1. The Curse of Pat Robertson
Pat Robertson's endorsement of Rudy Giuliani was hot news last week -- hotter, even, than widespread rumors that James Dobson was going to endorse Mike Huckabee (see item 2, below). But if Giuliani expected something good to come out of cozying up to Robertson, he was sorely mistaken.
Robertson's influence with the rank-and-file is not what it once was, despite what the excited press coverage of the endorsement might have suggested. Giuliani's very public embrace of the controversial televangelist demonstrated a complete ignorance of how the Republican courting of the evangelical vote really works. (The key to locking in "values voters" is lots of meetings with lesser-known figures who can collectively generate a lot of votes, and no public appearances with controversial figures like Robertson.) It won't help Giuliani with evangelicals, and it certainly won't help Giuliani with anyone else.
Condemnation of the Robertson endorsement was swift and fierce and from many corners of the universe, including radical-right fringe organizations like the John Birch Society and Operation Rescue. The Christian Reconstructionist Chalcedon Foundation blog (which supports Ron Paul) protested that "Robertson tramples over God's law and the U.S. Constitution by endorsing the cross-dressing, pro-choice, three-time divorcee with mob ties."
Even the core of the evangelical right quickly pounced on Robertson for abandoning the movement for what they saw -- probably correctly -- as Robertson's self-interested desire to latch on to a perceived winner. Conservative talker Laura Ingraham dressed down Robertson on her radio program: "you see the train going down the track, the pro-Giuliani train, and you want to hop on board." Barely pausing to take a breath, Ingraham threatened, "Get ready to be thrown off that train at 65 miles an hour because that's what's going to happen to Pat Robertson."
If anything, the Robertson endorsement laid bare what has been known for quite some time: that the once-Southern Baptist minister turned charismatic prophesier who built an empire selling his toxic brew of religion and politics is no longer part of the family. (In an odd -- but probably not for her -- turn, Ann Coulter claimed Robertson never had that much influence with social conservatives to begin with because he really isn't that conservative.) Dobson and his crew at the Arlington Group have known for years that they need to bring the charismatic evangelists into the fold to maintain the movement's momentum, and they didn't invite Robertson to the party, opting instead for the younger generation like Rod Parsley and Harry Jackson. And to prove Robertson's irrelevance, the Family Research Council took to the pages of the New York Times to say that "Whatever support he has left is obviously going to be eroded by this very strange endorsement."
Wiley Drake, a prominent Southern Baptist minister who endorsed Mike Huckabee, is now organizing a Robertson boycott. Drake, who formerly served as a vice president of the 16-million member Southern Baptist Convention and will be a candidate for the group's presidency next year, advised viewers to stop watching Robertson's 700 Club and other programming produced by his Christian Broadcasting Network and to send money to other organizations instead. Huckabee received the endorsement of several additional prominent former SBC presidents this week as well, and the SBC's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission Chair Richard Land -- who had previously made pro-Romney comments -- insisted that those comments did not amount to an endorsement.
From the grassroots, a discontented "MrArbitrage" posted a video titled "Robertson's Detestable Compromise" on GodTube.com (yes, its slogan is "Broadcast Him"), accusing Robertson of "undermin[ing] in one day everything you have spent your life trying to accomplish." Many of the Robertson naysayers are Huckabee supporters, and conservative pundit Hugh Hewitt had a warning for them, as well: that supporting Huckabee will benefit Giuliani in the end because it will drain votes away from Mitt Romney, whom Hewitt likes and sees as Giuliani's most able competitor.
2. Dobson Goes Ferocious.
After the American Family Association's Don Wildmon endorsed Huckabee last week, the American Spectator's aptly-named Prowler blog reported that a Dobson blessing of Huckabee was in the works. After the Internets reached fever pitch about it, Dobson's people denied it -- and Paul Weyrich, who had just endorsed Romney, claimed to have seen a Dobson e-mail in which he "ferociously" denied a plan to endorse Huckabee. Still, the Spectator stood by its account.
As I've said many times before, the media's fixation on the household names tends to obscure some of the more behind-the-scenes organizing that is going on. One example this year is "restoration" and "renewal" projects cropping up in various states -- organizations that hold "pastors' briefings" at which Huckabee has made a few appearances.
