Right With God
Lyric Hassler talks about her Christian rock phase the way some of us talk about crushes on Sean Cassidy, or acid-wash jeans, or the hundreds of hours we wasted memorizing Pink Floyd lyrics. “Uchhhhhh, embarrassing,” she says. The gaudy soundtrack of the “Christian ghetto” she lived in as a teenager. Lyric the high school “Jesus freak,” chastising her church youth group for wasting time on frivolous pizza parties, ignoring any TV that wasn’t “The 700 Club.”
“It just makes me wince,” she says now that her ghetto self is long gone, now that she’s made it here, to Washington, to the languid Friday afternoon tea time in a congressional cafeteria, to her starched white blouse and a stint on the presidential campaign and a husband who works in the Senate, to a salon of what she calls “Christian intellectuals.”
She is still the same Lyric Hassler, still young (26), still a Christian, still evangelical enough that some of her colleagues on the Bush campaign found her piety “a little weird,” she says. But the kind of weird that blends in without too much trouble. “I’ve come a long way, in terms of Christian maturity,” she says.” I’m not afraid of what the secular world might do to me.”
“Uccch.” It’s the sound of a movement shoving aside its past like so many pairs of braces. The conservative Christian political movement that burst on Washington in the ’80s, the activists with their aborted-fetus placards and their heady plans to colonize school boards and their here-and-now visions of the Apocalypse, their early years are now a source of embarrassment to themselves.
Amen to them. No more thundering sermons on Wiccans and floods and child molesters, caught on tape and leaked by a political opponent. No more pronouncements about “signs” showing up in California. No more horrors from the Book of Revelation.
It’s what Ralph Reed dreamed of, and now it’s finally here. Christians in politics are ready to trade in their guerrilla fatigues for business suits and a day job. This year evangelicals in public office have finally become so numerous that they’ve blended in to the permanent Washington backdrop, a new establishment that has absorbed the local habits and mores.
Nearly every third congressional office stocks an ambitious Christian leader who calls himself “evangelical,” according to Jim Guth, a political science professor at Furman University. They may believe everything they believed before, but they’ve learned to speak in ways that are more measured and cautious and designed not to attract attention.
Sen. John Thune is the movement’s new David, having overthrown former Senate minority leader Tom Daschle. When talking about abortion, the South Dakota Republican prefers abstractions: “I like to connect my principled view with my policy objectives,” he says. “Good principles can lead to good policy.”
“Principles.” “Policy.” This could be Hillary Clinton talking about health care, Ralph Nader discussing emission standards. He could be anyone in Washington, talking about anything.
To secular humanists or even your average Democrat, Thune Land is a scary, scary frontier. “He is this new kind of Republican creature who puts an innocuous face on the religious right,” says a Daschle aide who worked on the campaign. “Behind this cheerful frat-boy basketball-star persona is just the same old beast of the far right.”
Scarier even than the old stealth campaign of the ’90s, like the Christian Coalition’s plot to take over the schools. Those always found their way to the papers in “gotcha” stories that made everyone cringe. But Thune has nothing to hide. Ask him about abortion or gay rights, and he will answer straightforwardly, nicely, sensibly. He’d rather be elected deputy majority whip (which he just was) than lead a fringe movement.
Then again, when movements get inside the tent, they tend to dull their edges. The young ambitious Christians who work in politics don’t want to martyr themselves, they want a good job on the Hill or in the White House policy shop, a house in Fairfax, a spouse they met in church where the contemporary Christian music won’t be too down-home on Sunday morning. In Washington, the evangelicals are the new Episcopalians — established, connected, respectable and quick to blush.
(Recently this reporter attended the Christian Inaugural Ball and spotted, there in the back of the VIP room, a vision of Tammy Faye Bakker but More! Longer eyelashes! Poufier hair! A flouncier dress! That’s TV evangelist Jan Crouch, one of the party’s organizers explained, then quickly steered the reporter to higher ground. Here, come meet this successful Christian lobbyist, this best-selling author, the beautiful young Thune daughters who look just like Barbara and Jenna!) The new establishment is reflected in Time magazine’s cover story last month on the 25 most influential evangelicals in America. No Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson or Gary Bauer or Bob Jones; hardly a name, in fact, that anyone who doesn’t follow this world closely would recognize. Instead it included presidential speechwriter Michael Gerson; Diane Knippers, who runs a think tank on religion and democracy; and Mark Noll, a professor committed to mentoring evangelical intellectuals.
Rick Warren heads the list, and he is the perfect embodiment of the new ethos. Warren, who is a pastor in California, wrote “The Purpose Driven Life,” the best-selling hardcover book in U.S. publishing history. There is only one way to find purpose: “placing our faith in Christ,” by being “born-again.” Period.
“This new generation has the same convictions but without the edge,” says Michael Cromartie, an evangelical scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. “They may believe all the same things, but they are not going to go on ‘Larry King Live’ and say all homosexuals should die. They’ve learned how to present themselves.”
This is the old mood of the antiabortion movement, blunt and morose and uncompromising, a press conference held in a congressional meeting room by a group called Abortion Hurts Women.
Rep. Mike Pence (D-Ind.) has promised to make a brief appearance at this antiabortion news conference. By the time he gets there it’s mostly over, but the women holding it are eager to repeat their performance for him.
Jackie Bullard jumps right in to explain that an abortion left her unable to have children, so she adopted Arabella, a “child of rape whose birth mother is a drug addict,” she says. “But she is highly intelligent and perfectly normal.” Five-year-old Arabella is there, listening to this story she’s no doubt heard many times, fidgeting at her mother’s waist.
