Thursday, February 19, 2009

Conservative money corrupts libertarian thinking.

Over the years institutions evolve, change or slide away from their original purpose. It is inevitable, sometimes good, and sometimes not so good.

One depressing change in recent years is with the Atlas Foundation. Atlas began as a libertarian-oriented, free-market foundation that was there to help think tanks around the world with similar purposes.

But in recent years Atlas has begun to heavily rely on one specific donor or family, that is the money coming from John Templeton’s foundation or estate. As they have taken millions and millions from Templeton they started pandering to Templeton’s religious bias and prejudices.

The Templeton family, it might be noted, was a major contributor to viciously bigoted Prop 8 campaign in California. John Templeton Jr, (the father is deceased) is no libertarian. He is a conservative who gave $900,000 to the Prop 8 campaign. Josephine Templeton, his wife, gave another $300,000. This makes the Templetons the largest individual donors to this campaign. Their individual donations were almost equal to the sum donated by the Catholic Knights of Columbus, which has millions of members.

Atlas was not particularly conservative for decades. Now that Templeton is paying the piper it appears he is calling the tune. He may not explicitly demand that Atlas toe the Religious Right line but Atlas has begun to move in that direction – something that was previously anathema to libertarians.

Atlas was, and is, a major sponsor of the Acton Institute run by former faith healer, evangelical, gay community organizer, and now Catholic priest, Bob Sirico. Sirico ran fundamentalist faith healing meetings until he came out as gay. Then he moved on to the Metropolitan Community Churches and started running the Gay Community Center in Hollywood. Then he read Atlas Shrugged and became a libertarian. He was also one of the first ministers in the country to perform gay marriages as early as 1975. Sirico’s outfit started out as an organization that was going to sell free market ideas to the religious community. But it also got involved in “morals” campaigns.

Acton officials got heavily involved in the debate on gay marriage. With Sirico back in the closet (though some conservatives don’t think so) the position they have been taking has been to pander to bigots on the Religious Right. The rather odious Jennifer Roback Morse (Jenny to her friends, which I am no longer) is heavily involved in Acton affairs and she was a major spokesman for the antigay cause that Templeton was funding. Other Acton officials published op-eds in newspapers attacking the idea of either civil unions or gay marriage at all.

All of them forget that their beloved Father Bob performed same-sex marriages. And in one press interview at the time Sirico told the reporter “I’m hoping to be married to a beautiful man in Los Angeles whose work is translating for the deaf.” By 1977 Sirico was listed by the LA Times as the “organizer of Libertarians for Gay Rights. When it was later revealed that the ACLU once cooperated with the FBI in building files on radicals Sirico told the Times: “We turn out to be to the left of the ACLU.” Sirico then outlined the libertarian position to the Times (as he held to it then):
He listed five areas where the Libertarians and “liberals” are in agreement: deregulation of drug manufacture, possession and use; decriminalizing of prostitution and pornography; extending rights to homosexuals, and allowing mental patients to be free if they don’t break any law.

“Conservatives are trying to use pornography and (stirring up a reaction to) gay rights to turn America around, to conservatize America,” he said. Los Angeles Times, Sept 26, 1977 (attached, click to enlarge).
By the 1980s Sirico was back in the Catholic fold and now a Paulist priest. Apparently he was concerned about spreading free-market ideas among religious folk and Atlas and Templeton were his sources for funding. When Sirico tried to go back into the closet is hard for me to determine. But certainly by the time he was taking money from the anti-gay Templeton network it would have been prudent for him to be closeted. Certainly by 1997 Sirico was criticizing another priest for telling his congregation that he was gay. Sirico told the Grand Rapids Press that honesty about the matter was “irresponsible” and that the priest should have kept it a secret between him and a few close friends. The paper wrote:

"I think this kind of thing is irresponsible," said the Rev. Robert Sirico, president of the Grand Rapids-based Acton Institute, a conservative think tank. A priest should discuss his sexual orientation with a counselor or close friend, not with his congregation. Sirico said, "The priest as a celibate is called to sublimate his sexuality," Sirico said. "Too much talk in that direction indicated a breach of the pastoral boundary."

