In a recent interview on Fox, Christian right writer James Robison went off on a rant about how Christian conservatives need to take over the government: “There are only 500 of you,” Robison said of Congress. “We can get rid of the whole bunch in one smooth swoop and we can really reroute the whole ship!”
He added that this takeover would cause "demons to shudder" and the "gates of hell to tremble," but what was really delusional about it was the idea that Congress is somehow devoid of Christians. In reality, 92% of Congress people identify as Christian. More to the point, nearly every Republican, regardless of their sincerity in saying so, aligns with conservative Christianity, whether Catholic or Protestant, an affiliation reflected in their policy preferences. (One solitary Republican is Jewish.) The Christian right might not own all 535 members of Congress, but with Republicans in the majority, the Christian right is also in the majority.
And yet, as New York Times writer Jason Horowitz explained in a recent profile piece about evangelical organizer David Lane, Lane feels quite similarly: “For Mr. Lane, a onetime Bible salesman and self-described former “wild man,” connecting the pastors with two likely presidential candidates was more than a good day’s work. It was part of what he sees as his mission, which is to make evangelical Christians a decisive power in the Republican Party.”
Say what, said any reader who has cracked a newspaper, the New York Times or otherwise, in the past four decades. Making the Republican Party beholden to the Christian right is like making the sky blue or making cats stubborn. Can you really makesomething be what it already is?
That the evangelical right already controls the GOP shouldn’t really be in dispute. Not only do the Republicans do exactly as the Christian right tells them on every social issue, such as reproductive rights or gay rights, but Republicans also pay fealty to the Christian right by targeting Muslim countries with their hawkish posturing or using Christian language to rationalize slashing the social safety net. If you were trying to come up with a quick-and-dirty description of the Republican Party, “coalition of corporate and patriarchal religious interests” would be it.
A common claim is that the Republicans just use the Christian right as foot soldiers but screw them over when they get into office. As nice as that would be if it were true, the legislative record shows the opposite. Legal abortion is all but wiped out in many red states, the Supreme Court is stacked with Republican appointees who give the religious right nearly anything they want, and all gains that gay people have made have been resisted at every turn by Republicans.
Obviously, Horowitz wasn’t saying he agreed with his subject Lane, but that’s just how Lane sees himself. But while Lane is clearly delusional about his religion’s relationship to the Republican Party, Horowitz’s article keyed into something that really is changing about the interwoven, codependent nature of the GOP and the Christian right: No longer can “larger-than-life leaders” like Pat Roberston or Jerry Falwell “activate evangelical voters simply by anointing a candidate.” Instead, organizers live in a “decentralized landscape.”
But being more disparate and disorganized than they were in the past doesn’t mean they are any less powerful. If anything, one reason it's hard for the religious right to anoint “their” candidate is that the field istoo crowded. In 2012 and now, it seems, in 2016, there are a bevy of potential Republican candidates holding themselves out as the pious Christian candidates: Bobby Jindal, Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, and Scott Walker are all playing the “vote for me is a vote for Jesus” card. Even Rand Paul, who is positioning himself more as a libertarian candidate, makes sure to check all the Christian right boxes, railing against legal abortion and doing the rounds with radical Christian right organizations like the Family Research Council.
There’s no greater measure of power than being able to force every would-be candidate to toe your line to have any hope of getting the party nomination for president. So why are Christian right leaders like Lane talking as if they have to fight to take over the party? Part of it is just posturing: Using the threat of exerting even more pressure to keep potential candidates, who are already owned outright, from even entertaining the idea of bucking the Christian right party line. But part of it may be a very real fear that, while they own the GOP now, they may not be able to hang onto them forever.
It all goes back to the fact that politics is a numbers game. Christian conservatives are a minority, but they have a disproportionate amount of power because their people are conformist and obedient, which means they are easy to both convince to vote and to get them to vote how you want them to. But there comes a point where even a very vocal and politically engaged minority doesn’t have the numbers to control elections. It seems that the Christian right, while not there yet, has a very real reason to fear that the numbers of people they can command to the polls are slipping, enough so that the Republican Party, if they want to stay viable as a national party, is going to have to start appealing to other groups to get votes--which, in turn, might mean turning down the Bible-thumping, the gay-hating, and the attacks on women’s rights.
That concern was openly voiced by Republican Rep. Renee Ellmers in January, when Republicans were preparing some anti-abortion bills to pander to the religious right. While toeing the Christian right line and saying all the right things about hating legal abortion, Ellmers hedged, saying that perhaps the Bible-thumping should be de-emphasized a bit, saying, “The first vote we take, or the second vote, or the fifth vote, shouldn't be on an issue where we know that millennials—social issues just aren't as important.”
Christian conservative leaders would like the GOP to believe that there would be a stampede of voters to the polls if Republicans just doubled down on the Christian right stuff. Horowitz reports that Lane believes conservative Christains “have been disheartened by the repeated failure of socially conservative candidates, and by a party that has softened its opposition to same-sex marriage.”
It’s possible, but the likelier explanation is the Christian right can’t command the numbers it used to because it just doesn’t have the numbers it used to have. As I chronicled last week for AlterNet, white Christian America, of which the Christian right is merely a subset, is losing its numbers. White Christians are now a minority in 19 states and it’s trend that is only picking up steam. A huge reason for this change is simply that white Christians are leaving the faith in droves. Both liberal and conservative churches are seeing their pews emptying out, of course, but the trend affects the Christian right as a political entity just as much as a spiritual one. Nor are they going to be able to restore their ranks by turning to people of color. After all, they’re not just asking voters to vote for conservative policies on reproductive rights or gay rights, but also on stripping the social safety net and becoming more hawkish on foreign policy. That’s an agenda most voters of color have long rejected and there’s no reason to think that’s going to change any time soon.
Right now, the Christian right absolutely controls the Republican Party, as a simple perusal of the field of potential GOP presidential nominees shows. But there will come a time---not this election, but maybe as soon as 2020--where the Christian posturing and the intolerant attitudes about religious diversity, reproductive rights and gay rights starts to turn off enough voters that the Republicans will either have to start shaking off the Christian right’s death grip on their party or start really losing a lot of elections. It’s not surprising that people like David Lane fear for the Christian right’s power, but, for the rest of us, the sooner this happens, the better.