Seattle likes to think of itself as a bastion of deep blue, a liberal city that keeps the beacon of progressivism lit in the dark days of Bush. We've long patted ourselves on the back for our technological and culture exports, too, from Boeing jets and Microsoft software to artisan coffee, beer, and outdoor gear.
But our chief export these days is right-wing extremism.
A poster child for this is local right-wing radio rabbi Daniel Lapin, who founded Toward Tradition, a national organization devoted to forging ties with the Christian right. Among Lapin's influential pals are Tom DeLay, Ralph Reed, and Grover Norquist. His devoted followers include the conservative cultural critic Michael Medved.
As a promoter of "Judeo-Christian" values, Lapin uses a politically charged phrase. Back in the 1930s, "Judeo-Christian" was how broad-minded mainline Protestants rhetorically expanded the big tent to include once-reviled Jews and Catholics. Today, it is code for suggesting that those who don't accept Judeo-Christian values are un-American or worse. I remember listening to Lapin speak at a local GOP banquet where he assured his audience that (wink, wink) there was a reason God sent typhoons to places like Bangladesh. The idea was that God rewards Judeo-Christian free marketers and punishes the unbelievers.
In Lapin's view, the Judeo-Christian God was punishing the heathens with typhoons and tsunamis, not sweatshop owners. The latter are apparently doing God's work with the help of Lapin's best political friends, like the newly indicted Jack Abramoff, the former Preston Gates sweatshop lobbyist who was also on Toward Tradition's board while helping spread Judeo-Christian morality.
But before we snicker at how sleazy it all is, consider the scary part: Back in the 1990s, Lapin was considered a religious outsider and a political nut. But long before 9/11, the war in Iraq, or the elevation of Manichaeanism to official White House policy, Lapin anticipated the world that Bush and the neocons have forged. It's a world where Jews and many conservative Christians have come together to fight a common enemy for biblical lands, one in which free-market capitalism is the instrument of God, and one in which my-way-or-the-highway moralism dominates.
A crackpot in the era of Clinton, Lapin has become a prophet in the age of Bush.
If you read The New York Times Sunday, Aug. 21, you might have seen a story about another conservative gift that has, uh, evolved in Seattle. It was a profile of the Discovery Institute, the local think tank founded by former Seattle City Council member Bruce Chapman. Discovery is also the headquarters of the "intelligent design" movement that is aimed at undermining the scientific theory of evolution. It seeks to replace the idea of random mutation with the notion that "a creator" is running the evolutionary process.
Intelligent design is not new. In the 19th century, many attempted to reconcile evolution with old-time religion and came up with ideas about God's guiding hand. Its currency isn't based on scientific discovery but by religion-powered politics and funding from the likes of Richard Mellon Scaife and born-again billionaires like Roberta Ahmanson. Intelligent design is, in essence, creationism gussied up for mainstream consumption. Recently, both Bush and GOP Senate majority leader Bill Frist endorsed adding intelligent design to school curricula, and they weren't talking about classes in mythology.
Intelligent design advocates argue that they are not creationists because they don't specify who the creator is or how he/she/it did the creating. But how unintelligent do they think we are? Their funding comes from right-wingers of the Judeo-Christian persuasion, and, somehow, I don't think this crowd would be satisfied if presented with absolute scientific proof that the universe was created by Ymir and the frost giants and ruled by Odin.
Another example of local influence is the crusade against sex slavery led by former Seattle GOP Congressman John Miller. Miller, like Chapman, a former Seattle City Council member associated with the Discovery Institute, is the Bush administration's ambassador-at-large devoted to so-called human trafficking (in fact, he is speaking at Discovery Thursday, Aug. 25). While few Americans—and even fewer liberals—would argue in favor of human trafficking and slavery, it turns out that squishy definitions and exaggerated claims have lead to an "abolitionist" movement that seems to have something in common with the white slavery hysteria of former times. The problem may be real but is often overhyped. It has also experienced mission creep to the point where U.S. policy is now to eradicate sex work even in countries where prostitution is legal, regulated, and voluntary. Why? Because all forms of prostitution are sex slavery, period.
This absolutist view of sexual exploitation might please some feminists, but it also delights religious and political zealots. It has injected a new kind of moral fervor into America's foreign policy. It is not enough to make the world safe for democracy—a tall order in itself—but we must promote policies based on conservative religious principles. While Miller is undoubtedly doing good by bringing attention to the overall trafficking issue, he's also providing cover for those who believe that American foreign policy must be fueled by missionary zeal and that our diplomats must become an international sex police force.
It is truly a sign of Seattle's intellectual liberalism that we are the incubator of powerful ideas. Even bad ones.