By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Jeff Wentworth, a five-term Republican state senator from San Antonio, is the kind of politician the Religious Right should love. After all, two years ago he wrote legislation that would make gay marriage illegal in Texas. His version of the Defense of Marriage Act passed the Senate in 2003 and was signed into law by Governor Rick Perry, barring the recognition of same-sex marriages and civil unions performed outside the state.
Two years earlier, Wentworth also did the right's thing by voting against the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Bill because it encompassed not only race, religion and ethnicity but also sexual orientation. At the time, Wentworth issued a news release explaining his "no" vote was a reflection of his constituents' concerns and fretted that the bill would create "special Americans," insisting that "hate-crime laws may actually increase prejudice rather than foster tolerance and understanding." All victims of crime should be treated equally, he argued, but the bill eventually passed and was signed by Perry.
So imagine Wentworth's surprise when he discovered in March 2002 that a Dallas-based right-wing Christian group was portraying him as "extremely liberal" because he'd voted for the hate-crimes legislation and was a supporter of gay rights. Mailers sent out to voters in San Antonio and south Austin featured one man kissing another on the cheek and two other guys in tuxedos cutting a wedding cake, with text insisting that Wentworth had voted to repeal Texas' 115-year-old law banning sodomy, thus "clearing the way for legalized homosexual marriages in Texas."
This was news to Wentworth.
He was not the only Republican targeted by what was then known as Free Enterprise Political Action Committee, which spent a small fortune during the 2002 elections in an effort to oust Republicans who weren't conservative enough for the PAC's leaders or its contributors. Also on its "get" list: then-Lieutenant Governor Bill Ratliff; Kip Averitt, a 10-year veteran of the Texas House running for his first term in the state Senate; Representative Brian McCall, a Plano Republican; and at least two other state legislators. All the mailers looked alike, save for the one attacking Ratliff, which also had a picture of a shirtless man in leather bondage gear. FreePAC, as it was known, tarred all of these Republicans with the same brush: "radical," "liberal," pushers of a "homosexual agenda," supporters of assisted-suicide doctor Jack Kevorkian. And not a word of it was true.
On March 6, 2002, Ratliff held a news conference in Austin denouncing the mailers as "unconscionable attacks being waged by" FreePAC, which was and is headed by Dallas' Richard Ford. The mailings, Ratliff said, "should embarrass and disgust even the most jaundiced political operatives." Ratliff likened FreePAC's mailings to "hate-mongering activities" practiced by the Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan and Al-Qaeda, and he called on Dallas Morning Newscolumnist Bill Murchison, a financial contributor to FreePAC, to condemn the mailings in the newspaper, which he never did.
"It wasn't any fun, but it didn't really bother me," says Ratliff, who now runs a private consulting business in Austin. "It disgusted me for the public to see that kind of political pornography." Wentworth, too, was appalled--still is, actually, even though he won re-election, as did all of the candidates Ford and FreePAC went after in 2002.
"Here's a guy who co-authored the bill to outlaw gay marriages," Wentworth says, referring to himself, "yet they put two men in tuxedos cutting a wedding cake on a mailer and said, 'This is the kind of stuff this guy will do.' It was the absolute reverse of my actual record, but they didn't care. Facts never get in Richard's way." In fact, the real reason Ford went after Wentworth is because the senator is in favor of a woman's right to choose; among his Republican colleagues, he's one of the few who believe abortion should remain legal.
But if Ford had it to do all over again, he would. As far as he was concerned, the mailers did their job--even if they didn't oust a single man at which they were aimed and, in fact, might have so outraged and repulsed voters they had the opposite effect. (Wentworth and Ratliff are convinced they won by landslides in their races because of the mailers' "boomerang effect," Ratliff says.)
"I think we were probably a little ahead of the curve," Ford says now. "Quite frankly, if we had it to do over again, I would try to do it a little more tastefully, because I think it would have been more effective, but the message, I think, was correct. And I'm also pleased to see that Bill Ratliff is no longer in the Senate." That's because Ratliff, the sole Republican to oppose his party's efforts to redistrict the state heavily in favor of the GOP, retired in January 2004.
No matter. Ford finally got his wish. One down, so many more to go.
