Although the national Evangelical political movement
has received most of the publicity, it is important to remember that the
real action is in the states. This movement, both in the social and
political sense, is highly organic, it is made up of people who know each
other and who work together on local matters. It's an overlapping set of
identities and acquaintances that motivate this movement of religious
At this point, activists on the religious right have
known each other for years and likely lived in the same town, sit together
on mission boards, have children who go to the same Christian schools and
Christian colleges, and support the same charitable organizations. These
people are friends, and they are connected to each other in ways that go
far beyond politics.
The leaders of the Christian right come to politics
basically to state what they perceive as a threat to their way of life, a
threat to society at large. But their way of dealing with things has
Most state level activists cringe when Jerry Falwell or
Pat Robertson says anything on television. They were up in arms about
Falwell and Robertson’s comments after the terrorist attacks on 9/11. There
are very few—not only the rank and file but also the leadership in state
organizations—who would espouse any of those views.
This moment is very different than the late 80s or even
early 90s. The 1994 election—when Republicans took over the U.S. House of
Representatives— was a watershed in many ways because it showed a lot of
religious conservatives that they had the ability to make things move in the
states. House elections are state elections, district elections. Religious
conservatives had to become very savvy about the politics of their district
in order to get people elected to Congress.
That experience was formative in their understanding of
what it takes to work in politics, and its has been the success of the
Christian conservatives at state-level politics that has defined their power
in past 10 years.
There have been two trajectories that religious
conservatives have taken as a result of political involvement. The first is
polarization. That is, as they move through the political process, they
become more and more conservative because they're not happy with the process
For example, I know an activist in Indiana who started
out with the largest Christian organization in the state, then moved to the
Family Research Council Affiliate, and is now head of the American Family
Association. His path has gotten more and more conservative as he concluded
the political process was not working.
The bigger path, the more common path, is assimilation
into mainstream Republican politics. The party has become very important at
the state level to religious conservative activists. In several of the
states that I know very well, both the state director and the state chair,
the national committeemen are all veterans of conservative religious
So the party in itself has become much more religiously
conservative by virtue of who is in it. In a study that I just completed
about understanding how much influence religious conservatives have in
Republican politics, a strange thing happened. All the states in the South
came up in the middle of the distribution of states where religious
conservatives are most influential. At the high end—states where religious
conservatives have a strong influence—were places like Colorado and Iowa.
They weren't Southern states, except South Carolina.
Why is that the case? It is because religious
conservatives and the regular Republicans don't look any different in the
South anymore. And, in a certain sense, they may not be any different
anymore. This may be something you can look at more closely: Who are the
people in charge of these state policies and where did they come from? Look
at the people not necessarily in charge of particular local movements 10
years ago, but their deputies, the people around them, the people that
learned how to do politics in those campaigns. I venture to say that many of
those people are in the party now working as operatives. They are still
Evangelical Christians, but are now more broadly conservative in the kinds
of things that they're doing.
Going into the 2004 election there are several
important issues, but one overarching way to understand the difference
between the national and local and state issues. The national issues are
what originally mobilize people, but they can do a lot more and have a lot
more effect on lower level politics.
That said, the gay marriage issue is a very important
issue.I was hearing talk about gay marriage very early this year, long
before the Canadian law had passed. I was hearing lot of ‘definition of
family is the next big issue.’ Other activists I’ve spoken with in the last
few weeks are very much concentrated on that.
Clearly this issue hits close to home for many
Evangelicals. It's not a civil rights issue in their mind. It's a definition
of what society should be like and what the family unit within that society
should look like.
Support for Israel is certainly on the screen, but it's
not as mobilizing for rank and file Evangelicals in the states. It is more
an issue among the leadership.
On judicial nominations, not just in the Supreme Court,
but also at the state level, there have been moves by conservatives in
general, but religious conservatives in particular, to influence who the
And, finally, I'm hearing a lot about economics.
Many—at least the leaders within the activist core of those
conservatives—are very concerned about economic issues and are very, very
libertarian in their approach, anti-tax.
The bottom line is how to find religious conservatives
to interview in order to do stories about them. First, as I talked about
earlier, one needs to follow the people. What kinds of relationships exist
within the movement, and in the party particularly, that show what direction
politics in that city or state are going? This can be frustrating for both
academics and journalists because its sometime hard to tell where the center
of a network is
One of the interesting groups to look at in a lot of
states—not every state—are the Republican Assemblies. These are a small kind
of splinter group of the Republican Party. They're still Republicans, but
want to hold the party to a much more conservative view of the world. Most
participants are very politically savvy religious conservatives. They can be
some real interesting stories.
Something else to watch is debate over the party
platform. Religious conservatives are always active in platform debates. If
it doesn't matter if they know a state is going to pass a more strict
abortion law. They really feel that these kinds of symbols are important to
the way we do politics. [In some ways this stress on symbolic victories has
to do with being a newer political actor. Today, however, they are much more
concerned about actual results. But some of that may have to do with
religious content, because they firmly believe in the instructive ability of
law and of society and symbolic victories can precede substantive changes.]
Another really interesting story is the role of women
volunteers. A lot of the religious conservative volunteers are stay-at-home
moms for whom political activity is an outlet for their intelligence and
administrative gifts, all these kinds of things. That's how many of the
women in more conservative denominations express their own identity and
their own individual opinions.