Who's Behind The Culture War

Contemporary Assaults on the Freedom of Expression

By Mark Schapiro


Schapiro, Mark. (1994). Who’s Behind the Culture War?: Contemporary Assaults on Freedom of Expression. New York: Nathan Cummings Foundation.


The contemporary assault on the arts and freedom of expression arises primarily from a movement battling what it considers to be a profoundly meaningful war against moral decay in our society.  It draws force from religious conviction; from long-standing anti-intellectual traditions in the  United States; from class conflicts that counterpose 'elitist' support for the  arts against the perceived interests of 'average' Americans; from the  interests of those who perceive themselves as 'besieged' by social pressures  beyond their control (economic recession, immigration, pornography, the  'hedonism' of Hollywood contributing to discord in the family).  During the  debate over reauthorization of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in  1992, Senator Robert Dole conjured a class component to these conflicts in his  characterization of the typical member of PBS as someone who "has a wine  cellar in their basement," and had "just returned from a trip to Europe."

The struggle has its roots in both politics and aesthetics- meaning the definitions of behavior and imagery that are considered publicly acceptable  and worthy of government encouragement-giving rise to what is now commonly  referred to as the "culture war."  It is fueled at the national level by  organizations of politically-motivated religious activists, utilizing the  depiction of blasphemy, sex, and violence in the arts as a powerful and  lucrative stimulus for recruitment and funds; and at the grass-roots, by a  network of religiously-motivated activists generally politicized by the  abortion debate and now drawn into activist politics by their visceral  reactions to government funding of art they find offensive, and thus  unacceptable as a recipient of tax dollars.  The religious basis to these objections--rooted in concern over the effects of sexual and violent imagery in  the media and the arts on the nation's children has become a primary  organizing principle.  Many new converts are drawn to the moral vision offered  as a solution to society's ills.

The recruitment ground for such religiously-based political activism is quite fertile, as demonstrated by a dramatic shift over the past thirty years in Americans' religious loyalties. Mainstream (non-explicitly political) Protestant denominations (Episcopal, Presbyterian, etc.) have lost an estimated 25% of their membership over the last 25 years; from an estimated 30-40% of the U.S. population in 1960, their membership has plunged to below 20% today, according to surveys conducted by Lyman Kellstedt, a professor of Political Science at Wheaton College.  During the same period, according to Kellstedt, the membership in evangelical churches those most likely to drive the debate over cultural values in the public arena has remained steady at an estimated 26% of the population; given the over 40% rise in the U.S. population, this proportionate holding pattern represents a dramatic rise in sheer numbers of those involved in the evangelical movement. Evangelicals are also by far the most active and avid churchgoers of all denominations, according to Kellstedt's research.  These numbers illustrate the rich vein of church-affiliated potential activists who have helped propel the debate over public support for the arts into an unprecedentedly high profile.  (Evangelicals, the heart of the loose amalgam of religiously motivated political groups that have come to be known as the 'Religious Right', include an array of denominations, including Baptists, Free Methodists, Pentecostals, Evangelical Presbyterians, Adventists and non-church based Protestants who often worship through televangelists and are the fastest growing sector of the Evangelical movement).

When art is used as a wedge issue in this political struggle, the aesthetic conflict becomes clear in a deeply felt disagreement over the very purpose of art. As James Davison Hunter, Professor of Sociology and Religious Studies at the University of Virginia, observes in his book, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America, "For the orthodox and their conservative allies, artistic creativity is concerned to reflect a higher reality.  For their opponents, art is concerned with the creation of reality itself."  For the latter, the search for truth is an ever-unfolding process by each individual; for the former, the truths, already found, reside in the religious doctrine of Jesus Christ.  The idea that the individual creates himself whether through art or countless other forms of self-expression is at the philosophical core of the dispute over what constitutes an 'acceptable' form of expression, for those who care to distinguish in the first place.

One encounters this conflicting vision of the individual's relationship to art  and society most directly in the objections by groups like Citizens for  Excellence in Education to new textbooks, such as Pumsy: In Pursuit of  Excellence; Developing Understanding of the Self and Others.  These objections  revolve around the book's emphasis upon a child's individual self-definition,  and not finding that definition within a Christian context--or, as the social  scientist James Wilson is quoted by Heritage Foundation Fellow William  Bennett, the embracing of "an ethos that values self-expression over self-control."  Such attacks reveal the polar opposite perspectives on either side  of the cultural divide--and the aesthetic and  philosophical base at the root  of their use as organizing tools.

This struggle over defining America's cultural values has begun to manifest itself in every sector of American public life, from school curricula to national arts policy.  William Bennett, the former National Drug Control Policy Director, now a Fellow for Cultural Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation, has launched a campaign to focus specifically on the "cultural indicators" of America's decline.  In doing so, he makes the cultural component to the political battle explicit: 'culture' and 'values', in all of their various artistic and lifestyle connotations, are ascribed a high degree of responsibility for a litany of America's social problems crime, the decline of 'family values', declining educational standards, etc. though it could be persuasively argued that cultural expressions are as much a symptom as a cause of such problems.  Of course, Bennett's rise-to-arms over our cultural decline is often a code word for objecting to behavior that veers from the norm, homosexuality being the most popular example.

While the "culture war" has its strong Washington component focused around attacks on the NEA, gay rights and other 'family values' standard bearers it is fed by well-organized grass-roots campaigns.  An illustrative example of how local battles can rapidly become national in scope occurred at a community meeting in Colorado Springs sponsored by Colorado for Family Values--the primary sponsor of Amendment 2, which prohibits municipalities or the state from protecting homosexuals from discrimination.  At the meeting last winter, fifty or so 'concerned local citizens' listened as Amber Jorgensen, the Chairwoman of CFV, brandished a copy of the book, Children of the Rainbow, and admonished her listeners to "keep an eye out for this book!" Denouncing its "promotion of the gay lifestyle," she asked the attendees to write letters to state and national representatives protesting its inclusion in school curricula.  As a model for action, she cited the current controversy over the book in New York.  Multiplied by dozens of such meetings around the country, this particular gathering demonstrated how the emotionally-charged issue of what different viewpoints children should be exposed to is emerging as a rallying cry for those who would limit the range of expression in other areas as well.    Indeed, the New York City School Board elections in May 1993 provided a stark example of how such local battles can, with a high degree of organization, quickly become national loci for action: here in New York, the Christian Coalition and the Traditional Values Coalition were highly active in organizing coalitions of religious activists, Hispanic, Black and Jewish religious communities to support Christian candidates for school boards.  Though the election itself was not considered a resounding success for the religious movement--they succeeded in several already conservative districts, but were blocked from citywide victory--such an operation is illustrative of how concerted effort by a number of groups can ride such hot-button issues as sex education, condom distribution and 'multicultural' curriculum issues to the polls.  More recently, the Christian Coalition provided logistical and material support to former civil rights activist Roy Innis, who attempted to drive the cultural agenda of the Religious Right into the New York mayoral race.  Clearly, such a campaign can be galvanized quickly, on the ground or in the mails, utilizing the high- voltage imagery associated with sexuality and human body as rallying points for debate over cultural values.

William Bennett and his presumed rival for the 1996 Republican presidential nomination Pat Buchanan are attempting to do just that hitching their political aspirations to an assault on cultural values, competing in their different styles over the same terrain.  While Bennett utilizes statistical analyses purporting to correlate social problems to declining commitment to traditional American values, Pat Buchanan's new group, The American Cause funded through a direct mail drive to funders of his 1992 presidential campaign launches a direct assault on the cultural industries themselves.  He advocates a sort of right-wing version of feminist 'take-back-the-night' strategy, demanding that conservatives reclaim the channels of communication from the 'liberal establishment'.  At a two-day, "Winning the Culture War" conference held in Washington in May 1993, Buchanan equated the ongoing "Culture War" to the Cold War--a long haul struggle that demands vigilance and relentless counter assaults against those deemed harmful to American interests.  Buchanan calls for conservatives to challenge the 'cultural elite' where it counts: in the fields of writing and arts, attempting to redefine the content of the cultural industries with an "alternative culture." Speakers at the conference demanded that conservatives start writing and producing television shows, newspapers and artwork to "take back America." James Cooper, editor of American Arts Quarterly, demanded consumer boycotts of corporations that support such artists as Annie Sprinkle and exhibitions of the shows of the late Mapplethorpe.  Buchanan, who will be taking his campaign on the road, is clearly attempting to re-ignite his political career by putting art and culture at the frontline of an expected bid for the presidency in 1996.


Buchanan, Bennett, and others who have taken to exploiting the cultural divide for political reasons are on the secular side of the debate that has made political use of the Serrano and Mapplethorpe controversies which were the first real test of the waters of culture as a prime motivating issue.  They are essentially secular politicians, who have had the ground laid down for them on this issue by the Religious Right. Important ties between the secular and religious right are sustained through two organizations: the Free Congress Research and Education Foundation and the Council for National Policy.

