In theocracy they trust

Christian right leaders denounced separation of church and state and prayed for a judge's deliverance to Satan. And their Capitol Hill allies were right there with them.

Published April 11, 2005 9:38PM (EDT)

According to David Gibbs, the attorney for Terri Schiavo's parents, Terri sobbed in her mother's arms after the courts condemned her to death. "Terri Schiavo was as alive as any person sitting here," he said. "Anything you saw on the videos, multiply times two hundred. I mean completely animated, completely responsive, desperately trying to talk." Schiavo, said Gibbs, would struggle to repeat the word "love" after her mother, and managed to get out something like "loooo."

Gibbs was speaking to a banquet of religious right activists and conservative operatives last Thursday, the first night of the Confronting the Judicial War on Faith conference in Washington. The 100 or so people in the audience had converged on the Washington Marriott from 25 states. Many cried as they listened.

"America needs a healing," Gibbs said, and the crowd murmured its assent. "We're sitting here desperately as a nation needing to adopt the heart of God  We're on the eve of a real major decision. Are we going to do it God's way, or are we going to head down the path of whatever these judges think is best? Terri was alive. The courts killed her. The courts killed her in a barbaric fashion. Others are already facing and will face a similar fate if we don't do something."

Conservatives convened at the two-day conference to figure out what that something should be. The event was remarkable in bringing together lawmakers and Capitol Hill staffers with unabashed theocrats. Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., shared the stage with prominent adherents of Christian Reconstructionism, a Calvinist doctrine that calls for the subordination of American civil law to biblical law.

Other strains of the religious right were represented as well -- Alveda King, Martin Luther King Jr.'s conservative niece, was there, as was Catholic anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly. Roy Moore, the former Alabama Supreme Court Justice who lost his job after he refused to remove a two-ton granite Ten Commandments monument from his courthouse, received an adulatory welcome. There was Tom Jipping, a counselor to Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch who used to work at Concerned Women for America, and Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council. All were united by a frantic sense of crisis symbolized by Schiavo, who has become a mythical figure, martyred and quasi-divine, in the stories that percolate through America's evangelical subculture.

Having won control of two branches of the federal government, the activists of the religious right have come to see the courts as the intolerable obstacle thwarting their dream of a reborn Christian nation. They believe in a revisionist history, taught in Christian schools and spread through Christian media, which claims biblical law as the source of the Constitution. Thus any ruling that contradicts their theology seems to them to be de facto unconstitutional, and its enforcement tyrannical.

Some believe that the problem can be rectified by replacing liberal judges with conservative ones. Others, noting that even judges appointed by Republicans often rule against them, have become convinced that they must destroy the federal judiciary itself. Thus, ideas offered at the conference ranged from ending the filibuster and impeaching all but the most right-wing judges to abolishing all federal courts below the Supreme Court altogether. At least one panelist dropped coy hints about murder.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, originally scheduled as the keynote speaker, was called away to Pope John Paul II's funeral, but he delivered a laudatory welcome via video. DeLay accused the judiciary of having "run amok," and said that to rein it in, it would be necessary to "reassert Congress' constitutional authority over the courts." His endorsement was one of many signs that this intense conclave, with all its apocalyptic despair and exhilarated calls for national renewal, represented something more than a frustrated eruption by the febrile fringe. However odd the ideas emanating from the conference seemed to a secularist, they are taken seriously by people with real power in our nation. Indeed, they're taken more seriously than such oft-derided relics as "separation of church and state," which the conferees treated as a devilish heresy.

The Judeo-Christian Council for Constitutional Restoration is a new coalition whose membership includes major figures in the religious right. Jerry Falwell, Schlafly and Ray Flynn, the former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, are among those on its executive committee. During the conference, though, the JCCCR's public face was interim chairman Rick Scarborough, the former pastor of Texas' First Baptist Church of Pearland. Scarborough, a close ally of DeLay, now runs a group called Vision America, which is working to mobilize a network of "patriot pastors" for nationwide political action. He's also the author of a booklet titled "In Defense of  Mixing Church and State." It argues that the belief that the Constitution provides for separation of church and state is "a lie introduced by Satan and fostered by the courts. Unfortunately, it is embraced by the American public to our shame and disgrace, and that lie has led us to the edge of the abyss."

