By BILL BERKOWITZ
Last fall, Rev. Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition's launched its "Countdown to Victory" campaign. In mid-March, former Moral Majority head Rev. Jerry Falwell announced his "People of Faith 2000" crusade. Now, Rev. Lou Sheldon has jumped on board with his "Election 2000 Battle Plan."
The finest campaign strategies that money can buy often go astray. George W. Bush's brain trust intended to distance W. as far as possible from Christian Right leaders like Robertson, Falwell and Sheldon. But last fall's calm campaign calculations turned into panic-time in February when Sen. John McCain emerged victorious in the New Hampshire primary. It was then imperative that Bush win South Carolina. A campaign consisting of raking in bushels of cash, while dispensing a squishy "compassionate conservatism" looked to the Christian Right for a big-time bail-out. The Right delivered the votes, which changed everything for Bush.
When a Republican needs to win a primary in a conservative state, it's the political connections stupid! To activate those connections, Bush called on Ralph Reed, the former executive director of Robertson's Christian Coalition who now heads Century Strategies, his own political consulting outfit. Reed is politically savvy and is favorably viewed by the media as the "kinder, gentler" version of the late great Republican Party legendary hatchet man and campaign guru Lee Atwater.
Reed easily secured the support of Christian Right activists on the ground. Bush's victory turned into a grand coming out party for the Christian Right. First, they delivered the vote. Then, Robertson and Falwell took a big hit for W, as they were verbally assaulted by McCain who called them "agents of intolerance."
For some time now both Robertson and Falwell have been expressing their support for Bush's candidacy. Neither of them has led a cloistered media-life during the past few years. You can tune in nightly to The 700 Club on television and hear all kinds of wacky world views from Robertson. And during the Clinton impeachment period Falwell became the toast of television's talking head programs.
Now that Bush has sewed up the nomination he must deal head-on with the Christian Right. Bush understands that he must hightail it to the political center. However, the three Reverends are loading up their campaign wagons and are getting ready for Election 2000.
1999 was not a great year for the Christian Coalition as both Robertson and the Coalition experienced some pretty rough times.
Early on, Robertson incurred the wrath of many of the Christian Right's most important leaders by declaring that the impeachment of President Clinton was a lost cause and that it was time to move on.
Internally, the organization was in disarray. The two officials who took over running the operation after the resignation of Ralph Reed were summarily dismissed by Robertson. Both Donald Hodel, who was president, and Randy Tate, the Coalition's executive director, were terminated, and Robertson took over the group's leadership.
After years of haggling with the Internal Revenue Service, the Coalition finally gave up its fight for tax exempt status. According to reporter John C. Henry of the Houston Chronicle, the Coalition then split "into two separate groups and anoint[ed] its Texas operation as the 'principal vehicle' for its national operations."
There were a series of financial setbacks: a shortfall caused the Coalition to cease publication of its glossy bi-monthly Christian American magazine -- its primary vehicle for communicating with their constituency -- and replaced it with a weekly e-mail newsletter.
Although Robertson is a fabulously wealthy man, Church & State magazine reported in January that the Coalition was "being sued for nearly $400,000 by a direct-mail marketing firm that says it hasn't been paid since last spring." Stephen Winchell, of Winchell and Associates, said that the Coalition may owe as much as $2 million to various vendors.
Of major political import was the ruling by US District Judge Joyce Green which, reported the Washington Times, "threw out much of a 1996 government lawsuit charging that the Coalition's voter guides, phone banks and other operations were partisan activities designed to aid Republican candidates and should be treated as contributions under federal law." The organization's website calls the voter guides "the most visible and highest profile project by our organization." Once Green made her decision the door was opened for the Coalition's strategic involvement in the 2000 elections.
Whatever you think of Robertson -- whether he's a charlatan, a clown, an incredibly astute businessman, a super-duper organizer, or all of the above -- you have to give the man credit for hanging in there and working to reassert the political power of his organization.
The Coalition's fundraising appeals center around winning back the White House for the Republican Party. In November, Robertson in fundraising overdrive warned his constituents that "we're at war with the powers of darkness and I believe God is telling us, first, to pray fervently -- pray to get energized and directed. Then we must act in faith!"
"Acting in faith" included completing "Christian Roll Call 2000," a questionnaire laying out "7 Reasons" for getting involved in Election 2000 including: the rise of anti-Christian bigotry; media bias against Christian groups; and the need to reverse Roe v. Wade.