The Council for National Policy, founded in 1984 by Timothy LaHaye (known for denouncing nude figures in Renaissance art as "the forerunner of the modern humanist's demand for pornography") and billionaire Nelson Bunker Hunt, has evolved into a forum for bringing wealthy funders together with conservative activists to discuss projects of mutual interest.  Highly secretive, it considers itself a conservative alternative to the establishment Council on Foreign Relations.  Major funding comes from Nelson Bunker Hunt and members of the Coors family; membership costs $2,000, and a position on the group's Board of Governors can be purchased with a $5,000 donation. These board members then elect an Executive Committee, which has included leading lights of the secular and religious right The Reverends Pat Robertson and Donald Wildmon have served along with secular conservative leaders such as Oliver North, Joseph Coors, Paul Weyrich, Richard DeVos, Richard Viguerie, and Phyllis Schlafly.  The Council's aim is to coordinate the activities of the various groups represented by their membership.

The Free Congress Research and Education Foundation, founded by new- right impresario Paul Weyrich as a "public charity," is a far more active lobbying force than the CNP, bringing its considerable resources to bear on issues from abortion to gay rights in Congress.  According to the Institute for First Amendment Studies, its estimated $6 to $7 million annual budget comes from such stalwarts of right-wing funding as members of the Coors family; the De Moss foundation; Michael and Helen Valerio of Papa Gino's Italian restaurants;  California millionaire Howard Ahmanson and his Fieldstead Foundation; and the DeVos Foundation, funded by Richard and Helen DeVos of the Amway Corporation.  The Bradley Foundation has also been a major funder.  The Foundation's most advanced work to date has been in the area of high- technology communications to unite the varying branches of the secular and religious right.

Free Congress is now the key force behind one of the most significant developments in the use of high technology for spreading the conservative ideology and tactical political advice on questions of culture, as well as economics: the budding new television system, National Empowerment Television.  NET provides an interactive satellite television service for its participating organizations--which include Eagle Forum, Concerned Women for America, the Christian Coalition and Family Research Council (all described later in this report), as well as the National Right to Life Committee and National Association of Evangelicals (the coordinating body for evangelical churches).  The service is accessible to participating groups for whom it serves as a sort of cross-fertilization service, a means to share information and mobilize members around issues from the confirmation battle over Lani Guinier to opposition to the refunding of the National Endowment for the Arts.  Through its leadership, NET provides a critical bridge between the secular and religious right.  Paul Weyrich, the President of NET, also serves on the faculty of Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition Leadership Schools, which organize workshops on the nuts and bolts of political activism across the country; William Bennett is Chairman; and Ralph Reed, Executive Director of the Christian Coalition, is a Director.  The Christian Coalition has used the NET system for nationwide teleconferenced meetings between its national headquarters in Virginia and state and local affiliates.  In addition to providing teleconference services, NET produces four television shows of its own beamed to members: on economic, cultural, black and student issues.  The potential of the system to galvanize public opinion around specific issues has already been demonstrated: former President Bush reportedly fired his head of the National Endowment for the Arts John Frohnmayer after an NET call for action resulted in a flood of irate mail and phone calls objecting to the NEA's funding of "obscene art."

In December, 1993, NET was dramatically expanded into a full-blown twenty-four hour television service, distributed by satellite and cable, that offers weekly programs reflecting the religious and secular right's agenda on political, economic, cultural and social issues.  The service, produced in Washington, DC, features some of the 'stars' of the right, such as Rep. Newt Gingrich doing a show on national politics, "The Progress Report;" Burton Pines, formerly with the Heritage Foundation, hosting "Capitol Watch;" a phone-in show with Free Congress Foundation head Paul Weyrich; and "Youngblood," a show aimed at young people to "challenge the cynicism of MTV."  Other programs, according to the NET Program guide, focus specifically on the cultural agenda:  "Entertaining Right" will critique all forms of popular entertainment--including television, films, comic books, and art--from a traditional values perspective; "Spin Doctor" will analyze major stories aired on the networks and attempt to put a counter-spin on stories that neglect their point of view; "E Pluribus Unum" will attempt to demonstrate the "shared cultural values" among Americans that transcend race, class, and gender (a sort of conservative version of multiculturalism).  The service will be the first nationwide television system to admit to an explicit political agenda (made possible by the FCC's repeal of the "fairness doctrine" during the Reagan Administration).  To launch this program, NET has engaged in large- scale fundraising to meet its $10 million annual first year budget;  the William Brady Foundation, for example, gave the Free Congress Foundation a $1 million grant in the summer of 1993 to fund the expansion of the television network.  The system will also be accepting advertising; several mainstream companies, such as Braun, Phillips CD-1 and Time-Life Music have already agreed to become sponsors.  With its's ability to reach millions of people in their living rooms, NET could become the most powerful tool yet in intensifying the controversies that circulate around questions of cultural, social, and political policy.


The overall climate of increasing dissent over federal government arts policies has succeeded in raising the temperature around artistic and related cultural issues, making attacks on art one disagrees with seem more acceptable, from whatever point of view, religious or secular, right or left.  People for the American Way reports an unprecedented number of local attacks on artistic expression across the country more than 200 reported incidents in 43 states and the District of Columbia. Challenges achieved some measure of success in 63% of incidents documented.  The group estimates that twenty percent of those attacks stem directly from the orchestrated involvement of national groups; the remainder are the response of parents or citizens outraged at what they consider to be offensive political or sexual content (though in some cases national Religious Right groups subsequently get involved after initial protests by local churches or citizens as occurred in Cobb County, Georgia).  These incidents range from small exhibits in municipal buildings to large scale attacks on museums like the Whitney. As illustrated below, these attacks can come from the left as well as from the right, as well as from those with no immediately identifiable political allegiance.

For example, earlier this year, a traveling exhibit sponsored by the Indochina Arts Project in Boston featuring the works of twenty American and Vietnamese artists expressing the two perspectives on the Vietnam War, was denounced before arriving at museums in San Jose and Minneapolis by the local Vietnamese community for its alleged "pro- Communist" bias.  After the protests, those two museums refused to mount the show, though it had previously traveled to nine major cities without incident.  The organizer of the exhibit, himself a Vietnam veteran, may now be experiencing the after effects of this unintended publicity, finding that museums across the country are refusing to mount a subsequent, non-War related, exhibition of Vietnamese artists, fearing another round of adverse publicity.  Another example of free expression clashing with unprompted local sensibilities: in Watsonville, California--a heavily Hispanic, agricultural town in northern California--there was great controversy last year over a photo display at City Hall including portraits of the victims of the civil war in El Salvador, when 26 city government employees objected to the photos as "un-American." Though the city refused to take down the exhibit, it did promise to initiate closer review of future city- sponsored art projects--a response quite common among beleaguered municipal arts agencies, which implies the future possibility of self- censorship before potentially controversial artworks are ever shown.

From the left, the feminist writings of Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin have inspired a slew of attacks based on imagery that is deemed insensitive to women, or politically objectionable.  This was certainly the case last year in Santa Cruz (hardly the heart of American conservatism) when feminist activists objected to a work of performance art at a local festival that they deemed would promote violence against women.  That work continued to play to sold-out crowds despite an attempt by local feminists to organize pull-outs by local sponsors of the performance festival.  This incident echoes a similar case at the University of Michigan, when feminist supporters of Catharine MacKinnon refused to permit a work conveying imagery of prostitution at a public forum.

Recently, some MacKinnon-inspired anti-pornography activists have developed a unique spin on the First Amendment, asserting that art they find offensive is not protected as "free speech" because it falls under the statutes prohibiting "sexual harassment." Since the beginning of the year, numerous art exhibits have been singled out by women and men as creating a "hostile work environment," thus falling under the sexual harassment guidelines of federal and local Equal Employment Opportunity statutes.  These efforts likened "visual" with actual physical harassment, and succeeded in having removed from display such works as Goya's "Naked Maja," which a Pennsylvania college professor complained inspired sexual fantasies among her male students; a tapestry of images drawn from Norse mythology that included a naked sea goddess in a municipal building in Seattle; and a series of woodcuts that included a naked Aphrodite, hanging in the lobby of the City Hall of Menlo Park, California.  All of these works were removed from public view after challenges were submitted alleging that they constituted "sexual harassment."

Another example of what is perceived as 'censorship' inspired by 'progressive' ideals was raised during the confirmation hearings of Sheldon Hackney, the new Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities.  The strong policy against racial harassment that Hackney initiated at the University of Pennsylvania, and which led to sanctions against a student for calling a group of black women 'water buffalo', came back to haunt him.  During the hearings, we witnessed a strange pirouette among Religious Right groups, who postured themselves as the advocates of "free speech" arrayed against the oppressive forces of "political correctness" on campus.


In none of the above examples (there are numerous others) was there evident involvement of the nationally organized Religious Right which nevertheless bears primary responsibility for pushing the issue of public arts to the forefront.  Overall, it has been their efforts to monitor federal, state and local arts programs that have thrust the previously non-controversial federal arts bureaucracy into the center of political debate, and in the process changed the atmosphere for funding on the national and local level as occurred last August in Cobb County, Georgia.

