Revving Up the Christian Movement for Bush



George W. Bush is out on the campaign
trail hotfooting his way to the political center. Almost every day he’s
either hawking a new education proposal or health care plan, reassuring Catholics
that his Bob Jones University speech was all just a big misunderstanding,
and opening up the big tent for a meeting with a selected group of gay Republicans.
All of this is being done to recapture last Fall’s halcyon days when
he was the king of “compassionate conservatism.” Meanwhile, three
of the most prominent figures associated with the Christian Right have other
plans for the Governor.


Last fall, Rev. Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition launched its Countdown
to Victory campaign. In mid-March, former Moral Majority head Rev. Jerry Falwell
announced his People of Faith 2000 crusade. Recently, Rev. Lou Sheldon has
jumped on board with his Election 2000 Battle Plan.


The finest campaign strategies that money can buy often go astray. Bush’s
brain trust originally intended to distance him as far as possible from Christian
Right leaders like Robertson, Falwell, and Sheldon. But last Fall’s calm
campaign calculations turned into panic-time in February after Sen. John McCain
emerged victorious in the New Hampshire primary. It became imperative that
Bush win South Carolina. A campaign consisting of raking in bushels of cash,
while dispensing a squishy “compassionate conservatism” was forced
to look to the Christian Right for a bail-out. The Right delivered and this
changed everything for Bush.


When a Republican needs to win a primary in a conservative state, it’s
the political connections stupid. To activate those connections, Bush called
on Ralph Reed, the former executive director of Robertson’s Christian
Coalition who now heads Century Strategies, his own political consulting outfit.
Reed is favorably viewed by the media as the “kinder, gentler” version
of the late great Republican Party legendary hatchet person and campaign guru
Lee Atwater.


Reed easily secured the support of Christian Right grassroots activists and
Bush’s victory turned into a grand old coming out party for the Christian
Right. Now that Bush has sewed up the nomination he knows that he has to deal
head-on with the Christian Right. Bush’s advisors understand that he
must hightail it to the political center. However, with the three Reverends
planning ambitious Election 2000 campaigns on Bush’s behalf, it certainly
will make the trail toward the center a pretty rocky road.


Robertson’s Christian Coalition on the Campaign Trail


Nineteen ninety-nine was not a great
year for the Christian Coalition as both Robertson and the Coalition experienced
some pretty rough times. Early on, Robertson incurred the wrath of many of
the Christian Right’s most important leaders by declaring that the impeachment
of President Clinton was a lost cause and that it was time to move on.


Internally, the organization was in disarray. The two officials who took over
running the operation after the resignation of Ralph Reed were summarily dismissed
by Robertson. Both Donald Hodel, who was president, and Randy Tate, the Coalition’s
executive director, were terminated, and Robertson took over the group’s
leadership.


After years of haggling with the Internal Revenue Service, the Coalition finally
gave up its fight for tax exempt status.


According to reporter John C. Henry of the Houston Chronicle, the Coalition
then split “into two separate groups and anointed its Texas operation
as the ‘principal vehicle’ for its national operations.”


There were a series of financial setbacks: a shortfall caused the Coalition
to cease publication of its glossy bi-monthly Christian American magazine—its
primary vehicle for communicating with their constituency—and replace
it with a weekly e-mail newsletter.


Although Robertson is a fabulously wealthy man, Church & State
magazine reported in January that the Coalition was “being sued for nearly
$400,000 by a direct-mail marketing firm that says it hasn’t been paid
since last spring.” Stephen Winchell, of Winchell and Associates, said
that the Coalition may owe as much as $2 million to various vendors.


Of major political import was the ruling by U.S. District Judge Joyce Green
which, reported the Washington Times, “threw out much of a 1996
government lawsuit charging that the Coalition’s voter guides, phone
banks and other operations were partisan activities designed to aid Republican
candidates and should be treated as contributions under federal law.”
The organization’s website calls the voter guides “the most visible
and highest profile project by our organization.” Once Green made her
decision the door was opened for the Coalition’s strategic involvement
in the 2000 elections.


The Coalition’s fundraising appeals center around winning back the White
House for the Republican Party. In November, Robertson in fundraising overdrive
warned his constituents that “we’re at war with the powers of darkness
and I believe God is telling us, first, to pray fervently—pray to get
energized and directed. Then we must act in faith!”


