Bush Has New Role: De Facto Leader Of The Religious Right
Is President George W. Bush the new leader of the Religious Right?
Some news media observers seem to think so. On Dec. 24 The Washington Post carried an article asserting, "Pat Robertson's resignation this month as president of the Christian Coalition confirmed the ascendance of a new leader of the religious right in America: George W. Bush."
The newspaper argued that Bush is the movement's "de facto leader a status even Ronald Reagan, though admired by religious conservatives, never earned." Reporter Dana Milbank quoted several Religious Right leaders who agreed.
Ralph Reed, former executive director of the Christian Coalition and now a GOP political consultant in Atlanta, told The Post religious conservatives no longer need outside organizations because they are in the highest circles of power.
"You're no longer throwing rocks at the building; you're in the building," said Reed, who serves as Republican chairman of Georgia.
Reed added that many in the Religious Right believe Bush's elevation to the White House was due to a divine plan.
"I've heard a lot of 'God knew something we didn't,'" he said. "In the evangelical mind, the notion of an omniscient God is central to their theology. He had a knowledge nobody else had: He knew George Bush had the ability to lead in this compelling way."
Although Bush reportedly eschews any talk of a divine plan, Tim Goeglein, a White House religious liaison, told the evangelical magazine World recently, "I think President Bush is God's man at this hour, and I say this with a great sense of humility."
In the primary season, Bush impressed many Religious Right activists when he named Jesus Christ as his favorite political philosopher. He has also spoken several times about how his religious conversion helped him quit drinking and changed his life in other ways. During the campaign, he assiduously courted the Religious Right and frequently spoke at movement conferences and meetings.
As president, Bush has continued to talk about his faith. Last month he told an audience in California that Americans need to pray for a "spiritual shield" over the country.
"I have felt the prayers of the American people for me and my family," Bush said. "I want to thank all who have prayed. People say, 'Well, how do you know?' I say, 'I can just feel it.' I can't describe it very well, but I feel comforted by the prayer."
Audience applause for the religious comments has led administration figures to predict more of the same. A White House aide told the Chicago Tribune that the reception was so positive in California a state that Bush lost in 2000 that it is likely that the president will begin showing even broader glimpses of his personal and spiritual side.
Bush's declarations have also endeared him to the Religious Right.
"He is the leader of the Christian Right," Marshall Wittmann, a former Christian Coalition staffer, told The Post. Wittmann added that Bush is able to "go over the heads" of the leaders of Religious Right groups and reach individual activists.
Bush, however, is apparently not taking the movement's support for granted. In December, Karl Rove, a top Bush political strategist, said the GOP did not do enough to rally evangelical Christians during the 2000 race and pledged to remedy that.
"We probably failed to marshal support of the base as well as we should have," Rove, speaking at a panel in Washington, said. "There should have been 19 million of them [Religious Right supporters], and instead there were 15 million of them. So four million of them did not turn out to vote."
Rove said Bush would do more to reach out to the Religious Right by stressing social issues that the movement champions.
Falwell Claims Bush Support For 'Call To Christian Action'
TV preacher Jerry Falwell has launched a campaign to raise $1.2 million to push President George W. Bush's agenda through Congress, an effort the controversial Lynchburg evangelist says has been approved by Bush himself.
In a December fund-raising letter, Falwell pleaded for contributions to keep the "anti-family, anti-Christian liberals" from taking over Congress. The Baptist pastor also asserted that "the liberal left" has launched a "'scorched earth' campaign to destroy President Bush."
Falwell goes on to write, "The liberals know that if they can defeat President Bush's policy agenda in Congress and 'Bork' his Court appointments, the Left can solidify their control of the Senate and capture control of the House in 2002...and use their power in Congress to complete their destruction of President Bush."
Falwell says he has ordered phone banks in key swing congressional districts to mobilize Christian voters in support of Bush and has hired scriptwriters to produce pro-Bush ads.
