Getting Out God’s Vote
Pat Robertson And The Evangelicals
Frederick Edwords and Stephen McCabe
(As published in the May/June 1987 issue of The Humanist, with additional bibliographic material provided at the end.)
Being the year prior to an election year when the religious right seems to be gathering its strength to make a decisive push for the Republican party and, ultimately, the White House, the Meeting of the National Association of Evangelicals this past March was especially significant. Representing 46,000 churches from more than 70 Protestant denominations and fellowships and serving a constituency estimated as high as 15 million, the NAE’s convention can serve as a barometer for determining the direction the religious right will chart between now and November of 1988. As such, there was much in this recent gathering to raise concern among those sensitive to church-state separation and a host of other dearly held freedoms.
One senses that the NAE itself is uncomfortable with its inability to demonstrate the autonomy from the religious right that it claims. Throughout the conference, the organization’s hierarchy emphasized that the NAE and its affiliate, the National Association of Religious Broadcasters, were not simply a political action committee or a wing of the Republican party. “The NAE stands in a distinctive position between the mainline denominations and the religious right,” according to the official convention press release. Forest D. Montgomery, the NAE’s legal counsel to the office of public affairs reiterated his own uneasiness with what he sees as the widespread misconception that the NAE is “in the pocket” of the Republican party. In a very telling comment, Montgomery admitted that what was truly relevant was not how many members of the NAE are registered Republicans, but that most of them will actually vote Republican.
Montgomery and the NAE’s attempted disclaimers aside, it is difficult to see concrete examples of the political plurality the NAE is so eager to defend. It was certainly absent from the invited speakers at the convention. The three most prominent political figures addressing the convention were all Republicans, and two of these are firmly established as opponents of church- state separation. Both of the latterDDAttorney General Edwin Meese and the Rev. Pat RobertsonDDlaid out, in no uncertain terms, their arguments for politicizing the evangelical movement. And both of their presentations were met with standing ovations.
Edwin Meese’s speech, “The American Experiment: What Did Our Founding Fathers Intend?” was delivered to a packed house. Before he took the podium, an organ pumped bass tones through the room and the odor of chrysanthemums wafted up from the dais. Our nation’s highest judicial officer–the man charged with upholding the integrity of the Constitution–speaking in this churchlike atmosphere, seemed to demonstrate nothing but contempt for the First Amendment. Meese blamed “militant secularists” for driving a wedge between church and state and thereby infringing on the rights of Americans to exercise freely their religious beliefs. He asserted that “religious morality and precepts are essential to an orderly society.” He offered a detailed biography of John Witherspoon, an overlooked Colonial Calvinist minister who, Meese argued, saw the value in a closer connection between church and state. Meese then summed up his own views on freedom of religion in one statement: “We are not a disbelieving nation.”
Pat Robertson was scheduled to deliver a luncheon address on “The Role of Jesus Christ in Modern Society.” But the magnitude of events the previous afternoon in Mobile, Alabama, with Judge Brevard Hand ousting forty-six textbooks from the state’s public schools on the pretext that they taught “the religion of secular humanism,” led Robertson to turn his attention entirely to this matter.
What was curious about Robertson’s shift of topics was the timing of events. How coincidental was it that Robertson had a copy of the 172-page ruling by Judge Hand at the podium, when that document was not made available to the public until that very morning? And how was Robertson able to quote extensively from it, suggesting that he had had time to read it thoroughly? Even before this, Ishmael Jaffree, the attorney who earlier in the case sought to intervene on behalf of humanism, had received by mistake Judge Hand’s autographed copy intended for President Reagan! It therefore is not unreasonable to suggest that some planning went into the timing of this ruling. Was this timing designed to aid Pat Robertson politically?
