- Power Preying by Adele M. Stan
- Cover Story: An inside look at the Christian right’s presidential strategy.
- Seizing State Power
- An avalanche of religious right bills is burying statehouses across the country.
- A Guide to the New Right
- Since the ’60s, the movements leaders have been less than pious.
- Showdown in Des Moines
- A local school board race draws the religious right’s big guns.
- Editor’s Note:
- What is sacred in America?
by Adele M. Stan
On a blistering day in Merrimack, N.H., the townspeople assemble for their annual Fourth of July parade. Little girls, on bicycles decorated with crepe-paper streamers and American flags, buzz with excitement. The fire engine is in place, as are the Dixieland band, the Cub Scout troop, a yellow school bus, and a big, white-columned float full of cross-legged children. New Hampshire Gov. Steve Merrill is at the head of the line. The only ingredients missing are the guests of honor: GOP presidential contenders Bob Dole, Phil Gramm, and Pat Buchanan.
Gramm arrives first, fresh from his self-proclaimed victory derailing President Clinton’s nomination of Henry Foster for surgeon general. Marching with Gramm are Sen. Bob Smith (R-N.H.), one of the national co-chairs of his campaign, and Gramm’s wife, Wendy, who, as an Asian-American, stands out in Merrimack’s parade.
Just as the line begins to move, Dole and his wife, Elizabeth, backed by a herd of supporters traveling in a magnificent old red trolley car, arrive to take their place ahead of the Gramms. Then Buchanan lines up behind the Dole and Gramm contingents. In contrast to the polite reception given the other candidates, the response offered by Buchanan’s supporters is spirited. “How ya doin’, Pat?” well-wishers shout. “Go, Pat, go!” cry others, echoing his campaign slogan. Buchanan bounds from one side of the street to the other, sweat pouring off him. His right eye keeps snapping shut, perhaps from exhaustion, but that never stops him; he just wears a perpetual wink to match his smile.
Every four years, the campaign circus swings through New Hampshire in homage to the state’s kick-off position in the presidential primary season. As a backdrop for political posturing, Merrimack is the perfect Anytown, U.S.A. And its location in the southernmost part of New Hampshire, smack between Manchester, home of the rightward-listing Union Leader, and Nashua, one of New England’s high-tech enclaves, places it on the edge of the Boston media market.
If the leading contenders for the GOP nomination are counting on the particulars of Merrimack’s political and geographic landscape to win them a national audience, so, too, is the religious right, which has ensnared the town’s local politics in a web of hot button issues as it seeks to shape the outcome of the 1996 presidential election. Leading the crusade is Ralph Reed’s right-wing Christian Coalition, from whose ranks Gov. Merrill has made appointments to several key state government positions. In May, Merrill hosted Reed’s visit to New Hampshire, where Reed addressed the state Senate and organized his local Coalition supporters.
So, prominent among Dole’s delegation in the small-town parade is Merrimack School Board Chairman Chris Ager, a Christian conservative. And Buchanan’s delegation stars Shelly Uscinski, the county co-chair of his campaign and also a member of the Merrimack school board. Uscinski, who in the past 18 months has catapulted into the national limelight as an activist for the Christian Coalition, won a seat on the school board by a close vote in 1994.
Uscinski and her running mate, who were encouraged to run by Ager, joined him on the board to form a right-wing Christian majority. Since then, school business has taken a backseat to debates over creationism, school prayer, sex education, and–most recently–homosexuality, tearing the town into warring factions.
Soon after taking power, the Christian majority rammed through a policy to start Merrimack’s school day with a moment of silence. But all hell broke loose when the school board entertained a proposal to add creationism to Merrimack’s science curriculum. No longer a mere stage set for the presidential road company, the town itself became the story–CBS News spent more than six months filming a documentary on its politics, which many locals complain are being manipulated for the benefit of conservative outsiders with their own agenda.
“This used to be a nice, progressive town,” then-school board member Chuck Mower complained to a reporter after one raucous board meeting on creationism. “Now we’re just a gooberville in Arkansas.”
