Jilting Justice for Jesus
Over the last few weeks, one of the latest of seemingly endless Bush administration controversies--this time involving the Department of Justice (DOJ)--has been making front-page headlines across the United States. Here's a summary of this recent example of a Bush-brand brouhaha of incompetence, cronyism and arrogance: eight high-rated U.S. attorneys were suddenly fired last year from the DOJ for no clear, justifiable reason. Subsequent federal investigations have yielded a wide range of suspicious activity and absurdity, from the sudden disappearance of millions of e-mails related to the firings to U.S. Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales' April testimony where he, the head of the DOJ, said "I do not recall" 55 times in his first round of questioning by a Senate Judiciary Committee about what he knew about the firings.
Most of the coverage I've seen so far centers on the aforementioned firings and how the DOJ under Gonzales was involved in voter intimidation efforts in favor of the Republican Party during the 2006 Congressional elections. But another interesting detail--a detail that hasn't gotten quite the same level of attention from the media--involves a certain DOJ official who served as liaison to the White House, Monica Goodling. She initially pled the Fifth Amendment and refused to testify under oath when e-mail evidence revealed that she played a prominent role in engineering the firing of seven of the attorneys. Goodling is also a 1999 graduate of Pat Robertson's Regent University, a conservative Christian university that intends to provide (as its motto declares) "Christian Leadership to Change the World." In this article, I will examine the DOJ's association with Regent University, and how such a relationship has impacted the DOJ's role in legal decisions and federal legislation that affect religious freedom. I will also look at other major conservative Christian universities and home schooling, a practice favored by many Christian fundamentalists, to see how such biased educational endeavors could impact the future of religious freedom in both the United States and around the world.
Hypocrisy Recapitulates Theocracy
The suggestion that the Bush administration's DOJ would shift its interests to cases of discrimination against Christians was forecast by Bush's first choice for Attorney General: John Ashcroft, a conservative Pentecostal. In her article for Salon, "Bush's long history of polarizing justice," Alia Malek provides an insightful description of Ashcroft's behavior during his tenure at DOJ:
Under Ashcroft, a new interpretation of religious civil liberties was adopted to better meet the legal needs of the evangelical Religious Right. According to Malek:
With a new agenda to facilitate proselytization regardless of whatever legal restraints it encounters, the DOJ created within the Civil Rights Division a "Special Counsel for Religious Discrimination", which was established in 2002. In his March 2005 article "Justice Unit Puts Its Focus on Faith" for The Los Angeles Times, Richard Schmitt provided details of the cases that this "Special Counsel" supported (organized here by topic):
The last case involving the Salvation Army directly ties into Bush's controversial Faith-Based Initiative. As Schmitt remarked about the Initiative, "Bush has said he believes that, so long as they (religious organizations) do not infuse their social programs with religious messages, religious groups should not have to sacrifice their religious character--by employing nonbelievers or followers of a different faith--in order to qualify for federal funds." Such duplicity is hard to ignore: if religious organizations are supposed to keep religious messages out of their government-funded social services, then why would they have to worry "sacrificing their religious character" by hiring people from outside of the faith to work in such social services? Bush's flawed reasoning was not lost on a skeptical Congress, so he had to use an executive order to establish the Initiative. Having a DOJ that is willing to overhaul its definition of "civil rights" to accommodate proselytizing went a long way towards minimizing legal challenges to Bush's Initiative, along with the Initiative's inability to monitor recipients to determine whether they were mixing social services and religious activities.
