The Growth of the Religious Right

A paper submitted in partial requirement for the Master of Arts degree in Political Science at Western Illinois University, 1993.  Revised Nov 95, April 99, March 2000.    

Part I, "Magnitude and Strategy"


I. Magnitude and Strategy  

"Out of the pew and into the public arena."

This has become the key concept of the Christian Coalition, the cutting edge organization of the revitalized Religious Right in American politics in the 1990s. The Christian Coalition (CC), led by preacher-turned-politician Pat Robertson has taken the front and center leadership of a movement many observers had thought dead after Robertson's fizzled presidential bid in 1988. What many do not know is that Robertson used his bruises in the political realm as schoolmasters. As he nursed his hurts he quietly went to a drawing board on which he engraved one word: "Grassroots." Forget about the Presidential and national glitter, at least for now. Utilize the evangelical, charismatic and fundamental churches of America as local centers of campaign education1 and grassroots initiative. Go for the school boards and the state house, get involved with the party locally.

Says a leading spokesman for the Religious Right in Michigan: "The coming decade of the 90s poses the greatest opportunity for activism at the grassroots. The time has come for us to take our eyes off the White House and focus on the grassroots."2 To be able to conscientiously operate at the grass roots, conservative evangelicals have had to face up to and resolve a psychological block that has limited their activity in the political realm. They have not been a fixed "given" in the American political landscape partly because of the uncertainty inhabiting the theological core of evangelicalism about the propriety of political action in the Christian life. Vacillation is the result of the competing tension of pietistic and political religion.

To be sure, evangelical politics have weaved themselves in and out of the American political scene over the course of its two century history.3 Full throttle to either the political or pietistic instinct has seemed impossible. Perhaps until now. With Robertson's quiet resurrection a corner has been turned. His media empire4 , his general reputation as a spiritual and God-fearing charismatic leader, and his hefty financial commitment to political activism from the ground up, are all being used to help the New Right tool up nationwide for its largest-ever American offensive. After Robertson's rejection as a Presidential nominee, he has come back, "reborn", to baptize Christian action in the political sphere as being the theologically correct piety of the 90s. All signs are that the new initiative is powerfully successful. Suzanne Pharr, speaking at Western Illinois University in 1993, called the movement one of the three major social movements of the Twentieth Century, along with the Labor and Civil Rights movements.5 Newt Gingrich, the increasingly powerful Republican Congressman from Georgia, in a keynote speech at the CC Road to Victory 1993 gathering, stated that two people stand above others in this century; Martin Luther King, Jr. and Pat Robertson.6 Commitment to grass roots and local participation is now the trademark of the New Religious Right.

A recent promotional pamphlet states that the CC will "promote Christian values through a network of state affiliates and county chapters." Conservative evangelical Christians either run or help run the Republican Party in at least half a dozen states and "they are campaigning for and winning council seats and school board posts from Oregon to Georgia," says political analyst Rob Gurwitt. "They have developed a group of experienced political strategists who now are surfacing in the campaigns and organizations of mainstream candidates and political groups. The Christian Right is no longer a political innocent. Its leaders have learned how to reach for power."7 In the Republican delegation from Iowa at the Republican National Convention in Houston in August 1992, 43 of its 46 delegates were members of the Christian Coalition.8 John Treen, the Republican Party chairman in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana estimates that more than half of the party's central committee in Louisiana is now in the hands of Christian Coalition members. A majority of the state's delegates to the National Convention in 1992 were CC members.9 Recent California local politics exemplify the new grass-roots thrust. In the early nineties the New Right wrestled control of 40 of the 58 county Republican Central Committees, as well as the state board.10 In San Diego County, sixty New Right activists won seats on the school board, water board, and the city council in November 1990.

Frederick Clarkson writes, "Following the 1988 elections Robertson's cadre took over the California Republican Assembly (CRA), a conservative party unit. The CRA, in alliance with Young Americans for Freedom, College Republicans and a group of right-wing officials...plotted the takeover of the county Republican Committees and ultimately the state board."11 "We have to get people out of the pews and into public policy positions," says the Rev. Lou Sheldon, head of the increasingly powerful Traditional Values Coalition of Anaheim. "How we have filled the Republican ranks is how we have filled the churches. A person takes his personal relationship to Jesus Christ and finds a social reason and public function for it."12 More and more conservative Christians seem to be finding their public function. As the writers of a special series in the San Fransisco Chronicle on the religious right conclude: Although no one knows the exact size of the country's conservative evangelical minority, one thing is clear: Its success in local and state elections is disproportionate to its numbers.13

