Rick Santorum’s Amen Corner

Pennsylvania Pastors Network Spotlights Incumbent Republican Senator While Building Church-Based Political Machine

When the topic turns to biblical heroes, the name Shamgar doesn’t usually ring a lot of bells.

This somewhat obscure figure is mentioned just twice in the Book of Judges. At the end of Chapter 3, readers are told that Shamgar, the son of Anath, killed 600 Philistines with an ox goad – a sharp stick used to prod recalcitrant beasts of the field. In doing so, he “delivered Israel.”

At a recent Religious Right meeting for pastors in Penn­sylvania, Shamgar was pressed into unusual service. His story, according to the Rev. J.R. Damiani, is meant to inspire those who seek to change American society.

Liberally elaborating on the biblical account’s sparse details, Damiani told the crowd that Shamgar was working his field when he saw a threat approaching and sprang into action using what he had with him.

“He started where he was, he used what he had and he did what he could,” said Damiani, pastor of the Family Worship Center in Lansdale. “What a great hero…. We should develop that type of mentality.”

The militancy of Shamgar was in some ways the perfect meta­phor for organizers of the Pennsylvania Pastors Network training session at the National Christian Conference Center in Valley Forge. The only difference is that they hope to slay the Dem­ocrats and deliver Sen. Rick Santorum back into office. Although de­scribed as a non-partisan outfit concerned about “traditional values,” the effort looks to be yet another attempt to forge a church-based political machine to help elect or re-elect Republicans.

Such efforts are already well under way in Ohio and Texas, and the emergence of one in Pennsylvania, a pivotal swing state that voted “blue” in the past two presidential elections by narrow margins, may signal yet another Religious Right-led crusade to lure churches into partisan politics on behalf of the GOP.

The Keystone State project is an outgrowth of a group called Let Freedom Ring. Formed with money from multi-millionaire John M. Templeton, Jr., and fronted by right-wing activist Colin Hanna, Let Freedom Ring describes its goals in benign-sounding language: The organization, Hanna told the pastors, supports constitutional government, economic freedom and traditional values.

“Our goal is for the Pennsylvania Pastors Network to be a permanent structure that brings people of faith together who care about policy matters,” he said.

Hanna noted that the event was co-sponsored by the Pennsylvania Family In­stitute, an affiliate of Dr. James Dob­son’s Focus on the Family, the Pennsyl­vania Pro-life Federation and the Urban Family Council, a Phila­del­phia-based Religious Right group.

In Pennsylvania, Hanna said, the group hopes to add an amendment banning same-sex marriage to the state constitution and further restrict legal abortion.

What about partisan politics? Hanna swears that’s not his thing. Although Let Freedom Ring, as a 501(c)(4) organization, may legally endorse candidates, Hanna says the organization doesn’t do that and urges houses of worship to follow federal tax law banning intervention in partisan campaigns.

“We want to engage the culture,” he said. “That does not mean politicizing the pulpit.”

It sounds reasonable, and chances are many of the more than 100 pastors and other church representatives who attended the March 6 gathering accepted it unconditionally. Whether it’s true or not is open to debate.

The meeting had heavy partisan overtones and in many ways seemed to be little more than a rally for Santorum, a favorite of the Religious Right who is locked in a tight re-election bid this year against Bob Casey, an anti-abortion Democrat and son of ex-Pennsylvania Gov. Robert Casey.

Despite his opposition to legal abortion, Casey was not invited to address the pastors’ meeting, which was not open to the media and advertised under the radar through right-wing Web sites and notices on e-mail lists. (The state’s other Republican senator, the pro-choice Arlen Specter, was also not invited.)

Materials sent out in advance of the event highlighted Santorum’s possible appearance. Although Santorum did not show up in person, he did send a special message via DVD in which he lauded the pastors’ goals and stressed his opposition to same-sex marriage.

Santorum’s brief message was projected onto a jumbo screen right after a lunch break. Santorum expressed regrets for his absence and thanked attendees for defending the family, asserting, “You are leaders of flocks and as leaders you have a responsibility to be informed and to inform.”

