Anonymous Tip: Here Come the Cavalry

Anonymous Tip: Here Come the Cavalry June 24, 2016

A Review Series of Anonymous Tip, by Michael Farris

Pp. 319-323

In the 1970s, something changed in evangelicals’ approach to politics. There are a variety of explanations for this. Some historians argue that Republican leaders under Nixon and others intentionally set out to make evangelicals, who before the 1970s frequently hadn’t voted (given that God’s kingdom is of this world), into their fold and convince them to vote and campaign. Others have argued that this moment was the product of fast societal change that began to make evangelicals wonder if it was safe for them to stay out of politics—historians point to the IRS’s targeting of segregationist Christian schools as the moment when evangelicals determined they couldn’t stay out, but there were a rash of other issues that were extremely concerning to evangelicals as well, many related to sex ed and other changes in schools.

Whatever the cause, evangelicals ended their political isolation. But what is less studied is the impact of the various think tanks and lobbying groups evangelicals founded during the 1970s and beyond. Historians have recently paid more attention to the role of conservative think tanks like the Cato Institute or the Heritage Foundation, but evangelical lobbying groups like Concerned Women for America (CWA), founded in 1979, tend to be less studied.

You may wonder why I’m writing about this in an Anonymous Tip post. Trust me, it’s relevant. In the early 1980s, Vicki Frost, a mother in Hawkins County, Tennessee, objected to material in her children’s new reading textbooks. She requested that her children be allowed to use an alternate textbook, but the school denied her request. Frost and several other parents sued the school district. The case was argued and bankrolled by Concerned Women for America, which lost it at the circuit court level. The existence of groups like CWA has been a fundamental (and too little noticed) part of the religious right for four decades now. In the case, Frost and her compatriots were represented by a CWA lawyer, one Michael Farris.

And that brings us to our section today. It seems everyone has been reprinting news stories about Gwen’s case, and they’ve hit the AP. Word has spread. And so we get to this:

“Barron & Associates,” Sally said.

“Peter Barron, please.”

“May I ask who’s calling?”

“My name is David G. Humphrey,” he said in his perfect radio voice. “I am the president of America’s pro-family organization, Heart of America. I read about the Gwen Landis lawsuit in our paper here in Kansas City this morning, and I’d like to know if we can be of assistance on this important case.”

Sally transfers him to Peter. But first, let me note that before Humphrey made his call, we were told this about him and his interest in the case:

The third article in his Wednesday morning stack was an Associated Press story concerning an interesting civil rights case in Spokane, Washington. The picture that had adorned the front page of the Spokesman-Review on Tuesday was on page ten of the Kansas City Star today. He was interested in the article and intrigued with the photograph of Gwen Landis.

WTF, Farris. WTF. I mean really? Does this mean that if Gwen had been a mousy brunette, or a black woman, rather than a stunning blond, Humphrey wouldn’t have given the case a second look?

Anyway, Humphrey is transferred to Peter:

“Well, Mr. Barron. What a pleasure! Thank you for taking my call. And if I may be so bold, the question is: How can I be of assistance to you?”

“I understand you are calling about our Landis case.”

“Yes. This is obviously an important case. Probably headed to the Supreme Court, from what I read here in the Kansas City papers this morning. Very important case. And it sounds like you are doing this case out of the goodness of your heart. A single mom employed as a nurse—at least that’s what the article says—cannot be paying you very much money. We’d like to help.”

This is an interesting assumption. There could be a wealthy backer or something.

“That sounds very interesting. What do you have in mind?”

“I am the president and founder of this country’s news, pro-family, public interest organization. We are interested in changing government to be more sensitive to the needs of America’s families. We have called the organization Heart of America to symbolize that we think families are the essential ingredient to change the heart of this nation.”

I’m not sure what the word salad in that last sentence actually means.

“Is this a Christian organization?” Peter asked.

“It is a pro-family organization reaching a broad perspective of American citizens who embrace the Judeo-Christian ethic and subscribe to the importance of families. Our research indicates that over 75% of Americans hold strong favorable opinions on the issues that are the core of what makes Heart of America tick. Is that acceptable to you?”

