Senate majority leader Bill Frist appeared through a telecast as a speaker at “Justice Sunday,” at the invitation of the event’s main sponsor, Family Research Council president Tony Perkins. “Justice Sunday” was promoted as a rally to portray Democrats as being “against people of faith.” Many of the speakers compared the plight of conservative Christians to the civil rights movement. But in sharing the stage with Perkins, who introduced him to the rally, Frist was associating himself with someone who has longstanding ties to racist organizations.
Four years ago, Perkins addressed the Louisiana chapter of the Council of Conservative Citizens (CCC), America’s premier white supremacist organization, the successor to the White Citizens Councils, which battled integration in the South. In 1996 Perkins paid former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke $82,500 for his mailing list. At the time, Perkins was the campaign manager for a right-wing Republican candidate for the US Senate in Louisiana. The Federal Election Commission fined the campaign Perkins ran $3,000 for attempting to hide the money paid to Duke.
As the emcee of Justice Sunday, Tony Perkins positioned himself beside a black preacher and a Catholic “civil rights” activist as he rattled off the phone numbers of senators wavering on President Bush’s judicial nominees. The evening’s speakers studiously couched their appeals on behalf of Bush’s stalled judges in the vocabulary of victimhood, accusing Democratic senators of “filibustering people of faith.”
James Dobson, who founded the Family Research Council as the Washington lobbying arm of his Focus on the Family, invoked the Christian right’s persecution complex. On an evening when Jews were celebrating the second night of Passover, Dobson claimed, “The biggest Holocaust in world history came out of the Supreme Court” with the Roe v. Wade decision. On his syndicated radio show nearly two weeks earlier, on April 11, Dobson compared the “black robed men” on the Supreme Court to “the men in white robes, the Ku Klux Klan.” By his logic, the burden of oppression had passed from religious and racial minorities to unborn children and pure-hearted heterosexuals engaged in “traditional marriage.”
Bishop Harry Jackson, from Hope Christian Church in College Park, Maryland, was Justice Sunday’s only black speaker. Jackson had recently unveiled his “Black Contract With America,” a document that highlights wedge issues like gay marriage that would presumably pry black churchgoers away from the Democratic Party. But so far he has been disappointed. “Black churches are too concerned with justice,” Jackson lamented in his speech. Nonetheless, his association with the right wing has done wonders for his personal profile. Just after Bush’s second inauguration, he was among a contingent of black clergy members invited to the White House for a private meeting.
Justice Sunday also featured a token Catholic, William Donohue, who heads the nation’s largest “Catholic civil rights organization,” the Catholic League. In the battle to confirm far-right judicial nominees like William Pryor, who happens to be Catholic, Donohue has become a key asset for the Christian right’s evangelical faction. He has argued that Democratic senators opposing Pryor and others are motivated by anti-Catholicism. “There isn’t de jure discrimination against Catholics in the Senate,” Donohue claimed on Sunday. “There is de facto discrimination. They’ve set the bar so high with the abortion issue, we can’t get any real Catholics over it.”
But for all his concern with anti-Catholicism, Donohue had no qualms about sharing the stage with Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Dr. Albert Mohler. “As an evangelical, I believe that the Roman Catholic Church is a false church,” Mohler remarked during a 2000 TV interview. “It teaches a false gospel. And the Pope himself holds a false and unbiblical office.” Donohue, who has protested against Democrats who have made no such comments about Catholics, was silent about Mohler. In fact, the site of Justice Sunday, Highview Baptist Church, in Louisville, Kentucky, is Mohler’s home church.
“We’re fed up and we’re on the same side,” Donohue declared. “And if the secular left is worried, they should be worried.”
For Tony Perkins, Justice Sunday was the fulfillment of a strategy devised more than two decades ago by his political mentor, Woody Jenkins. In May 1981, in the wake of Ronald Reagan’s presidential victory, Jenkins and some fifty other conservative activists met at the Northern Virginia home of direct-mail pioneer Richard Viguerie to plot the growth of their movement. The Council for National Policy (CNP), an ultra-secretive, right-wing organization, was the outcome of that meeting. The CNP hooked up theocrats like R.J. Rushdoony, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell with wealthy movement funders like Amway founder Richard DeVos and beer baron Joseph Coors. As DeVos famously said, the CNP “brings together the doers with the donors.”
Jenkins, then a Louisiana state lawmaker, became CNP’s first executive director, and promptly made a bold prediction to a Newsweek reporter: “One day before the end of this century, the Council will be so influential that no president, regardless of party or philosophy, will be able to ignore us or our concerns or shut us out of the highest levels of government.”
Eighteen years later, in 1999, the CNP was addressed by Texas Governor George W. Bush, on the eve of his presidential campaign. At the gathering, which was closed to the press, Bush reportedly sought to put to rest any notion that he was a moderate. Later, when he was asked to release to the public a transcript of his speech to the CNP, Bush stubbornly refused. But the press reported rumors that he had promised the CNP he would appoint only antiabortion judges if elected.
For years, Jenkins had been grooming Perkins as his political successor. “To Jenkins, Perkins was like a son, and the feeling was and is mutual,” wrote former Jenkins staffer Christopher Tidmore. In 1996 Perkins cut his teeth as the manager of Jenkins’s campaign for US Senate. It was during that campaign that, in an attempt to consolidate the support of Louisiana’s conservative base, Perkins paid David Duke $82,000 for his mailing list. After Jenkins was defeated by his Democratic opponent, Mary Landrieu, he contested the election. But during the contest period, Perkins’s surreptitious payment to Duke was exposed through an investigation conducted by the FEC, which fined the Jenkins campaign.
Six years later, in 2002, Perkins embarked on a campaign to avenge his mentor’s defeat by running for the US Senate himself. But Perkins was dogged with questions about his involvement with David Duke. Perkins issued a flat denial that he had ever had anything to do with Duke, and he denounced him for good measure. Unfortunately, Perkins’s signature was on the document authorizing the purchase of Duke’s list. Perkins’s dalliance with the racist Council of Conservative Citizens in the run-up to his campaign also illuminates the seamy underside of his political associations. Despite endorsements from James Dobson and a host of prominent CNP members, Perkins was not even the leading Republican in the senatorial race.
In the wake of his defeat, with Dobson’s blessing, Perkins moved to Washington to head the Family Research Council. In a closed meeting at the Plaza Hotel in New York City during the Republican National Convention in August 2004, an alliance drawing in Frist was sealed. Perkins’s associates at the CNP presented the Senate majority leader with its “Thomas Jefferson Award.” The grateful Frist declared, “The destiny of the nation is on the shoulders of the conservative movement.”
On Justice Sunday, Perkins introduced Frist as “a friend of the family.” “I don’t think it’s radical to ask senators to vote,” Frist said from a giant screen above the audience. “Only in the United States Senate could it be considered a devastating option to allow a vote.” His face then disappeared, and Perkins returned onstage to urge viewers to call their senators.
But there is more at stake here than the fate of the filibuster. With Justice Sunday, Perkins’s ambition to become a national conservative leader was ratified; Bill Frist’s presidential campaign for 2008 was advanced with the Christian right; and the faithful were imbued with the notion that they are being victimized by liberal Democratic evildoers.