Curious Courtship

The Christian Coalition And Other Religious Right Groups Are Wooing Women, But Progressive Activists Advise Women To Just Say No

Samantha Smoot and Charlotte Coffelt are unlikely candidates to join the ranks of the Christian Coalition. Both women are Texas-based activists who vigorously oppose the agenda of the Religious Right.

Smoot and Coffelt fight for strong public schools, battle religious school vouchers and champion the reproductive rights of women. Opposing the Religious Right is not just a hobby for them: Coffelt serves on the Board of Trustees of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and Smoot is executive director of the Texas Freedom Network, a statewide group formed to counter the influence of the Religious Right.

Yet Smoot and Coffelt, along with thousands of other women all over America, recently received an interesting mailing from the Coalition: an invitation to attend the organization's first-ever "Women Changing America Conference." The event, which takes places this month in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Arlington, Va., is described in the promotional brochure as "designed exclusively for women."

The gathering, Coalition Executive Vice President Roberta Combs writes, "will attract speakers and guest [sic] from across the nation who are concerned about America's moral climate and are ready to become involved in making a difference in America's future."

Although men are not barred from attending the conference, all of the listed speakers are women, and session titles include "The Role of the Retired Woman in Politics," "Women in the 20th Century Conservative Movement" and "A Woman's Voice in Local Politics."

Not surprisingly, the conference will have a decidedly political bent. "While the last decade gave way to immoral leadership and open sin throughout much of America's society, a mobilized effort from Christians at the polls could create a positive change in this new decade for a return to righteousness across the country," Combs writes. "I am sure you can share my concern for young families struggling to fight the evil pervading our society. This conference is the tool many women seek to learn how to protect their families, schools and neighborhoods from the violence, immorality and spiritual dangers that lurk in many American communities. As women unite in one purpose at this conference, an army of dedicated workers, impassioned and prepared for battle, will be formed to lift up their voices in government again."

After years of unfruitful outreach efforts to African Americans, Hispanics and Roman Catholics, the Christian Coalition has apparently decided to go after a bigger and perhaps more likely target: America's women.

The Coalition is not the only Religious Right group making that pitch. Focus on the Family, the Colorado-based  organization headed by Dr. James C. Dobson, is also working to win over America's women. Last month's issue of Focus on the Family magazine carried a profile of Susan B. Anthony, noting that the early feminist leader who helped women secure the right to vote was anti-abortion.

The article asserted that the true feminist position is to oppose legal abortion and quoted Sidney Callahan, described as a "feminist author and psychologist," who in speeches often tells the crowd, "Women will never climb to equality and social empowerment over mounds of dead fetuses."

The Religious Right's focus on women is not unusual. In the Christian Coalition's case, it may even make good sense. A survey undertaken by the organization six years ago showed that 48 percent of the group's membership is female. And, although the most familiar Religious Right leaders are men --the Rev. Jerry Falwell, TV preacher Pat Robertson, D. James Kennedy and Dobson being prominent examples -- women played a crucial role in the formation of the modern Religious Right movement.

Singer Anita Bryant ushered in the modern era of Religious Right gay bashing in the 1970s, and about the same time Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum shifted from rabid anti-Communism to an effort to beat back the Equal Rights Amendment. In the 1980s, Beverly LaHaye founded Concerned Women for America, a Washington, D.C.-based Religious Right group that likes to call itself the largest women's organization in the country. (CWA loves to claim that it has more members than the National Organization for Women.) When Gary Bauer stepped down from the Family Research Council last year to run for president, he named right-wing radio talk show host Janet Parshall as the FRC's chief spokesperson. Janet Folger, an anti-abortion activist from Ohio, now runs TV preacher D. James Kennedy's Center for Reclaiming America in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.

Even TV preacher Pat Robert­son's wife, Adelia, has been getting in on the act lately. Adelia Robert­son, who usually goes by the name "Dede," spoke at last year's Chris­tian Coalition "Road to Victory" Conference and is slated to address this month's "Women Changing America Conference."

There's no doubt about it, the Religious Right is ardently wooing America's women. Why is this happening now, and what does it mean?

Much of the effort may be due to simple political realities. Polling data shows that women are generally more liberal than men. In fact, women voters helped propel President Bill Clinton to victory in 1992 and 1996, opening up a so-called "gender gap" that conservatives have been trying to close ever since. Additionally, drives to keep abortion legal, make access to contraceptives convenient and win a place for sex education in the public schools have traditionally been led by women.

