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Beverly LaHaye, influential evangelical activist, dies at 94

Beverly LaHaye, an evangelical activist who helped organize a powerful right-wing backlash to the feminist movement, rallying opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment, abortion, gay rights and other perceived threats to “traditional family values,” died April 14 at a retirement home in El Cajon, Calif. She was 94.

Her death was announced in a statement by Concerned Women for America, the Washington-based public policy organization she founded and once led. The statement did not give a cause.

While her husband, Southern Baptist minister Tim LaHaye, preached about the “end times” and made a fortune as a co-author of the best-selling “Left Behind” series of apocalyptic novels, Mrs. LaHaye developed a following of her own as the longtime president of Concerned Women for America, or CWA.

Formed in San Diego in 1979, the organization was envisioned as an evangelical answer to feminist groups such as the National Organization for Women and helped propel the rise of the Christian right through its advocacy efforts, legal campaigns and educational programs.

Within a decade of its creation, the group boasted of having more than 500,000 members, with “Prayer/Action” chapters in all 50 states and an army of “kitchen-table lobbyists,” as Mrs. LaHaye called her supporters, who learned how to organize their neighbors and lobby government officials on behalf of school prayer, the criminalization of abortion, the teaching of creationism and other evangelical causes.

The organization’s political clout was so strong that President Ronald Reagan delivered the keynote address at its 1987 national convention, praising Mrs. LaHaye as “one of the powerhouses on the political scene today, and one of the reasons that the grass roots are more and more a conservative province.”

Critics such as Gregory King, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign in Washington, called Mrs. LaHaye “a professional hatemonger,” arguing in a 1993 interview with the Detroit Free Press that “she uses bigotry to make a buck” through her condemnation of LGBTQ+ people and others who shunned her right-wing views.

But for the better part of two decades, she remained one of the most prominent female leaders in the new Christian right, a movement that was otherwise dominated by men such as Pat Robertson, the head of the Christian Coalition, and Jerry Falwell, who launched his Moral Majority movement in the 1970s with backing from Tim LaHaye. In 2001, Falwell called Mrs. LaHaye “without a doubt the most influential woman in America.”

“Women have been the driving force of this movement in a lot of ways, particularly at the grass-roots level. I’m not sure that happens without Beverly LaHaye,” said Emily Suzanne Johnson, a history professor at Ball State University in Indiana and the author of “This Is Our Message: Women’s Leadership in the New Christian Right.”

At a time when some evangelical churchgoers were uneasy about mixing faith with activism, and when politics was seen within much of the community as the work of men, not women, Mrs. LaHaye “gave a lot of women a language for understanding women’s conservative activism as absolutely necessary,” Johnson added in a phone interview. “It’s not just that women should join in to what men are doing, but that conservative voices are really needed to counter this narrative that feminism is women’s politics and the Christian right is misogynist.”

Mrs. LaHaye, she said, was among the only leaders in the Christian right arguing that women “need to be part of this movement if it’s going to be successful.”

Mrs. LaHaye rose to prominence while condemning mainstream feminism, which she considered “a philosophy of death” that was “threatening the survival of our nation.” As she saw it, “the churchwomen had been asleep” and needed to be awakened to the menace posed by “lesbianism, Marxism and extreme social change.”

Her turn toward advocacy had unexpectedly feminist undertones, coming amid a frustration with domestic drudgery that “might sound familiar to early readers of Ms.” magazine, as journalist Susan Faludi put it in her 1991 book “Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women.”

As late as her mid-30s, Mrs. LaHaye said, she had been a “fearful, introverted” homemaker, hiding under a “turtle shell” of shyness while raising four children and supporting her husband, who ministered at a Southern California megachurch, Scott Memorial Baptist in El Cajon.

“In my case it was not the major problems that succeeded in wearing me down; it was the smoldering resentment caused from the endless little tasks that had to be repeated over and over again and seemed so futile,” she wrote in her 1976 book “The Spirit-Controlled Woman.” “Day after day I would perform the same routine procedures: picking up dirty socks, hanging up wet towels, closing closet doors, turning off lights that had been left on, creating a path through the clutter of toys.”

As Mrs. LaHaye told it, she set about transforming her life after attending a 1965 motivational conference for Sunday school teachers, where Christian psychologist Henry Brandt lectured about the importance of self-improvement and expression.

She began lecturing at church clubs and leading seminars on family life with her husband, with whom she later co-wrote books and appeared on a Christian television show. She also built her confidence by going to work, with her youngest child still in diapers, as a teletype operator at Merrill Lynch — partly to help pay the bills, she told Faludi, and partly because she found the job and its Wall Street hours “kind of exciting.”

In books such as “The Spirit-Controlled Woman,” Mrs. LaHaye called for women to prioritize God first, followed by their husband and their children, declaring that “submission is God’s design for women.” She came to realize, she wrote, that “I wasn’t just picking up dirty socks for my husband; I was serving the Lord Jesus by doing this.”

