Religion and the 2004 Election

A Special Supplement to Religion in the News
Fall 2003

THE BELTWAY                      
                                                      by Mark J. Rozell

Quick Links:
Table of Contents

Special Section: Introduction

The New Religion Gap

Hispanic Catholics

Non-Hispanic Catholics

Evangelicals: Inside the Beltway

Evangelicals: Outside the Beltway

Mainline Protestants

African American Protestants


Arab Americans: Muslims and Others



























































Hit Counter



 The editor of the National Review recently wrote: “The Christian right has infiltrated and taken over the White House, including the President of the United States. If Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson sat down 15 years ago and envisioned a born-again Christian president  from the Bible Belt, George W. Bush would have fit it almost to a T.”

This is an exaggeration, clearly. However, the two most frequent story lines I’m called on by journalists to discuss are “why is the Christian right taking over?” and “why is the movement rapidly heading toward demise?”

There is enormous continuity in this movement in terms of its size. Its constituency and its policy influence rise and fall over time, but this is not a movement that is in danger of disappearing altogether from American politics. And there are substantial limits to the ability of this or any other movement in American politics to “take over.”

I did a study on the impact of the Christian right mobilization in the primaries and caucuses in the 2000 campaign. The data are quite clear. The nonreligious right identifying Republicans in all states voted more for John McCain than George Bush. They were a substantial majority of voters. The significant minority consisted of gung-ho Christians for Bush.

Ironically, the Christian right voters were very important to the outcome of the 2000 election, although going into the campaign there wasn’t much discussion about the movement.

It’s important to recognize that Bush had a certain appeal to Evangelical voters beyond what leaders in the movement were saying about him. Although these leaders give him credibility as a candidate, they didn’t have a great deal of enthusiasm about it going into the 2000 campaign. To the rank and file, however, this is a man who speaks the language of religious conservatives very well, talks about his own conversion experience, and talks about this in a deep and personal way. He is able to communicate in language that religious conservatives understand. He is genuine. He is one of them.

One of the major concerns of conservative voters is that many Republican candidates say the right things for the purpose of getting a nomination, but once they’re in office their instincts are not so good. Especially during the Reagan years, a lot of conservatives said that even though Reagan wasn't doing as much as they would have liked, he was the first president to give legitimacy to people who felt they had been marginalized in American politics. That was hugely important and remains so to this day, although I think the trend now is frustration with mere overtures. There's a certain point at which they say, “it's payoff time. Where are the payoffs?” There is a conscious effort on the part of many religious conservatives now to filter out the genuine Republicans from those who merely say what is necessary to get the support of the conservatives, who have powerful influence in the party. They could tell that George Bush was the genuine article.

The 2002 midterm elections were another case where religious conservatives were largely overlooked going into the campaign, and election outcomes forced reporters to play catch-up to figure out why the movement was important.

This is nothing new. In the late 1980s, when the Moral Majority disappeared from the landscape, there were numerous reports about the death of the Christian right, but the movement re-emerged in the Christian Coalition and other organizations.

Now there is a lot of talk about the rapid decline of the Christian Coalition as an organization. This organization is in deep trouble right now. However, it’s important to recognize that the big name organizations are not to be equated with the general movement that we call the Christian right. In other words, particular organizations may rise or fall at particular points in time, but the movement itself is here to stay. The Moral Majority departs the scene; Christian Coalition takes over. Maybe it wanes, but another organization emerges.

Frankly, a lot of these things happen when Republicans are in power. During the Reagan administration, a lot of conservative groups had difficulty raising money and keeping enthusiasm up because the president was busy telling everybody “all is right with America.” A similar situation may be occurring now.

They don’t have the anti-Christ Bill Clinton in the White House. They’ve got Hillary. They still have some hot button characters, but it’s not the same as having Bill Clinton in the White House. In the 2004 election cycle, the goal of the Christian right is to keep Bush in the White House.

Two pieces I wrote for Religion in the News talk about a missed story about the Christian right in the southeast. There is talk about disgruntlement amongst some leaders with Ralph Reed, who is going to be campaign director there, and internal fighting within the Republican Party, but there really hasn’t been much discussion about his ability to mobilize religious conservatives.

The contemporary Christian right is facing something of a crisis. Some leaders of the movement have begun to question whether political activity is bringing all the benefits that some 25-plus years of new Christian Right activity promised. There is a substantial number of leaders and activists who are now wondering whether aligning themselves so closely with the Republican Party and engaging in political activity to the extent they have, have had the kind of payoff they anticipated.

Paul Weyrich’s letter, back in 1999, still resonates. He questioned whether political activity was going to be beneficial to religious conservatives over the long term and whether many should draw back into their churches and their communities and try to achieve their ends in other ways.

Actually it’s a real paradox in American politics. The movement has enormous influence, more than any other political movement, within a political party—to the point where it has practical control over political party platforms and many states’ nominations, almost veto power over vice presidential nominees.     And yet on the policy agenda—placing substantial limits on abortion rights and civil rights for gays and lesbians, getting more religion in the classroom—the movement has made only marginal progress and now feels disappointed at the limits to its ability to have real influence on these matters.

I pointed out that Bush’s ability to speak about his religious faith makes him credible to conservative Christians. This will be very important as we look toward the 2004 election cycle. He’s probably friendlier to the Christian Right than any president since the movement became engaged in politics in the 1970s, including the Reagan administration. The perception is that this president is fundamentally different, that he is genuine in his beliefs about a number of these issues and that he wants to move the social agenda forward to the extent that it’s practical to do so.

They also recognize that this president is a pragmatist, and he’s not going to risk other parts of his agenda or his ability to be re-elected. Over the years, the leadership of the Christian right has become more willing to accept compromise, to be more pragmatic and not demand they get 100 percent of everything they want immediately.

That is perhaps nowhere more evident than in Pat Robertson saying Schwarzenegger is okay. Schwarzenegger confesses that he participated in orgies, supports gay rights, and abortion rights. But here is a leader of the Christian Right saying he can support the guy as long as he has an R next to his name.

The leadership of the Christian right has shown a willingness to work within the Republican Party and work within the political system to try to move its objectives along without expecting to get everything all at once.

On the other hand, there is a division within the leadership of the Christian right over whether it is advisable to continue down this path of compromise—you would certainty not get that rhetoric from Dr. Dobson. Gary Bauer expressed some disgruntlement with the direction of leadership of the Christian right. The book Blinded by the Light expressed a great deal of disappointment with the leadership of the Christian right for compromising too much and forgetting about the principal goals of the movement. They accused a lot of the big name figures in the Christian right of being captured by the lure of power, starting to like their invitations to the White House and their little perks too much, and losing sight of what the movement was all about.

Again, the story of Christian right over the past quarter century has been one of continuity rather than demise. Surveys show that the core has remained steady since the late 1970s. The Christian right indeed is here to stay as a force of American politics, and reporters need to be careful not to exaggerate this force or dismiss it outright. The real power of the movement lies with the activist base, not with Pat Robertson or Ralph Reed. In 2002, the movement was active even though its leadership was less visible than it had been in the 1990s. John Green said the information now coming out shows there was a real up for religious conservatives even while journalists were writing about the demise of the movement. Articles should avoid hyping the movement and its influence or talking about the impending demise of the movement. This movement is going to remain involved in the American political system for a very, very long time.