Backward, Christian soldiers

The Christian right may be hurting at the top, but at the grass roots, it's still a force to be reckoned with

Published April 9, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

You could almost hear the entire nation exhale when Paul Weyrich, godfather of the far right political movement, declared in his post-impeachment funk that "politics has failed." It was time for the "moral majority" -- a term that he had coined nearly two decades ago -- to "drop out of this culture and find places ... where we can live godly, religious and sober lives."

Sounded as if he were calling for a truce in America's 30-year cultural wars.

Over the next few weeks, hard-core conservative columnist Cal Thomas came out with "Blinded By Might," a book suggesting that Christians had been seduced by power and politics. Then Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Coalition, blessed George W. Bush's squishy position on abortion, which wasn't pro-life enough for the true believers. It seemed as if Robertson were willing to hold his nose and support the Texas governor who Republicans see as their best chance for retaking the White House in 2000.

In the space of a few weeks, three pillars of the church of Christian politics had started to crumble. "Some members of the Christian right have awakened to the fact that they're nowhere near a moral majority," says Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Governmental Studies at the University of Virginia. "They're one wing of one party."

Even Janet Parshall, conservative radio commentator and spokeswoman for the Family Research Council, detects a "kind of cultural fatigue."

But beyond the Beltway, Christian fundamentalists are mounting offensives in state and local political contests. If anything, the 2000 political season will be the setting for cultural conflicts from school board races in Texas to the battle for the White House. There will be no cease-fire in the combat over abortion, gay rights and control of public schools.

"The movement is out of gas at the top in some ways, but it's never been more vital and energetic at the bottom," says Craig Shirley, a political consultant who represents the NRA, the Christian Action Network and presidential hopeful Steve Forbes, among others. "It's more threatening to the left this way. There's no easy bogeyman to motivate their base. It's more effective below the
radar screen."

Raw numbers gauging the numerical strength of the religious right are hard to come by. Polls show that social conservatives could range from 15 to 30 percent of the total electorate, but they are closer to the high end among committed Republican voters.

The movement is like a pyramid, with a broad base at the local level that becomes more narrow and less significant in national races. "Their power increases in inverse proportion to the turnout," says Elliot Mincberg, vice president at People For the American Way, a liberal group that monitors the right wing. "When you expand it to the general election sphere, it's much harder for their voices to outweigh others."

In Maine and Washington state, the Christian right helped kill efforts to pass laws protecting gays and lesbians. In dozens of states, social conservatives have teamed up with the NRA to pass laws permitting residents to carry concealed weapons. In school board elections nationwide, Christian soldiers are still fighting to keep gay teachers out of the classroom and cleanse libraries of books they see as offensive, such as Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men," Lois Lowry's "The Giver" and Alice Walker's "The Color Purple."

"Our troops will be coming out," says Craig Shirley. They'll be coming out this November in Maine to push an anti-choice initiative that would ban partial-birth abortions. They'll be out in California next year advocating a "defense of marriage" initiative that would restrict homosexual unions. "Next is a ban on gay adoption," promises Galen Nelson, executive director of the Ballot
Initiative Strategy Center in Boston.

But they won't win just by showing up. Even when the right-wing troops take the field, they aren't always victorious. Last Tuesday, a right-wing candidate for mayor of Colorado Springs lost to a liberal incumbent. And voters in Missouri rejected a concealed weapons initiative heavily backed by the NRA and social conservatives. Last year Republican moderates in Lee County, Fla., voted out a school board dominated by religious right members who had advocated teaching the Bible in public schools. Even in Jerry Falwell's home base of Lynchburg, Va., a small conservative town by nature, voters have reacted against Falwell's slates in local elections so strongly that they've been electing Democratic majorities.

Moving up the political pyramid to Congress, the Christian right continues to exercise influence far beyond its numbers, thanks to Majority Whip Tom DeLay and his Texas sidekick, Majority Leader Dick Armey.

