Hard Times for the Christian Right?

Article excerpt

In February, I attended the fiftieth annual convention of the National Religious Broadcasters Association, held--for the first time in decades--not within the Washington, D.C., "beltway" but in faraway Los Angeles. There, amidst the ruins of last year's riots and at the center of the nation's entertainment industry, 5,000 Christian TV and radio professionals heard speeches on the status of their multibillion-dollar-a-year industry and assessed the health of the evangelical movement that supports it.

No longer do a few scandal-provoking TV preachers dominate religious broadcasting and generate a drum-beat of ridicule from the secular press. The number of full-time TV and radio stations has stabilized at about 100 and 1,200 respectively, while the real growth area has been in the field of cable television. The New Inspirational Network offers 18 of the most popular TV preachers on 550 affiliated cable systems. Pat Robertson's own Family Channel cable network continues to reap profits for the former presidential candidate's complex of media projects. His newest venture, "Standard News:" is a daily news service for Christian radio stations.

Why, then, the long faces among NRB conventioneers? One after another of the religious broadcasters decried the "moral crisis" plaguing the land--all, apparently, because the Clintons now occupy the White House.

This year's NRB convention hosted a poorly attended workshop, "The Pro-Life Movement Under President Clinton," featuring Dr. John Willke, the Ohio pediatrician who founded the National Right-to-Life Committee and has recently launched the Life Issues Institute, a think tank devoted to developing strategies and educational materials for the anti-abortion movement. Willke compared the anti-abortionists' predicament to that of the anti-slavery movement in the years shortly before Abraham Lincoln's 1860 election. Willke warned that the Clinton administration may try to derail the 3,000 "crisis pregnancy centers" set up by anti-abortion activists nationwide by requiring them to meet hospital emergency-room standards. The Democrats, he said, will also change the rules for political-action committees to restrict campaign funding for anti-abortion members of Congress, and the Federal Election Commission will begin busting tax-exempt churches for partisan electioneering. Willke's biggest fear--and one that prompted a formal resolution by the NRB--is that the Federal Communications Commission, under Clinton, will reinstate some version of the old "fairness doctrine" requiring broadcast stations to air "opposing viewpoints" on controversial issues.

Dr. Willke's Life Issues Institute has conducted extensive opinion polling of people who are "pro-life," "pro-choice," and "uncommitted" on the question of legal abortion. Most of the uncommitted have qualms about the morality of abortion but still think a woman has the ultimate right to decide. To combat the widespread impression that anti-abortion activists care more about fetuses than women, Willke urged them to build more "crisis pregnancy centers" and to form fewer picket lines outside abortion clinics. "We have to start oozing compassion for women," he said. "Our Christian media has to sound that trumpet almost ad nauseam."

But there's one woman for whom Willke and his brethren hold no mercy, and that's Hilary Clinton. At his work, shop, Willke told an apocryphal story: it seems that, on the morning of Clinton's inauguration, an anti-abortion activist named Lureen managed to get past a White House security guard and seat herself in the third row of a church service behind Bill and Hillary Clinton. As Bill came down the aisle and shook Lureen's hand, she told him: "God doesn't want you to kill unborn babies." He gave her a blank stare and kept moving. Next, Hillary hugged her, and Lureen repeated: "God doesn't want you to kill unborn babies." Hillary let go of Lureen and stood back; then her countenance changed to that of a person seemingly possessed and she responded: "It is God's law to kill babies. …