Religious Freedom

Dangers of Supreme Court Prayer Ruling Quickly Become Clear

Sometimes the damage from a bad court decision takes a while to make itself clear. Not so with last week’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholding a town’s practice of beginning council meetings with prayers that are overwhelmingly Christian. Conservative political and legal groups called it a win for religious freedom, but it only took a few days to see just how much unnecessary and divisive conflict the Court’s decision could generate in communities across America.

Late last week the mayor of the New Jersey town of Carteret cited the Supreme Court ruling to justify cancelling the use of the borough hall for a Saturday naturalization ceremony.  He was upset that the Immigration and Naturalization Service refused to allow the ceremony to begin with prayer. The INS says its rules are meant to ensure that naturalization ceremonies are "conducted in a meaningful manner which is welcoming and inclusive and excludes political, commercial and religious statements." But Mayor Daniel Reiman said the INS could "host its godless ceremony someplace else." (It was held in Newark.)

What a sad object lesson for those aspiring American citizens and their friends and families. Who knows how many different faiths were represented among them? It shouldn’t matter, because one of the most precious benefits of being an American is that your rights and standing as a citizen do not depend on your holding any particular set of religious beliefs.

But don’t tell that to Al Bedrosian, a member of the Roanoke County Board of Supervisors in Virginia. Last week after the Supreme Court ruling, Bedrosian declared that prayers to open board meetings should be given only by Christians. It is shameful that Bedrosian holds public office in Virginia, home of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson and the birthplace of the First Amendment. Bedrosian argued publicly several years ago that Christians should “rid ourselves of this notion of freedom of religion in America.” He said Christians “are being fed lies that a Christian nation needs to be open to other religions” and called it one of the “greatest moments in US Senate history” when a group of Christians disrupted a Hindu religious leader who was giving an opening prayer.

Both Reiman and Bedrosian are misinterpreting the Court’s decision. But these episodes bring even greater clarity to a reality to which the conservative majority on the Supreme Court demonstrated “blindness” – in the words of dissenting Justice Elena Kagan. That is the exclusionary and divisive reality – as opposed to the theory – of government bodies opening their meetings with sectarian prayer.

The case decided by the Supreme Court came concerned the upstate New York town of Greece.  For years, the town council has been inviting local clergy to open its meetings. Those clergy have been overwhelmingly Christian, and their prayers were sometimes highly sectarian, invoking “the saving sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross” or “the plan of redemption that is fulfilled in Jesus Christ.” These were not, as dissenting Justice Elena Kagan noted, ceremonial invocations like the “God save the United States and this honorable Court,” which begins Supreme Court sessions.

The town’s prayer policy was challenged by two citizens (one Jew and one atheist) who felt coerced by the invitations to Christian prayer, and who felt as if they were being made outsiders in their own town based on their religious beliefs. They argued that the practice violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which has been interpreted as preventing the government from favoring religion in general or any religion in particular.

Some people, particularly those in the religious majority, have a hard time seeing why such prayer is a big deal. As Paul Waldman writes for the Washington Post, “the ruling is about the privilege of the majority, the privilege to define your own beliefs, traditions, and practices as simply the water in which we all swim. If you’re in that majority, you tend to be shocked when anyone even questions whether those practices ought to be imposed on everyone and sponsored by the state.”

But imagine, as Kagan did, a Muslim who has come before the city council seeking a zoning variance to build an addition on her home. When she is asked to join in prayer celebrating the divinity of Jesus, she has the option of not participating, or leaving the room. Either option identifies her as somehow different from her neighbors and from the councilmembers who will decide the fate of her request.  A federal appeals court had ruled that the town’s practice was unconstitutional because, even if town officials had no bad intent, the consequence of the nearly uninterrupted parade of Christian prayers was to signal that Christianity was favored, and to make unequal citizens of people of other faiths or no faith.

Unfortunately, five Supreme Court justices disagreed, saying even an overwhelmingly Christian and sectarian prayer practice is OK unless there is a pattern of prayers denigrating other faiths or proselytizing or unless there is evidence that people are being legally coerced or punished for not participating. The Court has given a green light to “Christian Nation” advocates like Al Bedrosian to demand that their city council or county commission allow their official meetings to be regularly opened with explicitly Christian prayers.  Some Religious Right leaders have said that’s exactly what they’re going to do.

Right now, practices vary. Some government bodies don’t bother with prayer; others invite clergy to open meetings, with guidelines that prayers be respectful or nonsectarian. But even that nod toward pluralism is at risk: Jordan Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice said this ruling means government bodies can no longer make a distinction between nonsectarian prayer and “praying in Jesus’ name” and he told the Christian Broadcasting Network, “that will have an impact on a number of cases.”

It’s worth noting that some progressive Christians agree that “nonsectarian prayer” is a kind of oxymoron. But, says Washington Monthly blogger Ed Kilgore, that is not a reason to push for sectarian prayer; it is instead a reason to do away with legislative prayer altogether. He writes that the effort to push more prayer in official settings is “offensive to those who pray as much as to those who don’t.” The pro-church-state-separation Baptist Joint Committee had filed a brief in the case stating that “prayer is an expression of voluntary religious devotion, not the business of government.”

That brings us to a crucial distinction between what is constitutional and what is wise, particularly in a country that is increasingly diverse, with a growing number of people who claim no religious affiliation. As noted in People For the American Way Foundation’s Twelve Rules for Mixing Religion and Politics, “Some things that are legally permissible may still be damaging to religious tolerance and civic discourse, and should be discouraged.”

The Supreme Court did not rule that legislative bodies have to begin their meetings with prayer; it ruled that the Constitution allows them to. In spite of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s portrayal of legislative prayer as a unifying force, it seems likely that an aggressive push for more sectarian prayer to open official meetings will be anything but unifying. Elected officials should think twice before going down that road.

Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, said he prays that the Court is showing a way toward “a right kind of free marketplace of faith expression in American life.” But Moore is wrong: we already have a free marketplace of faith expression in America. The First Amendment has fostered a vibrant, flourishing, peaceful religious pluralism that is unmatched anywhere in the world. Christian media has a massive presence on television, radio, and online. But what too many “Christian Nation” advocates want, and what the Court is opening the door to, is a system in which a religious majority can more easily use the institutions of government to promote its religious beliefs and label others as outsiders.

And that is not the American Way. 

PFAW Foundation

Celebrating Religious Freedom

January 16 is Religious Freedom Day, which commemorates the Virginia General Assembly’s approval of Thomas Jefferson’s historic Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, a precursor to the religious liberty protections in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

In this year’s Religious Freedom Day proclamation, President Barack Obama writes,

Today, America embraces people of all faiths and of no faith. We are Christians and Jews, Muslims and Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs, atheists and agnostics. Our religious diversity enriches our cultural fabric and reminds us that what binds us as one is not the tenets of our faiths, the colors of our skin, or the origins of our names. What makes us American is our adherence to shared ideals -- freedom, equality, justice, and our right as a people to set our own course.

America proudly stands with people of every nation who seek to think, believe, and practice their faiths as they choose. In the years to come, my Administration will remain committed to promoting religious freedom, both at home and across the globe. We urge every country to recognize religious freedom as both a universal right and a key to a stable, prosperous, and peaceful future.

As we observe this day, let us celebrate America's legacy of religious liberty, embrace diversity in our own communities, and resolve once more to advance religious freedom in our time.

Melissa Rogers, a widely respected advocate for religious liberty who currently serves as special assistant to the president and executive director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, also published a reflection on Religious Freedom Day.

Rogers celebrates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which passed Congress by unanimous consent in 2000 with backing from a politically and religiously diverse coalition. RLUIPA (pronounced R-loopa) has helped Christians, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, people who practice Native American traditional religions and others protect their ability to meet and worship, and has helped people in prisons, jails, mental institutions, and state-run nursing homes preserve their religious freedom.

