In the past few weeks, Delaware Congressional candidate Christine O’Donnell has come under ridicule for seeming embellishments to her résumé. A CV posted on the networking site LinkedIn transformed a 2001 summer seminar she attended in rented space at Oxford University into a term of study at the school, and represented a week-long fellowship at the right-wing think tank the Claremont Institute as graduate coursework at Claremont Graduate University. Although, at O’Donnell’s request, the profile has since been taken down—her campaign claimed the enhanced resume was a fake posted to embarrass her (a charge LinkedIn expressly would not confirm, and other sources seem to refute), the real story is what O’Donnell actually did learn at the Claremont Institute, and how thoroughly the candidate absorbed its viciously antigay politics.
The Claremont Institute, which shares no official affiliation with the consortium of seven interconnected schools that make up Claremont Colleges but which lists a number of Claremont McKenna College faculty as fellows or scholars, works on a number of projects, including hawkish advocacy for ballistic missile defense programs. But its most feverish passion seems to be opposition to gay rights, evident in the Institute’s advocacy against gay teachers or Boy Scout leaders and in support of "reparative" gay conversion therapy. The Institute, which publishes the right-wing Claremont Review of Books, was founded in 1979 by students of Harry Jaffa, a philosophy professor who studied under neocon patriarch Leo Strauss and the author of Barry Goldwater’s famous call for "extremism in defense of liberty." The institute praises extremism in its own right, this year bestowing its Statesmanship Award on Dick Cheney. O’Donnell’s fellow Tea Partier, Sharron Angle, claims that in 2004 she was awarded its Ronald Reagan Freedom Medallion.
But like many right-wing institutions investing in conservatism’s future, the institute focuses on new faces in the movement, offering two fellowships for young conservative leaders, including the Lincoln Fellowship O’Donnell was awarded in 2002. Participant lists for the fellowship are a catalogue of Congressional staffers, state Republican party operatives and conservative pundits in the making, including Andrew Breitbart, who went on from his fellowship to accuse former USDA appointee Shirley Sherrod of racism against whites this summer, and National Review’s Kathryn Jean Lopez. One past participant, Brian Lee, a former staffer for the staunchly anti-choice Congressman Jeff Fortenberry, called the institute a premier "training ground for a lifetime campaign in the trenches of political warfare." Another, 2009 fellow Jon Fleischman of FlashReport.com, compared the fellowship to "taking the ‘red pill’ " of The Matrix. The Institute itself says it is targeting "rising stars of the conservative movement … to teach them how to be ‘able and orthodox teachers.’"
Political orthodoxy lessons for Lincoln Fellows come from Institute associates, including Jaffa, a Lincoln scholar and professor emeritus at Claremont McKenna and Claremont Graduate University, who continues to be one of the Institute’s most prominent faces. Other notable Institute mainstays include conservative pundit and former Bush I drug czar William Bennett, a fellow Straussian who made headlines in 2005 for suggesting black abortions could lower crime rates, and Ken Masugi, who became a speechwriter for Alberto Gonzales. But it’s Jaffa who has shaped the culture of the Institute—so much so that Institute followers are nicknamed "Jaffanese Americans"—and one of the core values he’s inculcated is a venomous homophobia.
In a series of similar essays stretching over decades, Jaffa’s chief mode is using Lincoln or other founding fathers to further antigay arguments, charging in "the premier publication" of the institute’s Center for the Study of Natural Law, that the same natural understanding of morality that declares slavery wrong, because of the natural understanding of shared humanity, also must declare homosexuality wrong, because of the natural understanding of differences between the sexes. If sodomy is not condemned as unnatural, Jaffa wrote in a 1993 debate over a book review, then nothing is unnatural, and nothing is wrong. The resulting slippery slope from accepting gay rights, he has argued in numerous articles and letters, would justify slavery, genocide, cannibalism and, predictably, the atrocities of Hitler and Stalin. Not one to shrink from bombastic analogies, in 1989 Jaffa contributed an article for the Claremont Colleges’ weekly magazine, Collage, composed of an imagined conversation (modeled, he explained, on Thucydides) between Ted Bundy and a victim, wherein Bundy justifies murder and rape because other biblical sins, namely sodomy, were no longer condemned by society.
