The Religious Right: A Reference Handbook. Grey House Publishing, Inc. 2007.
Impact in America
Thomas Jefferson’s famous metaphor to the contrary notwithstanding, there has never been an absolute wall between church and state in American society. Ever since the Puritans came ashore in the early 1600s, religious leaders have often sought to influence public policy on a variety of social issues, and political leaders of all persuasions have just as readily appealed to the divine. A generation before the Civil War, for instance, the churches had already clashed and divided over slavery; in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the social gospel inspired many churchgoers to pursue legislative remedies to urban, industrial ills; the adoption of the Eighteenth Amendment on prohibition in 1919 was a crowning achievement for the religious establishment; and today many religious bodies maintain lobbyists in the nation’s capital to sway politicians on everything from prayer in public schools to world hunger.
To many religious leaders, political activism in no way violates the separation of church and state, for in their view religion has a responsibility to address vital issues. Likewise, public officials have often invoked the authority of religion, hinting that a divine force directed American history. Both Abraham Lincoln in his second inaugural and John F. Kennedy in his 1961 address, for instance, used a religious framework to explain national purpose. In 1949 Harry Truman described the Cold War as a contest between the powers of light and darkness; in 1953 ‘God’s Float’ led Dwight D. Eisenhower’s inaugural parade; and since 2001 President George W. Bush, who as governor of Texas had appealed to many Christians by proclaiming June 10, 2000, “Jesus Day” in Texas, has frequently used the language of religion to justify domestic and foreign policies. Typical was his 2003 State of the Union address in which he spoke of the “power, wonder-working power, in the goodness and idealism and faith of the American people,” an obvious reference to that evangelical hymn, “There is Power in the Blood.” His 2005 inaugural address, called “God drenched” by one observer, was somewhat unique in that it moved from overtly Christian to more ecumenical rhetoric, as in the allusion to “the truths of Sinai, the Sermon on the Mount, the words of the Quran, and the varied faiths of our people.” Small wonder many Americans easily blur the line between church and state and shroud their history in religious symbolism, with George Washington likened to Moses and July 4 and December 25 both serving as occasions for nationalistic and religious exaltation.
Despite the religious shallowness of many Americans, there is no denying the religiosity of the American public. This struck Alexis de Tocqueville, that discerning Frenchman who crisscrossed the nation from New York to New Orleans in 1831. There was ‘no country in the world,’ he observed, ‘where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America.’ De Tocqueville’s observation has a contemporary ring, for surveys from 1947 to 2006 suggest America is the most religious of the modern western nations. And “nothing in the last half-century,” wrote George Gallup, Jr., in June 2000, has “dislodged the conviction of Americans that there is a power in the universe … greater than ourselves-not wars; not the problem of evil and the obvious sufferings of innocent people; not the ‘death of God’ movement; not social upheavals nor the lures of the modern world.” Indeed, current surveys show that 96 percent of all adult Americans believe in God, 84 percent contend God is actively involved in their lives, 85 percent insist God performs miracles today, 70 percent belong to a church or synagogue, 40 percent claim to attend church weekly, 59 percent believe religion is an important aspect of daily life, and 65 percent consider religion the answer to many of the nation’s present ills. This augurs well for calls to political action rooted in religious principles, as shown only a generation or so ago by the ‘religious left.’ In pursuit of racial justice, for instance, the National Council of Churches pricked the nation’s conscience in the 1950s and 1960s. This coalition of religious groups, along with Presidents Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, challenged Americans to live up to the egalitarian ideals of their faith. Accordingly, the Council brought the power of religion to bear on the civil rights legislation of the 1960s.
So in light of this country’s long-standing interaction between religion and politics, why has the religious right attracted such attention since World War II? Why have Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority and Pat Robertson and the Christian Coalition aroused such alarm in some quarters? What is so different about the religious right? In terms of fundamental theological concerns, there is nothing particularly new. Contemporary Christians on the right are no less disturbed by higher criticism of the Bible and Darwinian evolution than their conservative forebears of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as attested to by persistent efforts over the last decade or so to have ‘creation science’ or “intelligent design” accorded equal time with Darwinism in public school classrooms. Two developments in this ongoing tug-of-war have had an unsettling effect on much of the scientific community. In October 1999 Baylor University, a reputable Baptist institution in Waco, Texas, established the Michael Polanyi Center to study intelligent design, the idea that some life forms are too complex to have evolved by chance through a process of Darwinian natural selection. Proponents of this view, which has gained strength since the 1980s, believe mathematical models can prove that some intelligent agent outside the universe has been responsible for directing creation. To opponents, this kind of academic activity amounts to just another cloak for creationism, and the ultimate purpose of Baylor’s new center, they insist, is to promote the teaching of intelligent design in the public schools. Disclosing the ambivalence, or perhaps pragmatism, of the American public on such issues, polls released in 2000 and 2005 showed that overwhelming majorities supported the teaching of both evolution and creationism in the public schools. The 2005 poll conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life is especially significant in that it showed that both conservative Christians and majorities of secular respondents favored the teaching of both points of view. In August 2005 President Bush weighed in, announcing that both views should be taught in schools “so people can understand what the debate is about.” And if a higher authority was needed, Pope Benedict XVI joined the chorus for intelligent design in November 2005. But to Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg, a world renowned physicist, the current vogue for equal time, sounding so fair and innocent, did not bode well for science.
Nowhere perhaps has the debate been more bitter and personal than in Kansas. In August 1999 the Kansas Board of Education, dominated by religious fundamentalists, made the teaching of evolution in the state’s public schools optional and announced that questions dealing with evolution would no longer be included in state assessment tests. “Disgraceful” was the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s description of the new Kansas standards, but Linda Holloway, the former chair of the board who had pushed adoption of the guidelines, blithely dismissed the national scientific organization. “Clearly,” said she, the scientists “have an ax to grind about evolution.” Holloway was subsequently voted out, and in 2001 the board reversed itself. But the battle resumed in 2004, and in November 2005 a bitterly split Kansas State Board of Education voted 6-4 to incorporate intelligent design into its science curriculum. To John West of the Discovery Institute, which promotes intelligent design, this gave Kansas “the best science standards in the nation,” but to Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education, which defends Darwinian evolution, the new standards were nothing more than creationism in disguise. If Kansas has become a laughing stock, as opponents of intelligent design assert, then Minnesota, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Arkansas, and Texas deserve at least a chuckle.
Early Political Involvement: The Anti-Communism Movement
But it is not theology and concern about evolution so much as active involvement in the political process that separates the contemporary religious right from conservative religious forces of the pre-World War II era. Believing Armageddon to be nigh, conservative Christians, especially those of a fundamentalist and evangelical variety, have traditionally concentrated more on redeeming sinners and preparing themselves for the imminent return of Jesus than on active political involvement. The Joneses of South Carolina—Bob, Sr., Bob, Jr., and Bob III, leaders of the fundamentalist Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina—still reflect this viewpoint, and so did Jerry Falwell until the 1970s. Agitated by the political activism of the religious left on behalf of civil rights reforms, the future leader of the Moral Majority informed his Lynchburg, Virginia, congregation in 1965 that God had given no command to engage ‘in marches, demonstrations, or any other [political] actions.’ Preachers, he added, were ‘not called to be politicians but soul winners.’ But Falwell underwent a dramatic metamorphosis. At a special bicentennial service on July 4, 1976, the Virginian fused a nationalistic love of country with an intense religious zeal. ‘The idea that religion and politics don’t mix was invented by the Devil to keep Christians from running their own country,’ asserted Falwell. ‘If [there is] any place in the world we need Christianity,’ he continued, ‘it’s in Washington. And that’s why preachers long since need to get over that intimidation forced upon us by liberals, that if we mention anything about politics, we are degrading our ministry.’
Falwell’s political awakening, as well as that of multitudes of other Americans on the religious right, can be understood only in terms of foreign and domestic developments since World War II. To people on the religious, as well as political, right, the years since 1945 have been fraught with peril. Abroad, the communists appeared to be winning the Cold War, as exemplified by the triumph of Mao Tse-Tung in China, the failure to achieve victory in Korea, the costly quagmire in Vietnam, the continuing presence of Fidel Castro, the ‘give-away’ of the Panama Canal, and leftist successes in Central America. And at home ‘socialist’ governmental programs (the religious right tends to equate liberalism with socialism and socialism with communism), the teaching of evolution in the public schools, a soaring divorce rate, Supreme Court decisions banning organized prayer in the public schools, growing numbers of abortions, urban violence and crime, the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), the assertiveness of the ‘gay’ community, ‘smutty’ television programs, the AIDS epidemic, and President Bill Clinton’s misbehavior in the White House with Monica Lewinski confirmed the religious right’s belief that cherished moral values were in decline.
Uniting the voices of the religious right in the late 1940s was an intense fear of communism. Indeed, a symbiotic tie swiftly emerged between the religious and political right. Politicians such as Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin drew support from the religious right, for instance, while otherwise obscure preachers such as Carl McIntire gained national prominence through close association with the political right. Thus, in defense of God and country, preachers and politicians of the right embraced in a righteous crusade to save America. McIntire was typical. This autocratic and self-righteous Presbyterian who lived into his 90s became an elder statesman of sorts for a certain segment of the religious right. Fiercely independent, he forged his own denomination in 1937, the Bible Presbyterian Church, and through the weekly columns of the Christian Beacono kept his followers advised on matters of God and Caesar. By the 1950s he had established a network of educational institutions, such as the Faith Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, and had begun to broadcast his messages for religious and political redemption on a regular program entitled The Twentieth-Century Reformation Hour. Basically, McIntire told Americans that national well-being hinged upon a return to the ‘old-time’ Christian values upon which the nation presumably had been founded. Accomplishing this would not be easy, however, because of the communist conspiracy. To McIntire, the major Protestant bodies all harbored communists, the National Council of Churches was nothing but a communist front, and the Revised Standard Version of the Bible was communist-inspired. At the height of his influence in the early 1960s, McIntire’s call for national salvation, as heard daily on The Twentieth-Century Reformation Hour, was carried by at least 200 stations.
