White Like Me
While I sat through a four-hour, Friday-night meeting of the Christian Coalition earlier this month, I searched hard for the sinister folks who have infiltrated Texas' Republican Party.
I scanned the fellowship hall of Northwest Bible Church, eyeing the faces in each row of those $20 padded "stacker" chairs that fill every evangelical church in the universe.
I searched for twitchy bigots and beady-eyed demagogues, but saw nothing that frightened me--just average people, equal numbers of men and women, learning, for the first time in most cases, how to involve themselves at the precinct level in the party of their choice, which, as the whole world knows by now, is usually the Republican Party.
The speaker, Paul Powell, a skinny, sharp-witted guy in a gray suit and Mickey Mouse tie, insisted to his audience that the Christian Coalition is nonpartisan and isn't backing any individual candidates. No matter that all around us were guys with Buchanan bumper stickers--and every time the subject of Bob Dole came up, people could barely disguise their disdain for that "wishy-washy" Washington lifer.
Powell stuck plainly to his message: Get involved; and if you're going to get involved in American politics, you have a choice of two flavors--Republican or Democrat. "We're here because our culture is falling apart," Powell said at the beginning of the March 1 meeting. "I'm here because I'm after power. We want to take [our] values and help our culture to be more healthy. We're after some influence."
The people murmured their assent, then strained their eyes at an overhead projector while Powell dissected the process of choosing party delegates.
Young and old, prosperous and just-barely-hanging-in-there middle-class, these people took notes and followed the flow chart in their precinct organization handbooks. I began to understand why this Christian Coalition, with its 1.6 million contributing members--an unprecedented alliance of conservative Protestants and Catholics--may very well become the most important democratic movement of this decade.
While many Americans stand idly by making fun of their Congress and reviling their president, the Christian Coalition is moving into the empty space left by apathy. Who can fault them for that?
Talking to some during meeting breaks, I found, as I had suspected, that many had been politicized by a single issue: abortion. Once they had gotten involved in the Coalition, they had broadened their perspective to encompass many other national issues--economic and foreign-policy concerns, as well as moral matters.
That can only be a good thing, I thought. The process of getting involved in the public-policy arena seems to exert a moderating force of its own. So why is it, then, that the Christian Coalition gives so many people the heebie-jeebies?
I looked around again, and neither saw nor heard anything that would frighten me even slightly. There was nothing resembling the presumptuous, pious contempt for the unwashed that seemed to characterize the Moral Majority, the Coalition's political predecessor. (Coalition members are urged at all times to be courteous to their opponents because each is a "witness of Jesus Christ.")
Yet there was something disturbing about this meeting of the Dallas County Christian Coalition. Surveying the room, I saw that all but a half-dozen of the 275 people present were white--in a city that is more than half-minority.
That observation stuck with me. Surely, Ithought, not all of the theologically conservative Christians in this town are white.
Hispanic Christians, for example, must be the most pro-life human beings on earth--the Christian Coalition's natural allies, it would seem--and black evangelicals are, issue for issue, some of the toughest gut conservatives in America. Whew--you ought to hear them talk among themselves about welfare and crime.
So where were they?
As the meeting dragged on--good heavens, these folks must develop their stamina at Pentecostal camp meetings--my mind began to drift, way back, to a strange incident in my childhood.
Call it a parable of sorts. One Sunday morning many years ago, in a small Wisconsin town, my mother, my sister, and I were driving to church, when Mom told us that one day--perhaps today--she was going to climb atop the church pew and scream at the top of her lungs.
I was horrified.
Just an idle threat, you presume. But no. I knew my Mom. I knew she just might do it.
It would have been an all-purpose primal scream--nothing to do with getting the Holy Ghost--a simple cry of frustration, the sound of intellectual meltdown, of a mind bearing an unbearable burden.
You see, it's tough being an evangelical Christian. There was the preacher, running through his repertoire of spiritual platitudes: "Let go and let God"; "Trust and obey, for there's no other way." There was the preacher's wife, with her big hair and brittle smile.
Sometimes you ask yourself, is this what it means to follow Jesus Christ?
Being an evangelical--a seeming anachronism in a post-modern age--means embodying many contradictions, containing within yourself many ambivalent thoughts. You are in the world, not of it--struggling to reconcile private beliefs with a public demand for complicity, conformity, and conventionality.
It all kind of gets to you sometimes. It's a wonder we don't explode from the strain.
