Fighting for the Right 

The Tennessee Christian Coalition's Agenda of politics, power, and prayer

The Tennessee Christian Coalition's Agenda of politics, power, and prayer

By Bill Friskics-Warren

Janice Johnson never used to vote. Then she got scared. A homemaker and a mother of four, Johnson heard that one out of every four girls in this country will be sexually abused by the time she reaches age 18.

Janice Johnson decided she had to do something. “That statistic frightened me into action,” she says. “I got on mailing lists, started writing my congressmen, and getting legislative alerts. Ninety-nine percent of this battle is political,” she adds. “You’ve got to get in there and be a player.”

By anybody’s standards, Johnson is a player now. Two years ago, she founded the local chapter of the Christian Coalition, a self-described “pro-family” organization. The Nashville chapter now boasts 2,200 members. Today, as “chief grunt” and pornography watchdog for the organization, Johnson volunteers 35 hours every week monitoring legislation, preparing voter guides, and training prospective political candidates.

Jon Crisp came to the Tennessee Christian Coalition after years of disillusionment with the Republican Party. “I’m like a lot of people in this movement,” he says. “I saw that the only way to change society was to get back to the basics—things like honesty, hard work and deferred gratification—that built this to be a great society. I thought that the Christian Coalition was the best way to do that. It superseded what the [major political] parties do.” Crisp now serves as chairman of the Tennessee chapter of the Coalition.

Crisp and Johnson are convinced that the Christian Coalition is allowing them to make their voices heard. Along with the group’s nearly 2 million other supporters nationwide, they represent a new breed of vigilant evangelicals who are becoming active participants in the political process. They are not backwoods rubes and Bible-thumping revival preachers. Instead, they have created a marvel of organizational sophistication; they are masters in the use of communications technology.

At the same time, their critics view the Christian Right with none-too-cautious terror. Democrats and some mainline Republicans alike find their tactics objectionable and are repelled by their intolerant stances on issues such as sexual orientation and abortion. Whatever you think of them, however, this much is true: They are determined, formidable, and not to be underestimated. They are not above using religion as a weapon in the battle to restore what they see as “traditional” American values. They consider themselves to be God’s army, and they are well armed.

The Christian Coalition does not have to fight its battles alone. In Middle Tennessee it is only one of many conservative, faith-based organizations that take an active role in politics. Consider this short list:

♦ The Christian Action Network, whose members were active in unseating Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Penny White;

♦ The Tennessee Family Institute, an affiliate of James Dobson’s Focus on the Family and Gary Bauer’s Family Research Council, whose local board members include attorney Sam Bartholomew, Two Rivers Baptist Church minister Jerry Sutton, and construction magnate and former U.S. Ambassador to France Joe M. Rogers;

♦ The Tennessee Eagle Forum, the state chapter of the nominally secular, anti-choice, anti-gay lobbying organization started by Phyllis Schlafly;

♦ Tennessee Right-to-Life, which used to be known for displaying grisly photographs of fetuses in the halls of the Legislative Plaza but now wields a hefty political clout;

♦ The Middle Tennessee Home Education Association, which has attracted hundreds of adherents in recent years by virtue of its arguments for educating children in a Christian home environment.

In such company, The Christian Coalition is a relative newcomer; its national chapter is only 7 years old, whereas Schlafly’s Eagle Forum has been around for a quarter of a century. But, when it comes to political power, the Coalition has already outpaced most of its more seasoned peers. The organization received much media attention for elaborate electronic linkups at the Republican National Convention, and there is no denying the group’s pivotal role in the Republican congressional victories of 1994. The Coalition not only boasted a formidable voting block that year, claiming that one-third of those who went to polls were evangelical Christians; they also penned the “Contract With the American Family,” which is still receiving serious attention from House Speaker Newt Gingrich and his Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

The National Chapter of the Christian Coalition, established by broadcasting mogul and former presidential candidate Pat Robertson, first made its mark by denouncing abortion, homosexuality, and anything else its leadership deemed a threat to heterosexual two-parent families. Robertson is president of the not-for-profit lobbying group, but anyone who’s close to the organization will tell you that Ralph Reed, the Coalition’s 36-year-old executive director, runs the show and deserves the lion’s share of credit for the group’s political ascendancy.