After the parade, Dole poses for photos with locals. A circle of reporters crowds around the GOP’s front-runner, holding Dole captive in the high school’s shadeless parking lot. When Mother Jones asks Dole about the influence of the Christian Coalition on the Republican race, he reveals his discomfort with the new flavor of his party’s politics.
“They’re well organized and they do a good job,” he says. “But they’re like all other voters–they believe in the country; they think that voting’s a very precious right we have in America.”
Asked to comment on the Christian right’s efforts to teach creationism in Merrimack’s public schools, the Senate majority leader declines, then breaks in nervously, “I think their normal activity is–they’re worried about jobs, they’re worried about a balanced budget, they’re worried about a tax cut for families with children….”
“The economic issues?” the reporter offers.
“Yes, that’s right,” Dole replies.
Dole just doesn’t seem to want to get it. He wants to win badly, but his heart’s not in the fight to make America a Christian nation.
Just as Dole and his followers make a break for the relative cool of the high school’s corridors, Phil Gramm heads for the van that will carry him out of Merrimack. Asked about the Christian Coalition, he says, “I’m proud of the fact that people all over the country who hold to traditional values, to family and faith, are coming to the Republican Party. I’m proud of the fact that the people who do the work, pay the taxes, pull the wagon, are coming our way.”
And Merrimack’s creationism flap? “I want local parents and local teachers to run education,” he asserts, “not the federal government.” Now that’s what social conservatives want to hear–and Gramm got the message the hard way after the religious right’s heavy hitters pummeled him last May for not sounding their themes loudly enough. Since then, Gramm has been speaking in Christian code, even making references to the Second Coming.
Buchanan, meanwhile, has already moved on to a pig roast sponsored by the Conservative Party Victory Fund in nearby Dunbarton, where his competitors will rejoin him later. Political pundits are already preaching that the 1996 election may sound the death knell for the two-party system, and Buchanan’s name has long been bandied about as a contender who could run strongly on a third-party ticket. The pig roast offers him the opportunity to rub shoulders with George Fellendorf, chairman of the New Hampshire Christian Coalition, and also with the state’s most powerful Coalition supporter, Gov. Merrill.
In August of 1992, Patrick J. Buchanan, the blusterous pundit and failed presidential candidate, stunned the nation with perhaps the most bilious political speech since the days of George Wallace. “There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America,” Buchanan bellowed from the pulpit bestowed on him as a consolation prize at the GOP National Convention in Houston. “It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself.” He urged conventioneers to “take back our cities, take back our culture, take back our country” from the feminists, environmentalists, and gays who, along with the rioters in the streets of Los Angeles, had stolen America from its rightful heirs.
Buchanan’s diatribe brought lots of bad press to the party of Lincoln. After the election, when analysts discussed why Clinton won, they routinely mentioned the Houston debacle. But reports of the demise of Buchanan and his supporters proved to be extremely premature. Three years later, with the successful insurgency of the Christian Coalition in close to two-thirds of the GOP’s state organizations, the religious right sees the brass ring of the presidency within its grasp. It has become a controlling influence on the direction of the primaries, forcing top contenders like Dole and Gramm to run a gauntlet that has propelled them even further to the right on key issues.
Although he has no official connection to the Christian Coalition, Buchanan has become an implicit threat to–and a rightward influence on–the Republican Party. He draws key staffers and a significant following from the Coalition’s ranks, and he conceivably could take his faithful with him if the Republican Party fails to toe his ideological line.
Though Buchanan bills himself as a proud Roman Catholic, his fealty is to a church that now exists only in his mind. His is the church of the 1950s, before Vatican II blew through, leaving a swath of cultural icons in its wake–the nun’s habit, the Latin Mass, Friday-night fish. Buchanan’s church occupies a time when men were men, women covered their heads when they entered the house of God, and the blood of Christ remained on the hands of the Jews. He wouldn’t recognize the church of Thomas Merton, the Berrigan brothers, or, God forbid, Dorothy Day, if he sat on its steeple. But despite his staunch anti- abortion rhetoric and talk of moral decency, Buchanan doesn’t come across as a particularly pious man but, rather, as one whose cultural identity derives from the iron-fisted, anti-communist church of his childhood.
