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The Rise of the Religious Right in the Republican Party

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Printed in Playboy, March, 1993

Under cover of a devastating republican defeat, Pat Robertson's operatives hope to hijack the ship of state.

article by Joe Conason

A wide range of Americans celebrated lustily the night the Republicans lost the White House.  Breaking out the champagne after 12 years of GOP rule were the old left, the new Democrats, the pro-choicers, the environmentalists, women, minorities and gays.  But those corks may have been popped in vain, or at least prematurely.  The defeat of George Bush may mark only the true takeoff point for the increasingly powerful religious right, a movement far more ominous than any represented by Bush or Ronald Reagan.  It is a movement whose intolerance and fanaticism have been festering for years, but which America has glimpsed only in recent months.

Two weeks after Election Day, it reared into view at, of all places, a Republican governor's meeting in Wisconsin.  Having gathered to nurse their wounds, the governors held a brief press conference at the end of their two-day confab.  It should have been a dull affair.  Mississippi Governor Kirk Fordice unexpectedly livened it up when he took the microphone and declared that America is a "Christian nation."

Such sentiments are anathema to most Republican politicians, including Carroll Campbell, the conservative governor of South Carolina, who is one of former Republican National Committee chairman Lee Atwater's great success stories. Governor Campbell leapt to the microphone to explain that of course the nation's values come from our "Judeo-Christian heritage.  I just wanted to add the Judeo part."  Fordice glared at his Dixie colleague and retorted sharply, "If I wanted to do that, I would have done it."

The following day, as people lined up to denounce his exclusionary rhetoric, the Mississippi governor's statement blew up in his face.  He swiftly apologized.  But it seems reasonable to note--as he himself did at first blush--that Kirk Fordice meant what he said the first time.  After all, he was a political novice when he was elected in 1991, and he gained his high office with the help of the nation's wealthiest, fastest-growing, most powerful and best organized grassroots political movement; the resurgent Christian right.  No group is more important to that movement than the little-known 300,000-member Christian Coalition, which is led by televangelist Pat Robertson.

It was one more example of why moderates and even many conservatives in the Republican Party are running scared.  A few of them, including former Senator Warren Rudman and former Representative Tom Campbell, are now organizing to keep their party from being taken over by Robertson forces. But so far their Republican Majority Coalition, founded last December, is little more than a fund-raising letterhead, and they are scared because they know it may already be too late.

Although most Americans first noticed that a strangely authoritarian tone had reentered the nation's politics during the Republican convention in Houston last August, local Republican politicos in certain key states began to realize that their party was being taken over as early as the spring of 1992.

For example, when the upright Republicans of suburban San Antonio, Texas got together to choose the delegates they would send to the 1992 Republican National Convention, they probably expected the usual staid and utterly predictable proceedings.  They had gone to sleep that beautiful spring night of the Texas presidential primary confident that all was well in their neat little world.  And why not?  Their president, the quintessential country-club Republican George Bush, had wupped Pat Buchanan badly and that was the end, wasn't it?

Well, not quite.  At the delegate selection meetings, the party regulars began to notice a lot of unfamiliar faces. After that, it took only a few hours for the new activists of the Christian right to blow away the country-club GOP in that part of Texas.  With laser-beam precision, they elected new chairmen and passed resolutions against abortion, sex education, AIDS education and gay rights, and for the abolition of the National Endowment for the Arts.

The rich Republicans of San Antonio's Bexar County consider themselves very conservative.  And they are.  But the politics of this new crowd gave them a bad scare.  Not long after the Christian rightists staged their coup, the president of the Alamo City Republican Women's club just gave up and quit.

"The so-called Christian activists have finally gained control," she explained in her resignation letter, "and the Grand Old Party is more religious cult than political organization."

Of course, that was Texas, a traditional hotbed of Birchers and Bible jocks.  Couldn't happen anywhere else, could it?

Next came the Pennsylvania primary, where moderate Republicans slept soundly after cheering the defeat of an ultraconservative challenger to their incumbent senator, Arlen Specter.  For them, the shock came the next day, when the votes for obscure Republican state committee positions were tallied.  From nowhere, conservative Christians had grabbed dozens of seats.  The militant newcomers are now close to controlling the Republican Party in Pennsylvania, too.

In June, in the San Diego County towns of Lemon Grove and El Cajon, a slate of "pro-family" Christian right activists financed by a group of conservative businessmen swept the Republican primary for all of the open council seats, along with a slew of state assembly seats.  On the same day, several hundred miles to the north in Santa Clara Country, another slate of "biblically oriented" candidates--committed to the death penalty for such sins as homosexuality and abortion--captured 14 of 20 seats on the Republican county central committee.  The GOP apparatus in the nation's most populous state is within a few votes of being absolutely controlled by the Christian right.

