Roberta's Retreat

Christian Coalition Women's Conference Is A Flop

TV preacher and Christian Coalition President Pat Robertson sees a lot at stake in election 2000. What happens in November is so important, he says, it just might determine the course of the nation well into the new century.

"We have a chance in this election," he told attendees at the Christian Coalition's first-ever "Women Changing America" conference last month. "There will be probably two to three Supreme Court judges that will be up for the court. If there is a continuation of the Clinton line, we will have three more ultra-liberals on the court that we will never be able to change in our lifetime."

Continued Robertson, "But we have the chance, I believe, to see three judges who will interpret the Constitution according to the intention of the framers and try and reverse some of the terrible decisions of the last 30 or 40 years. America stands at a crossroads, and we can see something happen that will be very profound. There's no way we can rest in this election."

Robertson's comments came at the conclusion of the March 3-4 event in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Arlington, Va. The conference was designed to energize and motivate women to enlist in the ranks of the Religious Right, but if the turnout is any indication, Robertson, whose Coalition has been troubled lately, may be wasting his time pinning his hopes for a political rebirth on women.

Attendance for the event was dismal. Although Coalition officials said registration topped 700, at 1:20 Friday afternoon -- 20 minutes after the conference was supposed to have started -- fewer than three dozen women were occupying seats in the ballroom of the Crystal Gateway Marriott Hotel. Coalition staffers swept the halls to usher in stragglers, but even at its height attendance never exceeded 200.

The speakers' list was an odd mixture of anti-feminists, Religi­ous Right second-stringers and wives of minor GOP presidential candidates who left the race long ago. Although early promotional materials listed former First Lady Barbara Bush, former presidential candidate Elizabeth Dole, U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-Texas) and former United Nations ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick as "invited speakers," none of them was on the final program. There wasn't a single big name speaker.

Roberta Combs, the Coalition's executive vice president and conference organizer, was scheduled to give the kickoff address but didn't bother since the conference started late and so few women were there. (Combs did make brief welcoming remarks Saturday morning, but these amounted to a mere outline of the day's program.) The first speaker on Friday, right-wing radio talk show host Janet Parshall, didn't even show up, sending a video instead. She claimed her busy schedule forced her to cancel at the last minute.

Combs had billed the conference as a political organizing session. In fact, there was virtually no useful content on grassroots organizing and, aside from Robertson's banquet screed, little overt political talk. The conference featured a revolving parade of speakers but no hands-on workshops or "break out" sessions, which are a staple of the Coalition's annual "Road to Victory" gathering. (Despite the lackluster speaker lineup, the Coalition worked hard to keep the event out of the media. The conference was closed to the press, and attendees were cautioned not to take photographs.)

Robertson's speech was the most partisan feature of the event and focused mainly on the Supreme Court. He strongly implied that unless Texas Gov. George W. Bush is elected, the high court will be stacked with justices like David Souter, a man he derided as "so liberal."

"I would frankly rather have Ruth Bader Ginsberg, former general counsel of the ACLU, than another David Souter," said Rob­ertson. Taking a swipe at John McCain, who was still in the GOP race at that time, Robertson asserted that former U.S. Sen. Warren Rudman, a McCain adviser, would see to it that more justices like Souter ended up on the high court. (Ironically, Souter was appointed by President George Bush, a Republican and father of the Texas governor.)

The rest of Robertson's remarks consisted of his boilerplate rhetoric. He blasted liberals, church-state separation and "political correctness" and insisted that conservative Christians are being persecuted in American society.

In what had to be the speech's most ironic moment, Robertson lauded Thomas Jefferson, the nation's third president and author of the famous "wall of separation between church and state" metaphor. Badly misconstruing history, Robertson asserted that Jefferson, whom he called "a very handsome man" with "finely chiseled features," opposed tyranny because "he was being faced with the French Revolution, which later led into communism, socialism, and statism. He understood that God was the author of the liberties we enjoy as a free people."

