The meeting took place at Washington, D.C.'s historic Hay Adams Hotel, just across Lafayette Square from the White House. Republican presidential front runner George W. Bush was there, along with a cadre of top Religious Right leaders.
When the one-and-a-half hour grilling ended Sept. 24, the Texas governor had gained the group's acceptance of his stands on church and state, abortion, judicial appointments and gay rights and perhaps had taken another step toward occupancy of that house across the street.
According to two news media reports, Bush met quietly with key Religious Right figures to answer their questions about his political agenda and personal religious commitment.
The session was organized under the aegis of the Madison Project, an organization led by home schooling advocate Michael Farris. Among those attending were Farris; Tim LaHaye, best-selling author and a founder of the Religious Right; Beverly LaHaye, head of Concerned Women for America (and Tim's wife); Paul Pressler, a former Texas judge and key strategist of the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination; Marlin Maddoux, a Texas-based evangelical radio executive; William Armstrong, former U.S. senator from Colorado; Dr. John Willke, president of Life Issues Institute; Paul Weyrich, head of the Free Congress Foundation; and Peter Marshall, author and "Christian nation" advocate. (TV preacher D. James Kennedy is also a member of the group, but missed the Bush interview session.)
Madison Project participants are interviewing all the Republican presidential candidates, but the session with front-runner Bush is considered the most portentous. While the Religious Right conclave stopped short of endorsing Bush, the candidate clearly persuaded many of them that he sees things their way on many issues.
"He's not rising out of the social conservative ranks so he's not going to be 100 percent harmonious with us, but the question is whether he is reasonably harmonious," Farris told Scripps Howard reporter Joan Lowy. "The answer is, yeah, we thought he was."
In a separate interview, Farris told conservative columnist Cal Thomas, AI think Bush is acceptable. I'll support him if he's the nominee."
The Religious Right leaders were particularly concerned about Bush's stand on abortion and judicial appointments. The movement hopes the next president will name Supreme Court justices who will reverse the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision upholding abortion rights and other decisions that conflict with their interpretation of the Bible.
Bush told the group that he would not have a litmus test for federal judges, but that he would appoint "strict constructionists." The Texas governor also pointed to his record in Texas where he has appointed judges who are anti-abortion.
"He spoke of the need to protect human life in terms that were consistent with our values," Farris told Scripps Howard. "He talked not only about abortion, but euthanasia and issues like Dr. Kevorkian and expressed the preciousness of human life at all stages, which was warmly received."
Armstrong told Thomas that Bush "favorably impressed him" as a "man of conviction," and said the candidate "doesn't need to go further" in his anti-abortion rhetoric.
Bush also satisfied his interviewers on the question of gay rights. He said he would not "knowingly" appoint a homosexual as an ambassador or department head, but also would not fire someone if such information came out later.
Marshall recalled, "He said to us, 'Rest assured, I would not start somebody, I would not appoint somebody, to a position who was an open homosexual.' At the same time, he said that if he found out that somebody who was already doing a good job was homosexual, 'I wouldn't necessarily can him because he's a homosexual.'"
Marshall was also pleased with Bush's personal affirmation of faith. He shared his "personal relationship with Christ," Marshall said. "He was not a bit ashamed or reticent to do that. That was very encouraging to us all."
Ironically, Bush's amen-winning interview with the Religious Right came just a few days before he chided Republican activists for presenting too rigid an image. In a high-profile speech at the Manhattan Institute in New York Oct. 5, Bush said, "Too often, on social issues, my party has painted an image of America slouching tomorrow Gomorrah."
The comment was a reference to failed Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork's book Slouching Toward Gomorrah, a volume that paints a dark picture of an America in moral decline. The Bush remark was taken as blunt criticism of the GOP's Religious Right allies.
Bork and other social conservatives were predictably upset. TV preacher and Christian Coalition President Pat Robertson issued a statement saying, "For his own good, he would be well advised to avoid statements which tend to alienate the core conservatives of the Republican Party, which will either drive them into the arms of Pat Buchanan, to support other candidates or cause them to say home on Election Day."
AI think it is incumbent on Governor Bush to explain what he meant," groused Farris in an interview with The Washington Times.
The Bush team quickly moved to mend fences. ("After you hit a dog, you pet it," commented one anonymous Bush adviser in an interview with The New York Times.) Bush speech writer Michael Gerson told conservative columnist Robert Novak that the Gomorrah reference was merely "vivid language" and that he was "horrified" by the reaction from the right. Gerson said he has sent a personal letter of apology to Bork.
According to Novak, the fence-mending is working. "Four days after his New York speech, Bush engaged in a love fest in San Antonio with the social conservative elite: members of the Council on National Policy." The CNP is a secretive umbrella group of Religious Right luminaries and wealthy right-wing business executives. (See "Behind Closed Doors At The CNP," June 1996 Church & State.)
Bush, meanwhile, is continuing his quiet outreach to the Religious Right. According to The Washington Post, the candidate has assembled a corps of prominent religious and social conservatives to vouch for him, some of them recruited by Ralph Reed, the former Christian Coalition executive director who now runs a political consulting firm in Atlanta. Among the number are TV preacher John Hagee of San Antonio, evangelist James Robison, former Regent University dean Kay James, Amway executive Richard DeVos and Carl Herbster of the American Association of Christian Schools.
The newspaper said top Southern Baptist leaders in the group include denominational president Paige Patterson, former president Ed Young, denominational lobbyist Richard Land and Pressler, who serves on the Madison Project panel.
Right-wing Catholic intellectual Richard John Neuhaus told the Post, a Bush presidency "holds very high promise" and said the candidate "intends to run a conservative campaign in a way that, as the lady says, 'doesn't frighten the horses.'"