Reprise: Learning to be Patient Revolutionaries
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Fri Mar 09, 2007 at 04:06:25 PM EST
My introduction to Christian Reconstructionism came in 1986, when Reconstructionist leader Gary North interviewed Paul Pressler for one of his "Fireside Chats."  At the time, North's name was foreign to me, but Pressler's was familiar.  Paul Pressler was the architect of the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention.

[To hear a 3.45 minute podcast (mp3 file) of North and Pressler discussing Pressler's background and experience , click here and give it time to download]

Before North interviewed Pressler, SBC fundamentalists had long denied that their movement was an organized political effort to take over the Convention.  Such denials were no longer possible once Pressler had spoken publicly about the success of their strategy.

As I listened to North's interview of Pressler, I began to worry about the goals and intentions of the person who suggested that Pressler's strategy to takeover the SBC could be a model for how "conservatives" could take over other organizations.  

Here's how North put it:
It's my opinion that, while the focus of the fight was theological, that the techniques that Pressler and his associates adopted can be used to capture other kinds of organizations.  I don't think that this approach that they used, that he will describe, is limited strictly to churches.  I think similar tactics can be used in other kinds of organizations.   But, the key is --  the laity or your average supporter of the organization has got to share your viewpoints.  Conservatives are very inefficient at being able to capture any kind of organization.  I can see no way, or almost no way, that the conservatives could expect to go out and capture an institution where the support -- the financial support would be coming from people who don't like conservative ideas.   But, if we can find those institutions that are financially supported by people who are in essential agreement with us about the way the world works, . . . that it is still possible to go in and take the institutional power away from our opponents who have very quietly and very successfully gained the seats of power in those organizations -- despite the fact that the money and the support is coming from people who share our views.

[To hear a 2.17 minute podcast (mp3 file) of North's introduction to his interview with Pressler, click here and give it time to download]

Throughout the interview, North drew parallels between the actions of SBC takeover leaders and the actions of the political "New Right" and he commented on relationships between the leaders of the two movements.  Pressler was clearly uncomfortable about his highlighting the connections between SBC denominational politics and secular politics.  Here's an excerpt from their discussion:

Pressler:  We did not enter this in a vacuum.  It was something that tried to paper over the problems in the past.  And there was rumbling tide of discontent, but a frustration on the part of the majority element in the Convention because they had no direction for rectifying the problems towards which their frustrations was developed.

North:  Now in that respect, you see, this is really, when you think about it, a microcosm of the whole country.

Pressler:  Oh, agreed. Entirely.

North:  Only it's not a theological issue, at least not visibly so.  Generally, people in the hinterlands don't like what's going on in Washington and haven't for years, but there is . . . the discontent has not yet been able to be translated into policy changes and institutional alterations to make that discontent flower.

Pressler:  Exactly.

North:  So, you're coming into this fight . . . again, almost exactly at the time that the . . .  the so-called "New Right" . . . the technicians of Paul Weyrich and other men who are masters of mobilization and getting ideas translated into policy and policy into votes on the floor of the Senate or the House -- these men at the very same time were mobilizing for the Ronald Reagan candidacy.

Pressler:  Yes, and, you see, that they were completely unrelated.  And we . . .

North:  Institutionally unrelated.  (Interrupted by phone ringing.)

North again:  I understand, of course, that . . . yes, it's two different institutional fights, but . . . people . . . there is a . . . there are periods in history when across the board people's minds change.

Pressler:  That's right, but the thing that I want to be very careful to point out is we have been accused of being an agency of the "New Right" political movement.  

North:  Yes, I understand that.

Pressler:  We have no connection with it whatsoever, but there are similarities.  What we did was spiritually motivated, theologically motivated and a concern for the theological well-being of not only our denomination but those to whom we should be witnessing.  The parallels are there, but the accusation that all we are is part of the political "New Right" is not a valid observation.

North:  No, and in fact, in my estimation, in fact, it's almost the other way, because the new right as such was virtually derailed by the election of Reagan.

Pressler:  Yes.

North:  The money fell off.  The institutions began going in the red.  The success of Reagan politically was probably premature with respect to the goals of the "New Right."

Pressler:  Yes.

North:  Whereas, on the other hand, in direct contrast to this, your organization and your fight seems to have escalated at precisely the point that the "New Right" got what it wanted and began to decline, in terms, at least, of the money raised and the number of people who were turned out to vote.

