It's Political Power, Stupid!
By Sara Diamond
Only the ostriches should be surprised. Preliminary data from exit polls
indicate that about 30 percent of the people who voted in November were
white evangelical Christians. Among these, about 69 percent voted Republican.
There was nothing "stealth" about it. The stated agenda of
the Christian Right in 1994 was to help deliver the Senate and Congress
to the Republicans--and to credibly claim credit for doing just that.
The 30 percent figure means that the Christian Right is, each time around,
doing a better and better job of getting its people to the polls. In
the 1992 presidential election, only about 18 percent of the voters were
self-identified white evangelicals. The figure for the 1990 midterm election
was 15 percent.
The trend began in the late 1970s when the Christian Right registered
several million new voters to vote for Ronald Reagan. In 1980, when Reagan
won with only 26 percent of the eligible electorate, white evangelical
voters accounted for two-thirds of Reagan's ten-point lead over Jimmy
Carter. Then in 1984, the Christian Right pulled out all the stops to
re-elect Reagan. In 1992, despite Bush's defeat, exit poll data showed
that there were only two constituencies consistently loyal to the Republican
party: people with incomes over $200,000 a year, who are few in number,
and the Christian Right.
The past two decades have seen a growing symbiosis between the mass
movement of evangelical Christians and the Republican party. Since the
1968 presidential election, when nearly ten million Americans voted for
segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace, the Republicans have
worked to broaden the class base of their party downward. That has meant
following Wallace's lead in using issues of race, crime, and "morality" to
attract white middle and lower middle class voters.
In the mid-1970s and 1980s, Gallup poll surveys showed that one-quarter
to one-third of the U.S. population identified itself as "born-again" evangelicals.
Most of them have become politically active only in the last 15 years
or so. Certainly not all are right-wing but their numbers are large and
numbers win elections. In June 1994 a New York Times poll revealed that
about 9 percent of a national sample identified themselves as part of
the Christian Right.
The handwriting was on the wall for anyone who cared to read. For 20
years, leaders of the Christian Right have built one organization after
another, with the avowed purpose of winning state power, i.e. the power
to influence, if not dictate, public policy. Leaders of the Christian
Right worked hand-in-glove with the Reagan and Bush administrations to
wage murderous wars on civilians in Central America and southern Africa.
Meanwhile, the North American Left cackled along with the rest of the
country at the ridiculous TV preacher scandals, which diverted people's
attention from the really important players in the Christian Right.
While everyone else was laughing, the Christian Right grew into the
most formidable mass movement on the political scene today. We will enter
the new millennium with the Christian Right in positions of state power.
The single most important, though by no means the only, movement organization
is the Christian Coalition. The Coalition's September Road to Victory
conference drew 3,000 hard-core activists for two days of strategizing
at the Washington, DC Hilton. In plenary sessions and small workshops,
Coalition leaders laid out tactical plans for changing the course of
U.S. history through the 1994 Congressional elections. The plans made
sense. It seemed clear that the Coalition knew what it was doing. That
is why Republican National Committee chair Haley Barbour sent his aide
Leigh Anne Metzger to tell the conventioneers, "Despite press reports,
the Republican party holds out a welcome mat to the Christian Coalition." Major
GOP presidential hopefuls Dan Quayle, Senator Phil Gramm, Dick Cheney
and Lamar Alexander all made early campaign stops at the conference.
The Coalition claims more than a million numbers, which is probably
a mailing list figure. More importantly, the Coalition, since its founding
in 1989, has built 1,100 local chapters in all 50 states. Some chapters
hold regular meetings with a couple hundred people. Many of the chapters
are headed by women, as are some of the Coalition's state branches. Each
chapter includes members of multiple charismatic and Baptist churches,
meaning that the outreach capability of the Coalition goes well beyond
its own numerical strength which is phenomenal. In September, the Coalition
sent voter registration packets to 250,000 churches. At the convention,
members organized to distribute 30 million voter guides, in 300 local
versions, which they successfully did in October. Christian Coalition
executive director Ralph Reed explained that the voter guides allow candidates
and campaigners to bypass "expensive and biased media." On
one piece of paper, the Coalition makes a chart showing pictures of the
Democratic and Republican candidates for Senate, Governor, and Congressional
seats. The chart lists four to six issues phrased as the Right sees them--this
year they included abortion on demand; homosexuals in the military; banning
ownership of legal firearms; voluntary prayer in schools; parental choice
in education--along with the words "supports" or "opposes" under
each candidate's picture.
