Focus on the Family founder James C. Dobson flew into Washington, D.C., last month with twin goals: attend a meeting of the secretive Council for National Policy and issue a new round of orders to top Republican leaders.
With November elections fast approaching, Dobson is eager to make sure the Republican leadership does all it can to satisfy social conservatives. What GOP leaders in Congress have done so far – subjecting Supreme Court appointments to a right-wing litmus test, steadily eroding legal abortion, allocating billions in tax money to religious groups, curbing comprehensive sex education in public institutions, intervening in personal end-of-life decisions in the Terri Schiavo case and laboring to make same-sex marriage unconstitutional – is apparently not enough. Dobson has more items on his wish list.
In a series of meetings with top Republican leaders, Dobson made it clear that he expects action now. Otherwise, as he remarked on Fox News Channel’s “Hannity & Colmes” May 1, “I think there’s going to be some trouble down the road if they don’t get on the ball.”
The Republican leadership, facing an increasingly unfavorable political outlook, moved quickly to placate Dobson. The New York Times reported that he met with a list of GOP leaders, among them Karl Rove, top aide to President George W. Bush; U.S. Sen. Bill Frist, Senate majority leader; Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert and U.S. Rep. John A. Boehner, House majority leader.
This is the extent of Dobson’s power: Religious conservatives enjoy great influence over the federal courts, and their social agenda is being implemented item by item. But it is never enough. Dobson growls, and the top leaders of American politics rush to assure him that all is well. The incident is also a good example of the influence the Religious Right holds in the Republican Party, and thus the larger political system, today.
As Dobson’s outburst makes clear, Religious Right groups have a specific set of goals for American life. They speak openly of “taking back” America, of asserting control over the lives of every single citizen. They have an agenda, and they want action on it.
None of this is a secret. Religious Right organizations brag about what they hope to achieve on their Web sites and in their publications. They hold national meetings and conventions to plot strategy. Their leaders issue marching orders to millions of American followers over radio, television and the Internet.
Yet many Americans remain unaware of the scope of the power, money and aspirations of the Religious Right – or how radical its goals are. More than 25 years have passed since a band of conservative strategists convinced the Rev. Jerry Falwell to lead the Moral Majority, and the movement is today at the apex of its political power.
The reign of Bush, the first president truly wedded to the Religious Right’s agenda, has focused new attention on the movement. This special issue of Church & State takes a look at the goals of the Religious Right, its structure and its major players.
Americans United has monitored the Religious Right since the movement’s genesis with the rise of Falwell in 1979. AU staffers read Religious Right publications and monitor group Web sites, radio and television broadcasts as well as other media. AU staff members also frequently attend Religious Right gatherings to get an insider’s view of the movement. This approach gives AU a unique perspective that few outsiders can match.
The information AU has compiled provides a compelling counterpoint to claims of a “war on Christians” in American society. According to AU’s analysis, the nation’s top ten Religious Right groups are hardly persecuted. They raked in nearly half a billion dollars collectively. (Some organizational budget figures are from 2004, and some are from 2005. The collective total is $447,368,625.) These groups are well organized, well funded and have specific policy goals.
Republican leaders in Washington are so obsessed with keeping the Religious Right happy that they have established a “Values Action Team” in the House headed by U.S. Rep. Joseph Pitts (R-Pa.) and a Senate version headed by U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.). The units serve as special liaisons between Congress and the Religious Right. Far from being relegated to the back of the public policy bus, Religious Right lobbyists are often sitting in the driver’s seat.
The Religious Right has grown so powerful it enjoys a veto over many national Republican candidates. Any Republican who aspires to the presidency must first get a blessing from the Religious Right. A 2002 survey by researchers John C. Green of the University of Akron and Kimberly H. Conger, then a graduate student at Ohio State University, found that the Religious Right has a strong position in 18 state GOP affiliates and a moderate position in 26. In only seven states was its influence described as weak.
This phenomenon played out most recently with U.S. Sen. John McCain’s well-publicized apology to Falwell.
In 2000, McCain lashed out at Falwell and others in the Religious Right, calling them “agents of intolerance.” McCain, gearing up for another run in 2008, recently met with Falwell privately in his Senate office, where the two mended fences.
“He put his hand out and said, ‘I said those words. I was emotional. It was the heat of the moment. I’m sorry,’” Falwell told Congressional Quarterly. “I said, ‘No apology necessary, senator. Let’s move on.’” McCain also agreed to give the commencement address at Falwell’s Liberty University.
