In many communities across the country, parents and others who care about the quality of their schools have mounted strong opposition to local groups promoting the Religious Right line, simply because they were appalled by a number of strategies used by these groups. Most offensive have been the groups' intimidating, aggressive, and bitterly polarizing tactics, their attempts to mislead the public about the school program they are attacking, and their systematic efforts to deceive the public about their outside affiliations.
Most people strongly support each person's right to express his or her views, and to organize like-minded people. But many mainstream citizens have had strong negative reactions to Religious Right tactics because they insert ingredients into local politics that most of us aren't used to. These ingredients include: using rhetoric and misrepresenting school programs or groups of people that play on people's fears for their children; calling opponents, public officials, and educators nasty names; polarizing and inhibiting thoughtful dialogue; and hiding their outside affiliations from the public.
The problem is not that these individuals HAVE outside affiliations; but rather that they hide them, even when running for public office. The problem is not that they have a particular point of view, but rather that they try to win with tactics aimed at arousing fear and intimidating their opponents.
These tactics pose a problem that is not limited to people who disagree with them. People who share their views on an issue, but are not aggressive extremists, often find that Religious Right activists have created a highly charged and polarized environment that makes it difficult for others to hear what they think is best for their children. This is a very sad and unproductive situation that makes it all the more important to reclaim the arena of public debate for thoughtful people of varying views who want to participate in reasoned and mutually respectable dialogue based on truth.
A central tactic of the Religious Right is "stealth" — running candidates without identifying their affiliations with organizations outside local communities — sometimes not even engaging in standard campaign and voter information activities — to conceal their true platform and positions from voters.
According to Christian Coalition executive director Ralph Reed, it is "...just good strategy. It's like guerilla warfare.... 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." At a Religious Right conference in Denver last year, participants were instructed in tactics that include:
To get their candidates elected in a "stealth" campaign, Religious Right groups count on the apathy or disinterest of mainstream voters. If voter turnout is low, and they can work behind the scenes without being visible for most voters, they can win by getting enough votes through their own networks. The best way to counteract this is to work on getting out a large, mainstream vote, providing information on candidates, or slates of candidates, to voters. It is also important to get the press to report on which candidates do and don't participate fully in voter information activities.
In some elections, only a small number of Religious Right candidates will be running in a field of mainstream candidates. The mainstream candidates may vary in their experience and views, but share certain qualities with other mainstream candidates: they will tend to be open about why they are running, about their background and affiliation, and will not be bound to the viewpoint that "my way is God's way and is the only way."
Religious Right candidates, on the other hand, have often attempted to hide their religious or educational views and organizational affiliations from public scrutiny. In the words of Clay Mankameyer, at the South Weymouth, Massachusetts Christian Coalition leadership school for potential Religious Right candidates, "You are not obligated to say all things to all people.... You don't have to answer every question, and if you do so you're going to get yourself in trouble."
Indeed, in an atmosphere of low voter interest and little investigative journalism about candidates for local office, it can be quite easy for stealth candidates to run without being detected. And given conditions of low voter turnout, candidates can often win election by quietly mobilizing a few groups of committed voters, often completely bypassing the normal voter information and education processes that most local voters expect to be in operation. In the words of Ralph Reed, "You don't know it's over until you're in a body bag. You don't know until election night."
To combat the Religious Right's election tactics, encourage many groups in your community to sponsor candidate forums, and be sure the press and local cable are there to report on the events. Local political party committees, churches, synagogues, PTAs, and elderly centers might do this. Carefully identify Religious Right candidates by asking people about groups they've been active in. Publicize in the press the absence of candidates who don't show up for the candidate forums, as well as the exact words of those who do. In some towns, Religious Right candidates have made many extreme, nonsensical, or factually incorrect statements. Getting their own words out to the public is often an effective way to defeat them.
If you encounter stealth candidates, spare no efforts to provide voters with information about which candidates are, and which candidates are not affiliated with the Religious Right. Then, the critical task is to get out the vote of people who support the mainstream candidates.
To identify candidates with Religious Right affiliations, you can also compare signatures on nominating papers, looking for the same signatures on the papers of several candidates and comparing signatures to names on prior letters to the editor that sensationally attack a school program, or to those of people you know have Religious Right connections.
Work through the normal political channels to support candidates in whom you have confidence. Work hard enough to ensure high voter turnout, using mailings, phone-banking, slate cards, and anything else that works in your town and that's grounded in truth. By taking the political high ground mainstream voters and activists can win.
Holly Gunner heads the Lighthouse Institute for Public Policy, publishers of Meeting the Challenge of the Religious Right in Massachusetts. Their address is P.O. Box 5039, Cochituate, MA 01778.