By 1960 the religious right had become more cluttered, as additional crusaders joined the cause, notably the trio of Edgar C. Bundy, Frederick Schwarz, and Billy James Hargis. Bundy, an ordained Southern Baptist minister without a congregation, took charge of the Church League of America in 1956. This ultra-conservative agency, which Bundy moved from Chicago to Wheaton, Illinois, labored to awaken Protestant ministers to the reality of the communist conspiracy. Schwarz, an Australian physician and lay preacher who had come to the United States initially at the request of McIntire, launched the Christian Anti-Communism Crusade in 1952. His prominence was enhanced considerably by Billy Graham, who in 1957 arranged for him to address a group of congressmen on communism. Schwarz repeatedly told American audiences that the communist method of conquest was infiltration, a process he believed already far advanced in the halls of academe, the press corps, and the State Department. More zealous perhaps than the other two, Hargis, a Disciples of Christ minister, began in 1951 the Christian Echoes National Ministry, better known as the Christian Crusade. Although closely associated in the mid-1950s with McIntire’s organizations, Hargis increasingly went his own way. From radio in the 1960s he moved to television in the early 1970s with smoothly packaged programs. At one stage, 146 stations telecast his messages. In 1973 he founded American Christian College.
These ministers often enjoyed cordial ties to secular counterparts, thereby obscuring the line in the public’s mind between the religious and secular right. Such was the case of Robert Welch, who founded the John Birch Society in 1958. Welch was a well-educated, widely traveled, and successful businessman who had become disillusioned with politics after running unsuccessfully for lieutenant-governor of Massachusetts and supporting the failed presidential candidacy of Senator Robert A. Taft, an Ohio Republican, in 1952. In 1956 he retired from business and became an anticommunist warrior. Welch was not a minister, but he named the John Birch Society for ‘a young fundamentalist Baptist preacher from Macon, Georgia,’ who allegedly had been murdered by Chinese communists after World War II. And ministers on the right certainly saw an ally in Welch and his organization. McIntire called the society ‘a good patriotic American organization,’ and Hargis referred to Welch as ‘a great American patriot.’ Such admiration was not surprising, for Welch and the preachers had much in common.
The early ministers of the religious right, as well as Welch, were as one not only in their intense anticommunism, but also in their conspiratorial view of history. The ‘paranoid style in American politics’ was historian Richard Hofstadter’s description of the tendency to see conspiracy as the causal force in American history, a tendency prompted by morbid suspicion. And men such as McIntire, Hargis, and Welch were nothing if not suspicious of those with whom they disagreed. They took for granted that their adversaries were pawns of Satan, and thus parties to a sinister conspiracy in which outward acts concealed darker intentions. Within this context, for instance, Supreme Court decisions regarding prayer in the public schools were just one aspect of a broader communist conspiracy to destroy the Christian moorings upon which the Founding Fathers supposedly had anchored the nation. More an article of faith than a product of empirical observation, such a view of history was unfazed by evidence. Consequently, the collapse of communism in central and eastern Europe fooled everyone but Hargis. He asserted in August 1994 that while the American news media ‘looks the other way,’ communism ‘is making a dramatic, secret comeback.’ Continued Hargis: ‘There is a Red threat and it is alive and thriving.’ Time changed nothing for Hargis. The conspiracy was ongoing, protected by the reticence of the liberal media.
Emergence of the New Religious Right
Preachers such as McIntire and Hargis were eventually forced into the background by the easing of the anticommunist hysteria that spawned them in the 1950s. For all but the most devout true believers, it became difficult to sustain a belief in a communist conspiracy in light of the removal of the Berlin Wall, the unification of Germany, and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The resurgence of the new religious right in the 1970s was led by a group of electronic preachers—Pat Robertson, president of the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) and host of The 700 Club; James Robison, a Texas Southern Baptist; and Jerry Falwell, leader of the Moral Majority. Preachers such as these still employed apocalyptic imagery in discussing the global struggle—liberty against atheistic communism, light against darkness—but the constant emphasis upon conspiracy was absent. Instead of communism, ‘secular humanism’ unified these newer leaders of the religious right. Many religious conservatives sensed that secular humanists, who supposedly were entrenched in the courts, media, and schools, systematically undermined the supernaturalism of Judeo-Christianity. Robertson was typical. In 1986 he rebuked the ‘small elite of lawyers, judges, and educators’ who had ‘taken the Holy Bible from our young and replaced it with the thoughts of Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and John Dewey.’ Like ‘modernism’ of an earlier era, secular humanism quickly became an evangelical catchall for every imaginable ‘sin,’ from violence in the streets to the lack of discipline in the public schools. And to combat these ills the more recent religious right was much readier to join the political fray than its counterpart of the 1950s. Whereas McIntire and Hargis often spoke to political issues and frequently endorsed specific bills, such as those seeking to ‘restore’ prayer in the public schools, Falwell and Robertson were far more inclined to instruct their followers on issues, conduct voter-registration drives, engage in legislative lobbying, and target specific politicians for defeat, as in the case of Senator John McCain during the 2000 presidential primary in South Carolina.
The religious right of the 1970s and beyond differed in yet another significant respect from that of the 1950s. The former has been more ecumenical. A mutual concern over such family-related issues as abortion, sex education in the schools, homosexuality, and the ERA enabled many Protestant fundamentalists and some conservative Jews, Mormons, and Catholics to rise above theological differences and join hands in the quest for ‘family values.’ Particularly illustrative here was Phyllis Schlafly. Stung by the ERA, which was approved by Congress in 1972 but never ratified by the required three-fourths of the state legislatures, and the Supreme Court’s decision on abortion in 1973, Schlafly, a Roman Catholic, started the Eagle Forum in 1975. This organization spearheaded the drive to kill the ERA, and in so doing drew support from Falwell. If the Catholic Schlafly and the Baptist fundamentalist Falwell could set aside theological differences on behalf of common social values, so could other religious conservatives.
The ecumenism of the religious right, to be sure, has been more across denominational and religious than racial lines. While African-American Christians, for instance, especially those in the South, were as theologically conservative as Falwell, they never moved in sizeable numbers to the religious right. A possible explanation is that many religiously conservative whites have all too frequently opposed political and social initiatives beneficial to minorities. The close association between the religious right and former Senator Jesse Helms, the prominent North Carolina Republican, illustrates the problem. It was difficult for many African Americans to feel comfortable in a movement that welcomed a politician who had always objected to civil rights legislation and criticized federal programs to assist the poor. Making matters worse was a voter guide distributed across the South by the Christian Coalition in the 1996 presidential race. It used the image of a black man to represent issues the organization opposed and a white man for measures it favored. Claiming a printer error, Ralph Reed, then executive director of the Christian Coalition, apologized, but Julian Bond, a board member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and a former Georgia congressman, was unimpressed. He all but accused Reed and the Christian Coalition of hypocrisy, suggesting the director’s lofty preachments “about racial equality and Christian morality” were easily “tossed aside in favor of racial wedges and voter manipulation” at “election time.” Given such suspicion on the part of African Americans, the ecumenism of the religious right does not extend much beyond white Americans and their ‘social’ concerns.
By the mid-1970s the social issues that brought diverse but predominantly white groups together on the religious right generally fell into one of three categories—educational, family, or moral. As evidenced by the Supreme Court’s 1962-1963 school prayer decisions, the growing trend toward secularization in the public schools not only alarmed many conservative Christians, but also prompted some of them to seek private schooling for their children. Just as many Catholics had insulated themselves within a system of parochial schools in the nineteenth century, some Protestant evangelicals sought to do the same in the twentieth century. Robertson voiced the mood when he wrote in 1980: ‘Christians must educate their youth in new schools which teach biblical principles and a biblical life-style in which the Lordship of Jesus Christ is acknowledged in every facet of their lives.’ More recently members of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, the fundamentalist-controlled Southern Baptist Convention, expressed the same opinion. In 2004 and 2006 the convention debated but did not pass resolutions urging Baptists to remove their children from public schools in favor of home schooling or Christian private schools. Defending this position, the cosponsor of the 2006 resolution, Bruce Shortt, a Houston, Texas, attorney and author of The Harsh Truth About Public Schools, cited opposition to intelligent design and approval of homosexuality in the public schools. A logical consequence of the private school movement has been support for tuition tax credits and vouchers, and therein lay the possibility of cooperation between many Protestant evangelicals and Catholics.
Another area of likely agreement among people of differing faiths was the family. Of special concern were the ERA and the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision on abortion. Paradoxically, many conservatives affirmed their support of women while simultaneously denouncing the ERA. Their opposition supposedly was not to equality of treatment for women, but rather to any fundamental restructuring of the family allegedly at odds with the Bible. Consequently, religious conservatives opposed the ERA, convinced it would alter scripturally rooted male-female roles and even legitimatize homosexuality. Robertson spoke for many others when he asserted that the proposed amendment would protect ‘homosexuals, lesbians, sadomasochists, and … anyone else who engaged in any other sexual practice whether or not that practice was prohibited by the Bible, religious dogma, existing federal or state law.’ The same fervency with which the religious right objected to the ERA metamorphosed in the 1990s and early twenty-first century into support for a constitutional amendment to “save” marriage from homosexuals. And the rhetoric in 2006 of James Dobson, head of Focus on the Family, strained credulity about as much as that of Robertson. Said Dobson: “For more than forty years, the homosexual activist movement has sought to implement a master plan that has had as its centerpiece the utter destruction of the family,” and if it succeeds “the family as it has been known for more than five millennia will crumble, presaging the fall of Western civilization itself.” Just as disparate elements of the religious right of the 1950s had been as one in opposing communism, so now, as the remarks of Robertson and Dobson suggest, divergent strands were unified against homosexuality and same-sex unions. Or, to borrow Cal Thomas’s words, “softness on gays” had “replaced communists as the Religious Right’s No. 1 enemy.”
