May 2005 Church & State | Featured

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist has a carefully cultivated public image as a moderate conservative with a non-ideological bent. The clean-cut Tennessee doctor comes across as a pragmatic public official who steers pretty close to the political center.

But behind closed doors at the Family Research Council’s “Washington Briefing” in March, Frist sounded a lot like Jerry Falwell, praising his Religious Right audience and launching into a litany of Religious Right goals he hopes to accomplish. Speaking by telephone to the crowd of 300 activists gathered at the Willard Hotel, the top congressional leader promised to try to rein in “activist judges,” pass laws restricting reproductive rights, amend the Constitution to block gay people from marriage and “do everything we can and ultimately save the life – by preventing the starvation – of Terri Schiavo.”

“In this Congress,” Frist told the Religious Right operatives, “we’re going to continue to work on issues that are important to you, to me, above all to America’s future. That includes good judges, the sanctity of marriage, and, I just mentioned, the culture of life, as well as protection for the unborn.”

Frist’s remarks are just one indication of the extraordinary power that the Religious Right wields today in Washington, D.C. In addition to the Senate majority leader, others appearing at the three-day conference included House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, U.S. Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), U.S. Rep. Bobby Jindal (R-La.), newly appointed Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin, U.S. State Department official John Miller and Kansas Attorney General Phill Kline. (U.S. Senators Mel Martinez and Tom Coburn were scheduled to appear as well, but had to cancel due to a day-long series of special budgetary votes in Congress.)

But despite this show of mainstream political influence, the Washington briefing also featured an array of speakers who outlined a chilling portrait of an American future where civil and religious liberties are sacrificed on the altar of fundamentalist Christian political power. These activists want to scrap the concept of an independent judiciary, ban all abortions by law, deny gay people legal protections, make divorce more difficult to obtain and make adultery a punishable offense.

But most of all, they seek to overturn church-state separation, making America an officially “Christian nation.” To do so, they hope to repeal the federal ban of church electioneering and create a church-based political machine that controls politics throughout the country.

This agenda may sound far out, but the FRC’s friends in high places seem willing to help make it happen.

Frist told the gathering, “[Y]ou stand up for our children, you stand up for our families, you never back down. That’s why we are winning these larger battles today.” He also promised to coordinate with the FRC to ensure that a Senate vote on the Federal Marriage Amend­ment is scheduled to achieve maximum influence at the polls.

“We will, once again, bring an amendment to the floor when the time is right,” Frist said. “I and others will be discussing with you when the appropriate time is. Last year we had to be sure it was an issue on which Americans could express their minds at the polls…. We want to protect marriage from activist judges once and for all, and we will do it.”

In addition to Frist, House Majority Leader DeLay was also a special guest at the FRC briefing. Unlike the Tennessee senator, DeLay is open about his close relationship with the Religious Right. He has publicly blasted church-state separation as a concept that does not appear in the Constitution, and he says he makes his political decisions based on a “biblical worldview.”

Speaking at the March 18 luncheon, the Texas Republican called for greater church involvement in politics, citing a House bill he supports that would revise the federal tax law ban on electioneering by tax-exempt groups and allow pulpit endorsements of political candidates.

“If they go after and get a pastor, then other pastors shrink from what they should be doing,” said DeLay. “It forces Christians back into the church, and that’s what’s going on in America…. That’s not what Christ asked us to do.”

But much of DeLay’s speech focused on the extensive congressional efforts to intervene in the tragic case of Terri Schiavo, the Florida woman in a vegetative state whose medical treatment became the center of a Religious Right-driven legal battle.

DeLay also cited the dispute as a heaven-sent political issue.

“I tell you, ladies and gentlemen, one thing that God has brought to us is Terri Schiavo, to elevate the visibility of what’s going on in America, that Americans would be so barbaric as to pull a feeding tube out of a person that is lucid and starve them to death for two weeks,” DeLay said.