"President Bush and I are long-time friends," Falwell writes. "He's counting on me to mobilize my Christian supporters and build a groundswell of overwhelming pressure on 'wobbly' members of Congress to pass his pro-family legislative agenda, confirm his all-important Supreme Court appointments and defeat the left's campaign to destroy him. He was very excited when I told him about the $1,200,000 'Christian Call to Action' I'm describing to you now."
A Bush administration spokesman refused to confirm Falwell's claims.
"We're not aware of any conversation he had with the president on this," Scott McClellan told The New York Times.
Bush would have good reason to keep Falwell at arm's length. The TV preacher came under nationwide condemnation when he appeared on Pat Robertson's "700 Club" Sept. 13 and said the Sept. 11 terrorist attack occurred because God had lifted his protection from the nation. Falwell implied that the United States deserved the attacks and blamed them on church-state separationists, abortion providers and supporters of gay rights.
In other news about the Religious Right:
Focus on the Family is scaling back its 25th anniversary celebration because of financial problems and concerns about security. The organization had planned a large, public three-day event this summer at the U.S. Air Force Academy football stadium near its Colorado Springs headquarters. The celebration will now be an invitation-only, one-day event July 27 in Denver, 70 miles to the north.
According to the Religion News Service, FOF officials said a downturn in contributions had played a role in the change but added that security concerns had also escalated in the wake of Sept. 11.
Former Virginia Attorney General Mark Earley, a favorite of the Religious Right, has accepted a position with Charles Colson's Prison Fellowship Ministries. Earley, who unsuccessfully ran for governor of Virginia last year, will become chief executive officer of the Reston, Va.-based group.
Colson, an ex-Watergate figure, founded the organization in 1976. It operates in all 50 states and has recently been seeking government funding for its prisoner rehabilitation programs, which convert inmates to fundamentalist Christianity.
TV preacher Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice has opened offices in Washington, D.C. A recent letter from the ACLJ's top attorney, Jay Sekulow, reports that "God has given us an astonishing breakthrough...." The "breakthrough" is a new building directly across the street from the Supreme Court.
Sekulow prods supporters to raise $2 million to "equip" the new building and turn it into a "Washington 'Command Center.'" He notes that the office is located near Americans United and other "anti-freedom organizations" and cites the "enormous influence" AU and others have in Washington.
"In fact," Sekulow asserts, "they are working with renewed vigor in their attempts to eradicate faith. So it's critical for us to be up there and our new address will put us on a more even footing...."
Former Family Research Council President Gary Bauer is attempting to exploit the war on terrorism by forming a new organization. Bauer recently announced the formation of the Citizens' Committee to Win the War, a project of his Religious Right organization, American Values.
Bauer ran FRC until he stepped down in 1998 to seek the Republican nomination for the presidency. His campaign crashed after a poor showing in the first round of primaries. Since then, he has been devoting most of his time to his Campaign for Working Families, a political action committee that funnels money to far-right candidates.
Bauer says the new Committee will "help mobilize patriotic citizens with timely information and practical steps so each of us can participate fully while our nation is at war against those who would seek to deny our freedom and, through terrorism, subject us to death by tyranny."
Bauer, who has never served in the military himself, also promises to "share insights on the importance of maintaining America's historic and God-ordained alliance with Israel."
TV Preacher Kennedy Seeks Donations For Alabama's Judge Moore
Television evangelist D. James Kennedy has launched a major fund-raising drive to support Roy Moore, the Alabama Supreme Court chief justice being sued by Americans United for erecting a Ten Commandments display in the courthouse.
In a letter dated Dec. 27, Kennedy writes, "I had hoped that I could avoid writing this letter to you. But anti-virtue forces continue to escalate their persecution of our friend, Alabama's Chief Justice Roy Moore...because of his stand for the Ten Commandments and America's Christian heritage."
Kennedy asserts that the case could go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and asks for prayers and cash from his supporters.
"I would like to provide $200,000 to help with the legal fees, discovery and research, and expert testimony in Chief Justice Moore's case," writes Kennedy. "This is a large amount of support and it comes at a time when Coral Ridge Ministries finds itself in a very difficult financial situation."
Kennedy also asks supporters to sign "A Note of Encouragement" to Moore that reads in part, "Your courage and perseverance in upholding God's truth is an example to us all and will preserve all of our religious liberties."
