'WE HAVE ENOUGH votes to run the country," video evangelist Marion Gordon (Pat) Robertson recently boasted to a national news magazine. "And when the people say, 'We've had enough,' we are going to take over."
Norfolk is the site of Robertson's multi-million-dollar Christian Broadcasting Network headquarters and the scene of a decade-long religious revival. It has also been the cockpit of intensive efforts by Robertson and others to turn the phenomenal growth of conservative Christianity -- the phenomenon of "born-again" or evangelical" religion -- into a political force.
But so far the "evangelical bloc" has not even been able to run Norfolk. And one conservative Christian who was recently defeated in a bid for the state legislature has concluded that "there is no Christian vote" -- and probably never will be.
Certainly something is happening among the evangelical Christians of Norfolk and of the nation. In 1976, the election of Jimmy Carter seemed to give legitimacy to the "born-again" movement as a political force. And the conservative Christian movement recently has sprouted some equally conservative political arms, such as the California-based Christian Voice, which rates members of Congress on a "morality scale," and the Moral Majority, a group engaged in voter registration and other activities that was set up by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, star of the nationally televised "Old-Time Gospel Hour."
His political activity represents a dramatic shift for conservative Christian leaders. "There is a delicious iron here," notes religious historian Martin Marty. "A fundamentalist was a person who says doctrine can never change. A dozen years ago, doctrine was that religious people shouldn't meddle in politics. That was the era of Vietnam and the civil rights movement. Now that is shifting ground."
But however boldly their leaders may step over the line separating church and state, there is no guarantee that the ordinary conservative Christian will follow.
Leaders like Robertson and Falwell have fine-tuned political instincts and a tight policy agenda, with positions ranging from abortion to SALT II to monerary and fiscal policy. But a recent trip to Norfolk turned up little agreement among the people whose votes would enact this program.
Many have kept the political allegiances they formed before their religious conversions; others have little interest in politics at all. And all are products of the American religious tradition, which holds that anybody with a Bible can form his own opinions without clearing them with eclesiastical authorities of any kind.
Certainly there is widespread agreement on certain "family" or "moral" issues. Most of those I talked to oppose the Equal Rights Amendment and abortion. Most are appalled by the homosexual rights movement. Most support the freedom of church-run schools to run their affairs without state supervision or taxation.
But beyond this, the unity disappears. There is little general agreement on religious issues, much less political ones.
Consider a recent Washington Post poll on the born-again phenomenon. Of a nationwide sample of adults, a whopping 44 percent who were members of Christian denominations also said they had been "born again." Those who identified themselves in this manner were somewhat -- though not monolithically -- more conservative than the sample as a whole on such questions as abortion, homosexual rights and liberalization of divorce laws.
But the poll also illustrated the problem of generalizing about such a diffuse religious group. Many who said they were "born again," for example, did not identify themselves as being "very religious" (indeed, only 23.5 percent of the total put themselves in that category).
Similarly, the poll asked if the respondents had "been 'born again' or . . . had a 'born again' experience -- that is, a turning point in your life when you committed yourself to Christ." Almost all evangelical and "born again" Christians would say their faith centers on a conversion experience in which they accepted Christ as their "personal savior." But that conversion may be the quiet profession of a Baptist teenager fulfilling his parents' expectations or the often shattering turnabout of a middle-aged person who comes to Jesus during a mid-life crisis -- very different experiences and people.
In the same way, "born-again" Christians are commonly lumped together as "evangelical." But the conservative religious revival of the past decade has included true evangelicals -- who rely solely on the Bible -- and "charismatics" or "pentecostals" -- who practice the "Baptism of the Holy Spirit," or "speaking in tongues." Pollster George Gallup recently conducted a survey that indicated that 32 million Americans are "evangelicals" -- but that one-third are "charismatics" as well.
Even among pure evangelicals, there are "fundamentalists" who believe in the literal truth of every word in the Bible, and "wordly evangelicals" who accept the Bible's authority without necessarily believing that Creation took precisely 168 hours.
