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The Rise of the Religious Right in the Republican Party

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Published in The Nation, reprinted from the Voice, April 6, 1993

How the Christian Right Is Building From Below To Take Over From Above

By Greg Goldin

VISTA, CALIFORNIA - It was what has become a typical Thursday night school board meeting in this town of 76,000, in the rolling hillsides below Camp Pendleton, two hours south of Los Angeles. Preachers squaring off against scientists, disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ hurling passages of Ben Franklin at parents responding with Thomas Jefferson. One man, a tall, sturdy evangelist, touched his Bible and began, "Praise the Lord for this liberty to speak." He enunciated slowly, menacingly, like Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter. "Hitler was an evolutionist."

One hundred and fifty people spread among the lush seats at the Buena Vista High School Performing Arts Center hooted, booed, or cheered -- drawn out this windswept, stormy February night by the prospect that the newly constituted Christian fundamentalist majority on the Vista United School District Board of Trustees would take some action concerning prayer that might lead straight to the U.S. Supreme Court.

One month earlier, a crowd of 500 filled another auditorium, and 200 more camped in the doorways and peered through the windows, to hear the same board debate teaching creationism in science classes. The topic ignited a meeting that typically attracts a dozen onlookers from the quiet bedroom community, nestled in the usually calm confines of North San Diego County. This time, after two hours of rancorous rhetoric -- more quotes from scripture, further readings from the Constitutional Convention -- the school board trustees decided to say a prayer before every meeting.

An invocation to God at school board meeting in Vista, California, might not seem momentous -- though it might spark a latter-day Scopes Monkey trial. Like the Colorado battle over gay rights, the election of three fundamentalists to this small-town board is part of a strategy to convert America to Christendom.

Instead of high profile homophobia or abortion clinic blockades, however, the religious right has embarked on a new crusade -- triumphant in Vista and in hundreds of other districts throughout the nation last November -- that transforms church going zeal into nitty gritty, grassroots, trickle up electoral power. The same day Bill Clinton won the White House, the Christian right captured seats on school boards, hospital boards, county party committees, from Alaska to Minnesota, Washington to Texas. While national attention focused on George Bush's resounding defeat, few noticed that the fanatics who'd brought him to his knees at the Republican Convention in Houston were jubilant.

As many observers in the press rushed to note, Clinton did not receive a sweeping mandate on November 4. What they failed to see was the nascent counter revolution that garnered millions of votes from America's disaffected middle class. The same Reaganites who cast their lot with Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot because they were worried -- resentful, even -- about losing their toe hold on prosperity were wooed by Christian activists and zealots.

These electoral victories were not the product of the willy nilly book burner or the odd pulpiteer exhorting the like minded to flock to the polls to defeat an occasional incumbent. Behind successes in local races in Iowa, Virginia, Oregon, Colorado, California, and New York -- among others -- is a national network supplying money and know how, pulling candidates from the pews and putting them into public office. (Similar efforts are underway for New York City's school board elections May 4.)

This insurgency is the natural culmination of a process that began in 1980. Ronald Reagan entered Washington braced by a coalition of monied Rockefeller Republicans, disgruntled working-class Democrats, and hardcore Christians. The new president promptly offered the later, in particular, direct access to Washington, giving them legitimacy; and a national platform. The Christian right, in turn, provided him with a club - in the form of Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority and Terry Dolan's National Conservative Political Action Committee - to wield against Democrats unwilling to capitulate to the "bipartisan" mood.

But the Reagan alliance began to crumble with the end of the Cold War. Anticommunism, the glue that held together otherwise contentious partnerships, died a belated death. By the time Bush was elected in 1988, the Christian right was hopelessly at odds with the White House. They despised Bush, the ultimate Republican elitist and pragmatist, waffling on abortion and tax increases. So they set out to retool the Republican Party. At the Houston convention, the Christian right exerted its considerable leverage, creating the spectacle of George Bush pandering to Pat Robertson and the Armageddon choir. It was hell for Bush, but a godsend for his foes.