The sense that America is on the cusp of chaos was nearly universal at the conference, leading to calls for a radical restructuring of American government. On panel after panel, speakers -- including Michael Schwartz, Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn's chief of staff -- demanded the impeachment of judges who disagree with the doctrine of Antonin Scalia-style strict constructionism. Several asserted the right of the president and Congress to disregard court decisions they think are unconstitutional. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy was excoriated with the kind of venom the right once reserved for Hillary Clinton.

On a Friday panel titled "Remedies to Judicial Tyranny," a constitutional lawyer named Edwin Vieira discussed Kennedy's majority opinion in Lawrence vs. Texas, which struck down that state's anti-sodomy law. Vieira accused Kennedy of relying on "Marxist, Leninist, Satanic principals drawn from foreign law" in his jurisprudence.

What to do about communist judges in thrall to Beelzebub? Vieira said, "Here again I draw on the wisdom of Stalin. We're talking about the greatest political figure of the 20th century  He had a slogan, and it worked very well for him whenever he ran into difficulty. 'No man, no problem.'"

The audience laughed, and Vieira repeated it. "'No man, no problem.' This is not a structural problem we have. This is a problem of personnel."

As Dana Milbank pointed out Saturday in the Washington Post, the full Stalin quote is this: "Death solves all problems: no man, no problem." Milbank suggested that Kennedy would be wise to hire more bodyguards.

Was Vieira calling for assassination? I'm not sure. The conference's rhetoric, though, certainly suggested that judges deserve to reap the horrors they have ostensibly sown. The affair finished with a rousing speech by recent Republican senatorial candidate Alan Keyes, who drew enthusiastic applause when he said, "I believe that in our country today the judiciary is the focus of evil."

It is a challenge to know how seriously to take this sort of thing. The world inhabited by most of those at the conference seems so at odds with empirical reality that one expects it to collapse around them. With each new lunacy perpetrated by religious fundamentalists, progressives tell each other that any second the pendulum will swing the other way and some equilibrium will return to our national life. They've been telling each other that for more than four years. But the influence of religious authoritarianism keeps growing.

The Confronting the Judicial War on Faith conference was not large -- it drew at most 200 people. The speakers and attendees, though, included many of the core figures of the religious right. Even if they fail in their far-reaching plan for eviscerating the judiciary -- and in the near term they almost certainly will -- the Republican Party will try to push through aspects of their agenda. Thus it's worth taking note of exactly whose agenda it is.

One conference speaker was Howard Phillips, the hulking former Nixon staffer who helped midwife the new right. Years ago, Phillips, along with Richard Viguerie and Paul Weyrich, recruited a little-known Baptist preacher named Jerry Falwell to start the Moral Majority. Though he was raised Jewish, Phillips is now an evangelical Christian who told me he was profoundly influenced by the late R.J. Rushdoony, the founder of Christian Reconstructionism. "Rushdoony had a tremendous impact on my thinking," Phillips said. As time goes on, he said, Rushdoony's influence is growing.

Christian Reconstructionism calls for a system that is both radically decentralized, with most government functions devolved to the county level, and socially totalitarian. It calls for the death penalty for homosexuals, abortion doctors and women guilty of "unchastity before marriage," among other moral crimes. To be fair, Phillips told me that "just because a crime is capital doesn't mean you must impose the death penalty. It means it's an option." Public humiliation, he said, could sometimes be used instead.

Herb Titus, another Rushdoony follower, also spoke. He was the dean of the law school at Pat Robertson's Regent University. As Sara Diamond, a scholar of the conservative movement, wrote in her book "Not By Politics Alone: The Enduring Influence of the Christian Right," "In the early 1990s, at a time when Robertson was seeking academic accreditation for the law school, Titus was forced to resign when he refused to renounce his belief in Christian Reconstructionism."

Some Republicans might have decided that, in the wake of the Terri Schiavo controversy and the possible public backlash, it wasn't a good idea to be seen in such company. The pope's funeral gave DeLay an excuse not to show up in person, and Republican Sens. Sam Brownback and Tom Coburn, both initially listed on the conference Web site, also dropped out.

Still, several congressmen and congressional staffers gave their enthusiastic endorsement to the conference, using much the same language as Phillips, Titus and Scarborough. Speaking via video, DeLay apologized for missing the event and emphasized its importance. "Judicial unaccountability is not a political issue," he said. "It is a threat to self-government." Then he enumerated the measures Congress was taking. The House, he said, has already passed an amendment that breaks up "that leftist 9th circuit that meets in San Francisco" -- the court that ruled the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance unconstitutional -- "and told them they could go meet in Guam."