All of these elements are present in Norfolk's volatile religious mix.
Southern Baptists, the corner-stone of American evangelicalism, are the area's largest denomination. But there are also Catholic charismatics, Pentecostals, "main-line" evangelicals and "fundamental" or "independent Baptists." Robertson's CBN is testimony to the new power and wealth of the "para-church" movement, as is the futuristic, domed sactuary of Rock Church, a charismatic sect founded 12 years ago by the Rev. John Gimenez.
And within these groups is a diversity of individual voices. Indeed, on close examination, the evangelical movement of Norfolk resembles less the "sleeping giant" of which its leaders like to boast than the biblical Tower of Babel.
One example of this diversity is James Long, a former restaurateur who is now a fulltime worker for the Catholic church. Long is a charismatic and considers himself "born again." He is also a lifelong conservative.
"I'm a Reagan man," he said. "I didn't support Jimmy Carter and would never vote for him unless someone from the conservative side were not running."
But Jim Long is hard to fit into secular political pigeonholes; recently, for example, he has felt some conflict between his political beliefs and his religion: "Christ didn't preach armaments and warfare -- He preached peace," he said. "So many of the conservatives seem to favor endless armaments. I'm just having some questions. I want to submit that entire thing to the Lord."
Doomsday weapons, of course, call up an ancient Christian vision of the end of the world. For those who truly believe that the Second Coming of Christ is imminent, elections and movements seem as silly as fighting over who will push the buttons in a self-service elevator.
One example is Louis Matamoros, a 39-year-old electrician who joined Rock Church after an 11-year hitch in the Navy. A few years ago, he left Rock Church to become a Southern Baptist. Now his former pastor, John Gimenez, is mobilizing the Rock Church flock for a nationwide "Washington for Jesus" rally, to be held in the capital in April. But Matamoros isn't interested; he believes we are living in the last days which the Bible foretells.
"To be involved in politics is wrong, because you can't change destiny," he said. "And why be afraid of destiny? The final winning is with Christianity."
Others strike a middle position between political-mindedness and apathy; they are interested in politics but seem to lack an ideological point of view. Robert McCrary, a retired Navy captain, met Christ while livin in Langley, Va., and working at the Pentagon. Now he is a full-time volunteer with an evangelical group aimed at high school students in Virginia Beach.
"What I would look for in a candidate," McCrary said, "would be a relationship to God and God's teaching. The world seems unable to believe that we don't feel we have to have this person's public statement on how he stands on this or that. All that we would need is to know that when he has to make a decision, he will seek the Lord's will."
One such leader, of course, is President Carter. "Sometimes it really hasn't been evident," McCrary says. "Maybe his advisers are overcoming part of it -- God in the Oval Office probably has a tough time making himself heard . . . If he is seeking God's will in the awesome decisions and responsibilities that he has, then that's great."
William Long, a Southern Baptist, knows the various divisions of the Christian community well. He has to; as proprietor of Long's Religious Supplies, he has been selling Bibles for 17 years to charismatics, pentecostals, fundamentalists, Baptists and Catholics. And he has concluded that "there is no Christian vote."
Long should know. Last year, he ran for the Virginia legislature on a Republican ticket that included a charismatic Southern Baptist minister and a "born-again" lawyer. None of the Christian candidates came close.
"This 'sleeping giant' they're talking about can be roused on moral issues," Long said. "But to be translated into a Republican or Democrat vote -- I don't ever see that happening."
Long lost his race even though he had the endorsement of G. Conoly Phillips, a charismatic Presbyterian and one-term Norfolk city councilman whose name has become synonymous with evangelical politics in Virginia.
With a lively awareness of how absurd it must sound, Phillips assures an interviewer that God himself woke him early on a November morning in 1977 and told him to run for the U.S. Senate as a Democrat. The obscure Lincoln-Mercury dealer began as a laughing stock, but he made believers out of many Virginia pols when he pulled enough strength around the state to get 327 delegates on the first convention ballot -- nearly half the number needed to win.
