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Opposition Research

Focus on Some Families

By Sara Diamond

 

Critics of the Christian right have seized on the movement's "stealth" tactics to portray a growing number of evangelical activists as "extremists" operating outside the bounds of our supposedly democratic system. It is true that in some parts of the country the Right has taken over school boards and local Republican party central committees by running slates of first time candidates without publicizing their organizational ties. But this late in the game it is overly simplistic and downright dishonest to blame the Christian Right's continuing local electoral and legislative successes on the work of a handful of covert operators. What accounts for the movement's forward march toward power is its relentless organizing within churches, made possible by the network of Christian broadcast stations, magazines and newspapers, unfettered by the mainstream press. If ever there was a movement that knew how to use alternative media and do grassroots organizing, it is the Christian Right.

And the content of much of this organizing would surprise outsiders. We've become accustomed to thinking that all the Christian Right wants to do is bulldoze its own people into elected office. But reality is more subtle than that, as I learned during a recent all-day Community Impact Seminar, sponsored by the Focus on the Family mega-radio ministry in different cities almost every weekend. This one was held at an Assemblies of God church in Fremont, California and drew about 200 participants--only about a dozen of whom were ministers--from the Bay area and further south.

One of the first things one needs to take note of at this sort of gathering is the parking lot. There were plenty of late model Hondas and Oldsmobiles with the obligatory fish-shaped ornament on the rear. There was an "I'm the NRA" bumper sticker, but there was also one that said "Don't trust the liberal media," and I wondered where I could get one of those.

The two guys who conducted the seminar did not fit the stereotype of what they themselves kept jokingly referring to as "right-wing fundamentalist fanatics." From headquarters in Colorado Springs, Focus on the Family sends two alternating teams of intellectuals to present a seven-hour set of polished and compelling motivational lectures. Allen Crippen has a master's degree from Westminster Theological Seminary and used to be a development director for a missionary youth group in Colorado. Greg Jesson is a philosophy professor who got his Ph.D. from the University of Southern California. Jesson was a student of the late philosopher Francis Schaeffer whose 1981 book A Christian Manifesto remains one of the most influential on why evangelicals need to be active in politics.

The day began with a session answering the question "Why should Christians be socially and politically involved?" Crippen stressed that fear, anger, and hatred are exactly the wrong reasons. Using an overhead slide projector and a litany of Bible verses, Crippen said evangelicals should be active out of "love of neighbor," to more effectively evangelize and save souls, and because Christians are obliged to be good citizens--unless "unjust" laws require them to commit civil disobedience. Crippen and Jesson made frequent references to the immorality of abortion and homosexuality but their purpose was not to fan those flames. "Our desire today is not to whip you up and turn you loose on the Bay area like a bunch of pit bulls," Crippen said. The lesson seemed to be that Christians need affirmative justifications for their activism.

The speakers sought to downplay some of the disreputable misinformation widely circulated within the Christian Right. For example, a number of organizations specialize in selling pseudohistorical books and tapes claiming that America's Founding Fathers were all Bible-believing Christians and that, therefore, this ought to be a "Christian nation." Some of Focus on the Family's own affiliates promote this line. But Crippen tried to clean up the revisionist act a bit by acknowledging that some of the Founding Fathers, e.g. Benjamin Franklin, were not Christians at all. "Be careful," he said. "Precision in this area is essential to advancing the First Amendment debate." Nevertheless, Crippen said, all the Founding Fathers shared a "Christian cultural consensus," and nowhere but in one of Thomas Jefferson's letters to a group of Baptists did any of the Fathers mention a wall separating church and state.

Greg Jesson extended Crippen's point on the need for more accurate information. He argued that Christians will fail to solve society's "crisis of cultural authority" if they follow the strategy of others on the Christian Right who think the answer is to replace the "gatekeepers"--elites in government, media, education, law and entertainment--with people who claim to be born-again. (Interestingly, he omitted corporate elites, many of whom are already mainstays of right-wing support.) Jesson cited survey data culled by Christian pollster George Barna, showing that 66 percent of the public--including a large percentage of self-identified evangelicals--does not believe in such a thing as "absolute truth." Jesson told the activists that they are "in danger of a massive misdiagnosis of culture" if they proceed as if there really is a "moral majority" in America. Recognizing that Bible-believing Christians represent only a minority of Americans, he urged the activists to stop condemning their political opponents and to start learning to speak persuasively to a "post-Christian culture."

Jesson traced the roots of Christianity's declining influence to shifts in Western culture's dominant philosophical paradigm over the past few hundred years: from reliance on Aristotelian and Christian thought to scientific empiricism and from there downward to relativism and subjectivism. I agreed with Jesson's claim that relativism and subjectivism leave one able to truly "know" only one's own group or one's personal feelings. But he blamed subjectivism and its resulting nihilism on science--because scientists have different vantage points--which was a great leap of logic. In any event, it was the kind of lecture one would expect to hear in a university hall but not on the floor of a pentecostal church.

