Robert Knight: Getting to the Truth About Moral Relativism

July 7, 2008 - 8:03 PM

(This is the first in a series of articles that will profile leaders of the conservative movement)

Washington ( - "Nothing burns me more than listening to people being lied to."

While this could be the mantra of many Washington journalists, coming from conservative activist Robert H. Knight, it's usually the preamble to an unpopular stand in the cultural war. Or a criticism of the establishment media, which Knight, 50, regards as the foremost vehicle in promoting what he calls the destructive sexual revolution.

"I don't just oppose the gay rights movement," he said simply, but with the conviction that makes his opponents increasingly reluctant to debate him. "I oppose the whole destruction of the Judeo-Christian ethic in American society."

Settling into his new job as chief of the Culture and Family Institute, an affiliate of Concerned Women for America in downtown Washington, Knight is warming to the prospect of continuing his battle against the forces of moral relativism. Same fight, different venue.

Besides homosexual activism, Knight's new organization will tackle a variety of cultural topics - smut on TV's family hour, Hollywood, sex education, the soft-porn Abercrombie and Fitch catalogue, and faith based initiatives, which, according to Knight, "will have many unforeseen effects."

"But the homosexual activist component of all this is the most threatening because it is the only issue that has the capacity to result in the persecution of Christians and others who believe homosexuality is wrong. It's the main challenge to our most basic freedoms," he said.

Knight's outspokenness on a controversial topic invariably makes him a lightning rod for attacks by left wing activists, who have called him a "homophobe," "a bigot," and one of "the Leviticus crowd" for citing biblical references to homosexuality.

But Knight's willingness to debate his opponents - particularly from his conviction as a born-again Christian that homosexuals can change their orientation - tends to moderate attacks and earns him a grudging respect from his critics.

"He's an amiable person," said Kevin Ivers of the Log Cabin Republicans, a homosexual rights group whose members frequently debate Knight, "even if his views are sort of out there."

Fifteen Years in Journalism

"A desire to get to the truth about things" inspired Knight to get into journalism in the mid-1970s. Fresh out of American University with a master's degree in political science, he took a job as a reporter with the Maryland Coast Press for $140 a week, "to see how the world really worked."

Despite the long hours and low pay of a cub reporter at a provincial paper, Knight didn't regret giving up a career in academia: "I learned more about politics in one year as a reporter in Ocean City than I did in six years in college."

But the more sordid aspects of newspaper work, particularly the frequent infringements on people's privacy, made some reporting assignments troubling to Knight. A turning point came when, as an editor and writer for the Maryland Gazette, Knight had to interview a Maryland family that had lost two of its members in a traffic accident that claimed the lives of 11 teenagers.

"We knocked on their door at seven in the morning and I said to myself, 'I don't want to be doing this anymore.'"

After that, Knight shifted more toward editing than writing. After brief periods as an editor with the Miami Herald and the Fort Lauderdale News and Sun Sentinel, he joined The Los Angeles Times, a national publication with a dynamic newsroom, where he worked as an editor and writer.

Most journalists in the LAT newsroom in the 1980s were liberals who had come of age politically in an era of Vietnam, the civil rights struggle and Watergate, veterans of the paper recalled.

"There was an expectation when you met somebody your own age that they would also be liberal," said Tony Lioce, entertainment editor with the San Jose Mercury News who worked with Knight at the LAT.

"But meeting Bob was something of a shock. One of the first times I talked to him, I engaged him in what I thought would be a normal conversation that reflected my natural East Coast hippie liberal bias, and when he started to disagree with me, I thought he was kidding.

"Then I realized this man's serious."

Once they became accustomed to Knight's political conservatism, people found him to be "very bright, very competent and a very decent guy - and a good newspaper guy," Lioce said.

In addition to writing, Knight showed a keen interest in other aspects of newspaper work, recalled Gene Beauchamp, a former copy desk supervisor and news editor with the LAT who recommended Knight's hire. Knight started as a copy editor and was promoted to news editor with the features section, known at the time as the View section.

"He had free rein on how he made up the View section," Beauchamp said. "He was very innovative, not only in his writing, but also his make-up abilities. He could lay out a great section, especially the front page."

Knight was already talking about writing a book on moral relativism when he started with the LAT, and his work with the paper only fueled his interest. While editing copy for the arts pages, "I began to see that much of the art reviewed was worthless. I decided if I had to ask the photographer which side was up, it was probably bad art."

