Do Americans, even in anxious times, prefer an optimistic leader or an angry one?
Hopeful liberal pundits and consultants have been announcing the death of the Christian Right since the 2006 elections. This year, some liberal bigwigs will no doubt amplify the call and raise lots of money from Democrats eager to hear their great come-and-get-it-day message and willing to pay for instruction on how to cash in.
Allow us our own prediction: On the day after the election, you will not see millions of Christian Right activists raptured off planet Earth. They will be left behind to continue more than thirty years of political activism from within the largest organized social movement in the United States today.
Yes, this is a time of debate and dissent within the Christian Right. There was audible grumbling floating above the crowd of more than 2,100 Christian Right activists in the hall of the Washington Hilton last October when it was announced Mitt Romney had won the Values Voters conference Presidential straw poll. It turned out that anyone who paid $1 to register online could vote in the poll. Among conference attendees, Mike Huckabee was the clear favorite, with 51 percent of the vote. Romney garnered 10 percent, and John McCain was far back at seventh place with 3 percent, trailing Fred Thompson and Rudy Giuliani.
Issues such as the war in Iraq, “Islamofascism,” and immigration drew as much or more enthusiastic attention as abortion and gay rights. The event ended with a farewell speech by James Dobson, a Christian Right founder and icon. Dobson used the opportunity to rake his political allies across the coals for supporting Republican Presidential candidates who were too soft on issues such as abortion and gay rights, or whose personal peccadilloes suggested their moral values lacked a righteousness rudder. And this was before McCain emerged as the Republican front runner. Even then, liberal pundits were declaring the Christian Right fractured and fading.
But McCain has not written off the Christian Right as powerless. The same McCain who, in his last bid for the Presidency, labeled various Christian Right leaders as “agents of intolerance” has not only apologized and embraced those leaders (Robertson and the late Falwell), but initially accepted the endorsement of one of the worst of the bunch, John Hagee, who infamously called Hurricane Katrina an act of God against New Orleans for scheduling a gay pride event.
In addition to the usual diatribes against gays, Muslims, and insufficiently subservient women, Hagee angered Roman Catholics with charges that their church is anti-Semitic, though in May he wrote the Catholic League for Civil and Religious Rights to “express my deep regret for any comments that Catholics have found hurtful.”
In his 1997 book, Day of Deception, Hagee says the United States is cursed. “As a nation, America is under the curse of God, even now,” he writes. “Look at the Scriptures and see for yourself. The stand we have taken on abortion, the stand we have taken against God in our classrooms, just may have sealed our doom.” Barack Obama had to face the heat when the Reverend Jeremiah Wright said “God damn America,” even though Wright qualified his statement. But McCain was given a pass until it came out that Hagee had said Adolf Hitler was fulfilling God’s will by driving Jews to return to Israel in accordance with biblical prophecy.
“Obviously, I find these remarks and others deeply offensive and indefensible, and I repudiate them. I did not know of them before Reverend Hagee’s endorsement, and I feel I must reject his endorsement as well,” McCain said on May 22.
Hagee’s outlandish positions are interesting not because they necessarily reveal anything about McCain’s views. Rather, they are interesting because of what they reveal about McCain’s initial political calculus—his perceptions of the power of the Christian Right.
Some have seen McCain’s strength rooted in his ability to appeal as a moderate conservative—one who might attract independent, and even some more conservative, Democratic voters. The embrace of the Hagee endorsement, however, suggests that McCain considers the Christian Right vote more crucial to his success than the independent/moderate vote.
Is McCain’s calculus correct? Are Christian Right voters essential to conservative victories in 2008? The variables make an early answer to that question unlikely. First, one has to factor in those Christian Right voters who may be motivated by a more liberal agenda—opposition to the war, protection of the environment, health care, and other social welfare needs. And among the most conservative of voters it remains an open question whether McCain’s courting of the right will be adequate to assuage their fears that he is not conservative enough.
Disappointment with McCain as the Republican Party candidate might lead some Christian conservatives to opt for a third party, but this would most likely be a symbolic protest vote that helps elect a Democrat. There is already talk of supporting the U.S. Constitution Party, a stronghold of ultraconservative and theocratic Christian nationalists founded in 1992 as the U.S. Taxpayers Party by rightwing activist Howard Phillips.
Is it possible that some ultraconservative candidate will become for the Republicans what Ralph Nader has been for the Democrats? It is impossible to predict, although it is clear that some in the Christian Right will be unable to vote for McCain for a variety of reasons—political, personal, or religious.
“The old guard of the Christian Right is passing from the scene, and no longer commands the loyalty of as many Christian Right voters as they once did,” says Richard J. Meagher, a political scientist at Marymount Manhattan College. He lists off the fading culture warriors: Dobson of Focus on the Family, Phyllis Schlafly of Eagle Forum, Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation, and Beverly LaHaye of Concerned Women for America. Evangelicals under thirty don’t seem to pay much attention to these folks. Michelle Goldberg, author of Kingdom Coming, however, notes that the “apparent left turn among younger evangelicals is not directly related to the rise and fall of the Christian Right” as a sociopolitical movement.
Meagher warns that “conservative political activists have been very skillful at taking issues such as ‘tax reform’ and the ‘war on terror’ and repackaging and reframing them as ‘family issues’ to attract support from the Christian Right.”
Meagher points out that each wave of conservative Christian organizing has left behind more institutional infrastructure in the form of publishing houses, radio and television programs, bookstores, and more. This “institutional thickening” bulks up the network of social movement organizations so that there is substantial momentum to carry it through divisive episodes, such as the current one.
There are also strategic reasons for the Christian Right to be lukewarm toward McCain. Author Adele Stan has been pointing out for months that Christian Right strategists used Pat Buchanan’s threat to bolt the GOP in 1996 as leverage to write into the Republican Party platform an ultraconservative wish list that helped sink the “too-liberal” Republican candidate Bob Dole. The next election in 2000 saw Republican strategists kneeling before the Christian Right voter base. This year it is possible that many Christian Right strategists will focus on Republican Senate seats and state elections and aim at rekindling a conservative resurgence in 2012.
Triumphalist liberal announcements of the death of the Christian Right notwithstanding, this network of social movements remains, and will remain, a potent political force in America for decades to come. They’ve spent decades building a movement that will not be undone by a few years of electoral losses.
The Reverend Katherine Hancock Ragsdale is the executive director of Political Research Associates (PRA) near Boston, and the vicar of a local Episcopal congregation. Chip Berlet is senior analyst at PRA, a blogger, and co-author of “Right-Wing Populism in America.”