Wild and Woolly Sects

Wild and Woolly Sects

Wild and Woolly Sects

Jan. 12 1997 3:30 AM

Wild and Woolly Sects

The 1990s right is subdividing and feuding like the 1930s left.


Leftists are enthusiastic sectarians. The most brutal internecine spats took place in New York City in the 1930s. Dozens of tiny Marxist sects vied to launch the Revolution. Most of these were personality cults, led by charismatic trade unionists and brainy theorists: Fieldites, Lovestoneites, Weisbordites, Shermanites, Cochranites, Schactmanites, and Oehlerites. The prize for best sectarian of the decade may go to a Trostkyite named Karl Mienov. Mienov and his followers bolted from an alliance with the Oehlerite faction, following a debate over which Leninist strategy best suited the Spanish proletariat. "We are proud to have split with such a centrist group," Mienov proclaimed. But within months of forming his own party, the Marxist Workers League, Mienov purged all its members for a lack of revolutionary zeal. He flamed one poor Mienovite in his party's journal, Spark: "We can gage Comrade Stanford's sincerity, however, by the fact that rather than give out leaflets for the revolution, he prefers to study for exams at Brooklyn College." According to leftist apocrypha, Karl Mienov, now the only Mienovite, developed multiple personalities and split with himself.

Franklin Foer Franklin Foer

Franklin Foer is a Slate contributing editor and the author of World Without Mind.


In America, at least, political activists of the right have generally eschewed minuscule parties and bloody breaks. Recently, however, conservatives have become enthusiastic sectarians. Slate's Jacob Weisberg wrote recently about the rumbling between libertarians and Christian conservatives over issues like the regulation of the Internet. The New Republic carried a piece last month about how neoconservative intellectuals have also started to condemn the Christian-conservative rhetoric. But these are broad-brush disagreements. True sectarianism requires more esoteric disputes.

In the last 20 years, hundreds of new groups have come on the scene promoting right-wing agendas. There's the U.S. Taxpayer Party, the National Taxpayer Union, the American Family Association, the Family Research Council, the Christian Coalition, the Christian Action Network, and so on. Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, boasted in the American Spectator last year that there are now more than 1,000 state and local property-rights groups, and more than 1,500 taxpayer organizations.

Through the late '70s, the right took a Popular Front approach. The Popular Front was the American Communist Party's attempt in the late 1930s to pool leftists into a grand anti-fascist coalition. Groups like the John Birch Society, the Liberty Lobby, and Young Americans for Freedom similarly suppressed their differences in the service of anti-communism. Libertarians, evangelicals, segregationists, and others put aside significant doctrinal disagreements.


Most of the new conservative groups, by contrast, have particular ideological agendas. They fall into different camps. Some examples: Buchananite populists (conservatives who are anti-tax and who are social traditionalists, but who are also economic nationalists) can join the U.S. Taxpayer Party or Gun Owners of America. Less radical populists (like the Buchananites, but more committed to the Republican Party and without the economic nationalism) fund interest groups like U.S. Term Limits Now, the Institute for Justice, and Americans for Tax Reform. Libertarians have their own party and organizations promoting the rollback of government, like the Separation of School and State Alliance.


And then there are the Christian conservatives--the Trotskyites of the right. Trotskyites believe they actually have an obligation to undermine other leftist groups. They follow their namesake's aphorism that revolutions are like birth: The forceps shouldn't be applied too early. Only a vanguard party (their own, of course), using the correct tactics at the correct moment, can instigate a revolution. Christian conservatives have a similar sort of fixation on the purity of their movement's strategy. Consequently, the religious right is riddled with tiny groups, their very own Mienovites and Oehlerites, who believe they each have a monopoly on midwifery techniques for bringing a Christian society into the world.

