As the clock ticks towards the first presidency of the
next millennium, the role of religion in national politics is in transition.
Nineteen-eighty was the year the Christian Right rumbled into town, helping to put Ronald
Reagan into the White House and send a clutch of liberal Democratic senators into
retirement. Over the next two decades, Christian Right activists became the most energetic
force in the Republican Party, and traditionalist white evangelicals became the most
Republican religious grouping in the country.
The movement was animated by a belief that the majority of Americans were religious
folks who opposed "abortion-on-demand" and "the gay lifestyle,"
supported tough justice and prayer in school, and expected their fellow citizens to work
for a living. The expectation was that, with judicious propaganda and grass-roots
organizing, the electorate would make the GOP the countrys majority party. When both
houses of Congress fell into Republican hands in 1994, it appeared to have done just that.
Four years later, the electorate was no longer with the program. Against all
expectations, the GOP lost seats in the House of Representatives, and Republican
candidates running with strong Christian Right support lost important state races in the
South and Midwest. Worst of all, the great moral imperative of impeaching President
Clinton proved incapable of winning the support of more than a third of Americans. Even
traditionalist white evangelicals favored impeachment to the tune of just 55 percent.
After the Presidents acquittal, longtime conservative activist Paul Weyrich
concluded that the "whole strategy" had been a mistake because it was based on
the false premise that "a majority of Americans basically agree with our point of
view." The country had suffered a "cultural collapse" of such proportions
that politics could not reverse it. Without rejecting political participation as a means
of self-defense, he called on religious conservatives to quarantine themselves from the
morally polluted American mainstream by creating their own separate educational and
While Weyrichs summons to political disengagement drew vigorous dissent from
other Christian Right leaders, it seemed clear that a strategic re-evaluation was the
order of the day. During the 1996 campaign, the Christian Coalitions then executive
director, Ralph Reed, found himself pilloried by fellow Christian rightists for trying to
broker a deal whereby GOP presidential candidate Bob Dole could back out of his
partys embrace of a constitutional ban on abortion. On the road to 2000, barely a
peep went up when leading Republican presidential hopefuls danced away from the issue by
saying the country was "not yet" ready for such a ban.
But religion is far from beating a retreat on the political front. On the contrary,
aspiring presidential aspirants-the two Democrats as well as the Republican host-are
talking about their personal faith earlier and oftener than in any campaign in memory. For
the frontrunners, religion has also taken a prominent place at the issues table.
As visitors to http://www.georgewbush.com can
readily see, one of the pillars of Texas Gov. George W. Bushs campaign of
"compassionate conservatism" is providing government support to help religiously
identified institutions address social problems. Under the heading of "faith in
action," the web page lays out Bushs "faith-based" state initiatives
in childcare, alcohol and drug treatment, and prison programs, as well as his vigorous
enforcement of the "charitable choice" provision of the welfare reform law.
"Government should welcome the help of faith-based institutions," says the
governor. "Church and state should work together with respect for our differences and
reverence for our shared goals."
Not to be outdone, Vice President Al Gore embraced the ideology of charitable choice in
remarks at Atlantas Salvation Army headquarters in May, calling for the faith-based
approach to be expanded from welfare-related programs to include problems of homelessness,
youth violence, and drug addiction. "If you elect me your president," said Gore,
"the voices of faith-based organizations will be integral to the policies set forth
in my administration." While Bush campaign apparatchiks grumbled about the Vice
Presidents me-tooism, senior Gore policy adviser Elaine Kamarck was indiscreet
enough to tell the Boston Globe, "The Democratic Party is going to take back God this
Whatever becomes of God, a chastened Christian Right and a religiously engaged
Progressive Left make for a different kind of spiritual politics than we have experienced
in some time. It is wise to be wary of political professions of faith, and, as students of
the subject know, the road to charitable choice is fraught with perils for both church and
state. But after nearly 20 years of watching the sword of religion carve out wedge issues
for a culture war, we seem to be moving on.