Magazine article The Christian Century

What Coalition? Divisions in the Christian Right

Magazine article The Christian Century

What Coalition? Divisions in the Christian Right

Article excerpt

IN THE 1996 presidential campaign, Republican Party leaders made an effort to downplay the role of the Christian Right. Though members of the Christian Right played a major role in writing the party platform, they didn't appear on the convention podium once the TV cameras turned on for the evening broadcasts. For his part, Bob Dole emphasized economic issues, such as his 15 percent tax cut, not the social agenda of the Christian Right. Whether this strategy reflected an effort to broaden his coalition and reduce the "gender gap" or simply his unease with the Christian Right, the results were the same: the agenda of the Christian Right was hardly articulated and advanced by the GOP nominee.

While many members of the Christian Right may have been content to accept a relatively low profile over at the GOP convention, they grew increasingly restive over Dole's neglect of social issues in the general campaign. Indeed, some religious conservatives stated that they decided to stay home on election day rather than vote for Bob Dole. For example, Martin Mawyer, president of the Christian Action Network (which claims a membership of 250,000), stated in an opinion piece in the Washington Post that, because Dole was not addressing the concerns of "pro-family conservatives," he was not going to vote.

Nevertheless, members of the Christian Right tended to support the GOP in the 1996 election. An early postelection survey conducted by Wirthlin Worldwide indicated that despite a general drop in voter turnout, religious conservatives voted in record numbers: 29 percent of all voters in 1996 were born-again Christians who frequently attend church. The same poll indicated that 15 percent of all voters claimed to be either members or supporters of the Christian Coalition. Moreover, among those who described themselves this way, fully 67 percent voted for Dole while only 20 percent voted for Clinton. Exit polls revealed a similar story: whites who identified themselves as part of the Religious Right constituted 17 percent of all voters and cast their ballots overwhelmingly for Dole (65 percent to 26 percent for Clinton). Christian Coalition chief Ralph Reed had some basis for saying that "conservative evangelicals were the firewall that prevented a Bob Dole defeat from mushrooming into a meltdown all the way down the ballot."

Will the Christian Right's concern over Dole's 1996 presidential campaign affect members' future political activity? The answer is unclear. On the one hand, there is little doubt that the Dole campaign generated distrust and disillusionment among the movement's most fervent members. On the other hand, the Christian Right's successes in congressional, state and local races may help to encourage future political activity.

What is more clear is that there is considerable diversity within the Christian Right. Reed and his boss, Pat Robertson, continue to advocate Republican pragmatism. They want the GOP to be a flexible, strategic vehicle for their movement. Robertson said, for example, that religious conservatives should "begin working as early as 1997 to shape the message of the next Republican presidential campaign." Robertson wants to take control of the party away from inside-thebeltway operatives, whom he has denounced as "incompetent and uninterested in moral issues." But he also recognizes the need for political compromise and moderation, and argues for picking a candidate "who is electable."

For other Christian Right leaders, however, the time has come to withdraw from political engagement. While some advocate such withdrawal because they view politics as a relatively ineffective means to accomplish needed social change, others think political activity distracts believers from their highest priority, evangelism.

Other Christian Right leaders have endorsed unconventional forms of political engagement. Militant activists, for example, have used protest tactics and even violence against abortion clinics. …

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