Sheldon's Traditional Values Coalition is emblematic of a strategy which offers a great prospect for success, not only for the Religious Right, but also any group who could utilize it. Noted political writer William Greider in his Who Will Tell The People, a chronicle of the problems besetting American democracy in the 1990s, has outlined a strategy for successful democracy. It includes a healthy use of media. Greider even says that conservative televangelists by their "imaginative enterprises are a model for how celebrity and television can organize a political presence for people who had none before."14 But media by itself is not enough. Media can create an audience three thousand miles wide but only skin deep. As Greider says,

The basic weakness in media-centered politics is that, whatever energy and presence it creates, it does not overcome these distancing qualities embedded in the medium itself. A rock star may exhort and educate, but it is still a one-way communication, floating in time and space, detached from any permanent place or institutional responsibility. The TV preachers develop an audience of citizens (and collect lots of money from them) but the fate of their political agenda hangs on the preacher, not the congregation. People feel empowered, but the effect is shallow and sometimes false. People become adherents, but they are still mainly spectators.15

One of the reasons for the disproportionate success is their dedication and energy. The leaders of the CC have identified a strategy that has been dubbed the "15 percent solution"--the proposition that with low voter registration and turnouts, 15 percent of the electorate can determine the outcome of many contests. Indeed, a survey by People for the American Way showed that the movement's candidates won more than 200 local and state elections across the country out of the nearly 500 contests they entered.16 Greider points out that, along with media, genuine and positive person-to-person relationships are vital to rehabilitate democracy. He mentions as models the work of Saul Alinksy in organizing neighborhoods, Ernie Cortes of Alinsky's still existent IAF network, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement, and the work of Ralph Nader. A hallmark of these groups is their commitment to help empower people by helping them learn that they can work on their own behalf for their own advancement. Greider describes several factors which limit the extent to which "authentic" democracy can be fully realized, however, by any of these groups. Among them: Class conflicts within their own ranks. The environmental movement, for example, is unable to resolve its own differences. As Samuel Huntington has concluded, "Upper-class and upper-middle-class hypocrisy combines with lower-class cynicism to perpetuate the status quo."17 The money which funds active citizen politics is often from foundations, money which comes at a cost. Either through forbidding participation in partisan politics, or through giving the donors a say in the organization, as when Waste Management, Inc, a frequent environmental violator, won a place for its CEO on the National Wildlife Federation Board for donations of more than $1 million.18 There is a barrier to electoral politics. Cost of entry, manipulative marketing techniques of campaign strategists, and the continuing need for "gargantuan flood of money that pays for all these." 19

Another group of barriers to electoral politics that can exist among these groups is psychological. For one, there is the fear that if they participated in politics, they might lose. It is easier, and perhaps "cleaner" (another psychological barrier) to simply sit on the sidelines. Another cases the "investment of time and energy in the tedious mechanics of the electoral process itself often seems counterproductive--not the best use of people and limited resources."20 "A genuine democracy...requires a reliable organizational framework that at present does not exist--a viable political party that provides the connective tissue between the people and the government."21 Greider's diagnosis of democracy's needs, and the present shortcomings to its fuller expression in our time, have been reviewed here for the purpose of evaluating the political potential of the Religious Right. Based on this measuring stick, as was stated above, Rev. Lou Sheldon's Traditional Values Coalition, and the New Right generally, have a formula which should prove increasingly successful. As for the two major ingredients for flourishing democracy, the Right has them: Media and the personal touch possible in working the grassroots.

As for media, the Right is an empire to rival the leading networks. If Robertson's vast media empire was all the Right had, they would be well-equipped. But the Christian Coalition boasts a broad spectrum of media access and support. Dr. James Dobson's popular radio program, Focus on the Family, is heard by nearly 2 million people everyday and the program is aired on more radio stations (1350) than any except for Paul Harvey.22 When Dobson gets concerned about some legislative matter, with a word his loyal listeners can immediately jam Congressional phone lines.23 "He can literally launch mailbags of letters to the Congress simply by talking about a piece of legislation on his daily radio program," says Barry Lynn, liberal activist lawyer.24 Charles Stanley, of the widely aired In Touch radio program from Atlanta, Georgia, has the largest cassette tape ministry in America, and is an activist for the Christian Coalition. Dr. D. James Kennedy of Coral Ridge Ministries is a proponent for the Christian Coalition and is a respected national radio and television personality. He is pastor of the 8,000 member Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida and his religious broadcast is carried on 360 television stations nationwide.25 Gary Bauer, the senior vice-president of Focus on the Family and head of the Washington, D.C. based Family Research Council is widely quoted in the major Washington media on family issues. His lobbying presence, and former administrative position with President Ronald Reagan have made him a "point man" for the Religious Right on family issues to the secular Washington media. Even Rush Limbaugh, the most listened to radio broadcaster in the world, backs the Christian Coalition.26

As for the person-to-person "connective tissue", the religious right differs from other political movements in that "it draws its strength from more than 300,000 churches across the United States."27 When the movement began its modern revival with Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority in the 1970's it would be fair to say that the Right was an electronic movement. The movement was not tied to any specific denomination and had little ground level activity. Local leaders who might have been in a position to support the Moral Majority were often not wholehearted supporters.28 If the televangelism would have ended, the movement would have practically ended with it. Not any longer. If the media were to dry up significantly the Religious Right would still be strong.

