The religious right's political power ebbs

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 30, 2007 

WASHINGTON — Palm Sunday two years ago was a glorious day for Christian conservatives.

A president who'd proclaimed Jesus his favorite philosopher was racing back from vacation to sign a bill rushed through a compliant Congress at their bidding — a last-minute gamble to keep alive a severely brain-damaged woman in Florida.

That, however, was the peak of the Christian conservatives' political power.

Today, their nearly three-decade-long ascendance in the Republican Party is over. Their loyalties and priorities are in flux, the organizations that gave them political muscle are in disarray, the high-profile preachers who led them to influence through the 1980s and 1990s are being replaced by a new generation that's less interested in their agenda and their hold on politics and the 2008 Republican presidential nomination is in doubt.

"Less than four years after declarations that the Religious Right had taken over the Republican Party, these social conservatives seem almost powerless to influence its nomination process," said W. James Antle III, an editor at the American Spectator magazine who's written extensively about religious conservatives.

"They have the numbers. They have the capability. What they don't have is unity or any institutional leverage."

The Religious Right never had absolute power in the Republican Party. It never got the Republican president and Republican Congress to pursue a constitutional amendment banning abortion, for example.

But it did have enormous clout in party politics and a big voice in policy, and it's lost much of both heading into 2008.

In the presidential campaign, for example, candidate Rudy Giuliani consistently leads national polls of likely Republican voters despite his support for abortion rights and gay rights, not to mention his three marriages.

Fred Thompson boasts of a strong voting record against abortion, yet he admitted recently that he doesn't go to church regularly and wouldn't support a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage because he'd rather leave it to the states.

"He is apparently the Great Hope that burns in the breasts of many conservative Christians," social conservative James Dobson said sarcastically in an e-mail to fellow conservatives. "Well, not for me, my brothers. Not for me."

Yet Thompson's support as measured by polls nationally and in the early voting states apparently hasn't suffered.

And all of the top Republican candidates felt free to skip a values forum in Florida organized by some of the country's top social conservatives, including Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation, Phyllis Schlafly of the Eagle Forum and Don Wildmon of the American Family Association.

The candidates will appear at a similar values voters gathering in Washington, D.C., but the snub of such high-profile social conservatives in a politically important state such as Florida would have been unlikely in the 1980s or 1990s.

"None of these candidates are ignoring conservative Christians," said John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron, "but they're not giving them as much attention as occurred in past elections. … There is at least the perception that these voters don't have the influence they once had."

In church, the generation of politically active, high profile evangelists such as Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell is giving way to new preachers such as Joel Osteen and Rick Warren, who shun partisan politics or are willing to embrace Democrats.

Warren, for example, hosted Democratic Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois at his California mega-church. He cites AIDS, poverty and illiteracy as top issues, not gay marriage or abortion.

In elections, the organizations that once gave political focus to Christian conservatives and turned their passions into votes have splintered or disappeared.

The biggest of them all, the Christian Coalition, is a shell of its former self. Its budget has crashed from a 1996 peak of $26 million to about $1 million. Its new director wants to expand to issues besides abortion and marriage. And state chapters in Alabama, Georgia, Iowa and Ohio have parted ways with the group they think is now too liberal.

Keith Appell, a Republican strategist, thinks that social conservatives appear less influential only because they're divided over the 2008 candidates and have lost the megaphone they once had in strong groups and high-profile leaders.

"There's a leadership vacuum that has not been filled," Appell said. "The longer it goes unfilled, the more the perception increases that their influence has decreased."

In the country, many people have shifted priorities. Even among white evangelical Christians, Iraq and other domestic issues are now more important than social issues, according to a recent poll by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

One reason could be that religious conservatives are victims of their own success. They managed to win a ban on late-term abortions and see it upheld by the Supreme Court. They helped drive dozens of states to adopt constitutional amendments or laws against gay marriage.

"Marriage doesn't seem to have the immediacy it had," said Green of the University of Akron, who is also a scholar at the Pew Forum.

Another could be that issues like abortion, which were more prominent in the relative peace and prosperity of the 1990s, have been trumped by war and the threat of terrorism in the 2000s.

"Some of the social issues have receded a bit," Green said. "The rise of the social issues was fairly dramatic toward the end of 1990s and start of the new century. But after 9-11, foreign policy again became a very important thing. People's priorities do change with events."

Many social conservatives themselves are debating their political priorities, with some suggesting that fighting AIDS or poverty is as or more important than defending heterosexual marriage. That could further complicate the political role of Christian conservatives — if Republicans nominate Giuliani.

"They are making a very grave miscalculation if they nominate a pro-choice candidate like Giuliani," said Richard Land, a Tennessee evangelist and the president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

"Most evangelicals have been voting Republican because they were given a bright-line choice between a pro-life candidate and a pro-choice candidate. If that issue were taken off the table, then other issues get oxygen, issues where evangelicals are not nearly as certain that Republicans offer the best answer. Issues like economic justice, racial reconciliation, the environment.

"If the Republicans are foolish enough to nominate a pro-choice candidate, they give the Democrats a license to go hunting evangelical votes."

McClatchy Newspapers 2007

McClatchy Washington Bureau is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service