When the Cobb County Commission of Cobb County, Georgia responded to a local production of Terrence McNally's play "Lips Together, Teeth Apart," which includes positive portrayals of modern gay life, by voting to rescind all arts funding in the county, it was a foreboding example of the power that conservative local communities can exert over arts projects that contain the merest scent of controversy.  The County Commission's first attempt was to establish 'family values' criteria for any municipal arts funding.  The impossibility of defending such criteria legally led the legislators to simply eliminate the $110,000 county arts budget entirely--which will end school arts and other popular programs as well as funding for the local theatre which first produced the play--but is a position that is difficult to legally challenge.  While the basis of such efforts are rooted in conservative attitudes and values on the local level--and in fears spurred by the unfamiliar and threatening--a network of groups and individuals are playing a key role in fueling the local fires.  In this case, state chapters of Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition and Donald Wildmon's American Family Association supported the local protests against "Lips Together" by alerting their membership and conducting their own letter- writing campaigns against the arts programs.

When a national group gets involved in an art-related issue, as it did in Cobb County, it can wield enormous power by the combination of media and popular pressure.  In Orlando, Florida, for example, last year an art exhibit touching on AIDS-related themes was attacked first by the state chapter of Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition, then by the national Coalition, and subsequently became a target in the newsletters of Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council and Jerry Falwell's Liberty Foundation.  The massive letter-writing campaign from the combined membership of these groups was enough to pressure the Florida Secretary of State into issuing a warning that he will review more closely all subsequent art projects supported with state funds (an echo of the previously cited example in Watsonville).

The Rev. Donald Wildmon's American Family Association state chapters have also been active in protesting local art exhibits across the country.  Most recently, an AFA local in Ohio protested a campus exhibit featuring the works of two alumnus of Ohio State University in Lancaster for its homo-erotic and blasphemous images.  The protests prompted the administration to hold a public forum on issues raised by the exhibit--which was inconclusive, but may be illustrative of one means of releasing the hot emotions that surface around such exhibits.  

What right does the government have to fund art that many individuals in a community may find offensive? Is it 'censorship' to deny public funds to such projects? These questions have suddenly been charged with political vibration, radiating from the local to the national level, and fueled by mass mailings, the sophisticated use of mass media and targeted lobbying campaigns--as demonstrated in July 1993, when the House of Representatives cut $8.7 million from the next year's National Endowment for the Arts budget (half of that cut was later restored by the Senate Appropriations Committee).  Moves by such lobbying groups as the Christian Action Network, which held its equivalent of a 'degenerate art' show in the halls of Congress this summer--displaying the works of photographer Joel Peter Witkin and video excerpts from the Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, both of which received partial funding from the NEA have pushed the question of federal arts support once again to the fore, after a seeming lull following the Mapplethorpe controversy.

The anti-NEA lobbying effort, led by the Christian Action Network, and supported by writings in the Washington Times and the newsletter of the Family Research Council, demonstrates how powerful the use of controversial art images can still be, three years after the Mapplethorpe controversy, in arguing against funding the NEA.  The CAN, a self-appointed voice for the Religious Right agenda in Washington DC, is made up of former Jerry Falwell Moral Majority activists, supported by a membership of approximately 60,000.  The Network hand-delivered a letter to every freshman Congressman delineating its arguments for a complete defunding of the NEA.  In the letter, Martin Mawyer, President of the CAN, explicitly cited two shows at the Whitney Museum of Art during the summer of 1993: Abject Art: Repulsion and Desire in American Art and The Subject of Rape.  Mawyer wrote that those two shows, with their emphasis on sexual, excretory and other imagery drawn from the human physiognomy, illustrated the use of NEA funds for "the grotesque, the exploitative, the blasphemous"--simplified concepts that are difficult to defend in home Congressional districts.  Though neither show received direct NEA support, a $20,000 NEA grant to the museum's Independent Fellowship Program, whose fellows organized the show, was used to tar the entire agency's grant-giving priorities--another among numerous instances in which any relationship whatsoever between an arts institution and the NEA may be quickly conflated into a relationship between the agency and controversial art.

The Network also singled out the Whitney Museum's 1993 Biennial Exhibition for criticism the vomit pile on the floor, et al and the renowned photographer Joel Peter Witkin, recipient of several NEA fellowships, describing some of his more lurid photographs in detail. "Either the federal government will fund the arts, the good along with the disgusting, or it will fund neither,"  argued Mawyer.  "In a day and age when we are attempting to control the deficit, we believe the NEA should go." During the House floor debate, Rep.  Dornan and other anti-NEA congressmen cited Mawyer's examples directly from his letter. Prior to the NEA vote, lobbyists from the American Family Association, Family Research Council, Christian Coalition and Concerned Women of America were pushing for a vote in favor of the Crane amendment to abolish the agency altogether; though defeated, the measure picked up 105 votes, up 20 from last year.  Though there appears to be little real threat on Capitol Hill to the actual existence of the NEA, the House vote indicates that the agency is still quite vulnerable to arguments that mix economics with aesthetics.

In Washington, the economic argument against the NEA carries at least equal, if not greater, weight than fire-and-brimstone moralism.  The Heritage Foundation has long played an important intellectual function in the battle against public support of the arts: with grants from the Bradley Foundation, it supports the work of William Bennett and, until recently, Laurence Jarvik, a prolific writer who issued numerous tracts and articles calling for the privatization of PBS and defunding of the NEA.  Earlier this year, Jarvik created the Center for the Study of Popular Culture, now independent from Heritage, from which he launches his mini-think tank style studies and opinions.  Jarvik does not consider himself motivated by the Christian agenda;  rather, he argues that the free market should be allowed to run its course with the arts and television.  PBS, he asserts, is redundant with commercial cable television; the government, he says, has no role supporting artists, who should be allowed to rise or fall with the market.  It is this argument that, in the long run, may ultimately hold sway in Congress; his influence over anti-NEA members of Congress is considerable. Jarvik's proposal to eliminate the NEA's Peer Panel Review grant approval process, and to send 70% of the NEA's funds to be administered by the states, was incorporated directly into a bill by Representative Armey that was defeated in the House in July.

Nevertheless, outside of the Beltway, it is the cultural divide--and not economics per se that fuels the fires of debate over free expression in the arts.  In the next section of this report, I shall describe the key groups of the Religious Right involved in this debate; explore their tactics, funding and growing media empires that deliver their message to growing numbers of the American public; and attempt to reveal the effect of concentrated religious political power on one community in particular, Colorado Springs, Colorado--where their success in obtaining some considerable measure of power gives us a glimpse into what may be in store on a larger level for questions of freedom of expression.  All of the groups mentioned here cooperate closely;  through periodic meetings such as Pat Robertson's Religious Roundtable and Leadership Council, and through the Council for National Policy; through interactive 'meetings' on National Empowerment Television; and, more informally, through fax, newsletters and phone.

There is, in fact, a loosely defined division of labor among the major Religious Right groups.  As the Rev. Lou Sheldon, President of the Traditional Values Coalition in Anaheim, told me: "'Don' (Wildmon) has got pornography;  'Randy' (Terry) has got abortion; 'Phyllis' (Schlafly) and Beverly LaHaye's Concerned Women for America have religious liberties; 'Jim' (Dobson, head of Focus on the Family) has family values; the Christian Coalition does candidates; and I've got the homosexuals."

All of this adds up to a fiercely organized, and well-funded, political movement, revolving around questions of what is and is not a legitimate recipient of government support--or, in the case of gay rights, government protection.  At its base are profound cultural differences, reflecting very real cleavages in American society.  Though the 'culture war' can hardly be said to be orchestrated by any single source, the groups that follow have played a critical role in helping to define the parameters of debate over what forms of expression are acceptable in the public domain--and in channeling sentiment against certain particularly controversial artworks into a larger political struggle.  Their attempts to define for all of America what is and is not acceptable challenge notions of tolerance and diversity that have long been at the core of publicly-supported arts programs.


Think Like Jesus...Fight Like David...Lead Like Moses...Run Like Lincoln.

-Christian Coalition motto

Current expressions of human dignity, morality and social order are possible only because of our Christian heritage.

-from Focus on the Family Community Impact Curriculum


Virginia Beach, Virginia.

Leader: Pat Robertson.

The political end of the Religious Right movement is, of course, centered around Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition, headquartered in Leesburg, Virginia.  As has been well-reported elsewhere, since Robertson's l988 presidential campaign, the Coalition has refocused its efforts to local and state races--the most successful example of late being in San Diego county.  According to People for the American Way, forty percent of the more than 500 candidates who ran for local, state and national office in 1992 with Christian Coalition backing or affiliation won--a remarkable record for an organization that, at least technically, exists outside either political party (and, realistically, exists almost wholly within the Republican Party).