The values embodied in RLUIPA are universal ideals.  Department of Justice attorneys have provided technical assistance on issues involving construction of places of worship to government officials in Spain, Indonesia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and other countries wrestling with these same issues.  In 2012, the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, Tennessee won the right to move into its new mosque with the help of a RLUIPA suit brought by the Department of Justice. On the day of the court decision, the mosque’s Imam, Sheikh Ossama Bahloul, remarked that America’s dedication to religious freedom can serve as a model for others around the world, and added:   “I think this is an opportunity for us all to celebrate the freedom and liberty that, in fact, exist in America and to teach our young people to believe even more in the U.S. Constitution.”

People For the American Way and PFAW Foundation celebrate religious freedom by working to uphold the First Amendment’s twin pillars of religious liberty: the Establishment Clause, which mandates the separation of church and state and prevents government from playing religious favorites, and the Free Exercise Clause, which protects individuals’ right to worship and exercise their faith free from government interference.

Religious liberty is central to the American Way, but it has also become a rallying cry for Religious Right leaders and their political allies, who all too often portray criticism as persecution, and policy disagreement as tyranny. That poisons our political climate.

Like other constitutional guarantees, religious liberty is fundamental but not absolute, particularly when it comes into tension with other principles like equality under the law or protecting public health. Advocates for religious freedom frequently disagree about how to apply religious liberty principles in specific cases, and where courts should draw the lines in cases balancing competing interests.  These are complex and often very contentious issues. People For the American Way Foundation’s “12 Rules for Mixing Religion and Politics” set out principles for bringing religion and religious values into the public arena in ways that are constructive rather than divisive. 

PFAW

North Carolina Drops Official Religion Bill

After vocal opposition from People For the American Way and others, Speaker Thom Tillis of the North Carolina House announced yesterday that a resolution stating that North Carolina has the power to declare an official religion would not be brought to a vote.  In effect, this means that the resolution has been dropped. 

The bill claimed that the Establishment Clause of the Constitution’s First Amendment does not apply to states.  But as People For the American Way President Michael Keegan noted in a statement on Wednesday,

“There’s no question that any attempt to establish an official state religion is blatantly unconstitutional. That’s true whether it’s North Carolina or the federal government.”

The proposal highlighted the extremes that Tea Party Republican lawmakers are willing to go to in order to push their dangerous ideology – even when it means ignoring core principles on which our nation was founded, such as religious liberty and the separation of church and state.  

UPDATE (4/8/13): North Carolina Representative Harry Warren, one of the sponsors of the resolution, has now publicly stated that he “regret[s] any embarrassment or concern that it has caused the citizens of Rowan County and North Carolina,” calling the resolution “poorly written.”  Warren’s explanation is, however, still problematic.  He says he wanted a resolution that county officials have the right, despite the Establishment Clause, to open their proceedings with specifically Christian prayers.  That, of course, flies against the Constitution. 
 

 

PFAW

Advocate for Church-State Separation to Lead White House Faith Office

Good news out of the White House today for advocates of religious liberty and church-state separation: President Obama has selected Melissa Rogers as the new director of the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. She will also serve as a Special Assistant to the President.

Rogers is a widely respected scholar on religious freedom and an exceptionally thoughtful advocate for the position that the separation of church and state is a cornerstone of religious liberty. People For the American Way and PFAW Foundation have frequently worked in coalition with Rogers, particularly during her tenure as general counsel of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.  She is also a former director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and director of the Center for Religion and Public Affairs at Wake Forest University Divinity School.

Rogers was the first chair of President Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and in 2011 she was appointed to a subgroup of the State Department’s Religion and Foreign Policy Working Group. Rogers steps into her new position at a time when the definition and scope of “religious liberty” are being strongly contested in the public arena, with conservative religious and legal groups using the term to challenge health care reform and push for broad exceptions to anti-discrimination laws.

In addition, Rogers will face ongoing questions about an issue left unaddressed during President Obama’s first term: the president’s campaign pledge to ensure that organizations using federal funds to carry out social services cannot discriminate with those funds in hiring staff.

“It’s hard to imagine anyone who could do a better job than Melissa Rogers at dealing with these challenges,” says People For’s Executive Vice President Marge Baker. “The American people need a thoughtful and convincing voice like Melissa’s to help us sort through the real religious liberty issues as well as the phony ones.”

PFAW

Speaking of Class Warfare…

One of the most absurd things to come out of American politics in recent months is the allegation that the president’s proposal to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans – bringing them back to the levels they enjoyed under Clinton -- amounts to “class warfare.”

In the Huffington Post last week, PFAW’s Michael Keegan called the GOP’s renewed cries of “class warfare” both “ironic and cynical.”

If you want to see what class warfare really looks like, you need look no further than Texas, where a group of oil companies has successfully lobbied to have a government panel re-examine a very large tax break that they were previously denied, and are now on the verge of receiving a $135 million gift from the state. Who’s paying for that gift? Public schools.

Here’s how the oil companies, led by Valero, are wrangling the refund from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, according to the AP:

Valero first asked for the refund for six of its refineries in 2007, and wants payment retroactive to that year. Since then, at least four other companies have asked for the same retroactive refund.


Valero argues the units should be exempt under a Texas law that says industrial plants don't have to pay taxes on equipment purchased to reduce on-site pollution. The law saves companies millions, and is meant to encourage investment in new technology.


At first, the request was denied. The commission's staff said the hydrotreaters reduce pollution in diesel and gas, not necessarily at the plant. In fact, staff said, the hydrotreaters actually increased sulfur dioxide pollution near the refineries because the toxic gas is now burned off in a flare.


Valero appealed, and the panel's chairman, Bryan Shaw, said last April that the Legislature likely intended a broader interpretation of the law. He instructed his staff to research whether they could award partial exemptions to Valero. Shaw declined to be interviewed for this story, saying it could present a conflict because the issue will be brought before him again.


Shaw, the environmental commissioner who encouraged the panel to take a new look at the oil company tax refund, was hand-picked for his post by Gov. Rick Perry. He’s an odd choice to head an environmental quality panel – as Mother Jones reported last week, he’s a climate change skeptic who has a long history of siding with industry over environmental groups.


But Gov. Perry’s ties to the oil industry run deep – since 1998, he’s raked in $11 million in campaign contributions from oil and gas companies, including $147,895 from Valero, the company that’s leading the effort to get the $135 million tax refund.


While oil companies enjoy expensive access to the governor and an ally at the top of one of the committees charged with holding them accountable, it’s the state’s children who are breathing polluted air and whose schools are being asked to pay for new corporate tax breaks. From AP:


Now, the AP's analysis shows, the Pasadena Independent School District may have to refund $11.3 million to two refineries if commissioners grant the request.


Early Monday, Gonzales and others handed out fliers, collected petition signatures and offered $10,000 cookies and brownies at a mock "bake sale" designed to raise awareness about the money at stake. Eight Houston schools planned similar mock sales for later in the day.


The mom-turned-activist said she learned about the refineries' requests while unsuccessfully lobbying earlier this year to convince Perry and the Legislature to dip into the state's so-called rainy day fund to ease cuts to the schools.


Gonzales lives near a miles-long stretch of refineries, where massive pipes and stacks light the night like skyscrapers do in other cities. An intense, burnt chemical scent hangs over the town.


"You smell it. That's what we're known for. Stinkadena because of the refineries," Gonzales said. "There are days when we can't go out because our children's asthma is that bad ... and then they want money back?"
 

PFAW

What You Talkin' Bout, Willard?! YOU Attacking Harvard?

Willard Mitt Romney absolutely refuses to let the words that come out of his mouth be dictated by reality. He recently insisted that "corporations are people." Now, in an attempt to portray himself as some sort of "everyman" instead of the millionaire tycoon that he is, he's attacking President Obama for his ties to Harvard faculty. But judging by his associations and resume, Romney himself might as well keep a residence in Cambridge and have his own reserved parking space on Harvard's campus.