These not-so-isolated incidents foreshadow a change taking place in American politics--a shift that has nothing to do with bounced checks, smoking bimbos, talk shows, dirty tricks or any other floating ephemera of campaign 1992.  Across the nation, in primary after primary, stunned Republican leaders echoed the lament of one longtime party activist in Texas, a personal friend of Barbara Bush, who suddenly found herself ousted by the fundamentalists.  "They organized and we didn't," she said.  "I didn't think it was going to be this bad."

A leading Christian right organizer in southern California put it much more cheerfully when he said, "How do you eat an elephant?  One bite at a time."

The elephant being eyed so hungrily by the Christian right seems to be in no position to defend itself.  If the Republicans were vulnerable to a takeover by Robertson's forces before November's debacle, they are even more so now.

On Election Day, as the Bush-Quayle ticket sank, taking many Republican candidates down with it, the Christian Coalition claimed several key victories, particularly the defeat of Terry Sanford (the liberal Democratic senator from North Carolina) and the passage of an antigay referendum in Colorado.  A few weeks later, when a special runoff election was held to choose a senator in Georgia, the religious right muscled incumbent Democrat Wyche Fowler, Jr. out of his seat in favor of Republican Paul Coverdell.  Bill Clinton had taken time from his transition chores to campaign for Fowler, and the senator's loss marked the first political setback for the president-elect.

Like the hapless Republican moderates, you probably thought you no longer had to worry about the likes of Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart and Jerry Falwell.  It's true that those three divines are gone, but the vacuum they left has been more than filled by Pat Robertson and a host of lesser inquisitors. And the smiling host of the 700 club--an extremely wealthy businessman, whose father was a Democratic U.S. senator and who controls a worldwide communications network--is smarter, tougher and far more committed than his brethren who fell by the wayside. Thanks to his 1988 presidential candidacy, moreover, Robertson is now the acknowledged, preeminent political leader of right-wing evangelicals in America.  He has no rivals of any significance.

Even now, only a few Americans are aware of the resurrection of the Christian right, a political movement pronounced dead at the end of the Eighties, because it has occurred in places largely unnoticed by Beltway pundits.  Reporters and commentators, fascinated by the fleeting phenomena of Ross Perot and Jerry Brown, ignored Robertson and his troops for most of the election year, just as they have since the televangelist's own 1988 campaign ended in failure.

Since the shock of the Republican convention, there has been a smattering of press attention, chiefly in the major national dailies.  Reporters occasionally turn to Ralph Reed, Jr., the baby-faced but aggressive young executive director of Christian Coalition, for comment, but most political analysts still have only the vaguest idea of what Robertson has been up to the past few years.  He and his allies have been funneling millions of dollars into the Christian Coalition, which now has more than 550 chapters and hundreds of thousands of members in all states.  Last year the coalition spent about $8 million, tax-exempt, on "voter education" efforts.

Back when Robertson was running for president, he often complained about the national media?s scornful attitude toward his conversations with God and his claims of working miracles.  But these days the skepticism of the press suits him just fine.  Much as Robertson still loves the sound of his own voice, the preacher has called no press conferences to boast about the quiet victories his candidates have scored.  He still rarely mentions Christian Coalition in the secular media.

Last May, for instance, when he was trying to buy United Press International, Robertson appeared on CNN's Larry King Live and talked about politics, but not Christian politics. He understands that political guerrilla warfare is most effective when nobody's looking.  "I paint my face and travel at night" is how Ralph Reed describes Christian Coalition?s stealthy campaign methods.  "You don?t know it's over until you?re in a body bag.  You don?t know until election night."

As Pat Robertson?s organizers fan out across the countryside registering churchgoers, canvassing ?pro-family? voters, preparing campaign literature, training precinct captains and keeping a low profile, he seeks nothing less than control of the Republican Party by the Christian right.  While it may sound ambitious, seizing the GOP is only the first step in a plan that begins at the bottom of the political system and extends far beyond the current electoral horizon.

"Our next goal is to elect conservative pro-family majorities in the legislatures of at least thirty-five states.  Then, when we get that, we?ll go on to fifty," Robertson told an audience of 800 Christian activists during a closed meeting at his Virginia headquarters in November 1991. 

We want to see a working majority of the Republican Party in the hands of pro-family Christians by 1996 or sooner.  Of course, we want to see the White House in pro-family Christian hands, at least by the year 2000 or sooner, if the Lord permits.

This patient approach has in no way tempered the fanatic ideology of Robertson?s theocracy.  As always, he ended his speech with a prayer while his listeners stood, closed their eyes and held hands.  "That we will see the standard of biblical values raised over this land," he intoned,

and that those who have mocked You and cursed You and cast out Your people is as evil will be put down, and that Your people will be lifted up.  No, God, we pray that You will use us.

