How "Radical" Is the Christian Right?

Article excerpt

Going on two years since Patrick Buchanan delivered his infamous "cultural warfare" speech at the 1992 GOP convention, I am still invariably asked on radio talk shows: hasn't the Christian right's "extremism" become a liability for "mainstream" Republicans? My answer, also invariably, is both "yes" and "no"

The Christian right's flamboyant convention antics scared a lot of television viewers but, at the same time, signified the movement's arrival as the Republicans' biggest and most reliable constituency. As the Christian right continues to march steadily, though less noisily, toward assuming political power, movement leaders are now debating their future--as unyielding moral crusaders, as rank-and-file Republicans, or as some combination of both.

While the Christian right stands to mature in the process of charting its own course, critics of the movement seem to be wearing blinders; they continue to depict politically active evangelicals as "extremists" somehow outside or not belonging to "mainstream" culture, let alone everyday party politics. But opponents of the Christian right stand to lose if they do not recognize that, while the movement indeed has some wild policy goals, the agenda is supported by million of people as common as the next door.

Take last fall's elections in the state of Virginia. The Democrats tried to turn the election into a referendum against Christian-right-backed candidates, and that strategy failed. First-time candidate Michael Farris, a home-schooling activist and former attorney for Concerned Women of America, was pilloried as a raving "extremist"; he lost the race for lieutenant governor but still managed to raise $1 million and win 46 percent of the vote. On the other hand, Governor George F. Allen and Attorney General James S. Gilmore III, both moderate Republicans, won largely because of support from right-wing evangelicals. (After the election, Allen appointed prominent anti-abortion activists to his transition team and sought to nominate Family Research Council Vice-President Kay Cole James as Virginia's secretary of health.) In fact, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mary Sue Terry saw her poll ratings plummet following negative TV ads and speeches portraying Allen as a darling of the Christian-right "extremists." In a state where a third of the voters identify themselves as evangelical Christians, the Democrats' name-calling smacked of religious bigotry. Post-election commentators drew the lesson that, for mainstream Republicans, Christian-right backing helps more than it hurts.

That's because negative campaigning has limited appeal and because--like it or not--the Christian right genuinely represents a solid minority of Americans. In some parts of the country, that minority is a majority. Last summer, six Oregon counties passed preemptive measures banning civil-rights protections for gay citizens. The measures were sponsored by the activist Oregon Citizens' Alliance, but they won because thousands of voters share the Christian right's homophobia. To call them all "extremists" will not change the vote tallies.

Why, then, do liberal critics of the Christian right persistently resort to broad-brush slogans like extremism and a related epithet, the radical right? I can offer a few reasons. These terms were first popularized during the 1950s and 1960s when prominent political scientists, in dutiful service to the liberal wing of the Cold War establishment, labeled Senator Joseph McCarthy and his admirers as paranoid "radicals," alien to the American body politic. In reality, McCarthy drew his support from the same Republican faithfuls who had elected President Eisenhower. Popular right-wing groups like the John Birch Society emerged only in the late 1950s, well after political elites had turned the pursuit of "communist subversion" into a national religion. By then, polite society was keen to depict wild-eyed Birchers as "extremists," even as they played by democratic rules and helped win the Republican nomination for Barry Goldwater. …