When a top U.S. senator receives a major award from a national advocacy organization, it’s standard procedure for both the politician and the group to eagerly tell as many people about it as possible.
Press releases spew from fax machines and e-mails clog reporters’ in-boxes. The news media are summoned in the hope that favorable stories will appear in the newspapers, on radio and on television.
It was odd, therefore, that when U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) accepted a “Thomas Jefferson Award” from a national group at the Plaza Hotel in New York City in August, the media weren’t notified. In fact, they weren’t welcome to attend.
“The media should not know when or where we meet or who takes part in our programs, before or after a meeting,” reads one of the cardinal rules of the organization that honored Frist.
The membership list of this group is “strictly confidential.” Guests can attend only with the unanimous approval of the organization’s executive committee. The group’s leadership is so secretive that members are told not to refer to it by name in e-mail messages. Anyone who breaks the rules can be tossed out.
What is this group, and why is it so determined to avoid the public spotlight?
That answer is the Council for National Policy (CNP). And if the name isn’t familiar to you, don’t be surprised. That’s just what the Council wants.
The CNP was founded in 1981 as an umbrella organization of right-wing leaders who would gather regularly to plot strategy, share ideas and fund causes and candidates to advance the far-right agenda. Twenty-three years later, it is still secretly pursuing those goals with amazing success.
Since its founding, the tax-exempt organization has been meeting three times a year. Members have come and gone, but all share something in common: They are powerful figures, drawn from both the Religious Right and the anti-government, anti-tax wing of the ultra-conservative movement.
It may sound like a far-left conspiracy theory, but the CNP is all too real and, its critics would argue, all too influential.
What amazes most CNP opponents is the group’s ability to avoid widespread public scrutiny. Despite nearly a quarter century of existence and involvement by wealthy and influential political figures, the CNP remains unknown to most Americans. Operating out of a non-descript office building in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Fairfax, Va., the organization has managed to keep an extremely low profile an amazing feat when one considers the people the CNP courts.
New York Times reporter David Kirkpatrick was finally able to pierce the CNP veil in August when he attended a gathering of the group in New York City just before the Republican convention, where the organization presented Frist with the “Jefferson Award.”
The Times described the CNP as consisting of “a few hundred of the most powerful conservatives in the country” who meet “behind closed doors at undisclosed locations…to strategize about how to turn the country to the right.”
Accepting the award, Frist acknowledged the group’s power, telling attendees, “The destiny of the nation is on the shoulders of the conservative movement.”
The CNP meeting was perhaps more important than what took place on the carefully choreographed GOP convention stage a few days later, said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
“The real crux of this is that these are the genuine leaders of the Republican Party, but they certainly aren’t going to be visible on television next week,” Lynn told The Times days before the start of the GOP convention. “The CNP members are not going to be visible next week, but they are very much on the minds of George W. Bush and Karl Rove every week of the year, because these are the real powers in the party.”
The Times’ Kirkpatrick was able to obtain the CNP’s current membership list and reported that its roster includes Focus on the Family founder James C. Dobson, Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation, Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association and Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform. A CNP financial disclosure form for 2002 lists Norquist and Howard Phillips, founder of the ultra-conservative Constitution Party, as directors. The current president of the group is Donald P. Hodel, former executive director of the Christian Coalition.
Other CNP directors include names that would not mean a lot to most people, but they are key players in the right-wing universe. Becky Norton Dunlop is vice president for external relations at the Heritage Foundation. James C. Miller III is former director of Citizens for a Sound Economy. Stuart W. Epperson owns a chain of Christian radio stations. E. Peb Jackson is former president of Young Life. T. Kenneth Cribb Jr., vice president of the CNP, was a domestic policy advisor to President Ronald W. Reagan and runs the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, a group that funds right-wing newspapers on college campuses. Ken Raasch is a businessman who works in partnership with popular artist Thomas Kinkade.
Others who have been affiliated with the CNP include TV preachers Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, longtime anti-feminist crusader Phyllis Schlafly, Iran-Contra figure turned right-wing talk radio host Oliver North, former U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), wealthy California savings and loan heir Howard Ahmanson, former House Majority Leader Dick Army (R-Texas), Attorney General John Ashcroft and Tommy Thompson, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Republican Party glitterati and top government officials frequently appear at CNP meetings. During the gathering before this year’s GOP convention, The New York Times reported that several Bush administration representatives were scheduled for speeches. Undersecretary of State John Bolton spoke about plans for Iran, Assistant Attorney General Alexander Acosta talked about human trafficking and Dan Senor, who worked for Paul Bremer in Iraq, was scheduled to talk about the war there.