Many of Knight's colleagues agreed that their professional assessment of art was becoming more important to viewers than the art itself, that the only meaning art had was what they said about it.

"The definition of art used to be that it stood by itself and anyone could appreciate it," Knight said. "You didn't need an explanation. But modern art needs heavy cover by critics, who will apologize for piles of bricks - and worse."

Knight concluded that moral relativism was used by the left to destabilize the institutions that transmitted cultural values so that natural law and biblical morality could be undermined and in turn pave the way for the eventual growth of the state.

"I haven't changed that view at all. I think that's the ballgame - to destroy religion, use the sexual revolution to destroy the intervening institutions, such as the family, that stand between the individual and the ever-growing government."

Knight also began to challenge what he saw as a liberal bias in reporting and had occasional set-tos with young reporters whose work he reviewed.

Once, while editing a story about a family on welfare, Knight noticed the reporter had made no reference to the part the children's father played in their lives. When he asked the reporter about it, he was told that the father's role was not germane to the story.

"I had lots of run-ins with recent graduates of journalism schools who saw themselves as agents of change rather than as reporters."

A Spiritual Awakening and a New Direction

The mid-1980s were a pivotal time for Knight, professionally and spiritually. Raised Episcopalian, he felt he had spent his life as a "cultural Christian" who "was playing around the edges of faith rather than living it."

In 1986, he and his wife, Barbara, who were married five years at the time, became born-again Christians, making Knight "even more dedicated to getting to the truth and telling about it."

A climactic moment in Knight's journalism career occurred when he wrote an article for the conservative National Review about Chief Justice Rose Bird of the California Supreme Court.

The article correctly predicted that voters would eject Bird from office in the next election because of her stance against the death penalty. The story appeared under the headline "Bye Bye Birdie."

"The day after it was published, I got busted. I was told I couldn't write for political publications anymore. When I asked why I couldn't and liberal writers at the paper regularly wrote for Mother Jones and Playboy, I was told, 'That's different,'" Knight said.

Randy Lewis, pop music writer and editor for the Orange County edition of the LAT and a former colleague of Knight's, said the newspaper's position in its disagreement with Knight was never clear.

"I know from the climate that they were worried that someone who was in the position to make judgments, such as selecting copy and writing headlines, had come out so strongly expressing this opinion about Rose Bird," Lewis said. At the time, the newspaper was allied with Bird politically, having frequently defended her liberal stand in its editorial pages.

"Bob was definitely in the minority politically," Lewis said.

A memo from the deputy managing editor said Knight could write for any publication of his choice on any subject so long as it wasn't something covered by the LAT.

"The LA Times covers everything," Knight protested. But he wound up doing a gardening column, "which I had a lot of fun with."

"By then I'd become quite conservative, and I think they were surprised that they'd hired anyone quite so conservative."

The only time Knight's colleagues felt he would let his conservative views affect his news judgment was when he would occasionally remove reference to the horoscope from the index on the front page because, in their words, Knight felt it was "ungodly or blasphemous somehow."

"He wasn't trying to censor the paper, but he removed it as a highlight," Lewis recalled.

The Age of Consent

After seven years with the LAT, Knight accepted a media fellowship with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University in 1989, where he wrote op-ed pieces for The Wall Street Journal and some early chapters of "The Age of Consent: The Rise of Relativism and the Corruption of Popular Culture." "Consent" came out in 1998 and 2000, and its publisher, Spence, reports steady sales of the book.

After Stanford, Knight went to the Heritage Foundation in Washington, a conservative think tank that came of age in the Reagan years. There, he wrote reports on the National Endowment for the Arts and the U.S. Labor Department's disputes with the Salvation Army, among others.

It was at Heritage that Knight participated in his first TV debate. The subject, he notes with irony, was defending the Boy Scouts against Roberta Achtenburg, at the time a San Francisco City Supervisor. Achtenburg had proposed cutting off funding to the scouts because of their stand excluding homosexuals as scout leaders.

Knight was invited to the debate in part because he was a former eagle scout. But the prospect of going up against experienced debaters gave him cold feet. He was ready to bolt when a friend said: "Who do you think you work for?" Together they opened the Bible to the story of David and Goliath, which gave Knight the perspective and the courage he needed.

Laurie Tryfiates of Concerned Women for America also was taking part in the debate. By coincidence, Knight was working on a paper dealing with women in combat, decrying the fact that men would let women do the job men ought to be doing.

