The FundamentaList (No. 21)

1. Not Dead ... Again

Lately I've been bombarded with The Question: Is the religious right dead?

The answer is still no.

No doubt, some evangelical leaders, weary of the hateful rhetoric used in the name of their savior, outraged by the hypocrisy of the movement's fallen moralizers-in-chief, and disappointed they were duped by Bush's "compassionate conservative" pabulum, are forcing a conversation about the future of evangelical involvement in politics. Rank-and-file evangelicals are listening and discussing, and once-compliant stenographers of the "values voters" myth are paying attention. But many of us who write regularly about the religious right have consistently resisted lumping all evangelicals together, and have long recognized that the religious right represents a vocal, well-funded, and well-organized minority of Americans who have had a disproportionate impact on our political discourse.

Critics point to polling data showing evangelicals' growing interest in ending global warming, poverty, war, and HIV/AIDS. All encouraging signs that perhaps we can have a rational conversation about the role of government in addressing these urgent issues -- not a conversation about whose version of Jesus is more righteous.

The day has not yet come when we no longer are forced to listen to spew about secularists persecuting Christians, or Muslims bent on destroying Judeo-Christian culture, or the latest stealth tactic of the homosexual lobby to infiltrate our public schools, or that evolution is just a "theory," or that homosexuality can be "cured" through Jesus, or that the government is trying to "silence" the church or anything about non-believers getting left behind at the Rapture. In the zeal to declare victory over one's political adversaries, one can't pretend that they are not there. The political organization, media reach, and theological influence of those politically reactionary evangelicals are all very much alive and well.

2. The Huckabee Newness Myth Continues

In a conference call with reporters yesterday, new-guard evangelical leaders Jim Wallis and Joel Hunter chastised the media for (I'm paraphrasing here) perpetrating the Legend of the Conservative Evangelical Monolith. Wallis claimed that evangelicals are "leaving the religious right in droves." When pressed for evidence of this phenomenon, Wallis pointed to former movement devotees who have come to see him speak on his tour for his recent book, The Great Awakening. But this self-selecting group is hardly scientific evidence of a mass exodus. People may be sick of Dobson's whining, but the hard-right wing of the movement maintains a deep and diverse bench, a great many followers, and the ear of the Republican Party. Wallis has a great many followers as well, but he hasn't stolen them all from the religious right.

Hunter argued that the "old voices" are not "holding sway with a majority of evangelicals anymore." He pointed to Huckabee as the "first iteration" of the "new" kind of evangelical, adding "how can you not like Mike Huckabee?" As I've discussed before, the only "new" thing about Huckabee is he knows how to crack a joke.

In the Virginia primary last night, Huckabee gave McCain more of a run for his money than many polls predicted or pundits expected. Huckabee continued to draw a majority of the evangelical Republican vote. Forty-six percent of Virginia Republicans said they were evangelical, and Huckabee got 60 percent of their votes. And, like in other states, Huckabee prevailed over McCain among voters who attend church more than once a week and among voters who identify as conservative.

Despite defeat, Huckabee will keep on going -- miracles, not math, and all that. But his main purpose appears to be pushing McCain to advocate for a Human Life Amendment (which, if enacted, could outlaw certain types of birth control), and to denounce "amnesty" and embryonic stem cell research. He's so likable, isn't he?

3. But Isn't the Religious Right Fractured?

Yes, the religious right is split over presidential politics and electoral strategy, and in its search for someone to carry its mantle within the Republican Party. The movement is fractured over scandals and fallen angels. In other words, it's not splintered over the basic issues -- just over who is best equipped to address them.

After Mitt Romney withdrew from the race last week at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), he met privately with movement leaders who reportedly are angling for him to become conservatism's standard bearer. (How desperate is the conservative movement for a leader that a guy who once ran to the left of Ted Kennedy could now become its chief spokesperson?) Among the chief proponents of Romney's leadership was Ralph Reed, the former executive director of the Christian Coalition who "humped" for more clients with felon Jack Abramoff and sold out his religious right anti-gambling allies to line his own pockets.