A Podium As Pulpit
Robertson opened with an attack on The Humanist for declaring “war on the influence of the Christian religion in the educational process of America.” He followed with an overview of American public education. Fueled by Brevard Hand’s fresh fodder, Robertson was quick to lay the blame for the present rate of illiteracy, incompetence, and apathy among American public school students on a number of the religious right’s timeworn whipping boys: “leftist-leaning teacher’s unions,” “secular humanist teacher’s colleges,” a failure to allow “scientific” creationism equal time in public school science classrooms, the absence of prayer in the public schools, textbooks that “are not transmitting our religious and family values,” and a failure to revert to basic values in education.
But, if all had run amok in American public schools, the recent victory in Alabama at least provided him with a measure of satisfaction:
Judge Hand’s decision provided more than just an opportunity for gloating, however. Robertson used it as a springboard for a wider investigation into the role of religion in American life. If one found cause for alarm in Robertson’s treatment of public education, it gave way to near incredulity with his goals of advancing Christian belief through allying church and state.
Such a statement is crucial for understanding the deeper implications of Robertson’s political theory. For those who can see the parallel, Robertson’s position on the divine origin of human rights bears a striking resemblance to that of the most theocratic elements within the religious right. He extended this view to the public schools:
Here he seems to reject the possibility of the schools being religiously neutral. But if Robertson holds that the schools cannot be neutral, then he must see the current conflict only in terms of which religious group seizes control. That Robertson intends to have his religion be the winner in that struggle was revealed in his final rallying cry:
The audience rose to its feet in loud and sustained applause. If there was any lingering suspicion that the NAE might lie in “a distinctive position between the mainline denominations and the religious right,” it was effectively dashed at this moment. Here one of the foremost figures in the race for the Republican presidential nomination was receiving a standing ovation for utterances that more than bordered on an advocacy of theocracy.
Due to a good bit of publicity generated by Prometheus Books, publishers of Salvation for Sale, an expose of Robertson by his former “700 Club” producer, Gerry Straub, Robertson’s religious beliefs were at the top of many questioner’s lists at a press conference held later that afternoon.
Representatives from several local television stations asked Robertson about statements Straub had made at a press conference the previous evening concerning Robertson’s belief that a nuclear war with the Soviet Union was inevitable and would usher in the second coming of Christ. Robertson denied ever having made such a statement and contended that he had said just the opposite recently on the “700 Club.” If this is so, or if it indicates a change in his theology, this could be significant in unexpected political ways, as we shall see later in this article.
At the press conference, Robertson also mentioned his recent victory in the Michigan caucuses and intimated that, with the petition support he had, he might be able to officially announce his presidential candidacy as early as June.
Word Versus Deed
Overall, it is important to ask why Pat Robertson chose to make an important political statement at the convention of an organization that, at least on the surface, seems intent on striking a neutral pose and distancing itself from Robertson’s brand of religio-political barnstorming. One clue rests with the vast majority of the conventioneers themselves. It appears that the hierarchy isn’t speaking for the rank and file. There was no hint that the evangelicals in attendance were shrinking away from politicizing their beliefs. Also, Robertson seems all too willing to use NAE’s reputation and credibility, as one of the oldest and most highly regarded religious associations, to give his own political aspirations greater respectability. Finally, the official NAE policy of denouncing the mingling of religion and politics appears to be little more than a giving of lip- service to the ideal of church-state separation. Certainly, Robertson’s heading directly to New Hampshire after leaving the NAE convention speaks louder than any NAE disclaimers. Either official NAE policy doesn’t reflect the convictions of the rank-and-file, or the NAE has chosen to embark on the same self- contradictory path it took in the 1980 and 1984 presidential races.
But the schizophrenia afflicting the hierarchy manifests itself in subtle ways within the membership. There were almost no women listed among the speakers or in the hierarchy. There were conspicuously few blacks at the convention. And there was an air of diffidence towards matters of racial equality that came to a head in the last minute insertion of the Rev. F. P. Moller into the workshop originally devoted to “Religion, Politics, and the Electronic Church.”
