The Battle Lines Are Drawn
The culture wars of today are rooted in old hostilities
The origins of the two political movements at the heart of America's culture war are as humble as they are contemporary. The cultural ferment of the 1960s stands as the prelude to the battle to come. The first rousings of the modern gay movement date back to a sultry summer night in June 1969 when a ragtag group of drag queens and teenage hustlers rebelled against police harassment outside the Stonewall Inn, a Greenwich Village gay bar. The gays and lesbians who led the disturbance had little more to rely on than their anger. In a time when police raids on gay bars were the norm, they were largely at the mercy of hostile city officials. Routinely described as freaks and perverts in the press (one newspaper mockingly described the protesters as "Queen Bees"), they had little political organization to speak of, were characterized as mentally ill by the mainstream of the medical profession, and were generally banished from jobs and families if their sexuality was discovered. The political weakness and precarious social position of gays and lesbians at the time of Stonewall remains a fact that the religious right, intent on painting them as privileged and pathological, has been loath to accept.
The founding of the Christian evangelical movement was equally inauspicious. While gays and lesbians were rioting in New York City, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, who would one day come to serve as a potent one-two antigay punch, were preaching in obscurity with little following, profoundly ambivalent about entering the political realm. Robertson had refused to aid his own father's senatorial reelection campaign on the grounds that to do so would be to participate in an evil political system, while Falwell inveighed against the clergy's participation in and support of the civil rights movement.
Even in Republican circles, evangelical Christians were still widely considered part of the crackpot fringe for their extreme politics and faith in the inerrancy of the Bible. In a time when liberal politics and cultural experimentation were at an apex, Robertson, Falwell, and the fledgling evangelical political movement seemed like a throwback to a bygone era. Much like gays and lesbians, evangelicals had yet to see themselves as a self-contained political force. Moreover, evangelicals lacked a galvanizing event like Stonewall from which all progress could henceforth be measured.
Less than twenty-five years later, during the 1992 presidential campaign, both movements had burst into the center of America's cultural wars, pitted against each other, often in unfair and damaging ways, as diametrically opposed voting blocks. With Robertson, who had by then eclipsed Falwell as the most powerful evangelical voice in the country, as its lead general, the religious right had become the most powerful special interest group in America. By the 1996 election, every serious Republican presidential candidate would have to come to the religious right on bended knee.
Though their financial resources and number of supporters were dwarfed by those of the religious right, gay activists had become darlings of the media, routinely garnering positive coverage for the first time in the movement's history. Gays and lesbians had become a central, though still controversial, constituency within the Democratic Party. For the gay movement and the religious right, the obscurity of the late 1960s and early 1970s found their recompense in the visibility of the 1990s. Gay activists and religious conservatives have long had the unmistakable feel of smoldering archenemies. But how did these two mortal foes go from the margins to the mainstream of American politics in such a relatively short time?
The explanation lies in the unique politics of both movements and in the media coverage of them. In the 1960s and 1970s, the readerships largely eschewed electoral politics. Derided by mainstream America, they were, with ample justification, deeply suspicious of the mainstream political process. Both saw politics as essentially corrupting, but for different reasons. The religious right wanted to remove itself from this world, while left-leaning gays wanted to restructure the world radically. Yet, both were largely content to organize underneath the general public's radar.
The media contributed to the movements' marginalization by failing to depart from newly coined, but still stereotyped, images and myths in their depictions of both groups. Only when journalists realized that the growth of these two movements was creating clashes that would make good copy did they step up--and improve--their coverage. Yet the media, by and large, still failed to move beyond conflict to create more complex portraits of the two movements or to assess the potential impact of their respective aims, thus leaving each group to characterize each other's objectives (and often to distort them in the midst of heated political battles).
During much of the last quarter century, both sides were busy establishing their own independent communications systems, press, political organizations, fund-raising apparatuses, and political strategies--the bread and butter of political movements. Thus it was almost inevitable that, given the right circumstances, they would burst onto the national scene as well-armed foes fighting incendiary battles that the general public--those who were in neither camp--viewed with bewilderment. For many Americans, it was like being deluged with competing theories of advanced physics without first having mastered basic math.
The newness of the two movements, alone, does not explain their parallel growth. From the ERA battles of the 1970s to the AIDS wars of the 1980s, from the elections of Jimmy Carter to George Bush, each has used the other as fodder for the growth of its own movement. Seeking hot buttons to win converts to its cause, each could alternatively invoke the "gay threat" to American families or the "radical right" threat to the health and happiness of gays and lesbians. The tactic was financially lucrative, especially for the television ministries of the religious right. It made up for in success what it lacked in fairness.
The histories of the religious right and the gay movement, of course, predate the 1960s, when tumultuous politics and rapid social change helped create cohesive and easily recognizable political movements with discernible agendas. Gay and lesbian communities first began to appear after the demobilization of World War II, usually around military installations in major American ports. The earliest official gay group, the Mattachine Society, which was founded by Communist organizer Harry Hay in 1950, served primarily as a self-help group for gays and lesbians coming to terms with their sexual identity, and only secondarily as an advocacy group. Led by activists Franklin Kameny and Jack Nichols, one of the earliest Mattachine demonstrations to receive press coverage took place in front of the White House in May of 1965. (The respectable suit-and-tie attire of the marchers would give way to tie-dye and beads just a few years later.) Since Mattachine was composed primarily of men, the Daughters of Bilitis was founded in 1955 to provide much the same function for lesbians.
Though urban gay enclaves have thrived for decades--with their own cultural scene, night life, and community--many gays and lesbians were cut off from mainstream society with virtually no political representation, locally or nationally. Many felt compelled by social and economic pressure to settle down and marry an opposite-sex partner. It was not until the late 1960s and early 1970s that significant numbers of gays and lesbians felt comfortable enough to leave or forgo heterosexual unions, migrate to big cities, and lead openly gay lives. That migration, in turn, contributed to the birth of gay liberation, especially in the aftermath of Stonewall.
By contrast, conservative evangelicals have played a more visible role in American history since its founding, which dates back to New England Puritanism. According to the religious historian George Marsden, evangelicalism did not metamorphose into a conservative rebellion against secular liberalism until the 1920s, in the revolt against growing support for evolutionary theory. Under the banner of fundamentalism, orthodoxies that cut across traditionally strict Protestant denominational boundaries were united for the first time, notes Marsden, "by their strict opposition to attempts to bring Christianity into line with modem thought." In 1925, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the state of Tennessee over a law forbidding public schools from teaching evolution in biology classes, claiming it lacked the authority to enforce such a law. Sarcastically dubbed the "monkey trial" by journalist H. L. Mencken, the "Scopes" case would prefigure many of the empty debates over sexual politics starting in the 1960s. The law in question was never intended to be enforced, and evolution was only obliquely mentioned in school textbooks.
The trial had the effect of causing evangelicals to retreat noticeably from the political stage, as William Jennings Bryan, a prominent evangelical social reformer and three-time Democratic presidential candidate, was thoroughly embarrassed by Clarence Darrow, the ACLU's silver-tongued attorney, when Bryan took the stand to defend his strict biblical views. Mencken took great glee in ridiculing the devout Bryan, who died a week after the trial concluded, as a know-nothing Bible-thumper. As historian Garry Wills has pointed out, Bryan merely wanted to make the point that evolutionary theory had the potential to give rise to a mean-spirited "survival of the fittest" attitude among young people. Bryan was hardly the contemporary religious right's idea of a true-blue conservative. In fact, he was far more politically liberal than Mencken: he supported women's suffrage, Mencken did not. Nor did Bryan espouse overtly anti-Semitic views, as Mencken did.
Darrow and Mencken saw the Scopes trial as the death knell of fundamentalism in America. But like the critics of the religious right to come, they severely underestimated the movement's tenacity and staying power. In fact, historian Martin Marty traces the origin of modern fundamentalism to the trial. While chastened religious conservatives did retreat from the political world for a time, they hardly died away, as the throngs of followers whom Father Charles Coughlin attracted just a few years later demonstrated. Activists adept at blending revivalist rhetoric with right-wing politics continued to preach, found colleges, publish magazines, and write books. Under their influence, schools quietly went about exorcising evolution from textbooks until the 1960s, when science began to make a comeback. The misunderstandings of that famous trial established the tone for the battles that would resurface decades later. From then on, it was not enough to win; both sides seemed intent on portraying the other as, in Mencken's words, 'the forces of darkness."
