It's a fair bet that almost nobody in the North Bay under the age of 50 has heard of the Eagle Forum. Maybe that's how the California branch of the 80,000-member-strong right-wing political organization managed to slip into Rohnert Park practically undetected for a March 31 education conference. Presentations at the event covered everything from gay marriage to world government.
Starting at 9am and running into an evening dinner session, the conference attracted some 150 middle-aged white people who filled the large, round dining tables in the Vineyard Room of the Doubletree Hotel. There, they listened to a variety of speakers, including their guru, the 81-year-old notorious anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly.
Touted as the leader of the women's conservative movement, Schlafly--and the Eagle Forum--were leaders in defeating the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) during the 1970s. If the ERA had been ratified, this federal constitutional amendment would have guaranteed equal rights to all Americans regardless of gender.
Schlafly chose the name "Eagle Forum" because she was "impressed with how the eagle flies into the wind and then uses the wind to raise it even higher," according to Orlean Koehle, president of the Eagle Forum of California and a main organizer of the recent conference.
Over the years, and with Schlafly still at the helm, the Eagle Forum has branched out to promote a full spectrum of "pro-family" and "Christian values" issues. Her signature blonde bouffant still impeccably in place, Schlafly was forceful, articulate and even humorous at the March conference, expounding without notes her latest political thorn in her side: "activist" judges. "There's one good thing that George Bush said," she quipped. "He won't stand for activist judges."
While Eagle Forum members support Bush for his "pro-family" platform, it turns out they oppose his policy of creating closer ties between the United States, Canada and Mexico. Strangely, the conference was not exactly a Bush administration love-fest.
Lashing out at the federal judiciary, Schlafly admonished the circuit courts for decisions involving the Boy Scout jamboree, parents' rights in schools, teaching about Islam in public schools, the Ten Commandments, the Pledge of Allegiance, immigration, abortion and pornography. "The federal courts are uniformly antiparent and pro-public schools," she complained. "Their decisions are mostly pro-homosexuality. Diversity is becoming the new religion of public schools."
She also objected to the Massachusetts state court decision in favor of same-sex marriage, saying one of the judges, who comes from South Africa, was influenced by "foreign sources."
"Now we have liberal majorities on all of the circuits except the 15th," she continued. "And you can't count on Republican presidents; seven out of the nine last appointments were made by Republicans."
Her goal, she said, is to pass legislation to "limit the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court in areas where we don't trust them." Admitting that's a hopeless task under a Democratic Congress, she exhorted her followers to "get together in study groups" the way the early Eagle Forum members did when they were fighting the ERA. "This is the way we're going to take back the American self-government," she said. "The Democrats won the last election by choosing candidates just a hair to the left of the Republicans."
Koehle, a Santa Rosa resident, has been doing her homework for several years. She said she first became concerned about the schools when two of her children were required to take the California Learning Assessment Test. The test, which is no longer administered by the state, asked leading questions, according to Koehle. "There was an obvious agenda," she says. "I became involved in standing up for what I thought was a very scary situation in the public schools."
So she started a couple of local organizations to fight against what she sees as a liberal bias in the schools, then decided to join the Eagle Forum. Now she also works two to three days a week as a substitute teacher. "It lets me see what's going on in our public schools," she explains.
According to the speech she delivered at the Eagle Forum conference, one of the things Koehle saw was an emphasis on teaching children about Islam in seventh-grade world history. She said the state-approved text includes 78 pages about Islamic history and only 46 pages about Christianity. And it requires students to read and memorize such Islamic documents as the "Five Pillars of Islam," but does not make the same demands concerning such Christian literature as the Bible.
Even worse, according to Koehle, the textbook appears to be biased in favor of Islam. "Throughout this book, it always mentions how tolerant the Muslims were of the Jews and Christians. Everything is always favorable about Islam," she said. "There is always a little slant against the Christians. It's part of the multiculturalism being taught today, that all cultures are equal."