Moller was given the spot by Ben Armstrong, who remarked, “If there ever has been a country that has been maligned and misunderstood, it’s South Africa.” Moller, a leading white South African evangelical, chairman of the Fellowship of Pentecostal Churches in South Africa and president of the Apostolic Faith Mission of South Africa, denounced leading anti-apartheid clerics Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Rev. Allan Boesak as being “so-called Christians and theologians [who are] actually in the camp” of Communists. He concluded his talk by predicting that South Africa will win the eventual showdown “between the forces of darkness and the forces of light.” Just as Robertson’s concluding remarks had drawn a standing ovation, Moller’s remarks elicited frequent “amens” and loud applause from those attending.
A similar disparity between official NAE policy and evangelical thought appeared in a convention debate. The topic, “Resolved: The wall of separation between church and state is in jeopardy,” seemed like one that would stir the consciences of all concerned evangelicals. But, ironically, the evangelicals in attendance did not seem especially impressed by John Buchanan, the debater taking the affirmative position. Buchanan, chairman of the board of People for the American Way, is a Southern Baptist Minister and his delivery was vintage pulpit oratory for the cause of church-state separation. His message that true Christianity espouses a tolerance for religious plurality and diversity and is averse to being mixed with the secular institutions of society met with head shaking, general skepticism, and disapproval from the audience. He was appealing to the spirit of religious independence, historically an important feature both of evangelicalism and his own Baptist tradition. His opponent, Forest D. Montgomery, on the other hand, was met with applause and approval when he advocated a reinterpretation of the First Amendment to allow such things as school prayer, creation science, and tuition tax credits for parochial schools. Clearly, rank-and-file evangelicals are more and more shedding the religious independence doctrine.
Overall, what is one to make of events at this convention? And what is the relationship between these events and other recent occurrences, such as Judge Hand’s textbook decision in Alabama, the earlier textbook decision in Tennessee, Pat Robertson’s bid for the presidency, and the growing religious right influence within the Southern Baptist convention? All these separate events begin to make more sense in the light of the historical roots and ideological underpinnings of the religious right. Once one understands these things, the utterances of important media figures like Pat Robertson take on a much deeper meaning, as we shall now discover.
The Origin Of The Religious Right
The genesis of the current trend in politicized conservative religion can be traced back to 1959 when an unknown Reformed Presbyterian theologian, Rousas J. Rushdoony, laid the foundations for what he called Christian Reconstruction in his book By What Standard. Rushdoony was and is a self-acknowledged theocrat in the Calvinist tradition. The heroes of this tradition are John Calvin, John Knox, Oliver Cromwell, and the leaders of the Puritan theocracy of colonial Massachusetts. Also included are significant Calvinists of the American Revolution, such as the John Witherspoon, who Edwin Meese eulogized in his NAE convention speech.
Rushdoony’s first major contribution to the emergence of the Religious Right was the assistance he provided to Henry Morris and John Whitcomb. These two authors had a book manuscript that had been rejected by a number of fundamentalist publishing houses because of the hard line it took against evolution. Rushdoony convinced Morris and Whitcomb to submit their manuscript to a new Calvinist publishing house, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company. The manuscript was accepted and in 1961 was published. The book was The Genesis Flood and its surprising high sales launched the new pseudoscience of “scientific creationism.”
As the years passed, Rushdoony was joined in his Christian Reconstruction movement by Gary North and a number of other persuasive writers and preachers. Although viewed as radical outcasts even by conservatives, the effective polemic of the members of this theocratic think-tank began to influence the thought of leading fundamentalist apologists like Francis Schaeffer. Schaeffer rarely gave credit to his Christian Reconstructionist sources, but he copied many of their ideas, including Rushdoony’s notion, first put into print in 1965, that the cause of society’s ills was due to a humanist conspiracy. This idea was further popularized by lawyer John W. Whitehead and Congressman John Conlan who were, themselves, directly influenced by Rushdoony.