In South Carolina, former Texas Republican Party Co-Chair, WallBuilders president and sometimes-Republican National Committee consultant David Barton spoke at a Pastors' Policy Briefing along with Huckabee a few weeks ago. (The Huckabee campaign and the event organizer, David Lane, did not respond to requests for comment.) Lane has organized similar events in Iowa, and in advance of the Iowa Straw Poll this summer, Tom Pauken, a former chair of the Texas Republican Party and GOP activist reported on his blog:
Lane brought together some 250 Iowa pastors at a Rediscovering God in America event in Des Moines. Huckabee, a former pastor, spoke at that event; and many of the Iowa pastors are expected to turn out their members for Governor Huckabee at the August straw polls. Lane, who is emerging as a major political force within the evangelical community, last year put together a Pastors Policy Briefing which brought together another 250 Evangelical pastors in Iowa. David Lane also works with the Iowa Christian Alliance which plans on setting up this fall 17 Iowa Caucus Training schools across the state in preparation for the first in the nation vote in the 2008 presidential primaries.
One such state-level figure -- whose role in the 2004 election caused his national star to rise -- is Ohio's Rod Parsley.The National Review's Jim Geraghty reports movement insiders see Parsley as one of the pastors whose endorsement will "carry a lot of weight."
3. Televangelists Denounce Grassley Investigation
Speaking of Parsley, some of his friends on the prosperity gospel televangelist circuit spoke out against Sen. Charles Grassley's (R-Iowa) investigation into their use of tax-exempt funds this week. Eddie Long, who presides over the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Atlanta, told his congregation on Sunday that Grassley's investigation is "unjust," "intrusive," and "an attack on our religious freedom and privacy rights." Creflo Dollar, whose luxurious home is pictured with this Los Angeles Times article, said that before agreeing to turn over documents to the Senate Finance Committee he would consult with lawyers to determine whether it would infringe on "religious liberty." He added that "it could affect the privacy of every community church in America."
Meanwhile, Benny Hinn and Paula White could be seen pleading for money for the Trinity Broadcasting Network's Praise-A-Thon -- the network's thrice-yearly fundraiser in which its leading televangelists and many of its B-listers plead for viewers to "sow a seed" in the network, which has assets of over $300 million. (In God's Profits, you can read about my own visit to a TBN Praise-A-Thon at which Grassley target Eddie Long was featured.) In return, viewers are promised "blessings" of money, jobs, debt relief, good health, excellent relationships, and a host of other supernatural rewards. Grassley's not looking into whether the six targeted evangelists make bogus claims or exert undue pressure on their followers, but into whether they use tax-exempt money for their own personal enrichment.
Harry Jackson, in a column on Townhall.com and in an interview with me yesterday, insisted that Grassley's investigation is another piece of evidence that the "religious community is under attack" in Congress (the other evidence being the passage of the Matthew Shepard hate crimes legislation, the House's passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, and attempts to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine). Jackson told me that there is "a lot of outrage about Grassley's investigation," and he (speaking for himself) compared it to the Clinton impeachment proceedings about which "I felt terrible ... We spent $80 million to investigate this man's marital problems and sexual addictions ... It was a waste of time, money, and effort."
Although Jackson's view of the Clinton witch hunt (his words) deviates significantly from the conservative party line, he says he does speak for religious conservatives in describing Grassley as "overreaching." Inappropriately invoking the Neimoller quote, Jackson questioned how far Grassley's investigation could go looking into church and non-profit finances, forcing them to pay lawyers and accountants and the like. (How far can a subpoena-less investigation go? Ask the Democrats.) Jackson is organizing a multi-denominational group of ministers to obtain "in-depth legal insight" into how to respond to the investigation. Expect a major PR offensive in the coming weeks.
4. Major Anti-Abortion Group Endorses Thompson. Reaction: Huh?
Yesterday the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) announced its endorsement of Fred Thompson, much to the puzzlement of the rest of the world. Although the endorsement had been widely leaked in the media on Monday (and some even speculated that the leak pressured the group to proceed with the endorsement even though it had not been firmed up), the reaction of the press corps, particularly the conservative press at the announcement, can best be described as mystified.
NRLC President David O'Steen said that the endorsement came from the overwhelming majority of the organization's 58 board members, who represent all 50 state chapters. He said they took into account the candidates' voting records and public positions on "life" issues as well as their electability, which the group apparently based on month-old polls. Insisting that Thompson was the only candidate who could both beat Giuliani in the primary and also beat the Democrat in the general election, O'Steen appeared to have been living in the past, as in the good old days of September and October, before Thompson's standing in the polls sank.
5. From the "Hey, Wasn't That...?" Department
In an excerpt from Craig Unger's new book, The Fall of the House of Bush, in which he details how Bush's salvation by evangelist Billy Graham was a fable, and that Bush was actually converted by hippie Jesus freak Arthur Blessitt, who holds the Guinness Book of World Records prize for longest walk for dragging a 12-foot cross, on foot, to 60 countries. The same Arthur Blessitt whose book, Give Me a J, was given out free by TBN for any Praise-A-Thon pledge last week. No mention, however, of Blessitt's notorious toilet baptisms.
Contact me at tapthefundamentalist AT gmail DOT com.