This is one in a series of guest posts authored by students in an undergraduate course I taught during Spring 2014, “Protestantism and the Development of American Culture.” Each student’s task was to write an informative essay explaining some way that Protestants have shaped (or tried to shape) American culture. Students knew that their essays would be posted to this blog, so they would have a real-world online audience.
Students are entirely responsible for the content and quality of their essays; I am merely the vehicle for broadcasting them (though on the whole I’m reasonably pleased with the results).
A Rocky Relationship: Evangelical Protestants and Secular Conservatives Form a Political Alliance in Spite of Ideological Differences
By Matthew Durot
If you are at all like me, a 22-year old college senior with a merely casual interest in politics, it is unlikely that you have given much thought to the complex inner-workings of the Republican Party. However, if you paid any attention to the most recent presidential election, I would assume that you are at least vaguely familiar with a group commonly referred to as the Religious Right. Berated by Democrats and embraced by Republicans, the group appeared to command the media’s constant attention.
Lacking any historical frame of reference, it seems logical to assume that the Religious Right’s relationship with the Republican Party has been longstanding and mutually beneficial. However, as you will soon find out, the series of events that strategically bound these two allies together occurred more recently than you might think. Furthermore, despite their public expressions of commitment to the alliance, each party has suffered a series of disappointments that have led them to reconsider their support of one another.
Origin of the Alliance
For the first hundred years of the Republican Party’s existence, an alliance with the white evangelical Protestants that make up the current Religious Right was unfathomable. As Robert Booth Fowler points out in his book Religion and Politics in America, “the traditional Republican party promoted business interests” and had been responsible for ending slavery. This legacy placed it at odds with a group primarily made up of poor southerners. Furthermore, Fowler notes that “evangelicals long viewed with distaste political participation, which they saw as an engagement with the sinful world from which god wished them to abstain”.
However, this all changed with the arrival of the countercultural 1960’s. A postwar increase in affluence described by Fowler resulted in the movement of many evangelicals to cities and suburbs where they could no longer avoid what they saw as an “increasingly secular and intrusive culture that threatened their traditional values”.This led evangelicals to mobilize politically through a series of successful grassroots movements. Among the most significant achievements of these campaigns was the defeat of a 1977 gay rights ordinance in Dade County, Florida.
Having suffered consecutive electoral defeats in 1974 and 1976, the Republicans took notice and sought to embrace this energetic and previously unaccounted for demographic that made up 35% of the American population (Gallup Poll).
Compromising on Priorities
In his book Religion and Politics in the United States, Kenneth D. Wald describes how secular Republican strategists “offered assistance in the form of financing and political infrastructure to the emerging leaders of the evangelical conservative movement”. In return, these leaders were expected to “embrace a more comprehensive conservative program”. Although traditional social issues remained the priority of evangelicals, they agreed to dedicate their resources to a wide array of secular conservative causes. In order to justify this arrangement to their followers, evangelical leaders framed initiatives like increased defense spending “as a way to keep the nation free for preaching of the gospel”.
Together, the allies would launch what Wald describes as a “a full-frontal attack on big government as a threat to traditional religious and economic values”. Having, at least in principal, entered into this mutually beneficial alliance, the parties set out to retake America from their liberal opposition.
The Elections of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush
During the 1980 presidential election, the Republican Party’s efforts to appeal to its new constituency were on full display. According to Wald, “the leaders of the GOP granted considerable symbolic recognition to the Religious Right, featuring the group at its national convention and adding to its platform a constitutional amendment to restrict abortion as well as legislation to legalize prayer in public schools”. In return, the Religious Right mobilized for the GOP’s candidate Ronald Reagan, “encouraging pastors to sign up churchgoers to vote and to impress upon them the necessity to express their religious convictions in the polling booth”.
