Born Again Politics: Why a Catholic Housewife Is Organizing the Midwest for Pat Robertson

An Interview With Marlene Elwell

Marlene Elwell is Midwest coordinator for Americans for Robertson. From the book Once A Catholic, by Peter Occhiogrosso, published by Houghton Mifflin, Boston. Copyright (c) 1987 by Peter Occhiogrosso. Reprinted by permission.

I embraced the Charismatic Renewal when my I moved to Michigan in 1972. There was a referendum to legalize abortion in Michigan in 1972, called Proposition B. My boxes weren’t even packed when I got involved in opposing the referendum. I think the experience of losing my child in the sixth month was so profound that I knew that it was not God’s way to have an abortion. We were expected to lose that proposal by a two-to-one vote, but with a lot of effort and the Catholic Church being actively involved, we switched that around and defeated the proposal by two to one — only to have Roe v. Wade change that in 1973. That was my first involvement in the political arena.

Being active in Right to Life, I was also fighting a feminist movement. I was the minority voice in the International Women’s Year, opposing legalized abortion and everything else. I felt that being a mother was something to be proud of, yet the feminist movement made it something derogatory. I found my peer group feeling inadequate, as if something was wrong with them. I’d hear them saying, “Well, I’m just a mother,” kind of apologizing for the fact. I was offended by that. “What do you mean you’re just a mother?” I would say. “The greatest vocation in the world is being a mother. You’re giving life to people.” But I was like a voice in the wilderness. No one took that position, because it was a popular thing to be a feminist.

There I was struggling with all those things on the outside and my children were going to school and my husband was busy with his job. My daughter was in the 10th grade at Mercy High School, an all-girls school.

We sent our kids to parochial school at a great sacrifice. We bought our home close to the schools. Education became the important thing. But one day, I was going through her reading and found out that one of my daughter’s required readings was Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics.

For the first time, I began to look at the school and found that everything I was trying to teach my daughter was the opposite of what was being taught. The nuns had become feminists themselves. Planned Parenthood, for example, could not get in the back door of the public high schools at that time, but the nuns were bringing it in through the front door.

When I began to look into this, it was right at a time when they were having a full day honoring the National Organization for Women. I went to participate and was told that it wasn’t for the parents, it was for the girls. I said, “Well, I happen to be paying the tuition, so I’d like to see what is going on.” And I was shocked at what was going on. They had a class in which lesbianism was presented as a “lifestyle choice.” I’m standing there and girls are saying, “But isn’t homosexuality a sin?” And they were being told, “No, there are no longer absolutes in the Church.” A nun was saying this. Class after class put down motherhood. It was like going through a nightmare. Everything I was fighting on the outside, my daughter and twelve hundred girls were being indoctrinated in. Feminist thinking was being taught by nuns who I thought were going to be teaching them Catholic values.

I think that’s the first time I was shocked into realizing what I was struggling with wasn’t just on the outside world but was in the Church and everywhere. I went to the principal, thinking that she was just naive. And of course, I was in awe of nuns because I wasn’t raised with them. I just held them in esteem. So I went to her and said, “Do you realize that one of the goals in the bylaws of NOW is to take away the tax exempt status of the Catholic Church?” It turned out that she was very much aware of it. Now I was absolutely horrified. And then she said, “The Catholic Church won’t be what it ought to be until the Pope is a woman.” I felt like I was the only one in the whole world who knew this was going on and that somehow I had to get the message to the parents.

So I decided to call together a parents’ group. After getting an enormous runaround from everyone, including the parish priests, I forced them to hold a parents’ meeting at the school. I trusted the principal when she told me there would be two panels, for parents and teachers, who would offer differing views. But when I got there I was amazed to find out that everything was the opposite of what we had planned. There was a panel of only teachers and nothing for the parents. I went to the principal and she just smiled at me and said, “Well, we changed the program.”

Little did I realize how, when Sister said something, the other parents took the attitude that there was no questioning it. That was the mentality of those parents: “Sister says.” We began the meeting and the principal presented her beliefs about how they were making every effort to bring these girls into the world, and that they were going to be the women of tomorrow, and they had to be educated to what was going on in the world — and giving us no opportunity to speak. Finally, I had to go up there and literally take over the microphone to try and present our point of view. And when I did, I found that none of the parents who had gone with me would stand up.

