sales pitch.

And early twenties really is too young for me to even be thinking in terms of "following generations" in this, but the generation that will start taking leadership roles when I'm 50 may already be slowly filtering into preschool. Scary to think of it that way, but that is the short of timeframe this works on. Best to give everyone real critical thinking skills and a good baloney detector, because once a particular threat is truly visible, a generation has already grown up with that instruction. Scary.

by Cassandra Waites on Thu Apr 12, 2007 at 10:42:51 PM EST

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