Anyway, my older sister and I, we talked this over between ourselves once we got to church. What would we do if Mom really did it? How would we respond to this utter collapse of Midwestern decorum? This was definitely gonna knock a chip or two off the square heads of the good Dutch folk at our church who already suspected my mother wasn't quite kosher (in the evangelical sense). I mean, she got kicked out of one church we'd attended for wearing a miniskirt; and she still laughed wickedly about the time our old minister preached an entire sermon on whether Jesus drank wine or Welch's grape juice.
Being the more imaginative sister, I got a frightening picture in my head: Mom perched on top of the pew, flailing her arms, her high-pitched scream curling around the sanctuary of Grace Reformed Church.
The irony was that, on a given Sunday, that is where my mother chose to be: in church, identified with the faithful.
My sister and I considered our options, and made a decision. If Mom would choose to so embarrass us, we would--we agreed--simply sit there and pretend it wasn't happening, arms folded, shoulders hunched, eyes fixed to an imaginary point somewhere behind the altar.
It seemed like a reasonably satisfactory solution to a 12-year-old.
Fortunately, we never had to use it.
He who has ears, let him hear.
My mind snapped back to the present. I watched a mock precinct convention of the "Republicrat" party, whose members passed a model pro-life resolution drafted by the Christian Coalition.
Later, Paul Powell talked about the Christian Coalition's strategy for the Republican National Convention. The Coalition's delegates would apply their strength to ensure that Bob Dole, whom they presume will be the nominee, selects an uncompromisingly pro-life running mate. Coalition members are especially disturbed by Dole's efforts to court retired Gen. Colin Powell, who is pro-choice.
Toward the end of the meeting, Sylvia Hellman--along with her husband Doug, co-chairman of the Dallas County Christian Coalition--made a pitch for the Coalition's simple, one-page "Pro-Family Voter's Guide," produced in conjunction with several other conservative Christian groups. The guide documents the major Republican presidential candidates' views on the issues dearest to conservative, white Christians: abortion, parental rights, gays in the military, and increased tax exemptions for dependent children, among other concerns.
Afterward, Hellman directed us to a table where she'd set down a pile of her and her husband's own recommendations for the primary.
"The following candidates that we endorse are men and women of integrity, whom we believe to be the most qualified individuals to fulfill the position which they seek," the Hellmans' recommendation letter read. "Moral issues, character, education, experience, dedication to the law, and intellectual ability were all considered."
At the top of the list was Pat Buchanan.
While those who had lasted this far into the meeting (four hours) began to break up, reorganizing in different parts of the room according to their state senatorial districts, I followed the tracks of my mental wanderings, considering how I got from there to here.
I thought about that Sunday morning a long time ago, and I realized that how my mother felt is kind of how I feel about the Christian Coalition--all these strange, mixed-up emotions.
Yet we have an affinity, the Christian Coalition and me. I grew up in the church with folks just like these--mumbled through the same hymns, ate the same vanilla cupcakes at Vacation Bible School, wore the same black patent-leather shoes, white tights, and red-ribboned hat on Easter Sunday.
We are kin. Our pots mingled with their pans at a thousand church potlucks. We got dunked in the same basement baptismal. We muddled through the same Christmas programs. I played a bleating sheep--because I was too shy for a speaking role, and couldn't much sing.
Today I am still a member of the evangelical flock. Nothing is more important to me than my faith in Jesus Christ. I guess I'm a bit of an anomaly, though, since I have belonged for the past six years to a Pentecostal church whose members predominantly are black.
That has forced me to broaden my perspective and to raise my voice above a bleat. Being a follower of Christ is my essential identity. Yet I no longer equate being a Christian with being white, middle-class, and Republican.
So I asked myself that night, "Is this the Christian Coalition? A bunch of white people in high-water khakis and flower-print maternity dresses?"
I think I'm gonna scream.
A week later, Doug Hellman made time in an extraordinarily busy day to talk about how he got involved in the Christian Coalition. He was extraordinarily busy because all day he was at the office--a small market-research company he owns in Farmers Branch--taking calls from Coalition members and entertaining reporters from as far away as France. At night he works in the area headquarters of Pat Buchanan for President.
"You see a lot of those same people at the Buchanan camp," Hellman said. "There are some Christian Coalition members who are still supporting Alan Keyes, still hanging on--When's he gonna give up?--but I think it's a correct assessment that most of them are Buchanan supporters. Buchanan and our views are pretty closely aligned."
Unlike the majority of evangelical Christians I've interviewed over the years, Doug Hellman is not paranoid about the media, nor is he inordinately concerned with projecting a spotless, saintly image. He speaks his mind, and speaks plainly. It is refreshing.
