CoverStory

For God and country

The Christian right is alive and flourishing in the American body politic

By Lee Marsden

For well over 30 years, the Christian right, a loose coalition of fiscal and social conservatives predominantly from white evangelical and Catholic traditions, has played a significant role in US politics at home and abroad. From its emergence during the late 1970s as a reaction to perceived moral decline and strident secularism, to the present day maturation into a formidable political machine intrinsically linked to the Republican Party, the power and influence of the Christian right continues to enthral political commentators and disturb liberal America.

Today, in all but a few states, the Christian right have established themselves as either a significant or the dominant faction within the Republican Party. The Christian Coalition was credited with mobilising the conservative evangelical vote securing the election of Republican majorities in both houses of congress in the 1990s. In the 2000 general election, they successfully managed to elect one of their own in George W. Bush through the distribution of 70 million voter guides. Bush received 74 per cent of the white evangelical vote, which increased to 78 per cent in 2004, securing his re-election. Christian right supporters tend to be politically active. They not only turn out to vote but mobilise others to do so as well. The Christian right has effectively become the Republican Party’s base, and candidates for political office are obliged to engage with the movement and acquiesce at least in part to its program.

The 2008 election revealed the continuing influence of the movement when John McCain, unpopular with the Christian right, was obliged to introduce Sarah Palin as his running mate. Support for McCain among white evangelicals prior to her selection ran around 61 per cent, by election day that support had grown to 73 per cent. Palin may have deterred more voters than she attracted, but for the Christian right she was their candidate. The movement tends to think strategically in terms of how it can maximise its power and influence. The Christian right candidate Mike Huckabee did not receive overwhelming backing from the movement because he was not deemed a credible presidential candidate who could defeat the Democrats. Mitt Romney was rejected because, as a Mormon, half the movement would not consider Mormons to be Christian.

In 2012 the Christian right’s best-known politicians Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee have declined to stand, and yet out of six candidates going into the primaries they have two of them: Rick Perry and Rick Santorum. Meanwhile, all four of the other candidates have had to tailor their appeal to the Christian right to become credible. If we take the Family Research Council’s voter guides as an indication of key issues for the movement, Santorum is the only candidate who has a 100-per-cent record. All six candidates oppose taxpayer-funding of abortion, only Jon Huntsman and Ron Paul oppose a marriage protection amendment to the constitution that defines marriage as the union of one man and one woman, and only Mitt Romney and Ron Paul support the elimination of the policy that prohibits open homosexuality in the military.

In recent times the influence of the Christian right has been increased by the rise of the Tea Party, which although primarily concerned with lowering taxation has considerable overlap in support. Michele Bachman formed the Tea Party caucus in congress, and as a conservative evangelical and member of Christians United for Israel, should have been be ideally placed to represent the Christian right, yet she consistently trailed behind in the polls before her withdrawal.

The most prominent of the Christian right candidates is Texas Governor Rick Perry, who succeeded George W. Bush when the latter moved into the White House. Perry, who led the opinion polls at one stage before falling spectacularly following a series of poor performances in the Republican debates, is popular with social conservatives and the Tea Party for his strong jobs creation record in Texas and his commitment to social values. In 2001, as governor of Texas he signed a hate-crime bill designed to protect homosexuals, but later founded a network of evangelical pastors to back a ballot initiative to ban gay marriage.

As an evangelical he has openly involved the church in political rallies, including one in a football stadium in Houston attended by 40,000 conservative evangelicals. The move cemented Perry’s position as the leading Christian right candidate. He has adopted a hawkish foreign policy perspective urging the overthrow of the Iranian government and the deployment of US troops in Mexico to deal with drug cartels. He has also endeared himself to the Christian right with demands for the reinstatement of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’, asserting that, “you don’t need to be in the pew every Sunday to know that there’s something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military.” His declaration to “end Obama’s war on religion” follows a consistent theme of the Christian right that they are persecuted and that their values are threatened by an overarching state. Unfortunately for Perry his debate performances have been so poor that Christian right voters have turned to the third member of the triumvirate, Rick Santorum, a conservative Catholic and former senator for Pennsylvania.

Santorum has emerged from his near win in Iowa as the Christian right’s favoured candidate. His social conservatism, impeccable record on traditional family values issues, hostility towards gay rights and abortion, support for Israel, and aggressive foreign policy position towards Iran endears him to the Christian right. Santorum may emerge as the main competitor to Romney if the Christian right are able to coalesce around one of their own. Failure to do so in 2008, when they failed to back Mike Huckabee believing him to be unelectable, resulted in the selection of McCain.