It should be noted that some conservative Catholic groups are not happy with Sirico because of his past but also because many of them do not believe his claim to be celibate these days. One anti-Sirico organization implies rather strongly that Sirico is involved in a relationship with a Father David Grondz. Grondz and Sirico live together in a house (left) shared with two other priests. Given Sirico's public position that a priest should not be honest with the public about his sexual orientation it would be difficult to assume any answers he gives on the matter would be forthright.

None of this history has prevented Sirico from acting in a very antigay manner or allowing his Acton associates from doing so. Sirico, as we saw, was attacking another priest for honestly admitting to being gay. When Prop 8 was being funded by the Templeton network (who fund Sirico as well) we saw Roback, who is on the Acton Institute Board of Advisors, running around California demanding that gays be treated as second class citizens based on hyper-Catholic fundamentalism.

When New Zealand was debating, and eventually passing, civil unions for gay couples an Acton staff member, Samuel Gregg was sending op-eds to the Kiwi press. Gregg was taking the conservative, not the libertarian position. He said that “discrimination is not unjust” and “denying such benefits [to gay couples] is not unjust.” He dismisses the claim “that a homosexual couple’s relationship can be equal to a man and woman’s relationship.” Gregg, instead of present libertarian ideas presents hard-core Catholicism says that marriage has one purpose only and that is “procreating and raising children.” He says: “By definition, homosexual relationships are incapable of service such an end.”

Gregg goes further than promoting the Catholic view, forged in antiquated theology. He says, “legal recognition [of gay couples] might actually constitute discrimination against all those exclusive, enduring, dependent relationships that also lack a non-procreative, indeed non-sexual dimension, such as an unmarried son caring for his invalid father.” Gregg already dismissed the idea that this is similar to any loving life-long partnership simply because it does not produce children. All sex, in Catholic teaching, must be procreative or it is sinful. All Gregg is doing is claiming that Catholic theology (and this is uniquely Catholic) must have the force of law.

Gregg ended his piece claiming that giving any legal rights to gay couples “appear[s] contrary to justice’s demands and society’s common good.”

Roback-Morse has also published publicly using her “Acton” credentials as a “senior fellow at the Acton Institute” to attack equality for gay couples. Morse was particular dishonest in her piece repeating claims that the Templeton funded Prop 8 campaign made and which we debunked here long ago.

Morse claimed that legalized gay marriage brought “state regulation of other parts of society” and used as examples the wedding photographer in New Mexico, the Methodist social center in New Jersey and Catholic Charities in Boston. There is no gay marriage in New Mexico so how was that related? Morse intentionally muddles cases based on anti-discrimination laws and claimed they were involved with gay marriage laws. They were completely unrelated and banning gay marriage wouldn’t solve that. But under her Acton credentials she published this lies in “America’s most complete Catholic newsweekly.” Apparently Morse’s hyper-Catholicism doesn’t say anything about not lying to the public.

One has to wonder if the substantial salary that Sirico receives, well in excess of $100,000, influences what Sirico allows to happen. Certainly the money that Acton receives comes largely from Templeton directly, or from Templeton indirectly through the Atlas Foundation.

Acton has also worked hard to subvert libertarian principles by convincing libertarians to basically become social conservatives. They wrote that libertarians “have an incentive to consider at least some policy activities of social conservatives as potentially justifiable and beneficial even within a libertarian framework.” Their argument is that a free society must have “social capital” which is widely defined as virtue, trust, etc. This then becomes “morals” which apparently then justifies a theocratic view on sex, pornography, drugs, prostitution, gambling, etc. By using vague concepts like “social capital” they convert the ideas like trust, which markets rewards and help encourage, into morals legislation that controls.

