Two years ago, Ralph Reed spoke publicly about his goal of attracting ethnically diverse activists to the Christian Coalition's largely Anglo membership base. In the January/February 1994 issue of The Humanist, author Sara Diamond quoted Reed's politically strategic proclamation that his organization would cease to "concede the minority community to the political left."
Reed has succeeded in cultivating a small network of African-Americans who exhort/speak powerfully on his organization's behalf. Media-friendly events such as the Coalition's annual Road to Victory conference routinely feature African-Americans such as ex-welfare recipient-turned radio talk show host Starr Parker, Virginia Secretary of Health and Human Resources Kay Cole James, and the Reverend E.V. Hill of the Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church of Los Angeles.
The Christian Coalition's strategy of forming alliances with conservative African-Americans has had the effect of adding visible color to its line-up of eloquent, commanding voices that convey the indisputable sanctity of conservative economic and social policies. Black voices diversify the organization's peripheral leadership structure without demanding compromises to the Coalition's agenda on behalf of the communities they are perceived to represent.
Author/activist Chip Berlet is fond of referring to this strategy as "Eurocentric multiculturalism," meaning that the Coalition maintains an open door policy to people of color who accept the Religious Right's oft-disguised central contention that the pluralist gains of the civil rights era have wrought America's moral decline. Hill, Parker, and James are vociferously anti-abortion, anti-welfare, anti-government, and duly steeped in the rhetoric of "parental rights." Parker can thrill a devout crime-fearing Christian Coalition crowd like no one else with lines like "Where is the electric chair? How many murders do we have to read about and experience before we get serious?"
Today, the Christian Coalition is working harder than ever to present itself, selectively, as a diversity-friendly organization committed to "casting a wider net." With more Christian Coalition chapters than any other state in the nation, and the second-highest percentage of Latino residents, Texas has become the testing ground for the Coalition's 'bridge-building' strategy of 'racial reconciliation.' The Faith and Freedom Fiesta, held last November in San Antonio, represents the Coalition's most recent attempt to present a public image of itself as ethnically diverse while simultaneously organizing its activists to extend recruitment efforts to communities of color.
The Fiesta was the official launch site for Countdown '96, the "largest campaign ever attempted to mobilize Christian voters in Texas." Approximately 300 Texans traveled from various parts of the state to attend. Participants chose among seminars like "Building Bridges Across the Racial Divide," "Hispanic Network," and "Black Network," in addition to less ethnic-oriented offerings like "Framing the Debate," "Precinct Power," and "Technology and the Grassroots."
Panel members who addressed the issue of racial reconciliation included Carl Hayes, director of the Dallas County public defender's office, Gilbert Herrera, president of Texas Hispanic Baptist Evangelists, former Fort Worth City Council member Carlos Puente, and Stephan Brown, the Coalition's western regional coordinator and minority liaison.
The morning session of the less-than-festive Fiesta concluded with a panel composed of four African-American men and white host/speaker Alice Patterson, the Christian Coalition's Texas field director. Speaking to a largely Anglo crowd, Stephan Brown stressed that evangelicals have a special role to play in eliminating racial conflict in America. "Those who claim the name of Jesus," he declared, "should be the first to reconcile." Brown reminded listeners of their responsibility to witness to people of other races. He cited Pastor Martin Hawkins of Dallas' Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship as a worthy example of inter-ethnic evangelism. One of the first African-Americans to graduate from Dallas Theological Seminary, Hawkins is now involved in mentoring men in his church to run for office.
Dr. LaSalle Vaughn of the New Life Christian Center in San Antonio spoke about the need for churches to educate Christians about racism from a Christian perspective. He exhorted the largely Anglo crowd to break free from the mental chains of racism, and assured that "the word of the Lord will bring social change." While audience members vocalized support for the need to "respect difference," a round of silence followed Dr. Vaughn's unexpected assertion that affirmative action programs continue to be needed to reduce economic inequality among ethnic groups.
In reference to the Million Man March, both Vaughn and Brown lambasted Louis Farrakhan, admonishing the Nation of Islam leader for what they view as a shameful, divisive appropriation of religion.
