News & Politics

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.

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."

The Foundation, which is modeled on Morton Blackwell's Leadership Institute, and was launched with the help of the Family Research Council-affiliated Network of Politically Active Christians, has been actively involved in promoting a film, Maafa 21, that advances the notion of abortion as a racist attempt to exterminate African Americans. In an interview I conducted with Johnson last month, he said, "In the black community, if you start giving them some purity, if you tell them, if you believe what happened at Tuskegee was true -- that people were injected with syphilis -- then you must be at least willing to consider that it might be true that eugenics is linked to Planned Parenthood," as the film claims to document.

(Johnson's mention of Tuskegee refers to to the infamous 40-year study conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service at the Tuskegee Institute. There, 399 African-American men infected with syphilis were led to believe they were being treated for "bad blood" but never given any kind of treatment so researchers could observe the advance of the disease, of which they would eventually die. The government did not, as Johnson claims, inject the men with syphilis; the government's crime was that it recruited men who had the disease and led them to believe they were receiving treatment from the Health Services, even as researchers withheld available treatments from them and lied to them about the nature of their condition.)

Lou Engle, president of the Call, a group that organizes stadium-sized fasting and prayer rallies, was one of the Summit's most visible speakers, appearing multiple times and emphasizing the role of "minorities" in a new "Moral Majority," the now-defunct religious-right organization fronted by Falwell that helped catapult Ronald Reagan to the White House. Engle's anti-abortion activism is marked by his penchant for prophesying, fasting and around-the-clock prayer meetings where he calls for "spiritual warfare." At the Summit, Engle described how he became involved in fighting abortion after Jesus spoke to him on an airplane as he was reading a biography of abolitionist William Wilberforce.

Last year, Engle spoke of a vision he had that the church could stop health care reform, just like the biblical King David vanquished the angel of death, which God sent as punishment for Israel's transgressions. In 2008, Engle launched rallies in support of Proposition 8, the California ballot measure that rescinded same-sex marriage in that state -- and against unspecified "Antichrist legislation" related to abortion and LGBT rights. To promote a protest of a Planned Parenthood facility in Houston on King's birthday this year, Engle accused Planned Parenthood of targeting African Americans and Latinos for abortion, again attempting to exploit King's legacy by portraying the "black genocide" argument as the religious right's "civil rights" issue. Engle has called for Christians to "martyr" themselves in the anti-abortion cause by fasting and praying, and compared his battle against abortion to the Civil War, all incendiary references in light of the actual violence promoted by some segments of the anti-abortion movement.

Engle, who is close friends with Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kans., is a product of various trends in the charismatic movement, including promoting "spiritual warfare," taking "dominion" over social problems, visions, prophecy, holy laughter, and the belief that God has anointed a new generation of apostles to take dominion over society and government to usher in Christ's return.

Engle is a gaunt man -- possibly from all the fasting he says he does -- and is given to rocking back and forth, not just as he preaches, but even as he sat in the audience at the Summit. His hoarse-voiced preaching, frequently devolving into shouting and pleading for God to intervene to save the nation from its sexual impurity, is laced with recitations of conversations with God, visions, dreams and prophecy. He insists his prayer movement has power to conquer the political world; he has claimed that it shaped the composition of the Supreme Court and proved victorious over satanic forces to propel George W. Bush into the White House.

Rodriguez's vision for a "righteousness and justice" movement involves, as Engle explained it, a reconfiguring of notions of "social justice" -- not the "Marxist" kind that liberals advance and that these conservatives insist is about income redistribution (which they don't consider justice). Instead, piggybacking on the anti-abortion movement trend of arguing that civil rights for fetuses is King's legacy, Engle is leading the charge for what he calls "outrageous sacrificial living" he says millennial evangelicals crave.

That vision of social justice is -- like the traditional religious right -- anti-government and theocratic. For the "multiracial" Freedom Federation, it is focused on saving black and brown babies from the spirit of Herod. In a panel discussion on social justice, Engle said, "prostitution in America is fueled majorly [sic] out of the foster care system. Government is going to produce that kind of thing. Here is where the church becomes the outrageous lover, the outrageous answer." He introduced, and later that night brought to the stage at the church, Bishop W.C. Martin, whom he described as a "black Bapti-costal minister" from Possum Trot, Texas, whose impoverished church community of 200 has adopted 76 children from foster care. Engle insisted that evangelical millennials who reject the image of the old religious right as just focused on wedge issues could seize control of adopting foster kids from the government:

If the megachurches of America did this, the foster care system -- we would be the answer, and we would get moral authority in this nation. But the problem is, we're still living for the American dream. There is an explosion of adoption -- you if you talk to the millennials, they're all thinking, care for the poor, adoption, it's all in their DNA, if we could give them the vision of living the cross, outrageous sacrificial living, we can actually turn a nation back to God.