The brunt of Santorum’s remarks was boilerplate about the need to support “the traditional American family.” Santorum is known for his strong opposition to legal abortion, but strangely, he never mentioned that issue during his remarks, instead unleashing a broadside against same-sex marriage, wrapped around “save the children” rhetoric. (Casey also does not support same-sex marriage but has backed other forms of gay rights and has reached out to gay groups.)

“We absolutely need to make sure that children have a birthright,” Santorum said. “And the birthright is that they have the best opportunity possible to have a mother and a father in a married relationship where they are nurtured and cared for.

“We will lose that, in my opinion, for far, far too many children in the future,” he continued, “if we deconstruct marriage and turn marriage into something that’s not about children, that’s not about a bond for the future of this country but simply a contract to express the affections – temporal or temporary, whatever they are – between two people irrespective of anything beyond that. I think that is something our country simply cannot afford.”

Santorum was surprisingly frank about the prospects for Senate passage of a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, noting that a two-thirds vote is required.

“We are well short of the 67 votes,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have the debate. We should. It’s too important not to.”

Following Santorum’s presentation, Han­na praised the senator’s book, It Takes a Family, and offered to send a free copy to any pastor requesting it. Hanna noted that the title is a response to another book titled It Takes a Village then added, to much audience laughter, “The author’s name escapes my recall at the moment.”

This is not Let Freedom Ring’s first partisan venture. Hanna, a former Chester County commissioner,  formed the organization after a local conflict over a Ten Com­mandments display. He made his first big splash two years ago not in Pennsylvania, where the group is based in West Ches­ter, a Philadelphia suburb, but in neighboring Ohio. The group’s actions there reportedly helped re-elect President George W. Bush.

Shortly after the 2004 election, conservative activist Paul Weyrich praised Hanna in a fawning column on the right-wing site Newsmax.com, implying that the organization’s activities provided crucial support for the GOP. 

“One of the real heroes in the ‘Year of the Values Voter’ is a relatively unheralded and under-appreciated conservative named Colin Hanna, whose organization, Let Freedom Ring, played an instrumental role in educating voters in Ohio on the issues,” wrote Weyrich.

Yet Hanna is merely the group’s visible front man. Temple­ton, although he did not show up in person at the recent Pennsylvania event, is clearly the man providing the real power and money propelling the effort.

Templeton, a wealthy Philadelphia-area medical doctor, may be hoping to duplicate in Pennsylvania the successful effort to keep Ohio in the Republican column in 2004. He gave $1 million to Hanna to “educate” Ohio pastors. The group did so primarily by distributing a DVD titled Inner Strength that lauded the faith of President George W. Bush, Santorum and former Democratic Senator Zell Miller of Georgia.

The choice of politicians profiled was interesting, to say the least. Santorum was not up for re-election that year, and Miller, a conservative Democrat who has since endorsed several Republicans, had announced he was leaving the Senate. Thus, the tape appeared to be little more than a vehicle for touting Bush’s religiosity before pastors in an election year.

According to Weyrich, 3,000 copies went to churches in Ohio alone, one fourth of the number distributed nationwide. The group also distributed 300,000 voter guides in the state that critics say clearly promoted Bush.

“True to his Christian faith, Colin Hanna is not seeking the spotlight, just hoping to make sure Christians realize what is at stake in elections to come,” wrote Weyrich.

Templeton funding is key to the new effort. Unlike his father — Sir John Templeton of the famous “Templeton Prize,” whose interest in spiritual matters is often apolitical — Templeton Jr. is known for a more partisan approach.

Celebrating the formation of Let Freedom Ring before a group of College Republicans on August 16, 2004, in Arlington, Va., Templeton outlined how the use of grassroots groups can affect elections.

“Last winter, I began to realize that the outcome on Election Day will most likely be determined by two things: First, the effectiveness and pervasiveness of our message, and, second, what we are able to accomplish through our grassroots networks,” said Templeton, who serves as chairman of Let Freedom Ring.

He went on to praise President Bush and attack his opponent, Sen. John F. Kerry. Even now, a year and a half after the election, the Let Freedom Ring Web site still contains a series of vitriolic anti-Kerry essays penned by Templeton.

With the 2006 elections fast approaching, Templeton has apparently turned his sights to the Santorum-Casey race. Polls have routinely shown Santorum down by 12-15 points, and Religious Right activists have pegged the match as the most important Senate race in the country.