As for abortion, the position of many evangelical Protestants and the Catholic hierarchy was essentially the same—except when the mother’s life was endangered, the rights of the unborn fetus were paramount to the mother’s choice. The intensity of this debate was undiminished by the Food and Drug Administration’s approval in fall 2000 of the French abortion pill, RU-486. Stubbornly resisted for years by the religious right, RU-486 was no more likely to ensure privacy for women and physicians than promised by Roe v. Wade in 1973. From different sides of the religious spectrum came immediate expressions of outrage over the FDA’s decision. While Richard Land, head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, labeled the pill “a dangerous drug that is fatal for unborn babies and hazardous to their mothers,” Fran Maier, Chancellor of the Catholic Archdiocese of Denver, served notice: “RU-486 only streamlines the process of destroying a human life.” More ominously, the director of Operation Save America, Flip Benham, threatened to uncover physicians who prescribed the pill and expose them “doctor by doctor.” Those who administered RU-486, Benham warned, would “put their practice in jeopardy.” With polls showing that 47 percent of Americans disapproved of the pill, RU-486 reenergized antiabortion forces and strengthened the sense of unity among people of diverse faiths on the religious right. But rather than attacking the 1973 Roe decision head-on, antiabortion groups have been reasonably successful chipping away at the edges, making abortions more difficult by requiring parental consent and other restrictions. In 2006 the South Dakota legislature altered the strategy, enacting legislation that prohibited abortion under any circumstances. While many religious and secular allies had no quarrel with the law’s objective, some seriously questioned the wisdom of charting a course that almost certainly will lead to a Supreme Court showdown over Roe itself.
The moral concerns of the religious right revolve around drug abuse, pornography, television programs, and movies. With its constant barrage of nudity, profanity, and violence, television has been a frequent target. Donald E. Wildmon, a Methodist minister from Tupelo, Mississippi, believed the industry undermined ‘family’ values, and in the mid-1970s he launched a movement to purify the air waves. Adding weight to the claims of the religious right was a 2000 report by ten major health organizations, including the American Medical Association, which attributed much youthful violence to television, movies, videogames, music, and the Internet. Of the twenty-six wealthiest nations, the United States, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians, had the highest homicide and suicide rates among young people. The report concluded with a call to Hollywood to be more responsible. This indicates that some of the moral concerns of the religious right are also the concerns of multitudes of other Americans. And politicians, ever mindful of the next election, have paid some attention. Hardly an election passes without all sides posturing over the “filth in Hollywood,” and in 2005 President Bush signed into law the Family Entertainment and Copyright Act, which shielded from lawsuits one of a growing number of companies that market PG, PG-13, and R movies that have had “objectionable” material (profanity and sexually explicit scenes) deleted.
Political Buildup to the 1980 Election
The outcome of the 1976 presidential race brought hope to many religious conservatives, for Jimmy Carter was an acknowledged ‘born again’ Southern Baptist from the Deep South, a Georgian with whom many on the religious right could easily identify. Moreover, by focusing national attention on and enhancing the stature of conservative evangelicals, Carter’s victory emboldened many on the religious right increasingly to measure public issues against biblical standards of morality. As a result, matters of moral concern to Christian conservatives became politicized, and in turn Christian conservatives increasingly entered the political fray not only to protect their way of life, but also to ‘restore’ the nation to its moral roots. Ironically, it was not long before President Carter himself incurred the wrath of his religious kinfolks. They were dismayed by his endorsement of the ERA, his failure to prevent federally subsidized abortions, his refusal to support voluntary prayer in the public schools, and the suggestion in 1978 of his commissioner to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) that Christian schools should be taxed. Tim LaHaye’s judgment was common. ‘Between 1976 and 1980,’ he wrote in 1981, ‘I watched a professing Christian become president of the United States and then surround himself with a host of humanistic cabinet ministers’ who ‘nearly destroyed our nation.’
LaHaye’s frustration was matched by Falwell’s. The articulate Virginia pastor had become by the late 1970s an institution of sorts. His Thomas Road Church, an independent Baptist congregation, numbered approximately 15,000; his Sunday services, The Old-Time Gospel Hour, entered millions of homes via radio and television; and his capacity for fundraising was already well-established. Coincident with the disenchantment of people such as LaHaye and Falwell with the Carter administration was the appearance of several conservative lobbyists, men who saw in disaffected religious conservatives a reservoir of potential voters for conservative political causes. The key figures were Howard Phillips, leader of the right-wing lobbying group Conservative Caucus, Edward E. McAteer, a marketing specialist from Colgate-Palmolive Company and a Southern Baptist layman, Robert Billings, head of the National Christian Action Coalition, Richard Viguerie, a direct-mail expert who began the Conservative Digest, and Paul Weyrich, a Catholic who had organized the Committee for the Survival of a Free Congress in 1974. Credit goes primarily to Billings and McAteer for bringing Falwell and Weyrich together, and thereby the wedding of secular and religious conservatives.
Whether politically savvy secular conservatives such as Weyrich subsequently dominated and used religious conservatives such as Falwell is debatable. John Buchanan, the director of People for the American Way, a liberal lobby, insisted the political right actually created the religious right. This is clearly inaccurate. The religious right had been around for a long time, and the relationship that evolved between it and the political right in the late 1970s was symbiotic. While Weyrich coined the term ‘moral majority’ and brought organizational talent to the movement, Falwell added righteous indignation and promised voters for the cause. Together, Weyrich, Falwell, and others forged the Moral Majority, Inc., in 1979 and set out to rescue America from secular humanism. And popular perception to the contrary notwithstanding, the Moral Majority was more than a Christian fundamentalist organization. From the outset it appealed to and drew at least some support from conservative Catholics, Jews, and Mormons. Indeed, Falwell’s willingness to broaden the religious base of the Moral Majority sometimes offended his fundamentalist allies.
The Moral Majority was only one of three conservative religious agencies created in 1979. The other two were the Christian Voice and the Religious Roundtable. A California-based organization which by 1980 claimed the support of 37,000 pastors from forty-five denominations and a membership of 187,000, the Christian Voice assumed the task of evaluating the morality of public officials. Toward that end it developed a morality scale based on fourteen key issues, and a politician whose position coincided with that of the Christian Voice was deemed ‘moral.’ Disturbed and angered by societal changes involving the family, women, sex, divorce, homosexuality, and television programming, the Christian Voice was against abortion, racial quotas, forced busing, the Department of Education, gay rights, SALT II, pornography, drugs, higher taxes, and sex education without parental consent. It was for the ‘restoration’ of prayer in the public schools, free enterprise, the defense of Taiwan, and a balanced federal budget. Republicans usually came closer to meeting the Christian Voice’s standard of Christian morality than Democrats. However, when convicted Abscam defendants scored higher on the Christian Voice’s morality scale than did congressional proponents of alleviating world hunger and poverty, it became glaringly obvious the moral report cards had more to do with ‘correct’ political behavior than morality.
The Religious Roundtable, McAteer’s principal organizational contribution to the religious right, attempted to connect prominent figures from the political and religious right. In August 1980 it sponsored the National Affairs Briefing in Dallas, Texas. Nonpartisan billing to the contrary, this was a Protestant fundamentalist and conservative Republican affair. Among those in attendance were the Southern Baptist patriarch W. A. Criswell, the longtime pastor of the First Baptist Church, Dallas, and a major figure in the successful fundamentalist effort during the 1980s to gain control of the Southern Baptist Convention, and Ronald Reagan, the only presidential candidate present. This meeting attracted national attention, not all of which was positive. The stridency of some of the speakers, along with hints of antisemitism, bothered many Americans.
Although the Moral Majority shared the field with other organizations on the religious right in 1979-1980, it soon became the primary focus of national attention. With the presidential race of 1980 looming, the Moral Majority hastily established local chapters in forty-seven states, conducted voter-registration drives and educational seminars for religious conservatives, and targeted several prominent politicians for defeat. While it claimed to be nonpartisan, in 1980 the Moral Majority invariably opposed liberal Democrats, such as Senators George McGovern of South Dakota, Frank Church of Idaho, Alan Cranston of California, John Culver of Iowa, and Birch Bayh of Indiana. And Falwell’s eagerness to discredit President Carter prompted the former, just weeks before the election, to fabricate an unflattering story about homosexuals on the president’s staff. Although unapologetic, the minister later confessed his lie. The Moral Majority, tending to equate morality with a narrow set of political options, was clearly more comfortable with conservative Republicans. Herein lies the seed that would grow into a pervasive sense by 2000, or certainly 2004, that the Republican party alone represents virtue, values, and God.
