Academic journal article Policy Review

Casting a Wider Net: Religious Conservatives Move beyond Abortion and Homosexuality

Academic journal article Policy Review

Casting a Wider Net: Religious Conservatives Move beyond Abortion and Homosexuality

Article excerpt

During Adlai Stevenson's second losing campaign for the presidency in 1956, Harry Truman met with the embattled candidate to offer him some advice. Mr. Stevenson, then badly trailing Dwight Eisenhower, asked the former president what he was doing wrong. Mr. Truman led him to the window, pointed to a man walking down the street below, and said, "What you've got to do is figure out how to reach that man."

This same dilemma now faces the pro-family movement. Though blessed with talented leadership, strong grassroots support, and enormous financial resources, it has not yet completely connected its agenda with average voters. The pro-family movement still has limited appeal even among the 40 million voters who attend church frequently, identify themselves as evangelicals or orthodox Roman Catholics, and consider themselves traditionalists on cultural issues.

Developing a Broad Agenda

There are many explanations for this political disconnect. One is a basic breakdown in communication. In his incisive critique of the "family values" theme of the 1992 campaign, pollster Richard Wirthlin points out that political communication proceeds on three levels: policy, personal benefit, and values. The pro-family movement's political rhetoric has often been policy-thin and value-laden, leaving many voters tuned out.

Values are important to voters, but values alone are not enough. The successful candidate or movement must promote policies that personally benefit voters - such as tax cuts, education vouchers, higher wages, or retirement benefits. Without specific policies designed to benefit families and children, appeals to family values or America's Judeo-Christian heritage will fall on deaf ears.

A related shortcoming is that pro-family activists have built their movement around personalities rather than policies. Visible religious figures play a vital role in building grassroots membership and generating financial support. But their personal charisma, while an important asset, is no substitute for good policy.

Prominent personalities are always critical in building social movements. Labor unions were dominated in the 1940s and 1960s by controversial figures like John L. Lewis of the United Mine Workers or Jimmy Hoffa of the Teamsters. Today, however, labor organizers are more likely to be lower-profile political professionals. The same can be said of the civil-rights movement, which no longer has one dominant figure such as Martin Luther King. A similar transition will probably occur in the pro-family movement during the coming decade.

The pro-family movement in recent years has put too much emphasis on political solutions to America's social problems. Political involvement alone will not bring about cultural renewal: it is also important for the faith community to feed the hungry, teach the illiterate, provide loving care for unwed mothers, bring together families, and reawaken the spiritual life of criminals. These require cultural institutions more than election-day mobilization.

The most urgent challenge for pro-family conservatives is to develop a broader issues agenda. The pro-family movement has limited its effectiveness by concentrating disproportionately on issues such as abortion and homosexuality. These are vital moral issues, and must remain an important part of the message. To win at the ballot box and in the court of public opinion, however, the pro-family movement must speak to the concerns of average voters in the areas of taxes, crime, government waste, health care, and financial security.

Attracting a Majority of Voters

The issues of abortion and gay rights have been important in attracting activists and building coalitions. When tactics become ends in themselves, however, social movements falter. Abolitionists spent decades in the early 19th century petitioning Congress in vain for antislavery laws before expanding their focus to the free soil movement. …

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