Friday, June 17, 2005

Ohio, Blackwell & the Christian Right Part II

Recently, the Ohio Restoration Project announced plans to mobilize conservative Christian voters towards the 2006 elections. The principal beneficiary appears to be Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell who is running for the Republican nomination for governor. (I referred to this in passing in Part I, which described Blackwell's involvement in a dominionist seminar at Cedarville University on June 17th.) The story has been widely reported, including by the New York Times, and much blogged, for example by Bruce Prescott at Talk to Action.

But there was one part of the Ohio Restoration Project action plan that was strikingly familiar to me. It incorporates a feature of two pivotal events in the development of the contemporary Christian Right -- the Washington for Jesus rallies held on the mall in Washington, DC in the 1980s. Interestingly too, they may very well also follow the model of abuse of non-profit tax-exempt organizations that accompanied these events.  

The Ohio Restoration Project is a carefully planned campaign to maximize conservative Christian voter participation in the 2006 elections. The project will among other things engage people through a series of "pastor policy briefings" for large numbers of leaders and followers in the largest cities in Ohio, coupled with advertising featuring comments from Ken Blackwell. And they want to recruit some 2,000 "Patriot Pastors" to lead the way. They also intend to ensure that Christian Right voter guides from any of several groups (Christian Coalition, American Family Association, etc. are in widespread use. They aim for 4 million. Of course some of this would have happened anyway, but they are providing an organizing focus that will not only ensure mere distribution, but generate interest and enthusiasm. There are plans to build e-mail lists, host "non-partisan" voter registration drives in churches, all of these activities are intended to build a political network that will influence the 2006 elections and beyond, and seize control of Republican party organizations in every county in the state.

As the New York Times reported, "In a manifesto that is being circulated among church leaders and on the Internet, the group, which is called the Ohio Restoration Project, is planning to mobilize 2,000 evangelical, Baptist, Pentecostal and Roman Catholic leaders in a network of so-called Patriot Pastors to register half a million new voters, enlist activists, train candidates and endorse conservative causes in the next year."

"The initial goal is to elect Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell, a conservative Republican, governor in 2006. The group hopes to build grass-roots organizations in Ohio's 88 counties and take control of local Republican organizations."

This represents a new, and possibly dynamic wave of energy and organizing. Its got a well thought out plan, that build on existing models, including the Christian Coalition, Focus on the Family, and more. Far from being an original, out of the blue scheme, it shrewdly and knowledgably builds on and applies, Christian Right organizing models of the past generation.

A highlight of the campaign, going into the fall elections, is an event they will call "Ohio for Jesus" rally set for the spring of 2006. They hope to have top Christian Right leaders like Pat Robertson and James Dobson join Kenneth Blackwell as headliners for the rally.

The model comes from ground-breaking rallies in Washington, DC in 1980 and again in 1988. These events called Washington for Jesus, had similar political messages, but disingenuously claimed to be apolitical. They were transparently aimed at the political mobilization of evangelical Christians in general and charismatic and Pentecostals in particular.  I wrote about these events in my 1997 book, Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy, from which this discussion is adapted.

These events -- pivotal events in the history of the development of the Christian Right -- were also integral to the political mobilization of Pentecostals and charistmatics that became the base for the electoral ambitions of Pat Robertson, and later the core of the Christian Coalition that built on Robertson's unsuccessful run for the presidency. These were historic events in part because Pentecostals and charismatics had previously been largely apolitical. It took a multi-year and multi-institutional, multi-campaign effort to gradually orient them to political and electoral engagement.

Washington for Jesus, held in the spring of 1980 in the run up to the fall elections, was originally billed as a "prayer rally" -- but controversy erupted when a political declaration which was to be released at the supposedly apolitical event, leaked to the press. The declaration, drafted by rally leaders, including Pat Robertson, Bill Bright of Campus Crusade for Christ, and Demos Shakarian of the Full Gospel Businessmen's Fellowship International, claimed, among other things, that "unbridled sexuality, humanism and Satanism are taught [in the schools] at public expense" and "our currency has been debased... and our armed forces weakened."  The manifesto also called for "laws, statutes, and ordinances that are in harmony with God's word."  Some, seeking prayer not politics, dropped out. In the name of unity, the declaration was dropped as well.

