Bumpy Lane: Religious Right Operative Seeks To Build (Another) Church-Based Political Machine

David Lane is the latest in a long line of Religious Right operatives seeking to forge right-wing evangelicals into a well-oiled political machine.

Here’s what the country doesn’t need right now: another zealot aiming to mobilize right-wing pastors to become a force in electoral politics.

Yet that’s what the country is getting.

Meet David Lane. According to a recent New York Times story, Lane is the latest in a long line of Religious Right operatives seeking to forge right-wing evangelicals into a well-oiled political machine.

We’ve been down this road before. Think Jerry Falwell. Think Ralph Reed. Think Tony Perkins. Think David Barton.

What’s different this time? Here’s how The Times put it: “Unlike political operatives such as Ralph Reed, the former executive director of the Christian Coalition who helped elect George W. Bush before becoming ensnared in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, Mr. Lane does not have an extensive organization. What Mr. Lane, a former public relations man, does have going for him is a decentralized landscape in which a determined believer with an extensive network of ground-level evangelical leaders and a limitless capacity for talking on the phone can exert influence on Republican presidential candidates eager to reach evangelical voters.”

Lane may not have an extensive organization behind him, but he’s not exactly the Lone Ranger. As The Times story notes, he is bankrolled by unnamed high donors and receives logistical support from the American Family Association (AFA).

Lane claims to have a list of 100,000 supportive pastors, and 1,000 of them are supposedly interested in running for office.

Those figures may be inflated. No one knows for certain the exact number of houses of worship in America, but one good estimate puts the total shy of 350,000. I really doubt that Lane has a mailing list that accounts for nearly 30 percent of all pastors in America. More likely, his list has a lot of retired clergy on it or people who, while still ordained, no longer lead a congregation. (Or he could have pulled the figure out of thin air. Believe it or not, Religious Right activists sometimes aren’t entirely truthful.)

Still, this is a movement worth watching. Lane is widely credited in 2010 with mobilizing Iowa fundamentalist voters who, angry over a ruling by the state supreme court upholding same-sex marriage, voted three justices off the court.

In short, Lane’s movement represents the same old pack of fundamentalist busybodies bound and determined to run the lives of others and base all laws on their narrow interpretation of the Bible.

Just to be clear, everyone in this country has a right to be involved in politics. That includes pastors – as individuals. But that’s not what Lane wants. He and his shadowy backers want pastors to mobilize their congregations and form a disciplined voting bloc. And that is where things get dicey because, under federal law, pastors aren’t permitted to use the resources of a house of worship to help elect or defeat candidates.

Yet we know this happens all of the time. Other Religious Right groups over the years have attempted to build church-based political machines. TV preacher Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition did it in the 1990s, and in more recent times we’ve seen groups like the Family Research Council and the AFA do it as well.

Some of what goes on can only be described as brazen. The Alliance Defending Freedom, a Religious Right legal group, openly prods pastors to violate the law by endorsing or opposing candidates from the pulpit during so-called “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.”

They don’t try to hide it, and they’re not even subtle about it. Unfortunately, the Internal Revenue Service just sits on its hands.

Assuming he can create it, what does Lane intend to do with this church-based politicking machine? Well, it’s pretty obvious his efforts are designed to secure the GOP nomination for a Religious Right favorite. He’s being courted by the likes of U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas), Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and others.

Given the strong Religious Right/Tea Party base in the GOP, Lane may very well succeed in his effort to have far-right pastors pick the party’s presidential nominee in 2016. As I told journalist Bill Berkowitz recently, it’s pretty much impossible for a Republican presidential hopeful to get through the primaries without catering to this base, which is obsessed with a handful of divisive social issues.

The challenge for men like Lane, of course, is getting the Religious Right’s hand-picked candidate through the general election. The fixations of the Religious Right – same-sex marriage, legal abortion, the role of religion in public schools, creationism, “American exceptionalism,” the “war on Christmas,” etc. – are not shared by the rest of the country.

When a diverse and broad cross-section of the electorate shows up on Election Day, the Religious Right loses (see the year 2012). When they do not, the Religious Right and its Tea Party pals win (see the year 2014).

It is that simple – and that complex.