Ronald Reagan stiff-armed the religious right: What today's GOP must learn before wingnuts swallow it whole

On abortion, school prayer and Justice O'Connor, Reagan contained the religious right without giving them victories

Published October 24, 2015 2:45PM (EDT)

President Ronald Reagan greets Jesse Helms at a dinner honoring the North Carolina Republican, June 16, 1983.   (AP/Ed Reinke)
President Ronald Reagan greets Jesse Helms at a dinner honoring the North Carolina Republican, June 16, 1983. (AP/Ed Reinke)

Excerpted from "We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics"

“Reagan wins!” exclaimed the headlines across the media outlets of the Religious Right in 1980. It was hard to show humility—or patience—after such a huge election they had helped bring about, but religious conservatives quickly learned their agenda wouldn’t be the first priority of the Reagan White House. Instead, the White House explained Reagan first had to address the nation’s poor economy and tackle the tax burden. But once the president’s tax package passed, it became clear the Reagan administration would give little attention to the conservative moral issues the Religious Right had expected the new president to address. The journalist Lou Cannon, working on a biography of Reagan during his first administration, asked a presidential adviser what the White House planned to give the Religious Right. “Symbolism,” the staffer responded. Pointing to the blockbuster film, The Godfather, the adviser explained the Reagan White House intended to follow the mafia don’s philosophy, “Hold your friends close, hold your enemies closer.” He elaborated, “We want to keep the Moral Majority types so close to us they can’t move their arms.” The Washington Post quoted a more high-ranking Reagan staffer, Deputy Chief of Staff Michael Deaver, who said the only way any Religious Right leaders could enter the White House would be through “the back door.”

Another journalist covering the Reagan White House, Sidney Blumenthal, found the president’s team practiced a tacit “containment strategy” whereby key Senate leaders and White House staffers were encouraged to meet regularly with Religious Right operatives to discuss pressing concerns so to give the appearance that work was being done on the issues without actually delivering on them in any substantive way. This would keep the Religious Right happy—or at least, distractedly busy—while not eliciting the concern of Reagan’s larger, more secular support. Small gestures could be extended, like proposing a bill on a tiny aspect of a larger social concern or delivering a speech to a key Religious Right organization, but less effort would be done to see that such a bill—let alone one with more political substance—would pass or that a speech’s promises would actually be carried out. Morton Blackwell, a presidential assistant, was responsible for looking after the Religious Right constituency and given the charge to keep them, as Blumenthal explains, “in a state of perpetual mobilization.” “The flaw in that strategy,” Blumenthal notes, “was that the White House served as an incubator for the movement it was trying to contain.” Of course, with Religious Right operatives, Blackwell presented a different explanation of the White House’s strategy. In a letter to a Moral Majority leader, Blackwell explained that the White House would approach the Religious Right’s agenda through a tactic of “incrementalism.” “The fact is that it works,” Blackwell contended. “It is unrealistic to expect to undo fifty years of bad increments in one year or even in one presidential term. . . . A foolish belief in the possibility of total, instant victory is a prescription for unrealistic hopes and early disillusionment at the grassroots.”

The first disappointment the president’s evangelical supporters admitted concerned the administration’s lack of a sizeable evangelical presence, particularly since Reagan had made campaign promises that he would staff evangelicals within his administration in proportion to their representation in the American public. The idea that some 40 percent of the Reagan administration would be made up of evangelicals was preposterous, of course, but the paltry numbers of evangelicals who actually made it into the administration must have seemed even more ridiculous to those watching closely. Two scholars later counted only four evangelicals among Reagan’s thirty-one cabinet appointees, with Secretary of the Interior James Watt being the only evangelical appointed in Reagan’s first cabinet. Reagan did appoint Moral Majority executive director Robert Billings as his assistant secretary of education for non-public schools, but he was soon removed from the position because of protests from Catholic educators worried about a fundamentalist Protestant having so much power over the federal government’s relationship with parochial schools. While more evangelicals were scattered throughout the lower ranks of the White House and administration, it was no presence of note. But this hardly tempered evangelical expectations. One frustrated evangelical in the White House attracted controversy when she told a reporter Reagan’s close advisers should either “get saved or get out.”