I almost couldn’t believe what was going on. Their eyes were closed and they didn’t want to know. I presented the types of books, the films and so on, and all that happened was that I began to be questioned by the people. One of the fathers stood up and said, “Marlene, isn’t it a fact that you’re active in Right to Life? And isn’t it a fact that Right to Life opposes the National Organization for Women?” And I said, “Why am I being challenged? I am a Catholic. Aren’t all Catholics opposed to abortion? Why am I defending my faith among Catholics?” Because that’s what I was doing.

I left there completely broken. As a result of that meeting, I was banned from the school. The principal asked me never to come into the school again. And I said, “Well, I’m going to come anyway. My daughter goes here.” So I raised a lot of fuss in the school. When I learned that Planned Parenthood was there, I would sit in the class and object to what they were teaching. They were not only teaching the girls different methods of birth control, but also where they could get free contraceptives. I finally went to the principal and said, “My daughter goes to the school. She chooses not to leave the school. If anything happens between you and her, then you realize that you haven’t seen anything yet.” So, as a result of that, they wouldn’t allow her to take any class that was controversial. And she didn’t tell me about that, so there was anger toward me on my daughter’s side. She came to me one time and said, “Why can’t you be like the rest of the mothers?” I said, “I hope one day you’ll understand, but right now you don’t.” I had to finish her high school days with her being angry at me most of the time.

That was the beginning of the struggle within myself between the values that I held on to and the Church that I counted on to stand up for them but did no longer. I began to question my own values, thinking there was something wrong with me: I’m being too rigid. Because now there was this whole new wave of thinking, very liberal, very fast. It was a disastrous experience for me, a very frightening experience.

I began to realize that the legalistic way of raising kids was not feasible anymore. It was an absolute crisis, and it caused a lot of conflict in our family. My husband, not being exposed to this stuff day after day, wanted to know why I couldn’t just keep the kids in line. I tried to tell him that it wasn’t like it was in the 1950s. “No one supports what we’re thinking anymore,” I said, “and they’re being indoctrinated with the new thinking. In order to have any relationship with your kids, or at least to get along with them, you have to understand a little bit of their world, their culture.” The boys were wearing their hair long and I wanted my son to have a crew cut — but that didn’t jibe. You just can’t buzz his hair and make him an oddball. So you kind of look at your kid with a funny feeling when his hair is hanging down. But I knew I had to let that go because I was struggling with the other stuff.

I feel like I’ve been in a battle all my life. My son was going to an all-boys school, but I was busy fighting the feminists and I thought everything was fine there. Yet in my son’s senior year, he began asking questions and acting strange and I thought, boy, that’s kind of weird coming from him — he must be reading stuff. He took a marriage course, and I found a sheet of paper with 16 positions for sexual intercourse. I said, “Where did this come from?” And he said, “Part of my marriage course.” He was in a Catholic high school, okay? I went over to talk to the priest and I was in for another shock. I said to him, “Sixteen years old is the hardest time in a boy’s life, a real struggle. It’s hardly the time to give them all these pictures. Why is that necessary?” His answer was, “Well, if they’re doing it, they ought to know how.” This was the priest. Where were the days gone when, in a senior class, you teach him that he should be abstaining until marriage?

Meanwhile, I was sitting there thinking, Oh God, what is happening? It’s like a bomb being dropped all the time in the middle of your household. I began to notice that, during my son’s sophomore year in college, there was something different about him. He wasn’t quite the same. When I pressed him on what was going on in his life, he finally admitted, “Well, I don’t believe in God anymore. In fact, I’m an atheist.” I started to cry. I acted like a silly kid. He said, “Now, mom, it’s not you. You didn’t fail as a mother. You’re a great mother.” He tried to assure me it wasn’t me, that it was his choice, and I was devastated by that.

I had never been exposed to someone who struggled with his faith. I just thought that you grew up with it and it was there. And I hadn’t talked to people who were atheists. My husband had been, I knew, but I thought that was because he was a Methodist. Now here I had this atheist and it devastated me, so I sought out priests. I thought, here’s this kid who’s got one foot on a banana peel and the other in hell because he doesn’t believe in God. So I had to go through a whole other struggle.

