Spring 2003, Vol. 6, No. 1

Table of Contents
Spring 2003

Quick Links:
Articles in this issue

In the South:
The GOP Gets Religion

What Christian Right?

The Undetected Tide

Church Notes

The New Governing Party

The Bible in Memphis

The Decalogue in Montgomery


A World of Hurt

James in the Box

O Brother, Who Art Thou?


What Would Jesus Drive?


What Christian Right?
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


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