Reacting to a reactionary movement can be tricky business. I study the Christian right to understand the nature of the political power the movement has harnessed — its appeal, its ability to mobilize resources, that uncanny capacity to agenda-set.
Engaging with the movement has become part of my daily routine. I find it difficult to pass Christian bookstores without stopping in. I look forward to mass mailings from Gary Bauer and family. I have real conversations with people from Regent University who call to ask if I'm still interested in attending.
The uneasy truth is that I am addicted to the spectacle of activist conservative Christian subcultures. God knows I'm not alone. The "infiltrator" ratio at Religious Right gatherings is impressive and climbing. Anti-feminist musings, pedophilic fears, bizarre co-optations of the word empowerment — let's face it — the substance of regressive momentum is often riveting.
In search of a new ideological adventure, I recently attended a training workshop for grass roots Christian Coalition activists in Texas. Compared to the grandstanding grandeur of the national "Road to Victory" extravaganzas, the event was full of tactic and devoid of frills. There were no show-stopping movement celebs, only local heroes and potential local heroes. Ralph Reed was not around to energize the grass roots by recollecting the glory of past political triumphs. As forty of this country's most committed Christian Coalitioners gathered to prepare for battle, the atmosphere was righteous but guarded. Every minute of the four-hour session was devoted to the fine points of enacting a national strategy by assuring local victory.
It was Saturday night. Feeling conspicuously humanist, I roamed the vast empty corridors of the Austin Capitol building annex in search of my well-groomed, middle-aged cohorts. (The Capitol building is a lot like the Vatican in scope, and meant to inspire at least as much humility.)
I walked into "Why Are We Here?," a unity-driven pep-talk by a man named Jeff Fisher. I could tell the woman seated next to me was a trusted insider by the inventory of materials she coddled in her lap: Greater Austin Right to Life precinct lists, video training tapes, the official 1996 Texas Christian Coalition Operation Precinct Workbook. (Incidentally, the workbook contains a vast amount of well-organized information, impressively presented.)
Jeff presented hard evidence that Planned Parenthood is the factionary evil behind Republicans for Choice. He shared his theory that the Democrats have been subjected to a "hostile takeover by radical feminists and homosexuals." The Christian Coalition, he predicted, is six to ten years away from seeing real political reform.
We viewed a 1994 ABC news clip of Ralph "what we are looking for is a pluralist democracy that welcomes faith" Reed. In the clip, another Christian Coalition strategist was quoted as saying the Coalition aims to train ten activists per precinct by the year 2000. (If the Coalition had as many members as it routinely claims, it would already have the numerical equivalent of ten activists per precinct, but hey, who's counting?)
An engaging, somewhat effete speaker named Paul Powell arose to rile the troops with a pre-strategy motivational message. It is easy to see the appeal his mantra carries for self-appointed victims of secular oppression. "Power," he chortled, "is not a bad thing." Simply put, power is good; bad people in power are bad. Paul quoted the Bible five different times to drive home the idea that Jesus bestowed the gift of power on his disciples and encouraged them to make use of it. He made it sound like the word power actually appears in the New Testament repeatedly. He led us in a fill-in-the-blank exercise with the P-word: "And Jesus said, God hath bestowed upon you the gift of what? P-O-W-E-R."
Paul is one of a handful of men rapidly touring Texas touting a Biblical rendition of Tip O'Neill's "All politics is local." The "From Pew to Precinct" team is slated to offer twenty training sessions around the state in six weekends. An Iowan, Paul was once a philosophy student on the verge of completing a Ph.D. when he was "called to politics." His mission is to convince fellow foot soldiers that, in the electoral scheme of things, precinct captains are guardians of the "most powerful office in the world."
A time-tested expert at local victory-making, Paul boasted of his own "battle scars." He urged us to know the rules that guide the process but to avoid being "tied by convention." The man was full of information and strategic advice. Parties use ballots and conventions; they elect delegates and draft platforms; nomination committees and platform committees are the most important; get copies of your party's rules, know the numbers; rent precinct lists from Greater Austin Right to Life or the Christian Coalition; precincts without precinct chairs present a window of opportunity; only one quarter of the Democratic Party precinct chairs in Texas are filled... "Now there's a party ripe for takeover!"
The less dynamic Scott Fisher instructed us on the precinct convention preparation process. Network! Crowd the convention with people to nominate; make lists of delegates and alternates; bring typed resolutions in triplicate; tape the precinct conventions. "It's a spiritual war, it really is," he said. "Cover the job with prayer." (For precinct prayer etiquette, see page nine of the workbook.)
