National Catholic Register

Inperson

‘Our Best Days Are Ahead’

Why the head of the Christian Coalition holds out hope for the future of our troubled nation

BY Randy Tate

September 20-26, 1998 Issue | Posted 9/20/98 at 2:00 PM

 

Randy Tate has been the executive director of the Christian Coalition since June 1997. He served six years in the Washington state legislature and one term in Congress before assuming his current position. The Christian Coalition, which was founded in 1989 by Rev. Pat Robertson, achieved extensive visibility under its first executive director, Ralph Reed. Today the Chesapeake, Va.-based grass roots movement claims 2.1 million supporters. Tate recently spoke about the organization and its future with the Register's Washington Bureau Chief, Joseph Esposito.

Esposito: What is the most important issue facing the nation as we enter the 21st century?

Tate: The key to our survival as a nation — particularly as a democracy, where we're granted so much freedom — is the moral compass of America. The biggest concern facing Americans is declining moral values.

Let me tell you why that's important as we go into the 21st century. Moral values are the underpinnings of strong families. Strong families are the building blocks for a strong community. Strong communities build a country.

If those moral values aren't being reinforced by our elected and community leaders and aren't being spoken in our churches and synagogues, those messages aren't going to get out. Then we're in a serious dilemma.

You have spoken forcefully on moral leadership, particularly regarding President Clinton. Does the issue of public character matter to a majority of Americans?

Without a doubt. What's made this country great is its moral authority, and that comes from leaders who practice what they say. Their private behavior is no different than their public performance.

The people we elect should set the highest standards. Thankfully, character does matter. It's the responsibility of organizations like ours to talk about the importance of integrity. And whether or not it receives the support of all Americans, we shouldn't be governed by polls; we should be governed by principles. That's what guides the Christian Coalition.

Let's talk a little about the Christian Coalition. Next year marks the Christian Coalition's 10th anniversary. What has it accomplished and what do you see as its future?

I think it's nothing short of remarkable what we have accomplished with God's help. We give him all the glory, because we're only instruments of his efforts.

We're having an important impact. This movement has changed the dynamic of the political debate. Both parties are now actively recruiting candidates that are in line with issues we hold dear. For example, Democrats and Republicans recruit and support candidates who are pro-life.

From my perspective, I don't care which party is in charge as long as our issues are being addressed. Parties are a means to an end, not an end in [themselves]. I want both parties to be pro-life, to address our concerns.

The legacy of this organization has been to change, to refocus, the debate in the country. But, it has also been to make sure that Christians — who have many times been on the sidelines in the political process — have learned that they have a duty and a responsibility to be involved in politics. It's a process, not an event, and we need to be committed long-term. So we've taught our people and we've changed the culture at the same time. That's nothing short of phenomenal.

The Christian Coalition has considerable support from evangelical Protestants. Should Catholics feel they are welcome, too? Is there a real opportunity for interfaith cooperation on social and political issues?

There has to be. It's an absolute necessity that we join together whenever possible. Particularly on issues where we come from a common belief system: strong moral values, the sanctity of life, the primacy of the family — those issues we all hold dear.

If you look within our organization, we have a number of pro-life Roman Catholics. A number of our state leaders are very active Catholics, very strong in their faith.

We need to join together. Those who oppose our belief system would like nothing more than for us to be divided over things which can't be settled between us. We need to look forward. It's amazing what we've been able to accomplish when we've worked together.

If we're going to solve the problems of the nation, we've got to join together. I don't think there's an option.

One of the criticisms directed toward your organization is that it blurs the vital distinction between Church and state. What do you see as the proper role of religious beliefs in shaping public policy?

The Founding Fathers understood the importance of faith in the public square. They believed in religious tolerance and expression, not religious intolerance.

In 1947 the Supreme Court [Everson v. Board of Education of Ewing Township] took a metaphor out of Thomas Jefferson's [1802] letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, and used the reference “wall of separation,” which doesn't exist in the Constitution. They took that metaphor to create jurisprudence.

Most Americans would say they believe the phrase “wall of separation” exists in the Constitution. Why?

