H Y P O C R I S Y O N T H E R I G H T
Ordinarily, the religious right doesn’t hesitate to support federal regulation of substances it considers harmful. The conservative lobby Concerned Women for America teaches that “protecting its citizens from drug trafficking is part of the responsibility of the federal government.” In regard to pornography, the Family Research Council notes, “Society has long embraced the principle that those who peddle harmful material have the obligation to keep the material from children.” Pro-lifers routinely demand an end to federal subsidies of abortion services abroad, calling it an export of death. The American Life League argues that the Food and Drug Administration should restrict RU486, the French abortion pill, because “this chemical effectively kills children who live in the womb and is not safe for the mother, according to many scientific reports.”
It’s hard to see how groups that say such things can remain silent about tobacco. Protecting kids? Tobacco purveyors hook 3,000 American children every day. Exporting death? More Colombians die annually from American cigarettes than Americans die from Colombian cocaine. Saving unborn life? Smoking may cause more than 100,000 miscarriages in the United States every year (see sidebar).
Liberal and moderate religious denominations, led by the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility and the Interreligious Coalition on Smoking OR Health, have begun to speak out against tobacco, as have the conservative National Association of Evangelicals and a handful of Mormons and pro-life Catholics in Congress. But the vast majority of the religious right is AWOL in the war against tobacco.
“We don’t take any positions on the tobacco and smoking industry,” says Christian Coalition spokesperson Monica Hildebrandt. The Family Research Council’s assistant press secretary, Kristin Hansen, deflects questions about tobacco by arguing that premarital sex is the real root of teenagers’ problems. Similarly, Christine O’Donnell of Concerned Women for America suggests tobacco restrictions are “putting the cart before the horse. Right now, they are trying to ram sex education down kids’ throats; they are trying to ram other kinds of unhealthy things down kids’ throats. We need to address those things first.”
How long can religious conservatives go on about “unhealthy things down kids’ throats” without mentioning cigarettes? The Rev. Patrick Mahoney, executive director of the pro-life Christian Defense Coalition, finds the oversight curious. “The pro-family, pro-life movement has been tragically silent on the whole issue of tobacco,” says Mahoney. “You don’t hear it from the Christian Coalition, you don’t hear it in the ÔContract With the American Family,’ you don’t hear it from the National Right to Life Committee…. It’s very disappointing that larger groups, people like Pat Robertson or Ralph Reed or others, have not been more forceful and articulate in addressing this issue.”
W H E R E A R E R E E D & R O B E R T S O N ?
Tobacco-control activists were crestfallen when the November 1994 Republican landslide put the brakes on legislative efforts to control tobacco. But Scott Ballin, former chairman of the Coalition on Smoking OR Health, saw an opportunity. “I went through the ÔContract With America’ and looked at the underlying themes,” he explains. “Many of the religious right groups were involved in shaping that document. And a lot of what was in there was focused on children, ethics, and families.”
So in December 1994, Ballin began writing letters to Christian Coalition Executive Director Ralph Reed and Coalition founder Pat Robertson, soliciting their help in the tobacco-control movement. “I went through the [Contract’s] sections on families and pornography and ethics and children and used the same terminology,” says Ballin. He also appealed to Reed and Robertson’s pro-life views, enclosing a study and a surgeon general’s report that linked smoking to fetal damage and miscarriages.
Over several months of correspondence, Ballin noticed a discrepancy between Reed and Robertson. Reed, who runs the Christian Coalition on a day-to-day basis, failed to acknowledge letters or sent back noncommittal responses. By contrast, Robertson, who had spoken out against tobacco in the past (he had even been docked on a religious right scorecard in 1988 for supporting a tax hike on liquor and cigarettes), replied promptly and effusively: “I totally concur on your splendid effort to reduce smoking. The Christian Broadcasting Network [Robertson’s television ministry] has repeatedly broadcast programs highlighting the dangers of smoking, and we will indeed do more as materials are made available to us.”
But despite his supportive words, Robertson made no visible effort to bring the Christian Coalition’s political muscle into the fight against tobacco. In the bimonthly magazine column through which he speaks to Coalition members, he has commented only once on Clinton’s order to entrust the FDA with tobacco regulation, calling it the latest in “a dangerous trend” of executive overreaching.