But Religious Right strategists believe the political winds may be shifting and seem eager to seize the opportunity. Last year the liberal Center for Gender Equality issued a poll indicating that a slight majority of American women favor greatly restricting access to abortion or outlawing it entirely and that 36 percent agree that "wives should submit graciously to their husbands." The poll also found that twice as many women believe the Christian Coalition works "in the interest of women" than think it is a threat.

The survey's startling findings have been questioned. Other polls have not shown a majority of women adopting anti-choice views on abortion or taking positions in sympathy with the Religious Right. A survey of women by the website taken last November, for example, found that only 4 percent of the respondents said they consider themselves part of the Religious Right.

Nevertheless, Religious Right leaders were quick to trumpet the results of the Center for Gender Equality poll. Randy Tate, then executive director of the Coalition, said the findings prove his group is mainstream. Other Religious Right activists made the results into large, poster-sized charts that they displayed at national meetings.

Are American women adopting the Religious Right's views on social issues? If they are, the move is ironic, considering that many commentators believe the Religious Right's agenda is explicitly anti-woman. Religious Right leaders generally have a patriarchical view of marriage and family life, arguing that a woman's primary function is to attend to household needs and raise children under the direction of her husband. (Ironically, this hasn't persuaded any of the women who work full time at Religious Right organizations to resign and return home.)

Groups that track the Religious Right point out that in addition to their public stands on issues, many Religious Right leaders like Robertson have no history of support for women's equality and in fact have asserted that female submission to men is mandated by the Bible.

On his nationally televised "700 Club" television program, Robertson has repeatedly stressed the theme of wifely submission. On Jan. 8, 1982, he said, "I know that this is painful for you ladies to hear, but if you get married, you accept the headship of a man, your husband. Christ is the head of the household, and the husband is the head of the wife. And that's just the way it is. This is the way the Bible set it up."

More recently, on Nov. 28, 1989, Robertson dismissed feminism, strongly implying that women just aren't as smart as men. He cited chess as the proof for this idea, saying, "There's never been a woman grand master chess player. And if, you know, once you get one, then I'll buy into some of the feminism, but until that point...." (Ironically, there were two women chess grand masters when Robertson made that comment; since then, at least three others have joined their ranks.)

In his 1984 book Answers to 200 of Life's Most Probing Questions, Robertson writes that the Bible also mandates that women refrain from becoming religious leaders. He asserts that women can work in other occupations but insists, "in the government of the family and the church, men are to be the leaders. These two institutions are a type of God's universal fatherhood that must be adhered to."

But Robertson's most bizarre -- and perhaps most offensive -- comment about women's rights occurred in 1992, when his Christian Coalition was busy trying to defeat a state Equal Rights Amend­ment in Iowa. In a fund-raising letter, Robertson wrote, "The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians."

Other Religious Right leaders have uttered similar comments. Lauding the Promise Keepers in 1995, Falwell remarked, "It appears that America's anti-Biblical feminist movement is at last dying, thank God, and is possibly being replaced by a Christ-centered men's movement which may become the foundation for a desperately needed national spiritual awakening."

Robertson and Falwell's hostility to women's rights should not be surprising given their theological bent. Although he practices a charismatic theology, Robertson remains a member of the Southern Baptist Conven­tion (SBC), the nation's largest Protestant denomination. Falwell, formerly an "independent Baptist," also aligned with the SBC after a fundamentalist group seized control in the 1980s.

Both men have backed the SBC's controversial statement on women issued in June of 1998.

The statement reads in part, "A husband is to love his wife as Christ loved the church. He has the God-given responsibility to provide for, to protect, and to lead his family. A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the leadership of Christ. She, being in the image of God as is her husband and thus equal to him, has the God-given responsibility to respect her husband and to serve as his helper in managing the household and nurturing the next generation."

It goes on assert, "Wives...were created to be 'helpers' to their husbands. A wife's submission to her husband does not decrease her worth but rather enhances her value to her husband and to the Lord."

In 1984, the SBC had approved a similar resolution, this one opposing the ordination of women. According to the resolution, women cannot be ministers because of the need to "preserve a submission God requires because the man was first in creation and the woman was first in the Edenic fall." In other words, women take second place in church because Eve sinned before Adam in the Garden of Eden in the Genesis account.

Perhaps the most illustrative example of the Religious Right's regressive view of women's issues comes in the area of family planning and population control. Religious Right organizations, often working in alliance with ultra-conservative Roman Catholics, have labored to restrict access to contraceptives and teenagers' access to information about human sexuality. They have also strived to end legal abortion, leveling some of their harshest rhetoric at Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion. Their ultimate goal, which they freely concede, is to make abortion illegal once again.

