Linda’s comment about the influence of Christians in the Republican party here in Georgia got me thinking that few people understand how evangelical Christians came to power in the party and what the nature of that power is today. I am fortunate enough to have been involved in many of the events that led to this shift in the Republican party and would like to give my perspective. I wrote a similar article last year but thought I would write about this again with an eye towards Georgia politics.
I grew up in Atlanta in the ’70s and ’80s and became an evangelical Christian when I was quite young. As a result, I grew up steeped in an evangelical Christian subculture that is probably familiar to many who have been in the South long. For decades prior to the ’70s, evangelical Christians in America had been content to separate from culture. However, Roe v. Wade was a seminal moment for many Christians and caused many to get involved in politics.
Prior to 1988, conservative Christians had very little influence in the Republican party in Georgia (or anywhere in the US for that matter). The party was primarily run by fiscal/small government conservatives and big business types. Even though James Davison Hunter had yet to coin the phrase, the “Culture War” was being fought by Christians throughout the ’80s. And I was involved in three of the major skirmishes, all of which involved Georgia politics.
Throughout the ’80s, many evangelical Christians became involved in the pro-life movement to stop abortion. This movement mostly focused on lobbying Congress and picketing abortion clinics. During the summer of 1988, a group called Operation Rescue decided to take more extreme measures. Operation Rescue chose the 1988 Democratic convention in Atlanta as a backdrop for large scale demonstrations and blockades at abortion clinics. And I was there for every bit of it.
While Operation Rescue and its leaders would not technically be considered domestic terrorists, they certainly inspired acts of domestic terrorism. I made this point in an article last year and was chastised by a “Religious Right” leader via email and phone that my accusation had no basis in fact. Of course this person had no idea that Operation Rescue leaders Randall Terry, Joseph Foreman, and Jim Kopp had lived at my house in Atlanta for months.
Jim Kopp is the notorious killer of abortion doctor, Bernard Slepian of Buffalo, New York. And Jim lived in my bedroom for quite a few months in 1988. If Jim Kopp isn’t a terrorist, then no one is.
I do want to make clear that the vast majority of people that were involved in Operation Rescue were not violent and did not fit the stereotypical “yelling at women on the sidewalk”. But the events of 1988 got many evangelical Christians thinking about how to act politically.
The other major event of 1988 was the presidential election. And evangelical Christians had their candidate in the televangelist, Pat Robertson. The impact of the Robertson campaign is still felt today. While Robertson didn’t come very close to winning the Republican nomination, he did succeed in building an unbelievable grassroots campaign. I should know. I worked on paid staff for Robertson.
One of the strategies of the Robertson campaign was to use its grassroots support to take over the Republican party at county conventions and state conventions. I’ll never forget the Cobb County Republican convention that took place at Lassiter High School in Marietta. It was a knock-down, drag-out fight with Robert’s Rules of Order to see whether Robertson’s slate of delegates would get sent to the state convention or not. During that election season, the Robertson campaign managed to take over quite a few Republican state delegations. And the fruit of that labor in 1988 is now seen in the Republican party in Georgia.
My brother and I attended Henderson High near Northlake Mall. We were both involved in a student organization called Fellowship of Christian Athletes. During my senior year the school administration decided that our group should not able to use school facilities or even make announcements at school regarding off-campus meetings. An assistant principal found a note about one of our meetings off-campus and suspended my brother and one of my best friends and threatened to expel me from school. The discipline note was shocking. The note had places to check off items such as “fighting” but the assistant principal had checked “Other” and written “Possession of Christian material”.
You can imagine our reaction. Coincidentally, we happened to be attending the same church as famed Christian attorney Jay Sekulow. Jay quickly took our case and went public with it. Overnight, my brother and I were thrust into a media spotlight, especially in the Christian media. Jay flew us out to California for a taping of his television show and had us interviewed for the 700 Club. There was also a new political organization forming around this time and they asked my brother and I to speak at one of their first leadership meetings in Washington D.C. That group was the Christian Coalition.
I’ll never forget standing before a packed room filled with a who’s who list of “Religious Right” leaders. You name them, they were there. Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, Chuck Colson, Gary Bauer, and of course, Ralph Reed. I got to spend time talking to these men and have even kept in touch with some of them over the years.
The Christian Coalition has had a not insignificant impact upon Georgia politics since then. Since the early ’90s, many Republican politicians in Georgia have sought the endorsement of the Georgia Christian Coalition. Fortunately that influence is on the wane.
A Political Transformation
So why do I say fortunately? I am still a Christian and tend to be conservative in my political beliefs. What changed?
A couple of things changed. I changed. When I went away to college, I became president of the campus College Republicans during my freshman year and started to see power politics in action. And I started to see that politics and government couldn’t solve all problems. As it related to an issue like abortion, I realized that even if laws were changed, women would still seek abortions unless their hearts were changed and they were given help and compassion.
After that freshman year of college, I completely dropped out of political involvement for years. I have spent the past fifteen years trying to make sense of what responsibility a Christian has towards politics. I certainly believe now that Christians have a right and responsibility to be involved in politics, but the big question is how.
While the Republican party in Georgia isn’t run by the “Religious Right”, conservative Christians have a tremendous amount of influence and power in the party. Conservative Christians have left their imprint on the party resulting in state legislators pushing bills allowing people to say “Merry Christmas” in workplaces and schools and voluntary Bible classes in public schools.
Unfortunately, these are examples of conservative Christian politicians and activists focused on maintaining power. This is readily evident as these type of issues are only raised to create fear. The victimization meme that is often brought up does great disservice to those Christians in closed countries around the world that face actual persecuction and death because of their faith. My religious liberties are NOT under attack. My children do not need the official sanction of government to pray in their school.
I hope and pray that Christians leaders and politicians in Georgia will start to act with more humility and less hubris. The maxim about “power corrupting” is certainly true and has sadly been evident among the “Religious Right” in Georgia. Christians in the public eye need to be known for their unwavering commitment to truth, their love towards others (especially those they disagree with), and their steadfast desire to help and protect the poor and oppressed.
I welcome any and all comments.