Fallout from the 1980 Election
The results of the 1980 elections thrilled the religious right, although analysts disagreed sharply over the causes for the defeat of incumbents Carter, McGovern, Church, and Bayh. To be sure, Falwell, as well as Weyrich, Phillips, McAteer, and Viguerie, claimed considerable responsibility. As Viguerie put it, ‘the white followers of the TV evangelical preachers gave Ronald Reagan two-thirds of his ten-point margin in the election.’ But other post-election observers were far more skeptical, suggesting Falwell and his followers merely rode, but did not create, the antiadministration sentiment so evident in the election. Bayh agreed, explaining his loss more in terms of high interest and unemployment rates than the religious right. By this analysis, President Reagan was not especially beholden to religious conservatives, and, noticeably, he did not appoint a representative of the Moral Majority to a major administration post and disregarded Falwell’s objections to the appointment of Sandra Day O’Connor to the Supreme Court. On the other hand, Reagan, with an eye toward the midterm congressional elections, soothed the religious right by choosing Billings for an important post in the Department of Education, appointing C. Everett Koop, an evangelical opponent of abortion as surgeon general, taking a stronger stand against abortion, and endorsing a constitutional amendment allowing organized prayer in the public schools.
While probably never as influential as either its followers or detractors supposed, the Moral Majority definitely ebbed as the 1980s progressed, assailed from within and without. Falwell and Weyrich had faced a dilemma from the beginning. How could the Moral Majority broaden its base by appealing to moderate religious conservatives without alienating its staunchly fundamentalist core? The difficulty of this situation was apparent by the early 1980s. As Falwell eased toward the evangelical center, territory long occupied by Billy Graham, he quickly aroused suspicion. By softening somewhat his opposition to abortion, allowing that it was permissible if the mother’s life was endangered, endorsing equal rights for women once the ERA had become ‘a dead issue,’ and distancing himself from the virulently anti-Catholic Bob Jones, Jr., Falwell gained few converts from the evangelical mainstream and angered many on the fundamentalist right. Jones, for instance, called the Moral Majority the instrument of Satan and Falwell ‘the most dangerous man in America as far as biblical Christianity is concerned.’ Such outbursts supported the assessment of Graham, who doubted Falwell could move with his constituency into the evangelical mainstream.
Many critics outside the religious fold were just as biting as Jones. To arouse Americans to the allegedly intolerant and dangerous views of the Moral Majority, several former senators who had been defeated in 1980 took to the stump in 1981-1982. McGovern organized Americans for Common Sense to counter Falwell’s group. And Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, the elder statesman of Republican conservatism, castigated the Virginian for his ideological rigidity. Goldwater’s rebuke had been sparked by Falwell’s opposition to the Supreme Court nomination of O’Connor. Meanwhile, John Buchanan and People for the American Way loudly observed that the Christian Voice’s ‘morality report cards’ consistently gave low marks to African-American, Jewish, and female lawmakers. Coincidentally, Buchanan had been one of the lawmakers the Moral Majority opposed in 1980. Although he was an ordained Southern Baptist minister and a Republican congressman from Alabama, his vote to extend the time allowed for passage of the era had angered Falwell. Buchanan lost in the GOP primary.
One of the more discerning critiques of Falwell and the religious right came from the distinguished historian Henry Steele Commager. Addressing a Conference on Church and State at Baylor University in 1982, he charged that the likes of ‘Oral Roberts and Jerry Falwell and their camp followers’ concerned ‘themselves not with public sin but with private vice, or what they conclude is vice—especially the sins of the flesh and of infidelity, which they interpret by their own standards.’ While wringing their hands over ‘personal sin,’ in other words, they had little if anything to say of ‘social sins.’ Listen again to Commager: ‘They have much to say about the wickedness of limiting posterity, whether by birth control or abortion, but have very little if anything to say about the kind of world children will be born into or about the systematic destruction of a rightful inheritance of natural resources.’
As Falwell discovered, political activism by one side invariably generated counterattacks by the other side. After all, the religious right itself had been to some extent a response to the activism of the religious left in the 1950s and 1960s. The result for Falwell and the Moral Majority was a negative public perception. A Gallup Poll in late 1981 disclosed that over half the people who were aware of the Moral Majority viewed it unfavorably, and the response to Falwell personally was equally critical. The consequence of Falwell’s growing unpopularity was that many conservative politicians refused to be identified with the Moral Majority in the elections of 1982, 1984, and 1986. With his influence apparently waning, Falwell changed the name of the Moral Majority to Liberty Federation in January 1986, and thereafter lowered his political profile. ‘I’ve redirected my priorities,’ he later explained, ‘and have no intention of working as hard in the political arena as I have in the past.’
If Falwell had expected calm to accompany his political retreat, he was sorely disappointed. With glaring evidence of material excess and sexual misbehavior, the PTL and Jimmy Swaggart scandals unfolded in 1987-1988. Stunned, the faithful retaliated against all the major televangelists by with-holding contributions and voicing disapproval. A Gallup Poll in 1987 showed that 62 percent of the American public now viewed Falwell unfavorably, a negative rating surpassed only by Oral Roberts (72 percent), and Jim Bakker (77 percent). Even 24 percent found fault with Graham. By mid-1988 the PTL was ruined, Swaggart was disgraced, Robertson’s presidential foray was a shambles, and Falwell faced financial disaster. In 1989 the Moral Majority was dissolved.
Although the Moral Majority collapsed, the religious right survived. Indeed, it became more aggressive, particularly at the local and state levels, under the leadership of Robertson and his Christian Coalition. Never close, the relationship between Falwell and Robertson sheds some light on the religious right itself. Contrary to popular assumption, the religious right has never been all that cohesive. While they usually shared the same social concerns, people on the religious right often followed different drummers. Robertson, for instance, after initially agreeing in 1979 to serve as a director of McAteer’s Religious Roundtable, soon recoiled from active involvement in any of the new organizations of the religious right. His explanation was vintage evangelical conservatism. Christians were to concentrate on saving souls, not winning votes. Later, in fall 1980, he remarked that critics had found ‘an easy target’ in the religious right ‘because the conservative evangelicals involved in politics—Christian Voice, Moral Majority, and Religious Roundtable—have been, at times, unsophisticated, simplistic and inept.’ As for Falwell, his professed friendship for Robertson did not translate into support of the latter’s bid for the presidency. ‘I personally wish,’ Falwell said in 1987, ‘that no minister would ever run for … political office.’ George H. W. Bush, not Robertson, was Falwell’s choice to succeed President Reagan in 1988. As exemplified by Falwell and Robertson, the religious right was a union of kindred spirits in which there were many fissures.
Robertson’s withdrawal from religious right organizations in 1980 in no way diminished his support of conservative social causes. On the contrary, he maintained close ties to prominent figures on the religious and secular right, such as Weyrich and Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina, and gave conservative commentators easy access to The 700 Club. He also began building a political apparatus of his own. In 1981 Robertson founded the Freedom Council, an organization designed to educate Christians on political issues, followed in 1982 by the National Legal Foundation, which offered legal assistance to religious causes. And in 1985-1986 he presided over the Council on National Policy, a conservative group that was periodically briefed on issues by figures such as Senator Helms and Secretary of Education William Bennett. By 1987 the successful televangelist clearly had his sights set on the presidency, apparently convinced he could overcome an unfavorable Gallup Poll rating of 50 percent. But amid the lingering PTL and Swaggart scandals of 1987-1988, as well as serious reservations among many Americans about electing a charismatic preacher to the presidency, the effort foundered. Robertson’s political ambition had exceeded his grasp. Columnist William F. Buckley’s assessment probably was correct. He wrote in 1987 that while Robertson said all the things conservatives wanted to hear, Americans nonetheless were overwhelmingly unprepared ‘to believe that any minister is, ultimately, a serious candidate.’
Reorganization of the Religious Right and the Contract with America
Following the presidential debacle, Robertson regrouped, forming in 1989 the Christian Coalition. This organization differed in at least one significant way from the Moral Majority. Whereas Falwell’s group operated largely from the top down, seeking to achieve its ends by swaying politicians in the nation’s capital, Robertson’s Coalition was a grassroots effort to influence policies at the local and state levels. By 1994 the movement claimed almost 1.5 million members, and its effect on local school board and state races was apparent from coast to coast. Indeed, Christian conservatives had gained control of Republican party leadership in Texas, Virginia, Oregon, Washington, Iowa, South Carolina, and Minnesota, and comprised substantial voting blocs in New York, California, and practically all the southern states. One of the more closely watched races of 1994 was in Virginia, where Republican Oliver North, the darling of the religious right, eventually lost a bitterly fought contest to the Democratic incumbent, Senator Charles Robb. Among other things, this race disclosed the willingness of the religious right to overlook the ‘sins’ of the candidate who supported its political agenda, while assailing the other for his ‘weakness of the flesh.’
As for school board elections, these traditionally attract only a small percentage of the electorate, thereby enhancing the chance of any well-organized and determined group to obtain control. And Christian conservatives, sharing with multitudes of other Americans the current frustration with the public schools over everything from low scores on achievement tests to controversial textbooks to violence in the hallways, have been quick to seize the opportunity. In 1993 it was estimated that of the nation’s 95,000 school board members, 7,153 were conservative Christians. Texas was one of the major battlefields in the 1994 fall elections. With 60,000 members and 136 chapters in the Lone Star State, the Christian Coalition had its eyes on the state’s fifteen-member Board of Education. To avoid jeopardizing its nonprofit status, the Christian Coalition endorsed no candidate by name, but rather encouraged its membership to support ‘conservatives.’ This left no doubt as to the anointed candidate in six of the districts. Republicans subsequently won in three of those races, giving candidates beholden to the religious right an eight-to-seven majority on the Texas board.