Many Religious Right figures hold leadership positions in the GOP. For example, “Christian nation” advocate David Barton is vice-chairman of the Texas Republican Party. Former Christian Coalition head Ralph Reed is currently running for lieutenant governor in Georgia. Gary Bauer, who headed the Family Research Council for 10 years, sought the Republican presidential nomination in 2000.
Political scholar and former Republican strategist Kevin Phillips, writing in an April 2 opinion piece in The Washington Post, was blunt: “Now that the GOP has been transformed by the rise of the South, the trauma of terrorism and George W. Bush’s conviction that God wanted him to be president, a deeper conclusion can be drawn: The Republican Party has become the first religious party in U.S. history.”
Religious Right groups also enjoy great access to the public through the media. Much religious broadcasting also promotes far-right politics. These television and radio broadcasts are omnipresent. In October, Knight-Ridder Newspapers reported, “The growth in the number of religious stations has been marked: Of 13,838 radio stations in the United States, 2,014 are religious stations, according to Arbitron Inc., the media research company. That’s up from 1,089 stations among 12,840 in 1998, according to Arbitron. Salem Communications Corp., of Camarillo, Calif., the biggest owner of Christian stations, owns 104 radio stations in the country and syndicates programming to 1,900 affiliates.”
The story singled out several Christian TV networks as well, among them Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network, Trinity Broadcasting, Inspiration Network, Daystar, Three Angels Broadcasting, World Harvest Television, Cornerstone Television, Praise TV, Worship Channel, Gospel Music Television, The Word Network and FamilyNet.
“If you wanted to, you could immerse yourself 24 hours a day in religious programming in nearly every radio market in the country or with cable television or with satellite TV,” said Quentin J. Schultze, author of Televangelism in America: The Business of Popular Religion and a professor of communications at Calvin College, in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Mainline Christianity, which consists of more politically moderate Protestant denominations, has nothing that matches the reach of conservative Christianity over the airwaves.
Religious Right groups also have a considerable strategizing and planning network in place that magnifies their influence. Despite some competition among groups for funding and members, movement leaders are savvy enough to see the value in coalition work. The Council for National Policy (CNP), for example, is an umbrella organization that brings Religious Right leaders together for regular “war council” meetings where strategy is plotted, information is shared and candidates are vetted. (Bush met with the CNP prior to the 2000 election. To this day, no one knows what he told the group.)
On paper, the Fairfax, Va.-based CNP does not look like much. Public documents show that its annual budget is less than $1 million. It has a tiny staff, and, due to its secretive nature, rarely makes headlines. (See “Behind Closed Doors,” October 2004 Church & State.)
But the CNP’s influence has been profound, and it has real clout. Last month, the group met at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Tysons Corner, Va., to celebrate its 25th anniversary. Scheduled speakers included U.S. Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), widely acknowledged as a leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008; U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.); Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton.
Despite this ability to bring in right-wing heavy hitters, few Americans have heard of the CNP. ABC News, in fact, has called the CNP “the most powerful conservative group you’ve never heard of.”
Another umbrella organization, the Arlington Group, is named for the D.C. suburb in Virginia where it meets to plot new ways to oppose gay rights. Founded by leaders from 10 Religious Right organizations in 2002, the Arlington Group now includes more than 50 members. Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Research and Education Foundation boasted in 2005 that the coalition has had a dramatic impact on politics.
“For the first time, virtually all of the social issues groups are singing off the same sheet of music,” said Weyrich. “This has never happened before. From the beginning of the pro-life movement through the development of the pro-family movement, everybody did their own thing. But working together we have helped to re-elect the president and added a number of conservative senators.”
How The Religious Right Is Organized
Like any other social movement, the Religious Right goes through regular cycles of growth, decline and change. Organizations rise and fall. Leaders come and go. Over the years, some political analysts have made the mistake of assuming that the decline of one Religious Right organization means the movement is wounded or is slowing down.
It’s not that simple. The success or failure of the Religious Right as a whole does not hinge on one or two groups. At any given time, new leaders are jockeying for power and prominence. (The Rev. Rick Scarborough of Vision America and the Rev. Rod Parsely’s Center for Moral Clarity are two recent examples of this. Currently, both men run relatively small political operations with modest budgets. The groups may remain that way and fade away – or take off and become national organizations.)
After the Moral Majority collapsed in 1989, some observers proclaimed the demise of the Religious Right as a political force. It was not to be. In fact, the 1990s — and especially the years of the Bill Clinton presidency — were periods of incredible growth for the movement. Falwell’s organization went into decline in part because more aggressive Religious Right groups had supplanted him. The Christian Coalition, for example, reached its apex in the mid ’90s.
