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The Impact of the Christian Coalition in New Hamsphire: From Schoolboard Politics to Presidential Primaries

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The People for the American Way “Expose the Right” campaign asks presidential candidates the hard-hitting questions that the mainstream media does not. Expose the Right unveils the Christian Coalition’s work in New Hampshire, from school board politics to presidential primaries.

Key words: Christian Coalition, People for the American Way, Expose the Right, Smith Towns Amendment, Homosexuality, Gay Rights, Education School Board, phonics, Merrimack New Hampshire, Presidential Candidates, Press Questions, censorship, anti-gay

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m Amy Goodman. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Pacifica’s daily grassroots election show. In today’s program, a look at the Christian Coalition on the ground in New Hampshire, from school board politics to presidential primaries, and People for the American Way’s “Expose the Right” campaign. Then a look at Pat Buchanan’s record on social issues. While some call them conservative, many call them simple hate mongering. And as Buchanan battles for the Republican win today, we’ll debate his labor record. Does his anti-NAFTA, pro-jobs stance mean he’s pro-labor? Unions say no. Finally, New Hampshire’s living wage campaign. Grassroots groups say the economy should be judged not only by numbers of jobs, but whether those jobs pay a living wage.

Now let’s move into the first segment. Every Tuesday on Democracy Now!, we’ll be taking a look at how the Christian right is affecting the presidential campaign. Today we’re joined by two people on the ground in New Hampshire. Gayland Nelson is director of the New Hampshire Expose the Right campaign, which sends activists to candidate events to confront them with uncomfortable and pointed questions the media aren’t asking. And we’re also joined by Ken Coleman. He’s a member of the school board in Merrimack, New Hampshire, who’s fought efforts by the Christian right to push its agenda through public schools. And we want to welcome you both to Democracy Now!

KEN COLEMAN: Good morning.

GAYLAND NELSON: Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: Morning. Let’s begin with Gayland Nelson, director of New Hampshire’s Expose the Right campaign for People for the American Way. What exactly is this campaign, that you began in Iowa and are now doing in New Hampshire?

GAYLAND NELSON: This Expose the Right campaign in New Hampshire, it’s a voter education campaign designed to highlight the tremendous influence of religious right political groups and right-wing groups over the presidential primary process, and furthermore, to educate New Hampshire residents—and, of course, Americans, in general—about the extremist, anti-family agenda of those political groups.

AMY GOODMAN: How did People for the American Way get its start?

GAYLAND NELSON: Norman Lear and other civic and religious leaders launched the organization back in 1980. Norman was actually filming a documentary in Texas about televangelists and was so alarmed by their vitriol and their intolerance that he decided to launch a national organization that would celebrate what we consider our real American values of tolerance and respect for others and a sense of community, a respect for diversity, and to fight the intolerant, anti-family agenda of those religious right groups that have grown throughout the ’80s in their strength.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Gayland, let’s talk about some of the questions that you’ve been putting to these candidates in New Hampshire.

GAYLAND NELSON: Sure. We’ve asked the candidates a whole range of questions on a whole range of issues, everything from questions dealing with public education to abortion to Head Start, the Brady bill, civil rights issues. And the more often than not, the candidates have run from our questions, have waffled, and it’s been very difficult to nail them down on a whole range of issues.

AMY GOODMAN: How do you actually do it? Where do you go to talk to the candidates?

GAYLAND NELSON: Well, the candidates generally publish their schedules a few days before, a few days in advance, and you can find them on the Internet, in the newspapers, sometimes by calling the offices to get their schedules, the campaign offices. And then we organize members of People for the American Way and people who have joined the Expose the Right campaign here in New Hampshire, and they join us at these candidate events and ask these very tough questions of the candidates.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, I’ve been seeing your signs on CNN. Every time I see the candidate in New Hampshire—it seems like almost every time—I see this bright orange sign in the background that says “Expose the Right.” But I’ve never seen CNN interview one of you to ask you what it is you’re doing. So why don’t we talk about some of these questions that you’ve been asking? For example, when one of you asked Lamar Alexander about whether he would consider having Pat Robertson as a running mate.

GAYLAND NELSON: Right. That was actually in a candidate event in Londonderry, New Hampshire, and Expose the Right activists asked him if he would seriously consider Pat Robertson as his running mate. And of course he said, “Well, my criteria for running mate are someone I like and someone I respect, someone whose views are a lot like mine. I respect Mr. Robertson, and I’d be glad to consider him.” Now, this is a man, Pat Robertson, a man who has said that the separation of church and state is a lie of the left. He said, “You are supposed to be nice to the Episcopalians and the Presbyterians and the Methodists and this, that and the other thing. Nonsense! I don’t have to be nice to the spirit of the Antichrist. I can love the people who hold false opinions, but I don’t have to be nice to them.” This is a very intolerant individual who heads up an operation, a very powerful grassroots operation, with extreme right-wing views that most Americans reject. And Lamar Alexander has said here in Londonderry that he would consider him as his running mate. We think this is news. We’re not really a—we’re a little miffed, frankly, that the mainstream media thinks that the price of a dozen eggs and a gallon of milk is more important than Pat Robertson considering—or Lamar Alexander considering Pat Robertson as his running mate.