Robertson quoted Jefferson's famous words, "I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man," which are carved on the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C. He did not mention that Jefferson made that statement in response to attacks from ultra-conservative Christian ministers who accus­ed him of being an anti-Christian bigot during the election of 1800. Nor did he mention that Jefferson was an admirer of the French Revolution and skeptical of the tenets of orthodox Christianity.

Calling on his audience to "reject the continuation of tyrannical rule of the radical left and the courts and the Congress and the executive branch," Robertson said, "Our forefathers were primarily Christians. This nation was founded by Christians on Christian values. The Bible was the center of this nation. The great freedoms we enjoy, the fundamental structure of our government, came from the Bible."

Robertson's speech was the best example of partisanship at the event. There were a few others. Carol Bauer, wife of failed GOP presidential candidate Gary Bauer, explained to the crowd why her husband endorsed McCain, who at the time was in the news for attacking Robertson and the Rev. Jerry Falwell, calling them "agents of intolerance" in one speech. (See "The GOP Holy War," page 4.)

Carol Bauer noted that other conservative Christians have endorsed Bush but urged the crowd to put aside their differences, saying, "It will be either McCain or Bush and either will be preferable to Al Gore, on that we can agree." (Perhaps aware of her husband's precarious position in the Religious Right these days, Bauer stuck around for the entire conference, working the crowd and talking to attendees one-on-one.)

None of the other speakers could really match Robertson's rhetorical excess, though some did try. Parshall came closest, offering her standard stump speech of triumphalist bombast mixed with calls for a more aggressive fundamentalist Christian witness. According to Parshall, the culture war is "an ancient warfare" involving two mutually exclusive worldviews: One holding that God is the creator and center of the universe and the other saying the individual is at the center and thus "we become little gods."

One vision will triumph, Parshall asserted, adding, "Which one do you want to take predominance in the culture?" Concluding, she attributed the conference to godly intervention, telling the women, "You are not here by accident you are here by divine appointment."

Keeping her target audience in mind, Parshall had earlier remarked that the key to "turning the culture back to the cross" is to "first and foremost, enjoy being a woman. I love to teach my daughters I enjoy being a girl and remind them that by divine appointment our Heavenly Father has allowed us to enter into this pilgrim's progress just as that women, and there's something that we can do."

Another right-wing Janet Janet Folger of TV preacher D. James Kennedy's Center for Reclaiming America gave Parshall a run for her money in the use of heated rhetoric. Focusing mainly on the issue of abortion, Folger urged the crowd not to get discouraged and predicted that total victory is at hand.

More and more Americans oppose legal abortion, Folger said, and are understanding that "once a woman is pregnant, she already has a child the choice is whether she'll have a live one or a dead one. The choice is whether there will be a live baby or a dead baby. For those of you in the media, let me break it down: 'Live baby good, dead baby bad.'"

Continued Folger, "We are going to win the pro-life battle, the prerequisite human rights issue battle of our time." She compared legal abortion to the Nazi Holocaust and said that someday she hopes to be able to tell her children and grandchildren how she helped stop "the slaughter."

Although she aimed most of her remarks at legal abortion, Folger did make sure to include some gay bashing and to assault the public school system. The latter institution, she argued, is doomed because it has rejected Christianity. She called the horrific shooting at Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colo., last year "the Pearl Harbor of the culture wars it was a wake-up call that this country needed."

None of the other speakers could hold a candle to that type of calumny. However, some of the others did provide moments of unintentional humor. Michelle Easton of the Clare Booth Luce Policy Institute, blasting "feminist nonsense," asserted that the popular "Take Your Daughter to Work Day" is really a left-wing plot. The event, she asserted, is "an example of the feminists' desire to discriminate in favor of the girls over boys...and indoctrinate girls in feminist propaganda."

