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Grassroots Uprising?: The Marriage of the Christian Right and the Republican Party

Alex Hogan
Date Published: 
February 01, 2005
    Many progressives were initially stunned by the margin of the recent Bush victory in the popular vote. While the Republican right has long held the advantage in the corporate media and the political establishment, few realized or expected their success in an arena traditionally dominated by the unions or the Democrats: grassroots organizing. Alex Hogan explores the rise of the Christian Right as a major organizational force among working people, and their relationship with the Republican party.

If one thing emerges clear from the 2004 election, it is that the formerly outsider insurgents of the Christian Right are now the insider leaders of the Grand Old Party.

"Bush's victory not only establishes the power of the American Christian right in this candidacy, but in fact establishes its power to elect the next Republican presidents," grimly noted Arthur Finkelstein, advisor to the moderate Republican governor of New York, George Pataki to an Israeli paper soon after the election.

To a lot of the left, Bush's victory seemed to almost come out of nowhere. The continuing quagmire in Iraq, the largest domestic job loss since Herbert Hoover and the lingering questions of political legitimacy left over from the 2000 election debacle in addition to a massive grassroots effort both inside and outside the Democratic Party to dump Bush made it seem that it was John Kerry's election to lose.

Traditionally it was the Democratic Party that held the edge on voter turnout and volunteer mobilization, in particular the formerly union dense rust belt states like Ohio and Pennsylvania. It was assumed that it was that edge that would push Kerry to victory. The New York Times magazine even reported that volunteers for the pro-Kerry voter registration group ACT canvassing in Ohio saw little evidence of the Bush campaign.

But on the evening of November 2nd, it was Karl Rove and Ralph Reed who had the edge in voter turnout as they activated a large, if somewhat hidden grassroots network that brought out Bush voters to the polls. These voters were motivated by what has been spinned as "moral issues," known earlier in the decade as culture war issues; defined largely as opposition to gay marriage and abortion specifically, and broader "liberal secularism" in general.

Largely away from the media's eye, a network of evangelical Christian activists with the helpful prodding of Rove, worked the parking lots of new mega-churches handing out slate cards, knocked door to door in rapidly growing "exurbs" across the country prodded their neighbors to vote for "pro-family" candidates, and instructed fundamentalist pastors on how to get their parishioners to vote Republican without endangering their tax-exempt status. Recognizing that Bush could have possibly won the popular vote in 2000 if not for the fact that over 4 million evangelicals who voted Bob Dole in 1996 had stayed home on election day, Rove's strategy drove one of the biggest voter registration and get out the vote drives in recent Republican Party history.

Durable phenomena

The organizational muscle of the Christian right that reveled itself on election day did not come out of nowhere however, and despite many ups and downs over the last thirty years it has shown to be a rather durable contemporary phenomena in American politics that is unlikely to go away anytime soon.

One hundred years ago, the mix of Christian fundamentalism and politics was much more likely to be the possession of Midwest populists and socialists such as Democratic Party Presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan than the staid east coast bankers and industrialists of the Republican Party. The Populism of those days was the real deal compared to the contemporary faux-populism of Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh. It actually questioned and struggled against the economic power structure of the time and found that the New Testament had a lot more arguments in favor of the rights of the disposed and poor than big-bucks industrial bandits.

Fundamentalist or "born again" Christianity which grew greatly in the 1970's as seen by the growth of such fundamentalist denominations like the Assemblies of God and the Southern Baptists, emerged not as a response to economic injustice but as a conservative blue-collar reaction to the social changes of the 1960's, in particular the rise of feminism, the gay rights movements and other forms of social and cultural liberalism.

Initially most evangelicals, if they were political at all, leaned Democratic and President Jimmy Carter - the first President to claim to have a "born-again" experience - managed to win the majority of evangelical votes in 1976. Carter unknowingly helped the shift of the evangelical community to the Republican Party however when the IRS took away the tax-exempt status of hundreds of private Christian schools, leading to the genesis of the first major political movement of the Christian Right, the Moral Majority.