 

Capital and Resources

The Community Impact Seminar's highbrow approach was not altogether surprising. It seems obvious that Focus on the Family wants to weed out the rubes and flakes who just want to get political without any forethought. Those not turned-off by the first seminar's lofty content can sign up for subsequent training's and political campaign schools where the substance is more practical. Beyond this natural selection process, though, Focus' toned down rhetoric seems intended as a corrective to some of the Christian Right's recent excesses. Violence at abortion clinics, cruel anti-gay rhetoric, and the stealth election tactics of partisan groups like the Christian Coalition have not only outraged the general public. Such antics have also kept some of the Christian Right's own would-be constituents reluctant to get involved. The Community Impact Seminar is designed to break through this impasse by training already seasoned activists to motivate uninvolved members of their own churches. Theoretically, each person who attends the seminar is supposed to go back to his or her church and start a committee that will keep the whole church informed and ready to spring into action with legislative lobbying, boycotts, clinic blockades and the like.

Focus on the Family started conducting these seminars about three years ago, in conjunction with a network of affiliated state think tanks now numbering three dozen. In California, the Sacramento-based Capitol Resource Institute (CRI) tracks legislation and mobilizes grassroots lobbyists via Christian broadcast stations and about 100 "community impact committees" up and down the state.

CRI is a perfect example of how large infusions of capital from a few rich donors, combined with pressure in the name of large numbers of constituents give the Christian Right the capacity to wield clout within state legislatures. CRI is funded largely by the California Christian Right's two major benefactors, Howard Ahmanson and Robert Hurtt. Ahmanson is the heir to the Home Savings of America dynasty. Hurtt owns a lucrative container supply company. In 1988, Ahmanson, Hurtt and two other Christian business leaders formed the Capitol Commonwealth Group, through which they have spent over a million dollars electing new right-wing members of the California state legislature. In 1993, Hurtt got himself elected to the state Senate.

But Hurtt is only one of what CRI calls its "family-friendly legislators." According to the think tank's monthly newsletter, at the start of the 1994 legislative session, CRI hosted a breakfast for 17 friendly members of the California Assembly and Senate who "affirmed their commitment to traditional family values" and began receiving CRI's twice weekly "Blue Page" sheet recommending "yes" or "no" votes on each piece of family-related legislation. State Senator Tim Leslie helped CRI establish the group of pro-Christian Right legislators, who call themselves the Conference on the Preservation of the Family.

These elected officials understand the power of the Ahmanson-Hurtt consortium to make or break elections, and they also understand the kind of grassroots muscle CRI can marshal, at will. Among this year's priorities, CRI has organized a group of medical doctors, the California Physicians Advisory Council, which is currently sponsoring two state bills that, if passed, would require county health officials to identify HIV positive individuals. (The bills' sponsors are the same people who want to ban laws protecting gays and lesbians from housing and employment discrimination.)

On the education front, CRI has been a leader in the fight to remove supposedly invasive and "anti-family" skills testing from the California Learning Assessment System (CLAS) exam administered to public elementary and high school students. This public brouhaha began in late 1993. Under pressure from Louis Sheldon's Traditional Values Coalition, California's Department of Education removed from this year's tenth grade CLAS test Alice Walker's short story "Roselily," on grounds that the story was anti-religious. Amid public controversy the Board of Education voted to restore "Roselily." But by then a slew of Christian Right groups realized the hay they could make with the CLAS test.

The prelude to this spring's campaign against CLAS was a surprise victory for the Christian Right on a failed Congressional bill to regulate home schooling teachers. In February Congress member George Miller (D-CA) added to a House education bill an amendment that would have required private and home school teachers to be state-certified in all subjects they teach. About a week before the scheduled vote, attorney Michael Farris, president of the 37,000-member Home School Legal Defense Association, leapt into action. Through interviews on Christian radio stations and through a fax and phone tree network of home schoolers' associations in every state, Farris and others mobilized an estimated 800,000 constituent calls to Congress against HR 6. Reportedly, in one week there were more calls to Congress over this bill than there were against gays in the military, and in the end, every member of Congress except George Miller voted against state certification of home school teachers. Farris attributed the victory in large part to his appearances on Marlin Maddoux's USA Radio Network and Dr. James Dobson's Focus on the Family radio show, both nationally syndicated.

On the heels of the HR 6 victory, CRI and various Christian Right radio hosts kept the school issue fires burning. In California, they turned toward the CLAS test, and people who admitted they have never even seen the test began circulating apocryphal stories about its contents. One widely repeated story claims that the math portion of the test includes a word problem asking students how they would divide 17 apples between four students. If the test were really about measuring math skills, they say, the answer would be to give each student four and a quarter apples. But CLAS opponents say the only "politically correct" answer is to divide 16 apples evenly and then give the remaining one to the student who is most needy. That, they say, is socialist brain washing.

