Subverting the National Dialogue

09.25.14 9:45 AM ET

The $1-Billion-a-Year Right-Wing Conspiracy You Haven’t Heard Of

Are you female, gay, non-Christian, or otherwise interested in the separation of church and state? Get to know The Gathering, a shadowy, powerful network of hard-right funders meeting Thursday in Florida.

Have you heard of the $1,750-per-person “Gathering,” which starts Thursday in Orlando, Florida?

Probably not. But if you’re female, gay, non-Christian, or otherwise interested in the separation of church and state, your life has been affected by it.

The Gathering is a conference of hard-right Christian organizations and, perhaps more important, funders. Most of them are not household names, at least if your household isn’t evangelical. But that’s the point: The Gathering is a hub of Christian Right organizing, and the people in attendance have led the campaigns to privatize public schools, redefine “religious liberty” (as in the Hobby Lobby case), fight same-sex marriage, fight evolution, and, well, you know the rest. They’re probably behind that, too.

Featured speakers have included many of the usual suspects: Alliance Defending Freedom President and CEO Alan Sears (2013), Focus on the Family President Jim Daly (2011), and Family Research Council head Tony Perkins (2006). This year, however, they are joined by David Brooks of The New York Times and Michael Gerson of The Washington Post. What’s going on? Has The Gathering gone mainstream?

Hardly, says Bruce Wilson, director of the advocacy group Truth Wins Out’s Center Against Religious Extremism and a leading researcher on The Gathering. The selection of this year’s speakers, he says, is just the latest in a long line of misdirections and canards.

To be sure, untangling webs of funders, organizations, and campaigns can often feel like conspiracy-mongering. Your brain begins to resemble one of those bulletin boards from A Beautiful Mind or Se7en, full of paranoid-seeming Post-Its and strings. Wilson has been untangling these webs for years, and sometimes it shows. His many publications and his emails to me are long-winded, occasionally exaggerated, and sometimes hard to follow.

But often he’s dead on. And beneath the hyperbole, The Gathering is as close to a “vast right-wing conspiracy” as you’re likely to find. So with this year’s conference about to get under way, Wilson gave The Daily Beast an exclusive interview over email—heavily redacted here—about this shadowy, powerful network of hard-right funders.

Lets start with the basics. What is The Gathering?

The Gathering is an annual event at which many of the wealthiest conservative to hard-right evangelical philanthropists in America—representatives of the families DeVos, Coors, Prince, Green, Maclellan, Ahmanson, Friess, plus top leaders of the National Christian Foundation—meet with evangelical innovators with fresh ideas on how to evangelize the globe. The Gathering promotes “family values” agenda: opposition to gay rights and reproductive rights, for example, and also a global vision that involves the eventual eradication of all competing belief systems that might compete with The Gathering’s hard-right version of Christianity. Last year, for example, The Gathering 2013 brought together key funders, litigants, and plaintiffs of the Hobby Lobby case, including three generations of the Green family.

The Gathering was conceived in 1985 by a small band of friends at the Arlington, Virginia, retreat center known as The Cedars, which is run by the evangelical network that hosts the annual National Prayer Breakfast. This stealthy network is known as The Family or The Fellowship. Jeff Sharlet’s book The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power described it in great detail.

How much money are we talking about here?

The evangelical right financial dynasties and foundations that meet each year at The Gathering dispense upwards of $1 billion a year in grants. But even that is overshadowed by the bigger sums that The Family and The Gathering have managed to route from the federal and state government to fund their movement via the Faith-Based Initiative program, USAID, PEPFAR and other multibillion-dollar programs.

You mentioned the National Christian Foundation. I bet most of our readers havent heard of that, either. Can you tell us a bit about it?

The NCF was created, back in 1982 or so, to maximize hard right-wing evangelical Christian philanthropic giving. It was so novel and complex, the architects got a special ruling from the IRS, to make sure it was legal. The NCF has multiple overlapping legal entities and holding companies, but at the core is a huge donor-advised fund. The NCF is now the 12th biggest charitable foundation in America that raises money from private sources.

Since its founding, the NCF has given away over $4.3 billion, $2.5 billion of it in the last three years. The NCF gave away $601,841,675 in 2012—and is estimated to have given out $670 million in 2013.

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One reason the NCF, a donor-advised fund, has been so successful is that it ensures anonymity for its philanthropists. Many of these individuals may fear a backlash, given the controversial causes that they support.

But we do know about the NCF’s leadership. Two of the NCF co-founders were tied to Campus Crusade for Christ, and the late Larry Burkett, a NCF co-founder, was also one of the co-founders of the Alliance Defense Fund/Alliance Defending Freedom, now the religious right’s preeminent umbrella legal defense fund. NCF’s other co-founder, Atlanta tax lawyer Terrence Parker, sits on the board of directors of the Family Research Council, and also The Gathering Foundation, which puts on The Gathering.

