1. Christian Right Feels Pressure to Pick a GOP Candidate
While Mitt Romney was courting Michigan's monied elite, Mike Huckabee missed his coach flight and couldn't afford the charter jet to Mackinac Island to join him. No matter. Huckabee had just won the straw poll at the Palmetto Family Council in South Carolina, and he was continuing to feel the evangelical wind at his back.
Frank Page, president of the Southern Baptist Convention and pastor of a Southern Baptist church in Taylors, South Carolina, told me in an interview this week that Huckabee's candidacy is gaining steam, and that there "are a growing number of people who are convinced that he is a viable candidate." Huckabee, Romney, Rudy Giuliani, and John McCain have all met with Page, recognizing his influence as the leader of the country's largest Protestant denomination and the single biggest component of the conservative evangelical right. Page, who explained to me his comments reflected the views of conservative evangelicals generally and not just Southern Baptists, said that all the candidates, except Huckabee, "struggle with understanding where we [evangelicals] come from, but they all very much want that vote." Page added that in contrast to 2000, when evangelicals were both "more comfortable and more confident" with Bush early in the process, the field remains unsettled.
"In the last few weeks and even days, [conservative Republicans] are starting to get nervous that every dollar that's spent to try to get votes away from your Republican colleague in a primary is a dollar that won't be available to fight Hillary," Oran Smith, president of the Palmetto Family Council, told me. "[People] are starting to get nervous that it's got to come together pretty soon."
Eyes are still on James Dobson, whose influence, Smith said, has been magnified with the deaths this year of televangelists Jerry Falwell and D. James Kennedy. (Smith politely downplayed the influence of Pat Robertson, but a few months ago another insider put it more bluntly when he told me that many evangelicals consider Robertson "an asshole.") According to his allies, Dobson "wants to be a kingmaker, but there isn't a top-tier candidate he can get behind." Last week's leak of a Dobson e-mail eviscerating Thompson's positions and campaign skills must have bolstered Dobson's fragile ego when, a few days later, David Brody, author of the Christian Broadcasting Network's must-read Brody File blog, reported that evangelical support for Thompson was "in question."
On Monday Huckabee held a "Vertical Day" on his campaign Web site, a 24-hour event designed to attract more online support for his candidacy. One important guest-blogger for the candidate, who stopped short of an outright endorsement, was Newt Gingrich.
While Giuliani has been shunned by conservative evangelicals altogether and Romney is riding with Robertson protégé Jay Sekulow, John McCain seems to have only gotten traction with Armageddon lobbyist John Hagee and his Christians United for Israel (CUFI). McCain, along with Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, asked Hagee to share "a word of encouragement" at South Carolina's Citadel Military Academy this week, and "to declare that we the American people believe in victory in Iraq." When not appearing with McCain this week, Hagee busied himself by organizing CUFI activists to join in the protest against the appearance of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the United Nations, and to deluge the White House with e-mails and phone calls to urge the placement of Iran's Revolutionary Guard on the Specially Designated Global Terrorist List.
2. Parsley Propagandizes Hate Crimes Bill as Anti-Christian
Rod Parsley is one of the players on the Christian right seeking to fill the vacuum left by the aging old guard, and his roots in the emerging neo-Pentecostal wing of the movement are evident in his new slick, souped-up PR effort, which he kicked off with this spring's release of his latest culture war manifesto, Culturally Incorrect. Parsley continues to position himself (and his Center for Moral Clarity) as the bridge between the Bible and the Beltway. He has been using his daily television broadcast to rail against the Matthew Shepard bill, now pending in the Senate after passing the House in May. Along with Bishop Harry Jackson, Parsley claimed that the bill -- which would add sexual orientation and perceived sexual orientation as a protected group to federal hate crimes legislation -- would unconstitutionally "censor" pastors from preaching on allegedly biblical injunctions against homosexuality. Urging his viewers to sign a petition "to protect the Gospel in the USA," Parsley said, "My heart is burning as I consider the consequences of this assault on Christianity."
3. Legal News Round-Up: School Prayer; Gay Marriage; and Planned Parenthood
Today marks the annual See You at the Pole event, during which Christian students gather at the flagpole to pray together before the bell at public schools across the country. Voluntary, student-initiated prayer is constitutional, but Jay Sekulow, president of the American Center for Law and Justice, distributed a letter to schools in which he advised teachers, administrators, and parents to participate as well. Watch your step, countered Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. "Sekulow's analysis reflects wishful thinking, not legal reality," said AU's Executive Director Barry Lynn. "Public school officials need to be extremely wary of his unsolicited legal advice." Besides, if Sekulow and his allies were being fully honest that all they want is voluntary, student-led prayer, instead of school sanctioned-prayer, Lynn added, they wouldn't be trying to "slip teachers, administrators, and parents in under the radar and have them participate in prayers."
In other legal news, the Maryland Court of Appeals last week upheld the state's ban on gay marriage. The Christian right Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) lauded the victory, but urged continued vigilance: "It remains critical for voters not to be lulled to sleep by this victory. It is crucially important that Americans support state marriage amendments, and, ultimately, a federal marriage amendment."
And in Missouri on Monday, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction preventing the implementation of restrictive regulations that would effectively shutter all but one of the state's abortion clinics. In his ruling, the judge hinted that while he may rule some parts of the law unconstitutional, others may well pass muster. ADF, which represents the state Department of Health and Human Services, declared victory.
4. It's Yom Kippur, Atone With Some Cash!
Reflecting a growing trend among the country's hottest televangelists to "celebrate" the Jewish holidays, neo-Pentecostal starlet Paula White was begging for cash in honor of Yom Kippur on her television program and Web site. For preachers like White and John Hagee who preach the prosperity gospel, the recognition of these holidays is often tied to a plea for money. (Much more on this will be in my forthcoming book, God's Profits.)
White, who markets herself as a "life coach" and recently announced she and her husband are divorcing, urged her followers to "honor God's sacred covenant" by making "your best offering." For an offering of $60 or more, you could get a miniature ornate ark of the covenant -- just what God wants on the Day of Atonement.
5. Faith-Based Substance Abuse Treatment Providers Mad As Hell
A small but boisterous crowd gathered last week outside the Old Executive Office Building, and they were angry and frustrated with the White House -- but it wasn't what you might expect. The members of this group were all grant recipients under the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiative's program to combat substance abuse.
An earnest and dedicated bunch, they had traveled from as far away as Texas to take part in a Compassion in Action Roundtable, discussing current trends in substance abuse treatment. But what a White House spokesperson called a "technical glitch" resulted in invited participants' deletion from the list of persons cleared to enter the building.
The people I spoke with were avowedly good Christians, but they weren't feeling very forgiving. Enthusiastic about sounding off to me, several of them complained that the event had been badly organized, resulting in them being forced to make last-minute (and therefore more expensive) travel arrangements to attend. For one man from New Jersey, who asked that his name not be used, the debacle seemed to reinforce his unflattering view of how government functions. He complained that the payout of grants through the Faith-Based Initiative had been overly politicized -- but not, as David Kuo wrote in his tell-all White House memoir, as a sop to the religious right. Instead, this fellow grumbled that there was political favoritism in the disbursement of the money through block grants to the states. (He provided a window into his political soul when I asked him to elaborate on his concern about many of his clients' lack of health insurance. His response? "I am of a different political persuasion than Mrs. Clinton.")
Eventually everyone got cleared to enter the building. Except for me, because Lord knows how the White House feels about the press.
Next week: What happens when Pat Robertson's television crews follow Giuliani and Romney on the campaign trail; American evangelicals in Jerusalem; and whether the Christian right can be swayed on global warming.