It is a measure of how much Arkansas has changed — progressed, some would say — that Jerry Cox may be the most hated person in the state, and if he's not, he's close.
Cox provokes the sort of deep loathing formerly directed only at civil-rights activists, labor leaders, ACLU members — that ilk. Cox is determinedly not one of them. He is instead a former high school history teacher, soft of speech and mild of manner, who has become the foremost spokesman for the Religious Right in Arkansas. To a number of contemporary Arkansans, especially the younger set, this equates to being the foremost spokesman for prejudice and ignorance. People loudly opposed to homosexuality, abortion, and cohabitation without marriage once were above criticism. Cox is well within its reach. He himself says that “bigoted” and “hateful” are the adjectives most often applied to him by critics. He denies being either. “My religious faith won't allow that luxury.”
Still, some remain unconvinced.
“Dear Mr. Cox: Take your false values, your fake Christianity out of the lives of others. Jesus would chase you out of the temple for your actions and for the way you hide behind His religion to pursue an inhuman, anti-child, phony agenda that only serves to keep more children out of loving families.” …
“Will your organization make it clear to your supporters that they have a responsibility to sign up to foster and adopt children? How many foster children do you have? How many children have you adopted? I will be interested to see in days to come whether you and your group ‘put your money where your mouth is.' Because right now you seem to me to be a hate group, and hate is not a family value.” …
“You [Cox and the Family Council] claim to have children in mind when in reality you are nothing but a bunch of homophobic freaks bent on HIDING BEHIND your so called ‘family values' … You make me ashamed to be a citizen of this state, and I am considering moving my family so they won't have to be exposed to your bigotry and hatred.” …
“[Y]ou don't want to listen to anyone that disagrees with your homophobic message. You will all burn in hell. Christ will spit on you.” …
“You have just denied many children a loving family. Are you really so dumb that you think you can ‘catch' gayness?” …
“I am a Christian and your prejudice, lack of compassion, lack of kindness and lack of knowledge and understanding are obvious.” …
“You are spreading lies, it's disgusting and God will judge you in the end. Who knows, you may end up standing next to a ‘gay' person in the judgment line.” …
“I can hardly imagine that there are people in this world today that would make a judgment against someone based on their sexual preference. There is too much prejudice causing hate and war because someone is different.” …
“Here is to hoping that your offices get struck by a natural disaster. Here is to hoping that Jerry Cox gets killed in an auto accident this morning on his way to work.” …
“Dear Jerry Cox — Is it true that the only sound you hear during sex is ‘Daddy, please don't'?”
It surprises some that the executive director of the Arkansas Family Council, the face of Arkansas's Religious Right, is not a preacher by trade, though he fills a pulpit on occasion. Nor was he reared in the Baptist church, or any other of the conservative evangelical denominations that the Family Council relies on. “All my ancestors were Methodists quite a ways back,” Cox says, and he grew up in the mainline United Methodist Church. He left Methodism years ago — he and his family now attend the nondenominational New Life Church in northern Pulaski County — but he seems to take pleasure in noting that Methodist churches were strong allies in one of his political campaigns last fall. That was in opposition to a proposed lottery amendment. The lottery was approved by voters anyway. The Methodists didn't have an official position on Act 1, the Family Council's proposal to prohibit unmarried cohabiting couples from adopting or fostering children, but Cox knows that many Methodists were opposed. Act 1 was approved too.
Cox is 56, a product of Dierks High School and Southern State College (now Southern Arkansas University) in Magnolia. After graduating from Southern State in 1974, he taught for five years in the public schools of Southeast Arkansas, then moved to Little Rock to teach at Pulaski Academy. His future wife, also a teacher, came to Little Rock at the same time. They now have four sons, aged 23, 21, 19 and 14. All the boys were home-schooled. A division of the Family Council serves as coordinator for the 3,500 home schools in the state. Home schoolers are generally very conservative, Cox says, and many are among the Family Council's most active supporters.
He was teaching high school history at PA when he first became involved with what he calls “this movement.” He enlisted in the 1984 campaign for adoption of an “unborn child” (anti-abortion) amendment to the state Constitution. The amendment was removed from the ballot by the courts, but Cox was into Religious Right politics for good. Another anti-abortion amendment that he worked for was on the ballot in 1986. It was narrowly defeated. Cox and friends came back again in 1988, and that one was approved. It's now Amendment 68. He says he got his share of angry letters during the anti-abortion campaigns, and later, in a successful campaign to prohibit gay marriage (Amendment 83), but the ones about Act 1 are more numerous and nastier.
“I left teaching in 1984,” he says, and then elaborates. “There were budget cuts at Pulaski Academy. I was one of the cuts.” But, he says, the ax fell at a good time. “It gave me an incentive to step into this area fulltime.”
But what drew him into the area to begin with? Many Religious Righters would have a dramatic incident to relate at this point, an epiphany to recall. Cox's phlegmatic personality is such that his explanation, while high-toned, is not particularly exciting:
“It's a blessing to feel a calling to a certain profession. I felt my position as an educator was a calling. In many ways, the work I do at the Family Council, although it's very different, is an extension of that calling — to try to leave the world a little better than you found it.”
