The Jesus Machine

03/12/2007 02:43 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Fessing up to his Clinton impeachment-era affair to Focus on the Family founder James Dobson last week looked like Newt Gingrich's attempt to come clean to the GOP's "pro-family" base in advance of a possible presidential run. But the fact that Dobson allowed Gingrich onto his national radio platform in the first place might say just as much about how desperate the Christian Right is for a viable conservative to enter the presidential race. After all, it wasn't that long ago that Gingrich, as Speaker of the House, was the poster child for what Dobson considered the GOP's weak-kneed refusal to deliver hot-button legislation after the sweeping gains of 1994's Republican Revolution. Now, less than a decade later, are Dobson and company so distraught over Giuliani, McCain, and Romney that Gingrich suddenly seems a palatable alternative?

In this excerpt from my new book The Jesus Machine: How James Dobson, Focus on the Family, and Evangelical America are Winning the Culture War (St. Martin's Press) I show how Dobson went nuclear on Newt's GOP and wound up revolutionizing the Christian Right's relationship with the Republican Party.

For more information on the book, go to www.thejesusmachine.com

On the evening of March 18, 1998, Focus on the Family founder James Dobson convened a meeting with two dozen Republican congressmen in the basement of the U.S. Capitol to deliver an urgent message: He was considering leaving the GOP.

In the audience were some of Dobson's most dependable House allies. Missouri Representative James Talent, for instance, was raised in a Jewish home but had become an evangelical Christian after hearing a Dobson radio broadcast in his car. But Dobson was upset, and he wasn't about to let polite company keep him from saying so. Noting that it had been more than three years since the Republican Revolution, he complained that the GOP-controlled House and Senate still hadn't moved to curb abortion rights. The National Endowment for the Arts, which had funded Robert Mapplethorpe, famous for his homoerotic photography, was still alive and well. And where was the outrage over President Clinton's overtures to gay rights groups?

More than merely venting, James Dobson was ushering in a new era in the Christian Right's relations with the Republican Party. Christian Coalition, the movement's most powerful organization up to that time, had imploded with the 1997 departure of executive director Ralph Reed. Reed had transformed a fledgling Christian Right movement into a true grassroots machine but rankled evangelical activists with his obsequiousness toward the GOP. Dobson, by contrast, was a purist. He prided himself on being on outsider to the Republican establishment.

In fact, Dobson's March 1998 tongue-lashing to the Republican House members was so relentless that it brought a congressman's wife who was in attendance to tears. "Some of us, myself included, said, 'Look, don't form a circle and open fire--you're shooting your friends here,'" recalled South Dakota Senator John Thune, then a congressman. "....At that point, [Dobson's] expectations were high. [Part of the problem was] on his part, not fully appreciating what it takes to get things through the legislative process, how complicated it is."

Late that night, Dobson cancelled appointments he'd made for the following morning with the New York Times and Washington Post. He had been planning to use the newspapers to lay out his ultimatum to bolt the Republican Party, and to take as many evangelicals with him as he could, unless the GOP gave him reason to believe that it would take up the Christian Right's agenda in earnest.

For Republicans, it was a temporary reprieve. Dobson had sent a letter to every Republican senator and congressman outlining his legislative priorities, including defunding Planned Parenthood and eliminating federal Title X funds for safe sex education. Dobson also expected action on objectives "that are so obvious that they require no elaboration, such as a ban on partial birth abortion, the defense of traditional marriage, and opposition to any legislation that would add 'sexual orientation' to any civil rights law....

"Finally," Dobson wrote near the end, "I would suggest that you ask the [House] Speaker [Newt Gingrich] to quit insulting the pro-family and pro-moral community with his words and his actions... I would strongly recommend to all Republican leaders that they abandon the use of the phrases 'Big Tent' and 'Litmus Tests.' These terms are only trotted out when the beliefs of conservatives are about to be trampled."

In Washington, recalled conservative uberstrategist Paul Weyrich, House Republicans "were scared to death. I had a dozen members calling me and saying, 'What could we do? How do we keep this guy?' Because he has enough of a following that if he said, 'A pox on both your houses, I'm going to go with an Independent,' he could tube a lot of Republicans. So they knew at that point that they had to pay attention."

By way of a response, Gingrich and the House's other top Republican brass announced that a "values summit" would take place in Washington in May 1998. The guest list was a who's who of evangelical conservatives, led by Dobson. "Newt came in and he was going to calm everybody down," remembered a House aide who attended the summit. "Dr. Dobson was blowing up, and Newt was saying, 'This is hard work! You're telling me to cut this, but you have a very difficult process to do that.'"