From 2001-12, the NCF gave $163,384,998 to leading anti-LGBT organizations. These include Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council, the American Family Association, the Alliance Defending Freedom (formerly Alliance Defense Fund), Campus Crusade for Christ (aka CRU), the National Organization for Marriage, and the Alliance for Marriage. They fund ex-gay ministries like Exodus International, exporters of homophobia like Advocates International, you name it.

The NCF is just getting started, though. The Green family—who were at The Gathering in 2008 and 2013—have said they intend to leave much of their fortune to it. And in 2009, Hobby Lobby-related contributions were the No. 1 source of NCF funding (about $54 million), which we know because Eli Clifton, funded by The Nation Institute, somehow got hold of an NCF 2009 990 Schedule B form, which shows NCF’s top funders that year (Hobby Lobby was No. 1, Maclellan Foundation No. 2).

On another note, Chick-fil-A’s VP and CFO, James “Buck” McCabe, is on the board of the NCF, and in 1999 no less than three of Chick-fil-A’s top leaders spoke at The Gathering (S. Truett Cathy, Dan Cathy, and Don “Bubba” Cathy).

Having worked in philanthropy myself, I can say that these figures are astounding. The leading private funder of LGBT issues gives out about $16 million a year. Which other funders will be there?

Other major players include the John Templeton Foundation ($104,863,836 in 2012 grants), the Barnaby Foundation ($39,939,489), the Christian Community Foundation (an NCF “spinoff”), and the family foundations of the DeVos families (including Rich DeVos, one of the original funders of the Christian Right), Howard & Roberta Ahmanson (operating as Fieldstead & Company—and among the most notorious right-wing funders in America), Adolph Coors, and many others.

Interestingly, some more secular right-wing funders—Scaife, Olin, Bradley—are not known to attend The Gathering.

And yet The Gathering also has some mainstream figures on the schedule, including David Brooks of The New York Times and Michael Gerson of The Washington Post.

Well, there are two possibilities. One, Brooks knows a bit about the underlying politics of The Gathering but doesn’t care, which is to say he’s on board with that political agenda to the extent he’s willing to lend his reputation to the event. Two, he’s relatively clueless. He’s been conned. Which would raise questions about his political acumen.

I’m very suspicious that Brooks’ planned appearance at The Gathering was an outgrowth of his heavy participation in the Faith Angle Forum of frequent The Gathering participant Michael Cromartie, who advises elite secular media on the culture wars, which he is also helping to wage. In 2008 Cromartie talked to The Gathering about the need to “infiltrate” secular media. His Faith Angle Forum was created to bring together elite journalists who covered religion and politics with “experts.” And experts they are—but they’re all picked by Cromartie, and many of them have been speakers at The Gathering, as well.

A lot of these issues are pretty unsurprising: fight the gays, fight abortion. But your research also shows that these Christian Right funders are behind a lot of climate denial.

Yup. Over the last decade, he NCF has pumped over $140 million into groups that oppose action to curb climate change and portray concern over global warming as part of a satanic conspiracy to impose a tyrannical “One World Order” or “New World Order.”

Michael Cromartie, whom I just mentioned, will be one of the presenters at The Gathering 2014. He is a signatory to the positions of the Cornwall Alliance, a rump religious coalition opposing action to curb human-caused climate change. The Cornwall Alliance was itself masterminded by E. Calvin Beisner, who helped coin many of the most popular arguments of the global warming denialist/inaction crowd, in a late 1980s-early 1990s book series project led and financed by Howard Ahmanson and his Fieldstead & Co.

Most of the major players in the Christian Right signed the Cornwell Alliance papers. The Ethics and Public Policy Center (NCF gave it $115,000 over 1- years), Chuck Colson’s Prison Fellowship ($12,768,852), Focus on the Family ($44,754,804), Campus Crusade for Christ ($55,233,717), Family Research Council ($17,707,343), Concerned Women for America ($160,163), American Family Association ($2,024,033), and others.

This is exhausting, depressing stuff. What keeps you going?

First, endless exposure to the politicized religious right renders the disturbing nature of the subject banal. So at one level, it becomes just another job specialization. Most days, I might as well be studying some obscure species of sea snail.

But I think the story of the politicized religious right is one of the biggest untold stories of our time. It’s the story of how a covert political movement, driven by a well-organized, -funded, and committed minority, has perturbed the political arc of the biggest, wealthiest, and most powerful nation on Earth—and how it has subverted the national dialogue.

I'm annoyed at the basic dishonesty of religio/political phenomena such as The Gathering that lay claim to the Christian tradition but ignore its underlying mandate of truth-telling. The semi-covert movement represented by The Gathering may not be able to conquer America and its “7 mountains” (Loren Cunningham, co-originator of the 7M motivational mantra, addressed The Gathering in 2001), but it nonetheless exerts considerable force on international politics, and not in an especially honest manner.

The world needs better. There are many problems to address. And I think world religions can become part of the solutions that guide us toward a better outcome in coming decades, but only insofar as they put aside covert, religious supremacist agendas and work for the common good of all. And workable solutions will require honesty—not currently a hallmark of The Gathering.