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Sticking With Tradition 

New York-based Russ Baker is an award-winning journalist who covers politics and media.

All right now, who's for "traditional values?"

Perhaps you've caught the huge tussle over a new initiative by the Traditional Values Coalition (TVC), which has issued a high-profile demand that the federal government explain who authorized a host of research studies on health and sexuality—which TVC calls "smarmy projects."

The executive director of TVC told The Washington Post, "We have nameless, faceless bureaucrats doling out money like a federal ATM to do things like study the sex habits of Mexicans before and after they cross over the border. This doesn't pass the straight-face test." Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), responded by calling the coalition's tactics "scientific McCarthyism," and demanding that Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson stand up to TVC and support the National Institutes of Health (NIH), whose grants, which look at things like behaviors that spread sexually transmitted diseases, are determined by scientific peer-review panels.

The funding debate, which has generated heavy media coverage in recent days, is only the latest in a long string of publicity coups for TVC. Among its campaigns that resulted in a torrent of coverage were recent television ads accusing then-California gubernatorial candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger of being soft on gay rights and abortion.

While most other "conservative" groups have shown some reserve in dealing with issues involving gay Americans, TVC has shamelessly exploited homophobia for years. The only slightly disguised "we hate gays" message has been a key factor in TVC's success.

The problem with names like "Traditional Values Coalition" is that they almost never involve truth in advertising. What few media organizations bother to ask, right from the outset, is who these groups actually are, and whether anything they say deserves the credibility of a spotlight at all.

The Post described the Orange County, California-based group as "a public policy organization that says it has more than 43,000 member churches." While the TVC is nominally a coalition, and can claim, superficially, to represent many churches, it is actually an umbrella for a variety of initiatives and affiliated groups that personally benefit the family of TVC's ethically-challenged founder and chairman, the Rev. Lou Sheldon.

Sheldon's TVC publicly campaigned against "card clubs" seeking approval in five cities, without revealing that his own son Steve was being paid $156,000 to rally churches against card clubs by competing gaming interests that wanted the field to themselves. This was discovered by investigators for California's Fair Political Practices Commission. Sheldon himself received a $10,000 consulting fee from a coalition funded largely by Nevada casinos.

Sheldon also committed a biblical-strength sin, betraying one of his own constituent ministers. The Reverend Steve Anderson, at the time a TVC board member, was engaged in exposing dubious contracting practices by a powerful California waste company, Taormina Industries, in his hometown of Colton, California. Unbeknownst to Rev. Anderson, while Sheldon was providing him with "guidance" in his struggle against Taormina (which had launched a vicious campaign to silence Anderson), Sheldon was quietly accepting money and computing resources from Taormina's owner—and adding him to TVC's own board. (You can read the full story of Anderson's battle with Taormina here.)

"The whole Sheldon family is using TVC as a sham ministry," Anderson says. "They claim to represent thousands of churches, but, from being in good standing on the inside from 1994 to 1996, I can say it's a lie. Lou has switched to lobbying politicians and groups instead of ministering in actual churches. He's a lobbyist among politicians, yet claims to be a minister of the Gospel. Lou's latest sham is to be leading the war against homosexuals, in light of the recent Supremes decision. Follow the money. It's not from mainstream churches backing him. Just hatemongers!"

Indeed, wherever temptation is, this minister isn't far away. While much of the Religious Right was holding its noses over the sleazy content emanating from the Fox Network, Sheldon lined up support from the National Religious Broadcasters to help Fox owner Rupert Murdoch block a telecommunications merger he opposed.

With his checkered activities starting to draw fire from opponents, Sheldon has gradually eased out of the spotlight. Today, his daughter, Andrea Sheldon-Lafferty, is the figurehead leader and spokesperson (she's the one cited in most recent articles about the NIH flap) and Sheldon's sons run businesses that benefit directly from TVC's "nonprofit" activities, such as Phil Sheldon's

The Sheldon clan's latest entrepreneurial foray is a "Christian alternative" to the AARP (formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons). For dues of $12.95 a year, members are promised "benefits that are as good, or better, than AARP's." AARP, looking into this development, learned that mailings for Sheldon's "Christian Seniors" were crafted by the famed rightwing direct-mail entrepreneur Richard A. Viguerie, who's been instrumental in the creation of several other such "seniors" groups aimed at weakening the political clout that AARP wields on behalf of older Americans.

AARP's publication, AARP Bulletin, confirmed that the Traditional Values Coalition ran operating deficits of more than $1 million in both 2000 and 2001—while paying a handsome salary to his daughter for part-time work and one son for consulting. From that, one might conclude that the traditional values crowd is getting taken, and that the Traditional Values First Family itself believes in one traditional value—the value of a greenback.

In any case, doesn't all of this deserve a little more attention from the national media, which is only too happy to publicize TVC in other respects?

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Published: Nov 25 2003


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