By the time the GOP convention, with Bush fading, America's Christian right had already cooked up their strategy. If they couldn't shape policy from the top, they'd take over the bottom. "We tried to change Washington," says Christian Coalition executive director Ralph Reed, contemplating the end of their Washington clout in 1988. "We should have been focusing on the states. The real battles of concern to Christians are in neighborhoods, school boards, city councils, and state legislatures."

"We have allowed ourselves to be ghettoized by a narrow band of issues like abortion, homosexual rights, and prayer in school," Reed wrote in the Christian American Journal in January. "Abortion is a terribly important issue, yet exit polls in 1992 showed that only 12 percent of all voters mentioned it in their voting decision. Any strategy by the Christian right must include a way to meet the needs of the other 88 per cent of the voters." The Christian Coalition, Reed concluded, must address "public policy. Schools do not work; we must fix them. Some communities are suffering from drought; we must provide water. People cannot read; we must teach them. Our streets are unsafe; we must secure them. Families need financial relief, we must reduce taxation to provide it."

Drawing on such populism, the Christian right has reinvented itself, although it is still led by the familiar faces who gravitated to the pinnacle of power in the Reagan administration: There is Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition, with 13 million to annually dole out to hand-picked candidates and causes, all of it wired into his Christian Broadcasting Network audience of 16 million. There is Paul Weyrich's Free Congress Foundation, beaming marching orders along its closed circuit National Empowerment Television to 65 far flung satellite dish affiliates in more than 30 states. There is Robert Simonds's Citizens for Excellence in Education, which claims that its 1210 chapters have helped elect nearly 3500 school board members. Along with a dozen other organizations, the Christian right has set out to complete what '60s radicals dubbed "the march through the institutions."

The formula they've concocted has been called the "15 per cent solution" by the Christian Coalition. Even in a well attended presidential election, only 15 per cent of eligible voters determine the outcome. Here's the simple math: about 60 per cent of the qualified electorate is registered, and only half of them vote. Half again of that 30 per cent determines the outcome, hence the all powerful 15 percent.

"We don't have to worry about convincing a majority of Americans to agree with us," Guy Rodgers, the Christian Coalition's national field director declared at the 1991 Road to Victory conference. Most of them are staying home and watching Falcon Crest."

In 1992, according to People for the American Way, the liberal constitutional watchdog, extremist Christian candidates racked up a 40 per cent win record in state and local races. And, to the horror of Republicans across the nation, they're dominating a number of state wide Republican Party committees. "What the Christian right spends a lot of time doing," says Marc Wolin, a moderate Republican who ran unsuccessfully for Congress from San Francisco last year, "is going after obscure party posts. They try to control the party apparatus in each county. We have a lot to fear from these people. They want to set up a theocracy in America."

"They have acquired a very detailed and accurate understanding of how political parties are organized," says Craig Berkman, former chairman of the Republican Party in Oregon:

Parties are very susceptible to being taken over by ideologues because lower party offices have no appeal to the vast majority of our citizenry. Many precincts are represented by no one. If you decide all of a sudden because it's your Christian duty to become a precinct representative, you only need a few votes to get elected. Increasingly, they have the key say so on who will be a delegate at the national convention, and who will write the party platform and nominate the presidential candidate. In a state like Oregon, with 600,000 registered Republicans, it is possible for 2000 or 3000 people to control the state party apparatus. If they are outvoted by one or two votes, parliamentary manipulations begin, and after two or three hours of discussion about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, the more reasonable people with other things to do leave, and in the wee hours of the morning, things are decided. That's how they achieve their objectives.

It is in towns like Vista, California, with its mixture of lower class Latinos and middle class whites, that the Christian insurgency Berkman describes has gathered strength. It is there that the local concerns dovetail with Pat Robertson's national strategy, and the counter revolution to the Clinton administration is taking shape. To the drumbeat of Rush Limbaugh, Christian militants are shaping the fears of white flight suburbanites into an electoral juggernaut. Indeed, Vista shows how far from the limelight of Washington the Christian right is willing to toil, precinct by precinct, polling booth by polling booth, to win power.