POLITICS AT HOME

The Christian right is at least partly responsible for the culture wars of the past 30 years that have made political rivalries so toxic. The original campaign issues promoted by the Moral Majority have largely remained unchanged. The Family Research Council’s 2012 Values Voters Republican Presidential Voter Guide highlights 10 key questions that should be borne in mind when voting for the current set of Republican hopefuls. The list defines candidates’ positions on opposition to abortion, secular reproductive health organisation Planned Parenthood, stem cell research, human cloning, estate tax, traditional marriage, federal employment non-discrimination, constructionist judges, educational choice, and homosexuality in the military. The Christian right have waged intensive campaigns around these issues through political lobbying carried out by myriad single-issue organisations and political action committees. The use of action alerts encourages the millions of supporters to lobby politicians and decision-makers locally and nationally.

An extensive network of hundreds of Christian right radio stations, television broadcasting companies, publishing companies, and new media operate to disseminate a socially and fiscally conservative message. Pat Robertson’s 700 Club produced by the Christian Broadcasting Network has become a vehicle for broadcasting not only Robertson’s own views, but also those of Republican politicians reaching out to the Christian right constituency. Fox News and the hundreds of right-wing radio stations across the country now provide a mainstream conduit for the propagation of the Christian right message.

Whether restricting access to abortion, campaigning for anti-Roe v. Wade appointments to the Supreme Court or opposing progress towards equal rights for homosexual men and women, Christian right organisations have not let up on the culture wars. In 1996, they succeeded in persuading congress to enact the Defence of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as being between one man and one woman and allows states to not recognise same-sex marriage. Thirty-nine states have statutes defining marriage in this way, while only seven recognise same-sex marriage and a further five recognise civil unions. State legislatures’ decisions to recognise same-sex marriage have subsequently been overturned through successful campaigns by the Christian right in alliance with other Christian and Muslim organisations and places of worship in California, Florida and Arizona. The American Family Association have deterred PepsiCo, McDonalds and Ford Motor Company from supporting gay rights, campaigning against charitable donations to organisations they deem to be against the traditional family.

The movement has sought to break down the wall of separation between church and state through a combination of civic and legal activism. Jay Sekulow’s American Centre for Law and Justice organisation has been successful in challenging rulings preventing student-led prayer in schools, the use of school buildings to show religious films, and anti-abortion activists protesting outside reproductive health centres. The most successful example of the breakdown of the separation of church and state occurred under George W. Bush’s presidency with the establishment early in his presidency of the Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives which encouraged faith-based organisations, overwhelmingly conservative evangelical and Catholic organisations, to bid for a billion dollars of federal funds to provide social welfare services. Although successful organisations were not permitted to proselytise, they were able to sandwich service provision with religious messages and services. The principle being that the evangelism was carried out using the organisations’ own resources and the federal funding provided only for the service. The faith-based initiative extended to USAID and assistance overseas, which was increasingly channelled through US faith-based groups and their religious associates. The Christian right successfully diverted money away from established secular practitioners, such as International Planned Parenthood and Marie Stopes, to organisations that would abide by a global gag rule against discussing abortion and that promoted abstinence-only programs to prevent HIV/AIDS.

The movement was instrumental in causing the United States to engage meaningfully with Africa for the first time through the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (PEPFAR), which provided an initial $15 billion of assistance to combat AIDS and HIV. The Christian right campaigned and succeeded in ensuring that one-third of the money for prevention was awarded only to those organisations promoting an abstinence-only program and eschewing advice on the use of condoms. Towards the end of his term of office, Bush agreed to provide a further $48 billion and extend the program to include malaria.

Obama was obliged to continue Bush’s PEPFAR initiative, and faith-based initiatives at home and abroad have become an integral part of the delivery of social welfare provision. Obama even expanded the role for religious organisations through reforming the Faith-based and Community Initiative into the Office of Faith-based and Neighbourhood Partnerships with a presence across nearly all government departments. In addition, he introduced a president’s advisory council to advise on aspects of government policy related to the Faith-based and Neighbourhood Partnerships programs. Whereas Bush opened up opportunities particularly to Christian right organisations, Obama has extended this to all religious groupings. The achievement of the Christian right in this regard has been to put religion centre stage in discussing how welfare and assistance should be administered.

FOREIGN POLICY

Internationally, the Christian right have shaped debate through campaigning on traditional family values and opposition to gay and reproductive rights. Through the World Congress of Families, Family Research Council, and Concerned Women of America, conservative evangelicals link with Catholics, Mormons, Muslims and religious conservatives around the world to campaign against gay rights and abortion. The Christian right has successfully campaigned to ensure that the United States remains one of the few countries in the world not to support the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women.