Commenting on the Right's entry into the New York City school board elections, Chip Berlet, an analyst for Political Research Associates, a non-profit research group in Cambridge, Massachusetts, says, "This is all part of a well-coordinated national campaign by a dozen televangelists and large, conservative get involved at the local level."29 Many pastors and other local leaders have come on board. Churches often act as political education forums. The Christian Coalition printed voter guides for the '92 elections that were used as bulletin inserts in 60,000 churches.30 The voter guides listed the voting record of local candidates on key issues to the Right. Political activity is being baptized into mainstream legitimacy.

The maturing political savvy of the Right is evidence of its commitment to stay in the political arena, and not be simply a flash-in-the-pan. Ralph Reed, the executive director of CC has made a conscious move to diversify the its issue base. Though this has fostered an internal debate, the movement is growing. Reed is beginning to add to the core "pro-family" issues, the core of issues vital to the larger electorate: "To win at the ballot box and in the court of public opinion," he says, "the pro-family movement must speak to the concerns of average voters in the areas of taxes, crime, government waste, health care and financial security."33 This should be a key to further growth of the Right. Bruce Nesmith, a political scientist from Coe College in Iowa, author of The Righteous Republicans...and the New Republican Coalition, chronicles the details of the marriage of the New Right and the Republican Party. He sees the alliance between white evangelical Christians and more traditional Republican constituencies as giving the party a solid national base to build an electoral majority. This was the basis for substantial presidential victories in 1980, 1984, and 1988.

As to why the coalition failed in 1992, Nesmith concludes:

But its success is also affected by economic fluctuations, foreign situations, and--particularly in tight races--how religiously-related issues are framed. Thus, even as a sustained political force, the Republican-white evangelical alliance is reliant to a large degree on tactical skill for electoral success. Under difficult conditions the Bush campaign lacked this skill in 1992.34

Thus the CC's moves in the direction of greater tactical wisdom seems to fill one of the weak spots in an otherwise very promising electoral movement. A. James Reichley, Senior Fellow in the Governmental Studies Program at the Brookings Institution, has written extensively on religion in America and served on Gerald Ford's White House staff. Writing on evangelicals in 1990 he observed:

Some of the participants in the coalitions that elected Reagan and Bush, including many traditional Republicans, are decidedly put off by both the tone of the political utterances from some leaders of the religious right and by the content of some of the issues that have helped draw evangelicals toward the Republicans. If the Republican party were to appear to be dominated by its new evangelical recruits, as already seems to have happened in some parts of the country, and if the evangelicals were to press for strict loyalty to their social agenda, the electoral losses suffered by the Republicans among other supporters or potential supporters could in the long run more than offset the gains brought to them by the religious right.35

The Right seems to be realizing this and is broadening its thinking. The Religious Right then, strong in media and extending flourishing and maturing grassroots, has what Greider indicates are keys for democratic success. As for the five impediments Greider sketches, the Right comes through with good scores. Class conflicts have proved minimal in the Right, partly because the fundamentalists tend to be of middle and lower-middle classes. The Right also has not had the problems with foundation money mentioned by Greider because they are supported by their own offerings. The empire of Dr. James Dobson, for instance, such a powerful promotional vehicle for the advancement of the political program of the Right, was built up through broad support of donations, and book and tape purchases. The cost of entry and other barriers to the electoral arena have not slowed the Religious Right.

As for psychological barriers the Right seems to have turned a corner on its traditionally big misgivings about the political realm. Having turned that corner, a further is being turned by Director Reed's expansion of the CC's issue base, mentioned above. As for the likes of a political party to enhance democracy, the Christian Coalition provides a functional look-alike. Greider reports that the Democratic Party has become a maildrop for donations, a party without substance. There are 400,000 people on the Party's mailing list of whom 100,000 will respond to appeals for funding.36 Compare this to the Christian Coalition. 50,000 people joined the organization in its first year, late in 1989. It has nearly doubled every year. At the 1992 Road to Victory Conference there were over 200,000 members and just a year later at the 1993 Road to Victory Conference there were 450,000 card carrying members. As of June, 1994 there are over one million dues paying members of the Coalition. The Conference had outgrown the campus of Regent University and had to utilize the facilities of Washington Hilton with the largest ballroom in D.C. (seating over 2000).37

