The Stranger

by James Kirchick | September 11, 2008

America’s schools have “lost their way,” and have become “bastions of moral relativism and moral compromise with the culture of death.” To be saved, those schools must change, so students can find “the God of the Bible and Biblical values in the classroom.”

It sounds like Pat Robertson. But this is the latest from none other than Chris Smith, the longstanding Republican New Jersey Congressman who remains enormously popular in his largely suburban district encompassing several well-to-do towns. In a state that has been reliably Democratic since 1992, Smith seems like a moderate Republican. In his current re-election campaign, he’s been endorsed by the state AFL-CIO, the League of Conservation Voters, and the National Education Association, all traditionally liberal interest groups. His lifetime ranking from the American Conservative Union is only 62 percent.

But behind his moderate guise is a politician who is much more conservative than is widely known. With the recent passing of Illinois Congressman Henry Hyde, Smith has become the House’s most outspoken anti-abortion voice, leading a sometimes quixotic struggle as an anti-abortion purist. He has sponsored bills to ban abortions in military hospitals, reinstate restrictions on federal funding to family planning groups abroad that sponsor abortion, and require doctors to inform pregnant women that a fetus can feel pain after 20 weeks. And new reporting shows that Smith got his start in politics in concert with very hardcore groups on the Christian right--an alliance Smith has worked hard to obscure.

A devout Catholic, Smith became executive director of the New Jersey Right to Life Committee in 1976, just a year after graduating from Trenton State College. This was the era when the Christian Right was coalescing to fight the women’s and gay liberation movements, and, less frequently discussed today, to preserve racially segregated Christian educational institutions.

In 1978, the Internal Revenue Service announced it would institute stricter regulation of private schools, stripping them of tax-exempt status if they were violating civil rights standards. Fearing that these regulations could spell the end to their holiday from Brown vs. Board of Education, conservative religious activists leapt into action. “It galvanized the religious right,” said Richard Viguerie, the founder of direct mail fundraising. Asked why he became involved in politics, Jerry Falwell said that, “It was the IRS trying to take away our tax exemptions that made us realize that we had to fight for our lives.” In 1979, on the back of this crusade against the IRS, Falwell founded the Moral Majority. That organization, so crucial in paving the way for the Reagan Revolution, led an array of religious right groups in moving the Republican Party ever further to the right.

One of the formative religious right institutions was the National Christian Action Coalition (first called Christian School Action), a group started to oppose the IRS regulations. In 1978, Smith ran for Congress and lost, but that was the last time he’d lose. In 1980, the group’s political wing donated $200 to Smith’s campaign.* Another early religious right group Smith was involved in was Christian Voice, founded in June 1979 by the evangelical pastor Robert Grant in Pasadena, California. (Grant had cut his teeth in political advocacy a year earlier on legislation that would have banned gay people from teaching in public schools; the proposal failed, due in part to opposition by then-Governor Ronald Reagan). Christian Voice was the first group to utilize now ubiquitous “voter guides” to circumvent IRS regulations prohibiting religious organizations from endorsing political candidates. In October 1980, the group boasted 200,000 members and 30 million viewers of its satellite and cable television broadcasts. On its advisory board sat Utah Republican Senator Orrin Hatch and Georgia Representative Larry McDonald, a prominent member of the John Birch Society. Also on the board was Chris Smith, then a newly minted congressman from the not-so-Moral Majority territory of suburban Trenton, New Jersey.

A perusal of Christian Voice literature reveals it to have been concerned with three main issues: virulent criticism of the women and gay rights movements, opposition to abortion, and fierce anti-communism. An annual section on “Homosexuality-Lesbianism” in its “Biblical Scorecard” cited a list of dubious statistics on gay people’s sexual practices, noting, for instance, that “the average gay has had more than 500 (usually anonymous) sexual partners” and that “[m]any ‘serial’ killers are homosexuals.” The group also disseminated misleading information regarding HIV/AIDS, warning readers in a 1988 document to “avoid ‘French kissing’ except within a secure marriage relationship,” and to “use mosquito repellent and protective clothing when in mosquito-infected areas with a high concentration of AIDS carriers.” It was known at the time, however, that neither kissing nor mosquitoes could transmit HIV; such disinformation was part of the religious right’s broader campaign to stigmatize HIV-positive individuals.

