By Annie Laurie Gaylor
I recently spent the weekend with the Christian Coalition. I wasn't exactly a spy at the annual "Road to Victory" conference in Washington, D.C. on September 8-9, 1995. Prof. Michael Hakeem has given me a more honorable sociological title: that of "participant observer."
When I saw a blurb advertising the Christian Coalition conference, I couldn't believe what a rogues' gallery would be convening--collected together would be many of the most obnoxious and sinister right-wing power brokers imaginable.
A parade of some 42 featured speakers was scheduled over an intense, two-day period. Besides Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition, speakers included Newt Gingrich, Judge Robert Bork, Jay Sekulow of the "ACLJ," William ("Mr. Virtuous") Bennett, Phyllis Schlafly, Watergate's star convict Chuck Colson. Plus most of the announced GOP candidates would be dancing in attendance: Phil Gramm, Robert Dole, Bob Dornan, Lamar Alexander, Richard Lugar, Pat Buchanan and "Ambassador" Alan Keyes.
Once I signed up under a pseudonym, I started to feel like the Christian Coalition's best buddy, receiving several calls at home in the evenings from convention staff members asking for my "alter ego."
Next to phone was "Jinny," the Wisconsin Christian Coalition leader. I worried about her a bit. At a recent hearing on an antiabortion bill at the Wisconsin capitol, she had aggressively tracked down my mother, whom I was standing beside, demanding her name, and introducing herself proudly as the Christian Coalition state "chairman." Her phone conversation was equally aggressive: When would I arrive? Where was I staying? Would I attend the Saturday state caucus? I determined to avoid this woman at all costs.
Dan, my personal expert in fundamentalism since he had been one, informed me that I should not be seen without a bible. He even inscribed a bible with various fundamentalist platitudes, dedicated to my fictitious personage, just for authenticity. I borrowed a costume-jewelry cross and packed my "Republican outfit," a conservative suit-dress.
I had planned to arrive mid-afternoon on the Thursday preceding the Friday and Saturday conference in time to visit the U.S. Capitol and locate the sculpture of feminists housed in its bowels which had recently been in the news. Busts of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott and Susan B. Anthony had been given to Congress in 1921 by the National Woman's Party. The depictions of our great feminist foremothers soon found their way into the "crypt," underneath the rotunda.
Feminists had asked that the statue be moved back to the rightful position in the rotunda in time to celebrate the 75th anniversary of women's right to vote on August 26, 1995. The resolution passed the Senate, but guess on whose desk it languished? Newt Gingrich was "too busy" to attend to it, and the sculpture remains buried in the crypt (see photo, page 4), where I am sure Newt & Co. plan to symbolically bury all women's rights.
As all well-laid plans stray, so did mine. Plane delays kept me from arriving until after federal buildings closed for the day, and my lost luggage was not delivered until bedtime.
I arrived at the Washington Hilton by 7:30 a.m. (6:30 CST) and registered without a hitch. The scene in the enormous ballroom resembled a political convention. I grabbed an obscure seat in the very back.
A big disembodied baritone voice boomed out introductions, while an irritating spotlight roved the room wildly in accompaniment to marching-as-to-war music set way past the ear-piercing 60-decibel range. It was obviously enjoyed by the enormous audience of roaring, cheering, ovationing, clapping Christians.
A pallid-eyed Ralph Reed, as boyish-faced as ever, welcomed us after we Pledged Allegiance, stood and prayed for an antiabortion invocation (there were three or four invocations and all strayed into antiabortion ideology) and listened to an emotional rendition of the National Anthem. Some participants "amen'ed" following every Pledge of Allegiance.
Ralph informed us that 4,164 people had registered, making it this year's "largest gathering of pro-family activists." "Pro-family," I soon discovered, is the new euphemism of the Religious Right. Having already usurped "pro-life," as if the rest of us are "pro-death," the Religious Right is now determined to paint itself as the only Americans who have families or care about them!
Reed introduced the conference's theme, not an original idea but repeated by many speakers: "We will ride in the back of the bus no longer. People of faith are taking their seat at the table." (That might be all right if I didn't have a sneaking suspicion that the rest of us are on the menu!)
