Editor's Note: Church & State Assistant Editor Rob Boston has just written his third book. Titled Close Encounters with the Religious Right: Journeys into the Twilight Zone of Religion and Politics, the new book focuses on Boston's experiences tracking the Religious Right "up close and personal" by attending its conferences and national and local meetings. In this excerpt, Boston writes about attending local meetings of TV preacher Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition in 1998.
Close Encounters with the Religious Right is published by Prometheus Books in Amherst, N.Y., and is available from Americans United. See the back page ad of this magazine for more details. You can also read more excerpts online at: www.robertboston.com
At Christian Coalition "Road to Victory" conferences I have had the opportunity to attend state caucus meetings and sit in on more intimate gatherings where state or local leaders outlined strategy and discussed activities. This is always interesting because it has allowed me to see how the Coalition operates at the grassroots. But I was curious to learn more. What was missing, from my perspective, was how the Coalition operates when it's not cruising along the "Road to Victory." In other words, how do CC chapters really function?
I had an opportunity to find out for myself early in 1998. Since I have attended so many "Road to Victory" conferences, I'm on the group's mailing and telephone lists. I never fail to get a phone call on primary and general election days, reminding me to vote. But the notice I got in early 1998 was something different: It was an invitation to help form a local chapter of the Christian Coalition in Montgomery County, Md., my adopted home.
By way of a little background, I should say that I am not a native Marylander. I was born and raised in central Pennsylvania and moved to Maryland's Washington, D.C., suburbs in January of 1986, almost two years before I started working at Americans United. My hometown in Pennsylvania, where my mother and several of my siblings still live, is conservative; there's very little racial or religious diversity. Most people are Roman Catholics or Protestants of one denomination or another.
Montgomery County is worlds removed from that. It's upscale and socially progressive. The county leans Democratic, and, although it is currently represented in Congress by a Republican, she is one of the most liberal members of that party in the House. In short, it does not appear to be fertile ground for Christian Coalition organizing. Naturally, I had to find out what was going on.
The initial formation meeting was held in a Protestant church in a community known as Germantown. I had expected I would be just another face in a crowd of 30 or 40 and figured it would be easy to blend in with the background and lay low, which is my habit when engaging in "deep cover." But when I walked in the door of the church meeting room, I had to rapidly shift strategies because only eight people had showed up.
The organizer of our chapter was an affable middle-aged man I'll call "Alex." (The names have been changed to protect not the innocent but the guilty, or at least those who ought to feel guilty.) I could see from the beginning that Alex would have a hard time taking Montgomery County for Pat Robertson. His army consisted of a motley crew of individuals drawn from the county's anemic anti-abortion movement (including one gentleman who would not stop talking) and one spy. But every revolution has to start somewhere, so we set to the task.
The first order of business was to name an interim board of directors. Since we were a small, intimate group, we decided to name ourselves the temporary board. Thus, I hold the distinction of being perhaps the only employee of Americans United for Separation of Church and State to have held a director's seat--albeit briefly--on the board of a Christian Coalition chapter.
Then the fun started. Mostly people just complained about their misfortune to live in a county cursed with a Democratic majority. One elderly gentleman, I'll call him Stu, spat out that the school board and county council were all "secular humanists." See, I was learning things already. Up to that point, I had assumed that most local politicians were Christians or Jews. Stu also asserted that school board elections in the county were "rigged by the teachers' unions." The purpose of this evil plot, he explained, was to make sure that sex education, the teaching of evolution and humanism remained dominant in our county's public schools.
At one point, I'm not sure why, someone brought up global warming. This met with a general sigh of dismay from the crowd. One woman piped up, "It's not happening! All the top scientists say it's not." She assured us we could trust her on this because, "I have a science degree."
Eventually we had formulated a type of action plan: We would put out a voter guide for state legislative races. We would talk about what issues to include in the guide next time. As Alex put it, "The problem is knowing who to vote for....That's where the Christian Coalition comes in."
