Focus on the Family Chairman James C. Dobson emerged from a top-secret, closed-door meeting of the Religious Right in Salt Lake City with some tough talk for the Republican Party: If you nominate a candidate who is pro-choice on abortion, I will walk.
Dobson does not plan to be alone. The New York Times reported Oct. 1 that the FOF head was among a collection of Religious Right leaders who met during a gathering of the Council for National Policy (CNP) Sept. 29. Movement leaders pledged to back a third party if the GOP nominates Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York City.
The CNP, an umbrella organization of far-right groups, is normally very secretive about its activities, and talking to the press is strictly verboten. But this time it seemed at least some of the coalition’s members were deliberately seeking media attention.
The Times reported that the talk about a third party “emerged from a group that broke away for separate discussions” during the CNP gathering.
“Participants said the smaller group included James C. Dobson of Focus on the Family, who is perhaps its most influential member; Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council; Richard A. Viguerie, the direct-mail pioneer; and dozens of other politically oriented conservative Christians,” continued The Times.
The story went on to say, “Almost everyone present at the smaller group’s meeting expressed support for a written resolution stating that ‘if the Republican Party nominates a pro-abortion candidate we will consider running a third-party candidate,’ participants said. The participants said that the group chose the qualified term ‘consider’ because it had not yet identified an alternative candidate, but that it was largely united in its plans to bolt the party if Mr. Giuliani, the former New York mayor, became the nominee.”
Although The Times did not identify its source, it seems likely this explosive story was handed to the newspaper with Dobson’s blessing to send a not-so-subtle message to the GOP: If you’re thinking of Giuliani, think again.
Dobson and Perkins later turned up the heat. On Oct. 4, Dobson penned an op-ed column for The Times, reiterating that the threat of a third party is real.
Dobson said it is “problematic” to “choose a candidate according to the likelihood of electoral success or failure.”
“Polls don’t measure right and wrong; voting according to the possibility of winning or losing can lead directly to the compromise of one’s principles,” Dobson wrote. “In the present political climate, it could result in the abandonment of cherished beliefs that conservative Christians have promoted and defended for decades. Winning the presidential election is vitally important, but not at the expense of what we hold most dear.”
Perkins, meanwhile, sent an e-mail to FRC supporters saying there is “no real desire nor are there active plans to create a third party” but quickly added, “What was agreed upon was what could be called a statement of principle, to the effect that if both of the major parties nominate a pro-abortion-rights candidate we will consider supporting a third-party candidate…. I do think it is important that our movement draw a line that we refuse to cross.”
The Rev. Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association promptly piled on. In an interview with the conservative Washington Times, Wildmon implied that the Religious Right may need to hurt the GOP to teach the party leadership a lesson.
“Every six months before an election, Republicans are our best friends, and six days after the election, they don’t even know us,” carped Wildmon.
He added, “Here’s one thing I’ll say about Republicans: They may not win with us, but they cannot win without us. The leadership needs to think seriously and long about that proposition.”
Such threats and provocative rhetoric underscore that these are unsettled times politically for the Religious Right. As the presidency of George W. Bush winds down, theocratic groups are well aware that a period of unprecedented influence they have enjoyed for the past seven years may be fading away.
Bush, hobbled by an unpopular war and basement-level approval ratings, could always count on the Religious Right for support. In return, Religious Right organizations enjoyed easy access to the White House, the power to screen judicial nominees, tax funding through the “faith-based” initiative, significant input into policy decisions and other perks.
It’s a lot to give up – and the Religious Right does not intend to let it go without a fight.
But the Religious Right’s desire to remain in the driver’s seat is complicated because the GOP’s crowded field remains wide open, with organizations and leaders of different groups lining up behind the various candidates.
Dr. Richard Land, head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s lobbying arm, is clearly partial to former senator Fred Thompson. Jay Sekulow, chief attorney for Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice, is backing former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. The Christian Coalition began saying favorable things about U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) after McCain expressed his belief that the United States is a Christian nation, and U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), who dropped out of the race in mid-October, had made campaign appearances with “Christian nation” advocate David Barton.
Meanwhile, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, whom many expected to have natural appeal to the Religious Right, is struggling to break out of the pack. Huckabee has been making a series of appearances in evangelical churches, but so far it has not translated into many high-profile endorsements.
The Religious Right’s splintering among GOP candidates has led to some rare internecine warfare. Days before issuing his threat to back a third party, Dobson found himself the subject of unwanted media attention because of a wayward e-mail message bashing Thompson.
The Associated Press in late September obtained a private e-mail Dobson wrote that was critical of the former Tennessee senator.
“Isn’t Thompson the candidate who is opposed to a Constitutional amendment to protect marriage, believes there should be 50 different definitions of marriage in the U.S., favors McCain-Feingold, won’t talk at all about what he believes, and can’t speak his way out of a paper bag on the campaign trail?” fumed Dobson.
