Pat Robertson's political disciples are challenging the secular culture they want to destroy on its home ground. The Christian Coalition is organizing an active chapter in New York City, with the help of a high-ranking aide to City Council president Andrew Stein.
Venturing forth from a more hospitable environment upstate where the Coalition has already founded 16 county chapters, its organizers held well-attended meetings in the city this spring at the Living Word Christian Center, an evangelical church and bookstore in lower Manhattan. While the New York City chapter is still tiny by any standard, the Coalition's presence shows how determined Robertson is to create a truly comprehensive national political structure. And the participation by Antonio Rivera, the Stein aide and evangelical Christian who is also — at least nominally — a Democrat, shows how pragmatic, even opportunistic, the Coalition Republican leaders can be in building an urban base.
The launch of the New York City chapter was handled with great care by the Coalition, which is based near Robertson's home in Chesapeake, Virginia. Addressing the city meetings were not only Jeff Baran and its mid-Atlantic regional chief Clay Mankamyer, but national field director Guy Rodgers, who oversaw a two-day leadership school for the new chapter's hard-core in April.
The message of Rodgers' opening speech was clear: Christians have not only the right to rule America, but a religious obligation to seek political power. Rodgers exhorted his listeners, most of whom were white and seemed to have had little previous experience in politics, on the "Biblical basis for political involvement." Seeming to grasp almost instinctively what might provoke the strongest reaction from a New York City audience, Rodgers focused on "militant homosexuals."
"They don't just want us to tolerate them," said Rodgers, a sharply dressed, thirtyish former high-school teacher. "They want to force us to accept their philosophy of life."
Should Christian Coalition be victorious one day, he explained, a rather different, far less tolerant ethos will prevail. Rodgers harked back a hundred years ago, or more, when New York City was the scene of big revival tent meetings, and in many states "those seeking public office had to be Christians who professed their belief in God." That was when the worst problems faced by the Christian community were "gambling, drunkenness, and public swearing."
"Oh, for the good old days!" he exclaimed, as his listeners laughed.
Rodgers warned that Christian New Yorkers turned political activists could expect to be reviled by the media. "They call us fundamentalist right-wing bigots," he said with a grin. "You can read about us in The New York Times." But, he asked rhetorically, "Is there something wrong with Christians ruling? Who is best qualified to exercise authority in civil government? Unbelievers?" The answer to those who might ask whether Christian Coalition is trying to install a theocracy is simple: "No. I'm not trying to establish anything. Jesus Christ already did that. I'm just living it out." Such a retort to critics, advised Rodgers, "will just blow 'em away."
Still, there were practicalities to be considered. Wickedness, Rodgers pointed out, "is always on the march," and nowhere more so than in the election precincts of New York. The second, all-day training session was devoted to teaching the Christian activists the intricacies of urban politicking — and to training them to accept the dictates of the Coalition's Virginia headquarters. Christian Coalition is not a democratically governed group, but a top-down, military-style organization. And nowhere was this clearer than when the new recruits were told — not asked — who their chapter would be supporting for the U.S. Senate next fall.
On the lower rungs of politics, the initial aims of the New York City chapter are modest. Terry Twerell, the pastor of the Living Word Center, and the Coalition's chief sponsor in the city, explained that for now it will focus on a few Manhattan neighborhoods. "Our first target is the City Council," he said, where a school voucher bill is currently pending. "With this bill, you could receive public support to send your children to a Christian school," he added.
That is where Rivera, the aide to Andrew Stein, came in. He was introduced warmly by Rev. Twerell, who noted that "Tony has opened City Hall to us, and every other Tuesday we hold a prayer meeting down there." Rivera's official title is deputy ombudsman of the city of New York, and he quickly added that "the Lord gave me that position." In fact, Rivera is a local Democratic hack from East Harlem who was given his job by other local pols after long years of service. But he has found a new vocation in right-wing politics since he "accepted the Lord" in 1985. Evangelical Christianity is a growing phenomenon in urban Hispanic communities, and one which may be increasingly tapped by Robertson and other conservatives for political as well as religious purposes.
Realizing that most New Yorkers are liberal and moderate Democrats, Rivera endorsed the Christian Coalition's method of concealing its real ideology behind a bland facade. "The majority of our leaders are pro-abortion," he said, explaining how Christians could involve themselves in local affairs. "So you don't go in there and say, 'I'm an advocate against abortion.' No, you say, 'I'm interested in housing, or development, or sanitation.' And you keep your personal views to yourself until the Christian community is ready to rise up, and then, wow! They're gonna be devastated!"
Rivera then gave out his office phone number, promising to help any Christian Coalition candidates for local office maneuver through New York's Byzantine electoral process. Running its members for local GOP positions in Democratic strongholds like Manhattan is an important part of the Coalition's long-term national strategy for taking over the Republican Party, and an experienced pol like Rivera could be quite valuable in that effort.
In the meantime, however, state director Jeff Baran laid down the immediate marching orders as soon as Rivera concluded his talk. According to Baran, aside from supporting Bush and Quayle in November, the Coalition's national office is "very interested" in backing Senator Alfonse D'Amato, a scandal-scarred Republican whose poll ratings have plummeted. "We're gonna direct our people to support D'Amato," he said bluntly, and the national office will be sending money to New York chapters for voter guides to be distributed in churches that will compare the senator favorably to his Democratic challenger.
"Since we're doing the voter guides, we can manipulate," said Baran, who caught himself with a chortle. "We can instruct people how to vote. As a tax-exempt group, Christian Coalition can't endorse candidates, although we can tell our people to work for the guy. These voter guides are totally non-biased," added Baran, laughing.
D'Amato and Bush will presumably benefit from the non-partisan voter registration and canvassing efforts which the Coalition is currently undertaking across the state.