The Times said the CNP meeting was focused on the Bush-Cheney re-election efforts and quoted an anonymous participant who called the gathering a “pep rally” for the president’s campaign. Passing a federal marriage amendment and using that subject as a wedge issue was also a top priority.
The newspaper noted that another CNP meeting that took place shortly after the American invasion of Iraq included visits from Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. A Canadian newspaper reported that Rumsfeld provided the gathering’s keynote address and that Cheney was scheduled to speak. (See “People & Events,” June 2003 Church & State.)
In April of 2002, according to an ABC News story that ran online, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was the keynote speaker at a CNP meeting in a northern Virginia suburb of Washington, D.C., where White House counsel Alberto Gonzales and Timothy Goeglein, a White House liaison to religious communities, also spoke.
Heavy-hitters such as these show that the CNP is a force to be reckoned with, and Republican politicians ignore the group at their peril. In 1999, GOP presidential candidate George W. Bush appeared before a CNP gathering in San Antonio, and, in a closed-door meeting, assured the members of his right-wing bona fides. Bush critics demanded that the president release the text of his remarks, but he refused. Nonetheless, rumors soon surfaced that Bush promised the CNP to implement its agenda and vowed to appoint only anti-abortion judges to the federal courts.
How did this influential organization get its start? To find the answer, it’s necessary to go all the way back to 1981 and the early years of the Reagan presidency.
Excited by Reagan’s election, Tim LaHaye, Richard Viguerie, Weyrich and a number of far-right conservatives began meeting to discuss ways to maximize the power of the ultra-conservative movement and create an alternative to the more centrist Council on Foreign Relations. In mid May, about 50 of them met at the McLean, Va., home of Viguerie, owner of a conservative fund-raising company.
Viguerie had a knack for networking. Shortly before helping launch the CNP, Viguerie and Weyrich initiated the Moral Majority and tapped Falwell to run it, making the obscure Lynchburg pastor a major political figure overnight. Viguerie’s goal was to lead rural White voters in the South out of the Democratic Party and into the Republican Party by emphasizing divisive social issues such as abortion, gay rights and school prayer.
Back when the CNP was founded, it was a little less media shy. In the summer of 1981, Woody Jenkins, a former Louisiana state lawmaker who served as the group’s first executive director, told Newsweek bluntly, “One day before the end of this century, the Council will be so influential that no president, regardless of party or philosophy, will be able to ignore us or our concerns or shut us out of the highest levels of government.”
From the beginning, the CNP sought to merge two strains of far-right thought: the theocratic Religious Right with the low-tax, anti-government wing of the GOP. The theory was that the Religious Right would provide the grassroots activism and the muscle. The other faction would put up the money.
The CNP has always reflected this two-barreled approach. The group’s first president was LaHaye, then president of Family Life Seminars in El Cajon Calif. LaHaye, a fundamentalist Baptist preacher who went on in the 1990s to launch the popular “Left Behind” series of apocalyptic potboilers, was an early anti-gay crusader and frequent basher of public education and he still is today.
Alongside figures like LaHaye and leaders of the anti-abortion movement, the nascent CNP also included Joseph Coors, the wealthy beer magnate; Herbert and Nelson Bunker Hunt, two billionaire investors and energy company executives known for their advocacy of right-wing causes, and William Cies, another wealthy businessman.
Interestingly, the Hunts, Cies and LaHaye all were affiliated with the John Birch Society, the conspiracy-obsessed anti-communist group founded in 1959. LaHaye had lectured and conducted training seminars frequently for the Society during the 1960s and ’70s a time when the group was known for its campaign against the civil rights movement.
Bringing together the two strains of the far right gave the CNP enormous leverage. The group, for example, could pick a candidate for public office and ply him or her with individual donations and PAC money from its well-endowed, business wing.
The goals of the CNP, then, are similarly two-pronged. Activists like Norquist, who once said he wanted to shrink the federal government to a size where it could be drowned in a bathtub, are drawn to the group for its exaltation of unfettered capitalism, hostility toward social-service spending and low (or no) tax ideology.
Dramatically scaling back the size of the federal government and abolishing the last remnants of the New Deal may be one goal of the CNP, but many of the foot soldiers of the Religious Right sign on for a different crusade: a desire to remake America in a Christian fundamentalist image.
Since 1981, CNP members have worked assiduously to pack government bodies with ultra-conservative lawmakers who agree that the nation needs a major shift to the right economically and socially. They rail against popular culture and progressive lawmakers, calling them the culprits of the nation’s moral decay. Laws must be passed and enforced, the group argues, that will bring organized prayer back to the public schools, outlaw abortion, prevent gays from achieving full civil rights and fund private religious schools with tax funds.