His campaign was masterminded by Pat Robertson, an old friend. Robertson made a nominating speech for Phillips at the Williamsburg convention and told party leaders he would raise $2 million for a Phillips campaign. But when Phillips fell short of the nomination, his supporters simply lost interest; many left the hall before the nomination was concluded. Phillips admits that neither he nor Robertson could have "delivered" those 327 votes to another candidate.
After the convention, the Phillips movement quickly faded. An "Evangelical Caucus" he set up disbanded after less than a year for lack of interest. But Phillips insists that he is a "forerunner" and that one day a candidate may be able to unite the entire "Body of Christ."
That's what the Lord would have to accomplish -- to get the leadership together," Phillips said. "If anyone were able to do it -- and of course the Holy Spirit would have to do it -- then that's the person who could take any candidate."
Phillips speculates that the candidate might be his telegenic mentor, Pat Robertson. (Robertson, the son of the late Sen. J. Willis Robertson, refused to be interviewed; a spokesman said he did not want to "talk about politics.")
But whoever tries it, assembling the leadership will be no easy task. Many church leaders oppose participation in politics (the local governing body of Phillips' Presbyterian denomination, for example, passed a resolution criticizing his campaign), and even those who don't mind mixing in politics often distrust or dislike each other.
"We are only strong as long as we are separated," said the Rev. Rodney Bell, pastor of Tabernacle Baptist Church in Virginia Beach. Tabernacle, a "fundamental Baptist" congregation, will not join the Southern Baptist Conference or any other ecclesiastical group.
The church has an organized political arm, the Concerned Citizens Association, headed by Carl Bieber, a savvy devotee of the "new Right" who doubles as principal of the church's Christian school. But Bieber and Bell say they would not want to put their political machine at the service of any coalition involving charismatics, Catholics, or even their estranged Southern Baptist cousins.
"There are some things we can cooperate on," Bell said. "We'd load up in buses with Rock Church to lobby against ERA. But we'll keep our independence."
Bieber and Bell are also more interested in the conservatism of a candidate's beliefs than in the state of his soul. John Connally, Bieber said, told a meeting of fundamentalist leaders that he hadn't read the Bible in years, but they still found his position on issues appealing. "We'd rather have a guy like that," Bieber said, "than a phony."
Make no mistake: To the fundamentalists, phonies abound, even among those whom the average person sees as very devout. "We feel there's a danger in shyster politicians who would use this vehicle," Bell said. "If you were to ask the pope if he'd been born again, he'd say yes. Jimmy Carter would say yes. Billy Graham would say yes. Pat Robertson would say yes. But I wonder if any of them have."
A very problematical part of any "Christian vote" would be the 13.4 million-member Southern Baptist convention, the largest part of the "sleeping giant." Most Southern Baptists hold a doctrinal belief in separation of church and state, and the huge denomination is a diverse one.
"I call the Southern Baptists the Catholic Church of the South," says historian Marty. "By Catholic I mean varied. There are not 13 million Southern Baptists ready to be mobilized."
The Rev. William Lumpkin, pastor of Norfolk's Freemason Street Baptist Church, echoes that assessment. "We are tolerant of rather wide differences of belief and outlook and liberal in the sense of social views -- class, race and social dogma. We'd fear the erection of some sort of political party on religious lines."
But though the Christian vote may not exist yet, there is still the question of what fruit the current political agitation may bear in five or 10 years. Lutheran historian Richard Neuhaus says that the Robertsons and Falwells of 1980 are "part of something very important in terms of a sociological trend called legitimization." In Neuhaus' view, the continued talk about political action is beginning to accustom many evangelicals to the idea that they are a potential voting bloc.
In Norfolk, those sentiments are echoed by the Rev. John Jordan, an Episcopal priest who has watched the growth of evangelical religion with a friendly but skeptical interest. Jordan, who is also a close observer of Virginia politics, believes that "born-again" politicians are positioning themselves for a serious run at high office.
"They haven't won a seat yet," he said. "But people are being drawn on board who weren't involved two years ago."