Recently, the Christian Coalition has fallen on hard times. The group, founded by TV preacher Robertson in 1990, just one year after the Moral Majority folded, is a shell of its former self. Again some predicted the demise of the Religious Right and again they were wrong. Dispirited Religious Right activists did not drop out of politics; they migrated to the Family Research Council (FRC), Focus on the Family (FOF), televangelist D. James Kennedy’s group and others.
Because so many Religious Right groups operate in the country today, they tend to specialize. Large organizations with hefty budgets and extensive staffs, like FRC and FOF, can address virtually all aspects of what the Religious Right calls the “culture wars.” Other groups dabble in the range of issues but tend to focus on a particular area. The Rev. Louis P. Sheldon’s Traditional Values Coalition, for example, is known mostly for gay bashing. The Rev. Donald Wildmon’s American Family Association seeks to censor popular culture.
Other groups can be categorized by their approach. The Alliance Defense Fund and the American Center for Law and Justice are legal groups that exist to advance the Religious Right agenda in the courts. This sets them apart from the more political groups or organizations that do a lot of lobbying in Washington.
Foundations have influence primarily because they established the philosophical underpinnings that have inspired more activist-oriented organizations. Christian Reconstructionists are the most prominent example here. Reconstructionism, which openly opposes democracy and calls for a harsh Old Testament-based theocracy, has never been a large movement. The main groups promoting it, the Chalcedon Foundation and American Vision, do not have large budgets but are recognized as having established the framework for mixing religion and politics that many Religious Right leaders cite as a model for their activism.
Robert Billings, one of the godfathers of the Religious Right, said it best back in 1980 when the Moral Majority was getting started. Speaking of Rousas John Rushdoony, the late founder of the Chalcedon Foundation, Billings remarked, “If it weren’t for his books, none of us would be here.”
What The Religious Right Wants
Advocates of separation of church and state are often accused of being shrill or alarmist when they assert that Religious Right groups favor theocratic government. But an honest look at the facts leaves any other conclusion hard to draw. Modern Religious Right groups might not press overtly for writing their understanding of Christianity into the Constitution, but their agenda, if implemented, would force Americans to live under a system of laws based on fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible.
Religious Right leaders frequently speak of their mandate to take “dominion” over American society or impose a “biblical worldview.” An entire Religious Right organization, Worldview Weekend, exists to train activists in ways to impose their version of faith on all aspects of society, including government.
As TV preacher D. James Kennedy put it in his 1997 book Character & Destiny, “This is our land. This is our world. This is our heritage, and with God’s help, we shall reclaim this nation for Jesus Christ. And no power on earth can stop us.”
To the Religious Right, the Bible man-dates that fundamentalist Christians assert control over society at all levels. This viewpoint leads some extremists to embrace what can only be called spiritual totalitarianism.
A document issued by the Coalition on Revival, a group aligned with Christian Reconstructionism, stated bluntly, “We deny that anyone, Jew or Gentile, believer or unbeliever, private person or public official, is exempt from the moral and juridical obligation before God to submit to Christ’s Lordship over every aspect of his life in thought, word and deed.”
The goals of these organizations include:
• Controlling Americans’ Decisions about Reproduction, Sex and Death: Religious Right groups seek to interfere in the most intimate areas of our lives. Most oppose legal abortion for any reason. They advocate “abstinence-based” sex education programs in public schools and other forums, even though most experts agree this approach is ineffective, inaccurate and even dangerous because it does not discuss condoms and artificial forms of birth control.
The Religious Right’s influence here has been considerable. A recent poll cited by The New York Times Magazine noted that more than 90 percent of Americans favor comprehensive sex education in public institutions that includes topics like birth control. Yet millions of dollars in federal funds pay for so-called “abstinence education,” which by law excludes contraceptive information. The same article noted the increase in opposition to artificial forms of contraception by fundamentalist Protestants. Yielding to this pressure, the Food and Drug Administration under Bush has refused to approve “morning after” pills that are routinely used in Europe.
Increasingly, ultra-conservative fundamentalists are joining far-right Catholics in pressing to overturn not just Roe v. Wade but an earlier case, Griswold v. Connecticut. In Griswold, the Supreme Court struck down a Connecticut law that banned the sale of contraceptives even to married couples. According to fundamentalists, Griswold opened the door for the ruling in Roe and ushered in what they call “the culture of death.”
This issue is far from a dead letter today. Religious Right groups support the so-called “right” of pharmacists to refuse to dispense birth control and other medications, and they even seek the right to determine how we will die. In the famous case of Terri Schiavo in Florida, a phalanx of Religious Right organizations prodded Gov. Jeb Bush, the U.S. Congress and President Bush to intervene in a personal family matter in an effort to keep a woman in a persistent vegetative state alive against her stated wishes.