An independent survey of the text World History: Medieval and Modern Times instead reveals some 91 pages about Christianity and its historical influences, 65 pages about Islam and the Muslim Empire, 25 pages about Judaism and fewer pages about other religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism.
As a long-term substitute teacher, Koehle said that when religion is on the lesson plan, she spends her time teaching about Christianity instead of Islam. "If I'm going to be teaching a religion, I want to teach the religion of my choice," she told the conference to laughter and applause.
Koehle was also part of a group that protested against the Diversity Day program in Santa Rosa high schools a few years ago. Earlier this year, she testified on behalf of a family that is suing the Santa Rosa schools for alleged religious discrimination. At the conference, she talked about the possibility of suing the schools once again over the teaching of Islam.
"We believe in traditional education based on Judeo-Christian values," Koehle told the Eagle Forum audience. She indicated that the current public school philosophy is based on the "Prussian" model, where "children belong to the state" rather than to their parents. "Such a system would make it ideal for a dictator to come in and take over," she warned, setting up what would be a common theme for the conference: fear of domination from within or without the U.S.
The public school system is a main focus for members of the Eagle Forum. Not only are they attempting to inhibit teaching about diversity, but they also view environmental education as a danger.
Susan O'Donnell specializes in what she believes are "internationalist" influences in American education, with an emphasis on bashing the National Education Association for promoting so-called "progressive" education. "Our national education system is becoming of a branch of UNESCO," she warned.
But the biggest threat to America's schoolchildren, according to O'Donnell, is the teaching of environmentalism, or "sustainability," with the primary culprits being Al Gore and the Green Party.
"Did you know Al Gore is causing people to go to therapists because of his global-warming theories?" she asked. "There's a new malady: eco-anxiety. His film An Inconvenient Truth is targeted at children to advance a political agenda below the radar."
As she continued, her voice grew louder until she was almost screaming. "Education for sustainability is a tool for the Green movement. They're going to the children first because the American people would say no," she exhorted, evoking Hitler, Lenin and Marx as examples.
"This is systems thinking. The goal is to completely transform education. It teaches the ideology of the Green Party by incorporating sustainability into all of the curriculum. This is ecological child abuse. The Greens have gotten God out of our schools. Humanism is the new order--that land cannot be bought and sold. This transcends all other systems. It diminishes the value of individual success, which is the cornerstone of our nation." At this point, some audience members groaned. "If this continues unchecked it will result in rapid, nationwide indoctrination of our children to support the Green Party."
In the same vein, Koehle described a classroom she observed where, after saying the Pledge of Allegiance, students also intoned a "pledge to the earth."
"A little blue earth flag was hanging up next to the American flag," she said, her voice filled with incredulity.
In a telephone interview some time later, Sebastopol Councilman Larry Robinson, one of four elected Sonoma County officials who are members of the Green Party, chuckled at O'Donnell's evaluation of Green Party power.
"I appreciate their estimation of the Green Party and wish it were so, but there are only 7,000 registered Green Party members in Sonoma County. And the idea that the Green Party wants a world government, or to tell people what to do, is 180 degrees off. The Green Party wants decisions to be made at the most local level possible. Land-use decisions should be made by local governments and even neighborhoods. Of course, issues that affect the global picture clearly need to be worked out at the international level by international agreement. Wind blowing and rivers running don't stop at national borders."
In Robinson's opinion, the Eagle Forum's aversion to environmentalism has an economic basis or religious basis--or both. "It's a misunderstanding of what sustainability is, or some other agenda," he says. "Some religious-right people believe we are in the End Times and that resources should be consumed as quickly as possible in order to bring about the Second Coming of Christ," he said. "This marries perfectly with the agenda of the extractive industries. Corporations are only interested in the next quarter's profits. The Republicans are in both streams," he concluded.
But Forum members' fears about internationalism aren't limited to attacking the left end of the political spectrum. They also rail against the Bush administration for its alleged promotion of something called "The North American Union."
"We're so upset with President Bush because he won't stand up for American sovereignty," Koehle said.