Due in large part to the unprecedented number of votes cast by evangelicals, Reagan went on to win the presidency in a landslide. The fact that evangelicals were so united in their support of Reagan is symbolic of their newly steadfast commitment to the Republican Party. After all, Reagan who is described by Fowler as “a divorced Hollywood veteran and intermittent churchgoer” had been opposed by an evangelical in Democrat Jimmy Carter.
Evangelicals remained politically active throughout Reagan’s successful reelection campaign as well as that of his successor George H.W. Bush. During his first campaign, Bush gave limited emphasis to conservative cultural themes. However, facing reelection with a struggling economy, Wald observes that “Bush pushed evangelical’s pro-family agenda much more aggressively”. Although he would go on to lose, Wald argues that Bush’s defeat can be attributed primarily to “the concern of moderate voters about the Christian Right’s capture of the party”. Therefore, it should not be viewed as an indication of diminishing evangelical support, but instead a sign of the group’s influence within the GOP as perceived by both party elites and the American public.
Unfulfilled Promises While in Office
Despite twelve consecutive years with a Republican White House, the Religious Right failed to secure any significant policy reform. In his article “Dead Wrong”, conservative columnist David Frum argues that many within the Republican elite viewed the Religious Right as nothing more than “a nuisance to be managed.” Evangelicals could not have been fully aware of these ulterior motives purportedly held by many of their supposed allies. However, Wald argues “it was clear to them that neither Reagan nor Bush had made social conservative issues clear priorities of their administrations”.
The proposed amendment to legalize prayer in public schools was voted down in the Senate. Additionally, a tuition tax credit championed by evangelicals for religious schools was never implemented. Yet the Religious Right did not turn away from the Republican Party. Instead, Wald argues that they reasoned their failed efforts had merely been the product of an American political system “whose fragmented structure and multiple centers of power were designed to resist radical policy change”.
A Change in Strategy
Having experienced the difficulty of achieving major policy reform at the national level, the Religious Right underwent a significant strategic shift in the years that followed. According to Wald, many leadership positions previously held by ministers were turned over to “seasoned political operatives recruited from secular conservative organizations.” Under the direction of these campaign veterans, newly created organizations such as the Christian Coalition were able to expand their outreach and fundraising capabilities through streamlined networks of local chapters and churches.
However, while these new leaders proved to be valuable from an operational standpoint, their secular influence was increasingly pervasive. All of a sudden, expansion had become the top priority. In an attempt to garner votes from outside of the evangelical community, Wald notes that the Religious Right “modified its agenda to include a broader set of issues appealing to other religious and secular conservatives”. Similarly, the language with which evangelical groups communicated their message was fundamentally altered. In his book The Evolving Politics of the Christian Right, Matthew C. Moen argues that in order to avoid alienating this new target audience, religious messages were disguised and replaced with “the liberal language of rights, equality, and opportunity”.
By placing the secular conservatives in power, the Religious Right risked losing its own identity. Having done more than their fair share to promote the alliance’s success, evangelicals expected to be repaid for their loyalty this time around.
The 1994 Midterm Elections
Despite how you may feel about this secular shift in evangelical politics, there is no denying that the new leaders of the Religious Right transformed the movement into a well-oiled political machine. Wald notes that “during the 1994 congressional election, the Christian Coalition alone distributed thirty-five million voter guides and made telephone calls to three million voters”. Such efforts played a pivotal role in a sweeping Republican takeover of both houses of Congress. However, in what was becoming a recurring nightmare for evangelicals, these elected representatives again proved unreceptive to their needs once in office.
The Religious Right had lobbied aggressively for the Republicans’ “Contract With America”, which Wald describes as “a legislative program emphasizing secular policies such as welfare reform and a balanced budget amendment”. However, in spite of their support for the plan, evangelical priorities such as “a constitutional amendment to ban flag desecration” were absent among the legislation ultimately enacted. Furthermore, major components of the Religious Right’s own “Contract with the American Family, including traditional calls to restrict abortion and shield Christian schools from state regulation” were repeatedly put off by the Republicans and ultimately ignored.
According to Wald, this was the last straw for many of the movement’s most influential activists, prompting them to call for “an evangelical retreat from politics”.
