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A Spiritual Olive Branch for the Far Right


Here's the first editorial about the Open Center conference I attended this past weekend:

A spiritual olive branch for the far-right faithful
Ellis Henican

May 1, 2005

Chip Berlet isn't the devil. He doesn't even look the part.

He's a big, burly guy in suspenders and a sport shirt who was raised Presbyterian in northern New Jersey. He's spent most of his adult life at the intersection of journalism and community activism - in Colorado, Chicago and Boston. Over the years, he's become one of America's leading experts on the steady rise of conservative Christianity and its growing role in political life. He was onto this long before George W. Bush came into the White House.

These days, Berlet thinks of himself as an organizer, a researcher and a radical left-wing Christian. Yet he counts among his friends quite a few people whom his other friends consider whacked-out right-wing religious zealots.

"Actually," Berlet was saying on Friday afternoon, "I don't like those labels at all, calling people 'religious extremists' or 'radical religious right.' You can't have a conversation when you start that way. I want to talk to these people. I want to engage them. ... I want to have a real discourse about religion and politics."

Welcome to backlash against the latest scary rise of America's Religious Right.

There's plenty of anger and exuberance and outrage in the room. This is New York, after all, where skepticism is always in style. But Berlet might be onto something here, something that could actually work in the battle against religious extremists, by whatever name: Don't insult them. Engage them. And don't back down.

The group is gathered for the weekend at the CUNY Graduate Center on West 34th Street. They're some of the brightest minds and shrewdest strategists among people who look with alarm at the collusion between Christian evangelicals and Republican politicos. The word theocracy keeps coming up.

The conference, sponsored by CUNY and the New York Open Center, is called "Examining the Real Agenda of the Religious Far Right."

"That name," Berlet said, crinkling his nose just a little.

"I want to be able to ask conservative Christians, 'Do you think it's OK to demonize your opponents, even if you think they are sinful?' And, 'We may never agree on abortion or gay rights. But can't we find some things to agree on?' You'd be surprised how long that list can be."

The timing couldn't be more perfect for talk like this.

It was just last weekend that another conference, covering this very terrain but from a very different point of view, elbowed its way onto the center stage of American politics. Televised from the Highview Baptist mega-church outside Louisville, "Justice Sunday: Stopping the Filibuster Against the People of Faith" demanded that President Bush be allowed to appoint more conservative judges.

God, apparently, has a position on Senate filibusters.

Such a claim could simply be laughed off were it not embraced in such high places. But the closest allies of these groups include Bill Frist and Tom DeLay, the most powerful men in the U.S. Senate and the House. Their supporters are a crucial part of today's Republican Party base.

And there's plenty of stuff they want.

A constitutional amendment banning abortion. Prayers back in public school. The Ten Commandments hanging in public buildings. Laws against gay marriage, embryonic stem-cell research and government-funded birth control.

This isn't the first time in American history that politics and religion have collided like this. The results have been both good and bad. Abolitionism. The civil rights movement. Anti-Catholic nativism. The Salem witch trials.

And today's Republican-evangelical alliance didn't spring up overnight. "It's a 30-year process begun by [conservative strategists] Kevin Phillips, Paul Weyrich and Richard Viguerie," Berlet was saying as he prepared for his talk to the group.

Only now, with Republicans in control of the White House, the Congress and much of the courts, it is finally taking hold - and getting more extreme.

Berlet is especially interested in the strain of belief called Dominionism and its most extreme version, Reconstructionism. These concepts are plucked from the book of Genesis, where God is said to give man dominion over the Earth. But what exactly does that mean? A careful stewardship? Or religious dominance over all civil society?

Couple that with a growth in Apocalyptic thinking on the Christian right, and religious belief can move quite swiftly from "love your fellow man" to "my version of God's way - or the highway."

"Some people really do believe they have a pipeline to God," Berlet said. "There is no compromise there. Who would compromise with Satan? But democracy requires compromise."

But Berlet keeps plugging for dialogue.

"Thankfully, most Americans are not in either camp," he said. "They are just good people, trying to make their way. They get up in the morning, and if they see a kid fall off a bicycle, they go over to help. That's who we should all be talking to."

He was an interesting and engaging speaker.