The harsh words continued.
“He has no passion, no zeal, and no apparent ‘want to,’” wrote Dobson. “And yet he is apparently the Great Hope that burns in the breasts of many conservative Christians? Well, not for me, my brothers. Not for me!”
Dobson’s brutal attack on Thompson drew return fire from Land.
Land told David Brody, a reporter and blogger at Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), “I’ve received phone calls and e-mails from Southern Baptists about Sen. Thompson. They are all furious at Dr. Dobson. They just feel that, first of all, there was a mischaracterizing of his positions. Do I wish that he supported the marriage protection amendment? Of course I do. To say that he is for 50 different views of marriage in 50 different states is a gross mischaracterization of his position. Secondly, do I wish that he attended church every Sunday? As a Baptist pastor, of course I do. But does that make him a person of unbelief? That’s harsh and unwarranted.”
Days later, Land wrote a convoluted column for Baptist Press in which he suggested that it is better to support a candidate who agrees with you most of the time and who is electable over a candidate who agrees with you all of the time but who has a slight chance of winning.
Land used fictional names in his column and did not mention any candidates currently running – but it’s not much of a stretch to figure out what he was telling Religious Right activists: Don’t waste your vote on a “purist” candidate who can’t beat the Democratic nominee.
Wrote Land, “Do we choose the ‘best’ candidate…, knowing this may result in the ultimate triumph of the greater evil (the candidate you agree with 10 percent of the time)? Or do we choose the lesser evil – or lesser good – of supporting the more viable candidacy of the person we agree with 80 percent of the time…? Most religious, and many secular, ethicists would say that one should at least take such questions into consideration before making a final decision.”
Thompson defended himself against Dobson’s onslaught on Fox News Channel Oct. 3. Asked by Sean Hannity about the Dobson e-mail, Thompson responded, “Don’t read too much into the Dobson thing. Frankly, that’s the only one I’ve seen like that.”
Thompson later called Dobson “a gentleman who has never met me, never talked to me” and said he had no interest in speaking with the Colorado Springs broadcaster.
“I don’t particularly care to have a conversation with him,” Thompson said. “If he wants to call up and apologize again, it’s OK with me. I’m not gonna dance to anyone’s tune.”
This splintering during the primaries, many Religious Right activists fear, could open the door to Giuliani.
CBN’s Brody offered this take after Dobson’s Thompson-bashing e-mail became public: “While Dobson is getting the headlines this morning, the more interesting issue is just who will religious conservatives vote for in 2008? There is no clear cut choice. The top four all have issues. I wouldn’t be surprised for voting in this block to splinter so much to where you won’t have any one candidate getting the bulk of the vote. If that becomes the case, Rudy Giuliani is sitting pretty. Thompson, Romney and Huckabee need religious conservatives to back them in droves to defeat Giuliani. If it doesn’t happen, then Rudy vs. Hillary [Clinton] is a real possibility.”
Such a scenario would be Dobson’s worst nightmare. Although Giuliani has been frantically moving to the right recently to appeal to the more conservative GOP primary voters, his record remains troubling to many Religious Right leaders.
Historically, Giuliani has been pro-choice on abortion. He has on more than one occasion appeared in drag. He has also supported gay rights. In 2001, Giuliani moved in with a gay couple after splitting up with his second wife, Donna Hanover. One of those men, Howard Koeppel, later told The Advocate, a gay magazine, that Giuliani was completely accepting of homosexuality.
“Mark and I double-dated with him and his wife, Donna, on New Year’s Eve in ’95 and ’96,” Koeppel said. “We spent the whole evening together, from dinner until 3 in the morning. It was as natural as if we had been an opposite-sex couple.” He later added, “[I]f they would pass a law that marriage would become legal between same-sex couples, I would be the first in line. And if Rudy were still mayor, I know he’d perform the civil ceremony for me.”
Giuliani continues to lead among Republicans in national polls. Oddly enough, Religious Right attacks on him may not be trickling down to the rank and file. The Washington Post Oct. 3 reported on a poll that found Giuliani doing well when respondents were asked which candidate they trusted on social issues.
Reported The Post, “Despite his support for abortion rights and gay rights, 41 percent of those surveyed cited Giuliani as the one they trust, with Thompson a distant second at 18 percent. There was no clear explanation for that finding, given a previous Post-ABC News poll that showed concern among many Republicans about Giuliani’s positions on those issues.”
If Giuliani were to get the nomination, would Dobson follow through on his threat to back a third-party candidate? Dobson has snubbed the Republicans in the past. In 1996, Dobson, unhappy with the GOP’s choice of former senator Robert Dole as its standard-bearer, cast a vote for Howard Phillips, candidate of the far-right Constitution Party.
