God's Country: Lobbying for a Theocracy, One Member of Congress at a Time

By Blumenthal, Max | The Washington Monthly, October 2003 | Go to article overview

God's Country: Lobbying for a Theocracy, One Member of Congress at a Time


Blumenthal, Max, The Washington Monthly


On a tree-lined street in Southeast Washington, a banner flaps against the brick front of a three-story Victorian townhouse, proclaiming "the two most important commandments"--honor thy Lord and love thy neighbor. This is the Washington office of the National Clergy Council, a little-known, but increasingly influential advocacy group representing roughly 5,000 conservative ministers in and around the country. Inside, the Reverend Rob Schenck, the founder of the organization and its self-proclaimed "missionary to elected and appointed officials," has just wrapped up a staff meeting. Located just behind the U.S. Supreme Court, the meticulous, sparsely-furnished townhouse, Schenck tells me, is a "sacred space" where he hosts a Bible study group for congressional staffers, convenes ministerial meetings, and conducts communion service. A small brick patio containing a few benches, a fountain, and a large marble rendering of the Ten Commandment tablets, serves as a "prayer garden."

With his distinctive New York accent, a style of dress more befitting of a Wall Street banker than a minister, and a relaxed demeanor--even opponents describe him as friendly and likable--Schenck is not the type you'd expect to find In a revival tent or on a pulpit. Indeed, he was raised in a liberal, secular household by Reform Jewish parents, and only converted to Christianity when he was 17. When I dropped by to visit with him in August, Schenck had just returned from Montgomery, Ala., where he organized daily rallies outside the state's supreme court building to protest the removal of Chief Justice Roy Moore's own monument--a 5,300-pound monolith carved from granite--to the Ten Commandments. And though Moore's monument was carted away, Schenck told me, by successfully directing the media spotlight on the removal and Moore's subsequent suspension, the protest was "an enormous success." Moore has become a martyr to a mounting coalition of conservative religious groups "incensed" by the debacle, says Schenck, who spent months planning for the rallies. Now, a sleeping elephant has awoken--and Schenck hopes to precipitate a stampede.

The Moore protests signal the beginning of a new day for religious conservatives. Until recently, the movement was in decline, with organizations like the Christian Coalition bleeding members and contributions. But with born-again Christians in the Oval Office and leadership positions in Congress, and a hard-right Pentecostal heading the Justice Department, religious conservatives have more access to the corridors of power than they have had in a decade. And recent setbacks-like the Supreme Court's sodomy ruling and Canada's legalization of gay marriage--have served to energize their ranks.

That rising tide is lifting even the boats of people like Schenck, who in his beliefs and actions has long been on the outer edge of the Christian right. As a leader of the radical anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, Schenck was regarded as something of an embarrassment even by other religious conservatives. Now Schenck is counting on issues like the Ten Commandments to build his clout and respectability.

The National Clergy Council has nothing like the Beltway muscle of, say, James Dobson's Family Research Council. But its members lead a particularly vocal and energized minority among religious conservatives: those who favor the substitution of Biblical literalism for civil law. Fittingly, the most visible manifestation of Schenck's influence are the small, polished stone plaques, inscribed with the Ten Commandments, that he has distributed to more than 400 politicians in Washington and across the country. They include Rep. Tom Delay (R-Texas)--"His response was extremely positive"--Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Bush's "Ambassador for Religious Liberty," John V. Hanford, who hand-delivered Schenck's plaque to the president. Schenck asks those who accept the plaque to "display it and obey it," suggesting that in their acceptance, they pledge to work toward a government rooted in Mosaic moral law and "Judeo-Christian ethics. …

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