The Christian Right's Humble Servant
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
Only a few days after 9/11, a shaken George W. Bush invited a small group of evangelical leaders to the White House to offer him spiritual counsel. There, they quietly discussed Scripture and the implications of 9/11 for a few moments. Then former Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) president James Merritt turned to the president with a few words of encouragement.
"Mr. President, you and I are fellow believers in Jesus Christ," Merritt said.
Bush shook his head affirmatively.
"We both believe there is a sovereign God in control of this universe."
Bush nodded again.
"Since God knew that those planes would hit those towers before you and I were ever born, since God knew that you would be sitting in that chair before this world was ever created, I can only draw the conclusion that you are God's man for this hour," Merritt stated.
It was then that Bush lowered his head and cried.
Three years later, the nation was bitterly divided and God's pre-destined president was plunged in a fight for his political life. Without a domestic plank to run on and a staggering record of failure to run from, Bush's re-election was no longer the slam dunk it was once thought to be. Had Bush not cultivated the Christian right as his power base or courted its leadership as his informal advisors, re-election would have been impossible. Indeed, while the presence of Bush consigliere Karl Rove in the White House blurred the lines between policy and politics, the influence of the Christian right on Bush's domestic agenda formally wedded the familiar bedmates of conservative ideology and Calvinist theology. With a disciplined voting bloc at its disposal, the Christian right pushed for increased influence on the White House in a second Bush term, rallying support for his re-election behind church walls, at stadium-sized rallies and across radio waves – often away from the media's gaze but always in the shadow of the offical Bush/Cheney campaign. And when they helped carry Bush to an unlikely but overwhelming victory on November 2, he – and the Republican party, by extension – were secured as the Christian right's humble servants.
"Bush's victory not only establishes the power of the American Christian right in this candidacy, but in fact established its power to elect the next Republican president," lamented Arthur Finkelstein in an interview with the Israeli daily Ma'ariv. Finkelstein, who is an advisor to New York's moderate Republican governor George Pataki, added that the "Republican party became the Christian right, the most radical in modern history ever."
To be sure, Bush is not a dyed-in-the-wool theocrat. When he kicked alcohol and became an evangelical Christian, it was the mainstream evangelical icon Billy Graham who oversaw his rebirth. And though he was involved in evangelical bible study groups in Midland, Texas in the 1980s, it was not until he declared a run for the Texas governorship that he was exposed to the hardline ideology of the Christian right. In 1993, as Bush groped for an approach to handling poverty that would set him apart from the mold of the mean-spirited, Gingrichian grinch, Rove invited self-described "social Calvinist" intellectual Marvin Olasky to join the campaign as Bush's social welfare guru.
In his influential polemic, "The Tragedy of American Compassion," Olasky put forth his theory that poverty is a spiritual problem that government policy has not caused and can not necessarily cure. Thus, Olasky argued, government should loosen its grip on the social sector and return it to the biblically-ordained care of the church. Olasky's theories were to a large extent derived from the teachings of 19th century neo-Calvinist politician Abraham Kuyper, (Olasky is a Kuyper Institute fellow) who declared, "The family, the business science, art, and so forth are all social spheres, which do not owe their existence to the state ... but obey a high authority within their own bosom; an authority that rules by the grace of God...." Bush took this essentially theocratic idea and with Olasky's help, repackaged it as "compassionate conservatism," a label that helped cast Bush as a moderate in the media spotlight.
However, to those among the Christian right who understood the gravity of Olasky's influence on the Texas governor, Bush's rise was cause for encouragement. And Bush's friends in the corporate community, meanwhile, were soothed by the anti-government, laissez faire ideology undergirding his "compassionate conservatism." To them, Bush wore his religion on his sleeve like any other president; his Christian fundamentalist agenda was little more than free market fundamentalism with a pious patina.
Eight years later, the widely accepted perception of Bush as a "uniter" had helped smooth his path into the Oval Office. In one of his first acts as president, with support from centrist Democrats like Sen. Joe Lieberman, Bush put Olasky's ideas into action by establishing the Office of Faith Based Initiatives in January, 2001. The office essentially ceded a portion of government's social welfare responsibilities to religious groups. With Olasky standing by his side at the signing ceremony, Bush declared, "compassion is the work of a nation, not just a government," a seemingly benign statement with theocratic undertones that rang throughout the fundamentalist community. Indeed, beside transforming the federal government into an ATM machine for the religious right, establishing the office was a bold statement of Bush's commitment to the conservative Christian worldview.
Congress' passage of a ban on late-term abortions in November, 2003 – again with centrist Democratic support – presented Bush with yet another opportunity to burnish his credentials with the religious right. As Bush signed the bill flanked by Christian right mandarins like Jerry Falwell, Lou Sheldon and Sen. Rick Santorum – an image seemingly calculated to rankle the 100 Planned Parenthood activists protesting outside the White House – cries of the ceremony's 400 attendees erupted in cries of "Amen!" Later that day, Bush celebrated privately with a virtual who's who of the religious right, including Falwell, radio host Janet Parshall, SBC leader Richard Land and National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) president Ted Haggard, who leads a 14,000 member church in Colorado Springs, Colo. Together, they joined hands and prayed.
