Feb 012011

The Religious Right is a powerful force in American politics and society, tipping elections and making themselves one of the most influential voting blocs in the country. Their objectives are worn on their sleeves; their zeal unquestionable. Yet for everything that is known far more remains just out of common knowledge. In this series we will delve into this unknown tracking down more on their most powerful players, money, influence, and how they achieve their goals.

Focus on the Family, one of the many intellectual children of Dr. James Dobson, represents another facet of the Religious Right’s machinery and organization. Unlike their sister group theFamily Research Council Focus on the Family is much less of a lobbying organization and does most of their work outside of DC. While the FRC keeps their headquarters in Washington DC Focus on the Family runs their operations from Colorado Springs, a city dubbed the “Evangelical Vatican” thanks to the high concentration of world-famous megachurches and larger-than-life pastors. This distance from Washington has done little to dent their influence and effectiveness as a major force in the Religious Right. By leaving the heavy lobbying efforts to other organizations Focus on the Family serves as one of the main spearheads of grassroots operations across the country with allies around the world.

Focus on the Family was founded by Dr. James Dobson in 1977 to promote and uphold family values in the United States. Focus on the Family styles itself as less overtly political than other organizations. To cooperate with the Holy Spirit in sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ with as many people as possible by nurturing and defending the God-ordained institution of the family and promoting biblical truths worldwide” is their mission statement. Nowhere do they overtly proclaim support for traditional Republican Party positions instead focusing exclusively on religious slogans and imagery. In spite of recent shakeups in their finances and leadership the organization has kept up their main operations with little disruption: the dissemination of Christian fundamentalist propaganda. To Focus on the Family separation of Church and State exists to protect churches from government coercion, not to establish a secular government. On this ideological foundation they advance laws based on their religious beliefs on many issues including gambling, educational policy, the teaching of intelligent design, gay rights, abortion, and women’s rights.

The main front Focus on the Family engages is traditional marriage. Focus on the Family has consistently and most heavily engaged in the fight against gay marriage by offering their own brand of marriage counseling as the public face of the effort. Their main argument against gay marriage include claims of the downfall of Western civilization as one of the many consequences. To advance their efforts Focus on the Family raises and spends millions of dollars a year for advertising and advocacy campaigns. One of their more direct approaches is the Love Won Out Ministry, a group that claims to “cure” homosexuality. To provide further support they publish a number of studies claiming scientific basis to support their claims. These publications have been denounced by the American Psychological Association and the Royal College of Psychiatrists as unscientific and promoting an atmosphere of hate. The war against gay rights, while a major focus of effort for the organization, is just a part of Focus on the Family’s crusade to reclaim America in the name of the cross.

As part of advancing their objectives Focus on the Family uses their prominent position and network of allies in the Religious Right to rally support for their agenda. One excellent example is the National Day of Prayer Task Force. Officially the Task Force is not affiliated with Focus on the Family in any meaningful fashion. Their main office is in Focus on the Family’s headquarters in Colorado Springs and their current Chairman is Shirley Dobson who assumed the position in 1991. During the Bush Administration the Task Force coordinated the observances thanks toannual presidential proclamations giving them unofficial but clear government support. Non-Christian groups that applied to participate were regularly ignored. In the 2008 Presidential campaign, through their PAC Focus on the Family Action, they spent millions of dollars in support of John McCain’s campaign following the selection of Sarah Palin as Vice Presidential nominee. They bankrolled an extensive mailing campaign predicting doom and gloom if the GOP lost the 2008 election. Focus on the Family does not put all their proverbial eggs in one basket. They have a network of international affiliates in New ZealandAustraliaIndonesiaSingapore,TaiwanIreland, and Africa just to name a few.