Each of the 250,000 dues-paying members of the Coalition belong to one of the group's 550 county chapters organized in 49 states--a level of political organization that gives the group enormous leverage on a local level, the advance troops of the Religious Right's determination to "go local." By the end of 1993, Robertson has declared his aim to have over 1,000 local chapters, full-time staff in twenty states and 50,000 trained precinct leaders with 25,000 church liaison leaders to provide local leadership.  The Coalition spent an estimated $13 million on political campaigns last year.  Its aim now is take control of the Republican Party apparatus state-by-state a goal already accomplished in Iowa, Louisiana, South Carolina and Washington, while major battles between Christian Coalition-affiliated and traditional Republicans are underway in at least nine other states.  In explaining the Coalition's 'stealth' strategy, the group's chief strategist, Ralph Reed, invokes the vocabulary of spiritual warfare: "It comes down to whether you want to be the British army in the Revolutionary War or the Viet Cong. History tells us which tactic was more effective."  At the vanguard of their grassroots guerrilla war, the Coalition is sponsoring two-day political seminars, dubbed 'Leadership Schools', in thirty three states this year to teach the mechanics of running a campaign and influencing local policy to its precinct captains and church leaders.  This decentralized power structure can have dramatic effects.  In Oregon, for example, the Oregon Citizens Alliance operates as a de facto chapter of the Christian Coalition, acting as a non- profit 501ÿ(c)(3), and effectively running the 'No Special Rights Committee', which sponsored the anti-gay rights initiative last year.

In addition to creating what is essentially a nationwide political machine, Pat Robertson has immense visibility through his growing media empire, which also provides him with financial self-sufficiency.  The Family Channel, where he appears as host of the '700 Club', reaches an estimated 54 million homes and generated $13 million in profits last year.  Through the Christian Broadcasting Network less a network now than a financial holding company--Robertson oversees Regent University in Virginia (a liberal arts college with a $200 million annual operating budget, offering courses in law, communications and theology), program production for the Family Channel and other religious broadcasters, a radio network, and a lucrative Conference Center and resort in Virginia Beach.  CBN brought in an estimated $106 million last year--three-quarters of that total coming from donations. Robertson himself is undoubtedly one of the highest paid religious leaders in the country: according to a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission in 1992, his salary was $372,000 that year; his brother and partner, Tim, received $497,000.  Overall, the Family Channel is now valued at $500 million;  and the Christian Broadcast Network pulls in over $100 million a year in revenues approximately three-quarters of that through donations.  Robertson's is by far the largest in an already-thriving evangelical media network, which includes approximately 1,300 religious radio stations and over 200 local religious television stations.

Robertson's media enterprise is part pure business, part ecumenical: earlier this year, he started a new cable channel, The Game Channel, an interactive all-game show; last year he purchased the television production company, MTM Enterprises, which produces, among other network shows, Designing Women; while his participation in the Free Congress Foundation-sponsored National Empowerment Television enables Christian Coalition chapters around the country to conduct live interactive meetings with the Virginia Beach headquarters.

This vast reach in sophisticated television media gives Robertson a powerful platform for his views.  In l989, for example, he used the '700 Club' to launch attacks on the NEA.  After showing examples of "blasphemous and offensive art" funded with government money, his switchboard and mailboxes were flooded with the responses of outraged citizens, providing the popular support for his call to cut off all support to the NEA.  That effort has not abated: In the fall of l991, Robertson used the spectre of "vile" NEA-funded art as the focal point of a fund-raising drive for the Christian Coalition;  and has repeatedly displayed examples of "unChristian" art, asking national television viewers to write letters to cut off funding for the NEA. His tactic is explicitly political, telling his followers to inform Congressmen or local officials that, "If you support pornography, you're not getting my vote"--the message that he delivered in over 300 newspaper ads that ran in every state, as well as on radio and tv stations.  At a meeting last year of the National Campaign for Freedom of Expression, numerous Washington-based arts administrators complained that this tactic does work: that by introducing simply worded bills denouncing pornography, his supporters force up-down votes on bills that, though unlikely to survive even the simplest court challenge, could be used as fodder against them in campaigns.  In this fashion, Robertson's effort helped lay the groundwork for the Congressional floor fight over Jesse Helms' "decency" language for the NEA.

Over the last two years, the Christian Coalition has been softening its cultural call-to-arms in an attempt to broaden its political base, expanding the notion of 'family values' to include tax, crime and health policies that help families in explicit, non-symbolic, ways.  In the summer 1993 issue of the conservative policy journal Policy Review, a political journal published by the Heritage Foundation, Ralph Reed, Executive Director of the Coalition, admitted that the movement's stress on cultural issues was primarily tactical.  "The issues of abortion and gay rights have been important in attracting activists and building coalitions," wrote Reed, "When tactics become ends in themselves, however, social movements falter." The Coalition is currently targeting its lobbying in Congress and through local chapters on more traditional issues that "speak to the concern of average voters"--including increased tax exemptions for families with children; health care; a return to basics in the schools; and increased crime prevention.  The Coalition's call to abolish the National Endowment for the Arts now stresses the agency's 'waste and abuse' of government resources as much as its support for 'un- Christian' art.

The various elements to Robertson's political, media and evangelical empire appear to operate seamlessly, in tandem.  Several aspects of his complicated financial affairs, however, threaten to derail the smooth functioning of these various enterprises.  The Securities and Exchange Commission is currently investigating Robertson's creation of a corporate shell, International Family Entertainment, Inc., which he used to purchase the Family Channel from the Christian Broadcast Network--a move mandated by the IRS' determination in 1989 that the Family Channel could no longer operate under the non-profit protection of the CBN.  Robertson and his brother bought 6 million shares in Family Channel, through IFE, for pennies a share--while the company's value has leapt from $250 million to $500 million in just three years. The SEC is questioning whether Robertson paid a fair price (essentially to himself) when he purchased the Family Channel from CBN.  The tangled financial affairs of CBN have already led to its ouster from the Virginia Beach Better Business Bureau, which last year placed the Network on its list of charities that failed to meet the bureau's basic standards of accountability for non-profit organizations.  In addition, the IRS continues to audit the Christian Coalition's 501 (c)(4) status, investigating whether it has violated IRS standards regulating the political activities of non-profits--by distributing voter guides, targeting specific races for Christian Coalition-sponsored "voter education," and other explicitly political activities--as alleged by the Democratic National Committee.  One curious fact noted in the DNC complaint:  one of the largest donors to the Christian Coalition was the Republican Senatorial Committee, which gave $64,000 to the Coalition in 1990; and a $31,000 donation that the Coalition gave to the Virginia Republican Party in 1991.

Robertson's varied sources of financial support make it extremely difficult to target one particular source over another.  For example, the Coalition's $13 million budget does not include money spent and raised by the state chapters--including fifteen statewide groups with full-time staff.  Though his media enterprises continue to be extremely profitable, Robertson still relies on the rubber-chicken circuit for the cash to support his political aspirations.  At one dinner-and- breakfast weekend last September to raise funds for the Christian Coalition's activities during the presidential election, he raised over $100,000 from donors who gave from $1,000 to $20,000 each including a cross-section of doctors, dentists, lawyers, car dealers and others.  


Tupelo, Mississippi

Leader: Don Wildmon

The American Family Association provided the initial spark igniting the controversy over NEA funding of the arts, when a local member in Virginia alerted Wildmon of the Andres Serrano exhibit at a local museum.  Wildmon publicized the case in his newsletter, AFA Journal, took out full-page newspaper ads and initiated a massive letter-writing campaign aimed at Congress.  The group has been the most direct in its attacks on specific art exhibits and network, cable and public television shows (PBS has been a favored target, with over a dozen specific programs, including Masterpiece Theatre and POV, criticized for excessive sex, violence or "anti-Christian bias" over the past year).  Wildmon's latest target is the new ABC television show, NYPD Blue--which he denounced in a series of newspaper ads last June for "steamy sex scenes," foul language and excessive violence.

The AFA message is delivered primarily through the million readers of its newsletter; in addition, an affiliate, the American Family Association Law Center, has four full-time lawyers working to push Wildmon's agenda in the courts.  According to AFA's 1992 990 forms, the group pulled in $7.1 million last year, primarily from donations. While Wildmon claims AFA chapters in all of the fifty states, his 990 lists groups with which he has any relations at all in only twenty-one states.  And while he claims 450,000 members nationwide, independent estimates (such as TV Guide) have put his membership as low as 89,000. AFA's claim to have 640 chapters nationwide has also been shown to be grossly exaggerated: at a recent national chapter meeting attended undercover by a reporter for Mother Jones, only 40 chapter leaders showed up;  of those chapters, many had as few as five members; and the remaining "chapters" were officially deemed "inactive." Yet by his well-organized calls for consumer boycotts of sponsors's products (distributed through his newsletter and picked up by the media), Wildmon has succeeded in cowing many mainstream corporate sponsors into withdrawing support from shows deemed overly violent or sexually- explicit.  Whatever the true numbers, Wildmon's agitations certainly helped lay the groundwork for the network's recent agreement to label "excessively violent" television shows aired during prime time.