At the February 18 school board meeting, the vote in favor of prayer was never in doubt. Deidre Holliday, Joyce Lee, and John Tyndall -- the triumvirate that controls the board -- are all self-avowed Christian fundamentalists. Holliday, a 42 year old mother of four, was the first to join the board, in 1990, when 60 "Pro-family candidates in San Diego won races for a variety of local offices, including city council, hospital, and fire and irrigation districts."

Holliday had thought about running for office after being a sidewalk counselor with Operation Rescue. She began prayer for a sign from God to help her decide if she should run for school board. "I told the Lord that if he wanted me to run, he should change the night of the school board meeting from Wednesday," Holliday said. Later, when the meetings were moved to Thursday, "I took it as an answer from God."

Holliday ran her campaign in local churches, delivering sermons about the power of the voting booth. Meanwhile, she refused to debate other school board candidates claiming that the media would tag her as a Pentecostal kook. The lay low, don't-let-your-opponents-or­the-press-at-you campaign was later championed by the Christian Coalition's Ralph Reed. "It's like guerrilla warfare," Reed told The Los Angeles Times:

"If you reveal your location, all it does is allow your opponent to improve his artillery bearings. It's better to move quietly, with stealth, under cover of night .... It comes down to whether you want to be the British army in the Revolutionary War or the Viet Cong. History tells us which tactic was more effective."

The strategy worked: In the November 1990 election, Holliday won by 81 votes. The credit, she later told The Wall Street Journal, belongs to Robert Simonds' Citizens for Excellence in Education, adding, "It would be wonderful to see scripture read in schools so that children learn the truth."

Her hopes were raised last year when John Tyndall and Joyce Lee joined Holliday on the Vista school board. Unlike Holliday's covert tactics, Tyndall and Lee went directly, openly to the voters. Perhaps their fundamentalist underpinnings were not an issue given the popularity of their claims, among other things, that undocumented immigrants were draining the school district of its resources. Lee urged restrictions on immigration, and said that the number of "illegals" in the school system should be counted so Congress could take money from the foreign aid package to Mexico and deliver it to fiscally strained Vista.

Lee set the tone when she attended a gathering at a Vista manicurist's shop, joining the chorus of voices saying it was time to "take this country back" from undocumented immigrants. Lee, fanning resentment over Vista's bilingual education program, suggested that parents pull their children from the district to show that "you will not dictate that my children will learn Spanish."

Tyndall, meanwhile, ran a slightly more highbrow campaign, projecting himself as a "financial manager, teacher/ principal, and parent" who would "insure focused, quality education." A political unknown, Tyndall had drawn attention to himself at a Vista back to school night when he asked "Why do you teach honors classes and physical education to 14-year-old girls who should be learning to take care of babies?" The 45-year-old San Diego native is an accountant at the Institute for Creation Research, an organization in nearby Santee that promotes the Book of Genesis as scientific fact. (Earth, for instance, is exactly 6000 years old, and dinosaurs and mankind lived side by side.)

During the campaign, Tyndall admitted he would not oppose "creationism in the classroom. I don't think theology should be debated in a science classroom," he told a public forum two weeks before the election. "But the advantage of having another theory -- abrupt appearance -- is to enhance students' critical thinking skills." Like Lee, Tyndall was endorsed by the Christian Coalition and the California Pro Life Council.

The xenophobic campaign was enough to get Lee and Tyndall elected by a narrow margin (a third fundamentalist candidate, Robert Heckler, came in last). With her new allies on the board, Deidre Holliday would now be in a position to demand that parents positively affirm that they want their children in sex education, rather than leaving it to them to opt out.

The first issue to explode before the new trustees was creationism -- something they had not put on the agenda. In December, John Ljubenkov, a marine biologist, challenged the board to publicly take a stance on teaching creationism in the schools. That led to the raucous January 21 meeting -- but the issue was moot because the fundamentalist majority could not overcome a 1987 Supreme Court ban on such a curriculum. Holliday then asked her superintendent, Rene Townsend, to consult the district lawyers on prayer before school board meetings, resulting in February's fracas.