The Family Council as such did not exist during the abortion wars. Cox invented it. “I took an organization built for a pro-life amendment and turned it into a multi-purpose organization.” There were some lean years for the family while he was so engaged. “One summer we lived on savings and unemployment.” A major turning point came in the spring of 1989, when Cox heard that James Dobson's Focus on the Family was interested in having state affiliates. He flew to California, where Focus was then headquartered, attended meetings, and reached an agreement with the national group, which has affiliates in about 35 states.
Focus on the Family does not tell the Arkansas Family Council what to do, nor pay the Council to do it. “They don't generally fund state councils, although once in a while they'll make a grant for a specific purpose. But they're not a funding stream for normal operations.” And, Cox says, the Family Council sets its own agenda, “within broad conservative guidelines.” What's the point of affiliation then?
“It gives us credibility with church people to say we're associated with Focus on the Family,” Cox says. “It gives me a chance to explain what we're about. A lot of church people know James Dobson and Focus on the Family — they've read his books and listened to his radio program.”
The Family Council now has an office near the state Capitol and employs half a dozen people, including Cox, who declines to reveal his salary. “It pays better than teaching school, but not that much better.” There's a board of directors, of which Cox is president. About 9,000 names — households and churches — are on the Council mailing list. “I guess you could call that our membership.” Some of the “members” are also donors. About 20 percent of the Council's income is from churches, Cox said; individuals provide the larger part.
From that same list of 9,000 names, the Council recruits workers for its political campaigns. Last fall, the Council had a coordinator in every county, working for Act 1 and against the lottery amendment. “How we could do so well on adoption and lose the lottery, I don't know. I expected about 55 percent of the people to vote against the lottery. Apparently our campaign had no effect.”
Act 1 was quite another matter.
Arkansas is still a conservative state, and voted a solid 75 percent against gay marriage in 2004. But gay marriage is stark, and the voters of every state vote against it when they get a chance, even California. Act 1 is more complicated and less common. Few states have yet voted on proposals like Act 1. The results in Arkansas will encourage others.
Many opponents of Act 1, especially in Pulaski County, had come to believe that their side would win, a belief fueled in part by a fairly substantial television campaign. The opposition spent $346,000 against Act 1; the Council spent $93,000 for it, mostly on fliers and brochures distributed by churches and individuals. Another religious group, affiliated with the Church of Christ, registered in support of Act 1 but spent a negligible amount of money.
Gov. Mike Beebe, Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, Lt. Gov. Bill Halter and other public figures announced their opposition to Act 1. (As attorney general, McDaniel now has the duty of defending Act 1 against a lawsuit challenging its validity. He says he'll defend it to a fare-thee-well. Cox is uncomfortable with this arrangement, understandably so.)
Even more to blame for the opponents' vain hope was a well-publicized poll that showed 55 percent of Arkansas voters opposed to Act 1, and only 38 percent for it. The poll was conducted by a reputable organization, the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, with a good record in such things. Both Cox and Janine Parry, a political science professor at Fayetteville and the director of the Arkansas Poll, believe the survey was accurate at the time it was taken. The problem was the time it was taken. The last phone call was made Oct. 21. The election was Nov. 4.
“Our big church effort had not occurred when that poll was taken,” Cox says. In the closing days of the campaign, Act 1 fliers flooded in. Ministers exhorted. The Family Council voter's guide, “Arkansas's Most Trusted Source of Unbiased Election Information,” appeared in church lobbies throughout the land.
Cox believes that an action of the state Department of Human Services helped also. DHS had a policy against gay adoption and fostering for three years, but, under pressure from the policy's opponents, reversed itself just before the election. “That was a huge benefit to us,” Cox says. “People realized there really is a gay agenda.” In the end, Act 1 got 57 percent of the vote, winning in every county except Pulaski and Washington, home of the University.
When Parry saw the returns on television Election Night, “I thought there was a mix-up. I thought the ‘for' and ‘against' votes had been reversed.” Now she believes that “a really effective grassroots campaign” turned public opinion around. “On the other election issues, we were exactly right, or darn close. We picked the lottery almost to a tenth of a point. So we know we didn't get a bum sample. … The churches were effective mobilizers in that election. The Christian Right leaders in the state are very effective organizers.”
Such effectiveness gets the attention of elected legislators too. (Although the Family Council can't endorse candidates — only issues — without losing its tax exemption). Cox is presently patrolling the halls of the Capitol, as he does every legislative session. He's regarded as a formidable lobbyist, perhaps even more so now. He and the Council backed a bill banning “partial-birth” abortion, which would have passed even without Family Council support, and he's trying to influence the legislation needed to implement the lottery amendment. He wants to prohibit scratch-off lottery tickets, for example. He'll likely be less successful here. Act 1 was only about children. The lottery bill is about money.