"I never turn down an interview," he said. "If I'm radical or extremist, I don't see it. I think people need to see us for what we are. I think pretty...Middle America--people who believe in hard work, the values that made this country great; somebody who's not ashamed to cry when they salute the flag or play the national anthem. We have feelings that are pretty basic."
Some 10 years ago, Hellman dragged himself to the polls only because he deemed it his patriotic duty to vote. He recalls staring at the ballot and wondering, "Who the heck are these people?"
Then in the late 1980s, a speaker came to Hellman's Carrollton church, urging Christians to get involved in the "public policy arena." His message hit home with Doug and Sylvia Hellman, causing them to examine their apathy--and its consequences. "Did we do anything when they legalized abortion?" Hellman asks today. "And where were my parents when they took prayer out of the public schools? We were in the background someplace. We didn't even know anything was happening."
Soon afterward--following evangelist Pat Robertson's failed campaign for the presidency in 1988--the Hellmans found a way to ally themselves politically with other evangelicals. Robertson used his mailing list to launch the Christian Coalition, a nonpartisan, grass-roots organization designed to get conservative Christians involved in politics in a methodical and meaningful way. "Giving Christians a voice in their government again," reads the slogan on the Coalition's information packet for pastors.
Hellman believes the Christian Coalition represents what is best about America. "I hope we do," he said. "Some of us are jerks, I'm sure, but I would hope that we are more of what you would call salt of the earth--what you found in people maybe 40 to 50 years ago, with those kinds of values. The family unit is important, sitting down and having meals together, going to church together. Working for your family is important."
Many of the Clinton administration's policies, and even those of moderate Republicans, have eroded the strength of the family, and the strength of America as a nation, Hellman said--welfare policies that encourage young women not to marry or work, for example, or educational policies that slow down the assimilation of non-English-speaking immigrants.
"I would like to see welfare almost abolished," Hellman said, "except maybe in the case of extreme, temporary difficulties, but this idea of just supporting somebody for a lifetime on welfare--that's not what it's supposed to do.
"And the Bible does say--I just read it this morning--'You will have the poor among you always.' I'm not saying we shouldn't be compassionate. That's the thing with the liberals. They have this idea that we can create a utopia with no wars, no poverty, no crime--and that we won't see until the Lord Jesus comes back."
As a member of the Carrollton-Farmers Branch school board, Hellman said, he has seen firsthand how programs designed to accommodate Spanish-speaking children have drained the district of much-needed funds. "English as a second language--all of these various programs that we've had to establish--they basically cater to, pretty much, the Hispanic community. I suppose a lot of those are probably illegal aliens. We're concerned about that--about what it's doing to our economy, and what it's doing to our welfare system.
"If we can send troops to Bosnia to get involved in that mess," Hellman added, "surely we can send troops to defend our border from Mexico. This is the United States. What is wrong with speaking English? We need people who want to assimilate into our own society, not want their own little subculture. Why? Because if we don't, they will never know what it is to be true Americans. They won't have the values, the patriotic feeling that we have. And is that important? Yes, I think that's important."
Sometimes, it seemed, Pat Buchanan and the Christian Coalition blurred into a single entity in Doug Hellman's mind.
I know there are many more views than those of Doug Hellman among the members of the Christian Coalition, but I guess it's the use of that word, "Christian," in the organization's name--it makes quite a claim for itself, really.
"We're not trying to take over," Hellman concluded, "but I'd like to sit down at the table and discuss my views. I think I've been away from the table for 40 years."
This is the church, this is the steeple. Open the door, and see all the people. Oh, and by the way, they're not all white.
Last Saturday, Chris Edwards, Fredrick Eddington, and I stood outside the door of our church and talked about the Christian Coalition. Every now and then, someone would crack open the door, and we'd hear a little boy singing, "Won't He make you white...as snow."
"That's fine that they're against abortion," said Chris, a Sunday-school teacher and devoted family man. "But what about the people who are already alive?"
Well, I said, I've read in the speeches of Ralph Reed, the Christian Coalition's eloquent young national director, that the "faith community" will step in and fill the gap whenever the government relinquishes its control over welfare and education. Christians will return to championing charitable causes, pouring out their hearts and pockets to meet the needs of the millions of American children born and raised in poverty.
Someone please tell them to call my church when they get around to doing that. It is located in the heart of Dallas' inner city, and I literally go weeks at a time without seeing a single white face there besides my husband. We'd welcome a little diversity. We'd welcome a little brotherly love and charity.
Although I revealed to my friends my discovery that the Christian Coalition truly is nonpartisan, and is, in fact, beginning to make inroads among Texas Democrats, our conversation did inevitably turn to the subject of Pat Buchanan.
