House Speaker Newt Gingrich set the agenda for the Religious Right ten years ago at a politically important conference in the nation's capital. On October 15-17, 1985, the Rev. Tim LaHaye's American Coalition for Traditional Values (ACTV) held a "How to Win An Election" conference in Washington, DC.
Under the banner of "Serve the Lord by running for public office," the conference focused on the Christian's "Biblical mandate" to run for political office. During the conference, LaHaye referred to Newt Gingrich, a fellow Southern Baptist, as "a minister of God."
"We need to challenge God's people to run for office," LaHaye said. "If every Bible-believing, Christ-loving church would trust God to raise up an average of just one person over the next 10 years who would get elected, we would have more Christian candidates than there are offices."
Gingrich, the keynote speaker on the final night, said, "I think what you're doing is very, very important." He said those "on the left forgot just how freedom is delivered. From their standpoint, the Declaration of Independence did not have a phrase that said, 'We're endowed by our creator,' but rather said something like, 'being gathered together as random protoplasm.'" Gingrich continued, "I think they misunderstood the whole underlying spiritual drive which was key to the American Revolution."
The Freedom Writer first reported on the "How to Win An Election" conference in its December 1985 issue. Speaking to over 300 Religious Right leaders and activists, the future Speaker of the House laid out a formula for religious conservatives to take over the country. Calling it a recipe for winning, Gingrich said there are four layers, one on top of the other. The first, he said, is vision. "What is your vision of the world? One who is familiar with the Bible can appreciate that," he added.
Strategy is second. "What is it you're going to try to do?" Operations or projects is the third step. Gingrich explained that this is determining the assignable tasks. "What are you going to do; how; and who's in charge of doing it?"
Finally, he listed tactics. Tactics are "what you do every single day." It is about how you carry out your strategy and projects. "Populist conservative Republicans need to be very people-oriented," Gingrich said. "My strategy is using bumper stickers instead of billboards." Money can buy billboards, he noted, but people have to like you to put your name on their car or truck. "That's particularly true if you have a name as unusual as Newt Gingrich!" he said.
Newt Gingrich is an insightful opportunist. At the 1985 "How to Win an Election" conference, Gingrich declared, "AIDS is a real crisis. It is worth paying attention to, to study. It's something you ought to be looking at."
"AIDS will do more," Gingrich predicted, "to direct America back to the cost of violating traditional values, and to make America aware of the danger of certain behavior than anything we've seen." He concluded, "For us, it's a great rallying cry."
Newt Gingrich was probably the first to see AIDS as a political tool for the far right. The thought wasn't lost on ACTV members such as Pat Robertson, D. James Kennedy, Donald Wildmon, Jerry Falwell, Robert Dornan, and Jesse Helms.
The ACTV "How to Win an Election" conference, though little-known, is a political landmark. Under the direction of political strategist Paul Weyrich, workshops offered specific guidance for candidates, staff personnel, and "those praying about the possibility of running for office." The sessions covered organizing effective campaigns, raising money, framing the issues, and using the media.
ACTV has since dissolved, but the organization set the stage for the advancement of other groups. Today, many former ACTV members are politically active. Some, such as Gingrich and Robert Dornan, are still in Congress. Others are active in the Christian Coalition, American Family Association, Traditional Values Coalition, and Concerned Women for America (CWA). In 1985, CWA, headed by LaHaye's wife Beverly, was considered ACTV's sister organization. CWA is the largest women's activist group in the country.
Constitutionally, Gingrich, as Speaker of the House, is next in line for the presidency if something should happen to President Clinton and Vice-President Gore.
"Pat Robertson is an extraordinary institution builder and visionary. I believe when the history of the 20th century is written, there are two preachers who, in fact, shaped much of the domestic/political debate of post-World War II America. One was black. One was white. One was Martin Luther King, Jr., and the other Pat Robertson. They had an enormous, profound effect." — Newt Gingrich