November 2004 Church & State | Featured

Walter B. Jones was not in a good mood.

The Republican House member from North Caro\xadlina laid out the reason for his dismay at a meeting of the Christian Coalition Sept. 24: The presidential election was just 39 days away, and, because of federal tax law, pastors could not tell congregants who to vote for.

As a grim-faced Jones told it, a nefarious group called Americans for Separation of Church and State (sic) led by the Rev. Barry Lynn, a man who might not even be a real minister, had intimidated churches all over the nation into silence.

“America is under assault,” Jones told a crowd of about 400 at the Coalition’s “Road to Victory” conference in Wash\xading\xadton, D.C. “Yes, there’s terrorism in the world but yes, there’s the extreme left in this country that would like very much to eliminate the Judeo-Christian principles that this nation was founded on, and we cannot let that happen.”

Jones insisted that Congress must pass his bill that would repeal provisions in the IRS Code that bar houses of worship from endorsing or opposing candidates. Currently, that IRS regulation extends to all tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organizations; Jones would lift it but only for religious entities.

The stakes, Jones insisted, could not be higher.

“Without the freedom to speak freely in the pulpits, America is in deep, deep spiritual decay,” he said.

The crowd was soon on its feet, cheering and applauding wildly.

Christian Coalition activists might have good reason to cheer. The Religious Right powerhouse, founded by TV preacher Pat Robertson in 1989, has an evangelical Christian president in the White House and conservative Republi\xadcans in charge of the House and Senate.

The group wasn’t about to take anything for granted hence the Washington event, billed as a “training seminar.” Heavily focused on grassroots activism, the main session on Friday was held in a cavernous room in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill and brought in more than 500 attendees.

As in previous years, a thick air of partisanship hung over the Coalition meeting. At conferences past, the Coalition went out of its way to add a socially conservative or anti-abortion Democrat to the speakers list. This year, it didn’t even bother. Every elected official who spoke was Republican.

Coalition President Roberta Combs bragged about the group’s budget, which she said will soon top $8 million. She openly called the organization “the new Christian Coalition” and vowed that it will remain a permanent fixture on the political scene.

Nevertheless, she conceded that the group faces some challenges and many of them are coming from Americans United.

In an unusually frank admission, Combs told attendees at a “Legislative Briefing” in a House office building on Sept. 23 that many churches have refused Coalition voter guides after hearing criticisms of the guides lobbed by Americans United and its executive director, Barry W. Lynn.

“You’d be amazed at the churches around the country that won’t take our voter guides because they’re fearful,” she said. “They’re fearful of voter guides because of Barry Lynn. They believe all of these left-wing organizations.”

Because so many churches refused voter guides in 2000, Combs said, the Coalition had to place them in “Wal-Marts and service stations.”

This year, Combs vowed, the Coalition will shift tactics. She admitted the group will not produce the 70 million guides she claims it put out in 2000. Rather, the Coalition will release a smaller number and work to get more bang for its buck through blanket distribution in key battleground states.

Coalition staffer Drew McKissick also promised a high-tech spin with voter guides being distributed to Coalition volunteers across the World Wide Web and through e-mail blitzes.

McKissick claimed that the Coalition sent five million guides to Florida just before the 2000 election.

“You don’t have to have an advanced degree in arithmetic to know it made a difference,” he said, vowing a repeat performance this year.

During Friday evening’s banquet, U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) was not shy in crediting his electoral success to the Coalition guides, attributing to them his success in being elected to the House in 1994 and the Senate two years later.

“When I first ran in ’94 and in ’96, it was the Christian Coalition voter guides that were really something that put me over the top,” he said. “And we...just kept hanging on in these elections, hanging on, saying, ‘When are the guides going to hit?’ And we would see the polls move Monday after the Sunday drop.”

The Coalition’s ability to deliver a disciplined bloc of voters has won it powerful friends in Congress. House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) addressed the organization, along with a dozen other House members and three other U.S. senators, plus one governor.

