Pilgrims' Progress

By Aikman, David | Policy Review, July-August 1997 | Go to article overview
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Pilgrims' Progress

Aikman, David, Policy Review

The scene certainly looked like a triumphant celebration of national power by religious conservatives. Two months before the 1994 elections, a procession of leading Republicans arrived at the ballroom of the Washington Hilton to preen, wink, and troll for votes in front of a conservative, largely evangelical gathering of the Christian Coalition. Phil Gramm, Lamar Alexander, and Trent Lott all delivered stem-winders promising a moral cornucopia for America if their various presidential and congressional campaigns succeeded in 1996. All offered visions of America that were flatteringly attractive to the euphoric crowd at this "Road to Victory" conference.

One might have concluded that the Christian Coalition had finally assumed the confident and unquestioned leadership of all culturally conservative Americans determined to put the country right--both politically and morally. But it is equally plausible that all the hoopla masked something far more ordinary: just another Washington flirtation between presidential wannabes seeking an enthusiastic audience and partisan activists desperate for a new moral and political champion.

A Place at the Table

After the election two months later, some in this audience attributed the stunning success of congressional Republicans to the ascendancy of the Religious Right. The GOP won a majority in the House of Representatives for the first time since 1954, and the hard work and support of Christian Coali- tion campaigners were probably indispensable. The Coalition mailed out 33 mil- lion voter guides and mobilized perhaps 4 million election workers during the campaign, including volunteers from about 60,000 churches, one-sixth of all churches in the nation.

In 1996, again with immense support from the Christian Coalition, con- gressional Republicans managed to hold onto their majority. Ralph Reed, the group's executive director, was enjoying a position of great influence within the GOP. Reed had broadened the Coalition's agenda to include topics as diverse as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the expansion of NATO membership. He had personally helped defuse what might have become a festering public dispute with the B'nai Brith Anti-Defamation League, an influential Jewish institution. He had tried persistently to overcome the suspicion of the African-American community.

Through all this, he insisted that the only objective of the Christian Coali- tion was to secure for Americans of faith a "place at the table" of American political and cultural decisionmaking. By April 1997, when he announced his departure from the Coalition, he had built its membership from zero to 1.9 million in just eight years and had become perhaps the most articulate and politically astute figure in the entire Religious Right.

By campaigning so actively on behalf of certain Republican candidates, the Christian Coalition, in fact, achieved far more than a "place at the table." For one thing, the 1994 and 1996 cohorts of new House members were far more representative of the nation's religious affiliations than any previous Congress. For example, about a quarter of new members of the House in 1994 were affiliated with evangelical churches, equaling (for the first time in modern political memory) the proportion of evangelicals in the U.S. electorate as a whole. And for the first time in modern political history, a majority of American evangelicals were telling pollsters that they favored the Republican party over the Democrats.

Yet the euphoria of 1994 deserves a second look. Success in House races notwithstanding, no open champion of the Christian Coalition--and hardly any candidates from the Religious Right--has been elected to a governorship or to the U.S. Senate since the Coalition formed in 1989--nor, for that matter, since the birth of the Moral Majority in 1979. More pointedly, the White House prospects of any political candidate closely associated with the Religious Right seem as remote today as they did in 1988, when Pat Robertson failed in his run for the GOP presidential nomination.

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