At the same time, many Religious Right organizations have aggressively opposed sex education classes in public schools if they include discussion of birth control. Instead, the Religious Right insists on "abstinence-only" programs, which, despite claims of success by the far right, have never been shown to be effective in delaying sexual activity by teenagers in an objective study. (Six researchers have examined "abstinence-only" sex education programs. According to a 1997 report by the National Council to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, none of the most popular programs is consistently effective in reducing sexual activity by teens. The most effective approach, according to objective research, is sex education that stresses abstinence but includes discussion of contraceptives.)

Some Religious Right activists oppose even adult access to birth control. At an anti-abortion march in Washington Jan. 24, many participants told The Washington Post that once Roe is overturned, their next target would be contraception. "If you go according to God's law, birth control should not be legal," said marcher Mark Wildness.

In recent years, Robertson has stepped up his criticism of Griswold v. Connecticut, a landmark 1965 ruling by the Supreme Court that struck down a state law that banned contraceptives for anyone -- even married couples. The reasoning behind Griswold, Robertson told attendees during the Christian Coalition's 1997 "Road to Victory" Conference, "was made up out of whole cloth." Said Robertson of the ruling, "I want to see it abolished."

The Religious Right and its ultra-conservative Catholic allies have already been effective in restricting access to birth control in poor nations overseas. For example, the Religious Right has worked assiduously, and often behind the scenes, at the United Nations to stymie population-control efforts. Religious Right groups, which tend to be heavily evangelical Protestant, have joined forces with the Vatican, which enjoys diplomatic status at the UN, in efforts to defund or scale back such programs -- even though many women in the developing world live in poverty and desperately want to limit family size.

Increasingly, ultra-conservative Roman Catholics, Reli­gious Right-style Protestants, Mormons and even hardline Muslims are joining forces on this issue. Last November far-right religious activists met at a "World Congress of Families" in Geneva, Switzerland. At the event, several speakers blasted population-control efforts, asserting that the world needs more people, not fewer.

One speaker, Jean-Marc Berthoud, said the modern definition of a family is a democracy. But God, he asserted, "stipulates a miniature monarchy." Another speaker, Bruno de Kalbermatten, asserted that it is pointless for a woman to outlive her husband "if she has no children and grandchildren."

Several Catholic officials attended and spoke at the congress, including Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, president of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for the Family. The Wanderer, a far-right Catholic newspaper, reported that Mormons were the most represented group at the event but that Muslims were the "second-best for numbers."

Religious Right groups see the all-male Roman Catholic hierarchy as a key ally in this issue. In January Dobson's Focus on the Family urged conservatives to oppose an effort mounted by pro-choice groups to strip the Vatican of its official diplomatic status at the UN. Dobson's Family News In Focus newsletter asserted that the effort was being undertaken because the opponents believe the Vatican "has too much influence on pro-family issues."

Working in concert, conservative religious groups have lobbied assiduously to block U.S. funding of birth control overseas. Under the so-called "Mexico City policy" imposed on the country through an executive order by President Ronald Reagan in 1984, no U.S. funds could be used to support any family-planning organization that also provides abortions -- even if none of the U.S. funds were used to pay for abortions. The policy was rescinded by President Bill Clinton in 1993, but its proponents have appealed to Congress to keep its provisions in place.

Pressure from Religious Right groups has shaped the country's domestic birth control policy as well. In 1996, congressional conservatives, acting at the behest of assorted Religious Right groups, added a provision to the welfare reform bill that gives tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to states to distribute to private groups -- many of them religious -- to teach "abstinence only" sex education. The provision stipulates that the programs may not include any discussion of contraceptives, even information about using condoms to prevent AIDS.

Coffelt, a resident of Houston, told Church & State she believes religious ultra-conservatives want to drag women back to an era when they had essentially no control over their reproductive lives.

"There's a point in adolescence where parents, churches, schools or someone should be telling children what their bodies are experiencing," Coffelt said. "This abstinence-only policy says just say no. That's what my mother learned in the '20s and '30s. We've gone back to those days when no information was supposedly the best policy."

Coffelt, a mother of three and grandmother of four, added, "We have to speak out as mothers and grandmothers and say we are unwilling to go back to a century ago when this information was not available. Margaret Sanger, who founded Planned Parenthood, did so to give women a better quality of life. I take great issue when the Religious Right portrays Planned Parenthood as an abortion provider. The majority of Planned Parenthood's business is preventing unwanted pregnancies. We need to speak out because our freedoms can be lost very easily."

Coffelt is also a staunch defender of the public schools. She opposes efforts by the Religious Right to divert tax dollars away from public education and toward religious institutions. While vouchers and other forms of religious school aid remain a top priority for the Religious Right and its conservative Catholic allies, Coffelt argues that the drive hurts women and families.