Ever optimistic, Combs told attendees, “We thought we would do something a little different this time. Instead of having the elected officials come to us, we would come to them. We would come to their house…. We are the ones that put them here. We want them to know that. We want them to be accountable.”

Certain overriding themes emerged over the three-day event: Christian Coalition activists want to see Bush re-elected. They don’t like same-sex marriage. They absolutely despise the federal courts. And they want their fundamentalist religious viewpoint to be the law of the land for everyone.

Gay people and federal judges took the most hits. No federal court has ever upheld same-sex marriage, but the Christian Coalition wants to make sure no judge ever has that opportunity.

Thus, the Coalition is simultaneously advocating a constitutional amendment that would limit marriage to one man and one woman and a federal law that would strip the federal courts of their ability to even hear same-sex marriage cases.

This latter strategy, known as “court stripping,” has become the Coalition’s cure-all for every perceived social problem. It was promoted by numerous House members during a legislative briefing held at the Cannon House Office Building the day before the main event. (See “Naked Power Grab,” page 7.)

During Friday’s session, several speakers explained, in apocalyptic terms, why same-sex marriage must be banned.

U.S. Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (R-Colo.), sponsor of a constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriage, said the purpose of marriage is to bring a man and a woman together and to facilitate child rearing. She blasted courts for forcing the same-sex marriage debate on the people, saying decisions about that topic rightly belong to the legislature.

“Quite frankly,” she said, “some people need a civics lesson.”

Rep. Todd Aiken (R-Mo.) went so far as to assert that, “aside from terrorism, I think one of the most significant threats on the horizon are activist judges judges who are not content to be judges but they really wish they were legislators.”

Aiken, who sponsored legislation to strip the federal courts of their authority to hear cases involving the Pledge of Allegiance, told the crowd that out-of-control judges forced the country into civil war in the 19th century. According to Aiken’s highly unusual account, everything was fine until the Supreme Court handed down the Dred Scott ruling, escalating the controversy.

Activist judges continue their mischief today, he said.

“These activist judges are free to put one nuclear-sized crater after the other in our civilization, and they have to be stopped,” he said.

House Speaker Hastert touched on similar themes, blasting “liberal activist judges” and vowing that conservatives in Congress “will not allow them to redefine the American family.”

Asserted Hastert, “There’s a real division in the House and a division of values and a division of ideas. It’s not just the presidential race or Senate races that are out there that are very important. Your votes and your values need to be heard, and there’s only one way in this country that really counts and that’s the voting box.”

U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) joined the chorus, blasting “unelected judges” and asserting that they “change the meaning of our laws.”

But Hatch, in the course of an extended rant against Senate Democrats for holding up a handful of Bush judicial nominees, inadvertently strayed off message, becoming too frank in his long-winded analysis. He admitted that the Senate has approved 201 Bush judges so far, noting, “This is a huge number, the highest in history.”

A moment later Hatch noted that President Ronald W. Reagan appointed 382 federal judges during his eight years in office and that many of them are still on the bench.

Curiously, Hatch did not address the obvious question: If Republican presidents have successfully placed so many judges, why is the federal judiciary so stacked with out-of-control liberals?

Hatch also did not mention that seven of the nine members of the Supreme Court were appointed by Re\xadpublican presidents, nor did he point out that the federal appeals court judge who wrote the unpopular ruling striking down use of the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools because of its religious content was put on the bench by President Richard M. Nixon.

Further straying off message, Hatch even went out of his way to praise the courts, telling the crowd, “The vast majority of federal judges do do what is right…. By and large, if it hadn’t been for the federal judiciary, the Constitution would have been gone a long time ago. No question about it. Congress constantly passes unconstitutional legislation I shouldn’t say constantly, but more than you ever thought possible.”

Although unsure whether to love or hate judges, Hatch was certain of one thing: Bush must be re-elected. Much is at stake, he told the crowd. The next president, he noted, may appoint two, three or even four Supreme Court justices.