Reed isn’t a strident ideologue in the Pat Robertson mold; he’s more of a pragmatist. Reed knows that the Coalition must appear more mainstream if it wants to remain a force in Republican politics. That means toning down its hard-line stance against gay men, lesbians, and a woman’s right to choose. Reed has been steering the group away from these controversial privacy issues and toward broader social and economic themes such as taxes, education, and crime. Reed’s own polls indicate that these are the issues that people care most about, but they are the sorts of issues that also better appeal to the libertarian wing of the Republican Party, a powerful faction that doesn’t care who sleeps with whom just as long as the free market prospers.

The Christian Coalition’s widening appeal stems from this sort of ability to hone in on and speak to what many Americans are feeling—their fears about safety and financial security, the belief that the nation is in the throes of a spiritual crisis. “We’re people who think that the country is morally, and in every other way, headed in the wrong direction,” says Johnson.

“People think government’s too big,” says Crisp. “They think they’re in your pocket too deep. And they’re tired of this liberal philosophy that says, ‘We know better what to do with your children than you do. We know better what to do with your daughter than you do. We know better what to do with your life than you do.’ People are afraid of their freedoms disappearing.

“We didn’t used to have these problems.”

Like many other members of the Christian Coalition, however, Crisp can tell you exactly when the country began to fall apart. He blames the social programs of the Johnson Administration for unleashing a new permissiveness, a moral contagion from which he is convinced society has yet to recover.

Social indicators generated by conservative religious think tanks like Bauer’s Family Research Council and WallBuilders Inc. indicate that dramatic increases in violent crime, plummeting SAT scores, and unprecedented upswings in the incidence of divorce, teen pregnancy, and sexually transmitted diseases can be dated back to 1962. That was the year, they’re quick to add, when the Supreme Court took prayer out of public schools, a decision that led to other high court rulings that “forcibly separated religious principles” such as the Pledge of Allegiance and the 10 Commandments from public life.

As far as the Christian Coalition is concerned, it doesn’t matter that there is no direct, provable, cause-and-effect linkage between the removal of prayer from schools and the social ills that have emerged in the ruling’s wake. In searching for a simple answer, they ignore the complex social and economic factors that have led to today’s problems.

In this way, the Coalition is like any other advocacy group, on the left or the right. They massage data to prove their points. But when they argue that people were better off 30 years ago than they are today, conservatives usually ignore the facts as to who was better off back in the idealized 1950s and who stands to benefit from a return to “family values.”

Clearly, if we could turn the clock back to the days of Ozzie and Harriet, the people who would benefit the most would be white males, the only segment of the population who were fully enfranchised during the Eisenhower era. The moral implication of this nostalgia is that the civil rights movement and the equal rights legislation passed in many states have actually set the nation back. At the Republican National Convention, Coalition members and other right-wing delegates booed retired U.S. Army General Colin Powell for expressing his support of affirmative action and reproductive freedom for women.

According to Ken Kanter, rabbi of Congregation Micah and a board member of the local Interfaith Alliance, a group of clergy and laypersons from many faiths, we don’t live in that world anymore. “We used to talk of America as a melting pot,” Kanter observes. “Now we talk about America as a stew with different ingredients. We’re all in the same kettle but retain our own flavors, our own spiciness. That’s what makes America great.”

Kanter insists that family values are not the property of any one religious group. “When you talk about family values, there isn’t a single religious movement that doesn’t have standards for its believers. No politician, no political party, no religious tradition, no clergyperson has a monopoly on the truth,” he says.

Mark Huffman, cochair of the Interfaith Alliance, is convinced that the Coalition doesn’t see it that way. “Some folks have taken their political views and claimed them to be God’s policies,” he says. “Take welfare reform. What I see is that everybody—conservatives and liberals—agrees that the current system is not working the way we want it to. What the radical religious right seems to be saying is that the current Republican solution is the way God wants us to respond to the issue. Anyone who takes a different view, therefore, is anti-family and anti-work, which means anti-God.”

