EthicsDaily.com’s news analysis story recounts the transformation in American politics emerging from the Religious Roundtable’s National Affairs Briefing in 1980. By nearly all accounts, that event marks the rise of the Religious Right as a political force.
Contributing editor Brian Kaylor provides a who’s who list of Southern Baptist Convention takeover leaders who spoke at the event: W.A. Criswell, Adrian Rogers, then Southern Baptist Convention President Bailey Smith, Charles Stanley, James Robison and Ed McAteer.
The backstory that led up to that moment in Dallas is little known. Among the key early organizers of the Religious Right were Bill Bright, a Presbyterian, and Billy Graham, a Baptist.
In 1974 and 1975, Bright convened a series of secret meetings with 20 to 25 key Christian Right leaders. They formed Third Century Publishers to publish books and study guides to link their political agenda with conservative Christianity.
They needed a tax-exempt foundation to receive donations to help them with the for-profit Third Century Publishers. Bright, with the help of Richard DeVoss, president of Amway Corp., and Art DeMoss, board chairman of National Liberty Insurance Co., took over the financially troubled Christian Freedom Foundation (CFF) to solicit funds for their publishing company. They hired McAteer to run it.
DeMoss later publicly stated that the purpose of CFF was to elect Christian conservatives to Congress in 1976: “The vision is to rebuild the foundations of the Republic as it was when first founded – a ‘Christian Republic.’ We must return to the faith of our fathers.”
McAteer, a Baptist layman at Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis, where Rogers was pastor, later founded the Religious Roundtable (1979).
Both the SBC takeover movement, begun in 1979, and the Religious Roundtable gained impetus from a meeting that Bright, along with Graham, called at a hotel in Dallas. Among those in attendance were Rogers, Stanley, Robison, Jimmy Draper, Pat Robertson, Rex Humbard and Clayton Bell (Billy Graham’s brother-in-law).
Robison’s meeting is recorded in William Martin’s “With God on our Side.”
“Billy Graham said, ‘I believe God has shown me that unless we have a change in America, we have a thousand days as a free nation … three years.’ Bill Bright said, ‘I know … I do not believe we’ll survive more than three years as a free nation. It’s that serious.’ And Pat Robertson said, ‘I believe the same thing.’ Charles Stanley was standing there and I can just remember so well, he put his hand down on the table with resolve and said, ‘I’ll give my life to stop this. I’ll give everything I’ve got to turn this country,'” recalled Robison.
He continued, “And I said, ‘Me too. I’ll die to turn this country. Whatever it takes. We can’t lose the country.’ And each man around the room said, ‘we’re going to get involved.’ Except Rex Humbard. He said, ‘I’m uncomfortable politically. I really am very uncomfortable.’ And Dr. Graham said, ‘I cannot publicly be involved. I can only pray. I’ve been burned so badly with the public relationships I’ve had. I can’t afford it, but I care so much.'”
Shortly after that meeting, Stanley fulfilled the pledge he made at the gathering by inviting scores of Georgia preachers to meet at his church for a “Campaign Training Conference,” where Paul Weyrich, the key organizer of the political right, told them how to get their congregations involved without jeopardizing their churches’ tax exemption.
With fond memories of that meeting, Weyrich remembers, “I had [newspaper columnist] Bob Novak with me and he was absolutely in a state of shock. It was at that moment, he told me, that he decided Carter was going to lose, because minister after minister stood up and said, ‘I was part of Carter’s team in 1976. I delivered my congregation for Carter. I urged them to vote for Carter because I thought he was a moral individual. I found out otherwise, and I’m angry.’ This was months before the election, and Novak said, ‘I decided at that point that Jimmy Carter’s goose was cooked because I saw the intensity of those people.'”
What could have prompted such hostility to Carter?
Weyrich gave an explicit explanation: “What galvanized the Christian community was not abortion, school prayer or the ERA. I am living witness to that because I was trying to get those people interested in those issues and I utterly failed. What changed their mind was Jimmy Carter’s intervention against the Christian schools, trying to deny them tax-exempt status on the basis of so-called de facto segregation.”
While Christians were troubled about abortion, school prayer and the ERA, they felt able to deal with those on a private basis. They could avoid having abortions, put their children in Christian schools and run their families the way they wanted to, all without having to be concerned about public policy, said Weyrich.
But the IRS threat “enraged the Christian community and they looked upon it as interference from government and suddenly it dawned on them that they were not going to be able to be left alone to teach their children as they pleased. It was at that moment that conservatives made the linkage between their opposition to government interference and the interests of the evangelical movement, which now saw itself on the defensive and under attack by the government. That was what brought those people into the political process. It was not the other things,” argued Weyrich.
Bruce Prescott is executive director of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists, president of the Norman, Okla., chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State and host of “Religious Talk” on KREF radio. He blogs at Mainstream Baptist. A longer version of this column appears there.
Bruce Prescott, now retired, served as executive director of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists from 1998-2014.