Evangelical Realignment: The Political Power of the Christian Right

Article excerpt

AFTER THE overwhelming Republican triumphs in the 1994 elections, pundits scrambled to find an explanation. Some attributed the results to "angry white men" or "antigovernment" sentiment. Others focused on the role of the Christian Right. Our analysis of the polls shows that the Christian Right was indeed crucial to November's results. It not only made distinct contributions to dozens of GOP victories, but also advanced the growing alignment of evangelical Protestants with the Republican Party. For the first time, a majority of evangelicals identify themselves as Republicans.

The contributions of the Christian Coalition illustrate the magnitude of the Christian Right's campaign. The coalition's national headquarters was bolstered by 48 state units, 1,400 local chapters and 1.5 million members. This formal structure sustained an informal web of activists, with some 17,000 neighborhood or precinct coordinators, 30,000 local workers, 23,000 "church liaisons" and contacts in about 60,000 churches. The coalition's network distributed 33 million "nonpartisan" voter guides, mostly to evangelical churchgoers. Produced for all congressional contests, as well as for many state and local races, the guides drew clear distinctions between candidates on issues dear to the coalition--without, of course, making any formal endorsement which might invite confrontation with the Federal Election Commission or the Internal Revenue Service.

The coalition's network also mailed over a million postcards, made more than a half-million get-out-the-vote telephone calls, and provided extensive volunteer assistance to candidate and party organizations. All this was on top of political information transmitted to The Christian American's estimated 450,000 monthly readers, the 700 Club's 200,000 weekly viewers, visitors to the coalition's homepage on Internet, and viewers of the coalition's program on National Empowerment Television.

The coalition was assisted by other organizations on the Christian Right, including Concerned Women for America (1,200 local chapters which issued 2 million voter guides), Focus on the Family and its state affiliates (26 organizations, 9 million voter guides), the Traditional Values Coalition and the American Family Association. In addition, dozens of independent state and local groups recruited volunteers and distributed campaign literature, with varying degrees of coordination, sometimes eclipsing the coalition's exertions. All told, the Christian Right probably mobilized 4 million activists and reached 50 million voters--a performance rivaling those of such traditional electoral powerhouses as the gun owners and labor unions.

All this activity pushed in one direction: for the Republicans. This exclusivism reflects not only the movement's natural affinity for GOP conservatism but also its new institutionalized role in Republican politics. After years of quiet growth, the proportion of evangelicals among party activists is now the same as that of evangelicals among all Republican voters. At the 1992 Republican National Convention, for example, about one-fourth of the delegates regarded themselves as either "members" or "supporters" of the Christian Right.

WHATEVER THEIR strength in the national GOP, the Christian Right is probably even more powerful in individual states. In 1994 Campaigns and Elections magazine found that the Christian Right was "dominant" in 18 state GOP organizations and had substantial influence in 13 more. Less systematic evidence suggests that the Christian Right may be strongest of all in local Republican committees. Christian Right influence is often portrayed as emanating from "unfriendly takeovers" by accomplished subterranean operatives, leading a minuscule but dedicated band of zealots. While a few cases fit this description, our analysis (and that of Clyde Wilcox of Georgetown University) of the Christian Right's influence in state GOPs reveals deeper social and political forces at work. …