“This is exactly the issue that’s going on in America, of attacks against the conservative movement, against me and against many others,” DeLay continued. “The point is, the other side has figured out how to win and defeat the conservative movement, and that is to go after people personally, charge them with frivolous charges, link that up with all these do-gooder organizations funded by George Soros, and then get the national media on their side. That whole syndicate that they have going on right now is for one purpose and one purpose only, and that’s to destroy the conservative movement…. You need to look at this, at what’s going on, and participate in fighting back.”

DeLay’s remarks about attacks “against me” were clearly references to his growing problems with ethics complaints over political contributions and influence buying. His use of a dying woman as a tool in combating those ethics charges created a news media furor when Americans United made a tape of the speech public a few days later. (See “Perspective,” page 23.)

But FRC President Tony Perkins seemed fine with DeLay’s tactic. Although some might think that a Christian group would seek out politicians who reflect the highest moral and ethical standards, Perkins brushed aside the escalating array of charges against DeLay as mere politics.

Said Perkins, “I want you to know what he has told me consistently, and not just me but other leaders: top on his agenda, one of the reasons he’s worked to build a conservative majority, is that he wants to see abortion outlawed in America…. You see the bull’s eye that that has created on him, as a result of saying that? He is number one enemy to the liberal syndicate on the left that wants to take him out.

“So I challenge you to pray for him, to talk to your Republican members of Congress, who are part of the Repub­lican team, to support their leader,” Perkins continued. “I know the work this man is doing. I vouch for his work, I vouch for his character and I urge you to stand with him and support him in the work that he’s doing for families, for life, for the unborn, here in our nation’s capital.”

While the FRC conference covered many issues, speakers returned time and again to their rage against a federal court system that ensures church-state separation, protects the rights of unpopular minorities and stands in the way of unfettered majority rule.

In an early morning session March 17, James Dobson of Focus on the Family and FRC’s Perkins commiserated about the problem in a joint appearance on the briefing stage.

Perkins said gaining control of the judiciary is now the organization’s top priority, ahead of even the Federal Marriage Amendment. He vowed to support Republican efforts to break a Democratic filibuster in the Senate and approve President George W. Bush’s most controversial appellate court nominees.

“We’re going to work as hard as we can to get that marriage amendment through,” he said, “but the battle for this moment is over the judiciary. So our top focus this year is breaking the filibuster, getting the confirmation of these judges and fighting for these replacements on the United States Supreme Court.”

Dobson, an FRC board member and driving force in the organization, agreed with Perkins’ take and railed against a Supreme Court that he charged is “determined to strip out of the public square any reference to God.” The Colorado Springs-based broadcaster said the high court has been going the wrong way on religion-and-schools issues since 1962 when the justices issued their first school prayer ruling.

Dobson warned that a vacancy on the Supreme Court is coming soon.

“Folks, I am telling you all,” said Dobson, “that is going to be the mother of all battles and it’s right around the corner.”

Dobson also complained that Bush and congressional leaders are not moving fast enough and forcefully enough to confirm the judges that Bush has already nominated.

“We voted for them,” he said, “and now they need to get on with it.”

Sounding more like a political strategist than a family counselor, Dobson added, “We only have about 18 months to get this done, because after that George Bush will be a lame duck president. And we’ll be in a new election cycle and he’s not going to have the power that he does now…. If we let that 18 months get away from us – and then maybe we’ve got Hillary [Clinton] to deal with or who knows what – we absolutely will not recover from that.”

Citing the role of religious conservatives in the election of Bush and other Republican officials in last November’s elections, Dobson said, “We’ve got a right to hold them accountable for what happens.”

Perkins talked about various ways to undercut federal judges who are already on the bench. He said he was at a meeting of the Republican House and Senate leadership the previous week and one prominent concern was “looking at ways to get their hands around the court.” Impeachment, he said, hasn’t worked well in the past. But other options discussed at the GOP gathering included defunding the courts or limiting their jurisdiction.