The Coalition's 1,100 chapters are responsible for distributing the
voter guides by identifying sympathetic churches and by finding "pro-family" voters
on a one-by-one basis. Roberta Combs, state chair of the South Carolina
Christian Coalition, told conventioneers how she has organized Coalition
members in 60 percent of her state's electoral precincts. "You are
in warfare," she said. "Politics equals people. People equals
numbers. Numbers equal precincts. Get ten people to start with. Get a
map, voter registration lists, church directories, other `pro-family'
lists." Correlate these lists and identify sympathetic voters street
by street, Combs urged, and then go door-to-door with the Coalition's
fall voter guides.
Combs is typical of many Christian Right leaders. Until recently going
full-time with the Coalition, she ran a successful business as an interior
designer. She began working for Republicans in local elections in 1978.
Then she ran the South Carolina branch of Americans for Robertson in
1988. She put on successful fundraising affairs for the state GOP and
they elected her to be their treasurer. She and her army can now take
credit for electing South Carolina's new Republican Governor David Beasley.
In Pennsylvania, Christian Coalition members backed the new Republican
governor Tom Ridge, one of the party's so-called moderates. Ridge is
pro-choice on abortion, which caused an outcry by some in the Christian
Right in Pennsylvania; they backed minor party anti-abortion candidate
Peg Luksik. Overall, however, the Christian Coalition's strategy was
to back any and all Republicans, pro-choice or not. In California they
backed gubernatorial candidate Michael Huffington who was nominally pro-choice
and who had also supported the removal of the ban on gay military personnel.
This game is about power, not principle.
Now as we face the coming legislative onslaught of a Republican-dominated
Congress, people on the Left are talking about emulating the grassroots
organizing tactics of the Right. This idea is sensible but one does not
create a citizen lobbying apparatus overnight. For years, people in the
Christian Right have learned to make their activism a regular habit.
Not a week goes by that the movement's TV, radio stations, and scores
of organizational newsletters aren't mobilizing people to call and write
their elected officials. Here are people who believe in the efficacy
of their own small but persistent actions. They believe their individual
postcards and phone calls make a difference, and they do. Two years ago,
after Clinton proposed allowing openly gay military personnel, Christian
Right activists shut down the Congressional switchboard and deluged their
representatives with mail. It worked, and it worked again in early 1994
when an amendment that would have required certification of home school
teachers was attached to a federal education bill. Within a week, home
schooling leader Mike Farris went on two nationally syndicated Christian
radio talk shows and revved up the phone trees of his 37,000-member Home
School Legal Defense Association. Eight hundred thousand phone calls
later, only one member of Congress was willing to vote for the amendment.
Is this the kind of activity the Left could or would emulate? Probably
not, because these dramatic incidents do not occur in a vacuum. They
are made possible by the day in and day out organizing the Christian
Right does, and they are made possible by the network of institutions
the movement has built over several decades. These institutions include
a $2.5 billion a year religious broadcasting industry, a slew of independent
book publishing companies, dozens of independent regional monthly newspapers,
several dozen state- based think tanks that do legislative lobbying,
and an array of legal firms devoted exclusively to Christian right causes.
Some left media watchers have focused recently on Rush Limbaugh, an
important, though easy target. Limbaugh has millions of listeners and
he has played an influential role in the Clinton-bashing of the past
two years. Limbaugh attracts the Left's attention because he allegedly
lies with some regularity and because he's a loud-mouthed boor. He fits
the image leftists have of people on the Right. But to credit the Johnny-come-lately
Rush Limbaugh with the mobilization of the Right would be like claiming
that the demagogic 1930s radio priest Father Charles Coughlin was responsible
for the hundreds of pro-fascist organizations that flourished in the
United States during the 1930s and 1940s.