The Coalition and its supporters are hardly timid in attempting to achieve their goals. For example, they continue to lambaste public education. From guns and drugs to teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, religious conservatives view public schools as a breeding ground for society’s ills. The Christian Coalition and Christian Action Network have even gone so far as to call for the abolition of the U.S. Department of Education.

Their alternative? Vouchers that would allow parents to choose where their kids go to school and, as a result, what they learn. But until a voucher system becomes a reality—or until they can revive the “Parental Rights and Responsibilities Act of 1995,” a failed federal bill that would have granted parents the right to take individuals or units of government to court for “interfering” with their “fundamental right to direct the upbringing of their children”—an increasing number of evangelicals are opting to home-school. At home they not only pray with their kids; they also get to select curricula that avoid talk of evolution, multiculturalism, and teen sexuality.

Education inevitably turns out to be a hot topic. Metro School Board member Murray Philip is a self-professed agnostic, but he attended the Coalition’s candidate-training school, where he got the tools that equipped him for his August upset of Metro School Board incumbent Tom Hightower.

The far right also used the education issue to defeat Ray Albright, a Republican state senator from Chattanooga. After 26 years in the Tennessee Legislature, Albright found himself run out of office in 1994 by a young Republican named David Fowler. “I was chair of the Senate Education Committee,” Albright says. “That was probably my downfall. I doubt very seriously if [the Religious Right] would have gone after me otherwise.”

Albright had reservations about vouchers—specifically, he had questions about whether the state can afford to subsidize private education. He also had questions about home schooling. He made it clear that he was worried about accountability. He asked about standards for parental training and qualifications, and he asked about other potential abuses—everything from 15-year-olds working while they are supposed to be in the home school to cases of child sexual abuse.

The major weapon against Albright was a “yes/no” questionnaire, mailed to him and Fowler by the Chattanooga Resource Foundation, an ultra-conservative religious group active in local and state politics. Because Albright thought the questions weren’t reducible to simple “yes” or “no” answers, he wrote a letter explaining his positions. “I wrote in my letter that [Fowler] was chair of the organization that sent the questionnaire out. I questioned that from the standpoint of conflict of interest. I also questioned [the Chattanooga Resource Foundation’s] use of their tax-free status to [engage in political activity].” Albright had been told that Fowler had stepped down as chair of the organization. “But I thought it was interesting he was still on the letterhead,” he recalls.

When the survey was published, the group had put an N wherever Albright had answered with an explanation, as opposed to circling “yes” or “no.” The N looked like “No,” the effect of which was to make Albright, a moderate Republican, look like he was pro-choice, soft on crime, and against the rights of parents to be involved in their children’s education.

“They doctored what I said on the questionnaire,” Albright charges. “I was a target. They needed to get rid of me and did get rid of me.”

On the Christian Coalition’s agenda, education vies for first place with economics. Budgetary issues have always been part of the Coalition’s “personal accountability” platform, but they are now allowing the Coalition to reach new constituencies, including political moderates and some who weren’t previously interested in politics. Particularly receptive are voters who, as Bob Dole’s campaign ads put it, just want to keep what they earn. These are people drawn to the group’s “leave my family and property alone” philosophy and its endorsement of welfare reform and a regressive flat tax.

This message also has resonance for former Democrats, including many Roman Catholics, who’ve typically opposed homosexuality and abortion. Indeed, the Christian Coalition now reports that one-third of its support in Tennessee comes from Roman Catholics, most of them working-class voters who feel that the Democratic Party’s economic agenda has passed them by and who don’t like the idea of their hard-earned tax dollars subsidizing social programs and the arts.

Privacy issues, of course, are still important to religious conservatives. Crisp, for example, maintains that the idea of same-sex marriages is “an assault on traditional family” and that abortion is “one of the [most important] moral issues of this time.” Meanwhile, the Christian Coalition’s leadership isn’t convinced that it has the votes to support its anti-choice and heterosexuals-only agendas.