"Following the prayer," Falwell wrote in an email to his followers, "I told President Bush the people in the room represent about 200,000 pastors and 80 million believers nationwide who consider him not only to be our president but also a man of God."
The meeting underscored the Bush administration's acute sensitivity to its base. By the time Bush signed the late-term abortion ban, conference calls with religious right leaders like Haggard, Falwell and Focus on the Family's James Dobson had become a weekly affair. Leading the calls were veterans of the religious right like White House public liaison Tim Goeglein (former spokesman for Gary Bauer) and southeastern regional campaign director Ralph Reed (former director of the Christian Coalition). "We have direct access," Haggard told the Wall Street Journal. "I can call [Goeglein], he'll take my concern to the president and get back to me within 24 hours."
During a January conference call led by Bush, SBC's Richard Land and Focus on the Family's James Dobson urged the President to endorse a Constitutional amendment banning gay marriage in his State of the Union. Though Bush would not address the issue in his State of the Union, he assured Dobson and Land that his endorsement would be forthcoming. A month later, just after San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom had begun marrying gay couples, Bush made good on his promise.
The language Bush used to explain his decision to endorse the amendment sounded remarkably like the language Dobson and others would have used to demand it: "A few judges and local authorities are presuming to change the most fundamental institution of civilization," Bush said at a Feb. 24 press conference. To many homosexuals, Bush's comment came as an insult (did Bush consider them barbarians?). However, to conservative Christians, the comment was yet another coded statement of Christian conviction. "Here is a man who is simply committed to a system of beliefs," Dobson said of Bush to the Post.
Indeed, from a conservative Christian standpoint, homosexuality is a danger to civilization because it threatens all social spheres, not just the family, making it in many ways a more salient issue than abortion. As the Rev. Ronnie Floyd of First Baptist Church in Springdale, Ark. told the Post, gay marriage "is different from abortion. It touches every segment of society, schools, the media, television, government, churches. No one is left out."
According to Frederick Clarkson, a leading researcher on the religious right and author of "Eternal Hostility: The Battle Between Theocracy and Democracy," the conservative Christian notion that gay marriage undermines civilization is "part of the idea that all homosexuals have a pathological need to spread their lifestyle. And that homosexuality is a matter of choosing perversion. It's threatening [to conservative Christians] and they want to protect their children from it." Hence, the need for the Federal Marriage Amendment.
Asked in the third presidential debate whether he believed homosexuality is a choice, Bush ducked the question. "I just don't know," he told the moderator, Bob Schieffer. He went on to reiterate his call for a Constitutional amendment barring gay marriage because, "it's very important that we protect marriage as an institution, between a man and a woman." It was yet another coded suggestion of the threat homosexuality poses to civilization. Having garnered Bush's full support for their touchstone issue, the religious right was happy to endure the parade of pro-choice RINO's (Republicans In Name Only) speaking at the Republican National Convention, and was unfazed by the fact that figures like Falwell were pointedly uninvited. Bush had done more than express the requisite sympathy for their beliefs as Ronald Reagan often did, he had become totally beholden to them. As Christian Coalition president Roberta Combs told a reporter during the convention, "We still own the president."
When the official Bush/Cheney re-election campaign kicked into high gear, the religious right's shadow campaign had been underway for nearly a year. The Southern Baptist Convention's Land had created a program to cultivate "values voters" called IVoteValues, which included a Web site rating candidates according to issues of concern to conservative Christians. Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, a legal arm of the Christian Coalition, sent mailers to 45,000 conservative pastors explaining how to rally support for Republican candidates without threatening their church's non-profit status. The Presidential Prayer Team, a private evangelical group bankrolled by Arizona Diamondbacks owner Jerry Colangelo ran ads during the summer on 1,200 radio stations urging listeners to get on their knees and pray for the president.
The shadow campaign had received a much-needed injection of resentful rage when the Democrats and RINO's in congress flouted Bush and voted down the Federal Marriage Amendment. In response, Dobson used his popular radio show, which can be heard on 3,000 stations worldwide, to slam the "anti-family" liberals in congress. In September, when a new anti-gay marriage amendment was introduced in the House, Dobson began rallying support for a massive "Mayday for Marriage" rally on Washington DC for a gay marriage ban. Just three weeks before the election, around 150,000 conservative Christians gathered on the Mall to hear firebrand speeches denouncing gay marriage and of course, Kerry. "Sen. Kerry might be confused as to what marriage is, but we all know that marriage is between a man and a woman and no one else need apply!" declared Gary Bauer, whose political action committee, Campaign for Working Families, was running TV ads in swing states falsely accusing Kerry of supporting gay marriage.