Acton also tells libertarians, falsely; that all conservatives have done is “attempt to preserve laws under attack by an activist judiciary.” That is a lie. Conservatives have also tried to prevent legislative change. Libertarianism is not inherently opposed to an activist judiciary if it is constrained by the views of the Constitution. Numerous libertarian legal scholars like Randy Barnett, Clint Bolick, and Stephen Macedo have written about that topic. Here Acton is again substituting the conservative position for the libertarian one and telling libertarians that the new view is really libertarian.

A Right-wing religious group called the Maxim Institute ran the campaign in New Zealand to deny equal treatment before the law for gay couples. Maxim was explicitly anti-free market and attacked Milton Friedman when he died. Maxim said Friedman was "simplistic" and said he ignored the "social good". They say that "the individualist view, espoused by Friedman" is just as wrong as the collectivist view mainly because it ignores the desire of theocrats like Maxim to impose Christian morality by the force of law. They couch their theocracy with left-wing phrases like "the interconnectedness of community and the relational nature of human society." Apparently this interconnectedness means they gain the right to use state imposed violence to make people obey their moral agenda.

Maxim has run campaigns exclusively on socially conservative issues. It has never taken an explicitly libertarian position on anything. Maxim spent most their budget in two years to combat the legalization of brothels and the civil unions legislation.

These campaigns were funded, in part, with money that Atlas Foundation gave them. In fact this money was just Templeton money channeled through Atlas. In 2005 alone Maxim received three “awards” from Atlas for their anti-libertarian positions.
…The US-based Atlas Economic Research Foundation awarded Maxim Institute three Templeton Freedom Prizes, for: Institute Excellence (1st place) Social Entrepreneurship (2nd place) and Initiative in Public Relations (2nd place).
Some of the awards, which are all accompanied by healthy doses of Templeton money, were precisely for Maxim pushing an anti-gay, morally conservative position. Maxim was doing nothing else at the time. Atlas had begun openly funding anti-liberty campaigns by the Religious Right. This, no doubt, satisfied the ultra-Right views of the Templeton family. But it represented a substantial betrayal by Atlas of their previous role in promoting libertarianism. On the Atlas website they acknowledged that Maxim got funds because they “conducted comprehensive research into pending legislation on civil unions that threatened to weaken the nuclear family.”
Acton also lies when they say: “Social conservatives have not fought for some new regime of moral authority at the expense of freedom. Rather, they have tried to save the old one because of the educational effect of law.” So drug laws don’t incarcerate people or strip them of their rights it merely educates them. Apparently arresting people for sodomy is merely educational not a violation of rights.

To a degree conservatives are fighting to defend an old order, which is what conservatives do. Such is the nature of conservatism. But when did the "old order" become necessarily libertarian. Conservatives were defending the old moral order when it denied blacks equal rights. They are now defending the old moral order when it denies gay couples the rights that other couples have. But defending the old moral order is precisely why libertarians condemn conservatives, even conservatives like the Acton crowd who pretend to be libertarians.

Another notorious socially conservative outfit is the Sutherland Institute. They are so antigay that they didn't want gay people to have the right to visit their partners in hospital. Granting even that legal right, they contend, is a trick. Any recognition of the rights of gay couples, they say, means that gay marriage will eventually be recognized and that shocks them. They have also worked closely with the new agenda of Atlas. In 2004 Atlas and Sutherland hosted a conference in Utah which brought together anti-gay, social conservatives like Daniel Lapin, Samuel Gregg of Acton, and Greg Fleming of the Maxim Institute.

What is clear is that Templeton money is corrupting libertarian think tanks and individuals. Templeton has worked hard to push a religious agenda. Atlas did not previously cater to the Religious Right. It was quite openly secular. And while it focused on economic issues it was not opposed to social liberty. It certainly never actively funded a Right-wing moralistic agenda until they gave money to the notorious Maxim Institute. For most of its history Atlas didn’t try to merge religion and politics.

