Shannon Royce is a marathon runner, but when I ask her how her new job is going, a different sort of track metaphor leaps to mind. "It's like trying to mount Secretariat in the middle of a race," she tells me. "I'm still a little wobbly." Earlier this month, Royce, 55, became the first ever chief of staff and chief operating officer of the Family Research Council, the Christian group that advocates for socially conservative policies. She now works under FRC President Tony Perkins to oversee the routine operations of the organization and its 85-person staff, as it carries out its mission "to advance faith, family, and freedom in public policy and the culture from a Christian worldview."
Shannon Royce is the chief of staff and chief operating officer for the Family Research Council. (Chet Susslin)That, it seems, is no small task at the moment.
The Friday I interview her in her still-largely-undecorated office at 8th and G Streets NW, it is just days before the Supreme Court begins hearing arguments about whether same-sex marriage rights should be expanded across the nation—an outcome FRC very much opposes. "I don't think anyone could have seen 25 years ago how bad things have gotten today," says Royce. (When I ask her to explain, she mentions the Oregon bakers who were recently made to pay $135,000 to a lesbian couple to whom they refused services. "Who could have foreseen that?" she asks.) Royce talks about the organization's opposition to gay marriage in terms of "protecting marriage" but also in terms of protecting religious freedom. "If marriage is redefined, we'll see even more of a religious-liberty crisis in this country," she explains. "There's a lot of conversation about living in a tolerant society," she adds. "But unfortunately, for it to work in a civil society, you have to have tolerance both ways."
Royce grew up in Austin, Texas, the daughter of a Southern Baptist preacher, and her father helped impart many of the values she still holds today. After she graduated from Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene in 1982, Royce landed a job in San Diego with the conservative Christian activist group Concerned Women for America. She moved to Washington with the organization in 1984, and four years later began law school at George Washington University. (She had reached her late twenties without finding a suitable husband, she explains, and reasoned that she'd have to be able to support herself, since it looked like she might never marry. As fate would have it, she met her husband-to-be and the future father of her two sons at the law school's orientation breakfast.)
In 1989, she went to work on the Hill for then-Sen. Slade Gorton of Washington and later for Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa. After her second son was born, Royce began working part-time, first with the Of the People Foundation, a small parental-rights group, and then with the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, where she eventually became director of government relations and legislative counsel. In 2004, she became executive director of the Arlington Group, a coalition of Christian leaders, and in 2009 spent a year as executive director for the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, a group "committed to bringing a balanced Biblical view of stewardship to the critical issues of environment and development." She then shifted over to contracting and began working closely with FRC on issues of military religious freedom.
Having worked as a contractor for FRC, Royce says she had "a good relationship" with Perkins, and when he offered her the position, she leapt at the chance. "I was thinking and praying about going back to a more traditional role in the workforce," she says. As a professionally accomplished woman who has always tailored her work around her home life, Royce found the timing of the offer particularly auspicious. Her youngest son was preparing for college (he is currently a junior in high school), and contract work no longer seemed like an imperative. "I've worked full-time, part-time, contract, part-time contract," she explains. "This was an opportunity I couldn't pass up."