The ideological forerunners of what has come to be known as the religious right are a long line of religious crusaders who share what historian Richard Hofstadter termed the "paranoid style." Though the politics and techniques of the preachers vary widely, they share a vision of America dominated by the forces of good and evil, both from inside and outside its borders, leaving little room for political accommodation. Coughlin, a Catholic radio preacher who achieved a huge following in the 1930s and 1940s, cloaked fascist politics in Christian garb. Like the televangelists who would burst onto the scene later in the century, Coughlin understood that right-wing antiestablishment views and savvy exploitation of the media were the keys to building a political empire. Coughlin's career was cut short when a paramilitary strike on the nation's capital, which he had encouraged to overthrow the Roosevelt administration, was foiled by the FBI. (The plot, in which members of the American Legion, with a number of corporate supporters, hoped to recruit several thousand fascist-style militia members to take over the federal government, ended when several of its leaders, including Coughlin, were interrogated by federal agents.)
Twenty years later, Billy James Hargis came closer to translating a fundamentalist worldview into mainstream politics. The segregationist and anticommunist leader of the Christian Crusade, Hargis made headlines in the 1950s for floating millions of balloons bearing Scriptures over the Iron Curtain from West Germany to Czechoslovakia. Hargis and Carl McIntire, leader of the Twentieth Century Reformation, charged that the Federal Council of Churches was an outpost for Marxism.
While the early Christian right groups were motivated primarily by anti-Semitism, anticommunism, and the defense of racial segregation, they also expressed fear about changes in the nuclear family and the relationship between the sexes. By the 1970s, when open espousals of anti-Semitism and racism were no longer socially acceptable, blacks and Jews were largely replaced by gays and feminists. But until the arrival of Robertson and Falwell, Billy Graham, a political and theological moderate who boasted of drawing opposition from "extreme fundamentalists of the right and extreme liberals of the left," represented the public face of evangelicalism in America.
Any comparison of the rise of the evangelical political and gay rights movements must take into account the huge built-in advantage that conservative Christians bring to contemporary politics. Not only can the religious right draw upon the millions of Americans who consider themselves "born-again Christians" in their appeals for support, but upon a religious and moral tradition that dates back centuries and condemns any nonmarital sexuality. While the gay liberation movement and the broader sexual liberationist movements of the 1960s remain extremely potent and visionary forces in American politics, they are no match as yet for two millennia of heavily accreted Christian teachings classifying homosexuality as immoral. Fundamentalism, of course, is hardly the only brand of Christian theology. But many liberal denominations, still uncomfortable with homosexuality, have largely shied away from direct challenges to the religious right's increasingly strident and self-confident claims to representing the Christian position on crucial issues and candidacies.
Much of the contemporary religious right's political motivation can be seen as revolt against the 1960s. The liberal Warren Supreme Court dealt a series of devastating blows to conservative evangelicals throughout the decade. In a 1968 ruling that would have made William Jennings Bryan turn in his grave, the high court struck down an Arkansas ban on the teaching of evolution in public schools as a violation of the constitutional separation of church and state. In Engel v. Vitale, the court struck down state-sponsored prayer recitations in the schools. And in the 1971 ruling Lemon v. Kurtzman, the court ruled that state support for teacher salaries at parochial schools, even when the subject was secular, represented "excessive entanglement" between church and state.
Much like the modernism of the 1920s, the 1960s presented a plethora of changes, from the proliferation of divorce and pornography to the repeal of state sodomy laws to the removal of religion from the public schools, that these religious leaders attributed to secular humanism. But it was the various liberation movements of the 1960s that caused right-wing evangelicals finally to overcome their distrust of the political system.
Though religious conservatives were largely unaware of the disturbance at the time, by spawning a more confrontational generation of gay activists Stonewall unleashed a torrent of demands for social change that conservative Christians found profoundly threatening. The Gay Liberation Front, formed shortly before the riots, sought to form alliances with left-wing groups like the Black Panthers. The group's statement of purpose described it as a "revolutionary group of men and women formed with the realization that complete sexual liberation for all people cannot come about unless existing social institutions are abolished. We reject society's attempt to impose sexual roles and definitions of our nature. We are stepping outside these roles and simplistic myths. We are going to be who we are. At the same time, we are creating new social forms and relations, that is, relations based upon brotherhood, cooperation, human love, and uninhibited sexuality." Though the Gay Liberation Front was quickly superseded by the more mainstream Gay Activists Alliance, its guiding philosophy would influence many gay and lesbian activists for decades to come. The Alliance, in turn, quickly earned a reputation for colorful street theater to draw attention to the movement's largely overlooked claims.
From the beginning, the gay movement was deeply influenced by the left-wing and antiwar movements and the hippie counterculture of the 1960s. Despite widespread antigay views on the left, many early gay activists first saw the opportunity for their own movement in the incipient political awareness of other minority groups. As a result, these activists were deeply influenced by the left's emphasis on class consciousness, connections among disenfranchised minority groups, and liberation from traditional gender and sexuality constraints. For these early pioneers, being gay was about more than just same-sex attraction; it was about changing the world for the better.
Early gay politics were rarely about achieving specific goals; gay rights legislation was unpracticable until the mid-1970s in most American cities. The point was more to draw attention to the very existence of gay people. The tactic succeeded in increasing the visibility of homosexuality, but the transition from the anarchistic, liberationist movements of the 1960s to an institutionalized gay rights movement, which demanded the formalization of organizational structures, was marked by bitter ideological clashes.
Jean O'Leary personified the tumultuous politics. In 1972, O'Leary organized a lesbian-feminist revolt against the Gay Activists Alliance that resulted in the formation of Leshian Feminist Liberation. The combative O'Leary then would lead another fight, this time to ban transvestite entertainers from the 1973 gay pride rally in New York City. O'Leary saw drag queens as gay men ridiculing women, a position she quickly recanted. O'Leary's ability to weather such clashes and draw lessons from them made her one of the few gay activists to maintain a leadership position in the movement over several decades. Like many lesbians of her generation, O'Leary, who became a nun as a young woman in part to avoid her sexual feelings, never imagined until 1969 that she could live her life as a lesbian. The discovery of the movement, and the freedom it allowed her to develop her own identity, motivated her to dedicate much of her adult life to its advancement. In 1972, O'Leary became one of the first directors of the National Gay Task Force, which was established to mold the burgeoning, but often random, gay activism across the country into a cohesive political force. From that post, O'Leary would go on to lead National Gay Rights Advocates, a national legal group based in San Francisco, from 1979 until its spectacular collapse in 1991. In 1976, O'Leary served as the first openly lesbian delegate to a Democratic National Convention.
Formed in 1972, the National Gay Task Force, the first national gay political group, served as a clearinghouse for the growing, but unorganized, gay movement. The organization functioned primarily as an advisor to local groups pursuing antidiscrimination ordinances or the repeal of state sodomy laws. Howard Brown, the former New York City health services administrator who came out on the front page of the New York Times in 1973, lent early legitimacy to the group. In 1985, the group moved to Washington, D.C., where it became the National Lesbian and Gay Task Force and added lobbying Congress to its mission.
One of the first major confrontations between the left-wing liberation movements of the 1960s and the emerging religious right was not specifically about homosexuality. Passed by Congress in 1972, the Equal Rights Amendment guaranteed "equality of rights" for women, but did not specify how they would be achieved. After an initial surge of support, the amendment died in 1982, falling three states shy of the thirty-eight required for the adoption of a constitutional amendment. The responsibility for the turnaround can be attributed in large part to one person: Phyllis Schlafly. By putting a female face on antifeminist politics, Schlafly was the ideal spokesperson for the anti-ERA forces.