In recent years, with large amounts of Templeton money funding Atlas and its programs it has drifted further and further from libertarian shores toward the choppy, open waters of social conservatism. One indication has been how Atlas regularly ties their annual conference for think tanks to those held by the conservative, religious-right Heritage Foundation. Even there, where Heritage was constantly invoking God and having public prayers, Atlas did no such thing – until this year. Now they are sending a message to the Religious Right and the Templeton family that they are on board. At the Atlas Liberty Forum in Los Angeles they have announced an excursion for participants to the “award-winning Gospel Brunch” of “live music” and dining “sure to excite the senses and ignite the soul.” The entire thrust of this breakfast is “different gospel groups from around the region”. As the Gospel Brunch site says: “Praise the Lord and pass the biscuits?”
The demand for such a “Gospel Brunch” among the Atlas circle of think tanks, I would think, would be rather low. Atlas works with a worldwide network of think tanks. Despite the funding of Maxim, few of these other think tanks explicitly adopt a Christianist viewpoint. Most Atlas affiliates in Europe are run by individuals who see themselves as secular. Some might be nominal Christian, most not even that. A large percentage of them would call themselves atheists or agnostic. In other parts of the world the Atlas affiliated think tanks are run by secular oriented Hindus or Buddhists and even Muslims.

Promoting a “Gospel Brunch” to the Atlas affiliates makes little sense. The demand for such a thing is not coming from the affiliates. Some, I suspect, will be downright stunned at the idea and even a few offended. Why Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, atheists or Hindus would be interested in promoting the Gospel is not immediately clear. Certainly outside the United States I would guess that the majority of the heads of Atlas affiliates are not Christians and fewer still would be anything more than nominal Christians. Is Atlas just letting the Templetons know they are willing to bend libertarianism in order to receive conservative money?

The conversion of genuine libertarian groups into conservative groups is happening before our eyes. At first the libertarians decide they want conservative money. To get that cash they start to downplay the issues that divide libertarians from conservatives. Here and there they will make a token gesture toward libertarianism, but the civil liberties issues and foreign policy issues begin to disappear from the agenda. Eventually they disappear altogether.

At this point the groups still claim to be libertarian because they are not openly opposing libertarian viewpoints on these issues. They claim to be only focusing on economic issues and not on social issues. But over time the conservatives gain more and more control. The think tanks and groups then hire conservatives with Religious-Right motivations. But since it is only economics that is on the agenda they say this is justified. Slowly the theocratic tendencies of the Religious Right assert themselves.

Father Sirico is a perfect example. He went from a hard-core libertarian to promoting just the economic agenda. He then started covering up his past and went so far as to try to go back into the closet in regards to his own homosexuality. From pioneering gay marriage, to being silent on it, he now heads an organization with notorious antigay bigots who openly attack gay equality in the name of his organization.

I doubt that Sirico changed his personal views that much. But the funding from Templeton and other antigay bigots is very lucrative. We don’t see Sirico attacking gay people, and I doubt we will. But his underlings do the job instead.

Eventually these “libertarian” think tanks become conservative think tanks. Acton clearly is not libertarian anymore but actively promoting a conservative agenda. One reason is the funding and the Templeton money is a big part of that. Atlas, unfortunately, seems to be moving in that direction. For years it was simply silent on social freedom and concentrated on economics. In funding Maxim they finally financed a group that was not pushing economic freedom at all (they derided it in fact) but pushed nothing but a pure Religious-Right moral agenda.

Now Atlas is promoting a “Gospel Brunch” which makes no sense given the nature of the groups that have affiliated with them. While this may be baffling, or even offensive, to some in the Atlas network, it will send a positive message to the Templeton network and that is worth hundreds of millions of dollars. And to think I thought they were anti-prostitution when they funded Maxim.

Note: For the full context of what we wrote about Maxim and their "eulogy" for Milton Friedman, go here.

Images: 1) John Templeton; 2) a press clipping showing Sirico performing the gay marriage; 3) the LA Times article on the radical Sirico and 4) the house that Sirico shares, 5) the Atlas promotion on the Gospel Brunch.

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