I do not think that members of the Christian Coalition realize how deeply offensive it is to black Christians that so many of them actively support Buchanan, and that their movement, however unfairly, is so often tied to his words and deeds. Black Christians see no difference between supporting Pat Buchanan and supporting Minister Louis Farrakhan: Both are bigots, and both speak love out of one side of the mouth and hate out of the other. (Most conservative black Christians, incidentally, do not support Farrakhan's movement in any way.)
Some Coalition members may have an inkling that Buchanan is a bigot--a potential cause of horrendous, further racial division in this country--but, like my sister and I so many years ago, choose to pretend that nothing untoward is going on, nothing that warrants their censure.
No, the distinct concerns of black and Hispanic Christians simply do not register in the minds of many, if not most, members of the Christian Coalition. They are truly America's invisible men and women.
Check it out: Every theologically conservative black Christian with whom I've ever talked about these things is in favor of radical welfare reform. Most believe strongly that abortion is morally wrong.
But they wouldn't ally themselves with the chief proponents of these views. Why?
"Their motivation doesn't seem to be compassion," said Fredrick Eddington, my pastor. "We've got to make sure that we don't allow political issues to blind our eyes to what Christianity truly is. Our relationship with Christ has to supersede our political identity, and I don't see that happening much nowadays. If people just vote for Pat Buchanan because he's pro-abortion and don't look at the bigger picture, that's wrong, because if he's racist, then he's against the cause of Christ."
"See, abortion is mostly a white issue," Chris added. "All through the years, white people have seen abortion as a threat to the future of their race. Black people are concerned about it too, but they're more concerned with the people who are already here."
Earlier in the week, I asked Diane Eddington, my pastor's wife, what she thought about the Christian Coalition.
"Who is the Christian Coalition?" she asked.
I explained what I knew. Quite a few of them support Buchanan, I added. "If Pat Buchanan is elected president, there will be a race war," she replied immediately. "He will divide the country."
I asked her about that again--race war--just before the primary.
"No, I don't think that's going to happen," she said this time upon reflection. "Because God is not going to allow Pat Buchanan to be elected."
Alice Patterson of Odessa, former state field director of Texas' Christian Coalition, has her work cut out for her. God, she said, has called her to the ministry of racial reconciliation.
It is a concern shared by the highest leadership in the Christian Coalition, she said. Last July, in fact, Ralph Reed met secretly at an Irving hotel with 100 prominent black Christian leaders from all over the country, and "humbled himself and said I'm sorry" for the racist attitudes so often evident among people who call themselves conservative and Christian.
While San Antonio has one Coalition chapter that is almost entirely black, efforts to vary the hue of the Coalition's membership are "just in the embryo stage," Patterson admitted. "When you start an organization, you start with your strength. We started with our strength because we wanted to build quickly.
"The Christian Coalition is so closely aligned in the media to the Republican Party that when the Republican Party does something insensitive to minorities, people see the Christian Coalition as being behind it," she added. "But the aim of the Christian Coalition is not to create a strong Republican Party--it's to get Christians engaged in the public arena in the political party they're comfortable with."
I told Patterson that Coalition members' widespread support for Buchanan may permanently discredit the organization in the eyes of black and Hispanic Christians, unless its leaders move quickly--and forcefully--to disassociate themselves from political views that bear any taint of racial exclusiveness.
She'd reached the same conclusion, she said, in her conversations with Hispanic Christians. "When he's talking about the border, they take that personally--and I think they should. I agree with Pat Buchanan on the abortion issue," she said, "but that's as far as I can go with him. That's the reason we have primaries. I understand perfectly where my black and Hispanic friends stand on Pat Buchanan, because I stand with them there.
"Abortion is to white evangelicals what race is to black Christians," she added. "White evangelicals will overlook other things--and Pat Buchanan is a case in point--because the abortion issue is so close to their hearts. Blacks will overlook other things--including abortion and homosexual rights--if their candidate is right on the race issue."
Looking across this chasm of misunderstanding among Christians--among men and women who dare call themselves brother and sister--Patterson sees only one remedy: "I believe whites should be on their knees in front of blacks and Hispanics asking for forgiveness."
In Texas' Republican primary, of course, Bob Dole won easily.
It was the first Texas presidential primary in which the Christian Coalition constituted a force to reckon with, one that could swing a close race. The years of grass-roots organizing seem to have paid off: Some 37 percent of primary voters identified themselves in an exit poll as being part of the "religious right."
Yet only 21 percent of all voters cast their lot with Pat Buchanan.
Did I hear someone shout "hallelujah?
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Observer's biggest stories.