At the time, Schlafly was the little-known president of the Eagle Forum, a tiny Illinois-based political group that catered to conservative homemakers. Schlafly had her start in right-wing politics as the author of A Choice, Not an Echo, a glowing chronicle of Barry Goldwater's 1964 presidential campaign. As a Catholic, Schlafly was an unlikely choice to lead the evangelical revolt against feminism. Some of her Protestant counterparts, in eluding Falwell, had equated the papacy with the "whore of Babylon," cited in the book of Revelation in the New Testament. But Schlafly's hostility to the feminist values she saw exemplified in the ERA far outweighed her distrust of evangelicals. As she saw it, the ERA was a no-holds-barred attack on the traditional role of women. Whereas many feminists saw that role as restrictive or even demeaning, Schlafly, a housewife who considered her massive political involvement to be little more than dabbling, believed that it provided women with special status. Loosening the role, she thought, would abolish husbands' responsibility to care for their wives, tear apart families, and throw women into the increasingly competitive job market. If women had actual complaints of discrimination, they would "take their case to God," rather than the government, she declared in 1973.
The ERA fight was a harbinger of future battles. In her attacks on the ERA, Schlafly established the tone for the wildly exaggerated charges and scare tactics--many of them involving homosexuality--that would come to be employed by antigay activists for years to come. Throughout her ten-year battle, Schlafly erroneously claimed that the ERA would lead to the conscription of women for military service on a par with men, force the sharing of public bathrooms by both genders, and mandate state-funded abortions. In one particularly incendiary advertisement, the Eagle Forum claimed that the ERA, or Amendment Six, was not just about the "sex you are, male or female," but the "sex you engage in, homosexual, bisexual, heterosexual," or even "sex with children." Over a photo depicting two stereotypical-appearing gay men from a New York City gay parade, the headline announced, "Who Hid the Sex in Six?"
One of Schlafly's most potent charges was that the amendment would result in the legalization of gay marriage, even though its Senate sponsor, Democrat Birch Bayh, had made sure that the legislative record specified that it would not. With a series of far-ranging liberal court decisions culminating in the 1972 ruling Roe v. Wade, which legalized first- and second-trimester abortions, Schlafly could suggest with some credibility that the courts were likely to interpret the amendment more broadly than even its supporters suggested. As outlandish as it sounded at the time, Schlafly may not have been so far off on the last point. In 1993, the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled that the state's ban on same-sex marriage amounted to gender discrimination under the Hawaii constitution.
The debate quickly sank into a morass of increasingly pointless charges and countercharges that had little to do with the actual language of the ERA. As soon as Schlafly and her colleagues on the right were able to divert the debate's focus from discrimination against women to the "radical feminist agenda" and the supposed homosexual threat to the "American way of life," they had gained the upper hand in the debate. That in 1972 the fledgling gay rights movement was confined almost exclusively to obscure left-wing political circles in New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco hardly seemed to matter.
For Schlafly, the injection of the gay issue into the ERA debate had the added benefit of dividing the amendment's supporters. After the lesbian and socialist banners that dotted pro-ERA demonstrations became staples of the opposition's depictions of them, the National Organization for Women banned them from their demonstrations. The leshian purges threatened to tear apart the feminist movement. In one infamous episode Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique and cofounder of NOW, called the presence of lesbians among the pro-ERA forces the "lavender menace," eliciting an outcry from lesbian activists both inside and outside the organization.
NOW and other women's groups engaged in their own distortions of the opposition and their cause. Plagued by internal divisions, the groups painted a black-and-white picture of inequality for women to help recruit volunteers and fire up the ranks. Exaggerating the probable effect of the ERA, feminist activists claimed that adoption of the amendment could mean federally funded abortions, equal access to combat roles in the military, and the overthrow of the patriarchal family structure. Like the gay groups who would later face down the barrel of high-caliber attacks from the religious right, they lacked the self-correcting mechanisms that would allow them to align their rhetoric with political reality. Feminist leadership, while benefiting from sympathy for the concept of greater equalization, tended to overestimate their resonance and grew out of sync with the more pragmatic rank and file of women activists, who, faced with everyday problems, had little patience for the overblown rhetoric of self-appointed leaders invoking the specter of radical social change.
At the same time, another development would contribute to the hostility of the political battle and pave the way for the cultural wars of the 1980s. Campaign financing reforms, passed in the wake of the 1972 Watergate scandal, limiting political contributions for federal elections to $1,000 catapulted direct-mail fund-raising to the center stage of national electoral politics. To be effective, direct-mail campaigns relied upon incendiary political charges of the sort concocted by Schlafly hurled at political opponents who could be identified as a threat to basic values and the American way of life. The point of the fund-raising letters was to stir up hostilities toward an identifiable target. The "shriller you are," admitted Terry Dolan, the founder of the National Conservative Political Action Committee, in 1982, "the easier it is to raise money." With little understanding or support, the emerging gay rights movement would make the perfect fodder for the right's fund-raising endeavors.
The conservative who first exploited the opportunities for astute insurgent interest groups with the redrawing of the political landscape was Richard Viguerie. As the de facto leader of a younger generation of angry conservatives who were known collectively as the "new right," Viguerie got his start in fund-raising in the early 1960s as an assistant to Marvin Liebman, a conservative political operative who was one of the founders of Young Americans for Freedom. Viguerie compiled the first of his legendary computerized mailing lists by copying Liebman's Barry Goldwater for President mailing list, which was stored on index cards in Liebman's Manhattan office. Computerized, this list would later expand into the millions, securing Viguerie's standing as a sought-after Republican campaign consultant and forming the basis for the political ascent of the candidates of Viguerie's choice. Viguerie was one of the first conservative fund-raisers to realize the value of playing on the reflexively antigay feelings of the right-wing rank and file of America. In his 1983 book, The Establishment vs. the People: Is a New Populist Revolt on the Way? Viguerie anticipated the "special rights" argument the religious right would rely upon to overturn bans on antigay discrimination, beginning nearly a decade later: "`Gay' life as promoted by homosexual radicals is not an alternative life style," he wrote. "It is a defiant denial of the basic human instinct of procreation and the central tenets of our Judeo-Christian Faith. I feel we should have the right not to hire, work with, rent to, or live next to a homosexual, or an adulterer, or a sexually promiscuous heterosexual, if we so choose."
Such rhetoric would later cause Liebman to wish he had never hired Viguerie. Realizing that gays and lesbians had become one of the chief targets of his former associate's fund-raising missives and public pronouncements, Liebman announced in a 1992 letter to the conservative magazine the National Review that he was gay. Liebman's pangs of conscience came too late to help rein in the antigay attack dogs his brilliant organizing had unleashed. But he may have given them at least some reason to reflect. Though Liebman was shunned by many of his former colleagues on the right, Viguerie demonstrated his loyalty to his mentor by making an appearance at Liebman's seventieth birthday party at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., where he listened politely as several young gay men gave testimonials to Liebman's positive influence on them. By coming out, Liebman saved himself from the unhappy fate of Terry Dolan. Like Liebman, Dolan was a closeted gay man whose work contributed mightily to antigay causes. But unlike Liebman, Dolan never fully came to grips with the duplicity of his past. In 1986, still deeply in the closet, he died of AIDS.
By allowing him to appeal directly to right-wing donors, Viguerie's fund-raising skills paved the way for the conservative movement's transition from the "old right," dominated by Eastern conservative establishment figures like William F. Buckley Jr., to a harsher, more radical, turn-back-the-clock breed of activists. "Direct mail has allowed conservatives to bypass the liberal media, and go directly into the homes of conservatives in this country," Viguerie bragged in Alan Crawford's Thunder on the Right, published in 1982. "There really is a silent majority in this country and the new right has learned how to identify them and communicate with them and mobilize them."
