Freedom Writer - March 1996
Texas precinct politics heats up
By Liz Gore
Reacting to a reactionary movement can be tricky business.
I study the Christian right to understand the nature
of the political power the movement has harnessed —
its appeal, its ability to mobilize resources, that
uncanny capacity to agenda-set.
Engaging with the movement has become part of my daily
routine. I find it difficult to pass Christian bookstores
without stopping in. I look forward to mass mailings
from Gary Bauer and family. I have real conversations
with people from Regent University who call to ask
if I'm still interested in attending.
The uneasy truth is that I am addicted to the spectacle
of activist conservative Christian subcultures. God
knows I'm not alone. The "infiltrator" ratio at Religious
Right gatherings is impressive and climbing. Anti-feminist
musings, pedophilic fears, bizarre co-optations of
the word empowerment — let's face it — the substance
of regressive momentum is often riveting.
In search of a new ideological adventure, I recently
attended a training workshop for grass roots Christian
Coalition activists in Texas. Compared to the grandstanding
grandeur of the national "Road to Victory" extravaganzas,
the event was full of tactic and devoid of frills.
There were no show-stopping movement celebs, only local
heroes and potential local heroes. Ralph Reed was not
around to energize the grass roots by recollecting
the glory of past political triumphs. As forty of this
country's most committed Christian Coalitioners gathered
to prepare for battle, the atmosphere was righteous
but guarded. Every minute of the four-hour session
was devoted to the fine points of enacting a national
strategy by assuring local victory.
It was Saturday night. Feeling conspicuously humanist,
I roamed the vast empty corridors of the Austin Capitol
building annex in search of my well-groomed, middle-aged
cohorts. (The Capitol building is a lot like the Vatican
in scope, and meant to inspire at least as much humility.)
I walked into "Why Are We Here?," a unity-driven pep-talk
by a man named Jeff Fisher. I could tell the woman
seated next to me was a trusted insider by the inventory
of materials she coddled in her lap: Greater Austin
Right to Life precinct lists, video training tapes,
the official 1996 Texas Christian Coalition Operation
Precinct Workbook. (Incidentally, the workbook contains
a vast amount of well-organized information, impressively
Jeff presented hard evidence that Planned Parenthood
is the factionary evil behind Republicans for Choice.
He shared his theory that the Democrats have been subjected
to a "hostile takeover by radical feminists and homosexuals."
The Christian Coalition, he predicted, is six to ten
years away from seeing real political reform.
We viewed a 1994 ABC news clip of Ralph "what we are
looking for is a pluralist democracy that welcomes
faith" Reed. In the clip, another Christian Coalition
strategist was quoted as saying the Coalition aims
to train ten activists per precinct by the year 2000.
(If the Coalition had as many members as it routinely
claims, it would already have the numerical equivalent
of ten activists per precinct, but hey, who's counting?)
An engaging, somewhat effete speaker named Paul Powell
arose to rile the troops with a pre-strategy motivational
message. It is easy to see the appeal his mantra carries
for self-appointed victims of secular oppression. "Power,"
he chortled, "is not a bad thing." Simply put, power
is good; bad people in power are bad. Paul quoted the
Bible five different times to drive home the idea that
Jesus bestowed the gift of power on his disciples and
encouraged them to make use of it. He made it sound
like the word power actually appears in the New Testament
repeatedly. He led us in a fill-in-the-blank exercise
with the P-word: "And Jesus said, God hath bestowed
upon you the gift of what? P-O-W-E-R."
Paul is one of a handful of men rapidly touring Texas
touting a Biblical rendition of Tip O'Neill's "All
politics is local." The "From Pew to Precinct" team
is slated to offer twenty training sessions around
the state in six weekends. An Iowan, Paul was once
a philosophy student on the verge of completing a Ph.D.
when he was "called to politics." His mission is to
convince fellow foot soldiers that, in the electoral
scheme of things, precinct captains are guardians of
the "most powerful office in the world."
A time-tested expert at local victory-making, Paul
boasted of his own "battle scars." He urged us to know
the rules that guide the process but to avoid being
"tied by convention." The man was full of information
and strategic advice. Parties use ballots and conventions;
they elect delegates and draft platforms; nomination
committees and platform committees are the most important;
get copies of your party's rules, know the numbers;
rent precinct lists from Greater Austin Right to Life
or the Christian Coalition; precincts without precinct
chairs present a window of opportunity; only one quarter
of the Democratic Party precinct chairs in Texas are
filled... "Now there's a party ripe for takeover!"
The less dynamic Scott Fisher instructed us on the
precinct convention preparation process. Network! Crowd
the convention with people to nominate; make lists
of delegates and alternates; bring typed resolutions
in triplicate; tape the precinct conventions. "It's
a spiritual war, it really is," he said. "Cover the
job with prayer." (For precinct prayer etiquette, see
page nine of the workbook.)
