Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Bush's Religious-Right Challenge

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Bush's Religious-Right Challenge

Article excerpt

Wags in Washington are telling a story these days: Two veteran GOP operatives are discussing the election, and one says, "I have good news and bad news."

"Tell me the good news first," says the other.

"The religious right stuck with Bush and helped him win the White House."

"Great! So, what's the bad news?"

"Well.... The religious right stuck with Bush and helped him win the White House."

This apocryphal story captures a major challenge facing George W. Bush: how to handle zealous social conservatives in the context of a razor-thin majority coalition. This problem isn't new to either American or Republican politics. Democrats struggled with the unwieldy New Deal coalition for decades, a major element of which was conservative Southerners.

Many of these folks and their descendants, now Republicans, vexed the last President Bush eight years ago. It is only the closeness of the 2000 election that makes George W.'s situation acute.

A few voting statistics put the problem in perspective. Observant evangelical Protestants, the core constituency of the "religious right," voted 84 percent for Bush, making up almost one-third of all his supporters.

Together with observant mainline Protestants and Catholics, religious conservatives accounted for better than half of all Republican ballots. But Bush also got crucial votes from other places: less-observant white Christians, other religious groups, and secular voters combined for more than two-fifths of his support. Despite this successful coalition-building, Bush lost the popular vote and barely won the Electoral College.

Based on these results, religious conservatives are demanding action on social issues, while other Republicans argue that such issues be put off - forever, if possible.

Muted during the campaign, this argument became audible during cabinet appointments and will become louder as the sub-cabinet is assembled, reaching a crescendo with judicial appointments, especially any Supreme Court vacancies.

Policy conflict promises to be fierce. Religious conservatives will want quick moves on abortion, such as executive orders reversing some of President Clinton's policies, and they will keep the pressure up to restrict abortions in federal programs. …

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