Christian right secession fantasy: Spooky neo-Confederate talk grows louder at the fringes

The religious right is spooked and making scary new allies. Some worry theocratic violence will soon be on the rise

By Paul Rosenberg

Contributing Writer

Published July 1, 2014 12:30PM (EDT)

               (<a href=''>a_v_d</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>/Salon)
(a_v_d via Shutterstock/Salon)

A Saturday ago at the annual conference of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal accused President Obama and other Democrats of waging a war against religious liberty and all but openly threatened a violent revolution, AP reported:

"I can sense right now a rebellion brewing amongst these United States," Jindal said, "where people are ready for a hostile takeover of Washington, D.C., to preserve the American Dream for our children and grandchildren."

Of course, Jindal's speech didn't come out of nowhere. Jindal is notorious as a weather vane, not a leader. So this is a clear sign of the need to take threats of right-wing violence seriously — and to look to its justifications as formulated on the Christian right.

As the latest wave of theocratic violence continues to play out in Iraq, it must feel exotic for most Americans, for whom theocratic violence is something that happens elsewhere. Yet, the idea of such violence coming to America — something Jindal is apparently eager for — is hardly far-fetched. Violence against abortion providers has been with us for decades, after all, and as Jindal's pandering suggests, there could well be much worse to come, according to a new article from Political Research Associates, “Rumblings of Theocratic Violence,” by Frederick Clarkson, author of "Eternal Hostility: the Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy," and co-founder of Talk2Actionorg. While violent rhetoric is nothing new on the Christian right, Clarkson observes, there are reasons to take such rhetoric more seriously than ever before. Above all, some of those most dedicated to the idea of America as a Christian nation are beginning to lose faith in their inevitable success.

“[S]omething has changed in recent years,” Clarkson notes, as “disturbing claims are appearing more frequently, more prominently, and in ways that suggest that they are expressions of deeply held beliefs more than provocative political hyperbole.” He also cites “powerful indications in the writings of some Christian right leaders that elements of their movement have lost confidence in the bright political vision of the United States as the once and future Christian Nation — and that they are desperately seeking alternatives.”

Perhaps most ominously, there is a growing convergence of theocratic and neo-Confederate thinking, Clarkson finds:

At least some of the historic culture warriors of the Christian Right seem to be considering an ostensibly unlikely coalition with the Neo-Confederate movement. The coalition would lead their followers in religious and political directions in which violence is as likely as the outcomes are uncertain. It is an unlikely coalition, not necessarily because the Christian Right and most Neo-Confederates differ much on issues, but because Christian nationalism is so fundamentally at odds with the notion of fracturing the nation due to a loss of hope and faith in the role of the United States in God’s plan.

In short, if you think that secession talk has been crazy since President Obama took office, it could get significantly worse. The sort of standoff we saw at the Cliven Bundy ranch could pale in comparison to what a religiously motivated group — certain that God is on their side — might do.

“The thing for us not to lose sight of is that social movements are not static -- and the Christian right is one of the most dynamic and powerful movements in American history,” Clarkson told Salon. “But some of their goals have been thwarted at the federal level for a variety of reasons having to do with the limits of presidential power, the importance of judicial precedent and respect for the rights of individuals, and the complexities of the legislative process. These have been hard lessons to take, but they have been learned.”

Which is why they've refocused a great deal of attention at the state level, along with other conservative activists, “to play to their strengths and maximize their power instead of tilting at windmills,” he explained. “If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome -- then regarding political strategy, the Christian right has proved itself not insane.” Yet, even with this refocusing, some are starting to despair of America herself, and to turn their thoughts to secession — even if that entails violence.

As Clarkson notes, today's Christian right is no longer defined by a handful of high-profile leaders well-known throughout the political media, as it was in years before. That earlier generation has been followed by “a generation of hands-on political operatives who now sustain a more decentralized Christian right,” and he highlights a handful of them who share in an overall drift toward a potential for violent conflict, though they come from a variety of different starting points.

First is David Lane, 59, “a key strategist in the conservative movement and a behind-the-scenes power broker and adviser to GOP presidential candidates for two decades,” Clarkson explains. “His main vehicle has been 'Pastors’ Policy Briefings,' in which conservative Christian clergy and their spouses are provided expenses-paid trips to (usually) closed-door, invitation-only conferences. These number 10,000 or more in total." What's more, “Lane also masterminded the 2011 prayer rally that drew 30,000 people to launch Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s short-lived 2012 campaign for president.” So you may not recognize his name, but he clearly carries considerable clout. And he exemplifies the divided state of mind that seems to increasingly haunt many on the Christian right today. On the one hand is their enthusiastic faith:

Like many other evangelicals, especially those influenced by the Neocharismatic movement known as the New Apostolic Reformation, Lane is counting on a revival — another Great Awakening — to sweep Christians of the right sort into positions of power. This would result in the kind of Christian nation that he and his close ally, the historical revisionist (and accused fabulist) David Barton — whose books and interpretations are influential among conservative evangelicals — believe was intended by the nation’s founders.