We say it again: What you talkin' bout, Willard?!

From Talking Points Memo:

Mitt Romney once again criticized President Obama for taking his advice from the "Harvard faculty lounge" in a speech in Florida on Thursday. He's repeated the line on the campaign trail despite being a Harvard alum himself and counting Harvard faculty among his own top advisers.

In a major address on foreign policy last month, Romney used the school as a punchline to decry Obama as overly weak in dealing with dictators. "That may be what they think in that Harvard faculty lounge," he said, "but it's not what they know on the battlefield!"

Romney has never served on the battlefield, but he does hold degrees from Harvard in business and law. That's one more than Obama, who has a law degree from the school and headed the Harvard Law Review. And it's not just Romney who has Crimson ties: The Boston Globe notes that three of his children have attended Harvard Business School.

But, hey, at least he's not taking his advice from the faculty lounge, right? Actually Romney relies on their expertise plenty. Meghan O'Sullivan, a former Bush aide, teaches international affairs at Harvard and reportedly advises him on foreign policy. His economic adviser for 2008 and 2012, Greg Mankiw, is a star professor there whose textbook is used at colleges around the country.

 

PFAW

Mitt Romney Still Thinks Corporations are People. They Still Aren’t.

Campaigning in Florida today, Mitt Romney doubled down on his recent claim that “corporations are people”:


Speaking to a town hall-style gathering at a Miami airport hotel, the former Massachusetts governor repeated the line he first said last month at the Iowa State Fair.


“I’ll communicate to the private sector, by the way, that we like you,” Romney said in response to a question about how to encourage banks to lend more money. “We like enterprise. I was in Iowa the other day, and people suggested that we just raise taxes on corporations.”


He went on: “I told them, corporations are people. … Raising taxes on corporations is raising taxes on people.”


While it’s true that corporations are owned by people, Romney intentionally ignores the basic purpose of corporations: to be a legal entities separate from human beings that own them, with different rights and responsibilities under the law. He also ignores the fact that many large corporations pay much less in taxes than actual human beings – GE, for instance, paid no federal income taxes in 2010.

Even if corporations were people, they’d be doing fairly well in today’s economy. Corporate profits have soared in the past year, even as more and more human beings are out of jobs and facing poverty.

When Romney made his first “corporations are people” remark, we responded with a petition and a TV ad in New Hampshire. Sounds like it’s time to dust that ad off:

 

 

PFAW

Mitt Romney and Rick Perry Confirmed to Attend Far-Right Values Voter Summit

The Family Research Council sent word today that GOP presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney is now confirmed to join Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul and Herman Cain at this year’s Values Voter Summit, a far-right extravaganza hosted by some of the most intolerant Religious Right groups in the business. Organized by the vehemently anti-gay Family Research Council, the event is also sponsored by the American Family Association and Liberty Counsel, among other right-wing groups.

Last year, we raised an alarm when Romney and Bachmann, along with Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, Rep. Mike Pence and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee attended the event. We were particularly concerned that these leaders would be willing to share the stage with the American Family Association’s spokesman Bryan Fischer, whose record of bigotry against gays and lesbians, Muslim Americans and American Indians, among others, is truly appalling.

Although Fischer is not yet listed as a confirmed speaker at this year’s event, attendees will have the honor of sharing the stage with some pretty extreme Religious Right activists, including Liberty Council’s Mat Staver, who opposes anti-bullying initiatives that protect LGBT kids and says that gay rights supporters have “a very militaristic anti-Christian viewpoint”; retired General Jerry Boykin, who thinks President Obama is using health care reform legislation to recruit an army of brownshirts loyal only to him; and Star Parker, who claims that black family life “was more healthy” under slavery than today.

And that’s not to mention the two main organizers of the event, the FRC and the AFA, which have both been listed as hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center for their propagation of false anti-gay rhetoric.

Highlights of last year’s summit included FRC leader Tony Perkins simultaneously insulting gay troops and a number of key U.S. allies in Iraq and Afghanistan by declaring that countries that allow gays and lesbians to serve openly in their armed forces are “the ones that participate in parades, they don't fight wars to keep the nation and the world free”; and Rick Santorum asserting that there are “no families” in impoverished neighborhoods.

Apparently the tone of last year’s event and the guest list of this year’s haven’t given any pause to the top GOP presidential candidates, who are eager to recruit the support of even the most extreme leaders of the Religious Right. That Romney is returning to VVS is an important reminder that, despite his self-styled “moderate” image, he is just as beholden to extreme Religious Right interests as the rest of the field.
 

PFAW

Rick Perry Confused About the ‘American Way’

Is it the American Way to make the children of undocumented immigrants live as second-class citizens?

The question came up in last night’s GOP presidential debate, when Texas Gov. Rick Perry was asked about the policy in his state allowing some undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition at state universities. “It doesn’t make any difference what the sound of your last name is, that is the American way,” Perry said. “No matter how you got in to that state, from the standpoint of your parents brought you there or what have you, and that’s what we’ve done in the state of Texas, and I’m proud that we are having those individuals being contributing members of our society, rather than telling them ‘you’re gonna be on the government dole.’”

Perry was met with boos from the crowd.

Rep. Michele Bachmann equated the Texas law to the federal DREAM Act (which is much broader and which Perry also opposes), saying, “I think that the American way is not to give taxpayer-subsidized benefits to people who have broken our laws who are here in the United States illegally. That is not the American way.”

Perry is right that it’s not the American Way to punish children for the actions of their parents, which is why it’s odd that he’s against the federal DREAM Act, which would pave a path to citizenship for children who came into the country illegally who go to college or join the military. Perry seems to be trying to score “moderate” points for sticking up for his sensible policy in Texas, while having exactly the same view as Bachmann on a federal policy to achieve some of the same goals.

Watch the exchange:
 

PFAW

The 2012 GOP Field: Not Even Ronald Reagan Could Get This Nomination

Tonight, eight GOP presidential candidates will alight on sacred ground to some: the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California. As the candidates pay the required perpetual homage to the 40th president, the rest of us might take some time to reflect on just how far off the Reagan Ranch the Republican Party has gone.

Since the advent of the Tea Party, the Republican establishment has adopted a philosophy that you could call "Xtreme Reagan" -- tax cuts for the wealthy without compromise, deregulation without common sense, social conservatism without an ounce of respect -- that makes even a liberal like me almost miss the political pragmatism of the Gipper. It's terrifying that former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, a hard-line economic and social conservative, whose regressive economic policies as governor were to the right of Reagan, is now widely considered to be too far to the left to even be a contender.

Don't get me wrong -- I never was a fan of Ronald Reagan and his policies. But I miss the days when believing in science and being able to do basic budget math didn't make you a radical Socialist.

Reagan, a savvy politician, rode to power on the money of corporate America and the passion of an increasingly politicized Religious Right -- and, for the most part, gave both groups enough of what they wanted once he was in office to keep them both happy. But he also bucked those interests at some important points. Contrary to current Reagan hagiography, he raised taxes 11 times during his eight years in office -- including the largest corporate tax hike in American history -- when it became clear that pure trickle-down economics would be disastrous for the economy. And in 1981, over the objections of anti-choice groups, he nominated the highly qualified and politically moderate Sandra Day O'Connor to serve on the Supreme Court.

Today's Tea Party candidates, as they love to remind us, are beholden to the same interests. But they have taken the Reagan strategy a step further, turning the values of the Reagan coalition into a new, unyieldingly rigid conservative orthodoxy.