Meeting the Tea Party at the Crossroads

The religious right finds itself at a bewildering series of crossroads, forcing it to reshape its messaging. On the one hand, the movement senses it is being squeezed out of the media spotlight by the Tea Parties; even as religious right leaders support and bolster Tea Party activism, the media no longer portrays it as the crucial constituency whose litmus tests must be met by Republican candidates. At the same time, the ascendancy of evangelicals like Rick Warren -- who share the religious right's views on abortion and homosexuality but emphasize compassion for the poor -- has forced the religious right to rethink its branding.

That the Tea Parties have become the flavor of the moment is no doubt frustrating, especially since Tea Parties are routinely depicted as a new phenomenon, but actually share historical roots with many of the religious right's old allies that have included John Birch Society members and other Cold War era anti-communists. What's more, the Tea Parties seem to have stolen the religious right's thunder just as it was re-imagining itself -- without a shred of irony -- as a sort of do-gooder, right-wing rainbow coalition.

It appeared that Tea Parties taking place on the first day of the Federation's Summit -- Tax Day -- might have contributed to a sparse turnout, apart from the convocation, which is mandatory for Liberty students. Speaking to audiences in the hundreds, rather than the anticipated thousands, Summit speakers took pains to express their appreciation for the Tea Party movement, while urging it to get in touch with what religious right activists believe are the Constitution's biblical roots.

"We need a Tea Party movement with a Christian imperative," Rodriguez said. "That would be a revolution and a movement on steroids."

Wendy Wright, president of Concerned Women for America, insisted that the Constitution is based on the New Testament Book of Romans. She lauded a CWA activist in Missouri who was inspired by the Tea Parties to host a book club on W. Cleon Skousen's book The 5,000 Year Leap (a favorite of Glenn Beck's), which Wright said provided a natural segue into Focus on the Family's Truth Project. Apparently lost on Wright was the irony of invoking Skousen at a summit billed as a celebration of the right's diversity. Skousen, who in the 1970s worked with Falwell, once depicted "African-American children as 'pickaninnies' and described American slave owners as the 'worst victims' of the slavery system," according to journalist Alexander Zaitchik.

Tim Johnson, the North Carolina GOP official, said he intended to dispel the "rumor" that the GOP and Tea Party movement don't "welcome blacks."

"We support our Tea brothers and sisters," Johnson declared at the panel on messaging for outreach to the black community. Indeed, Johnson's Frederick Douglass Foundation represents a convergence of the religious right, its attempt at diversity (especially through the abortion-as-genocide argument) and its relationship to the Tea Party movement. On the home page of the organization's Web site, accessed April 25, you'll find a list of the Tea Party events in which its leaders participated earlier this month, as well as media coverage that features Johnson as a spokesperson on the existence of black people within Tea Party groups. In an interview last month, Johnson told me "the Tea Party movement exemplifies a lot of the anger in the black community."

The Religious Right Takes A Diversity Lesson

As demonstrated by Wendy Wright's comments about The 5,000 Year Leap, religious-right leaders still face a steep learning curve when it comes to building diversity. Rodriguez, who maintains relationships with members of both political parties -- including some in the Obama White House -- hasn't always been convinced of a Republican welcome, complaining to me during the 2008 Republican National Convention about the "nativism, xenophobia and quasi-racist elements embedded in the Republican Party."

To their audience, Freedom Federation members insist a new revival is underway, spurring a spontaneous outpouring of new support, but in reality they are combing every corner of the evangelical universe to expand their base. Buttoned-up religious right leaders like the Family Research Council's Tony Perkins (another Federation member who spoke at the Summit) have found common cause -- politically, if not theologically -- with charismatics and Pentecostals, whose spirit-filled religious expression, including speaking in tongues, prophesying and reliance on signs, wonders and miracles, historically has been controversial to fundamentalists, including the late Falwell, who viewed such expression as heretical.

Mat Staver, dean of Liberty's law school and president of the affiliated legal group Liberty Counsel, told the audience that assembled for the first night that the Federation would look beyond denominational differences so a unified army could suit up for battle. "We share the same common foxhole," said Staver, "because we share the same values."

At the revival, Engle called for "Jerry Falwell's heart to be released again into the nation, a massive righteousness movement with justice burning through the whole thing. We are not Republican, and we are not Democrat, we are subjects of a higher king."

Only a few hundred people -- all praying fervently -- attended that closing rally, out of which speakers predicted a new revival would be launched. Given the resiliency of the religious right -- it has survived all the embarrassments of Falwell, and more -- the turnout at this event should not be the only measure of its future impact. Whenever its opponents are ready to write it off, the religious right has a way of rising again, often in an even more strident form.

When I asked him about the low turnout, Staver downplayed the small size of the audience, saying the events of member organizations each could attract audiences in the tens of thousands. Indeed, many of them have formidable fundraising apparatuses, mailing lists and activist mobilization capabilities. Johnson told me he wasn't worried about turnout; the event was valuable for strategizing and networking. He wasn't hung up on numbers, he said, because, after all, "Jesus only had twelve disciples."

Freedom Federation Summit, Lynchburg, VA April 15-16, 2010. Featuring (in order of appearance): Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, Lou Engle, Bishop W.C. Martin, Bishop Harry Jackson and Rev. Arnold Culbreath

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