Rightist evangelicals weren't the only ones determined to re-elect Bush, as the Catholic right joined the shadow campaign with equal enthusiasm. To the Catholic right, the former altar boy, John Kerry, was a "cafeteria Catholic" whose liberal social politics rendered him a heretic. So to ensure none of their flock strayed to Kerry's side, twelve bishops declared that voting for Kerry was a "grave, mortal sin." Bishop Michael Sheridan issued a pastoral letter to the 125,000 Catholics of Colorado Springs, Colorado calling the presidential election "critical" and stating that anyone who votes for a pro-choice, pro-gay civil union candidate like Kerry "ipso facto place[s] themselves outside full communion with the Church and so jeopardize their salvation." In other words, vote for Kerry, go to hell.
Grassroots right-wing Catholic activists were just as fired up about sinking Kerry's hopes as their bishops were. Earlier this year, two Northern Virginia Catholic activists, State Sen. Thomas Cucinelli and Terry Wear, approached the Republican National Committee's deputy Catholic outreach director, Martin Gillespie (brother of RNC president, Ed), about sparking a grassroots effort to increase Catholic turnout for Bush. Gillespie promptly hired dozens of field workers to canvass swing states for Catholic votes. Under Cucinelli's direction in Ohio, the RNC's field workers inundated parking lots outside Catholic churches with pro-Bush fliers the Sunday before election day. According to the Washington Times, Cucinelli's cadres unloaded 5 million fliers that day alone.
Though the Catholic shadow campaign was spearheaded by right-wing activists and Republican party operatives, it targeted so-called "swing" Catholics who are socially conservative but not necessarily Republican. As Leonard Leo, the RNC's Catholic outreach chairman, told the National Catholic Reporter, "Swing Catholics and faithful Catholics are often in accord on a number of the "culture of life" issues and I suspect that it is this combination of voters which will be pivotal in deciding who controls the Catholic vote in this election."
Evangelical groups relied on a similar tactic to increase turnout for Bush. One group, a 527 called the Citizen Leader Coalition, mounted a campaign to register and mobilize young 280,000 Christian voters in 10 swing states to vote for Bush. "This is a well-conceived and focused project which can be achieved by the dedicated efforts of a relative few and a realistic amount of money and resources, compared to what liberals are spending," the Coalition told potential donors on its Web site.
Part of the Coalition's campaign included inundating conservative churches with hundreds of thousands of voter guides contrasting Bush's positions with Kerry. While Bush appears on the right side of every issue on the voter guides, Kerry is accused of everything short of Satanism. Kerry "insists on judges who support the ACLU's radical anti-Christian, anti-God, anti-family agenda," the guide reads. The guide also falsely claims Kerry "supports gay marriage" and "participated in the Left's assault on [Mel] Gibson." The Citizen Leader Coalition was joined by dozens of other groups like the Traditional Values Coalition in distributing millions of voter guides to make sure conservative Christians knew the issues, or at least their version of them.
The voter guide tactic was derived from a brilliantly successful campaign by the California Pro-Life Council in 1990. In an effort to take over the California state GOP, the Council recruited 90 pre-screened "stealth" candidates to run for local office, none of whom even bothered to run a campaign. The Sunday before the election, Council activists hit church parking lots with 250,000 fliers plugging their candidates' Christian credentials. When the dust cleared, 60 of their 90 candidates were elected. A stunned local media dubbed the takeover, "The San Diego Surprise." As Clarkson pointed out in "Eternal Hostility," then-Christian Coalition director Ralph Reed quickly adopted the Council's tactic into his arsenal, making voter guides a staple of future Christian right campaigns.
For the Christian right, Bush was no different than any other stealth candidate. No matter how unqualified he was, no matter how shallow his understanding of policy might have been and whether or not he was outwitted by Kerry in the debates, they had pre-screened him and declared him one of their own. And they would reward him with their votes in record numbers.
While election-day exit polling relied on vague terms like "moral values" to produce inconclusive evidence about conservative Christian voters (do only fundamentalists have moral values?), they did reveal that the rate of voters who attended church once a week leapt by 2 points from 2000 and that 64 percent of them voted for Bush. Similarly, rates of anti-abortion voters increased by 3 points; they also voted for Bush almost unanimously. All in all, 79 percent of evangelicals voted for Bush. In Ohio, where 25 percent of the population is Catholic, Bush won a whopping 54 percent of the Catholic vote, a reflection of the Catholic right's intense opposition to Kerry and the success of the RNC's grassroots Catholic outreach efforts. He also won 79 percent of the evangelical vote there.
Having consolidated the Republican party as a vehicle for their moral uprising, the Christian right is certain to play a major role in shaping Bush's social policy for the next four years. With over two decades of grinding cultural battles behind them, their mood now seems to be a mixture of self-satisfaction and entitlement, as if their date with destiny has finally arrived. As the Christian right's direct mail wizard Richard Viguerie wrote in a post-election memo, "Now comes the revolution."