In keeping with that agenda, Attorney General Gonzales launched the "Freedom First Project" last February at a Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) executive committee meeting in Nashville, Tennessee. Even though the Freedom First Project's Web site prominently features a quote from Gonzales saying, "Preserving religious liberty requires an ongoing commitment to protecting this most basic freedom for people of all faiths," there are many indications that the Bush administration's concept of religious liberty STILL does not include every faith. For example, Gonzales also released a 43-page document, "Report on Enforcement of Laws Protecting Religious Freedom", that praises the DOJ Civil Rights Division's involvement in the cases listed in Schmitt's Los Angeles Times article, such as Salvation Army employment discrimination case. Of course, conservative religious groups such as the SBC, the Family Research Council, and the Alliance Defense Fund applauded the establishment of the Freedom First Project, while liberal and progressive religious groups remained skeptical. "Expecting the Bush administration to defend religious liberty is a little like asking Col. Sanders to babysit your pet chicken," said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
Believing in a Hire Power
Yet for as much as David "provided guidance on constitutional issues" and was entrusted to "determine barriers to faith-based organizations," he has voiced his opinion on which faith-based groups are more deserving than others. In an article he wrote for Regent shortly after the flooding of New Orleans in 2005, he praised the efforts provided by Christian groups to help the survivors of the flooding. "Granted, the love and compassion of Christians is most evident through volunteering time and donating millions of dollars to Christian relief organizations that provided food and shelter to thousands of flood victims," he wrote. "Our hearts and prayers cry out for those churches, individuals and ethical businesses that have suffered extensive damage." He then goes on:
From what I understand of the significance of the Voodoo religion in America is that it was practiced by pre-Civil War slaves as a secretive way of maintaining a spiritual connection to the religious beliefs and practices of their African ancestors while their religious freedom--not to mention ALL of their other freedoms--were being abused by their Christian slave masters. So, to summarize Jim David in light of the above quote: he's a conservative Christian who worked for the DOJ and has openly (1) praised the destruction of property owned by a minority religion; (2) groups the practice of Voodoo with sexual promiscuity and gambling (something that avid Christian home-schooling advocate William Bennett loves to do for fun); and (3) views the spread of Voodoo as capable of causing the "demise of America," a country that supposedly promotes religious diversity and freedom. You'd think that more people would question why an openly prejudiced man such as David would have been placed in charge of ANYTHING regarding civil rights and religion, and yet that's exactly what the Bush Administration hired him to do.
In the case of Monica Goodling, she is one of 150 graduates from Regent University that is currently serving in the Bush administration--job placements that happened under the tenure of Regent veteran Kay Cole James. Many of the Regent alumni joined the DOJ under Ashcroft (who is--surprise, surprise--currently teaching at Regent as "Distinguished Professor of Law and Government"). Goodling herself had very little prosecutorial experience (she graduated in 1999) and Regent itself was ranked as a "tier four" law school by U.S. News & World Report, the lowest score possible. Nevertheless, that didn't stop Goodling and her fellow Regent graduates from attaining employment at the DOJ; under the Bush-overhauled hiring process, conservative values were of greater importance to the DOJ than experience and academic stature. As described by Charlie Savage in another article for The Boston Globe, "Scandal puts spotlight on Christian law school":
As a side note, the mainstream media's coverage of the latest DOJ scandal has focused on the employment discrimination at DOJ as matters of race and political affiliation--which is true. But their gentle handling (if not complete avoidance) of employment discrimination on the basis of faith is simply wrong. For example, in an article that appeared both in Slate Magazine and The Washington Post, Dahlia Lithwick writes about Goodling in a way that suggests that she is somehow a confused victim of the Bush administration, that "Goodling no longer seems to know what the truth is." Such a perspective is fully articulated in Lithwick's conclusion:
In trying to come up with a religiously neutral answer to Regent's unusually large representation at the DOJ--that innocent, well-meaning Christians like Goodling got caught up in the Bush Administration's desire to amass secular political power (or what I like to call the "David Kuo defense")--Lithwick completely overlooks a more serious, larger problem. Not only did the Bush administration dismiss qualified employees for grossly unqualified ones, but it hired employees on the basis of their religious beliefs--which is tantamount to religious discrimination, the very same discrimination of which the Religious Right claims they are the victims and why they eagerly took control of the DOJ in the first place so they could end this perceived injustice. Bush put openly biased people in charge of the enforcement of laws that affect all American citizens, and they got the chance to do so because they had the `correct' religious beliefs. How can an experienced legal writer such as Lithwick NOT see this as a serious problem? How would this be any less serious if, say, Bush employed incompetent staff who had clear ties to white supremacist groups to oversee the enforcement of civil rights laws? Lithwick's article sharply contrasts from Paul Krugman's New York Times article, "For God's Sake," where he states that, "The infiltration of the federal government by large numbers of people seeking to impose a religious agenda--which is very different from simply being people of faith--is one of the most important stories of the last six years." (Then again, Krugman also says that such a story "tends to go underreported, perhaps because journalists are afraid of sounding like conspiracy theorists.")
So, at the risk of sounding like a conspiracy theorist, how much worse can conservative Christian law schools get? In the case of Regent, it's getting worse by getting better. As Savage points out:
This reminds me of one of my previous articles, Evangelizing Evolution, where I examined Ph.D.-level scientists who nevertheless clung to "young earth creationist" beliefs. We could be seeing the same thing happen in the legal profession: lawyers who provide sound legal knowledge and judgment when being evaluated by their secular peers, but who then resort to self-serving Christian supremacist beliefs when it comes time to actually practice law.