A team of Wildmon's lawyers--affiliated with his legal arm, the American Family Association Law Center have been involved in a potentially precedent-setting case in Sacramento, California, challenging the use of the 'Impressions' textbook, which they claim violates the separation between church and state because several of the stories refer to witchcraft.  Partly as a result of pressure from Wildmon, along with Focus on the Family, the publisher, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, has decided to forego printing another edition of the book (which features the writing of such well-known coven-members as AA Milne, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dr. Seuss and C.S. Lewis).  Wildmon, a Reverend, is at the furthest extreme of Christian fundamentalism, having served on the Steering Committee of the Coalition on Revival, based in Mountain View, California, which advocates a return to a theocratic state, governed by a literal interpretation of the Bible--calling for, among other things, the Christianization of public schools and other public agencies. Wildmon's rise from small-time preacher to big-time national spokesman provides an example of how issues related to the arts--with their vivid pictorial content--can be used to propel an individual to national prominence.


Washington, DC

Leader-Beverly LaHaye.

With an estimated membership of 565,000 nationwide, CWA considers itself the Christian alternative to the National Organization for Women.  The group claims a budget of $10 million a year, 25 full-time staff and 2,500 local Prayer/Action chapters, a far flung base of "kitchen table lobbyists."  Initially formed to oppose passage of the ERA, the group's agenda has broadened considerably through the l980's to include the gamut of Christian right issues: abortion, abstinence education, opposition to gay rights, and opposition to government- funded arts programs.  Their newsletters, sent to over a half million readers, helped initiate the massive letter-writing campaign that led to the ouster of former NEA-Chairman John Frohnmayer.  LaHaye herself campaigned extensively for the anti-gay initiatives in Oregon and Colorado.

The group's state newsletters regularly offer political advice on how to organize precinct caucuses, elect delegates and pass party resolutions--key facets of the Religious Right's effort to take over the Republican Party apparatus.  The group's primary voice is LaHaye ("our Joan of Arc," according to Lou Sheldon), who broadcasts a daily half- hour radio program over 28 Christian radio stations nationwide.  CWA also produces a monthly magazine, Family Voice, with 250,000 readers; and videos, such as 'Halloween: Trick or Treat?', aimed at parents in an attempt to link that classic of American holidays to satanism.

Like many Religious Right organizations, CWA is actually two organizations, set up to comply with IRS regulations on lobbying: Concerned Women for America Education and Legal Defense Foundation is a 501 (c)(3), and is the sponsor of the group's legal arm and producer of curricula, videos and publications;  Concerned Women for America, Inc. is a 501(c)(4), which permits it to engage in unlimited "non-partisan" lobbying on bills or ballot measures--which it does extensively on issues relating to abortion, pornography, gay rights and the arts.

The group is organized in true Leninist style like a political- religious SWAT squad.  The basic unit of the CWA is a "prayer chain" a group of seven individuals under the direction of a prayer leader who agree to pray on common subjects.  Seven such 'chains' form a chapter, each chapter consisting of a maximum of fifty members.  The chapter leaders are in turn under the direction of a regional director, who reports to the national office.

"Prayer," in this case, has broader implications than a paean to the Supreme Being.  Action directives come down from the national headquarters in the form of "Special Messages" from President LaHaye--who in this fashion is able to rapidly mobilize chapters and prayer chains to action with avalanches of letters and phone calls to legislators and other public officials.  For example, when an important "pro-family" issue i.e. abortion rights, NEA funding--comes before Congress, CWA activates its "535 Program" (435 Representatives and 100 Senators).  The program targets both home offices and Capitol Hill with letters and phone calls.  During a crucial vote--the nomination hearings for Clarence Thomas for example--this can unleash tens of thousands of letters onto Capitol Hill in a matter of days.

In addition, CWA's legal arm has filed numerous suits against the use of various textbooks: for example, the group sued the state of Alabama to have all traces of "secular humanism" removed from the state's textbooks; in 1986, a CWA attorney won a precedent-setting case, in which a young student was awarded $50,521 for having her civil rights violated by being forced to read a textbook, in defiance of her parent's wishes, which included a fantasy short story about a trip to Mars and promoted "anti-Christian occultism." In California and Florida, the group has also been highly active in protesting against adult book stores and topless bars.  CWA is also one of the leaders in the national campaign to defund or restrict the NEA, rousing its membership with periodic editorials against the promotion of "smut, child pornography, homosexual 'art', and pictures that blaspheme the Lord." CWA lobbyists were working the corridors up to the last minute during the House vote on the NEA in July 1993.


Anaheim, California 

Leader: Rev. Lou Sheldon

From his offices in Anaheim and Washington, DC, Lou Sheldon has emerged as a high-profile spokesman for Religious Right positions opposing gay rights and the use of 'anti-Christian' curricula in the schools.  The TVC consulted with both the Colorado and Oregon initiative campaigns--Beverly Sheldon, a Board member of TVC (no relation to 'Lou') is also a board member of Colorado for Family Values, which led the Amendment 2 campaign in Colorado.  After his success in convincing California Governor Pete Wilson to veto a statewide gay rights bill last summer, Sheldon was dubbed by USA Today, "One of the most powerful men in California." This is a moniker that Sheldon revels in; for it is his strident position on gay rights and the arts that have propelled him from his status as a small time Presbyterian preacher in the San Fernando Valley to his big-time status as one of the chief spokesmen of the Religious Right.

Before founding the Traditional Values Coalition, Sheldon was a close aide to Pat Robertson, helping to create the Christian Broadcast Network.  He formed the TVC in l985, based on a grouping of four churches in Orange County.  In l989, he leapt into the anti-NEA campaign, establishing a platform which helped launch him from the relative obscurity of his Orange County base.  At the height of the NEA battle in l989, Sheldon was a critical force in creating Taxpayers for Accountability in Government, an umbrella group of far right organizations which pushed Congress to eliminate funding for the NEA. Members of the group include Concerned Women for America, Eagle Forum and Citizens for Excellence in Education.

Most recently, the TVC filed a lawsuit in Santa Monica objecting to an exhibit of photos by Andres Serrano, alleging that they violate religious freedoms.  "If you can't have prayer in schools," he says, "you can't have state funded art denigrating a religion either." Sheldon's group has also been regularly monitoring grants to gay and lesbian groups by the California Arts Council, and lobbied unsuccessfully several years ago to have the Council's funding cut off.   For the moment, Sheldon's other main focus has been battling to establish a more Christian-oriented school curriculum in California and elsewhere.  He boasts of having whittled down homosexual references in California health textbooks from "sixteen to one, and we're trying to get that one out." Other Sheldon accomplishments on the textbook front include a successful campaign to delete all references to evolution as "scientific fact" from state science texts, and helping to spur the legislature's passage of a bill requiring abstinence education in the schools.  In New York, he helped recruit a group of Orthodox Jewish rabbis--led by Yehuda Levi in Brooklyn--to create an alliance of Christians and Jews to battle the 'Children of the Rainbow', and to support the Christian-supported coalition in the school board race.

An interesting aspect to Sheldon's campaign is his drawing in of Jewish and Black groups.  He couches his campaign against gay rights in civil rights terms, asserting that civil rights protections are appropriate for blacks and other minorities, but not for those who "choose" a "lifestyle" i.e.  homosexuality.  He has worked closely with a Southern Baptist association, the Coalition for the Restoration of the Black Family, and led a march of black clergymen in Washington in support of Clarence Thomas.  Drawing directly from the vocabulary of the civil rights movement, he comments, "People with overt values and beliefs have been sitting in the back of the bus for too long.  Now that we've moved to the front of the bus, and in some cases into the drivers seat, they're screaming McCarthyism."

Having started small in Orange County, Sheldon now cooperates closely with other major players on the Religious Right--including Eagle Forum, Focus on the Family, American Family Association, and the Christian Coalition.  He says that the TVC represents 25,000 churches across the country, but that figure may be grossly exaggerated: i.e. anyone he talks with at a church is then marked down as a "representative" of that church.

Last year, his operating budget was $1.1 million.  While he claims funding from 15,000 small donors--churches and individuals--significant support for his operations also comes from a group of four Southern California businessmen who have helped fuel the resurgence of the Religious Right in California--which has fielded candidates at every level in the state, and effectively taken control of the state Republican Party.  These four men are:

  • HOWARD AHMANSON, who inherited a fortune from his father, founder of Home Savings & Loan, the largest thrift in the country (also a major funder of the Free Congress Foundation).
  • ROBERT HURTT, owner of the Container Supply Company, which produces decorative tins and containers for numerous retailers, including Almond Roca.
  • EDWARD ATSINGER, whose Salem Communications owns eighteen Christian radio stations across the country. 
  • ROLAND HINZ, President of Hi-Torque Publications, which publishes motocross and dirt bike magazines.

During the 1992 election, these four men donated over $1.5 million to conservative PACs' Religious Right candidates and the Traditional Values Coalition.  Their aim is the full Christian right agenda: ban abortions, counter the gains of gay-rights activists, halt the sale of sex-oriented magazines from newsstands, issue state-vouchers to send children to private and parochial schools--issues for which Sheldon has emerged as their leading spokesman.  To give the movement a voice in the state legislature, Ahmanson and Hurtt single-handedly created the Capitol Resources Institute, which has emerged as one of the strongest lobbying outfits for promoting the Christian Right agenda in Sacramento.  Ahmanson also contributed $62,500 to the Western Center for Law and Religious Freedom--which, among other legal actions, helped the Kern County school district defend its banning of the book, One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, on the grounds of "profanity"  and "vulgarity."

