Religious Right Makes Political Arena Its Major Battleground

Times Religion Writer

From posh offices overlooking the nation’s Capitol, a fundamentalist Baptist minister is thrusting conservative Christianity into massive political action.

The Religious Right’s tactics have changed, explains the Rev. Tim LaHaye, who rose to prominence in San Diego and now heads the American Coalition for Traditional Values, an umbrella organization that includes Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart and other big-name television evangelists.

Cautious lobbying has given way to nationwide voter registration, militantly conservative agendas and “born-again” political candidates, he says.


Most Powerful Force

Politics, LaHaye says, is the key to moral revival; government is the most powerful human force in the world.

“Whatever it’s going to take, we’re willing to pay the sacrifice to raise up the next generation of Christian and country leaders for America,” LaHaye vowed in a recent interview. He added that since an estimated 40% of Americans claim a born-again evangelical experience, 40% of elected officeholders should also be “Bible-believing” Christians.

By LaHaye’s calculation, there are 110,000 Bible-believing churches in the country and only about 97,000 city, county, state and federal elective offices (not counting township and community positions).

“Let me show you how easy it would be for our values to prevail by the 21st Century,” LaHaye, 59, says in a brochure describing the American Coalition for Traditional Values (ACTV), founded in 1984. “Do you think it is reasonable for every Bible-believing church to recruit . . . one person during the next decade to run for public office and win?

“If we did, we would have more ‘born-again’ Christians running for office than there are offices to hold!”

Political Guidance

Last fall, several hundred churchmen attended an ACTV seminar, “How to Win an Election.” Leaders included Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), Reps. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) and Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and evangelist Robertson, who says he is “prayerfully considering” running for President in 1988.


LaHaye’s staff of four, operating on a $1.5-million annual budget, regularly funnels “moral action” materials to ACTV “pastor-reps” in each of the 435 congressional districts. They, in turn, distribute the literature and funding appeals locally through ACTV-affiliated churches.

LaHaye said he is seeking $3 million more this year to recruit and train volunteers who will register several million conservative Republican voters for the fall elections. A previous $1-million grant from Leadership ‘84, a conservative organization headed by Joe M. Rodgers, now U.S. ambassador to France, enabled ACTV to deliver several hundred thousand new voters to Republican candidates around the country in the 1984 elections, LaHaye added.

If LaHaye and his wife, Beverly, 57, who heads Concerned Women for America, a kind of women’s auxiliary to ACTV, are serious about sweeping “righteous politicians” into office, other more liberal religious leaders are equally worried about a LaHaye-inspired vision of “Christian America” sought by the Religious Right.

Threat to Compromise

George Marsden, a historian at Wheaton College, an evangelical school in Illinois, warns that LaHaye and the fundamentalist coalition-builders are raising the political stakes to a level where agreement and compromise are impossible.

“They believe that either you are with God or against God,” says Marsden, author of the book “Fundamentalism and American Culture.” “There is a danger in the public arena with identifying one’s own view with God’s and your opponent’s with Satan.”

Anthony T. Podesta of People for the American Way, a liberal group formed by television producer Norman Lear to counter the views of the Religious Right, attacks LaHaye’s “quota system” for government leaders who “function as ministers of God.”


“That kind of inquisition illustrates the hypocrisy of a movement that purports to defend traditional American values while violating Article VI of the Constitution, which specifically prohibits religious requirements for public office,” Podesta argues.

But LaHaye, author of several dozen popular Christian books and a frequent lecturer on “traditional” family life, insists that atheists, agnostics and “secular humanist” liberals have, in the last 40 years, turned American values “180 degrees opposite to the view of our nation’s Founding Fathers.”

‘Moral Decline’ Seen

The “humanist holocaust,” he says, “has . . . consistently moved our laws and our public policy from the wholesome, sane moral values of the past to . . . a moral decline surpassed only by Sodom, Pompeii, Rome and a few other extinct societies.”

LaHaye, a founding board member of Falwell’s Moral Majority, is supported by most of the leading national religious TV and radio programmers, who form a powerful, well-connected movement. Although they compete for dollars and followers, their loosely agreed-upon agenda includes a ban on abortion, returning prayer and teaching about creationism to the public schools, combatting communism, seeking anti-pornography and anti-homosexual legislation, and supporting high defense spending.

Sixteen leaders met here with LaHaye in the fall of 1983 and persuaded him to set up the the American Coalition for Traditional Values because, LaHaye recalled, “We didn’t have a united voice.” The multimillion-dollar religious corporations of Falwell, Swaggart and other members of LaHaye’s 35-member, all-male executive board have so far provided most of ACTV’s funds.

