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Attack of the Christian Soldiers

How the Christian message is shaping American politics

Phyllis Schlafly, pressroom

Phyllis Schlafly at the State house pressroom on February 8th, 1984.

Duane Howell/The Denver Post via Getty

Washington D.C.

In last fall’s congressional campaign, Representative Mel Levine of California learned that he was “un-Biblical.” His opponent, Robert Scribner, pastor of the Pacific Palisades Foursquare Church, circulated a four-page campaign brochure that included an examination of “the Bible and Mel Levine.” The brochure opened with a headline from Proverbs –— When the Righteous Rule, the People Rejoice! –— and cited Scripture from Nehemiah to Psalms to prove that Levine’s votes on everything from taxes to school prayer were votes against the Bible.

In Georgia, Representative Elliott Levitas had his own encounter with the other side. His opponent, Pat Swindall, ran television ads that asked, “Do you want your congressman to vote like a New York liberal?” The Republican National Congressional Committee sent voters a sugary letter written by Swindall’s wife, Kim, that described her husband’s Christian affiliations and said, “He’s ‘one of us.'” Swindall’s followers also distributed prayer guides that urged the faithful to pray “That the homosexuals and feminists . . . [and] Environmentalists . . . would not block vote against Pat and the President and other godly candidates . . . That Pat’s opponent . . . would come to know the Lord.”

In southwestern Michigan, another candidate, Jackie McGregor, was aided in her challenge to Representative Howard Wolpe by a campaign letter to local pastors signed by Representative Mark Siljander, “Christian” congressman from a neighboring district. In the letter, Siljander described himself as “serving under the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ” and expressed dismay that the incumbent “has voted against the traditional American values which have helped build this country into the evangelistic arm it has become.”

The Christian message carried an extra meaning in these three congressional races. Howard Wolpe is Jewish. Mel Levine is Jewish. Elliott Levitas is Jewish. Of course the challengers vigorously deny they intended to draw attention to their opponents’ religion, but it is hard to avoid a whiff of anti-Semitism when one is using code words and phrases like “un-Biblical,” “one of us” and “New York liberal.” Congressman Siljander’s office says it is “absurd” to impute anti-Semitism to his campaign letter, since he is a stalwart supporter of Israel. Still, one member of his staff said that if the congressman had it to do over, he would not use the same punch line: “Send another Christian to Congress.”

Ronald Reagan’s landslide victory in 1984 was aided by a new set of code words in American politics –— new ways to call an opponent immoral or disloyal without actually saying so. The key code word is Christian, a perfect cover for dirty politics.

The political “Christians” are all Republicans, and their efforts to mobilize fundamentalist voters with Biblical quotations aimed at infidel Democrats have paid off handsomely. Newly registered “Christian” voters were considered the crucial difference in the reelection of Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina and in at least seven of the Republicans’ congressional victories last year. The Republican party kept a safe distance from the nastier tactics used in these campaigns but, of course, benefited from them, too. The president himself consecrated the effort last summer when he formally embraced the “Christian” political activists in a White House meeting.

Wolpe and Levine won. Levitas lost. None thinks the religious attacks were decisive one way or the other. Still, they and others are understandably disturbed by the undertone of religious bigotry that their opponents brought to the campaigns, as they played on the irrational fears and prejudices of many voters.

“It wouldn’t have mattered to those guys if I was Catholic or Protestant or Jewish, as long as I voted the way I do,” Representative Levine explained, “but it obviously can bring out some ugly stuff when you are Jewish. It’s not very subtle. They questioned my belief in God, which doesn’t belong in politics in the first place but raises a question of anti-Semitism when the candidate is Jewish.”

Although Levine won easily, he lost in some blue-collar areas where the attacks on his faith were apparently effective. Though his district is supposedly a safe Democratic seat, Levine has been told that the Republican party is targeting him for 1986 and is preparing a repeat of the “un-Biblical” innuendos. Levitas doesn’t blame his defeat on the religious code words, but he fears that a subtle line has been crossed in American politics, the “line between the religious inspiration that motivates and the religious arrogance that imposes. . . .The danger here is obvious –— the public instruments of state will be taken over by sectarian, right-thinking Christians and transformed into weapons of conformity.”