My kids began to question me on things like, “What if we brought a homosexual home? What would you do?” “Well, is he going to make advances at Bob (the youngest son)?” “No, he’s just going to come in and you won’t even know it.” I was trying to embrace this love, accept the whole thing. I’d say, “Yes, he can come home for dinner.” They were always questioning me like that. Then they’d say they wanted to bring home some guy who practiced a different religion. And I’d say, “Well, is he going to try to get one of the younger kids to become like him?” My husband didn’t understand this at all because he wasn’t tuned in to all of this kid’s stuff. He saw me as acquiescing to that type of thinking and giving up my values. He said, “You’re just like one of the kids.”

Even prior to my experience of the Charismatic Renewal, the Holy Spirit was always a real person to me. It influenced my life. When I first heard about the Charismatic Renewal, I began to read about it and question it because my sister embraced it first. My sister was a nun who had left the convent after 12 years and joined the Charismatic Renewal. She was baptized in the spirit, the whole thing. So I was aware of it and I read everything on it, but I really wanted no part of it. When someone would ask me or invite me, I would say, “No way.” The way I felt, the Holy Spirit had got me in enough trouble without my being part of a movement, so I really stayed away from it.

I did a lot of public speaking for Right to Life, particularly in Evangelical churches. After, people would say, “You’re filled with the Spirit.” And I’d say, “Yes, I am.” Then I went to a parish dance outside my parish, and the priest came to me and said, “You’re full of the Spirit, aren’t you?” And I said, “Yes.” So he began to talk and I said, “Father, I’m not charismatic. I mean, I’ve never been part of the movement. I don’t belong to a group. But I know I’m filled with the Spirit.” He had me come to the rectory and he began to tell me about the Charismatic Renewal and said, “I really think you ought to be baptized in the Spirit.”

Eventually I was baptized in the Spirit. It was hard for me to get into reading the Scripture at first, coming from a traditional Catholic background. And yet, I’d begin to read it, and it would come alive to me. My faith developed a new side. As Catholics, we got the gospel at Mass and that was it. You never picked up your Bible and read it personally. Protestants did that. That was what separated you. I mean, you knew a Protestant because his religion was the Bible and your religion was built on a rich tradition plus the liturgical year and so on. And the gospel depended on how good a homily the priest gave. But when I got into the Charismatic Renewal, I began to read Scripture and to get books on it and I tried to study it and become really alive. I realized that I was living the gospel but hadn’t understood it. It took on a newer meaning, a greater depth. I began to find a trust in God that I didn’t have before. It took away the fear of my children leaving the faith and made me understand that God sees the whole picture and I see only a little piece.

I think that I’m probably more conservative now than I was when I started out. I happen to be active in the Republican party now. I started out being a Democrat, although I was never active in the Democratic party. I fulfilled my duty, I voted, and I thought that was all we had to do. But in 1973, when the Roe v. Wade decision was handed down, I was on the National Right to Life Committee. And from then through 1980, I was involved with any candidate if he was pro-life. So sometimes I worked for the Democrats and sometimes I worked for the Republicans — never as a paid person, but as a volunteer. I recognized that changes in our society come about in the voting booth but that voting wasn’t enough. If you wanted someone to win, you had to put some effort behind it.

In 1980, the Republican convention was held in Michigan. I was working with Right to Life and became aware that someone was going to have to try to get pro-life language into the Republican party platform. But there was no one to do it. That was in March, and the convention was to be in July. The state coordinator called me and asked me if I would put together something for pro-life. I said, “I can’t. First of all, I don’t know anything about party politics. I’ve never been to a convention. I hardly know what a delegate is,” But because I felt so strongly about it, I finally said I would put it together.

I got on track and put the thing together and, by the time it was finished, I’d organized the county. I had all the platform delegates. There were all of these lobbies and I knew where they stood. I got hold of Carl Anderson, who was then an aide to Jesse Helms, to help me with the language. I went to the National Right to Life Committee and I got some money from them to put this thing together. I had 110 people working with me by the time I was finished. I had the language written. And by the time the platform committee was formed, we knew who was what and what they were going to do and we got that language in. And I am told by many people that it changed the course of the Republican party. It now had a strong pro-life platform, and Reagan had stood on it. It was the beginning of the Republican party taking a new position.

