"Throughout the month of February, hundreds of thousands of Hoosiers settled into the pews of Protestant churches around the state for Sunday service.
Opening the bulletin that detailed the events of the worship service, many of these churchgoers found a red, white and blue flyer emblazoned with the American flag. The insert called for them to attend an upcoming “citizens’ rally in support of marriage” at the Indiana Statehouse in late March.
“Marriage should only be for one man and one woman!” the flyer proclaims. “Advance America is leading the effort to pass Senate Joint Resolution 7, an amendment to the Constitution, which would ban same sex marriages.”
As it frequently does, Advance America, the self-described largest Evangelical “pro-family, pro-church” political organization in the state, was sending out a legislative update to its members. Founded in 1980 by Indianapolis attorney Eric Miller, Advance America boasts a political network that includes thousands of members drawn from nearly 4,000 Indiana churches.
This isn’t the first time Advance America has rallied Evangelicals at the Statehouse to express their opposition of same-sex marriage. Two years ago, the group organized a similar anti-gay rally and the bus transportation for those coming from churches and Christian schools from around the state, when SJR 7 last came up for a vote in the Indiana Legislature.
“God says marriage is one man and one woman,” said attendee Martha Robinson as she stood under the Advance America banner draped across the rotunda prior to the start of the rally. “And we need to obey that if we don’t want to destroy ourselves. God made us. We need to listen to Him. He knows what’s best for us.”
Robinson’s sentiments were echoed by other Evangelicals in attendance, as well as by lawmakers who spoke and assured the crowd, as then-Speaker of the House Brian Bosma did, that “there are few legislative functions more important than preserving traditional families.”
Republicans from both the House and Senate took turns at the microphone, including Sen. John Waxman, who addressed the assembled crowd, many of whom had come in response to a pamphlet he’d mailed to his constituents a few months earlier warning of the evils of homosexuality and imploring citizens to vote to save the innocence of children by voting for him.
“In 1998, the Democratic administration opened the door to gay adoptions. This action started the implementation of a larger homosexual agenda,” Waxman warned. “The next step is the legal recognition of a homosexual union. The ultimate goal involves the enlistment of our children.
“Because they can’t reproduce, homosexuals have to recruit! We must continue to fight back in order to preserve our children’s innocence!”
“The institution of marriage was not created and cannot be defined by government,” Republican House Rep. Woody Burton said, drawing cheers. “Only God can create marriage!”
Welcoming the large crowd who had assembled at his request, Advance America’s Eric Miller took to the podium at the “Save Marriage!” rally promising to be the eyes and ears of Evangelicals in state government.
“This is your Statehouse,” he told the enthusiastic crowd, minutes before they burst into “God Bless America,” “and I am here to make sure your family, your church and your faith are protected.”
Beneath a fiery cross
The relationship between religion and politics is a controversial one in Indiana this legislative session. Hoosiers, in large numbers and regardless of political party, are dissatisfied with the way in which our elected officials treat religion in the crafting of public policy, a viewpoint that matches national trends.
According to a 2006 Pew Research poll, while more than 75 percent of Americans identify themselves as Christian, nearly 50 percent of Americans believe that conservatives have gone too far in imposing their religious values on American public policy.
At the same time, nearly 70 percent of Americans believe liberals have gone too far in keeping religion out of schools and government.
These opinions don’t fall along religious or party lines, however. According to the same survey, Christians split their votes nearly 60/40 between the Republican and Democratic parties during the last election; only slightly more pronounced than the nearly 50/50 split of Americans overall between the two parties.
Of all American voters, the easiest to characterize are Evangelicals, who make up nearly a quarter of the American population and form a distinct group whose members share core religious beliefs as well as crystallized and consistently conservative political attitudes.
Not only are they overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly Republican, they are also steadfast in their belief that Christian values should be the single most authoritative source in the governing of America. An opinion the majority of Americans do not share.
This fundamental belief that the Bible should be used as a governing authority superior to the will of the people, even if the Bible contradicts the will of the people, gives rise to nearly every contentious political debate in the country, quite often between Evangelicals and the rest of the country.
And because they make up 25 percent of the total voting population, and nearly 50 percent of all voting Republicans, their political clout is substantial. For Republican candidates, it is nearly impossible to win without Evangelical support.
The political rhetoric and literal mission of lobbyists like Eric Miller and Advance America is a blend of patriotism and religion meant to shape government by giving a voice to the variety of fears and frustrations that resonate with Evangelicals — particularly their frustration over a declining morality and sinners who openly flaunt their disobedience to biblical principles; fear of the wave of immigrants who are threatening the economic and social order of things in their communities; and a post Sept. 11 fatigue that gives rise to a suspicion of all things foreign — including ideas, beliefs and lifestyles they consider alien.
Miller believes that Indiana politicians are wise enough to campaign on the same issues Advance America promotes. Speaking recently of last fall’s election, he boasted of Advance America’s success in shaping an election outcome that matched the political agenda of his Evangelical constituents. “I think you didn’t really see any candidate running in Indiana at the state or federal level that said they were pro-abortion, in support of homosexual marriage and that they wanted to tax churches.”
In Indiana, as they do nationally, Evangelical Christians overwhelmingly cast their votes for Republican candidates who promise to protect their faith, their families and their freedom from what they see as an ever-more-secular society. Miller’s lobbying success comes in positioning Advance America as the watchdog for these Evangelical religious and political interests in the Statehouse.
“My whole desire is to bring honor and glory to my savior Jesus Christ,” Miller said recently. “With that goes my desire to help fellow Hoosiers in the state.”