Early in June, Mother Jones caught up with Buchanan at yet another pig roast, an event billed as Family Day on the Merrimack grounds of a gun owner’s club that bears a benign name, the Nashua Fish and Game Society. Amid kids decked in camouflage and NRA caps and their swaggering parents, we asked the candidate to comment on the charge that the religious right was dividing the Republican Party. “Oh, I think–look, we had a great leader named Ronald Reagan, who united the Republican Party–all of those folks [who elected Reagan] were religious…. And I welcome them in my camp, and in the party.”
Did he have anything to say about the creationism controversy in Merrimack? “Not at this picnic, I don’t,” he said. But before boarding the van to his next stop, Buchanan turned around and added he’d be happy to comment on the Merrimack situation another time. When contacted later, Buchanan spokesperson K.B. Forbes explained that his boss is in favor of “local control” of the public schools. For more than a year now, “local control” in Merrimack has meant the Christian Coalition’s Shelly Uscinski and her allies.
The Christian right is a confounding phenomenon; every time it does itself in, it rises from its own ashes in an even more virulent strain. Neither the death of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, the scandals of television preachers Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker, nor the failure of Pat Robertson’s absurd 1988 presidential candidacy have managed to finish it off.
The history of evangelical Christianity in America predates even the founding of the republic, and its influence on our society cannot be exorcised without unraveling the very fabric of our culture. Born of the Great Awakening in the 1730s, Christian evangelism is a product of the American soil, an outgrowth of Massachusetts Puritanism, conceived in answer to the terrors of wilderness life in territories inhabited only by the “heathen” Indians.
After the Constitution and the secular state it created became the law of the land, America’s revivalist religion preached a doctrine advocating “separation from the world,” which all but forbade involvement in such a worldly pursuit as politics. But 200 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Jimmy Carter heralded a new age when he ran for president. His description of himself as “born again” in the ’76 campaign won him the votes of Southern evangelicals. And there the right saw its opening.
“I think the die was cast 15 years ago,” says women’s rights activist Faye Wattleton, former president of Planned Parenthood. “People were not paying any attention to the right-wing Republican effort to seize upon televangelism’s viewers, to really mobilize them.”
Indeed, it was the secular players of the New Right–Paul Weyrich, Richard Viguerie, and Howard Phillips–who turned the religious right into a political force in the ’70s and ’80s. The three had met in the mid-1960s as young men working inside the Beltway–Weyrich on the Hill in the offices of Colorado Sen. Gordon Allott, Viguerie in the Washington office of William F. Buckley’s Young Americans for Freedom, and Phillips in the headquarters of the Republican National Committee.
Over the next three decades, Weyrich earned credit for being the New Right’s principal architect–the issues man, the strategy guy. Viguerie became the resident expert at a new technique, direct-mail fundraising (which he borrowed from the left), creating the lists that formed the backbone of the New Right’s support. And Phillips aimed his energies at grassroots organizing.
It was Weyrich who, foreseeing the denouement of the communist Evil Empire, first embraced social issues as a cause to rally the troops. A conservative, Eastern-rite Catholic, he was already sensitive to the issue of abortion, which relatively few Protestants fretted over back in the ’70s.
Viguerie, meanwhile, had taken as his first big client Alabama’s segregationist governor and perennial third-party presidential candidate, George Wallace. Viguerie’s mass-produced missives (sent to a mailing list left over from Barry Goldwater’s failed campaign) yielded Wallace some $6.9 million, a substantial sum in 1976 for a long-shot candidate. But the real winner was Viguerie, who walked away at the campaign’s end with Wallace’s list of angry whites from which to launch his own efforts.
After a stint in the Nixon administration, Phillips began to build his base in 1974, founding the Conservative Caucus. Viguerie did the direct-mail work, while Phillips visited all 435 of the nation’s voting districts in search of grassroots support.
Then, in 1979, at the urging of Ed McAteer of the Religious Roundtable, Weyrich and Phillips engineered the Moral Majority, drafting Jerry Falwell to front the first organization that built a mass following for conservative religious politics.