The religious right was especially active in the 1994 congressional elections. The Christian Coalition alone distributed about 33 million voter guides and manned a vast network of telephone banks shortly before the November balloting. And the effort paid off. Overall, the Republicans elected seventy-three freshmen to the House and gained control of both houses of Congress for the first time since 1954. An exhilarated Louis Sheldon, leader of the Traditional Values Coalition, bespoke the mood of many fellow religionists. ‘The election of 1980 with Ronald Reagan was great,’ said he, but the 1994 outcome was “like we’ve died and gone to heaven.” Whether the Republican landslide was due more to the failure of Democratic leadership, pervasive frustration within the general populace, or the political activism of the religious right is debatable. Nevertheless, the Christian Coalition’s Ralph Reed promptly claimed considerable credit for the religious right in the high-profile Republican victories of Steven Stockman over House veteran Jack Brooks of Texas, Rick Santorum over incumbent Senator Harris Wofford of Pennsylvania, and George W. Bush over Governor Ann Richards of Texas. There were, of course, some setbacks for religious conservatives, most notably North in Virginia.
With so many of the freshmen Republicans, such as Stockman, Randy Tate of Washington, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Helen Chenoweth of Idaho, Steve Largent of Oklahoma, Mark Souder of Indiana, and Van Hilleary of Tennessee, beholden to it, the religious right had cause for optimism in 1995. To the extent the 1994 elections had aligned Congress more closely with the country’s conservative mood, they seemed to portend good things for many of the religious right’s objectives. For instance, a constitutional amendment on prayer appeared close to reality. “We need a moral guidepost for our children,” proclaimed Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice, who saw momentum for prayer “coming from the soul of America.” Sekulow’s perception appeared well founded. Laws in Georgia, Virginia, Maryland, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Alabama already permitted a moment of silence, and similar legislation was pending in Florida, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina. And television, long the bête noire of the religious right, had begun to treat religious subjects more sympathetically, as seen in such programs as Picket Fences, L.A. Law, Northern Exposure, and Christy. A special commentator on religion even joined Peter Jennings on ABC’s evening news. The chairman of the conservative Media Research Center, L. Brent Bozell, noticed these changes in programming and exclaimed “something’s happening out there.”
Ironically, what subsequently happened out there was far from satisfactory to many religious conservatives. The freshmen Republicans in whom they had such high hopes soon alienated much of the American public, created doubt about the judgment of Republican leadership in the House, and reenergized the Clinton presidency. Youthful, brash, and outspoken, these novice Republicans stormed into town in 1995 like some gunslinging posse of frontier marshals bent upon routing evil and restoring virtue. They were going to trim the size of government by balancing the budget and cutting taxes, and they were going to dislodge career politicians by setting term limits. And all the while they would curb government interference in religion, put prayer and the Ten Commandments back in public schools, make federal money available to sectarian groups performing worthy social tasks, and allow certain students to attend private schools at public expense.
Apparently it never occurred to many of the freshmen that there would be opposition to some of these objectives, or that other points of view existed. They were confident to the point of arrogance, perhaps hubris. Knowing “they were right,” they gave no heed to “anyone else’s point of view.” Compromise “was a four-letter word” to them. As one astute observer remarked, “they didn’t know what they didn’t know.” Although the so-called Contract With America, the platform on which the freshmen had run, sailed through the House in early 1995, it stalled in the Senate. For all the fanfare, not much had been accomplished by late 1995, at which time House Republicans shut down the government in a contest of wills with President Clinton over the budget. This was a public relations disaster, one the House Republicans unwisely repeated in 1996. Instead of principled newcomers, as they had been seen in 1994, the Republican freshmen were now increasingly perceived as stubborn children who flew into a tantrum if they failed to have their way. Senator Bob Kerrey (D-NE) said it best: “What we are trying to do is compromise with a minority in the House of Representatives which is basically saying, ‘We will hold our breath until we get our way. We do not care if our face turns blue. We do not care if the government shuts down!”‘ The Nebraska Democrat obviously was not alone in this sentiment, for some public weariness with the religious right and the “revolution of ’94 was soon evident. Although the Christian Coalition raised and spent over $26 million in the 1996 midterm elections, twelve of the freshmen, along with six senior House Republicans, were defeated for reelection. The House Republicans had overreached themselves, and in so doing demonstrated qualities many Americans associated with the religious right—intellectual rigidity, intolerance of differing views, inability to compromise, and a determination to impose itself on an unwilling public.
Fall of the Christian Coalition
The failure of the 104th Congress to deliver on the social objectives of religious conservatives, along with the outcome of the 1996 elections, was not the only sign of trouble on the religious right. The Christian Coalition, the nation’s largest organization of religious conservatives, soon encountered hard times. Announcing his pending resignation as executive director in April 1997, Ralph Reed, who had guided the Christian Coalition since its inception, forged his own political consulting firm, Century Strategies, and offered his talents to aspiring conservative politicians. Randy Tate took the helm in August. Somewhat like Reed, this Washington native was something of a whiz kid. Only 22 years old and not yet out of college, he was elected to the state legislature in 1988, the same year in which he endorsed the presidential candidacy of Pat Robertson. Six years later, in 1994, he was one of the freshmen Republicans elected to the U.S. House. A Christian conservative, Tate’s congressional votes against abortion and for repealing the assault weapons ban and defunding the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities earned him a 100 percent rating by the Christian Coalition and the National Rifle Association, but failed to gain him reelection by Washington’s voters in 1996. Even so, Tate was Pat Robertson’s kind of conservative, and so he was a suitable successor to Reed.
Whereas Reed had presided over a steadily expanding and influential organization, one which exercised considerable power within Republican ranks, Tate inherited a Christian Coalition soon beleaguered by dwindling membership, sagging contributions, internal dissent, external competition, and trouble with the IRS. Some skepticism had always existed about the size of the Christian Coalition, with detractors arguing that the organization inflated its membership rolls. Nevertheless, the organization apparently peaked in late 1996, claiming some two million members and reporting contributions of $26.4 million. Following the 1996 elections, contributions fell sharply, slipping to $17 million in 1997, a drop of 36 percent in one year. This forced the Coalition to cut its staff from 110 to 90 and to cease publication of its flagship magazine, Christian America, which was replaced with a bimonthly newsletter. By 1999, after additional bad news for Republicans at the polls in 1998, the Coalition had lost at least 700,000 members, several key aides had resigned, and the organization had an outstanding debt estimated at $2.5 million. Symptomatic of the internal turmoil, in January 1998 Jeanne Delli-Carpini, a top financial officer, was given a suspended six-year prison sentence for embezzling $40,346 in 1996 and 1997. Compounding these problems, by 1999 other voices, such as the Family Research Council, had begun to challenge the Christian Coalition for the hearts of religious conservatives. It appeared to many observers by 2000 that the Christian Coalition was headed the way of the Moral Majority. In April 2000 the organization’s last lobbyist in Washington, D.C., resigned, and a former field director for the northeast pronounced the Coalition “a defunct organization.” As if it did not have troubles enough, the Christian Coalition also ran awry of the IRS.
Robertson’s avowal of nonpartisanship had always been suspect, particularly given the Coalition’s obvious preference for Republican candidates. With the approach of the 1998 midterm elections, for instance, the Christian Coalition released its Congressional Scorecard, ranking all members of Congress on the basis of votes on twelve specific issues. Republicans in the House and Senate received average scores of 89.8 and 80.3, respectively, whereas Democrats in the two chambers earned average marks of 13.1 and 6.1, respectively. To critics, such statistics mocked the Coalition’s assertion of evenhandedness, a conclusion already reached by the Federal Election Commission (FEC). At stake was the Coalition’s tax-exempt status as a nonprofit religious organization.
In 1996 the FEC sued the Christian Coalition on grounds it was little more than an arm of the Republican party. As early as 1992, according to the commission, the Coalition had been working “hand in hand” with President George H. W. Bush’s reelection campaign. Robertson fought back, claiming First Amendment rights to free speech, but in 1998 the IRS sided with the FEC and denied the Coalition tax-exempt status. Among other things, the IRS pointed to the Coalition’s distribution of about 72 million sample-voter guides in 1998 which invariably supported Republicans. This decision was upheld in 1999, leaving the Christian Coalition owing the IRS between $300,000 and $400,000 in back taxes. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State and a longtime foe of Robertson, applauded the outcome, asserting the Coalition was “a hardball political machine … masquerading as a religious group.” According to Lynn, “overwhelming” evidence proved Robertson’s organization had “been operating as virtually an arm of the Republican party.”
The outcome of the IRS suit prompted a restructuring of the Coalition. In mid-1999 the organization split, creating the Christian Coalition of America and the Christian Coalition International. Since the Texas chapter, the Christian Coalition of Texas, retained its tax exemption, it was rechristened the Christian Coalition of America and charged with continuing the nonprofit practice of “voter education.” Observed Robertson: “Christian Coalition of America will continue to be a force in American politics and will remain a prominent fixture on the political landscape as the nation’s number one pro-family, pro-life organization.” The Christian Coalition International would be a for-profit political action committee. As such, it would endorse candidates, contribute financially to political causes, and continue the distribution of voter guides before elections. Robertson hailed the reorganization as a way of keeping the Coalition active in American politics, but the ever-vigilant Barry Lynn called it a shabby ploy to evade the recent IRS ruling. “This is the kind of disgraceful shell-game you find in a second-rate carnival in the middle of nowhere,” he declared. Americans United for the Separation of Church and State planned to file suit against the Coalition’s restructured tax-exempt status.