Evangelicals’ next disappointment came when Reagan nominated Sandra Day O’Connor to the Supreme Court in his first year in office. In running for the presidency, Reagan had courted key Religious Right operatives by vowing to nominate only committed pro-life jurists to the nation’s highest court. His winning of the National Right to Life Committee’s endorsement, in fact, had been secured in two private meetings with NRLC president Carolyn Gerster where he had promised her just that. O’Connor, then, was a startling choice. Pro-lifers dug up O’Connor’s voting records from her time as an Arizona state legislator and found a worrisome history of pro-choice votes. Reagan’s “shocking intention,” in the words of a Christian Action Council fundraising letter, to nominate O’Connor seemed an especially insulting move to pro-life activists, and anti-abortion newspapers and magazines decried the president’s move. At the White House, fifty leaders from various Religious Right organizations complained to Morton Blackwell of their growing sense that, given his actions, the president didn’t “think this coalition contributed significantly to his election.”

Internally, the Religious Right faced challenges of its own making. Importantly, for all the talk of an ecumenical movement on behalf of conservative social issues, the Religious Right operated largely along denominational lines in its dealings with the Reagan White House. At the leadership ranks, Religious Right organizations sometimes coordinated with each other, but more often worked alone or in partnership, especially evangelical and fundamentalist groups, with like-minded believers. This had been the case in the run-up to the 1980 election, but divided operations in a campaign season seemed the most logical way to mobilize diverse constituencies. The conviction among conservative Catholics, Mormons, and evangelicals that Ronald Reagan was the man they needed in the White House to deliver on their goals had united their divided efforts. Once Reagan assumed the presidency, these disparate strands of conservative Christianity would come together as the bloc representing traditionalism and religious values—a moral majority, one might describe it—to make sure the president turned the nation back to God and delivered on their agenda.

While there were moments of cooperation and common cause within the Religious Right during the Reagan years, far more often the various components of the network worked in isolation, opening up divisions even within shared issues and working in direct opposition on other issues they had never really discussed. The Religious Right foundered at what could have been its best moment, riven by theological disagreements that yielded political consequences and often divided by different political objectives reflecting their unique theological convictions. What emerged during the Reagan years was at best a loose coalition of religious conservatives, frequently fraught with dissension, disagreement, and the possibility of dispersion. For a White House that hesitated over aligning itself too closely with what often appeared a radioactive Religious Right, the divisions within the network proved a useful scapegoat. Rather than working to smooth over disagreements and broker compromises, Reagan officials largely sat back and allowed the infighting and disunity to continue, then pointed to the chaos as a way to avoid the responsibility of leadership or to explain away disappointing legislative setbacks. On the Religious Right’s two major objectives for the Reagan presidency—school prayer and abortion—the network’s fractured nature helped doom policy objectives that had always been a formidable prospect. And on other issues of national concern, including welfare reform and the nuclear arms race, evangelicals, Catholics, and Mormons took differing positions that demonstrated their political divergence and challenged the notion of a conservative ecumenism.

Abortion and the Reagan Administration

The White House quickly frustrated pro-life activists. Since Roe v. Wade, pro-life activists had worked to pass a right-to-life amendment to the Constitution. Two bills in the Senate in 1981 addressed this goal, one directly. The Hatch Amendment, a constitutional amendment proposed by the conservative Mormon and Utah Republican Senator Orrin Hatch, gave Congress and individual states the right to pass their own abortion laws. Hatch’s backers liked his amendment because they saw it as a good route to a quick victory at the state level and believed it could survive any court challenges. Others appreciated it as a defense of federalism and a reproach to what they believed was Roe’s overreaching power. But the amendment’s biggest drawback made it unworkable. Even Senator Hatch admitted his amendment could never receive the needed two-thirds support from Congress.

Jesse Helms, the arch-conservative Southern Baptist Republican Senator from North Carolina, offered an alternative to the Hatch Amendment. Helms’s bill sidestepped the issue of congressional support by offering a statute rather than a constitutional amendment. The Human Life Bill, as Helms’s proposal became known, also directly addressed the important philosophical point that Hatch’s amendment had ignored by declaring life began at conception, thus equating abortion to murder. “This measure,” the Christian Action Council declared, “is centered upon the very principles that have drawn us together as a movement.” Helms’s bill also prohibited any federal dollars going to abortion and sought to avoid legal challenges by asserting that courts had no jurisdiction over the matter of abortion.

Faced with two options, the pro-life community divided over which to support. As Congressional Quarterly pointed out, “translating the general rhetoric about abortion into stark legislative language” exposed the divisions in a movement that seemed united when the issue at hand merely involved voicing opposition to the horror of abortion. Evangelical groups and New Right leaders supported the Helms bill. Several major Catholic anti-abortion groups, like the National Pro-Life Political Action Committee led by Father Charles Fiore, backed the Hatch bill. The National Right to Life Committee, after pressure from the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB), threw its support to the Hatch Amendment. The NCCB had testified before Congress in support of the Hatch Amendment, declaring it an “achievable solution to the present situation of abortion on demand.” But many Catholics, including some inside the NRLC, criticized the bishops for choosing political expediency over principle and noted that their endorsement of the Hatch Amendment departed from their prior insistence on a constitutional amendment guaranteeing full personhood to the unborn child. This turnaround, one conservative Catholic publication noted, “lacks any proper moral foundation, and indeed exists in a metaphysical and moral vacuum.”

