Fascinating Journey: How a Former Texas Conservative Operative Left the Religious Right
If you met interior designer and business consultant Joyce Elaine White, you’d never guess she was once the lobbyist for the group that formed the leading edge of the religious right’s takeover of the Republican Party in Texas; that she was once in the inner circle of political power in the second-largest state in the nation. Then a crisis of faith changed all that.
“Rethinking everything has been a long, slow, and agonizing process,” White told me in a 2010 e-mail. And it’s no wonder, when you consider that her faith journey in evangelical Christianity began in earnest before she entered kindergarten.
On New Year’s Day 1958, in Odessa, Texas, a place equally enamored with Jesus and high school football, White’s mother rushed her to see Hattie Love Rankin, a missionary doctor. What White, then almost four years old and suffering from what Rankin diagnosed as bronchial pneumonia, remembers most about that day was not the medical treatment but the prayer. Rankin, beloved among Baptists for her long missionary service in China, laid hands on the young girl. “She prayed that God would extend my life and use me for God’s glory,” says White, now 60.
The young girl was not afraid, as she had already heard and absorbed her pastor’s “turn or burn” message. “I didn’t want to go to Hell, didn’t want to take any chances,” says White. “I prayed and made Jesus my personal savior.”
By age seven, White says, she knew she wanted to be a missionary, having heard tales of Lottie Moon, another beloved Southern Baptist missionary who spent 40 years evangelizing in China. “Going into all the world, sharing the faith, and making disciples,” she now says, echoing the missionary line, “that sounded very exotic.”
Nearly 20 years later, White found herself in Mexico, married to a young man she met at church soon after she enrolled at Baylor University. The two would work as missionaries for a controversial charismatic group, since disbanded, the Maranatha Christian Church. When the couple returned to Texas 12 years later with their two children, they arrived during the heyday of the Christian Coalition takeover of the state Republican Party. White became executive director of the Capital City Christian Coalition in Austin, and the Christian Coalition’s lobbyist in the state capitol.
“I was brainwashed,” she says. Now divorced for sixteen years, remarried and bearing her birth name, White is no longer a card-carrying member of the Christian right.
I first met White at Texas Governor Rick Perry’s August 2011 prayer rally, dubbed The Response, held in Houston’s Reliant Stadium just days before he announced his 2012 presidential run. White was there, out of a mix of curiosity and a need to grapple with her own past. She had previously reached out to me via email, hinting that she was an ex-fundamentalist who wanted to share her story. But, initially, she was reluctant to be specific or speak on the record. Meeting her in Houston, I still did not know she had held a leadership role in an influential political organization, or that she had been a compliant, homeschooling pastor’s wife, believing that she had a role to play in helping Christians take over Mexico and Central America throughout the 1980s.
At Perry’s prayer rally, White was dressed in a black pantsuit, a professional counterpoint to many of the attendees who were wearing jeans and t-shirts emblazoned with homages to Jesus. We sat at a table in the exterior ring of the stadium while speakers and musicians roared apocalyptic warnings to a nation they claimed had turned away from God. But White was subdued. That February, her adult son, Joshua, had been killed in a plane crash. She carried bookmarks she’d had made bearing a photograph of the handsome young man and a Bible verse.
She seemed pained that a longtime friend, evangelist Alice Patterson, one of the organizers of the rally, was drawing media scrutiny for her writings, including her belief that the Democratic Party is controlled by a “demonic structure.” During White’s lobbying days, Patterson served as the Christian Coalition’s state field director.
When we talked at the rally, White was fiercely defensive of her old friend, and remains so, three years later. “I have the utmost respect for her devotion and integrity in all she does,” White told me recently of Patterson. “Although our paths have diverged, I believe that we share a common bond, that we show love and mercy to all.”
In 1973, at the age of 19, White married Robert Hucklebridge, finishing only her freshman year of college. “I was looking to solve my problem,” she told me. “Mother told me I needed to be a virgin when I married, but I was thinking I might not be able to hold out.” But, actually, it was more than that: At the time, White says, she believed that “there were a lot of things that fell into place,” including that she met him in church, and that “he had a strong commitment to God and his Christian faith, and talked about wanting to be a missionary.”
