Ministering to the Capitol
Despite controversies and condemnations, Ralph Drollinger says his Capitol Ministries are not blurring church and state
Ralph Drollinger is hard to miss. At 7-foot-2, he is an imposing presence as he enters the Capitol, where he leads a small group of legislators, lobbyists and staffers in a weekly evangelical Christian Bible study.
The former University of California, Los Angeles, basketball standout (he won two national championships) peppers his biblical lessons with sports analogies. As his big frame traversed into the room on Wednesday, June 15, he beamed about hiking up Half Dome in Yosemite National Park, before quickly delving into the day’s lesson: the archaeological verification of the Old Testament, a relatively benign topic for the sometimes-controversial Drollinger.
“Whereas theological liberals tend to stereotype conservative Christians as simpletons who clench to their beliefs in blind faith—ignorant and lacking intellectual support—this study proves exactly the opposite,” reads Drollinger’s preamble to the lesson. He goes on to say that liberal theology is “tantamount to calling Jesus a liar.”
He speaks of how the amount of evidence archaeology has unearthed is equivalent to 3 inches of a football field. He equates those who advocate a liberal theology to a basketball team with “weak players” and “no bench whatsoever.” Drollinger even references John Wooden, his legendary basketball coach at UCLA.
“I like Ralph and how he teaches,” says Assemblyman Mike Villines, who does not recall missing a Wednesday Bible study since he was elected. “He teaches word by word, verse by verse, through the different chapters, really dwelling on each sentence.”
But some of the verses and interpretations that Drollinger has highlighted have sparked controversy in the Capitol.
Last year, Drollinger, who is the president of Capitol Ministries, a national evangelical organization that puts on the weekly lesson, had to move the Bible study from the governor’s suites after he labeled Catholicism, the religion of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a “false religion.” The group now meets in a legislative room.
And in April 2004, Drollinger embroiled himself and Capitol Ministries in more hot water when he wrote that working women who left children at home were sinners.
“Women with children at home,” wrote Drollinger in his weekly notes, “who either serve in public office, or are employed on the outside, pursue a path that contradicts God’s revealed design for them. It is a sin.”
When his remarks were made public, a small group of legislators wore aprons to protest what they saw as anti-woman sentiment. Drollinger, however, continues to stand by his remarks, saying that as he goes through the Bible “teaching verse by verse from A to Z,” he does not shy away from controversial material. To do so would mean not being true to Scripture, according to Drollinger.
“Someday I am going to stand before my Lord. … It is a matter of courage: Do I want to be true to Scripture or popular in the Capitol?” he said.
In a recent interview with SN&R, Drollinger did not mince words when it comes to traditional family-value issues. “Homosexual is a sin,” he said. “It is an abomination in the eyes of God.” Likewise, he referred to marriage as “the institution in Scripture where the husband is to lead the wife. That is not to mean that she is his slave, but if there is a tie vote, the tiebreaker is the husband. The wife, she should submit to his decisions, unless he is asking her to be unbiblical.”
Democratic state Senator Liz Figueroa, a Christian woman who once attended Drollinger’s Bible study, complains that Drollinger “uses God’s word for the purpose of divisiveness and political stances.”
“Some of us Democrats and women innocently thought that, hey, this is a good way to start our week,” said Figueroa, on describing why she first attended Drollinger’s Bible study. “And then you realize, wait, this is a conservative Republican man who uses Scripture for his purposes.” Figueroa was among the protesters a year ago.
Despite his 7-foot frame and propensity for seemingly brusque comments, Drollinger is a soft-spoken man who methodically dissects the topic at hand in measured tones. Though not an ordained minister, the self-described pastor has a command of Scripture, citing the Bible often and with ease. Though Drollinger ministers to the Capitol every week, Capitol Ministries receives no public funding, obtaining access to a committee room through the sponsorship of Villines, Senator Dennis Hollingsworth and Senator Bill Morrow, all Republicans.
Approximately 20 legislators attend the closed-door Bible study, but busy schedules mean that only a dozen will be at the study on a good week, according to Drollinger. There is a separate Bible study for legislative staffers and lobbyists. Almost all who attend are Republicans.
“We get a lot higher attendance outside of California,” said Sean Wallentine, the director of national expansion for Capitol Ministries. “When you go to certain other states … you have a different level of acceptance of Christianity.”
Since the Bible studies began in Sacramento in 1997, Capitol Ministries has expanded operations to 11 states, from Pennsylvania to Kansas. In 2006, two new ministries will sprout up in Idaho and Arkansas, furthering Wallentine’s goal of “bringing the Gospel message to government leaders” in every state capital in the United States. Capitol Ministries has done well financially, as well, netting more than $1.25 million in gifts from 3,691 donors in 2004 alone. All this within a decade of its founding. And with annual revenue growth of 25 percent, Drollinger sees signs that “money follows ministry” and that God is pleased with the organization’s endeavors.
But Jeremy Leaming, spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, worries about the blurring of the line separating church and state. To him, Capitol Ministries “sounds like a religious group trying to influence policy.”
Not so, claim the leaders of Capitol Ministries. “We don’t care to lobby bills. We don’t take up the cause of social issues. What we really want to bring to the Capitol is the message of salvation,” said Wallentine.
Drollinger dismisses the traditional religious right as “not a proper manifestation of evangelicalism,” because they are “more interested in the votes of legislators than the hearts of legislators.” He casts Capitol Ministries as an evangelical antidote to the overtly political conventional Christian conservatives. Drollinger stresses his support for the separation of church and state, saying it is biblically ordained that the two institutions serve different purposes.
Still, many of his Bible-study topics are highly political. In study notes titled “Insights from Scripture on a Multi-Billion Budget Deficit” from July 2003, Drollinger wrote, “Frankly, if California’s leaders had managed peoples’ money according to biblical principles it is highly likely that California would today be the nation’s model of fiscal health.”
One budget-balancing biblical principle Drollinger outlines is that “nowhere in Scripture are the institutions of government or commerce commanded by God to give to the needy,” a not-so-covert critique of welfare programs traditionally championed by Democrats. During the interview, Drollinger emphasized that he is not attacking welfare per se, but rather he is arguing that government’s “primary purpose is not to care for the needs of the poor.” Still, such politically loaded evangelism has led Figueroa to conclude that “he is there for a political calling, not a religious [one].”
Just this month, Drollinger assailed the character of two contemporary California politicians in a lesson on abomination: “Our past governor in the state of California who was recalled and our past secretary of state who was forced to resign serve as recent, heartbreaking illustrations of Proverbs 16:12. … What they did—and I say this in a kind tone, but nonetheless truthful—was abominable.”
“I think that is inappropriate,” said Figueroa. “There shouldn’t be a political analogy. The politics should remain outside. When he starts making political attacks, you have to wonder about what happened to us all being the children of God.”
But for Villines, the presence of Capitol Ministries “speaks to what is great not only about America, but California: The building is open to everyone. This isn’t our [the legislators’] building. This is the people’s building. And people, including Christians studying the Bible, are always welcome.”
And if Drollinger and Capitol Ministries have their way, there will be more Christian legislators, staffers and lobbyists studying the Bible in state capitals all across America.