Religious Right Groups Intervene In Election Of Gop Chairman

In the wake of a disastrous election night in November, officials and members of the Republican Party considered hiring a new leader – and Religious Right groups were in the thick of the action.

The party’s poor showing at the polls left some members wanting to dump Republican National Committee Chairman Robert M. “Mike” Duncan. Duncan fought to keep the seat but was challenged by five others.

Several Religious Right groups rallied around Kenneth Blackwell for the slot. Blackwell, the former secretary of state for Ohio, sought the governor’s mansion in 2006 but lost to U.S. Rep. Ted Strickland. After that, he went to work for the Family Research Council (FRC) as “senior fellow for family empowerment.”

The Washington Times reported that Blackwell “won endorsements from such religious conservatives such as Phyllis Schlafly, Tim LaHaye, James Dobson and Tony Perkins.”

Perkins is president of the FRC, and in a message to members praised Blackwell.         

“Although I have historically declined to endorse candidates in party elections, this is a tremendous opportunity for a proven public servant to re-interject traditional values into a party that has lost its way,” Perkins wrote. “For that reason, I support and encourage others to support Ken Blackwell for chairman of the RNC. His record of service to our nation and his commitment to core conservative issues make him the clear choice in this race.”

Perkins sent the endorsement via e-mail to supporters of FRC Action, the organization’s political arm.

But Blackwell isn’t the only candidate with Religious Right connections. Three of the others – Michael Steele and Katon Dawson and Chip Saltsman – have them as well.

Steele, the former lieutenant governor of Maryland, speaks every year at the FRC’s “Values Voter Summit” in Washington, now the nation’s premier Religious Right gathering. While a popular speaker, he is seen as a weak candidate because he comes from a state that leans heavily Democratic.

Dawson, a South Carolina native, has in the past worked with the Christian Coalition, which retains influence in that state. In 1999, a Dawson surrogate named Robert Cahaly spoke to South Carolina Christian Coalition members, excoriating Henry McMaster, then head of the South Carolina GOP. As The Times noted, Dawson is “widely admired among social conservatives.”

Saltsman was the campaign manager of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who based much of his campaign on appeals to the Religious Right.

A vote to select the GOP chair was scheduled in late January, after the Church & State deadline. See next month’s issue for more information.

Americans United pointed out that the Religious Right’s influence on the GOP race remains strong, further evidence that the movement is not losing political power.

In other news about the Religious Right:

• A wealthy San Antonio businessman spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to mobilize conservative pastors in Texas, Florida, Colorado and Iowa on behalf of the Republican Party last year. The Texas Freedom Network (TFN) has reported that James Leininger and the American Family Association funneled money into a non-profit group called the Niemoller Foundation, which put on special events for pastors and their wives.

In Texas, the gatherings were sponsored by the Texas Restoration Project and were supposedly focused on issues. Critics say the events were really an opportunity to get GOP candidates before the pastors.

• Focus on the Family (FOF) pulled an online interview with conservative talk-show personality Glenn Beck after complaints were raised over Beck’s Mormon faith. FOF founder James C. Dobson had interviewed Beck about his best-selling novel The Christmas Sweater, but the interview was yanked after a Wisconsin group called Underground Apologetics issued a press release attacking Mormonism as a cult.

FOF official Gary Schneeberger insisted the group did not react in response to Underground Apologetic’s attack.

“We can and do gladly cooperate with friends outside of the evangelical heritage on common causes,” Schneeberger said, “but in no case do we intend to alter our clear distinction as unwaveringly grounded in evangelical theology.”

• TV preacher Pat Robertson doesn’t share the pessimism of many economic analysts. He says the U.S. economy will rebound in 2009, even though many Americans will embrace socialism. Robertson also predicted that many Muslims will abandon their faith because of bloodshed and that Russia will align with other nations to gain control of Middle Eastern oil.

The predictions are an annual event with Robertson, who says they come from a conversation with God he has every new year.