The "silent majority," Viguerie determined, was as motivated by a constellation of family issues, exemplified by gay rights and abortion, as the old conservative standard, anticommunism. The transition was a relatively smooth one. The old right had couched its anticommunism in the rhetoric of family values long before it was fashionable. Even though communism both in the United States and abroad was notoriously homophobic, the old right viewed it as weakening the Christian fabric of the nation, which would enable homosexuals to gain a stronger foothold. Homosexuals were often lampooned as limp-wristed "pinkos," and perhaps the staunchest anticommunist of all, J. Edgar Hoover, took to attacking both homosexuals and communists in identical terms. Faced with the reality that communism was a dying ideology even before the decline of the Soviet Union, the new right and the religious right came to depict homosexuals as one of the chief evils of the modern world. It was the homosexual movement, particularly by gaining admission to the U.S. armed services, that would destroy America from within and make it vulnerable to foreign armies. Furthermore, by infiltrating the schools, homosexuals, like communists, had an insidious influence on the nation's most vulnerable commodity, its children. The new emphasis would leave the new right well stocked with new enemies closer to home after the fall of the "Evil Empire" in the mid-1980s.
Viguerie knew that to be successful the new right required a massive, well-funded organizational structure at its disposal and a constantly expanding base of members and activists. Joined by Paul Weyrich, and Howard Phillips of the Conservative Caucus, Viguerie began the laborious process of identifying the foot soldiers necessary to swell the grass roots. Viguerie had watched conservative groups like the John Birch Society, with its open expressions of racism and anti-Semitism, fizzle after tapping out their base and reaching overambitiously for power. The most logical candidates, he understood, were evangelical churches, which had the potential to surpass organized labor as the most powerful interest group in American politics. According to polls, an estimated 30 to 50 million Americans were born-again Christians. Add to the holy mix conservative Catholics and orthodox Jews, and a political force was born.
At first, the results of Viguerie's efforts were mixed. Schlafly and her fifty thousand-member Eagle Forum, for instance, retained their independence by refusing to allow their mailing list to be bought or rented. Many of Viguerie's earliest clients, including Citizens for Decent Literature, financier Charles Keating's Cincinnati group that later became Citizens for Decency Through Law, and Conservative Books for Christian Leaders, made little impact. More successful was Robert C. Grant's Christian Voice. According to one of Grant's fund-raising letters, the gay rights movement was "just a fraction of a master plan to destroy everything that is good and moral here in America." Grant, of course, never identified the author or authors of the "master plan," but for his Viguerie-generated audience of unreconstructed Birchers weaned on conspiracy theories of one-world government and Jewish manipulation of media and finance, mere allusion was sufficient. For the new right and its allies among religious conservatives, the best was yet to come.
Until the late 1970s, occasional antigay appeals from the right had been like valuable ores left unrefined. But the new right struck pure gold in Anita Bryant. A mother, celebrity singer, former Miss America, and spokeswoman for the Florida Citrus Growers ("A day without orange juice is like a day without sunshine"), the chirpy Bryant was the ideal model for its antigay crusade. She could safely emphasize the supposed danger the homosexual movement posed to families without appearing mean-spirited. In a 1977 fund-raising letter filled with passages underlined in red, she wrote: "Dear friend: I don't hate the homosexuals! But as a mother, I must protect my children from their evil influence. When the homosexuals burn the holy Bible in public, how can I stand by silently?" Like those of a host of her antigay successors, Bryant's fund-raising appeals would fail to identify which gays had burned a Bible or where, much less acknowledge any anger gays might justifiably harbor at what they took as her appropriating Scriptures for her own partisan political purposes.
Building on her friend Phyllis Schlafly's anti-ERA campaign, Bryant founded an antigay group, Save Our Children, Inc., which would establish the tone of the gay rights battles long after Bryant, whose well-publicized divorce cut into her credibility, had dropped out of politics. In response to passage of a 1977 Dade County, Florida, ordinance protecting gays and lesbians from discrimination, Bryant launched an initiative drive to overturn it. After her ballot initiative passed by a large margin, Bryant, who also described herself as a fundamentalist Christian, traveled the country promoting similar initiatives in other municipalities. From 1977 to 1980, voters overturned gay rights bills in St. Paul, Minnesota; Wichita, Kansas; and Eugene, Oregon; but retained them in Seattle.
Across the country, gay activists reacted to Bryant's attacks by stepping up lobbying for inclusion in ordinances that banned discrimination in housing, employment, and public accommodations. Across the country gays and lesbians held spirited anti-Bryant protests, including a celebrated incident in Des Moines, Iowa, where Bryant suffered a cream pie in the face. Tens of thousands of gays and lesbians participated in the 1979 gay and lesbian march on Washington, D.C. The White House, too, became a focus for the first time. Midge Costanza, one of then-president Jimmy Carter's top aides, held two White House meetings with gay activists in which they discussed, among other things, the need for federal antidiscrimination protections to circumvent Bryant-inspired measures on the local level. It was around this time that gay lobbyists, realizing that the grass roots of American politics were hostile to their cause, began to concentrate their efforts on Congress and the White House, further widening the gulf with mainstream America that the religious right would come to exploit.
For many religious conservatives, the news that a born-again president--who did not attend either meeting and who had previously admitted on national television that he was "confused" by homosexuality--would allow gays and lesbians even to step inside the White House was the last straw. They turned on the president who just two years earlier had enthusiastically encouraged their participation in electoral politics and vigorously courted their vote. Wrote John Donovan, Pat Robertson's official biographer, in 1988: "The disappointment of Carter as an unabashed liberal served to forge the Republican Christian alliance of which Robertson rides the crest."
The most bitter showdown came in California in 1978, when state senator and gubernatorial candidate John Briggs of Fullerton, armed with Bryant's contributor list, launched a drive to ban open homosexuals, or anyone advocating the 'gay lifestyle," from teaching in public schools. Largely as a result of unexpected opposition from then-governor Ronald Reagan and other prominent conservatives, the Briggs initiative lost by more than one million votes, 3.9 million to 2.8 million. Under intense lobbying from gay activists including David Mixner, who would go on to become a key adviser to President Clinton, Reagan refused to endorse the initiative on libertarian grounds, which should have tipped off his religious right supporters that he was not to be their messiah. The initiative "is not needed to protect our children--we have that legal protection now," Reagan said. "It has the potential of real mischief.... What if an overwrought youngster, disappointed by bad grades, imagined it was the teacher's fault and struck out by accusing the teacher of advocating homosexuality. Innocent lives could be ruined."
Embittered by the unexpected defeat, Briggs, who once described gay men as women trapped in men s bodies," called San Francisco the "moral garbage dump of homosexuality in this country." The Briggs battle coincided--indeed, helped propel--the first stirrings of urban gay political power. In San Francisco, Harvey Milk was elected to the Board of Supervisors in 1977.
In Milk, antigay crusaders like Bryant and Briggs had met their match. The product of a middle-class Jewish family in Woodmere, New York, Milk supported Barry Goldwater's right wing presidential campaign in 1964. Caught up in the radicalism of the 1960s, Milk grew a ponytail, traded in his suit for bellbottoms, and headed off to San Francisco, where he opened a camera shop on Castro Street. By 1973, Milk was already blazing gay political trails, finishing tenth in a field of thirty-two candidates for the Board of Supervisors, despite the gay establishment's warning that it was too soon for an openly gay candidate to seek elected office.
Milk was not alone in his trailblazing. In 1974, Elaine Noble was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives as an open lesbian. By 1978, Noble had retired from politics, citing the overwhelming expectations that came along with being the gay community's representative. "The gay community expected me to be on call twenty-four hours a day," she told the gay magazine The Advocate. "It was like they felt they owned me." Milk had no such qualms about assuming the community's leadership. By the time he was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, the Castro district had become America's gay mecca, with homosexuals from across the nation migrating there by the thousands. Milk forged coalitions with African-Americans, Chicanos, and labor unions and whipped up support among the growing gay and lesbian population, emphasizing the threat to their freedom posed by the Anita Bryant-inspired antigay backlash sweeping the country. In what became known as the "give 'em hope" speech, delivered to gay audiences across the country, Milk was fast becoming the gay movement's Martin Luther King Jr.
After suffering a string of Bryant-inspired losses at the ballot box, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force announced in a 1979 report on the state of gay politics that "failure could be seen as a form of victory in terms of overall movement development." But constant turnover, staff burnout at the Task Force and the Human Rights Campaign Fund, which was founded in the late 1970s as a political action committee, and the early-1980s onset of the AIDS epidemic meant that during the next spate of antigay initiatives in the late 1980s and early 1990s the crucial lessons of the earlier defeats were all but forgotten. The gay movement's dearth of visionary leadership--exacerbated by Milk's assassination in 1978--was not just about high turnover: it was built into the structure of the gay movement.
