Conservative Christianity and America's Culture Wars

Alex Chadwick talks with Barbara Bradley-Hagerty about her series of reports heard on NPR's All Things Considered on America's culture wars, and the role religion — especially conservative Christianity — plays in the national dialogue over culture, ethics and morality.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Coming up, what not to do after you leave your fiance at the altar.

First, perhaps the most interesting stuff this week in NPR News is this series of stories on conservative Christianity in the public square. This is an American subculture that's both powerful and widely underestimated. And now the group is flexing its muscle in politics and especially in the courts. This series was written by NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty. She's here with us now.

Barbara, welcome.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY reporting:

Thank you.

CHADWICK: Have there been moments in your reporting that have just stuck with you? Have you come away with a deeper understanding of people's beliefs here?

HAGERTY: Absolutely, Alex. One thing I came away with is this depth of nostalgia for the way things used to be. You know, for many conservatives, that means Christianity. They feel that culture is crude, and it's been hijacked and God's been taken out of the schools and all the familiar institutions like marriage are being redefined by the courts. And, you know, I got a sense for how strongly people feel about this when I went to Woodstock, Virginia. Judge Roy Moore's Ten Commandments monument--you know, that 5,000-pound slab of granite--was there taking a visit in Woodstock, Virginia. It was on a flatbed truck, and people came and gathered around it and they touched it like it was a holy icon. And I want to play you some tape I recorded there. It was a conversation with a woman named Janet Ferguson(ph).

Ms. JANET FERGUSON: It was almost like I was saying goodbye to something. Because it's made of granite it reminded me a tombstone. And I just have an overwhelming sense of grief. Honest, it--I came to tears. But are we saying goodbye? Are we saying goodbye to our spiritual heritage? Are we saying goodbye to the Founding Fathers' legacy that they gave us? Is that what we're doing?

HAGERTY: And so what they're really talking about is this Christian heritage that they feel has been left behind, and they're worried about it.

CHADWICK: And you hear the stress in this woman's voice, but then I hear people on the left say, `Look, they won the White House. They've got the Congress. What's the problem?'

HAGERTY: Yeah, you're absolutely right. Well, look, what the conservatives do not control is the courts. Christian conservatives tell me all the time, `You know, we were spectacularly effective at mobilizing the electorate in the '80s and the '90s, but we missed a bit part of the puzzle, and that is the courts.' And so what's happened is that Christian conservatives have gotten very smart. They've started training their own lawyers. Last year, Jerry Falwell opened Liberty Law School to train what he calls ministers of justice. In 2000, Tom Monaghan, who is the man who started Domino's Pizza, started a conservative Catholic law school called Ave Maria. A year later, in 2001, St. Thomas School of Law, which is another conservative Catholic law school, was opened. And the granddaddy of this all is Pat Robertson's Regent University. It was accredited less than 10 years ago. So they are really making a move to train these lawyers.

CHADWICK: And I heard you on "Morning Edition" this morning from Regent. Who did you meet there? What about the kids?

HAGERTY: Well, the kids were really lively. I sat down with about six of them in the student center, and they were utterly engaged in the culture wars. They were really steamed about these activist judges. And, you know, I asked them, `Well, look, what can you guys do about it?' And they go, `Fight.' There was one guy, a second-year student named Michael Butler, who said, `Look, it's really time for us to reclaim the courts.' And I want to play what he said.

Mr. MICHAEL BUTLER (Student): Beginning in the 1960s, you know, the Christians kind of crawled under a rock and didn't do anything. And I think in the past 20-some years, especially since the founding of Regent University, Christians have, I think, re-engaged the public arena.

HAGERTY: And you know, it is happening. I was talking to Jay Sekulow, who's the head of the American Center for Law & Justice that's funded by Pat Robertson--it's a public interest law firm--and he said, you know, with just these four law schools that I've mentioned, you're turning out 600 religious conservative lawyers a year, what he called the eyes and ears for conservatives.

CHADWICK: And this is your piece later today on "All Things Considered," this proliferation of conservative Christian law firms.

HAGERTY: Yes, that's right. I profile one called Alliance Defense Fund. And I've got to tell you, these guys are very smart, very savvy. They know how to drive the courts in a conservative Christian direction. Let me give you my favorite quote of my time there. It is with Jeff Ventrella, who's a lawyer who trains other lawyers to bring these types of cases.

Mr. JEFF VENTRELLA (Alliance Defense Fund): Put it this way: Stupid for Jesus is still stupid. And consequently, filing a bad case with the best intentions doesn't work and should not work. And so when we equip these lawyers who already have legal skills to understand the constitutional dynamics of litigation, we've seen the success rate be very, very high.

HAGERTY: They say they have a success rate of 75 percent. Now I can't confirm that, but they have recently litigated and won two very big cases. They've convinced the state Supreme Courts in California and Oregon to stop issuing same-sex marriage licenses.

CHADWICK: NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty. You'll hear more of her reporting later today on "All Things Considered" and tomorrow. Barb, thanks.

HAGERTY: You're welcome.

CHADWICK: And more coming up on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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