By: Rob Boston
“I’ve been writing about the Religious Right for nearly 25 years now, and one thing that never ceases to amaze me is when the leaders or supporters of these organizations claim they are being persecuted. Really? In a country that has a strong Christian culture and where at least 75 percent of the population professes some form of Christianity, it would seem odd that Christians would be persecuted. Yet the claim is made, constantly.
A new study on the power of religious advocacy groups in Washington by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life show yet again how absurd that claim is. Pew researchers examined 212 religious groups on the right and the left that engage in advocacy work in the nation’s capital. Their findings are illuminating. Anyone who believes the old saw that conservative Christians don’t have a voice in D.C. should take a look. With that thought in mind, here are five reasons why the Religious Right should stop complaining about persecution:
1. Of the 10 largest religious advocacy groups in Washington, seven take the Religious Right line on most issues.
Five of the top-10 groups (Family Research Council, Concerned Women for America, Home School Legal Defense Fund, Focus on the Family’s Citizenlink and the Traditional Values Coalition) are Religious Right organizations. The two other groups are the U.S. Catholic Conference of Catholic Bishops, which marches in lock step with the Religious Right on issues like abortion, same-sex marriage and taxpayer funding of religion, and the National Right to Life Committee, a more narrowly focused group that shares the Religious Right’s views on abortion. Marginalized movements don’t have this much representation in Washington.
2. These organizations raise a ton of money.
The Pew report lists budget figures for each group examined. The numbers are staggering. In 2008, the Family Research Council, which, since the demise of the Christian Coalition has become the leading D.C.-based Religious Right group, took in more than $14 million. Concerned Women for America collected $12.5 million. Even the Traditional Values Coalition – a less prominent outfit run by gay-bashing minister Louis P. Sheldon and his daughter – raised $9.5 million. The figure for the Catholic bishops is even more impressive: $26.6 million. (Of course, not all of this money is spent on direct lobbying because these organizations advocate for their views in many ways.) Smaller Religious Right outfits didn’t make the top 10 but still raise considerable sums: the National Organization for Marriage brought in $8.5 million, and the American Life League raised $6.6 million. Remember anti-Equal Right Amendment crusader Phyllis Schlafly? Her Eagle Forum still exists. It raised $2.2 million in 2009.
If you add up the budgets of the seven conservative religious advocacy groups in the top 10, the figure tops $95 million. As infomercial pitchmen are fond of saying, “But wait, there’s more!” If you include budget figures for a few of the leading fundamentalist ministries (such as Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network and the empire created by the late Jerry Falwell), many of which are overtly political, and add in a handful of the top Religious Right legal groups, the numbers reach the stratosphere, exceeding $1 billion annually. No political movement that has control of that much cash can claim to be persecuted.
3. These organizations enjoy incredible access to legislators.
Most advocacy groups woo lawmakers with money (through allied political action committees) or by implying that there are votes to be had among their respective constituencies. Some far-right religious groups can offer both. The Family Research Council, for example, runs several PACs, including a new super-PAC that, thanks to the Supreme Court, can raise unlimited funds to pour into races. Do politicians take notice? You bet. At last month’s “Values Voter Summit” sponsored by the Family Research Council in Washington, both House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor took time out to address the crowd, and every major GOP presidential candidate was there as well.
Religious groups that can’t or don’t sponsor PACs trade on their generally good image. Most Americans think well of religion but not so well of politicians. Savvy political leaders know that granting broad access to clerics just makes good sense. Some of that goodwill may rub off. If conservative Christians were being persecuted or were considered pariahs, politicians would hardly be tripping over themselves to be seen with them, would they?
4. Religious groups get special breaks when it comes to lobbying.
Non-profit groups, whether on the left or the right, must abide by federal regulations that curb the amount of lobbying tax-exempt entities can do. They must also file disclosure reports that are available to the public, so it’s possible to see how much they are spending on attempts to influence legislators. But the purely religious groups – the denominations and church offices – are exempt from this rule. Thus, the Catholic bishops can drop a quarter of a billion or more on Capitol Hill without accounting for a dime.
Other denominations follow suit. Pew reports that the Southern Baptist Convention’s D.C. public policy office had a budget of $3.2 million in 2008. How much of that was spent on lobbying? No one knows because they aren’t required to say. A secular group that refused to disclose this information would quickly find itself in hot water with the federal government. Far from being persecuted, religious groups actually receive preferential treatment in this area.
5. Some religious groups have played the bigotry card to their advantage.
Religious Right groups have mastered the art of intimidating their opponents. Thus, anyone who dares to criticize groups for their anti-gay views is labeled a bigot who doesn’t believe in religious freedom. Anyone who offers spirited opposition to a right-wing religious group’s policy planks is accused of trying to keep that group from speaking out. This skillful manipulation of the language of victimology comes not from a truly oppressed minority but from those who have so much power that they’ve learned to game the system as a way of shutting down the opposition.
To these groups, religious freedom has a curious definition: It’s the right to force you to live by their religion. They have been wildly successful in putting across the idea that to speak against their political agenda is the same as speaking against their religion. No truly persecuted movement is this savvy in the game of politics.
Right-wing religious groups may claim persecution, but the numbers tell a different story. If you doubt this, just spend a day shadowing their employees in Congress, where, increasingly, they are greeted with warm smiles and open arms.
A final note in the spirit of full disclosure: The organization I work for, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, is number 15 on Pew’s list – even though we don’t consider ourselves a religious group. (AU is non-sectarian; some of our members are people of faith, but others are non-believers.) Our advocacy takes many forms – working with legislators, litigating in the courts and educating the public, to name a few. Sometimes we win battles, and sometimes we don’t. When we lose, we regroup to fight another day. We don’t whine that we’re being persecuted.
Rob Boston is senior policy analyst at Americans United for Separation of Church and State.