The CNP does not directly fund these activities itself. In fact, a glance at the group’s publicly available financial statements reveals a modest budget. In 2002, the CNP operated with income of just over $1.2 million. The national office has just a handful of staff members.
(In no way a grassroots organization, the CNP gets much of its money from far-right foundations. The Coors family and Richard DeVos, founder of Amway, have been among the CNP’s largest financial backers. The group received $125,000 from a Coors family philanthropic arm, the Castle Rock Foundation, and the Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation. Richard DeVos was also one of the CNP’s early presidents and Jeffrey and Holly Coors have been members for many years.)
The CNP’s budgetary figures don’t tell the whole story, however. Financial data shows that the bulk of its money $815,227 in 2002 is spent on “educational conferences and seminars for national leaders in the fields of business, government, religion and academia to explore national policy alternatives.” An additional $69,108 was spent on “weekly newsletters…distributed to all members to keep them apprised of member activities and public policy issues.”
In other words, the CNP is merely a facilitator. While the group has an affiliated arm CNP Action that does some lobbying, in the main it does not work directly to implement the schemes its members devise during the three yearly meetings. The well-heeled leaders and their affiliated organizations are expected to come up with their own funds to pay for the plots hatched during the meetings.
Despite the group’s obsessive desire for secrecy, some information has leaked out over the years, mainly due to the persistent efforts of a few writers and researchers.
In 1988, writer Russ Bellant noted in his book The Coors Connection, which details the beer dynasty’s funding of right-wing causes and groups, that many CNP members have been associated with the outer reaches of the conservative movement. Bellant found that among the far right, there is a certain cachet to being a CNP member. Members pay thousands of dollars yearly to keep their CNP membership. Bellant noted that at the time, individuals paid $2,000 per year for membership and those seeking a spot on the CNP’s board of directors shelled out $5,000 each.
Research undertaken by a now-defunct watchdog group, the Institute for First Amendment Studies (IFAS), shed some more light on the group’s activities. For many years running, IFAS founder Skip Porteous was able to obtain CNP membership lists, which he posted online.
Bellant noted that Tom Ellis, a top political operative of the ultra-conservative Jesse Helms, followed LaHaye as the CNP president in 1982. Ellis had a checkered past, having served as a director of a foundation called the Pioneer Fund, which has a long history of subsidizing efforts to prove blacks are genetically inferior to whites.
Bellant’s book, as well as work by the IFAS, reveals other CNP members who have flirted with extremist and hateful propaganda.
In addition to obsessing over communist threats and buttressing white supremacist ideology, the CNP has included many members bent on replacing American democracy with theocracy.
LaHaye, like the whole of the nation’s Religious Right leaders, nurtures a strong contempt for the First Amendment principle of church-state separation, because it seriously complicates their goal of installing fundamentalist Christianity as the nation’s officially recognized religion. LaHaye has worked within the CNP and other groups to replace American law with “biblical law.” (See “Left Behind,” February 2002 Church & State.)
Former Christian Coalition head Ralph Reed has also been involved with the CNP and addressed the group during the August GOP meeting in New York. Asked about his relationship with the CNP by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer Aug. 29, Reed fell back on the common ploy of asserting that the group is just a ramped-up social club.
“I think it’s like-minded individuals who believe in conservative public policy views. And they get together a few times a year,” said Reed (whose CNP topic was “The 2004 Elections: Who Will Win in November?”).
Reed, now a top official of the Bush-Cheney campaign, said he is no longer a CNP member, asserting that he quit because “I was just busy doing other things.”
The CNP goes way beyond LaHaye and Reed in its effort to embrace the Religious Right. For many years, the late leader of the Christian Reconstructionist movement, Rousas J. Rushdoony, was a member. Reconstructionists espouse a radical theology that calls for trashing the U.S. Constitution and replacing it with the harsh legal code of the Old Testament. They advocate the death penalty for adulterers, blasphemers, incorrigible teenagers, gay people, “witches” and those who worship “false gods.”
Another CNP-Reconstructionist tie comes through Howard Phillips, the Constitution Party leader. Phillips, a longtime CNP member, is a disciple of Rushdoony and uses rhetoric that strikes a distinctly Reconstructionist tone. In a 2003 Constitution Party gathering in Clackamas, Oregon, Phillips told party members and guests, “We’ve got to be ready when God chooses to let us restore our once-great Republic.” A report by the Southern Poverty Law Center said that Phillips proclaimed that his party was “raising up an army” to “take back this nation!”