He's also poised to defend Act 1, if necessary. “We've heard that some people want to try to change or repeal Act 1. I'd be very surprised if the legislature tried to do that. Initiated acts are almost never revised by the legislature. It takes a two-thirds vote.”
Cox's beliefs may be inflammatory, but Cox himself is not the fiery type. He's serene in manner, and he likes to point out that he's been able to work with people who hold views much different from his own. He mentions Rich Huddleston, director of the liberal Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families. They were side-by-side in opposing the lottery, Cox says, even though Huddleston's group opposed Act 1. Huddleston confirms the account, but emphasizes that co-operation with Cox is rare. Cox worked also with Scott Trotter, a Little Rock liberal lawyer who represented the Methodists in the campaign against the lottery amendment last year.
“For several years, I've worked with him against gambling issues,” Trotter says. “We've always been able to communicate very well, to stick to the issue and get the job done.” Even last fall, when Trotter told Cox that he opposed Act 1 (no surprise to Cox, surely) and co-hosted a fund-raiser for Barack Obama. “He was not an Obama supporter, but he was good-natured about it.”
A man who's been lobbied many times by Cox, and who almost never agrees with him, says, “Given that his positions are based on hate and intolerance, it's amazing what a gracious person he is. His woman lawyer is not so gracious. She'll get in your face. Cox is an effective lobbyist, especially considering the weakness of his positions.” (Martha Adcock is a lawyer for the Family Council.)
Though it applies to unmarried heterosexual couples too, Act 1 is widely regarded as an anti-gay proposition. Cox says that's not the full truth.
“I said at the beginning that there were two reasons for Act 1 — to protect child welfare and to blunt the gay agenda.”
A Family Council brochure, widely distributed before the election, says “Gay or straight, homes with live-in boyfriends or girlfriends are not good places for foster or adoptive children.” Cox adds that “Studies show this.” Act 1 opponents quoted studies showing otherwise. Voters mostly weren't interested in studies.
The state imposes other requirements on foster and adoptive homes, Cox says — “You have to have a certain amount of square footage in the home, every child must have its own bed, you must have a smoke detector, you're not supposed to have a smoker in the home although you can get a waiver on that,” and so on. “The rights of children are more important than the rights of adults.” Rather than lowering the bar for foster and adoptive homes, the state Department of Human Services should do more to find good homes for children, Cox says. “Hire more staff. Put more money into it. You could lower the bar enough so that there'd be no children in foster homes or state custody. But if you're going to do that, you might as well leave them where they came from.”
Opponents of Act 1 ask repeatedly if the supporters of Act 1 are adopting or fostering children. Cox isn't, but many Act 1 proponents are, he says. He mentions Ken Carney of Hot Springs, a Nazarene minister who's on the Family Council Board of Directors. “He and his wife are therapeutic foster parents. They take care of the children who are the most handicapped.”
“Blunting the gay agenda” is a catch phrase on the Religious Right. What is the gay agenda?
“If you watch the news, you know that some homosexuals want to advance their lifestyle,” Cox says. “They want gay marriage. They want the school curriculum written to portray homosexuality as good and normal, and the person who objects to homosexuality portrayed as the problem. I think a number of people in Arkansas still believe homosexuality is not a normal lifestyle. A number of people I talk to say, ‘If you want to be gay, go ahead. But don't tell me I have to like it, don't teach it to my kids at school, don't ask for legislation for special rights.' There are people who are unfaithful to their spouse, but they don't ask for laws to protect people who are unfaithful to their spouse. I don't believe every homosexual is part of the gay agenda. Some just want to live their lives and that's it. But some have made their sexual preference political.”
If he's aware of irony in that last sentence, he doesn't show it.
Listening to Cox talk about homosexuals and what they want, one feels compelled to ask if he has homosexual acquaintances. (No point in asking about homosexual friends.) “I know some people who are gay,” he says. “I don't know whether you'd call them acquaintances or what.”
Though unintimidated, Cox is troubled by the reaction against Act 1. “This has generated more hate mail than anything I've done, including the marriage amendment.” He believes the world is more “mean-spirited” than it used to be. “There's more viciousness now, probably on both sides. The Internet has increased it. I think people read those messages on the Internet and it gives them ideas on how to be more vicious.”
As for himself, he says it's important to maintain civility and respect even when you disagree. He was once asked to picket at the home of a Planned Parenthood member. “It didn't feel right, I chose not to do it. I told the person who asked, ‘He might picket me.' ”
Yet he doesn't expect reciprocity. Sadly, he's found that “there's a considerable intolerance on the left for people of our views.”
Good news, perhaps, for the non-fans of Jerry Cox is that he has no plans to seek public office; a Cox governorship does not loom over them. “I've never seriously entertained the idea,” he says. Bad news, perhaps, is that he has no plans for stopping what he's doing now. “I'm already in politics, and I don't have to run and I don't have term limits.” And with the right issue — or the wrong one, depending on your point of view — he can matter.