Stem-cell research, which holds the promise of finding cures for debilitating sicknesses like Parkinson’s Disease and Alzheimer’s Disease, has been consistently hampered by the Bush administration, thanks to Religious Right demands.
• Passing Anti-Gay Laws: Attacks on gay people are a standard Religious Right ploy. According to Religious Right leaders, gays are sinners who must be converted to fundamentalist Christianity (and thus heterosexuality). Attempts to end discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation amount to “special rights.” They oppose not only same-sex marriage but in many states have lobbied for other restrictions on gays, such as striking down local domestic partnership laws and barring gays from adopting or becoming foster parents.
Gay-related controversies are a perfect wedge issue for the Religious Right. The groups have exploited them skillfully, spearheading drives to add anti-same-sex marriage provisions to 19 state constitutions. They also seek to do the same to the federal Constitution.
Religious Right groups have a long track record of activism in this area, and the rhetoric they employ is often shrill. In 1994, a collection of 40 Religious Right groups met at a retreat in Colorado to plot strategy. At the meeting, a staffer with Focus on the Family remarked, “I think the gay agenda – and I would not say this as frankly as I will now in other cultural contexts – I think the gay agenda has all the elements of that which is truly evil. It is deceptive at every turn….It is destroying the souls and the lives of those who embrace it, and it has a corrosive effect on the society which endorses it, either explicitly or even implicitly.”
• Controlling Education in America: The Religious Right has alternated for years between wanting to seize total control of public education or advocating shutting it down entirely. To the Religious Right, education not infused with fundamentalist dogma is useless and an affront to God.
In a 1979 book, Falwell observed, “One day, I hope in the next ten years, I trust that we will have more Christian day schools than there are public schools. I hope I will live to see the day when, as in the early days of our country, we won’t have any public schools. The churches will have taken them over again and Christians will be running them. What a happy day that will be!”
Although Falwell is embarrassed by the quote today and tries to shrug it off, it remains a good summary of the Religious Right’s goals for public education. Books bashing public schools are a staple among the Religious Right. In recent years, the Southern Baptist Convention, which is controlled by fundamentalists, has considered resolutions calling on church members to withdraw their children from public schools. Religious Right leaders favor a system of home schools or fundamentalist academies backed by taxpayer subsidies. They may be well on their way to getting it. The Supreme Court upheld vouchers in 2002.
In the meantime, Religious Right groups work to “Christianize” public education – and the Christianity they want is of the fundamentalist variety. Some push for the reintroduction of Bible study and coercive forms of school prayer. Others attack the teaching of evolution or want inaccurate “Christian nation” views of American history taught.
Aware that 90 percent of American children attend public schools, Religious Right organizations use various methods of subterfuge to proselytize this “captive audience.”
While Americans United and its allies have been successful in fending off many schemes to infuse public education with sectarian dogma, new battles continue apace. Disputes over evolution are a good example. Church-state separation advocates have won every major court battle in this arena, but the controversy generated over the issue has made textbook publishers skittish. As a result, many public schools give scant attention to evolution, even though it is considered the lynchpin of the biological sciences.
• Stripping Federal Courts of Their Power to Hear Certain Types of Cases: The Religious Right, aware that many of its schemes have been thwarted by federal courts in the past, wants to win control over the court system. It seeks this power in two ways: electing ultra-conservatives who will appoint judges who oppose church-state separation, reproductive rights and other freedoms and pressuring Congress to pass laws banning the courts from hearing certain types of cases – usually those dealing with the Pledge of Allegiance, school prayer, same-sex marriage, religious symbols on public property and legal abortion.
Judicial appointments have been a consistent point of controversy during the Bush years. Prodded by the Religious Right, Bush has made several controversial appointments, among them Michael McConnell, a former law professor known for his hostility toward church-state separation, and William Pryor, the former attorney general of Alabama and a longtime Religious Right booster. Bush vetted his two Supreme Court nominees, John G. Roberts and Samuel A. Alito, with Religious Right leaders.
The other strategy is a constitutionally dubious maneuver called “court stripping.” Many legal scholars say Congress does not have the power to limit core freedoms in the Bill of Rights in this manner, pointing out that it would destroy the concept of “checks and balances” embedded in the Constitution. But Religious Right groups seem determined to press the issue and force a showdown between the two branches of government.
No court-stripping measures have been signed into law yet, but the Religious Right continues to use the issue to motivate its base of voters and demonize the federal courts.