Following this lead, fundamentalist Baptists like Jerry Falwell, Tim LaHaye, and others continued the anti-humanist harangue. They were joined by charismatics like Pat Robertson, and the New Christian Right was born. Then in August of 1980, a group called the Religious Roundtable sponsored a National Affairs Briefing Conference in Dallas designed to politicize modern American fundamentalism. Fifteen thousand people attended and heard a new agenda. Among them were over 2,000 pastors who were encouraged to take the political message back to their congregations and register fundamentalist voters. And it was clear who these voters were to support, because Ronald Reagan was the only presidential candidate to address the conference.
Although the news media understood the political importance of the event, they failed to see that it represented a dramatic switch from revivalism to political action by fundamentalists who had been politically dormant since prohibition and the Scopes Trial. As a result, they never thought to ask what new ideology had entered the scene to make such a profound shift possible. Back stage at the conference, Gary North spoke with Robert Billings, an intimate of Jerry Falwell who would later be appointed by the Reagan Administration to a high position in the Department of Education. According to North’s report of the conversation, the two were lamenting the fact that Rushdoony was not a speaker and Billings said, “If it weren’t for his books, none of us would be here.” North replied, “Nobody in the audience understands that.” Billings answered, “True, but we do.”
Because of this, Christian Reconstructionist Ray R. Sutton was able to write in 1982–
And what exactly are the latter-day Calvinistic ideas espoused by the Christian Reconstructionists? Let’s let the Reconstructionists speak for themselves.
James B. Jordan
Note the similarity between this quote and what Pat Robertson said about rights in his speech at the NAE convention. And note the similarity between what follows and Robertson’s implied rejection of a religiously neutral public education.
In order to understand the power of these ideas, it is necessary to grasp the theology behind them. Christian Reconstructionists adhere to what they term “dominion theology.” It calls on them to dominate society, to take control and institute God’s covenant as the basis of law and government. A critical ingredient of dominion theology is postmillennialism, the idea that the second coming of Christ will be after the millennium, after a thousand years of Christian utopia. This means that Christians must set up God’s kingdom first by claiming dominion over the world and reconstructing society to make the world ready for Christ’s return.
In contrast to this, the opposite doctrine, premillen- nialism, is the belief that the second coming of Christ will precede the millennium. Christ will come first and it is he, not mortals, who will establish the thousand year utopian reign. This idea was popularly expressed in Hal Lindsey’s 1970 doomsday best seller, The Late, Great Planet Earth.
The differing social consequences of these opposing ideas were well expressed by Rushdoony in a 1972 speech at his Chalcedon Foundation entitled “A Blocked or Open Future?”
Rushdoony lamented that this sort of thinking was a major feature of conservative Christianity and thus a major factor in holding back its power to press for radical social change.
And it is precisely this change in thinking, from premillen- nialism to postmillennialism, under the influence of Christian Reconstructionism, that has made possible the religious right and the political mobilization of millions of otherwise fatalistic fundamentalists.
Suddenly, Pat Robertson’s denial of the charge that he believes a nuclear war will usher in the second coming of Christ makes sense. He was telling the truth. His vision of the future is now much closer to that of the Reconstructionists’ postmillen- nialism. Consider these remarks Robertson made in a speech in December of 1984.
Robertson isn’t passively waiting for Jesus to come in a mushroom cloud. He is prepared to take dominion now and bring about his ideal Christian world politically.
Over the years, the Christian Reconstructionist influence on conservative Christians has increased. With the consequent influx of Calvinistic ideas into the Southern Baptist Convention, Southern Baptists have been influenced to shed their once sacred individualism, move into political action, and turn their seminaries from academically free institutions of higher learning into trade schools for evangelists and conservative social reformers.
Those outside the Baptist orbit have been taken in as well. The Coalition on Revival, founded a few years ago, represents a unification of Reconstructionists with charismatics, other evangelicals, black revivalists, creationists, and fundamentalists behind a theocratic political agenda. The goal of the coalition is to hammer out a unified social policy for all conservative Christians that, once formulated, is to be actively promoted from the pulpits of various denominations, through legislation, and by other means. The planning and codifying of this effort has been done through the calling of three “Continental Congresses on the Christian World View.”
