Right With God 

Two case studies in the politics of religion

Those citizens who welcome -- and those who fear -- the
canonization of the late Ronald Reagan in this election year, should be aware that it has already begun. Locally, as well as nationally.

When Shelby County Commission chairman Marilyn Loeffel called Monday afternoon's regular meeting of the commission to order, she began by asking the standing commissioners and audience to pay homage to Reagan.

"I personally was impacted by Ronald Reagan," she said. "In May 1980, several things happened in my life that affected my future. First of all, I went to a Women's Concerns conference that talked about the moral decline in our country. At that time, a ministry that I eventually led for many years was born. That same month, I was married, and on my honeymoon, found a tract or a pamphlet about Ronald Reagan. I came back from my honeymoon, and my husband and I went down to Republican headquarters and started stuffing envelopes for Ronald Reagan. Many times I've been accused -- or complimented -- for being a Reaganite, and I'm proud to say that it's true." She completed her own reminiscence and then asked for other tributes.

After commissioners David Lillard and John Willingham responded -- the former briefly, the latter at some length -- she then requested a moment of silence. Then came the invocation and the Pledge of Allegiance.

THIS, MIND Y0U, WAS A DAY after Loeffel's pastor at Bellevue Baptist Church had emerged from weeks of convalescence from multiple-bypass heart surgery to re-enter his pulpit. On Sunday morning, the Reverend Adrian Rogers had told his congregation that he would lead a tribute to Reagan in lieu of the church's regular Sunday-night service. That night several thousand watched the giant screen in the church auditorium as it filled with images of Reagan and Rogers together -- four separate occasions on which they had met -- and listened to their pastor, now appearing wholly revived, extol the late president.

Rogers, who had become president of the Southern Baptist Conference in that same year of 1980, recalled telling someone who had met him at the ramp of an airliner why he had chosen to support Reagan for president. "You see that pilot up there?" Rogers said, pointing to the plane. "Well, I'm glad that's not Billy Graham up there." That was his version of a parable, the moral of which, as he spelled it out, was that the country needed someone who could fly the ship of state. That, as Rogers saw it, left out the decent, born-again but seemingly ineffectual Jimmy Carter, the incumbent and Reagan's Democratic opponent.

The pastor told his congregation that he had spent much of the previous day watching television coverage of Reagan's passing. On Fox News exclusively, he added, the cable network that is the flagship of the conservative media. It didn't pay to deviate from the "fair and balanced" treatment of events by Fox, Rogers said. Just once that Saturday, he had allowed himself to. He had just seen on Fox an extended tribute from the late ex-president's adopted son, Michael Reagan, which had concluded with the younger Reagan's saying that his father had enjoyed "a very close relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ." Rogers then switched over to rival CNN during a commercial break and found what appeared to be footage from the same interview, only the clip was terminated just before the statement about Ronald Reagan's relationship with the Savior.

See there? the pastor was saying. That's the liberal, secular media for you.

THE ROOT FACT IS THAT, starting around 1980, the two worlds
of religion and politics began to be intertwined in a way that hadn't happened before (except in the case of the black church, always a factor in local urban politics). We are still, for better or for worse, dealing with the consequences. One of them has been that the center of gravity of Southern politics -- and, to some extent, that of the nation -- has moved conspicuously in the direction of the Republican Party.

Much of that fact stems from the de facto alliance between traditional economic conservatives in the Republican Party and moral conservatives, largely Southern, who had previously, as longtime Memphis GOP insider John Ryder notes, been "more or less apolitical." Ryder, a longtime Republican national committeeman, attributes much of the change to Ed McAteer, a genial World War II Navy vet and former amateur boxing champion who had retired a generation back as national sales director for Colgate Toothpaste. He used his business and religious connections to find new means of influencing public policy.

"Ed McAteer plays on a national stage and he has been very important over the last 20 years in awakening evangelicals to political consciousness," said Ryder. In particular, Ryder adds, McAteer helped candidate Reagan "move the great body of Christian evangelicals from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party."

McAteer accomplished this first, as a cadre of an activist group called the Conservative Caucus and, later and most importantly, as the founder of the Religious Roundtable, a group of clerics and Christian activists that he founded in 1978 and, which in 1980, reached a meeting of the minds with Reagan at a Dallas convocation. At that meeting, Reagan famously told the Roundtable members, "You can't endorse me, but I can endorse you."

Thus did the twain first meet.

BORN INTO A NOMINALLY CATHOLIC Memphis family that, like many in the Depression years of his childhood, had to struggle to survive, Ed McAteer had not been especially religious until he met and married his wife, Faye, a devoted Southern Baptist from Crockett County.

Ultimately, he became something of a lay minister. Loeffel, in fact, recalls him as "Brother Eddie McAteer," who used to come preach on an occasional Sunday at Oaklawn Baptist Church in Shelby Forest when she was growing up. He remembers her too -- aged 12 at their first encounter -- as an earnest young member of that congregation.