But the bishops continued on with their efforts. As they had before, the bishops pushed the church to give its full support to the Hatch Amendment, directing priests in various archdioceses across the country to deliver messages supporting the Hatch Amendment at Mass and to ask parishioners to sign petitions in support of the amendment.

Even those supportive of the bishops’ move recognized its play for power. The Catholic Church had created the pro-life movement and its most important organization in the National Right to Life Committee. Yet by 1981, evangelical anti-abortion organizations had begun to eclipse the Catholic Church’s hold on the movement, especially after the political victories they had helped secure for pro-life candidates in the 1980 election. Those evangelical organizations had been largely courted by the New Right that, apart from the abortion issue, supported political positions in contradiction to many of the Catholic Church’s concerns. Supporting the Hatch Amendment, then, when the majority of the pro-life community and the New Right supported Helms’s bill, allowed the Catholic Church and its affiliate organizations to stand outside the anti-abortion consensus and New Right coalition and reassert its independence. In pressuring the NRLC to support the Hatch Amendment while evangelical groups backed the Helms bill, the Catholic Church also revived the theological divisions in the pro-life movement.

“Protestants are dismayed by the United States Catholic Conference approval of the Hatch amendment,” the executive director of the evangelical Christian Action Council stated after the bishops testified before Congress on behalf of the Hatch Amendment. Even Phyllis Schlafly displayed her greater allegiance to the New Right political agenda than the spiritual directives of her own church when she urged her Eagle Forum Newsletter readers to support the Helms bill, noting, “Catholics are not bound by any political statements made by a Bishops conference.” And the news media jumped on the chance to cover the widening divisions in the pro-life community. “Political reality has come home to the pro-life movement,” one prominent activist commented, “and it has been totally unpleasant.” The division, of course, only doomed both bills, allowing Reagan to remain above the fray. Falwell said in the summer of 1982 that though he retained “personal confidence” in Reagan’s commitment to ending abortion, he was also “a little anxious that we haven’t had some aggressive support.”

For quite some time, Reagan refused to endorse either bill, insisting instead that the pro-life movement agree on which bill they wanted to get behind. Recognizing the Helms bill had vociferous support from the evangelical pro-life wing, the National Right to Life Committee and other pro-Hatch organizations finally announced their support for the Helms bill as a vote approached, but they intended to continue supporting the Hatch Amendment also. Still, pro-life forces expressed ongoing frustration with the paltry efforts the White House expended on either bill. Reagan eventually decided to back each bill as it came up for a vote, a move calculated in part to keep all the factions of the pro-life movement happy but also a strategy that ultimately communicated the White House’s indifference to either measure. Reagan endorsed the Helms bill that came up first and lobbied for its passage at the last minute, but he did little to bring about consensus on the measure from the Religious Right. Now up for a vote in the Senate before the close of the 1982 congressional session, the Helms bill had been altered to also include language restoring school prayer. It failed to pass the Senate.

After the Hatch bill also failed early in 1983, pro-life activists fell into in-fighting, convinced the Helms-Hatch battle had weakened the effectiveness of a pro-life movement and distrustful they could ever act as a truly united force. Many shared Christianity Today’s fear that the president had hesitated to “endorse any particular initiative because pro-life groups failed to patch up their intramural differences.” Bickering inside the pro-life community reflected the tensions of a movement struggling to remain relevant. Polls showed an increasing numbers of Americans supported abortion rights, and the threat of a human life amendment had boosted the pro-choice movement. The National Abortion Rights Action League, for instance, reported membership grew by over 50 percent in just one year since the 1980 election, though its 125,000 members still paled in comparison to the millions who belonged to the NRLC and other pro-life groups. But the pro-life movement’s size provided room for the many disagreements that would challenge its success.

Excerpted from "We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics" by Neil J. Young. Published by Oxford University Press. Copyright 2015 by Neil J. Young. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

By Neil J. Young

Neil J. Young is a historian and independent scholar in New York City. He previously taught at Princeton University. Young holds a B.A. from Duke University and a Ph.D. in U.S. history from Columbia University. His articles have appeared in American Quarterly, the Journal of Policy History, the New York Times, Slate, Huffington Post, and the Christian Science Monitor.

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