The Common Good
July 2004

The Right Stuff

by David Batstone, Mark Wexler | July 2004

Many people think the Religious Right has faded into obscurity and political powerlessness. In fact, it just might be stronger than ever.

In the mid-

In the mid-1990s, following Bill Clinton's second electoral ride to the White House, the vibrancy of Religious Right organizations appeared to be on the wane. Outside the sanctuary of the fundamentalist church, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson had become public caricatures of intolerance and zealotry. Pundits in the media and the liberal church deemed the movement torn, shattered, and perhaps dead.

How then, less than a decade later, has the Religious Right become a powerful sector of the Republican Party, holding veto power over most any GOP maneuver?

"The Religious Right has been institutionalized within the Republican Party," confirms Kenneth Wald, a professor of political science at the University of Florida at Gainesville. "Just look at the leaders of the GOP."

Note the top seven ranking Republicans in the U.S. Senate: Bill Frist, Tennessee; Mitch McConnell, Kentucky; Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania; Bob Bennet, Utah; Kay Bailey Hutchinson, Texas; Jon Kyle, Arizona; and George Allen, Virginia. Other than party affiliation, what do these senators all have in common? Each has earned a 100 percent rating on the Christian Coalition's scorecard, voting in accordance with that organization's positions on key legislation.

A similar pattern exists among the Republican leadership in the U.S. House of Representatives. Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas, who in part controls whether an issue will be even debated on the House floor, also receives a 100 percent on the Christian Coalition scorecard.

Yes, the Religious Right is alive and well. Over the past quarter century, it has grown from an adolescent, grassroots movement to a mature political player closely integrated into the Beltway mainstream. The results of a recent poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press illustrated the historical shift in political classification of white evangelical Protestants. In 1987 and 1988, 34 percent identified as Republican while 31 percent identified as Democrats. Currently, 43 percent view themselves as Republicans against 22 percent as Democrats.

Political Roots

After the landslide defeat of Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election, a small group of conservative elites, known as the New Right, concluded that the Republican Party had to expand beyond its staunchly anti-communist and fiscally conservative base. Headed by Paul Weyrich (chair and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation), Richard Viguerie (direct mailing pioneer), Ed McAteer (founder of the Religious Roundtable), and Howard Phillips (founder and president of the Conservative Caucus, a lobby group), the New Right sought to wake a sleeping bear, religious conservatives.

By placing traditional family values at the core of its credo, the New Right was able to coax religious conservatives into political life. In 1979, the group engaged Jerry Falwell to establish and lead the Moral Majority. In short order, the Moral Majority claimed to have signed up 3 million first-time voters for the 1980 presidential elections (a disputed number, but still startling).

Voter registration drives notwithstanding, over the next two decades the Religious Right carefully nurtured grassroots organizations with a decidedly outsider political mentality. The efforts of groups such as Christian Voice, the Family Research Council, Concerned Women for America, the Freedom Council, American Coalition for Traditional Values, and the Christian Coalition were linked masterfully to make a strong impact on local political issues. During this period of rapid growth, the movement concentrated on political battles involving its key moral concerns: abortion, gay rights, school prayer, teaching creationism in public schools, and support for a regressive tax structure (it sees little or no gray area between socialism and tax policy that supposedly "overtaxes" the rich and "redistributes" wealth to the poor). In the process, the movement gleaned valuable insight about how to work the political structure from Washington insiders like Senators Orrin Hatch and Jesse Helms.

The mainstream media, along with most of those in moderate and left-leaning political circles, treated the rise of religious conservatives with derision, often depicting them as "radical extremists" out of touch with modern American life. But an organic relationship was developing between the legions of Religious Right constituents and the political establishment, argues Sara Diamond in her book, Roads to Dominion. According to Diamond, by dismissing the Religious Right, media and political opponents enabled it to make strong inroads in established political channels without close scrutiny of its intentions and capacity.

Outsider to Insider

Early on, Republican centrists also detested the notion of power-sharing with the "extreme Right." The image of Falwell vilifying his political adversaries in colorful biblical language might play to a core audience, but it scared Republican operatives who did not want to alienate moderate voters.