The two settled in Odessa, where Hucklebridge took a job coaching high school football. (Elaine didn’t work outside the home.) White soon discovered that living in a patriarchal marriage was more than she had bargained for. Three years in, she left Hucklebridge, taking up with a friend of her husband’s, and fleeing to southern California. She attended modeling school. She smoked pot. After a few months, White says, guilt began to creep in, and she began questioning her liberating decision—the kind of life change evangelicals describe as “backsliding.” Seven months after leaving Hucklebridge, she returned home from her waitressing job to find him on her doorstep. He had been called to missionary service in Mexico, he said, and he wanted her to come.
He told her he had prayed to God, promising, “If you will bring her back to me, I’ll call her Joy.” She agreed to follow her husband to his mission post, relinquishing her given name.
“I figured my life was over anyway,” said White, “so why not call me Joy?”
In fundamentalist Christianity, White explains, “they tell you that love is not a feeling. Love is a decision. You decide to love this person. You honor your commitment and your vow that you made before God. I’ve even had ministers say this: It doesn’t matter what you want, think, or feel. It only matters what God wants.” (Robert Hucklebridge did not respond to several requests for an interview.)
The pair became disciples of Bob and Rose Weiner, the founders of Maranatha Christian Church, a charismatic group that had university campus chapters across the country. Former members and critics of the group would later charge the Weiners with “us[ing] a form of mind control that isolated students from their parents and then guid[ing] decisions on such personal matters as career choices, politics and marriage,” according to a 1985 Wall Street Journal article. That article also chronicled Weiner’s efforts to organize support for President Ronald Reagan’s policy of aiding the Nicaraguan contra rebels, and Bob Weiner’s appointment of himself as “chief conduit of revelations that he says come from God.”
Bob Weiner declined an interview request, but when I did catch him on the phone, he said about White: “She’s a wonderful girl, no matter what political persuasion she is, she’s an awesome lady.”
Despite widespread criticism of practices many described as cult-like, religious right leaders defended Maranatha. Ralph Reed, who was then founder of Students for America and would later go on to lead the Christian Coalition, told the Wall Street Journal that Maranatha “has gotten a bum rap.” Maranatha was also popular with Christian Reconstructionists, the strict Calvinist movement founded by R.J. Rushdoony that teaches that Christians should take “dominion” and that the country should be governed by biblical law.
During her 12 years in Mexico, White says she was out of touch regarding the accusations against Maranatha in the United States. She did know, however, of Maranatha’s “heavy-handed discipleship,” which included requiring that members submit their marriage proposals to an “assembly of elders,” which would sometimes block marriages because it wasn’t a “God move.”
“I was always questioning things,” said White, adding that Weiner’s wife, Rose, once laid hands on her and “prayed against my spirit of confusion.”
At Rose Weiner’s suggestion, White read books by Rushdoony, as well as his son-in-law , the economist Gary North, who also served as an adviser to Tea Party godfather Ron Paul, the former presidential candidate and congressman from Texas. The ideas of Rushdoony and North, she says, had great influence on her and other religious right activists. In the 1980s, North praised Maranatha, as well, describing the group in a 1986 edition of his Dominion Strategies newsletter as “steadfastly behind” Christian Reconstructionism.
What White remembers from her reading of Christian Reconstructionism was the call for Christians to take “dominion” over the earth, including politics and government. Her later work with the Christian Coalition, she said, “was a vehicle to do what Rushdoony and North had written about.”
White’s daughter, Christi Vitela, who says she questioned religion since childhood, remembers a very patriarchal upbringing, with frequent citations of biblical verses that many fundamentalists interpret as requiring a wife to submit to the authority of her husband, and to “support the belief that females were subservient.”
“Feminism was not encouraged in our household; in fact it was discouraged,” Vitela said in a telephone interview. About her mother, she added, “I could see she didn’t like being treated like a servant.”