“The most important part of this election, in my view, is who’s going to nominate those two to four justices on the Supreme Court,” Hatch said. He added a moment later, “Get out and work hard in this election to make sure President Bush is re-elected.”

Hatch was not the only speaker to shill for Bush, and the high-stakes nature of the election was a constant theme. Sen. McConnell, drawing a comparison to the conflict in Iraq, told attendees, “We all know there’s a war going on in Iraq. But there’s also a war going on here at home a battle of over what kind of America we’re going to have for our children and for our grandchildren.”

McConnell, the second-ranking GOP official, insisted that the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are going well, despite the barrage of recent bad news, constant bombings and assassinations. Demo\xadcra\xadtic nominee Sen. John Kerry, McConnell said, “does not have the steadfastness, the consistency that we need in this country to face down evil.”

The sole governor on the platform, Mike Huckabee of Arkan\xadsas (who was described as a “physical conservative” by a rattled Combs in her introduction), ratcheted up the rhetoric, asserting that the very morality of the nation is at stake.

Sounding like the preacher he used to be, Huckabee blasted the state of American culture and compared the nation to the last days of the Roman Empire.

“If you were to ask me today how I would describe the culture of America, I would probably say we’ve lost our landmarks, and we’re disoriented, confused, lost” Huckabee said. “People traveling in every different direction and nobody seeming to find their way home.”

Calling for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, Hucka\xadbee asserted that changing the Consti\xadtution is really not a big deal, noting that it has been done several times before.

He then launched into a simplistic (and inaccurate) attack on separation of church and state. That principle, Hucka\xadbee said, is not found in the Constitution but was mentioned in an 1814 letter by Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptists of Con\xadnec\xadticut. The Baptists wrote to Jefferson, Huckabee asserted, because they had heard a rumor that there was to be a state church in America, and they opposed it.

“That wall was designed to keep the government out of the church, from influencing the pulpit,” Huckabee said. “That’s the wall. It’s a one-way wall.”

(Huckabee’s retelling of the Jefferson missive, while creative, is dead wrong. Jefferson wrote the letter in 1802, not 1814. The Danbury Baptists had not heard a rumor about a coming official church. Rather, they wrote to Jefferson to congratulate him on his election to the presidency and express agreement with his views on religious liberty. The Baptists hoped Jefferson’s views would become the national model and free them from Connecticut’s oppressive Con\xadgregation\xadalist state church.)

Ironically, after his error-filled diatribe about the Danbury letter, which he has clearly never bothered to read, Huckabee concluded with an exhortation that people study more history.

Huckabee wasn’t the only speaker to take a shot at Jefferson’s wall. Bill Thomson, Christian Coalition’s national field director, blasted unnamed forces that he said tried to intimidate pastors in Massachusetts during the fight over same-sex marriage there.

“They tried to silence the pastors for talking for years about a silly concept that is not in our Constitution called separation of church and state,” Thomson boomed at the crowd.

Thomson and other speakers drew cheers and sustained applause for their bromides. But the most popular speaker of the day was an old Coalition ally and Religious Right warhorse, Jerry Falwell. The infamous TV preacher came up from Lynch\xadburg, flanked by a squad of adoring Liberty University students, to unleash a rhetorical barrage. (Falwell had no difficulty becoming the star of the show. The competition was scant Coalition founder Robertson was mysteriously absent from the gathering.)

Falwell claimed that an evangelical awakening is spreading across the nation, and that soon conservative Christians will top 100 million. He outlined his plans for the election, promising to barnstorm battleground states with a time-tested voter registration and voter turnout strategy.

“We don’t tell them for whom to vote; that’s a no-brainer,” Falwell insisted. “We don’t tell them to vote Republican or Democrat…. We instruct them to vote Christian. Christian is simple. That’s a buzzword for pro-life, pro-family, strong national defense.”