"The moderates were not at all happy about the Christian Right's inclusion in party leadership," notes Clyde Wilcox, a professor of government at Georgetown University. "But I don't see that [conflict] any more, in part because the big figureheads like Robertson and Falwell are gone and the new ones are less controversial."

The new generation of Religious Right leaders - exemplified by Ralph Reed, formerly of the Christian Coalition and senior director of Bush's re-election campaign in the Southeast - learned how to make compromises and work in coalitions. "Conservative Christians who are serious about their politics came to be more accommodating in their demands, a part of their maturing," confirms William Martin, a professor at Rice University.

At the same time, the movement became savvier about how to leverage its voting bloc power in order to gain a seat at those tables where important policy decisions are made. That dynamic unmistakably was at play at the 1998 Values Summit, a gathering of the core of the Religious Right organizations and sympathizers within the Republican Party, including Tom DeLay. Before the summit, James Dobson of Focus on the Family openly expressed his disenchantment with the Republican Party.

"He argued it may be time for religious conservatives to leave the party because they aren't paying attention to our core moral issues," reports Napp Nazworth, a doctoral candidate at the University of Florida who follows the movement intimately. The summit took up that critique, focusing on the lack of coordination between the pro-life/pro-family groups and similar-minded members of Congress.

DeLay and his colleagues in the Republican Study Committee (RSC) - described on its Web site as consisting of more than 85 House Republicans organized to advance "a conservative social and economic agenda in the House of Representatives" - were not about to permit an exodus of religious conservatives. Shortly after the summit, DeLay nominated Rep. Joseph R. Pitts (R-PA) to organize the Values Action Team (VAT), a coalition of like-minded religious conservatives that might bridge the divide that separated Washington insiders from grassroots activists. The VAT's primary goal is to link Washington insiders with grassroots outsiders and coordinate their efforts on legislative reform. The VAT holds weekly luncheons in Washington, D.C., that offer Focus on the Family and 30 or so other Religious Right member organizations a direct lobbying line to the U.S. Congress. To join the VAT, a member of Congress must pledge to be "strongly pro-life" and have a legislative staff member in attendance weekly.

The gatherings of the VAT, the RSC, and other affiliated meetings, such as the Free Congress Foundation's biweekly breakfast, are creating a potent synergy in Washington. "They influence Congress because they represent a united front," says Nazworth, who has participated in these gatherings. "That's the way things work in Congress; you need to have independent enclaves of power," he explains.

Of course, the meetings only take place because the Religious Right movement is busy gathering constituents in local churches who mail their members of congress and who support the "right" candidates. Once those candidates get elected, then the movement has even more friends in Congress.

Cracks in the Coalition

Despite the appearance of a united front, not all is smooth among religious conservatives and their political allies. Coalitions, by design, create a bottleneck on policy. Constituents typically hold tight to their principal issue(s) while trying to remain open to the agendas of other coalition members.

John Green, a leading authority on evangelical political engagement, underscores that the Religious Right is not always willing to bend its political will. According to Green, who was allowed to sit in on a Religious Right leadership meeting, one top leader said, "The Republicans need to understand that we have two non-negotiables - we're pro-life and we're pro-marriage. We might not be happy to move on other issues, but we're willing to make some concessions. But not on those two things."

Advancement in coalition tactics does not alleviate the painful sting felt deeply within the Religious Right at the lack of victories on its issues. By and large, the movement has not been very successful at changing public policy. That's not unusual; it's difficult to change the law in the United States. Feminists, environmentalists, and civil rights advocates hold a similar frustration that their respective social movements are unable to make a more lasting impact on the political structure of the country.

But the Religious Right is not ready to make its peace with political entropy. Nazworth claims that its leaders "have sent the message that you [Republicans] need to be on top of our issues or we're not going to help you get re-elected." This demonstrates the importance of holding a piece of the electoral constituency. In defense of their issues, the Religious Right's outsider organizations can threaten to pull their support for Republican candidates, effectively putting a stranglehold on party politics as usual.