Conservative Cowboys and Impoverished Indians
The IHCIA was put on hold and thus prevented the bill from being considered by Congress before it went into recess because of the DOJ white paper, and the IHCIA remains without reauthorization to this day. According to the response provided by the National Indian Health Care Board to the white paper:
Last March, constitutional scholar Edward Lazarus testified before the Senate Committee that the reauthorization of the IHCIA would not violate the Constitution. As part of his testimony, Lazarus concluded that the IHCIA does not endorse religion, because traditional Native American health care practices are not inherently religious. Nevertheless, the Republican Policy Committee still opposes the IHCIA on the grounds that the bill, which is designed to provide medical aid to a specific racial minority, is a "race-based" legislation.
As to the origin of the DOJ white paper, no one is taking credit for it. According to Indianz.com, the official answer from DOJ was a particularly baffling one. "I was told that no one in the Department of Justice released it," said Frederick Breckner III, a deputy assistant general as part of his testimony during a Senate hearing in March. However, Breckner later added that the DOJ intended for the white paper to be released after the September recess. How the DOJ could want a paper released that it doesn't want to take credit for on a bill that would have already been considered after the paper's "intended" date is mind-numbingly preposterous.
It should be recognized that this isn't the first time that the DOJ opposed Native American religious activity. For example, in Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita Beneficente Uniao Do Vegetal, the DOJ asked the U.S. Supreme Court to allow the government to prosecute a small religious group in New Mexico that combines Christianity and South American indigenous beliefs and uses a hallucinogenic tea as part of its services. (The high court sided with the group's right to free exercise.) Nevertheless, while it's impossible to link the DOJ white paper to any particular individual, the fact that the DOJ argued against traditional Native American religious practices after having re-arranged itself to accommodate a disproportionate hiring of conservative Christians to enforce civil rights law through the lens of "Viewpoint Discrimination" is impossible to ignore. In fact, I would go so far to say that by making the DOJ memo appear to be a secular document, it spares the Religious Right from acknowledging their involvement in an effort to cripple health care funding to Native American communities for fear that it will somehow benefit traditional, non-Christian tribal religious beliefs. If the Religious Right could be directly connected to the DOJ white paper, it would certainly complicate their efforts to convert indigenous communities throughout the United States.
In summary, here's a step-by-step review of theocracy in action: President Bush issued an executive order to establish the Faith-Based Initiative. He had to do this to get the Initiative started, because Congress feared that the Initiative would result in employment discrimination based on religious affiliation--discrimination that Bush endorsed. In order to allow such discrimination to happen, the Bush administration re-shaped the DOJ itself; to do so, the DOJ engaged in employment discrimination of its own to make it more Religious Right-compatible, as the influx of inexperienced, conservative hires from Regent University indicates. However, in spite of supporting Initiative-related employment discrimination and setting up a conservative Christian-friendly "Special Counsel for Religious Discrimination" and the Freedom First Project, the DOJ anonymously submitted a white paper to Congress that prevented the re-authorization of a Native American health bill under the grounds that the bill would endorse a non-Christian religion. Even though some people think that a theocratic government that favors one religion at the expense of others cannot happen in America, this is clearly an example of how an American-style theocracy would operate. We should also not overlook the fact that the DOJ white paper is not the first time that the Native American community was victimized by American theocracy; they were also the victims of the Indian Religious Crimes Code that sought to "Christianize" them. If we remain unaware of the injustices faced by minority religions in America at the hands of a larger religion, then it will be that much harder to fight faith-based religious intolerance when it affects the rest of us.
When Falwell first announced his plan for a Liberty law school in a "Falwell Confidential" e-mail alert sent out on October 11th, 2002, Falwell outlined how the school will operate:
Falwell's view of legal education and faith-based justice could be switched with the current DOJ's hiring standards and civil rights agenda without missing a beat. It should also be pointed out that even though Falwell decries "discrimination and persecution against people of faith in the workplace and in our nation's public schools", students at Liberty University, according to the student handbook, can be fined $500 and be required to perform 30 hours of disciplinary community service for "involvement with witchcraft, séances or other satanic or demonic activity". Not only do such activities carry a stiffer penalty than racial or sexual harassment, offenses that only cost $250 in fines and 18 hours of disciplinary community service, but the phrase itself speaks volumes about how Falwell sees other religions. It equates witchcraft--which could be interpreted as the practice of Wicca, Voodoo, or some other minority, pagan faith--and séances as the equal of "satanic" and "demonic" activity. (I have no idea why the phrase is worded "satanic or demonic", since there's nothing to indicate a difference between the two. Then again, the terms "witchcraft", "satanic" and "demonic" are not defined at all in the Liberty student handbook.) The handbook also classifies witchcraft and séances in the same category of offenses as assault/sexual assault, illegal drugs possession/distribution/usage, life-threatening behavior, stealing, and unauthorized possession/use of weapons. In short, Liberty University's view of minority, non-Christian religions is in the same league as Jim David's anti-Voodoo rant at Regent University.