In the Tea Party orthodoxy, environmentalism isn't just bad for business, it's unbiblical. Tax cuts aren't just what the rich want, they're what Jesus wants . The Democratic president isn't just a liberal, he's a foreigner trying to destroy America from within. Conspiracy theories become hard-and-fast facts before you can change the channel away from Fox News. There's no compromise when you live in an air-tight world of unquestioned beliefs that become created facts.

Let's take a look at how the eight GOP candidates debating tonight have taken Xtreme Reaganism and made it their own:

  • Rick Santorum: Compared health care reform to drug dealing, said it will make Christians "less than what God created you to be," said it would "destroy the country"; compared gay relationships to "man-on-dog sex"; slammed the Supreme Court decision ensuring the right to access contraception.
  • Herman Cain: The most unabashedly anti-Muslim candidate in the field (and that's saying something!), proposed a religious test for office for Muslims who wanted to work for his administration.
  • Newt Gingrich: Where to begin? Maybe with the threat of a "secular atheist country... dominated by radical Islamists." Or with the threat of "gay and secular fascism." Or with his entire record as Speaker of the House of Representatives. You choose.
  • Ron Paul: Supposedly the most "libertarian" figure in the GOP, but does not support personal liberties for women or gay people. Still thinks the Voting Rights Act was a bad idea and we were better off before FEMA.
  • Jon Huntsman: The supposedly "moderate" candidate in the GOP field, enacted a highly regressive flat tax as governor of Utah, tried to eliminate corporate taxes, and banned second-trimester abortions.
  • Michele Bachmann: Calls homosexuality "personal enslavement," wants to reduce government to "its original size," says those who believe the science of evolution are part of a "cult following."
  • Mitt Romney: Believes whatever the Republican base wants him to believe, which these days is pretty far off the rails.
  • Rick Perry: Kicked off his presidential campaign by holding an event with the most extreme leaders of the Religious Right he could find, including a pastor who thinks that God sent Hitler to hunt the Jews and another who thinks that the Statue of Liberty is a "demonic idol."

This is the field that the Party of Reagan has produced to appeal to a right-moving and increasingly isolated base -- where the architect of health care reform has to run against himself, where the most libertarian still isn't willing to cross the Religious Right, and where the highest-polling has floated the idea of his state seceding from the union.

Listen tonight as you hear the homage to Ronald Reagan and consider how radical this party has actually become.

Cross posted on Huffington Post

PFAW

‘What You Talkin’ Bout, Willard?’

If you watched TV in the 1980s, you surely remember this:

The TV show Diff’rent Strokes – which featured the iconic tagline “What you talkin’ bout, Willis”? – was produced by PFAW’s founder Norman Lear.

And when Norman heard that Mitt Romney – whose first name is actually Willard – was running for president, it rang a bell.

In a piece in Variety this week, Norman asks Willard Mitt Romney exactly what he is talking about:

"What You Talkin' Bout, Willard?"

By Norman Lear

I don't have to explain that line to Americans who grew up watching one of our production company's sitcoms, "Diff'rent Strokes", which ran for eight seasons between 1978 and 1986 and for years after in syndication. Any one who knows the show will recall this signature phrase repeated by the young Gary Coleman to his older brother when stupefied and maddened by something his brother just said, "What you talkin' bout, Willis?"

I know some people think Willard Mitt Romney is the only responsible adult
i n that implausible field of presidential hopefuls, but often he will say
 something so surprising and disingenuous in this seemingly endless campaign, 
I find myself thinking, 'What you talkin' bout, Willard?

Absent a profanity, I don't know a better reaction to Romney's declaration 
that "corporations are people." Of course he'd be correct if the people
 he's referring to are the billionaire Koch brothers. Or if they are the 
people who are setting up phony corporations for the purpose of supporting
 Willard Mitt Romney's candidacy with million dollar gifts, and they could of 
course include the Kochs.

"What you talkin' bout, Willard?" leaps to mind at the thought of the natty
 Harvard-educated Wall Street executive and former Massachusetts governor 
railing against "eastern elites" at the last Republican National Convention. And it aches to be shouted out when I am reminded that Willard Mitt Romney, 
seeking someone to head his legal team, chose a man whose reactionary views
 about the U.S. Constitution led to a bi-partisan Senate vote to keep him off 
the Supreme Court, Robert Bork.

Willard's embrace of Bork, despite his angry rants since then, such as those
 calling for active government censorship of popular culture, is clearly 
meant to signal far-right activists that they can count on more Supreme
 Court Justices in the mold of Scalia, Thomas, Roberts and Alito, who are all
 energetically working to make Romney's assertion that "corporations are 
people" a legal reality.

What are you talkin' bout, Willard?

 

PFAW

Rick Perry: Uniting the Really Far Right and the Really, Really Far Right

Cross-posted from the Huffington Post

Texas Gov. Rick Perry formally launched his presidential campaign last weekend, apparently hoping to upstage those competitors who were slugging it out in the Iowa Straw Poll. The event was won by Michele Bachmann, whose core supporters come from the same Religious Right-Tea Party crowd expected to be Perry's base. He may have just made it official, but in fact Perry has already been running hard. A week before his announcement, he solidified the devotion of Religious Right leaders and activists with a defiantly sectarian prayer rally sponsored by some of the country's most extreme promoters of religious and anti-gay bigotry. His financial backers began hitting up donors a while ago.

Perry is hoping to take advantage of a relative lack of enthusiasm for the current Republican field and its erstwhile front-runners. His potential to upset the field is reflected in the fact that he was polling in the double-digits before even entering the race, drawing far more support than candidates like Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum who have seemingly been running for years. Ed Kilgore at The New Republic wrote recently that Perry has become "the unity candidate of the GOP" because he "seems to perfectly embody the Republican zeitgeist of the moment, appealing equally to the GOP's Tea Party, Christian Right, and establishment factions while exemplifying the militant anti-Obama attitude that holds it all together." Perry does indeed draw support from both establishment and far-right Republicans: last year, prizes offered by his election campaign included lunch with GOP strategist Karl Rove and a spiritual tour of the U.S. Capitol with right-wing pseudo-historian David Barton.

The Religious Right

Perry's love affair with even the most extreme elements of the Religious Right is a long-term relationship that started years before the recent prayer rally. Over the years, Perry has persistently backed the efforts of Religious Right activists on the Texas school board to use the textbook selection process to impose right-wing religious and political ideology on science and history textbooks. He has shown little respect for the separation of church and state and has worked to further restrict access to abortion in the state.

His reelection campaigns have relied heavily on church-based organizing and networks of far-right evangelical pastors mobilized by the likes of self-described "Christocrat" Rick Scarborough. According to the Texas Freedom Network, Between May 2005 and October 2008 the Texas Restoration Project held eight pastors' policy briefings. Part of Perry's invitation to the October 2008 event said:

While Congress occupies its time trying to legislate defeat in Iraq, we hope you will attend a Pastors Policy Briefing that will equip you to walk point in the war of values and ideas.

Rediscovering God in America -- Austin is intended to remind us that excuses are not the proper strategy when facing evil and confronting enemies. Instead, we must rally godly people and seek God's provision for the resources, the courage, and the strength necessary to win and, ultimately, glorify Him.

In 2009, he participated in a closed-door session with Texas pastors sponsored by the U.S. Pastor Council, and hosted a state prayer breakfast that featured Gary Bauer as the keynote speaker. And last year, he was visited by a group of pastors associated with the dominionist New Apostolic Reformation, who told him that God had chosen him for bigger things; they were among the leaders of last weekend's "Response."

The Response itself was called by Perry but sponsored and paid for by the American Family Association, which has been designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center for its pattern or spreading false and denigrating information about gay people, and which promotes some of the ugliest bigotry spewed on the nation's airwaves. Among the extremist co-sponsors and speakers at The Response were dominionist Mike Bickle, who has said that Oprah is a harbinger of the anti-Christ, and pseudo-historian David Barton, who claims that Jesus opposed progressive taxes, the minimum wage, and collective bargaining by unions.