Reed's speech was arrogant, taking full credit for the November election and all resulting changes. Since the last convention had taken place, he boasted:
"Tom Foley has been replaced by Newt Gingrich.
"George Mitchell has been replaced by Bob Dole.
"Howard Metzenbaum, one of our favorite members," he said sarcastically, "has been replaced by a pro-family, pro-life Catholic.
"Ann Richards is doing Dorito commercials.
"Mario Cuomo has begun a second career.
"I know Rush Limbaugh. Rush Limbaugh is a friend of mine. You, sir, are no Rush Limbaugh." (Many appreciative jeering guffaws from audience.)
"These political swaps are like CBS deciding to replace Connie Chung with Newt Gingrich's mother. (Pause) Keep praying.
"Because of the efforts of people in this room and millions like you, Jocelyn Elders is the former Surgeon General.
"As we go into 1996," said this man with a perpetual chip on his shoulder, "prepare yourself for the same kinds of insults and taunts . . . They had names for candidates who were guilty of the unpardonable crime of going to church, and," he added hastily, "synagogue, reading the bible, and praying daily. They call them extremist, radical right-wing, Christian Coalition types. We call them Senator, Congressman, Governor." Unspoken, of course, was the thought that Reed intends to add to his list the title of President.
After catty remarks about the much-booed President Clinton and others, Reed summarized his goals:
Passing vouchers for religious schools. ("I want to live in a nation where the President and First Lady aren't the only Americans in public housing who can afford to send their child to private school.")
Banning "partial birth" abortion (whatever that is).
Ending government funds to Planned Parenthood.
Abolishing the much-hated Department of Education.
Passing a constitutional amendment, the "Religious Equality Amendment," needed, he averred, because "students in a public school or citizens in the public square [are] discriminated against for expressing their religious beliefs."
After telling various phony-sounding horror stories about discrimination against Christians, Reed noted "the most important thing--which candidate will win your support."
Don't you consider that an odd remark from the executive director of an organization avowedly nonpartisan, which is prohibited by law from endorsing any candidates?
Daily press quoted him widely when he said: "We do not seek to be a wholly owned subsidiary of the Republican Party or any party."
His boss, the televangelist, must have much-aggravated the stealthy Ralph when, later during the conference, Robertson admitted the real goal--to make the GOP a wholly owned subsidiary of the Christian Coalition (more about that later).
"The question, as we go into 1996, is not who we will endorse, but who will endorse our agenda," Reed added.
He concluded with a sermon: "My prayer today is, as the world looks at you and us as a movement . . . that they see followers of a humble carpenter from Galilee whose followers would have crowned Him King. He chose the humility of the cross instead . . . We bear the name which is above every name. ÔEvery knee shall bow, and every tongue shall confess.' Our responsibility is not to win," he demurred with forked tongue, "but to be found faithful when He returns; our burden, to remember whom we serve."
By the conclusion of this speech early Friday morning, I noticed comedian Al Franken (of "Saturday Night Live"), looking distressed, walking rapidly past. Sitting on steps two seats away from me, he made some whispered criticisms to a companion. The woman next to me hushed him in an irritated voice. In my confederate pose, I felt kind of bad. During the noon hour, I had even more mixed feelings when I saw all the picketers outside the hotel. It took every ounce of self control not to join them!
When the few scheduled breaks came, it was a relief to walk the mile or so to my own hotel through blocks of restaurants and Embassy Row, and see the diversity of normal Americans going about their day, oblivious to the machinations of the Christian Coalition. Perhaps that comfort was illusory. While we go about our daily lives, is the Religious Right stealing our country? Then again, chances were good that most of the people I passed in the street were at least nominally Christian, and, in Washington, D.C., conservative. While it seems possible to have a Religious Right takeover, is the Christian Coalition ever apt to be mainstream in most parts of our nation? The extreme Christian Coalition depends on stealth and low voter turnout, not mass appeal. I hope.
What were the other participants like? I did see some Total Women in the audience, wearing five coats of mascara, big hair and dressed for success. But these were Total Women who looked more like lobbyists than stay-at-home wives. The more typical participants were portly men, looking very Baptist, with paunches and gray hair, often accompanied by their wives. There were many twenty and thirty-somethings in the crowd, most of them looking like young professionals.
