NEW YORK — Secular humanists and leftist activists convened here over the weekend to strategize how to counter what they contend is a growing political threat from Christian conservatives.
Understanding and answering the “religious far right” that propelled President Bush’s re-election is key to preventing a “theocracy” from governing the nation, speakers argued at a weekend conference.
“The religious right now has an unprecedented influence on American politics and policy,” said Ralph White, co-founder of the Open Center, a New York City institution focused on holistic learning. “It is incumbent upon all of us to understand as precisely as possible its aims, methods, beliefs, theology and psychology.”
The Open Center, founded 21 years ago, played host to the two-day conference at City College of New York called “Examining the Real Agenda of the Religious Far Right.”
People for the American Way, a liberal advocacy group that opposes religion in the public square, co-sponsored the conference, which drew about 500 participants.
“This may be the darkest time in our history,” said Bob Edgar, general secretary of the left-leaning National Council of Churches and former six-term Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania. “The religious right have been systematically working at this for 40 years. The question is, where is the religious left?”
Speakers outlined such concepts — others would say conspiracy theories — as Christian reconstructionism and dominionism to a crowd that Mr. White said does “not understand the further reaches of religion.”
Dominionism is the theory that the account in Genesis in which God gave man dominion over the earth has become a political teaching advocating that Christians gain and hold power. Christian reconstructionism is the theory that Christian conservatives intend to impose Old Testament law in America.
The United States is “not yet a theocracy,” Joan Bokaer, founder of TheocracyWatch.org, said Friday night, but she argued that “the United States is beginning to fit the model of a reconstructed America.”
Tax cuts combined with increased funding for faith-based social programs and decreases in welfare spending, Ms. Bokaer said, were examples of “the theological right … zealously setting up to establish their beliefs in all aspects of our society.”
She compared the Federal Communications Commission’s threatened crackdown on indecency on television with the Taliban, the repressive Islamic rulers of Afghanistan who harbored Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network until toppled by a U.S.-led invasion.
“Indecency police are a major part of theocratic states,” Ms. Bokaer said, flashing a picture of Islamic women covered head to foot under the title, “Taliban: Ministry for the Protection of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.”
Such rhetoric turned the volume up on warnings of theocratic revolution issued by some Democrats opposing Republican efforts to override their Senate filibusters of Mr. Bush’s nominees for federal judgeships.
Former Vice President Al Gore said in a speech Wednesday that the move against judicial filibusters is driven by an “aggressive new strain of right-wing religious zealotry.”
Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, asked in a speech April 15 about the case of Terri Schiavo, the brain-damaged Florida woman: “Are we going to live in a theocracy where the highest powers tell us what to do?”
Sen. Ken Salazar, Colorado Democrat, last week called Focus on the Family, the Colorado Springs Christian advocacy group, “the Antichrist of the world.” He later apologized and said he meant to call James Dobson’s organization “un-Christian, meaning self-serving and selfish.”
Conferees here shared Mr. Salazar’s disapproval of such Christian activist groups as Focus on the Family and such politicians as Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican. When Ms. Bokaer showed a slide of Mr. Frist, some in the crowd hissed loudly. Others, however, said such scorn is not helpful.
“If we are going to ask the Christian right to stop engaging in demonization, we need to inspect some of our own language,” Chip Berlet of the human rights watchdog Political Research Associates said in his talk Friday night.
“I’m uncomfortable when I hear people of sincere religious faith described as religious political extremists,” he said. “What does that term mean? It’s a term of derision that says we’re good and they’re bad. There is no content.”
Afterward, in an interview, Mr. Berlet added: “The Democrats do just as much name-calling as the right. It’s great for fundraising. [But] it’s a heck of a way of building a social progressive movement.”