On July 4, 1986, while the rest of the nation was celebrating the rededication of the Statue of Liberty, the “Continental Congress on the Christian World View III” was being held in Washington D.C. This was the climax of the effort. The Congress featured 64 major conservative Christian speakers, among them Rousas J. Rushdoony and Gary North.
This was no mere social get-together for friendly faith partners. They publicly signed and issued A Manifesto for the Christian Church which would later be backed up by 17 “worldview document position papers” that elaborate on the Manifesto by covering subjects as diverse as law, government, economics, business, education, arts, medicine, science, moral issues, and Christian colleges and seminaries. All these documents are still in draft form and will be officially ratified this coming May.
A sample from the position paper on law is illustrative.
Putting It Together
In the light of the above, the court textbook decisions in Tennessee and Alabama start to make more sense. What was suspected all along is true. Christian theocrats are trying to use the U.S. Constitution as a vehicle for taking over the public schools and every other major aspect of political life. Gary North suggested this approach in 1982 when he said that Reconstructionists should appeal to religious liberty in their bid for power. “Men without guns use ju-jitsu or karate. We use Constitutional law.”
Judge Hand’s Alabama efforts seem to take a page from North’s notebook. As Ishmael Jaffree contends,
Clearly, the latter-day Calvinist influence on American fundamentalists, evangelicals, and others has changed the politics of a nation. We are already in the third presidential campaign in a row that bears unmistakable witness to the power of politicized conservative religion. We are at this point because we failed to read the Reconstructionists’ own honest words about their aims. In Germany they failed to read, and believe, the plan set forth in Mein Kampf. Our only hope is that the majority of Americans will, through the Reverend Pat Robertson’s brazen presidential bid, see the obvious implications of the religious right agenda and therefore decide that this country doesn’t need theocracy.
Sources For The Article In The Humanist On Pat Robertson And The Evangelicals
The Arthur S. DeMoss Foundation, The Rebirth of America, 1986. Bala Cynwyd, PA. (Note especially articles starting on pp. 35 and 133 by John W. Whitehead and on p. 121 by D. James Kennedy. Used as background material.)
Coalition on Revival, A Manifesto for the Christian Church: Declaration and Covenant, July 4, 1986, Mountain View, CA.
Coalition on Revival, The Christian World View of Law, 1986, Mountain View, CA (position paper).
Plus material from various promotional flyers and newsletters regarding the Continental Congress on the Christian World View III.
The Coalition on Revival, Inc.
89 Pioneer Way
Mountain View, CA 94041
James B. Jordon (editor), Symposium on: The Failure of the American Baptist Culture, Number 1 of Christianity & Civilization (a book series), Spring 1982, Geneva Divinity School: Tyler, TX.
Quotes were taken from page xi of the “Editor’s Introduction,” pp. 24, 25, and 35 from “The Intellectual Schizophrenia of the New Christian Right,” by Gary North, and page 171 of “The Baptist Failure” by Ray R. Sutton. Background information was gathered from all three articles, plus others in the book.
Numbers 2 and 3 in this Christianity & Civilization series provided background information, but are presently on loan, along with other Reconstructionist materials, to Richard Yao of Fundamentalists Anonymous in New York City. As a result, full references are not provided here for those numbers. Number 1 is currently out of print and the copy we used was loaned to us from Timothy Grogan in Cleveland, Ohio, an ex- fundamentalist who had personal knowledge of Christian Reconstructionism and provided much personal communication. Useful personal communication was also provided by Richard Yao, mentioned above.
Gary North, Chilton, Sutton, and Dominion Theology, Feb. 1987, Institute for Christian Economics: Tyler, TX (essay).
This was our source of Pat Robertson’s 1984 quote. The source cited in the document was:
Jimmy Swaggart, “The Coming Kingdom,” The Evangelist, Sept. 1986, pp. 4-5 (which was, itself, citing Pat Robertson’s speech on Robert Tilton’s Satellite Network Seminar on December 9-12, 1984).