Virtually unknown to the mainstream political media, the New Apostolic Reformation touts itself as the most significant change in Protestantism since Martin Luther and the Reformation [see short overview here] and though it evolved out of the Pentecostal tradition, fundamentalist traditionalists agree with that assessment — and condemn them for it. [See here, too.] Leaders in the NAR proclaim themselves as prophets and apostles, specially anointed by God to transform the church, and engage in “spiritual warfare” against demons, and exercise dominion over a unified church and a theocratic state (a doctrine known as “dominionism”). Its traditionalist critics rightly point out that the NAR, with its focus on otherworldly realms and powers, actually draws a great deal on the pagan traditions it claims to be at war with.

On the other hand, despite the grandiose optimism that this movement's beliefs entail, there are growing doubts:

But for all the energy he invests in traditional electoral work, Lane clearly is not convinced that his shining vision of America is likely — or even possible. Hence his doubt-filled essay about the “the American experiment with freedom” possibly ending. The piece, “Wage War to Restore a Christian Nation,” was published on World Net Daily (WND), a leading and influential news site of the farther secular and religious Right. WND quickly removed the essay in June 2013 after bloggers called attention to it....

Clarkson notes that Lane opened his WND essay with a quote from another leading figure, theologian Peter Leithart, 55, who writes approvingly of martyrdom as a response to what he sees as tyrannical rule:

“Throughout Scripture,” Leithart declared in a passage from his 2012 book "Between Babel and Beast," “the only power that can overcome the seemingly invincible omnipotence of a Babel or a Beast is the power of martyrdom, the power of the witness to King Jesus to the point of loss and death.”

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s striking down part of the Defense of Marriage Act in United States v. Windsor in 2013, Peter Leithart took to the influential blog of the journal First Things (founded by the late Neo-Conservative Catholic thinker Richard John Neuhaus) to declare that the decision “presents American Christians with a call to martyrdom.”

Leithart is the founder of a small school and related think tank, Trinity House, in Birmingham, Alabama, which Clarkson says “seeks to serve as a center for a new Reformed Protestantism, called Federal Vision, whose leading lights include Neo-Confederate authors [Douglas] Wilson and Steven Wilkins.” Wilkins, in turn, was “one of the founders of the League of the South, the leading organization of contemporary Neo-Confederatism,” which relies heavily on religion to justify the side that fought to preserve slavery:

As scholars Edward Sebesta and Euan Hague have written, the League views the Civil War as a “theological war” that continues in contemporary America. The heart of their argument is that the old Confederacy was an orthodox Christian nation fighting for the future against the heretical and tyrannical Union states.

This is the theological backdrop behind Leithart's response to Windsor in First Things, which Clarkson describes at some length. Here's a brief excerpt:

In his First Things piece, Leithart avoids calling too directly for Christians to risk their lives (perhaps because of the flap over David Lane’s essay). But his call to martyrdom is clear enough.... The only America that actually exists,” he continued, “is one in which ‘marriage’ includes same-sex couples and women have a Constitutional right to kill their babies. To be faithful, Christian witness must be witness against America.”

This is not the sign of a movement inclined toward any sort of acceptance or compromise, to say the least. Indeed, the more isolated the Christian right becomes on certain social issues, such as gay marriage, the more they move toward forging previously unthinkable alliances, even to the point of re-unifying Protestants and Catholics:

Leithart also proposes the related notion of a “Reformational Catholicism,” which foresees a Rome-based Christian unity. He envisions this mutual accommodation as a kind of Christian maturity necessary for Christendom not only to survive but to prevail.

Leithart’s make-or-break vision would either end what he describes as anti-Christian tyranny or, failing that, build a new Christian nation — or nations.

In short, the one thing Leithart can't abide is the political system created by our Founding Fathers.

Clarkson then moves on to a like-minded figure on the Catholic side, Father C. John McCloskey, a 61-year-old priest in the reactionary Opus Dei order, which has its origins in Franco's Spain. McCloskey's claim to fame is his role in converting a number of high-profile conservative figures to Catholicism — Clarence Thomas, Robert Bork, Newt Gingrich, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback and the late journalist Robert Novak, among others. His advocacy for a secessionist strategy starts off in terms of self-segregation:

McCloskey told columnist Terry Mattingly in July 2013 that “the United States is no longer a Christian country.” Because this is so, he explained, traditionalists will need to cluster in states that are more congenial to their views on such matters as abortion, marriage, parents rights, and homeschooling....

