“Extremist” is a word that may conjure up images of hooded Klansmen crowded around a burning cross or of Black Panther separatists or kooky 60’s “revolutionaries.” Or perhaps images of Hitler, Stalin, or Mao come to mind. There is a supposition that those who are commonly called “extremists” are unreasonable, irrational, perhaps crazy, and quite possibly dangerous. In the brutal battles of the culture war, the word has become a weapon against which there is no defense, particularly when it is coupled with poisonous adjectives like “fundamentalist” or “religious” or “right-wing.” The ruling elite, ensconced in the nation’s cultural, educational, and political institutions, has decided that anyone who resists the steady attack on American and Western cultural norms is “extreme” and that only “moderates,” those who wish merely to slow the rate of erosion while accepting in large part the premises of their erstwhile opponents, are acceptable as players in the public arena. More ominously, the ruling elite has displayed a growing willingness to call on the muscle of the state apparatus to suppress, and even to kill, “extremists,” who have displayed an “irrational” (and one may say traditionally American) tendency to resist the encroachment of the state on what were once commonly considered the prerogatives of communities, families, and individuals.
Republicans were celebrating in November 1993. George Allen had become the first Republican elected governor of the state of Virginia in 16 years, defeating his Democratic opponent, Mary Sue Terry, by 17 percentage points. Republican James Gilmore was elected Attorney General, and statewide the Republicans did quite well, gaining a substantial number of seats in the House of Delegates. Allen and Gilmore had campaigned on a law-and-order platform, calling for the abolition of parole, as well as opposing further gun control measures. Allen supports parental notification for underage girls seeking abortions and opposes a tax increase to shore up the state’s budget. There was certainly cause for rank-and-file Republicans to celebrate, but for small “r” republicans the real story in this campaign was Mike Farris, who was defeated in his bid to unseat incumbent Lieutenant Governor Don Beyer, a liberal Democrat.
Farris, a fundamentalist Christian, one-time Pat Robertson supporter, and former Moral Majority activist, is a lawyer who heads the Home Schooling Legal Defense Association; his own nine children are schooled at home, and Farris has acted as legal counsel for parents in disputes with school officials. In one case, Farris represented a group of Tennessee fundamentalists who wanted to have their children excused from reading certain books that they deemed offensive to their religious convictions. This in itself was probably enough to knot up the innards of professional do-gooders, who are all for protecting the rights of, or even inventing “rights” for, worthy victim groups but who cannot imagine that Middle Americans, particularly religious believers, have any rights at all.
But the clincher for the nattering nincompoops of respectable opinion was the fact that Farris openly attacked the state’s monopoly on education, that he called the public school system “a Godless monstrosity” and even questioned whether public schools, that is state-run schools, were “necessary for the preservation of democracy.” (Did George Washington attend public schools?) And so the attacks started. Farris wanted to ban books. Farris wanted to “destroy” public schools. (Farris, in fact, wanted to decentralize the state school system, moving power from the state bureaucracy to locally elected school boards, which are now manned by appointment. Besides, how could public schools get much worse?) He wanted to use “public” funds (the “public” is an abstraction to liberals) to finance private schools (Farris supports a school-voucher program for Virginia). Farris was depicted as a religious fanatic (he is against “choice for women”), a disciple of Pat Robertson (who was himself portrayed in ads as a glowering Ayatollah) who would become “their lieutenant,” who is an agent for the “religious right,” who probably takes orders directly from Robertson headquarters. Furthermore, Farris planned to “impose” his views on others. The smear campaign was broadened to include Allen and Gilmore, since both men had also been endorsed by the hateful Pat Robertson and were thus seen as having fallen under the sway of “extremism,” but Farris remained the target of choice.
Farris was kept at arm’s length by establishment Republicans like the cowardly Senator John Warner (who has recently endorsed the candidacy of Independent Marshall Coleman over his fellow Republican Oliver North), who supported Allen and Gilmore, and various Virginia “moderates,” who were still stinging from their defeat at the State Republican Convention in May 1993. Some Republicans campaigned openly for Beyer, the Democrat, and the national party organization was conspicuously slow in delivering much-needed campaign funds to both Allen and Farris. Pat Buchanan held a fund-raiser for Farris. William Bennett, to his credit, was among the few Establishment figures to campaign for him.