Finally, the Religious Right has a back-up plan: Some leaders advocate impeaching judges who hand down rulings disliked by fundamentalists. During a March 2005 conference in Washington, longtime Religious Right activist Michael Farris lauded intimidation as a tool of persuasion, saying, “About 40 of them [federal judges] get impeached, you know, suddenly these guys would be retiring and going into private law practice, which would be, you know, happy days are here again,”
• Securing Control of Social Services: Many conservative Christians used to be wary of government support for religion, believing it would lead to red tape and bureaucratic oversight of faith. Some still hold to this view, but increasingly Religious Right leaders are endorsing proposals to fund religion through “faith-based” initiatives. The Bush administration has distributed billions through its faith-based initiative, even without congressional approval. Tax funding has been spent to rehabilitate houses of worship deemed “historic.”
To the Religious Right, these schemes serve two purposes: They knock holes in the church-state wall and move vital social services away from the public sector and toward the religious sector where religious pressures can be brought to bear on Americans who need help.
These schemes have a serious drawback: They force everyone to fund religion and its propagation. To advocates of church-state separation, they are a modern-day form of church taxes.
• Instilling Censorship: Under the guise of “protecting children,” Religious Right groups seek to remove certain books from public libraries and public schools or place them on restricted access. Usually, these books offend the religious sensibilities of fundamentalists. They may deal with human sexuality, gay rights or the “occult.” Some groups, such as Wildmon’s American Family Association, demand that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) crack down on television and cable programming they deem “indecent.” Congress has been quick to respond, and several bills are pending that would greatly increase fines on broadcasters for indecency.
The Religious Right knows it has a friend at the FCC. The current chair of the FCC is Kevin Martin, who was appointed in 2001 after lobbying from the Family Research Council and other groups.
• Infusing Partisan Politics with Religion: The Religious Right seeks to build church-based political machines to help elect ultra-conservative candidates. Movement leaders want to forge a voting bloc based in conservative churches that is so powerful no GOP aspirant to public office can ignore it. Models of this strategy are currently under way in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas.
One problem exists: Federal tax law prohibits 501(c)(3) non-profit groups from intervening in partisan campaigns. Religious Right groups are working to overturn that law. The lead sponsor of the bill, U.S. Rep. Walter B. Jones (R-N.C.), seems to believe he is on a divine mission. In 2002, he told Focus on the Family, “The Lord has given me this energy; the Lord has selected me to be his foot solider.”
So far, efforts by Religious Right groups to alter the tax code and allow church-based politicking have failed, but the problem remains. Every election year, instances of unlawful church politicking pour into the offices of Americans United.
• Other Issues: Since Religious Right groups believe their interpretation of the Bible should reign supreme over every aspect of life, they do not hesitate to speak out on issues that are not usually identified with the “culture war.” When the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), a moderate body, began expressing concern about global warming, Focus on the Family’s Dobson went ballistic. Dobson used his influence to block the NAE’s action, going so far as to sic U.S. Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) on the group. Dobson then aligned with a front group, the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance, and began issuing material arguing that fears of global warming are overblown. The alliance’s statement calls for “human dominion over creation” and insists that global warming, over-population and large-scale species loss are “unfounded or undue concerns.”
Recent controversies over heavy-handed evangelical influence in the military are another example of the Religious Right’s reach. Movement leaders have backed the so-called “right” of tax-funded chaplains to proselytize and have overlooked how their ham-fisted approach threatens members of religious minority groups.
Finally, the Religious Right even seeks to influence foreign policy. In American Theocracy, Kevin Phillips argues that Bush has been unduly influenced in his Middle East policy by fundamentalist end-times theology and that the president views himself as some sort of instrument of God’s wrath. Many Religious Right leaders believe that a certain scenario must play out in the Middle East in order for biblical prophecies to be fulfilled. They often try to fit current events to match what they see as biblical commands and insist that foreign policy be guided by this controversial interpretation of scripture.
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Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn has monitored Religious Right organizations since Falwell’s rise. He has debated prominent Religious Right leaders in the media and public forums. Lynn urges Americans never to be complacent about the goals of this movement.
“The Religious Right is about control,” Lynn said. “From monitoring the Religious Right for so many years, I’ve come to the conclusion that many of its leaders and followers really believe that the American people are not to be trusted with religious freedom, that they might make the ‘wrong’ choice by failing to embrace fundamentalism.”Continued Lynn, “The Religious Right seeks to reorder society by insisting that the country embrace a rigid set of rules based on a narrow definition of Christianity. The movement’s leaders would use the power of government to force all of us to follow its dictates. This is the Religious Right’s greatest mistake – and its biggest threat.”