The Christian code words are already much more widely used than many may realize. In broadcasts reaching 12 to 20 million people, preachers such as Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and Jimmy Swaggart spell out their political objectives. Falwell alone broadcasts in 165 media markets, Robertson in 128, Swaggart in 187. Here is what these men are saying.

Pat Robertson: “The minute you turn [the Constitution] into the hands of non-Christian people and atheistic people, they can use it to destroy the very foundation of our society.”

Jerry Falwell: “The idea that religion and politics don’t mix was invented by the devil to keep Christians from running their own country.”

Jimmy Swaggart: “When you take God Almighty out of the affairs of the republic, you have nothing left.”

That’s strong talk, but these are private citizens entitled to their own views. What is disturbing, however, is that the same sort of pious rhetoric is now emanating from the federal government. Since the election, true believers of the Falwell persuasion, who have been salted throughout the Reagan administration over the last four years, have been acting more boldly, evidently forgetting that the First Amendment prohibits religious proselytizing by the government.

The Department of Health and Human Services, for example, recently sent welfare officials sample sermons on adoptions, urging that they be used by local religious leaders. “The holiday season is a time to look at the life of Jesus as a child and his mission to bring salvation,” one of the federal sermons stated. “The purpose of his life and death was to restore us to our rightful place as children of God, to enable us to have the privilege of calling God –— Father.”

Over at the Department of Education, Thomas G. Tancredo, regional head in the department’s Denver office, was more specific on how to spread the faith. He sent Èhristian schools in a six-state area in the West a twelve-page speech, first delivered by an official of the Moral Majority, that extolled the virtues of Christian schools over public schools. “We see more and more signs of governmental intervention into the areas of parental responsibility which have for centuries been held inviolate,” Tancredo warned in his cover letter. “It is a dangerous phenomenon and one that must be brought to the attention of good citizens everywhere.”

The speech lamented, “What has happened to our Christian system of values? The change from ‘one nation under God’ to a nation without God didn’t happen over night. But Christians are just now waking up to the fact that godlessness is controlling every aspect of our so-called ‘democratic and free’ society —– it controls our entertainment, our news, and even the education of our children.”

Such “Christian” propaganda efforts have been dismissed by most people as harmless. So have two federal laws recently enacted by Congress with “Christian” sponsorship. The first, a set of new regulations implementing the 1978 Hatch Amendment, went into effect late last year and requires parental consent before schoolchildren can participate in federally funded “psychiatric or psychological experimentation, testing or treatment.” The second prohibits the teaching of “secular humanism” in federally assisted magnet schools. “Secular humanism” was not defined by Congress, so the Department of Education proposed letting individual school districts decide its meaning. “Secular humanism” is another new code word; it politely cloaks the same accusation right-wingers have always used against their political opponents: that they are godless communists.

The federal laws are so vague that they seem innocuous, but they are already being used as political weapons by right-wing groups around the country. These people are demanding that school boards remove dangerous books from libraries, abandon counseling programs and stop teaching sex education, drug education and other “un-Christian” subjects.

A Maryland group recently petitioned against any classroom discussion of a long list of subjects, including nuclear war, interpersonal relationships, human sexuality, witchcraft and the occult, political affiliations, income and “anti-nationalistic, one world government.” In Corvallis, Oregon, the school board threw in the towel and dropped its counseling program to avoid right-wing heat. In St. David, Arizona, educators removed Homer, Hawthorne and Hemingway from reading lists after being instructed on the threat of creeping humanism.

Much of this agitation is being stirred up by right-wing gadfly Phyllis Schlafly, as well as a group called Pro-Family Forum, based in Fort Worth, Texas. Pro-Family is now distributing a hair-raising pamphlet titled “Is Humanism Molesting Your Child?” It describes a sinister plan to undermine God, country and family by brainwashing kids in the classroom.