Joyce Strong, an author and fundamentalist Christian motivational speaker, tried to energize the crowd Friday afternoon by playing an up-tempo Christian pop song called "God Is In Control." Strong urged the women to get up and dance, but only a handful did. Most of the women in the largely older crowd remained planted in their seats.

Strong reappeared the next day to offer religious counsel, urging attendees to regard Jesus as their "best friend." She recounted how she enjoys spending time with her best friend Jesus and remarked, "Even if he doesn't say anything, it's nice just to be alone with him." Strong added that she even likes to take car rides with Jesus and said, "I often talk about my day with him."

Other speakers included Karen Jo Gounaud, president of Family Friendly Libraries, a Religious Right front group that attacks the American Library Association and accuses public libraries of spreading pornography; anti-porn crusader Donna Rice Hughes; Mildred Jefferson of the National Right to Life Crusade and Kim Spangler, Missouri field director for the Christian Coalition's 21 Victory Club.

Also speaking was Pat Robertson's wife, Dede. "I never thought I would live to see the day" she said, "when homosexuality and adultery would be accepted in America -- not only accepted, but normal. We used to treat people in psychiatric hospitals for some of these things."

Striking a more political tone, Robertson's wife also unleashed criticism of the Republican Congress. "They haven't made much of a difference," she said. "These men don't want to fight....They don't want to be called intolerant. They don't want to be ridiculed by the media. Very few will stand up and be counted for what is right and what is wrong and call it what it is."

Encouraging political activity on the part of her audience, Robertson went so far as to compare the United States to "Sodom and Gomorrah" and insisted that America needed to be "decent and God-fearing" as it once was.

The conference also featured a small exhibit area, where literature and other materials were distributed. A table run by Human Life International, an ultra-conservative Catholic group, passed out a pamphlet equating the use of contraceptives with wife beating.

The pamphlet, "Contraception and Common Sense" by Dr. Les Hemingway, calls doctors who prescribe contraceptives "muddle-headed" and "nincompoops." It goes on to assert, "No one would punch his wife in the teeth and claim that he was making love. Why should poking her in the pituitary with a pill or tampering with her tubes be any different? In fact, there is no essential difference between contraception and more obvious forms of violence. Contraception is a subtle but effective form of domestic violence. It batters love instead of building it up, which is why divorce rates rise as contraception spreads."

On Friday morning before the Christian Coalition conference got under way, Equal Partners in Faith, a Washington-based group that works to promote equality between the sexes and an appreciation for diversity, held a forum at the same hotel to respond to the Coalition's claim that women agree with the Religious Right on political issues.

"We actively oppose the manipulation of religion to exclude or oppress people," said the Rev. Meg Riley, a Unitarian Universalist minister and member of the Americans United National Advisory Council, who co-chairs Equal Partners in Faith.

Another speaker, Rabbi Bonnie Margulis of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, criticized the Religious Right for claiming to speak for all people of faith.

"I am pro-faith, pro-prayer, pro-family and pro-choice," Margulis said. She blasted the "moral arrogance and single-mindedness of the Religious Right, which has convinced many Americans that religious groups are anti-choice. This is simply not true....No one religious viewpoint should prevail in this diverse country of ours. The Religious Right's agenda threatens the separation of church and state and relegates women to second-class citizens. Our country faces a threat from the Religious Right that threatens not only women's rights but all of our rights."

Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, said the Christian Coalition's "Women Changing America" conference was little more than an attempt to shore up its flagging base of support by drawing women into the Religious Right movement. Lynn noted that the day of the conference Americans United issued a report examining Robertson's poor track record on women's issues and his history of making extremist statements about women's rights. (See "Curious Courtship," March 2000 Church & State.)

"The Christian Coalition's agenda is explicitly anti-women," said Lynn. "If it is enacted, American women will have considerably less freedom, not more. I'm confident that most women will see through this latest cynical ploy by the Christian Coalition and reject the group outright."