God’s Red Army
The Republican Party hopes to beat back the Democrats on Tuesday with a big push from the Christian right.
By Katherine Stewart
If Democrats fail to realize their dream of a blue wave in Tuesday’s midterm elections, perhaps the biggest factor will be the organizing power of the Christian nationalist movement. “If we do our jobs,” Ralph Reed of the Faith & Freedom Coalition boasted at the Values Voters Summit in September, “they are going to be more shocked than they were the last time.”
Among leaders of the Christian right, conversations about 2018 tend to begin with happy memories of 2016.
Political commentators may argue that some combination of racism and economic anxieties of the white working class put Mr. Trump over the top, but leaders at the Values Voters Summit took a different view.
“If you back the evangelicals out of the white vote, Donald Trump loses whites,” Mr. Reed told the crowd. “If the rapture had occurred, Donald Trump would have lost by the worst landslide since George McGovern.”
Mr. Reed and other conservative evangelical leaders are convinced they can do it again in 2018. “From an overall perspective of where the voters are, I am very bullish,” Chris Wilson, the C.E.O. of the political consulting firm WPA Intelligence, told Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, in an October radio segment.
Evangelical policy groups have been investing serious money in turning out votes to shore up a red firewall. Mr. Reed’s coalition, for instance, is putting $18 million into this cycle, up from $10 million in 2016 and $5 million in the 2014 midterms. “The only thing that matters is who comes out on Election Day,” Mr. Reed said.
There wasn’t much doubt about how he and other speakers expected their people to vote. At the same event, J.C. Church, Watchmen on the Wall’s national director of ministry engagement and a founder of the Ohio-focused get-out-the-vote initiative Awake88, said, “the No. 1 thing” anybody can give you is “the supreme Christ.” But “the second greatest thing we can give this generation,” he swiftly added, “is the Supreme Court.”
“We can build a firewall for our children and grandchildren that they just might scale the seven mountains of influence,” Mr. Church continued. “Seven mountains” alludes to an aspect of Christian dominionist ideology, according to which God has commanded true Christians to gain control of seven areas of civilization — including government, business, education and the media.
Unionville, not coincidentally, sits in one hotly contested congressional district and in driving range of two others, all three currently in Republican hands. “If we lose those three seats to progressives,” Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the North Carolina Values Coalition, told the audience at the pastor briefing, “the whole Congress could be lost.”
The Republican Party candidate in one of those districts, Mark Harris, was on hand in Unionville with a speech that sounded a lot like a sermon — unsurprising given that he is also a pastor. “The greatest destroyer of love and peace is abortion,” he said. It was a reminder that at this conference, there was no easy place to draw the line between preacher and politician, just as there seemed to be little or no space between church and political party.
A glance at the schedule of pastor briefings across the country suggests that they are precisely targeted according to the needs of the Republican Party. The same is true of the itinerary of the Family Research Council’s “Values Bus” initiative, which is sending buses as mobile get-out-the-vote units to evangelical churches and events to key congressional districts.
The Family Research Council offers pastors comprehensive tool kits, including a 36-page ivotevalues.org resource guide and instructions for establishing “Culture Impact Teams” within churches, which aim to turn out congregants to vote their “biblical values.” Mr. Church’s Awake88 group offers a “Church Voter Lookup,” which essentially marries a church database with a voter database. The Faith & Freedom Coalition is working with 30,000 churches and aims to distribute millions of voter guides by Tuesday.
To comply with tax and campaign finance rules, the voter guides put out by these groups are all ostensibly nonpartisan. But that doesn’t mean their message isn’t clear: One party is “pro-life” and supports “religious freedom.” The other party is presumably against life and wants to oppress believers.
After pipe bombs were mailed to over a dozen Democratic leaders, Tony Perkins did make calls to end the rhetoric of division. “The path forward is a civil one,” he wrote on Oct. 24. But in his appearances before Christian nationalist audiences, he takes a different tone. “Are the growing reports of left-wing violence random, or is there is an intentional effort to intimidate conservative-leaning voters?” he asked in the Oct. 18 radio segment with Mr. Wilson, a theme he returned to multiple times. At the Unionville pastors’ event, Mr. Perkins asserted, “We are in a spiritual war.” He left little room for doubt that, in his view, “the rulers of darkness” and “the spiritual host of wickedness” are to be found on the Democratic Party’s side of the aisle.