[To hear a 4.12 minute podcast (mp3 file) of the dialogue between North and Pressler about the "New Right," click here and give it time to download]

When the interview began to get bogged down by the details of  how the fundamentalists were able to put their own men in control of all the institutions of the SBC, North identified the key ingredient of their successful strategy - leadership with the patience and persistence to pursue a long term project.  Here's another excerpt:

North:  Now, Adrian Rogers comes in in general sympathy with your efforts.

Pressler:  Complete sympathy.

North:  OK . . . now . . . let's get on to the real nitty-gritty.  What did Adrian Rogers do to tell you that the beginning of the war was now coming in your direction. . . at least a major shift . . . what did he do?

Pressler:   Adrian appointed a absolutely superb Committee on Committees and a absolutely superb Resolutions Committee and the other appointments he made were very good, but those were the two crucial committees.

North:  Where did he know . . . did . . . he had to have known who to appoint.  He's no idiot.  Obviously he has some idea . . .  somebody's done his homework in the thing.  Now let's . . . people aren't naïve who are listening to tapes, besides its semi-ancient history.  I mean the thing is going . . . the revolution was.

Pressler:  Well, Adrian had a reservoir of friends from which to draw recommendations.

North:  How did he have that?  I mean, I know he's a popular preacher, but all the guys who had been elected for years had had that?  Is he really the first solid, consistent, "I understand the fight" type of guy who had gone in?

Pressler:  He's the first one that probably made his appointment from a viewpoint of, "How can I effectuate change by these appointments?"

North:  All right.  That to me is the key!  It's not that he was conservative.  It's not that he was a Bible believer.  But he saw the nature of a struggle.

Pressler:  Yes.

North:  . . . of an institutional struggle.   And he said, "I'm going to be the first guy to start out in a long term project."

Pressler:  Exactly.

North:  Now that's what's different!

Pressler:  That's what's different.  And for the first time we had a direction of the conservative movement that would accomplish things working within the system without tearing the system up.

North:  All right, and that's also significant, because you didn't want a split at that point.

[To hear a 1.49 minute podcast (mp3 file) of North talking to Pressler about having a long term perspective, click here and wait for it to download]

Significantly, when Pressler describes the effects that the new fundamentalist appointees had on the SBC Resolutions Committee, they were all about the secular politics that he was so uncomfortable talking about just minutes before.  Here's how he put it:

And then we had a Resolutions Committee that was conservative for the first time.  And we passed the first pro-life resolution -- strongly pro-life resolution -- ever passed by the Southern Baptist Convention.  And we passed an anti-ERA resolution which just infuriated the liberals because they had been utilizing the powers of the Southern Baptist Convention both for the abortion movement and for ERA.  And so here we clipped their wings by opposing both at the National Convention.

[To hear a 3.44 minute podcast (mp3 file) in which Pressler makes the above quote, click here and give it time to download.  Note this file also contains the next quote]

North follows up with an observation about his sitting on the platform next to Adrian Rogers at the National Briefing Conference in Dallas in 1980 when Bailey Smith made his infamous "God does not hear the prayer of a Jew" statement.  He said,

To reinforce your point on the politics issue, that was a "New Right" . . . "New Christian Right" operation . . . there is just no question about that meeting.  But, Bailey said afterwards to the press, he said, "I'm here because Adrian Rogers invited me here and I am really not interested in the political-ideological fight that's going on."  And so again, he was there, but his point was not to be in politics.

[To hear a 3.44 minute podcast (mp3 file) in which North describes the 1980 National Briefing Conference, click here and give it time to download.  Note this file is identical to the one under the previous quote by Paul Pressler.]

Despite the denials, listening to that interview confirmed my suspicion that the goal of influencing secular politics was one of the primary motives for the fundamentalist takeover of the SBC.  I decided that I needed to learn more about Gary North, the principles that he stood for, and the kind of changes he was interested in seeing effected.  Particularly since Pressler's last words in North's interview were, "I appreciate all that you are doing and the privilege to stand for the same basic principles."

[To hear a 1.44 minute podcast (mp3 file) of the conclusion of North's interview with Pressler, click here and give it time to download.]

Next week, I'll discuss what I learned about Gary North's theology and politics.




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