Moore became a hero to several Religious Right groups when, as a local judge in Etowah County in 1994, he refused to remove a hand-carved Ten Commandments plaque from his courtroom. The American Civil Liberties Union filed suit against Moore, but the case, which eventually reached the Alabama Supreme Court, was dismissed on technical grounds.
Moore used the notoriety he won from that battle to run for chief justice of the Alabama high court in 2000. On July 31, he waited until the state Supreme Court building in Montgomery was empty then arranged to have a two-ton granite sculpture of the Ten Commandments brought into the lobby. Americans United and the ACLU of Alabama filed suit against the display on Oct. 30. (See "Monumental Mistake," December 2001 Church & State.)
Americans United's case against Moore, Johnson v. Hobson, is ongoing and is pending in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Alabama.
Pat Robertson Resumes Political Crusade, Backs Church Electioneering
Barely a month after Pat Robertson resigned from the Christian Coalition and promised to devote his time to religious ministry, the TV preacher returned to hardball politics on his "700 Club" cable television program.
On his Christian Broadcasting Network show Jan. 7, Robertson promoted a bill pending in the House of Representatives that would revise provisions of federal tax law and allow houses of worship to endorse political candidates. The measure, H.R. 2357, has been introduced by Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) and has 110 cosponsors, almost all of them Republicans.
Appearing as a guest on Robertson's "700 Club," Jones urged the program's estimated one million viewers to contact their House members and pressure Rep. Bill Thomas, chair of the Ways and Means Committee, to schedule a hearing on the bill in March. Jones said the measure was drafted by the American Center for Law and Justice, the legal arm of Robertson's religio-political empire.
The push for the Jones bill comes in an election year when control of Congress is up for grabs. In recent weeks, White House political strategists have expressed concern that evangelical Christians did not vote for Bush in 2000 in expected numbers. The Jones proposal and Robertson's enthusiastic support for it may be part of a move to spark GOP endorsements by conservative churches in the 2002 and 2004 elections.
Robertson made the partisan nature of the Jones bill clear. Railing against the "draconian" character of federal tax law, Robertson said on the show, "As it is now, if somebody comes out and says, 'I support George Bush,' theoretically the IRS can come in and take away their tax exemption."
Robertson's attempt to change federal tax law and prod America's churches into partisan politics comes only four weeks after his Dec. 5 announcement that he was quitting as president of the Christian Coalition to push national revival and "focus on those things that will bring forth the greatest spiritual benefit."
Robertson's critics were not surprised at his quick relapse into partisan politics.
"This leopard will never change his spots," said Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn, in a press statement. "Robertson is as interested in winning votes for the Republicans as he is in winning souls."
During the show, Robertson charged that Americans United has sent a "scare letter out to churches which was filled with misinformation" about involvement in politics. In fact, Americans United has in past election years simply provided accurate informational materials to church leaders about the kinds of activities that are allowed and forbidden under federal tax law.
The IRS Code forbids non-profit groups holding a 501(c)(3) designation to endorse or oppose candidates for public office. Houses of worship, charities, educational groups, public policy organization and others with 501(c)(3) status must abide by these rules. However, these organizations may address political issues and get involved in electoral politics in other nonpartisan ways.
The Jones measure has not yet had a hearing in the House, although Jones told Robertson he is pressing for action this year. Jones also said he is working with other Religious Right leaders, including Focus on the Family head James Dobson and fundamentalist author Tim LaHaye and others to promote the legislation.
Islamic Charter School May Have Violated California Regulations
A publicly funded charter school in California is under investigation for teaching Islam to students, the San Francisco Chronicle has reported.
Silicon Valley Academy in Sunnyvale is part of a network of 14 public charter schools in the state run under the umbrella of Gateway Charter School in Fresno. Gateway is chartered through the Fresno Unified School District, which means that under state law oversight of all of its branches falls to officials in that city.
Fresno education officials have admitted that oversight of far-off schools has been lax.