In 1984, I was named the state field director for the re-election of the President for Michigan. In that election, I had a real problem with the Republicans because, first of all, they didn’t embrace the blacks. I mean, they just didn’t get into the cities. And I thought, if you’re going to be a majority party someday, you’ve got to embrace all people. What I found was that a lot of people who had always been Democrats could no longer accept the Democratic party in a lot of ways. It was pro-abortion, it was a party for the gays, and right down the line. A lot of people found there was no room for them in the Democratic party anymore, but the Republicans didn’t have the foresight to say, “Here we are!” I got myself in a lot of trouble in 1984 with the Republican National Committee because I was fighting them and saying, “We’ve got to go into Detroit.” And they’d say, “We don’t want to go into Detroit because there are no votes there.” I’d say, “There are no votes there if you don’t go in there and cultivate them, right?”

I left that campaign feeling very discouraged, very disheartened. I felt, when I left, that there was a void in the Republican party and that there wasn’t enough participation by the Christian community — a community of people who believed in the same traditional values. You have to understand, I didn’t embrace the party because of the party, I embraced it to get my values heard. So in January of 1985, one of the black pastors in Detroit whom I worked with on Reagan’s re-election campaign — he happened to be one of the few Republican blacks, an up-and-coming young man — called me and said, “Marlene, have you ever heard of the Freedom Council?” And I said, “No.” And he said, “Well, I recommended you for a job with them. Have you ever heard of the 700 club?” No, I hadn’t. “Pat Robertson?” Well, vaguely. I didn’t know any of that stuff and I don’t watch TV, except for the news.

Shortly after that, they sent someone over from Virginia Beach to interview me. I was very skeptical because my idea was that fundamentalists, Evangelicals — I didn’t know there was a difference — were judgmental and narrow, and I didn’t want to be a part of that. But when I examined it carefully, I saw that the Freedom Council had exactly my vision — and that was to get the nation with prayer and to educate the Christian community about the importance of getting involved politically. A lot of them, particularly the Evangelicals, don’t even vote. If we could educate them to get involved politically, then we could motivate them to act. So they had a three-pronged approach: prayer, education, and action. So I really decided that I had to take a serious look at them.

In June of 1985, Pat Robertson came into Michigan to launch a national news program. His idea was to have the Freedom Council in every state of the nation, and Michigan, Florida, and North Carolina were chosen as models. But they didn’t have a state coordinator in Michigan, so they asked me if I would put together the visit, which I did. It was successful and Pat Robertson was impressed enough by it that he told them he wanted me to become state coordinator.

I accepted because I thought it was a great opportunity to witness for my faith and to quiet their misunderstanding of Catholics. A lot of them came from the South where they thought Catholics had two heads. But my position as state coordinator was a wonderful experience because often I ran into that prejudice where they’d say, “You can’t go to Catholic churches.” Just as you have Catholics who were taught that Protestants don’t go to heaven, you have a group in the fundamentalists and the Evangelicals who feel that Catholics won’t go to heaven, that they’re not “born again.” So I’d be in the perfect position, addressing a group and trying to recruit people to run for delegates and telling them, “If you really believe in this stuff, then you’ve got to get involved in the political arena. You have to get out and educate people.” And when they’d say, “Yeah, but you can’t go to the Catholics,” I’d say, “Why not?” “Well, they aren’t Christian.” “Why do you say that?” “Well, they don’t believe in the Bible.” And I’d say, “Yes, they really do.” “Oh, no, they don’t.”

I should take a moment to explain the terminology of being “born again,” which is very much misunderstood. If you are “born again,” it signifies you accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior and you have a personal relationship with Jesus. The Protestants and the fundamentalists don’t have the kind of tradition that Catholics have. As a Catholic, you gradually come to the experience of Jesus and God — there’s a personal relationship and it grows. In the born-again scenario, typically, they’re wayward or they’re not really into religion, then suddenly they get introduced to Jesus and they accept Jesus as their personal savior and they are “born-again.” There’s a Scripture line that says unless you’re born again of the Spirit, you don’t get to heaven. And so they hold on to that Scripture line and don’t look at the broader picture that we would. So they would say, “Catholics aren’t born again, so they aren’t Christians.” They wouldn’t know I’m a Catholic, of course, because there I was addressing them and saying, “Praise God,” and using all the same language. I do believe in the baptism of the spirit because of the Charismatic Renewal and certainly have a deep personal relationship with Jesus. So I’d answer them, “That isn’t true. Catholics believe in the gospel.” But I’d tell them there’s a little more to it. They have the liturgy every Sunday. They read the gospel. There’s three different gospel readings every Sunday at Mass.