Focus on the Family presents another facet to the Religious Right’s political machine. Unlike the Family Research Council they work largely in grassroots efforts eschewing a heavy emphasis on Washington lobbying for a substantial propaganda arm and international reach. While they escaped being labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center Focus on the Family remains a powerful force in the Religious Right. With substantial funding and support Focus on the Family in spite of recent shakeups and setbacks remains on the front lines as a crucial element for Christian fundamentalists in the Culture War.

Also published at Ryan’s Desk

Oct 142010

In the United States today there is a growing fear of Sharia Law encroaching on our liberties. The loudest voice in the media on this subject in the US is Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House during the mid 90s. While the media reports his claims they have yet to look into the ties has with radical religious groups in America. By rallying the fear of foreign takeover he is effectively running a smokescreen for his fundamentalist Christian allies. While advocating for family values and against Sharia encroachment Gingrich works to advance an agenda every bit as radical as jihadi terrorism.

The start of these claims came with the increasing publicity surrounding the Park51 Muslim community center controversy. On July 28th Gingrich posted his condemnation of the project on his website. Part of his denunciation included his assertion that the project was part of a global effort to impose Islamic fundamentalism on the United States and the world. In his remarks he specifically noted, “Radical Islamists see politics and religion as inseparable in a way it is difficult for Americans to understand”. He continued to speak out against the Park51 center throughout the month of August. On September 12th Gingrich released a direct to DVD documentary called America at Risk, a film about the threat Islamic fundamentalism poses to the United States. He then followed up with his call at the Values Voter Summit on September 18th for a federal law banning Sharia law in the United States. Newt Gingrich has continued to put himself out in front on the issue of anti-Sharia efforts in the US with the media reporting his efforts at face value.

The irony is that his crusade against religious fundamentalism in America starts and stops when the threat is any form of religious extremism that isn’t Christian. An excellent example of this selective approach can be found in the venue where he called for a ban on Sharia law. The sponsors for the Values Voters Summit include the Family Research Council’s political action group, the American Family Association’s action group, American Values, Liberty University, and the Heritage Foundation. The FRC and AFA are both groups that are fairly prominent in the Religious Right as major organizations that have long, established standing and reputations. Liberty University is an institution billed as the premier Christian university in America and was founded by the late Jerry Falwell to educate their students in a proper, Christian fashion. American Values was founded by Gary Bauer, President of the Family Research Council until 1999. With the exception of the Heritage Foundation, who attended only to provide issue education, each of these organizations stand for the flagship positions of the Religious Right. Each is highly active in organizing evangelical and fundamentalist Christian activists in and out of government. On the front page is a list of breakout sessions including highlights such as, “American Apocalypse–When Christians Do Nothing, Secularists Do Everything–The Case for Christian Activism”, “How to Reach the Online Generation (Without Losing Your Soul)”, and, “Establishing a Culture Impact Team In Your Church”. Among other things all of these groups are very vocal in their claim that separation of church and state is unconstitutional.

Gingrich is no stranger to Christian conservatives. He worked with social conservative groups extensively under the slogan of Family Values while he was Speaker of the House during the mid 90s. Since then he has remained an active professional speaker and author. One of the more prominent gigs was the 2007 commencement address at Liberty University. During his speech he praised the founder Jerry Falwell and called for the graduates to challenge, “radical secularism.” The themes he covered in his speech were the same that he argued for in his 2006 book Rediscovering God in America. In his book Gingrich argues that advancing secularism is working to drive God out of public life in America. At the Rediscovery of God in America Conference in June of 2009 Gingrich asserted that America is “surrounded by paganism”. His next big splash in September of 2009 was the documentary Rediscovering God in America II: Our Heritage. Here Gingrich again claims that Christianity and God are under attack in America.