Weyrich, meanwhile, managed to tap the Coors beer fortune to fund his newly founded Heritage Foundation, now one of Washington’s most influential think tanks. He and Viguerie also masterminded the Committee for the Survival of a Free Congress, which evolved into Weyrich’s present-day Free Congress Foundation (FCF), his base of operations. FCF does everything from training future leaders in Eastern Europe to running National Empowerment Television, the right-wing, tax-exempt network that broadcasts Newt Gingrich’s made-for-TV college course, “Renewing American Civilization,” as well as several Christian right shows. In 1992, the last year for which figures are available, the FCF, chaired by Jeffrey H. Coors, reported revenues of $5.19 million.
Weyrich also inspired the formation of the Christian Coalition in 1989, and many of the themes sounded in the Coalition’s “Contract With the American Family” can be found in one form or another in the secular publications of the Heritage and Free Congress foundations–from school vouchers to the elimination of the Department of Education and of the National Endowment for the Arts. Other conservative causes, such as withholding welfare benefits from unmarried women, also emanate from the brains of Weyrich and his associates.
With his phalanx of think tanks and PACs, Weyrich has maintained an image of public respectability, despite the extremism of some of his views. For instance, in a 1990 speech to Washington’s University Club, Weyrich advised Congress to declare an official war on drugs, so that drug users and dealers, once apprehended, could be denied their right of habeas corpus and held as prisoners of war, allowing for their indeterminate incarceration under the provisions of the Geneva Convention. He also advocated the recruitment of high school-aged students for the formation of a domestic “peace squad” under the direction of the military and empowered to conduct surveillance on civilians.
If you think that’s scary, consider the clues to Weyrich’s personal theology, which appears to be sympathetic to a form of medieval Catholicism exemplified by his support of the arch right-wing Catholic society, Tradition, Family, and Property (TFP). Founded in 1960 in opposition to Brazil’s land-reform efforts, TFP recruits adolescent boys and trains them in the use of the combat regalia of the Middle Ages–maces, crossbows, and the like. The organization’s Brazilian founder, Plinio Corea de Oliveira, once called the Spanish Inquisition “the most beautiful page in the history of the Church.” In 1986, wrote the late Catholic journalist Penny Lernoux, the American branch of the TFP feted Weyrich at its estate in Bedford, N.Y., “as a friend who has defended the TFP movement…and offered sound advice on the battle terrain.” Weyrich failed to respond to Mother Jones‘ request for comment.
Today Weyrich remains the right’s kingpin, the point of convergence between the secular and the religious right. An active strategist for the Christian Coalition, he appears with convicted felon Oliver North in a recruitment video, “America at a Crossroads,” and speaks to its assemblies, most recently at last September’s “Road to Victory” conference. The Christian Coalition embodies the refinement of classic Weyrich techniques, especially the pairing of high technology with a bogus populism directed from the top down. With its professionally produced downlink television show, its site on the World Wide Web, relentless direct-mail efforts, and grassroots organizing, the Christian Coalition epitomizes the thoroughly bankrolled reach of the New Right.
Because of the proximity of its Virginia headquarters to Washington, D.C., and the East Coast media markets, the Christian Coalition comprises the most visible component of the religious right. Forming the root of the Coalition’s power is the unlikely wedding of conservative Catholics with Protestant evangelicals, a Weyrich idea.
But deep in the cultural consciousness of American Catholics is the memory of prejudice and exclusion by the Protestant majority, while the doctrines of evangelicals characterize Catholicism, at best, as a heresy and, at worst, as the great whore of Babylon, the leading lady of the Book of Revelation. Just how long these two groups, with their history of mutual resentment, can hold together is a matter best left to the oracle.
Nonetheless, the Christian Coalition, which was created from the mailing lists of the Rev. Pat Robertson’s failed 1988 presidential bid, has essentially created its own party within the GOP by encouraging its members to run for the grunt jobs in the local, county, and state Republican committees. According to a 1994 survey conducted by Campaigns & Elections magazine, the Christian right dominates the GOP organizations of some 18 states, and holds considerable sway in another 13. No Republican presidential candidate can win the nomination without the support of the Coalition and its allies, or so goes the conventional wisdom. True or not, none of the GOP contenders seems willing to test the theory.