Yet she also urged women to take themselves seriously and embrace politics, exhorting readers to help in the fight against communism and in the defense of Christian values. She said that she was politicized while watching television with her husband one evening in 1978, when she saw Barbara Walters interview feminist activist Betty Friedan, whose book “The Feminine Mystique” had helped launch the women’s liberation movement more than a decade earlier.

Deciding that Friedan didn’t speak for her or many of the women she knew, Mrs. LaHaye organized a meeting to talk about women’s issues, including the Equal Rights Amendment that was being championed by Friedan. As she told it, she thought it would be a small gathering. Instead, 1,200 people showed up, laying the groundwork for CWA.

The organization was far from the first conservative women’s group. But it marked an evangelical alternative to organizations such as Eagle Forum, the conservative advocacy group founded a few years earlier by lawyer and activist Phyllis Schlafly, who had emerged as a leading opponent of the ERA.

Mrs. LaHaye joined Schlafly in campaigning against the proposed amendment, an effort to outlaw gender-based discrimination that had passed both houses of Congress and appeared on its way to ratification. Under pressure from conservative grass-roots activists, including CWA members whom Mrs. LaHaye affectionately referred to as “my ladies,” the amendment failed to meet a 1982 ratification deadline, falling several states short of approval.

Over the next decade, Mrs. LaHaye and CWA only grew more effective. The group moved from San Diego to Washington, where Mrs. LaHaye hosted a radio show in which she reported on “the key issues threatening to destroy you and your family.”

She and the organization also initiated an influential legal program, financing lawsuits on behalf of Christian home schooling and parents who said their children’s religious freedoms were being infringed by schools, including through required readings that ranged from science textbooks (which seemed to contradict the biblical story of creation) to “The Wizard of Oz” (because of its depiction of magic).

Mrs. LaHaye appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee, testifying on behalf of conservative Supreme Court nominees including Robert H. Bork and Antonin Scalia. She broadened her group’s efforts to include activism overseas, traveling to Costa Rica to assist refugees fleeing violence between Nicaragua’s left-wing government and U.S.-backed contra rebels.

And she showed an independent streak in her political advocacy, supporting her friend Robertson at the outset of the 1988 presidential campaign before concluding that Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) had a better chance of winning. She and her husband both served as honorary national co-chairs of Kemp’s campaign; when Tim LaHaye resigned from the position in December 1987, following reports that he had made anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish statements, she stayed on in the role, insisting that the allegations were a misreading of her husband’s work.

Months later, she pulled her endorsement, frustrated by a campaign letter that had been sent out with her signature but not her permission and that described Kemp as “the only true conservative” candidate.

By then, CWA had named Mrs. LaHaye the group’s president for life. The honorary title suggested staffers’ loyalty to a steely but ever-smiling leader who combined combative rhetoric with a cheery public image, handing out pink business cards and decorating her organization’s Washington headquarters with pink chairs and pink curtains.

Mrs. LaHaye retired as president in 2006 but remained involved with the organization for years, appearing at a 40th-anniversary celebration in 2019 where she was praised by Trump administration officials including Vice President Mike Pence.

“God,” she had once said, “didn’t make me to be a nobody.”

Beverly Jean Davenport was born in Detroit on April 30, 1929, and grew up in the suburbs. Her father died when she was about 2, and a few years later her mother married a tool-and-die maker at Ford whose last name, Ratcliffe, became Beverly’s surname as well. When he lost his job in 1939, the Free Press later reported, “the family lived in a house without plumbing and ate government-surplus cheese.”

Mrs. LaHaye told the Washington Times she took time away from school to care for her mother, who was bedridden with a heart condition and suffered a nervous breakdown. She attended Bob Jones College, a private evangelical school (now a university) in Greenville, S.C., before dropping out to marry fellow student Tim LaHaye and start a family.

They settled in San Diego, where the LaHayes co-founded San Diego Christian College as well as a system of local Christian private schools. They also became trustees of Liberty University, which their friend Falwell co-founded in Lynchburg, Va., in 1971. In 1976, they published a Christian sexual manual, “The Act of Marriage,” that linked spirituality with intimacy and sold more than 2 million copies.

Tim LaHaye found an even larger audience by collaborating with Jerry B. Jenkins, a former sportswriter, on the 16-volume “Left Behind” series, which began in 1995 and spawned movie spinoffs and young-adult novels, all inspired by the Book of Revelation. Mrs. LaHaye branched into fiction as well, partnering with author Terri Blackstock on novels that were set in a suburban cul-de-sac, Cedar Circle, where a group of female friends debates abortion, drug use, parenting and faith.

Her husband died in 2016. One of her sons, Lee, died the next year. Survivors include three children, Linda Murphy, Larry LaHaye and Lori Scheck; a sister; nine grandchildren; and 20 great-grandchildren.

Interviewed by the Christian Examiner newspaper in 2009, Mrs. LaHaye reiterated that activism had not come naturally.

“I think God just pushed me up out of my chair and said, ‘Beverly, go for it.’ Anything I’ve done is not my natural way, but God has put it in my heart to do it,” she said. “You know, when you say, ‘Whatever Lord, wherever you send me, whatever you want me to say, whatever you want me to do, here I am,’ you better hang on. You better hang on tight.”

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