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

Social Influences

       Although for most of

"The so-called super churches, like Jerry Falwell's Thomas Road Baptist Church, took on a wide range of functions and developed into religious equivalents of major corporations."

this century the Christian Right has lived in rural areas and rated below average on factors like education, income, and occupational status, it has achieved dramatic socioeconomic gains in the last half-century (Roof and McKinney 1987). This is especially true among younger evangelicals, a large part of the New Christian Right. Gains in education signaled their growing presence in urban and suburban areas, higher income brackets, and white-collar occupations, and that in turn undercut evangelical traditions of political apathy and Democratic partisanship. As evangelicals moved into the middle class, they gained resources that encouraged political participation, including increased free time and energy, organizational skills, access to social and communication networks, contacts with government officials, and greater exposure to information. Social change also produced an evangelical leadership class of clergy and secular activists (Wald 1997, 238; Beinart 1998, 25-26).
       With their increasing economic standing, evangelicals tended to acquire more of an interest in the policies of limited government unceasingly advocated by the Republican party. By moving to cities and suburban communities, they came face to face with direct assaults on the social values dominant in their rural and small-town strongholds, and that further encouraged their political involvement (Green, Guth, and Hill 1993).
       Another critical factor in the mobilization of the New Christian Right was change in subjective social status. According to the "status politics" model that has been used to explain different types of right wing political action, moral crusades such as those mounted by the New Christian Right represent a symbolic response to declines in social prestige (Lipset and Raab 1981). Conservative Christians, it may be argued, watched with dismay as society turned away from the values represented by traditional morality. Resentment about declining social respect paid to devout members of their community prompted their support for movements pledged to reestablish, through formal political processes, the social support that the group's values once commanded (Crawford 1980, 149).
       Challenging the assumption that the Christian Right was necessarily losing social prestige, some observers broadened the status-politics framework into a "politics of life-style" concern. In their view, movements such as the New Christian Right, rather than trying to recapture lost prestige or social honor, have attempted to defend the values, customs, and habits that form the basis of their lifestyle (Conover 1983; Lorentzen 1980; Moen 1984; A. Page and Clelland 1978). They have criticized the federal government for taking over a number of tasks once reserved for the family (Moen 1984). Medicaid has been condemned for encouraging people to shirk family obligations, welfare benefits for encouraging promiscuity, high rates of taxation for forcing women from the household into the workplace, and the Supreme Court for decisions restricting government action in support of religion and hampering the expression of evangelical faith in public schools (McClosky and Zaller 1984, 26; Solomon 1996, 411-412).

Institutional Influences

Photo of Jerry Falwell       The social transformation of evangelicals produced a major emphasis on what was called "church planting." The so-called super churches, like Jerry Falwell's Thomas Road Baptist Church, took on a wide range of functions and developed into religious equivalents of major corporations (Fitzgerald 1981). Less ambitious local churches also began to provide a wide array of services for their members. As the ministry became more professional, seminaries produced clerical leaders who managed church entry into such fields as education, day-care, and counseling. The evolution of the churches from places of worship to social service centers brought them under the authority of government regulations affecting zoning, educational practices, day-care facilities, minimum-wage laws, and working conditions. The result was a series of confrontations between the state's interest in regulating the private provision of social services and the church's claims of immunity under the free-exercise clause (Beinart 1998, 27).
       In order to protect themselves, Christian Right clergy became politically active (Beatty and Walter 1989; Guth et al. 1991), but social movements cannot convert grievances into political action unless they have access to potential supporters and other organizational resources. Potentially powerful political forces in their own environment, local evangelical churches aligned themselves with central organizations that could coordinate nationwide political action. Television evangelists had direct access to viewers and the capacity to tap into mailing lists with millions of names. Falwell had his "Old Time Gospel Hour," the Christian Voice was connected to Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network, and the Roundtable's leading spokesman, James Robison, had a nationally syndicated program (Jelen and Wilcox 1993).
       Reliance on broadcasting and national church alliances, however, could not guarantee success in political life. As some liberal clergy discovered in the 1960s, any minister who preaches politics instead of the Gospel may lose those in the audience who want religion to address their spiritual concerns. Thus we turn to the third factor influencing the rise of the New Christian Right -- values.