Strangely enough, despite the success of the Christian Coalition’s recent consolidation of power and its attempts to appear more mainstream, the media and the general public alike continue to underestimate the organization. The Washington Post even called the Coalition and the candidates it supports “poor, uneducated, and easy to command.” But the first extensive survey of the Coalition’s membership, a summary of which was published in The Wall Street Journal earlier this year, suggests that nothing could be further from the truth.

The study, conducted by Republican pollster Frank Luntz, who has worked with both Newt Gingrich and Ross Perot, found Christian Coalition sympathizers to be voracious consumers of electronic and print media. They also tend to be more educated and more affluent than the majority of the U.S. population, a statistic that flies in the face of the prevailing stereotype of the fire-breathing backwoods fanatic. Even more interesting is the fact that nearly a third of them own personal computers. As much as, if not more than, other political organizations, the Christian Coalition is using technology—Web pages, e-mail broadcasts, satellite dishes, sophisticated computer software—to spread its gospel and mobilize its constituents.

They’re definitely getting their message across. The ouster of State Supreme Court Justice Penny White is the most recent local example of the Coalition’s success. “We didn’t take a stand against Penny White, but we got the information out,” says Johnson, referring to a scorecard developed by conservative religious groups that portrayed White as “soft on crime.”

The Coalition’s voter guides, which summarize the positions of various candidates, reach 250,000 potential voters in every general election. “We have a network of people across Tennessee who we mail them to,” explains Crisp. “They, in turn, take them to their churches and distribute them on the Sunday before the election. [They] literally go door-to-door or go church-to-church or stand in front of the Kroger and hand them out.”

Equally impressive is the organization’s extensive fax network. “We do about 400 faxes [out of Nashville] every day,” boasts Crisp. “If the governor or Speaker Wilder opens his mouth and makes a statement and we want people to know about it, we can have it in the houses of all 400 Coalition leaders across the state, which will then spread out to more people. It’s exponential. We can have [an alert] out to everybody in six to seven hours.”

According to Crisp, legislators are well aware of what the Coalition can do. “We’ve shut down switchboards before. I’m telling you, education is the key to this thing,” he says.

But the Coalition doesn’t just educate. It gives its members their marching orders. Training is provided at leadership and candidate schools. From registering like-minded voters to getting their literature into the hands of ministers or running for a seat on a local school board, there’s no lack of jobs to go around.

“This is a grassroots, bottom up, lay movement,” Johnson points out, adding that all of the Tennessee Coalition’s members are volunteers. “We’re not like a union where we pay to have contacts in every county,” says Crisp. “We don’t have the money to do that. We put all our money into the printing of [voter] guides.” The guides are then distributed through the “sweat equity” of local Coalition members.

Johnson cites the election of Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee as proof of the movement’s populist spirit, noting that, as a “pro-family” candidate, Huckabee’s average campaign contribution was a mere $9, and that he accepted no money from PACs or from what Johnson calls special-interest or “elitist” out-of-state groups. “He paid his $5,000 campaign filing fee with 5,000 $1 bills,” she adds. “And each of those dollar bills came from a different person.”

The Christian Coalition is equipped, and it is formidable. It holds to a more or less fundamentalist or literalistic interpretation of the Bible. And it plays off a collective longing for a time when life seemed simpler, a time before HIV and crack cocaine, a time before busing, metal detectors, and multiculturalism in schools, a time when silence was the first and last word on child abuse, domestic violence, and rape.

Thus, the Coalition doesn’t have to get too specific on campaign issues. In its voter guides, Crisp says, the Coalition doesn’t “make judgments on where [candidates] stand. We ask questions and we let them answer that they agree or disagree with a certain statement that we make.”

True enough, but even a cursory survey of the value-laden language embedded in the questionnaires reveals that they’re hardly objective. There is plenty of talk about “sexual preference” and “preferential treatment to minorities.” Once again, the Coalition is not unique in this regard.