George W. Bush: One of Their Own
This may very well have signaled the end of the Religious Right’s alliance with the Republican Party had it not been for the candidacy of George W. Bush during the 2000 presidential election. Frank Lambert’s book Religion in American Politics argues that “in George W. Bush, the Religious Right found a born-again Christian who, unlike Jimmy Carter, spoke their language and subscribed to their views.”
According to Wald, Bush was not shy about declaring “that he regularly talked to God for political guidance”. Furthermore, Lambert notes that in addition to his belief in “the right of religious groups to a fair share of public funds”, Bush framed his policy in distinctively Protestant terms. For example, in promoting the War on Terror following the attacks of 9/11, Bush described America as a nation “called on a mission to root out radical Islam”.
If there was ever a candidate well-suited to promote the interests of the Religious Right, George W. Bush was certainly it. In spite of their past dissatisfaction with the GOP, evangelicals proved willing to give the Republicans one more chance. According to Fowler, Bush would go on to win the presidency “in large part thanks to a surge in conservative religious voters”.
Abandoned By Its Golden Child
During his Presidency, George W. Bush, made a concerted effort to provide evangelicals with what appeared to be unprecedented access to power. Wald notes that “in order to signal to evangelicals that his candidates belonged to pro-life churches, Bush made opposition to abortion a litmus test for Supreme Court appointees”. Furthermore, he “appointed a large number of evangelical stalwarts and approved their appointments of fellow activists to lower-level positions”. According to Wald, the evangelical presence within the Bush administration was so pronounced that it led Jimmy Carter to “alarmingly announce the Christian Right’s capture of American public life”. However, evangelical support for Bush would eventually sour.
Reflecting on his time in office, evangelicals found that like Reagan and his father before him, the younger Bush had not made their goals a priority. Wald argues that “secular goals central to the GOP agenda got all of the administration’s resources and generally secured legislative approval”. Meanwhile, Bush gave only a “half hearted effort to cherished goals such as faith-based federal programs and the ban on gay marriage”. These policies were either victimized by severe compromise in Congress or were voted down all together. The candidate who had provided the Religious Right with so much hope ultimately proved to be as disappointing as his predecessors.
Future of Evangelical Politics
Decades of disappointment with the Republican Party have left many evangelicals questioning their involvement in politics altogether. Whether due to a system resistant to radical change or an abusive ally concerned only with electoral gains, the Religious Right has been largely unsuccessful at accomplishing its social goals through the political process. Furthermore, in his book What’s the Matter With Kansas, Thomas Frank argues that by aligning themselves with the Republican Party, “less affluent evangelicals have effectively promoted economic policies that further undermine their life chances”
Additionally, Wald notes that many evangelicals worry “involvement in politics, an inherently messy business, has compromised the integrity of evangelicalism”. In addition to the secular influence examined previously, a number of infidelity and corruption scandals involving evangelical politicians have angered a religious group for whom morality reigns supreme.
Does the GOP Even Want the Religious Right?
On the other hand, its experience with the Religious Right has a faction of the Republican elite wondering if an alliance with conservative evangelicals might no longer be in its best interest. In fact, Wald argues that many within the party have long opposed the courting of a group whose agenda contradicts their libertarian stance on social issues. These same Republicans attribute the party’s recent string of defeats to the alienation of its traditional base in response to an increasingly intrusive social agenda. Despite the size of its evangelical constituency, the Republican Party cannot obtain a national majority with the support of the Religious Right alone. The question is, can the GOP survive without it?
Having become increasingly integrated into mainstream American society, it is no longer possible for evangelicals to abstain from the political process that dictates how they live their lives. Furthermore, the Republican Party simply cannot afford to lose the support of a religious group that as recently as 2012 made up 39% of the American electorate (Pew Research Center). Therefore, in spite of their growing disillusionment with one another, it is likely that evangelicals and secular conservatives will continue to co-exist as a political alliance moving forward.