Despite his moral failings, the Christian Broadcasting Network's David Brody called Reed the "E.F. Hutton" of the social conservative movement. Reed advised John McCain to run to the right and pick a running mate to his right in order to consolidate his support from this part of Republican base.

Gary Bauer, the long-time activist and one-time presidential candidate, endorsed McCain after Romney dropped out, leading Richard Bott, a Christian radio executive, to wonder whether Bauer is now "burnt toast." Pro-Romney stalwart Paul Weyrich endorsed Huckabee after his man withdrew, and operative and pundit Pat Buchanan urged Huckabee, despite the calls of many conservatives to the contrary, not to drop out of the race for the sake of the conservative movement.

As far as the rank and file is concerned, at CPAC last week, I met Romney supporters who called Huckabee a "religious bigot;" a group of evangelical college students for Huckabee who shrugged off the Dobson endorsement as late and irrelevant; a Hindu immigrant from India, enthused about Huckabee, who brought her two young daughters to see his speech; Catholics for Huckabee; and African-American conservatives for Huckabee. By Saturday morning, when Huckabee spoke, it seemed that many of the McCain supporters who had populated the conference on Thursday for McCain's speech had cleared out.

4. Scrutiny of Huckabee's Ties to Televangelist Heats Up

Former Bush advisor Doug Wead's revelation on his blog that Kenneth Copeland, a televangelist under investigation by Sen. Charles Grassley, had raised campaign money for Huckabee (first reported here on TAPPED), has caused a flurry of media attention on Huckabee's links to Copeland. Huckabee's campaign told NBC that he held a fundraiser at Copeland's multi-million dollar estate; Copeland's ministry says neither the ministry nor any of its employees were involved in hosting the event.

Yet apart from the fundraiser on Copeland property, questions remain about Huckabee's support for the televangelist who is under investigation by a member of his own party. On Meet the Press on Sunday, Tim Russert pursued Huckabee on this point, and Huckabee came to his defense, saying, "Kenneth Copeland has been a friend of mine for a long time." Huckabee denied interfering in Grassley's investigation, denied that it's an issue in the presidential campaign, and then raised the slippery slope scare tactic:

It's a little chilling when you start thinking about is Congress going to start going after nonprofit organizations? And if so, are they going to do all nonprofits? Are they going to start looking at Are they going to start looking at some of these organizations, where every dime comes from? If, if we're going to do it, let's open it up and make sure everybody coughs up the information.

That raises the issue, of course, since Copeland is shielded from transparency because his ministry is organized as a church, which the Internal Revenue Service does not require to file a tax return. Non-religious non-profits, on the other hand, do have to file tax returns, available to the public. Take a look at MoveOn's tax returns. There they are for the world to see, while Copeland's non-profit doesn't have to file a return at all.

5. Wead Takes Aim at Grassley Investigation

Over the weekend Wead also criticized Grassley in another post, "People in Grassley Houses Shouldn't Throw Stones," arguing, among other things, that Grassley, a Baptist, is doctrinally biased against the six televangelists, all Pentecostals, and that Grassley "helps run" the International Christian Leadership Council, which has its own lovely mansion on the Potomac.

Presumably Wead's talking about "the Family," which organizes the annual National Prayer Breakfast. (This year's was held just last week.) Jeff Sharlet, who reported undercover on the Family a few years ago, described it as, "in its own words, an 'invisible' association, though its membership has always consisted mostly of public men," including several members of Congress, Grassley among them. "Regular prayer groups have met in the Pentagon and at the Department of Defense," Sharlet wrote, "and the Family has traditionally fostered strong ties with businessmen in the oil and aerospace industries. The Family maintains a closely guarded database of its associates, but it issues no cards, collects no official dues. Members are asked not to speak about the group or its activities."

Jill Gerber, Grassley's spokesperson, said of the senator, "He's certainly not running any non-profit organization, religious or otherwise. Whether he attends a prayer breakfast has nothing to do with his ability to conduct oversight of non-profits and tax-exempt policy."

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