We Have A Winning Message by Rob Boston (June/July 1996)

 The New Jersey chapter of the Freedom From Religion Foundation held its annual spring dinner and program on Sunday, May 5, 1996 in Morristown, New Jersey.

The featured speaker for the evening was Rob Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State who is the author of The Most Dangerous Man in America? Pat Robertson and the Rise of the Christian Coalition.

The article that follows is an excerpt of his speech.

The organization I work for is Americans United for Separation of Church and State. We believe in democratic principles. We believe in religious and philosophical freedom for everybody whether they have Catholic faith, Jewish faith or no faith at all. I’ve known about the work of the Freedom From Religion Foundation for more than ten years. I salute your work, your advocacy for separation of church and state. We need people speaking for the separation of church and state from all different vantage points.

I’d like to talk about the Religious Right, a little about Ralph Reed, Pat Robertson’s front man for the Christian Coalition, a little about what this movement has been doing nationally, state-based and at the local level. And then also, give you some pointers on how to respond to this movement. The Religious Right is growing in power in this country and we all need to be aware of that. I believe that most Americans are good, decent people and if they can be alerted to the dangers we face, we can begin to turn things around.

First, a little about Ralph Reed. I’ve had the opportunity to hear Reed speak on a number of occasions. He’s a good speaker — very polished, very smooth, very slick. If you listen to him, he can sound very reasonable. One of the places I heard Ralph Reed speak was exactly one year ago today in Washington, D.C., at a breakfast meeting sponsored by the American Jewish Committee. The AJC had been rather critical of some of the goals of the Christian Coalition. They felt that in fairness they would invite Reed to come and speak and give his version of things.

Ralph Reed mentioned that he used to teach history, saying: “I’m sure there are many people out there who wished I was still teaching history instead of making it.” (It sounded just a little bit pompous.)

The balance of Reed’s speech confused me. He said — representing Pat Robertson, remember — “The Christian Coalition believes in a nation that is not officially Christian, Jewish or Muslim. We believe in a separation of church and state that is complete and inviolable.”

I had to sit there and scratch my head because I monitor the “700 Club” on a daily basis and hear what Pat Robertson has to say, and I live to tell the tale. I know that Pat Robertson, who is Ralph Reed’s boss and founder of the Christian Coalition, says a different thing about separation of church and state.

Here’s what Pat says about separation of church and state in a direct quote from the “700 Club”: “Separation of church and state is not in the Constitution. No matter how much the liberals laugh at me for saying it, it’s not in there and it never was. That line, which is from the Constitution of the former Soviet Union.”

You all thought it was Jefferson and Madison who had given us separation of church and state. Interesting history this guy believes in. Just a couple of months before, Pat Robertson said the following to a public audience in Greenville, South Carolina, in front of reporters who wrote it down: “Separation of church and state is a lie of the Left. It’s not in the constitution and we’re not going to take it anymore.”

Well, which is it? What are we supposed to believe? Ralph Reed or Pat Robertson? Reed, in the speech I mentioned a moment ago, also said that the Christian Coalition does not believe that the nation is officially Christian. Again, I’m confused. I watch Pat Robertson on the “700 Club” applaud the idea of America being officially a Christian nation.

Just last week the “700 Club” aired an hour-long videotape giving bogus, phony history designed to prove, somehow, that the United States was founded to be not just “One Nation Under God,” but “One Nation Under Christianity,” Christianity as Pat Robertson defines it.

I also watched Pat Robertson interview the President of the African nation of Zambia. In Zambia, the president has officially proclaimed that country a Christian nation. A couple of years ago the president of the country stood on the steps of a federal building in Zambia and officially declared the country a Christian nation. The first thing he did was close all the abortion clinics by force, drive the doctors out and beat them in the streets. Then they had a mass book-burning. Isn’t that nice? That’s a Christian nation. And Pat Robertson applauded this on his show. He said: “Wouldn’t it be great to have a man like that as President of the United States?”

Who are we supposed to believe? That the Christian Coalition believes the separation of church and state should be complete and inviolable? Or, are we being put to shame by the Zambians, who have declared their nation a Christian nation?

I’ve seen Pat Robertson pine for those wonderful days of the 19th century when our Supreme Court would issue statements that the United States was founded on Christianity. I’ve also seen him speak favorably of the Puritan theocracy of Massachusetts–the one that burned and hanged Quakers, exiling others to live in the wilderness.

