BY BARBARA SANTEE
Over the last few years, the media has been filled with speculation about the assassination of Dr. Tiller and the Tucson shootings. There is a lot of discussion about the divisive discourse in this country that could have led to such violence.
There is speculation that, on the face of it, these killers are mentally unbalanced. However, to dismiss these events as simply the act of deranged men would be a mistake.
The polarization in this country has led to a deep schism between Americans that, at times, seems too wide to cross.
We had a congressman yelling to the president that he is a liar during his State of the Union speech last year, an unprecedented act. A Supreme Court Justice who lost his guise of political neutrality by mouthing, “that’s not true” at that same event. We have Sarah Palin who used such emotionally charged rhetoric against our president that at one political rally, a man was heard screaming, “Kill him!” This was before she had the effrontery to put a list of Democratic representatives on her website and mark them with the crosshairs of a gun. One of those representatives was Gabby Giffords.
During this last election, a candidate for a Senate seat from Nevada suggested that American could use “Second Amendment remedies” to deal with political differences. People have charged that our president was not born in this country and, consequently, not a citizen. Others claim he is a socialist, a Muslim, even a communist.
The political rhetoric has become toxic, so much so that rational discussion seems impossible. The politics of hate seem to dominate our political landscape, and it makes ordinary people wonder, “How did we get to this place?”
I’m sure there are numerous theories on this, but here is my theory. The politics of hate didn’t begin with Obama. It didn’t begin with Clinton or even Kennedy. It began much earlier than that.
In the 1930’s, there was a fear-monger named Father Coughlin. Charles Edward Coughlin was a controversial Roman Catholic priest who was one of the first to use the radio to reach a mass audience of more than 30 million. He called for monetary reforms, the nationalization of major industries and railroads, and protection of the rights of labor.
Although this appeared to be a populist agenda, he began to attack Jewish bankers. He used his radio program to spread anti-Semitic hate speech, and later to rationalize some of the policies of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. He was stirring up violence against Jews, and finally his political tirades were silenced by his superiors.
Glenn Beck is the modern-day equivalent of Coughlin in that he is constantly talking about conspiracy theories and blaming various elements of our society in an attempt to work his supporters into a political frenzy against those people or organizations Beck considers “evil.”
Fast forward 40 years, and in 1979, Rev. Jerry Falwell steps up with his concept of the “Moral Majority,” which became one of the largest political lobby groups for evangelical Christians in the United States during the 1980s. The Moral Majority was founded as being “pro-family”, “pro-life,” “pro-defense” and pro-Israel. The group is credited with delivering two thirds of the white, evangelical Christian vote to Ronald Reagan during the 1980 presidential election.
As head of the Moral Majority, Falwell consistently pushed for Republican candidates and for conservative politics leading to criticism from other clergy of his sermons about political issues that lacked a moral element.
Falwell’s political success led religious commentator Pat Robertson to believe that he might have a shot at being president during the 1988 election. Even though his campaign was well funded, it failed. He ran in some of the Republican primaries but became obvious he didn’t stand a chance. [If memory serves me correctly, I believe he did win the Republican primary in Oklahoma.]
So a disgruntled Robertson hit on the idea of organizing evangelicals in a more formal and powerful way than Falwell had. He used the remains of his campaign machinery to jump-start the creation of a voter mobilization effort dubbed the Christian Coalition whose mailing list contained several million conservative Christians interested in politics.
In 1990, the national Christian Coalition began producing “non-partisan” voter guides which it distributed to conservative Christian churches, with 40 million being distributed in the 1992 and 1996 presidential election years. Complaints that the voter guides were actually partisan led to the denial of the Christian Coalition Inc.’s tax-exempt status in 1999. But that didn’t stop Robertson. He turned all efforts to politics.
After a long battle, in 2005 the IRS recognized the Christian Coalition as a 501(c)(4) tax-exempt organization, the first time in the agency’s history that it has granted a letter of exemption to a group that stated in its application that it would distribute voter guides directly in churches.
And so the seeds of our current divisive political dialogue were sown.
Because the prospects of a third party are not good for winning a presidential race in the United States, the Coalition laser focused on taking over the one party that agreed most with their political positions – the Republicans. They set up voter training workshops in evangelical churches all over American. They taught their followers how to be effective advocates – how to lobby, how to work in elections, how to run for office. They encouraged people to start small – take over precinct meetings, school boards, then run for city councils, for state-wide office, and eventually for national office. It is amazingly easy to do this. Some local elections, particularly school boards, may be won with perhaps 50 votes. They organized, informed, and activated their followers and depended on the voter apathy of people who would oppose them.
Ralph Reed became the executive director of the CC. He used subterfuge to project a “softer” public face for Christian conservatism. Reed apparently described himself as a “guerrilla fighter” who “painted his face and traveled at night” and put “enemies” in “body bags” before they even realized he had struck. Those “enemies” were anyone who disagreed with the Christian Coalition’s dogma.
When I came back home to Tulsa in 1989, I attended a meeting of Tulsa Democrats. I mentioned that we needed to be very aware of the Christian Coalition’s attempts to take over our government. They said, “The Christian what?” They had never heard of the organization, and they literally laughed at the idea that a little-known religious group could turn our country into a theocracy.
I felt like Chicken Little.
It was frustrating that no one would listen to me. It’s even more frustrating now when I tell people that the Christian extremists not only are trying to eliminate or take over public education, but are infiltrating all branches of the military all the way to the Pentagon. They are working with our police forces to identify people they can manipulate, to set up bases of power within those agencies to support them, if and when they decide to take over our government using the bullet and not the ballot.