"We inspect these schools as soon as we find out about them, and so far all we've found is good teaching," said Jill Marmolejo, district spokeswoman. "But it's difficult because there's a lot of travel, and we have 95 schools of our own to worry about."
A surprise inspection by the Chronicle indicated that Silicon Valley Academy was operating as a religious school. There were Korans in the principal's office, along with a children's version of the Muslim scriptures titled My Little Qu'ran. Students reported that they prayed in class with teachers and studied the tenets of Islam. Parents picking up children after school told the paper they believed the school was religious.
The Chronicle also reported that the school's website promised to provide moral instruction based on dedication to Allah. The principal, Mazhar Jamil, told the newspaper the site was outdated and would be re-done.
The investigation uncovered other irregularities at the school. Under state law, charters are not allowed to charge tuition, yet Silicon Valley's website listed tuition fees of $350 to $400 per month.
Gateway severed ties with the Islamic school after the Chronicle published the results of its investigation. Gateway denied that any public money ever went to the Islamic academy, but the newspaper noted that the firm had received more than $1 million for all of the students at its charters and that without an audit it would be impossible to determine where the money went.
Delaine Eastin, California schools chief, said she would withhold state funds to Gateway unless the mess were cleaned up.
"There needs to be more control, especially if a public school is doing something illegal, like teaching religion or charging tuition," Eastin said. "The idea of charter schools was not to create the McDonald's Happy Meal approach to education. The legislature set up a limit to how many charter schools could operate in the state, but what good is that if one charter school multiplies and becomes 14?"
Meanwhile, some state legislators are saying that California's charter law was never intended to allow groups chartered through one school district to open institutions in other parts of the state and have vowed to tighten up the law.
The Chronicle reported that the revelations about religious content at Silicon Valley Academy are only the latest in a list of problems confronting Gateway. The school network is $1.3 million in debt, and students at the school performed below grade level on standardized tests given last year.
U.S.-Based Muslim Charities Face Scrutiny For Terrorism Links
Federal agents have raided the offices of a number of U.S.-based Muslim charities, asserting that the groups may be involved in efforts to funnel cash to terrorists overseas.
The raids began on Dec. 14, when agents with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Treasury Department swept through the offices of the Global Relief Foundation in Bridgview, Ill., seizing boxes of documents, furniture and other items.
The same day, federal agents raided the office of the Benevolence International Foundation in Newark, N.J. Law enforcement officials said both groups are accused of financing terrorist activity.
No one was arrested during the raids, and officials at the foundations denied any wrongdoing.
"This is a terrible, terrible strategy," said Roger Simmons, an attorney for Global Relief. "I've been involved with the group since October, poring over their records, and I have never seen any hint of any involvement with terrorist violence."
Officials with the Bush administration insisted that they had compelling evidence of the groups' links to terrorism. Specific details were not released, as the raids were conducted under the terms of the new USA Patriot Act, which allows federal law enforcement agents to keep the terms of search warrants secret.
Earlier in December, the administration moved to seize the assets of three Islamic charities accused of channeling money to Hamas, a militant Palestinian network that has claimed responsibility for recent suicide attacks in Israel.
The main target of the Dec. 5 seizure action was the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, which raised $13 million in the United States last year. Officials with the foundation, based in Richardson, Texas, insisted they are only involved in relief efforts for the poor, but administration officials said Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had asked Bush to take action against the foundation and Bush agreed.
U.S. Muslim groups criticized the move, which came during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. The Council on American-Islamic Relations and seven other groups in the United States and Canada issued a statement calling the seizure "an unjust and counterproductive move that can only damage America's credibility with Muslims in this country and around the world, and could create the impression that there has been a shift from a war on terrorism to an attack on Islam."
In December Religion News Service reported that eight Muslim non-profit groups are currently under investigation by the Treasury Department for possible ties to terrorism.
Christian Coalition Settles Race Lawsuit, But FBI Probe Pending
The Christian Coalition's troubles just won't stop.
Officials with the once-powerful Religious Right organization have agreed to settle a race-discrimination lawsuit out of court, but now there's talk of an FBI investigation of fraud by the group.