A particularly notable example of fundamentalist higher education is Patrick Henry College (PHC). Like Regent, the Bush administration has used PHC as a source of employees to fill positions all over the government. For example, Bush appointed Paul Bonicelli, the dean of academic affairs at PHC, to be the deputy director of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in 2005--even though Bonicelli had no experience in promoting democracy and good governance overseas. Prior to that in 2002, Bush appointed Bonicelli to an American delegation (a delegation that included former Vatican adviser John Klink and Janice Crouse of the conservative Concerned Women for America) that sought to promote Christian values in U.S. foreign policy at a United Nations children's conference. (PHC's Board of Trustees includes Janet Ashcroft, wife of former Attorney General/current Regent University professor John Ashcroft.) PHC students also have disproportionately high levels of placement within the government during the Bush administration. According to at 2004 Common Dreams article by Andrew Buncombe, "The Bible College That Leads to the White House", the 240 enrolled PHC students (all white) had some pretty impressive internships in our nation's capital:
Like other conservative Christian colleges, both students and professors at PHC are required to adhere to strict guidelines of conduct, and they are required to sign a statement of faith that includes confirmation of their literal belief in the Bible. (As pointed out by Buncombe, "Oddly, only staff teaching biology and theology have to hold a literal view specifically of the six-day creation story.") PHC's requirements are so strict that more than half of their faculty and staff left in 2006 due to its restrictions on academic freedom. But what makes PHC particularly unique is its focus on home-schooled students: the overwhelming majority of PHC students were home-schooled before enrolling. This is no coincidence because PHC was founded by Michael Harris, who also founded the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) in 1983. Harris, who wants to turn PHC into an "evangelical Ivy League", essentially created the student body for PHC by using HSLDA to seek a wide array of legal advantages for the home-schooling practice. Amanda Geffer from NewScientist.com provides a comprehensive summary of HSLDA's legal accomplishments:
Furthermore, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education in 2003:
Home-schooling is a very serious issue for the Religious Right. Statistical surveys repeatedly indicate that the majority of home-schooling parents do so for religious reasons. While evangelical Christians have been launching campaign after campaign to get Christian-centered activities such as Bible verse recitation and school prayer back into public schools, many of them believe that home-schooling is the best strategy to "reclaim" America as a Christian nation. One fundamentalist group, Exodus Mandate, exists for exactly that reason. On their Web site's main page, Exodus Mandate is described as "a Christian ministry to encourage and assist Christian families to leave government schools for the Promised Land of Christian schools or home schooling. It is our hope that this fresh obedience in educating our children according to Biblical mandates will prove to be the key for revival in our families, churches and nation." Exodus Mandate even succeeded in convincing Frank Page, President of the 16 million-strong Southern Baptist Convention, to urge Baptists to set up their own school system, from kindergarten through high school.
Fundamentalist publishing companies provide an ample supply of resources for home-schooling families. One such company is A Beka Book, a company that provides "Excellence in Education from a Christian Perspective" and gives home-schooled students the option of enrolling in the A Beka Academy. Conservative Christian home-schooling textbooks present a Bible-centric dominionist view of the world, including historical revisionism and science lessons that fit the literalist interpretation of scripture. Below is a list of several home-schooling textbooks I assembled from the aforementioned Geffer article and Jeff Sharlet's article, "Through A Glass, Darkly," that was featured in the December 2006 issue of Harper's, including quotes from each book:
Amish Understanding of Law
In light of HSLDA's legal success in making home-schooling legal and subject to special privileges and exemptions after the Wisconsin vs. Yoder ruling, it appears that the Religious Right is one of the primary beneficiaries of the court case that allowed the Amish to disobey the law on the basis of their faith. Hamilton goes on to cite examples that include the Faith-Based Initiative (that providing federal funding to religious groups goes beyond what the Free Exercise Clause guarantees) and RLUIPA (that it gives religious applications the impression that their faith makes them superior landowners that do not have to acquiesce to the need of the larger community). She particularly criticizes religious organizations' behaviors during recent clergy abuse cases. "No religion to date has argued that child abuse by clergy is mandated by their beliefs, but I have yet to find a religion that is not more than willing to argue that liability for covering up that child abuse should be abated, simply because it is a religious institution," she writes. "Similarly, religious institutions press for exemptions from abuse reporting requirements that are crucial to children's protection, with no greater justification than their own supposedly privileged status."