But the most conspicuous Farris supporters were ordinary people, people who may never before have taken part in a political campaign or contributed to any candidate, people who were only lately galvanized by the all-out assault on the traditional family now gaining steam under the Clinton regime, the same crowd of religious fundamentalists, homeschoolers, red necks, traditionalist conservatives, and rural flotsam, black and white, who had taken the Republican State Convention by storm. The Farris campaign was a true grassroots movement, manned by the shock troops of a steadily growing groundswell of what may be the coming tidal wave of revolt. The people who manned the barricades for Mike Farris have their counterparts elsewhere: in Colorado, where the public was mobilized by a car salesman to stop the homosexual takeover; in the homeschooling movement everywhere; in the conservative and fundamentalist congregations across the country who are building an alternative to corrupt and secularized churches; and in their own state of Virginia, where petition organizers were able to place a proposition for elected school boards on the ballot in many localities. It is these people who have galled the sensitive hindquarters of the Establishment Brahmins, Republican and Democratic, most of all. After all, if the great unwashed take over the political “process,” where will the professional manipulators go?
The Farris campaign in Virginia was just the warm-up for the “religious right.” Since then, similar grassroots campaigns have yielded victories for insurgent conservatives in Texas, Minnesota, and Iowa. According to the usual suspects, these victories in convention and platform battles amount to the forcible invasion and seizure of sacred political turf by the infidels of the “religious right,” people who have no business dabbling in politics, presumably a field of action open only to anointed liberals and those “moderates” who play the role of Pancho to the left’s Cisco. During the Farris campaign, the Republican Party Panchos had been given fair warning by their betters in the liberal Establishment as to what kind of press the GOP would get in the event of a hostile takeover by the unsavory mutants of the “far right.” The nomination of Ollie North by the Virginia Republican Convention marked the beginning of a nationwide smear campaign against the Republican intraparty insurgency.
The Anti-Defamation League, following the lead of the Democratic agitprop peddlers in Virginia, decided to engage in a bit of defamation of its own this summer, releasing a report entitled “The Religious Right: The Assault on Tolerance and Pluralism in America,” which characterized the objects of its calumny as “prophets of rage” and accused them of harboring anti-Semitic sympathies, apparently because of their fervent Christianity, since real evidence of such inclination appears slim indeed. (The Reverend Donald Wildmon was attacked for “Jew-baiting” because he was bold enough to suggest that Hollywood films are commonly anti-Christian; this was apparently, in the eyes of the ADL, a coded reference to the prominent role Jews play in the film industry and therefore proof of anti-Semitism.)
Governor Ann Richards of Texas and California Representative Vic Fazio weighed in. Richards (a woman who I am ashamed to say is the chief executive of my native state) repeated the by-now tired refrain of charges concerning fundamentalist Christians’ plots to “force [their] beliefs on others,” while Fazzio claimed that the GOP was being “forced to the fringes by the aggressive political tactics of the religious right.”
Sidney Blumenthal, writing in the July 18 edition of the New Yorker, fired one more warning round at Republican “moderates,” directing his wrath at the hapless Bob Dole, a late and reluctant convert to the North cause in Virginia. “How far,” wondered Blumenthal, “will their [religious right] crusade go” if normally moderate “leaders” such as Senator Dole are “falling in step”? Senator Dole is now presumably pondering the fate of his own valued respectability, the hint having been dropped.
So far, the campaign against the Christian right insurgency has appeared only to strengthen the resolve of the rebels, and even the party establishment has felt compelled to voice some protest over the hysterical reaction of the country’s cultural and political elite to the insurgents’ victories. What remains to be seen is whether the attacks will have the desired effect on the voters this November. Last year’s Farris campaign may be instructive on that score.
The conventional wisdom is that Farris won a moral victory. Despite the propaganda and the enormous amount of time Farris had to spend defending himself, as well as the relatively shallow pockets of his campaign and the fact that he was a first-time candidate, he was able to garner 46 percent of the vote to Beyer’s 54 percent and to pick up more total votes than well-known politician Mary Sue Terry did in her losing gubernatorial bid. That is all to the good, and the Farris organization is already gearing up for the 1996 Senate campaign.