Because it's been pounded into them by the liberal elite who have, in many instances, walked away from their faith and have tried to impose a sort of secularism.

The proper role of faith is not a theocracy, not a state-sponsored church, not the church running the state, or the state running the church. It's the ability to allow religious freedom to be expressed in all facets of one's life.

If we can only express our faith within a building with a cross on top and stained glass windows, then there really isn't religious freedom. You should be able to take that belief system into your school, into the public square.

The proper role is one in which people, informed by their faith, can enter that public square without fear of their government limiting them and their ability to address the issues of the day.

Another criticism of the Christian Coalition is that it is narrow-minded and self-righteous. How do you respond?

You have to look at the facts. This is an organization whose mission statement is to locate, educate, and activate people of faith.

We want to ensure that Christians and all people of faith — pro-family Catholics, evangelicals, observant Jews, Greek Orthodox, and others — can be involved in the political process. We want them to have a seat at the table when decisions are made.

Our goal is not to enforce our belief system on others. It's to allow our belief system to be part of the process, and that we have equal billing with others who are involved.

Far too often, those on the left have tried to intimidate, discourage, and, in some instances, engage in religious bigotry toward the faith community as they try to enter the political system. I would say our message is one of hope: creating opportunities in inner cities; providing educational choice to families; allowing people to keep more of what they earn so they can take care of their families. We're speaking up for those timeless, common sense values that are mainstream in America.

You mentioned the word “narrow.” Let's look at our agenda. Eighty percent of Americans support a partial-birth abortion ban, which we endorse. A vast majority support what we're doing to end the marriage penalty tax. People across the board support our efforts on religious freedom.

The Christian Coalition is truly a “rainbow coalition.” Look at our out-reach: we speak out for unborn children, for those who don't have a voice in the political process, for different minority organizations.

You've mentioned abortion several times. What are your thoughts on the abortion issue, in general, and partial-birth abortion, in particular. Where are we on these issues?

I think we're winning. But the tragedy of abortion has cost this country 30-some million lives — more than the population of California. That's staggering when you consider it in its totality. This is going to be a dark part of our history.

With that being said, look at the shift that's occurred in the last five years. Four or five years ago, one out of every three Americans believed abortion should be legal all nine months. Today, it's one out of five.

There are two reasons why this has occurred. One is technological. When Julie and I had our children [Madeleine and Spencer], they did an ultrasound. We put the little “snapshot” on our refrigerator at home. You look at it, and it's a child.

The other reason is partial-birth abortion — a grisly, brutal, and inhumane procedure. That has changed a lot of hearts and minds.

Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan [of New York], a liberal Democrat, supported a limit on partial-birth abortion. Rep. Dick Gephart (D-Mo.,

House minority leader), Rep. David Bonior (D-Mich., House minority whip), and Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D., Senate minority leader), also supported the ban. Look at the Child Custody Protection Act, a parental notification law, which zoomed through the House.

Our issues are winning when we present them in a way that shows caring and compassion on behalf of the unborn and concern for the mother.

Recently, you sharply criticized Geoffrey Fieger, the Democratic nominee for governor of Michigan for being an anti-religious bigot. Would you explain?

I'm deeply disturbed about the whole situation. Geoffrey Fieger made disparaging comments about Jesus Christ — he referred to him as a “goof-ball” — he referred to Orthodox rabbis as “Nazis,” and used an expletive to describe the Pope. He has offended the faith community in this country.

I'm disturbed, too, by the deafening silence of his party's leaders. The president, the head of the Democratic party, and the head of the Democratic governors' association have refused to withhold support for this candidate and publicly disavow what he's said.

In 1991 when David Duke was running for governor of Louisiana, the Bush administration publicly condemned him for being a racist and actively encouraged people to support the candidate of the other party.

That same condemnation should occur in the Feiger instance. [His views] are offensive and have no place in civil society — especially in the political realm. They should be unacceptable in this country.

What role can churches play in restoring pro-life, pro-family, and moral values to the American culture?

I think they play the most important role of all. For the first several hundred years of this great country, churches were the center of cultural life in each community. They were the social service provider to the poor. They were the founders of our great intellectual institutions.