"It all depends upon whether you feel like an educated populace is good for democracy," Coffelt said. "I firmly believe that it's not just important that my own children and grandchildren have an education, I also strongly support our society's need to provide a quality education to all children, regardless of race, creed, color or sex. It is not appropriate that we as women support efforts that would assume that we can all live in these gated communities that are apart from the issues that challenge society."

Coffelt argues that women who are concerned about the erosion of their rights would do well to oppose voucher plans. Most private schools are religiously affiliated. The majority are operated by the Catholic hierarchy, which fervently opposes legal abortion. Many others are run by fundamentalist Protestant denominations, which also oppose abortion and take a dim view of women's rights as well. Voucher plans would essentially force all women to subsidize religious groups that have reactionary views of the rights of women.

Private religious schools are also generally free from complying with Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, federal legislation that bars schools that receive federal funds from engaging in sex discrimination. While the act's scope is very comprehensive as far as public schools are concerned, it specifically excludes any educational institution "controlled by a religious organization" if application of the law "would not be consistent with the religious tenets of such organization."

Many women are also concerned about the Religious Right's efforts to turn social services over to churches. So-called "charitable choice" plans are popular in many states and are being touted by presidential front-runners in both political parties.

Civil libertarians have criticized charitable choice on church-state grounds, saying it will lead to taxpayer-financed religion. Women may have an additional reason to be concerned. Statistically speaking, most single-parent households are headed by women. Many of these households live at or below the poverty line. Since these types of households are the ones most likely to need social services, they will bear the brunt if problems arise once these services are shifted from the public sector to religious organizations.

Smoot, who runs the Texas Free­dom Network in Austin, laughs at the idea of the Religious Right trying to portray itself as pro-women or pro-family. On the issue of charitable choice, Smoot points out, the Reli­gious Right's agenda would clearly hurt women.

"What women want or need for their families is not a government that is sermonizing but a government that is there with basic life necessities in a crisis," Smoot said.

Smoot added that in Texas, where Gov. George W. Bush has aggressively pushed charitable choice, an often-overlooked reality is that the money being directed to religious groups usually comes by cutting other social services. She notes that there is no effective oversight to make sure sectarian groups do not use public funds to proselytize or pressure needy people to take part in religious activities.

"People who watch the Christian Coalition and the far right know that it is just as ludicrous for them to claim that their agenda is pro-women as it has been for them to claim their agenda is pro-African American or pro-Latino," Smoot told Church & State. "This is another in a series of attempts to convince the public of something that is counterintuitive and absolutely false -- that their agenda helps people."

While Religious Right groups would like to shift social service spending to sectarian agencies for the short term, their larger goal may be more ambitious: getting government out of the job of providing these services at all. Christian Coalition President Robertson, for example, has derided the various government programs that were created in the 1960s as "wasteful."

One of Bush's key advisors on welfare is Marvin Olasky, a professor at the University of Texas and editor of the Religious Right magazine World. In his 1992 book The Tragedy of American Compassion, Olasky speaks approvingly of 19th century models of welfare, where most aid was given by churches, and poverty and homeless were often viewed as the result of moral or spiritual failings. Quoting a Christian relief group from mid-19th century New York, Olasky lauds the idea of maintaining a "willingness to step away for a time and let those who have dug their own hole 'suffer the consequences of their misconduct.' The early Calvinists knew that time spent in the pit could be what was needed to save a life from permanent debauch (and a soul from hell)."

Given the Religious Right's stands on issues like reproductive choice, school vouchers and charitable choice, should women be skeptical of the Religious Right's new recruitment drive? Many advocates of women's rights say yes.

Karen Johnson, the vice president of membership for the National Organization for Women, urges women to be wary of the Religious Right's message. Johnson told Church & State she believes the Religious Right is making a big push to attract more women to persuade them to support far-right candidates in the hope of closing the "gender gap." Ironically, once in power, she says, these politicians would implement policies that are anti-woman.

"They are trying to appeal to women because women have been the decisive vote in the last few elections," Johnson said. "They know that to get their agenda through, they need the votes of women."

Johnson says women should remain viligant. "Certainly I think the problem with the Religious Right and the Christian Coalition and the people of their ilk is the fact that they have distorted the word of God to develop a system of patriarchy where women are always going to be the lesser," she said. "To me, as a person of faith, the Religious Right is neither right nor religious. Their religion is one of women's subordination as opposed to one of godliness."

Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, concurs. "The Religious Right has a basic contempt for the progress women have made over the past century," said Lynn. "Its policies, if adopted, would return women to a time when their choices were limited and many of their decisions were made by someone else. There is simply no way you can call an agenda like that 'pro-woman.'"