A mock precinct convention ensued. What next, I wondered — reactionary street theater? The mock chair asked his mock wife to be secretary. I knew we were having fun when we elected Rush Limbaugh to one of the coveted delegate spots. But alas! Even this unexpected electoral frivolity was laced with warning.
"The key is maintaining control," Paul coached. "And don't leave a convention before you hear the word adjourned!" The moral of the story was that they will try to trick you, pull the secular rug right out from under your holy war marchin' boots. Beware the phrase "motion to reconsider!" Just get your delegates elected — other precincts will pass pro-life, anti-sodomy resolutions to be voted on later. Jan Galbraith is the County Chair and she is a friend of yours...
Our training trio imparted the electoral truism that, if you happen to be the only person to attend your local precinct convention, there's no shame in conducting the entire ritual alone and then electing yourself. When forced to deal with "pro-abort" others, you should "extend an olive branch" by, for example, "letting them be secretary." Don't dominate, don't piss people off so much that they'll mobilize against you.
It was getting late and things were getting repetitive. We were subjected to a disappointing video on the finer points of conventioneering. The narrator looked us straight in the eye(s) as he signed off, unsmiling, with a reminder: "Not only do you want to win the victory, but you also want to be a witness for Jesus." His words had a familiar patriarchal ring, an evangelized version of "win one for the Gipper." I am surrounded by team players for the ultimate theocratic hopeful, I thought.
Paul, Jeff and Scott planted an ominous proposition in the minds of attentive trainees. They inspired the rank and file to new levels of determination by spreading the prophecy that the Republican party may see fit to sacrifice the pro-life plank at the national convention. The fear is that Dole as the Republican nominee will choose "pro-abort" Pete Wilson as his running mate. Or worse, Christine Todd Whitman! The goal is to elect enough Christian Coalition delegates to make such an option unfeasible for the party.
To inspire vigilance and determination, the trainers pit the upcoming battle as a struggle between old-line elitist Republican loyalists and themselves. They are explicit about intra-party antagonisms. Christian Coalition delegates must hold their own against insider Republicans who aren't wild about a strong religious right presence. (Apparently, moderates seated comfortably within the party have a habit of questioning the partisan credentials of their Christian Coalition cohorts, accusing them of doing little more than showing up at conventions.) Paul did his revivalist best to instill a sense of entitlement. "Does it matter that you haven't worked for the party for a long time? No!" In seamless reactionary fashion, he historicized with the mythical footwork that fortifies his movement: "We had the party before the moderates came in and took it over."
This sense of righteous belonging will be crucial for the Texas delegation. Governor George Bush is expected to lead lone star GOP-ers at the national convention in San Diego. Despite his personal pro-life convictions, Christian Coalition leaders predict that George Jr. will face tremendous pressure to tow the (moderate) party line. So, delegates must be people who have the guts to stand up to Governor Bush. Or, if you prefer, people who lack the guts to oppose Governor Bush should not be delegates. "The intimidation will be intense. The pressure will be incredible."
Paul ended the evening with a prayer. "We confess the sin of apathy," he intoned. As I strolled out, I scooped a stray packet of paper off the floor. I found myself holding a packet of typed resolutions, presumably to be hand carried into precinct conventions across town or across many towns.
I have been trying to understand why this particular religious right experience has so affected me. Progressive people tend to view the Christian right as an offensive, reactionary force hell-bent on punitive legislation and the protection of privilege. I agree. But it is important to understand that much of the cohesion inside the movement stems from a defensive orientation — a sincere belief that, as Texas Supreme Court Justice Raul Gonzales is fond of saying, "Christians everywhere are persecuted because of their faith." My Christian Coalition neighbors truly believe they are in the business of challenging the subversion of Christian ideals. For them, strategy is foremost because consensus is unquestionable. There is no need for debate.
Organizations like the Christian Coalition provide members with a sense of community and political opportunity. Operation Precinct '96 activists are a tight-knit group. While it would be difficult to describe the group dynamic as "warm," mutual respect shown among committed members is notable. Most members seem committed for the long haul. The workshop was a place to refine an intense familiarity with process that attendees already possessed. I was struck by the way the acronym SREC (State Republican Executive Committee) rolled out of their mouths with ease.
Round One of the campaign to send Christian Coalition delegates to precinct, county, state and national Republican conventions begins on March 12 when precinct conventions are convened following the primary elections. The months between March and August will provide a telling timetable to gauge the effects of local efforts on national party platforms and nominations. Stay tuned. There is much to be learned.
Liz Gore is a research assistant for the Los Angeles-based Institute for the Study of the Religious Right.