IFAS | Freedom Writer | May 1995 | olive.html

An olive branch with thorns?

By Skipp Porteous

Christian Coalition leader extends an olive branch to American Jews. Headlines of that sort appeared in papers across the country after Ralph Reed's April 3 speech at an Anti-Defamation League (ADL) conference in Washington, D.C. The Christian Coalition executive director's appearance was the climax of months of heated exchange between liberal and conservative groups specifically the ADL and the Christian Coalition.

The debate has been building for a couple of years. In June 1993, I was the Ben Epstein Memorial Lecturer at the ADL's 80th National Commission meeting in Washington, D.C. My talk focused on the political organizing and intolerance of the Religious Right, particularly Pat Robertson and the Christian Coalition.

"There is no question that the Religious Right has the right to participate fully in our democratic society," I maintained. "Part of the strategy of the Religious Right is to take advantage of a system where most Americans just don't vote. By organizing a few politically active churches, they are able to achieve a disproportionate impact at the polls."

My presentation featured the Christian Coalition's 1990 video, "America at a Crossroads." Produced just a year after the formation of the Christian Coalition as an organization, the video emphasizes the "Christian Nation" theme, and details how the Christian Coalition intends to take over the United States through the political process. An organization's early declarations are a good indication of the group's objectives and plans. That's why I've shown this video to thousands of participants at gatherings across the United States.

Shortly after that talk in Washington, the Institute for First Amendment Studies provided research assistance to the ADL in preparing a report on the Religious Right. Called The Religious Right: The Assault on Tolerance and Pluralism in America, the 193-page report was published last year. In the book's foreword, Abraham Foxman, national director of the ADL, wrote: "The problem with issuing a critique of the religious right movement is that much of what this movement says it wants is right: most of us value strong families, better schools, a government that upholds its commitment to religious liberty."

While celebrating those values, Foxman said the ADL's report demonstrates that the Religious Right "brings to cultural disagreements a rhetoric of fear, suspicion, even hatred." He never mentioned anti-Semitism, because that is not the focus of the book. The ADL's report created a firestorm, not because it said anything new, but because of the stature of the organization publishing the report. Two groups, the Free Congress Foundation and the Christian Coalition, immediately published rebuttals, challenging some of the allegations made by the ADL.

The Christian Coalition's response was titled A Campaign of Falsehoods: The Anti-Defamation League's Defamation of Religious Conservatives. It said: "The reader is left to simply take it on faith that the ADL's most damning charges are true, which they are not. In fact, much of the ADL's report is simply a retread of materials (some over a decade old) from groups like People for the American Way, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, the Institute for First Amendment Studies and other groups that long have had political axes to grind against religious conservatives." The ADL's report "relies heavily on bizarre theories like those propagated by People for the American Way and Skipp Porteous, a Massachusetts-based conspiracist-cum propagandist who specializes in spreading falsehoods and innuendo about religious conservatives."

"The ADL report is full of accusations that the Christian Coalition does not support the separation of church and state. Its sources include undated flyers passed out at conferences and quotations lifted out of context as well as more unreliable pseudo-scholarship by Skipp Porteous. It also features attacks on David Barton, a Texas-based scholar who has argued that many of America's founders were sympathetic to Christian values."

Of course, our argument with David Barton wasn't the fact that some of America's founders were sympathetic to religion. Barton wrote The Myth of Separation, self-proclaimed as the book that "proves that separation of church and state is a myth," a theme he regularly promotes at Christian Coalition conferences.

Allegations flew back and forth for months, until, finally, both sides sat down and talked. Then, just when things began to cool down, in February of this year The New York Review of Books finally examined Pat Robertson's 1991 best-seller, The New World Order. This caught my attention because for years I've been telling people wherever I speak, "If you want to really know where Pat Robertson stands, read The New World Order." Well, the reviewer, Michael Lind, did just that. He concluded that many of Pat Robertson's political beliefs and conspiracy theories are based on the writings of anti-Semitic conspirators of the past.

Soon other writers, such as Frank Rich of The New York Times, jumped into the fray. "Is Pat Robertson anti-Semitic?" asked Rich. "He says not. But that doesn't alter the fact that his book disseminates old anti-Semitic conspiracy theories."

"Perhaps Pat Robertson in his heart is not an anti-Semite," concluded Anthony Lewis. "He just thinks a satanic conspiracy led by Jews has threatened the world for centuries. And the intellectual conservatives defend him because he lines up votes for the Republican Party."

Facing a public relations nightmare just a year before the presidential election, the Christian Coalition's adorable Ralph Reed swung into action. Employing a carefully plotted strategy, Reed began popping up all over TV land. Then the ADL invited him to speak at their Washington conference. At that meeting, Reed said all the right things. But that wasn't the end of the matter.

Albert R. Hunt, in an April 6 article in The Wall Street Journal, wrote, "Ralph Reed, the media-savvy Christian Coalition operative, was positively eloquent in a speech to the Anti-Defamation League this week, vowing to create closer bonds between Jews and conservative Christians."

"A new era for the religious right, a political epiphany?" Hunt asked. "Not quite. This is part of the calculated politics practiced by the resourceful Mr. Reed and his eccentric boss, the Rev. Pat Robertson. It's the inside/outside or good cop/bad cop routine, where the powerful Robertson-Reed empire seeks respectability in the corridors of Republican power, but also protects its flanks by feeding the flock the red meat of divisive issues. If caught in contradictions, the disingenuous but surprisingly successful defense is to charge that critics are religious bigots who oppose people of faith."

Hunt goes on to shamelessly assail Robertson, enumerating facts about Robertson that The Freedom Writer has been reporting for years. "The notion that criticism of Pat Robertson or the religious right," Hunt said, "reflects anti-Christian bigotry pervasive in America is ludicrous."

"Most national Republican leaders privately have little regard for Mr. Robertson, but they do value his constituency," Hunt added. "So look for more good cop/bad cop routines like Mr. Reed's speech this week," Hunt concluded, "which was really about politics, not tolerance."

The problem facing Reed now is how to sustain his balancing act. With contenders for the Republican nomination openly courting the Christian Coalition, Reed needs to maintain more than a modicum of moderation. Meanwhile, the rank and file members of the Christian Coalition insist on pushing for state-sponsored prayer in public schools, criminalizing abortion, and depriving gays and lesbians of equal rights.

© 1998 Institute for First Amendment Studies, Inc.