As revealed in the 1994 congressional elections, in which only 39 percent of registered voters managed to get to the polls, the Christian Coalition has learned to make the most of America’s dwindling voter turnout by mobilizing the nation’s fearful fringe with the promise of turning back the tide of modernity. When the Republicans won the Congress, Ralph Reed was quick to take the credit.
But the Christian Coalition is hardly what it claims to be–a grassroots organization with a massive membership. Early in 1995, the Coalition spent more than $1 million, by its own account, toward the passage of House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s “Contract With America.” Its investment apparently ensured Republican support for the Coalition’s own “Contract With the American Family,” which Reed later unveiled with Gingrich at his side.
(The Coalition waited out the new Congress’ first 100 days and then moved in to exact its pound of flesh. “We certainly did not want to do to the new Republican Congress what the gays and feminists did to [Bill Clinton]” in his first 100 days of office, Reed told CBS News, explaining the Coalition’s delay in pushing its legislative agenda.)
Many of the Coalition’s famously skewed voter guides for local, state, and national races are printed in Robertson’s Virginia headquarters and distributed in churches the weekend before an election. And, though the Christian Coalition claims to be a 501(c)(4) tax-exempt organization, Mother Jones found that the IRS has yet to accord it that status. Likewise, the organization’s claim of some 1.7 million supporters seems dubious, at best. In its 1995 official statement of circulation for its membership publication, Christian American, the Coalition counted the paper’s subscribers at 450,000.
“Sometimes the perception of power is equal to the reality of it,” Robertson told a National Journal reporter in 1979, “and if people perceive it’s there, maybe we can have some influence.”
In the halls of Congress and on the campaign trail, the Christian Coalition certainly suffers no lack of influence, whatever its real numbers. In Washington, money talks, and the Coalition’s $25 million annual budget is only a fraction of Pat Robertson’s $140 million-a-year empire. Key provisions of the Coalition’s “contract” are on their way to becoming law, including the defunding of federal welfare programs, education, arts, and humanities–while providing “family-friendly tax relief.”
Most ominously, the contract would recriminalize certain abortion procedures, part of what some have dubbed the right’s “erosion strategy” on a woman’s right to choose. The fate of the contract’s first pledge, the Religious Equality Amendment to the Constitution, is less certain; the amendment would expand the legal allowance for prayer and other religious expression in public settings.
More than just a blueprint for congressional action, the “Contract With the American Family” serves as a manifesto for the major Republican presidential candidates, all of whom have embraced some of its more significant provisions.
Last August, on the eve of his embarrassment in the straw poll sponsored by the Iowa Republican Party, Senate Majority Leader Dole met with Reed and others from the religious right and lurched further rightward, promising to do his best to incorporate their concerns into the welfare reform legislation being hammered out in Congress.
And in his noncampaign sweep through New Hampshire in early June, Gingrich paid his own tribute at a gathering of conservative Christians in Manchester, where he held an installment of his televised college course, “Renewing American Civilization.”
“If you had said to the Founding Fathers, all of you who want to belong to the Christian Coalition have to leave, I don’t think you could have gotten a quorum in Philadelphia,” Professor Gingrich said. He neglected to note that when, at the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin proposed the delegates pray together, his motion was tabled.
If you’re planning a revolution, it’s always a good idea to have God on your side, and when the right got religion, it found the perfect means to stave off criticism. No one wants to be accused of Christian-bashing, a charge that stands at the ready whenever the right’s agenda is held up to the light.
“There seems to be a nerve that’s touched in the hearts of more progressive people,” says Wattleton, “that maybe these people have a right to work for something they believe in. My view is–not quite. There are limits to what we ought to be willing to tolerate in the name of what people believe in.”
Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, Ph.D., of the Interfaith Alliance, a coalition of clergy formed to oppose the religious right, sees something sinister in the language of the right: the exploitation of a religious impulse felt by the economically strapped middle class to further an agenda that will only fill the coffers of the rich. “They are putting on the magic act of family values,” says Hertzberg, “while the pickpocket in league with them goes through the crowd and steals their wallets.”
As a movement made up of people drawn from a range of denominations, the religious right has co-opted the name of Christianity in the service of an overarching doctrine of power known as dominion theology.