Throughout the closed-door, day-long session, pastors were told repeatedly by speakers that they can “educate” members of their congregations on social issues. This is true, but the next step Let Freedom Ring wants pastors to take – the distribution of biased voter guides and other partisan material in churches – is much more problematic.

The mixed message was demonstrated in the choice for lead-off speakers, Chris Hartkop and Chris Long – respectively chair and executive director of the Christian Coalition of Ohio. Like Let Freedom Ring, the Ohio CC branch is a 501(c)(4) organization, which means it may legally get involved in partisan campaigns up to a certain extent. By contrast, houses of worship, as 501(c)(3) entities, may not do so at all.

Furthermore, the national office of the Coalition has repeatedly been accused of distributing slanted voter guides. An information packet given to pastors included a sample Coalition guide from the 2004 presidential race that clearly preferred Bush over challenger Kerry.

Despite this checkered history, Hartkop insisted that Coalition voter guides are appropriate for distribution in churches. But a moment later, Hartkop made a slip of the tongue. She talked about how the Coalition compiles its voter guides by mailing surveys to candidates and referred to volunteers “going over and scoring” the guides. She quickly caught herself and added, “not scoring, but marking down where the candidates stood.”

Following up, Long, who came to the Coalition’s attention when he unsuccessfully sought state office in Ohio, spoke openly about the Coalition’s outreach to pastors. He told attendees that in 2004, Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell traveled with the Coalition to churches ostensibly to educate them about political activity.

The irony was perhaps lost on the crowd: Blackwell is now running for governor and using a church-based political machine to propel him into office. Those church visits were an early effort to get Blackwell before a Religious Right audience.

Another speaker, Ray Flynn, former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, implored attendees to reach out to Catholic Democrats.

“If we’re not in this together, we’re not going to be able to win this battle,” Flynn said.

Flynn served in the administration of President Bill Clinton but told the crowd he supported George W. Bush in 2000 over the issue of abortion. He asserted that Catholics in Massachu­setts “have been under attack more so than any state” and referred to Harvard University as “the Kremlin on the Charles [River].”

Flynn advocated using voter guides to influence decisions at the ballot box. He recommended hosting conferences with thousands of attendees, distributing guides and urging people to follow them on Election Day.

“If we had a conference here,” Flynn said, “and we brought in 5,000 people, which isn’t unrealistic, and we said to them, “This is very important for you to vote according to this voter guide . . . .’”

Flynn said activists should tell voters, “Here are the issues, here are the candidates, and you match them up. This doesn’t have to be partisan; this doesn’t have to be Democrat or Republican. Just match up the issues on the merits and you say, ‘Now, you make up your mind who you’re going to vote for.’”

A Flynn associate, Larry Cirignano of catholicvote.org, also took some time at the podium and regaled the crowd with horror stories from liberal New England. Cirignano asserted that in Boston, gay high school students hold proms at city hall, the state funds gay school clubs with millions of dollars, transvestites teaching in schools “is pretty common” and that principals are hired strictly because they are gay.

“We all know gay gym teachers, but these people were hired because they were gay,” Cirignano said.

Same-sex marriage is legal in Massachusetts, a state of affairs that clearly disturbs Cirignano. Blasting the “same-sex attraction people,” he lauded the resurrection of an 1819 law banning inter-racial marriage to block out-of-state same-sex couples from getting married in Massachusetts.

The next speaker, the Rev. Frank Pavone of Priests for Life, also recommended direct political action. Pavone insisted that his own group, which is tax-exempt, is non-partisan – but he seemed to have an odd definition of the term.

Pavone drew a parallel between legal abortion and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack, remarking, “Is there any difference that anyone can identify, morally speaking, between disregarding someone else’s right to life if you use an airplane or if you use surgical forceps? What’s the difference? What’s the difference, morally speaking, if the victim is five feet tall or five inches tall? Those variables do not introduce any moral difference to the evil that we’re talking about.”

