When Jack Abramoff arrived at federal court in Washington, D.C., this January to plead guilty to fraud, tax evasion, and conspiracy to bribe public officials, he wore a trenchcoat that strained across his stomach and an immaculate black fedora. Bemused observers wondered why Abramoff had chosen to appear in court dressed as a Mafia don. But the fedora--reportedly a Borsalino from Bencraft Hatters in Brooklyn--is also a ubiquitous accessory in the world of Orthodox Judaism, the faith that Abramoff has professed ever since watching "Fiddler on the Roof" as a 12-year-old. "I hope that I can merit forgiveness from the Almighty and from those I have wronged or caused to suffer," he told the judge, his face creased in contrition. Given the shamelessness with which he had defrauded his Indian clients, this display of devoutness may have seemed cynical. In fact, it was classic Jack Abramoff. As a man who spelled 'God' as 'G-d' in email messages, but referred to his tribal clients as "f'ing troglodytes" and entreated his staff to "get some $ out of these monkeys," Abramoff has always freely mingled the sacred with the profane.
Abramoff's activities have distressed his fellow Orthodox Jews, but they have proved even more problematic for evangelical Christians. In his lobbying campaigns, Abramoff cashed in on the conservative Christian credentials of two longtime allies: Tom DeLay, who has often used religious causes to shore up political power and who is now facing money-laundering charges of his own; and Ralph Reed, who duped his allies on the religious right into waging anti-gambling campaigns to benefit Abramoff's casino-owning clients. In DeLay and Reed, Abramoff found two similarly ambitious political players with few qualms about putting their public piety to the service of private corruption.
But by sullying the faiths they so publicly professed, the three have reminded many evangelicals of their historical aversion to mixing religion with politics. "Christ's spiritual kingdom and the civil order are two completely different things," John Calvin once observed. "We may not (as people commonly do) unwisely mix these two together." At the grassroots level, evangelicals have grown increasingly troubled by their leaders' embrace of politicians who are now mired in corruption probes. The Abramoff scandal marks an uneasy coming of age for the religious right as a political force: an acknowledgement that it has become sufficiently powerful to be worth manipulating for morally dubious ends--and a sign that the relationship between conservative Christians and the Republican Party may be fraying at the edges.
In Washington, Abramoff made no secret of his religious affiliation. He is a close friend of Rabbi Daniel Lapin, a controversial Orthodox Jew who is influential among evangelical Christians and is the author of Thou Shalt Prosper: Ten Commandments for Making Money. Abramoff served on the board of Lapin's foundation, Toward Tradition; he also directed $50,000 in donations through the organization in an effort to bribe an aide to former House majority leader Tom DeLay. When Abramoff was nominated to D.C.'s prestigious Cosmos Club, he turned to Lapin for spiritual endorsement. "I was wondering if you thought it possible that I could put that I have received an award from Toward Tradition with a sufficiently academic title, perhaps something like Scholar of Talmudic Studies?," he wrote. Lapin promised to "organize your many prestigious awards so they're ready to hang on the wall."
Abramoff also poured substantial sums into religious causes, although the money was invariably contaminated by his political dealings. He spent $200,000 each month on rent and salaries for the Eshkol Academy, a private Orthodox Jewish boys' school that he founded and used as a front group to launder large payments from tribal clients. (Rabbi Lapin's brother David was the academy's dean.) Abramoff also encouraged his clients to contribute to the Capital Athletic Foundation, telling them that it benefited inner-city kids and was a cherished cause of DeLay's. More than $100,000 of donations intended for the Capital Athletic Foundation were instead used to fund Schmuel Ben-Zvi, an Israeli who trained militant West Bank settlers. (Abramoff's communications sometimes make for bizarre reading: Musings about methods to extract "more moolah" from wealthy tribes are interspersed with exchanges with Ben-Zvi about the merits of thermal imaging equipment.)
Abramoff didn't seem to regard any of these activities as contradictory. Last May, he told The New York Times Magazine that he believed the "resources coming into my hands were the consequence of God putting them there." But Orthodox Jews have reacted to Abramoff's troubles with concern. Although Abramoff and Toward Tradition were on the periphery of the Orthodox community, many Orthodox Jews worry that they will be tainted by association. "We fear that people will, out of ignorance or bias, say 'that's what Jews do'," said Rabbi Basil Herring, the executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America, a national organization of Orthodox rabbis. "Beyond that, we also worry that legitimate lobbying activity on the part of the Jewish community could be negatively affected."
Lapin reportedly introduced DeLay and Abramoff around 10 years ago. As one of a handful of Washington lobbyists with strong ties to Republicans, Abramoff became a lynchpin in DeLay's K Street Project after the Republican takeover of the House in 1994. When Abramoff and Scanlon pitched wealthy Indian tribes, they promised to make their clients a "politician's best friend--or worst political nightmare" by touting their connections to DeLay's political muscle. DeLay once described Abramoff as "one of my closest and dearest friends;" while Scanlon was one of his former staffers.
DeLay converted to the Baptist faith during his first year in Congress in 1985. He had fallen in with a hard-partying group of legislators who knew him as "Hot Tub Tom," when a concerned colleague urged him to watch a James Dobson video on fatherhood, which left DeLay in tears. Since then, DeLay has frequently invoked his faith as a guiding force in his politics. He led the effort to impeach President Bill Clinton in 1999. More recently, he spearheaded the congressional attempt to reinsert Terri Schiavo's feeding tube and has railed against the federal judiciary, which he believes has "run amok" in its assault on the Christian faith. Less publicly, DeLay is also an ardent Christian Zionist--an evangelical who opposes any division of the Israeli state.(A former chief of the Israeli intelligence service once remarked that "the Likud is nothing compared to this guy"). "[God] has been walking me through an incredible journey, and it all comes down to worldview," DeLay told a Baptist gathering in Texas in 2002. "He is using me, all the time, everywhere, to stand up for biblical worldview in everything that I do and everywhere I am. He is training me, He is working with me."
