Freedom Writer - November 1995
BEST OF THE FREEDOM WRITER
Christian Coalition enters New York City
By Joe Conason
Pat Robertson's political disciples are challenging
the secular culture they want to destroy on its home
ground. The Christian Coalition is organizing an active
chapter in New York City, with the help of a high-ranking
aide to City Council president Andrew Stein.
Venturing forth from a more hospitable environment
upstate where the Coalition has already founded 16
county chapters, its organizers held well-attended
meetings in the city this spring at the Living Word
Christian Center, an evangelical church and bookstore
in lower Manhattan. While the New York City chapter
is still tiny by any standard, the Coalition's presence
shows how determined Robertson is to create a truly
comprehensive national political structure. And the
participation by Antonio Rivera, the Stein aide and
evangelical Christian who is also — at least nominally
— a Democrat, shows how pragmatic, even opportunistic,
the Coalition Republican leaders can be in building
an urban base.
The launch of the New York City chapter was handled
with great care by the Coalition, which is based near
Robertson's home in Chesapeake, Virginia. Addressing
the city meetings were not only Jeff Baran and its
mid-Atlantic regional chief Clay Mankamyer, but national
field director Guy Rodgers, who oversaw a two-day leadership
school for the new chapter's hard-core in April.
The message of Rodgers' opening speech was clear: Christians
have not only the right to rule America, but a religious
obligation to seek political power. Rodgers exhorted
his listeners, most of whom were white and seemed to
have had little previous experience in politics, on
the "Biblical basis for political involvement." Seeming
to grasp almost instinctively what might provoke the
strongest reaction from a New York City audience, Rodgers
focused on "militant homosexuals."
"They don't just want us to tolerate them," said Rodgers,
a sharply dressed, thirtyish former high-school teacher.
"They want to force us to accept their philosophy of
Should Christian Coalition be victorious one day, he
explained, a rather different, far less tolerant ethos
will prevail. Rodgers harked back a hundred years ago,
or more, when New York City was the scene of big revival
tent meetings, and in many states "those seeking public
office had to be Christians who professed their belief
in God." That was when the worst problems faced by
the Christian community were "gambling, drunkenness,
and public swearing."
"Oh, for the good old days!" he exclaimed, as his listeners
Rodgers warned that Christian New Yorkers turned political
activists could expect to be reviled by the media.
"They call us fundamentalist right-wing bigots," he
said with a grin. "You can read about us in The New
York Times." But, he asked rhetorically, "Is there
something wrong with Christians ruling? Who is best
qualified to exercise authority in civil government?
Unbelievers?" The answer to those who might ask whether
Christian Coalition is trying to install a theocracy
is simple: "No. I'm not trying to establish anything.
Jesus Christ already did that. I'm just living it out."
Such a retort to critics, advised Rodgers, "will just
blow 'em away."
Still, there were practicalities to be considered.
Wickedness, Rodgers pointed out, "is always on the
march," and nowhere more so than in the election precincts
of New York. The second, all-day training session was
devoted to teaching the Christian activists the intricacies
of urban politicking — and to training them to accept
the dictates of the Coalition's Virginia headquarters.
Christian Coalition is not a democratically governed
group, but a top-down, military-style organization.
And nowhere was this clearer than when the new recruits
were told — not asked — who their chapter would be
supporting for the U.S. Senate next fall.
On the lower rungs of politics, the initial aims of
the New York City chapter are modest. Terry Twerell,
the pastor of the Living Word Center, and the Coalition's
chief sponsor in the city, explained that for now it
will focus on a few Manhattan neighborhoods. "Our first
target is the City Council," he said, where a school
voucher bill is currently pending. "With this bill,
you could receive public support to send your children
to a Christian school," he added.
That is where Rivera, the aide to Andrew Stein, came
in. He was introduced warmly by Rev. Twerell, who noted
that "Tony has opened City Hall to us, and every other
Tuesday we hold a prayer meeting down there." Rivera's
official title is deputy ombudsman of the city of New
York, and he quickly added that "the Lord gave me that
position." In fact, Rivera is a local Democratic hack
from East Harlem who was given his job by other local
pols after long years of service. But he has found
a new vocation in right-wing politics since he "accepted
the Lord" in 1985. Evangelical Christianity is a growing
phenomenon in urban Hispanic communities, and one which
may be increasingly tapped by Robertson and other conservatives
for political as well as religious purposes.
Realizing that most New Yorkers are liberal and moderate
Democrats, Rivera endorsed the Christian Coalition's
method of concealing its real ideology behind a bland
facade. "The majority of our leaders are pro-abortion,"
he said, explaining how Christians could involve themselves
in local affairs. "So you don't go in there and say,
'I'm an advocate against abortion.' No, you say, 'I'm
interested in housing, or development, or sanitation.'
And you keep your personal views to yourself until
the Christian community is ready to rise up, and then,
wow! They're gonna be devastated!"
Rivera then gave out his office phone number, promising
to help any Christian Coalition candidates for local
office maneuver through New York's Byzantine electoral
process. Running its members for local GOP positions
in Democratic strongholds like Manhattan is an important
part of the Coalition's long-term national strategy
for taking over the Republican Party, and an experienced
pol like Rivera could be quite valuable in that effort.
In the meantime, however, state director Jeff Baran
laid down the immediate marching orders as soon as
Rivera concluded his talk. According to Baran, aside
from supporting Bush and Quayle in November, the Coalition's
national office is "very interested" in backing Senator
Alfonse D'Amato, a scandal-scarred Republican whose
poll ratings have plummeted. "We're gonna direct our
people to support D'Amato," he said bluntly, and the
national office will be sending money to New York chapters
for voter guides to be distributed in churches that
will compare the senator favorably to his Democratic
"Since we're doing the voter guides, we can manipulate,"
said Baran, who caught himself with a chortle. "We
can instruct people how to vote. As a tax-exempt group,
Christian Coalition can't endorse candidates, although
we can tell our people to work for the guy. These voter
guides are totally non-biased," added Baran, laughing.
D'Amato and Bush will presumably benefit from the non-partisan
voter registration and canvassing efforts which the
Coalition is currently undertaking across the state.
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