An article yesterday characterized followers of television evangelists Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson as "largely poor, uneducated and easy to command." There is no factual basis for that statement. (Published 2/2/93)
Politics from the pulpit may be the stock in trade for television evangelist Jerry Falwell, but it took the current controversy over homosexuals in the military to inspire his dial-a-lobby.
Warning darkly of a "new, radical homosexual rights agenda," Falwell urged viewers of "Old Time Gospel Hour" on Jan. 24 to dial a "900" number and add their names to a petition urging President Clinton not to lift the military gay ban.
Within hours, 24,000 people had called to support the petition.
That response demonstrated the power of the religious right to mobilize its masses for the kind of political action that shook official Washington and helped Clinton's opponents in Congress delay and dilute the president's plan to lift the prohibition. Telephone lines to Congress and the White House were swamped by calls running 100 to 1 against ending the ban in some offices.
Dial-a-lobby was one facet of an extraordinary communications network -- a gospel grapevine -- that fundamentalist leaders can tap to ignite a grass-roots firestorm as fast and forcefully as any special-interest group in U.S. politics.
With an electronic empire that comprises more than 1,200 radio stations, the nation's largest cable television network and hundreds of satellite and cable stations, these preachers reach directly into millions of homes with their potent blend of evangelical politics. Last week's appeals to lobby Washington were broadcast in hourly news and commentary programs, daily talk shows and interviews.
And the media were just the most visible part of a lobbying machine that spread "the word" through phone banks, electronic press release services, faxes and "Action Alerts" slipped into the bulletins of more than 25,000 churches nationwide.
The call to action was so comprehensive last week that it may have been possible at any moment for a fundamentalist follower to hear the same message in a telephone call or petition request from the Christian Voice, the "Point of View" show of USA Radio Network and the "Praise the Lord" program on Trinity Broadcast Network.
Even for members of Congress who recognized the orchestrated nature of the campaign, its size was a reminder of the religious right's voting power.
"From the standpoint of delivering votes, they're more influential than the bankers, more influential than the real estate industry and as powerful as any single labor union in America," said Rep. Jim Slattery (D-Kan.). "Their source of power is the ability to communicate with their followers, and the fact that in many parts of the country, they can generate a lot of phone calls and public interest."
Said Rep. Gerry E. Studds (D-Mass.): "I'm not aware of any group that has the capacity to instantaneously turn on that volume of calls and correspondence. It certainly can be intimidating, which is what it's designed to be."
The gospel lobby evolved with the explosion of satellite and cable television, hitting its national political peak in the presidential election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.
Unlike other powerful interests, it does not lavish campaign funds on candidates for Congress nor does it entertain them. The strength of fundamentalist leaders lies in their flocks. Corporations pay public relations firms millions of dollars to contrive the kind of grass-roots response that Falwell or Pat Robertson can galvanize in a televised sermon. Their followers are largely poor, uneducated and easy to command.
"The thing that makes them powerful is they're mobilizable," said Seymour Martin Lipset, professor of public policy at George Mason University. "You can activate them to vote, and that's particularly important in congressional primaries where the turnout is usually low."
Some studies put the number of evangelical Americans as high as 40 million, with the vast majority considered politically conservative.
As a voting bloc, they are most prominent in rural areas and parts of California. In national elections, the religious right has been less cohesive since Reagan left office. And with the abortion issue resolved more to their liking by the courts, the gospel lobby has receded somewhat as a national political force, exercising its influence mainly in local elections and national debates on morality.
The fervor with which the lobby joins such debates is its defining feature, said Stephan Winzenburg, a television evangelism specialist at Iowa's Grand View College.
"Their motivational factor is their moral agenda, their strong desire to see the moral fiber of this country stay intact," he said. "They see it as a spiritual battle. That's different from other pressure groups whose motivation is money."
Money may not be far from the minds of some evangelical leaders, however. Callers to Falwell's "900" number had to pay 90 cents for the first minute. Traditional Values Coalition (TVC), a California-based group led by the Rev. Lou Sheldon, used the gay ban as a fund-raising tool after the November election, appealing for "financial sacrifices to keep America's military straight and upright."
"They see this as the wedge issue that they're going to get money and members on," said David Crane of People for the American Way, who monitored Sheldon's and Falwell's appeals. "They lost communism, they lost abortion. Now gays are the issue."
Last week, the issue turned ripe enough to put the gospel grapevine into high gear. The 1,200 "Christian" radio stations -- National Religious Broadcasters say they represent at least a tenth of the nation's total -- devoted hours to the issue on such talk shows as "Focus on the Family," with its more than 1 million listeners; the "religious minute" of news; and "Beverly LaHaye Live," a popular call-in program aligned with a women's group whose "kitchen table" lobby specializes in letters to Congress and newspaper editors.
Fundamentalist leaders without a regular media outlet scurried to circulate their message on "Christian specific" news and commentary shows. Christian Action Network (CAN) can offer comment to more than 200 radio stations and publications simultaneously by electronic press releases. CAN's Martin Mawyer was interviewed 25 times in three days, mostly by religious shows.
Christian Voice, an Alexandria-based lobbying organization, fielded a phone bank that called 100,000 members with a request to contact their House members and senators.
Sheldon's organization drafted an "Action Alert" for insertion yesterday in the bulletins of the 25,000 TVC-affiliated churches. The statement said that lifting the gay ban would open a "Pandora's Box of questions," including what to do about showers and barracks, dependent benefits and housing for homosexual couples, and teaching at military base schools.
"Many in Congress are uneasy about admitting homosexuals to the military," said the alert. "It is imperative they hear from you immediately as Congress will soon be asked to vote on this issue."