The Tea Party Right

Perry also seamlessly blends the Tea Party's anti-Washington fervor with the Religious Right's Christian-nation vision. Last year, at an event sponsored by the Texas Eagle Forum, Perry said the November 2010 elections were "a struggle for the heart and soul of our nation." Said Perry, "That's the question: Who do you worship? Do you believe in the primacy of unrestrained federal government? Or do you worship the God of the universe, placing our trust in him?"

If it seems remarkable and contradictory that Perry would seek the presidency so soon after speculating on the benefits of seceding from the union "if Washington continues to thumb its nose at the American people," it is no less contradictory than Perry promoting his anti-Washington book, "Fed Up: Our Fight to Save America from Washington," while repeatedly requesting federal emergency assistance to fight wildfires that have raged in Texas this year.

The Economic Right

Perry is almost certain to make jobs -- and his claims that Texas' low-tax, low-regulation, low-wage environment would be good for what ails America -- a centerpiece of his campaign. In fact he has been publicly praying about regulations that he says stifle business and jobs. That vision will almost certainly make Perry popular among the corporate funders that are increasingly funneling money into Republican campaigns in the wake of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision that corporations have the same rights as citizens to influence elections.

Perry's economic policies may be good for corporate profits, but they aren't much of an economic model for the rest of us. Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote earlier this year:

Texas is where the modern conservative theory of budgeting -- the belief that you should never raise taxes under any circumstances, that you can always balance the budget by cutting wasteful spending -- has been implemented most completely. If the theory can't make it there, it can't make it anywhere.

Debt owed by the state of Texas has doubled during Perry's tenure as governor; the state's per-capita debt is worse than California's. And this year, Texas lawmakers wrestled with a budget shortfall that Associated Press called "one of the worst in the nation." Perry's budget relied heavily on federal stimulus funds to plug a massive 2010 budget deficit. The budget finally passed this year cut some $4 billion out of state support for public education and is expected to result in tens of thousands of teacher layoffs.

Meanwhile, Texas ranks at or near the bottom of many indicators of individual and community health. It is worst in the country in the percentage of children with health insurance and pregnant women receiving early prenatal care. It has the highest percentage of workers earning at or below the minimum wage. It has the lowest percentage of adults with a high school diploma. It is worst for known carcinogens released into the air and among the worst for toxic pollution overall.

The Right Online

Perry has sometimes adopted the Sarah Palin approach to media. According to the conservative Daily Caller, Perry declined to meet with newspaper editorial boards during his primary race against Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, but "went out of his way to make himself available to conservative bloggers." The Caller's Matt Lewis predicts that "a large percentage of conservative bloggers for sites like RedState.com" will "jump on the Perry bandwagon."

Perry the Prevaricator Perry statements have received no fewer than seven "pants on fire" ratings from Politifact Texas; he earned those awards for repeated false statements about his policies and his political opponents. Of 67 Perry statements reviewed by Politifact, 14 were declared false in addition to the seven "pants on fire" lies -- while another 10 were rated "mostly false." Only 17 were considered true (10) or mostly true (7), with 19 called "half true."

Perry and the Republican Party

If Rick Perry does indeed become the Republican "unity candidate," that will be further evidence that the GOP has become the party of, by, and for the far right -- a party that has abandoned any credible claim to representing the economic interests or constitutional values embraced by most Americans.

PFAW

Mitt Romney: People Person?

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney turned a few heads on Thursday when he told an audience at the Iowa State Fair that “corporations are people.”

Responding to a protestor who suggested that Romney be open to raising taxes on corporations, Romney said, “Corporations are people, my friend. Of course they are. Everything corporations earn ultimately goes to people. Where do you think it goes?”

While Romney might feel a personal connection to the corporations that are spending millions of dollars to support his campaign, the fact remains that corporations are legal entities and not human beings. And while it’s true that corporate profits are indeed at the disposal of certain people, those people are hardly the ones hurting most in the recession. In fact, the salaries of CEOs skyrocketed in 2010, even as unemployment rates remained high.

Over the weekend, we made an ad responding to Romney’s statement, which we’re airing in New Hampshire:

Watch the original video from the Iowa State Fair:

You can also sign our petition urging Romney to retract his new definition of personhood here.
 

PFAW

PFAW Looks Into Rick Perry's Extremist Ties

PFAW President Michael Keegan today wrote in the Huffington Post today about the radical and fanatical figures organizing Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s The Response prayer rally on August 6. Research from PFAW’s Right Wing Watch exposed many of Perry’s allies’ bizarre views, including interesting theories about Oprah Winfrey and the Statue of Liberty. Keegan writes, “The Response has turned out to be a powerful draw for the farthest of the far Right, attracting all varieties of extremists, whom Perry and his allies have welcomed with open arms.” Read the whole article at the Huffington Post and make sure to watch this must-see video on just some of The Response organizers:

As this is probably the kickoff event for Perry's run for the presidency, we should all know the backgrounds of the people and organizations that Perry is working with to promote the proselytizing event, known as The Response. His choice of allies belies the claim that it will be "apolitical" or even quasi-tolerant of non-Christians. Co-organizing and largely funding the rally is the American Family Association, a Religious Right group dedicated to infusing right-wing evangelical views into American politics. The AFA's chief spokesman, Bryan Fischer, is one of the most offensive voices in politics today. He has compared gays to Nazis and said gay people should be banned from public office; he has called for an end to Muslim immigration into the United States and a ban on the building of new mosques; he has said that Native American communities deserved past persecution and current poverty because of a refusal to convert to Christianity; he has even compared low-income African Americans to animals. In line with Fischer's views, the AFA dedicates itself to launching boycotts against companies that treat their gay employees well and sponsoring political get-togethers for the far right.

Then there is the International House of Prayer (yes, "IHOP"), the 24-hour-a-day worship powerhouse that has lent several senior staff members to planning The Response. IHOP's affiliated The Call rallies - politically charged events that gather hundreds of people to pray for anti-gay and anti-choice policies -- also serve as the model for Perry's event. As People For the American Way reported this month, the church's leader, Mike Bickle, has some pretty extreme views: he has warned that Oprah Winfrey is the harbinger of the Antichrist, and that marriage equality would result in the banning of marriage in some parts of the world.

And these are just the main organizers of the event. The Response has turned out to be a powerful draw for the farthest of the far Right, attracting all varieties of extremists, whom Perry and his allies have welcomed with open arms. Displayed prominently on the official "endorsers" page of The Response website are the names of pastors who have called the Statue of Liberty a "demonic idol"; blamed the 9/11 attacks on America's growing acceptance of gays and lesbians; blamed the mysterious bird deaths in Arkansas on the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell; and advocated the violent overthrow of the U.S. government. Several participants are prominent advocates of "Seven Mountains" dominionist theology, which is basically the idea that a certain far-right breed of evangelical Christians need to take over all aspects of American society -including government, business and entertainment - to pave the way for the Second Coming of Christ. Fittingly, in a perfect illustration of the increasing acceptance of extremism on the Right, Perry even welcomed the endorsement of John Hagee, the pastor whose anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic statements were so shocking that John McCain had to publicly reject his endorsement in 2008.

Perry, questioned about the ragtag team of extremists he has assembled to help him launch his possible presidential run, has repeatedly claimed that he is not responsible for the views of everyone with whom he associates. He's not - but he should know who he's going to for advice, and whose profile he's lifting with a national soapbox. Perry says that The Response is meant in part to seek spiritual guidance for the political problems our nation faces. If these are the people he's going to for guidance, and who he's lifting up to help solve the nation's problems, we should all be concerned. What these groups want is for a very small sliver of American Christians with a certain narrow set of beliefs to control American politics - and to restrict everybody else's freedom to worship or not as they choose. Rick Perry, citing his own religious freedom, seems more than happy to lend them a megaphone.
PFAW

Will California’s LGBT-inclusive curricula promote safer schools?

