Religion and the 2004 Election

A Special Supplement to Religion in the News
Fall 2003

THE BELTWAY                       
                                                  by Kimberly Conger

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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




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 conservatives.

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 evolved.

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 itself.

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 movements.

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 judges are.

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.