Most of what goes on in right-wing broadcasting is not like the Limbaugh
show. Limbaugh is a recent phenomenon, and long after his stardom passes,
the Christian right will continue to produce much subtler and effective
The religious broadcasting industry began in earnest in the 1940s. Evangelicals
were then working to change laws to better secure their access to the
government-regulated airwaves. They also worked, during the Cold War
period, to impune the patriotism of the liberal mainline churches, which
never fought back. By the early 1960s Pat Robertson started the first
Christian TV network. From one tiny TV station, he built a media empire
that now includes the Family Channel cable network, which currently reaches
into 57 million households. The viewing audience for Robertson's weekday
700 Club program is estimated at one million. About a third of the program's
content is overtly political. Throughout the 1980s, Robertson used the
700 Club to lobby for U.S. military aid to the Contras and to the death
squads in El Salvador and Guatemala. Now he uses his network to lobby
against gay rights and to get out the vote for Republicans.
Christian radio is an even more pervasive medium. There are about 1,200
full-time Christian radio stations in the United States. After country
music and what is called "adult contemporary" music, Christian
broadcasting stations are the most popular form of the radio medium.
Standard fare on a typical Christian radio station--there are three I
can listen to here in the Bay area--includes a few hours a day of political
talk shows mixed in with music and inspirational teaching. KFAX in the
Bay area plays James Dobson's interview show twice daily along with the
daily Concerned Women for America broadcast, which in only four years
on the air has built an estimated audience of 500,000. Host Beverly LaHaye
routinely uses the program to get her listeners to lobby Congress. On
the hour, KFAX broadcasts the "Family News in Focus" spot,
a mini-newscast of items of concern to the Christian Right. At 3:00 PM
we get the daily commentary of Gary Bauer's Family Research Council,
and by the late afternoon, there is an hour-long talk show, usually of
a political nature. Christian radio is popular because it gives people
emotional sustenance along with the news, traffic reports, and what they
need to know to be politically active.
It is the coherence of the Christian right's cultural institutions and
ideological message that makes millions of people want to participate.
This is a political movement built on the foundation of some very tightly
held religious views. We need to understand the religious sentiments
of our fellow citizens. For evangelical Christians, one of the most politically
relevant tenets is the idea that they are being persecuted by secular
society. Sacrifice and martyrdom are essential themes of the Christian
faith. Translated into right-wing politics the theme enables people to
claim that queers and other minorities are somehow attacking the dominant
culture when they demand equality. We have the most powerful political
movement in the country continually claiming to be persecuted by "the
Left," which the Right defines as the Clinton administration and
centrist lobbies like People for the American Way. It is illogical, but
the religious persecution theme keeps activists mobilized and enables
them to feel comfortable about trying to deprive other people of their
Average people active in the Christian right feel genuinely that the
country is going to hell in a hand basket, which is true. The problem
is that through a long process of ideological formation most have arrived
at a distorted view of their own best interests. They look at the stagnant
economy and see "illegal aliens," not runaway capitalism, which
they generally support. They look at teenage delinquency and then blame
teachers' unions instead of the consumer culture that trains young people
to shop and not think.
What people in the Christian right want is pretty basic. They want laws
to outlaw abortion, which they consider a form of infanticide. They want
to change the tax code to encourage married mothers to stay home and
raise good kids. They want queers to get back in the closet and pretend
not to exist. They want high quality schools; they think the public schools
are failing not for lack of resources but because kids can't pray or
read Genesis in biology class.
The Christian right wants these and related things so badly that they
organized to win the political power necessary to change the direction
of public policy. Early on, the Republican party realized that it could
become the majority party by hitching its sails to the evangelical mass
movement. For two decades, the Democrats stood idly by, unwilling and
unable to respond because Democrats will challenge neither the prerogatives
of big business nor the ideological premises that keep people from challenging
class, racial, and gender inequality.
Unfortunately, the real Left, battered down by external repression and
its own internal foibles, has not responded either. The Left has been
unidimensionally focused on the atrocities waged at the highest levels
of state power, and has been unwilling to recognize that significant
numbers of our fellow citizens are decidedly reactionary. In places where
fascism has taken hold, it has been through a convergence of state and
corporate power with a mass base of reaction. We saw this vividly in
Chile in the 1970s. I am not suggesting that our country will face a
military coup. In the era of "democracy," from Nicaragua to
the former Soviet republics, elections are the primary means through
which the Right takes power.