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Conservative evangelicals have been influencing politics for decades, in part by funding anti-gay propaganda and misconstruing legitimate research.
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Donald Trump's presidential election campaign aggressively courted the religious right and its many institutional tentacles with startling efficacy—exit polls show that he won with the support of 81 percent of white evangelical voters, despite being thrice-married, and despite bragging about sexually assaulting women.
Trump has continued to pander to evangelicals during his first month in office. In his rambling remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast at the beginning of February, Trump told the audience that his "administration will do everything in its power to defend and protect religious liberty in our land" and alluded to the forthcoming Muslim ban. The month prior, both Kellyanne Conway and Vice President Mike Pence gave speeches at the anti-abortion March for Life in the name of God and liberty.
As Trump's willingness to work closely with extreme religious conservatives becomes steadily more apparent, many secular groups fear we will spend the next four years under the tyranny of religious authoritarians who invoke religious freedom to roll back civil rights. Trump and the Republicans are pushing a hard anti-Muslim agenda, promising an all-out assault on abortion access, and gearing up to propose draconian religious freedom bills that would legalize anti-LGBTQ discrimination.
We didn't just arrive at this moment, however. Conservative Christians put in a lot of hard work cultivating their base, and were careful to include anyone amenable to their message. They widened their prospective pool and made their coalition hard for politicians to ignore, in part, by learning how to tone down their extreme beliefs. As Princeton University researcher Nathaniel J. Klemp outlines in "Beyond God Talk," right-wing religious groups developed an effective way of making space for themselves in debates with the mainstream public: Instead of arguing for their agenda on a religious basis, which wouldn't be broadly acceptable or constitutional, they have learned to adopt secular language—and methods—thus transforming their faith-based beliefs into policy they can push.
Since the 1970s, proponents of "Christian values" have sought to tighten their influence on American politics in response to gains made by progressive mass movements. (Roe v. Wade and the mobilizations for civil rights were particularly irksome to them.) In 1979, evangelical leader Jerry Falwell formed the Moral Majority, which became one of the first political coalitions of religious conservatives. The group made it clear that America was in a state of moral decline, and that the people of our nation needed God to save them from depravity and gay sex, though their political messaging often appeared less extreme. They framed their stance against women's liberation, gay rights, and even welfare as one that was pro-family in order to reach a base beyond extreme fundamentalists.
Similar to Trump's "Make America Great Again" rhetoric, the group's posturing around preserving family values appealed to conservatives who wanted to go back to a pre-1960s world. On these grounds, the Moral Majority lobbied for the first heartbeat bill in Congress, a piece of legislation that would define life at conception and try to circumvent the Supreme Court to outlaw abortion, and a constitutional amendment that would mandate school prayer during the Reagan era. These initiatives failed, but they set the tone for future Christian right leaders.
Right-wing groups like the Family Research Council (FRC), which the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) classified as a hate group in 2012, the American Family Association, and Focus on the Family took up the mantle from Falwell in the 1990s, preaching a gospel of "cultural conservatism." These organizations crafted what would become a machine for influencing politics.
Aside from endorsing and funding candidates, a large part of the FRC's strategy is "education." During the 90s and throughout the Bush years, this took the form of publishing policy briefs against gay marriage, and gay people in general. The organization cited the work Paul Cameron, the sort-of godfather of the anti-LGBTQ pseudoscience movement in these reports, according to the SPLC. Cameron produced surveys that assert gay people are pedophiles and studies that say gay people die sooner than straight people. In addition to using his junk science for their propaganda, the SPLC has reported that the FRC used one Cameron's studies in a congressional testimony against the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in 1994.
A group called the American Family Association (AFA), up until 2010, also promoted Cameron's work in service of their anti-gay agenda, according to the SPLC. Like the FRC, the group manufactures fake research briefs and aggressively lobbies politicians. The SPLC reports that they have an annual budget of $20 million dollars.
Now, the FRC website makes little mention of Cameron, who was discredited by the American Psychological Association for having "consistently misinterpreted and misrepresented sociological research on sexuality, homosexuality, and lesbianism." None of the articles that reference his work appear on the site.
That's not how research is done. It's just not a very credible approach.
Instead, the FRC deploys their own weird science, mischaracterizing legitimate scientific studies to produce policy briefs on the supposed harms of same-sex relationships, the benefits of abstinence-only sex-ed, and the legitimacy of conversion therapy in order to support whatever piece of legislation that they're pushing. For example, FRC references a study on same-sex parents by New York University professor Judith Stacey in a paper titled "The Top Ten Harms of Same-Sex 'Marriage.'" They say her research indicates that there are distinct differences between children who are raised by heterosexual parents and children who are raised by lesbian parents. Stacey has said that this is a blatant distortion of her research and that there is nothing in her work "that would warrant any form of discrimination against parents on the basis of sexual orientation."
These factually wrong policy briefs are compiled by the Family Research Council's senior fellow for policy studies, Paul Sprigg, who often gives "expert" testimony against legislation that would cement rights for the LGBTQ community.
The group Focus on the Family, which shares a founder with the FRC, does the same thing. And according to the Human Rights Campaign they have raised $515 Million over the past five years and are the most well funded anti-LGBTQ organization in the US.