The peripatetic Sheldon is currently involved in launching a campaign in California to exempt non-profit institutions from any gay-rights provisions--a measure inspired by the recent controversy over homosexual participation in the Boy Scouts.  He has also created alliances in Arizona (Arizonans for Traditional Values) and Minnesota (Traditional Values of Minnesota) to place anti-gay rights initiatives on the ballots in those states.


Alton Illinois & Washington DC

Leader-Phyllis Schlafly.

In addition to her strident anti-abortion campaigning, Phyllis Schlafly has been a vocal opponent of government-supported arts programs; last March, at a regional National Endowment for the Arts hearing in California, she called for a total cutoff in all funds to the NEA. Working with sympathetic congressmen, her group helps develop legislation attempting to restrict all government arts programs to non- offensive art, threatening those who do not support these efforts with the statement, "We will alert our members that you are on record as supporting tax-sponsored pornography."

While Eagle Forum is active on the same issues as CWA, it does not have an elaborate political organization; rather, with a budget of around $1.5 million, and 80,000 members, it functions more like an elaborate support group for relaying Schlafly opinions.  Schlafly, like CWA, divides her operation into two parts: Eagle Forum, which is a 501(c)(3); and Eagle Forum and Legal Defense Fund, which operates as a lobbying organization under the protections of 501(c)(4).  The distinction is hardly significant, since, according to 990 forms recently obtained from the IRS, both outfits operate out of the same office, and share Schlafly as President.  Eagle Forum itself continues to be particularly active on issues related to the NEA, which it has dubbed the U.S.  Ministry of Culture.  One fund-raising mailer that went out last year included a mock IRS tax form with checkoff boxes for "Sexually explicit and perverted"  art, including funds for performances by Annie Sprinkle and her "Sluts and Goddesses of Transformation Salon and funds for Holly Hughes' performances about lesbian desire," and for, "Blasphemous art including Queer City, which includes an association of Jesus Christ with unmentionable acts."


Colorado Springs, Colorado

Leader-Dr. James Dobson

Focus on the Family is one of the largest, and most sophisticated, of the Religious Right groups, with over 1,000 employees working at its new, $24 million, 47-acre, compound in the outskirts of Colorado Springs (funded with a seed grant of $4 million from the El Pomar Foundation to support its move from Southern California).  The group has emerged as a kind of mother hen, and ideological center for 'family-based' policies, to the 45 other Christian fundamentalist groups that have established their headquarters in Colorado Springs over the past five years--making this town a sort of ground zero for the movement.

An extremely well-developed direct mail operation nets the group an estimated $75 million a year.  Much of these funds come from sales of books by Dobson on everything from keeping a Christian family together, to discipline, to how to treat your child's drug problem--several of these books have sold as many as six million copies.  They also publish half a dozen magazines with a total circulation of 2.8 million, covering the range of demographic groups--teenage girls and boys, mothers, fathers, physicians, teachers and conservative political activists.  In addition, FOF has a children's video production staff, develops Christian-based school curriculum, and is now active in proposing family-oriented tax and employment policies to corporations and the government.  The sense one has walking through the group's headquarters is of a smoothly functioning business operation. Officials claim that they eschew the fanatical rhetoric associated with Christian Right leaders in favor of what they present as more scholarly reports and analysis.  The group's actions, however, often belie this sober tone.  The controversy over 2 Live Crew, for example, was born here, when Focus workers sent out a mass mailing alerting "pro-family activists" nationwide to the band's "obscene lyrics."  After a pressure campaign, the letter reached the desk of the Dade County Sheriff, who arrested the two band members and a record-store owner on obscenity charges.

The group's primary voice is Dr. Dobson, trained as a child psychologist, who is heard on a half-hour daily radio broadcast on nearly 3,000 Christian radio stations worldwide (including Central and South America and territories of the former Soviet Union).  The radio show, as well as an operation that drops approximately a million pieces of mail a month, generates 8,000 letters and 2,000 phone calls a day to the Colorado Springs headquarters often in the form of what the staff like to call "pain mail," expressing an individual's anguish with a certain problem, and asking for guidance.  An entire floor is devoted to nothing but telephone operators, who respond to requests for information on the 1-800-1-FAMILY line, and lodge each new name and address into the computer.  Every person on the list then receives a customized 'pastoral' letter from Dr. Dobson each month, at the end of which is a low-key fundraising pitch.

An example of how Focus services its many constituents was provided during a recent visit I made to the headquarters of the group whose staff of researchers, writers and counselors provide a good deal of the philosophical underpinning for the movement advocating greater 'family values' in public life.  On a vast floor filled with tiny cubicles, I spoke with one of the numerous "senior correspondents" assigned to do nothing but answer the mail that floods in each day.  In this case, he spoke of the last letter he worked on: a request by a candidate for a local school board in Nebraska asking for assistance in defining her proper platform on such questions as sex education, drug education, AIDS, etc.  Each 'correspondent' at Focus on the Family is armed with a book two feet thick with statements by the head of the group, Dr. Dobson, on a range of issues from drugs to negligent fathers to AIDS--and the responses to all letters are drawn from this body of work. Thus, he responded: sex education should be limited as much as possible to abstinence education; no condoms in the schools; opposition to such curricula as 'Children of the Rainbow', which advocate 'un-Christian' points of view.    Though members of the group resist being grouped in with the rest of the Religious Right, they have a well-developed political program, known as Community Impact Seminars, that helps local groups develop strategies for political organizing.  Traveling around the country, FOF organizers draw together church groups, anti-abortion activists and other local political figures for "seminars," in which they lay out strategies for organizing churches into political entities.  They give advice on how to influence school boards, how to get Christian-oriented candidates into local races, how to get supporters into precinct caucuses.

At a meeting last winter in Colorado Springs, 600 residents attended the session where the ground was laid for a slate of Christian candidates for the next local elections.  A strong message from the session was that a popular majority rarely exists for a full-blown religious candidate, and therefore to downplay church or Religious Right connections during the campaign.  Candidates were advised not to use religious rationales for their positions, but rather to frame their positions in a more public-policy vocabulary: i.e., not to denounce sex education in the schools because the Bible opposes pre- marital sex, but because it could lead to AIDS or other sexually-transmitted diseases.  When organizing a group around a single issue--whether the arts, or school curricula or whatever the hot-button issue of the moment--attendees were advised to describe it as "...500 outraged and concerned citizens, not 500 church congregants."

Another political arm of the group is a network of Family Policy Councils, which now exist in thirty states.  These Councils, started by Focus but financially independent to avoid IRS regulations against non- profit politicking, are intended to help like-minded groups around the country to work together, rather than at cross-purposes, as can often be the case on such highly charged issues as abortion.  As the chief strategist for these Councils explained in Colorado Springs, "Let's say five or six groups in a state are fighting abortion.  They differ over five percent of the argument: should there be exceptions, for example, in the case of rape? These are slight variations they will die for. What we do is get them to stop fighting, shooting ourselves in the foot, and get them to work together."  The FOF consultants to the locally-based Councils also give advice on such questions as how to organize a Voter Guide; getting acquainted with the legal issues surrounding the closure of abortion clinics; and how to follow family- related issues in a state.

Focus on the Family threw the full weight of its multi-media empire into the NEA battle of l989.  Though the focus of debate has changed, their influence on related issues can still be far-flung: in Newport, Oregon last year, FOF material was used to protest a performance by an African storyteller and dancer in the local schools.  People for the American Way identifies Focus as a key group, along with the American Family Association, leading the attack on school reading materials--including such classics as Huckleberry Finn, Lord of the Flies, The Catcher in the Rye and The Grapes of Wrath--on the grounds of being "un-Christian." In a recent pastoral letter to his membership, Dobson predicted the next round of fights with the incoming Clinton administration:  new legislation preventing discrimination against gays; condom distribution in the schools; and a new Chairman of the NEA who will approve a flood of obscene and sacrilegious books and art. When the right issue arises, the political structure is clearly in place to sustain a fight on these and other issues.  Often, the first sign of an impending struggle is signaled in the group's newsletter, Citizen, which covers federal and state politics, and is capable of setting off alarm bells to the highly motivated core of member- activists.  The public policy division of Focus spends from $1-$5 million a year on lobbying and "educating" voters.

Allied, but no longer directly affiliated with Focus, is the Family Research Council--run by former Reagan domestic policy adviser Gary Bauer.  Dobson took over the Council in 1988 to act as a Washington voice for Focus' pro-family agenda.  In 1992, the two organizations severed their relations to permit the FRC to lobby without imperiling Focus' non-profit status.  Dobson continues to serve on the Council's Board of Directors, however, and there is a great deal of cross- fertilization between the two groups.  FRC has emerged as one of the leading 'pro-family' lobbying groups in DC, advocating the gamut of issues, from tax breaks for families to defunding of the NEA.