In the 1970s, McAteer, by then a ranking figure in the corporate hierarchy of Colgate-Palmolive-Peet, had begun obsessing about what he too regarded as the nation's moral decline -- especially in the years after the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision of 1973 made abortions legal.

According to The Power of One, a sort of third-person autobiography co-written with ghostwriters and privately published this year, McAteer turned down further promotions in the Colgate organization and finally eased out of the business altogether. Capitalizing on both his business connections and those he had made with prominent figures in the evangelical movement, he first became a paid operative of the activist group known as the Conservative Caucus and later founded the Roundtable as a sort of political clearinghouse for evangelical leaders.

(Along the way, he chaired a meeting including Falwell and others, and, when someone made the claim about there being a hitherto silent "moral majority" in American society, McAteer writes that he interrupted: "There is a moral majority. ... That's what we'll call this thing, The Moral Majority.")

That was then, when the newly created coalition between religious and economic conservatives not only elected Reagan but gave the Republicans a political edge over the Democrats they have rarely surrendered since. This is now, when -- against the background of the war in Iraq, rising gasoline prices, and a back-and-forth national economy -- comes the reelection campaign of President George W. Bush, a tax-cutting Republican conservative whom many consider more the political heir of Reagan than of his father, former president George H.W. Bush.

AND WHAT DOES ED MCATEER -- described by Ryder as "still important" as a political broker among evangelics -- have to say about it?

McAteer, an irrepressible man whose bubbly personal energy has survived several serious illnesses, including an ongoing bout with myeloma, sat down at the Blue Plate Cafe on Poplar Avenue one morning last week to consider the subject.

"I am of the firm opinion that unless George W. Bush does real well in the conservative evangelical community he will not be reelected," McAteer opined. Bush has "got to do big" with this constituency, but isn't likely to, he suggested.

One problem "our present president ..." (a phrase McAteer utters with discernible scorn) has "... is that there are several evangelicals and conservative Christians at odds with him on some key things."

Those three things, according to McAteer are:

1) Israel: Bush is too equivocal in his support, according to McAteer, a self-styled "Christian Zionist" who, in tandem with representatives of the present Likud government, holds frequent "prayer breakfasts" in Washington and elsewhere. (A recent one, held in Memphis last month, drew several dignitaries of the political right, including the now deposed Alabama Judge Roy Moore, he of the famous -- or infamous -- public monument to the 10 Commandments)

Last year, McAteer hosted Israeli tourism director Benny Alon at a local affair, during which Alon condemned Bush's then viable "road map for peace" as compromising to his nation's integrity. (Elon is one of two Israeli cabinet ministers fired just last weekend by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for recalcitrance about a partial withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Gaza Strip.)

2) Homosexual Rights: According to McAteer, Bush is "playing games" with the issue, hobnobbing with members of the gay-oriented Log Cabin Republicans and appointing "10 known homosexuals, including one ambassador," to office.

3) Abortion: McAteer said Bush is "not as strong" as he might be in his opposition to abortion. "He's not a Ronald Reagan. He's just not there."

These objections may astonish Democrats, who see Bush as no exemplar of liberalism on these matters. They astonish Ryder, a mainstream conservative who points out that Bush has held steadily to the pro-life position politically and has proposed a constitutional amendment to maintain the heterosexual nature of marriage. They even astonish Loeffel, who operates from somewhat further right but professes to be less demanding of literal fidelity on the subjects mentioned by McAteer. She pronounced herself "hunky-dory" with the president.

IT SHOULD BE NOTED, by way of context, that McAteer briefly held the position of "director of Christians" (as he puts it) for George H.W. Bush, whom he revered, in the presidential campaign of 1987/88. He said he was shoved out by the late political guru Lee Atwater and by one George W. Bush, then "a smiling little fellow" who had a desk adjoining McAteer's in campaign headquarters.

After helping the elder Bush win the Southern primaries, McAteer said, he received a "Dear John" letter from the younger Bush, informing him that the campaign intended to "reorganize." It was a case, read the Memphian, between the lines, of getting rid of "all these radical, right-wing people like Ed McAteer." McAteer confronted the younger Bush, whom he said, "couldn't make eye contact with me."

Another, more recent McAteer grievance is that he lobbied hard -- with backup letters from several national Republican officeholders, including former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson and current Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee -- to become ambassador to Israel in 2001. McAteer said he "didn't even receive a courtesy call or letter" from the then-new president. Said McAteer: "I may not know economics but I know the Bible and I know people. I sensed I knew the real Bush."

Disaffection with Bush is "not yet widespread" in the evangelical community, said McAteer, but it could become so if opponent John Kerry "hammered away" at some of the president's less than rock-ribbed views in the three problem areas mentioned above. This being highly unlikely, McAteer himself avowed an intent to carry forth such a gospel.