CLAS was developed several years ago as an alternative to multiple choice achievement tests. CLAS requires students to explain their math answers, perform science experiments, and demonstrate their reading comprehension by writing essay answers and relating what they read to their own experiences. The idea of more than one "correct" answer has driven educational reactionaries up the wall. They see CLAS as part of a broader conspiracy by educational elites to impose Outcome Based Education (OBE), an umbrella term used to describe state and local curricular initiatives that, if implemented, would work on students' "self-esteem" and require them to demonstrate problem solving skills beyond the three Rs.

Amid the flurry of propaganda aimed at CLAS and OBE, the Rutherford Institute, a Christian Right legal firm, in April sued the California Department of Education to stop school districts from administering the CLAS test without parental consent. Rutherford also sued individual school districts and, in several counties, won temporary restraining orders for parents who want their children exempted from the CLAS test altogether. At this writing, and only a few weeks into the anti-CLAS campaign, California Governor Pete Wilson has ordered an audit of the CLAS test, and the state schools superintendent has proposed making portions of the test public to alleviate parental fears.

In essence, the Christian Right has found in the CLAS test an ideal activist campaign with virtually no down sides. Either the movement succeeds in getting the test removed, modified or defunded, or rightists will enjoy a permanent pseudo-atrocity they can point to in their claims that the state is undermining "family values." Among the very few printed materials available at the Focus on the Family Community Impact Seminar was the Capitol Resource Institute's packet on how to lobby state legislators against CLAS.

 

In Focus

Focus on the Family, like many other evangelical organizations, is both a religious ministry and a political project. At the helm of the $90 million a year operation is psychologist Dr. James Dobson, whose best-selling book on childrearing Dare to Discipline has made him a kind of born-again Dr. Spock. Dobson's popularity has grown steadily since he founded Focus in 1977. Presently, Dobson's half-hour daily radio broadcast airs on 1400 mostly Christian stations, and every month Dobson's staff answers about 250,000 letters from listeners seeking marital, family and personal advice. On the air, Dobson, the homespun radio persona hosts guests on predictable "family" themes. Recent program titles have included: "Facing Your Financial Future," "Hope for the Homosexual," "Positive Parenting," and "Group Pressure and How to Handle It." Off-air, more than two million people receive Focus's ten different magazines. There is one for radio listeners, two for young children, three for teenagers, one each for parents, teachers, and physicians.

There is also a monthly magazine for political activists. Citizen magazine has 200,000 subscribers who also receive a free monthly newsletter from the Family Research Council (FRC). In 1988 Dobson joined forces with this Washington, DC think tank, headed by former Reagan aide Gary Bauer. Focus and FRC recently cut their legal ties so that Bauer's staff can do full-fledged lobbying without jeopardizing Focus' educational tax status.

But contrary to its projected image as just another evangelical ministry, Focus is overtly partisan. In 1992 Dobson and company played pivotal roles in passing Colorado's anti-gay rights Amend<->ment. As the Amendment spon\sor Colorado for Family Values tells it in their new book Gay Politics vs. Colorado and America, the petition drive to put the initiative on the ballot was floundering until Dr. Dobson decided to air a nationwide radio program about it. Suddenly, recalls CFV's Revin Tebedo, "Our phones began ringing off the wall. We had volunteers suddenly begging to carry petitions." And according to a recent expose of CFV's tactics by SF Bay Times reporter Tim Kingston, Focus helped CFV by producing public service announcements aired on nearly every radio station in Colorado.

Nor was the Colorado campaign an isolated foray. In issue after issue of the Citizen magazine, Focus trumpets its latest contributions to the Christian Right's agenda. Through its three dozen family policy councils, and in coordination with Christian radio stations, Focus produces 60-second announcements for local activist groups. In 1990 in Washington state, Focus aired spots to recruit petition gatherers for an anti-abortion ballot initiative. In Ohio Focus aired spots to calls to legislators to protest a sex education program.

Focus has been particularly active on the anti-gay rights front. In 1989 Dobson took credit for using radio broadcasts and personal letters to pastors to bring out the vote against gay rights in three California cities. Last year, in Lewiston, Maine, Focus helped an inexperienced couple establish a committee that succeeded in repealing a local gay rights ordinance .

 

The Power and the Glory

Wherever the action is, Focus on the Family moves to the front of the parade. Dobson has consistently endorsed Operation Rescue and recently played a key role in founding the Alliance Defense Fund, which will coordinate fundraising for a half dozen Christian right legal firms.

On any given issue there is tremendous synergy between what happens over the airwaves, in the courtrooms, and in churches behind the scenes. While Pat Robertson dominates the Christian television medium, James Dobson is the movement's single most influential radio personality. Robertson's Christian Coalition is now an undisguised faction of the Republican party. Dobson's Focus on the Family combines activist training with more subtle cultural programming aimed at a potentially broader audience. Deliberately or not, the movement has developed a division of labor that allows activists of different dispositions to do what they can do best. Some will keep challenging the existing power structure by running for elected office. Others are quietly building parallel institutions in law, education, and media. One does not have to agree with the Christian Right's policy agenda to see that this is good, common sense organizing.