That was a shocking statement. The Coalition's party line at that time was that its voter guides were "non-partisan" and designed merely to educate voters, not persuade them to vote for one candidate over another.
Someone asked Alex why we didn't include school board candidates on the guide. His face fell as he replied, "I was told there was nobody worthwhile running. They are all pro-abortion and pro-sex education....Montgomery County is not easy, but that's no reason why we should not try."
Then Alex announced that we had a special visitor. Lisa, the director of the state Christian Coalition, had come all the way from her home near Cumberland to pump us up.
Lisa began by telling an inspirational story about how "Christians" in Garrett County, a rural enclave in far western Maryland, had taken over the school board. Before that happened, she said, only two members of the seven-member board "were Christians." I've been through Garrett County. Culturally, it has a lot in common with West Virginia--very rural. I considered asking Lisa what religion those five other board members were--Buddhists, perhaps? Maybe Hindus?
But I didn't get the opportunity because Lisa had launched into an explanation of how we were to achieve our goals through neighborhood voter identification and turnout on election day. Lots of people don't vote, she said, but if the right kind of people vote, our kind of folks can win. Our job was to visit our neighbors, scope out the right wingers, get them registered, and, if we had to, drive them ourselves to the polls on election day.
I was taken aback. I knew that this "voter ID" election strategy was yesterday's news. The Christian Coalition used to use it but had abandoned it in favor of a church-based model that called for aggressive distribution of voter guides the Sunday before election days. I was depressed. How were we ever going to capture the county for Pat with this ancient, discredited model? Sadly I concluded that I, the spy, knew more about organizing a Christian Coalition chapter than the anointed leaders of the group.
Lisa concluded with some dire warnings. "I believe America as we know it is not going to exist in 15 or 20 years from now if we don't act," she said. "Our government has started to take away our freedoms so gradually, we haven't noticed it. The United States is giving up sovereignty to the UN right and left. I'm not ready to let the decisions of our government be made by an international community."
It would have been nice to stick around and chat over coffee and cookies. I especially wanted Stu to flesh out that rigged election thing for me and see if he could provide proof that the school board was all secular humanists so I could show my neighbors, but I had already wasted two hours on a Saturday morning when I could have been home with the kids, so I took my leave.
Unfortunately, I missed the next meeting. I had a conflict, as I had agreed months earlier to speak before a meeting of Planned Parenthood in Washington. I really wanted to call up Alex and say, "Sorry, Alex, but I can't make the meeting this month. I'm addressing Planned Parenthood downtown. Can you call me later and fill me in?"
Instead, I remained mum and went to the local Coalition meeting the following month. Stu had big news: He had decided to run for the Maryland House of Delegates! We were all happy for him. I don't live in Stu's district, so I was especially happy.
Someone asked Stu what issues he would stress during the campaign. He replied, "The first thing I'm going to do is shut off these butlers to the gay people."
Several of us just looked at him. Butlers to the gay people! Whatever could he mean? We prodded a little, and the answer came out: Stu was referring to some type of local government program that sent health care professionals into the homes of terminally ill people who had serious cases of AIDS.
As Stu spoke, an unshaven man next to me nodded approvingly. He was active in the local anti-abortion movement and to me always looked like he had a glint of fanaticism in his eyes. I did not know whether to feel sorry for them both or simply be enraged.
We also had visits from a few politicians that Saturday. Two Republican hopefuls dropped by. One man was seeking to become state's attorney, and a woman had filed for a seat on the county council. They talked openly about winning our support and getting endorsements. Again, I found this odd behavior for a "non-partisan" group.
The gentleman seeking to become state's attorney was especially enthusiastic about the proposed voter guide. Four or five well phrased questions, he asserted, would tell us "who's with us and who's not."
The woman seeking the at-large council seat was not shy about asking us for financial support. She gave each of us an envelope with a short note inside. I have reproduced it here, quirky punctuation and capitalization and all:
"I am asking for your support. I know we both share the same Christian beliefs in a very difficult environment but with your support I can become a really viable candidate in this coming elections. I know I can win, but I can not do it without you. Please pretty please, Support me."