And I would begin, in a very discreet way, to defend the faith. Pretty soon I was breaking down the walls and they’d be getting perplexed. First of all, why did I have all this knowledge of Catholicism, and why was I defending this group that they saw as not saved, not Christian? I would point out that Catholics believe in Jesus and that the Church’s theology is very scriptural. The average person didn’t know that. I’d go through all the arguments for it and, in frustration, I’d finally say, “Well, really, I have to tell you that I understand all of this because I happen to be a Catholic.” Well, you know, boy! That’s really hard. When I first started to say that, they’d say, “You’re a Catholic?” It was like, “You’re a Communist!” It was that startling to them. “You mean you’re a Catholic and you know the Lord like we do and you love Jesus?” I’d say, “Yes.” And they’d say, “Wow!”

On the other hand, I had people quit on me. Sometimes they would just say, “No way. We’ve got a Catholic heading this thing up?” They thought I was going off in the wrong direction. But that was not so often. More than anything, it became an ecumenical tool. I began to say, “Look, we’re all the Body of Christ and you’re going to have to lay down the differences because if you don’t, we’re divided.” They’d begin to understand that.

There’s a Charismatic revival now — the renewal in the Catholic church, for example. The Pope has wholeheartedly embraced the Charismatic Renewal. We have spirit-filled Catholics and spirit-filled Evangelicals coming together. I believe the Holy Spirit’s doing a great thing. Here in Michigan, we have Duns Scotus Seminary — they are spirit-filled and they are evangelizing like the Evangelicals are, but they’re Catholics.

A large number of Evangelicals are fallen away Catholics. I went to one church, for example, where 85 percent of the people were fallen away Catholics. For the most part, they left the Church following Vatican II. They became disillusioned with Catholicism because they believe in principles and values that have disappeared from the Church. In cities like Detroit where you have the liberal element — the archdiocese is very liberal — they’re bringing in all this new thinking where sin is not taught anymore and there are no longer absolutes in the Church. Dignity, which is the gay rights movement within the Catholic Church, is very active in Detroit and has been supported by the archdiocese, for instance.

So the Church that they believed in had fallen apart. The traditions that they grew up with were gone. The Church made all those great changes and gave people nothing in their place except confusion. We had priests teaching them that premarital sex was fine. So not only was the world confusing to them, but their church was. They then run into priests like the one I was fighting; rather than fight them, they left the church. And then the Evangelical movement came along and said, “We’ve got the answer for you. It’s in the Bible.” And it is in the Word. But the heartache for me was to go into those churches and have people come and say, “Oh, this is great! You’re a Catholic? I used to be a Catholic.” So I became a new hope for them. The church that they had been so down on and so bitter toward had someone in leadership standing up there and saying, “I love the Catholic Church, its richness and tradition.”

I believe that the Church will survive, although it has hard times ahead of it. There’s going to be a struggle — there’s a struggle right now. It’s never going to be the same institution that we’ve known it to be. But I do think that it has to take a new look at itself. That’s why you have a movement within the Church for evangelization. They’re beginning to realize that we have to evangelize, we have to preach the gospel. I think we became so comfortable that we weren’t sharing the message with anybody. When have you talked to someone to try and convert them? The Catholics coming over in the early days of this country were missionaries here — they spoke the faith. They lived the faith. Today, Catholics aren’t living their faith. Who is going to become a Catholic because of the way some Catholic lives his life? Not too many.

When you look back at people who have converted to Catholicism, it was usually because of the influence of somebody else. You evangelized or witnessed by the way you lived your life. Because of liberal thinking that’s come into the church today, Catholics are not practicing their faith and aren’t living their lives any differently from anybody else. The reason you have such a great conversion to the Evangelicals is that they’re living differently. People say, “That guy, he’s giving his money to the church, and he’s not drinking, he doesn’t swear.” When you’re with them, there’s a difference. When you’re with a Catholic, he swears as good as the next guy and cheats on his income tax. The church has to re-evaluate its priorities. When you go into the Catholic Church, they spend time planning their bingo games and all that stuff. That era is gone. There are some hurting, bleeding people out there, and unless the Church meets the needs of its people, the people are going to be moving away from the Church.


  • Peter Occhiogrosso

    Peter Occhiogrosso has been a journalist for more than 30 years and has written or co-written many books about world religion and spirituality, including his popular guide to the world’s religious traditions, The Joy of Sects.

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