Recently, however, LaHaye has faced criticism stemming from allegations that he accepted “generous help” from a chief aide to the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, whose Unification Church doctrine is antithetical to fundamental Christian views of Jesus Christ as the unique son of God, savior and Messiah.


Report in Magazine

Mother Jones magazine, a left-leaning investigative journal, published an account in its January, 1986, issue about a tape-recorded letter dictated by LaHaye to Moon’s leader, Col. Bo Hi Pak. The tape inadvertently fell into the hands of a free-lance reporter.

In the letter, dictated in early 1985, LaHaye says: “I am in your debt for your generous help to our work. You don’t know how timely it was.” The tape also notes that forming ACTV and moving to Washington “. . . has been extremely expensive, much more so than I originally thought.”

Both Pak and LaHaye have since denied that either Pak or any Moon-related organization has given money to ACTV or LaHaye--except for one personal contribution Pak made for an ACTV banquet he attended in October, 1985.

“Religious freedom is the only area where we have a common piece with them,” LaHaye said in the interview. “I don’t know of anyone on our board who would ever condone theological alignment with the Unification Church.” LaHaye added that he doubted the letter had been sent to Pak, and that it was “highly unethical” for the “Marxist magazine” to publish an “unedited first-draft dictation.”

Government Funds Shunned

Neither ACTV nor Beverly LaHaye’s Concerned Women for America Education and Legal Defense Foundation has accepted government money, a LaHaye spokeswoman said. But in 1984, applications for $180,000 in federal funding for Concerned Women and Tim LaHaye’s Family Life Seminars Inc.--then both based in the San Diego area--were denied by the San Diego Assn. of Governments. A review committee said the grant money was proposed for “possibly sectarian purposes,” and the LaHayes did not pursue the funding, sources said.

The Concerned Women for America application had sought $85,000 to survey the nation’s 16,000 school districts for school policies, textbooks and classroom activities that Beverly LaHaye believes violate parental rights.


She formed Concerned Women in 1979 “to protect and promote traditional moral values, particularly as they affect family life.” Like the nationwide Family Life Seminars, CWA is now coordinated from the LaHayes’ Capitol Hill offices.

Concerned Women claims more than half a million members--including 76,000 in California--which would make the organization far larger than the 150,000 dues-paying membership of the feminist National Organization for Women. Last year’s CWA budget was $4 million, a spokeswoman said, based mostly on the $15 that members pay annually to receive the group’s newsletter. By this standard, CWA’s current donor list is about 266,000.

Funds for Legal Fees

A part of CWA’s contributions pay for five full-time lawyers who litigate cases the group considers to have precedent-setting potential. About a dozen are pending now.

The range of issues includes a complex and bitter San Diego child-custody suit in which a fundamentalist Christian woman was married to a homosexual man. Another case involved a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling in which Michael Farris, CWA’s general counsel, successfully argued that the constitutional separation of church and state should not prohibit a blind student from using state education funds for the handicapped to become a minister.

When the LaHayes moved to Washington in 1984, they left a thriving complex of ministries in San Diego.

LaHaye, a short wiry man with penetrating dark eyes, is a graduate of Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C., and Western Conservative Baptist Seminary in Portland, Ore. He took over small Scott Memorial Baptist Church in 1956 and built it into three congregations, in El Cajon, San Diego and Solana Beach, with a total of more than 2,500 members. He established the Christian Unified School District, comprising a junior high, a senior high and four elementary schools. And he spearheaded 450-student Christian Heritage College into a fully accredited four-year school.


A Preacher at Heart

LaHaye insists that despite his current heavy emphasis on legislative reform, he is still a preacher and writer at heart. He says he draws no salary from ACTV and lives primarily on income from speaking and preaching engagements.

His next books, he says, will be on why ministers should get into politics, and why sex education should be taught by the family, not the school.

He commutes from his Arlington, Va., home to Prestonwood Baptist Church in Dallas every Sunday morning to teach a marriage enrichment seminar beamed by satellite to 100 churches. And he jets back just in time to preach the Sunday evening service in a church here.

All the while, his eye is firmly on ACTV’s 1988 goal: righteous politicians committed to traditional values running for every office in the land.

“Leaders who do not function as ‘ministers of God’ should repent,” he warns, “or dedicated Christians in this country will rise up on election day and vote this nation back to moral sanity.”