How the Religious Right Is Turning Pastors into Politicians

by Dan Quinn

The Texas Renewal Project, part of a web of state-based organizations designed to drag churches into partisan politics, has a new project for turning pastors into politicians.

On Wednesday we saw an email invitation asking pastors to attend an event on August 24-25 at the downtown Hilton Hotel in Austin. The two-day gathering will feature prominent religious-right speakers, including presidential candidate and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz’s father, Rafael Cruz, as well as a session called “The Men and Women of Issachar Training.”

Journalist Sarah Posner has written about how these trainings, named after a biblical figure from the Book of Genesis, are designed to teach pastors how to be politicians. Posner tells about how David Lane, the primary organizer for Renewal Project events around the country, explained the purpose to reporter David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network:

The training was held in Baton Rouge the day before The Response, the Christian prayer rally organized by the American Family Association and Lane’s American Renewal Project, and promoted by Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal. According to the Christian Examiner, Jindal wrote a letter promoting the training as well. “There is a great need for the kind of leaders we read about in the Old Testament, ‘The Men of Issachar’ (1 Chronicles 12:32),” wrote the governor and potential presidential candidate. “We need such men and women of wisdom today who will accept the challenge to restore our Judeo-Christian heritage in America.”

The “Men of Issachar” to which Jindal and Brody refer are members of the Tribe of Issachar, one of the lost tribes of Israel. In Jewish tradition, the Tribe of Issachar is known for dedication to religious study – not to politics, and certainly not for any commitment to “restore our Judeo-Christian heritage in America.”

Lane tells Brody that if each pastor running for mayor or school board or county council recruited 300 volunteers, then in 2016 “300,000 grassroots, precinct-level conservatives” would change America. “Somebody’s values are going to reign supreme,” Lane said. “Our values or somebody else’s values. It’s our goal to bring spiritual men and women into the civil government arena.”

This new training program is part of a long-term movement to mobilize right-wing pastors and their congregations as key parts of a partisan political machine — a machine clearly designed to benefit Republican electoral candidates backed by religious-right groups.

The Renewal Project itself is the successor to what were once called Restoration Projects. The Texas Restoration Project got its start in 2005 by hosting “Pastor Policy Briefings” at the Austin Hilton downtown. Hundreds of pastors and their spouses got free lodging and meals at the “briefing,” which featured speeches by prominent religious-righters as well as Rick Perry, who was preparing to run for re-election as Texas governor. Hundreds of others attended a second “briefing” in Austin as well as similar events in Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and Fort Worth later that year.

The names for participating pastors have made up a large and growing contacts list for the Renewal Project. Those names have been used by electoral campaigns, including Perry’s election campaigns. In fact, TFN later discovered that major donors to Perry’s election campaigns had provided the more than $1.2 million spent on hosting those events in 2005.

The Restoration/Renewal Project — now wrapped into an umbrella group called the American Renewal Project — has continued to hold “pastor briefings” periodically in Texas and elsewhere, especially in presidential battleground states like Iowa and Florida. David Lane continues to serve as the primary organizer.

At each of the Renewal project events, speakers encourage pastors and their spouses to politicize their congregations after they return home. The list of speakers and what they say do little to hide the desire that congregations be encouraged to support select Republican electoral candidates who oppose abortion, LGBT equality and — more broadly — separation of church and state.

And as we see with the “Issachar” events, the political training for these pastors is becoming increasingly sophisticated. You can read Posner’s full article about such efforts here.