But you know what I didn't see? Anyone holding bibles. I kept my heavy one in my carryall until I could unload it. I was also one of the few women wearing crosses! I was glad to doff my borrowed cross during the second day of the conference (it made me feel like I was in a vampire movie). I can only conclude that I was seeing a new kind of Christian, one unfamiliar to someone like Dan, whose Christian missionary career had been noticeably devoid of politics. This is the new breed of Christians who plan to "take over the country," as both Pat Robertson and Reed have promised to do.
The only person who came up and asked me why I was there was a reporter with Associated Press from Washington, D.C. Since I was sitting amidst participants, I replied vaguely until his questions became too pointed, and finally drew him aside and explained my presence, hoping he would be intrigued and ask more about it. He displayed not one iota of interest in hearing from the "other side," but politely promised not to blow my cover.
By the conclusion of the conference, I felt numb. My ears were numb! Everyone seemed to be an assaultive clapper! Imagine 4,200 people all clapping at the same time as loudly as possible every few minutes all day for two days! It became deafening. I sought out what seemed to be a corner for young(ish) women, but once in a while some man sat next to me and felt compelled to clap as loud as possible right in my ear. I finally turned to one fellow and said, in my best Scarlett O'Hara imitation, "My, you can certainly clap loudly." To his credit, he seemed to get the hint and reduced the volume, and, even better, soon left.
The Friday evening "entertainment" preceding speeches by Pat Robertson, Etc., was a real test of endurance. Special effects included psychedelic crosses whirling around the front wall. The evening preceded with the ubiquitous Pledge and Prayer. The first entertainer was Steve Fry, who sang in something described as a "Praise and Worship" style. He put up some impossible-to-read lyrics on a projector, but most everyone seemed to sing along with familiarity to the repetitious, droning songs. This is the best entertainer the Christian music industry has to offer? Pathetic! He kept urging the crowd to stand at attention to his bible-based songs, and soon the conference changed eerily from political rally to prayer meeting. Every time the word "Lord" was sung (constantly), many waved their hands in caressing gestures, as if hoping to feel their invisible God.
When I thought I couldn't bear much more of this, in came Phil Driscoll, a self-conscious Rod Stewart wannabee in Christian drag, who alternated rock vocals with saxophone all at the top of his lungs, interjecting mindless religious injunctions. Even the prayerful woman next to me was covering her ears. But the crowd waxed enthusiastic for a very long half hour.
Pat Robertson, introduced with great fanfare, bragged in his inimitable quavering voice--which sounds like he is ignoring some urgent call of nature--about how quickly he has met many of his original goals, such as having a "conservative majority" in Congress. Then he made his mistake. The chubby-cheeked Christian entrepreneur said another goal was to become a "significant" voice in the GOP (stands for God's Own Party, I guess). "Actually, I said something else, but Ralph told me I couldn't say it because the press is here," he added. "The Press," of course, picked up on Robertson's admission that he plans to take over the GOP. He may be shrewd but he's not too smart.
In another dumb blooper, Robertson whined: "And now they accuse us of being power-mad and of stealth tactics because we go knocking on doors and tell them to vote for candidates." Lobbying groups with c(4) status are forbidden to tell people to vote for candidates.
While waxing rhapsodic that "God plus one equals a majority," Robertson claimed the Christian Coalition is dominant in Republican parties in 18 states and has substantial input in another 13 states. He urged more seats in the House filled by representatives with political agendas "sent by heaven."
The gist of his speech was nostalgia for the 1950's. (He made me nostalgic for the 1970's.) Until 1960, he said, "our nation considered itself one nation under God" and "public affirmations to God were considered an essential part of education." Abortion was illegal in every state, and "We were proud to be considered as god-fearing, patriotic American citizens." He vowed to repeal every Supreme Court decision in the 1960's and 1970's, "with the exception of civil rights legislation which we do not particularly want to reverse." The federal government was spoken of as the enemy in biblical terms of vituperation. "We must return to biblical morality and reliance on self, not the federal government," he said.
