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Exposing the Christian Right's New Racial Playbook

A diversity summit at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University reveals that the religious right's survival depends on the black and the brown.
 
 
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NOTE: A reel of video highlights of the Freedom Federation Summit, filmed and compiled by Sarah Posner, appears at the end of this article.

"When God has drawn a line of distinction, we should not attempt to cross that line. The true Negro does not want integration."

That was the assertion made by a young Rev. Jerry Falwell in a sermon he preached at his Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia, 1958, four years after the Supreme Court struck down school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education . But at a gathering of the religious right earlier this month at the late preacher's Lynchburg compound, integration was not only the topic of the day, but touted as the future of the conservative Christian movement.

Convened by the Freedom Federation earlier this month, the diversity summit, dubbed "The Awakening," took place in the sanctuary of church that Falwell founded, and on the campus of his Liberty University. Sold as a gathering of "multiracial, multiethnic and multigenerational faith-based and policy organizations and leaders committed to plan, strategize, and mobilize to advance shared core values to preserve freedom and promote justice," this "awakening" coincides with renewed efforts by the Republican Party to recruit African-American and Latino candidates for elected office. This year, 37 African Americans are running for seats in the U.S. House and Senate, according to the Associated Press.

The outreach to nonwhite evangelicals, spurred by Karl Rove's strategy during the 2004 election and embraced by James Dobson during the same period, has been years in the making. As religious right leaders read the demographic writing on the wall, they are striving to broaden their movement's base -- and to create an environment appealing to the millennial generation of white evangelicals, who are far more accepting of LGBT people and their rights than the generation that came before them, but who remain steadfastly opposed to abortion. Once dismissed for their lack of orthodoxy, fast-growing charismatic and Pentacostal churches, where ecstatic forms of religious expression are displayed, are now regarded as fertile ground for growing the religious right. These churches have large numbers of Latinos and African-American members, often even when the pastor is white.

As they repackage their movement in a new, multicultural wrapping, activists seem unperturbed by the fact that only a tiny segment of blacks identify with the Republican Party and the conservative movement, or that the majority of Latinos voted for Barack Obama. Even if the overall numbers aren't huge, peeling away enough black or Latino voters in crucial swing states is seen as one way of winning elections, while simultaneously creating an image of a "big tent" movement, which appeals to the millennial generation of white believers.

Freedom and Justice Take on New Meanings

Yet while Falwell's protégés shamelessly invoked the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., in the Federation's parlance the words "freedom" and "justice" take on a very different meaning than they had for King and his followers. (In the 1960s, Falwell distributed anti-King literature provided to him by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and denounced King for his "left-wing associations.") For followers of the right, freedom means deliverance from an assortment of evils, including government regulation and socialism, while justice is demanded for Christians supposedly kept down by the secular culture -- and, of course, for fetuses.

"A Latino believer is when you take Billy Graham, Martin Luther King Jr., put them in a blender, and put salsa on top," said Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, who delivered the summit's convocation to several thousand Liberty students (for whom attendance was mandatory) in the Liberty University basketball arena. "Our freedom comes from Christ alone," Rodriguez said. But Rodriguez has re-cast King's legacy to focus not on freedom from race discrimination, but rather for fetuses and their presumed right to be born. "The civil rights issue of the 21st century," said Rodriguez, "is abortion."

"[W]e declare war on the spirit of Herod, made manifest by Roe v. Wade ," Rodriguez told the crowd. In the Christian Bible, the evil King Herod conspired to kill the baby Jesus by ordering the slaughter of all male Jewish babies, an allusion Rodriguez has also used when speaking against health care reform.

Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, which claims 16 million members, last year formed a "strategic partnership" with Liberty University to train the "next generation" of Latino evangelical leaders. At the Freedom Federation meeting, Rodriguez's rhetoric epitomized how the religious right is reframing its core issues to build a new army for "spiritual warfare" on sexual impurity and its consequences. Appearing on a panel moderated by Richard Land, who for decades has been the public and political face of the Southern Baptist Convention in Washington, Rodriguez said, "Let me be very blunt here. I don't believe white evangelicals or white conservatives alone can repudiate the spirit of Herod, the spirit of Sodom and Gomorrah, the spirit of Jezebel."

During the summit's closing rally, Rev. Arnold Culbreath, an African-American minister from Cincinnati, Ohio, admonished young women for their lack of purity. Culbreath is billed as the urban outreach director of Life Issues Institute, Inc., an anti-abortion organization, and the leader of the group's Black Life Initiative. "I want to say a word to the young ladies: Stop making it so easy for the young men," Culbreath said. His words were met with applause. "God has designed us to be the pursuers," he continued, "and you to be the pursuees." He then chided the audience for not clapping for that line. "Sometimes the truth doesn't get a lot of claps," Culbreath said, before returning to his address to young women. "You begin to shift this thing and turn the tables where you're running after him, and he doesn't have to do anything."

Timothy Johnson, the first black official of the North Carolina Republican Party (he serves as vice chairman), moderated a panel called "The Values, Politics and Message of the Black Community." In addition to his position in the North Carolina GOP, Johnson chairs the right-wing Frederick Douglass Foundation, whose "core pillars" are described on the organization's Web site: "We are Devoted Christians -- Proud Black Americans -- Active Republicans."