As Kanter observes, voter guides, with the possible exception of those compiled by the League of Women Voters, have always been used to influence the electorate to vote one way as opposed to another. The problem with the Coalition’s guides, Kanter says, is that they carry the implied warning that, if you don’t vote for the candidates who line up with their issues, you’re either “anti-family” or you’re casting your vote against God. The result is a de facto political endorsement.

The Federal Election Commission is investigating the Christian Coalition—which, as a not-for-profit lobbying group, cannot endorse or oppose political candidates. The organization’s leadership considers the probe tantamount to persecution, but they can be confident that the FEC won’t find anything: Voter guides have been around too long, and the Coalition is clearly too savvy to do anything patently illegal. But that doesn’t make its literature any more trustworthy. In Florida and elsewhere, some Coalition voter guides have only included answers to those questions that cast “pro-family” candidates in a favorable light. Even more egregious are voter guides that include “responses”—nothing more than Coalition-generated assessments of candidates based on their speeches and/or comments to the press. When candidates do not return the Coalition’s questionnaires, the Coalition cobbles together a “response.”

The same sort of thing has happened here in Nashville. According to political consultant Mike Pigott, during Mayor Phil Bredesen’s unsuccessful 1994 run for governor, Bredesen, who makes it a policy not to respond to any “yes or no” candidate questionnaires, was portrayed as standing far to the left on the issue of gun control when, except for assault weapons, he lines up pretty closely with the National Rifle Association rank and file.

Bredesen also had other problems with the Religious Right in the ’94 election. On the Sunday before voters went to the polls, hundreds of thousands of churchgoers from one end of the state to the other found Coalition-distributed leaflets on their cars. The leaflets stated that Bredesen intended to encourage the teaching of homosexuality in public schools. The claim was, Pigott says, baseless. But with so little time to respond in the days remaining before the election, nothing could be done.

If right-wing religious organizations have an Achilles heel, it is their relationship with African-Americans. Black voters are, in Tennessee and across the nation, very conservative on issues such as crime and prayer in the schools. Yet they find little comfort in the message being promoted by right-wing Christians.

Forrest Harris, pastor of the predominantly black Pleasant Green Missionary Baptist Church and director of Vanderbilt University’s Kelly Miller Smith Institute, believes that the reason the Christian Coalition doesn’t have more black members is that it separates justice issues from religious issues.

“Some conservative religious movements are not grounded in the liberation tradition of the black church,” Harris says. “There’s an intuitive base in black life that gives people, even conservatives, insight into issues of fairness and social justice. Conservative political world views don’t understand the justice issues of the poor.”

Norman Reed, the African-American pastor of Alameda Christian Church, echoes those concerns. “The Christian Coalition’s philosophy on social issues has little to say that would benefit African-Americans. I see them supporting politicians who support political ideas that aren’t favorable to African-Americans.” Like, for example, school vouchers. “There’s clearly a benefit that [the Religious Right would] reap if we go to vouchers,” Reed says. Vouchers, for instance, could be used to subsidize Christian private schools.

From Crisp’s perspective, the Coalition has made strides in attracting African-Americans. “Our membership had virtually no minority members a year ago,” he says. “Over the past year, it’s gone from 0 to 4 to 5 percent of our membership. We’ve seen some conservative Jewish members join us as well, but we’re not seeing the growth there like we’re seeing it in the black community.” Of the Tennessee Christian Coalition’s 45,000 members or supporters, black membership stands at about 1,000. In Nashville, however, African-Americans make up between 23 and 24 percent of the total population, according to recent census figures. Crisp adds that three black ministers were among the 51-member leadership team that the Tennessee Christian Coalition took to the organization’s recent “Road to Victory” conference in Washington, D.C.

According to Crisp, the Tennessee Coalition did make strides with its response to the recent church burnings across the state. “The Christian Coalition’s roots are certainly in the evangelical Christian community,” Crisp says. “But our involvement in the church burnings issue—calling for justice and focusing financial help toward the churches that were affected—has created rapid growth in the minority community. We’re beginning to see black and white church leadership work in support of our movement.”