In a masterpiece of self-contradiction, Robertson blasted federal money subsidizing "the having of illegitimate children by unmarried mothers," then sanctimoniously called every baby "a creation of God." The crowd "amen'ed." He concluded by vowing to work "until this nation is once again One Nation Under God."
Another full day of gruesome personalities was on the Saturday agenda. I made a getaway while the extremely popular pre-lunch speaker Alan Keyes was still making his mean-black-preacher antiabortion pitch, rushing back to my hotel to get my camera, taking a taxi to the Capitol and finally locating the elusive suffragist statue in record time. I got back just a bit late, having neatly avoided any chance of running into my state caucus, to the three workshops. Imagine my distaste to find myself waiting beside Ron Rosenberger, the smug, unattractive student and Christian convert responsible for the Supreme Court decision ordering the University of Virginia to subsidize his puerile Christian rag! Yuck! Rosenberger joined Judge Roy Moore, the adversary of our Alabama chapter, in giving a presentation on the need to force religion into public spheres. Moore sported a dismayingly goofy grin.
Pat Buchanan was the evening's keynote, the Christian Coalition's golden boy. In case you didn't catch his speech on C-Span, it is summarized on the following pages. He gave a poor, mumbling, disjointed speech--and he was a professional speechwriter! That didn't bother his 4,200 fans, many cheering, "Go Pat Go!"
As I left the conference hall for the final time, I got a big kick out of seeing two cute young men with big smiles across their faces walking through the hall, wearing shorts, earrings and holding hands. Take that, Pat!
I flew home by way of Chicago, where my twin brother had arranged to pick me up for a rendezvous with a visiting cousin and a friend from high school to go see the spectacular Monet exhibit at the Chicago Museum of Art. I'm not sure what Monet's religious views were, but his artistry is a secular celebration of the natural world. I have always found the impressionist exhibits an antidote to the dark, bleak, crude Middle Ages religious art that fills museums. Everywhere I looked at this exhibit, I saw beauty. Monet proved an ideal antidote to the Christian Coalition.
But make no mistake. We have entered a new and frightening era where political decisions are not being made behind the doors of smoke-filled rooms, but behind the doors of churches. Ralph Reed bragged that the Christian Coalition distributed 17 million Congressional scorecards and 43 million "nonpartisan" educational voter guides last year. (Nonpartisan? Republican candidates get their names capitalized!)
"Onward, Christian Soldiers" was not played during the conference, but it was full of Christian soldiers marching as to war, very confidently, I might add. They are organized, motivated, well-funded and have the ear of Congress. A shocking number of politicians are part of the Christian Coalition, and the rest appear afraid to cross them.
I haven't heard so much unself-conscious talk about "revolutionaries" since the sixties--of course, these people feel they are redressing the "wrongs" of that decade. They are obsessed with banning abortion. Their newest enthusiasm is for parochiaid through vouchers. Governor Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin wasn't there, but he and his scheme to fund religious schools in Milwaukee with tax money was praised repeatedly by the power brokers. They mean to destroy our public schools. But the threat to our liberties is larger than the sum of the Christian Coalition's legislative agenda. I couldn't help remembering that Adolf Hitler initially came to power by the ballot box.
The most alarming development was the announcement of a Catholic version of the Christian Coalition, which will work in tandem with Robertson's group, largely fundamentalist and Southern Baptist. Keith Fournier, a Catholic Christian Coalition founder, said that when Europeans came to this continent, "one of the first things they did was to plant a cross and dedicate this country [sic] to Jesus."
Need I point out that if they combine forces, Catholics and fundies are demographically a majority? They intend to distribute "voter guides" to as many churches as they can, the Sunday before election day. As Robertson has put it, "We have enough votes to run the country" (Washington Post, Aug. 19, 1985).
If you can, infiltrate your state and regional Christian Coalition training conferences, and use the information gathered there to expose and counter this insidious movement.
A song kept running through my head during the conference, a verse of Kristin Lems' ever-topical Days of the Theocracy:
"They're sitting at the Capitol,
They're voting on our lives.
If we don't stop them soon
Our freedom will not long survive."