Tracing the history of the rise of the Religious Right in America, Falwell boasted that the Religious Right now controls the GOP. He said while the party has other wings such as fiscal conservatives, it would never dare nominate a pro-choice candidate for president or vice president. He was clearly proud to take credit for that.

“I tell my Republican friends when they talk about a big tent, ‘Make it as big as you want, but if the candidate is not pro-life and pro-family, you will not win.’ The Republican Party cannot win without the Religious Right.”

Falwell boasted that his influence in Virginia is such that no local, state or federal politician within a 50-mile radius of Lynchburg dares disagree with him on a political issue.

“If you announce, ‘I’m pro-choice,’ don’t bother to spend your money on the campaign,” he said. “You’re not going to get elected. I don’t care if you’re my mother. You’re not going to get elected.”

The bombastic TV preacher told the crowd he is confident about the election outcome, remarking, “We’re gonna win by a landslide in November…. But I want you to go home and tell everyone we’re 1 point down. Don’t get cocky…. I’d love to see such an overwhelming landslide that the nation, including the Republican Party, will know Christ did it.”

Other speakers at the event employed similar triumphalist rhetoric. The Rev. Frank Pavone, head of Priests for Life, declared that no one who is pro-choice is fit to hold public office in America. Even though his group is tax exempt, Pavone promised it would influence the outcome of the November races.

“Of course I’m trying to influence the election!” Pavone said. “This is what it means to be an American.”

Pavone asserted that Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion, ushered in an era like the Nazi Holocaust. “Why do we tolerate it in our nation?” he asked. A moment later, he likened supporting legal abortion to supporting terrorism.

Other day-one speakers were: U.S. Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.); Mike Farris of the Home School Legal Defense Asso\xadciation; media commentator Arm\xadstrong Williams; U.S. Sen. Lind\xadsey Graham (R-S.C.) and John Fund of The Wall Street Journal. Two other members of Con\xadgress addressed the legislative briefing on Thursday: U.S. Rep. Charles “Chip” Pickering (R-Miss.) and U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett (R-S.C.).

Day two of the Coalition event featured a “strategy session” and activist training seminar at the Renaissance Hotel near Washington’s Chinatown. The kick-off speaker was Alan Dye, an attorney and longtime Coalition legal adviser. Dye took a moderate course, reminding attendees that the Internal Revenue Code does not permit churches to endorse or oppose candidates. He pointed out that the Coalition itself has a different type of tax status that enables it to be more partisan in its approach. But in order to keep churches out of trouble, he said, Coalition voter guides must be educational and not designed to influence the outcome of an election.

(Dye was frank in discussing the Coalition’s ongoing woes with the IRS. The tax agency has charged that the group does not qualify for 501(c)(4) status because it is too political. Dye said the Coalition disagrees and is suing to get official 501(c)(4) status and expects to settle with the IRS soon.)

Dye insisted that Coalition voter guides are fair, but his words were undercut about 25 minutes later when National Field Director Thomson took the stage. Thomson, an ex-Marine and Vietnam vet, began by telling a gory anecdote about how when he first arrived in Vietnam, he saw several green soldiers die because they walked into an ambush.

Thomson said he took a lesson from that: “People who aren’t trained properly can get killed. People who aren’t trained properly can get other people killed.”

The Coalition’s McKissick had earlier explained that the organization does not need to persuade a majority of people to agree with its stands. McKissick pointed out that since most people do not vote, the group must only activate a relatively small percentage to win.

As Thomson told it, that’s where the voter guides come in. He explained exactly what role the organization’s voter guides play in elections and it was a far cry from the benign “voter education” role assigned to them by Dye.

“The voter guides that we have are our greatest weapon,” Thomson told the crowd. “It is the best weapon in our arsenal. It is our B-2 bomber.” Thomson claimed that independent pollsters have concluded that Coalition voter guides “can change an election between 5 and 7 percentage points. That’s why that document is so important. That’s why it’s our B-2 bomber.”