It was a heart-felt plea delivered to at least 13 people, but it was not enough. Neither of these hopefuls were successful in winning election to public office.
I missed a few more meetings but got back to one that summer. There I learned that the Maryland Christian Coalition was in turmoil. Lisa had resigned, and we were adrift! I was appalled. Who would save Maryland from the coming UN takeover? How could Lisa abandon us at this critical time?
Also, I had been receiving regular e-mail updates from Lisa from the Maryland headquarters. They warned me about militant homosexual activists bent on destroying my family, more stuff about United Nations takeovers of the country, the latest schemes of the "radical feminists," the usual kind of thing. I found them very helpful and knew I would certainly miss them.
Alex tried to paste a good face on the news. Locally, we were doing fine. Thirteen people had come out for this meeting, and our voter guide was almost completed.
More months passed. Election day came and went. About a week before election day, I received a voter guide in the mail--highly irregular. They are supposed to be distributed in churches. Anyway, Stu had somehow managed to win the Republican nomination for House of Delegates. The district he wanted to represent is so heavy with Democrats that he may not have had a primary opponent. In any case, Stu's "no butlers for the gay people" platform failed to excite the voters. On election day, three candidates out of a field of six won election to represent Stu's district. Stu was not among them. In fact, he came in dead last, capturing 6 percent of the vote.
It's easy to poke fun at the Christian Coalition in my county. They had an uphill struggle all the time. But I know from experience that chapters in other parts of the country are much better organized and effective. In South Carolina, where Christian Coaltion Executive Vice President Roberta Combs used to reside, CC chapters essentially doubled as local units of the GOP. Moderate Republicans who refused to play ball were forced out.
Also, I've had plenty of calls over the years from people all over the country who do battle with Christian Coalition chapters on a host of issues, from library censorship and creationism to anti-abortion drives and anti-gay initiatives. I wish all Coalition chapters were as ineffective as the one in Montgomery County, but I know that's not the case.
I want to conclude with a warning: Don't buy into the view that circulates periodically that the Christian Coalition (or the larger Religious Right movement, for that matter) is dead or dying. In the 12 years I have worked at Americans United, I have seen the Religious Right's obituary written many times, always prematurely.
It's true that right-wing newspaper columnist Cal Thomas and Free Congress Foundation head Paul Weyrich have called for fundamentalist Christians to step out of politics. My response to that is: so what? Thomas is a columnist, not the leader of a national organization, and as I was writing this book, he had already been effectively shunned for his views. Weyrich helped form the Moral Majority but is a peripheral figure these days. Besides, he's not a fundamentalist Protestant, he's an Eastern-Rite Catholic. Few in the Religious Right are likely to heed his call.
The nation's leading Religious Right leaders have already rejected Thomas' and Weyrich's views. Having tasted some political power, men like Robertson, James Dobson and D. James Kennedy are not likely to voluntarily give it up. I'm surprised that anyone would believe that.
Stories that the Religious Right is dead that surface periodically in the media have the potential to do great damage. They mislead people. They cause some activists to become less active. They lead some folks to let their guard down. They lull others into a false sense of complacency. This is just what the Religious Right wants. Don't fall for it.
I once heard Robertson speak at a "Road to Victory" conference about the great strides the Christian Coalition had made in taking over the Republican Party in the states. A magazine had reported that the Coalition was dominant in about half of the state GOP units and had a significant presence in many others. Robertson said that was great but that more work remained to be done because "I like 100 percent."
It's wishful thinking to believe that Robertson will simply decide to go away. It's wishful thinking to believe that his Christian Coalition will collapse overnight. It's wishful thinking to believe that the Religious Right will simply fade from view. Robertson wants 100 percent. He has stated his views upfront. His agenda is no longer a secret. His ambitions and those of his Christian Coalition have been laid out for the American people to see. He will work toward them until the very day he draws his last breath.