"When George W. Bush talks politics in the White House, believe me, they talk about evangelicals," affirms Green, who runs the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron. "They ask, ‘How are the evangelicals going to react to this; what are they going to make of that?'" So while the activities of the Christian Coalition may no longer be front-page news, the issues it cares about now get more attention.

"Though the movement faded from the public eye, it has created a constituency in its wake," says Green.

Electoral Politics

It's a political misread to consider President Bush to be the head of the Religious Right. While many Religious Right leaders realize that George W. Bush is the best president for their cause that they are likely to see in office, they nevertheless question his commitment to their core issues.

Bush's delay in voicing favor for the Federal Marriage Amendment caused a simmering debate within the movement's leadership about his loyalty. His slow reaction felt like yet another shadowboxing moment - more words but no action. In his first major speech on the subject, Bush did make clear his opposition to same-sex marriage, but the White House immediately thereafter leaked a message about how personally tolerant he is.

Embedded in those double signals lies the kink in Bush's electoral coalition. An overstated alignment with the Religious Right puts Bush in danger of losing social libertarians and moderates. These constituencies for the most part have come to terms with integrating a social conservative stance within the Republican Party. But this does not mean that the social libertarians, who reject government entanglement with personal matters of the bedroom, will be completely on board for an all-out attack on gay rights.

On the other hand, if Bush underplays his commitment to the Religious Right and its defense of "traditional family," he may anger that movement to the point of abstention on Election Day. Republican insiders are convinced that 4 million white evangelicals veered away from the polls in 2000. Karl Rove, Bush's political strategy guru, lamented in a speech to the American Enterprise Institute in late 2001 that this group was not sufficiently energized to vote, but that "they are obviously part of our base." The Republicans are banking on the same-sex marriage issue to energize this sector of the electorate in the 2004 election.

By continuing to offer its support to Republican candidates, even after years of perceived neglect, the Religious Right's insider-outsider coalition is seeking an overdue political payoff. If Bush is re-elected there is a distinct possibility that one, if not three, of the Supreme Court justices could retire during his second term. The opportunity to change significantly the judicial system is the treasure that the Religious Right most ardently seeks.

Rove has been working the back doors of the movement's organizations, telling the strongest, the Family Research Council, that the Republicans are "creating a culture of life" in the U.S. courts. With this culture shift a slew of conservative initiatives could return to the Supreme Court's plate. If a couple of the swing votes retired - Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor being the most prominent - and were replaced by conservative ideologues, then there might be enough votes to overturn Roe vs. Wade, affirmative action, the Texas sodomy decision, and the ban on imposing the death penalty on the mentally retarded.

"You could see a series of very critical culturally liberal decisions reversed in a short period of time, which would [mean] that for Christian conservatives backing Bush was a smart wager," says Wilcox. "Getting involved in politics, making it very partisan, putting all of its faith in one party - it would have all paid off."

David Batstone is executive editor of Sojourners. Mark Wexler works for the Foundation for Autistic Childhood Education and Support (FACES) in northern California.

Sojourners relies on the support of readers like you to sustain our message and ministry.

Related Stories

Like what you're reading? Get Sojourners E-Mail updates!

Sojourners Comment Community Covenant

I will express myself with civility, courtesy, and respect for every member of the Sojourners online community, especially toward those with whom I disagree, even if I feel disrespected by them. (Romans 12:17-21)

I will express my disagreements with other community members' ideas without insulting, mocking, or slandering them personally. (Matthew 5:22)

I will not exaggerate others' beliefs nor make unfounded prejudicial assumptions based on labels, categories, or stereotypes. I will always extend the benefit of the doubt. (Ephesians 4:29)

I will hold others accountable by clicking "report" on comments that violate these principles, based not on what ideas are expressed but on how they're expressed. (2 Thessalonians 3:13-15)

I understand that comments reported as abusive are reviewed by Sojourners staff and are subject to removal. Repeat offenders will be blocked from making further comments. (Proverbs 18:7)