"We have all these people that say it would be neat to have just a little prayer to ask for God's guidance through the next meeting," Joyce Lee said, in an inter­view after the meeting. "He leads us and guides. He gives us wisdom." Educating children, Lee feels, comes down to two

opposite views. Humanism is embodied in a group of people that believe the human being is ultimately all powerful and will solve his own problems. The religious view is that man was born in sin and is doomed unless they accept Jesus Christ. I kind of believe the Buck Rogers stories, where eventually mankind blows himself up. I think that if the world kept evolving, we'd probably have something like that. So what they are saying, even in cartoons they know, ultimately, man will be his own destruction. But yet humanism says we will conquer all as man. I just believe the Bible. To me it is easier to believe that I can tap into somebody else because I am not perfect.

Such a message travels easily through a place like Vista. Built upon undulating hills, seven miles inland from the Pacific Ocean, the formerly citrus - and avocado - growing town has been transformed in the last several years into a model American edge city. The Shadowridge housing development, where many of the white flighters live, sprawls atop the southern rim of the city, scarred by row after row of two story replicant Spanish homes, so unvaried in size, shape, and color that even Steven Spielberg might find the location bland. Street signs are markers for fauna and flora -- Quail and Chaparral -- that have been paved over. At intervals of no more than five minutes driving time, malls punctuate the ceaseless monotony.

Farther down the road, entire hillsides are scored with paved streets leading to empty pads, awaiting the next set of stuccoed and tiled domiciles. Vista, as John Tyndall noted, "was recently rated one of the best communities to bring your children up in."

It is in just such a place that America's white, middle class, educated voters have created a refuge, built along an interurban corridor, an hour or so away from the fading cities to the north and south. The frightened, confused, and angry accountants, real estate brokers, and investment bankers who've settled in Vista escaped Los Angels in the 1970s, only to abandon the all white subdivisions of Irvine, in Orange County, in the 1980s.

Even the Orange Line -- once the great divide between the urban anarchy of L.A. and the quotidian life of Orange County -- no longer offered enough protection. The migration away from the social strife -- and the abandonment of the social contract -- has ended in the selfish demimonde of San Diego County, adjacent to the Mexican border.

Taking advantage of laissez faire Reaganism, when environmental concerns, zoning laws, and tax tables were altered to promote real estate speculation, Vista grew like topsy. Its population doubled in less than 10 years. The town went from a community of marines (from nearby Camp Pendleton), mobile home dwellers, and retirees, to a community of younger, middle class, pull - up - the - drawbridge families. The relative tranquility of Vista was "nirvana," as one longtime resident put it, attracting parents fretting over the collapse of the cities, and worried that deindustrialization might drag them down, too. "The first thing anybody asks you in Vista," says one resident of four years, "is, when did you move here?"

From these ranks come another species of voters. They are not the old, rock-ribbed Republicans. Nor are they the rural or Southern yahoos. These are the new Republicans: the deeper they move into housing-track isolation, the deeper they reside within the self-enclosed weltanschauung of suburban flight, the more they fear the outside world. Just as Orange Count was once the hallmark of Goldwater Republicanism, and now has Latino and Vietnamese communities, Vista itself has been plagued by gangs and racial discord. There were even two shootings recently at a local high school. Something as prosaic as Interstate 5, the road linking Vista to Los Angeles and San Diego, offers a constant reminder that America is besieged, in decline. There, on the roadway 10 miles north of Vista, huge signs warn drivers to be aware of desperate families of Mexicans dashing across the highway hoping to escape the Border Patrol.

Sandwiched between Mexico and Los Angeles, it's now a wonder people in Vista are looking skyward for salvation. "You know," said Lance Vollmer, a Republican who was defeated in the school board race:

Vista has become a home to storefront churches. All the economic unpleasantness of the past few years leads people to seek a little comfort. It's those people on Shadowridge, who are busting their humps to pay off their mortgages. And then they go to church - and it isn't the kind of church we went to. The church becomes their community. The block is not their community. The neighborhood is not their community. The church is. That is the kind of zeal that leads to fascist resolve.