“Under Lenin and Stalin,” the pamphlet explains, “Pavlov developed the technique of conditioning dogs to bring about the desired results and from this beginning Humanist psychologists and behavioral scientists successfully developed techniques which can gradually change your child’s conscience, personality, values and behavior.” Dangerous subjects include sex, feminism, racial equality, ecology, disarmament and death.

Although not intended as such, the new laws are being used by Pro-Family Forum and other groups as the legal basis for demanding that these and other subjects not be taught in the public classroom. Civil libertarians have tried to have the laws repealed but have been unable to find a sponsor in Congress. Leave the laws alone, they are told. Fighting for repeal isn’t worth the grief and abuse from the far right.

No one can accurately measure the damage. According to a national survey conducted by People for the American Way, a group founded by TV producer NorÈan Lear, most school boards resist the demands for censorship, but some do not. More importantly, many teachers and school administrators acknowledge privately that they avoid the wrath of the right-wing minority by imposing self-censorship –— they steer clear of controversial subjects or provocative books, even if such material is important for a child’s education. To that extent, everyone loses.

North Carolina, home of Jesse Helms, is one of the battlegrounds on which an alliance of “Christian” crusaders has launched an all-out attack. In addition to reelecting Helms and defeating three Democratic congressmen last fall, the “Christians” have gained a foothold in the state legislature and are pushing through their own agenda. Meanwhile, many local school boards are confronted by citizen’s groups anxious to strip the curriculum of anything that offends their faith.

Fundamentalists in the legislature, led by the Reverend Coy Privette, director of the Christian Action League, are demanding a North Carolina version of the Hatch Amendment, one that would expand the potential for right-wing harassment of public schools. Such a proposal has been endorsed by the North Carolina Baptist State Convention, which represents twenty percent of the state’s population.

The “Christian” legislators are also fighting off state regulation of Christian day-care centers, including existing legal restraints on corporal punishment.

The most disturbing aspect of these developments is the increasing paranoia of the “Christians.” Their accusations against public figures are starting to sound like those made thirty years ago by Senator Joe McCarthy. William Friday, the well-respected president of the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, who has committed the sin of endorsing federal aid for public education, recently received a letter asking, “Are you a Christian? What is your stand on abortion? Are you part of a global organization that is trying to undermine traditional values?”

As the tempo of the attack quickens, many educators and religious leaders are beginning to express their disgust with this right-wing paranoia. But according to Barry Hager, North Carolina director of People for the American Way, they are, for the most part, keeping silent.

“They realize that the Moral Majority crowd is a kind of threat to their liberty, and that’s very encouraging,” Hager said. “The difficulty is that you don’t see many ‘profiles in courage.’ It’s tough to stand up against these folks in public, because they fight real mean. If you get in a fight with them, you know you’ll be called godless or a secular humanist or antireligion or eventually a communist. Finally though, you have to say, ‘These people are a danger; we’ve got to stand up to them.'”

Like so many others, I first reacted to such intolerance with mild annoyance. After all, these fundamentalist preachers and politicians sounded so goofy in their certitude that it was impossible to imagine they would ever become anything more than marginally influential.

But it is on the margins of politics that people get hurt and civil liberties are compromised in ways that add up. And the longer these tactics are condoned by responsible party leaders and ignored by the majority, the more they will spread. The question is, when will decent people, including Republican leaders, get aroused and say they’ve had enough?

Today’s political situation is similar to the McCarthy era, when leaders of the Republican party, including President Eisenhower and Senator Robert A. Taft, looked the other way. For some years, they benefited from McCarthyism and silently condoned the vicious attacks on the patriotism of Democratic opponents, respected educators and civil servants. Eventually, they were compelled to abandon McCarthyism, when its slanderous tactics became too offensive for the general public to bear.

These days, likewise, the leading Republican candidates for 1988 are busy ingratiating themselves with the TV preachers, closing their eyes to the code words of hate, while counting on the preachers’ ability to mobilize fundamentalist voters. Sooner or later, the Republican party will have to choose either to exploit right-wing preachers or to disown them. Many Republicans believe they have a real shot at dislodging the Democrats as the majority party in America, but I don’t think a majority of the American people will support a party of intolerance.

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