When Ballin created the “Contract for the Protection of America’s Families and Children From Tobacco Use,” which mimicked the language of the “Contract With the American Family,” Robertson signed it but skipped the August 1995 press conference at which anti-smoking groups unveiled it. (Aides explained that he was too busy.) He also declined to sign a statement released at the press conference.
Reed, meanwhile, openly criticizes tobacco-control efforts. Last August, he dismissed President Clinton’s “tobacco crusade” as a political stunt and gloated that it had “created a lot of problems” for Democrats in Kentucky. Two weeks later, in his address to the Christian Coalition’s annual convention, Reed derided Clinton for preaching against “the dangers of tobacco” after having “gutted the drug czar’s office.”
Why has Reed resisted confronting tobacco? And why doesn’t Robertson overrule Reed, as he reportedly did two years ago when Reed strayed from Robertson’s anti-NAFTA position? The answer may be that Reed’s motives and responsibilities differ from Robertson’s. Robertson is a minister and broadcaster, accustomed to speaking his mind freely. Reed, however, is primarily a political strategist, who wants to avoid the mistake he attributes to Clinton: supporting tobacco regulations that create “problems” for those in his own party. In this case, Robertson evidently won’t–or can’t–overrule Reed.
Reed’s stance is reflected in the Christian Coalition’s grassroots. “I haven’t gotten any calls from county leaders or the field [saying] we’ve got to do something,” reports Phil Crowson, the Coalition’s North Carolina field director. “Our big issues are more saving unborn lives and reducing the amount of illegal pornography.” But when asked about the thousands of unborn lives extinguished each year by smoking-induced miscarriages, Crowson expresses genuine shock. He’s never been told about the research on miscarriages, which Ballin provided to Reed and Robertson a year before.
A C O N S P I C U O U S S I L E N C E
If Reed and the Christian Coalition were serious about putting their muscle behind Robertson’s words, they’d start by adding tobacco to the Coalition’s “Congressional Scorecard,” which implicitly tells conservative churchgoers which candidates to support. The Coalition distributed 40 million copies of the scorecard in 1994. While penalizing lawmakers who permit the distribution of condoms and pornography to kids, the scorecard overlooks those who permit the similar purveyance of cigarettes.
On his cable TV show, Robertson has wondered aloud how his “dear friend,” Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), can simultaneously be a leading tobacco apologist. Yet again Robertson fails to back up his words with the muscle of the Christian Coalition. On the Coalition’s 1994 Senate scorecard, Helms gets a perfect grade, while Bob Bennett (R-Utah), a consistent supporter of measures to keep cigarettes away from kids, is docked for ratifying the appointment of a Clinton nominee who happened to be a lesbian.
Donald Wildmon’s American Family Association, which speaks for hundreds of thousands of conservative Christians and is the darling of Pat Buchanan, also omits tobacco from its agenda. In monthly reports that target corporations for boycotts or lobbying campaigns, the AFA often criticizes Philip Morris for sponsoring TV shows (e.g., “Frasier”) which “[present] homosexuality as a normal, acceptable, alternative lifestyle.” But when it comes to Philip Morris’ presentation of smoking as a normal lifestyle, the AFA says nothing. In fact, a 1994 listing of Philip Morris products to be boycotted suggested Jell-O, Kool-Aid, and Cool Whip, conspicuously ignoring the company’s 28 cigarette brands. (When the AFA has included tobacco products on its boycott list of Philip Morris and RJR Nabisco products, it’s done so not because the companies’ cigarette ads promote smoking, but because the ads appear in porn magazines.)
Former drug czar Bill Bennett, the country’s leading moral lecturer, seems to share the AFA’s blind spot. In a television ad aired last December, Bennett called on “companies and products…like Philip Morris” to stop sponsoring “cultural rot” on prurient daytime talk shows. As to the more lethal rot caused by Philip Morris’ own products, Bennett said nothing. And while the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility lobbies Time Warner to restrict the cigarette ads in its youth-oriented magazines, Bennett has confined his campaign against Time Warner to the more figurative pollution spread by its violent gangsta rap music.
W H Y T H E R I G H T N E E D S T O B A C C O
Why are these activists silent about tobacco? One reason is party politics. Several Christian right leaders, when pressed by Patrick Mahoney, have conveyed discomfort about embracing a cause so loudly championed by liberals. “This is something that the president supports, and he could use it to manipulate us,” one activist warned Mahoney. Taking on tobacco would also stir up trouble with pro-tobacco Republican allies in Congress. Christian right activists “don’t want to offend people,” scoffs Mahoney.