Thomson then outlined the Coa\xadlition’s electioneering strategy in detail: He told attendees to get copies of publicly available lists of registered voters by voting districts and compare them to a community phone book to get telephone numbers for as many people as possible. Well in advance of Election Day, Coa\xadlition activists are to call registered voters and ascertain their political leanings by asking them which presidential candidate they voted for in 2000 and if they are opposed to legal abortion.

On Election Day, only those voters likely to cast a ballot agreeable to the Coalition should get calls from the or\xadgan\xadi\xadzation reminding them to vote.

“Call those people who reflect our values,” he said. “And then, if you have to, drag them to the polls on election day…. You don’t want to drag the other guy’s people to the polls.”

Thomson also advised getting in\xadvolved in internal party politics. He ordered activists to find out if the local precinct chair is a Christian by which he meant a fundamentalist.

“If they’re not a Christian and they don’t hold those values, I want you to run for that office,” he said.

Thomson’s highly partisan game plan was hard to square with Dye’s advice. During his remarks, Dye had told attendees that the IRS first began examining the tax status of the Coalition after becoming convinced that the group was heavily involved in politics, largely because of statements made by Rob\xadertson and Reed. Dye cited one famous quote in which Reed boasted that he wanted to leave his political opponents “in body bags” on Election Day.

Dye seemed to be saying that such rhetoric was not helpful, but Thomson either wasn’t listening or doesn’t care. His entire presentation was a lesson on how to elect right-wing candidates and a startlingly candid explanation of what Coalition voter guides are intended to do: provide the margin of victory for certain candidates seeking elective office. His very words proved AU’s point that the guides are intended to influence election outcomes and thus may not be distributed in houses of worship.

To top it off, Thomson concluded with a Reed-esque violent military metaphor of his own, warning the crowd that “the enemy” has set up “pillboxes with machine guns.”

“Get around them, run over the top of them, destroy them whatever you need to do so that God’s word is the word that is being practiced in Congress, town halls and state legislatures,” Thomson said. “That’s your job”

The Coalition closed the conference with perhaps the most over-the-top speaker of the event. Pastor John Gimenez, a longtime Robertson ally who leads the Rock Church in Virginia Beach. Gimenez warned attendees during a Saturday afternoon luncheon that the very survival of the United States is at stake and issued a clarion call for “the righteous” to rise up and destroy their enemies.

“It is right in your face now on the internet, on the e-mails, everywhere you go. The enemy is saying, ‘Here I am, and I’m not backing away,’” said Gimenez. “You see it in the judicial systems, everywhere. The Old Testament, it tells us in the Book of Numbers that we are to drive out the enemies, not sit down and negotiate.”

Recalling the biblical story of David and Goliath, Gimenez listed five “giants” that the church must battle: abortion, homo\xadsexuality, pornography, drug addiction and humanism. Plugging an Oct. 22 “America for Jesus” rally he is holding in Washington, he compared the situation religious conservatives face to a physical assault.

“If somebody’s going to cut your throat, you’re not going to be about any sensitivity….,” he said. “Hey, it’s time to get up and pursue and overtake and re-conquer everything that the enemy has taken from us. We’re not going to go and be sensitive. Let sensitive go; it has to go. We are an army of God in this nation to protect it.”

Americans United Executive Director Lynn, who has monitored the Coalition’s activities since the group was formed, said he is appalled by such shrill rhetoric. Lynn was on hand to give opposition interviews during the event and publicly challenged the Coalition in interviews with the As\xadsociated Press, the BBC and other outlets.

“Nothing has changed,” said Lynn. “The ‘new’ Christian Coalition remains a deeply partisan and extreme movement. They are bent on transforming America’s democracy into a fundamentalist state.

“We have made great strides in countering their divisive schemes,” Lynn said. “Americans United will continue to expose their agenda and defend the constitutional separation of church and state.”