The great irony of Colorado Springs' new status as 'ground zero for the religious movement is that the transformation began as a purely economic move:  in 1987, the city's Economic Development Corporation issued a study proposing new strategies to wean the city off what was an already faltering reliance on defense contracts.  Its solution: to stimulate the economy by offering inducements--the picturesque locale, tax abatements, low wage rates--to non- profit groups to use the city as headquarters.  As it happened, the Executive Vice President of the Development Corporation was an evangelical Christian;  the groups she successfully sought out have been overwhelmingly Christian.  Thirty evangelical groups have shifted their headquarters to Colorado Springs over the past five years.

Now, the city of 280,000, nestled in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, has the greatest per capita concentration of evangelical and fundamentalist Christian groups and ministries in the country.  The city supports six Christian radio stations (by comparison, Denver, five times the size, has two).  Their contribution to the local economy is substantial: the local ministries employ 2,200 people (though many moved here from outside), and pump an estimated $300 million a year into the local economy.  Among the national groups listed in this report, the Eagle Forum, Concerned Women for America and the Christian Coalition have established chapters in the city; and the Traditional Values Coalition works closely with Colorado For Family Values via a woman who serves on the board of both organizations.

The profusion of religious groups in the city has made it a hotbed of religiously-based activism.  They have had a tangible effect on the city's political culture--both literally, as it relates to efforts to challenge the Republican establishment (various Religious Right figures edged out more establishment party candidates during the primary season last year), and as it relates to freedom of expression.  In the past two years, for example, there has been a measurable increase in the intrusion of religious challenges to curricula in the schools: two elementary schools have cancelled the use of the textbook Pumsy after complaints by local chapters of the Eagle Forum and Citizens for Excellence in Education.  At a local high school, administrators responded to local pressures from Christian parents to forbid biology teachers from discussing sex.  At another elementary school, a teacher was pressured into not using songs about witches or black cats--considered superstitious and paganistic--during Halloween.  As teachers, administrators and local officials attempt to preempt criticisms, self-censorship begins to appear around such seemingly innocuous questions as Halloween: that most American (via Mexico) of holidays was redubbed a "Harvest Festival" at many of the city's schools due to fears by administrators that it could be criticized as a 'paganistic' celebration.

Commercial vendors have also felt the new Christian presence in the city, as, according to the Citizens Project monitoring group, there has been a dramatic increase in reported incidents of telephoned harassment from callers identifying themselves with various of the different Christian organizations.  The head of the Rocky Mountain Men's Center received veiled threats over the phone after being accused of doing "the devil's work;" he has since relocated outside of the city.  A women clothing store owner was harassed by men offended by what she sells, how she dresses, what she displays in the window.  The group Colorado for Family Values (based in Colorado Springs and sponsor of Amendment 2) has launched boycotts against businesses that offer sensitivity training for their employees on how to deal with homosexuality in the workplace, deeming them unfair harassment of employees who disapprove of gays and lesbians.

The city, according to leading Republican and former City Councilwoman, Mary McNally, is "becoming increasingly polarized" from influence of the ministries.  In an attempt to takeover the local power structure, they have begun, characteristically, at the grass-roots: openings on various boards and commissions are routinely announced on the Christian radio stations.  Focus on the Family, for example, has a representative on the Colorado Springs Human Relations Commission, and members of Colorado for Family Values serve on several school district boards. Several Christian-backed candidates made strong runs against local Republican-establishment figures in the last election, spurring many local party members to make a call for "greater tolerance" in the city's public life.

The question of diversity and tolerance has become a major issue in municipal politics--from Democrats and Republicans alike.  In an effort to rehabilitate the city's image and heal some of the widening divisions, the Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce has sponsored a series of "Diversity" panels featuring speakers from all points of view on questions pertaining to gay rights, school curricula and the very presence of the evangelical groups in the city.  A group of concerned citizens have established the Citizens Project, which publishes a newsletter, Freedom Watch, monitoring the local activities of the Religious Right, and attempting to draw together the diverse population of the city to block the forces of intolerance.  The Citizens Project, which now has a membership of 5,000, has been particularly effective in recruiting elements of the business community and religious figures who disagree with the evangelical approach to work in concert with more traditionally 'liberal' residents to promote a more diverse vision of the city.

Focus on the Family attempts to position itself above the power struggle.  "To turn this into a 'Christian' county would be a disaster," says Paul Hetrick from Focus' Public Policy division.  "But to hold up Christian ideals is what we're talking about." The group's actions belie this supposed distance from the political fray.  Focus supplied over $8,000 in 'in-kind' contributions to the Amendment 2 campaign; their religious curricula surfaces in many of the schools where secular parents have complained of Biblical intrusions into the classroom; and they took pride in helping to orchestrate the local campaign against the city's libraries purchasing a copy of Madonna's book Sex.

Overall, say many longtime Colorado Springs residents, the arrival in force of so many fiercely committed evangelicals to their city--which has long had a reputation of mixing political conservatism (with a strong military contingent) with social tolerance--has divided it as never before.  In the end, Colorado Springs provides a glimpse into what are considered 'acceptable' forms of expression in a city where the Religious Right obtains economic and political power--a goal that is enunciated, in one form or another, by all the groups discussed here.


Direct mail and televangelist appeals on radio and television have always been a key source of financing for the Religious Right groups involved in arts- related issues.  Though none of these organizations identify the 'arts' as a singular concern, homosexual images, for example, will draw the attention of those concerned with family values. During the height of the NEA controversy in 1991, every group listed here used some of the most vivid "homosexual" and "blasphemous" images tied to NEA grants to raise millions of dollars.  The direct-mail business, of course, is a trendy enterprise: Just as soon as an issue is hot enough to generate contributions, it fades and another issue is thrown onto the burner.  In an informal review of more recent mailings, the issue has faded considerably--with the exception of the Christian Action Network and Family Research Council--and been replaced wholeheartedly by gay rights and gays in the military.

However, foundation funding for most of the groups remains a steady source of support.  To give a sense of the breadth of financial resources coming from the philanthropic community, what follows is a partial list of foundation funders (assembled from IRS forms, foundation reports and documents provided by Skipp Porteous of the Institute for First Amendment Studies).  The list is incomplete, but should give a sense of foundation involvement in support of two of the organizations that advocate restrictions on publicly-supported forms of expression:

FOCUS ON THE FAMILY (1990-1992):

  • Prince Foundation (Michigan): $500,500
  • Murdock Charitable Trust (Washington): $14,500     
  • Merillat Foundation (Michigan): $30,000     
  • Stewardship Foundation (Washington): $75,000     
  • Community Hospital Foundation (Texas): $30,000

The following have given FOF at least $5,000 over the last two years:

  • BJM Foundation (Ohio)      
  • Simmons-Balser Foundation (Georgia)      
  • George Bock Charitable Trust (Illinois)      
  • Elisha-Bolton Foundation (Ohio)      
  • P A  Brown Family Trust (California)      
  • Caddock Foundation (California)      
  • Cass Bank and Trust Co  (Missouri)      
  • Container Supply Company  (California)      
  • Chilton Foundation (Texas)      
  • DeWitt Family Trust (Michigan)      
  • Dodge Jones Foundation (Texas)      
  • Communities Foundation (Texas)      
  • David & Mary Crowley Trust (Texas)      
  • Christian Heritage Foundation (Texas)      
  • Eagle Foundation (Michigan)      
  • EBS Foundation (Tennessee)      
  • David Geffen Foundation (California) [### see note below]      
  • KW Grader Foundation (Florida)      
  • Herschend Family Foundation (Missouri)      
  • Agnes Klingensmith Foundation (Washington)      
  • Merillat Foundation (Michigan)      
  • Roy Michell Foundation (Michigan)      
  • John & Reva Miller Foundation (Michigan)      
  • Laird Norton Trust (Washington)      
  • Larson Foundation (Minnesota)      
  • Life Expressions, Co  (Maryland)      
  • National Christian Charitable Foundation (Georgia)      
  • PCA Foundation (Georgia)      
  • RWH Foundation (California)      
  • Ware Foundation (Florida)      
  • George & Mabel Slocum Foundation (Michigan)


  • Prince Foundation (Michigan): $500,000

EAGLE FORUM Education and Legal Defense Fund (1990-1991):

  • Olin Foundation (New York): $50,000      
  • Lennon (Fred) Foundation (Ohio): $21,000      
  • DeMoss (Arthur) Foundation (Pennsylvania): $14,500      

EAGLE FORUM (1991):      

  • Communities Foundation of Texas (Texas): $10,000

### This grant, according to Robert Broquett, Program Director of the Geffen Foundation, was given as a memorium at the personal request of the family of a deceased Geffen Records employee.


The history of art over the past one hundred fifty years reveals innumerable instances in which artists have come buck-up against social sensitivities and conventions--and paid the price, either in financial terms, exhibition possibilities or general social disapproval.  It is often these works, of course, that have advanced artistic sensibilities and even the definition of art itself: from the Impressionists to Surrealists to Pop artists to the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe, the question of what is acceptable terrain for the artist has been addressed head-on, boundaries successfully transgressed and definitions expanded.  Certainly much of the art discussed in this report qualifies as aspiring to just that.  Social controversy in the arts is not new.