It would also create problems with key party donors. In the 1993-94 election cycle, for example, tobacco companies gave $259,027 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which in turn reportedly gave $175,000 to the National Right to Life political action committee. “While I don’t think R.J. Reynolds is giving money to Focus on the Family or anybody,” says Richard Cizik, a policy analyst at the National Association of Evangelicals, “there is enough tobacco money floating around that it’s probably inhibited some groups from speaking out.”
The principal channels through which tobacco money flows into church-based organizations are too small and numerous to trace. Conservative Christian lobbies and denominations get much of their support from Southern communities that rely heavily on the tobacco economy. After Clinton announced his FDA proposal last year, even liberal denominations were barraged with angry phone calls from members whose livelihoods depended on tobacco. “If the tobacco income was no longer donated to the church, many churches would completely go under,” says Steve Sumerel, the director of the North Carolina Baptist State Convention’s substance abuse and family life division. “The Baptist pastors out there know that. Why pick on an issue where you know you’re going to lose your job?”
T H E C O M I N G B A T T L E
If conservative Christians found the courage to take on tobacco, a number of politicians up for re-election this year might lose their jobs–including several politicians who pose as champions of human life and family values while taking tobacco money and opposing tobacco restrictions.
Rep. Thomas J. Bliley Jr. (R-Va.), the head of the House Commerce Committee who has led the charge against the FDA’s regulation of tobacco, is particularly compromised. A year ago, while pro-life supporters were releasing a petition he signed demanding strict FDA scrutiny of the abortion-inducing drug RU486, pro-business advocates at a press conference next door were pushing forward his goal to gut the FDA.
Still, when it comes to irony, no one can touch Helms. While denouncing homosexuality as a threat to public health, he has staunchly defended tobacco. His office even seems to help the tobacco industry keep an eye on pro-life groups. In a memo published last December by the Washington Post, a Philip Morris lobbyist informed his superiors during the 1989 search for a new surgeon general that “the pro-life community has coalesced around a Massachusetts physician who has assured Sen. Helms she has no strong anti-tobacco bias.”
At least one pro-life activist, the Rev. Patrick Mahoney, is outraged at Helms and his collaborators. “Why major pro- family, pro-life organizations have not put more pressure on Sen. Helms is just beyond me,” says Mahoney. “It’s obvious that Sen. Helms is more concerned about contributions from Philip Morris than standing for the dignity of human life.”
Helms, Bliley, and others may find themselves in a fix this year. Bill Clinton seems intent on making teenage smoking a family values issue in the presidential election. Ironically, he can thank Bob Dole for turning corporate corruption of children into a hot political topic. A year ago, in his now-famous jeremiad against Hollywood, Dole challenged Time Warner executives: “Must you debase our nation and threaten our children for the sake of corporate profits?”
Several weeks later, a coalition of Republican doctors and scientists called on Speaker Newt Gingrich to “step up to the bully pulpit, as Sen. Bob Dole did concerning Hollywood violence, and denounce tobacco advertisingÉwhen it obviously targets children.” Gingrich (who only weeks before had attended a tobacco-sponsored “Salute to Newt” that netted him $100,000 each from the chairmen of Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds, and Brown & Williamson) ignored the challenge, but within days, Clinton took it up.
On August 9, Clinton chose a religious setting to announce that the government intended to restrict tobacco through the FDA. Speaking to the Progressive National Baptist Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, Clinton preached against smoking, drugs, violence, and teen pregnancy, calling them the four “deadly sins” that “are threatening our children.” And in this year’s State of the Union address, Clinton called on the tobacco industry as well as the entertainment industry to stop corrupting children.
Are Dole, Gingrich, and other conservatives who champion the protection of kids from smut and drug peddlers ready to kick the habit of taking tobacco money and shielding its purveyors? A few months ago, when Bill Bennett blasted Philip Morris for sponsoring trash TV, he conceded to the Washington Post that such companies “have been friendly to the Republican Party. Too bad. You’ve got to go after your friends. It’s not just grungy records and horrible shows. Corporate America has a big responsibility here.”
The emerging debate over tobacco and family values will tell us whether conservatives like Bennett are serious, or just blowing smoke.
William Saletan is a contributing writer to Mother Jones. He profiled Bob Dole in the February 1996 issue.