The brainchild of Reverend Jerry Falwell and conservative think-tank guru Paul Weyrich, the Moral Majority would register 2.5 million voters throughout the 1980's and lobby politicians on the issues of school prayer, abortion, and gay rights. The Moral Majority and the broader fundamentalist movement, which grew even stronger in the next decade with the developing popularity of television and radio shows like Praise the Lord and Pat Robertson's 700 Club, added a vital component to the grassroots army of the New Right, which had taken over the Republican Party under Reagan.

However the Moral Majority had largely gone into decline by the end of the decade, battered by the various televangelist scandals and the backlash of many moderate voters against the aggressive antics of Falwell and was dissolved in 1999. While the Christian right had wholeheartedly backed George H.W. Bush in 1988 and helped put him into office there was a large measure of distrust of him, as a throwback East Coast establishment Republican. Sections of the Christian Right helped start their own insurgency against him during the 1992 Republican primary when many backed ultra-conservative Pat Buchanan. But the forces of the Christian Right would quickly regroup under a savvier banner and with an unheard level of political sophistication.

Political machine

Ralph Reed was a 26-year old former organizer for the College Republicans when he met Pat Robertson who was coming off a failed bid in the 1988 Republican Presidential primaries. Reed talked Robertson into turning over his extensive campaign mailing lists, which became the beginnings of the Christian Coalition. With Reed as executive director, the coalition transformed the religious right into a serious political machine.

As a profile of Reed on put it, "Reed recognized that the religious right had staggered in the mid-'80s because it had 1) depended too much on national leaders and 2) alienated America with its red hot rhetoric. To remedy the first problem, Reed established hundreds of local chapters. Slowly that network took over school boards, county commissions, and state political parties." Reed was particularly impressed by the example of a group or religious conservatives in California who through door-to-door distribution of slate cards swept the 1990 California Republican primaries with like-minded conservatives.

Reed also sanitized the language of the Coalition, dumping some of its more extreme rhetoric in favor of cozier homilies like "family values." His efforts paid off. The Coalition went from a membership of 57,000 at its founding to 1.9 million by the end of the decade. In 1997 Christian conservatives had a strong if not dominate presence in 44 state Republican Parties, up from only 18 in 1994. Reed had transformed the conservative evangelical movement into perhaps the key leading section of the Republican Party. As one writer put it in 1996, "Religious conservatives now constitute the Republicans largest and most loyal bloc of voters in terms of their mobilizing power-a Republican equivalent of organized labor in the Democratic Party; in loyalty, the equivalent of the black vote"

The Coalition suffered greatly after Reed left in 1997 to become an independent campaign consultant, declining in membership to 400,000. Some commentators even began to claim that the Christian right was a political force was in decline after failing to drive out Clinton.

However as with the collapse of Moral Majority ten year earlier, the organizational acronyms and public leaders of the movement might have changed, but the troops of the religious right did not go away, they merely regrouped under newer and stronger leadership.

With the help of Reed, the Christian right reasserted its importance when Bush was able to mobilize it to defeat the campaign of Senator John McCain, who had indicated a strong dislike of the religious right, in the 2000 South Carolina Republican primary.

The rise of Bush in particular reflected the rising power of the Christian right. Bush ran for Texas Governor in 1994 as a "Compassionate Conservative", presumably to be distinguished from the overtly uncompassionate Falwell and House Speaker Newt Gingrich whose verbal gaffes and general unpleasantness were already becoming "radioactive" to the Party.

One of their own

Despite his attempts to sound more moderate, Bush's election represents the Christian right's greatest victory, because for the first time they have elected one of their own to the White House. Bush shares a common "born-again" experience with his last four predecessors, but he has made clear to the Christian Right that his agenda dove tails more closely with theirs than any previous Republican President.

One of Bush's first acts as Governor was to bring on as an advisor University of Texas professor Marvin Olasky. Olasky, an ex-Marxist turned born-again Christian had penned an influential polemic, "The Tragedy of American Compassion", which argued that poverty was the result of spiritual degradation that the government is unable to ameliorate and that the responsibility for the care of the poor should be subcontracted out to the Churches.