Case in point: in an ironic twist, the Amish have been running into conflicts with child labor laws over the last several years in states such as Pennsylvania and New York. The Amish tradition dictates that children should start vocational training with their parents after they complete the eighth grade. In the case of Pennsylvania, the shortage of farmland has led Amish communities to turn to woodworking--which includes sawmills, a working environment so dangerous that Federal law prohibits anyone under the age of 18 from working there. Even though Amish tradition says that children past a certain age must be put to work, there is nothing in the Amish faith that mandates that Amish boys MUST work in sawmills (they could, like Amish girls, learn skills like quilting or work in retail shops instead). Hence, the Amish have turned to Republican allies to get exemptions. Pennsylvania Republicans sought to introduce a bill that would allow Amish children between the ages of 14 to 17 to work in sawmills and woodworking factories, regardless of the fact that such a bill would give preferential treatment to one religion and not others. In New York, state labor laws prevents businesses from employing anyone under the age of 17, so conservative Christian groups such as the New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedom (NYCF) have given their support to the Amish. The Wisconsin vs. Yoder decision is being utilized as grounds to seek legal exemptions for the Amish for violating New York labor laws.
Hamilton concludes her column on a dire note:
Fear of a Publicly-Schooled Planet
With such an ambitious effort to promote fundamentalist home-schooling (both domestically and abroad) and a current presidential administration that has proven it can re-write and enforce civil rights laws to suit its own faith-based ends, what can be done?
If anything, it is important to remember that the desire for religious fundamentalists to assume political power is not without a faith-based motive. It has been said that religion should stay out of politics, because politics will inevitably corrupt religion; likewise, those who have shamelessly mixed religion and politics for self gain have been accused of being no more than con artists devoid of any "genuine" religious faith. But such arguments do not apply to the likes of Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Jim David, etc. If you, like many evangelical conservative Christians, truly believe that all other forms of religion are inferior and evil (as the anti-Voodoo and anti-witchcraft examples indicate), then it would be corrupt to NOT use the government to give your own religion authority to evangelize anywhere, anyone and anytime, and attack other religions--either through open criminal persecution or using the law to cripple the other religions' autonomy. In other words, fervent proselytization and the intolerance of other religions IS a moral act in the eyes of Christian fundamentalists and thus should be above legal reproach. Furthermore, in the fundamentalist world view, religious freedom MUST NOT equal religious diversity under any circumstances. Religions freedom must only mean freedom for the religion of conservative Christianity, and for no other. While some may feel reluctant to criticize anyone for their religious beliefs, it is pretty clear (and the Religious Right keeps making it so obvious) that the core beliefs of the religious fundamentalism of any kind is completely incompatible with both religious freedom and diversity everywhere.
Furthermore, while a government that promotes religious freedom should not discriminate against any religious faith, it would be wise for such a government not to pattern its laws that affect religious civil liberties along the beliefs of the most conservative, restrictive sects. That to me is one of the key flaws behind the Wisconsin vs. Yoder: while the survival of conservative, insular religious groups such as the Amish could be compromised by being exposed to ideas from other religions and the secular world, no single religion should be granted such a sizable exemption from the law if all religions are to co-exist equally within a culture. Otherwise, the current DOJ's prejudiced actions--actions that support of employment discrimination on behalf of a majority religion while denying health care support to a minority group on the grounds that it could somehow benefit their tribal beliefs--will become law.
Even if the current controversy surrounding Attorney General Gonzales and the DOJ ends up become the biggest disaster for the Bush administration, we cannot forget what has happened to our government over the last several years. The justice system that was designed to protect the rights of all has been compromised for the benefit of the extreme few, and organizations such as Regent University, Patrick Henry College and HSLDA are preparing future generations to continue what Bush and his cronies have started--both here and in other countries. Vigilance and democratic participation will be needed to repair the damage that has been done. Unfortunately, I fear that until the progressive community actively embraces inter-religious understanding and appreciation as passionately as the Religious Right believes in its destined role of dominion over others, the possibility of Christian fundamentalists undermining our democracy will remain a major threat.
Jilting Justice for Jesus | 8 comments (8 topical, 0 hidden)
Jilting Justice for Jesus | 8 comments (8 topical, 0 hidden)