WASHINGTON — Nothing will motivate conservative evangelical Christians to vote Republican in the 2008 presidential election more than a Democratic nominee named Hillary Rodham Clinton -- not even a run by the devil himself.
That was the sentiment expressed by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, the longtime evangelical icon and founder of the once-powerful Moral Majority, during private remarks Friday to church pastors and activists as part of the Values Voter Summit hosted this weekend by the country's leading Christian conservatives.
A recording of Falwell's comments was obtained by The Times, and his remarks were confirmed by eyewitnesses.
"I certainly hope that Hillary is the candidate," Falwell said, according to the recording. "She has $300 million so far. But I hope she's the candidate. Because nothing will energize my [constituency] like Hillary Clinton."
Cheers and laughter filled the room as Falwell continued: "If Lucifer ran, he wouldn't."
At that moment in the recording, Falwell's voice is drowned out by hoots of approval. But two in attendance, including a Falwell staff member, confirmed that Falwell said that even Lucifer, the fallen angel synonymous with Satan in Christian theology, would not mobilize his followers as much as the New York senator and former first lady would.
One critic who has been observing the conference said Saturday that Falwell's words offered a rare glimpse into how religious conservative leaders were planning to inflame opposition to the Democrats with below-the-radar messages that are often more scorching than the ones showing up in public.
"He was calling Hillary Clinton a demonic figure and openly arguing that God is a Republican," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of the advocacy group Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "It's hard to know whether people thought he was joking or serious, but once you start using religious imagery and invoking a politician in this way, it's not funny. A lot of people who listen to him do think that she's a dark force of evil in America."
Such controversy is nothing new for Falwell, who once described Islam's prophet Muhammad as a terrorist and said that abortion providers, feminists, gays and lesbians were to blame for the 9/11 attacks.
An aide to Falwell said Saturday that the Lucifer reference was an "off the cuff" comment and that Falwell "had no intentions of demonizing her."
Falwell's remarks about Clinton were part of a 40-minute address at a private breakfast that included assurances that God would preserve a Republican majority in Congress and that moderates such as former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani could not be allowed to win the GOP presidential nomination.
Falwell's estimation of Clinton's campaign war chest appeared to be hyperbole; she has raised about $47 million for her Senate account this cycle, according the Center for Responsive Politics. But she has raised millions more for other candidates, and many strategists believe that if she decides to run, Clinton will amass record-level contributions.
Falwell wasn't the only public figure to invoke Satan in reference to a political adversary last week. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez referred to President Bush as the devil before the United Nations General Assembly, speaking the day after Bush had stood at the same rostrum.
About two hours after Falwell's speech at the Values Voter Summit, James Dobson, founder of the influential group Focus on the Family, spoke publicly at the same conference. Dobson denounced what he said was a limp response by both political parties to Chavez's comment. Dobson, whose group was a sponsor of the weekend gathering, told the nearly 2,000 activists crammed into a hotel ballroom near downtown Washington that Chavez had "attacked our president viciously."
"And there has hardly been a statement of defense out of members of Congress about that," Dobson said. "There's been [only] a few pantywaist comments."
Neither Falwell nor Dobson responded to interview requests.
One conference official, Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, said Saturday that he believed Falwell intended his comment to be a "humorous remark."
Asked if he was comfortable with the connotation, Perkins deferred questions to Falwell.
"I can only be responsible for what I say," Perkins said, adding that he disagreed with Falwell that a Clinton candidacy would be good for conservatives. "I think it would be a little too risky. Anything could happen, and that's just one step closer to her actually being elected."
Falwell's remarks about Clinton were not the only indication this weekend that the evangelical movement was focused on the senator from New York.