God's fifth column

The religious right's strategists take the very long view

By Jonathan Broder

Published October 14, 1996 11:11AM (EDT)

from Rev. Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority in the 1980s to Ralph Reed's Christian Coalition today, the religious right has transformed the American political landscape, or at least shaken it up, with its emphasis on family values, school prayer and the evils of abortion.

Now a fascinating new book and a companion series on public television trace the religious right's rise. We spoke with William Martin, a professor of religion at Rice University in Houston and author of "With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America" (Broadway Books).

You note in your book that Falwell and other religious activists felt let down by the Reagan administration. Then, you note, evangelist Pat Robertson ran for president in 1988 and lost, and he turned to a young campus organizer named Ralph Reed, who suggested that the way for the religious right to gain power was not by electing a president but by getting like-minded people elected at the grass roots.

This is where the Christian Coalition differs from the Moral Majority, which believed that if you got the presidency, you got everything. Well, they got the presidency, and they didn't get anything.

Ralph Reed and Pat Robertson understand this. Their aim is to have 10 members in every one of 175,000 precincts in the country. Their aim is to take over the Republican Party completely, and they understand this can't be done quickly. Ralph Reed says, in effect, we're here for the long pull. If it takes three presidents and six congresses, we're going to get our agenda passed. We're going to be there when the lights come on, when the doors open in the morning, when the lights go off in the evening. We're here to stay.

What is the Christian Coalition's strategy?

Reed says that he would rather have control of 5000 school boards than the White House. They want to change the culture at a deeper level, not just win the presidency. The way they do it is by organizing.

They tell their people that if they are going to a precinct meeting and votes are going to come up, they should stall, put off the votes until later in the evening because people have habits. They may want to go home at 10 o'clock. They may be sleepy, they've got baby sitters, they're hungry. They say you may be 30 out of 100 at 7 o'clock, but if you hang on until 10:30, you may be 30 out of 50, so that can turn a minority into a majority. Part of their secret is they understand that you don't have to have a majority; all you have to have is a majority of the people who actually show up.

Ralph Reed has been criticized by hardliners on the Christian Right for being too conciliatory, for not pressing the abortion issue. Who do you think is going to prevail in this conflict?

It's hard to predict. Reed believes that if evangelicals are going to stay involved in the political realm and are going to be effective, they have to compromise. The purists have a great deal of power, but it's hard to turn that power into winning elections and getting legislation passed, if they're unwilling to make any adjustments.

Reed has informed them there is no chance of getting a human life amendment. It's just not going to happen. So he tells them they have to work for the best they can. There's a feeling among the truly politically savvy folks in the Christian Coalition that the refusal to compromise at all over abortion in the early 1970s resulted in Roe vs. Wade, instead of legislation that would have allowed a few abortions but not 1.3 million of them. Ralph Reed realizes that politics and perfectionism don't mix.

What are some of the internal contradictions within the religious right?

One of the common catch-phrases they use when talking about church and state is that the Constitution promises freedom of religion, not freedom from religion. But that's contradictory because it promises that people who don't want to be religious, or religious in a certain way, will be free from that. Today, it's very important that no one group gets to press its vision on others. The enormous vitality of religion in America is due in significant measure to the separation of church and state. When you don't have a separation of church and state, it's very hard on religion.

Take England, for example. There, the evangelical churches are the ones that are flourishing while fewer and fewer people attend the Church of England. The reason is that the evangelical churches are not supported by the government and therefore they must go out and enter the marketplace. Here in the United States, a lot of the success of the evangelicals comes from their creative use of television and radio. They never would have developed those things if the church were paid for and sponsored by the government.

How accurate are people like Pat Robertson when they say the separation of church and state in the United States is a myth?

The separation of church and state is not found in the Constitution. But the Bill of Rights begins by saying the Congress shall make no law regarding the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. It's clear that most people at that time did not envision the kind of separation between church and state that we have today.

It's also clear to me that Jefferson and Madison would have been very pleased to see where we are today. They didn't believe the state should pay chaplains, they didn't believe in public prayers. Madison went as far as opposing the counting of ministers in the census. They were making the point that ours was a secular government, and that this was good for religion as well as the state.

After the Republican convention in San Diego this summer, many commentators argued that the influence of the religious right has peaked. Do you agree?

I have read many books and articles since 1980 that have said the religious right has peaked. What is the evidence? They had a higher proportion of Republican Party delegates this year than they had in 1992. Every election they come back with two or three percent more people. I don't see any reason to believe they have peaked. I think this represents wishful thinking.

There may well be a reasonable ceiling on the portion of the population that they can bring in. But there's still room for them to grow. They dominate 18 Republican state parties and have substantial strength in another 13. With grassroots organizing, there's no reason why they can't get more. I would certainly caution against seeing their inability to elect a president as a proper index of their power. In fact, the only way I can see the Christian Coalition losing its clout is if Ralph Reed gets elected as the senator from Virginia and he isn't able to give the Christian Coalition his full attention.

How much of a threat is the Christian Coalition to America's tradition of pluralism?

They are likely to have their most important long-term influence in the field of education. Winning elections isn't enough for them; they want to have a long-term influence on the culture. So you have things like home schooling, vouchers, taking over school boards, and from that position, taking over curriculums, textbook selection, content of libraries.

We see this most dramatically in Texas. Texas is the largest buyer of textbooks in the country. No textbook publisher wants to publish a book that isn't going to be accepted in Texas. Right now, there is a good chance that there will be a majority of card-carrying members of the religious right on the Texas Board of Education this year. So what you're likely to see is things like teachers in Texas being unable to teach evolution, and textbooks for the rest of the country that avoid the issue.

Another illustration of their influence occurred a few years ago in Lake County, Florida. There, the religious right got the majority on the school board, and they mandated a curriculum that had to teach that America was the best culture that had ever been and that could not include any criticism of America.

How much of a threat is the religious right to the separation of church and state?

I think they are a threat, especially in the area of education. Right now, Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) is pushing a bill called the Religious Equality Amendment, which would open up the ability of the state to fund just about anything a religious group wanted it to fund. So a majority could say we're going to have a Christian creche on the courthouse steps, and we're going to have Christian prayers at the football games.

Now, you can say an amendment like this would be stopped in the Supreme Court. But just remember that all these religious issues have been stopped in the high court by a 5-4 margin. That's pretty close.

What other liberties are threatened? How about freedom of speech?

There is an impulse on the Religious Right to control what people see and read, but in the main, I think they've gotten a bad rap on that. For example, they have argued at times that people should boycott the products of companies that advertise too much violence and sex in movies, TV and pop music. It seems to me that's entirely legitimate. It's as legitimate as not buying grapes because you want to support Caesar Chavez.

Quotes of the day

Faithless readers

"We had underestimated the inertia, the disinterest and even the resentment in the advertising community towards the New Yorker. There was still the ingrained sense that the magazine was arrogant, impenetrable, snotty."

-- New Yorker editor Tina Brown, discussing the magazine's declining number of ad pages

"Young media planners probably don't read it because it requires an attention span of more than 20 seconds."

-- Gene DeWitt, president of DeWitt Media

(Both quotes from today's New York Times.)

Jonathan Broder

Jonathan Broder is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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