For the religious right, the issue of leadership cut both ways. The hierarchical organizational structure of the independent churches led by political preachers like Falwell and Robertson was both a blessing and a curse. While it allowed leaders like Falwell free rein to develop massive multimedia empires, it also left the television ministries wholly dependent on charismatic leaders and vulnerable to their often huge egos and glaring eccentricities. By contrast, the gay groups, which grew out of the collectivist philosophy of the 1960s left, tended to be inherently skeptical of formal structure and unitary leadership. While gay activists' deepseated faith in the democratic processes led them to seek input from and remain responsive to a greater number of activists, it made them resistant to charismatic leaders. In fact, activists with egos big enough to become forceful leaders were often viewed with great suspicion. As a result, the gay movement never developed leaders with Falwell's or Robertson's following or stature.
In 1979, after extensive consultations with new right leaders like Viguerie, Falwell, pastor of the Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia, and host of the Old-Time Gospel Hour, founded the Moral Majority. Though religious conservative groups had existed for decades, the Moral Majority marked the religious right's official entrance into interest-group politics. As Viguerie had hoped, the organization--and a plethora of imitators--would go on to play an important role in the mobilization of evangelical voters for Ronald Reagan's 1980 presidential campaign.
As testimony to the religious right's growing clout, Reagan addressed the 1980 convention of the National Association of Religious Broadcasters, which Falwell was hosting in Lynchburg. Like many evangelicals, Falwell had initially supported Reagan's Republican rival John Connally, whom he believed to be more comfortable with religious conservatives. As a presidential candidate, Reagan had rejected Falwell's suggested running mate, Jesse Helms, in favor of George Bush, a moderate on the issues most dear to the religious right. As California governor, Reagan had kept religious conservatives at arm's length and, just two years earlier, had helped stymie the antigay Briggs initiative. For Falwell, Reagan's opposition to Briggs was the most serious obstacle to throwing his support behind Reagan. Homosexuals in the schools was one of the major themes of his sermons and of the Moral Majority's fund-raising missives. At the convention, however, Reagan laid Falwell's concerns to rest. While ducking the gay question, Reagan confided in his audience that he had grave doubts about evolutionary theory; declared that the Bible contained the answers to the country's social ills; and accused liberals of using the separation of church and state to keep conservative religious activists out of politics. For Falwell, the power of Reagan's overtures to the religious right overwhelmed any remaining qualms he might have had.
Once elected, Reagan steered clear of the treacherous waters of religion and politics. Instead, he made grand gestures. In 1981, for instance, he endorsed the Family Protection Act, a bill that in the name of stabilizing the family would have declared that no federal funds should be earmarked for "any organization that suggests that homosexuality can be an acceptable alternative lifestyle," knowing full well that the amendment would be deleted by the more Democratically aligned Congress. Reagan appointed Gary Bauer, a close associate of James Dobson, president of the powerful Christian conservative group Focus on the Family, as a domestic policy adviser. Bauer, though, had little actual influence over policy and spent much of his time in office plotting his return to lobbying.
Reagan's grandest gesture of all, the appointment of antiabortion crusader C. Everett Koop as Surgeon General in 1981, turned out to be an unexpected black eye for the right. Despite his oft-stated view that homosexuality is a sin, Koop defended the need for federal funding of sexually explicit AIDS education in the schools and gay-positive educational material. "You cannot be an efficient health officer with integrity if you let other things get in the way of health messages," Koop told the Village Voice. For his principled stance, Koop was vilified by Falwell and the religious right.
Falwell's power in the GOP was a far cry from his humble origins, when he adhered to deeply held Baptist notions that true faith eschews temporal politics. Starting in 1956, Falwell's sermons to a small audience in a broken-down factory building focused primarily on damning other denominations for their biblical "misinterpretations" on the evils of drink and sexual promiscuity. In a now-famous 1965 speech titled "Ministers and Marchers," Falwell, who, despite his apolitical posture, supported segregation, maintained that mainline denominations had corrupted their faith by backing the civil rights movement. If ministers could support Southern blacks, he reasoned, they should fight alcoholism with equal fervor. There are as many "alcoholics as there are Negroes," he reasoned. In announcing the founding of the Moral Majority, Falwell explained that his earlier position on racial politics was the result of "false prophecy."
Falwell's political aspirations reflected the needs of his congregants. The world of the Old-Time Gospel Hour was one of Jesus as a "he-man," of clearly delineated right and wrong as determined by Falwell himself, and of boundless prosperity for all true believers. While Falwell's message about the future of America was often pessimistic, Falwell himself came across as upbeat about the potential for individual salvation. As Frances Fitz-Gerald pointed out in a 1981 profile of Falwell in The New Yorker, evangelical television shows provided Americans a vast revival tent, offering immediate mass escape from eternal damnation." If viewers were seeking salvation, the televangelists had something far more material on their minds. The television revival tent offered them a golden opportunity to tap contributors through the use of telephone banks and fund-raising solicitations. In a style reminiscent of the Catholic Church's sale of indulgences half a millennium earlier, the implicit message of the shows was that viewers who contributed generously would find salvation easier to achieve.
What set Falwell apart from his more traditional predecessors was his remarkable marketing ability. His newfound interest in politics dovetailed with the introduction of sophisticated fundraising techniques, many of which were modeled on Viguerie's campaigns. Depending on the political and biblical pet peeves of his audience, Falwell targeted fund-raising letters to decry the spread of pornography, or appeal to antigay sentiment. The slick packaging of Old-Time Gospel Hour was a far cry from the spit-and-baling-wire operations of the early days of the gay movement. Falwell's fund-raising pitches came with a full-color magazine, Faith Aflame, free Jesus pins, Bibles, his own books, and miniature American flags. Nor was Falwell above using scare tactics to raise extra cash. On several occasions, he threatened to close his ministry if viewers failed to dig still deeper into their wallets. By contrast, the Human Rights Campaign Fund, the country's wealthiest gay group, did not develop a magazine of its own until 1995. Even then, like most gay groups, it felt compelled to omit its name from the outside of its direct-mail envelopes to avoid exposing recipients as gay or lesbian or even supportive of their cause.
Both the gay movement and the left, which was slow to adopt the gay cause, lacked the equivalent means of communication, the comforting rhetoric in which to package their message, and the fund-raising ability so amply demonstrated by the religious right. When Falwell founded the Moral Majority in 1979, the National Gay Task Force still lacked a Washington office. Its budget was less than half a million dollars per year; the Campaign Fund was nothing but a gleam in the eye of its founders. Neither group had access to anything more than graveyard-shift public-access television, a problem that plagues the movement to this day. The mainstream media showed little interest in their cause until well into the AIDS epidemic. The gay press, edited almost exclusively for gays and lesbians, reached an audience a fraction of the size of Falwell's. This communications imbalance allowed religious conservatives like Falwell the freedom to frame the debate by depicting homosexuals in highly negative and inaccurate terms to a huge audience. It is an advantage that gay activists have fought against again and again as they have attempted to take their cause to the nation. As the imbalance has persisted, the gay movement has become, in the face of so much countervailing rhetoric, increasingly defensive and unable to articulate a compelling vision of its place in American society.
Without the gay rights and the women's movements--and the tragic advent of AIDS--Falwell's political ascendancy might well have crashed and burned far earlier than it did. It was in support of Phyllis Schlafly's anti-ERA campaign and Anita Bryant's antigay crusade that Falwell's fund-raising campaigns really caught fire. (Schlafly, in fact, would become the first nonevangelical religious figure to address Falwell's church.) In the mid-1970s, before other right-wing Christian activists like Robertson and Jim Bakker had latched onto politics, Old-Time Gospel Hour took on an increasingly political tone. Falwell began inviting conservative politicians to appear on the show and held dozens of "I Love America" rallies across the country. In 1975, he sought to train a future generation of evangelical leaders by launching the fundamentalist Liberty Baptist College in Lynchburg.
