By daring to denounce the leaders of the right-wing Christian Coalition on their home turf in Virginia on Monday, John McCain has chosen to challenge the viability of a movement that has long seemed fearsomely zealous, wealthy and well-organized. But the maverick Arizonan and his aides appear to believe that Christian conservatism is no longer the asset to Republican candidates it once was, and has become a liability instead. Therefore, the McCain campaign believes it can rally moderates to administer a historic defeat to Pat Robertson in his own backyard on Tuesday.
Whether McCain's brave gambit proves shrewd or suicidal will depend entirely on the turnout of primary voters. If his call to repudiate intolerance drives unusually high percentages of normally lethargic voters to the polls, he may score victories even in states where the religious right remains strong. If not, he will be overwhelmed by the reaction of outraged fundamentalists from Savannah to San Diego.
Certainly the followers of Robertson and his longtime rival Jerry Falwell have been dispirited since their hopes of driving President Clinton from office were thwarted in 1999. Their power in national elections has been declining steadily from the zenith of 1994, when the Christian Coalition and allied groups played a critical role in the Republican takeover of Congress. Extremists like Robertson remain highly influential within the party, however, and may well be motivated to renew their activism to meet the threat represented by McCain.
For the past decade Robertson's legions have been trying with considerable success to take over the GOP. A favorite inside joke of the movement asks "How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time." Now a presidential contender is telling them to put down their forks.
In his attack on the religious right as "divisive" and "un-American," McCain seems to understand a nasty little secret -- that the conservative fundamentalists are really a small minority, whose power waxes or wanes in inverse proportion to political participation by the secularized majority. Their electoral strategy has always been based on that realization, and has been executed most successfully in low-turnout contests for school boards, county commissions and party leadership posts.
That was the strategic vision of the early leaders of the Christian Coalition, as explained by them at closed conferences I attended in 1991 and 1992. In those days, the religious right was regarded by most of the media as virtually defunct following the demise of Falwell's Moral Majority and the Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart scandals. (The editor of the New Republic told me in 1992 that he wasn't interested in an article about the Christian Coalition because they were "irrelevant.")
Media pundits and Washington reporters, who have never really understood the religious right, tend to either underestimate or overestimate the movement's power at various times. Historically, it has been both a conspiratorial, leadership-dominated faction and a broadly based religious counterculture, neither of which are easily penetrated by secular journalists. So when Falwell and Bakker fell, many analysts assumed that the movement itself was dead.
Yet at that very moment the religious right was growing rapidly again as a political force, under the tutelage of Robertson and his brilliant aides, Ralph Reed and Guy Rodgers. Lack of interest from the mainstream press didn't bother them at all; to the contrary, they routinely barred reporters from their meetings.
Stealth was crucial for several reasons: The Christian Coalition was endangering its tax-exempt status by acting as an appendage of the Republican Party; the coalition's organizers didn't want their opponents to gain knowledge of their tactics; and they were saying things about their movement that they definitely didn't want to see in print.
At one of those closed meetings, Guy Rodgers delivered a speech to coalition activists that exposed what is still a critical weakness of the religious right. As he explained with a smirk, they relied upon mobilizing a relatively small group of sympathetic voters in elections that most Americans simply ignore.
"In a presidential election, when more voters turn out than in any other election, only 15 percent of eligible voters actually determine the outcome. How can that be? Well, of all the adults 18 and over eligible to vote, only about 60 percent are registered ... Of those registered to vote, in a good turnout, only half go to the polls. That means 30 percent of those eligible are actually voting. So 15 percent determines the outcome in a high-turnout election. In low-turnout elections ... the percentage that determines who wins can be as low as 6 or 7 percent."
Although Rodgers didn't mention presidential primaries, those contests too often attract only a fraction of eligible and registered citizens. "Is this sinking in?" he asked. "We don't have to persuade a majority of Americans to agree with us." Most of them, he said, stay home and watch television.
There's another side to that same scheme, however. When that passive American majority perceives the religious right as a threat to its own sovereignty -- as happened during the impeachment struggle in 1998 and 1999 -- the movement's power shrivels. That was why they lost the culture war for which they had been spoiling from the moment that Bill Clinton was inaugurated.
And that is also why McCain, who voted to impeach the president and agrees with Robertson on almost every issue of consequence, now sees that his only chance to prosper is by defeating them again.