Unification News for September 1996
Reflections on the Road to Victory
I had a wonderful experience attending the Christian Coalition national convention in Washington, DC this September 13 and 14. There were well 4,150 delegates present from across America, according to an announcement made by Dr. Ralph Reed, Executive Director of the Coalition, but I estimated about 6,000 present in the auditorium of the Washington Hilton Hotel and Towers.
The speakers list was well-balanced racially, with black speakers Congressman J. C. Watts, Ambassador Alan Keyes, and author Star Parker drawing tremendous enthusiasm from the audience. There were two rabbis as plenary speakers as well, Yechiel Eckstein of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, and Daniel Lapin of Toward Tradition. A new Catholic wing of the Coalition, called Catholic Alliance, was well-represented by Father Richard John Neuhaus and attorney Kieth Fournier. However, the audience was 95% white and largely evangelical. One hopes that the spectrum on the rostrum may soon display its light substantially as a congregation.
The agenda included a veritable who's who of the conservative leadership of today's America: besides Coalition founder and president Pat Robertson, there were Rep. Tom DeLay, House Majority Whip, Newt Gingrich, Speaker of the House, Dr. William Bennett, Sen. Dan Coats, Rep. Dick Armey, Sen. Jesse Helms, Paul Weyrich, Don Feder, Mona Charen, Oliver North, Rep. Bob Dornan, Pat Buchanan, Phyllis Schlafly, Bob Woodson and the new governor of Arkansas, Mike Huckabee. And Ross Perot (whom I did not have the chance to hear speak.)
On Saturday morning, Republican candidates Bob Dole and Jack Kemp each delivered speeches. Mr. Clinton, while invited, declined the invitation. Mr. Dole's best line, as I recall, was that his wife Elizabeth is doing so well that Eleanor Roosevelt is trying to get in touch with her.
The abundance of speakers made for a packed program with no breaks during long morning sessions (8:30 am until 12:30 pm on Friday; Saturday started at 9:00 am). The audience compensated by continually rising to their feet to cheer the speakers. Among the topics guaranteed to elicit a standing cheer:
1. The pro-life message.
2. Against same-sex marriage.
3. For overcoming racism.
4. To bring America back to God.
5. Small government (as Rep. DeLay put it, "It takes a family, not a village; village is code word for government.")
Many speakers told us that God above government; that rights are from God, not from the government; that our income belongs to us before it belongs to the government, and that regardless of victory or defeat in November, the victory belongs to God.
Dr. Reed decried the "poverty of our souls, not our pocketbooks." Dr. Keyes spoke with the fire of an Old Testament prophet as he blasted any and all politicians who try to buy votes with money (whether entitlements or tax-cuts). Many speakers reminded the audience that "It's the family, stupid, not the economy." Ambassador Keyes hit the nail on the head when he proclaimed simply that fornication is wrong, adultery is wrong, and called the audience to consider that a high official committing blatant, unapologetic adultery is equivalent morally to a crack mother killing her babies.
Ms. Star Parker was tremendous. A former welfare mom who was approached by three mean-spirited, narrow-minded, oppressive bigots from the Christian Right. She responded to their witnessed and attended their church, where she heard the preacher cry out that God is the answer, not government. She was reborn and took her name off the county welfare list. She even said that the fear of God, of eternal punishment, is necessary to get people moral. She said the left is not liberal, it's lewd. She said to keep your witness personal. She is a young and dynamic black woman who combines a high, almost haughty spirit with a Christian warmth breaking through, but filled with the righteousness of a prophet.
There was a mild apocalypticism to the event, noticeably only if one was listening for it, as I suppose I was. Dr. Reed ended his main speech by reminding us that Jesus is "coming back very, very soon," and that we want Jesus to notice us not because we were great politicians, but rather "faithful servants." I was wondering at whether a politician could not be a faithful servant of Christ. Later the same morning, J. C. Watts recalled the saying of another Oklahoman, Will Rogers, to wit: "Son, if you don't study hard, do well and school and get a good education, you might end up a congressman."
A number of speakers, in fact nearly each one, called the audience to the saving knowledge that God's kingdom is not of this world, that, as Dr. Bennett put it, our hope is in the city of God, not the city of man.
Now, there's a good side to this and a bad one. The good side is that it calls the hearer to rise above partisan politics and temporary goals such as elections. In this instance, the counsel, "not of this world," can be an instrument of charity, as we realize that our political position are partial and that we all are fallen people, and should love one another, even those who are our opponents in the arena of public policy.
The bad side is that it can sap our efforts to find the truth. That is, we do our best to articulate what we are given from God as His highest will, and it falls short, but we knew that it would anyway, because everything falls short this side of El Dorado. This is eschatology as excuse.