Inevitably, Falwell's rise led to skirmishes with the more secular mainstream political establishment. In 1979, he came under fire for regularly describing America as a "Christian nation" and contending that "God does not answer the prayers of an unredeemed gentile or Jew." In a defense against charges of anti-Semitism that Robertson would mimic more than a decade later, Falwell dug himself a deeper hole by saying that his support for the state of Israel immunized him from the charge. (He later told a Christian audience that Jews "can make more money accidentally than you can on purpose.") Eventually, Falwell was forced to renounce an essential tenet of fundamentalism by assuring his critics that God "hears the heart cry of any sincere person who calls him," though it is unclear whether homosexuals--let alone Jews-could ever attain the category of "sincere people" and thus gain the deity's ear.
For Falwell and the religious right, the tension between adhering to a literal interpretation of the Bible and allowing the compromise inherent in mainstream politics never fully eased. In a pluralistic democracy, the voice of every participant has a priori equal standing. Yet with its insistence on the inerrancy of the Bible in public policy, the religious right raised the specter of theocracy. To deal with the competing demands--theological and political--Falwell, like Pat Robertson later in the 1980s, simply opted to adopt two contradictory positions, one intended for his core audience and one suited for public consumption, and hoped no one would notice. After backing Briggs's and Bryant's campaign to ban gays and lesbians from teaching positions in the public schools and repeatedly in sermons and fund-raising letters harping on the homosexual threat to children, Falwell told the Washington Post, "I have no objection to a homosexual teaching in the classroom as long as that homosexual is not flaunting his lifestyle or soliciting students."
Falwell generally escaped censure for such blatant contradictions because the press was often reluctant to take him to task. When his statements and motives were called into question, he has adhered to the premise that the best defense is a good offense. Instead of answering the substance of charges, Falwell would simply suggest darkly that his critics were part of a liberal conspiracy to repress the role of Christians in government. Responding to attacks on his political views in a 1976 sermon, Falwell said, "The idea that religion and politics don't mix was invented by the devil to keep Christians from running their own country."
While the outbreak of the mysterious and deadly disease in the early 1980s spurred many religiously motivated caregivers to new heights of compassion, Falwell used it to craft new fundraising appeals. In AIDS, religious conservatives like Falwell found the punitive manifestation for homosexual behavior for which they had been searching. No longer, they reasoned, could homosexuals pretend that homosexuality was without consequences. AIDS and homosexuality would become virtually synonymous in the rhetoric of the religious right and in the nation's consciousness. Ignoring the inconvenient facts that many people with AIDS are not gay, that the vast majority of gay men would never contract HIV, and that lesbians are at extremely low risk, Falwell and his colleagues on the right played AIDS as divine retribution for sodomy. In a 1987 fund-raising letter, for instance, Falwell accused gay men of donating blood because "they know they are going to die--and they are going to take as many people with them as they can."
AIDS marked the birth of a cottage industry of antigay research led by Paul Cameron, director of the Institute for the Scientific Investigation of Sexuality in Lincoln, Nebraska. The misnamed group, which later became the Colorado Springs, Colorado-based Family Research Institute, which Cameron described as "scientists defending traditional family values," produced a series of lurid pamphlets about the supposed social ills associated with homosexuality. Gay sex, declared one Institute flyer, was a "crime against humanity." Another pamphlet featured a grainy photo of a young girl being threatened by an ax-wielding man, presumably gay. It is hard to imagine a more discredited figure than Cameron. During a 1981 debate over a Lincoln gay rights measure, Cameron publicly stated that a four-year-old boy had been sexually mutilated in a mall rest room because of a "homosexual act." The Lincoln police were never able to locate the boy in question and issued a statement that there was no evidence for Cameron's charge.
Cameron has spent the better part of the AIDS epidemic devising studies to demonstrate that gay men brought AIDS on themselves and the rest of the world. AIDS first became an epidemic, he insisted, because promiscuous American gay men went on "worldwide sex tours," in which they engaged in "unsanitary" practices. "Homosexuals have a different way of having sex," he said. "You are mixing germs on an international basis." AIDS provided Cameron the medical justification he required to advocate the forced segregation of homosexuals from society. Cameron's solution to the epidemic was universal HIV testing and the quarantine of everyone who tests positive for virus antibodies.
Despite his shoddy research, Cameron's crackpot theories found their way into mainstream conservative thought. Cameron's 1993 study indicating that the average life expectancy of gay men is thirty-nine is a case in point. Culled from obituaries published in the gay press, the study was regularly cited by prominent conservatives from William Bennett to Pat Buchanan. Desperate for evidence for their antigay pronouncements, few on the right stopped to question the credentials of the discredited source or the basis for the study. That AIDS was killing gay men in their prime was undeniable; that being gay meant you were doomed to an early death, particularly in light of AIDS prevention efforts, was simply false. Cameron had no way of canvassing the death certificates of broad samples of gay men, since many were not identifiable as such in life, let alone in death. But to make political points Cameron ignored rudimentary scientific guidelines.
Cameron manufactured even worse statistics. It was he who "proved" that gays were ten to twenty times more likely to be child molesters than their peers, and five to twenty times more likely to commit bestiality. It was Cameron who claimed that a person was fifteen times more likely to be murdered by a homosexual than a heterosexual. It was Cameron who said that lesbians were twenty-nine times more likely to infect a sexual partner with a venereal disease on purpose. Some of the figures were of Cameron's own reckoning, based on a survey he conducted in 1983, which had a statistically insignificant sample of forty-one gay and twenty-four lesbian respondents. (Given the patent bias of the survey--reasons why the respondent became homosexual included "I was socially inept" and "I had a weak character [was lazy, immature, no moral strength]"--it seems entirely possible some of the gay respondents decided to treat the whole thing as a joke.) The statistic about renegade lesbians infecting their partners was based on a sample of seven.
Cameron also reinterpreted other studies as well, and it was here that he ran into trouble. "He misrepresents my findings and distorts them to advance his homophobic views," A. Nicholas Groth, director of the Sex Offender Program at Connecticut's Department of Correction, wrote to the Nebraska Board of Examiners of Psychologists in 1984. Groth studied pedophilia and had noted in his research that men in his sample who molested boys were either pedophiles by nature or heterosexual, but not homosexual. Cameron took a homosexual act to be a sign of homosexual orientation and concluded just the opposite.
For all its flaws, the religious right was dependent on Cameron's research to supplement its biblical arguments about the supposed deleterious social consequences of homosexuality. For all their boasts about the power of strict biblical interpretation, Falwell and other evangelical leaders had to know that in a society that values the scientific method as highly as religious convictions, theological arguments alone were not enough to win converts. The 1973 decision by the American Psychological Association to delete homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses, after a bitter internal fight, dealt a shocking blow to antigay forces by placing the mainstream of the medical profession on the side of gay rights advocates, effectively reducing antigay research to the level of eugenics and racially motivated intelligence theory.
Indeed, an accumulation of cooked statistics and questionable professional behavior led to Cameron's expulsion from the American Psychological Association on ethical charges in 1983. Cameron would later claim he had resigned or, alternatively, been drummed out by radical supporters of gay rights upset at his research. The group, however, does not allow resignations of members under investigation. Cameron was censured by a variety of other professional organizations as well. When he began to be identified in the press as a sociologist instead, the American Sociological Association, a professional group, passed a 1986 resolution asserting that "Paul Cameron is not a sociologist, and [this group] condemns his constant misrepresentation of sociological research."
AIDS would also play a paradoxical role in the gay movement's political rise. The epidemic took the lives of hundreds of the community's leaders, many before they had reached their prime. It diverted already limited resources away from politics. It threw large sections of the community into political paralysis. But at the same time, the movement was thrust into the national limelight for the first time in its short history. Gay celebrities, from Rock Hudson to Liberace, were forced out of the closet by the disclosure that they had AIDS. A broad cross section of the general public saw gay men as real people--coworkers, neighbors, family members--suffering inexorable loss. Only the hardhearted could avoid feeling sympathy for the plight of gay men in America.
