When the Foundation unexpectedly received an invitation to the Christian Coalition (CC) Leadership Conference for Wisconsin, someone had to go. I mulled the whole idea over for a few minutes--a two-day conference, surrounded by fundies and no place to hide. It sounded like an adventure, so I volunteered to infiltrate the conservative organization's prep school. I had been preoccupied by the CC's activities since the GOP's 1994 election sweep. How was it possible that a grassroots organization could sway a national election only three short years after its conception? I was going to find out.
Two things needed to be decided before the event--my disguise and my cover story. Panty hose, make-up, and a Sunday school dress were in order. Coming up with a cover story was not so easy. In all of my 24 years, I've attended a church service less than a dozen times, and then only to hear my grandmother play the organ and stuff myself at the potluck dinner directly following the service. I am entirely unfamiliar with Christian mythology and ceremony. If anyone asked me a simple question about the Bible or Christianity, my cover would be blown. So, I decided that I was to be a newly converted evangelical fundamentalist who had just found Jesus Christ. My friends and family warned me to be very careful--after all, I was a spy.
The Yahara Center just outside of Madison, Wisconsin, served as the Coalition's convention center. The bumper stickers on the cars in the parking lot foreshadowed things to come--"Jesus Lives," "I Am The Christian Coalition And I Vote," "It's A Child Not A Choice," and lots of metallic Jesus fish. At that point I realized that these were not just religious people, they were activists. My heart was thumping.
I conveniently arrived after the opening dinner and before registration. I searched for my name tag on the registration table. Had they received my RSVP? Oh, yes here it was--under my middle name, a simple precautionary measure. A middle-aged woman named Jenny handed me a pile of information: The Christian Coalition Training Seminar Manual, Level 1; Chapter Chairman's Handbook; Ralph Reed's Politically Incorrect on audio-cassette; Christian Coalition 1995 God and Country Calendar; Christian Coalition Information For Pastors; and a special treat--a hardback copy of The Secret Kingdom (revised and expanded) by Pat Robertson. I was the first one in the meeting room as people began filtering in from dinner. One pastor, a few married couples, and mostly white middle-aged males made up the group of forty potential CC "leaders."
Friday evening's schedule included three speakers, but first a welcome, a prayer, and the pledge. Are you supposed to close your eyes when you pray? I bowed my head and kept my eyes wide open.
Sheri Johansson spoke first for Pro-Life Wisconsin on "physician-assisted suicide." Sheri is young and bright and works at the State Capitol under a conservative Senator. After long, tedious definitions of euthanasia and natural death, Sheri warned that the media are very dangerous, "just pumped with sad stories of slow and painful death." She ended her speech with this: If you fear that you have become a burden and would like to be euthanized, then you are only looking for affirmation of your worth. What?
Sheri's sidekick, Matt, followed up. Young and not as bright as Sheri, he studied history and philosophy in college and proceeded to share some of his insights with us. Fascinated with the Third Reich, he drew countless parallels between the Nazis and doctors who relieve their patients' of suffering. The overall message here was that all is God's will, and He should put an end to you as He sees fit. And, hey, you can always pray for a miracle--they happen all the time.
Marv Munyon, president of the Family Research Institute (FRI) based in Madison, was the final speaker of the evening. Mr. Munyon held himself up with grave self-importance and rambled on and on in a paranoid and angry voice. Basically, the FRI reads every piece of proposed legislation, looking for "anti-family" issues, then lobbies accordingly. His main interests are bills concerning abortion, euthanasia, and parental rights. He spent quite a bit of time drilling in the message that the world is against religious conservatives. "The government is looking to find someone to pin the decay of society on--your church could be the next right-wing group to be eliminated."
Before I knew it, I was bowing my head again in prayer to adjourn. I quickly slipped out to avoid fellowship time. My head was spinning with thoughts as I drove home that evening.
Saturday's schedule was packed full, including speakers from Wisconsin Right To Life, the State Assembly, and the CC national office. Again I arrived after breakfast and just in time for the opening prayer. Our first activity was to watch a video entitled, "America At The Crossroads," a short propaganda film produced by the Christian Coalition. With more red, white, and blue than our national flag and more upbeat, patriotic music than our national anthem, the short film was reminiscent of propaganda from Hitler's era in Nazi Germany or Stalin's era in communist Russia. As the voice-over stated positive things about the country, the screen flashed pictures of smiling Pat Robertson, Ronald Reagan, and Jessie Helms. As the voice-over stated negative things, the screen showed Bill Clinton, Janet Reno, Teddy Kennedy, and so on. Footage of 1960's protests was used to exemplify the beginning of the degeneration of family values. When a large banner "State/Church Keep Them Separate" held by liberated women in front of the White House flashed on the screen, the voice-over spit, "left-wing radicals." In a short clip Kennedy stated, "I stand behind the gay and lesbian movement." There were whispers throughout the room, "perverts," "disgusting." I was sweating bullets. The film ended with a round of applause from the audience.
Before I could catch my breath, Sue Armacost, PAC Director for Wisconsin Right To Life was educating me on "pro-life" activism. I had to tune out for a while.
State Rep. Steven Nass followed Armacost. His topic, the importance of organizing, made me think that he should have organized his notes a little better. His meager message was lost between the hems, haws and jokes. I put down my pen and tried to look as religious as I could.