Although her decision had no effect on the IRS ruling, Federal District Judge Joyce Green handed Robertson a partial victory in August 1999. She dismissed FEC charges that the Christian Coalition, through its literature, telephone banks, and other means, had improperly assisted candidates, including Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina and former President George H. W. Bush, but nevertheless imposed a civil penalty against the organization for supporting Newt Gingrich’s bid to become House speaker in 1994. Green also ruled the Coalition had inappropriately shared its mailing list with senatorial candidate Oliver North in 1994. Nevertheless, Robertson was clearly pleased, declaring “this is a decisive victory for First Amendment Freedom for all groups that want to involve themselves in federal issues.”
Troubled Relationship with the Republican Party
In many ways, the problems of the Christian Coalition reflected an emerging disillusionment within the religious right at large. An overview of the past twenty years left many religious conservatives feeling frustrated, perhaps even betrayed by their secular allies in the Republican party. Long-sought objectives appeared no closer to reality in 2000 than in 1980, from obtaining a constitutional amendment on school prayer to repealing Roe v. Wade, improving the quality of television programming and Hollywood films, blunting the gay-rights movement, winning the war on drugs, and providing vouchers and tuition tax credits to public school children. The matter of school prayer was especially galling, for polls since the early 1960s showed that most Americans joined hands with religious conservatives on this issue. A Gallup Poll in June 2000 was typical. Some 70 percent favored “daily spoken prayers in the nation’s classrooms,” and 74 percent wanted the Ten Commandments displayed. Yet, the Supreme Court, although dominated by Republican appointees, consistently thwarted such efforts. Thus, unable to make America once again a shining city upon a hill, a moral beacon to the rest of the world, many religious conservatives asked themselves if the time had come to forsake the political arena and to concentrate anew on spiritual concerns.
That question echoed through the religious right in the late 1990s. Perhaps no group had worked harder to raise money, compile mailing lists, recruit foot soldiers, and make telephone calls for Republican causes than religious conservatives. And Republicans had dominated the White House for twelve years under Ronald Reagan and George Bush, and the party had controlled both houses of Congress since 1995. But what did the religious right have to show for it all? Not very much, at least in the opinion of James Dobson, the popular psychologist whose radio and television programs reached approximately 28 million Americans every week. Originating from Colorado Springs, Colorado, his radio program, Focus on the Family, was heard by about five million every day. By mid-1998 Dobson was in open rebellion against Republican party leadership. He warned that if the social agenda of religious conservatives continued to be ignored there would be a price to pay in upcoming elections. Specifically, Dobson wanted Congress to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts, defund Planned Parenthood, and require parental consent for abortions. And if the Republicans failed to deliver, the radio host vowed he would “try to beat them this fall.” Dobson’s irritation disclosed a growing rift between grassroots religious conservatism and political conservatism in the capital, a conflict between idealism and pragmatism.
Despite the scandals swirling around President Clinton, the Democrats gained ground in the 1998 midterm elections, gains which forced Republican Newt Gingrich to relinquish the speakership and resign from the U.S. House. And of the original seventy-three freshmen from 1994, only fifty-one remained. If the Republican “revolution of ’94 was not dead, it had certainly wilted, and so had the religious right. Two prominent voices spoke the mood of many in 1999. The time had come to leave the political arena. “Politics has failed,” announced Paul Weyrich on February 16. Coming from a man who perhaps had done more than anyone else to wed religious and secular conservatives, one present at the creation of the Moral Majority and Christian Coalition, Weyrich’s words reverberated widely. The way to improve American culture, he elaborated, was through non-political means, and he offered as an example the home-schooling movement. Had those “parents stayed in the [political] battle to reform the public schools, they would have lost,” he argued. But by simply separating “themselves from the public schools,” over “a million young people are growing up with decent values.” Similar paths supposedly were open to other religious conservatives. To be sure, the separatism Weyrich proposed was not a complete withdrawal from society. “I’m not suggesting that we all become Amish or move to Idaho,” he explained. Religious conservatives should remain engaged as voters, if for no other reason than to protect themselves from greater government hostility.
While Cal Thomas and Edward Dobson in their book, Blinded by Might: Can the Religious Right Save America? (1999), shared Weyrich’s assessment of politics, they offered a slightly different remedy. Instead of cultural separatism, they suggested Christian conservatives resume the spiritual task of redeeming individual sinners. Both formerly associated with Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority, Thomas was now a nationally prominent columnist with the Los Angeles Times Syndicate; Dobson was now pastor of a fundamentalist congregation, Calvary Church, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. According to the authors, religious conservatives had been right on the issues but wrong on strategy. They would have been better served by preaching the gospel than organizing for political battle, for “real change must come from the bottom up or, better yet, from the inside out.” Aggressive political activism by the religious right, the authors believed, had contaminated the message of Jesus rather than uplifted the moral fiber of society. Just as “too-close [an] association” with the Democratic party in the 1950s and 1960s had diminished the moral authority of the National Council of Churches, so too the contemporary religious right because of its association with the Republican party. This was unavoidable, the authors observed, because politics was “about a kingdom of compromise” and the advancement of an “agenda incrementally,” whereas “the kingdom of God” was “about truth and no compromise.” Moral revival, they concluded, was “not the job of politics or politicians,” but rather “the unique work of the church.” Even Pat Robertson seemed somewhat in agreement with Thomas and Dobson. Although showing no signs of leaving the political playing field himself, he nevertheless acknowledged that evangelicals had “been thoroughly disabused of the notion that the kingdom of God will come through political influence.” Thus, “missions,… getting people into the kingdom of God,” Robertson insisted, was now “the main thrust” of his life. Perhaps so, but Robertson cannot seem to resist either politics or making outrageous remarks, as in his call in late 2005 for the assassination of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. This brought a sharp rebuke from Thomas, who declared that instead of apologizing Robertson should in fact “retire and … take his bombastic conservative and liberal colleagues with him.”
Weyrich, Thomas, and others not only raised significant issues, but also revealed some uncertainty of purpose among religious conservatives by 2000. To be sure, neither Weyrich nor Thomas spoke for all their religious kinfolks. Jerry Falwell was unhappy with his old colleagues, as was Jay Sekulow, head of the American Center for Law and Justice. Sekulow accused Thomas and Dobson of encouraging religious conservatives to “unilaterally disarm and withdraw from politics.” That would be a mistake, for “a lot of good has come out of political activism by religious people.” Yet others faulted Thomas and Dobson for failing to give convincing alternatives to religious conservatives. In part because of such internal turmoil, the religious right did not play as prominent, certainly not as visible, a role in 2000 as it had in previous presidential campaigns.
President Bush, the Religious Right and the 2000 Election
Evidence that something was changing in the religious-political landscape was apparent as George W. Bush edged toward the Republican presidential nomination in 1999-2000. Although the favorite of such religious conservatives as Robertson and Falwell, the Texas governor, with an eye toward the political center, kept a respectful distance from the religious right. Indeed, since 1995 Bush had clashed with the religious and social conservatives, all Republicans, on Texas’s fifteen-member State Board of Education. At issue was everything from vouchers and textbook selection to investment of educational funds and federal ties to local schools. To the governor, the religious conservatives were intractable unless they got their way; to the religious conservatives, the governor had failed to keep his 1994 campaign pledges. It was not until 1997, when the state legislature enacted a religious freedom statute and a parental notification law on abortion, that the Bush administration delivered on matters dear to the state’s religious right. But this did not mean that Bush, while admittedly wanting to retain their support, had surrendered to religious conservatives. In 1999, for instance, Bush ignored the hard-right wing of the California Republican party; in June 2000 he skipped the Texas Republican party convention, an affair permeated by religious sentiments; the National Republican Convention in summer 2000 kept the Christian Coalition at bay; and Bush did not make the usual courtesy call on Pat Robertson at the Christian Coalition’s annual gathering in September 2000. Neither Bush nor his vice presidential running mate, Richard Cheney, for instance, attended the Coalition’s Washington, D.C., rally, although Bush did address the gathering via television from Texas.
Instead of being angered by Bush’s aloofness, many powerful figures on the religious right were curiously silent as the 2000 race gained momentum. It was as if both sides had come to an unspoken understanding. Bush subscribed to most of the values and objectives of the religious right, but made no binding, public profession of such as he courted moderates with talk of “compassionate conservatism,” a term borrowed from conservative Republican guru Marvin Olasky. Meanwhile, on the religious right people like Robertson, Falwell, and Ralph Reed, apparently satisfied the governor’s heart was in the right place, remained in the background and made few demands so as not to jeopardize Bush’s prospects. For instance, regarding Bush’s failure to appear in person at the Coalition’s September rally, Robertson remarked: “I’m sophisticated enough to understand the strategy here, and it’s a very deliberate and delicate strategy.” In other words, the Virginia preacher understood the Texas politician’s need to attract moderates. Likewise, on abortion, a bedrock principle of evangelical conservatives, Robertson reflected a similar comprehension. When the Food and Drug Administration in fall 2000 finally approved RU-486, the televangelist refused to make it an issue. “It’s a distraction,” Robertson asserted, one cleverly designed to trap Bush just weeks before the November election. As the televangelist explained, if Bush “says he strongly opposes the pill ruling, the women will go against him. And if he says he’s for the ruling, then the pro-life people will go against him.” In Robertson’s opinion, the governor had avoided the pitfall by playing it “very well so far.”
Such an attitude demonstrated that the religious right, at least many of its leaders, had matured politically. The movement had become more pragmatic, recognizing the need to give a little, to compromise a bit, to win at the polls. Some concessions for victory felt better than moral purity in defeat. And what did religious conservatives expect in return for giving Bush an easy ride in the 2000 campaign? Robertson again is illustrative. The next president would likely nominate two or more justices to the Supreme Court, and Robertson wanted to be sure Bush made those recommendations. Even though the Texas governor had made no promises, he was definitely more likely than Al Gore to consider only pro-life candidates.