What is unprecedented about the Religious Right's recent assaults on artistic expression in this country, however, is the use of the arts as a wedge issue to build mailing lists, and to recruit funds and supporters as part of a far larger agenda to assert 'Judeo-Christian' values over the political domain.  That agenda extends over a range of issues, from abortion to religion in schools to opposition to gay rights and promotion of 'family values' in the arts.  The artworks that have become lightning rods for controversy over the past several years are in many ways symbols of these hot-button issues that have become the dividing lines of the culture war.

Today, the 'culture war' seems to occupy the great political vacuum left by the end of the Cold War, and in many ways has become the new Cold War, fought now between adversaries within our own borders.  And, just as the Cold War created wedge issues easily manipulated in a political context appeasement vs.  confrontation being the simplest example the 'culture war' lays down its own fault lines along which political battles are fought.  Thus, it may be no accident that those in Congress who once trumpeted loudest during the Cold War were, after the Soviet bloc's demise, the same ones who rapidly shifted their sights toward government-sponsored art a substitute flag-waving canard in defense of the 'American Way'.  This point is made strongly by Marvin Liebman, a major conservative organizer and theorist from the l950's through the l980's, who, in the process of accepting his own homosexuality, has now grown alienated from the movement he helped create.  "I worry," he wrote in a letter outing himself to the National Review and quoted in his book, Coming Out Conservative, "that the right wing, having won the cold war and, for all intents and purposes, the battle over economic policy, will return to the fever swamps...of gay bashing, racism and anti-semitism."

In the realm of the arts, the battle over what constitutes 'acceptable' public imagery serves as a sort of code masking the divisions in American society:  gay vs. straight, religious vs. secular, the "middle class" vs. the "elite."  The differing values reflected on either side of the cultural divide have given rise to cleavages in the country's political fabric and sense of national identity unrivaled since the Civil War, according to the sociologist James Davison Hunter, author of Culture Wars.  These divisions translate into disputes over artistic values; the Religious Right has succeeded in using controversial art, complete with inflammatory images, as a means of forcing political choices over what are essentially aesthetic questions.

As illustrated in this report, assaults on the arts can come from the left as well as from the right; the two extremes meet in their desire to limit the range of expression on socially controversial topics. Just as the radical right agenda is to constrain subject matter challenging reigning concepts of sexuality and religion, radical feminists demand similar constraints on expression dealing, particularly, with female sexuality.  Though coming from wholly different points of view, and with differing intents, both extremes end up in the same place:  demanding that the government end its support for art that they find objectionable--an attempt in both cases to respond to social discord by limiting the artistic vocabulary with which it is expressed, an easy way out.  If nothing else, the current trend in academia toward 'post- structural' analyses of every medium--in which works are analyzed as much for their indications of political, gender or racial bias as for their artistic content--has succeeded in intensifying and giving a certain philosophical veneer to critiques of 'the message' of publicly-funded art.  Local arts administrators are now faced with a panorama of potential minefields which they enter at their own risk in curating everything from major museum exhibits to minor shows in the foyers of public libraries or municipal buildings. The danger, of course, is in establishing political litmus tests for vetting the appropriateness of art supported with public funds.

Still, legitimate questions lie underneath the inflammatory rhetoric that must be answered by those supporting more free-ranging public arts programs.  Does the government have a responsibility to fund art with public money, even when a significant percentage of that public finds it offensive? If so, why? And, do those recipients of public support bear a certain responsibility to that public for the content of their art? Is it 'censorship' to demand public accountability among publicly- supported artists?

During Congressional debate over Senator Jesse Helms' 'decency language' regulating NEA grant-making, these questions came quickly to the fore, challenging the basic assumptions that were central to the formation of the NEA.  The major assumption--at the core of the current debate--is that the government has a role to play in supporting a thriving and contentiously creative arts scene, without attempting, as enunciated in the NEA's mission statement, to "impose a single aesthetic standard or attempt to direct artistic content.".  But Representative Henry Hyde, a prime sponsor of the Helms language in the House, argued strenuously, as did Helms and other of his supporters, that, "Censorship and refusal to subsidize are two very different things." On the other hand, opponents of the language like the late Rep. Ted Weiss, asserted, "It is folly to argue that if federal funds are used for a project, that project must be acceptable to all taxpayers."

The Supreme Court, according to Kathleen Sullivan, a constitutional law scholar at Stanford Law School, has dealt with this issue directly, holding that the First Amendment does not distinguish between speech or expression supported by public or private funds.  In the words of Sullivan, "The First Amendment has never been held to disappear just because the taxpayers are paying the tab." In the real world of the artistic marketplace, not receiving money because of the political, sexual or religious content of works very often means those works will simply never get made.

For advocates of unrestricted free expression, however, the waters have become quite muddy.  Claiming protection under the increasingly beleaguered First Amendment is increasingly difficult, for there are those among the groups mentioned here who offer a position that poses a challenge to advocates of free expression.  There is little public objection, for example, to the television networks agreement last summer to label television shows that feature excessive violence, thereby theoretically enabling parents to monitor more closely what their children are watching--a position long advocated by the Children's Defense Fund (hardly in the camp of the Religious Right) as well as Focus on the Family and the American Family Association.  Where the Religious Right differs, of course, is in lowering the threshold of regulated creative expression--extending it to sexual and religious imagery, and to the visual and plastic arts in addition to the mass media.  It must be added, though, as Robert Hughes points out in Culture of Complaint, that much of the Helms language--particularly that prohibiting artworks that denigrate "adherents of a particular religion," or that which, "debases or reviles a class of citizens on the basis of race, creed, sex, handicap, age or national origin"--would be indistinguishable from some of the progressive-inspired guidelines on campuses to protect students from racist, sexist or other targeted behavior and speech.  The initiatives may come from different sides of the political spectrum, but the impulses are essentially the same: that the state (or school administration) has a role in either regulating, or not funding, creative works deemed offensive or threatening.  The muddy waters begin to flood the dikes here: Where does 'censorship' begin and proper government regulation end? At the very least, as the rhetoric on both sides reaches a fevered pitch, the distinction must be made between ratings--which can be useful in permitting parents to protect their children from certain images--and actual censorship or limiting of publicly funded art.  There may be areas of agreement here which can go some way toward ameliorating the tensions that flare across both sides of the debate.

How does the public relate to 'public' art? A survey by the National Cultural Alliance in February 1993 revealed an interesting discrepancy between the numbers of Americans who support the idea of arts and humanities in the country and in their communities 81% of the respondents said they feel they are "essential to a healthy society"--and those for whom it plays a significant role in their lives, 31%.  These numbers indicate considerable room to maneuver for those calling for greater public support for the arts, though it suggests that such calls for support be placed in a specific context, illustrating the benefits to the public of lively and provocative arts programs.  The National Cultural Alliance attempts to stress just this point;  the central theme of its recently launched media campaign is that regardless of whether or not one likes a particular piece of work, arts programs have the potential to benefit everyone.  In developing a strategy for defending the publicly-supported arts, such points are unlikely to alter the beliefs of those allied with the Religious Right, but could make a start toward ensuring that the next time a protest is waged on the scale of Mapplethorpe, the ranks of defenders are broadened beyond those already in the arts community.

In addition to existing for its own sake which it must do--there is also a literal social function to publicly supported art, which is often lost in the arguments that fire across the lines of conviction on both sides.  The European Community, for example, has a policy in which at least one artist is included on each of its many boards, governing everything from trade policy to public works--a direct acknowledgment of the important role that artists of every sort play in the larger society.  Identifying contributions by artists to the aesthetic, economic and educational life of their communities--as the National Cultural Alliance is trying to do--can be the first step toward building a broader political constituency supporting publicly-funded arts programs, and (hopefully) moving the debate beyond the meaning of a scary image or two.

Ironically, the very nature of the recent controversies over publicly- financed art demonstrates how at least some artists, long desirous of tearing down art museum walls and producing art that reflects more street-level concerns, may be finally succeeding, only too well, in hitting upon themes that resonate powerfully with public.  Art is now out of the museums and in the news pages a testimony to its potential power to challenge paradigms and cultural assumptions.

Jane Alexander, the new Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, recognized this tension during her confirmation hearings in September when she stated, "I cannot promise that under my chairmanship that arts will be free of controversy.  The very essence of art, after all, is to hold the mirror up to nature;  the arts reflect the diversity and variety of the human experience...as such, the artist often taps into the very issues of society that are most sensitive." Art, that thing hanging on the wall or poised in a plaza, is now at the center of the national debate over cultural values--which, perhaps, is where it belongs after all.

                               * * * * *

This publication was made possible by a grant from the Nathan Cummings Foundation  


Schapiro, Mark. (1994). Who’s Behind the Culture War?: Contemporary Assaults on Freedom of Expression. New York: Nathan Cummings Foundation.

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