The Political Mobilization of the New Religious Right by Bryan Le Beau

"Get 'em saved; get 'em baptized; get 'em registered."
--Slogan at an evangelical workshop on political action
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       "If you want to know whom American voters are for, ask what they believe, that is, in the religious sense of belief. For nothing--not economic status, not region, not even race--divides American voters as starkly as their religious beliefs." So wrote Michael Barone (1996) in his review of voting patterns in the elections of 1992 and 1994. The best example--the most dramatic religious-political commitment--Barone could find in those elections was among white born-again Christians, or the New Christian Right.
       Until 1992, the history

"In the nineteenth century the Christian Right was an animating force in American political life. It battled deism and then went on to champion causes such as temperance and immigration restrictions, especially on Roman Catholics."

of New Christian Right political activity was written in two parts: rise and decline. The rise began in 1976, Time magazine's "Year of the Evangelical," when a Southern Baptist won the presidency and the self-indulgence of the "Me Decade" reportedly gave way to born-again religious fervor. In the political realm, so the story goes, the Christian Right was driven into Republican ranks by concern over various social problems, contributing in a major way to conservative dominance of the White House, the Senate, and, most significantly, the national agenda.
       The decline began in the last half of the 1980s. With sexual and financial scandals plaguing some media-based ministries, the Democratic recapture of the Senate, the failure of Pat Robertson's 1988 presidential campaign, and the decision to disband conservative organizations like Moral Majority, it was time, many thought, to write an epitaph for the New Christian Right (D'Antonio 1989). And that perception was further fortified by the election in 1992 of a baby-boomer Democratic presidential candidate who was prochoice on abortion, sympathetic to the aspirations of gays and lesbians, and, in personal history and life-style, a child of the 1960s (Bruce 1988, 1994).
       The Republican resurgence in 1994, bolstered heavily by the support of the Christian Right, showed these early assessments to be incomplete. Beyond the ebb and flow of daily events, theologically conservative Christians continued to play a key role in American public life. In this paper, taking into account what has happened since 1992, I reexamine the various explanations that have been offered to explain their rise and fall and yet again venture a guess as to whether Christian Right political activism will persist, and, if so, in what form?

A Brief History

       In the nineteenth century the Christian Right was an animating force in American political life. It battled deism and then went on to champion causes such as temperance and immigration restrictions, especially on Roman Catholics. It contributed greatly to the growth of antislavery sentiment in the North, and, paradoxically, reinforced the commitment of Southerners to the maintenance of the slave economy (Carwardine 1993). In the half-century following the Civil War, the Christian Right launched a conservative cultural crusade to defend its values against the forces of liberalism and modernism, siding with a variety of movements designed to purify American politics of various corrupting influences. Embodied in the national arena by William Jennings Bryan, the Christian Right was a driving force behind such disparate movements as currency reform, regulation of corporate abuses, and adoption of direct democracy through initiative, referendum, and recall (Levine 1975). Their widespread adoption attested to the central place of the Christian Right in American politics and culture.
       After World War 1, the Christian Right was displaced from its perch as a major cultural force by a series of social developments that culminated in a virtual social revolution. Under the impact of rapid urbanization, the spread of science and technology, and skyrocketing birth rates in predominantly non-Protestant immigrant communities, the conditions that had once favored traditional Protestant religion began to lose hold. The weakening of the social values associated with conservative Protestantism was apparent in such trends as the growth in women's employment, the loosening of restraints on sexuality, the rising prestige of science, and a general tendency to exalt hedonism and materialist values. Many Protestants, later recognized as founders of the mainline approach, began to doubt the literal authority of the Bible and its superiority relative to science (Soloman 1996, 411).
       Whether these developments were ever as widespread as imagined is beside the point. Accurately or not, conservative Protestants thought they were confronted with threats to orthodox Christianity, and they reacted with furious defensive activity. Attempting to resist the encroachments of secularism in the political realm, they concentrated in the 1920s on a pair of causes: campaigns to restrict the sale of intoxicating liquor and to prohibit the teaching of evolution in the public schools. Both movements achieved some temporary success, but in the end neither could withstand the shift of power to the burgeoning cities, where the Christian Right was weak and a new set of issues commanded public interest.
       The fate of what we might call the "old" Christian Right was tied to a receding and beleaguered small-town culture (Burner 1967, 4). As many predominantly northern denominations embraced modernity and expressed a willingness to apply scientific insight to religious belief, its center of gravity shifted to the rural South. There were significant political implications in this increasing southern orientation. Unlike northern conservative Protestants, who had argued that salvation depended on both faith and works, southerners stopped short of demanding social transformation as a condition for salvation. Those who had been born again were expected to practice Christian morality, to behave rightly in their own lives, and to work and pray for the conversion of others. But those expectations were never connected with any imperative to transform their culture in the name of Jesus (Kleppner 1979, 187).
 

"To the extent that the Christian Right participated in national political life after William Jennings Bryan's eclipse, its sympathies remained with the Democratic party."