A federal court sealed terms of the lawsuit settlement, but The Washington Times reported Jan. 3 that "sources involved in the negotiations" said the African-American employees who brought the suit will receive $325,000 and in return agree not to talk about the case publicly.
Twelve black employees sued the Coalition last February, charging a pattern of racial discrimination at the organization's headquarters in Washington, D.C. The workers said they were told to use the back door, excluded from weekly prayer meetings, denied health care and overtime pay and made to eat lunch in a segregated, substandard facility.
Roberta Combs, president of the Coalition, said the case was groundless and called it "nothing more than a cynical effort to embarrass and extort the Coalition."
The Coalition's troubles may not be completely over, however. The Times reported that several other employees have gone to the FBI with information that the Coalition may have been involved in financial irregularities and possible wire fraud in connection with a gala it threw to mark the inaugural of President George W. Bush.
"I have been contacted by the FBI, and I am cooperating with the investigation and will continue to do so," Trent Barton, an ex-employee, told the newspaper.
The Coalition also faces a legal battle in Chesapeake, Va., where it was headquartered for 10 years before moving to Washington. The Virginian-Pilot reported Dec. 29 that an Ohio company called Developers Diversified Realty Corp. is suing the group in state court, charging that the Coalition breached its lease by failing to pay rent and other fees for its old office space. The firm seeks $76,546.02 in damages and court costs.
In December TV preacher Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Coalition, announced he was severing his ties to the organization. Robertson said he wants to spend the next few years focusing on his ministry.
New Education Law May Spark Controversy About School Prayer
A new education bill signed into law by President George W. Bush Jan. 8 contains a provision on prayer in public schools that could cause church-state problems down the line.
The provision was added to the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act at the behest of Religious Right allies in Congress. It threatens to deny federal funding to any public school that prevents or otherwise denies participation in certain forms of religious activity.
The bulk of the new law mandates state testing of students in an effort to boost school performance and increases federal aid to public schools in certain cases. The measure enjoyed bipartisan support in Congress, and the prayer provision sparked little discussion, since lawmakers were eager to see the bill's other features become law.
The prayer language, Americans United asserts, could give Religious Right organizations a new weapon to use against public schools. Under the provision, the Department of Education will issue guidelines on which types of religious activities are permissible in public schools and which are not. Any public school that flagrantly violates the guidelines will receive a warning from Education Department officials and then will lose federal funding.
Americans United is concerned that the guidelines drafted by Education Department officials will fail to reflect Supreme Court doctrine on church-state separation as it applies to public schools or will be worded in such a way as to encourage certain forms of school-sponsored religious activity. Such biased guidelines would put public schools in a difficult position. They would either have to knowingly violate court rulings or run the risk of losing federal money.
AU said it was irresponsible of Congress to pass the bill with the school prayer measure intact, since the federal courts, not the Department of Education, have the final say on the constitutionality of religious exercises in public schools. Attorneys with the group plan to monitor the provision to see how it is implemented and will defend any public school threatened or harassed by Religious Right legal organizations. The group will also offer public comments when the Department of Education issues the new guidelines.
A second Religious Right-backed measure failed to make it into the bill. During deliberations in the Senate, U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) attempted to add a provision watering down the teaching of evolution in public schools by calling the theory one that "generates so much continuing controversy...."
The language was seen as an effort to undermine evolution by labeling it "controversial," when in fact the overwhelming majority of scientists accept the theory. It passed the Senate but was later stripped from the bill when members of the House of Representatives and Senate met in a conference committee to reconcile the different versions of the legislation that had been passed by both chambers.
An altered version of the language did appear in the bill's conference report, which is not officially part of the legislation.
Nevertheless, the Discovery Institute, a neo-creationist group based in Seattle, issued a statement declaring victory.
"The new bill represents a substantial victory for scientific critics of Darwin's theory and for all who would like science instruction to exercise thoroughness and fairness in teaching about contemporary science controversies," trumpeted an Institute press release.
Bush's original version of the education bill also contained religious school vouchers, but administration officials quickly dropped the measure after Democrats made it clear they would not advance the bill with that provision intact. However, the version of the bill signed into law does contain a measure giving federal funds to community groups, including religious groups, to run after-school and tutoring programs.