At 10:15 we took a short break for coffee and rolls. By this time I was aware that most of the people in attendance were already very active with the CC. The Wisconsin State Coordinator was running the conference, several other men were chapter leaders, and still others were church liaisons for the Coalition. They all knew each other, more or less, and I was a new face. I busied myself by perusing various pamphlets set out for us to take. A man approached me and introduced himself as the Chairman of the CC's Madison area chapter. He asked me the usual questions upon meeting someone for the first time. I was concentrating very hard on not blowing my cover with every answer; it seemed like there was 40 seconds of lag time between his questions and my responses. He did not question me on my religious background (which, I suppose, should be a given in that company), but he did ask me about my involvement with the CC. I managed to evade the question somewhat by saying that I worked in politics at the local level in my home state of Illinois. Apparently I passed the test because he asked me for my local address in Madison where he offered to send CC literature to keep me informed. Several weeks later I received a letter, "IF YOU ARE AN AT&T CUSTOMER, YOU ARE HELPING TO PROMOTE HOMOSEXUALITY IN AMERICA." The letter goes on to say that AT&T "is committed to using their resources to convince America that homosexuality is a normal alternative lifestyle" and that it is "directly soliciting homosexual customers through a mail campaign which comes in a lavender envelope . . ." Boy, now I'm really informed.
A CC District Coordinator kicked off the second half of the morning's speakers with the topic "Christians & Politics, The Biblical Basis." He read directly from the CC Training Seminar Manual in a deep, authoritative voice. The CC stretches their interpretation of political activism in the Bible to the limit. For example, Paul writes to Timothy:
"Pray for those in authority over you that you may lead a quiet and good life."
The Manual reads: "Paul was encouraging Timothy and his followers to participate to the fullest in their government. Since they were living under authoritarian Roman rule, prayer was their only means of participation. Certainly in a democracy, Paul would exhort us to pray, but also to vote, join political parties, participate in non-violent protests, and even to run for office." The Manual goes on to quote Matthew, "Love your neighbor as yourself," as justification for spreading their ideas to others. "We are bound by our faith to help our neighbors, be they next door or thousands of miles away . . . and we must not refuse to aid their plight [sic] at the hands of a government whose policies are threatening their spiritual well-being." After his speech, I was thoroughly convinced that there was nothing in the Bible about running for political office.
D.J. Gribbin, the National Field Director of the Coalition, was the only speaker with two one-hour time slots for before and after lunch. His dress and manner set him apart from the other speakers. He was a stretched out Ralph Reed in a crisp, expensive suit. I knew that he was the main reason we were here. Part of Gribbin's job is to tour the country, speaking at these types of conferences, giving Christians the scoop on CC inspiration, philosophy and tactics. I got the impression that he did his job very well. He began with an anecdote about a Bush/Quayle rally in Texas before the 1992 presidential elections. Quayle was at the podium, energizing the crowd. Quayle asked, "Who do you trust?" The expected answer, of course, was "George Bush." Instead the large crowd answered in simultaneous exaltation, "Jesus Christ." This was one of the most moving moments in D.J. Gribbin's life.
Gribbin says, "Freedom requires discipline." It is important to keep the "end goals" in mind at all times. What are those goals? He asks us, "Where do you want to be when it's all over?" People raised their hands around the room. We ran out of chalkboard space with ten items:
- Outlaw abortion
- Less government
- School "choice"
- Greater individual freedom, responsibility
- Abolish DOE, IRS, NEA
- End pornography
- Change media (get message out, not filtered by liberal media elite)
- Implement God's morality
- Cut taxes
- Reverse affirmative action
These are the major goals of the Christian Coalition. According to Gribbin, the way to achieve these goals is to become active in the process, "infiltrate and participate"; the only obstacle to success is complacency. "God has intervened to make the Christian Coalition the preeminent religious conservative force in the country," Gribbin said. He used the rest of his time discussing the CC mission and organization (see related article).
By the time lunch rolled around I had decided to stay until the end of D.J. Gribbin's speech and then I would be free. I could inwardly rejoice that this would indeed be my "last supper" with the fundies. I mixed in rather well, talking only with the women, of course. Seven or eight of us sat around a large table. We were joined by one large, jovial Catholic man who called us "girls" (I was the only one under 40) and gave everyone a hard time. He told Sue Armacost that she looked like Janet Reno. She was incensed. He asked me if I was married, and I said no. "Oh, so you don't know about the sex thing then, do ya?" he said. I was mortified. Luckily Senator George Petak had just begun his lunch time speech.
On a stomach full of cheese potatoes and fruit, I returned to the meeting room to hear the last of D.J. Gribbin's message. His focus was on the importance of neighborhood coordinators and church liaisons, the CC's organizational tools at the grassroots level. Voter identification is a primary activity through which neighborhood coordinators and church liaisons, by telephone surveys or circulating petitions, find "hard core anti-tax folks who never support teaching sex education and who disagree with abortion under any circumstance." Gribbin said that the Coalition must reach out beyond evangelical Christians--"any religion will do." Gribbin exemplified how easy it is to win an election after conservative voters are identified. It holds true almost anywhere that in an area of 10,000 eligible voters, only half are registered to vote and only 10% do vote, leaving 500 voters. Gribbin claimed chillingly, "All you need to do is find 251 conservative voters" to win.
The hour flew by and it was time for me to leave. I walked briskly, trying not to look at anyone in the eye. It seemed like an eternity before I reached the safety of my car. At the beginning of the conference, I was having a good time playing my role. By the end, my frustrations had surfaced. I could not help but think what I would be like if I had lived the waythey wanted me to live. I would have been an entirely different person. What if they ran my country the way they wanted to run it? I could not bear the thought.