Behind closed doors at a Religious Right strategy session in Washington, D.C., last spring, James Dobson sounded more like a hardball political operator than a Christian family counselor. Impatient with President George W. Bush and Republican congressional leaders for failing to move quickly enough on the Religious Right's agenda, Dobson issued a pointed directive.
"We voted for them," said Dobson, "and now they need to get on with it."
Demanding action on the confirmation of judges and a range of other legislative and policy concerns, he added, "We only have about 18 months to get this done, because after that George Bush will be a lame duck president. And we'll be in a new election cycle, and he's not going to have the power that he does now&. If we let that 18 months get away from us—and then maybe we've got Hillary [Clinton] to deal with, or who knows what—we absolutely will not recover from that."
Dobson's remarks and other developments at the Family Research Council's (FRC's) 2005 Washington Briefing at the historic Willard Hotel reveal a new pinnacle of power for religious activists in the nation's capital—and a movement that is hungry for more. Some 300 activists gathered to hear from top congressional leaders and to plot strategy for exerting influence not only over the White House and the Congress but also the Supreme Court and other governmental posts throughout the country—all with the goal of repealing church-state separation and ushering in a regime that reflects a fundamentalist Christian viewpoint.
The March 17-19 FRC event shows that the Religious Right already has extraordinary influence in Washington. Speakers and guests at the event included Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and then House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), as well as Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kans.), Representative Bobby Jindal (R-La.), Federal Communications Commission Chair Kevin Martin, State Department official John Miller, and Kansas Attorney General Phill Kline. Senator Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) and Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) were scheduled to appear but had to cancel because of a series of special budgetary votes in Congress.
DeLay brought up an issue that is dear to the hearts of activist Christian forces: federal tax law revision. At present, churches, like other nonprofits, are forbidden to get involved in partisan politics. Houses of worship may freely speak out on issues, but they may not endorse candidates.
A congressional measure removing the threat of IRS intervention drew DeLay's endorsement.
"If they go after and get a pastor, then other pastors shrink from what they should be doing," he said. "It forces Christians back into the church, and that's what's going on in America.. . . That's not what Christ asked us to do."
Religious Right forces are already working to build a church-based political machine despite federal law. The FRC holds an annual pastors' conference to train clergy, and the group is working with ministers' groups in Ohio, Texas, and elsewhere to set up political action organizations.
Former FRC president Gary Bauer took up a similar theme.
"We're electing a lot of fantastic Christians who happen to be Republican," said Bauer, a former GOP presidential candidate, "and these guys are fighting for our values. We just have to elect a lot more of them. The way to judge elective bodies is not how may Rs [Republicans] there are, but how many Cs [Christians] there are next to their names. When we get majorities in some of the legislatures and Congress of people that take their faith seriously, then I think that a lot of these issues go the right way."
If that sounds a lot like a crusade for theocracy, the FRC and its allies don't seem to mind. Speaker after speaker used the most inflammatory and divisive language to rage against federal judges and other Americans who fail to toe the Religious Right line on abortion, gay rights, and church-state relations. All those are legitimate topics for debate, of course, but these activists demonize those who disagree with them, sometimes literally. Opponents, to them, are not just misguided, but enemies in a culture war.
David Limbaugh, brother of radio pundit Rush Limbaugh, said, "We're not just in a war against terrorists, where we face external and internal violence against our system, our culture; but we're in a war against the secularists in our own culture who have tried to supplant the Judeo-Christian value base with their secular humanist value base."
Kansas Attorney General Kline added, "We are in a war for the heart and soul of America," while Alabama's former "Ten Commandments" judge Roy Moore thundered, "You see, we're not just in a war in Iraq; we're in a war right here."
Bishop Wellington Boone, the only African-American on the speakers list (and virtually the only one at the conference) dismissed the idea of church-state separation as unbiblical and suggested that those who disagree are agents of Satan.
When people call him a "Bible fanatic," he replies, "I can see through you; I know that behind you is your father the devil."
Bauer even suggested that differences over social issues are a greater threat to America than what he called the battle against "Islamo-fascism."
"I think we can survive planes that are hijacked and flown into buildings," Bauer said. "I am not convinced we can survive judges who have hijacked the Constitution and are using it as a weapon against everything we love and everything we hold dear."
The fight over judges—especially the selection of new Supreme Court justices—was an overriding theme of the FRC gathering.
Railing against Supreme Court decisions upholding church-state separation in public schools, Dobson told the crowd that a vacancy on the Supreme Court will unleash a bitter conflict that religious conservatives must win.
"Folks, I am telling you all," said Dobson, an FRC board member and dominant force, "that is going to be the mother of all battles, and it's right around the corner."
In the meantime Religious Right activists are working with allies in Congress to try other tactics to corral judges who issue rulings they don't like. The FRC's president, Tony Perkins, said he has been meeting with congressional leaders to discuss a range of possibilities.
Impeachment, he said, has not worked well in the past, so other possibilities include defunding the courts or limiting judicial jurisdiction.
"There's more than one way to skin a cat," he said, "and there's more than one way to take a black robe off the bench."
What does all this mean for America? The constitutional principle of church-state separation and the independent judiciary that ensures its vitality are very much at stake. While many Americans don't realize it, a resurgent Religious Right is quietly building an extraordinary church-based political organization that could place freedom of conscience and the rights of religious and political minorities in jeopardy. This theocracy-minded movement has the potential of changing the face of our pluralistic democracy.
Founder Thomas Jefferson said that the American people, through the First Amendment, had built a "wall of separation between church and state." If Religious Right activists have their way, however, that wall may turn into rubble.
Joseph L. Conn edits the magizine Church and State. He writes from Silver Spring, Maryland.