Smith is no longer affiliated with Christian Voice, though he remains one of the religious right’s favorite congressmen. (Christian Voice still exists, but like most of the groups that once comprised the mighty force that was the religious right, it is but a shell of its former self. The group today says that it has no formal affiliations with anybody on Capitol Hill.)

Smith is a leading advocate of abstinence education both domestically and abroad, especially relevant when he chaired the House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Human Rights, and International Operations--where he played a powerful role in the disbursement of foreign aid for HIV prevention programs.

Given the extreme positions of these organizations, it’s not much of a surprise that Smith seems to have done his best to paper over his contact with them. In a 1986 congressional debate, Smith’s Democratic opponent challenged him about his sitting on Christian Voice’s advisory board. Acknowledging his affiliation with the organization, Smith protested that he didn’t “even know where their office is.” And in 1982, the Christian Voice Moral Government Fund, the political action committee affiliated with Christian Voice, donated $4,000 to Smith’s campaign.* That same year, Christian Voice was leading the charge against legislation that would have made it illegal to discriminate against gay people in housing, employment, education, and public accommodations. “Thousands of innocent American children may soon be molested by sex deviates,” a mass mailing from the group warned, informing its millions of members that the bill would allow the government to “force every local school to hire practicing homosexuals as teachers, coaches and counselors; force every Christian church to hire a homosexual minister or other church employee; force every family business to hire sodomites.”

Perhaps the reason why Smith would associate with such a far right organization is because he’s not the moderate that so many people believe him to be. His fluency in the fire and brimstone language of the religious right dates back to before his involvement in electoral politics. In a 1973 article for The Signal, the newspaper of Trenton State College (now the College of New Jersey), Smith addressed the “current upsurge in identity reversal, sexual perversion, and permissiveness” pervading the country in the form of homosexuality, which, he concluded, represented “the falling away from God and His law.” It was a bizarre, rambling screed, predicated upon the premise that “Manhood is heterosexuality; so is womanhood,” and concluded with the observation that, “[God] wants good things for all of us and the most basic starting point is the awareness of our sex.”

Though Smith may have tempered his rhetoric over the years to suit the increasing societal tolerance of the times, he has always been a reliable anti-gay vote in Congress. In 1995, he co-sponsored a bill, the entire text of which was the following sentence: “No Federal funds may be used directly or indirectly to promote, condone, accept, or celebrate homosexuality, lesbianism, or bisexuality.” The bill’s author was the notoriously homophobic and rambunctious California Representative Bob Dornan. While it’s unclear what the full implications of the bill would have been had it passed, it likely would have prevented any public employee, or employee of any organization or company that accepts federal funds, from being openly gay. In 2006, Smith earned a zero rating from the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group. A call to Smith's office for comment on this article went unreturned.

With the ascendancy of the religious right in the GOP, the task of being a Northeastern Republican has become a very difficult balancing act. Democrats occupy 60 of the 81 congressional seats in the Northeast and are seriously challenging eight more currently in the GOP column. And those Republicans who remain need to look more and more like their oppositions. A common trait, a la Chris Shays of Connecticut or Maine senators Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, is to preserve the old-fashioned, Rockefeller Republican creed of social liberalism and fiscal prudence. Smith, however, seems to have done the opposite, and it’s especially strange considering that he’s a Republican in New Jersey, not the Deep South. Is his Christian voice still suited for the times?

James Kirchick is an assistant editor at The New Republic.

*CORRECTION: This article originally stated that Congressman Smith failed to report a contribution by the political action committee of the Christian Voice in 1982. According to documents provided by Congressman Smith to The New Republic after publication, his campaign did report this donation. We regret the error. Smith also disputes the assertion that he did not report a 1980 donation made by the National Christian Action Coalition, but a search of Federal Election Commission filings by The New Republic showed that while the PAC reported its donation, there is no receipt report from Smith. His office has not provided corroborating documentation.

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