"I suddenly realized that if Laurie was willing to go out there, who was I to hide behind a desk. It shamed me into going out," Knight recalled.

The debate marked the beginning of regular TV appearances by Knight on the same topic. Achtenburg remained an outspoken critic of the scouts. In 1993, President Clinton appointed her assistant secretary of Housing and Urban Development, the highest-level openly homosexual appointee of his administration.

Ten Years with the Family Research Council

Knight went to the Family Research Council in 1992. During his 10 years with the organization, the FRC grew from an outfit of under 20 staffers and a budget of $1.7 million to one of the leading pro-family voices in the country with more than 120 staffers and a budget of $15 million.

It was at the FRC that Knight sharpened his debating skills and built a reputation as one of the country's most articulate voices in the cultural war. As the homosexual lobby won an unprecedented number of "firsts" in the 1990s under Clinton, whom Knight described as "America's first-ever pro-homosexual president," Knight became a familiar figure on TV, giving sound bites for the right.

Gary Bauer, Knight's boss at the FRC, credited Knight's activism on behalf of traditional families as a large factor in the FRC's success.

"He has been willing to take on the most difficult of the social issues without flinching, and that's rare these days," Bauer said. The FRC tried to give the big picture, tying in the abortion, homosexuality and pornography movements as "the triangle of the death culture," Knight said.

Jan LaRue, director of legal studies with the FRC, worked closely with Knight on cultural issues that gained prominence in the 1990s, including the American Library Association's opposition to computer filtering software. LaRue and Knight also took the American Psychological Association to task for publishing an article that suggested sex between children and adults might be positive for children.

In an amicus brief for the Supreme Court in support of the Boy Scouts, LaRue incorporated Knight's research and writing about homosexuality. In an interview, she defended Knight against charges that he was pushing junk science because his views on sexuality were based on the Bible, which is open to interpretation, and not on reliable science.

"When you're speaking and writing in an area such as homosexuality, you are well aware of how very seriously you will be scrutinized, and Bob is far too smart to rely on any material that is not credible. Let's give him credit for having been an editor at a major United States newspaper," LaRue said.

After increased calls for hate crimes legislation in the wake of the Matthew Shepard murder in 1998, Knight came under fire for an article he wrote for USA Today, in which he argued that hate crimes legislation was unnecessary and could lead to the criminalization of religious opposition to homosexuality.

"By giving Knight the pulpit from which to manipulate the reality of protective laws, USA Today grants legitimacy to an organization [the FRC] whose own extremism should be considered heavily when representatives are consulted as 'experts,'" the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation said in an October 1998 release.

Other groups were also watching Knight closely. Winnie Stachelberg, political director of the Human Rights Campaign, a homosexual advocacy group, blasted Knight for remarks he had made at the Reclaiming America for Christ conference in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., in Feb. 1999.

In a speech on homosexuality, Knight had said that moderate Republicans are "always the bane of our existence."

Stachelberg came to the defense of GOP moderates: "Robert Knight's comments show how the extreme right thrives on dividing the Republican Party and fostering an atmosphere of mistrust and antipathy at a time when our nation is demanding that Congress move forward, in a bipartisan fashion, and address the important business of the American people," she said.

Knight's activism inevitably brought him in conflict with the establishment media, which usually frames the homosexuality debate in terms of human rights.

Knight argues that homosexuals have much the same rights as anyone else in the United States, even citing a booklet published by the American Civil Liberties Union entitled the "Civil Rights of Gay Men and Lesbians," which lists hundreds of rights enjoyed by homosexuals, including the right to be elected to political office.

"What homosexuals don't have is mandatory government acceptance and that's what they want. They want to force other people to say that what they're doing is moral and acceptable and healthy - against people's better judgment. Like other socialist-based movements, they must use force to see that that happens."

This force comes in the form of government decrees for diversity training, affirmative action for sexual orientation, and the type of harassment that is now becoming epidemic in other countries, Knight said.

In Canada, for example, newspaper editors are told not to publish anything that can be construed as anti-homosexual, and radio stations have been warned by the Canadian Broadcast Standards Board not to broadcast anything critical of homosexuality.

"So if you read biblical verses about homosexuality on the air, you may be 'sowing the seeds for a climate of violence that could lead to a hate crime.' That's the reasoning. That's why hate crimes laws are geared to ultimately shutting down freedom of speech, freedom of religion and freedom of assembly. They're not about enhancing criminal law because any criminal actions committed against either minorities or homosexuals are already illegal. So they're going after the intent, the thought, the word."

