Gary Bauer, Christian-right leader and 2000 presidential candidate, fully appreciates the political perils of the discussion we're about to enter into this early spring morning. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson publicly breached the same territory shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks, when they suggested that liberals and gays were responsible for America's cursed fortunes. Both earned the public's ire and a dressing-down from the president of the United States.
But Bauer is a creature of Washington; politics are what make his "heart beat faster," as he put it. A Georgetown law graduate who served President Ronald Reagan as undersecretary of education, the former head of the Family Research Council seems confident that he can describe the Christian right's views about 9/11 -- and President Bush's divinely inspired mission in its wake -- in a way that won't horrify the secular press.
"People like me," he began, picking his words cautiously, "believe that God's hand has been on America from the very beginning -- the Founders believed that -- and that our success as a nation is attributed at least in part to God's blessings. Evangelicals believe that no leader rises without God allowing that leader to rise. No nation rises and falls without God permitting that nation to rise and fall.
"If you believe that God may be taking his hand off of America because we have moved away from him, then what the scriptures say is that we as Christian leaders must be on our knees asking for forgiveness for how we have failed. And we should be asking God what we as Christian leaders ought to be doing -- not suggesting that somebody else's sins or somebody else's failures" are the cause.
In this period of divine destiny, Bauer added, with evil striking a fallen America, evangelicals believe that George W. Bush is a man chosen by God for a reason. "There is a very strong feeling in the evangelical world that this hotly contested election, the longest election night in history, lasting for months, [meant that] somehow God was working to put into the White House a man whose life had been transformed by accepting Christ," Bauer said. "Then, when 9/11 happened, there was this sense that God had blessed us again to have in the Oval Office such a man when such a horrible thing had happened. You'll often hear in evangelical churches: 'Can you imagine if Al Gore were president and this had happened to our country?!'
"God," Bauer concluded, "put George Bush there for a time like this."
If that's the case, one might justifiably wonder where He's thought to put the Christian right. Ralph Reed's once-vaunted Christian Coalition -- the grass-roots pressure group that Republican presidential candidates of the 1990s courted and liberal foes feared -- now mostly exists in name only. The Family Research Council, known for channeling the frustrations of God-fearing folk through the corridors of Capitol Hill, has lost nearly a third of its budget and laid off some of its Washington-based staff. For a decade, the movement's leaders insisted that Christian conservatives were just like everyone else (only, maybe, a bit holier). Then, just days after the terrorist attacks, Falwell and Robertson revealed a hatefulness starkly at odds with the nation's mood of unity.
The institutions of the Christian right have indeed fallen on hard times. Not one of them has amassed the staying power of Washington's influential liberal network (like the Sierra Club, for instance). But if it looks like the Christian right has dropped off the political map, perhaps that's only because the territory has grown so familiar. A populist movement once identified with interest groups and their leaders can increasingly be identified with the Republican Party itself. Fully 28 percent of Republican voters fit the category "religious right," making theirs the largest piece of the GOP pie. And at the new Christian right's very center, as Bauer's comments suggest, is George W. Bush.
According to conservative evangelicals, Bush is carrying out a divinely inspired mission. Not coincidentally, the same constituency also considers Bush the trusted guardian of its political interests. Who needs Ralph Reed and the Christian Coalition when you have the Republican Party and the president of the United States?
Using the Republican Party to pursue a Christian-right agenda, of course, was the endgame of strategists like Reed. He taught his organizers how to rise through the ranks of the GOP, how to speak in political parlance instead of "Christianeze," how to run for office with party support. During the 1990s, the Christian Coalition trained some 16,000 potential political leaders, many of whom have gone on to become state legislators, mayors, and school-board members. "We took a system that was scary and complex and had an unseemly taint, and made it understandable and friendly, something people want to participate in," said D.J. Gribbin, one of the key architects of the coalition's state network.
Reed's career is in some respects emblematic of the Christian right's evolution. After leaving the Christian Coalition in 1997, he formed an Atlanta-based Republican consulting firm. Three years later, he played a central role in galvanizing conservative evangelicals to quash the primary candidacy of John McCain, thereby securing Bush's nomination. In 2001, Reed was elected chairman of Georgia's GOP.