AMY GOODMAN: That was when Lamar Alexander was asked by the mainstream press about questions about the costs of products, and he couldn’t answer them?


AMY GOODMAN: What about some of the other questions—for example, lesbian and gay job discrimination?

GAYLAND NELSON: Well, we asked all of the candidates these questions, and Senator Dole was asked this question in a small town in New Hampshire. He said—

AMY GOODMAN: What exactly did you ask him?

GAYLAND NELSON: —we has asked him earlier in the day—

AMY GOODMAN: What did you ask him?

GAYLAND NELSON: We asked him if he thought that it should be legal to discriminate against someone if they were gay or lesbian. And he said that he was opposed to discrimination. Later in the day, we followed up on that question and asked him once again. We said, “Senator Dole, earlier today you said you were opposed to discrimination.” He said, “That’s right, I’m opposed to discrimination.” And our questioner pushed him on it and said, “Would you endorse legislation which would make it illegal to discriminate against gay men and women?” And he turned away from us. And we pushed him on it again, and he said, “We’re not having a press conference,” which in fact he was. So, basically, refused to answer the question.

AMY GOODMAN: What are some of the others? What are some of the other points that you’ve targeted—for example, Pat Buchanan?

GAYLAND NELSON: Mr. Buchanan had some interesting things to say about Operation Rescue. We asked all the candidates if they agreed with the political tactics of Operation Rescue, the militant anti-abortion group that blocks clinics and harasses women who are there to seek a legal medical operation. And Mr. Buchanan answered our question by saying he didn’t repudiate Operation Rescue. “I have a lot of friends in Operation Rescue.” And then he went on to compare Operation Rescue’s tactics to those used by Dr. Martin Luther King.

AMY GOODMAN: Interesting, considering that Pat Buchanan in—during his time when he was serving Nixon, had advised Nixon not to go visit the widow King on the first anniversary of King’s death, because he said that he was a—well, I can’t remember exactly the word he used in describing King, but he said something like, “King was a fraud,” he said, arguing the visit would “outrage many, many people who believe [Dr.] King was a fraud and a demagogue and perhaps worse.” He said, “Others consider him the Devil incarnate.” Quite an amazing quote that I got from the Anti-Defamation League’s research on Pat Buchanan.

GAYLAND NELSON: Amazing and—amazing, but not too shocking now, now that this Larry Pratt story has come to light, Mr. Buchanan’s aide who has ties to Aryan Nation groups.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s talk about fundamentalism, and let’s bring Ken Coleman into this discussion. Ken, you’ve been a member of the school board in Merrimack, New Hampshire, for a number of years, although you lost that seat for a little while. Can you tell us about how the Christian Coalition is organizing in New Hampshire?

KEN COLEMAN: Well, the Christian Coalition started about three or four years ago, becoming very active in New Hampshire. And they’ve started typically along their textbook guide, which is to organize in the communities. They’ve built a lot of their strength around school boards. I was unseated in a Christian Coalition-oriented campaign from my school board seat as chairman of the school board two years ago. And this is really where they have built the grassroots to be able to support the candidates of their choosing. It is not a coincidence that the person that unseated me from my school board seat, at least temporarily, and is an activist in the Christian Coalition, is also the county chair of Pat Robertson’s campaign.

AMY GOODMAN: Does the Christian Coalition have deep roots in New Hampshire? I mean, has it been around for a while?

KEN COLEMAN: Well, I don’t think it—you know, first of all, we have to remember this is an organization that started in the end of 1988, so they haven’t been around that long. I don’t think that they have terribly deep roots, but what they do have is a lot of connection. They can—I don’t think the Christian Coalition itself has a lot of membership in New Hampshire, but they’ve come in with a lot of money, because it’s the first-in-the-nation primary, and if you count the fact that they can network through the fundamentalist churches, and also they ally themselves very closely with groups, everything from the Gun Owners Association, the New Hampshire Right to Life and some of the militias. And when you put all those together, they end up wielding a fairly significant amount of clout.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what are the issue that you, as the school board president—you, after you were unseated and replaced—what are some of the issues that you’ve been fighting over?

KEN COLEMAN: Well, on the local level, we’ve had to—had fights ever since they took the majority of the board. They tried to put creationism in the school system. Prayer was put in. We’ve seen attacks on the health curriculum, and the health curriculum basically removed from the school system, censorship of books. The latest one is that our school board has enacted what CBS News referred to as the most severe ban on the discussion of anything to do with homosexuality in the nation in any school district.

AMY GOODMAN: What does that involve?