In the end, it will be tough to involve black worshippers in the politics of the Religious Right. Because the Baptist church and other evangelical religious organizations have themselves been so strictly segregated throughout their history, it will not be easy for the movement to bring blacks and whites together. In recent years, a number of conservative white denominations have issued public apologies for their histories of racism, but African-Americans aren’t likely to start flocking to associate with those same churches, no matter what the issue. Though strides are being made, it is unlikely any great union will take place soon.

The language of the Christian Coalition may sound simplistic—it is thick with buzz words like “natural family” and “choice in education,” which can be translated into opposition to same-sex marriages and public schools/busing, respectively. But the Coalition’s moral certitude is not only reassuring; it is also seductive.

Even more persuasive is the Christian Coalition’s newly cultivated positive tone. There is an increased air of understanding and tolerance, for example, in Reed’s latest book, Active Faith, which calls upon Christians to “repudiate the demonization of women who are pregnant out of wedlock, condemn violence at abortion clinics in unequivocal terms, and pour our greatest efforts into education, persuasion, and prayer—not politics alone.” Reed decries “arm-twisting” and pleads for “moral persuasion.” Religious conservatives, he says, will resist the temptation to force “compliance with the moral principles that motivate us so deeply.”

It’s easy to question Reed’s sincerity. “If this change of rhetoric is indeed a change of heart,” says Huffman, “then, amen.” Yet Huffman is skeptical. “Are we to trust [Reed]?” he asks. “I hope we can.”

Perhaps nowhere was the newer, nicer Christian Coalition more in evidence than during a recent “Leaders of Faith Day at the Capitol” sponsored by a consortium of conservative religious groups, including the Coalition. The event, which was designed to give clergy and the public a chance to meet with their legislators and learn their way around the hill, placed a premium on developing respectful, credible relationships with lawmakers. According to Johnson, Coalition leaders told their members, “You need to pray for your elected officials, encourage them, and thank them.”

Only time will tell if the Christian Coalition has indeed had a conversion experience and adopted a kinder, gentler political persona. But at the very least, the organization’s attempts to align itself more closely with the Republican mainstream are paying off; the media’s coverage of the 1996 Republican National Convention made it clear enough that Reed and the Coalition had finally won a seat at the party’s table. But then again, some speculate that the advent of the 21st century will see the Coalition emerge as a third party both formidable and viable enough to challenge the hegemony of the nation’s two-party political system.

“There are as many people in the Republican Party who want us to go away as there are ones who embrace us in that party,” Crisp admits. “If I were concerned with a third party in this country, it would not be Ross Perot’s [Reform Party]. I’d be concerned about [the Christian Coalition and other religious conservatives forming] a third party.”

Others, such as State Democratic Party Chairman Will Cheek, aren’t so sure. “I think of [religious conservatives] as being in the low double-digits in voting population,” Cheek says. “In a close general election, such as the 18-percent voter turnout we had in August, they can certainly provide the margin [of victory].” But, says Cheek, when evangelical voters have to compete with the 55-percent turnout that he anticipates in November’s presidential election, “that puts their numbers more in perspective—and then you can beat them.”

The next few years, which will be rife with portentous rhetoric about the new millenium, will no doubt be proving ground for the emerging Coalition. Nevertheless, there is one certainty: Conservative Christians like Janice Johnson and Jon Crisp—people convinced that society is in serious moral decline, people who are working to translate their faith convictions into public policy—are here to stay. Some of what they stand for is extremist, even scary, but they will persist as a force to be reckoned with because they work harder, and are more determined, than just about any other political activists around.

“There’s a difference between interest and commitment,” Johnson explains. “When you’re interested in doing something, you do it only when circumstances permit. When you’re committed to something, you accept no excuses, only results.”

“There’s a difference between interest and commitment,” Johnson explains. “When you’re interested in doing something, you do it only when circumstances permit. When you’re committed to something, you accept no excuses, only results.”

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