The Witherspoon Institute, a right-wing think tank that has a relationship with the Family Research Council and similarly advocates against the LGBTQ community, has also funded anti-gay research. Notoriously, in 2012 they funded the work of a sociology professor at the University of Texas at Austin named Mark Regnerus. $800,000 later, the result was the controversial "How Different Are the Adult Children of Parents Who Have Same-Sex Relationships? Findings of the New Families Structure Study," which was published in Social Science Research. The study claimed that children of gay and lesbian parents are more likely to develop emotional problems than children of heterosexual parents.
The study's major flaws have been called out by the media, fellow researchers, and human rights groups, but the work still remains in a peer-reviewed journal, and Regnerus is still in good standing at his university. When the gay marriage debate made it to the Supreme Court, a peak for anti-gay pseudoscience, Regnerus signed an amicus brief testifying to the "unique" benefits of heterosexual marriages and parenting. (There is some evidence to suggest that his study was rushed through the peer review process in order to time it with the Supreme Court case.)
Anybody who reads the findings is going to be very concerned about the legitimacy of these data.
Clark University researcher Abbie Goldberg, who does legitimate research on LGBTQ families, told Broadly that she was approached by Regnerus to be a consultant on his 2012 study. When she saw who was funding his research, and Regnerus' dubious methodology, she declined. "I looked at his funding sources and said, 'This is a problem. No, I'm not going to be involved.' Anybody who reads the findings is going to be very concerned about the legitimacy of these data," she explained over the phone. "Regnerus had never done any research on LGBT parenting [before this study]. If you look at his history, he studies religion. So it's really very odd for someone who's never done a study on a particular topic to come along and say that he's going to do a big national study of gay parenting. That's not how research is done. It's just not a very credible approach."
She adds, definitively, "There's no evidence to support the idea that LGBT parents are less competent or somehow more mentally ill than heterosexual parents."
In 2015 and 2016, however, a researcher named Paul Sullins published two studies that doubled down on Regnerus' claim that children of gay parents are more depressed. The latest was published last summer in a journal that requires authors to pay in order to be published. Both were debunked. Still, Regnerus wrote about Sullins' study favorably for the Witherspoon Institute's blog last June and Sullins appeared on an FRC panel around the same time, decrying the negative impact that gay marriage has had on society—citing his own study. The Christian right has created a ridiculous feedback loop by making their own studies to bolster the policy they back. The final step is aligning with politicians that can implement the legislation, which has never been a problem.
Fake news was perceived as a huge issue in the 2016 election, but fake science has been at play for decades, insidiously contributing to the ideological polarization we're currently experiencing. While these studies are quickly debunked when they come out, they usually have already made the rounds among believers who read them in Breitbart or hear about them on right-wing radio, media that conservatives, tired of the what they saw as the mainstream media's liberal bias, retreated to a long time ago.
In fact, the AFA has a network of over 200 radio stations and FRC has its own radio show that's hosted by its President Tony Perkins. "Washington Watch" is purported to have "millions" of listeners. On the show, Perkins talks with Republican politicians to "to help shape and influence the major policy debates of our time" and help his listeners "come to understand for the first time how a biblical worldview should impact public policy."
According to Perkins, "a biblical worldview" should dominate policy, and by forging an alliance with Trump the conditions are perfect for the Christian right to do just that—even though evangelical Christians only make up 25 percent of the population. The FRC President was already successful in cajoling the RNC to tacitly support ex-gay therapy, under the guise of "family rights," in its 2016 election platform, and getting the party to affirm its commitment to defining marriage as a heterosexual union.
Former RNC chairman and current White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus still enjoys a cozy relationship with Perkins. Trump's Education Secretary Betsy DeVos' comes from a family that has donated millions of dollars to the FRC. The AFA, FRC, and Focus on the Family all backed Attorney General Jeff Sessions during his nomination process, confident that he would carry out their agenda. Indeed, evangelical groups are rejoicing because Sessions has already made moves to go after the Obama Administration's guidance regarding the rights of transgender students.
The Christian right's support of the Trump administration is already paying off: The First Amendment Defense Act (FADA), which would allow private citizens and businesses to discriminate against LGBTQ people based on their religious beliefs, was reintroduced in the Senate in 2016 by Ted Cruz, an FRC favorite. Trump has already vowed to sign it if it passes.
And, earlier this month, a draft of Trump's supposed anti-LGBTQ executive order leaked, which would broaden the definition of "religious exercise." The Nation reports that the order could give federal employees free reign to deny marriage licenses to gay couples and federally funded organizations, like shelters or child welfare agencies, "a license to discriminate with public money in a series of contexts in which people tend to be vulnerable."
Today, House Republicans on the Constitution Subcommittee are holding a hearing on "The State of Religious Liberty in America" to discuss the merits of enacting legislation like FADA, along with anti-abortion measures.
The ALCU, and other civil rights advocates, are already preparing for a fight. "Our opponents are rallying their bases, hoping to convince the president there's popular support for wide-ranging discrimination," the organization wrote in a preemptive action against the executive order. "But polling shows that our side has been in the majority for a long time—now we need to show our strength."
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