Freedom Writer - April 1994
Guerillas in our midst
By Holly Gunner
In many communities across the country, parents and others who care
about the quality of their schools have mounted strong opposition
to local groups promoting the Religious Right line, simply because
they were appalled by a number of strategies used by these groups.
Most offensive have been the groups' intimidating, aggressive, and
bitterly polarizing tactics, their attempts to mislead the public
about the school program they are attacking, and their systematic
efforts to deceive the public about their outside affiliations.
Most people strongly support each person's right to express his or
her views, and to organize like-minded people. But many mainstream
citizens have had strong negative reactions to Religious Right tactics
because they insert ingredients into local politics that most of us
aren't used to. These ingredients include: using rhetoric and misrepresenting
school programs or groups of people that play on people's fears for
their children; calling opponents, public officials, and educators
nasty names; polarizing and inhibiting thoughtful dialogue; and hiding
their outside affiliations from the public.
The problem is not that these individuals HAVE outside affiliations;
but rather that they hide them, even when running for public office.
The problem is not that they have a particular point of view, but
rather that they try to win with tactics aimed at arousing fear and
intimidating their opponents.
These tactics pose a problem that is not limited to people who disagree
with them. People who share their views on an issue, but are not aggressive
extremists, often find that Religious Right activists have created
a highly charged and polarized environment that makes it difficult
for others to hear what they think is best for their children. This
is a very sad and unproductive situation that makes it all the more
important to reclaim the arena of public debate for thoughtful people
of varying views who want to participate in reasoned and mutually
respectable dialogue based on truth.
A central tactic of the Religious Right is "stealth" -- running candidates
without identifying their affiliations with organizations outside
local communities -- sometimes not even engaging in standard campaign
and voter information activities -- to conceal their true platform
and positions from voters.
According to Christian Coalition executive director Ralph Reed, it
is "...just good strategy. It's like guerilla warfare.... It's better
to move quietly, with stealth, under cover of night... It comes down
to whether you want to be the British Army in the Revolutionary War,
or the Viet Cong." At a Religious Right conference in Denver last
year, participants were instructed in tactics that include:
Hide your affiliation and true agenda
Use the gay issue to raise funds for the cause
Always cover your tracks; always use local front men -- a wacko if
Appeal to people's fears of society and change
Appeal to American's worst impulses
Remember that "tension will provide the winning edge for candidates"
Lie, if necessary
In some cases, Religious Right candidates don't run typical mainstream
campaigns. They give vague answers to, or fail to return, League of
Women Voters questionnaires, and avoid candidate forums. Often they
go to churches, synagogues, centers for elderly people, and approach
people just moving into town to ask for votes. Religious Right activists
also work to establish good relations with local newspaper editors
and sometimes TV news people. If you face an election, you must cover
these bases, too.
To get their candidates elected in a "stealth" campaign, Religious
Right groups count on the apathy or disinterest of mainstream voters.
If voter turnout is low, and they can work behind the scenes without
being visible for most voters, they can win by getting enough votes
through their own networks. The best way to counteract this is to
work on getting out a large, mainstream vote, providing information
on candidates, or slates of candidates, to voters. It is also important
to get the press to report on which candidates do and don't participate
fully in voter information activities.
In some elections, only a small number of Religious Right candidates
will be running in a field of mainstream candidates. The mainstream
candidates may vary in their experience and views, but share certain
qualities with other mainstream candidates: they will tend to be open
about why they are running, about their background and affiliation,
and will not be bound to the viewpoint that "my way is God's way and
is the only way."
Religious Right candidates, on the other hand, have often attempted
to hide their religious or educational views and organizational affiliations
from public scrutiny. In the words of Clay Mankameyer, at the South
Weymouth, Massachusetts Christian Coalition leadership school for
potential Religious Right candidates, "You are not obligated to say
all things to all people.... You don't have to answer every question,
and if you do so you're going to get yourself in trouble."
Indeed, in an atmosphere of low voter interest and little investigative
journalism about candidates for local office, it can be quite easy
for stealth candidates to run without being detected. And given conditions
of low voter turnout, candidates can often win election by quietly
mobilizing a few groups of committed voters, often completely bypassing
the normal voter information and education processes that most local
voters expect to be in operation. In the words of Ralph Reed, "You
don't know it's over until you're in a body bag. You don't know until
To combat the Religious Right's election tactics, encourage many groups
in your community to sponsor candidate forums, and be sure the press
and local cable are there to report on the events. Local political
party committees, churches, synagogues, PTAs, and elderly centers
might do this. Carefully identify Religious Right candidates by asking
people about groups they've been active in. Publicize in the press
the absence of candidates who don't show up for the candidate forums,
as well as the exact words of those who do. In some towns, Religious
Right candidates have made many extreme, nonsensical, or factually
incorrect statements. Getting their own words out to the public is
often an effective way to defeat them.
If you encounter stealth candidates, spare no efforts to provide voters
with information about which candidates are, and which candidates
are not affiliated with the Religious Right. Then, the critical task
is to get out the vote of people who support the mainstream candidates.
To identify candidates with Religious Right affiliations, you can
also compare signatures on nominating papers, looking for the same
signatures on the papers of several candidates and comparing signatures
to names on prior letters to the editor that sensationally attack
a school program, or to those of people you know have Religious Right
Work through the normal political channels to support candidates in
whom you have confidence. Work hard enough to ensure high voter turnout,
using mailings, phone-banking, slate cards, and anything else that
works in your town and that's grounded in truth. By taking the political
high ground mainstream voters and activists can win.
Holly Gunner heads the Lighthouse Institute for Public Policy, publishers
of Meeting the Challenge of the Religious Right in Massachusetts.
Their address is P.O. Box 5039, Cochituate, MA 01778.
Sidebar: [ref003]Questions for candidates
Sidebar: [ref004]Tactics of the Right
[ref005][ref006] Return to table of contents
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