The gay and lesbian community itself rose to the occasion. In the early days of the epidemic, with the Reagan administration dragging its heels, the community took on AIDS by itself, setting up AIDS prevention campaigns to reach the uninfected, and service groups to care for the sick and dying. As a result of the prevention measures, new infections quickly dropped substantially, according to public health departments across the country. A1though the infection rate began to rise again in the early 1990s, notably among young gay men, public health experts--Cameron notwithstanding--marveled at the unprecedented behavioral changes achieved by the community's intervention. Many of the early groups established to battle the epidemic, such as Gay Men's Health Crisis in New York, went on to serve as models for other communities' responses to the disease.
As impressive as the gay community's early response was, the massive scale of the epidemic was more than it could handle alone. Gay political groups, both nationally and locally, were forced to grapple with mainstream political institutions over the inevitable AIDS appropriations. Working with liberal members of Congress like Ted Kennedy in the Senate and Henry Waxman and the late Ted Weiss in the House, AIDS lobbyists were able to overpower the Reagan administration's recalcitrance. With the exception of funding for sexually explicit AIDS prevention measures, which were often blocked by congressional conservatives, the lobbyists coaxed large outlays of federal funding to combat the disease, especially in the 1987 Ryan White Care Act, which provided billions of dollars in aid to cities hard hit.
The AIDS epidemic also brought a renaissance of fiery street activism harkening back to the Stonewall era of the 1960s and early 1970s. In 1986, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power and its later spin-off, Queer Nation, adopted many of the tactics of the Gay Liberation Front with its colorful street theater and "zaps" of antigay foes. The founder of ACT UP, Larry Kramer, argued that desperate times required desperate measures. Though the federal government was pouring money into the epidemic, Kramer believed that the country had failed to treat the epidemic with sufficient urgency because its primary victims were gay men. An accomplished screenwriter and novelist, Kramer, who was also one of the founders of Gay Men's Health Crisis, sounded an alarm about AIDS long before it had reached public consciousness. In the August 24, 1981, edition of the New York Native, a gay newspaper, Kramer warned that 120 gay men in the United States were suffering from a rare cancer known as Kaposi's sarcoma. "Many of the things we've taken over the past years may be all it takes for a cancer to grow from a tiny something-or-other that got in there who knows when from doing who knows what," he wrote. His 1983 essay "1,112 and Counting" sounded a similarly prescient note.
While some gay men tried to deny the relationship between HIV and unsafe sex, Kramer was in an ideal position to understand the profound ramifications of the fledgling epidemic. He had long been a critic of the wild sexual promiscuity of a small urban subset of gay men in the 1970s and early 1980s. Kramer's 1978 novel Faggots sparked a firestorm for its negative portrayal of gay bathhouse culture. When Kramer determined that Gay Men's Health Crisis's response to AIDS was insufficiently political, he founded ACT UP to establish a more confrontational tone.
The debate over gay sex in the age of AIDS, which often revolved around the bathhouses, threatened to set back the gay movement by dividing it. Those who stubbornly adhered to the liberationist perspective saw bathhouses as symbolic of the sexual freedom gays and lesbians had fought so hard to achieve. Others, like noted gay journalist Randy Shilts, author of the best-selling AIDS chronicle And the Band Played On, saw them as death traps for gay men. Exacerbating the emotional tone of the debate was the ever-present fear that the religious right would capitalize on the tragedy. "You have given the Moral Majority and the right wing the gasoline they have been waiting for to fuel the flames that will annihilate us," one gay activist screamed at an opponent during a public forum on the bathhouse closings. But the debate was over almost before it had begun. AIDS had obscured far larger trends in the gay community toward stable, monogamous relationships and even parenting. Though they were not necessarily mutually exclusive, sexual liberation was superseded by the gay version of family values.
Kramer, who was diagnosed with AIDS himself, was the charismatic leader the gay movement desperately lacked. The anger he imbued in ACT UP inspired an entire generation of activists who would play important roles in gay and AIDS activism long after the direct-action group had petered out in the early 1990s. But Kramer's hot temper and relentless personal attacks on his foes inside and outside the gay community eventually restricted his ability to lead the movement into the second decade of the AIDS epidemic, when the disease more closely resembled a permanent fact of life than it did a state of emergency.
At its apex in 1979, Falwell's Old-Time Gospel Hour raised $37 million on 2.5 million appeals, a sum unimaginable for a gay organization. Yet throughout the 19705, the show was in and out of receivership. The pressure of mounting debt drove Falwell, whose penchant for overspending was as great as his gift for overstatement, to rely ever more heavily on solicitations stressing the alleged gay threat to American families. As Falwell's financial problems forced him to retreat from the public stage, the religious right's baton passed to the biblical reconstructionist Pat Robertson. Though he owed much to Falwell's trailblazing evangelism, Robertson, who practiced faith healing and speaking in tongues, would soon eclipse him as an entrepreneur and political preacher. Vowing not to repeat Falwell's mistakes, Robertson allowed the Christian Broadcasting Network to grow at a slow but steady rate. Until 1984, when he changed his party registration from Democratic to Republican, he largely abstained from Falwell's vituperative style of political activism.
After watching with dismay as President Reagan failed to deliver anything of substance to the religious right and the moderate Bush surfaced as the heir apparent, Robertson took matters into his own hands by entering the 1988 presidential race. Launching his campaign on the front steps of an old brownstone in a predominantly poor, black section of Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn where he had worked as a young preacher, Robertson declared that the core of his campaign would be opposition to abortion and homosexuality. Robertson's announcement was greeted by an angry group of activists, many from ACT UP, which at the time was at its apex as a direct-action group. Robertson could not have prayed for a better greeting. In photos published across the country, the angry mob, toting ROBERTSON EQUALS DEATH posters, managed to make Robertson look reasonable by comparison or at least unfairly ambushed.
Even the fodder offered by ACT UP could not save the televangelist's campaign. After a series of early surprises, such as finishing second in Iowa in front of George Bush, Robertson floundered. Frustrated that the media had pigeonholed him as a religious candidate even though he had taken the largely symbolic step of resigning from his ministry, Robertson, like Falwell before him, was dogged by his own long history of intemperate remarks and a record of insensitivity to racial minorities. During the campaign, he made groundless claims about Russian missiles in Cuba and accused prominent Republican operative Lee Atwater of engineering the exposure of televangelist Jimmy Swaggart to taint all evangelical leaders. By the end of the primary season, Robertson was reduced to bargaining for a token appearance at the Republican National Convention.
But like the gay activists of a decade before, left battle-hardened by Anita Bryant, Robertson understood that defeat contained the seeds of victory. After his withdrawal from the campaign, Robertson vowed that religious conservatives would never again be dependent on the goodwill of a few ultraconservative politicians. The huge mailing list Robertson compiled during the campaign became the cornerstone of a new political cathedral of right-wing religious partisans, the Christian Coalition. By building the most powerful grassroots political organization in the country and controlling GOP machinery, the group would come to dictate the terms of the debate. Six years later, the organization would go a long way toward fulfilling Robertson's goal by spearheading the Republican congressional landslide of 1994.
For many gay and lesbian activists, Jesse Jackson played the role in 1988 that Pat Robertson did for religious conservatives. For the first time in the history of American politics, a presidential candidate taken seriously by the media openly and assiduously courted the gay vote. Jackson, whose oratorical gifts are a match for those of any evangelical preacher in the country, drew huge audiences of liberal gays and lesbians nationwide, who helped him achieve a series of stunning early finishes. By Jackson's own estimate, gays and lesbians accounted for nearly 50 percent of his support among white voters. By the end of the primary season, however, Jackson, like Robertson, was reduced to negotiating for a small voice in his party's platform. But unlike Robertson, Jackson failed to transform his campaign into something larger. Jackson's Chicago-based political organization, the Rainbow Coalition, never achieved the financial and organizational clout of the Christian Coalition. Jackson's influence on electoral politics would fade as fast as Robertson's would rise.