These claims, along with his recent call for a Federal gay marriage amendment, are all consistent with the rhetoric and positions of Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christians. They have consistently campaigned for gay marriage bans in all fifty states and have proven successful in twenty-five. Evangelical efforts are not confined to just banning gay marriage. Candidates with their support in school boards across the country have fought for teaching a more Christian curriculum. Their most recent, and largest, success was in Texas. In May of this year the conservative faction on the school board succeeded in pushing for sweeping changes to the history curriculum. Some of these changes included the downplaying of the importance of Newtonian physics and Darwinian evolution, the whitewashing of the work of Founding Fathers like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison for religious liberty, and push the “fact” that America was founded as a Christian nation. In August the school board released a decree banning all textbooks that had pro-Muslim or anti-Christian content. Supporters of this measure claim it was necessary to protect Christianity.

Gingrich’s claims of a Sharia takeover of the United States are rather ironic considering his own affiliations. If Gingrich and his allies in the Religious Right had their way Christianity, as it is according to them, would be the only religion allowed in the United States. They are not shy about their intentions; at their sites, conferences, and on the campaign trail they openly announce it to the world. Gingrich’s campaign against Sharia law serves their purposes ideally. By rallying the public against Sharia law Gingrich provides a perfect cover while Christian fundamentalists quietly make their vision for America reality.

Also published at http://ryansdesk.blogspot.com/2010/10/sharia-smokescreen.html

May 262010

Note:  If, in no other previous posts, you haven’t clicked the links – I urge you to at least click the bolded links and the photos.

A question that I have been turning over and over in my mind is this: What should happen to sites of private cultus when the State comes into ownership of them?

This question spilled into my mind after an abrupt mental crash between a project I am working on and the Mojave WWI Memorial news coverage.

WWI Memorial – This story has been well covered in The Wild Hunt, but for the few of you who haven’t read it, I’ll give a Cliff Notes version. Back in the 1930′s a group of WWI Vets pooled their money and bought some land in the Mojave desert and built a memorial in honor of their friends who died in the war. They made the memorial in the shape of a Christian Cross. Years later, the Vets gave the land to the Federal Parks Service so the Mojave Desert Preserve could be created with the understanding the memorial would stay. In 2001, a lawsuit was filed to get the memorial removed on grounds that keeping it signified an unconstitutional government endorsement of Christianity. Until all the legal fun is over, the memorial was to be boarded up. A month ago, the memorial was stolen.

I didn’t give much thought at all to this story, since I didn’t care if the memorial was allowed to stay or if it had to go, except for the reaction of some in the Pagan community to the memorial’s theft.

Project – The project that I have been working on for a few years, which is now getting ready to become a reality, is to create a public Hellenic Temple. There have been Hellenic Temples built in people’s homes and in their backyards, but there hasn’t been a publicly accessible Hellenic temple created in the USA yet. If you know differently, please let me know. Insurance costs, ADA compliance, having the temple open to anyone without them needing to call ahead to get it unlocked, and financing are all issues that have held our religious community back from realizing this dream. Keep your fingers crossed or send me some good vibes, because I think we are finally ready to do this.

See how this generated my question? Neither did I until I read this about the WWI Memorial -“was a place of reflection for many vets who retreated to the desert in part to recover from severe lung diseases caused by mustard gas attacks during the Great War. An annual Easter service is held there, but until recently only locals knew about it.”

Which, to me, demonstrates a thriving cultus connected with this memorial and where it is located. Cultus, according to Carla Antonaccio, Professor of Classical Studies at Wesleyan University -

” is a pattern of ritual behavior in connection with specific objects, within a framework of spatial and temporal coordinates. Ritual behavior would include (but not necessarily be limited to) prayer, sacrifice, votive offerings, competitions, processions and construction of monuments. Some degree of recurrence in place and repetition over time of ritual action is necessary for cult to be enacted, to be practiced.”

Cultus is a thriving part of many Pagan religions. We have sacred springs, stone altars, statues, rocks, and other objects erected in sacred locations that we feel a special spiritual connection to. We return over and over, year after year, praying, laying down our offerings, reveling in a Divine presence that seems stronger there.