For his efforts, DeLay became one of the religious right's most trusted politicians. In 2002, he received the Distinguished Christian Statesman Award from the Center for Christian Statesmanship, an organization founded by Dr. D. James Kennedy of Coral Ridge Ministries. Since then, DeLay has been charged with illegal fundraising in his home state of Texas. Reports have also emerged that he allegedly took foreign trips on Abramoff's credit card, and that one of his charities solicited donations from corporate sponsors in exchange for access to Republican lawmakers on a luxury yacht. Despite this, DeLay's evangelical backers stood by him. James Dobson of Focus on the Family announced that DeLay was the victim of a "trumped-up political witch hunt," while Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, encouraged supporters to pray for DeLay because "DeLay has been a stalwart on OUR issues, working diligently for the family and for life." For his part, DeLay has said that the ethical clouds hanging over his head have brought him "closer to God."
In addition to their high-level political contacts, Abramoff and Scanlon also promised their clients access to a grassroots network of conservative Christians to serve their goals. They outsourced this part of their work to Ralph Reed's consulting firm, Century Strategies.
Reed is also an evangelical Christian, although his writings suggest that politics have always been his true religion. In his book, Active Faith, Reed describes his political epiphany--the moment when he comprehended the electoral potential of the religious right--far more vividly than his spiritual conversion. After he and Abramoff earned their stripes by rejuvenating the College Republicans in the 1980s, Reed joined Pat Robertson's crusade to shape Christian conservatives into a potent political movement. As the director of the Christian Coalition, Reed attracted attention for his political talents more than his ideological fervor; he was a gifted orchestrator of grassroots campaigns. Now, in his new private sector incarnation, Reed effectively rented out his conservative Christian networks to Century Strategies' various clients, for sums that Abramoff described as "chump change."
Scanlon outlined Reed's pivotal role in an October 2001 memo to the Louisiana Coushatta tribe, explaining how the Christian right's abhorrence of gambling could be harnessed to protect the Coushatta's casino business. For $575,000, Scanlon promised to engineer floods of letters and phone calls from Christian conservatives to political representatives, protesting the operations of the Coushatta's competition. He also promised to have Christian leaders condemn rival operations in radio ads and in letters to key political figures. "Simply put we want to bring out the wackos to vote against something and make sure the rest of the public lets the whole thing slip past them," Scanlon wrote. "The wackos get their information from the Christian right, Christian radio, the internet and telephone trees." In another memo to the Coushatta, Scanlon noted that the quality of Reed's databases and connections would create a "political effort that truly resembles a people's movement" without the telltale marks of a "paid political operation."
Abramoff, Scanlon and Reed employed this strategy in several successful campaigns against existing or proposed gambling operations that threatened the interests of the Louisiana Coushatta and other tribal clients. Documents released by the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs include letters to elected representatives from Dobson, Gary Bauer, Phyllis Schlafly of the Eagle Forum, and Don Wildmon of the American Family Association, as well as DeLay and two of his closest congressional colleagues, Dennis Hastert and Roy Blunt. In emails, Reed claims to have arranged radio pronouncements from Dobson, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson. "Where are we with Falwell, Robertson, Dobson, etc?" Abramoff asked Reed in one February 2002 email. "[W]e need to see some action in DC. That's what I sold them for the 100K." Reed, who once called gambling a "cancer on the American body politic," eventually collected more than $4 million for his services.
So far, leading figures of the Christian right, like Dobson, Falwell, and Robertson, have remained mute on their role in Reed's campaigns--and on the broader subject of ethical lapses in politics. Ken Connor, a former president of the Family Research Council and the chairman of the Center for a Just Society, calls this lack of moral leadership an "embarrassing silence." Although there is no evidence that the leaders Reed worked with knew of his ties to Abramoff, their reputations have undoubtedly sustained a blow. As Tom Grey of the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling puts it: "The best that you can say is that they were useful idiots."
In January this year, Reed walked into a Baptist church in suburban Atlanta to persuade 350 evangelical Christians that they should vote for him in the Republican primary for Georgia's lieutenant governor. The event probably didn't follow the script that Reed had intended. "As Christians we're held to a higher standard," the moderator began, according to an account in the Virginian Pilot. "Is there anything you've done in your political life that you wish you hadn't done?"
At the grassroots level, the Abramoff investigation has strained the Republican relationship with religious communities. Many evangelicals were deeply dismayed by the actions of Randy "Duke" Cunningham, the California Republican and Baptist who resigned from Congress after pleading guilty to accepting more than $2 million in bribes from defense contractors. Reed's use of Christian causes for his personal enrichment has provoked fresh outrage. "Ralph Reed is seen by some evangelicals as a conniver who used religion for political ends," said Lindy Scott, the director of the Center for Applied Christian Ethics at Wheaton College. "I think this may bring out a little more caution in the evangelical world--we can't sell our soul to the Republicans or the Democrats."
Christian conservatives have experienced similar misgivings before. In the 1960s, Jerry Falwell spoke for many when he preached that evangelicals should not taint their spiritual mission by meddling in earthly politics (by the 1980s, he had apparently changed his mind). In the late 1990s, religious conservatives questioned whether the Christian Coalition's support for the Republican Party had delivered them any tangible gains. The Abramoff affair, however, threatens to leave a deeper stain on the credibility of evangelical leaders in the eyes of their own believers, who are now glimpsing the costs of their hard-won political power. No less an authority than Ralph Reed once wrote that conservative Christians were "changing the soul of American politics." Evangelicals are now discovering that this process works the other way around.