On a table at the back of the room someone has lined up dozens of pairs of tiny shoes to represent all the “murdered” children. In the corner a group of teenagers chat excitedly; they’ve just returned from the Supreme Court, where they stood with red masking tape across their mouths to represent the “silent screams of the unborn babies.” All that’s missing here is the graphic fetus pictures ubiquitous in the ’90s.
Although Pence is low-key, he stands out in this crowd; he is neat and compact, with silvery hair and a pleasant face wasted on radio, the medium that made him famous in Indiana. When someone in the crowd talks to him about abortion doctors preying on vulnerable women for financial gain, Pence translates that sentiment into modern feminist terms.
“One of the fascinating things about the suffragette movement,” he begins brightly, then describes how Elizabeth Cady Stanton and others recognized that they would be subjugated to the whims of men unless they could vote, translating the message of the dour news conference into progressive feminist terms.
Pence was raised Catholic, born again in college, but a political experience brought on his real “conversion.” In 1990 Pence ran what he described as the nastiest race in Indiana history. He lost.
From then on he vowed that even while engaged in politics he would always be “true to his faith.” Other Christian Republicans had had that revelation, of course, a decade earlier, but they were not his models: “They came in, boom, arms flailing, with lots of righteous indignation,” he says of the Christian Coalition. “But that bombast and tone of the early movement is inconsistent with why we’re here.” What he means, really, was being nicer, or as he puts it, upholding “standards of integrity and civility.”
Pence, 45, became a conservative radio talk show host who is stylistically the anti-Rush Limbaugh. “I’m a conservative, but I’m not in a bad mood about it,” he’d say on air. Last year he ran for Congress again with the aim of rehabilitating himself; in ads he never mentioned his opponent.
After he got to Washington his colleagues voted him head of the Republican Study Committee, a group of powerful House conservatives once known as Newt Gingrich’s henchmen. Their platform hasn’t changed in 10 years, but under Pence’s leadership it’s a new day. “You do not demonize those who disagree with you,” he says. “If you believe in a woman’s right to choose, you’re not a bad person, we just disagree.”
His aim is to subtly “season” his sentences with references to God, not overwhelm them.
“I hope,” he says, “I never make people uncomfortable.”
Not too long ago relations between politics and evangelicals were defined by discomfort and tension.
Mark Souder is also a Republican congressman from Indiana, nine years older than Pence. His Baptist grandfather never voted, and his parents did it holding their noses. “The way my family looked at Washington, if it wasn’t Hell it was a direct suburb.”
In 1971 Souder attended a convention of Young Americans for Freedom, the Barry Goldwater groupies. There he recalls the handful of evangelicals sussing each other out through code words and glances, “much like gay people do today.” Once they were sure they’d found one of their own, they’d lean over and whisper “I’m praying for you,” then slide away. Souder’s political friends were all Catholics and Jews.
That was before Roe v. Wade, before the Christian Coalition, before evangelicals made money and moved to the suburbs and “began to lose a sense of pessimism and alienation,” says John Green, a professor of political science at the University of Akron. Now at a conservative convention young people line up to pray at the microphone. Now, says Souder, “the collective memory of all that tension is gone.”
Souder’s generation never outgrew the habit of tuning their resumes, approaching a non-church audience with caution.
Even Thune, a member of the new generation, used to omit from his official bio that he graduated from Biola, the Biblical Institute of Los Angeles. In his time the school was known for its fundamentalism, and didn’t allow students to watch movies or dance.
John Ashcroft, son of a Pentecostal preacher, still avoids questions about whether he speaks in tongues. Whenever talking about his upbringing — he never drank or danced, and remained a virgin until he was married — Ashcroft is either prickly or boastful, but always self-conscious. “It’s against my religion to impose my religion,” he’ll often say. “But I’ve always hoped that if I were ever accused of being a Christian I’d be found guilty.”
Lyric Hassler, the Hill aide in starched white blouses, was not long for the Christian ghetto. After college she took advantage of the two elite fellowships designed to cultivate this new generation of Christian leaders — the Trinity Forum Academy and the Witherspoon Fellowship. She came in dreaming that she would one day stand before the Supreme Court and overturn Roe v. Wade; she came out a realist, a political professional.
On the Bush campaign Hassler thought she’d find people who all shared her perspective. What she found instead were conservatives, not her kind of Christians. The differences showed up after work. At happy hours the Christians stood out as the ones who had only one beer, not five. And they didn’t date, the way anyone else understood the term. Lyric “dated” Jeff Hassler for five months, but they never kissed until they got engaged. “What planet are you from?” her boss said when she found that out.
Still, when her boss needed some advice about planning the religious ceremony at her own wedding, she asked Lyric. “We stood out a little,” she says, “but not too much. Ten years ago she might have thought I was a total freak. But now she just thought I was a little weird.”
Now Lyric and Jeff are married and live in Fairfax. Jeff works in Sen. James Inhofe’s office, Lyric is a political consultant. They’ve stayed away from the usual evangelical megachurch — “the music is awful” — and instead joined Truro Episcopal in Fairfax.
“I used to think High Church was dead and empty,” she says. But somehow watching the procession, seeing the choir and the vestments, singing those traditional hymns — “I thought this is how church should be,” she says. They still consider themselves evangelical, but not in style — no “awful music,” no Jesus-is-my-best-friend, no “Left Behind” books.
They think a lot about how much to shelter their family from a corrupt culture; home-schooling is a definite option. Sometimes they think about going to someplace more remote, where temptation is easier to keep at bay.
“But after life in Washington,” Lyric says, “we couldn’t very well just disappear.”