“The Constitution of the United States,” Robertson told the audience of his television show, “The 700 Club,” “is a marvelous document for self- government by Christian people. But the minute you turn the document into the hands of non-Christians and atheistic people, they can use it to destroy the very foundation of our society.” Robertson’s assertion alludes to his dominionist belief that Christians, while awaiting Jesus’ Second Coming, have the duty to “rule and reign” in His absence in order to prepare the world for His return.
Robertson’s brand of dominion theology derives from an even more extreme doctrine that evolved in the 1970s, Christian reconstructionism. Despite its obvious contrivances, Christian reconstructionism, the brainchild of crackpot theologian Rousas John Rushdoony, has had a serious impact on the religious right. Hardcore Christian reconstructionists, such as Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry, call for no less than the reconstitution of the law of ancient Israel as the law of the land.
The emphasis here is not simply on the Ten Commandments, but rather the whole of the severe law of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible), which calls for death by stoning for adulterers, practicing homosexuals, and insubordinate children. The more humane Jewish law of later years is ignored. And it’s hard to find Jesus’ teachings in reconstructionist and dominionist thought, which seems to ignore the Savior’s lessons about turning the other cheek, rendering unto Caesar, and judging not your neighbor. What, one wonders, do they make of the incident in which Jesus defused a mob keen to stone an adulteress?
Even Howard Phillips, though born Jewish, seems to embrace some form of Christian reconstructionism. “I believe that God does judge a society, and that a society that shows so little regard for God’s creation in terms of human life and in other ways, is one from which He withdraws His hand of protection,” Phillips told Mother Jones.
“It either is, as the Framers said [that] we are endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights and God is the source of authority…”–or, as Phillips sees it, the godless doctrines of libertarianism or liberalism supplant the Founders’ vision by ceding authority to either the individual or the state.
There’s a classic bit of subterfuge in Phillips’ invocation of the Constitution’s Framers; that document contains no reference to God. The reference to a vaguely defined Creator as the source of human rights comes from the Declaration of Independence, whose principal author, Thomas Jefferson, rejected the divinity of Jesus, whom he believed to be the architect of a sublime system of ethics. Jefferson went so far as to craft his own version of the Bible, omitting the miracles ascribed to the Christian messiah.
Whatever its theological underpinnings, the Christian America envisioned by the New Right is enough to chill the soul. In a Christian America, there would likely be no jails, since the Bible calls for only two punishments for serious criminals: the making of restitution or execution. Women would be mandated to bear any seed implanted in the womb, by whatever means. (Activists like Phyllis Schlafly of the Eagle Forum object to exemptions in proscriptions against abortion even for the victims of rape and incest.) And, although Jesus urged His people to suffer the little children, in the right’s Christian America, adults would be free to inflict whatever suffering they deign on minors: The intrusive state would be stripped of its power to identify and protect at-risk kids.
Books deemed obscene by the Christian state would be banned, public squares would be dominated by the symbols of the ruling faith, and the borders of a Christian America would be closed to newcomers, regardless of the oppression they experience in their homelands. In short, the inhabitants of the right’s Christian nation would find mercy in short supply.
To the outsider, the Christian right appears as a monolith, united against what it perceives to be the twin plagues of permissiveness and pluralism.
But take a closer look and things are not nearly so simple; you’ll find instead a teeming mass of competing interests and delicate egos, shifting alliances and ideological spats. In recent months, evidence of a growing rift within the right has become increasingly apparent.
Leading the pragmatic faction are Weyrich and Viguerie, who support the Christian Coalition’s determination to back a Republican nominee who looks like a winner. Meanwhile, Howard Phillips, who still counts Viguerie and Weyrich among his close friends, hopes to ride the rage of the purists who are disgusted with Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour’s refusal to abandon the party’s purported “big tent” (i.e., all positions welcome) approach to the abortion issue.
Phillips and other dissidents see the Coalition’s willingness to back a candidate with a pro-choice past as a sellout. They don’t like Dole or Gramm, regardless of what these candidates are saying now. Phillips and his fellow conservatives feel burned by their support of George Bush in ’88 and ’92, and even Reagan in the ’80s–because when the 12 consecutive years of Republican White House occupancy were over, abortion remained legal, the Department of Education was still in business, and lesbians and gays had continued to gain acceptance.
