PRA Eyes Pre-Election Tactics of the Christian Right
PRA's research team was on high alert this fall tracking election-related shifts in the Christian Right's message and briefing journalists on the history of their movement. Researchers paid particular attention to a major pre-election pep rally held in Washington, DC September 22-24 held by a new coalition led by the lobbying group FRC Action.
The Family Research Council and its offspring FRC Action have risen in importance since they replaced the Christian Coalition as the main mobilizing force of Christian conservatives at the polls and in lobbying Congress, making attendance of its Values Voters Summit essential to PRA's ongoing research. Not surprisingly, opposition to gay marriage and banning access to abortion topped their list of political concerns. But to this "internal threat," the Christian Right also added the "external threat" of Islamic terrorism, which was the Republican talking point of the election season.
Within weeks, researchers Chip Berlet and Pam Chamberlain released a report on the new tactics, Running Against Sodom and Osama: The Christian Right, Values Voters, and the Culture War in 2006. And in the first of an ongoing collaboration with the National Radio Project, Public Eye editor Abby Scher produced a half-hour mini-documentary on the summit and the Christian Right's changing message for the nationally syndicated show Making Contact, broadcast a week before the election.
But the staff did not wait to share its insights, blogging about the conference on RightWatch.com, published by People for the American Way, and Talk2Action, the group blog created by observers of the Christian Right. Scher's article on the summit, posted on InTheseTimes.com, won her radio interviews. Berlet gave interviews to a wide range of media, including the BBC, independent media, including American Prospect television and Democracy Now!. And, together with the advocacy group Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, researchers exposed a scandal that brewed during a Saturday session.
That was a training on "Getting Church Voters to the Polls," led by Connie Marshner, director of Morton Blackwell's Leadership Institute's International program. The Leadership Institute proclaims itself "the premier training ground for tomorrow's conservative leaders. Conservative leaders, organizations and activists rely on the Institute for the preparation they require for success." But Connie told the participants to call fellow congregants using their church directories for phone numbers, disguise their voices, and say they are from polling companies. Then, she suggested, they should guide them in a series of questions that will get preferred voters to the polls.
PRA Director Katherine Ragsdale and Chip Berlet both asked Marshner about the ethics of such a strategy, backed up by Rob Boston of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, who also attended the session. The room reportedly became tense, and Ms. Marshner's questionable advice made the New York Times coverage of the conference. Family Research Council director Tony Perkins was forced to disclaim the training, but the question remains of how a network sincerely promoting their view of family values could promote such an unethical strategy.
Abby Scher, The Public Eye Senior Editor
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