But just who is Richard Ford, and how can a man few in Texas know about make so many elected officials so angry?
The simple answer is that Ford is a well-connected political fund-raiser who has spent the last 20 years dipping into the stuffed wallets of some of Texas' wealthiest folks to fund his various Religious Right organizations. Ford, who was there for the birth of the New Christian Right movement in the early 1970s, is just one of hundreds around the state and country who wake up every morning hoping to cleanse capitol buildings of liberals, activists, radicals and even moderate Republicans who would condone same-sex marriages, keep abortion legal, have evolution taught in classrooms, vote against school vouchers and generally infect the law with their secular beliefs.
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."
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 Globecolumnist 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."
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 Timemagazine 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."
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.
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 Sojournersran 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 Sojournersand 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."
Sojournersand Spiritual Warfarereported 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.
"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."
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."
Bullock died in 1999.
At the time, Shackelford was in his late 20s but already a rising star among the legal right: In 1988 the Nashville native graduated from Baylor Law School with the highest GPA in his class, clerked that year for U.S. District Judge Sidney Fitzwater, then worked as a regional coordinator for the Virginia-based Rutherford Institute, once described by The New York Timesas "a kind of evangelical Christian civil liberties union." Shackelford could have had his pick of high-paying jobs in the business world, yet he chose instead to work for Rutherford.
"I went to law school because I felt like I had gifts, but I wanted to use them somehow in ministry," he says now, sitting in the modest Plano offices that house both Free Market Foundation and Liberty Legal Institute. "So, I literally remember sitting in my office thinking, I don't want to work for the big law firm and make a lot of money, so what do I want to do? I'm clearly supposed to use my legal skills and gifts, because the Lord showed me in law school that those were gifts and I need to not hide them somewhere; I need to use them. But I want to use them somehow in ministry. I want to be able to help churches and pastors. That was my real heart. I laughed, because there was no such job that existed anywhere in the country. Then about a month later, I was offered that very job."
Rutherford was founded in 1982 by attorney John Whitehead, who believed that the judicial system had but one true judge--God himself. Whitehead is among the most vocal abortion opponents around, calling for nonstop picketing of abortion clinics and the "harassment" of doctors who perform the procedures. The year he formed Rutherford he also published The Second American Revolution, considered one of the key events in the foundation of the New Christian Right. "Getting involved in local politics will eventually mean Christians running for office," he said at the time. "This will include attending and eventually taking control of party conventions where grassroots decisions are made." Whitehead was, clearly, a man ahead of his time.
And Shackelford was thrilled to be involved with his institution. Shackelford's task was to recruit other attorneys across the country who would aid in cases involving "religious freedom and family," as he describes it--meaning cases involving the display of religious artifacts and literature on government property, defending teachers or children who want to pray in public schools and, in one instance, defending a man who distributed anti-abortion literature.
They're all cases, Shackelford insists, in which "the government is trying to tell someone what they could or could not do regarding their faith, or trying to tell a parent how to raise their child or what school to put their child in or anything where the government was interfering with the God-given rights of parents over their children or God-given rights of any citizen to worship God in any way they see fit."
In 1997 Ford decided it was time to finally "battle politically 'behind the scenes,'" as he wrote in Free Market Foundation's "scrapbook," published two years later. He was gathering his powerful donors, among them James Lightner of Dallas, a generous financial supporter of former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke; Wal-Mart heir John Walton; oilman Albert Huddleston, also a contributor to Beth Ann Blackwood's strong-mayor campaign; chicken man Lonnie "Bo" Pilgrim; Nelson Bunker Hunt; toxic-dump impresario and strong-mayor supporter Harold Simmons; Interstate Batteries chairman Norm Miller and others who were anything but conservative when it came to spending on Free Enterprise PAC in the late 1990s through the 2002 elections. In fact, by 2000 FreePAC was the state's 20th-largest political action committee, spending some $550,000 during the election cycle--an amount it would double in 2002.
When Ford decided to turn his attention to Austin, he and the board went looking for a leader who would keep working to protect "freedoms and families," as Shackelford puts it. Ford remembered Shackelford and put him in charge of Free Market Foundation--and it was, to put it mildly, quite the blessing for the organization. Shackelford not only founded Liberty Legal Institute but became a decidedly public spokesman for a previously private endeavor, appearing not only on Christian TV shows but also ABC News, MSNBC and other mainstream programs.