Alongside the mobilization of pastors, Christian nationalist organizations are pursuing a data-driven strategy. The Faith & Freedom Coalition reportedly plans “to micro-target around 125 million social conservative voters across 19 different states through door-to-door interactions, digital ads, phone calls, and mailers,” according to an article in The Christian Post.
“Faith & Freedom monitors voters’ databases to see which of the people they have interacted with vote early,” Lance Lemmonds, the communications director of the coalition told The Christian Post. “For those that haven’t voted early, the organization will send out about 28 million digital ads encouraging them to vote in the last weekend and Monday.” The coalition, he added, “will inundate Christian conservative voters in the last weekend. We will send those ads directly to their cellphones.”
The Faith & Freedom Coalition and the Family Research Council have also teamed up with United in Purpose, a data-mining operation that seeks to “transform culture” in “what some people call the seven mountains,” according to the president of United in Purpose, Bill Dallas. According to a 2012 article on NPR’s website, the organization assigns citizens points for certain characteristics, such as membership on anti-abortion lists or an interest in Nascar. If a voter’s score “totaled over 600 points,” Mr. Dallas said, “we run that person against the voter registration database.” If not registered, “that became one of the key people we were going to target.”
In a 2016 interview on Daystar TV, Mr. Dallas was even clearer: “We have a ministry consultant who will work with each church to help them get their people out to vote on Election Day.”
It would be inaccurate to assume that Christian nationalists are targeting only white evangelicals. Conservative Catholics are very much part of the focus, as are nonwhite evangelicals. Latino pastors and churches are targeted with messages about abortion, “religious freedom” and economic self-sufficiency.
“Maybe because you believe that when American Democrats offer you free stuff they care about you?” said the Spanish-speaking narrator of a Prager University video that aired at an event for dozens of Latino pastors in the San Diego area last month. The event, held at the Ocean View Church, was organized by Alianza de Pastores Unidos de San Diego, a regional affiliate of Church United. “Let’s be honest,” the narrator said. “You didn’t come to the U.S. for free stuff; you came here for the opportunity that allows you to work and earn money.”
At the same event, a businessman named Craig Huey, speaking through a translator, told the assembled pastors: “You need to be able to explain to your fellowship these issues. When we talk about abortion, for example, what is more important, talking about the minimum wage or about life?” Mr. Huey volunteered to host election forums at the pastors’ churches. “You don’t have to worry about it,” he said. “We can do it for you. And if you want to do it, we have a PowerPoint that you can use to go straight down the ballot. It’s not Republican, it’s not Democrat. But where do they stand on abortion?”
Leaders of the Christian nationalist movement appear to be aware that their political activity may raise questions about their compliance with the legal and tax guidelines intended to prevent churches from engaging in direct campaigning for political candidates and parties. At the Unionville pastor briefing, Tami Fitzgerald instructed pastors on how to thread the needle: “I’m telling you, you can talk about issues all day long as a pastor, you can tell people who you’re going to vote for,” she said. But “you must not publish that information in a church newsletter or state it from the pulpit.”
In his first months in office, Mr. Trump vowed to “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment, a federal law barring houses of worship, charitable nonprofits and private foundations from endorsing or financially supporting political parties and candidates. But it’s unclear what a repeal of the Johnson Amendment would accomplish. In Unionville, San Diego and elsewhere across the country, it’s all but impossible to separate pastors from political operatives, parties from houses of worship, and the redemptive messages of theology from the slogans of partisan placards.
Still, the narrative that government is stomping all over the rights of conservative churches to enter the public square is one of the best ways to get the base to the polls. With so much at stake on Tuesday, it seems too useful to set aside just because it’s not true.
-Katherine Stewart (@kathsstewart)