Attorney Kieth Fournier told us that the family is the civilization which will save the culture. He also intoned a wonderful Roman Catholic social teaching called "subsidiarity," which counsels that the affairs of life should be taken care of on as local a level as possible. In other words, responsibilities for illness (physical or mental), poverty, education and so forth are best dealt with in the family, clan or local community. This is to reject the tendency, really, axiom, of welfare liberalism that the state should take care of everything. A vibrant society is composed of many structures organically interrelated and freely serving each others' needs. The more local, the more flexible, the more personal, the less expensive and the most effective.
Fornier's colleague at the American Center for Law and Justice, Jay Sekulow, in my observation, engendered the greatest crowd enthusiasm through his breathless renditions of a number of good guys/bad guys legal cases having to do with evangelism and Christian groups in schools. For instance, can you believe that a school board refused permission for Christians high schoolers to form a group because their by-laws stated that the leadership of the group must be Christian?
This kind of case goes to the Supreme Court! Sekulow talked about nude dance clubs and pornography and doctor-assisted suicide, and said what we need in this culture is a sense of shame.
Father Neuhaus, a subdued speaker in comparison, noted the importance of the Catholic-Evangelical cooperation in the Christian Coalition, and reminded us that the road to victory is the way of the cross.
There was a constant sense of the impending election and speaker after speaker spoke of the traditional American virtues, and of how men and women of good and great character must lead the nation. References were made toward the present occupant of the White House, and his impressive flexibility with regard to matters of truth. Dr. Reed pledged the Coalition to a campaign to register 1 million new voters by the early October deadline.
Mr. Gingrich had the best "exposure of wasteful government" speech, during which he brought forth a white plastic bucket, marked "ice bucket" with some serial number. He stated that, until recently, a bucket of ice was delivered to each and every congressional office twice a day. You see, he said, we didn't always have refrigerators in Washington. We have them now, but nonetheless the delivery of ice continued, with a staff of fourteen, at a budget of $400,000 a year. So, he said, we didn't do a study. We didn't set up a five-year transitional plan. We didn't have a retraining program for the staff. We didn't offer programs to educate the congressional offices on how to use their refrigerators to make their own ice. (What they did do, I didn't quite catch, but the impression was that they put the program on ice.)
I must say that the singer on Friday night (I missed the Saturday banquet) was excellent, Kathy Troccoli, if a bit over-zealous when she appeared to be kissing Jesus hovering, apparently, in the air above her. An interesting combination of Counter-Reformation passionate piety and Las Vegas pious passion.
I learned a lot. Dr. Reed is very impressive as an organizer and speaker. He was the one to come out and introduce the most important speakers. He gave way his spot on the agenda to Mr. Gingrich when the program was running behind schedule (and yes, their program, just like ours, started late and was usually behind schedule).
In terms of social policy and perspective, I found myself in agreement with most of what was being said. But it was during Jack Kemp's speech that I had a sobering thought. Mr. Kemp was gamely taking on what everyone else was willing to defer to God and heaven: the interplay of the city of God and city of man. Mr. Kemp, after all, is a political leader. Most of the speakers were subtly anti-politics, calling for moral values to be the primary agenda, to win or lose based on absolute moral issues, not economic ones. Mr. Buchanan complained of himself and Dr. Reed being offered but a few moments to speak at the Republican Convention.
Mr. Kemp and Mr. Dole, on the other hand, must work things out in the political world, which in almost all instances is a world in which compromises are necessary over moral stances. Moral stances tend to be absolute, and life is full of exceptions. So Mr. Kemp was working on explaining how these can be combined. He gave a wonderful vignette describing how he and his wife met with Bob and Elizabeth Dole at the Doles' small home in Russell, Kansas, just before the announcement of his vice-presidential bid. The four of them, he said, were in the living room, and they formed a circle on their knees, holding hands, in prayer. And they prayed that God would guide their campaign.
What I was sobered by was my memory of something I had studied in my student days, of political controversies in the 1820s in the United States. The controversy was between evangelicals and secularists (at that time represented by a small but highly articulate faction, the Unitarian-Universalists).
The details of their controversy, recorded in various magazines of the times, and the lines of their arguments, are the same as what we are hearing in 1996. In other words, these are not new issues in America. In fact, we can go further back, to the battle between Unitarians and revivalists in the 18th century, or between the Puritans and Anglicans in the 17th century, and on back, although the lines of the debate lose focus as we remove ourselves from the democratic context.
But the America of the 1820s was, ideologically, very similar to the America of today, although back then the evangelicals constituted the vast majority, and the "liberals" were a small minority. This minority has now become the majority. The arguments on both sides are much the same. History, in other words, has, over the decades, favored the arguments and policies and sentiments of the liberals. The evangelicals have no new arguments; in fact, the arguments proffered 180 years ago were more lucid, honest and compelling than anything I've read in the recent literature.
If this is true, it does not forebode well for the Christian right. The movement may be rising now based more upon renewed sentiment, a last display of outrage at the death-dealing culture of atheism and materialism, than upon new substance. Without new substance, I'm afraid the Christian right may have to settle for its home in the sky, not on the earth. That is not a job well done, faithful servant.
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