Gumbel vs. Knight

As one of the more sensational examples of the growing intolerance of traditional views, Knight cites an incident last year in which Bryant Gumbel, host of CBS's "The Early Show," was caught on camera apparently uttering an obscenity about Knight.

Gumbel had just completed an interview with Knight on the Supreme Court's June 2000 decision supporting the Boy Scouts. At the end of the interview, Gumbel, who was clearly irritated with Knight's pro-scout stance, broke for a weather report. A couple of seconds into the report, however, the camera caught Gumbel rising from his chair and saying to someone off camera, "What a f***ing idiot."

Responding to protests, CBS said it couldn't determine what Gumbel said, but anyway it had nothing to do with the content of "The Early Show."

"The network of '60 Minutes' can't figure it out," Knight said, incredulous. "They could have asked Bryant Gumbel, 'By the way, did you say it?' And if they didn't know what he said, how can they say it wasn't germane to the content of 'The Early Show?'"

After almost 10 years, Knight left the FRC in March amid reports that he disagreed with the new president, Ken Connor. In interviews, both sides downplayed the departure.

"I think Bob determined that his approach could be better affected in another situation," said Robert Morrison, an advisor to Connor and a longtime friend of Knight's. "I'm sure he did not make the decision lightly. There's no bad blood. There's no disenchantment. It's simply that the task is so vast, it admits of different approaches by different leaders."

Knight concurred: "The FRC's new leadership decided they wanted to approach the issue in a different way, but we still work alongside each other for the same goals."

Knight and the New Administration

The election of George W. Bush after eight years of Bill Clinton changed the political dynamic in Washington in many ways. In the spring of 2001, the House, Senate and White House were all controlled by Republicans - if only by the slimmest of margins - and liberals no longer had the power to set the agenda.

But Bush disappointed religious and family groups by either steering clear of the homosexuality issue altogether or by continuing the Clinton tradition, Knight charged. As a candidate, Bush met with the Log Cabin Republicans and refused to meet with former homosexuals. For his vice presidential nominee, he picked Dick Cheney, whose daughter, Mary, is a homosexual rights activist.

From his new position as director of the Cultural and Family Institute, Knight wrote a blistering attack on the first 100 days of "The Bush Administration's Republican Homosexual Agenda."

Knight criticized Bush for appointing a homosexual activist to head the White House office on AIDS policy. He also scolded the president for standing behind his nomination of Massachusetts Gov. Paul Cellucci as U.S. ambassador to Canada, despite the outcry from pro-family advocates about Cellucci's funding of pro-homosexual seminars in public schools.

Bush is continuing the Clinton policy of issuing Defense Department regulations to combat "anti-gay harassment," despite a 1993 congressional statute, passed by a bipartisan, veto-proof majority that supports the principle that "homosexuality is incompatible with military service," Knight said.

And the president appointed GOP strategist Mary Matalin to be a senior advisor to himself and Cheney, despite Matalin's "increasingly strident position in favor of the Republican Party embracing homosexuality."

But one of the bitterest moments for conservatives came when John Ashcroft, Bush's attorney general, used his first official meeting as the nation's chief law enforcement officer to meet with Log Cabin Republicans, Knight said.

Ashcroft promised the group that sexual orientation would not bar anyone from employment in his office, giving credence to the idea that sexual orientation is a legitimate category that deserves special protection, Knight said.

Knight's critics were quick to attack his report on Bush's position on homosexuality, and suggest they're more in harmony with the White House on this topic than are conservatives: "The one document he's done that's gotten the most attention in the last six months has been an excoriating attack on the Bush administration, which didn't affect it one iota," said Kevin Ivers of the Log Cabins.

"It's not that the country has moved to the center; the country has moved on, and he's still hanging on to where the country used to be," Ivers said of Knight.

But Knight is undaunted by the criticism, and unfazed by the suggestion that he doesn't have the ear of the chief executive. Depending on what the president does in the next few months, he will either go down in history as a Reagan-type figure on social issues, with a Reagan doctrine of rollback, or he will be seen as a Nixon to China type who paved the way for the rest of the radical cultural agenda, Knight said.

"He'll probably wind up somewhere in the middle, but that's not a good place to be because the middle keeps moving to the left. The middle is slow-motion liberalism."