California's Governor Jerry Brown signed the Fair, Accurate, Inclusive, and Respectful Education Act (FAIR Act) today, a landmark piece of legislation requiring the state’s public schools to include LGBT history in their curricula. This major step forward is not only a sign of a significant societal shift, but is also proof lawmakers, activists, and everyday people are working to make things better for LGBT youth.

This exciting news comes at a time when we too frequently hear about numerous LGBT students suffering constant—and sometimes violent—bullying and harassment by their peers and even teachers. Though the FAIR Act is by no means a solution to the bullying problem by itself, its impact will hopefully help foster an environment of tolerance and respect in California’s public schools.

While states such as California continue to make important strides towards equality and inclusiveness, it is important that we continue tackling the bullying problem head on by supporting federal legislation such as the Safe Schools Improvement Act, the Student Non-Discrimination Act, and the Tyler Clementi Higher Education Act.

To learn more about these important pieces of legislation, please see our fact sheet on safe school and find out what you can do to support this effort.

PFAW

Mitt Romney the Weathervane: What Our Most Changeable Politician Can Tell Us About the Modern GOP

As Mitt Romney enters the Republican presidential race this week, there will be plenty of attention on his shifting political views. But Romney's changing positions are not just the tragicomic tale of a man so desperate for the presidency he'll say anything to get there: they're also a valuable measure of what it takes to make it in the modern GOP.

Romney's many breathtaking U-turns -- on universal health care, on gay rights, on abortion rights -- have been extensively documented and parsed, and have become a reliable punchline. The former governor's willingness to adopt the position that he thinks will get him the most votes in whatever election he happens to be running in does speak to his own character. But Romney's ease at shifting also makes him a perfect weathervane for measuring the audiences he is trying to appeal to. And the speed with which Romney has been spinning to the right is an alarming sign of the political winds within the Republican Party.

This weekend, Romney will be making an important appearance among a group that has historically mistrusted him: the Religious Right. Speaking at the annual conference of Ralph Reed's Faith and Freedom Coalition, Romney can be expected to once again disavow his previously convenient reasonable positions on abortion rights and gay equality. But he is also likely to go a step farther.

At a similar event in 2007, as he tried to shake off his image as a socially moderate Massachusetts Republican in preparation for his first presidential run, Romney spoke at the Values Voter Summit hosted by a coalition of right-wing social issues groups. In his speech, he rattled off Religious Right catchphrases, speaking of the United States' "Judeo-Christian heritage," the "breakdown of the family," and making "out-of-wedlock birth out of fashion again" and passing an anti-gay marriage amendment to "protect marriage from liberal, unelected judges." He promised a federal "marriage amendment," funding for vouchers for religious schools and across-the-board anti-choice policies. By earlier that year, he had impressed Ann Coulter enough that she endorsed him in a speech made famous by her use of an anti-gay slur.

At last year's Values Voter Summit, having done full penance to the Religious Right for his previous statements in favor of gay rights and choice, Romney focused his speech on right-wing economic policies, including an odd tribute comparing Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton to the Founding Fathers. But the company he kept revealed the friends he was hoping to make. The event was sponsored in part by the Family Research Council and the American Family Association, two groups who were soon to be named "hate groups" by the SPLC for their long histories of false anti-gay rhetoric. Romney's fellow speakers included Religious Right stalwarts Phyllis Schlafly, Tony Perkins, Planned Parenthood scam artist Lila Rose, and the AFA's Bryan Fischer, who has gained infamy with his vicious rhetoric about gays and lesbians, Muslims, African Americans and progressives. I wrote a letter to Romney warning him about associating himself with Fischer -- he didn't respond.

The Religious Right leaders that Romney is eager to curry favor with aren't just hostile to gays, Muslims and the social safety net -- many have expressed concern or even outright hostility to Romney's own Mormon faith. Fischer recently confronted Romney's faith, declaring that there is "a direct contradiction between Mormon theology and the teaching of Jesus Christ." A writer for a leading Religious Right publication declared, "If Mitt Romney believes what the Mormon Church teaches about the world and how it operates, then he is unfit to serve." As Romney angles himself into an increasingly extreme GOP, he will have to make nice to those who insult not only his past politics but his core religious beliefs.

At the Faith and Freedom Conference this weekend, Romney will have a similar opportunity to reinforce his social conservative bona fides while tying in his newly adamant anti-gay and anti-choice positions with the Tea Party's love of pro-corporate anti-tax talk. Ralph Reed, the resurgent mastermind behind the Christian Coalition, will perhaps be the perfect ally in his effort to paint himself as a true Tea Party candidate who wants small government for corporations and big government for individuals. Reed was, after all, partly responsible for bringing the passion of American evangelicals to the Republican anti-regulation agenda and schmoozes equally comfortably with Pat Robertson and Jack Abramoff. He is the perfect power-broker for an age when GOP politicians are supposed to oppose universal health care while supporting IRS involvement in abortions - the niche that Romney is trying to carefully fit himself into.

Romney will try to take advantage of the GOP base's newfound love of tax breaks for the rich, while continuing to pretend that he never supported choice and gay rights and reasonable environmental and health policies. If he can get away with it, he'll be the perfect candidate for today's ultraconservative GOP. But either way, he's bound to become a powerful symbol of just how far to the Right you have to go to make it in today's Republican Party.

Cross posted on The Huffington Post

PFAW

Representative Darrell Issa Chooses Big Business Over the Lives of his Own Constituents

How many accidents will it take to get Rep. Darrell Issa to choose his constituents over his donors? The San Onofre Nuclear Station, located in Issa’s California congressional district, spilled 70 gallons of sulfuric acid on Saturday, its fifth spill in just over two years. These dangerous spills, combined with claims of a “deficient safety culture” at the plant, recently prompted hundreds of locals express their concern about the plant’s safety record. This, along with the recent nuclear disaster in Japan, would seem to be reason enough to prompt Issa to look into nuclear safety. Yet, he hasn’t given it more than a cursory glance.

Why would Issa ignore nuclear safety when the lives of his own constituents are most immediately at risk? Well, let’s follow the money. Edison International, which owns over 75% of the plant, is Issa’s third largest campaign contributor, donating $46,000 over Issa’s career, not including the $10,000 given to Issa’s two PACs. Is protecting the lives of his constituents just not worth asking questions of one of his biggest donors?

Find out more at Issa Watch, a project of the Courage Campaign

PFAW

Tennessee: Front and Center on Anti-Gay Legislation

Tennessee really seems to be going down the rabbit hole with their recent anti-gay legislation. Last month, a bill advanced to their state Senate, the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which would prohibit educators from discussing any sexual orientation other than heterosexuality with students in kindergarten through eighth grade. This not only applies to lessons in classrooms, but to all discussions between educators and students. Any acknowledgement that gay people exist is officially prohibited, a cruel effort to isolate and declare as abnormal any children who are gay or who have gay family members (including parents).

This week, Gov. Bill Haslam signed a bill prohibiting local governments from enacting anti-discrimination laws that are stricter than those in state law. This new law overturns the recent Nashville Metro Council ordinance requiring businesses contracting with the city to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Tennessee state law prohibits discrimination based on race, creed, color, religion, sex, age, or national origin, but that leaves out a number of groups who are still facing discrimination with no legal support.

Haslam told a reporter, "We're not in favor of discrimination in any form at all," but actions speak louder than words, and Haslam’s support of this legislation certainly screams out loud and clear.

Nashville attorney Abby Rubenfeld is currently putting together a lawsuit to fight this legislation. She notes that the bill is homophobic and targeted at LGBT workers, but it would also affect veterans, disabled people, and other groups that aren’t protected by the state anti-discrimination law.