Technically, DeLay is third in command -- behind House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois and Armey -- but DeLay trained and installed the mild-mannered Hastert, and it's DeLay who's becoming
the public face of the hard-core House conservatives. Hastert talks peace between the parties; DeLay plots the next tactical strike against the Democratic infidels.

DeLay, who once compared the Environmental Protection Agency to "the Gestapo," still wants to dismantle major hunks of the federal government. Armey is the legislator who called Massachusetts congressman Barney Frank "Barney Fag"; of first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, Armey said: "All her friends are Marxists."

DeLay and Armey are also among the few congressmen who sit on the Council for National Policy, the secretive organization of right-wing political and religious leaders, which gives them a direct connection to the Christian right.

While the right's raw power might be diluted in presidential politics, Republican candidates are racing right to win the nomination.
Gary Bauer, former president of American Renewal, is the presumptive favorite son of the Christian right, but he has serious competition. Dan Quayle, Pat Buchanan, Alan Keyes, Sen. Bob Smith, Lamar Alexander, Steve Forbes and Rep. John Kasich are all honing in on abortion and family values in hopes of capturing the religious vote. As a result, they may only end up dividing it.

"The social conservatives could get splintered in so many ways as to be less effective," says National Journal political columnist Charlie Cook. "So splintered that they don't get one of their favorites into the top three in the Iowa primary."

In the general election, if one of the early front-runners -- George W. Bush or Elizabeth Dole -- becomes the GOP nominee, the Republican Party's internecine warfare will become impossible to camouflage. Moderates and party regulars will argue for pragmatism while true believers in the Christian right will press for ideological purity. The result could be civil war, pitting purists like Gary Bauer and James Dobson, head of the megabucks media ministry Focus on the Family, against Bush and Robertson, who become the relative pragmatists.

Right-wing and "family" issues in the 2000 campaign will incorporate fundamental Republican favorites like cutting taxes in general, especially repealing the "marriage penalty" tax and increasing defense spending. But the true religious litmus test will be abortion, just as it was in 1996, and the early skirmishes seem to spell a level of hostilities as nasty as those that split the party four years ago.

Bush says he's a "pro-life" candidate, but a statement from his campaign adds that the Roe vs. Wade decision "will not be overturned until the hearts (of the people) are changed. Until then we should focus on ways to reduce abortion." In another slap at the religious purists, Bush has yet to commit to the higher ground of requiring that all judicial appointees explicitly oppose abortion. Robertson says he "totally" agrees with Bush's approach, but Dobson has been sniping at Bush for being soft on abortion.

"Bush claims to be pro-life, but so have other people who've gone before him and wound up showing no commitment to defend unborn children," Dobson said. "Don't give us double-talk. Tell us if you'll support pro-life judges ... We don't know what he believes."

While disheveled and fractured at the top, religious right groups are getting back to the fundamentals of politics: raising money and getting organized. The Christian Coalition is raising a war chest of $21 million to promote its candidates and causes in 2000. And while $21 million may be a drop in the pot of presidential campaign bucks, it will print and distribute 70 million voter guides in churches from coast to coast.

The leadership is coalescing, too. The Christian Coalition's Randy Tate, Phyllis Schlafly of the Eagle Forum and Virginia right-wing politician Mike Farris have formed the Committee to Restore American Values. Its goal is to focus the religious right's vote on a successful right-wing candidate in 2000.

Even Weyrich, who disavowed politics just months ago, has re-emerged from his post-impeachment hangover to take a leadership role in the new group. "His remarks back in February were just a feint," says Mincberg, of People for the American Way.

Just one more flanking maneuver in the country's continuing cultural wars.

By Harry Jaffe

Harry Jaffe is a leading journalist covering Washington, DC—its politics, its crime, its heroes and villains. Beyond Washington, Jaffe’s work has been published in Yahoo News, Men’s Health,Harper’s, Esquire, and newspapers from the San Francisco Examiner to the Philadelphia Inquirer. He’s appeared in documentary films, and on television and radio across the country and throughout Europe.

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