But some Farris supporters noted that the smear campaign worked. Beyer did win, and the general Republican sweep means that a substantial number of voters split their tickets. Some of the same people who supported antigun control, law-and-order, pro-life, antitax, pro-“family values” candidates all over the state rejected the most authentic, grassroots nonpolitician in the race. The disturbing answer as to why so many voters rejected Mike Farris, who ran on a platform so similar to that of Allen and Gilmore, and voted for an Establishment, proabortion, big-spending liberal is that Mike Farris’s open, honest Christianity, his defense of homeschooling, and his direct connections to Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell were taken as proof by some voters that Farris really is an “extremist” who wants to “impose” his will on others.
How this imposition was to work is anybody’s guess (a homeschooling gestapo, perhaps?), and how Farris was to accomplish his will in the relatively limited confines of the office of lieutenant governor remains a mystery. As far as force is concerned, just what is it that liberal policies demand but a coercive megastate, one which will extract ever larger tax “contributions” in its efforts to impose broader and deeper controls on society, whether it be gun control, school busing, affirmative action, forced acceptance of “alternative lifestyles,” abortion on demand, or the assault on traditional families that is the “children’s rights” agenda? Mike Farris’s small “r” republicanism would return questions of childrearing to the family; it would decentralize decision-making to the lowest level; in short, it is the living memory of the principles and values of our forebears, a philosophy that embraces local and regional differences as normal and healthy. All the liberal talk of “diversity” is positively Orwellian, since liberal programs demand centralization and standardization. That this may be news to a substantial part of the electorate in the same state that gave us men like Thomas Jefferson and John Randolph is no cause for rejoicing over moral victories. If a candidate like Mike Farris were ever able to communicate that message to voters, honest people who buy into some liberal value judgments just might see that he is no threat to them, unless they fear and loathe their neighbors, which liberal hard-liners probably do.
What differentiates Mike Farris from the usual run of Christian right candidates is precisely his ability to articulate a program that is usually only implied, a program that, in a certain sense, is radical, in that it opposes a trend toward statism in Western societies that predates the founding of our Republic. What Mike Farris opposes is the absorption by the state of functions that once gave substance and significance to institutions like the family, church, and school and that thereby provided the needed social glue to hold communities together by conveying a sense of belonging, purpose, and certainty to their members, something modern statist systems conspicuously fail to do. The modern state reacts to the social decay it does so much to foster-whether it be soaring levels of illegitimacy, widespread drug use, falling SAT scores, or skyrocketing crime rates-by spawning programs that further expand its own power at the expense of autonomous communities and institutions, absorbing more of their functions, and detaching people further from the associations that give their lives direction and meaning; it “liberates” the individual from the oppressive bonds of family, church, and community and, under its own benevolent tutelage, fosters his self-realization.
What Farris and his followers are resisting is the loss of control over their own destiny, which is increasingly determined by authorities both distant from them and remote from their experiences. It remains to be seen whether he, or anyone who supports him, realizes that his ideas could very well be the key to broadening the Christian right’s appeal, tying it to grassroots movements across the nation, and possibly forging a new alliance that could mount serious opposition to those who wish to turn over our families’, and our nation’s, destiny to a centralizing elite, whether it be a Washington bureaucracy or the World Trade Organization, the Department of Health and Human Services or the United Nations. That is exactly why candidates like Mike Farris represent such a danger to Establishment politicians, both Republican and Democratic, who depend in large part on the liberal cultural, educational, and political elite for their own legitimacy and on political centralization as the basis of their power. If such candidates stray too far, they are sure to be branded as “extremist,” or worse.
In an era when the American public by and large sees nothing wrong in the slaughter of the Branch Davidians, the assault on Randy Weaver and his family, or, for that matter, the Virginia Democrats’ partially successful attempt to suppress by court injunction an election guide they deemed pro-Republican, the successful smearing of Mike Farris should give us pause. The parameters of the “extremist” label are wide when to resist an unwarranted assault by federal agents is considered “extreme,” wider still when defending one’s family by force is deemed “extreme,” and frighteningly expansive when even to reject liberal orthodoxy and resist the tentacles of the ever-expanding total state is seen as “extreme.” If Mike Farris is dangerous in the eyes of the political elites and a substantial portion of the general population, how long will it be before we are treated to a dramatic story of a heroic assault by the combined forces of the FBI and the Department of Education on the homeschooling “cult” compound in northern Virginia? The struggle is just beginning.
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