“Acting in faith” included completing “Christian Roll Call
2000,” a questionnaire laying out “7 Reasons” for getting involved
in Election 2000 including: the rise of anti-Christian bigotry; media bias
against Christian groups; and the need to reverse Roe v. Wade.


Robertson’s December letter lays out the nuts and bolts of its Countdown
to Victory campaign. The plan: “Before Election Day 2000, we will distribute
more than 70 million voter guides showing where candidates stand on key issues.”
“The voter guides,” says Robertson “are a crucial strategic
weapon in our Countdown to Victory Plan.”


Here is what the Coalition is aiming to accomplish:


    • work to ensure at least 85 percent Christian voter turnout in the key early
      primary and caucus states in January and February

    • register millions of new Christian voters

    • collect hundreds of thousands of petitions urging leaders of both major
      parties…not to ignore the concerns of Christian voters

    • recruit at least one “servant leader” in 175,000 precincts in
      America that are organizing Christian Americans locally for political action


Although many liberal pundits take delight in frequently writing off the religious
right and the Christian Coalition, this is clearly a premature obituary. Bush’s
primary victories were in large part due to the heavy turnout by Robertson’s
troops.


Rev. Jerry Falwell’s People of Faith 2000 Campaign


Despite the fact that he has been a
man without a political organization—his Moral Majority folded in 1989—Jerry
Falwell continues to be in the public spotlight.  Throughout the Clinton
impeachment hearings Falwell was a favorite television guest of Larry King
and Geraldo Rivera—often paired with his old nemesis and current “buddy,”
Larry Flynt. A little over a year ago he angered Jews by preaching at a pastor’s
conference that the Antichrist, the arch- nemesis of God, may be a Jew who
is alive today. Who can forget when Falwell’s National Liberty Journal
outed Tinky-Winky, a character on “Tele- tubbies,” the television
show for toddlers. Last October, in an attempt to soften his image, he hosted
gay minister Mel White and 200 gay Christians at his Lynchburg, Virginia headquarters
and pledged to tone down his anti-gay rhetoric.


In the past few weeks Falwell has joined forces with Christian Right stalwarts
Rev. Lou Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition, Rev. D. James Kennedy
of the Center for Reclaiming America, and Peter LaBarbera of Americans for
Truth about Homosexuality, in condemning gay rights activists and the leaders
of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) for their campaign
of “demonization” against Dr. Laura Schlessinger, talk-radio’s
“queen of mean.”


In March, Falwell announced a seven-month campaign to “reclaim America
as one nation under God.” In his press release, Fal- well used a time-honored
Christian Right rhetorical tool claiming, “the demonization of conservative
people of faith is being accelerated in the Congress as well as in the media.”
Falwell, founder and chancellor of the 10,000-student Liberty University,
says that he has seen these “orchestrated plans of liberals and civil
libertarians to demonize and marginalize people of faith” before.


Falwell’s Moral Majority played a key role electing Ronald Reagan president
and building a conservative majority in Congress. To accomplish this, Falwell
says, they “registered over 8.5 million new voters through the churches
and religious organizations and re-activated millions more back into the political
arena.”


Now, he intends to top that figure: “I am…announcing a seven- month
campaign, ending on November 7—Election Day—which I am calling People
of Faith 2000… [during which I will] attempt to energize, inform and mobilize
the 70 million religious conservatives in America.” Falwell’s People
of Faith 2000 will:


    • (1) mobilize 200,000 ministers, and their congregations, to return America
      to its spiritual roots

    • (2) register and bring to the polls at least ten million new voters

    • (3) urge all registered, but apathetic voters to fulfill their Christian
      duty by voting this year


According to Beliefnet, an online publication focusing on religious
affairs, Falwell’s people plan “to send out pledge cards for newly
registered voters to sign, promising they’ll vote in the Presidential
election.” Then, a few weeks before the election “People of Faith
2000 will mount a massive phone-calling campaign to remind the new troops
to vote.”


On March 23, Falwell wrote that “I am witnessing a rapidly-growing surge
of energy among religious conservatives in this nation. Following years of
mistreatment and ridicule from the media and the political left, I believe
conservative people of faith are once again gearing up to make their voices
heard in the critical political elections of 2000.”