It seems likely that DeLay will work hard on behalf of his supporters at the conference. After all, as the scandals swirling around him become a cyclone, the theocrats are his most loyal constituency. Several people at the conference wore "Hooray for DeLay" buttons, and Schlafly called on everyone to stand behind him.

Nor is DeLay this crowd's only firm ally in Congress. Michael Schwartz, the longtime right-wing operative who now serves as Sen. Coburn's chief of staff, made The Hammer sound soft. "This problem that we're dealing with fundamentally is a question of sovereignty," he said. He went on to argue that, "when the Supreme Court says that there is a right to kill babies in the Constitution and therefore we can't have laws against that, or there is a right to commit buggery in the Constitution and we can't have laws against that," it implicitly asserts that "the people have no right to make laws."

As long as the Supreme Court purports to "grade the papers of Congress" -- in other words, to evaluate its laws -- "it is counter to the very basis of this republic." Thus, until America throws out the principle of judicial review, "it is a sick and sad joke to claim we have a Constitution."

No wonder Phillips seemed so confident that, despite the congressional no-shows, his agenda has champions in the federal government. Although they weren't there, "Coburn and Brownback are totally in sync with the people here," he told me.

The conference attendees took their warfare metaphors seriously. They exist in a parallel reality, with its own history and its own news, and in that reality, the Schiavo case dwarfs the war in Iraq or the budget deficit in its import. The Terri Schiavo story that has so galvanized them wasn't the same one shown on CNN or reported in the New York Times. Rather, it was an act of, as one conference participant called it, state-sponsored terrorism, designed to demonstrate the court's terrible power to take life at will. The narrative that Gibbs presented on Thursday seemed familiar to his audience, but it was new to me.

To begin with, in his version of the story, Michael Schiavo probably caused his wife's brain damage by beating or choking her until she was near death.

There were three leading theories about what happened to Terri all those years ago, he said. The first was that she had a heart problem. The second was that she had an eating disorder. There was no evidence, he said, for either of those.

"The third leading theory -- and as you can see, the first two seem to be sort of eliminated -- is that there was some form of foul play," he said. "That some sort of strangulation or violence occurred, at the hand of the husband possibly."

Gibbs offered nothing to substantiate this rather serious claim.

With his wife hospitalized, Gibbs said, "the husband did everything he could to keep people away from Terri, because if television cameras or regular people got in to see her, they would clearly see how alive she was."

Nor was her condition irreversible. "I firmly believe that for all the depravation and abuse she suffered at the hand of her husband  if she'd have had any therapy she wouldn't even have needed a feeding tube," he said.

In Gibbs' telling, Circuit Court Judge George Greer cavalierly ignored all this overwhelming evidence. Such villainy, he said, is the direct result of a legal system that has tried to cast off God's dominion.

"Our Founding Fathers," he said, "they were going to take the word of God, and God has given us in the Bible his word, and they said this book will always be true, and if there is ever a close call in policy, in leadership, in law, in society, if there's ever a question, we want to look to the source of absolute truth. That's why the Ten Commandments are so important. They were the original source of American law."

That version of history is taught at Christian schools like Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, Gibbs' alma mater. It is also a virtual fairy tale. The Constitution contains not a single mention of God, Christianity or the Bible. As the historians Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore wrote in their book "The Godless Constitution," such secularism wasn't lost on an earlier generation of Christian conservatives, who decried America's founding document as a sin against God.

They quote the Rev. Timothy Dwight, president of Yale College, who said in 1812, "The nation has offended Providence. We formed our Constitution without any acknowledgement of God; without any recognition of His mercies to us, as a people, of His government or even of His existence. The [Constitutional] Convention, by which it was formed, never asked even once, His direction, or His blessings, upon their labours. Thus we commenced our national existence under the present system, without God."

If the Judeo-Christian Council for Constitutional Restoration has its way, the present system will soon be coming to an end.

As Gibbs finished speaking, Scarborough invited the audience to get on their knees. All over the room, people dropped to the floor, heads bowed. From somewhere in the audience, a preacher started up:

"Father, we echo the words of the apostle Paul, because we know Judge Greer claims to be a Christian. So as the Apostle Paul said in First Corinthians 5, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of our Lord Jesus."

It sounded like a prayer for death.

By Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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