Having lost his Republican bid for Indiana governor in the 2004 primary election to Mitch Daniels, Miller holds no political office and has never been ordained as a minister. And yet, according to the Advance America Web site, “For over 20 years, Advance America, with Eric Miller at the helm, has led the battle for Hoosier families at the Indiana Statehouse. Families, churches and business have benefited from Eric’s leadership in state government.”
Whether or not the lobbying efforts of Evangelicals like Eric Miller have helped or hurt Hoosiers is a matter of opinion, one that is increasingly being debated. Another debate concerning the social and political agendas of Evangelicals are the fundamental similarities between this group of Christian soldiers and the most infamous army of religious patriots in Indiana history.
Traditional Hoosier values
It is a part of our cultural history that we don’t like to discuss much, nor do we much like to acknowledge any ancestral resemblance. To point out similarities in contemporary religious expression or belief borders on blasphemy, and analogies to contemporary events are nearly always dismissed as hyperbole.
But the truth is that during its 1920s heyday, the Ku Klux Klan numbered over 5 million members nationwide, by some estimates more than 10 million — all of them white, Protestant, fiercely religious and fiercely patriotic.
Unlike its earlier incarnation in the post-Civil War era, however, this time the KKK was not primarily a rural and Southern phenomenon, and its popularity was evident in cities across America, none more so than Indianapolis.
While racial superiority remained a fundamental tenet for the 20th century KKK, stated plainly in the 1925 Klansman’s Manual as “the God-given supremacy of the white race,” history routinely forgets to mention that the ideals of the group surpassed racism.
When the KKK was at the height of its popularity in Indiana, Communists, Catholics and Jews were just as inferior and immoral to its members as homosexuals, bootleggers, the “modern” woman and, of course, Negroes.
Some branches of the Klan notoriously resorted to violence during this period, particularly in violent crimes against black communities and individuals. But an equally dangerous aspect of the Klan’s power in Indiana came from a blend of religious and patriotic duty that fueled local politics.
Founded in 1920, the Indiana chapter of the KKK quickly became the largest and most powerful branch of the Klan in the country. By 1924, more than 40 percent of white males in Indianapolis claimed membership, as did one in every three white men in the state, and the Klan accurately and proudly boasted control of the mayor and governor’s offices, the Indiana General Assembly and the Indianapolis City Council almost exclusively in the form of the Republican candidates they backed.
During the 1920s, the mainstream embrace of the Ku Klux Klan was also demonstrated in churches throughout the state, as Protestant clergy were often the most ardent Klan supporters in each community.
In Indianapolis, the Rev. William Forney Harris of the Grand Avenue Methodist Church was not atypical when he encouraged Klan membership among his congregation in 1922, preaching that these were times of “moral decay,” and as such, “any organization that stands for decency and order ought not to be shunned.”
“Kinship of race, belief, spirit, character and purpose” were the basis for membership in the KKK, and the role model for Klansmen was “their Criterion of Character Jesus Christ.” Additionally, the 1925 manual commands, “Klansmen are to be examples of pure patriotism.”
Like Evangelicals today, members of the KKK in the 1920s believed patriotism and religion to be the most fundamental principles for personal and political duty.
“The true Klansman is pledged to absolute devotion to American principles. Before the sacred altar of the Klan, face to face with the Stars and Stripes, and beneath the holy light of the Fiery Cross, he pledges himself in these words: ‘I swear that I will most zealously and valiantly shield and preserve, by any and all justifiable means and methods, God-given freedoms and sacred Constitutional values.’”
Protecting sacred rights and values
The symbolism of the American flag and the Christian cross that dominated the iconography and rhetoric of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s are no less relevant to those seeking a reformation of social and political values today.
In a very literal sense, Evangelicals are using both church and government in their efforts to uphold what was their grandfather’s oath to zealously and valiantly shield and preserve the sacred constitutional rights and privileges they believe to be under attack.
Church bulletins and a monthly newsletter are only part of Advance America’s lobbying functions.
The organization routinely informs families and churches about what is occurring in state government and activity in the General Assembly by way of a 24-hour toll-free hotline, faxes, mailings, speaking engagements, voting record summaries on the Indiana General Assembly and a variety of other communication methods, including an e-mail alert system.
Miller promises that Advance America’s staff reads and reviews every piece of legislation filed in the Indiana General Assembly, more than 1,500 in some years. They evaluate each bill, offer testimony before legislative committees, talk directly with legislators, draft amendments and bills, sound the alarm when individuals need to call their legislators.
There is no issue seemingly more important to Evangelicals than stopping same-sex marriage and “the homosexual agenda.”
“Radical feminists, abortion zealots, liberal politicians, and haters of the Judeo-Christian ethic have in their own ways ushered in a new era devoid of religion, gender distinctions and traditional family relationships,” Dr. James Dobson states in the Public Policy Statement of Focus on the Family, the largest and most powerful Evangelical lobbying organization in the United States.
“Together,” he continues, “they have brought the institution of marriage to its knees. I have been most concerned about the anti-family agenda being pushed forward by radical homosexual activists.”
At every hearing for SJR 7, Eric Miller is always present to advocate on behalf of Evangelicals seeking a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.
“Traditional marriage is the foundation of every society,” Miller said recently to a room full of Indiana senators considering the amendment. “Banning same-sex marriages and civil unions will prove to be the greatest moral battle of this generation.”
At that same hearing, Sen. Brandt Hershman, the author of SJR 7, explained his rationale for the amendment: “This is the way it’s always been in Indiana, in America, in the world, in the history of civilization.”
Like nearly ever other state in America, Indiana has had a law stipulating that the only legal marriages in Indiana are those between one man and one woman since the Federal Defense of Marriage Act of the 1990s. However, Evangelicals in Indiana do not believe that law is sufficient enough to prevent future same-sex marriages in the state.