Jaffa’s focus on "natural law," explains Gary Segura, a political science professor at Stanford University, follows from a school of political thought that holds that the "just order of society is rooted in the design of nature." Consequently, Jaffa and his heavily Straussian colleagues at the Institute would argue homosexuality "is contrary to the order of nature and therefore inherently in conflict with the foundational principles of free government. If all ‘rights’ are rooted in the natural law, there can–by definition–be no ‘right’ to same sex equality, marriage, etc."
Jaffa continued to court controversy by applauding a conservative parody of a LGBT awareness event at Claremont Colleges that promoted "Bestiality and Incest Awareness Days," and later calling for the resignation of the Deans Committee that denounced the parody campaign since, Jaffa wrote, they were putting students’ physical and moral health at risk by celebrating the rights of the "sodomite lifestyle" that he argues is responsible for AIDS. Instead, Jaffa writes, "Sodomites should be returned to the closet, where they were of relatively little danger to themselves and others." (Writing in critique of Jaffa, Philip Dynia, Chair of Political Science at Loyola University, New Orleans, wryly distilled Jaffa’s natural law arguments as: "nature will guard the traditional family, even it means killing every queer on the planet.")
Translating this ideology to action, the iInstitute filed an Amicus brief in the 2000 Supreme Court Case between the Boy Scouts of America and James Dale. In the brief, the iInstitute referred back to its 1996 publication, On the Front Lines of the Culture War: Recent Attacks on the Boy Scouts of America, written by William Donohue, the bellicose head of the Catholic League: For Religious and Civil Rights who famously argued that Hollywood is controlled by secular Jews who prefer anal sex and abortions to families and children, and who suggested in his institute book that gays form alternative "Gay Scouts" or "Girl Boy Scouts." In 1998, just weeks after the murder of Matthew Shepherd, the institute co-sponsored a conference in Los Angeles with the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, which promotes the idea that homosexuality is a developmental disorder that can be cured—a practical extension of Jaffa’s assertion in his essay "Why Sodomy Is Not Gay" that homosexuality is a genetic birth defect.
Although the institute has no official ties to the Claremont Colleges, there is significant crossover of faculty, particularly in the Government department of Claremont McKenna, which Segura notes is a particularly strong outpost of Straussianism. Strauss himself taught at Claremont Men’s College, before it became Claremont McKenna. Other Claremont Institute fellows and scholars include eight CMC Government and Political Science professors who together compose the entirety of CMC’s Henry Salvatori Center for the Study of Individual Freedom (named for its Goldwater campaigning founder), and indicate the extent of overlap between the Institute and the school. In this conservative culture, another CMC professor, Ken Miller, who is not among the Institute’s fellows or scholars but who spoke at an Institute conference on California public policy, later became the only credentialed political scientist to testify in defense of California’s Proposition 8.
Graduating from a school of thought like this, it’s no wonder that Christine O’Donnell’s history, including recent examples from her campaign, has been marked by hostility to gay rights. Prior to her attendance, O’Donnell publicly argued that AIDS funding should be slashed and that gay advocacy groups "get away" with too much, including blasphemy and perversion. As founder of the conservative Christian group Savior’s Alliance for Lifting the Truth (SALT), she became involved with the "ex-gay" movement that claims homosexuality is a treatable illness when, in 2000, her then-spokesperson Wade Richards described at a Washington press conference how he was cured of homosexuality, kicking off a national tour with O’Donnell promoting Richards’s conversion story. After Richards came back out to O’Donnell a year later, he alleged in a recent YouTube video, O’Donnell refused further contact with him.
While O’Donnell has dismissed other past embarrassing statements—on witchcraft and masturbation—as the zeal of a new convert, as recently as 2006 she told a Wilmington reporter that homosexuality is "an identity disorder." And in her campaign this year, O’Donnell has repeatedly dipped into homophobic tactics, arguably furthering a rumor that her primary opponent, Mike Castle, is gay, calling his campaign "unmanly" and bidding him to, "Get your man pants on."
With a history of homophobic statements stretching back to 1997, O’Donnell’s perspective wasn’t formed by the Claremont Institute, but its likely influence in cementing her views is easy to imagine. Given her recent track record on gay issues, it seems she learned the institute’s lessons well.