Rousas John Rushdoony, A Blocked or Open Future?, speech given at the 1972 Chalcedon Guild Dinner, Chalcedon: Vallecito, CA.
Additional background information gathered from various periodicals and position papers of the Chalcedon Foundation, Geneva Divinity School, and Institute for Christian Economics, all of which are organizations in the Christian Reconstruction movement. Addresses below:
P.O. Box 158
Vallecito, CA 95251
Geneva Divinity School
708 Hamvassy Drive
P.O. Box 131300
Tyler, TX 75713
Institute for Christian Economics
P.O. Box 8000
Tyler, TX 75711
Francis A. Schaeffer, A Christian Manifesto, revised ed. 1982, Crossway Books: Westchester, IL. (He cites Reconstructionist David H. Chilton from The Journal of Christian Reconstruction, John W. Whitehead, and Calvinist John Knox, among others.)
John C. Whitcomb and Henry M. Morris, The Genesis Flood, 1961, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company: Philadelphia, PA.
Additional Information Sources Used
- Ishmael Jaffree, (Mobile, Alabama) personal communication.
- Audio tapes of Pat Robertson’s speech and press conference at the conference of the National Association of Evangelicals, held in Buffalo, NY, March 3-5, 1987.
- Personal notes taken at above conference by Stephen McCabe.
- Articles published in The Buffalo News during the convention, particularly “S. Africa Cleric Ties Strife to Marxists” by David Briggs, on pp. A-1 and A-6, March 5, 1987.
- Undated Xerox of a Newsweek article of a few years back on Rousas Rushdoony entitled, “War is Declared on Public Education.” Supplied to us by Fundamentalists Anonymous in New York City.
- Quotes with sources provided verbally over the phone by James Luce from the files of Fundamentalists Anonymous (See below).
“My dream would be the State’s nightmare.” P. 179 of “The Escalating Confrontation with Bureaucracy,” published in Christianity and Civilization Number III. Gary North.
“We must begin to prepare Christians to begin to take reigns (sic) of power, at every level, in every institution, across the face of the earth . . . ” Gary North Page 424 in “Levers, Fulcrums, and Hornets” op. cit.
“We stand, then, for the visible manifestation of the complete control of the Lord Jesus Christ over the whole of life, right here and now. … we disdain to conceal our views and aims. We openly declare that our own ends can be attained only by the Christianization of all existing social conditions.” Francis Nigel Lee A Christian Manifesto of 1984 Page 11.
Rushdoony speaking to the LA times: “All these new groups . . . the Religious Right . . . are very receptive to our thinking.”
Russell Chandler of LA Times (Religion Editor): “Would the Chalcedon Foundation be pleased to see America become a Christian theocracy?”
Rushdoony: If that means a “group of people running the country in God’s name, no. But God, governing the lives of people . . . that’s exactly what we are working for.”
Richard Yao of Fundamentalists Anonymous also reported that Dominion Press Book Club (Jerry Falwell and D. James Kennedy) are endorsing books by Rushdoony and North. This is very recent.
For more information, write to:Fundamentalists Anonymous
P.O. Box 20324, Greeley Square Station
New York, NY 10001-9992
Additional Material Acquired Relevant To The Article
Rodney Clapp, “Democracy as Heresy,” Christianity Today, February 20, 1987, pp. 17-23. (An excellent overview and critique of the Christian Reconstruction movement from an evangelical perspective.)
Charles A. Clough, “Biblical Presuppositions and Historical Geology: A Case Study” in The Journal of Christian Reconstruction, Vol. I, No. 1, Summer 1974, edited by Gary North, Chalcedon Foundation. (This issue features as its first item a “Symposium: Six Day Creation” which features articles by leading creationists Stuart E. Nevins [a pseudonym for Steve Austin], Walter E. Lammerts, and Bolton Davidheiser. Clough’s article effectively argues that the Morris/Whitcomb book, The Genesis Flood, is completely in line with Reconstructionist thinking.)