He says so much, and yet so little. What issues? Does Humphrey know that there are plenty of people who think families are “important” while disagreeing strongly with conservative political positions, or conservative definitions of what constitutes a family? For instance, gay people who wanted to marry their partners and raise children together. Also, for instance, me. And while we’re at it, there’s no such thing as “the Judeo-Christian ethic.” That idea was invented in the middle of the last century. The term is used because it makes it seem less like pushing specifically Christian values on everyone else, but in practice those who use it simply assume that Jews have the same ethical framework as Christians. They don’t.

Anyway, back to the text, and repeating one line:

“Is that acceptable to you?”

“I think so.”

Peter, Peter, Peter. You didn’t even ask what their positions actually are? Because if I may point out, Humphrey hasn’t said.

“It’s just that I’m a born-again Christian and I like to know where people are coming from,” Peter replied.

Wait wait wait back up. Remember that this part of the exchange started with Peter asking if Heart of America is a Christian organization. He doesn’t care about its positions. He only cares about whether it’s Christian. Does Peter know that Christians are divided on a multiplicity of issues? Does he know there are Christians who work for children’s rights, or gay rights, or who let women be pastors? But then, I suppose in his view those people aren’t actually “Christian.”

In this case, Peter needn’t have worried.

“Well, Brother Barron, is it? Praise God. We are a pro-family organization reaching out broadly to our nation, yes. But all of our staff and all of our board members are solid born-again, Bible-beliving Christians such as yourself. There are no coincidences in God’s economy. This sounds like a divine appointment.”

This points to another problem within this community—the assumption that anyone who uses the label “born-again Christian” or “Bible-believing Christian” is automatically to be trusted implicitly. I suppose this probably happens in every every with boundaries, but I’ve seen it used time and again to curtail any interest in learning more about an individual’s or group’s character or track record. It’s how leaders like Bill Gothard keep going, despite the multitude abuse allegations—he calls himself a “Bible-beliving Christian,” so he’s one of us.

“What is it that you are interested in doing?” Peter asked.

“We want to help with funding your case. That’s it. We’ll send a letter out to our members and friends. We’ll tell them the facts on your case. Ask for a donation. And then we’ll send it along to you. Naturally, we have to cover our mailing expenses. But beyond that, it goes to your litigation fund. Nothing complicated. We just want to help.”

Peter says it sounds too good to be true, and Humphrey reminds him that they serve a God who works miracles. Peter says he’ll have to get his client’s permission before giving the go ahead—I’m pleasantly surprised. Peter tells Humphrey that he’s right, that he’s a small operation working the case on nothing, with only the hope of eventually possibly recovering attorney’s fees as part of the case. He says having the funding would be amazing, and Humphrey declares it “a sign from God that all these circumstances fall together so perfectly.”

But it turns out there is one string attached. After Peter calls Gwen and gets her permission to work with Heart of America, he calls Humphrey back:

David G. Humphrey was thrilled when Peter returned his phone call two-and-a-half hours after their first conversation. He asked Peter for only two things: a simple two- or three-page description of the case in laymen’s language, and a picture of Gwen and Casey in their home to be used in telling the story of the case.

Apparently having Casey’s photo in the press would create “trauma,” but having her picture in a pro-family organization’s fundraising literature would be just peachy. The text does not say whether Peter got Gwen’s okay on the picture, but it does say Humphrey sent Peter a $5000 check overnight, as “a token of good faith.”

I have a question. Does Peter have any way of being sure that all of the money raised using Gwen’s case as a fundraiser, minus mailing costs, will actually be turned over to him? What would stop Humphrey from holding some amount of it back, and using Gwen’s case as a fundraising tool for Heart of America? This being the book that it is, I doubt that’ll happen. But it theoretically could. After all, Farris’s own organization, the Home School Legal Defense Association, uses cases like Gwen’s as fundraising and promotional opportunities all the time.

"As bad as the vindictive god they dreamt up. Pretty bad."

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