Right Hand of God

Two Texas leaders of the extreme Religious Right get ready to flex their political muscle

But the real answer is a bit more complicated, because not only does Ford run one political action committee--Heritage Alliance, once known as FreePAC--but he's also behind two other organizations that spread his message well beyond the statehouse. Ford also is the founder of the Free Market Foundation, a family-first organization that gathers its members for regular anti-abortion rallies and uses its Web site to demand politicians pass legislation that defines marriage as "between only a man and a woman." And Free Market Foundation has a powerful legal arm: the Liberty Legal Institute, which gets involved in cases involving issues of "religious freedom," which usually involve the government trying to keep prayer out of public schools or religious icons off government property. Kelly Shackelford, handpicked by Ford to run his operations when Ford decided in the late 1990s to focus on politics exclusively, heads both Free Market Foundation and Liberty Legal Institute.

That makes Ford and Shackelford a powerful Texas twosome, since their activities spread all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where Shackelford will argue next month in favor of keeping a granite monument featuring the Ten Commandments on the grounds of the Capitol in Austin. And within months, if not weeks, Heritage Alliance will become what Ford calls a grassroots organization focused on galvanizing the newly powerful electorate that believes the soul of this country is at stake and that the legislation of faith is the only thing that will save it.

The Religious Right "believes God is clearly a Republican, and that just isn't true," says evangelical Christian Jim Wallis, author of God's Politics: Why the Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It. "But they are comfortable with the language and the territory. They claim it as their own, claim to own it and, I think, even to own God. And they narrow all of their concerns to one or two hot-button social issues--gay marriage, abortion. This is just biblically ridiculous and theologically idolatrous. When people use religion and values as wrenches and weapons to divide us, they are using faith wrongly."

Former Lieutenant Governor Bill Ratliff was targeted by 
what he calls right-wing “political pornography.”
Former Lieutenant Governor Bill Ratliff was targeted by what he calls right-wing “political pornography.”

To their detractors, and they are legion around Austin, Ford and Shackelford are considered intolerant at best, extremist at worst. On his Web log, one University of Texas law professor is fond of calling them and their ilk members of the "Texas Taliban," a name coined by Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman to describe state legislators and groups that fought to keep Texas' anti-sodomy laws on the books.

"When the light is shown on them, people rebel against them," says Kathy Miller, president of Texas Freedom Network, an Austin-based organization that bills itself as "a mainstream voice" that counters the Religious Right. "Texans were offended by the fliers. Jeff Wentworth won re-election because of FreePAC's efforts to smear him. Ford and Shackelford are more successful under the radar. The folks elected because of the money behind their extreme agenda will let others know that if they stray out of line, they will pay the price."

But to their supporters, Free Market and Heritage are the today and tomorrow of politics in the state and country.

"Different lives have been awakened and energized," Ford says. "And they're out there multiplying now, and we don't even have any idea how they're multiplying. They're running for office; they're organizing. This is a nation based upon Judeo-Christian values. So it's just returning to where it was. I've forgotten who said it, but somebody said, 'The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.' We're just a generation away from total collapse at any given time."

Richard Ford refuses to meet in person for an interview. At first, he even refused to give an interview. He insisted there wasn't anything to talk about--not yet, anyway. Maybe in a few months, but not now. And then, Ford changed his mind and agreed to talk. For a man who wants no publicity and who has usually managed to stay out of the spotlight, he has plenty to say.

Perhaps Ford wants to talk because he no longer wants to be misunderstood, to be seen as some homophobic zealot using smears and scares to make his point. Or perhaps he wants to talk in order to let people know he's out there, waiting for them to join his holy crusade.

The numbers can be interpreted however you see fit. You can believe 42 percent of all Americans consider themselves to be born again, figures cited by one Gallup Poll, or you can believe a majority in this country support a woman's right to choose whether to have an abortion. You can believe the re-election of George W. Bush was because of a swell of God-fearing Christians voting their morality, or you can believe John Kerry lost simply because he was an amorphous bore without a clear message. One thing is certain, however: Not since the birth of the Moral Majority in 1979 and the election of Ronald Reagan a year later has there been so much open talk of Christianity seeping into the government. The headline of a recent Time magazine story sums up the discussion: "What does Bush owe the Religious Right?" As far as they're concerned, everything, which means he had better get to work appointing judges who will outlaw abortions and forever criminalize same-sex marriage. His election, the Religious Right believes, staved off the "attempt to secularize our society," as Shackelford puts it. "But our liberties come from God, and nobody can take them away from us."

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