WASHINGTON — A couple of hours after President Bush took the oath of office, the indefatigable Rev. Lou Sheldon, founder and chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition, was even more upbeat than usual.
On Wednesday, he'd tossed a Christian bash for more than 800 people at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. The host committee was virtually a who's who of politically important evangelicals -- including Gary Bauer, Ralph Reed and Jerry Falwell. On Thursday, Sheldon hosted an indoor gathering of about 300 fellow Christians, people who wanted to experience the events of the inauguration with like-minded folks but who weren't inclined to brave the chilly weather.
"This is the beginning of a good four years," said Sheldon, who is given to quoting historical figures and this time offered a snippet of George Washington's 1796 farewell address: "Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports."
"Religion and morality," repeated Sheldon. "That's what is happening -- that fusion of religion and morality and public policy has now come about."
Sheldon's parties were an opportunity for Bush supporters to enjoy a hard-fought victory, but (since there is always a subtext in this town) they were also a celebration of Christian political muscle and a reminder of what this important constituency expects now that it has helped deliver the White House to Bush for a second term.
Naturally, the issues dearest to evangelical Christian hearts were never far from their minds: A constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Overturning Roe vs. Wade. Bringing religion back to the public square.
The administration took notice. On Thursday, White House Political Director Matt Schlapp stopped by to chat as the inaugural parade was just getting started. On Wednesday night, outgoing Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft delivered the dinner speech, and during cocktails, the architects of the president's campaign stopped by to pay their respects.
Bush's senior advisor Karl Rove and campaign manager Ken Mehlman, who had just been named chairman of the Republican National Committee, spoke briefly and posed for photos at a VIP reception off the main ballroom (it was the only point during the evening when alcohol was served).
Rove took issue with the idea that Bush did not earn a mandate from the American people, citing what he called "my favorite statistic: This president won a greater percentage of the vote than any Democratic candidate since 1964."
(The intoxicating feeling of proximity to Rove, who is acknowledged by strategists from both parties as a genius, became apparent when someone's cellphone rang and he could be heard to say, "I can't talk. I'm listening to Karl right now.")
"I am here with two very important words," said Mehlman. "And those words are 'thank you.' "
Then he cut to the chase: "Promises made will be promises kept, because this president will do what he said he'd do." Mehlman spoke of the president's "most sacred duty -- the appointment of judges. We're going to have more Scalias and Thomases."
This remark, above all, pleased the crowd. "We don't believe in cloning, but if we did, we would clone Scalia and Thomas," said Sheldon's daughter, Andrea Lafferty, executive director of the Traditional Values Coalition. The coalition, which is based in Anaheim, has about 43,000 member churches and describes itself as "the largest nondenominational, grass-roots church lobby in America." "For Justice Thomas," said Lafferty, "it was our organization of black pastors that rallied to support him many years ago."
Although a major theme of the inauguration was the sacrifices made by members of the military, there was nary a mention of the war in Iraq at the Sheldon events, nor the prices paid by American soldiers and their families. On Thursday, Sheldon said he had tried to invite retired Army Gen. Tommy Franks, who was not available.
Love of flag was expressed dramatically when halfway through the six-hour gala Wednesday, Sheldon called Sandy Banning out of the crowd to lead the Pledge of Allegiance. When he explained who she was, some people gasped.
Banning is the devoutly Christian mother of the little girl whose father, Michael Newdow of Sacramento, has crusaded to remove the words "under God" from the pledge. Just last week, a judge tossed out Newdow's attempt to stop prayer at the president's swearing in.
Banning had been invited by Lafferty and was surprised Sheldon called her to the stage to lead the crowd in a spirited recitation of the pledge. "When we get to 'under God,' " said Sheldon, "let's really shout it out."
And so they did.
Banning's face was wet with tears when she returned to her seat. "I've never done anything like that before," she said. Her third-grade daughter, Glen, had stayed in their hotel room with an aunt.