The Rev. Rod Parsley doesn’t much like gay people. The very thought that gays might some day win the legal right to marry makes him apoplectic.
During a recent speech, Parsley unleashed a stinging series of attacks on gays, telling a crowd of about 1,000, “Everyone knows the effects of the homosexual agenda are substantial. Homosexuals are anything but happy and anything but carefree. Most of them suffer from low self-esteem and depression. Gay sex is a veritable breeding ground for disease.”
Thundered Parsley, “We must not chance an untested social experiment with the security of our children.”
In many ways, the speech was similar to other anti-gay diatribes Parsley delivered all over Ohio last year in a successful effort to add an amendment banning same-sex marriage to the state constitution. It was laden with bogus claims, such as Parsley’s assertion that “only 1 percent of the homosexual population in America will die of old age” and his insistence that “the average life ex\xadpectancy for a homosexual in the United States of America discounting AIDS is 42 years of age.” (The figures are based on research by anti-gay activist Paul Cameron that was discredited years ago.)
But one thing about the speech was very different: the venue.
Parsley wasn’t speaking in Ohio. He was in Texas, flanked by Gov. Rick Perry and leaders from some of the nation’s most powerful Religious Right groups under circumstances that generated no small amount of controversy.
Perry, a Republican under fire for overseeing a lackluster legislative session this year, is worried about his ability to win reelection in 2006. Although his most formidable opponent, U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, has decided to skip the race, Perry must still deal with an intra-party challenge from Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, a feisty populist who has derided Perry as a “do-nothin’ drugstore cowboy.”
To shore up his chances for reelection, Perry is following a model perfected by his mentor, President George W. Bush: fire up the Religious Right.
That’s where Parsley comes in. On June 5, Parsley and a phalanx of other Religious Right leaders, most of them from out of state, converged on a Pente\xadcostal church school in Fort Worth to join Perry for a bill-signing ceremony.
Surrounded by a crowd of cheering religious conservatives and GOP faithful rounded up by Texas Republican Party officials, Perry affixed his signature to two measures, one requiring girls under the age of 18 to acquire parental consent before obtaining an abortion and another certifying a ballot initiative banning same-sex marriage next year.
The event was a well-orchestrated piece of political theater cleverly designed to placate Religious Right forces and prove to them that their issues matter to Perry. The ballot initiative, for example, did not even require Perry’s signature since it’s going before the voters. In a purely ceremonial move, he merely found a piece of paper to sign anyway.
The location was also curious. Perry’s office announced that the festivities would be held in a gymnasium of a private school affiliated with Calvary Cathedral International, a mega-church founded by the Rev. Bob Nichols.
State Republican Party officials had also planned to film the bill-signing ceremony, hoping to get as much political mileage from it as possible by converting it into campaign commercials later.
“The Governor will be signing parental consent in the Ft. Worth/Dallas area next Sunday,” read a memo from Tarrant County Republican Party Chair Pat Carlson. “We want to completely fill this location with pro-family Christian friends who can celebrate with us. We also want to send a very loud message in your area with this event. We really need for you to help us turn out a very large crowd. We may also film part of this to be used later for TV.”
Carlson also noted that Texas Republican Party Vice Chairman David Barton, a “Christian nation” advocate, had arranged for the use of the church. “Barton is fired up and has started his phone tree to pastors who were helpful with other efforts in that area and on the national scene,” Carlson wrote. “We will likely have a HUGE crowd here.”
To Americans United, the occasion had all the trappings of a campaign function. Under the IRS Code, AU pointed out, partisan electioneering might place Calvary Christian’s tax-exempt status in jeopardy.
“The bill-signing event, as described in the media, has the appearance of a campaign rally,” wrote Lynn in a letter to Perry. “It is my understanding that your campaign staff sent messages to supporters stating that they ‘want to completely fill this location with pro-family Christian friends who can celebrate with us’ and noting that the event might be filmed for television ads to be aired later by your campaign.”
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Lynn called the bill signing a “grotesque misuse of religion for clear partisan political advantage.”
On the heels of AU’s protest, Perry’s staff cancelled the plans to film the rally. That decision did not sit well with Carlson, who told the Times, “This is a wonderful victory for conservatives. If it was me, and I was going to run for governor, I’d sure be filming it. I just don’t understand what all the controversy is about.”