A mock precinct convention ensued. What next, I wondered
— reactionary street theater? The mock chair asked
his mock wife to be secretary. I knew we were having
fun when we elected Rush Limbaugh to one of the coveted
delegate spots. But alas! Even this unexpected electoral
frivolity was laced with warning.
"The key is maintaining control," Paul coached. "And
don't leave a convention before you hear the word adjourned!"
The moral of the story was that they will try to trick
you, pull the secular rug right out from under your
holy war marchin' boots. Beware the phrase "motion
to reconsider!" Just get your delegates elected — other
precincts will pass pro-life, anti-sodomy resolutions
to be voted on later. Jan Galbraith is the County Chair
and she is a friend of yours...
Our training trio imparted the electoral truism that,
if you happen to be the only person to attend your
local precinct convention, there's no shame in conducting
the entire ritual alone and then electing yourself.
When forced to deal with "pro-abort" others, you should
"extend an olive branch" by, for example, "letting
them be secretary." Don't dominate, don't piss people
off so much that they'll mobilize against you.
It was getting late and things were getting repetitive.
We were subjected to a disappointing video on the finer
points of conventioneering. The narrator looked us
straight in the eye(s) as he signed off, unsmiling,
with a reminder: "Not only do you want to win the victory,
but you also want to be a witness for Jesus." His words
had a familiar patriarchal ring, an evangelized version
of "win one for the Gipper." I am surrounded by team
players for the ultimate theocratic hopeful, I thought.
Paul, Jeff and Scott planted an ominous proposition
in the minds of attentive trainees. They inspired the
rank and file to new levels of determination by spreading
the prophecy that the Republican party may see fit
to sacrifice the pro-life plank at the national convention.
The fear is that Dole as the Republican nominee will
choose "pro-abort" Pete Wilson as his running mate.
Or worse, Christine Todd Whitman! The goal is to elect
enough Christian Coalition delegates to make such an
option unfeasible for the party.
To inspire vigilance and determination, the trainers
pit the upcoming battle as a struggle between old-line
elitist Republican loyalists and themselves. They are
explicit about intra-party antagonisms. Christian Coalition
delegates must hold their own against insider Republicans
who aren't wild about a strong religious right presence.
(Apparently, moderates seated comfortably within the
party have a habit of questioning the partisan credentials
of their Christian Coalition cohorts, accusing them
of doing little more than showing up at conventions.)
Paul did his revivalist best to instill a sense of
entitlement. "Does it matter that you haven't worked
for the party for a long time? No!" In seamless reactionary
fashion, he historicized with the mythical footwork
that fortifies his movement: "We had the party before
the moderates came in and took it over."
This sense of righteous belonging will be crucial for
the Texas delegation. Governor George Bush is expected
to lead lone star GOP-ers at the national convention
in San Diego. Despite his personal pro-life convictions,
Christian Coalition leaders predict that George Jr.
will face tremendous pressure to tow the (moderate)
party line. So, delegates must be people who have the
guts to stand up to Governor Bush. Or, if you prefer,
people who lack the guts to oppose Governor Bush should
not be delegates. "The intimidation will be intense.
The pressure will be incredible."
Paul ended the evening with a prayer. "We confess the
sin of apathy," he intoned. As I strolled out, I scooped
a stray packet of paper off the floor. I found myself
holding a packet of typed resolutions, presumably to
be hand carried into precinct conventions across town
or across many towns.
I have been trying to understand why this particular
religious right experience has so affected me. Progressive
people tend to view the Christian right as an offensive,
reactionary force hell-bent on punitive legislation
and the protection of privilege. I agree. But it is
important to understand that much of the cohesion inside
the movement stems from a defensive orientation — a
sincere belief that, as Texas Supreme Court Justice
Raul Gonzales is fond of saying, "Christians everywhere
are persecuted because of their faith." My Christian
Coalition neighbors truly believe they are in the business
of challenging the subversion of Christian ideals.
For them, strategy is foremost because consensus is
unquestionable. There is no need for debate.
Organizations like the Christian Coalition provide
members with a sense of community and political opportunity.
Operation Precinct '96 activists are a tight-knit group.
While it would be difficult to describe the group dynamic
as "warm," mutual respect shown among committed members
is notable. Most members seem committed for the long
haul. The workshop was a place to refine an intense
familiarity with process that attendees already possessed.
I was struck by the way the acronym SREC (State Republican
Executive Committee) rolled out of their mouths with
Round One of the campaign to send Christian Coalition
delegates to precinct, county, state and national Republican
conventions begins on March 12 when precinct conventions
are convened following the primary elections. The months
between March and August will provide a telling timetable
to gauge the effects of local efforts on national party
platforms and nominations. Stay tuned. There is much
to be learned.
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