KEN COLEMAN: Basically, what it says is that homosexuality can, A, not be discussed or expressed in any type of documentation or speech that has the effect of affirming homosexuality, which basically means you can’t have any neutral discussion of it. It has actually censored things like Shakespeare’s plays and other things, because anything that has a homosexual that’s not portrayed in a negative light in a storyline could be deemed as, quote-unquote, “having the effect of affirming homosexuality.” The other thing it’s done, which I think is even more critical, is it removed the ability of students to get counseling. And the significant thing about all this language is that this isn’t local Merrimack language or local New Hampshire language; this language came from the failed Smith-Helms amendment to the 1994 Education Act. And that amendment was promoted by the Christian Coalition.


AMY GOODMAN: And that said?

GAYLAND NELSON: Good point, Ken. This has been promoted all over the country in school boards by local Christian Coalitions in efforts to attack the gay and lesbian community.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, that bill, while it failed, said what?

KEN COLEMAN: It basically—it was the exact same language, and it’s a long couple of paragraphs. You know, probably not appropriate that I read them, but basically, it goes on to say that schools will not have any materials, literature, discussion or any other activity that would have the effect of affirming homosexuality. And then it goes on, and it says, “And no student can be referred to any counseling service that affirms homosexuality.”

AMY GOODMAN: So, even though it wasn’t passed federally, at some local school board levels it has been passed and is being enacted, and can also explain why this idea of giving power to the states has become so strong with the Christian Coalition. What about this issue of—now this may seem completely apolitical and have nothing to do with religion—the issue of phonics, Ken?

KEN COLEMAN: Well, the issue of phonics, actually, on the local level has a lot to do with censorship. And this is a little tougher for people to see. It’s not as clear-cut as pushing creationism in science class, for instance. But phonics is where you learn to read phonetically without using literature. Most schools today use a combination of both, that you learn phonics, but you also learn—a “See Dick run” reader is whole language learning, and most schools use a combination of both. The Christian right has been pushing strictly phonics only. And we believe one of the reasons for that is, is if students are not supposed to in school read literature, that gives a way for them to be able to pull a lot of the literature that they find offensive out of the public schools and, in effect, censor it by saying, “You don’t need this anymore, because this isn’t how we’re teaching children to read anymore.”

AMY GOODMAN: I think this could shock a lot of people, the idea that phonics has been made political and the idea that you just learn your ABCs by repeating them and repeating them. I mean, I learned it by having to read story after story after story, and that’s what got me interested in reading. Sure that’s true for a lot of people. We’re talking to Ken Coleman, member of the school board in Merrimack, New Hampshire, who’s been taking on the Christian right for a long time. Actually, he began as a Republican. And your sister is a fundamentalist, isn’t she?

KEN COLEMAN: That’s correct. It’s kind of—she lives down in Virginia, and it’s—we have a good relationship, although there are certain issues politically we can’t talk about because of the fact that a tremendous amount of anger builds up. And that’s one of the problems with bringing this religious agenda in the public school system. Before this came to Merrimack, there were people that disagreed with me over taxation. I tended to be somebody that wanted to support programs, and people would want to cut them. But the day after the school board meeting or the day after our budget was passed, everybody could be civil to one another. When you bring religious issues into the schools, what you do is you make it good—people either are good or evil in people’s eyes, because religion is not something people can compromise on. And that tears apart a community in a way that it can never be put back together again.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Gayland Nelson, as we wrap up this discussion, I wanted to ask you how people—since we’re just beginning the primary season, how people can get involved, how they can ask their candidates questions.

GAYLAND NELSON: Well, we’re going to be returning to Washington to evaluate both the Iowa Expose the Right campaign and the New Hampshire Expose the Right campaign, and, you know, with our limited resources, figure out a way to keep the ball rolling, keep this campaign alive and help people around the country expose the right at the school board level, at the state level and, of course, at the national level. So we may be devising some kind of activist kit, or something like that, to assist people. In the interim, if people want to call People for the American Way in Washington, we do have an 800 number. It’s 326-7329. Again—

AMY GOODMAN: That’s 3—that’s 1-800—


AMY GOODMAN: And that way they can find out how they can just go about getting candidates’ schedules in their state and going to press conferences and citizen forums?

GAYLAND NELSON: Correct, right.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both very much for joining us. We’ve been talking to Gayland Nelson, director of the New Hampshire Expose the Right campaign, which is a campaign of People for the American Way based in Washington, D.C. And we also want to thank Ken Coleman, member of the school board in Merrimack, New Hampshire, who’s been fighting efforts by the Christian right to push its agenda through the public schools.

Coming up, we’re going to be talking about the living wage campaign in New Hampshire, deciding whether an economy is good based on how high the wages are in the state, not just by the unemployment rate. In New Hampshire, in fact, it’s quite low. But next up, we’re going to be talking about Pat Buchanan’s record. We’re going to be talking about his anti-Semitism, racism, homophobia, and then we’re going to look at his record on labor. This has been talked about a lot in the last few weeks. As he talks about his anti-NAFTA stance, he talks about jobs, a lot of people are flocking to his campaign. What do unions think? And also, what do pro-Buchanan activists think, even ones who are in unions? That’s what we’ll be talking about. This is Democracy Now! Stay with us.

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