Stealth Evangelism 3.0: The Remarkable Resilience of the Religious Right

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StealthEvangelicismPublicEdBy Bill Berkowitz

[I]n 1990, a young Ralph Reed, newly hired by Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition to oversee its daily operations, told the Los Angeles Times that, “What Christians have got to do is take back this country, one precinct at a time, one neighborhood at a time and one state at a time. I honestly believe that in my lifetime, we will see a country once again governed by Christians…and Christian values.”

A year later, in an interview with Norfolk, Virginia’s Virginian-Pilot, Reed talked about the organization’s stealth political strategy, a strategy aimed at having Religious Right candidates hide their social agenda, while talking about other issues more attractive to voters, such as lower taxes: “I want to be invisible. I paint my face and travel at night. You don’t know it’s over until you’re in a body bag. You don’t know until election night.”

In a 1992 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Reed, who left the Christian Coalition a few years later to start up his own public relations firm, and was later caught up in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, explained stealth: “It’s like guerrilla warfare. If you reveal your location, all it does is allow your opponent to improve his artillery bearings. It’s better to move quietly, with stealth, under the cover of night.”

In the intervening nearly twenty-five years, the Religious Right has used a number of strategies, from Reed’s stealth tactics to developing high-powered political organizations and high-profile leaders like the Moral Majority’s Jerry Falwell, the Christian Coalition’s Pat Robertson, and Focus on the Family’s James Dobson; from placing a succession of anti-gay and anti-abortion initiatives on state ballots to mobilizing committed conservative grassroots activists.

At the same time, the Religious Right developed a formidable infrastructure, numerous media outlets, mastered the use of the Internet, and has become heavily involved with social media. Despite the more recent advent of Tea Party groups – many of which embrace various aspects of the Religious Right’s agenda — the Religious Right remains a significant player on the political landscape.

While Ralph Reed’s stealth strategy helped grow the Christian Coalition, it would seem to be more difficult to employ similar stealth tactics nowadays, what with the Internet, social media, YouTube and the like tracking just about political candidates says and do.

However, these days, there’s a new wrinkle to stealth; stealth evangelism camouflaged as charitable activity, says Rachel Tabachnick, an associate fellow at the Somerville, Massachusetts-based Political Research Associates, and the author of a soon-to-be-released PRA report titled “Religious Right Leaders Use Prominent Athletes and Movie Stars, Scam Progressive Donors to Advance Outreach.”

According to a PRA email, Tabachnick documents how Religious Right “leaders are purposefully camouflaging their anti-LGBTQ and anti-reproductive freedom agenda with progressive language and seemingly-secular causes. Using this model, they’re successfully raking in huge donations from well-known progressive donors, Hollywood celebrities, and business executives who would be horrified to learn to whom their money is going.”

I asked Bruce Wilson, a longtime researcher and writer covering the intersection of religion and politics, the Director of the Center Against Religious Extremism (CARE), a project of Truth Wins Out, and the co-founder of the Talk2Action religious blog, how he defined stealth evangelism camouflaged as charitable activity?

Wilson said that he “looks for truth in advertising; how an allegedly charitable activity presents itself to the general public, and whether it is different from how it presents itself to evangelical audiences?” He investigates “reports from the field, from as many different sources as possible, to confirm that it’s really charitable activity rather than primarily about proselytizing or advancing some other agenda?”

Wilson pointed out that “With honest charitable activity carried out by religious groups (the charitable work of the Catholic Church is a good example), there’s little to no direct attempt to evangelize; human needs are simply addressed and the faith is spread, mainly, by the good example set by those doing the charitable work.

“On the other end of the spectrum are those who practice ‘stealth evangelism’ in the name of charitable activity. Usually, such efforts do address human needs to some extent but the primary objective is to evangelize; the charitable work is seen as a way of getting access to the target population which, increasingly, are children between the ages of 4 and 14.

“At the heart of this issue is something called the ‘Samaritan Strategy’ – a redirection of the energies of the politicized Christian right that began decades ago. Thus, the Christian right has moved, quite aggressively, into international missions work – orphan care, economic development, etc.”

I asked Wilson how the Religious Right’s new iteration of stealth differed from Ralph Reed’s stealth strategy of two decades ago. The main difference, Wilson said, is in the level of “sophistication of the stealth tactics now employed.”

“Now, the movement has even begun running stealth candidates in the Democratic Party. And, such stealth Democratic Party candidates don’t necessarily have to come dragging the whole religious right agenda. They can be liberal on many counts but also be supporters, say, of key movement issues such as school privatization. A few well placed such Democrats carry the potential to twist the party in knots if necessary.

“Then, there’s the nonprofit sector. In 2012, I was looking into a nonprofit called ‘Invisible Children’ that burst onto the scene with a breakthrough video that became the most-watched Internet video in history, called “Kony 2012”. The IC was billing itself as being primarily about stopping Lord’s Reformation Army leader Joseph Kony.

“IC was selling evangelical Christianity to secular kids in high schools and colleges, by playing on their idealism, getting them involved in stopping Kony and helping out poor Africans in Uganda and neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo. But Kony’s Lord’s Reformation Army was by then a ghost of its former self and had been gone from Uganda since 2005. And the orphan care and schools IC was touting as part of its charitable work? Well, when I looked into that I found that IC’s schools were under supervision of a Ugandan who also headed instruction in schools run by the US-based evangelical Christian operation called ‘The Family’ (or Fellowship).

“Invisible Children figured out how to harness the idealism of young liberals to support the project of rebuilding Uganda and Africa along “biblical” lines. The orphanages and schools IC supported appeared to be indoctrinating their children with the right “biblical” ideology to produce a dedicated cadre of trained leadership elites who would move into all sectors of Ugandan society – business, government, and so on.”

Stealth tactics “has been so successful in some settings that progressive donors have helped raise funds for rightwing religio-political leaders,” Rachel Tabachnick told me in an email exchange. “In one case, for example, a prominent gay rights supporter was unknowingly helping to elevate the status and raise funds for one of New York City’s most aggressive activists against gay marriage.”


Originally published at The Smirking Chimp.


Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His Conservative Watch columns document the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.

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