“There are some people who would stick with the Republican
Party if they
nominated Judas,” says Phillips. “And they would still call him
they would still call themselves Christian. I don’t know what the
opposite of a
yellow-dog Democrat is, but there are a lot of those in the Christian
in the Republican Party.”
For his part, the tough-talking Phillips seems determined to
bust up the
two-party system on his own, if he has to. In 1992, Phillips founded
Taxpayers Party and ran for president, managing to get on the ballot
states–no small feat. He became notorious in Iowa when he ran
filled with footage of bloody discarded fetuses. The ads were so gory
local TV stations refused to air them except late at night, but they
shown in TV discussions of his tactics, thereby affording Phillips his
minutes of fame.
Some of Phillips’ party soldiers also engage in dangerous
to a report by investigative journalist John Goetz in a Planned
publication, Rev. Matthew Trewhella, Wisconsin chairman of the
told followers at a 1994 convention: “This Christmas I want you to do
loving thing…buy each of your children an SKS rifle and 500 rounds
ammunition….” Jeffrey Baker, a member of the party’s national
reportedly received a hearty round of applause when he told the
“abortionists should be put to death.”
(When asked by Mother Jones about his party’s links to
movement, Phillips replied, “It’s absolute nonsense. We are not
involved in the
killing business; Planned Parenthood is Murder Incorporated.”)
At the moment, Phillips is consumed, he says, with the work of
secure ballot lines for the Taxpayers Party in every state before the
national convention begins on Aug. 15 in San Diego–the day before
convention closes there. He’s hoping to pick up Pat Buchanan as his
in the likely event that the Republicans don’t nominate him. But,
he’d probably settle for Rep. Bob Dornan (R-Calif.) or another anti-
Phillips thinks Buchanan’s chances of winning the GOP
nomination are slim. “I
love Pat and I wish him well,” Phillips explains, “but…I think the
reality, more than ever, militates in favor of an independent
he see that? No, he doesn’t see that today. Will he see it later? Well,
got 50 ballot lines, and if there are significant voices–people who
there now–saying this is something we ought to be doing, it could be
In February, Phillips announced a strategy whereby Buchanan
could launch a
third-party bid with nearly unlimited funding, if he’d only reject
matching funds and choose either a billionaire running mate from
the ranks of
the right’s sugar daddies (a Buchanan/Coors ticket?), or, in a far-
scheme, name a different running mate on each state ballot, as long
running mates were all wealthy. (Federal statutes allow candidates to
unlimited amounts of their personal wealth for campaigns, but these
then can’t accept federal matching funds.)
Buchanan spokesperson K.B. Forbes says the “Buchanan for
does intend to apply for federal matching funds. But Buchanan may
He has formed a national advisory committee of wealthy
contributors to New Right causes, including W. Grover Coors, Thomas
Domino’s Pizza, and Roger Milliken, the textiles magnate and longtime
the John Birch Society.
The Buchanan campaign’s national co-chairs are the Rev.
Donald Wildmon of the
American Family Association, who spearheaded protests against the
Endowment for the Arts as well as Martin Scorsese’s film, The Last
Temptation of Christ, and Michael Farris, the former general
Beverly LaHaye’s Concerned Women for America who evinces
nostalgia for Puritan
Pat Buchanan and Howard Phillips aren’t the only heavy hitters
Christian right who could split with the Republican Party. Another is
Dobson, the only leader on the religious right who rivals the Christian
Coalition’s Robertson. Dobson’s Focus on the Family empire was built
success of his 1970 child-rearing book, Dare to Discipline.
multimedia enterprise, based in Colorado Springs, includes a
show claiming 5 million weekly listeners, magazines, a burgeoning
business, a staff of some 1,300, and an annual budget of $100
In March, Dobson fired a warning shot at the GOP. In an eight-
page letter to 2
million supporters, Dobson stated his intention to abandon the
for a third-party candidate if the GOP removes the anti-abortion
plank from its
platform, or nominates a candidate who is not sufficiently “pro-life.”
“There can be no compromise on an issue with such profound
implications,” Dobson wrote. “It is an affront to God Himself.”