And Shackelford got involved in several high-profile cases: Doe v. Santa Fe ISD, in which a federal court ruled that students couldn't pray before high school football games; Planned Parenthood v. Texas Department of Health, siding with the Texas Legislature's creation of a law requiring parental consent before state funds could be used to buy prescription drugs for minors, including contraceptives; and Planned Parenthood v. Eduardo J. Sanchez, in which Liberty Legal filed an amicus brief in support of the Texas law that prohibits federal and state funds to be used for abortions.
Late last year, Shackelford fought for the rights of Plano ISD students to hand out Christian pamphlets during winter-break parties. Liberty Legal is also representing former Texas Tech University student Micah Spradling, whose biology professor, Michael Dini, wouldn't give him a recommendation because Spradling believes in creationism, not evolution.
Shackelford compares it to an act of racism. The incident has received a fair amount of national attention, prompting Ellen Goodman of the Globeto take Dini's side. Rather than engaging in discrimination, she wrote in February 2003, "It's like refusing to recognize someone who doesn't believe in gravity for a Ph.D. program in physics."
Liberty Legal is also involved in Van Orden v. Perry, in which an Austin resident filed suit against the state to have the Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of the Capitol removed. The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear the latter case on March 3, and Shackelford will be there to offer his legal opinion that "our Constitution has never supported censoring the religious history and heritage of our country."
As Free Market Foundation president, he's also supporting an amendment to the Texas Constitution that would ban same-sex marriages. Though the Defense of Marriage Act is already in place, Shackelford worries that "activist judges" will deem it unconstitutional.
"Marriage is the fundamental building block of any society," Shackelford says. "If you erode that institution, you will erode--ultimately, I think, destroy--your society...These are things that are not sort of peripheral issues. They are the institution of marriage that was the first institution created by God. When you start tinkering with that, you're asking for trouble."
"There is a long-standing fear in that community that they will be sold out," says Harvey Kronberg, editor of the political online newsletter Quorum Report, who has covered the state Legislature for two decades and has known Ford for years. "As much as they loved Ronald Reagan, they feel he used social conservatives to get elected and turned out to be more interested in defense and the economy. Every organism tries to stay alive. That plays on the conservative paranoia, that they're going to be abandoned...The Republican Party plays the victim, as if they're still in the minority, and it rings hollow."
FreePAC no longer exists. It has been replaced by Heritage Alliance, which Ford says has yet to plant its first real seeds. The last two years, he says, have been spent "retooling" the organization, and there is a new Web site, a board of holdovers from FreePAC and a bank account with some $107,000 gathering interest, according to records maintained by the Texas Ethics Commission. Ford says the smear-mailer incident of 2002 garnered FreePAC so much support that it no longer needed to actively pursue donors.
"Actually, I had donors call at that point and say they wanted to give us more money," he says. "So that's why we had money to live on. But I've been restructuring and thinking, 'How can we educate more people?'"
Some aren't so sure: Wentworth and Ratliff claim that two of Ford's major donors called to apologize when they saw where their money had gone and vowed to withdraw their support; one even gave Wentworth the same amount he'd donated to FreePAC. Wentworth and Kronberg say Ford has become a non-entity in Austin since 2002; they believe he's retreated but will not stay gone, not when his people are in power.
"There is some danger in everyone capitulating that the '04 elections were the elections of moral values," Kathy Miller says. "They can embolden elected leaders to push a much more extreme agenda than they have in the past. It is also dangerous because it emboldens these groups to do more grassroots message dissemination. Groups like FreePAC and Liberty Legal and Free Market like nothing better than this conversation about how they own moral values. It is an emboldened group, particularly in Texas. They see lawsuits as an effective strategy partly because they found more acceptance in the courts, and as more and more leaders are elected in the various branches of government receptive to their arguments, they will develop new strategies to promote their agenda."
Miller's complaints are fine with Ford and Shackelford.
"I figure if people don't like you or hate you, then you probably haven't said anything of value," Shackelford says. "A lot of people hated Jesus, too. The truth divides. It always has; it always will."