Today, the undercovered story of the 2010 midterm elections became clear: Americans have elected the most politically and theologically fundamentalist House of Representatives in modern history. When Tea Partiers insisted their goal was attacking the deficit and government spending they weren’t lying. But when they submerged their long histories of social conservative activism—some of it incredibly radical—they were hiding a crucial part of themselves.
For those who have been watching, it’s no surprise that the 112th Congress immediately put abortion on the front of the agenda. (The House voted today to strip Planned Parenthood of its federal funding, all of which is marked for non-abortion services.) On Jan. 5, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released its definitive study of the religious makeup of the 112th Congress. While there were no big surprises—Congress is still dominated by Protestants, American Jews are overrepresented and non-believers are underrepresented—the legislature’s movement toward religious conservatism stands out.
Roman Catholics and Baptists, one of the most conservative Protestant denominations, made significant gains in different ways. Catholic representatives have traditionally been split about evenly between the parties, but only two of the 40 freshmen Catholics are Democrats, suggesting that a growing number of conservative Catholics are deciding to run for office. Only 11.8 percent of incumbents in the 112th Congress are Baptist, but Baptists make up 16.1 percent of the newly elected members. Sixteen of the 18 new Baptists are Republicans.
The following is a batch of research I’ve been putting together since the election, highlighting the most radical members of the new Congress.
Rep. Daniel Webster (R-Florida, 8th district)
Orlando Southern Baptist Daniel Webster came into the national spotlight during the midterm campaign when his Democratic opponent, Alan Grayson, released an ad that dishonestly edited Webster’s speech to a Christian group. But Grayson was right to sound the alarm about the group Webster was speaking to: the Institute for Basic Life Principles, a seminar founded by evangelical fundamentalist Bill Gothard.
Webster and his wife spent fourteen years attending, speaking at, and raising money for the conferences, which teach a patriarchal family structure in which wives and unmarried daughters should submit to men. Families are encouraged to homeschool their children and to have as many as possible. Webster’s wife, Sandy, uses the group’s corriculum to homeschool the couple’s six children. IBLP operates a web of unaccredited educational institutions, including a law school, a medical school and a paramilitary boot camp for young men. (Another Republican congressman, Rep. Sam Johnson of Dallas, is the chairman of the IBLP’s board of directors.)
Gothard’s conferences teach, among other things, that debt is “a hidden judgment of God”; that women working outside the home is “evil”; that illnesses have spiritual causes; and that the beat in rock music, even Christian rock, leads to demonic possession. How much influence these teachings had on Webster was evident when, as a Florida representative, he fought to legalize homeschooling and sponsored a “covenant marriage” law that would have allowed couples to opt for a special type of marriage where divorce would be illegal unless one partner was convicted of adultery.
Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle (R-New York, 25th district)
“I want to be really careful not to make this a referendum on abortion,” Ann Marie Buerkle told the Syracuse Post-Standard during the midterm campaign. “People here are concerned about jobs and the economy.”
But like many of her fellow Tea Party candidates, Buerkle has a long history in radical anti-abortion activism. Beginning in the late 1980s she was the head of the Syracuse Right to Life, and served as the spokeswoman for the militant anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, which uses outrageous tactics to intimidate women and doctors. The group is known for its civil disobedience, graphic photos of aborted fetuses and harassment campaigns against abortion doctors and their employees. Despite the group’s denials, Operation Rescue activists have been linked to the man who killed Kansas abortion doctor George Tiller.
In 1989, Buerkle marched in a protest outside a gynecologist’s office in Syracuse, where anti-abortion protesters attempted to block the entrance to women arriving for appointments. The protesters carried around a blackened fetus called “Baby Choice” that they had stolen from a Midwest pathology lab. Fourteen were arrested. Burkle says she’s unapologetic about her work with Operation Rescue, and her campaign was heavily subsidized by the National Right to Life and the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List.
A Roman Catholic, Buerkle spent her first morning on the job in Washington at a prayer service at St. Peter’s Catholic Church before accidentally missing her first vote in the House.
Rep. James Lankford (R-Oklahoma, 5th district)
James Lankford was baptized at age eight by minister W.A. Criswell, who thrust conservative theology and GOP politics to the forefront of the Southern Baptist agenda. And though he seemed to come from nowhere, as the director of the largest Baptist youth camp in the country, Lankford was well known to pastors, church staff, and teenagers across Oklahoma and Texas. He supplemented his income preaching at Baptist churches: in 2009, he earned nearly $10,000 in honoraria from churches, according to Federal Election Commission disclosure forms. Though his campaign was heavily underwritten by corporations like Exxon and Chevron, those pastors and church employees formed the foundation of his individual donors. He even got a boost from his friend and popular Christian musician Chris Tomlin, who endorsed him in an online video.
Earlier in his career with the Oklahoma Southern Baptist convention, Lankford was a crusader for abstinence-only sex education in the state’s legislature. In 1998, at the behest of True Love Waits, a Southern Baptist organization that asks teenagers to pledge to remain sexually abstinent before marriage, Lankford met with Gov. Frank Keating and members of the legislature to push conservative positions on sexuality in the state’s public schools. He and his fellow activists were given a standing ovation in the Oklahoma senate chamber for their efforts. “Oklahoma law requires that any school that teaches sex ed, must have as its primary purpose the teaching of abstinence,” he reported back to True Love Waits.