Continued Pavone, “And that’s why I’m not ashamed to say to people that if a candidate cannot get up and say that the killing of little babies is wrong, he or she doesn’t belong in public office. Now, some people say to me, ‘Oh, you’re being partisan and we can’t be partisan and you can’t be partisan in the pulpit. The church can’t take sides in political elections and support one party over another. You can’t do this.’ And my response is, ‘Being non-partisan does not mean that your words do not in fact help or hurt a candidate or a party. Being non-partisan means precisely that it doesn’t matter. It means you don’t care if you are helping or hurting. What you are about is faithfulness in conveying the message.’”

These remarks were interesting in light of what Pavone had said a moment earlier: “We are blessed to have a president who is able to and knows why he must and is convinced why he should nominate justices who don’t invent rights out of thin air like Roe v. Wade did, but he needs a Senate, he needs a Senate…. He got the two nominees through that process precisely because there were not enough senators to support the ludicrous idea  of a filibuster against a Supreme Court nominee. And the church of Jesus Christ, standing in midst of this culture of death and putting two and two together, has to conclude that we need to be part of the assurance that here in this particular place in this particular time this particular president needs the kind of support that he has today but might not necessarily have after November of 2006. [He] needs the kind of support that is necessary in order to get that additional common-sense pro-life justice on the court.”

During lunch, participants heard from another Catholic priest and anti-abortion activist, the Rev. John McFadden. McFadden talked about the first time he was arrested protesting at an abortion clinic. Unabashedly proud of his time behind bars, McFadden joked that he and another conference speaker, William Devlin, an “ambassador” from the Urban Family Institute, “have been in so many jails we began to rate them – one star, two stars.”

(Devlin boasted to attendees that he has been behind bars 15 times. He also told the crowd that he runs a program in the Philadelphia public schools that uses a “secular curriculum based on biblical values.” Apparently, it has not occurred to the Philadelphia public school system to ask whether a man who can’t stay out of jail is an appropriate role model for youngsters.)

In rambling remarks, McFadden be­moaned the current state of American culture. He pined for the days when abortion was illegal, gay people were considered mentally ill and couples did not cohabitate. (Gay people, said Mc­Fad­den, are “victims because they do not know Jesus Christ.”) Musing on the state of affairs, he told the crowd, “The real enemy is, as we all know, the evil one himself. It’s demonic.”

McFadden recalled attending an event at Valley Forge National Park 41 years ago and added, “Forty-one years ago, who would have thought how successful Satan and his demonic would be? How did it happen? We fell asleep at the wheel.”

Afternoon sessions were devoted to speakers who outlined strategies to restrict legal abortion, ban same-sex marriage and promote fundamentalist Christian education in Penn­syl­vania.

The final speaker was Rick Green, protégé of Religious Right activist David Barton who promotes bogus “Christian nation” history.

Green, a former Texas state representative, offered the same revisionist presentation that has made Barton famous among conservative Christians, arguing that “God is really into history” and asserting that the deity has frequently intervened in America’s past.

Barton frequently argues that adoption of fundamentalist Christianity makes people more moral. This makes his partnership with Green all the more unusual. Green lost his seat in the Texas House in 2002 to a 23-year-old political novice after Green was named one of the “Ten Worst” state lawmakers by Texas Monthly.

The publication slammed Green for what it called various “ethical pratfalls.” These included helping get a pardon for a family friend who was convicted of defrauding investors of $30 million and filming an infomercial for a vitamin company in his office at the state Capitol. The infomercial showed Green strolling through the Capitol, extolling vitamins he claimed would “supercharge your brain.”

Let Freedom Ring has announced it will soon hold a similar training seminar in Pittsburgh, aimed at pastors in the western part of the state. It has also unveiled plans to hire 10 full-time “field directors” to run its grassroots operation. The group is clearly putting on a full-court press. But troubling questions remain about partisanship.

In late February, the IRS issued a report on unlawful partisan politicking by non-profit groups, including churches. (See “Render Unto Caesar,” page 4.) Accompanying the report was a fact sheet designed to educate religious leaders about the issue. The document makes it clear that voter registration and get-out-the-vote campaigns must be conducted in a strictly non-partisan manner.

“Colin Hanna’s promises of non-partisanship ring hollow when one looks at what his group did in Ohio to promote Bush and the way it is boosting Santorum’s profile right now,” said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “Groups like this spell trouble for houses of worship and must be kept at arm’s length.”