“There’s more than one way to skin a cat,” Perkins observed, “and there’s more than one way to take a black robe off the bench.”

Although their organizations are tax-exempt and supposedly nonpartisan, Dobson and Perkins indicated their willingness to play political hardball to get their way. Perkins listed senators who refuse to toe the Religious Right line on judges and other social issues, including Republicans Susan Collins (Me.), Olym­pia Snowe (Me.), John Chafee (R.I.), Arlen Specter (Pa.) and Chuck Hagel (Neb.) – and vulnerable Demo­crats such as Ben Nelson (Neb.).

Dobson made a pitch for money from the crowd to take out newspaper ads to target these “squishy Republicans” and “Democrats that are on the line.” He said the advertisements were discussed at the FRC board meeting the day before the briefing.

“Ben Nelson is going to be running in two years,” said Dobson, “and he’s in a conservative state. He saw what happened to Tom Daschle and yet he is probably going to vote against the constitutional option [to break the Democratic filibuster]. His people there need to know about it, and we need to put ads there to tell them what’s going on here.” (Dobson takes credit for the 2004 defeat of Senate Minority Leader Daschle, who lost a reelection bid in South Dakota.)

Other speakers on the FRC platform were just as militant.

Former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore was one of the most popular celebrities at the briefing. Moore lost his office for defying federal court orders to remove a 2.5-ton granite Ten Com­mandments monument from the judicial building in Montgomery, but he remains a hero to this crowd, who greeted him with a standing ovation.

Moore, who was flogging his new book So Help Me God, railed against alleged judicial tyranny, especially rulings that uphold separation of church and state. He said he was ordered to “bow down to the secular humanist gods who wear black robes,” but like Daniel and other Old Testament figures, he refused.

Moore said judges can be impeached, or in the alternative, Congress can pass laws, such as his “Constitution Restora­tion Act,” that limit the federal courts’ jurisdiction. He suggested subjecting judicial nominees to a litmus test that asks if they accept “the sovereignty of God?”

Moore had plenty of allies at the meeting. Others attacking the courts included former U.S. attorney general Ed Meese, failed Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork and Alan Sears, head of the Alliance Defense Fund, a leading Religious Right legal outfit.

Meese suggested that it might be difficult to actually impeach activist judges, but he insisted that hearings on the topic might have a “salutary” effect on judges, making the move less needed.

Other topics on the FRC agenda included marriage, stem-cell research, women’s issues, AIDS funding and cloning.

In a panel on “The Global Push for Same-Sex Marriage,” the FRC’s Allan Carlson traced the move away from church-dominated marriage law in Sweden and charged, “This must be seen as part of the long-term socialist project to eliminate the family as a rival to the state.”

Katherine Spaht, a Louisiana State University law professor, said “it’s time for us to go on the offensive.” She demanded passage of the Federal Marriage Amendment. She also went on to insist that no-fault divorce laws be repealed and argue that adultery should be actionable in court. She said aggrieved spouses should be able to collect damages through a “tort of intentional interference in a marriage.”

Fellow panelist Maggie Gallagher also pushed for passage of a marriage protection amendment, pushing for cultural outreach as well as direct political action.

“In my opinion,” she said, “in order to get it, we’re going to have to knock out a Democratic senator in 2006 on this issue. If we can do that we can pass it; if we can’t do that we’re not going to get to 67” – the number of senators needed to passage a constitutional amendment.” (Gallagher, a syndicated columnist, was recently caught up in a scandal involving Bush administration payouts to friendly journalists.)

Gay people remain targets of the deepest hostility among FRC speakers. FRC President Perkins railed against homosexual influence in society and warned darkly that “they are after our children.”

Perkins and company have used that kind of scare tactic to meld evangelical churches in many states into political machines. Ostensibly recruited to pass state-level marriage referenda that deny gays access to marriage, the church-based political coalitions can be turned to other issues as well as partisan ends, FRC strategists hope.