I’ve been to Christian Coalition meetings. I am, believe it or not, a semi-official member of the Maryland Christian Coalition where I live. I went to their conference last year. One of the speakers was David Barton. Barton lives in Texas and he makes his living selling books and videos such as, “The Myth of Separation,” that attack the very concept of separation of church and state. These materials are promoted by Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition at national gatherings. I have to wonder if Robertson’s Christian Coalition believes in the separation of church and state, why do they give a national platform to a man who’s job it is to tear it down and to somehow assert that separation of church and state is ahistorical.

In my state, the Maryland branch of the Christian Coalition sells a video that it promises “demolishes forever the myth of separation of church and state.”

The Christian Coalition is trying to pull of a good-cop, bad-cop routine on the American people. Pat Robertson says and does extreme things. He knows they’re extreme. He knows they’re frightening so he hires this nice, pleasant-looking young man to come out and put a nice moderate face on his extremism.

I’m going to give my new book one plug. It’s called The Most Dangerous Man In America? Pat Robertson and the Rise of the Christian Coalition. I’ve documented time and time again when the Christian Coalition has done this, where Pat Robertson has said one thing and Ralph Reed has said the exact opposite. The aim is to prove that this is an extremist organization, and we should not believe for one minute the claims that it is moderating.

The papers this past weekend carried articles about Ralph Reed saying maybe the Republican party should moderate some of its language on abortion in the platform. Maybe it’s time for the Christian Coalition to stop bashing gay people and stop bashing Bill and Hillary Clinton. Well, guess what? They’re at it again. It’s all a smokescreen.

Right now, in Washington, D.C., a number of Religious Right groups, including the Christian Coalition, are working on a new First Amendment. Did you know that? We have one now that’s worked for more than 200 years and seems to be doing okay, but according to the Religious Right, we need a new one. They call it the “Religious Equality Amendment.” Talk about Newt-speak! It sounds so benign — religious equality. Of course we’re for that, right? Well, it isn’t about religious equality, it’s about favoritism. It’s about giving fundamentalist Christians more rights in society than everybody else.

This amendment would do three things:

  • Number one, it would allow formal, ritualized, mandatory programs of religion in our public schools. Every day the teacher can designate a student or someone else in the public school community, to lead prayers and bible reading. What do you do if you don’t want to participate? What do you do if you’re an atheist or a member of another minority group and you don’t want to participate? Well, the amendment does not address that.
  • Number two, it would require — not just allow — the government to fund religious schools alongside public schools. And any level of government whether it be local, state, or federal would be required to fund all the religious groups that wanted it.

    Could you imagine what this is going to do to our budget? Not to mention the constitutional question, not even to mention the idea of people being forced to pay church taxes. Just imagine when government opens the doors and says, “Okay, any religious group that wants us to pay for your school system come and ask.”

  • Third, it would allow the government to endorse ceremonial expressions of religion. All you need are a couple of judicial activists like Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia and Chief Justice Reinquist to get a hold of language like that and you’re talking about about Iran on the installment plan.

    The Christian Coalition has taken credit for quite a number of the Republicans who came into Congress in 1994, and for electing Republican Governors. Right now they’ve got Bob Dole in a headlock. They’re saying to him, “When you pick your running mate, we want to approve.”

    They estimate that they control 18 state units of the GOP right now, and have significant influence in about a dozen others. This is an organization that is working, precinct by precinct, county by county, state by state, to take over one of our political parties.

    Now some of you in the room who are Democrats may say, “Hey, what do I care, let them have it.” I think that that view is short-sighted.

    The Christian Coalition hosts a conference every year in Washington, D.C. called “The Road To Victory.” If you’ve got your $60 and you plunk it down you can get a badge and you can go. So that what I did. I have to tell you what I saw at the “Road To Victory” conference has sickened and angered me and just plain disgusted me.

    Imagine 4,000 people jammed into a huge auditorium. Speakers shout the most ultraconservative faction of the far right, one after the other. Limited to 20 minutes. Bang, bang, bang. No breaks. No time to get out and stretch your legs, unless you walk out on a speech. The siege mentality permeated the organization: “We are going to attack. Our values are threatened. There’s this sinister cabal trying to take away our rights, trying to destroy our families.” Who is this cabal? Well, according to the Christian Coalition, it consists of folks like public school teachers, university professors, liberals, Democrats, atheists, gay people, people who create our popular culture, ganged together to subvert American morality and bring down all that is true and decent.