Even without cameras present, the event quickly took on the flavor of a Religious Right/GOP political rally. Aside from Parsley, speakers included Tony Perkins, president of the Washing\xadton-based Family Research Council, the Rev. Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association and Dr. Laurence White, the bombastic pastor of Our Savior Lutheran Church in Houston.
Organizers claimed the celebration was non-partisan and ecumenical. As proof of the latter, they pointed to the participation of Rabbi David Stone of Beth Yeshua Messianic Jewish Congre\xadgation in Fort Worth a congregation of “Jews for Jesus.”
Far from being non-partisan, the event was designed as a sop to the Religious Right a constituency Perry will need in his corner if he faces a primary challenge next year.
Outside the church gym, protestors carried signs and denounced the governor for kowtowing to far-right zealots and failing to fulfill a campaign promise to overhaul education in the state. One demonstrator hoisted a sign reading, “Hey, Rick, It’s Education, Stupid.”
But inside Perry remained defiant and played to the Religious Right base. Asked by a reporter about returning vets from the Iraq War who might be gay, Perry basically told them to move elsewhere.
“Texans have made a decision about marriage and if there is some other state that has a more lenient view than Texas, then maybe that’s a better place for them to live,” he said.
The staff of the Texas Freedom Network (TFN), an Austin-based group that monitors Religious Right activity statewide, has been watching developments with considerable alarm.
TFN says all indications are that conservative clergy are trying to create a church-based political machine in the Lone Star State. On June 3, the Dallas Morning News reported the formation of the “Texas Restoration Project,” a group similar to an Ohio organization that Parsley has worked with.
Wayne Slater, the paper’s senior political writer, noted that in May about 500 ministers and many of their spouses gathered in Austin “for a closed-door session in which Mr. Perry, top members of his administration and influential religious figures touted the involvement of churches in political affairs. Mr. Perry is expected to attend future gatherings as well.”
TFN’s Ryan Valentine said so far the Texas Restoration Project remains a shadowy group. Valentine noted that meals and accommodations at the pastors’ event were provided for attendees but TFN has been unable to find out who paid the bill. The Texas Restoration Project, he said, has not filed papers with the state and has no Web site.
The Religious Right outfit’s spokes\xadman is David Lane, a long-time conservative and Republican Party operative. In 1991, Lane, who is white, pulled together a front group of African Americans to support the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. Six years later, he helped Jerry Falwell launch one of his groups, the National Committee for the Restoration of the Judeo-Christian Ethic.
In 1998, Lane worked with far-right millionaire activist Edward Atsinger III to put on briefings for pastors in California. More recently, he served as executive director of Texas pastor Rick Scarborough’s Vision America. How\xadever, Lane is no longer listed on that group’s Web site.
Slater reported that the Texas Republican Party handled arrangements for Perry’s Austin event. Pastors were invited to attend through letters signed by the governor. (Slater’s request to attend the pastors’ gathering was denied.)
In Ohio, the church-organizing project is widely perceived as a vehicle to put Secretary of State Kenneth Black\xadwell in front of religious conservative voters as he prepares to run for governor. The Texas spin-off appears to be an effort to do the same thing for Perry to boost his reelection chances.
In both cases, pastors claim to be organizing around an issue in this case opposition to same-sex marriage while subtly (or not-so-subtly in some cases) promoting a candidate for public office. The gambit is risky, as federal tax law prohibits non-profits, including houses of worship, from endorsing or opposing candidates.
Now that he has raised his political visibility in Ohio and Texas, Parsley may be looking to expand into other states and market himself as a national figure. The Pentecostal minister, who operates from the 12,000-member World Harvest Church in Columbus, has recently published a book, Silent No More, and is making a round of media appearances. He founded a political affiliate the Center for Moral Clarity in 2004 and is looking to expand it.
The timing may be right. Long-time Religious Right honchos Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson are getting on in years — Falwell has had health problems lately — and Parsley may be jockeying to position himself as a new leader for religious conservatives.
Americans United intends to monitor Parsley’s group as well as the budding religio-political groups. Special attention will be paid to any effort to recruit churches into a partisan political operation.
“These organizations look like partisan political efforts disguised as ‘issue advocacy,’” said Americans United Exe\xadcutive Director Barry W. Lynn. “AU will be warning religious leaders not to align with a movement that could jeopardize their churches’ tax-exempt status.”