Bush quickly carried out Olasky's prescriptions in Texas, junking former Governor Ann Richards's extensive drug and alcohol treatments programs and replacing them with state-funded Bible camps, and brought those ideas to the White House when in 2001 he established the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives which channeled Federal funding to religious based organizations.

Bush also quickly realized that in order to solidify his Christian base, its leaders needed to have a direct channel to the White House and play a much bigger role in shaping its policy. Bush was soon holding almost weekly conference calls with such individuals as Falwell, Reed, and the National Association of Evangelicals President Ted Haggard. "We have direct access," Haggard told the Wall Street Journal. "I can call (and) he'll take my concern to the president and get back to me within 24 hours." Nearly every major "culture war" policy, including the constitutional amendment against gay marriage and the ban on late-term abortions issued by the Bush White House could trace its author to a thinker and/or leader of the Religious right.

Another figure sitting on many of those conference calls who is in the process of inheriting the mantle of leading public figure for the religious right is Focus on the Family founder James Dobson. An obscure child psychologist who railed against permissive parenting, Dobson established a million dollar publishing and radio empire that reached over seven million listeners from his Colorado Springs headquarters, which grew so large that it required its own zip code. While firmly part of the conservative camp, Dobson for the most part avoided playing a central role in politics which he saw as a distraction from the more important task of building his ministry, and stayed away from the media grandstanding favored by Fawell and Robertson.

It was the issue of gay marriage however that propelled him to organize his followers for Bush, writing in his book Marriage Under Fire that no less than 5,000 years of Western Civilization hung in balance if gay marriage was not stopped. Dobson is well aware of his vital role in saving the Bush presidency, informing Bush during a thank you call placed to Dobson that unless Bush is "more aggressive" in pushing the religious right's agenda, the Republican Party will "pay a price in four years". He also shed his traditional aversion to the media, appearing on Sunday morning talk shows threatening pro-choice Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter in a move to prevent him from assuming the chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Grassroots power

The largely Protestant Christian right was also successful in bringing in Catholics who traditionally vote Democratic, with Bush winning the Catholic vote with many leading Catholic bishops threatening their own parishioners with excommunication if they voted for the Catholic John Kerry.

A comparison of the grassroots power of the religious right with that of organized labor should be somewhat troubling to the Democratic Party. The experience of the Depression and the New Deal and rise of the Congress of Industrial Organization in manufacturing cemented the loyalty of most working Americans to the Democratic Party. 60% of the American workforce was unionized in 1960; now its 13.5%, with the vast majority of new job growth, largely in the service industry, unorganized.

A look at how the Bush campaign won formerly union dense Ohio, using methods largely pioneered by the Christian Coalition is telling. Thousands of precinct volunteers were recruited who registered voters and drove them to the polls to vote for Bush, while the Kerry campaign was largely reduced to bringing in out of state volunteers. In the new areas of rapidly expanding exurbs from Florida to Ohio to Nevada, places where unions are scarce, old mainline congregations like the Lutherans and the Methodists are replaced with generic fundamentalist mega-churches.

While the memories of the New Deal and even the Great Society are faded beyond recognition, the Christian right is filling a political and social vacuum that the Democrats have been unable to fill. Writer Barbara Ehrenreich recently wrote about the example of the McLean Bible Church of Virginia, a fundamentalist mega-church whose size is closer to a hockey stadium than a ramshackle Baptist Church whose services includes an employment clinic, childcare, ESL lessons and even loan service. Such services used to be carried out by the government programs put in place by Democratic politicians.

The Democratic Party has slowly watched their voting base erode, with more than a few of its leading figures participating in its demise, supporting NAFTA which eroded Midwest manufacturing and the dismantling of the welfare system that churches like McLean Bible are now filling in for. The functional near full agreement between the leadership of both parties on economic issues has allowed cultural ones to replace them with ambitious organizers like Reed cleverly manipulating them to create a grassroots political machine that has finally consolidated near total power, precinct by precinct and state party by state party, over the Republican Party and now holds the occupant of the White House in its debt.