The Texas governor’s stunning loss to Senator John McCain of Arizona in the New Hampshire Republican primary in early 2000 almost wrecked this delicate balancing act between the Bush campaign and the religious right. Now desperately needing a victory in the upcoming South Carolina Republican primary, the heretofore presumed frontrunner made a hard right turn politically in February 2000 and threw himself into the awaiting arms of religious conservatives. All of a sudden the Republican presidential race turned nasty, as Ralph Reed, operating largely behind the scene, and Robertson helped orchestrate a ferociously negative attack on McCain. By telephone, e-mail, and other means, South Carolinians were “informed” of the senator’s first wife, alleged marital infidelities, usage of profane language, and “softness” on the gay issue. In a telephone message sent to thousands, Robertson even accused McCain of being allied with “vicious” anti-Christian bigots. Bush handily won, but some observers wondered at what cost. To Cal Thomas, the South Carolina contest proved that “people who are supposed to serve a higher kingdom … can get down and dirty with the best of the pagans.” Likewise, to Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne, Jr., it gave the lie to Bush’s professed “compassionate conservatism,” to the idea that “being Christian meant just not delivering votes to the ballot box but meals to the poor, mentoring to the young, comfort to the afflicted.” And to William Kristol, a staunchly partisan Republican and publisher of The Weekly Standard, it signaled the “crackup” of the religious right. Reasoned Kristol: “The Christian Right … is finished because of what Ralph Reed and Pat Robertson have done in South Carolina, because of the meanness of the assault.” Kristol was correct about the sordid nature of the South Carolina campaign, but mistaken about the anticipated demise of the religious right. People committed to a “higher calling” have often proven remarkably adept at rationalizing whatever means necessary to accomplish a desired end.
Once the South Carolina primary was over, Bush, though damaged in the eyes of some moderates, moved back toward the political center, and religious conservatives resumed a lower profile. To be sure, Jerry Falwell soon announced “People of Faith 2000,” a plan to register at least 10 million voters, and in May and September, respectively, Robertson warned against McCain’s selection for the vice presidency and cautioned that the Christian Coalition should not be taken for granted. That the religious right was far from dead in 2000, however, came from the politicians themselves. The public square was anything but naked of religious sentiments during the presidential campaign, as candidates seemingly vied with one another for claims to the divine. Bush confided that Jesus was his favorite philosopher, while Gore countered that he always consulted Jesus before making any decision. And Joseph Lieberman, Gore’s running mate and an Orthodox Jew, the first to be nominated by a major party in a presidential race, intoned that America was “the most religious country in the world,” that all Americans were the “children of the same awesome God,” and that “there must be a place for faith in America’s public life.” Displaying some partisan jealousy, Cal Thomas called Lieberman an “itinerant Jewish evangelist” who used “God as a campaign surrogate to bless his and Al Gore’s policies.” New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, with her usual wit, put it all in perspective. “The main battleground state is the state of grace,” she observed. “Democrats and Republicans are seeking a geographical advantage, but it is celestial. Both sides seem weirdly obsessed with snagging a divine endorsement.”
George W. Bush’s First Term
If Bush snagged a divine endorsement, he snared no heavenly mandate. Indeed, the election’s outcome offered a lesson in biblical humility. Bush lost the popular count by over 500,000 votes, and he gained the necessary electoral margin only after a heated legal battle for Florida’s twenty-five electors. It would seem that President-elect Bush owed more to Ralph Nader for taking votes away from Gore than to the religious right. Yet, the future president did have a debt to evangelicals for rescuing his faltering campaign in the South Carolina primary, and there was an early indication the religious right would be rewarded. By naming several women, two Hispanics, and two African Americans, Bush drew praise for the diversity of his cabinet nominees. But the recommendation of John Ashcroft set off an alarm among many moderates and liberals. Slain in his bid for reelection to the U.S. Senate from Missouri by a dead man, Mel Canaan, who was killed in a plane crash just three weeks before the November 2000 election, Ashcroft was resurrected as Bush’s attorney general designate. A devoutly religious member of the Assemblies of God Church, Ashcroft did not drink, smoke, or dance; he opposed most abortions and affirmative action; and he favored charitable choice and the carrying of concealed handguns. Notably, the Missouri senator was Robertson’s first choice for the presidency. “I’m interested in picking a winner, not a loser,” commented the televangelist in 1998, “and among Christian conservatives John Ashcroft’s certainly number one right now.” In December 2000 another prominent minister on the religious right, Louis P. Sheldon, head of the Traditional Values Coalition, praised the nomination of Ashcroft, calling him “a committed Christian” who understood “that true justice” came “not from the laws of men, but from the ultimate lawgiver: God.”
If many moderate Americans were dismayed by the U. S. Senate’s confirmation of Ashcroft as attorney general, a man many of them thought would be the religious right’s Trojan Horse in the new administration, they were stunned by the hard-right direction of the Bush presidency. Given the controversial circumstances of the 2000 election, many observers assumed Bush would pursue a moderate course and govern from the political center. Instead he behaved as though he had won a mandate to lead from the right. There was growing dissatisfaction with the administration as 2001 progressed, and Democrats sensed an opportunity in the upcoming congressional elections of 2002. But the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001, that destroyed the World Trade Center’s twin towers and killed almost 3,000 people completely altered the political dynamics. Believing God at his side, Bush quickly rallied the nation for a war on terrorism. According to Bob Woodward, within days of 9/11 Bush and his aides were talking as though God had “chosen” him to “lead at that moment.” Said one administration insider to the Christian weekly World, “I think President Bush is God’s man at this hour, and I say this with a great sense of humility.” And following Bush’s address to Congress on September 20, Michael Gerson, the president’s speech writer, called and said, “Mr. President, when I saw you on television, I thought—God wanted you there.” President Bush reportedly answered, “He wants us all here, Gerson.” In Bush’s mind, the events of 9/11 apparently provided a “great opportunity,” “the moment history has given us to extend liberty to others around the world.”
From that point forward President Bush repeatedly linked 9/11, divine will, and whatever objective—domestic or foreign—the administration was in pursuit of at the moment. Afghanistan and Iraq aside, 9/11 supposedly justified the Patriot Act, increased airport security, the administration’s energy policy, tax cuts, unemployment, federal deficits, and the weakening of environmental and workplace protections. Adding to the litany in her inimitable style, columnist Maureen Dowd observed in early 2004 that “Mr. Bush irrationally arranges the facts to fit his initial assessment that 9/11 justified blowing off the UN and some close allies to invade Iraq.” In fact, by the time Dowd made her observation some Americans had begun to question not only the administration’s quick usage of 9/11 to vindicate aims that seemed to have more to do with Republican politics than national security, but also the situation in Iraq itself. An ABC News poll in 2003 showed that support for the war had fallen from 70 percent in April to 54 percent in September. As one Texas oilman, an acquaintance of the president, put it, the matter in the Middle East was “a never-ending situation.” Afghanistan was “already turning out to be a bleeder,” he added, and Iraq would “be a bleeder too.”
If the growing doubts of others fazed President Bush, it was not evident from his public posture. Turning once more to religious rhetoric in his January 2003 State of the Union speech, he called upon the nation to trust in “Providence,” to have faith in “the loving God behind all of life, and all of history.” The “sacrifice” Americans were making in the Middle East would ensure “the liberty of strangers,” which was not America’s but “God’s gift to humanity.” Speaking a few weeks later to the Religious Broadcasters in Nashville, Bush again suggested that the American course in the Middle East was in harmony with God’s will, declaring that the nation had been “called” to bring peace and liberty to the world. Skeptics could dismiss Bush’s religiosity as a sham, the posturing of a cynical politician courting the righteous vote, but his language—”Providence,” “called,” “sacrifice,” “loving God,” “God’s gift”—resonated with many evangelicals on the religious right who saw in the president a man of virtue, values, God. A religious broadcaster who had heard Bush in Nashville put it plainly. “It seems as if he is on an agenda from God. The Scriptures say God is the one who appoints leaders,” and if President Bush “truly knows God, that would give him a special anointing.” Another broadcaster concurred. “At certain times, at certain hours in our history, God has had a certain man to hear His testimony.” The stage was set for another hard-fought presidential campaign, one in which values, morality, and religion would take center stage.
The 2004 Election
Early in 2004 there was already talk of a “religion gap,” or as Cal Thomas preferred, a “God gap,” the contention that regular churchgoers—godly people in other words—were far more likely to be Republicans than Democrats. Lending support to this belief were exit polls from the 2000 election which showed Bush winning 56 percent of the voters who said they attended church weekly, as opposed to only 41 percent for Gore. This was proof to many on the religious right that the Republican party was the party of God, the party of values, the party that would return prayer to the schools, stop abortions, prevent stem-cell research, and check the advancement of homosexuality. As for Pat Robertson, there was no need even to hold an election, for by January 2004 he had already received a heavenly message that it was going to be “a blowout election” that Bush would “win in a walk.”