The North American Union is a phrase coined by a trilateral independent task force composed of representatives from the United States, Mexico and Canada that advocates a greater social and economic connection between the three countries. Eagle Forum members and others on the far right believe the task force's report is a blueprint for a political union between the three countries, like the European Union. They fear it would impinge on U.S. sovereignty.
"We don't want our laws harmonized with Canada and Mexico," Koehle said in a telephone interview. "The European Union really has become a government for all 27 nations, and we're afraid the North American Union would be like that."
But Andy Merrifield, a political science professor at Sonoma State University, dismisses those fears, saying relations between the three countries of North America are not likely to include political homogenization.
"It's a semi-offshoot of NAFTA," Merrifield said. "I don't know anybody who seriously thinks it's going to be anything but a trade agreement. It is not similar to the European Union. There is no parliament that would hold power over the governments of the United States, Canada and Mexico."
Merrifield reminds that it took the Europeans 50 years to create the E.U. and that the union's parliament is more of a debating society with no real jurisdiction over the political affairs of its member nations. He also predicted it would be "500 years" before the United States would consider a political union with Canada and Mexico.
Another tenet of the Eagle Forum and other far right groups is the inalienable right to private property. Sebastopol resident Maria Donnelly spoke about her successful opposition to a plan to protect rivers and streams by requiring landowners to increase riparian corridor setbacks in the 2020 update of the Sonoma County general plan. Resistance to the plan has led the county to reconsider it.
"We have affected change because we have been sitting there at every meeting of the board of supervisors and the planning commission," Donnelly explains.
This local effort, in which she was joined by Koehle, reflects the Eagle Forum belief that American democracy is based on the right to private property and that all efforts to protect wildlife habitat threatens to destroy that right. She described United Nations projects to protect and restore wildlife habitats around the world as "communism at its finest. Al Gore is leading America and the world down the path of destruction," she decried.
Of course, a gathering of the religious right would not be complete without a choral arrangement of the Seven Deadly Sins, according to its own interpretation of the Bible.
At the conference, there were verses about assisted suicide, gay marriage, abortion and the "religious left." The choir included a doctor from Sebastopol, a right-wing talk show host, the head of the Sacramento-based Campaign for Children and Families and a Petaluma priest who opposes the Episcopal Church's acceptance of homosexuality.
Dr. Steven Crane, an emergency-room physician at Palm Drive Hospital in Sebastopol, linked assisted suicide with abortion and the financial difficulties hospitals are facing in Sonoma County and around the nation.
"God is withdrawing support from hospitals [because they perform abortions and allow expiring patients to die]," he warned. "That's why they are failing. There have been 40 million abortions since Roe v. Wade," he continued. "That's a generation of children. I am concerned that abortion is intimately connected with assisted suicide. There won't be enough young people to take care of the old people."
The hero du jour of the local religious right came to the podium, fresh from a graveside memorial for one of his parishioners. Pastor David Miller of St. John Anglican Church in Petaluma, formerly St. John Episcopal Church, wept as he described his church's withdrawal from the American Episcopal Convention over the national church's acceptance of gay marriage and gay leadership. "The Episcopal Convention undermines the authority of the Bible," he said to a chorus of amens from the audience.
Hughes had the last word when she claimed that "the 'political left' is manipulating the church to win the 2008 election. "I believe they are using religion to manipulate, to get a vote. All of a sudden the liberals have got religion. They have books saying how to take back the country from the right wing. Will the voters get it? They'll get it if we tell them," she said.
But despite Eagle Forum members' obvious enthusiasm, Merrifield believes their anti-ERA heyday is over and dismisses their efforts as marginal.
"They are maybe useful in rallying the troops," he said, "but at 80,000 strung all over this country in little groups, they are very small."
Still, not unlike the far left, Eagle Forum members can affect local change, such as Maria Donnelly's effort to protect private property rights in the Sonom County general plan update. And their conviction appears to be deeply rooted and even amiable. But Merrifield feels that it is misplaced.
"The reality is, they're talking about a world that never existed, an America that never was," he said.