During the ‘90s, the Christian Coalition continually gained more political power, and finally took over control the Republican Party, pushing out moderates and fiscal conservatives who did not accept their religio-political agenda. They also began taking over other institutions where they could build influence, like the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. They fired a woman professor because she was a “feminist.”
The Coalition found a willing partner on social issues like abortion, women’s rights, and gay rights in the Catholic Church, another powerful ally. The power of the Coalition came to a peak with the election of George W. Bush. He pandered to their issues and they returned the favor by electing him president of the United States.
During Bush’s tenure, billions of dollars were given to “Faith Based Programs,” actually a ploy for funneling public fund to fundamentalist churches, which in turn, were used to proselytize people using the social services offered by the churches.
In Oklahoma, progressive Christian churches, as well as Islamic Mosques and Jewish Temples or Synagogues, mysteriously did not receive invitations to make application for these funds. Those invitations were sent only to conservative and evangelical churches.
Billions more are still being funneled into the “Abstinence-Only Programs,” most of which were operated by these same conservative Protestant and Catholic churches. Every scientific study done on the “Abstinence-Only Programs” has shown them to be miserable failures, and they actually may endanger our young people more than they help them. These churches also use government funds to support their so-called “Crisis Pregnancy Centers” that purportedly are established to help pregnant women once they give birth. In reality, these centers are anti-abortion propaganda mills.
The Christian Coalition was joined other conservative religious groups, the most prominent of which are Focus on the Family, established by Jim Dobson, and the American Family Association founded by Donald Wildmon. These groups have fought to outlaw abortion, defund family planning programs [such as Planned Parenthood], and in general, push an anti-woman agenda. Beginning in 1990, the Promise Keepers came to the forefront with male-only meetings to tell men to take back “their rightful place as head of the household.”
It is not a coincidence that the Christian-based Promise Keepers was founded in by Bill McCartney, then the head football coach at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Naturally, their meetings were held in football stadiums. [A more macho venue could not be found.] The “Promise Reapers” was the female-counterpart where women were urged to follow their husbands and never question his authority.
The Christian Coalition is still in existence. Its minions have not only taken over the Republican Party, they are now infiltrating the Democratic Party. At one state Democratic meeting I attended several years ago, when the pro-choice resolution was presented to be voted on, some delegates actually booed. Today it is difficult to distinguish a Republican from a Democrat in many Southern and Western states.
Democrats are scared to death of the vote of the conservative Christian. At one state Democratic meeting, the chair actually said the purpose of the Oklahoma party was “to elect Democrats to office.” I was shocked. I always thought the purpose of the party was to stand up for traditional democratic values of equality, fairness, and justice. Apparently, getting elected supersedes those values now.
When the conservative Christians took over the Republican Party, they brought with them, not only their values, but their mindset. They see the world in a binary manner – black or white, right or wrong, good or evil. And they brought this thinking into our political arena.
Hence, you could no longer simply disagree with them on an issue in a civil and mature manner. Anyone who disagrees with them is defined as “evil.” How many times have we heard that phrase used by Republican politicians to smear the opposition? When an issue or person is framed as being “evil,” that shuts the door to rational discourse.
It doesn’t take long for a very tall and thick wall to build up between opposing viewpoints. The “carriers of light” become entrenched in their positions because they are literally “on God’s side.” Consequently, there can be no rational discussion. Either the opposition capitulates in order to get something done, or they reach a stalemate, in which case, nothing can be accomplished.
Sound familiar? That’s where we are in this current political climate. A stalemate in the Congress leading to the Republican Party being referred to as “the Party of No!” Disrespect and disharmony have resulted in a paralyzed government. At political rallies, people hold signs and make speeches advocating revolution.
They bring their guns to the rallies in an attempt to intimidate. They take Sharron Angle seriously when she said there could be “Second Amendment solutions.” They take Sarah Palin seriously when she says, “Don’t Retreat. Reload.”
The rancor, hatred and vile acts seem to be escalating. No president in history has received as many death threats as President Obama. Members of Congress, Republicans and Democrats, receive threats and attempts at intimidation on a daily basis.
The assassinations of John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and the attempted assassination of Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and now Rep. Gabby Giffords show how deep divisions can lead to violence and destruction.
The day Kennedy was shot, I entered an elevator in Tulsa where people were laughing and celebrating his assassination. It made me sick to my stomach.
And this is the situation we find ourselves in now. I don’t pretend to have any answers, but I do know that the moderate Republicans have got to take back their party. And the Democrats have got to fight to stand up for their traditional values instead of kowtowing to the Religious Right simply to get elected. We can’t continue down this path, or we will have blood in the streets. I know, because I lived through a military coup in 1973 when I worked at the UN in Santiago, Chile. I ran from shots in the streets. I saw bodies floating down the river. I heard people being killed who were trying to take asylum in the Mexican embassy. I had friends who were taken away and never seen again. I was afraid for my life when I was stopped and interrogated by the military. Luckily, I got out alive. A lot of people didn’t.
Can we really shoot our fellow Americans because we disagree with them politically? There are no civil or constitutional rights in a civil conflict. There is only death and destruction. Is this what we want? Everyone has to answer that question for themselves. I know I have, and the answer is a resounding, “NO!”
– Barbara Santee, Ph.D, is a long-time feminist and political activist who lives in Tulsa