Admittedly, evangelical Protestants who attended services weekly definitely preferred Bush in 2000, giving him 64 percent of their votes to Gore’s 34 percent, but a more thorough analysis of the election results disclosed the complexity of the religious community. Voters who went to church a few times a month chose Gore over Bush, 55 percent to 40 percent. Catholics who attended Mass weekly gave Bush a 7 percent edge, but those who attended Mass a few times a month went for Gore by the same margin. For African-American evangelicals, Gore was the favorite. Overall, 91 percent of Bush’s supporters in 2000 identified themselves as religious, 81 percent of Gore’s. More specifically, the breakdown for Bush was 41 percent evangelical, 22 percent mainline Protestant, 21 percent Catholic, 11 percent seculars, and 5 percent Jewish and others; for Gore, 48 percent Protestant, 23 percent Catholic, 19 percent seculars, and 10 percent Jews and others. Such figures show that neither party had a lock on the religious vote, and certainly neither could lay claim to being God’s party. Even so, the Republicans had the advantage in the “bumper sticker” campaign. Weekly worshippers identified with the Republican party, and so the GOP had to be “God’s Own Party.”
Put on the defensive by Republican religiosity, Democratic hopefuls for the 2004 presidential nomination scrambled “to find religion,” sometimes with comical results. The early frontrunner, Howard Dean, a Congregationalist who had previously been a Catholic, then an Episcopalian, assured an Iowa audience that he prayed daily, and in New Hampshire, demonstrating an ecumenical flare, he used the Muslim expression for “God willing,” inshallah. And as he prepared to head into the evangelical South, Dean announced his intention to talk more about God and Jesus. This prompted a reporter to inquire of the candidate his favorite book of the New Testament. Dean answered Job, amusing the biblically literate who knew the book to be in the Old Testament. Ever ready to pounce on religious flimflam, especially from the left, Cal Thomas strongly implied that Dean’s sudden religiosity was nothing more than political opportunism calculated “to bamboozle Southern religious Democrats.” When asked about his faith, Catholic John Kerry, the eventual Democratic nominee, revealed that he had been an altar boy, had once considered the priesthood, and had worn a rosary around his neck during his service in Vietnam. But, added the New Englander, his faith was “more personal,” not something to “throw … at people”. That comment would have been befitting in 1960 of John Kennedy, whose Catholicism many Protestants across the nation feared would sway public policies. Indicative of how much the landscape had changed, evangelicals in 2004 wanted a man in the White House whose faith would guide politics.
If Kerry was hesitant to “throw” his religion at people, not so President Bush, whose own spiritual flipflopping (Episcopalian/Presbyterian/Methodist) was never scrutinized in the same fashion as Dean’s. In June 2004 the Bush campaign announced a plan to enlist the direct support of the nation’s churches that was not only unprecedented but also breathtaking in its audacity. Volunteers were asked to send church directories to the Bush campaign headquarters by July 31; they were to talk to various groups within the congregation about the president and recruit five more volunteers for the cause by August 15; they were to host at least two campaign-related potluck dinners with church members by September 17; and in October they were to call church members, distribute voter guides, and place notices in church bulletins about the necessity of Christians going to the polls in November. Defending this effort, a spokesperson for the administration asserted that “people of faith have as much right to participate in the political process as any other community.” But liberal and some conservative groups were wary. The executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Barry Lynn, was astonished by so blatant an attempt “to meld a political party with a network of religious organizations.” That Lynn considered the effort a violation of church-state separation is not surprising, but even Richard Land, director of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, a body increasingly friendly toward Republicans since the early 1990s, was concerned. “If I were a pastor,” said Land, “I would not be comfortable doing that.” The Bush campaign was unmoved. “We strongly believe that our religious outreach program,” responded a spokesperson, “is well within the framework of the law.”
While the November outcome of the presidential election pleased the religious right, the movement sustained numerous setbacks at the state and local levels. To be sure, Texans overwhelmingly approved an amendment prohibiting gay marriage, but Maine voters handily turned aside an attempt to repeal that state’s new gay-rights law, which proscribed discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment and public accommodations. Californians defeated a proposition requiring parental notification by minor girls seeking an abortion, and in Dover, Pennsylvania, all eight Republican school board members who had attracted national attention earlier in the year by requiring the teaching of intelligent design in science classes were turned out. And the Virginia electorate rejected the gubernatorial candidacy of Republican Jerry Kilgore, heavily backed by the religious right, in favor of Tim Kaine, a Catholic who had argued that he could separate his personal opposition to abortion and the death penalty from his duty as governor to uphold the legality of both.
As for the presidential contest itself, Bush probably owed as much to Roman Catholics as to Protestant evangelicals. Paradoxically, Kerry faced aggressive opposition from his own church’s conservative hierarchy, including some bishops who threatened to refuse him communion or even excommunicate him. The effect was devastating. Kerry in 2004 received 5 percent fewer Catholic votes than had southern Baptist Gore in 2000, and this was crucial in several swing states. In Ohio, for instance, Bush carried 55 percent of the Catholic votes. But it was evangelical voters, who had given Bush about a third of his margin of victory, who received most of the attention, and whose leaders were quick to take full credit for the Republican triumph. And why not? Just days after the election Karl Rove, the president’s top political strategist, was on NBC’s Meet the Press paying tribute to those regular churchgoers who had turned out in such heavy numbers to support Bush. And the press, as Mark Danner cleverly observed, seemed “happy to play along” with this assessment, creating through repetition “the appearance … [of] reality”. Bob Jones III, who needed no encouragement from Rove or anyone else, took for granted that Bush was indebted to the religious right. As he saw it, the president was obligated to “pass legislation defined by biblical norms” and to “leave an imprint of righteousness upon this nation that brings with it the blessings of Almighty God.” Toward that end Jones urged the president to purge moderates from his administration. “If you have weaklings around you who do not share your biblical values, shed yourself of them,” he declared, adding: “You owe the liberals nothing. They despise you because they despise your Christ.” Focus on the Family’s James Dobson, who for the first time had publicly endorsed a presidential candidate and had actively campaigned for several conservative Republican senatorial candidates, held a special program, “Moral Victory in America,” to praise God for saving the nation from a Kerry presidency. Explaining his vigorous role in this campaign, Dobson stated, “I simply could not sit this one out. I just feel this year, I had to do everything I could to keep the loony left from capturing the United States Supreme Court and shaping its liberal decisions for the next 25 years.”
The Religious Right Today
Amid the post-election euphoria was a certain amount of wariness on the religious right. Evangelicals had labored in the political vineyards before only to be disappointed once their votes had been harvested. The attitude of Robert Knight, head of an affiliate of Concerned Women for America, a conservative Christian advocacy group, was widespread. “Business as usual isn’t going to cut it,” he noted, “where the GOP rides to victory by espousing traditional family values and then turns around and rewards the liberals in its ranks.” Wasting no time savoring 2004, Jerry Falwell organized a few days after the election a refurbished version of the Moral Majority, the Faith and Values Coalition. The objective was not only to serve notice that evangelicals were watching closely to see if Republican deeds now matched their campaign rhetoric, but also to frustrate the future presidential ambitions of candidates supportive of abortion and gay rights. Falwell had former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Arizona Senator John McCain specifically in mind.
The composition of the Supreme Court is a major concern of the religious right, for many social conservatives hold judges, more so than lawmakers, responsible for moving the nation away from traditional values. The school prayer decisions of the early 1960s, the abortion decision of the early 1970s, and just recently the gay marriage decision of Massachusetts’ Supreme Court come to mind. This explains the instant outrage of James Dobson and Louis Sheldon, Chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition, to the prospect of Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter, a moderate Republican who considered it unlikely that antiabortion judges could gain Senate confirmation, becoming chairman of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee. While Sheldon threatened political retaliation against Republicans who backed Specter, Dobson pressured the Senate Republican caucus to consider someone else, the Pennsylvanian’s seniority notwithstanding. The religious right failed to block Specter, but it succeeded against President Bush’s first Supreme Court nominee, Harriet Miers of Texas, a moderate unacceptable to many social conservatives. The president’s other two selections—John Roberts to replace the deceased William Rehnquist as chief justice and Samuel Alito to replace the retiring Sandra Day O’Connor—met the approval of religious conservatives and were confirmed over strong liberal opposition.
Whether these judicial appointments will produce the desired result for the religious right remains to be seen. The only thing certain so far is that the new justices have altered the court’s ideological balance somewhat. Roberts, Alito, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas constitute a solid conservative counterpoise to liberals John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen Breyer. This leaves Justice Anthony Kennedy, who emerged during the court’s 2005-2006 term as the new “swing vote,” a position long occupied by O’Connor. This perhaps does not bode well for the religious right, for in the past Kennedy has voted with the liberals to uphold gay rights and abortion rights. This also means that if the president has an opportunity to nominate another Supreme Court justice, and if that nominee is of the same temperament as Roberts and Alito, the confirmation battle will be titanic. And Dobson, Falwell, Sheldon, Robertson, and others of their kind will certainly rally the religious faithful to ensure a more godly future for the nation.
The political activism of the religious right, which has grown more intense, sometimes even venomous, since the 1980s, raises the perennial issue of religion and politics. The righteous, whether of the left or right, have the right to engage in politics, and organized religion is entitled to bring pressure to bear on matters of public concern. That is exactly what the religious left did in the 1950s and 1960s, and so also the religious right since the late 1970s. The dispute arises over the arrogation of God by one side to support a specific set of political objectives, thereby implying the other side is ungodly and irreligious. And of this practice the religious right has been guilty. Admittedly a biased observer, John Buchanan nevertheless put it aptly. “The fatal flaw of the Religious Right,” he said, “is to baptize the mentality of the John Birch Society.” This assurance of God’s support perhaps accounts for the religious right’s propensity for harsh, judgmental rhetoric. How else could one explain Robertson’s outburst in Iowa in 1992? ‘The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women,’ he asserted. ‘It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.’ The religious right has all too often indulged in this kind of inflammatory speech, apparently convinced that its opponents on everything from the ERA and abortion to guns and homosexuality are Satan’s minions.