After spending more than $25 million and a vast reservoir of his followers' emotional energy on his 1988 campaign, Robertson went to the Republican convention with only 120 delegates.  When Bush had defeated him on Super Tuesday throughout his native South, Robertson's career in politics, despite a few promising moments during the primary contests in Iowa and Michigan, seemed wasted.

Even worse, Robertson?s grassroots lobbying and political action group, the Freedom Council, was dissolved in the midst of an Internal Revenue Service investigation into its alleged use of tax-exempt status to boost Robertson?s political aspirations.

So as Bush was inaugurated, it appeared that the Virginia evangelist's rantings would thereafter be confined to his growing television empire. But in the summer of 1989, as Robertson likes to tell it, re received a call from a Louisiana man named Billy McCormack, who had served as that state?s coordinator of his presidential effort.

"Pat," said McCormack,

You ran for president and you spent a great deal of money and a great deal of time and personal suffering.  If you do not get back into this situation, all your effort will have been for naught.  There are people, by the hundreds of thousands around this country waiting to rally to leadership.

Robertson says he prayed for political guidance and discovered that Mr. McCormack was right.  God did want him to get back into the political arena.  This September, the televangelist called a meeting in Atlanta of about two dozen key supporters of his 1988 race to form a new organization. And a name?  They considered titles such as Society of Traditional Values or the Pro-Family Agenda League, but Robertson thundered, "No!  I am a Christian.  I am not ashamed of Jesus.  And we will call this the Christian Coalition.  If other people don?t like it, that?s just tough luck."

The way Robertson talks about the naming of his new organization offers insights into the mentality behind the Christian right's revival.  As with many other groups in America, evangelicals are nowadays inclined to think of themselves as victims of an oppressed minority within a secular humanist society that doesn?t understand them.  This culture of victimization has been a staple of Robertson?s preaching for years, and forms an important part of Christian Coalition ideology.

But the victims of secular humanism are special, as Robertson always notes, because they have been chosen by God to rule. "We are going to see a society," he promises, "where the people of God once again are where God intended them to be. We will be the head and the tail."

Of course, right now the grassroot members of the Christian Coalition are deeply concerned over the prospect of an immoral Clinton presidency.  As president-elect, the Arkansan immediately defied the Christian right by repeating his campaign promises to protect abortion rights and to permit homosexuals to join or remain in the military.  While Clinton maybe less liberal on certain issues than the rest of his party, he is quite plainly a product of the sexual revolution.

Clearly, the utopia Robertson has promised his followers will have to wait until Clinton has vacated the White House.  "In the Christian America to come," says Robertson, "those who read these filthy books and engage in the filthy practices and who are out drunk and taking drugs, those people are going to be the ones who are ashamed of their conduct."

In Robertson's America, pornography (very loosely defined) would be outlawed, along with abortion, homosexuality and extramarital sex.  There would be far more stringent restrictions on divorce and the sale of alcohol.  The government would no longer provide public education or social welfare, both of which would be in the hands of the churches.  Robertson has said that he looks forward to a time when not only "the men in the Senate and the House are spirit-filled and worship Jesus Christ," but the judges in every courthouse are speaking in tongues.  Robertson's cohort includes a faction to the right of Pat himself.  The Christian re-constructionists cite the Old Testament to urge the death penalty for gays and for doctors who perform abortions.

Such medieval legislation isn't exactly imminent.  But in the meantime, Christian rightists are applying their principles at the local level, particularly on school boards, where the Christian Coalition has achieved notable success in recent elections.  On that level, the Christian right has undertaken campaigns to censor such sinister humanist texts as Little Red Ridinghood (in which Grandma drinks a glass of wine) and to abolish school breakfast programs as a threat to family values.

Despite the bizarre theocratic notions espoused by the Christian Coalition's leaders, the group's meetings seem more like seminars than revival meetings.  There are prayers and usually some discussion of the enemy: feminists, gays, the media, democrats and demonic Republican moderates.  There's always at least one speech denouncing abortion.

Lee Atwater, who died in 1991, was the acknowledged master of the dirty campaign, and his spirit survives in Christian Coalition politics.  Atwater is the man cited most often as a political authority by Robertson, Ralph Reed and other coalition leaders.

Beginning in the fall of 1991 and continuing for 12 months thereafter, Christian Coalition organizers distributed costly "precinct action kits" to their local operatives, helping them identify "pro-family" voters to be turned out on Election Day.  For more than a year, coalition members were on the phones, night after night, dialing their neighbors to compile computerized lists showing who is registered, who is a Republican, who opposes abortion and who voted in 1988 for George Bush.  Those people received the voter guides to help them decide which candidates were morally fit for public office, from president on down to dogcatcher.