    Now I know at this point in our history the idea of conspiracy theories are popular because these militia nuts run all around the country and talk about the new world order and U.N. troops hiding in the national forests, but for the Christian Coalition, this type of stuff is not considered far-fetched. It’s accepted! If you don’t believe it then you’re the odd man out. And speaker after speaker shamelessly fed this siege mentality.

    I heard Supreme Court candidate Robert Bork. Ever since he failed to get on the court, Robert Bork has made his living traveling around the country telling his little tale of woe on the rubber chicken circuit to any group that will listen. According to Bork, liberal elites and secular humanists run the country. How many people here consider themselves secular humanists? I’m a secular humanist myself. I wasn’t aware we’re running the country! We’re running all the major media; newspapers, TV. And all the universities. We’ve got the government under our control. Well, you could have fooled me.

    We work every day to keep religions out of the schools because people call and say they’re still saying prayers over the loud speakers in some parts of the country. Yet, we’re told secular humanists are running the country?

    Now the Christian Coalition says they’re not partisan. But Robert Bork didn’t care about that. He said to people that the only hope for this nation is to get Bill Clinton out of the White House because he’s going to put liberals on the Supreme Court and if he does that in the next four years, all is loused. Interesting theory. And the crowd was just in a frenzy, leaping to their feet, applauding Bork. Nonpartisan, the Christian Coalition? That’s like saying that the National Review is nonpartisan. We know better than that.

    At their meeting it was a constant stream of attacks on the liberals, the Clintons, attacks on the Democrats.

    I went to the South Carolina meeting of the Christian Coalition. People saw me with a Maryland badge and asked me what was I doing there in South Carolina. I told them I’d thought about moving. What they’re doing in South Carolina is endorsing Republican candidates for office. The president of the South Carolina Christian Coalition said, “This is our candidate for Congress. He’s going to defeat John Spratt” (who’s a Democratic congressmen from South Carolina, one of the few left). Then the Christian Coalition head said, “We need a good Christian in office.” (When I looked up Spratt, he’s a Presbyterian! But not a “good Christian,” according to the Christian Coalition.)

    So they’re handing down slates of who to vote for. In other state caucuses they did the same thing. We had staff members from Americans United infiltrate, and they all hear the same spiel. The Christian Coalition is functioning as the ultraconservative faction of the Republican party, with a nonprofit status, and it’s got to stop. Fine, let it be a political action committee. Let it pay taxes like a political action committee. Let it report its governors to the IRS like political action committees do. What’s happening right now with the Christian Coalition’s tax-exempt status is a first-class tragedy. It’s a disgrace. If you can find any evidence of them endorsing candidates, please send it to me because we want the IRS to take away their tax exempt status. What they’re doing is wrong.

    We’ve been to some other meetings too. Let me tell you about one that was really interesting. Two young guys, in their twenties, computer types, nice-looking, clean-cut, real smart, showed these folks how to use a personal computer in their own homes to organize neighborhoods on political lines. They say “neighborhood,” but the first thing they added at the meeting was that they’re really talking about political precinct. The boundaries of your political precinct and the boundaries of your neighborhood just happen to be the same. Isn’t that convenient?

    What you do is go out to your neighbors and get to know them. You talk to them, find out if you’ve got anything in common. Maybe you’ve got kids. You talk and find out what their politics are like. Well, if they are those awful prochoice liberal types, then you just get out of the house as fast as you can. If they turn out to be conservative, or are leaning in that direction then you key them into your computer.

    First thing you do is make sure they’re registered to vote. Second thing is make sure they vote on primary election day and general election day. They fire up the computer on election day and start making calls. “Hey, it’s election day, we’re going down to the polls. We’ll come by and get you. We’ve got a van. You need a ride? Leave it to me.”

    We voted on what’s called Junior Tuesday, the presidential primary. They called my wife because she’s at home during the day, and asked to speak to me. I wasn’t home and they said they wanted to remind me that it’s election day and asked if I needed a ride to the polls. My wife said we’d already voted, thank you. (Probably not the way they would have preferred, but nevertheless.) I’m telling you folks, it’s kind of scary! They’ve got faxes and email. What they’re doing is just good basic political organizing. Some of it may be skirting the law according to the tax-exempt status, but a lot of it is the stuff that those of us on the other side of the issue simply aren’t doing enough of.

