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
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
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
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.