The CNP has provided more prominent Religious Right figures, such as Dobson, with a forum to promote church-state merger and shove the Republican Party toward the right. In 1998, Dobson appeared before a CNP gathering where he admitted he voted for Constitution Party nominee Phillips in the 1996 presidential election instead of Republican candidate Bob Dole. Dobson threatened to bolt the Republican Party and take “as many people with me as possible” if the GOP did not stop taking Christian conservatives for granted. (Dobson’s speech, like all addresses before CNP functions, was not intended for media coverage. A transcript was published by the IFAS, which was able to gain access to the meeting. The transcript remains available on the Internet at www.buildingequality.us/ifas /cnp/dobson.html.)
Dobson railed against the Republican-controlled Congress for apparently giving short shrift to the “pro-moral community” and easily acquiescing to a “post-modern notion, that there is no moral law to the universe.” That notion, Dobson said, has spread throughout the nation like a cancer.
For Dobson, the moral law of the universe is clear and should be evident to all lawmakers. The universe “has a boss,” he said. “And He has very clear ideas of what is right and wrong.”
Dobson blasted the Republican-led Congress for increasing funding to Planned Parenthood and the National Endowment of the Arts and for espousing a “safe sex ideology” that he said includes advocacy of the use of condoms to help prevent sexually transmitted diseases.
All of this, Dobson said, directly contravenes God’s law.
“It’s a lack of conviction that there is a boss to the universe and that there are moral standards that we are held to and we need officials that will stand up and respect them,” Dobson said.
Dobson concluded his lecture by begging CNP members “shamelessly, to use your influence on the party at this critical stage of our history. You have a lot of influence on the party. A lot of you are politicians. I beg you to talk to them about what’s at stake here because they’ve laid the foundation for a revolt and I don’t think they even know it because they’re so out of touch with the people that I’m talking about.”
Dobson seemed fully aware that he was speaking to an ultra-partisan group. Indeed, the ABCNews.com report noted that some CNP members have bragged about helping “Christian conservatives” take over Republican state party operations in several Southern and Midwestern states.
The CNP’s current executive director, a former California lawmaker named Steve Baldwin, has tried to downplay the organization’s influence on powerful state and national lawmakers. He has remained cagey about the CNP’s goals, insisting it is merely a group that counters liberal policy arguments.
In many ways, Baldwin himself exemplifies the CNP’s operate-in-secret strategy. As a political strategist in California in the early 1990s, Baldwin was one of the key architects of the “stealth strategy” that led to Religious Right activists being elected to school boards and other local offices.
“Stealth candidates” were trained to emphasize pocketbook issues such as taxes and spending. But once elected, they would pursue a Religious Right agenda, such as demanding creationism in public schools. A spate of the candidates won election in Southern California in the early 1990s, but most were later removed by the voters when the true agenda became apparent.
Baldwin tried to use the stealth strategy during his own campaign for the California Assembly in 1992. He lost that race but fared better in 1994, winning election to a seat in the 77th Assembly District. While in office, he helped lead efforts by Religious Right conservatives to take over the state GOP and, briefly, the entire Assembly.
Baldwin had to leave the Assembly in 2000 after serving six years due to California’s term-limits law. According to one California media outlet, his hard-right views had by then alienated most other members of the Assembly.
But Baldwin refused to let up. In the spring of 2002, while working at the CNP, he penned a controversial article for the law review at TV preacher Pat Robertson’s Regent University. The piece, “Child Molestation and the Homosexual Movement,” linked pedophilia to homosexuality.
The article went on to become a staple in the Religious Right’s anti-gay canon, despite the fact that its claims were challenged by legitimate researchers.
“It is difficult to convey the dark side of the homosexual culture without appearing harsh,” wrote Baldwin. “However, it is time to acknowledge that homosexual behavior threatens the foundation of Western civilization the nuclear family.”
What might the future hold for Baldwin and the CNP? Already Jenkins’ vision of a day when powerful politicians would pay heed to the group has come to pass. With social issues such as same-sex marriage increasingly dominating the Religious Right’s agenda, the organization is not likely to want for things to do.
Americans United, which has monitored the activities of the CNP for years, says the groups holds radical views and is especially dangerous because of its success in connecting Religious Right activism with the secular right’s deep financial pockets.
AU’s Lynn said he hopes the media begins to pay more attention to the CNP and expose its goals.
“If the CNP gets its way,” Lynn said, “the First Amendment, along with the rest of the U.S. Constitution, will be replaced with fundamentalist dogma. In order to ensure religious liberty for future generations of Americans, the CNP’s agenda must be derailed.”