The Right's Global Goals for Women
Born Again: The Christian Right Globalized
By Jennifer Butler
Reviewed by Michelle Goldberg
One of the most important and least noticed ways that President George W. Bush has rewarded his religious Right base is by giving them positions of power at the United Nations. Under Bush, members of official American delegations to UN conferences have included Janice Crouse, lead researcher of Concerned Women for America, Paul Bonicelli, former dean of academic affairs at the fundamentalist Patrick Henry College, and Janet Parshall, the religious Right radio host who narrated the hagiographic documentary "George W. Bush: Faith in the White House."
The religious conservatives who represent the United States on the national stage have made alliances with the Holy See and some of the world's most repressive regimes, including Iran, the Sudan and Libya, to fight agreements expanding recognition of women's and children's rights. The strange emergence of this ecumenical right-wing united front, especially at a time of such bitter antagonism between Muslims and Christians in other realms, has profound implications for women worldwide, as well as for everyone concerned about the growing influence of religious fundamentalism in public life.
Reverend Jennifer Butler's new book Born Again: The Christian Right Globalized, adds much to our understanding of how this international right-wing religious network has come into being, and how it is likely to evolve. The former Presbyterian Church (USA) representative to the United Nations, Butler saw the growth of religious Right influence at the UN firsthand, and her book relies on both her own experience and on valuable interviews with key players on all sides. Born Again is fascinating and important. It is also occasionally maddening, because, in her frustration over the success of the religious Right, Butler has adopted the hectoring anti-secularism that is becoming a depressing leitmotif of the nascent religious left.
The book begins with a memorable scene from a UN women's conference in March of 2000. Butler was sitting in a conference hall listening to a speech by the prominent global feminist Charlotte Bunch. "Many of the American women at the conference favored colorful, free-flowing dresses and carried book bags picked up at previous UN world conferences…covered with the symbols and slogans of women's empowerment," she writes. Suddenly, a group of young, conservative, mostly male Catholics and Mormons in suits "began streaming through the backdoors of the conference hall as if on cue…All of them wore bright campaign buttons emblazoned with a single word: ‘Motherhood.'"
As Butler explains, since the 1990s, religious Right activists have been mobilizing against what they view as an anti-family, anti-religious agenda at the United Nations. Her book presumes a certain familiarity with the global women's movement and the byways of international organizing, so she doesn't do much to explain why UN conferences, statements and treaties dealing with cultural issues matter, but the stakes are in fact quite high.
In Tanzania, a court cited the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (a treaty ratified by 169 countries, though not the United States) when overturning a law that prohibited females from inheriting clan land from their fathers. In striking down Columbia's total ban on abortion last year, that country's supreme court noted that "Various international treaties form the basis for the recognition and the protection of the reproductive rights of women, which derive from the protection of other fundamental rights such as the right to life, health, equality, the right to be free from discrimination, the right to liberty, bodily integrity and the right to be free from violence. Sexual and reproductive rights of women have been finally recognized as human rights." That notion, of course, is anathema to leaders of the world's most traditionally religious societies, including our own, and they have organized in opposition.
Religious Right activism at the United Nations is not simply a matter of the United States unilaterally imposing its moralism on the rest of the world. As Butler notes, relying on the work of religion scholar Philip Jenkins, conservative religion, both Christian and Muslim, is growing rapidly in the global south. The rhetoric of the international religious Right often echoes that of anti-colonialism, denouncing international attempts to empower women as unwelcome impositions of foreign libertinism. "Christian Right leaders at the UN portray themselves as defending the religious, family-oriented global South against the secular, liberal West," she writes. This is a powerful frame, and one that feminists have thus far failed to really grapple with. Butler quotes Jenkins saying, "What if a global North, secular, rational and tolerant, defines itself against the rest of the world as Christian, primitive, and fundamentalist?"
That is indeed a grim prospect, but the solution cannot be to denigrate secularism. Frustratingly, like Jim Wallis and Michael Lerner, she tends to repeat right-wing canards about liberals being "intolerant" of religion as if they were fact. "Given the resurgence of religion in the political discourse and its continued strength in shaping cultural values, one might question whether political movements which categorically reject religious values can reach large numbers of people," she writes. Who are these straw liberals who have categorically rejected the values of Desmond Tutu or the Dalai Lama? How could a global women's movement that is rigidly anti-religious have made leaders of the committed Methodist Hillary Clinton, the Catholic Frances Kissling, or the Muslim Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi?
At one point, Butler writes of the domestic left, "Subscribing to over- zealous interpretations of the separation of church and state, many progressives sought to ban all religious expression from public life. This alienated many Americans, who were willing to tolerate such expressions as prayer at football games." There are a host of faulty assumptions and deceptive phrases packed into these sentences. By "many progressives," one assumes she's speaking of the ACLU and its supporters. The ACLU, of course, only seeks to ban publicly funded religion; when the government impinges on the free speech rights of individual believers (say, to erect crèches on property where other public displays are permitted, or to proselytize in the school lunchroom) the ACLU defends religious expression. Going after government-sponsored prayers at football games may indeed be a foolish political strategy, but civil libertarians are most important precisely when they're fighting for unpopular views and minority rights. Surely Butler isn't suggesting that we make what "many Americans" are "willing to tolerate" the measure of how we apply the First Amendment?
Butler is correct to urge liberals to understand the resurgence of traditional faiths as something more than backward atavism. A progressive coalition that can fight the religious Right needs to learn to speak to the profound anxieties - about globalization, cultural destabilization and family breakdown - that make fundamentalism attractive to so many in the first place. But such a coalition will fail if the religious left becomes another force decrying secularism in a world where secularists already feel besieged. It's not just the pious who can't bear to see their most cherished values consigned to the dustbin of history.
Michelle Goldberg is a contributing writer for Salon.com and the author of Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism.
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