Nevertheless, Bill Bright called the event "the single most important day in the history of the United States since the Declaration of Independence." Rally coordinator Ted Panteleo said "I think President Reagan was elected as a result of what happened up there."

Soon after the WFJ rally for "Godly government," the non-profit Freedom Council was organized by Pat Robertson, who provided cash, mailing lists and office space at the headquarters of his Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN.) Ted Panteleo, the founding director... said in 1982 that they were organizing in every congressional district toward "a Christian president, and a Christian government."  

U.S. News and World Report reported that CBN pumped $8.5 million into the Freedom Council, which concentrated its efforts in states likely to boost Robertson's 1988 GOP presidential primary efforts: "early voting states like Michigan and Iowa where Robertson's campaign has subsequently done so well" the magazine noted.

By the fall of 1987, the Internal Revenue Service and the press were probing for links between the Freedom Council and Robertson's as yet undeclared candidacy. That October, the Freedom Council shut down, and the results of the IRS investigation were never made public.  Four months later Robertson ally Rev. John Giminez of Virginia Beach, VA announced Washington for Jesus 1988 -- with Ted Panteleo as coordinator.  Former Freedom Council officials later admitted that they fronted for the Robertson campaign. "The entire process was to create a launching pad for Pat Robertson's bid for the presidency,' former Council executive director Dick Minard told NBC News."

While the model, borrowed from the pioneers of the Robertson wing of the Christian Right is obvious, one thing that is remarkable about Ohio for Jesus is how it is so openly a front for the electoral ambitions of Ken Blackwell. The participation of churches in this effort may very well jeopardize their 501(c)(3) tax status conferred by the IRS. Tax-exemptions for churches require being scrupulously nonpartisan with regard to use of church resources.  

Interestingly, partisan abuse by partisan Christian Right groups is not new in Ohio.  In 1996, in response to concerns raised by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Ohio Roundtable, then the leading Christian Right political organization in the state, and an affiliate of James Dobson's Focus on the Family, was forced to drop their biased voter guide. One wonders if the reasonable constraints placed on non-profit organizations regarding electoral activity are enforceable in today's political climate. Focus on the Family has a national network of state level "Family Policy Councils." The current recognized FOF affiliate in Ohio is the Cincinnati based Citizens for Community Values, which is also very active.

In any case, the Ohio Restoration Project plan as written is fraught with the likelihood that churches or other tax exempt organizations could stray well over the lines drawn by the IRS.  It may  very well be that this is intentional. There is a similar effort underway in Texas to recruit and mobilize "patriot pastors." Interestingly, Focus on the Family is promoting this effort, and an article in its magazine suggests possible collusion with the Republican Party:  "Internal data from the Republican National Committee shows that an estimated 40 percent of Christians -- that’s about 24 million people -- are not registered to vote. Considering that just over 100,000 votes enabled four pro-choice candidates for the U.S. Senate to defeat pro-life candidates, church voter registration is a key force in changing our nation’s future."

Christian Right attorney Matt Staver is quoted in the article claiming that no church has ever lost its 501(c)(3) tax status over electoral work. While this is not so, available evidence suggests that this election cycle will see a further pushing the envelope of non-profit tax abuse by Christian Right groups fronting for Republican candidates for office.

It is said that those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it. The Christian Right has learned from and is building on its own history. This is an example of how and why the Christian Right is the best organized faction in American politics. They have developed and evolved models of political organizing appropriate to the constituencies they are seeking to organize. They persist across the election cycles. They plan ahead. The rest of society has pretty much yet to come to terms with the sea changes in politics brought about by the Christian Right -- which only benefits from being underestimated and misunderstood.

[Crossposted from}


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