Falwell says his goal is to get Bush elected, and “to see the Clinton/Gore
administration out of Washington and back to Timbuktu.” You can bet that
Falwell will be trumpeting his new action campaign on his two-minute “Listen
America” radio broadcast, which goes out to more than 200 radio stations
nationwide. He is beginning to build a new infrastructure and is calling on
his old Moral Majority colleagues to join him.


Rev. Sheldon’s Battle Plan


To most Americans, Rev. Sheldon is not
a household name. However, it is clear from the record that he is one of the
hardest working people on the Christian Right. His Anaheim, California-based
Traditional Values Coalition (TVC)—with offices in Washington, DC—has
been in the forefront of anti-gay campaigns and lobbying for more than two
decades. Although he doesn’t possess the mediagenic qualities of someone
like Rev. Fred Phelps of Topeka, Kansas, who’s often seen picketing funerals
of prominent gay figures, Sheldon has earned his fair share of mainstream
media coverage.


In the 1970s, according to a 1994 New York Times profile, Sheldon “campaigned
unsuccessfully against repeal of California’s anti-sodomy laws and [in
1978] worked with State Senator John V. Briggs on an initiative [which failed]
that would have required the dismissal of teachers who were openly homosexual.”


Over the years Sheldon, founder and chair of TVC, has become an expert at
conducting wedge-based political campaigns. In 1993, TVC was one of the major
distributors of the especially vicious video Gay Rights, Special Rights,
which was aimed at attracting support from African Americans by stirring up
anti-gay resentment. At that time Sheldon, who had no record of supporting
civil rights initiatives, appealed to African Americans by saying that “the
freedom train to Selma has been hijacked” by gays.


In 1994, when the Gingrich “revolution” brought the House under
Republican control for the first time in years, the Times noted that
Sheldon could now call on some of his friends in high government positions—including
Trent Lott, who was featured in Gay Rights, Special Rights. The Times
called Sheldon a “tireless crusader…[against] rules and regulations
that confer equality on homosexuals.”


In 1995, Sheldon, who had boasted in a fund-raising letter that he had secured
a commitment from Gingrich to hold congressional hearings on how federal funds
were used to teach sex education and HIV/AIDS awareness in public schools,
got his day in Congress.


TVC became actively involved in the campaign to undermine the nomination of
the openly-gay Jim Hormel as U.S. envoy to Luxembourg in 1998. In a recent
campaign aimed at convincing Latino elected officials in the Central Valley
in California to vote against AB222, which would have added sexual orientation
to a bill providing for a safer environment for school children, Sheldon once
again played wedge-issue politics. A mailer depicting a black man kissing
a Latino man and warning “Protect the children against homosexual assault”
appeared to be an open invitation to anti-gay violence. This winter, TVC worked
tirelessly to ensure the passage of Proposition 22, California’s anti
same-sex marriage initiative.


Now, Rev. Sheldon has unveiled his ambitious Election 2000 Battle Plan—“a
proposal to fill America’s highest elected offices in 2000 with leaders
who are committed to the traditional moral and Biblical values that made America
great.” In order to achieve “nothing less than 100 percent Christian
voter participation in the 2000 Elections,” Sheldon’s three- pronged
campaign aims to raise an estimated $12 million in order to:


    • (1) ensure an Informed Christian Vote: 50 million voter guides ($750,000);
      TV, radio and newspaper advertisements ($930,000); the Internet ($450,000)

    • (2) identify 15,000,000 brand new Christian voters: Christian Voter I.D.
      Project ($2.5 million); TV, radio and newspaper ads ($450,000); Mobilize
      TVC’s network of 43,000 churches ($660,000)

    • (3) generate a record-breaking Christian voter turnout: voter contact, mail
      & phone ($3.3 million); building a transportation infrastructure ($1.2
      million); vote at home program ($1.3 million); holding “Christian Action”
      and “Candidate Training” schools across America ($680,000)


Robertson, Falwell, and Sheldon are loading up the wagons and working the
grassroots for money and support for their election-year activities. These
enterprising efforts are focused on cleansing Washington of the Clinton-Gore
years, and electing “moral leaders who believe in Biblical principles.”
They have decided that Bush is their kind of “moral leader.” Meanwhile,
the Bush campaign will continue to distance itself from these fellows and
glide toward the middle of the political spectrum.                  Z


Bill Berkowitz is the editor of Culture- Watch, a monthly publication
tracking conservative movements.