But the much more radical hankering for secession has long been on his mind:

McCloskey predicted in 2001, and again in 2012, that conservative Catholics and evangelicals would need to band together in a civil war of secession. The “secession of the ‘Culture of Life’ states,” he predicted, would emphasize “the fundamental issues of the sanctity of marriage, the rights of parents, and the sacredness of human life,” and that the secession would precipitate “a short and bloody civil war” that would break the country into what he calls “the Regional States of America.”

“A short and bloody civil war” — because history is just full of examples of how well that works. The real Civil War — in which more than 600,000 combatants were killed — was also supposed to be a very short affair; everybody on both sides assumed it would only take a handful of battles. Moreover:

He repeated this general view in an essay in January 2014, in which he discussed separating from the “tyrannical regime” in Washington, D.C....

Clarkson notes that the Christian right has been prone toward violence since at least 1994, “a period that was marked by a wave of arsons, bombings, and assassinations against abortion providers, as well as the rise of the militia movement,” but what may be different now is the move toward forging alliances between ancient enemies — he cites the 2009 Manhattan Declaration as an example. “Thus the Catholic/evangelical conversation may be taking a surprising turn,” he writes. Specifically:

It may be more a matter of how, rather than when, the conversation about secession unfolds. Some see restoring the Christian nation (which arguably never was) as a hopeless cause. Others hope that a revival-powered wave of Christian nationalism will propel a profound cultural and political transformation. But if such a transformed America is not to be, a coalition with the avatars of Confederate revivalism will become more appealing, and will be well-aligned with McCloskey’s vision of the secession of conservative states.

Finally, Clarkson discusses Pastor David Whitney, described as “a well-connected figure on the Far Right,” who is also firmly entrenched on the neo-Confederate side of things:

He is chaplain of the Maryland chapter of the League of the South and is a signatory of the “Covenant” of the six-year-old Southern National Congress, which openly seeks an “independent republic.”

As examples of his revolutionary tendencies, Clarkson notes:

He declared on Independence Day 2010, for example, that if government does not conform to God’s law, “the people have a right to secede” from the “wicked regime in Washington, D.C.” and its “despicable and evil tyranny.” He believes that we therefore may eventually have to make the “same difficult decision which our forebears reached on that hot July day in Philadelphia.”

And in February 2011, he testified against pending marriage-equality legislation before the Maryland state Senate:

[H]e claimed that passage of marriage-equality legislation would delegitimize the state government, such that state laws should not be obeyed; that the state courts and executive branch have no authority; that taxes should not be paid; and that “we should from this point forward consider it as our Founders considered King George III.” If the legislation passed, he said, “multitudes” would want to secede from the state.

Of course, nothing of the sort has happened. Still, it should be noted that the theocratic views expressed here provide a general-purpose rationale for secession at any level of government, not just for states to secede from the Union. But it's not just secession that's justified — it's violence, too:

In a June 2013 sermon, he justified the murder of abortion providers. In discussing a Christian’s duty to defend life, he said that this included the prevention of “the murder of the unborn” and that “we need to understand that there is such a thing as Biblically justifiable homicide.”

He has also urged followers to pray for the death of Obama and his staff in a March 2014 sermon, saying, “There are those, including those in the White House, through their death panels, who intend to kill us. May God do to them what they intend to do to us.”

Is everything that Clarkson points to just talk? Perhaps. Or perhaps not. The fact that similar themes are being struck across a wide range of formerly antagonistic traditions should not be ignored.

Whether anything like what they envision comes about should not be our only concern, so that if it seems unlikely, we can safely ignore them as well. Widespread organized mass violence isn't the only threat out there. We've already seen an example at the Cliven Bundy ranch of how quickly an armed anti-government camp can be drawn together. At least the media covering it had some idea that radical ideologies and conspiracy theories were involved. But religion goes to a much deeper place in defining who we are, and motivating us to act. When religious motivations are engaged toward similar ends, the level of threat they pose will almost certainly rise dramatically as a result.

No one envisioned the Bundy Ranch standoff before it occurred. No one envisioned the Oklahoma City bombing in advance, either. But there have been people warning us that these sorts of things can happen. And now we're being warned that, with the addition of religion to the mix, something far more toxic could well lie ahead. Remember, these are people who believe they're fulfilling God's plan. When things don't go their way, it's hard to grasp the depth of their disappointment — and anger. Until it isn't. And then, it's too late.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News and columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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