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Hard times for the Christian right?

In February, I attended the fiftieth annual convention of the National Religious Broadcasters Association, held--for the first time in decades--not within the Washington, D.C., "beltway" but in faraway Los Angeles. There, amidst the ruins of last year's riots and at the center of the nation's entertainment industry, 5,000 Christian TV and radio professionals heard speeches on the status of their multibillion-dollar-a-year industry and assessed the health of the evangelical movement that supports it.

No longer do a few scandal-provoking TV preachers dominate religious broadcasting and generate a drum-beat of ridicule from the secular press. The number of full-time TV and radio stations has stabilized at about 100 and 1,200 respectively, while the real growth area has been in the field of cable television. The New Inspirational Network offers 18 of the most popular TV preachers on 550 affiliated cable systems. Pat Robertson's own Family Channel cable network continues to reap profits for the former presidential candidate's complex of media projects. His newest venture, "Standard News:" is a daily news service for Christian radio stations.

Why, then, the long faces among NRB conventioneers? One after another of the religious broadcasters decried the "moral crisis" plaguing the land--all, apparently, because the Clintons now occupy the White House.

This year's NRB convention hosted a poorly attended workshop, "The Pro-Life Movement Under President Clinton," featuring Dr. John Willke, the Ohio pediatrician who founded the National Right-to-Life Committee and has recently launched the Life Issues Institute, a think tank devoted to developing strategies and educational materials for the anti-abortion movement. Willke compared the anti-abortionists' predicament to that of the anti-slavery movement in the years shortly before Abraham Lincoln's 1860 election. Willke warned that the Clinton administration may try to derail the 3,000 "crisis pregnancy centers" set up by anti-abortion activists nationwide by requiring them to meet hospital emergency-room standards. The Democrats, he said, will also change the rules for political-action committees to restrict campaign funding for anti-abortion members of Congress, and the Federal Election Commission will begin busting tax-exempt churches for partisan electioneering. Willke's biggest fear--and one that prompted a formal resolution by the NRB--is that the Federal Communications Commission, under Clinton, will reinstate some version of the old "fairness doctrine" requiring broadcast stations to air "opposing viewpoints" on controversial issues.

Dr. Willke's Life Issues Institute has conducted extensive opinion polling of people who are "pro-life," "pro-choice," and "uncommitted" on the question of legal abortion. Most of the uncommitted have qualms about the morality of abortion but still think a woman has the ultimate right to decide. To combat the widespread impression that anti-abortion activists care more about fetuses than women, Willke urged them to build more "crisis pregnancy centers" and to form fewer picket lines outside abortion clinics. "We have to start oozing compassion for women," he said. "Our Christian media has to sound that trumpet almost ad nauseam."

But there's one woman for whom Willke and his brethren hold no mercy, and that's Hilary Clinton. At his work, shop, Willke told an apocryphal story: it seems that, on the morning of Clinton's inauguration, an anti-abortion activist named Lureen managed to get past a White House security guard and seat herself in the third row of a church service behind Bill and Hillary Clinton. As Bill came down the aisle and shook Lureen's hand, she told him: "God doesn't want you to kill unborn babies." He gave her a blank stare and kept moving. Next, Hillary hugged her, and Lureen repeated: "God doesn't want you to kill unborn babies." Hillary let go of Lureen and stood back; then her countenance changed to that of a person seemingly possessed and she responded: "It is God's law to kill babies."

That a political activist of Willke's stature would peddle a tale like this is a sign of the Christian right's current desperation. But the solemn and fearful tone of the speakers at the NRB convention belies the evangelicals' enduring political clout. No other comparable social movement has the influence over a major political party currently possessed by the Christian right.

In the wake of President Bush's defeat, analysts of all stripes agreed that, without the evangelical vote, the Republicans would have fared far worse. The liberal lobbying group People for the American Way monitored 500 state and local races and reported victories for 40 percent of the candidates backed by the Christian right. In California, 13 out of 22 congressional candidates backed by the Christian right and 16 out of 29 state assembly candidates were elected or reelected. In California, as well as in several other states, the majority of the Republican Party county central committees are now controlled by the Christian right. These central committees influence candidate selection and allocation of campaign funds, so the greater Christian right dominance means more like-minded candidates may win elections in the years to come.

An important historical comparison sheds light on the current relationship between the Christian right and the Republican Party. In 1964, following the embarrassing landslide defeat of Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater--then considered an "extremist" --the mainstream of the party blamed the "radical right," and Goldwater organizers were left to form their own organization, the American Conservative Union. Four years later, Richard Nixon was elected as a "moderate" whom right-wing activists never trusted. Not until 1980 were the old Goldwaterites, joined by newly active evangelicals, successful in drafting their own candidate--Ronald Reagan.

Following Bush's 1992 defeat, however, mainstream Republicans are still energetically courting the right. A small faction of "pro-choice" Republicans, led by former California Congressmember Tom Campbell, has formed the Republican Majority Coalition in an effort to block Christian right influence within the party. But a more representative party faction has emerged in Empower America, a new coalition led by such "Reagan revolution" veterans as former Minnesota Congressmember Vin Weber, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp, former Education Secretary and "drug czar" William J. Bennett, and former United Nations Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick. An explicit goal of Empower America is to integrate evangelical Christians within the party mainstream while not further alienating those Republicans who were offended by the blatant hatemongering at last year's convention in Houston.