The mid-day keynote address was delivered by Texas Supreme Court Justice Raul Gonzalez, a 'pro-family' Democrat with a history of Biblically-inspired jurisprudence and a notable penchant for abortion-related cases. According to the publication Texas Lawyer, Gonzales has held a weekly prayer and Bible study meeting at his courthouse for the past ten years. After decrying the practice of condom distribution in public schools, the Justice blamed elite educators (Harvard University in particular) for training students of law to discard the Biblical principals that formed the "moral anchor" of America's cultural evolution. "Since Biblical times," he proffered, "activist Christians have been a disfavored class."
Gonzalez' speech was ridden with 'pro-family' non sequiturs. After correlating increases in social spending with increases in drug use and illiteracy, he exclaimed, "What are the root causes of crime? Poverty? Of course not! Family values are the true check against crime." He suggested that "bring[ing] back shame" and remorse would work wonders for returning the country to its holier past.
The afternoon "Hispanic Network" session was conducted by Manuel and Susie Nabarette, the newly-appointed Team Directors of the Christian Coalition's newly-established Hispanic Initiative. Mr. Nabarette acknowledged he was recruited to help fill the Coalition's "need for Hispanic faces," but testified that the organization is sincerely committed to involving Hispanics. (The term "Hispanics" was used repeatedly). Of the seven member seats on the Coalition's board, he reported, two have been offered to persons of Hispanic heritage. Nabarette explained to the audience of approximately 15 people that the Coalition has established a Hispanic Taskforce to spearhead efforts to encourage political activism among anti-gay, 'pro-life' Hispanics, thereby facilitating the Coalition's overarching objective of "returning America to God through a revival of religious belief."
The Coalition has begun holding focus groups to learn how it might go about, as Alice Patterson instructed, "building a network of Christians to empower Hispanics." (Before the Nabarettes came aboard, Patterson was considered the Texas Coalition's "Hispanic expert," though she does not speak Spanish). Listening to focus group participants has apparently enlightened Coalition leaders to a number of factors that influence Latino perceptions of Reed and his ilk. They have learned, for instance, that many Latinos reject the Republican party because they regard it as the guardian of the interests of the wealthy.
The focus groups have revealed other potential impediments to the Coalition's "casting of a wider net" based upon traditional (Western) values. Latino participants have expressed offense at the Anglo-centered Texan tradition of glorifying the battle of the Alamo. In collective Texan memory, the battle is historicized through the memorializing of Anglo heroes like Davy Crockett and William Travis, and the demonizing of the Mexican army and its leader General Santa Anna.
To aid its outreach efforts, the Coalition plans to distribute the recently-published Spanish language edition of its "Contract With the American Family." "The Contracto con la Familia Americana" is a well-translated version of the original, nicely printed in blue and white ink. In Texas, the Coalition will also distribute bilingual voters guides and video training tapes.
Despite its attempts to present an ethnically diverse, ideologically unified front, the Christian Coalition's efforts to expand its membership base to communities of color rests heavily on ambiguity. The rhetoric of 'racial reconciliation' is easy for Coalition members to digest; they are sincere when they join hands in prayer to ask that the "mental chains of racism" be broken. Like most Americans, Coalition activists are ready to condemn the type of racism that manifests in interpersonal bias.
But Coalition leaders offer no indication that the organization intends to confront the economic chains that accompany institutionalized racism. While the organization has committed resources to "casting a wider net," it is unwilling or incapable of educating members about white privilege and advocating solutions to entrenched problems of economic disparity, environmental racism, and employment discrimination.
In the post-mariachi pre-enchilada hour of the all-day Fiesta, I asked Manuel Nabarette how he thought the Coalition would be able to attract Latino voters who have long favored expenditures for welfare, social services, and bilingual education. He replied that he honestly did not know. His hopes for the Coalition's recruitment efforts are somewhat patronizing, if well-intended.
During the "Hispanic Network" session he used phrases like "teaching politics" and "telling them to vote." I wondered if concerned Latinos who attended the session will find the Coalition ideologically amenable as they become more deeply involved.
One man who seemed committed to the "pro-family" tenets of the Coalition agenda stood up to draw attention to what he sees as a point of hypocrisy. He introduced himself as Don Varela and then publicly lamented the fact that Christians who hold positions of economic power are sometimes guilty of exploiting the people who work for them. "Christians, too, own companies and pay crap," he exclaimed, adding "There is unequal justice in this country!"
Liz Gore is a research associate with the Institute for the Study of the Religious Right in Los Angeles, California.