AU and its allies successfully encouraged lawmakers to add language banning employment discrimination on the basis of religion in these programs. AU attorneys will also monitor this provision to make certain that no proselytism or mandatory religious activity occurs in the after-school programs.
Bush Administration To Argue For Vouchers At Supreme Court
The Bush administration has asked for and won the right to argue in favor of religious school vouchers before the U.S. Supreme Court this month.
The justices have granted a request from Solicitor General Theodore Olson to argue a pro-voucher position during the court's Feb. 20 deliberations of a case that will determine the constitutionality of vouchers.
The case, Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, challenges an Ohio law that provides vouchers for students in Cleveland. More than 90 percent of the program's funding is going to religious schools. The law is being challenged by Americans United and its allies in the public education and civil liberties communities.
Although the Ohio program is state-supported and involves no federal money, the Bush administration has had a strong interest in the case all along. Last year, the solicitor general's office filed a brief urging the Supreme Court to hear the case. The step was seen as unusual because normally the office does not weigh in on cases where no federal issue is at stake.
Oral arguments at the Supreme Court last one hour, with each side allotted 30 minutes. An attorney with the state of Ohio will handle the bulk of the pro-voucher argument, giving Olson about 10 minutes. Bob Chanin, an attorney with the National Education Association, will present the anti-voucher argument.
A decision in the case is expected by early July.
In other news, Bush administration officials are considering a plan for a private-school tax credit. The Washington Post reported in January that Bush may put forward the concept as part of a package of domestic-policy ideas designed to focus more attention on the president's legislative agenda.
Far Right Wary Of Bush's Outreach To Muslim Community
Some far-right religious and political leaders are beginning to criticize President George W. Bush for getting too close to Muslim leaders and the Islamic faith generally.
In mid-December Bush hosted a dinner for 50 diplomats from Muslim nations, marking the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan and the holiday Eid-al-Fitr. It was believed to be the first time an Islamic holiday was officially celebrated in the White House.
While most Religious Right leaders and activists remain wildly enthusiastic about Bush, a few on the fringes of the movement are unhappy with the president's embrace of Islamic officials.
"Lots of people I've spoken to not just the grassroots but also leaders of other pro-family organizations are bewildered at why George Bush is doing so much to pay homage to Islam," Joe Glover of the Family Policy Network, a Virginia-based group known mostly for criticizing gay rights, told Beliefnet.com.
"Conservative evangelicals love Muslims," Glover continued. "They care for them. They want to provide religious freedom for them. However, they are diametrically opposed to Islam. It's the same difference we have with the homosexual community. We care about homosexuals, yet we're opposed to their agenda because we know it destroys their lives. Likewise, we care about Muslims, but we're opposed to even any tacit endorsement of Islam because it's against the will of God."
Janet Folger, head of TV preacher D. James Kennedy's Center for Reclaiming America, is also not pleased by Bush's outreach to Muslims.
"My heart sank when they opened the National Day of Prayer and Remembrance service in the name of God, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Jesus and Allah," she said. "I don't pray in the name of Baal any more than I pray in the name of Allah. Because guess what? Allah is a different god. It's not one big umbrella, and we shouldn't just get along. If you look at the Bible, God isn't real fond of people who pray to false gods."
David Crowe, director of Restore America, a group based in Oregon, chimed in by saying, "We don't believe Islam needs validating at the highest level of American government. A lot of people think Bush has bent way too far over backward to say nice things about Muslims."
In several speeches since the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, Bush, who heavily courted Muslims during the 2000 campaign, has called Islam a "peaceful religion." Not all evangelicals agree with this assessment. In late December ex-Watergate figure turned Religious Right activist Chuck Colson asserted on his radio program "Breakpoint" that Islam's true nature is being covered up.
Discussing the case of John Walker, the 20-year-old American who left home to fight for the Taliban in Afghanistan, Colson said, "The Walker case, you see, is really a metaphor for what happens if Americans buy into the politically correct talk about Islam being peace-loving. Christians have to be prepared to take the lead in setting the record straight."