    When I talk to groups I tell them to imagine an actual brick wall of separation between church and state. At the top of that wall sit all these issues: women’s rights, separation of church and state, gay rights, environmentalism. If that wall collapses, what happens to all those issues? Down they come. We’re all in this together. You may not feel comfortable about working with some of these groups, and they don’t always feel comfortable about working with you, but there are differences that have to be put aside for the common good because the Religious Right is putting aside its theological differences. Extreme left-wing Protestants are working with extreme right-wing Catholics, which ten years ago you would not have seen.

    Pay attention to election day. Christian Coalition candidates don’t win elections because the country agrees with them. They win because people don’t vote. In 1994, the off-year elections that brought us this new Republican Congress, we had a 38% voter turnout.

    In 1992 it was 50%. As you move down the ladder to state races and local races it gets lower and lower. Local races in some communities are in the single digits for voter turnout. Can you imagine? It’s a disaster waiting to happen. When people don’t vote, a power vacuum is created and extremists will come in to fill that vacuum every time. You see it throughout history time and time again. We’ve got to increase the voter turnout.

    Let’s start speaking out against the Religious Right in public forums. Challenge their rhetoric. I know a lot of you are doing that. Writing letters to the editor maybe. You challenge them on talk radio. Do more of it, please. They have claimed to speak for family values. They have claimed to speak for profamily. What are we?

    I have a two year old daughter. I’m a good family values person.

    Let me tell you something about Ralph Reed. He’s got three kids. I’ve seen pictures: they look like nice kids. I would never in my wildest dreams think of asserting that Ralph Reed is not a good father. He probably is a very good father. Well, I am too. He won’t give you that benefit of the doubt, you see. I’m wrong. I’m not profamily because I disagree with him on things like school prayer and abortion. What does that have to do with how I’m raising my daughter?

    You hear this pop theology: “Oh, we love the sinner, but we hate the sin!” They hate the sinner, why don’t they just admit it? Hate, hate, hate is all you hear out of these folks.

    We have a message that’s positive, a message that respects diversity, and they have a message that respects no one. We have a message that says this is a great country, you have the right to choose your own religion or choose none at all. That’s a winning message.

    What’s their message? Their message is that they have absolute truth and everybody has to follow it. That’s a losing message. The question and the challenge is how to find a way better present our message, a way that does not allow us to be portrayed as people who want to take away this country’s moral foundation, its moral base, because that’s the brush we’re being tarred with right now, be you an atheist or a liberal Christian or a secular humanist or a Jew. That’s dangerous because right now there’s free-floating anxiety about the country’s state of morals.

    I’ve seen things in the country that I don’t like. Do you know how many kids bring a gun to school? What a tragedy, it’s awful. I agree with the Christian Coalition in identifying the problem, but I disagree with them on the solution. Because their solution is theocracy! Wrong answer!

    Let me remind you that in 1992 Pat Buchanan declared that this country was in the midst a religious war for the soul of America. Most Americans don’t want to see a religious war. Northern Ireland? Bosnia? Iran? Bad idea, Pat. We don’t want that here. If the Religious Right can use that rhetoric and say a religious war has been declared, then let’s go into it well armed. I dislike the Religious Right’s military metaphors. They bother me. They’re violent, they’re ugly. But hey, they started it, not us. If they’re going to fire, let’s not just sit back on our hands, let’s fire back.

    When I left the Christian Coalition “Road to Victory” meeting I missed Pat Buchanan’s speech. I just couldn’t take it anymore. I rode on the subway to the suburbs where I live and I got in the door and kissed my wife and patted my little girl’s head. When I’d left for the meeting that day she’d been taking a nap so I was glad to see her. She gave me a little hug and we sat down and read books. As I sat there and read a book I couldn’t help but think: what kind of a country is my daughter going to grow up in? Are we going to have a nation that respects religious tolerance and philosophical freedom, to believe or not believe? Are we going to have separation of church and state? Or is this guy, maybe President or Chief Justice Ralph Reed or Senator Ralph Reed or the hand-picked stooges going to blast the wall of separation into a pile of rubble and put us on the road to theocracy?

    As scary as it may seem and as serious as it may seem, I think the answer to that depends on all of you.

    The Most Dangerous Man In America ($17.00, 230-page paperback) and Why The Religious Right Is Wrong About the Separation of Church and State ($18.00, 257 pages) by Rob Boston are available through FFRF, P.O. Box 750, Madison, WI 53701. Prices quoted include postage and handling.   

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