       The Christian Right thus chose to remain outside the political arena -- a withdrawal broken only by participation in sporadic rearguard actions through fringe movements and extremist crusades like those of the Ku Klux Klan during the 1920s, and segregationists and anti-Communists during the 1950s (Clabaugh 1974; Craig 1987; Grupp and Newman 1973; Ribuffo 1983; Wilcox 1992a). Those links between the Christian Right and regressive political movements fixed the Christian Right with a public image as narrow-minded, bigoted, and backward looking -- an image that obscured earlier associations between the same religious community and progressive political causes (R. Warner 1979).
       To the extent that the Christian Right participated in national political life after William Jennings Bryan's eclipse, its sympathies remained with the Democratic party. The alliance between theological conservatives and the more liberal of the national parties can be explained largely in historical, regional, and class terms. The force of tradition kept theological conservatives firmly attached to the party that had reestablished white political dominance in the wake of Radical Republican Reconstruction. The linkage was further cemented in the 1930s by the popularity of New Deal social welfare programs that attacked poverty and agricultural distress in the region (Billington and Clark 1991; Allinsmith and Allinsmith 1948). And, although the states rights revolt at the 1948 Democratic National Convention had demonstrated the capacity of the civil rights issue to draw southern whites away from a Democratic allegiance, the partisan impact of that controversy was checked by the similarity of the Democratic and Republican positions until the 1960s.
       The first stirrings of change in the pattern of Christian Right politics were visible in the presidential elections of the 1960s. When the Democratic party nominated a Catholic for president in 1960, again reflecting a long-standing antipathy toward Roman Catholics, large numbers of white, church-going southern Protestants defected to the Republican candidate, Richard Nixon (Converse 1966; Dawidowicz and Goldstein 1974, 41-48). In 1964, the same parts of the country that had given William Jennings Bryan his greatest margins of support, responded favorably to the candidacy of Republican Senator Barry Goldwater (Burnham 1968). And in 1968 George Wallace's independent presidential candidacy showed extraordinary strength among southern whites belonging to theologically conservative denominations (Orum 1970).
       A well-educated and scientifically trained man, comfortable with contemporary culture and familiar with modern theology, Jimmy Carter advocated moderate to liberal policies without the excited appeals to emotion that had been the hallmark of the Christian Right. As a result, Carter's moderation promised a welcome break with the unpleasant historical tradition that associated conservative southern Protestants with religious and racial bigotry. In the election of 1976 Carter carried Catholic and Jewish voters by the same or greater margins as had most other postwar Democratic presidential candidates and, like Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey, received virtually unanimous support from African Americans (W. Miller, Miller, and Schneider 1980, 332). That Carter could appeal so strongly to liberal social groups and carry most of the southern states suggested to some the end of the Christian Right's political distinctiveness. A closer analysis of the 1976 election, however, revealed that a majority of white Southerners voted for Carter's Republican opponent, Gerald Ford (Public Opinion 1985).