PFAW

Pandering for the Primaries, Pawlenty Tacks Right

Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty officially launched his presidential campaign today in Iowa. Although he has been campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire for a couple of years now, you may not know much about him. He has low name recognition and low poll numbers, and his book Courage to Stand is not selling that well. But journalists from The New Republic and National Review think he could well be the GOP candidate. So it's worth taking a good look at his record and his far-right ideology.

Part of Pawlenty's appeal is supposed to be that he is from Minnesota, and was elected as a conservative in a bluish-purplish state. Some people wrongly assume that being from Minnesota automatically makes him some kind of moderate. In fact, Pawlenty is campaigning as a hard-core, across-the-board conservative.

He makes appeals to Religious Right voters by talking up his faith and appearing on even the most offensive radio shows, like that of the American Family Association's Bryan Fischer, who is surely one of the most extreme, hateful and bigoted personalities in Christian radio. Pawlenty helped raise money for Ralph Reed's "Faith and Freedom Coalition" in Iowa. And he appointed an education commissioner who equated teaching of evolution with teaching of creationism but thought teaching sharing in kindergarten was "socialist."

Pawlenty's attacks on reproductive rights please anti-abortion advocates. A National Review Online blogger says Pawlenty "may be the strongest pro-life candidate" in 2012. As governor, Pawlenty signed legislation erecting barriers to women seeking abortions, including a required waiting period and anti-choice lecture. He has spoken at anti-choice rallies, looking forward to a day when Roe v. Wade would be overturned, saying: "We have a dream today that someday soon this will not be an anniversary of sadness, but an anniversary of justice restored."

Pawlenty has also fine-tuned his campaign and his record to be more attractive to the far-right Republican Party of the Tea Party era. He once actively supported regional action to address climate change and even filmed an environmental commercial. But now he apologizes, calls his former position "stupid," and has joined the ranks of climate change deniers. Pawlenty once voted for a gay rights bill as a state legislator, but then disavowed it and embarked on a journey that Think Progress described as "evolving homophobia." And he is a vocal supporter of the current effort to amend Minnesota's constitution to ban gay couples from getting married.

Pawlenty doesn't even support legal protections short of marriage, like those that could be provided by civil unions. He went so far as to sign an Orwellian letter defending the Family Research Council, the American Family Association and other anti-gay groups against criticism that they were promoting hate.

Pawlenty appears at Tea Party events and appeals to Tea Partiers with his opposition to health care reform. He denounces "Obamacare" as unconstitutional and one of the worst pieces of legislation in the history of the country. He compares the health care reform law to drug dealing and has joined legal efforts to prevent it from being implemented. In 2006, Pawlenty, in what opponents called election-year politics, pushed a wide array of proposals to crack down on immigration. Last year, he advocated amending the Constitution to deny citizenship to the American-born children of undocumented immigrants. Speaking to a Hispanic Republican group in January, he fudged his position, but said, "We can't have wide swaths of the country nodding or winking or looking the other way to broad violations of the law," rhetoric that echoes the "anti-amnesty" language used by opponents of comprehensive immigration reform.

And Pawlenty works hard to appeal to the economic and corporate right. He wrote a column in the Wall Street Journal last December slamming government employees and decrying a "silent coup, an inside job engineered by self-interested politicians and fueled by campaign contributions." The nonpartisan PolitiFact rated the column and its claims about government workers "Pants on Fire" -- its most-lying "Truth-o-meter" rating.

Pawlenty's self-portrait doesn't always mesh with reality. He rails against the "immoral debt" and touts his record as a governor of holding the line on growth in government. But in fact, as governor, he used short-term budget tricks that "left the state with a $5-billion projected deficit, one of the highest in the nation as a percentage of the state's general fund." He railed against the Obama administration's stimulus bill but then asked for $236 million from it.

He portrays himself as an anti-tax champion, but that's not how many Minnesotans experienced him. A state revenue department study in 2009 found that Minnesotans earning less than $129,879 saw their tax rates increase under Pawlenty. "Don't let anyone tell you Governor Pawlenty didn't raise taxes," said Sen. Al Franken. "It's about whom he raised them on. He raised them on lower- and middle-income families all across the state in order to pay for our kids' education."

Pawlenty promises right-wing groups that as president he will appoint "strict constructionist" judges -- code for judges with an 18th-century view of Americans' rights and interests. Last year he bypassed his state's Commission on Judicial Selection to appoint to a judgeship an attorney with strong Religious Right connections who served as counsel for the Minnesota Family Council in an anti-gay marriage case.

Back in 2008, when Pawlenty was frequently mentioned as a potential vice presidential candidate, he was criticized for being too boring on television, maybe a bit too "Minnesota nice." So the 2012 Pawlenty has learned how to make himself sufficiently aggressive for the GOP zeitgeist. In speeches at conservative conferences, Pawlenty denigrates President Obama, accusing him of appeasing the nation's enemies. In his campaign launch message, Pawlenty said President Obama lacks both understanding of the nation's problems and the courage to address them.

While these may all be traits that will help Pawlenty win the Republican nomination, it's hard for me to imagine that a majority of American voters would agree that what we really need in the White House is a trash-talking, flip-flopping, science-denying, abortion-criminalizing, gay-rights-bashing, Religious Right-embracing politician who is so eager to get elected that he'll promise the far right just about anything. He even faked a southern accent when speaking to conservatives in Iowa, provoking well-deserved mockery back in Minnesota.

Pawlenty's backers are convinced that his polling numbers are low only because Americans haven't gotten to know him yet. But as Nate Silver noted back in November, Pawlenty was not that popular among those who know him best of all:

... a survey of Republican primary voters in Minnesota -- where Mr. Pawlenty is the governor and where his name recognition is near-universal -- showed him getting only 19 percent of the Republican primary vote there (although this was good for a nominal first place with Ms. Palin placing at 18 percent). Mr. Pawlenty's approval rating in Minnesota is also a tepid 47 percent.

Cross posted on The Huffington Post

PFAW

The Unwelcome Return of the Newt

After more than a dozen years out of office, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich jumped into the GOP presidential campaign this week, rolling out his candidacy via social media and a friendly interview with Fox News Channel's Sean Hannity. Gingrich thinks he's just what is needed to save America from itself and its flirtation with Barack Obama and the rest of the evil of what he calls the "secular-socialist machine."

Much of the media attention of Gingrich's candidacy has centered around his role in the 1995 government shutdown, which Gingrich alone seems to think was a great success for the GOP, and his more recent urging of congressional Republicans not to fear a repeat. The implication seems to be that if you're the kind of voter who wants a more combative conservative willing to take down the federal government in order to bring down deficits, Newt may be your guy. But that kind of discussion -- and the crazily early poll-watching "which tier is he in?" stories -- miss something more important. Let's remind ourselves what kind of person Newt Gingrich is, and what kind of impact he has had on our public life.

Gingrich hasn't exactly been in hiding. In fact, he is at the center of his own machine, a 24/7 festival of self-promotion that includes an emailed "Newt and Callista Weekly Recap" courtesy of Gingrich Productions. If self-promotion were the top trait Americans were looking for in a president, Gingrich would be a shoo-in. But the job requires a bit more than that. People For the American Way's Right Wing Watch, Mother Jones and Media Matters have already posted compilations of Newtonian 'wisdom' from a long and dishonorable career. Once you start to consider characteristics like honesty and integrity, it becomes clear that Gingrich is unfit to lead our country.