Ten years later, Lankford said, he and his wife “both sensed that God was saying to us, ‘Get ready.’” Part of his attempts to shift his campaign to more Tea Party-friendly issues was speaking of their grievances—the national debt, for example—in Biblical terms. “The people see debt as a moral issue,” Lankford told a Baptist news service. “You go to the book of Nehemiah, and there were two major issues … in the transition of their crumbling city. It was the infrastructure—obviously, [rebuilding] the [city] wall, which we’re all familiar with—but it was also debt; the people were heavily in debt to the nations around them. And those were the two issues that Nehemiah took on.”
Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Missouri, 4th district)
Hartzler had a long, unusual road to political activism, which she describes in her 2007 book, Running God’s Way, a guide for evangelical politicians. In 1994, at the urging of her husband and a Republican activist, Hartzler decided to “pray about” running for state representative. She eventually decided it was God’s will that she enter the race. In her book, she describes modeling her candidacy after the Old Testament character Absalom, the seditious son of King David who led an armed rebellion against his father’s kingdom.
Hartzler’s religion was an issue among local Republicans, who feared that her Mennonite church affiliation might mean she harbored pacifist views. She assured them otherwise.
Soon after her election to the Missouri legislature, Hartzler was throwing her support behind social conservative causes. She sponsored a law that would have allowed prosecutors to charge women who have abortions with murder, and led a successful effort to add a gay marriage ban to the state constitution, one of the first amendments of its kind. During the 2010 campaign, she accused her Democratic opponent, one of the architects of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” of “advancing the radical gay agenda” by supporting hate crimes legislation.
Hartzler’s top donors included Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum and Sarah Palin’s PAC, though she didn’t make a single mention of her social conservatism on her campaign website.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin)
The millionaire Ayn Rand disciple who defeated Sen. Russ Feingold financed his own campaign and toasted his victory at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. But underneath his anti-regulation, anti-stimulus economic platform, Johnson’s social conservatism runs deep. Early in his campaign, he planned to inject abortion into the race. “I would like to ask Russ [Feingold], ‘Have you ever witnessed a partial-birth abortion?’” he told conservative columnist George Will.
The new senator is a member of the Wisconsin Synod, one of the most conservative Lutheran sects in the country. In 1961, the Wisconsin Synod split from the Missouri Synod over, among other things, the latter allowing women hold low-level positions in the church and its unwillingness to discipline members who strayed into heresy. In addition to abortion, Johnson opposes gay marriage and embryonic stem cell research, and believes sunspots are responsible for global warming.
In 2010, prodded by a Catholic official, Johnson testified in the Wisconsin state legislature against the Child Victims Act, which would have removed the statute of limitations from sex abuse cases that occurred when the victims were minors. Meanwhile, the Green Bay Diocese of the Catholic church was trying to quash a lawsuit against it by former members who had been abused by pedophile priests.
Rep. Sandy Adams (R-Florida, 24th district)
Adams is an Episcopalian, but hails from the evangelical mecca of Orlando, Florida. After a brief stint in the Air Force, she worked as an investigator in the Orange County Sheriff’s Office before being elected to the state legislature in 2002. She ran as far to the right on economic issues as any conservative candidate in 2010: Adams voiced support for repealing the 16th amendment, which allows the federal government to levy income taxes; repealing 17th amendment, which prescribes the direct election of senators; and eliminating the IRS.
Despite her economic extremism and vehement opposition to immigration, Adams made her name crusading against reproductive rights, stem cell research, and evolution. In the Florida House, Adams supported restrictions on abortion, from lengthening waiting periods to strengthening parental consent laws to requiring women to have pre-abortion ultrasounds. She voted for a bill that would require public school teachers to teach theories critical of evolution.
During the campaign, Adams outed herself as a biblical literalist while appearing on a Florida radio program. Asked if she believed in evolution, she replied, “I’m Christian. What else do you want to know? I believe in the biblical terms of how we came about.” Discussing the comment later, she said, “I don’t back away from my religion.”
Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-North Carolina, 2nd district)
Renee Ellmers was one of the Tea Party’s designated medical professionals against Obamacare, touting her credentials as a registered nurse in opposition to the 2009 health care reform law. But she was also the candidate to capitalize most cynically on the so-called Ground Zero mosque, releasing the mother of all mosque-baiting ads and making Islamophobia a central issue of her campaign.
Ellmers’ ad used the words “Muslim” and “terrorist” interchangeably, and warned that the so-called Ground Zero mosque was a “victory mosque” like others Muslim conquerors had built on sites of conquests in Jerusalem and Cordoba. In a heated exchange with Anderson Cooper, Ellmers insisted on the possibility Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the leader of the Park51 project and an international State Department representative, could be a terrorist. She also refused to acknowledge that the Roman Catholic church, of which she is a member, built churches on the site of its own bloody conquests.
During the campaign, Ellmers protrayed herself as a wife and mother who had never dreamed of running for congress. She volunteers at her son’s Christian school and teaches Catholic Sunday school. Her leading donors included the Susan B. Anthony List, National Right to Life, and SarahPAC.
Rep. Reid Ribble (R-Wisconsin, 24th district)
Before winning in November, Ribble owned a roofing company in Kaukauna, Wisconsin. Financially backed by big business, he kept his fringe remarks to issues like privatizing Social Security, which Ribble called a “Ponzi scheme.”
But Ribble was one of few conservatives willing to admit at least some of their social conservative positions on their website. His included an issue page for abortion, which he opposes, but did not mention gay marriage, which he also opposes. For his candor, he recieved sizable campaign donations from the National Right to Life.
Ribble planned to enter full-time ministry before becoming a businessman. He attended the Grand Rapids School of Bible and Music, a literalist conservative Christian college now known as Cornerstone University. Ribble served on the board of Life Promotions, a Christian youth organization in Appleton, WI that promtes sexual abstinence and tells gay teenagers that their homosexuality could be caused by abuse.
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