Roots of the New Christian Right

       The return of conservative Protestants to organized political action, manifested in what has been labeled the New Christian Right, was facilitated by a number of local movements that developed during the social ferment and upheaval of the 1970s: a textbook controversy in West Virginia; a gay-rights referendum in Dade County, Florida; and a spirited campaign to defeat the proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution. In each case, conservatives rallied strongly to the defense of traditional cultural and social values against what the participants saw as a godless society that had replaced firm moral standards with a system of relativism (Phillips 1982, chap. 14; Beinart 1998, 26).
       The campaigns against "obscene" schoolbooks, gay-rights ordinances, and the ERA represented a sea change in the thinking of the Christian Right, a "coming out" almost as dramatic as the political awakenings of feminists and homosexuals that had triggered it. Once ridiculed as being "so heavenly minded they were of no earthly good," however, the Christian Right was unequipped for regular participation in society. Its ministers had long warned members to steer clear of secular politics and focus their energies on their salvation. Now, in response to the menacing social trends unleashed in the 1960s, they counseled them to "reject the division of human affairs into the secular and sacred and insist, instead, that there is no arena of human activity, including law and politics, which is outside of God's lordship. The task is not to avoid this world, but to declare God's Kingdom in it" (Buzzard 1989).
       The effort to build bridges between secular and religious conservatives was spearheaded by four activists with no background in the Christian Right community: Howard Phillips of the Conservative Caucus; John "Terry" Dolan of the National Conservative Political Action Committee (NCPAC); Paul Weyrich of the National Committee for the Survival of a Free Congress; and Richard Viguerie, a major fund-raiser for conservative causes. The basis for coalition would be a frontal attack on "big government" as a threat to traditional religious and economic values. In response, the National Christian Action Coalition, the first national organization of the Christian Right, was launched in 1978. Television evangelist Jerry Falwell organized the most prominent of the new organizations, Moral Majority, in 1979. To reach into the Southern Baptist Convention, Ed McAteer started the Religious Roundtable, while Christian Voice, composed primarily of members of the Assemblies of God, concentrated on the western states.
       The leaders of these movements embraced the issues that concerned secular conservatives, but they did so with a religious rationale. Increased defense spending, for example, was justified as a way of keeping the nation free for the continued preaching of the Gospel, and support for the government of Taiwan was defended as necessary to protect Christian allies from the "Godless forces of anti-Christ Communism." In practice, however, conservative social values drove the formation and activity of the New Christian Right (Glazer 1986; Wattenberg 1995).
       Leaders of the New Christian Right coalesced around the candidacy of Ronald Reagan. Reagan alone embraced the political efforts of the NCR and pledged to work for enactment of its agenda (see chaps. 5-7 in T. Baker, Steed, and Moreland 1983). He won by impressive margins and Republicans, with a clearly conservation platform, took control of the Senate for the first time in over twenty years. Although some scholars (Zwier 1982) cautioned against drawing such conclusions, the New Christian Right was credited with securing those victories as well as with successfully influencing the nation's political agenda (Moen 1994, 164).
Photo of Pat Robertson       Without the unifying presence of Ronald Reagan at the head of the ticket, Christian Right leaders split during the 1988 Republican primary campaign. Jerry Falwell endorsed George Bush, while Jack Kemp and Robert Dole drew support from other New Christian Right activists. With the decline of the four major groups active in 1980--most notably the Moral Majority-- the significance of those endorsements was dubious. The major focus of NCR activism was the campaign for the Republican nomination by Pat Robertson, an ordained Southern Baptist minister who had built the Christian Broadcasting Network into the nation's largest religious broadcasting empire. Robertson, however, eventually withdrew from the campaign, a victim of the strong competition, his own verbal gaffes and limited experience, and strong divisions within the New Christian Right (Wald 1991).
       The Republican party continued to stress conservative cultural themes (J. White 1990), and the New Christian Right reciprocated by mobilizing for the GOP ticket. In the election of 1992, Bush's reelection campaign pushed the "profamily" agenda, once again. At the Republican convention in Houston, Pat Buchanan and Pat Robertson addressed the same themes, and Bush himself criticized Democrats for omitting God from their platform. Bush was defeated, however, and political analysts attributed the defeat in part to the concerns of moderate voters about the Christian Right's capture of the party. When several moderate Republicans announced plans to challenge Christian Right influence, the movement that seemed so promising in the early 1980s was perceived by some as an albatross around the necks of the GOP. Earlier warnings that Republican support for Christian Right priorities "could drive a stake through the heart of the Reagan coalition" (Schneider 1989, 2) seemed to have been vindicated.
       The rapid rise of the New Christian Right had spawned a potent backlash, to which it responded by restructuring the movement (Moen 1994, 166). When candidates of "traditional values" ran for public office, they were advised to run "stealth" campaigns that did not mention religious motivations for some of the policies they wanted to implement. ["If the liberal establishment is out to get you, fly below its radar" (Diamond 1996, 46).] It began to employ the language of its opponents, liberals, in their focus on rights, equality, and opportunity. The Christian Coalition framed school prayer as a student's right to pray or to free speech, and abortion became a civil rights issue involving the rights of the unborn (Moen 1994, 167). But it also married the techniques of high technology voter identification with traditional field operations.
       Pat Robertson organized a new organization, Christian Coalition, which followed the principle that "the real battles of concern to Christians are in neighborhoods, school boards, city councils, and state legislatures" (Moen 1994, 167). Where national political parties largely eschewed grassroots organizing, leaders of the Christian Coalition learned what House Speaker Tip O'Neill once observed: "All politics is local." They employed traditional as well as the latest forms of mass communication at the local, as well as the state and national levels--not just every two or four years, but daily, involving themselves in such local issues as the content of public school courses and the holdings of the public library (Young, Swirsky, and Myerson 1995).
       During the 1994 election the Christian Coalition distributed 35 million voter guides and 17 million congressional scorecards, and made telephone calls to 3 million voters. Following its victory at the polls, the Christian Coalition emerged as a persistent lobbying force on behalf of the "Contract with America," the platform of the new Republican majority in Congress, to which it added its own "Contract with the American Family," introduced with great fanfare on the steps of the U.S. Capitol in mid-1995 (Christian Coalition 1995). The document called for restoring religious equality, local control of education, promoting school choice, protecting parental rights, family-friendly tax relief, restoring respect for human life, restricting pornography, privatizing the arts, and punishing criminals not victims--a mix of themes from the early days of the Christian Right as well as more recent concerns. By 1995 the Christian Coalition claimed 1.6 million members in more than 1,600 local chapters and $25 million in funds, and although neither "contract" was fully realized--and despite Republican loss of the White House again in 1996--the New Christian Right remained committed to its revised agenda.

Mobilization of the New Christian Right

       Describing the rise of the New Christian Right is much easier than explaining it. The emergence of the movement contradicted social science research about the secularization of political conflict and the social and doctrinal bases for evangelical political apathy. Nevertheless, at least some explanations can be found in an analysis of the three facets of religion long known to have political relevance: social influences, institution influences, and values.

Mobilization of the New Christian Right Part 2


Note 1. The chapter epigraph is taken from Mark Silk, Spiritual Politics: Religion and America Since World War 11 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988), p. 160. Return


Bryan Le Beau currently serves as Chair of the Department of History, Coordinator of the American Studies Program, and holder of the John C. Kenefick Faculty Chair in the Humanities at Creighton University.