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The Rise of the Religious Right in the Republican Party

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Frederick Clarkson, Institute for First Amendment Studies, 1993

The wildest dreams of the Far Right in America may actually be within their reach - control of the Republican Party. While this may be as much because of moderate burn-out defections to the Democrats, and schisms, as because of the strength of the Right itself, it is the stuff of which dreams are made.

The Right has long jockeyed for power within the Republican Party, often threatening to bolt if they didn't get their way. For example, in 1976, they sought to replace President Gerald Ford with Ronald Reagan. When that failed, they tried to join forces with the racist remnants of the American Independent Party (AIP) of George Wallace. (In the 1968 Presidential race Wallace won five Southern states and did well in others. However, the "Wallace vote" had been up for grabs since the Alabama governor was disabled in an assas­sination attempt in 1972.)

The yahoos at the 1976 AIP convention in Chicago, however, didn't want to deal. So Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Founda­tion, Howard Phillips of the Conservative Caucus, direct mail guru Richard Viguerie, and National Review publisher William Rusher, among others, begat the New Right (including the Moral Majority) and played a key role in the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan. Nevertheless, the Reagan/Bush era was frustrating for the Right, which failed to pass much of its program. Now the great Right hope lies in the systematic takeover of state and local GOP structures by the resurgent Christian Right. Epitomizing this trend is the recent split in the GOP of Harris County, Texas.

Harris County is home to the city of Houston, where President George Bush maintained his legal residence (at a posh hotel that went bankrupt during his presidency). While Bush orchestrated the selec­tion of Houston to host the 1992 GOP convention which would renominate him for President, the Christian Right largely took over the Harris County GOP. And as Bush continued to alienate GOP constituencies, he further aligned himself with the Christian Right. The result was the shocking prime-time convention rant of Pat Buchanan, Pat Robertson, and Marilyn Quayle - a major factor in Bush's defeat.


Since the election, the party of Lincoln has begun to unravel. For example, in a strange turnabout, moderates are openly discussing abandoning the Oregon GOP to the Christian Right. And in Harris County, Texas, they've done it. Recently, the Christian Right shouted down and ousted the elected party chair Betsy Lake, and installed a theocratic activist, Steven Hotze. Lake, meanwhile, incorporated a competing entity, the Republican Federation of Harris County.

Similar schisms are likely as the Christian Right plots county and state convention putsches around the country. At Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition strategy conference in September, one workshop laid out the mechanics of packing meetings with enough disciplined delegates to dominate; developing a convention game plan, and making sharp use of Robert's Rules of Order. The presenters were Morton Blackwell and Kevin Gentry of the Leadership Institute in Alexandria, VA. Blackwell, a veteran conservative and a member of the Republican National Committee, told how he and GOP pro­choice activist Ann Stone are both from the 8th District in Virginia. "We faced all kinds of press attention," he said of their showdown over abortion at the district and state GOP meetings in 1992. "We cleaned her clock," he bragged, because Stone lacked the people and organization to win.


Meanwhile, Hotze's junta is disconcerting because of his involvement with the National Coordinating Council (NCC), a political arm of the theocratic Coalition on Revival (COR). COR/ NCC proposes to "Christianize" America, in part by taking over government beginning with county councils and county sheriff's offices. Once in power they want to establish county "militias." When I interviewed COR/NCC chief Jay Grimstead for Mother Jones magazines (Nov./Dec. 1990), he said militias were needed to fight off a future "communist Mexico" which "will march across the Rio Grande." The Feds, he said, can't be trusted to do the job. The group also seeks to, among other things, abolish public schools, the Federal Reserve, and the IRS by the year 2000. Members of COR/NCC have managed to work their way into some key, state-level Republican positions. A colleague of Steven Hotze, the Rev. Billy Falling, founder of the Christian Voter's League, is a member of the California Republican Committee. Hotze is on the Texas GOP Executive Committee.

Hotze is close to another COR/NCC activist, Gary DeMar who espouses "Christian Reconstructionism," a doctrine which he endorses the death penalty for "homosexual activity." Hotze has sponsored DeMar as a speaker at GOP functions, and used DeMar's books in seminars he teaches. Never in the wildest dreams of the Far Right, nor for that matter, the rest of the GOP, did anyone think such people could get this far.


Last updated: 1993