WASHINGTON -- When Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition opened its weekend conference here yesterday, it was clear from the list of scheduled speakers that there would be a lot of preaching to the choir going on. Robertson himself delivered a ringing keynote address heavy on commitment to family values and populated with straw men methodically shot down, to the cheers of the faithful.
At one point, the famed televangelist defended the right of "Christian believers" to engage in the political process, arguing that if they couldn't, "then by definition only those who don't believe" would be able to participate. The fact that nobody was seriously suggesting that they couldn't take part in politics didn't diminish the applause that the line generated. Robertson threatened to bring the wrath of the faithful down on his elected political foes. "Read my lips," he said, in the fashion of George Bush. "If you advocate the agenda of the radical left, you will not be re-elected to public office." More cheers erupted.
Others on the Republican Party right -- House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich and Sens. Jesse Helms and Phil Gramm -- dished out more of the same, and Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, joking his way through a pep talk for support of GOP candidates in 1993 and 1994, got his biggest reaction from the crowd by merely mentioning a new deity of the religious right wing -- radio-television political talk-show entertainer Rush Limbaugh.
One other preacher to the choir, somewhat surprisingly, turned out to be David Wilhelm, the Democratic National Chairman. He earned mostly silence and some groans and boos along with only occasional applause, because the choir he obviously was ++ preaching to wasn't in the hall.
Wilhelm, in what the 1992 Clinton campaign used to call "counterscheduling," went into the lion's den and repeatedly tweaked the beast's tail -- a performance that will endear him to fellow Democrats who share his concern about this increasingly potent political force lined up almost exclusively now with the Republican Party.
The Democratic chairman proceeded to tell the Christian political activists that he too was a Christian, though a Democrat, adding that "however inconvenient it might be, God is an independent." And after lecturing the audience that the Republicans did not have a corner on belief in God, family and values, Wilhelm observed that "while religious motivation is appropriate, it is wrong to use religious authority to coerce support in the public arena."
He accused the Christian Coalition of "savagely" attacking members of Congress in radio ads for supporting President Clinton's economic proposals, charging that implicit in such attacks "is the message that those who disagree may have taken an un-Christian position."
By the time Wilhelm got around to saying that "you can be a good Christian and support a woman's right to choose [an abortion]" and that "God loves and accepts all his children, regardless of differences among us, including sexual orientation," shouts of "No!" were resonating through the room.
When Wilhelm was finished, he left to polite applause. It was all reminiscent of the Clinton campaign's "going against the grain" tactic -- going somewhere and telling voters what they didn't want to hear, to demonstrate that Clinton was "a different kind of Democrat" unafraid to say the unpopular or unpolitic.
For example, in the Michigan primary in 1992, he went to nearly lily-white Macomb County, celebrated as the home of blue-collar Reagan Democrats, and preached that it was time to abandon racial prejudice, then went to a black church in Detroit and preached love of blue-collar rednecks. He spoke at the Wharton School in Philadelphia and chided it for producing the likes of Michael Milken and Donald Trump, and he used the Rainbow Coalition to criticize rap artist Sister Souljah in the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson's presence.
In the last case especially, Clinton was applauded by many Southern whites for "standing up to" Jackson. And while Wilhelm's pointed remarks to the Christian Coalition seemed "courageous" to some, they sounded a lot like the same old gambit of "going against the grain." Later, Wilhelm observed: "We can't allow God to become in the '90s what the flag became in the '80s" -- the claimed property of the right wing.