Despite whatever public-relations baggage may accompany the inclusion of "fundamentalists" under the Republicans' "big tent," the party's leaders have no intention of forfeiting a bloc of voters which, by various counts, represents one-quarter to one-third of the U.S. population. In a relationship similar to that which used to exist between labor unions and the Democratic Party, the Christian right offers the Republican Party a pre-organized bloc of loyalists who will vote, stuff envelopes, and walk precincts in exchange for the party's maintenance of an uncompromising stand on pivotal social issues.

The Christian right outweighs any constituency the Democrats can currently marshal by virtue of its enormous and mutually supportive organizations. Understanding the nature of the Christian right's organizational strength is the key to forecasting the movement's direction in the next few years.

Religious broadcasting remains the Christian right's single greatest asset. Moreover, Pat Robertson's 1988 presidential campaign taught evangelical activists the value of building strong grass-roots networks geared toward election day and beyond. As of this spring, Robertson's Christian Coalition boasts 700 chapters in an 50 states, and "training schools" convened in 70 cities in recent months. The Christian Coalition's dual purpose is to identify sympathetic voting precincts using sophisticated direct-mail computer technology and to train evangelical candidates to run for local office.

Whereas the Republican Party establishment gears up for elections once every two years, the Christian Coalition is busy in the off-season. Its rank-and-file are prepared to lobby on federal and state legislation; for example, on the heels of last November's election, Christian right groups began circulating petitions against the Freedom of Choice Act, a congressional bill that would legislate once and for all the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. Anti-abortionists will fight this bill tooth and nail; as a last resort, they'll try to saddle any version of the act with restrictive amendments.

The Christian right's legislative campaigns are made possible by the movement's independent communication networks and also by its diligent and skillful research. James Dobson's "Focus on the Family" radio broadcast airs daily on hundreds of Christian stations, while his Washington, D.C.-based think tank, the Family Research Council, conducts legislative research and direct lobbying. Run by former Reagan policy aide Gary Bauer, the FRC has created spin-off think tanks in 28 states which monitor the state legislatures, conduct "community-impact seminars" at local evangelical churches, and lobby on the type of "family" legislation decided at the state level.

The Christian right's electoral and policy activism is complemented by its simultaneous campaigns for people's "hearts and minds." Speakers at the NRB convention pledged renewed commitment to fighting a "cultural war" during their time of exclusion from the halls of federal-level policymaking. No idle phrase, the Christian right's "cultural war" is to be fought on the terrains of education, religious proselytization, and the entertainment industry.

Film critic Michael Medved--whose spurious book Hollywood versus America was debunked in The Humanist's January/February 1993 issue--spoke at the NRB convention general session on television. There, in the convention press releases and in the associations own Religious Broadcasting magazine, the evangelicals gave special recognition to Medved's Jewishness. (He presides over the Pacific Jewish Center in Venice, California, which attempts to draw secular Jews back to a religious life-style.) Medved basked in the warm glow of the evangelicals' fascination with him and lamented Hollywood's alleged portrayal of religious people as if "we all have hair on our arms and clothes from K-Mart." Medved praised the pressure tactics of Ted Baehr's Christian Film and Television Commission, a coalition of evangelical broadcasters who seek reinstatement of the old "Motion Picture and Television Code" as the first step in their drive to control artistic expression.

Medved was a special guest at the NRB's final-evening anniversary banquet; keynote speaker Pat Robertson saluted him as a "good friend." Robertson wasted no time congratulating his fellow broadcasters--in his words, "a royal priesthood"--on their achievements over the past 50 years. "We have entered a time of moral conflict that is hitherto unknown to our nation," Robertson told them. He rattled off the latest statistics on crime, incarceration rates, juvenile delinquency, illegitimate births, and AIDS cases. "Every indice of our national health is in decline," he said. But "the answer is not more tax-and-spend liberalism of the welfare state" Robertson urged the NRB crowd to continue to "mobilize churches in concert" to elect evangelicals to offices from the school board to the House of Representatives. The seven years from now until the end of this millennium are "crucial for the destiny of America," he said. "We don't have to be under the rule of people who engage in bizarre activity. We can cry out to God for a mighty spiritual awakening in this nation."

Another four years under the Bush administration might have led evangelical activists to rest on their laurels. Now relegated to outsider status, but still imbued with crusaders' zeal, the Christian right will use the strength it built during the 12-year reign of Reagan and Bush to blunt the liberal policy agenda of the Clinton administration, while at the same time quietly moving to install its own partisans in seats of political power.

Sara Diamond, author of Spiritual Warfare: The Politics of the Christian Right (South End Press), is a columnist for Z Magazine and a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of California at Berkeley.
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Title Annotation:religious broadcasters, Christian political activists
Author:Diamond, Sara
Publication:The Humanist
Article Type:Column
Date:May 1, 1993
Previous Article:Freedom of religion, freedom from religion.
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