Our "New" Religious Politics

Vol. 33 No. 3

By

Mark Silk is director of the Leonard Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College in Hartford, CT. He edits the center's magazine, Religion in the News.

On August 15, 2006, the Los Angeles Times reported that Focus on the Family, the most consequential organization of the Christian Right today, would be coordinating a large voter registration drive to recruit evangelical Protestants in battleground states for the coming elections. According to an e-mail announcing the drive, county coordinators would be responsible for “recruiting key evangelical churches.”

Dutifully noting the risk to the tax- exempt status of those churches, the Times quoted the Reverend Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, to the effect that this was “a blatant effort by [Focus on the Family founder James C.] Dobson to build a partisan political machine based in churches.”

And so what else is new?

The Old Religious Politics

Back in August 1980, leading evangelical pastors and Republican Party operatives got the Christian Right off the ground at a workshop in Dallas called the National Affairs Briefing. Under a thin veneer of nonpartisanship, the purpose was to mobilize hitherto politically inert white evangelical churches as engines of Republicanism. “Get ’em saved; get ’em baptized; get ’em registered” ran one slogan. Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan addressed the group. “I know you cannot endorse me,” he said with a wink and a nod. “But I endorse you and all that you do.”

The program worked. Over a quarter century of Republican political ascendancy, white evangelicals have been transformed into the Grand Old Party’s (GOP) core constituency. But what is still not so well recognized is the central role of their churches in this transformation.

Americans are prepared to grant that religion per se has a legitimate role to play on the public stage. In October 1980, Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell groused to Time that those who were attacking him and his colleagues were hypocrites who had never objected to religion in politics when the perpetrators were clergy supporting liberal causes like civil rights and opposition to the war in Vietnam. “What bothers our critics is that we don’t agree with them,” Falwell said.

But, in fact, hypocritical critics were not much in evidence at the time. Even before Falwell’s remarks saw the light of day, that icon of liberalism, Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe, was on record in the New York Times saying, “The tradition of the intermixture of religion and politics is too ingrained in our national life to be eliminated. It is extremely important to the principle of freedom of speech that this process not stop just because some are distressed by the content of the speech or the speaker.”

Over the years, as the Christian Right became ever more thoroughly enmeshed with the Republican Party, the establishmentarian view continued to be that religion and politics mix reasonably well. During the 1988 presidential campaign, for example, when quasi-clergymen Pat Robertson and Jesse Jackson ran for the nominations of their respective parties, the Washington Post’s chief political observer, David Broder, pronounced in a December 1987 column, “It’s a healthy phenomenon, in the eyes of this secular reporter-critic, and not the menace some see. The clerics sometimes speak uncomfortable truths to the mighty.” The relative lack of concern about the GOP’s growing dependence on white evangelicals also can be laid to the recognition that, throughout American history, ethno-religious identity generally has been a strong marker of party preference. After the Civil War, white Protestants in the North tended to vote Republican, while white Protestants in the South were solidly Democratic. The New Deal Democratic coalition featured urban Catholics, Jews, and African American Protestants.

Not that the preferences have not changed over time. Mormons today are much more Republican than they once were. White Catholics have shifted in a Republican direction even as Latino Catholics, except those from Cuba, remain as solidly Democratic as ever.

One way to understand the Republicanism of white evangelicals today is as the consummation of a shift of white Southerners that began when the national Democratic Party embraced civil rights after World War II. One might lament that shift or applaud it, but from the perspective of ethno-religious political patterning, it can be seen as nothing new under the sun.

Likewise, opponents of the evangelical-Republican advance have been able to indulge in wishful thinking. The Christian Right’s inability to push through all its agenda items is regularly cited as a sign that its influence is limited. And as marquee national organizations like Falwell’s Moral Majority and Robertson’s Christian Coalition have ebbed and flowed in roughly ten- year cycles, the ebb tide has brought a wash of commentary suggesting that now, finally, the evangelical incursion into American politics is at an end.

Mobilizing the Base

But beneath the surface, at the state and local levels, the mobilization of churches has gone on apace. Just as the labor movement became tied to the Democratic Party in the 1930s, gradually replacing the big city political machines as the party’s engine of activism and voter mobilization in the industrial heartland, so during the past two decades the evangelical churches have become the organizational base of the Republican Party across the South and in parts of the Midwest.

Georgia provides a good example of how this process can work. In 2002, the Georgia Republican Party gained control of the governor’s office and state house for the first time since Reconstruction. The orchestrator of this process was Ralph Reed, who made his bones as the first executive director of the national Christian Coalition. When Reed became chairman of the Georgia Republican Party in 2001, he did not, contrary to what some in the news media claimed, abandon religious for secular politics. His object was to use his new position to forge stronger links between the two. Central to the effort was the state Christian Coalition, which came to serve as the operational interface between the Republican Party apparatus and the churches. See "Church Politics".

After the 2002 election, Sadie Fields, the head of the Georgia Christian Coalition, sent an e-mail to members of the organization that read in part, “While standing on principle, we must govern wisely and incrementally, and to that end I will work with the Governor’s office to ensure that our agenda is reasonable and attainable.” That “we” speaks volumes.