"[Bush] hasgot nothing to lose" by taking stronger positions on Israel, homosexuality, and abortion, said McAteer. "And if he did, even a guy like me would be a little different in my conversation about him."

P>IT REMAINS TO BE SEEN how widespread such a negative view about Bush becomes among evangelicals. Even McAteer conceded that "at the moment, it's not too widespread."

If Loeffel, the former president of the now inactive Christian Right organization FLARE (Family, Life, America, Responsible Education), is a gauge, the president need have no fear among the great mass of conservative Christians.

"He [Bush] may not be staunch enough to satisfy Ed McAteer, but he's staunch enough to satisfy me," said Loeffel, who added that it's "inconceivable" that voters of her persuasion could vote for Democrat John Kerry, who -- besides being pro-choice on abortion and suspect on gay-rights -- is "wishy-washy" on issues. "Nobody knows what his positions are, but Bush has always stayed close to positions that conservative evangelicals consider important."

In a conversation last week, before Reagan's death was announced, Loeffel hearkened back to that watershed year of 1980 and prefigured some of her opening remarks at this week's commission meeting. "In 1980, America was at a turning point, and I was in my life. I felt that we wanted more traditional values, family values, and traditional family values in America means Judeo-Christian values and principles.

"I had been the notorious little wallflower, the woman who sat in the corner and listened and had nothing to say. I took notes. But I found my voice. I felt it was time to speak up. I was sick and tired of television and magazines and movies dictating what we were supposed to believe and having so much control of the information that was out."

Loeffel joined FLARE, the organization she later headed, and became an overnight activist. "The idea was to be a 'flare.' You set out to warn people."

One day, she recallED, she went with a friend from FLARE to a City Council meeting to protest "the infamous 12-inch rule," the ordinance which once upon a time (and too liberally, to Loeffel's mind) determined the legal distance between topless dancers and customers. "We got down there. The place was packed. I looked around and realized I knew most of the people in the audience. They were my church members! I eased into a chair and asked one, "Why are you all here?" -- thinking I'd love to have them there for my issues."

Loeffel recalled: "I was told, 'Well, we live in Woodchase, and they built some apartments, and we want the road blocked off.' All I could think of was Ka-ching! It's the pocketbook! But those are all evangelical Christians. They vote that way, but they also were down there protesting because of their pocketbook. People I knew and went to church with."

IN SUCH A MANNER DID MARILYN LOEFFEL, moral crusader, have her second vital epiphany --the awareness that she could broaden her concerns to bread-and-butter issues and become a politician. In such a manner did she manage her own version of the leap, previously managed by McAteer, from religious and moral preoccupations into the realm of public policy.

Loeffel's years of prominence in FLARE had made her a well-known spokesperson on matters ranging from opposition to abortion to general issues of public decency (or censorship, as some of her opponents saw it). (See "Politics," page 10, for a review of some of her positions, past and present.) Her espousal of charter schools earned her an appointment to the state Education Board from then Governor Don Sundquist, but her notoriety as an advocate for positions that were adjudged by her critics to be hard-right earned her a turndown from the state Senate.

"That hurt, but I thought, Hey, great, I can use the additional name recognition," said Loeffel. So she did, running for the commission in 1998 and winning an easy victory in the Republican primary field and an even easier one in the general election against Democrat Irma Merrill.

Reelected to a second term, she became chairman of the commission last year --though her ascension had its rocky moments. Though she is not a party to the current suit, by several commission colleagues, seeking judicial revocation of the current eight-year term-limits provision for commissioners, she maintains an interest in the outcome.

"I really don't know what I intend to do in the future politically," she said -- though many suspect her of harboring ambitions for higher office.

LOEFFEL INSISTED THAT she's trying to keep her political concerns local. But when she was asked this week about her perception of America, she recalled the turbulent voyage to the New World of the pilgrims and the Mayflower Compact and said of the nation created by those first pioneers: "Part of our mission was to evangelize the world."

Whether or not this mission statement reflects the world view of Reagan, the late president whom both she and Ed McAteer claim as an inspiration, it is arguably consistent with words delivered Sunday by McAteer in a sermon to members of the Grace Baptist Church in Coldwater, Mississippi.

"People have forgotten God, and things are in disarray," McAteer told the small congregation, quoting Nehemiah, and adding, "Among the heathen ... we are a separate people."

Of course, as even McAteer's political opponents would concede, he is a famously good-natured man with a twinkling smile and a redeeming sense of humor. On the way down to Coldwater last Sunday, he had veered off the road at one point, hitting the series of ridges that constitute a warning strip along the shoulder before correcting the direction of his car.

"My wife is always warning me when she rides along, I go too far to the right," he said, adding with a hopeful smile, "But I always get back okay."

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