By Mark J. Rozell
In last fall’s election campaign, the Christian right
flew in under the news media’s radar. What coverage there was focused on the
decline of the national Christian Coalition and the supposed waning of the
social conservative movement generally.
“Their interest and their influence fading, Christian
conservatives are struggling to regain the power that not long ago helped
Republicans elect a president and win control of Congress,” wrote Steve
Thomma of the Knight Ridder Washington bureau in an October 12 dispatch.
“[T]he movement has declined dramatically in recent years,” announced the
National Journal’s “Hotline,” also in October. “[P]olls show that
Religious Right voters aren’t particularly enthused this year.”
This was hardly the first time the Christian right’s
obituary had been written. Many journalists suggested that the movement was
finished as a political force in the late 1980s after the collapse of the
Moral Majority and the Bakker-Swaggart televangelist scandals. When Newt
Gingrich’s Republican Revolution ran aground in late 1995 and Bill Clinton
coasted to an easy reelection, analysts speculated on why the movement had
failed and was all but spent.
During the late 1990s, the press was filled with
reports that conservative evangelicals were abandoning political activity.
In early 2000, because neither George W. Bush nor John McCain was closely
identified with the Christian right, pundits concluded that social
conservatism was becoming a lonely voice in American politics.
In 2002, it was for the most part burial by silence.
Embracing the conventional wisdom that the election was going to be an
incumbent’s dream, journalists ignored conservative Christian (or any other)
activists as potential kingmakers. In a campaign debate framed in terms of
national security and the economy, the Christian right, with its traditional
focus on social issues, seemed like a complete non-story.
After the GOP swept to its unanticipated victory,
Christian activists were not shy about claiming credit.
“Our voter guides had a great influence,” Ron Torossian,
media director for the Christian Coalition, told the Washington Times
November 7. “Many of the races were so close that I think people wanted to
get out and make a difference.” Sandy Rios, president of Concerned Women for
America, claimed in a press release (quoted in the January 8 issue of
Christianity Today) that “the prolife stand was a decisive factor in the
Republican takeover of Congress.”
“Once again, those who expected the pesky Christian
conservatives to go away have been shocked,” wrote University of Texas
journalism professor and Christian right guru Marvin Olasky in World
Magazine January 8. Olasky even attributed the defeat of GOP Sen. Tim
Hutchinson in Arkansas to evangelical voters. While voting overwhelmingly
for most Republicans around the country, they turned away from Hutchinson
because of his high-profile divorce and remarriage to a young staffer.
But the journalistic post-mortems that pointed to the
Christian right were few and far between. These included:
•••Larry Witham of the Washington Times, who
credited GOP victories in the Carolinas, Missouri, and Georgia to the impact
of Christian right voters.
•••Sometime Bush speechwriter David Frum, who, in
National Review Online, asked, “[W]ho will be surprised if it turns out
that one more time the loyal core of the GOP prove to be regular church
attenders: the much-dreaded Christian Right?”
•••Richard Dunham of Business Week Online, who
noted, “After several years of electoral decline, Christian conservatives
made a decisive comeback.”
•••National Public Radio’s Juan Williams, who, naming
Georgia as the election’s bellwether, declared on Fox News Sunday, “[W]hat
happened here is that Ralph Reed…managed to excite those white evangelicals
on the right.”
•••James Harding of the Financial Times, who
attributed the GOP’s capture of a U.S. Senate seat in Georgia to
“charismatic Christian communities.”
Indeed, if the news media should have been on the trail
of the Christian right anywhere, it was in Georgia, where Gov. Roy Barnes as
well as incumbent Democratic Sen. Max Cleland went down to ignominious and,
in Barnes’ case, widely unexpected defeat. But despite the fact that former
Christian Coalition executive director Ralph Reed had become chairman of the
state Republican Party, pre-election news coverage ignored Christian right
mobilization. Georgia newspapers focused instead on internal GOP
disgruntlement with Reed’s leadership.
After the election, Reed was portrayed not as a maestro
of movement politics but as someone who had successfully morphed into a
practical, mainstream politician.
“Democrats snickered and even some Republicans scowled
when the Georgia GOP, still trying to broaden its mainstream appeal, elected
Ralph Reed as its new party chair last year,” wrote the AP’s Russ Bynum from
Atlanta November 10. “But a quieter, more low-key Reed helped Republicans
take a historic sweep of Georgia elections.”
Bill Torpy of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
noted Reed’s success in mobilizing volunteers and paid staff to knock on
doors, get out mailings, and make phone calls. The GOP ground campaign was
likewise highlighted by David Halbfinger of the New York Times, Ken
Ellingwood of the Los Angeles Times, and Manuel Roig-Franzia and
David Broder of the Washington Post. But none of the above so much as
mentioned the possibility that the Christian right had been involved.
The evidence that it had was in part obscured by the
absence of exit poll data, but the story was there for those with eyes to
see and shoe leather to tread. As the article by John Green on page 4 and
the accompanying documents indicate, across the South the Christian right
was highly mobilized for the 2002 election, and its troops appear to have
made the difference.
Journalists missed the story because they could not rid
themselves of the fixed idea that the Christian right was moribund. In this,
they had help from academic experts, who kept telling them that the steep
decline of the national Christian Coalition, infighting within the movement,
and the negative impact of politically charged comments by Jerry Falwell and
Pat Robertson were evidence of Christian right crackup.
So what are the key lessons to take into the 2004
presidential election cycle?
First, the Christian right is here to stay. In a decade
of studying and writing about it, I have spoken to many reporters, and when
they don’t want to know why the movement is on the verge of extinction they
want to know why it is succeeding in its plan to take over the GOP or the
nation. Both story lines are exaggerations.
Surveys show that the core constituency of the movement
has remained rather steady since the late 1970s, even as its policy fortunes
rise or fall with changes in government leadership and public opinion. FOX
exit polls in 2002 found that 16 percent of the electorate identified
themselves as members of the “conservative Christian political movement,” a
result compatible with exit polling data ever since such a question has been
posed to voters. The strength of the movement is disproportionately
concentrated in the states of the old Confederacy.
Second, analyses of the Christian right should be
focused less on national figures and organizations and more on grassroots
activism, above all in the South. News of the Christian right has for years
gravitated to the big-name personalities who are media savvy, controversial,
or both. Yet the real impact of the movement lies with its activist base,
not with the decline of the national Christian Coalition or Ralph Reed’s
evolution from movement to party leader.
The demise of the Moral Majority was the end not of a
large social movement but merely of one visible organization that was
quickly replaced by another. No more do the current troubles of the national
Christian Coalition signal the end to social conservative politics in the
United States. Although its national leaders were much less visible—and,
perhaps, less important—in 2002 than in the 1990s, the movement was highly
active at the state level, both through organizations like the Christian
Coalition of Georgia and in the evangelical churches themselves.
Finally, there is reason to believe that, at least for
the moment, the Christian right is prepared to trade high-octane rhetoric
for politically achievable ends. As the chair of the Georgia Christian
Coalition put it after the election in the newsletter reprinted on page 6,
“While standing on principle, we must govern wisely and incrementally, and
to that end I will work with the Governor’s office to ensure that our agenda
is reasonable and attainable.”
Or as former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan responded
when TV talk jock Chris Matthews demanded to know how President Bush was
going to “keep the Evangelical right happy”: “They’re grownups….it’s still
close and Evangelicals can count.”1