The IRS on the Case

It is no accident that the closest analogy to the politics of Georgia’s white evangelical world can be found in black Protestantism. Southern whites were only too well aware of the central role of black churches in the civil rights struggle, and the first leaders of the Christian Right clearly used the civil rights movement as their model. That many black churches serve as forums for friendly (usually Democratic) politicians to make themselves known in the black community—and perhaps receive a pastoral endorsement—is a secret to no one.

While an argument can be made that the concern of the black churches has been less with party politics than with the interests of “the community,” it is doubtful that would persuade an Internal Revenue Service (IRS) seriously interested in cracking down on church- based politics. With sins available for chastisement on both sides of the aisle, the IRS could, if it chooses, pursue a nonpartisan attack on church-based politicking—and there are indications that it is becoming seriously interested in doing so.

Historically, the IRS has tended to look the other way as long as the politicking did not involve public advocacy for or against a candidate. But in a speech in February 2006, IRS Commissioner Mark Everson warned, “Are we going to let these political activities spread to our charities and churches? Now is the time to act, before it is too late.” At the time, the agency announced a new Political Activity Compliance Initiative, reiterating it in June via news releases and notices to denominations as well as other tax-exempt organizations and tax preparers. Under the program, the IRS will investigate allegations of wrongful campaigning year round, rather than waiting for the tax year to end.

How aggressive or effective enforcement will be remains to be seen, of course. The one case that has attracted public attention is an IRS investigation of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California, where, shortly before the 2004 election, the pastor took to the pulpit to criticize the war in Iraq. Given that the alleged infraction seems well within the bounds of permissible nonpartisan speech, the case has elicited considerable concern among civil libertarians.

Indeed, those concerned about mixing politics and religion have reason to worry about the new IRS program. Close government scrutiny of the internal activities of religious institutions is an unappealing prospect, not only because it may have a chilling effect on free speech but also because it would enhance the likelihood that the law would be changed to make overt partisan politicking no bar to tax exemption.

Closing the Gap?

Tax liability aside, it is worth bearing in mind that religious congregations do not get involved in electoral politics unless there is very wide consensus among the congregants. In even the most politically active churches, worship and religious education are the highest priorities, and the last thing presiding clergy want is a house divided against itself over election campaigns. As much as anything else, the potential for division is what keeps most congregations out of the political arena.

Those eager to pump up Democratic outreach to religious folks have to recognize that, outside of African American churches, there are relatively few religious institutions whose congregations are sufficiently homogeneous politically to be activated on behalf of Democrats. Catholic and mainline Protestant churches, in particular, tend to have congregants with diverse political views.

Nor is that the only reason that, when it comes to religion, Democrats would have trouble imitating the Republican ground game. Nearly two decades ago, students of exit polling noticed that voters of all faiths who said they attended religious services at least once a week were a few percentage points more likely to vote Republican than Democratic in presidential and congressional elections. At first dismissed as something of an oddity, this “religion gap” began to be taken more seriously in the 1990s, when it grew into double digits. In 2000, researchers were surprised to discover that 60 percent of the frequent attenders (of whatever faith) voted Republican—a religion gap seven percentage points greater than the largest gender gap ever recorded in a national election (in 1996). Yet religious issues had not figured prominently in the 2000 campaign, and Democratic nominees Al Gore and Joe Lieberman both made considerable efforts to show themselves as religion-friendly.

During President George W. Bush’s first term, the news media seized on the religion gap—often called the “God gap”—because his presidency seemed to offer such good evidence for it. As the nation’s leader, Bush conveyed the impression that he was powerfully motivated by his religious convictions. Politically, the president’s men made appealing to all “people of faith”—but especially to the evangelical base—central to their electoral strategy. Neither by word nor deed, however, did Bush actually increase his share of the religious vote during that first term. In 2004, frequent attenders voted for him at the same 60 percent rate as they had in 2000, and as they had voted for Republican House candidates in the 2002 midterm elections. Bush or no Bush, the country seemed to have acquired a religious-versus secular party politics more characteristic of Western Europe than America.

Previously, the closest the United States had ever come to such a politics was very early on, in the wake of the French Revolution, when Federalists campaigned against Thomas Jefferson by accusing him of being an atheist Francophile who would inaugurate a Reign of Terror in America. In the second year of Jefferson’s presidency, Alexander Hamilton conceived a scheme to boost the Federalists’ flagging fortunes by setting up a Christian Constitutional Society, with chapters in every state of the infant union. Nothing came of it. Hamilton’s ally James A. Bayard, a congressman from Delaware, told him he thought the Federalists lacked the passion of the Jeffersonians to pull it off. “We have the greater number of political Calculators,” he wrote, “& they of political fanaticks.” The Christian Constitutional Society finally has been incarnated in the network of evangelical churches and parachurch organizations we call the Christian Right, and it is as well supplied with passion as calculation.

The exit polls from the 2006 midterm election show that the religion gap has shrunk. They show that unhappiness with the war in Iraq and corruption in Congress—and perhaps even unaddressed domestic economic and social concerns—impelled frequent worshipers to vote Democratic in greater numbers than at any time in the last decade. And so, not surprisingly, there are those who once again read the tea leaves to say that the Christian Right may have gone into permanent eclipse. Don’t hold your breath.

As published in Human Rights, Summer 2006, Volume 33, Number 3, p.9-11.

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