Robertson's December letter lays out the nuts and bolts of its "Countdown to Victory" campaign. The plan: "Before Election Day 2000, we will distribute more than 70 million voter guides showing where candidates stand on key issues." "The voter guides," says Robertson "are a crucial strategic weapon in our Countdown to Victory Plan."
Here is what the Coalition is aiming to accomplish:
1) "work to ensure at least 85 percent Christian voter turnout in the key early primary and caucus states in January and February";
2) "register millions of new Christian voters";
3) "collect hundreds of thousands of petitions urging leaders of both major parties ... not to ignore the concerns of Christian voters";
4) "recruit at least one 'servant leader' in each of 175,000 precincts in America -- organizing Christian Americans locally for political action."
Although many liberal pundits take delight in frequently writing off the religious right and the Christian Coalition, this is clearly a premature obituary. Bush's primary victories were in large part due to the heavy turnout by Robertson's troops.
Despite the fact that he has been a man without a political organization -- his Moral Majority folded in 1989 -- Jerry Falwell continues to be in the public spotlight.
Throughout the Clinton impeachment hearings Falwell was a favorite television guest of Larry King and Geraldo Rivera -- often paired with his old nemesis and current "buddy," Larry Flynt. A little over a year ago he angered Jews by preaching, at a pastor's conference, that the Antichrist, the archnemesis of God, may be a Jew who is alive today. Who can forget when Falwell's National Liberty Journal outed Tinky-Winky, a character on Teletubbies the British television show for toddlers. Last October, in an attempt to soften his image, he hosted gay minister Mel White and 200 gay Christians at his Lynchburg, Va. headquarters and pledging to tone down his anti-gay rhetoric.
Recently Falwell has joined forces with Christian Right stalwarts Rev. Lou Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition, Rev. D. James Kennedy of the Center for Reclaiming America and Peter LaBarbera of Americans for Truth about Homosexuality, in condemning gay rights activists and the leaders of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) for their campaign of "demonization" against Dr. Laura Schlessinger, talk-radio's "queen of mean."
George W. must have fallen out of his hammock when, in mid-March, Falwell announced a seven-month campaign to "reclaim America as one nation under God." In his press release, Falwell used a time-honored Christian Right rhetorical tool claiming that "the demonization of conservative people of faith is being accelerated in the Congress as well as in the media." Falwell, the founder and chancellor of the 10,000-student Liberty University, says that he has seen these "orchestrated plans of liberals and civil libertarians to demonize and marginalize people of faith" before.
Twenty years ago, Falwell's Moral Majority played a key role electing Ronald Reagan president and building a conservative majority in Congress. To accomplish this, Falwell says, they "registered over 8.5 million new voters through the churches and religious organizations and re-activated millions more back into the political arena."
Now, he intends to top that figure: "I am ... announcing a seven-month campaign, ending on November 7 -- Election Day -- which I am calling PEOPLE OF FAITH 2000 ... [during which I will] attempt to energize, inform and mobilize the 70 million religious conservatives in America."
Falwell's PEOPLE OF FAITH 2000 will:
* Mobilize 200,000 ministers, and their congregations, to return America to its spiritual roots;
* Register and bring to the polls at least TEN MILLION new voters;
* Urge all registered, "but apathetic voters to also fulfill their Christian duty by voting this year."
According to Beliefnet, an online publication focusing on religious affairs, Falwell's people plan "to send out pledge cards for newly registered voters to sign, promising they'll vote in the Presidential election." Then, a few weeks before the election "People of Faith 2000 will mount a massive phone-calling campaign to remind the new troops to vote."
On March 23, Falwell wrote that "I am witnessing a rapidly-growing surge of energy among religious conservatives in this nation. Following years of mistreatment and ridicule from the media and the political left, I believe conservative people of faith are once again gearing up to make their voices heard in the critical political elections of 2000."
Falwell says his main goal is to get Bush elected and "to see the Clinton-Gore Administration out of Washington and back to Timbuktu." Black conservative columnist and talk-radio host Armstrong Williams says that Falwell is "the dean; he has the experience and the savvy." "And," Williams adds, "you can trust him not to embarrass the movement." Democrats take a different view. They think that Falwell's re-emergence will make it more difficult for Bush to distance himself from the religious right and move toward the center.
You can bet that Falwell will be trumpeting his new action campaign every day on his two-minute Listen America radio broadcast, which goes out to more than 200 radio stations nationwide. He is beginning to build a new infrastructure and is calling on his old Moral Majority colleagues to join him. Many have already reported for duty.