The Rainbow Coalition's failure to play a prominent role in "Beltway politics," as power-brokering in the nation's capital is called, reflects the ambivalence of many of its supporters about mainstream politics and its still-splintered loyalties, which Jackson's coalition of progressive activists could only temporarily recoup. Jackson supporter Urvashi Vaid, a brilliant activist who served as executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force from 1986 to 1992, is a case in point. Vaid, who got her start in gay politics as an editor at Boston's now defunct left-wing weekly newspaper Gay Community News, steered the organization to the left at the very time Robertson was taking the Christian Coalition mainstream. Under the peripatetic Vaid, the Task Force denounced the Persian Gulf War and took up a variety of causes reminiscent of the early liberationist days of the movement. In 1990, Vaid interrupted a rare AIDS speech by President Bush by shouting and holding aloft a sign reading TALK IS CHEAP--AIDS FUNDING IS NOT. "I'm more comfortable behind a bullhorn than I am testifying at a Senate hearing, but I do both because I have to," Vaid told Out magazine in 1992, the year she left the Task Force to write a book about gay politics. Torn between the bullhorn and the Beltway, Vaid and the gay movement would do both with uneven gusto and neither to much avail.
The constant push and pull between liberationist and assimilationist impulses that Vaid embodied left the gay movement lacking in consistent direction and leadership. Robertson's smartest move, meanwhile, might have been in reducing his own highly unpopular profile as the head of the Christian Coalition by turning the day-to-day operation of the organization over to a seasoned political operative. In 1989, he convinced young Republican activist Ralph Reed to lead the fledgling organization as its first executive director. Reed, who holds a Ph.D. in history from Emory University, brought the credibility that Robertson, due to his years of extreme pronouncements, could never achieve. Reed followed the strategy outlined by onetime Robertson aide Thomas Atwood in a fall 1990 article published in the right-wing Heritage Foundation's Policy Review. The article, "Through a Glass Darkly: Is the Christian Right Overconfident It Knows God's Will?" argued that for the Christian right to reach its potential it had to follow the "basic rules of politics," including respect for opposing views and a willingness to compromise. For too long, Atwood argued, conservative Christians appeared "authoritarian, intolerant, and boastful, even to natural constituents."
With Robertson as his boss, Reed had his work cut out for him. Robertson's perch atop the religious right was a far cry from his troubled origins. By his early twenties, he had fallen far short of the lofty standards established by his father, Willis, a U.S. senator from Virginia. The younger Robertson had fathered a son out of wedlock, failed the bar exam, and adopted a bizarre brand of politically extreme evangelical Christianity that his father found unsettling, to say the least. The elder Robertson disapproved of his son's quixotic quest to build a national cable-television network, which only succeeded with the unexpected largess of seven hundred generous donors, from which evolved The 700 Club.
Though he has often waxed poetic about his humble origins, Robertson, as Ann Richards said of George Bush, was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Shortly after graduating from Yale, Robertson moved to Brooklyn, where he worked to bring poor blacks to God. His religious conversion was so intense that he sold all his worldly possessions, much to the dismay of his pregnant wife. Moving to his native Tidewater area of Virginia in 1960, he purchased, with no cash down, an abandoned television station, which he gradually converted to twenty-four-hour Christian television programming.
Like Falwell's, Robertson's religious vision was inextricable from his financial one. Robertson, whom historian Garry Wills has called an "entrepreneurial evangelical," appealed directly to viewers for support and expansion. After buying the station, he began setting deadlines for viewers to send checks or risk losing The 700 Club, the talk show he hosted. By the early 1970s, The 700 Club was a fund-raising machine, with counselors talking with viewers on the air. After their problems were addressed, callers were enlisted as members. Before early-morning television chat shows were popular, The 700 Club provided viewers, who were predominantly housewives, with daily support for their relationship with God and a sympathetic ear for their grievances with the modern world. (One of the early attractions of the network were Jim and Tammy Bakker, who starred in a lively daily variety show.) As the show grew in popularity, Robertson expanded it by inviting prominent writers and politicians--not all of them conservative--to appear on the show. Eventually, Robertson created news programs with a decidedly conservative Christian slant presented as objective journalism. News bulletins, for example, would feature reports on cross-dressers and leather contingents at gay pride celebrations, while ignoring the rest of the parades. They also served as an uncritical forum for Robertson's allies in the increasingly crowded field of the religious right's leadership.
In his hagiography, John Donovan compares Robertson to Abraham Lincoln in his ability to combine religion and politics. A more apt comparison, however, might be Father Coughlin, with his elaborate conspiracy theories and lack of coherent analytic skills. Indeed, watching The 700 Club is to be transported to a parallel universe with its own system of logic and reason. A punishing God has his hand in everything that Robertson himself holds dear, down to natural disasters, like hurricanes and earthquakes, caused by homosexuals. Robertson often blurs the line between receiving or interpreting God's wisdom and simply promoting his own political and personal views via the Bible.
Donovan contends that Robertson is so conscientious about accuracy and fairness that he often stops himself in the middle of his 700 Club monologues to correct even "a minuscule exaggeration." Yet Robertson's gift for hyperbole is legendary. He regularly compares American political skirmishes to military battles in which an assortment of enemies--liberals, environmentalists, gays--must be annihilated. Given his own checkered military background, the military metaphors are hypocritical. When the potential for actual combat arose, Robertson was nowhere to be found. Thanks to the high-level military connections of Senator Robertson, the younger Robertson was assigned to noncombat duty in Korea. Robertson's enormous financial success--his net worth is estimated at more than $200 million--has only strengthened his belief that God is on his side. In his writings, Robertson makes much of a philosophical principle he calls the "law of reciprocity." In simple language, the law means that if you give to God (especially via Robertson), you shall be rewarded, a lesson he apparently discovered in his own life. Indeed, Robertson landed in hot water with the Internal Revenue Service for privatizing his Christian Broadcasting Network, which he founded with tax-deductible contributions from supporters.
Despite his privileges, Robertson is fond of portraying the religious right as victims of precisely the groups he has had a strong hand in marginalizing. Upon their entrance into mainstream politics, conservative evangelicals have often adopted the left's language of oppression. Instead of gays, women, and racial minorities, it was evangelical Christians who were the real victims of intolerance. Even though there was no evidence they faced widespread discrimination, their moral beliefs, still dominant in many parts of society, supposedly face systematic exclusion from American society. God, who was on their side, was plotting his revenge on their behalf. Only their intervention in the world of politics could save the nation from his wrath. Robertson has often said that America has neglected its responsibility to the poor and the oppressed." But his definition of the downtrodden is dubious: middle-class Christian families living in a secular world. Though Christian evangelical families undoubtedly struggle in an age of diminishing wages, underfunded schools, and crime epidemics, they don't differ from non-Christian families. Robertson opposes proposals to raise the minimum wage or make the tax system more progressive, thus alleviating the poor's share of the burden, and posits the elimination of homosexuality and abortion rights as the answer to the problems facing Christian families.
But the insistence on victim status for evangelical Christians generally did not lead to a heightened sensitivity toward other minority groups. Like Falwell, Robertson would have his own problem with anti-Semitism, only a more severe one. In 1995, Robertson came under fire for placing international Jewish bankers at the center of a conspiracy to overthrow the U.S. government in his 1991 book, The New World Order. In his defense, he cited a long bibliography that formed the basis of the book. Unfortunately for Robertson, one of his sources turned out to be Eustace Mullins, a David Duke mentor and Holocaust revisionist. It took Michael Lind, at the time an editor of the conservative digest The Public Interest, to raise the issue to national status. The mainstream press had failed to do its homework. Fixated on the irrelevant question of whether evangelicals should bring their biblical interpretations to politics, the press had overlooked the substance of Robertson's interpretations and his reliance on conspiracy formulas.
Such debates, which took place primarily in the pages of liberal Eastern publications, had little negative impact on the Christian Coalition. Robertson sent Reed out to sweet-talk the B'nai B'rith's Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee. In establishing the Coalition, Robertson and Reed knew that the key to success was local organizing. If you controlled a "disciplined charging army," dedicated to advancing your goals, as Falwell once described his followers, it mattered little what columnists at the New York Times thought. As the antigay initiatives of the early 1990s would come to demonstrate, the key to dominating national politics was grassroots organizing. Robertson had marshaled the foot soldiers; gay activists and their allies had not.
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