Right Hand of God

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

Once, a long time ago, Ford felt alone in his beliefs. He was born 61 years ago in El Paso, the son of parents who were leaders in their church, Trinity Methodist. But he did not truly find religion, or it did not find him, till years later, in the mid-1960s, just after Ford graduated from the University of Texas at Austin and moved to Dallas to work in the insurance business. He had been active in Campus Crusade for Christ, founded in 1951 by then-theological student Bill Bright and funded with millions provided by Dallas oilman Nelson Bunker Hunt, but had fallen off the wagon after moving to Dallas in 1966. Just how, Ford doesn't say.

"I had actually grown up thinking the way that you became a Christian was that you worked hard, and if your good deeds outweighed your bad deeds and you believed in Jesus, et cetera, that you were a Christian," he says. "But after I got to Dallas and started a career, I realized that I wasn't such a good guy after all. I just realized, frankly, I didn't think I was living the life I ought to be living, and I was going to get rid of all of it 'cause I didn't want to be a hypocrite...I'm not gonna say that I have lived a perfect life or anywhere near that since then, but I have been trying as an active appreciation to live it."

In 1967 Ford married, and for the next decade he sold insurance and then real estate, but by the mid-1970s, the real estate boom faltered. His source of income dried up, and Ford sought solace in religion. Perhaps bad business was a sign he was meant to do something else--just what, though, he had no idea. So he sought the counsel of Bill Bright, whose Campus Crusade for Christ by then had become a national phenomenon--proof of which came in 1972, when more than 80,000 faithful folks poured into a soggy Cotton Bowl for EXPLO '72, a five-days-and-five-nights music-and-prayer event often referred to as "Religious Woodstock." Ford was in charge of arranging security and cleanup for the event--"and there wasn't anything to clean up, because everybody threw their trash out as they filed out," Ford recalls.

Kelly Shackelford's Liberty Legal Institute tackles cases of government intrusion into religious expression.
Mark Graham
Kelly Shackelford's Liberty Legal Institute tackles cases of government intrusion into religious expression.
Top: Richard Ford, bottom right, and the board of Heritage Alliance; bottom: Ford at El Paso High School, where he was in ROTC and the choir
Top: Richard Ford, bottom right, and the board of Heritage Alliance; bottom: Ford at El Paso High School, where he was in ROTC and the choir

Three years later, with the real estate biz busting all around him, Ford went to Bright's headquarters in California and sought a private meeting. Ford needed guidance; he had his faith, his wife, his kids and enough money stashed away from selling real estate, but he didn't know what he was going to do with his life. Back then, Christians who believed their beloved country was being led astray by heathen Democrats considered themselves in the minority. In the mid-1970s, Ford likes to say, "a dozen Christians getting together was a giant rally."

"I said, 'Dr. Bright, it seems to me the government has a major role to play in this upheaval we're going through,'" Ford recalls. "It sounds like a very elementary statement there, but that's all the mileage I had at the time. I was talking about the economy, because we'd had a boom and then we had a bust, and I realized some of the problems we'd had, as far as inflation and overspending and things, the government plays a major role there, too."

A week later, Congressman John Conlan of Arizona called Ford at Bright's request and had Ford meet him at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. Conlan and Bright were old pals: In 1976 the socially progressive evangelical magazine Sojourners ran a piece titled "The Plan to Save America," tracing the rise of the New Christian Right to the 1974 creation of Third Century Publishers, which was founded by Bright and Conlan, among others, and published books and study guides linking conservative politics with born-again Christianity. As recounted in Sojourners and later Sara Diamond's book Spiritual Warfare: The Politics of the Religious Right, Third Century's early publications "were directed at manipulating Christians to accept political action as part of Christian thought," but in 1975 Conlan and Bright decided Third Century's strategy was "to gradually take positions of leadership with the government."

Sojourners and Spiritual Warfare reported that both men "realized they needed a tax-exempt foundation that could receive donations for the work of the for-profit Third Century" and eventually took control of the Christian Freedom Foundation, which began in the 1950s to promote conservative economics but was struggling to stay afloat by the mid-1970s. The Christian Freedom Foundation eventually would become the nonprofit, tax-exempt administrative arm of Conlan and Bright's efforts to elect Christians to public office.

Shortly after its formation in the middle of 1975, Ford became a volunteer for Christian Freedom Foundation and worked with the organization for about 18 months as the group's Texas chairman. Ford and his wife, Julie, who had set up a nonprofit organization called Foundation for an Informed Electorate, took their two young daughters across the state to raise money and recruit young Christians to get involved in politics. The presentation, consisting of a slide show and a handful of booklets with such titles as One Nation Under God, was a mixture of patriotism and religion, with quotes from Billy Graham included in the slide show.

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