Vitela calls her mother’s time in Mexico her “penance time. . . [My parents] really talked about taking over the world. . . if she didn’t do her part she would be riddled with guilt.”
Under the weight of scrutiny, Marantha began to unravel, suffering financial decline and disbandment. In 1992, in the Hucklebridges returned to Odessa. It was no small adjustment—her two children had known only homeschooling in Mexico—but Elaine found a new calling when she became involved in the local Christian Coalition, during the presidential campaign. When she and her husband moved to Austin a year later, her networking with fellow conservative Christians soon landed her a position as director of the Capital City Christian Coalition and later as a lobbyist for the state organization in the state capital.
Upon returning to the United States, though, White decided to pursue the idea of taking dominion in a role distinct from that of pastor’s wife. She abandoned the name given her by her husband and started going by Elaine, her middle name. Joy, her son used to say, “died at the Rio Grande.”
The Christian Coalition was “one of the key organizing groups in Texas” in the mid-1990s, said Kirk Watson, now a Democratic state senator who served, during White’s Christian Coalition tenure, as chair of the Travis County Democratic Party.
Around Austin, White, then known as Elaine Hucklebridge, also hosted a local conservative Christian radio talk show, Life Talk, and had a reputation as an arch-conservative, Watson said. The Christian Coalition, he added, “was one of the key organizing elements in Texas politics at that time,” and, he said, “very effective.”
When Ralph Reed, then-executive director of the Christian Coalition, announced the Contract With The American Family on Capitol Hill in May 1995, White was on stage, along with Republican lawmakers including Newt Gingrich, who was speaker of the House, then-Senator Phil Gramm of Texas, and U.S. Representatives Tom DeLay of Texas, John Boehner of Ohio, and J.C. Watts of Oklahoma. (DeLay and Watts have since left Congress.) The Christian Coalition’s “contract” was the organization’s follow-up to Gingrich’s “Contract With America,” the conservative agenda that helped fuel the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives in 1994.
Opposing abortion and gay rights were the only issues on the state Christian Coalition’s agenda, White said. She pushed these efforts through her lobbying, her oversight of the local Christian Coalition’s storied precinct-by-precinct voter identification and candidate recruitment, as well as the voter guides distributed through churches. David Barton, the religious right’s revisionist historian—still popular today, despite repeated debunking—“was a big guy at that time,” said White. “Everyone was reading him. People were teaching [his ideas to] their children, because many of them were homeschooled; they were teaching that America was a Christian nation.” Barton also served as vice chair of the Texas Republican party from 1997 to 2006.
Local television news coverage of the 1996 presidential primary shows the former Elaine Hucklebridge dismissing charges that the Christian Coalition was a partisan organization. One senses she is reading from a script. “I can’t really speak for what the different perceptions are,” she tells a reporter. “We are an organization that promotes biblical principles and we really want to see Christians effectively involved in the process.”
White’s counterpart in this news coverage was a young Cecile Richards—now president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America—who had launched the watchdog group Texas Freedom Network in response to the rise of the Christian Coalition and other religious right groups in Texas. In the segment, Richards describes the Christian Coalition as “the single most effective political lobby in this country.”
As White intones, “we’re in favor of seeing the traditional heterosexual couple honored as the family unit,” a Christian Coalition newspaper advertisement is shown on-screen. The ad, in response to the Austin City Council’s 1993 decision to allow benefits for same-sex partners of city employees, described the action as “an inglorious event for Austin,” and that through a “shameful vote” the council had endorsed “illegal behavior” and a “negative morality message to youth.”
White is shown affirming one of the Christian Coalition’s lasting impacts on American politics, as she declares, “we are called to get involved at the lowest level” in government—seeking office and involvement in entities such as the school board—and that the Christian Coalition was “fulfilling a need to get people involved.”
When she attended the 1996 Republican National Convention, White says she was struck with a realization: She knew nothing about issues other than those on the Christian Coalition's seemingly narrow agenda. “That was the little crack there,” she said of the beginning of her questioning. “We were a two-issue organization, and we didn’t have a broad knowledge” of other issues.
