Under The Revival Tent
New YorkIf there is any one person responsible for George W. Bush's presidency it is Billy Graham. It is safe to say that Graham, old and sick now, is the most politically adroit religious figure of our time. His vision and shrewd politicking successfully bound together the odd strains of religious evangelism into a movement that conservatively involves some 100 million people in the U.S. Perhaps one-third of the 2 billion Christians in the world think of themselves as evangelical. While the Catholic Church drifts in scandal, with a new pope who peers backward into the Middle Ages, evangelical Protestantism has breathed new life into Christianity around the world.
It was in the summer of 1985 that Barbara Bush invited Graham, an old family friend, to the Bush summer home at Kennebunkport. There he and the young Bush took their famous walk along the Maine beach. Afterward Bush quit drinking, recommitted himself to Laura and his family, and opened a new chapter in his life.
Bush's newfound religiosity came during a Christian revival. Like Bush, many other Protestants became evangelicals, using the Bible to help them cope and, beyond that, reading the scriptures to understand unfolding events. While many evangelicals eschew formal politics, Bible study in one way or another led them into politics. All this coincided with the rise of the ideological Republican right. These two developments opened a vast new political arena for both religious leaders and politicians. As a result, politicians play the evangelical card every day: from Bush's campaign attacks on gay marriage to the Supreme Court deliberations on the display of the Ten Commandments to an attempt by Frist, DeLay, and the Bush brothers to use the Terri Schiavo tragedy to gain political advantage.
Jimmy Carter is an evangelical Christian and Bill Clinton is an evangelical Baptist by upbringing. But neither ever sought to use religion to manipulate people to gain political power in the calculated ways employed by the Bush administration and the Christian right members of Congress.
Alongside the Christian right politicians there are the religious leaders who function as political organizers. These people are often obscure to the mainstream, but they are a gathering force in right-wing politics. They include such old standbys as Pat Robertson, the ailing Jerry Falwell, and Alabama's feisty Ten Commandments judge, Roy Moore. Among the leading lights:
R. ALBERT MOHLER JR.: President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and guru of reactionary fundamentalists, so well-known for their vicious attacks on women's rights and gays, Mohler is focused on public education, a subject that inflames the political and religious right across the boards. The Republican right long has sought to shut down the federal Department of Education and turn over public education ostensibly to local governments but, more importantly, to churches. Such a course would mean a financial windfall for religious groups.
Mohler, referred to in the press as the "reigning intellectual of the evangelical movement in the U.S.," wants Southern Baptists to lead the exodus. "I believe that now is the time for responsible Southern Baptists to develop an exit strategy from the public schools," he has written.
If Mohler succeeds, critics like Baptist critic Bruce Prescott foresee "a system of religious and home schools paid for out of public monies that will indoctrinate children in theocratic ways." To which Christopher J. Ortiz, editor of Faith for All of Life, retorts: "We [now] have a system of humanistic schools paid for at public expense that dutifully indoctrinates children in secularist ways."
RALPH REED: Founder and former executive director of Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition, a top strategist for George W. Bush in both campaigns, and Atlanta-based PR mogul, he's set to run for lieutenant governor in Georgia. If successful, as Fred Clarkson, an author who keeps tabs on the Christian right, points out, Reed will be in a position to build a statewide political base that can provide a launching pad for bigger office. Marshall Wittman, a former colleague at the Christian Coalition who now works at the Democratic Leadership Council, thinks Reed may be eyeing the presidency. "He knew he couldn't go from the Christian Coalition," Wittman told the AP, "so he became a political consultant, then Georgia GOP chairman, then coordinator for the Bush campaign. The next logical step is to win a political office. This is what's available, but it's clearly a stepping stone to higher office."
TONY PERKINS: President of the Family Research Council, an all-purpose propaganda machine for the religious right, Perkins put on the recent Justice Sunday, where right-wing pols and religious bigs bashed Democrats. He wants to correct such "myths" as "people are born gay" and "homosexuals are no more likely to molest children than heterosexuals are." Perkins became controversial when he was accused of having done business with former Ku Klux Klan wizard David Duke a decade ago when he was working as campaign manager for conservative Woody Jenkins. At the time Jenkins was running for a U.S. Senate seat in Louisiana against Democrat Mary Landrieu. At Jenkins's behest, Perkins bought David Duke's phone bank list through a third party. When word got out that Jenkins was playing to the Duke camp, Jenkins tried to cancel the purchase, but Perkins had already signed the check and it was a done deal. Perkins denies any skulduggery, saying he was not aware of what was going on. However, a Federal Election Commission campaign-conciliation agreement in 1999, signed by Jenkins, relates the transactions in detail.
TED HAGGARD: Pastor of Colorado Springs's large New Life Church and head of the National Association of Evangelicals, with a membership of 45,000 churches, Haggard talks to the president or his advisers regularly. His is the most powerful religious lobby in the U.S. Pastor Ted believes in the military as a public service and backs preemptive war. "My fear," he tells Harper's, "is that my children will grow up in an Islamic state."
JAMES DOBSON: Founder and chair of Focus on the Family, also based in Colorado Springs, Dobson is at the cutting edge of conservative politics, attacking the Senate deal over judges as a "betrayal" by Bill Frist. Lately, Dobson has been best known for his attacks on SpongeBob SquarePants. Dobson says he was unfairly smeared for saying that SpongeBob has homosexual characteristics. What he really meant to say, he insists, is that SpongeBob is a sort of Trojan horse for gays, that the We Are Family Foundation was sneaking a message to schoolkids by having SpongeBob, Big Bird, Barney, and others singing "We Are Family." The message's words of "tolerance and diversity," according to Dobson, sound innocuous but in fact have been co-opted by gays to spread homosexuality among children.
Since Ronald Reagan first took office, the long-standing obsession of the Republican right has been to break up the traditional Democratic base, including the black vote. And as returns in battleground states showed last fall, Republican views on such issues as gay marriage and school vouchers did swing votes, in part because of issues such as gay marriage, but also because of quantities of cash from Bush's faith-based slush funds. The Los Angeles Times estimates that, in 2003, Bush awarded more than $1 billion to hundreds of faith-based groups that had not received federal funds before.
To be sure, the evangelicals' political reach stretches far beyond the black vote. Charles Strozier, author of Apocalypse: On the Psychology of Fundamentalism in America, a detailed 1994 study of evangelical thinking, notes that evangelicals in America have "gone mainstream" and "upscale." Not all evangelicals are conservative. Strozier estimates that perhaps 20 percent of the 100 million total are progressives.
Ralph Reed's candidacy is one of several efforts being made by the evangelical right to build wider political bases in key states. In the battleground state of Ohio, there is a move to mobilize 2,000 evangelical, Baptist, Pentecostal, and Roman Catholic leaders in a network of "Patriot Pastors" to help elect the conservative secretary of state J. Kenneth Blackwell governor next year. The scheme will reach its crescendo next spring, when Christian right leaders such as Robertson and Dobson arrive for a huge "Ohio for Jesus" rally.
Additional reporting: Natalie Wittlin and Halley Bondy
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.