A grass-roots star rises on the right

By: - July 11, 2005 5:07 am

Raleigh News & Observer

By YONAT SHIMRON, Staff Writer

A few months after organizing a sold-out rally for evangelist James Dobson at the RBC Center last fall, local Christian activist Steve Noble was invited to attend the secretive Council for National Policy.

The council is a group of the country’s most powerful conservatives, and Noble wasted no time accepting its invitation. "I had a hit list," said Noble, 39. "I said, ‘I’ve got to meet these folks. These are players.’ "

At the weekend meeting, Noble dined with Paul Weyrich, the co-founder of the Heritage Foundation, and introduced himself to former Attorney General Edwin Meese and anti-feminist crusader Phyllis Schlafly.

For a man who was content two years ago to run a house-painting business, care for his family and tithe to Bay Leaf Baptist Church, Noble has made a quick ascent into the conservative elite. In little more than a year, he has built an effective grass-roots organization that can mobilize Wake County’s largest evangelical churches. Now he wants to replicate his group — Called2Action — in cities across the nation.

The policy council’s meeting emboldened him. At the swanky Ritz-Carlton near Washington, Noble walked around handing out brochures and explaining his vision for Called2Action.

"I noticed there were all these big national groups, but I didn’t see anything that dealt with local grass-roots Christian organizing," said Noble, who lives in North Raleigh. "For me it was affirmation that this was a model that could be developed."

Noble says local organizations, are the key to changing the culture. Called2Action persuaded a newsstand owner at Cary Towne Center to take down some racy calendars. It led a two-month boycott of The News & Observer for running a photo of two gay men. More recently, it lobbied for a bill in the state Senate requiring public schools to offer the Pledge of Allegiance five days a week.

As chairman of the group, Noble has also had setbacks. On his most passionate issue, opposition to homosexual marriage, Called2Action has barely made a dent. A bill it supported calling for a referendum on a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage never came up for debate in the legislature.

But Noble feels confident of his growing role as the Triangle’s premier conservative activist. Called2Action was recently invited to join the Arlington Group, a national coalition of 26 conservative organizations working to pass a U.S. Constitutional amendment defining marriage as a heterosexual union. Last week, the coalition filed papers for a political action group, Called2Elect, that will endorse candidates for office.

Chicago-bred, blunt

Tall and thin with a shock of red hair, Noble is not like the conservative activists the South typically produces. For one thing, he grew up in Chicago and attributes his sometimes confrontational style to Northern sensibilities.

On issues such as same-sex marriage, abortion and sexual abstinence, Noble makes clear he won’t negotiate with the "good ol’ boy" network. He doesn’t want to befriend legislators, he said, because friendships might soften his resolve.

"We don’t answer to the political issue," he said. "We answer to the truth."

His critics recoil at his certainty.

"A lot of the fuel for evangelical groups is their absolute certainty that their view of God and their understanding of the world is the only truth," said the Rev. Jack McKinney, co-chairman of the N.C. Religious Coalition for Marriage Equality, which favors allowing gay marriage. "That narrow understanding of truth polarizes society and makes dialogue very difficult."

But there’s no denying Noble’s passion, or his ability to connect with like-minded people. When he gets up in front of a crowd of conservatives, he tells them that until recently he was just like them. He had disengaged from society and shut out popular culture. He and his wife, Gina, home-schooled their children — Hayden, 9; Amelia, 7; Clay, 4; and Caroline, 6 months. They banned Game Boys and strictly screened what they saw on TV.

"I built my castle," he typically says. "I dug my moat. I pulled in my gate."

But at a church revival last year, he heard a preacher talk about a Christian’s responsibility to get involved, and in the words of the prophet Nehemiah, "rebuild the wall of Jerusalem." He scribbled a commitment to himself: "To be more outspoken for God’s truth in the public arena." After the sermon, he placed the note on the altar.

A week later, a friend, Raleigh City Council member Mike Regan, told him the city’s Human Relations Commission was amending its policy to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Regan, Noble and Pastor Patrick Wooden of the Upper Room Church of God in Christ got to work. They packed city hall with 400 protesters and shouted down anyone who spoke in favor of the revision, saying the policy would sanction immorality.

They lost. But Called2Action was born.

Called2Action grows

Its kickoff event was the Dobson rally in September, which drew 13,500 people to the RBC Center and was the best-attended of six rallies held by Dobson, a conservative child psychologist and founder of Focus on the Family, before the elections in 2004.

Today, Called2Action has 49 church partners across Wake and 2,200 people registered to receive its electronic "ActionGrams."

Now Noble is working to recreate Called2Action in other cities. Already, there’s a Durham/Orange Called2Action and a Wilmington "Act Now" group. Noble is talking to people in Winston-Salem about organizing a chapter there.

Despite the growth, Noble remains an unpaid volunteer for the organization, juggling its demands with those of his painting business. Called2Action still has a small budget; he said it has raised about $30,000 in the past year, given by churches and individuals.

"This is not dissimilar to the Minutemen in the Revolutionary War," Noble said.

Noble likes war metaphors. When he’s targeting the culture that he says produces abortion, pornography and same-sex marriage, he likes to say: "This isn’t 20 years before World War II. This is post-Pearl Harbor. You can’t sit around and hem and haw and think about it. The house is already on fire."

All this from a man who says he was a "major-league hedonist" before he was 30, partying, drinking beer and chasing girls.

But in 1994, two years after he married Gina, a lapsed Catholic who attended the same high school in Chicago, the couple began to look for a spiritual component to their lives.

With their conversion, their lives took a 180-degree turn.

From profane to pious

Overnight, they stopped cursing. They soon sold their German luxury cars. When their first child was born, Gina quit her job selling real estate to be a full-time mother. All the time they were grounding themselves in a particular evangelical interpretation of the Bible.

The Nobles pray daily and ask for God’s guidance. There are no coincidences, Gina likes to say — only "God incidents."

In the dining room of their home hangs a framed saying on parchment: "Jesus … the same yesterday, today and forever."

The Rev. Steve Breedlove, a board member of Called2Action, said Noble still has something of the new believer in him.

"He’s not worldly wise," said Breedlove, associate pastor of Raleigh’s Church of the Apostles. "He’ll go out and do things at the risk of doing the wrong thing. It’s not arrogance. It’s enthusiasm."

Even among those he considers friends, Noble has critics.

Some say Called2Action is too hard-charging and abrasive. Others say it’s too partisan.

"They need to cover more issues if they want traction in the long term," said the Rev. Doug Gamble, missions pastor at Raleigh’s Crossroads Fellowship.

Gamble said Called2Action is too closely associated with Republican Party issues. It would do well to take up a broader range of social issues such as homelessness or a moratorium on the death penalty, he said.

But Noble, like many evangelicals, is not too worried about causes such as poverty. He thinks the problem can be addressed if the two parties, Republican and Democratic, become better stewards of national resources. Like many evangelicals, he says traditional family values take precedence over everything else.

"Society won’t crumble based on tax policy or housing policy or even welfare policy," he said. "These aren’t foundational issues. It’s what you do with life, what you do with your family. You destroy those, and you destroy society."

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Chris Fitzsimon

Chris Fitzsimon, Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch, writes the Fitzsimon File, delivers a radio commentary broadcast on WRAL-FM and hosts "News and Views," a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina. [email protected] 919-861-2066