Inside those churches are cradle to grave social services, from hiking in the Sierras to Christian family counseling, and preachers dispensing Reconstructionist cant about the biblically mandated duty to build a civil society based upon the Word of God, without which there will be no Second Coming of Christ.

"The fundamental battle going on," Oregon's Craig Berkman said:

is that people are seeking to use government as the last, highest, moral authority to rationalize their life view. I don't have a problem with an individual using persuasion to talk to me about their world view. The First Amendment encourages that. But for them to say the government is going to be their mouthpiece because they got elected is like Constantine waking up one morning and saying that the Roman Empire is going to be Christian.

Can the electoral victory in Vista be duplicated, or will the Christian right collapse as it strives to achieve higher office? "The bad news is," argued Allan Hoffenblum, a GOP consultant in Los Angeles, "they've made enormous strides. They are a major force and have made a concerted effort to dominate the party in California. The good news is, they only represent 11 per cent of the vote."

Eileen Padberg, a veteran prochoice Orange County Republican, added, "They are like cockroaches. When you shine alight on them, they scurry back into the woodwork."

But when the Christian right candidates disguise themselves as middle class populists, they rack up victories. At the California Republican Party central committee last month, the religious right flexed its muscle. It forced Republican governor Pete Wilson to retain an anti abortion plank in the party platform, even though the bitter issue contributed to the worst drubbing California Republicans have suffered in 20 years. And, through their control of the Orange County Republican Party machinery, in a March 2 special election, they were able to propel into the State Senate Rob Hurtt, a financier of the Christian right in California, and one of the most right wing candidates ever to take office in Sacramento. This, despite the fact that Orange County voted for Clinton in November.

Which could be the good news for the Democrats in 1996, at least nationally. When asked recently on the David Brinkley show whom he thought Clinton would run against in 1996, Democrat mastermind James Carville, reflecting on the Republican debacle in Houston, laughed and said, "Pat Robertson."

This story was prepared in part with a grant from the Fund for Constitutional Government.



"Only 15 per cent of registered voters vote in City Council races, and elections are usually decided by only 3 percent," the Coalition's area director, Reverend Terry Twerell, told us. He said the Christian Coalition will distribute 500,000 voter guides to conservative local churches in time for the school board race. They also plan to use voter ID, a method in which voters answer a phone or written survey about their views and are later reminded to vote only if their views echo the Christian Coalition's: a voter-ID form distributed at the meeting asks people to check whether they would favor a law in New York that "grants minority status to homosexuals."

One look at the mostly female crowd conformed my impression that Gotham's conservative christians dress far less con­servatively than their counterparts in Vir­ginia, Colorado, and Texas. Many of the young women wore jeans or tight stretch pants, with glittery costume-jewel-be­decked T-shirts. One babe in a Rush Limbaugh tee even affected a quasi-grunge look with a flannel shirt tied in back. The guys, in sweatshirts, jeans, and 'staches, could have passed for undercover cops or '70s gay male clones.

As if custom-tailoring his message for New York's more diverse electorate, ­Twerell showed us an artfully "moderate" video interview in which Coalition executive director Ralph Reed says the Coalition believes in "pluralism and tolerance."

Reed even claims that Pat Robertson supports equal rights for women (though he doesn't explain why Robertson campaigned last year against Iowa's ERA, with that famous letter reminding voters that feminists kill their children and become lesbians).

Nuts-and-bolts organizing tips came next. "We have wonderful IRS lawyers who can explain to your pastor what he can and cannot say and still keep tax-deductible status," Twerell enthused. "He can't say, `Our Susie is running for school aboard and you should vote for her,' but he can say, `Our Susie's running for school board, let's all pray for her!"'

The most unwittingly humorous moment of the meeting came when Twerell told the half-white, half-Latino audience that "We need to be bilingual. We'll have voter guides in Spanish as well as english." In Vista, Cali­fornia, the Christian Coalition ran a slate of school board candidates who campaigned (and won) on an anti Latino, anti bilingual education platform.


Last updated: Oct. 3 , 2005