Following religious persecution of Christians in Sudan in the 1990s, the Christian right joined forces with civil rights organisations, neoconservatives, and liberals to persuade the Clinton administration to introduce the International Religious Freedom Act in 1998. The act established the Office of Ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom, a bipartisan Commission on International Religious Freedom, and required the State Department to submit an annual report on the religious freedom of countries around the world to congress. The Christian right has successfully been able to use religious freedom and faith-based initiatives overseas to spread its influence internationally, forming close working relationships with religious conservatives worldwide.

The Christian right has also enjoyed considerable success in promoting a pro-Israel agenda in US foreign policy through unequivocal support for Likud’s negotiating position with the Palestinians. Working with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, activists ensure that Democratic and Republican congressmen and senators are signed up to a pro-Israel agenda that precludes criticism of Israel, endorses military assistance, encourages settlement-building in the occupied territories, discourages contact with Hamas, and actively promotes Israel’s interests. Hundreds of thousands of Christian Zionists, organised around numerous pro-Israeli groups, including Christians United for Israel, can be mobilised to lobby politicians around this agenda.

Following criticism by the Christian right, Bush ceased criticism of Israel’s reoccupation of Hebron in 2002 and its program of targeted assassinations, and refused to intervene in the Israeli attacks on Southern Lebanon in 2006 or Gaza in 2008/9. President Obama has been equally ineffectual in dealing with Israel. He has so far failed to move towards a peaceful resolution of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Christian right leaders and organisations have also been vociferous advocates in the war on terror, supporting the Iraq invasion and agitating for tougher action against Iran.

THE CHOSEN ONE

As of January, polling suggests that Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney will be the candidates to beat and that the Christian right will play a leading role in securing the selection of one of them and will receive support for their favoured policy objectives. Gingrich has been the more adept of the two in terms of reinventing himself to appeal to this constituency. In spite of a track record of ethical impropriety during his time as speaker, conducting an affair at the same time as pushing for the impeachment of president Clinton, and leaving two seriously ill wives for mistresses, he has received a warm reception from evangelicals. After confessing his wrongdoing and asking God’s forgiveness he converted to Catholicism which plays well with an evangelical audience that is defined by a redemption narrative.

Gingrich has taken on an increasingly prominent role in America’s culture wars, producing revisionist historical films and books on the country’s religious inheritance and pledging on day one of his presidency to “examine and document threats or impediments to religious freedom in the United States.” Newt Gingrich’s latest book, To Save America: Stopping Obama’s Secular-Socialist Machine, is part of a calculated appeal to the Christian right, which includes attacking and promising to curtail activist judges from “undermining the First Amendment”. Gingrich has described Palestinians as an “invented people” with no right to a state of their own. He expresses support for the Israeli Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, distrust of Palestinian leaders, and considers that Islam and sharia law present a threat to the United States, issues which play well with the Christian right.

Mitt Romney presents a different challenge. Although rightly regarded as one of the most liberal of the candidates, he has hardened his position over the years to seek to appeal to the Christian right. In addition to opposing state funding for abortion, he opposes federal funding for Planned Parenthood, and is against embryonic stem cell research and gays in the military. He supports a constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman, and supports parental choice in education—code for being able to teach creationism within the curriculum.

According to recent surveys by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, 53 per cent of white evangelicals agree that Mormonism is not Christian and yet if faced with an election between Obama and Romney, 75 per cent would vote for Romney. A marginally smaller percentage of white evangelicals would vote for Perry if he were the candidate. And yet Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religion Commission insists that this should not be seen as the weakness of the movement but “rather its diversity and the pragmatism that comes with maturity. These social conservatives are going to coalesce around the person they believe has the best chance of making Obama a one-term president.”

Land is correct in his analysis that just as in 2008 the movement coalesced around the candidate they felt most likely to win, so too in 2012, even at the expense of rejecting Rick Perry and Rick Santorum. The Christian right’s hold over the Republican Party is as strong as ever deterring potential candidates who are not natural supporters, obliging others to acquiesce to some of their policy demands, and providing a nationwide platform for Christian right candidates to shape political debate. While the Christian right will be instrumental in deciding the outcome of the Republican nomination they may also prove decisive in the outcome of the general election. A narrow social and fiscal agenda may play well in Republican and Tea Party circles but it does not necessarily play well in the wider nation. In securing Republican support the successful candidate may simultaneously forfeit the support of floating and swing voters. Despite a weak economy and a lacklustre first term, Obama’s prospects for re-election increase the greater the influence of the Christian right on the Republican candidate’s policy positions. The paradox is that in order to secure the Republican nomination, the successful candidate has to secure the support of the Christian right, and in doing so may forfeit the bigger prize.

This is an article from the American Review issue "The right candidate" available as an iPad app. Download the app from the iTunes Store.