Reconstructionists, for instance, follow the teachings of Francis Schaeffer, an obscure theologian in Switzerland, and argue for an Iran-like theocracy. Judgment Day, they reckon, has come and gone--so we are headed to perdition, unless a vanguard of radical Christians reconstruct society using Mosaic law as a blueprint. A truly Christian polis, they believe, would deny nonbelievers citizenship and publicly stone or kill disobedient children. Though they can't claim much of a following, their coterie is well organized and well positioned. Reconstructionists dominate the pro-life group, Operation Rescue. Howard Phillips, a well-known figure on the right and the recent U.S. Taxpayer Party presidential candidate, belongs to their tribe.

Most other Christian conservative groups don't preach such an extreme vision for their ideal society, but they similarly abhor compromise. Take Focus on the Family, a "parental rights" activist group with a mailing list of 3.5 million names, and its ally, the Family Research Council. James Dobson and Gary Bauer, the leaders of the two groups, sing the old leftist tune "Which Side Are You On?" Here, they describe their mission in pretty stark terms: "Nothing short of a great Civil War of Values rages today throughout North America. Two sides with vastly differing and incompatible worldviews are locked in a bitter conflict." So if you give an inch in battle, you lose.

There's a long list of other groups with a fairly similar take. Many claim to have several hundred thousand members: the Christian Action Network, Eagle Forum, Concerned Women for America, and the Traditional Values Coalition.


These groups feel uncomfortable with the Christian Coalition, the most powerful organization on the right and the one most committed to reviving the popular-front approach. Executive Director Ralph Reed explained the Christian Coalition's strategy last spring in his manifesto, Active Faith. He called the approach "surfing the mainstream." Reed argued that the religious right needs to retreat from the shrill language used by Bauer and Dobson, and to abandon radical positions--such as their insistence on a constitutional amendment banning abortion--in favor of more popular, piecemeal solutions.

But the popular-frontish approach doesn't attract the Dobson and Bauer crowd. They excoriate Reed. After Reed published Active Faith and said friendly things about pro-choicer Colin Powell, Comrade Dobson wrote him a seven-page letter condemning his soft politics. Dobson's partner Gary Bauer took to the Sunday talking-head circuit, bad-mouthing Reed for backpedaling on abortion. And, more recently, Christian conservative leaders have blamed Reed for the debacle of the Bob Dole campaign. Reed, they argue, quieted brawls between Christian conservatives and Dole that would have forced Dole to pay more attention to the Christian movement and its issues. In their view, that would have helped.

With all these new groups competing for members and cash from the same pool of hard-core conservatives, tension is unavoidable. Movement old-timers resent having to share the microphone and money with so many upstarts. For instance, Phyllis Schlafly, the original Goldwater girl and head of the Eagle Forum, complains incessantly about new groups. In a series of letters, some of which were republished this year in Roll Call, Schlafly blasted the populist group U.S. Term Limits Now for advocating a constitutional amendment. A constitutional convention, she argues, would be required to enact an amendment, and it would give pro-choicers the chance to push through their own amendment protecting abortion. She has also jumped into the anti-Reed fray, criticizing him for not being tough enough on the abortion issue.

Or, there's the home-schooling movement, a player on the right since the 1960s. Groups like the Separation of School and State Alliance and the Home School Legal Defense Association hate the more recent conservative obsession with vouchers. In its journal, Education Liberator, the Separation of School and State Alliance calls voucher supporters both "fascists" and "socialists." Vouchers, they argue, are simply a guise for the "edu-welfare system" to cast its net over several million more families and children. Just as the Daily Worker and New Masses, socialist papers from the 1930s, were peppered with citations of Marx and Engels, Educational Liberator is peppered with references to their libertarian equivalents--Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises.

Debates like the home schoolers vs. the vouchers, or Reed vs. Dobson, seem irrelevant or impenetrable to onlookers, mere quibbles over detail. But to people who believe the welfare state and abortion are absolute evils, they are of the utmost importance. And, without the old anti-communist battle and its institutions to suppress the differences, differences have blossomed. It's the Goldwater rallying cry, "A Choice Not An Echo," taken to a new extreme. There's too much choice and not enough echo.