       The new willingness of evangelicals to apply their religious values to public policy has been especially puzzling to the social theorists who used to explain conservative Protestant abstention from politics by citing religious values. How could a theology that once emphasized otherworldliness and personal salvation now become a basis for political activism?
       Robert Wuthnow (1983) has suggested that in engaging in politics, the New Christian Right was responding to changes in society that encouraged the application of religious values to public policy. At the national level, several trends blurred the traditional view of morality as a matter largely for individual behavior and raised new public concern about the ethical standards of public institutions. As evidence of the growing trend to approach public policy from an ethical viewpoint, Wuthnow cited criticism of the Vietnam war as an act of public immorality, the various legislative actions taken in the aftermath of Watergate to institutionalize morality as a matter of official concern, and major Supreme Court decisions symbolically linking government with morality (ibid. 176). All these developments reflected growing recognition that government should not be totally independent of moral considerations and paved the way for morally based criticism of national policy (Lienesch 1993).
       As previously noted, the Christian Right has a long tradition of fighting back against perceived assaults by public authority on their favored social values. In the past, this tendency surfaced mostly in local and state conflicts over issues such as liquor licensing, sex education, and pornography. In the 1970s, however, the challenge appeared to emanate from a national government that seemingly had loosened restraints in hundreds of ways. The actions of secular authority not only offended traditional moral values, but also seemed to threaten the ability of conservative Protestants to protect themselves and their families from corrupting influences. Encouraged by the politicizing of morality exhibited in the reaction to the civil rights struggle, Vietnam, and Watergate, theological conservatives sought to draw from the same reservoir of moral outrage to influence social policy. The New Christian Right as a Mass Movement
       Earlier critics were wrong in asserting that the Christian Right was merely "a technologically driven movement spawned by master manipulation, largely by televangelists (Moen 1994, 163). It had popular support, but the extent of that popular support is ambiguous. On the one hand, polls suggest that a sizable portion of the American population is hungry for moral leadership and a government inspired by godly values -- a population ripe, in other words, for the moral appeals of the New Christian Right. On the other hand, the same polls show a population equally committed to letting individuals chart their own moral paths (Wald 1997, 245). The contradiction embodied in these positions, a yearning for authoritative values coupled with a reluctance to impose them by law, creates an opening for moral reform movements like the New Christian Right but also limits their mass appeal. Although the public might give overwhelming support to the principles mentioned in the Christian Coalition priority list, for example, that support often evaporates when those abstract principles are translated into specific pieces of legislation (Sigelman and Presser 1988, 334).

". . .some caution is in order before concluding that the 1994 results mean that evangelicals have risen, yet again, to influence national politics."