The Newt McCarthyism

Gingrich is an enthusiastic participant in the right wing's divisive and destructive McCarthyism, portraying his political opponents as enemies of America's very existence. In To Save America, Stopping Obama's Secular-Socialist Machine, he warns, "America as we know it is now facing a mortal threat... The secular-socialist machine represents as great a threat to America as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union once did... It's up to those of us who love our country to save America from the destructive, irreversible transformation that the Left have in store for us." In Real Change: The Fight for America's Future, he claims that the Obama administration (that would be the Faith-Based Initiative-continuing, National Prayer Day-celebrating, Easter Breakfast-sponsoring Obama administration) "has shown an unprecedented hostility to Christianity." He promotes ridiculous Religious Right claims about religious persecution in America, saying that Christians are threatened by "gay and secular fascism."

Gingrich spoke this spring at the Texas church led by John Hagee, whose support proved too controversial for John McCain in 2008. Newt combined two of his favorite threats, secularists and Islamists, into one memorable, if intellectually incoherent, sentence, declaring that he feared that his grandchildren could grow up "in a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists and with no understanding of what it once meant to be an American." He told the Christian Broadcasting Network's David Brody, "In a sense, our Judeo-Christian civilization is under attack from two fronts. On one front, you have a secular, atheist, elitism. And on the other front, you have radical Islamists. And both groups would like to eliminate our civilization if they could. For different reasons, but with equal passion."

Newt is also placing himself at the forefront of the concerted conservative campaign to turn "American exceptionalism" into an attack on the patriotism of their political opponents. Candidates like Sen. Marco Rubio made American exceptionalism into a campaign theme in 2010, and hope to continue to smear Democrats as unbelievers in America's divinely-blessed founding and mission in the world. Gingrich has teamed up with Citizens United's David Bossie for a new "documentary" on American exceptionalism, A City Upon a Hill, The Spirit of American Exceptionalism, which features, among others, Donald Trump, Michele Bachmann, Allen West, Andrew Breitbart and Phyllis Schlafly.

Gingrich, an old hand at politics-by-smear, is responsible for much of the venomous state of our politics. In the mid-1990s, his GOPAC distributed to Republican lawmakers a memo titled "Language: a Key Mechanism of Control." The memo urged Republicans to use a set of denigrating words to describe their opponents and the Democratic Party: "decay, failure (fail) collapse(ing) deeper, crisis, urgent(cy), destructive, destroy, sick, pathetic, lie, liberal, they/them, unionized bureaucracy, 'compassion' is not enough, betray, consequences, limit(s), shallow, traitors, sensationalists, endanger, coercion, hypocricy, radical, threaten, devour, waste, corruption, incompetent, permissive attitude, destructive, impose, self-serving, greed, ideological, insecure, anti-(issue): flag, family, child, jobs; pessimistic, excuses, intolerant, stagnation, welfare, corrupt, selfish, insensitive, status quo, mandate(s) taxes, spend (ing) shame, disgrace, punish (poor...) bizarre, cynicism, cheat, steal, abuse of power, machine, bosses, obsolete, criminal rights, red tape, patronage."

Religious Liberty: Hypocrisy and Bad History

Gingrich, like other Religious Right political figures, postures as a defender of Americans' religious liberty against a deeply hostile elite, the "secular-socialist machine." Yet he joined with gusto the opponents of the proposed Park51 Islamic community center in Manhattan, which right-wing activists vilified as the "Ground Zero Mosque," saying, "There should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia." In his book, Rediscovering God in America, Gingrich declared, "A steadfast commitment to religious freedom is the very cornerstone of American liberty." Regarding the Islamic center in New York, he said, "No mosque. No self-deception. No surrender."

Gingrich, like other Religious Right leaders, justifies his attacks on Islam by suggesting that it is not really a religion, saying radical Islam "is a comprehensive political, economic, and religious movement that seeks to impose sharia -- Islamic law -- upon all aspects of global society... Radical Islamists see politics and religion as inseparable in a way it is difficult for Americans to understand. Radical Islamists assert sharia's supremacy over the freely legislated laws and values of the countries they live in and see it as their sacred duty to achieve this totalitarian supremacy in practice." Yet while Gingrich decries radical Islamists' goal of achieving "totalitarian supremacy," one of his own organizations, Renewing American Leadership, is run by an advocate of the 7 Mountains Mandate, a dominionist theology that argues that Christians are meant to control the levers of power in every aspect of government and society.

Gingrich is ideologically joined at the hip to "Christian nation" pseudo-historian David Barton. In Barton's worldview, the First Amendment is not about protecting religious pluralism, but was only meant to keep the federal government from siding with one group of Christians over another. Barton believes the First Amendment should not apply at all to the states, but that states should be free to pose religious tests for office, and local religious majorities should be free to use public schools for proselytizing prayer. On Barton's radio show, Gingrich promised that if he ran, he would be calling on Barton for help, presumably the way Barton helped turn out evangelical voters for the Republican Party during George W. Bush's reelection campaign. It seems to be a mutual admiration society. When Barton and other right-wing activists were pushing for changes in Texas textbooks, they urged that Cesar Chavez and Thurgood Marshall be dropped, but that Newt be added.

Gingrich shares Barton's view of the federal courts as evil usurpers of the founding fathers' religious intentions. "There is no attack on American culture more destructive and more historically dishonest than the secular Left's relentless effort to drive God out of America's public square," Gingrich wrote in Rediscovering God in America. In a recent speech to the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, Gingrich said the courts have been "especially powerful engines of coerced secularization," and that "From the 1962 school prayer decision on, there has been a decisive break with the essentially religious nature of historic American civilization." While in Congress, Gingrich promoted the Religious Right's false claims that courts had somehow banned students from praying, and repeatedly supported efforts to pass a constitutional amendment to return organized prayer to public schools.

Politics over Principle

In addition to intellectual arrogance, a shameless lack of principle may be Gingrich's most identifying characteristic. When the popular uprisings in the Middle East spread to Libya, Gingrich denounced President Obama for not immediately imposing a no-fly zone: "We don't need to have the United Nations. All we have to say is that we think that slaughtering your own citizens is unacceptable and that we're intervening." Less than two weeks later, when the U.S. joined other nations in imposing a no-fly zone, Gingrich attacked Obama, saying "I would not have intervened" and declaring that "it is impossible to make sense of the standard for intervention in Libya except opportunism and news media publicity." Newt clearly knows a thing or two about opportunism and publicity-seeking; getting some coverage for an attack on Obama was clearly more important to him than questions of U.S. policy in Libya.

Hubris

For all the far-right's charges that President Obama harbors anti-democratic tendencies -- Gingrich vowed to Hannity that he would abolish all the White House "czar" positions by executive order -- Gingrich's own behavior has made it clear that he sees himself as so superior to others, such an essential treasure for the nation, that the rules he would apply to others should not apply to him. When his second wife asked Newt how he could give a speech about the importance of family values just days after he admitted that he was having an affair, he reportedly told her, "It doesn't matter what I do. People need to hear what I have to say. There's no one else who can say what I can say. It doesn't matter what I live." That is a breathtaking level of hubris, even by presidential candidate standards. And when the CBN's Brody lobbed him the fluffiest of softballs by asking him to talk about his affairs in the context of his experience of God's forgiveness, Newt blew it by blaming his cheating on his love of country: "There's no question at times of my life, partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country, that I worked far too hard and things happened in my life that were not appropriate."

So Right and So Wrong

Gingrich's policy positions are pretty much standard fare in today's far-right Republican Party, including anti-worker, pro-corporate economic policies and support for criminalizing abortion. He has demonstrated his new-found commitment to the sacred nature of marriage by trying to buy the support of Religious Right activists in presidentially important Iowa, where he funneled about $200,000 into an unfortunately successful campaign to punish and purge three state Supreme Court justices who had voted to end marriage discrimination against same-sex couples in the state.

America is grappling with a set of deeply serious challenges at home and abroad. Americans would benefit from a substantive discussion of those problems and the policy choices that face them. What they're most likely to get from Newt Gingrich is toxic McCarthyism, petty and unprincipled partisanship, and preening self-promotion. Thanks but no thanks.

Cross posted on The Huffington Post

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