Right Hand of God

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

"This congressman asked me if I would help him, and I said, 'I don't know much about politics, but I like what you are doing with trying to inform and involve Christians,'" Ford recalls. But he eventually told Conlan he didn't just want to raise money and send it to Washington. Ford said he and his wife could perhaps better serve the cause by spreading the foundation's gospel in Texas. "I thought, 'You know, I feel like I'm supposed to start educating people.'"

But by the end of 1976 Ford decided he needed to go back to work again; God, after all, doesn't pay all the bills. So he found a way to continue spreading the word and collecting a paycheck for it: In his new role as consultant, he would approach CEOs at large corporations and teach them how to set up their own political action committees. Ford would go to, say, Dr Pepper and Southland Corp. and get them to set up "responsible-citizen" programs that would educate their employees about their legislators. Ford insists there was nothing religious about their efforts and that they were meant merely to inform the uninformed about the political process. In 1978 Richard and Julie also began publishing voter guides, with information about where politicians stood on key issues, including abortion and national defense.

In the early 1980s Ford began going to Washington, D.C., with various CEOs and major donors and investors to meet with senators and congressmen who shared their conservative values. There was, Ford claims, no talk of Christ, no quoting of Scripture, only political chitchat about pertinent issues. The meetings would begin with a prayer, Ford recalls, but it was a "lifestyle decision," not a prelude to discussions about attacks on their moral values. "After all," Ford says, "back then it wasn't really an issue. It was more about economics, national defense, because you didn't have homosexual marriage as an issue."

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

But in 1981 Ford was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and, ultimately, confined to a wheelchair. Though his consulting business had grown considerably, expanding as far as Mississippi and Massachusetts, he turned his attention solely toward raising money for what had become Free Market Committee and its sister organizations Free Market Foundation and Free Market PAC, which allowed Ford to begin addressing the social issues that mattered to him as much as fiscal ones.

"Social issues have always been a major concern for me, but I just didn't preach them," Ford says. "I realized that when we find conservatives on either side, typically they're going to be conservative on the other side. So a limited-government, free-enterprise person, they may not be well-informed on, say, the pro-life or the homosexual issues or whatever, but they innately move in that direction."

His first major act as head of Free Market Committee, the lobbying and legislative arm of Ford's organizations, was to go to Austin to recruit conservative legislators for what would become the initial board of the Texas Conservative Coalition, a bipartisan group that now numbers some 80 lawmakers--including Jeff Wentworth. At the same time, Ford set up a grassroots coalition of "pro-family" conservatives.

During the mid-1980s Free Market Committee would score a number of successes: Ford and his members got homeschooled children excluded from a bill that called for fining parents $100 a day for every day their kid wasn't in a classroom. After Carol Everett, a fired Dallas abortion-clinic worker who became an anti-abortion spokeswoman, approached Ford about the allegedly horrible conditions in her clinic, he persuaded Democratic Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock to call for licensing of clinics in 1985. And Ford and Free Market Committee were among those who persuaded Bullock to rescind his call for a state income tax in 1991; the group took out three full-page ads in Texas newspapers, calling for an amendment that would allow voters to decide on a state tax, knowing Texans would never do any such thing.

"The most memorable conversation I had with [Bullock] went as follows," Ford says. "I mentioned to him, 'It seems like you have a real interest in spiritual things,' and he said yes. I asked, 'If you were to die tonight and God should ask you why he should let you into heaven, how would you answer him?' In his trademark candor, he answered, 'I have no idea.' I explained that the Bible says God is holy and just and the criteria to get into heaven is perfection. And I asked him, 'Have you lived a perfect life?' His answer was 'Are you kidding me?' I continued that the Bible also says God is perfect love, and he wants us to join him in heaven so badly that he had his son, Jesus, who lived a perfect life, pay the penalty for our mistakes. All we have to do is believe that Jesus paid our debts and accept the gift of his payment. Bullock got tears in his eyes and said, 'That's what I was taught when I was a child. That's what I believe.' We prayed together, and he gave me a big hug."

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