       Although at times, on specific issues, appealing to conservative Catholics, the New Christian Right's agenda and organizations that propagate it--like the Christian Coalition-- have struck the most responsive chord among people deeply attached to conservative Protestant denominations (Barrett and Harris 1982; Buell and Sigelman 1985; Baker, Epstein, and Furth 1981; Brudney and Copeland 1984; Hertel and Hughes 1987; Kellstedt 1989b; Nemeth and Luidens 1989; Patel, Pilant, and Rose 1982; Shupe and Stacey 1983; Sigelman, Wilcox, and Buell 1987; Smidt 1989b; Tamney and Johnson 1983; Wilcox 1986, 1989; Wald and Lupfer 1983). The exact size of that constituency, however, varies with the measurement system. The method of identifying NCR constituents by counting the number of persons affiliated with specific Protestant traditions, encompasses about one-fourth of the adult population. A common alternative, using survey questions to identify evangelicals by doctrinal convictions (e.g., having a "born again" experience), can generate larger or smaller estimates depending on the specific question (Smidt 1989a; Dixon, Levy, and Lowery 1988; Jelen, Smidt, and Wilcox 1993; Kellstedt and Smidt 1993). While reserving the evangelical label for individuals who meet a number of these doctrinal conditions, points to a somewhat smaller proportion of the population--perhaps 15-20 percent (Gallup 1981).
       It is important to be reminded, here, that although the New Christian Right is anchored in conservative Protestantism, it does not enjoy the unanimous support of even that community (Smidt 1993, 102). In a 1983 survey of registered voters with conservative theological convictions, more than a quarter did not recognize Falwell and his organization, and opinions were equally divided pro and con among those who did (Rothenberg and Newport 1984, 100, 140). Though majorities of the sample approved the Christian Coalition's agenda on school prayer, support for Israel, and tuition tax credits, substantial majorities also took positions diametrically opposed to the Coalition on other issues--in supporting the distribution of birth control information in the schools, favoring passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, and rejecting the notion that Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) is a form of divine retribution for homosexuality.
       Like other groups of voters from a common religious tradition, the New Christian Right tends to divide along lines of class, region, and gender when the issue does not relate to profamily issues, and sometimes even when it does (Pyle 1993). Political diversity, however, explains only part of the movement's failure to monopolize its natural constituency of conservatives. The New Christian Right is marked by religious diversity as well: fundamentalists, evangelicals, pentecostals, charismatics, and others. Beyond respect for the authority of the Bible, and a sense that salvation is bound up with Jesus, these groups follow different paths.
       Fundamentalists are more conservative than the others, and they enlisted much more wholeheartedly in New Christian Right organizations at the start (Green and Guth 1988; Jelen 1987; Smidt 1988; Wilcox 1986; Kellstedt and Smidt 1991; Green et al. 1994). The intensity of the "culture war" of the 1980s persuaded all three to unite--albeit uneasily--in the face of a common enemy (Solomon 1996, 412), but some members of the fundamentalist wing denounced attempts to yoke fundamentalists into unholy alliances with the "unsaved." Pat Robertson's involvement in the charismatic renewal movement made him the object of considerable scorn among fundamentalists, and Jerry Falwell, rooted in fundamentalism, had limited appeal among pentecostals and evangelicals (Jelen 1993). Most importantly, however, evangelical Protestantism has been both increasing its leadership in the New Christian Right and moving toward a more moderate political position (Fowler 1982; Pierard 1983; Stockton 1989).