"The influence of Christian conservatives within the GOP has made them less visible, distinctive, and independent, but it has also made them a critical component of the Republican coalition," political analysts John Green of the University of Akron and Kimberly H. Conger of Ohio State University wrote in the February issue of Campaigns & Elections. The pair found that Christian activists still hold strong positions in 18 state GOP parties, the same number as in 1994, and moderate influence in 26 states, twice the 1994 number. The movement is especially well integrated into the GOP firmament in Midwestern and Southern states.
The Christian right's sway within the Republican party, along with its far-reaching grass-roots base, made it an influential power broker in the neck-and-neck 2000 presidential race. During the primary, mainstream pundits scoffed at candidate Bush for naming Jesus as his favorite philosopher. But if that was a political calculation on Bush's part (as much as heartfelt response), it was quite possibly among the savviest of his campaign. From that moment on, the powerful Republican evangelical bloc has remained solidly at his side. Republican evangelical voters -- 80 percent of whom voted for Bush, compared to only 65 percent for Bob Dole in 1996 -- were crucial to getting Bush into office.
Unlike his father, Bush was quick to make good on that support. Shortly after his inauguration last year, Bush cut off funds for organizations providing abortion services overseas (the announcement perfectly coincided with a "march for life" in downtown Washington). As director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, overseeing the entire federal workforce, Bush appointed the former dean of the government school at Pat Robertson's Regent University, Kay Coles James, who also happens to be one of the nation's most articulate anti-abortion advocates. And most notably, to the U.S.'s top law enforcement post he named John Ashcroft, a Pentecostal whose insistence on holding daily prayer sessions in his Justice Department office has earned him the scorn of Beltway pundits and the adulation of the Christian right. Ashcroft's attempt to overturn Oregon's assisted-suicide law was similarly popular with evangelical activists.
Bush scored still more points by crafting a compromise on stem-cell research and borrowing pro-life language in calling on the Senate to ban human cloning. "Life is a creation, not a commodity," he said, to a rumble of applause.
Significantly, however, although the Christian right's support for the Bush administration is strong, it is not unconditional. Bush's effort to direct federal resources toward faith-based charities, stymied by Constitutional provisions that call for strict separation between social programs and proselytizing, lost as much conservative religious support as it captured. And many evangelicals are frustrated that the president hasn't taken a more vigorous pro-Israel stance in the Middle East war.
Exactly how far is the administration willing to tilt in order to maintain evangelical support? Anyone who thinks that in his pursuit of a worldwide war on terrorism Bush has forgotten who was responsible for his narrow election -- and who could be responsible for returning the Senate to Republicans next fall -- would do well to consider a little-noticed scene from this spring's Beltway dramas. It occurred on the same evening that the Democratic-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee dealt the right a major defeat by voting to reject the appellate nomination of U.S. District Court Judge Charles W. Pickering.
That night, at the Willard Inter-Continental Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue, a couple blocks from the White House, presidential adviser Karl Rove assured 250 Christian-right activists that, despite the Pickering setback, the president remained determined to satisfy their craving for a like-minded Supreme Court nominee. "This is about the future," Rove said of the party-line judiciary committee vote. "This is about sending George W. Bush a message that, 'You send us someone that is a strong conservative, you're not going to get him.' Guess what? They sent the wrong message to the wrong guy." After this macho applause line, Rove urged "coordination" between the political efforts of the White House and Christian-right groups, according to a tape leaked to The Washington Post. Said Rove, "We'll win if we work together far more often than the other side wants us to."
Overturning Roe v. Wade has become the signature concern of the Christian right, and probably the one uppermost in the minds of those who heard Rove's speech. Conservative evangelicals are furious that Republican-appointed Supreme Court justices have helped keep abortion legal. When the time comes to fill a vacancy on the high court, they will demand that a paper trail be followed on any appointee to assure themselves that he or she is staunchly anti-abortion. "Another [Supreme Court Justice David] Souter," warned Bauer, pointedly referring to Bush Senior's appointee, "is not going to be tolerated."