To most Americans, Rev. Lou Sheldon is not a household name. However, it is clear from the record that he is one of the hardest working guys on the Christian Right. His Anaheim, Calif.-based Traditional Values Coalition (TVC) -- with offices in Washington, D.C. -- has been in the forefront of anti-gay campaigns and lobbying for more than two decades. And although he doesn't possess the mediagenic qualities of someone like Rev. Fred Phelps of Topeka, Kansas, who's often seen picketing funerals of prominent gay figures, Sheldon has earned his share of mainstream media coverage.
Sheldon got his start around the same time that Anita Bryant was peddling orange juice and her anti-gay opinions. But he has had a whole lot more staying power than Bryant. In the 1970's, according to a 1994 New York Times profile, Sheldon "campaigned unsuccessfully against repeal of California's anti-sodomy laws and [in 1978] worked with State Senator John V. Briggs on an initiative [which failed] that would have required the dismissal of teachers who were openly homosexual."
Over the years Sheldon, founder and chairman of TVC, has become an expert at conducting wedge-based political campaigns. In 1993, TVC was one of the major distributors of the especially vicious video Gay Rights, Special Rights, which was aimed at attracting support from African Americans by stirring up anti-gay resentment. At that time Sheldon, who had no record of supporting civil rights initiatives, appealed to African Americans by saying that "the freedom train to Selma has been hijacked" by gays.
In 1994, when the Gingrich "Revolution" brought the House under Republican control for the first time in years, the Times noted that Sheldon could now call on some of his friends in high government positions -- including Trent Lott, who was featured in Gay Rights, Special Rights. The Times called Sheldon a "tireless crusader ... [against] rules and regulations that confer equality on homosexuals."
In 1995, Sheldon, who had boasted in a fund-raising letter that he had secured a commitment from Gingrich to hold congressional hearings on how federal funds were used to teach sex education and HIV/AIDS awareness in public schools, got his day in Congress.
TVC became actively involved in the campaign to undermine the nomination of the openly-gay Jim Hormel as US envoy to Luxembourg in 1998. And, in a recent campaign aimed at convincing Latino elected officials in the Central Valley in California to vote against AB222, which would have added sexual orientation to a bill providing for a safer environment for school children, Sheldon once again played wedge-issue politics. A mailer depicting a black man kissing a Latino man and warning "Protect the children against homosexual assault" appeared to be an open invitation to anti-gay violence. This winter, TVC worked tirelessly to ensure the passage of Proposition 22, California's anti same-sex marriage initiative.
Now, Sheldon has unveiled his ambitious "Election 2000 Battle Plan," -- " a proposal to fill America's highest elected offices in 2000 with leaders who are committed to the traditional moral and Biblical values that made America great." In order to achieve "nothing less than 100 percent Christian voter participation in the 2000 Elections," Sheldon's three-pronged campaign aims to raise an estimated $12 million in order to:
1) Ensure an Informed Christian Vote -- 50 million voter guides ($750,000); TV, radio and newspaper advertisements ($930,000); the Internet ($450,000);
2) Identify 15,000,000 brand new Christian voters -- Christian Voter I.D. Project ($2.5 million); TV, radio and newspaper ads ($450,000); Mobilize TVC's network of 43,000 churches ($660,000);
3) Generate a record-breaking Christian voter turnout -- voter contact, mail & phone ($3.3 million); building a transportation infrastructure ($1.2 million); vote at home program ($1.3 million); holding "Christian Action" and "Candidate Training" schools across America ($680,000).
Robertson, Falwell and Sheldon have loaded up the wagons and are out working the grassroots for money and support for their election year campaigns. These ambitious activities are focused on cleansing Washington of the Clinton-Gore years, and electing "moral leaders who believe in Biblical principles." They have decided that Bush is their kind of "moral leader." Meanwhile, the Bush campaign is slowly trying to move away from these fellows and glide toward the middle of the political spectrum. That's where W. needs to be if he expects to win the Presidency.
Berkowitz is editor of CultureWatch (www.igc.org/culturewatch), a monthly publication tracking the Religious Right and related conservative movements, published by Oakland's DataCenter. Subscriptions are $35 a year. Contact him via phone: 510-835-4692, ext. 308, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. For a free sample, send self-addressed stamped envelope to: CultureWatch, 1904 Franklin St., Suite 900, Oakland, CA 94612.