While the Christian Coalition’s two big issues got plenty of play at the convention, there was also much talk of pulling the U.S. out of U.N. peacekeeping forces, and calls to eliminate a number of federal agencies, along with a laundry list of other agenda items. “I looked around that big convention center in San Diego,” she said, “and I thought, if I don’t know the answer to this.....I wouldn’t think [many there] would,” as many of them were people the Christian Coalition “had recruited over those two issues.”
Despite her well-earned hard-right reputation around the state capitol, Watson said, White invited him to a Christian Coalition issues forum—an effort, in White’s telling, to live up to the Christian Coalition’s claim to be non-partisan—with his Republican counterpart.
Watson, then serving as county party chairman, said he was “skeptical” of the invitation, fearing it was a “set-up.” But when White visited his office to discuss the forum, he found her genuinely inquisitive about “a guy who called himself a Democrat and was chair of the local Democratic Party was comfortable speaking about faith and talking about faith as a guide for politics.”
At the Baptist church where the forum took place, White fended off audience hostility toward Watson, reminding attendees that the Democrat was their guest.
“She was already, I think, in a process of wanting to understand others better,” even though at the time “she was still pretty rigid,” Watson said.
The Rev. Jim Rigby of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Austin, long active in Texas pro-choice politics, debated White for a local television station in the 1990s. After the debate, he offered to discuss common ground they might find together in the abortion debate. He didn’t hear from her—until she showed up at his church, several years later, wanting to talk.
“It seemed to me that she had lost her moorings,” Rigby said. He described fundamentalism as “a kind of prison,” and he saw that White had experienced “some brutal experiences in her own life with male leadership.” She needed, he said, to “be in the driver’s seat” to “hear the difference between her own voice and who she had been taught she was, who she was taught she should be.”
Fundamentalism, said Rigby, has to keep people “permanently frightened or angry” in order to maintain its hold on them.
Although White didn’t appear to be frightened on the surface, he said, she was “terrified of disappointing people, not doing the right thing, disappointing God.”
But, he said, “she didn’t quit. She kept facing her monsters.”
“You have to grieve your way out of fundamentalism,” Rigby added.
White divorced Hucklebridge in 1997, left her position with the Christian Coalition, and began what has become a successful career in interior design, sales and business consulting. Divorce, she said, was frowned upon in her circles, and she began to lose touch with former colleagues.
Around the time of her divorce, a family member asked White to accompany her to the clinic for an abortion appointment, an experience White now describes as “transformative” and “eye-opening.” Another relative came out as gay and went to seminary to become an Episcopal priest.
“We grew up together,” White said of the relative. “I thought. Gosh, I’m not going to reject him.”
Describing the internal factionalism that pitted the Christian Coalition stalwarts against such establishment figures as then-U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison and then-Governor George W. Bush, Texas Monthly editor Paul Burka called 1996 “the year the Republican Party of Texas turned hard right.” In his 2012 article, Burka writes that following the 1996 state party convention, “social conservatives had seized control of the party, and they continue to control it to this day.” No one, he added, “understood the significance of this development better than Rick Perry. He had never been much of a social conservative before the convention, but he could read the tea leaves and has been one ever since.”
Perry’s 2011 prayer rally, in a departure from the kind of religious-right gatherings seen in White’s Christian Coalition days, had a distinctly charismatic bent. Many “gifts of the spirit” were on display, including prophesy and divine revelations declared from the stage, and audience members speaking in tongues and falling out, evidencing the rapturous peak to which the speakers brought the crowd.
Surveying Reliant Stadium in 2011, White said she believed things had changed since the mid-1990s. “This is a 'mainstream' event, and it just points to how much organizing these groups have done since I was there,” she said. Christian right events in the 1990s, she added, did not put charismatic gifts on display, even though many activists had experience, as she did, with charismatic worship practices. But political organizers—in this case, Perry—are smart, she said. Charismatics “tend to be serious about making America a Christian nation and returning it to its godly roots,” White said. “They all get out and work.”