The president lost, but the dogcatchers won.  And for the Christian Coalition, that is the place to start building real power.  Both the coalition and groups opposing it, such as People for the American Way, estimate that Christian right candidates won as many as 500 seats in various legislative and local government races across the country in November. Those are impressive results for a group that essentially didn't exist as a national entity a year earlier.

Nothing displayed Robertson's new pragmatism more clearly than his embrace of Bush, a man he surely despised.  He endorsed the president more than a year before the 1992 election, and the Christian Coalition worked hard for his doomed campaign.  This was despite the fact that many of the coalition?s top activists preferred Patrick Buchanan (as did, according to Robertson?s own phone polls, the vast majority of his 700 club viewers.)

Actually, the hapless Bush represented the forces in the Republican Party that Robertson would like to drive out.  In his 1988 autobiography, Bush boasted of his confrontations in Houston during the early Sixties with right-wing nut cakes on the fringes of the GOP?members of the John Birch Society who suspected that Bush might be a one-world tool of the communist Wall Street internationalist conspiracy.

Robertson did not like Bush's new world order, viewing it as the latest variant of the same old communistic Wall Street plot.  Except that, having appropriated all of the musty Bircher mumbo jumbo, the reverend has upped the ante just a bit.  According to him the entire conspiracy has been personally orchestrated by the Devil himself.

"Indeed," warns Robertson,

it may well be that men of goodwill such as Woodrow Wilson, Jimmy Carter and George Bush, who sincerely wanted a larger community of nations living at peace in our world, are in reality unknowingly and unwittingly carrying out the mission and mouthing the phrases of a tightly knit cabal whose goal is nothing less than a new order for the human race under the domination of Lucifer and his followers.

Duped by a Satanic conspiracy?  That's worse than anything Bill Clinton ever said about Bush.  It must have been even harder for Robertson to support Bush than it was for most other Republicans.  But with Bush out of the way, the question of whom to support in 1996 is a daunting one.  Dan Quayle was a favorite of the Christian Coalition, but he's tainted, too.  Buchanan is well-liked, but there's a slightly embarrassing problem with him.  He's a Catholic, and though "pro-family Catholics" are welcome to join the coalition, they aren't religiously "saved."  William Bennett, the former drug czar who is mulling a presidential run, is also Catholic.

Jack Kemp, currently the most popular Republican, was raised as a Christian Scientist.  As far as the evangelical right is concerned, that's close to Satan worship.  Kemp is also something of a bleeding-heart conservative, especially in his attitudes toward government action to revitalize urban ghettos.  Worst of all, he doesn't have the family-values luster the coalition prefers.

All of which leaves Robertson himself.  Does that sound more ludicrous than ominous?  Maybe, but in 1988 the Virginia preacher didn't do much worse than Kemp, who is considered the Republican front-runner right now.  If President Clinton falls, if the nation suffers further economic decline or moral doubt, an electorate that is simultaneously angry and inattentive may be capable of action that are awesomely self-destructive.  In 1993 we had a close call with Ross Perot.

There may not be much chance that a majority of Americans would willingly vote to overturn the Constitution and to surrender their freedom to a band of religious zealots.  But the long-term plan of the Christian right no longer relies on the so-called moral majority.  Its new strategy depends on a tiny but disciplined minority that can exploit voter apathy and ignorance to gain power incrementally -- first on school boards, then in state legislatures and finally in Washington.

Should the Christian right succeed in taking over the Republican Party, it will inherit an extremely powerful apparatus.  Such a party, running against the usually fractious and disorganized Democrats, is a chilling prospect.

The irony is that if it does come to pass, it will happen because the ordinary couch potatoes did what they usually do:  nothing.  Most of them won't know what's happened until their favorite TV shows are censored.

Read What Guy Rodgers, the director of organizing for the Christian Coalition, has said to audiences around the country for the past year: 

In a presidential election, when more voters turn out than in any other election, only fifteen percent of eligible voters actually determine the outcome. How can that be?  Well, of all the adults eighteen and over eligible to vote, only about sixty percent are registered to vote.  It's less than that in many states.  Of those registered to vote, in a good turnout, only half go to the polls.  That means thirty percent of those eligible are actually voting.  So fifteen percent determines the outcome in a high-turnout election.  In low­turnout elections -- city council, county commission, state legislature -- the percentage that determines who wins can be as low as six or seven percent.

Is this sinking in?  We don?t have to worry about persuading a majority of Americans to agree with us.  Most of them are staying home and watching Falcon Crest.  Do you understand??

Well, do you?


Last updated: March-1993