Dobson’s growing power was much in evidence at the May
meeting of the Council
for National Policy (CNP), a thrice-yearly ecumenical gathering of the
movers and shakers in McLean, Va. A clandestine organization of
members, the CNP has provided right-wing activists and funders a
networking forum for the past 14 years. The lack of public scrutiny
members to get down to business and duke out strategy, says Skipp
vice president of the Institute for First Amendment Studies, a
that tracks the Christian right.
At the May meeting, according to documents and banquet hall
obtained by Porteous, Dobson was honored with a seat at one of the
important tables while the leadership of the Christian Coalition was
absent. With Dobson’s threat to the GOP ringing like music in his ears,
Phillips buttonholed Dobson, pitching his Taxpayers Party as the
for an ideologically correct contender. Dobson asked Phillips to put
in writing. In a June 2 confidential memo, which was obtained by
Phillips states all the things a pro-life president could do “to end
abortion in America,” such as declaring Roe vs. Wade unconstitutional
violation of states’ rights.
“Like Asa in the Bible, he can teach the nation about the laws of
God and the
obligations of man,” Phillips wrote. His choice of Asa, a minor biblical
is telling. Asa’s claim to fame was his promise to put to death all who
worshipped gods other than Yahweh, “whether of high or low degree,
Phillips went on to urge Dobson to help him secure the ballot
lines he needs.
“More than anyone else in America today,” he added, “you have the
power to make
that happen.” Dobson’s response to the memo is unknown, but
that “significant people–people whose names are household words”
Whatever the outcome in 1996, Howard Phillips sees the
election in the year
2000–the millennium–as the day of reckoning. He predicts a
depression” due to the strains of the national debt on the economy,
“terminally undermine confidence in whoever controls the
presidency when it
What the Christian right realizes and is poised to take
advantage of, Phillips
implies, is that social movements are built on economic distress. “The
the Weimar Republic, the opportunity for the National Socialists to
come up in
the ’20s, was the result of the fact that the people were hurt
Phillips told Mother Jones. “…In the United States, we got under
because of economic concerns…. The French Revolution was, to some
fueled by economic concerns. So, I think what will trigger [a right-
Christian revolution] is the economic problems.”
The real issue is not so much whether the religious right wins
national election or the next, nor whether it launches a third-party
controls the GOP nomination process, or both. The real problem for an
economically troubled America is the tremendous political power the
right already wields. As Faye Wattleton notes, “What frightens me
the Christian right] is that most people are not frightened by it.”
On a balmy August night, the Merrimack High School
auditorium is packed with
some 400 people, the biggest turnout for a school board meeting
since the board
debated creationism earlier in the year.
Tonight’s hot button issue is homosexuality; Ken Coleman and
Brenda Grady, the
board’s progressive minority, are battle-ready to take on the
majority’s new anti-gay measure, crafted, they believe, to broadcast
one of the
Christian right’s favorite themes in the advent months of the
primary. The proposed measure, modeled after a national
amendment pushed by
Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and Sen. Bob Smith (R-N.H.), would prevent
schools–including counselors–from offering any instruction or
would have “the purpose or effect” of affirming homosexuality as an
way of life.
Outside in the parking lot, while the anti-gay measure is being
somber crowd assembles around a pickup truck set up like a stage.
board member Chuck Mower stands in the pickup, surveying the
dozens of candles
held by the crowd. Mower, a stocky, bearded man of 46, allowed
progressive candidate to replace him on the school board earlier this
after he became exhausted by the creationism battle.
Ever since the Christian right chose Merrimack for its test
market, the lives
of those committed to an ethic of civic responsibility have been
changed. The effort to turn back the right demands a near full-time
depleting incomes and straining family ties.
Tonight Mower is about to declare his candidacy for next
spring’s school board
elections, something he’s still not sure he wants to do. Really, he tells
reporter, he’d rather get back to his business of making Windsor
he crafts in the barn of the house where he grew up, a 200-year-old
where he now raises his own family.
But the times won’t wait, so, after telling a story about how his
as a member of the multi-ethnic troops that braved the jungles of
steeled him against the forces of intolerance, he throws his hat into
three-ring circus of Merrimack’s national politics.