But Gingrich emerged from the summit sounding downright enthusiastic about moving the religious conservatives' agenda forward. "On almost every major issue," he said at the press conference afterward, "the people who are meeting represent the vast majority of Americans."

For the Christian Right, it was a turning point. "It was the first time that something like that had ever been done, where virtually all the key leaders in Congress sat down and talked to us in somewhat sequential order," said evangelical activist Mike Farris. "....It was the biggest deal up until that time, a coming of age." The era of conservative evangelical leaders rallying their troops to the polls on Election Day only to be brushed aside by Republicans during the legislative process appeared to be coming to an end. And the tension between the GOP and the Christian Right, which Ralph Reed's departure from Christian Coalition had laid bare, looked to be easing.

Of course, the GOP knew that appeasement was impossible. If white evangelicals constituted the biggest demographic chunk of the Republican vote on Election Day, they were nonetheless a minority within the GOP coalition, whose libertarian and pro-business wings feared the prospect of government regulation of morality.

That helped explain why Dobson's legislative program had made such little progress in preceding years. In the late '90s, for example, one of Dobson's top priorities was abolishing the National Endowment for the Arts, long loathed by conservatives for funding projects they deemed obscene or antireligious. Though there had been talk in Republican circles of zeroing out funding going back to 1994, the NEA was still up and running in 1998. Attempting to bulldoze an agency with widespread Democratic and moderate Republican support was a losing battle, pure and simple. Evangelical leaders "were looking at the wrong priorities, it seemed to us as insiders," said Mike Schwartz, chief of staff to then-Congressman Tom Coburn. "And the [Republican] leadership was not getting its message effectively to its base."

In fact, it seemed to the GOP that the Christian Right's other big problem--besides having unrealistic goals--was that it had no means of effectively communicating and coordinating with congressional Republicans. Despite unleashing the occasional torrent of phone calls into Congress, Dobson and other evangelical activists tended to package their public policy goals as threats shouted from press conference lecterns.

"They had no way of taking the message to the Hill," said a top Republican congressional aide. "So [Republicans] said, 'We're going to try to move conservative legislation, but we need your help. You can't just stand at the podium and tell us to do stuff--you have to figure out how the legislative process works and you have to work the grassroots and you have to work the votes.'"

To make that happen, House Majority Whip Tom Delay contacted Mike Schwartz, the chief of staff to Congressman Coburn, around the time of the May 1998 values summit. Before arriving in Congress, Schwartz was a conservative activist who acted as a kind of sidekick to Paul Weyrich during his weekly strategy sessions for Washington's conservative culture warriors. DeLay wanted Schwartz to replicate these weekly meetings inside the House of Representatives, opening an official and permanent communications channel between dozens of Religious Right groups and Republican lawmakers.

"We said [to outside groups], 'We'll introduce this stuff and we'll bring this bill to the floor'," remembered Schwartz, "'but the part that the outside groups provide is the support and the muscle to make it happen--and if either side fails it's not going to work.'"

Christened the Values Action Team, or VAT, the forum allowed socially conservative congressmen to leverage the huge mailing lists of outside groups like the Focus on the Family in lobbying wavering fellow members on key votes. "I'll say [to the outside groups] Who will do letters? Who will do radio shows? Who will contact these members? and we strategize about tactics," said Pennsylvania Congressman Joe Pitts, who has chaired the House VAT since its inception. "Working together we can be much more effective. In politics, it's not always the wisest or the strongest who wins. It's the most persistent."

In the wake of Christian Coalition's demise, VAT taught the Christian Right what it could realistically hope to accomplish in Washington, and gave it an appreciation for the Byzantine, glacially paced world of Congress. "Part of the problem was that, in the pro-family movement, they don't have the lobbying outfits like the National Association of Manufacturers or the Chamber of Commerce--you don't cash out [of a Capitol Hill job] to go to the Family Research Council or Focus [on the Family]," said a former top Republican Hill aide present at the formation of the Values Action Team. "They can't afford that kind of talent, so their work on the Hill is less politically sophisticated. And that's the role of VAT, to educate on what's possible, what's achievable."

With the rise of the Values Action Team, the Christian Right abandoned long-shot gambits such as eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts and pushing for a Right to Life Amendment to the Constitution. It adopted a more incremental approach to pursuing its agenda, such as helping move legislation that gradually endowed personhood on unborn fetuses as a way to slowly chip away at abortion rights. "It's a much more typical approach of how America deals with social issues," said Senator Sam Brownback, chairman of the Senate VAT, launched a few years after its House counterpart. "It's rare that there's big, revolutionary type change. It's much more of an evolutionary type of process."

Of course, that was before few outside of Florida had heard the name Terri Schiavo.