Personal: Born 1965, Puyallup, Wash.; B.A., 1988, Western Washington University; married to Julie, two children: Madeleine and Spencer.

Current position: Executive director, Christian Coalition (since 1997).

Background: Member, Washington State House of Representatives, 1988-1994;

U.S. Congress, 1995-1997 (youngest member of the 104th Congress).

The problems that face our country today are not going to be solved by politicians. They're going to be solved by pastors, priests, and rabbis speaking in righteousness before their congregations and talking about the role God can play in their lives and how we can change our communities.

Churches need to take back their rightful place. Over the last 60 years we've said churches don't need to solve our problems; let's just pay taxes and let some government bureaucrat in Washington solve them.

We've spent $5 trillion trying to [fight] the war on poverty, and poverty won. We need to go back to a system where churches handle such problems. It works because it has a faith component.

What has shaped your spiritual development?

I don't know where to start. The two most important people were my parents because they led by example. They made sure that their children went to South Hill Baptist Church, and we were there every Sunday. They taught all their kids the importance of a personal relationship with Christ.

If you want to have your faith challenged, run for office. I learned more about my faith not when I won, but when I lost. I ran because I felt that was what I was supposed to be doing. But God closed that door. So you have to have complete faith that he's got a better plan for you.

Obviously, the closest person to me is my wife. She is my best friend, my partner, my prayer warrior. I couldn't do anything I'm doing now if it weren't for God's help and Julie's prayerful support.

Are you reading any books that you've found particularly instructive?

Yes. I recently finished C.S. Lewis' Screwtape. Right now I'm reading William Bennett's The Death of Outrage.It's a great book. It talks about where we are going as a society, some of the callousness and coarseness of our culture, and what the state of virtue and morality is. It's well worth reading.

What role will the Christian Coalition play in the 1998 congressional elections?

We'll have our largest get-out-the Christian vote effort. This year we will distribute, between the primaries and general election, 45 million voter guides in churches, synagogues, union halls, and elsewhere.

We're mailing scorecards outlining where your current House member and U.S. senators stand on key family issues. We'll have a nationwide voter registration effort on Sept. 27, which we call Citizenship Sunday.

Our role in the 1998 elections can be summed up, as I mentioned before — as locate, educate, and activate — locate people of faith, educate them on issues, and activate and get them to the polls.

Many people involved in the cultural wars are discouraged about the direction of American society. As you look toward the future as someone who has been involved in the political process and is an active Christian, how do you see our future?

Our best days are ahead. I'm an optimist because I know the impact religious conservatives can have on the political process.

But we're at a crossroads. If we allow the type of behavior that is practiced by some of our elected officials, particularly our president, to go unpunished, it sets a terrible example. What we endorse today and condone as a society, our children will embrace tomorrow as a way of life.

We're in for a long-term fight on values — it's a marathon — but we can't get discouraged. It's not for the faint of heart. It's for those who want to roll up their sleeves and be engaged in the process.

I believe we can be that shining city on a hill and be a beacon of hope and the moral leader of the world. But only if we have moral leaders and if God's people are involved in their communities doing the things they need to be doing can we succeed.

—Joseph Esposito

Cooperation Between Christians

“Social and cultural life offers ample opportunities for ecumenical cooperation. With increasing frequency Christians are working together to defend human dignity, to promote peace, to apply the Gospel to social life, to bring the Christian spirit to the world of science and of the arts. They find themselves ever more united in striving to meet the sufferings and the needs of our time: hunger, natural disasters and social injustice.

For Christians, this cooperation, which draws its inspiration from the Gospel itself, is never mere humanitarian action. It has its reasons for being in the Lord's words: ‘For I was hungry and you gave me food’ (Mt 25:35). As I have already emphasized, the cooperation between Christians clearly manifests that degree of communion which already exists between them.

Before the world, united action in society on the part of Christians has the clear value of a joint witness to the name of the Lord. It is also a form of proclamation, since it reveals the face of Christ.”

—Pope John Paul II (excerpted from Ut Unum Sint)