Christian-right groups are already gearing up to wage war with liberals over Bush's first Supreme Court appointment. The Christian Coalition is soliciting money for its own Judicial Task Force, calling the next couple of months "a watershed in American history." Concerned Women for America, a far more robust group with a daily radio show and 500,000 members, has just hired lobbyist Thomas Jipping -- historically an important figure in judicial battles -- to run its judicial operations. The Traditional Values Coalition also has a judicial monitoring project.
But no anti-abortion Supreme Court nominee is likely to be confirmed without a Republican Senate. And in order to capture the Senate, the Republicans require not only money but an energized grass-roots base -- something the Christian right is best equipped to provide. Political analyst Charles Cook described the Senate races as "a perfectly level playing field." In the 1990s, conservative Christian activists enjoyed their greatest electoral successes in similarly tight races. Especially in Southern states, say conservative Christian leaders, there is latent anger to be tapped, sparked by a widespread perception that White House nominees who are also evangelical Christians -- Pickering and Ashcroft among them -- are automatically pegged by liberal lawmakers as unfit for public office.
The campaign year has already begun for Christian-right groups. Of particular interest are Republican Representative Jim Talent's efforts to unseat Jean Carnahan in Missouri, and Republican John Thune's challenge to incumbent Senator Tim Johnson in South Dakota. Bauer's political action committee (PAC), called the Campaign for Working Families, will spend about $1 million on congressional races. The Family Research Council, meanwhile, ran a half-million-dollar ad campaign comparing Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. The ad, which ran in South Dakota newspapers and was sponsored by the group's PAC, placed photos of Hussein and Daschle side by side, asking what the two men have in common. Both, the ad asserted, oppose drilling for oil in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. What that cause has to do with the council's stated agenda of promoting marriage and family as the "seedbed of virtue" is anyone's guess. But the group is also attacking Senate Democrats for allegedly stalling on the consideration of Bush's Court of Appeals nominations.
Bauer, who commands a network of 100,000 activists around the country, many of them former supporters of his presidential campaign, observed that "events drive movements like these." One event that will drive today's Christian right is next fall's election, because of its potential to determine whether the Christian right can tip the 5-to-4 balance on the Supreme Court. "They believe that this is their moment," said Ralph Neas, the movement's archenemy and president of People for The American Way.
Arguably the most influential of today's Christian-right activists is James Dobson, who reaches an estimated 7.5 million listeners a week with his Colorado-based "Focus on the Family" radio show. Dobson specializes in dispensing family advice. But like Reed, he understands that the Christian right runs on emotional energy, especially anger. And he is adept at transforming that anger into politics.
When Bush names his first Supreme Court nominee, he'd better know where Dobson stands. "If Pat Robertson wages a protest, it doesn't light up the congressional switchboard. The only person taking Pat Robertson seriously is Tim Russert," said Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. But Dobson, Cromartie says, can make real trouble for lawmakers who cross his agenda.
California legislators learned that in January, when they were considering legislation, modeled on the Vermont law that would legalize "civil unions" between two people of either gender. Dobson turned the bill into a cause célebre on his radio show, and Sacramento was inundated with angry calls and letters. The legislation stalled. Later, he urged listeners to repudiate Secretary of State Colin Powell for encouraging sexually active youngsters to use condoms. The president added a paragraph to a speech making clear that the White House supports abstinence.
Strangely, Dobson doesn't consider himself a political activist. He founded the Family Research Council as a lobby arm, then separated himself from it four years later, remaining only a board member. "He feels very strongly that when he talks about things like abortion and gay rights he is not involved in politics, that in fact he is engaged in a moral argument," Bauer said. "For years, he has tried to make this distinction, because his critics accuse him of trying to be a political broker within the Republican Party. Jim never wanted to be and never tried to be what Pat Robertson tried to be in the Republican Party."
In fact, Dobson is very much a political player. And the California episode reflects a central truth about today's Christian conservatives: A huge and politically astute army of activists is at the ready, available to follow a compelling general, should George Bush lose or forsake his position as their leader. Warned Bauer: "If there is a failure or betrayal on [conservative Christian] issues, there will be a challenge within the Republican Party. It will rise up. The movement is too large, and that vote is too big a part of the Republican Party not to create a leader if it feels it's being taken for granted or told to get to the back of the bus."