The Rev. Laurence White, pastor of Houston’s Our Savior Lutheran Church, called for more church involvement in politics.

“I believe within the depths of my heart and soul,” he said, “that pastors are the missing component in the coalition to take back our America. They are absent without leave from the Lord Jesus Christ in the battle for the soul of our nation. That has got to change.”

FRC leaders are working feverishly to accomplish that objective. A pastors’ conference is scheduled for later this year, and the $9-million-a-year organization has made recruitment of pastors a high priority.

Says Perkins, “We don’t aim to politicize the church; we want pastors to be shepherds in public and private matters alike.”

Perhaps the most alarming aspect of the FRC meeting was the repeated use of the most inflammatory and divisive language toward fellow Americans who do not share their religious and political viewpoint. Abortion, gay marriage and the role of religion in the public square are all legitimate topics for debate, but these activists demonize those who disagree with them, sometimes literally. Op­ponents, to them, are not just misguided, but enemies in a culture war.

David Limbaugh, brother of radio right-winger Rush Limbaugh, said, “We’re not just in a war against the terrorists, where we face external and internal violence against our system, our culture, but we’re in a war against the secularists in our own culture who have tried to supplant our Judeo-Christian value base with their secular humanist value base.”

Limbaugh charged that secular humanists have taken over academia, Holly­wood, the media and the courts, as well as a large portion of our churches and the Democratic Party, which he said is “totally corrupt both ideologically and actually.”

Others were just as shrill. Kansas Attorney General Kline said, “We are in a war for the heart and soul of America.” Alabama’s Moore thundered, “You see, we’re not just in a war in Iraq, we’re in a war right here.”

Bishop Wellington Boone, the only African American on the speakers list (and virtually the only one at the conference), dismissed the idea of church-state separation as unbiblical, insisting that “God owns the church and state.” He said he operates from a “biblical worldview,” and he seems to see his opponents as agents of Satan.

When people call him a “Bible fanatic,” Boone, pastor of The Father’s House in Atlanta, said he replies, “I can see through you; I know that behind you is your father the devil.”

Former FRC president Gary Bauer, however, is perhaps the worst of the lot. Bauer, who sought the GOP presidential nomination in 2000, unleashed a bleak portrait of an America beset with virtually insurmountable woes at home and abroad.

America, he said, is in two wars: one a battle against “Islamo-fascism,” the other a war over “the meaning of America.” In the latter conflict, he said, one side has a “different strokes for different folks, if it feels good, do it” viewpoint, while people like him seek “ordered liberty under God.”

Bauer made it clear which conflict poses the greater peril.

“I think we can survive planes that are hijacked and flown into buildings,” Bauer said. “I am not convinced we can survive judges who have hijacked the Constitution and are using it as a weapon against everything that we love and everything we hold dear.”

Bauer implied that the 9/11 attacks came because God lifted his protective hand from America, a theme that fundamentalist TV preachers Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson have floated before.

“I am not a mystic,” Bauer said, “but is it purely a coincidence that on 9/11 about 3,000 people died, just about the same number of unborn children we abort every day in America, day in and day out? What if – at a time when we’ve got a bull’s eye on our back – what if God took his hand off of us again because we’re destroying his creation?”

Bauer also made it clear that he wants to convert the Republican Party into a vehicle totally committed to fundamentalist Christian goals.

“We’re electing a lot of fantastic Chris­tians who happen to be Republican, and these guys are fighting for our values,” he said. “We just have to elect a lot more of them. The way to judge elective bodies is not how many Rs there are, but how many Cs there are next to their names. When we get majorities in some of the legislatures and Congress of people that take their faith seriously, then I think we’ll find that a lot of these issues go the right way.”

For Americans who care about religious freedom and church-state separation, it’s a deeply disturbing prospect.