The New Christian Right as an Electoral Movement

       As an electoral movement, the New Christian Right has three major goals: to get conservative Protestants to participate in politics, to bring them into the Republican coalition, and to elect social conservatives to public office. Assessing their progress in achieving those goals, however, is hampered by both the inherent difficulty of identifying the Christian Right in polls and changes in polling questions over time. Conservative Protestants do seem to have experienced significant political change on some measures, and the direction of change is in the path advocated by leaders of the New Christian Right. Whether the Christian Right is the cause or consequence of those changes, however, is harder to determine.
       Among New Christian Right constituents defined by denominational membership, the level of voter turnout rose from 61 to 66 percent between 1972 and 1976, remained at about that level in both 1980 and 1984, and then dropped back to 61 percent in 1988 (Wilcox 1992a, 220). Doctrinal measures, available only since 1980, suggest higher levels of Christian Right participation--the low to mid-70 percent range (ibid.). Tempting as it is to credit these changes to the Christian Right, however, a closer look at the evidence qualifies that conclusion. The sharp increase in turnout among conservative Protestants in 1976 predated the emergence of the Christian Right on the national scene and seems primarily a function of the modernization of the South or the appeal of Jimmy Carter. There is a stronger case for attributing the 1980 turnout advantage of the Christian Right to the mobilizing efforts of the various groups that coalesced around the Reagan candidacy. Yet, as noted, turnout declined despite the extensive mobilization efforts in subsequent elections.
       If the New Christian Right did not succeed in increasing the conservative Protestant presence in the electorate, the evidence does suggest that it promoted a more Republican self-image in that community. In the 1970s conservative Protestants were less prone to Republicanism than other whites. During the 1980s that distinction disappeared, and by 1992 the New Christian Right was mostly pro-Republican. Doctrinal measures emphasize even sharper divisions. Already by 1980 the Christian Right, defined on the basis of beliefs, was somewhat more Republican than other whites, and in subsequent elections the gap between the groups widened. This movement is even more stunning if we note that the group experiencing the largest shift from the Democrats to Republicans, younger religious conservatives in the South, will become an increasingly larger voting bloc in years to come (Kellstedt 1989a).
       The Christian Right's growing identification with Republicanism was accompanied by its shift to Republican presidential candidates. In both 1976 and 1980, when the Democratic candidate was a Southern Baptist from Georgia, the Christian Right was slightly less likely than other whites to favor the Republican nominee (Brudney and Copeland 1984, 1075). In 1984 and 1988 it favored the Republican candidate by at least 10 percent more than other whites, and in 1992 and 1996 the Christian Right voted for George Bush and Robert Dole by a nearly 3 to 1 margin (Kellstedt et al. 1994; Barone 1996; Smidt and Kellstedt 1992).
       The 1994 congressional election marked a turning point. The sweeping Republican gains in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, which gave Republicans control of both houses for the first time since 1952, were credited in large measure to the mobilization of Christian conservatives (Schneider 1995). By blaming liberal programs like welfare spending for a breakdown of family structure, fueling a rise in crime, and undermining the social order, Republican campaign themes echoed the language of the New Christian Right (Edsall 1994). Christian Right activists played a key role in a number of states, often tilting the Republican primary to their favored candidates (Rozell and Wilcox 1995) and electing an unprecedented number of conservative Protestants to Congress (Hertzke 1995). This apparent comeback convinced many observers that the New Christian Right had reconciled and adjusted itself to the secular norms and practices of American politics. As Matthew Moen put it: "The Christian Right has forsaken revolution for evolution, abandoning its quixotic quest to ‘put God back in government'...for a calculated campaign to infiltrate and influence carefully selected repositories of political power" (Moen, 1994, 161).
       Nevertheless, some caution is in order before concluding that the 1994 results mean that evangelicals have risen, yet again, to influence national politics. In some of the 1994 races, candidates who were portrayed as card-carrying members of the Christian Right lost elections precisely because of that association (Rozell and Wilcox 1995b). Moreover, the conditions of 1994 -- a midterm election with participation from only about 38 percent of registered voters -- were much more favorable to a highly motivated minority bloc of voters than the vastly different circumstances of a presidential election year.
       The reelection in 1996 of Bill Clinton and the seeming disarray of conservatives that followed -- even in the face of the various scandals surrounding the Clinton presidency -- continued to raise serious questions as to the New Christian Right's political health. A number of Christian Coalition backed candidates lost, as did its pick for the top of the ticket. The Christian Coalition propelled Robert Dole to victory during the primaries, but with several weeks left in the general election, it pretty much abandoned Dole and reserved its funds and campaign efforts for Congressional candidates and state and local issues. In a national presidential election with the lowest voter turnout since 1924, this strategy paid off with a reduced, but sustained, Republican majority in the House and GOP gains in the Senate. Moreover, by exercising its prodigious fundraising capacity and substantial cadres of political activists, it cemented its influential, if not dominant, place in the Republican Party (Novick 1996, 2).
       The election of 1998 provides little more guidance in forecasting the future of the New Christian Right. On the one hand, Christian Coalition Executive Director Randy Tate did proclaim 1998 "the year we reclaim America" and predict that the election might become "a national referendum on values in America" (Christian Coalition Sees 1998 as Crucial" 1998; Tate 1998, 4). He promised the most comprehensive get-out-the vote program ever (Tate 1998, 4), only to lose a number of key conservative political offices and five seats in the House of Representatives -- the first time the party of the president has gained seats in the House in an off-year election since 1934.
       On the other hand, 73 percent of Christian Right voters cast their ballots for Republicans, making them the most committed political minority of all. Union members -- generally credited for Democratic gains -- voted Democratic 65 percent of the time, gays and lesbians 69 percent of the time (Reno 1998). In part as the result of that loyalty, Republicans retained their 10 seat margin in the Senate, a 13 seat advantage in the House (the first time in 70 years the Republicans have done that for three straight years), and control of 31 state governors' mansions.
       Although ultimately supportive of conservative Republican candidates, leaders of the New Christian Right made clear their discontent with the Republican leadership. Randy Tate may have overstated the case when he announced that Christian conservatives are "not a wholly owned subsidiary" of the Republican Party but rather "up for grabs" (Goldstein 1998, A15), but prominent leaders such as James Dobson (Focus on the Family) did threaten to leave the Republican Party and Tate and others repeatedly accused Republican leaders of failing to deliver on the promises of 1994 ("Christian Coalition Speakers" 1998). Whether Christian Right discontent turns into outright schism will depend on the new Republican leadership--conservative but more pragmatic--that resulted from the election of 1998.

Mobilization of the New Christian Right Part 1

Mobilization of the New Christian Right Part 3