WWI Memorial in the Mojave National Preserve before it was ordered covered by court order.

Which is, apparently, what happened with the memorial. Each year, Christians would travel out to the memorial and worship. Veterans would stand before the cross, honoring those lost and asking for the gift of peace in their hearts. They brought offerings, burned incense, and sang sacred songs. They prayed for those who died and they prayed to their God, reveling in his divine presence. This continued for decades, with the crowds of worshipers slowly growing, drawn to the site. Then the lawsuit happened and their site of cultus was boarded up, blocked from their view.

Which is why I am wondering what could happen to our sites of private cultus if the State comes into ownership of them. Would they be boarded up? Would we be blocked from worship at them as our coreligionists are in Greece with the ancient temples? Will the ACLU file suit to dismantle them? Can age, beauty, or number of worshipers protect and preserve them?

The Temple of Goddess Spirituality dedicated to Sekhmet

Temple dedicated to Sekhmet, Nevada
Built in 1993, this small and peaceful temple sits at the edge of the Nevada Test Site and has been maintained by Wiccan priestesses who assist in the celebration of solar and lunar rituals, handfastings, baby blessings, and more. In 1992, Genevieve Vaughan gave the land to the Shoshone tribe, but the temple continued to operate as before.

With the temple so close to the Nevada Test Site, only 3 miles from an Air Force base, and a thriving nuclear bomb history tourism industry – it’s not hard to imagine the land voluntarily or involuntarily coming into the hands of the Federal Parks Service. What would happen to this temple, this modern site of cultus, if the government was granted possession of the lands around it? Would the temple be destroyed or boarded up? Would it violate the Constitution of the United States to use tax money to maintain it?

Serpent Mound, Adams County, Ohio

What’s the difference between the Cross in the Mojave desert and the Serpent Mound in Ohio? Is it age or historical value that grant Serpent Mound its unchallenged protection? The less threatening perception of Native American religions vs the position of power Christianity enjoys? Is it that older is  seen to have more value and significance than that which is newly created? The last question should cause any Wiccan pause since detractors point to the newness of Wicca as a sign of its lack of credibility.

Temples of Damanhur, Italy
Started in 1978 by Falco Airaudi who acted on a vision he had while a child, this series of temples were carved out of the ground over 14 years. The temples are a place of meditation for the religious group known as Damanhurians. In 1992, the Italian police demanded entry into the secret temples claiming they would blow up the area if they were not allowed in. After seeing the beauty of the temples, the Italian government seized control of the property. All building was to cease, but the Damanhurians were allowed to continue the artwork. Today, the Damanhurians have a thriving community surrounding the temples and the government allows them access to the temples when public tours are not being conducted.

The Hall of Earth within the Temples of Damanhur, Italy

Yet I wonder – what if the temples has been a bit less stunning? Less beautiful in the execution? Would the government have protected them? Allowed the Damanhurians continued access? Or would they have carried through with their threat to implode them?

I am filled with questions and no answers. I don’t know if legal arguments over cases like the WWI Memorial can or ever should include the value of sites of modern cultus. How can you define the difference between a place that has such special spiritual significance that it draws worshipers and a “typical” religious building that does not have that location specific spiritual connection? Or is there a difference?  Or does the worship itself, over the years, imbue the location with the scared?  And should governments concern themselves with protecting those places of cultus when they come into their possession?

The Henge at Stone City Pagan Sanctuary, California

Over and over, as my mind is consumed by visions of a public Hellenic Temple made reality and I think about the places of cultus already in existence, I keep wondering what could happen to our sites of private cultus if the State comes into ownership of them and what can we do to increase the odds that they survive and are protected for generations to come. Or should they be destroyed out of concern that it creates an endorsement of Paganism by our government, if that were to happen? And if that is the case, then should other sites of religious worship on federal land, such as the Serpent Mounds of Ohio where Native Americans are again practicing their religion, be destroyed or blocked off?