But 2008 probably won’t be like 1996. In the ’96 race, Dole never managed to present much of a challenge to incumbent Bill Clinton. With polls showing Clinton holding a double-digit lead over Dole just before election day, Dobson might have felt safe casting a protest vote.
A tight race next year might make such a move impractical – especially if the Democrats nominate Clinton, who is universally loathed among the Religious Right.
The more interesting question is not what Dobson will do but what his followers will do. Although Dobson is much admired among the Religious Right, it remains unclear if activists will, sheep-like, vote as he says.
But Dobson does not have to take everyone with him. Even a modest defection of Religious Right voters could spell disaster for the GOP – and that may be just what the party is facing. A Rasmussen poll released last month found that 27 percent of Republican voters would bolt the party if a pro-choice candidate is nominated – enough to significantly change the dynamic of the race.
Giuliani may know he has a problem on his hands. Early last month, The Hill, a Washington, D.C., newspaper, reported that Giuliani has decided to bypass many Religious Right leaders, whom he believes will never support him, and take his candidacy directly to activists in the field. Giuliani, it noted, has declined to meet with the Arlington Group, a coalition of Religious Right organizations.
The newspaper quoted an anonymous Giuliani campaign official, reporting that this source “said that Giuliani does not need the support of the nation’s leading social conservatives to mobilize conservative activists. The official said that while Giuliani may not have met with the powerful conservatives who make up the Arlington Group, he has met with many rank-and-file conservative activists.”
The paper quoted two Religious Right leaders who blasted Giuliani.
Paul Weyrich, a Religious Right warhorse, remarked, “You have a whole group of evangelical Christians who will not support him. Absolutely will not. I will not back Giuliani.”
Michael Farris, a leader in the home schooling movement who founded Patrick Henry College, said bluntly, “Giuliani can’t win. There are millions of people including me who will not vote for him.”
The Hill noted that Giuliani has had more productive meetings with Robertson and Jonathan Falwell. Robertson has even hosted Giuliani at Regent University and interviewed him on “The 700 Club.”
The relationship between Robertson and Giuliani is one of the unreported (and stranger) tales of the campaign. The two would seem to have little in common, but Giuliani apparently reached out to Robertson in February of 2003 after Robertson announced he was being treated for prostate cancer. Giuliani, who received the same diagnosis in 2000, impressed Robertson, and the two became friends.
Robertson praised the former New York mayor on ABC News in 2005.
“He did a super job running the city of New York and I think he’d make a good president,” Robertson said. “Rudy’s a very good friend of mine. He’s a great guy.”
But Robertson’s support may be of limited value these days. The eccentric TV preacher no longer runs a political group, and he has increasingly isolated himself with intemperate rhetoric. Most analysts consider Dobson a far more powerful figure.
Aside from Focus on the Family, Dobson now runs an allied – more overtly political – group called Focus on the Family Action. Dobson frequently endorses political candidates as a private citizen (which he may legally do). In Washington, Perkins’ Family Research Council, a FOF-related organization, also has a more political arm, FRC Action. This entity may also legally endorse candidates and has set up a special Web site with restricted access that promises to be more partisan in tone.
Only one detail remains: getting the churches to play along. FOF and the FRC are attempting to perfect a political strategy birthed by the Christian Coalition in the 1990s: mobilizing Religious Right voters through ultra-conservative churches and arming them with slanted “voter guides” that amount to de facto endorsements of candidates.
On Oct. 1, FOF and the FRC joined three other right-wing groups – the Alliance Defense Fund, Concerned Women for America and the James Madin Center for Free Speech – in issuing a letter to clergy purporting to outline their rights for political engagement.
The letter attacks Americans United for Separation of Church and State for supposedly seeking to intimidate pastors into silence. But AU has never said that pastors may not address issues from the pulpit. In fact, AU has pointed out repeatedly that the Internal Revenue Code bars endorsements of candidates from the pulpit, not discussion of issues.
The groups’ letter includes a chart of do’s and don’ts asserting that church distribution of voter guides is permissible. In fact, the IRS warns churches not to distribute voter guides that are biased or that examine a narrow range of issues.
One IRS document warns, “Although any document that identifies candidates and their positions close in time to an election has the potential to result in political campaign intervention, preparation or distribution of voter guides, because of their nature, present a particular risk for non-compliance.”
In a press statement, Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn warned members of the clergy not to take the advice offered by the Religious Right groups. The letter, Lynn said, is probably part of some larger Religious Right political scheme.
“I suspect that this joint letter is laying the groundwork for another church-based political movement,” said Lynn. “I doubt if it will work. More and more pastors are catching on to the Religious Right’s con. They realize that the Religious Right wants to turn their churches into cogs in some candidate’s political machine, and they want no part of it.
“Pastors understand,” Lynn continued, “that Sunday morning is a time for helping people connect with God, not for issuing slanted ‘voter guides’ that are little more than instructions on whom to vote for.”