The Christian American is the "newspaper" of the Christian Coalition, sent to the faithful. It is a full color newspaper like USA Today. In 1992 it was published on a bimonthly basis. Now it is published monthly. By the end of the decade the plan is to have the circulation to be 10,000,000 a month. That is four times the circulation of Time Magazine. The Christian Coalition produced 40,000,000 voter guides for the 1992 elections, to be distributed nationwide. They were printed before Perot joined the race--and so they were reprinted! Focus on the Family, Dr. James Dobson's ministry, paid for every household in the state of Tennessee to receive one. The CC boasted 550 local chapters in all 50 states in 1992, with full time staff in 15 states.38 In early 1994 this increased to 872 local chapters.39

When Robertson addressed the CC in his closing address at the Road to Victory II Conference, he stated that "in the next few years we will have over 1.7 million members in over 3000 chapters that include every county and precinct in America."40 These activities are certainly the kind of work that a political party would engage in! The Road to Victory Conference has the "feel", the hype, the electricity and excitement of a political convention. Pat Robertson, speaking at the gala banquet on the last night of the 1992 Conference, in an address that ended with a rousing standing ovation, said, "God told me in December, 1991 that He was going to bless the Christian Coalition beyond our wildest expectations. Before the year 2000 Christian Coalition will be the most powerful organization in the United States of America."41 With its homebase of churches, its media clout, its sense of moral political mission, its increased political muscle and savvy, and a platform widely agreed upon, the Right furnishes for itself all the benefits that a party, in theory, is supposed to provide.42

Skipp Porteous, a former fundamentalist minister who founded the Institute for First American Studies, says

These people are in it for the long haul. They're not worried about this year or next year. All these people they're electing to water control...and school board[s], they're in the system now, and they're going to be working their way up. In 20 years, if these people aren't stopped, they're going to run the country.43

While one should avoid being McCarthyite about the Right, it is clear that those who opt for what was once the conventional wisdom, that the Religious Right is just a flash in a pan, now extinguished, are in for a rude awakening. Complaints of the stealth tactics of the Right, their religious views, their desire to force their religion onto American law will not defeat them at the polls. As Stephen Carter says,

More often than not, in this democracy, the side that is better organized, works harder, and rings more doorbells is the side that is likely to win. It does no good, afterward, to wave press clippings or public opinion polls as evidence that the victors were undeserving.44

|Click here for Part II, "Views"|

Footnotes to Part I, "Magnitude and Strategy"

1 A major study of South Bend focusing on neighborhood and church contexts found that church congregations are "significant forces of influence for some...political behaviors and attitudes." Christopher Gilbert, "Perceptions and Reality in Local Congregations: The Salience of Individual Growth", a paper delivered at the September 1993 annual meeting of the American Political Science Association at the Washington Hilton, p. 4.

2 "Christian Coalition Expands Across the USA: Christian Activism on the Rise," Christian American, Spring, 1990.

3 Many authors have chronicled the near-cyclical see-saw arrivals and departures of conservative Evangelicalism in the political mainstream including Michael Lienesch, Redeeming America (Chapel Hill, NC: The Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1993), 4-9; Kenneth D. Wald, Religion and Politics (NY: St. Martin's Press, 1987), 182-186; Samuel Huntington, American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1981), 154-166, where Huntington basically follows the revival cycle sketched by William McGloughlin; William McGloughlin, Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago", Press, 1978); Daniel Hofrenning, "The Politics of Evangelicals: Rival Answers from Different Eras, a study on political evangelicalism in the time of Jefferson, William Jennings Bryan, and Ronald Reagan, including consideration of their shifting party alignment", presented at the 1993 Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association at the Washington Hilton, Sept. 2-5, 1993.

4 His multifaceted, synergistic operation is worth well over $1 billion, including The Family Channel with 58 million cable homes, American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) with a budget of $9 million, Regent University with 1400 graduate students and over $200 million endowment, the Christian Coalition with its 850 chapters and nearly half a million members, CBN, the Christian Broadcasting Network carrying "The 700 Club" with 7 million viewers weekly, and the US Media Corporation with hundreds of broadcasting stations under contract. Howard Fineman, "God and the Grassroots," Newsweek, Nov. 8, 1993, 44.

5 Suzanne Pharr, Student Union, Western Illinois University, September 2, 1993.

6 "Report on the 1993 Road to Victory III Conference of the Christian Coalition", September 25, 1993, an address given at the Minnetonka Seventh-day Adventist Church in Wayzata, MN.

7 Rob Gurwitt, "The Christian Right Has Gained Political Power. Now What Does it Do?", Governing, October 1989, 52.

8 Ed Reid, 1993 "Report...

9 The Washington Post, Sept. 10, 1992, front page story headlined "Christian Coalition Steps Boldly into Politics."

10 Clifford Goldstein, Day of the Dragon...America's Prophetic Transformation (Boise, ID: Pacific Press, 1993) 56; and David Tuller and Susan Yoachum, "The Emerging Religious Right", a three day series in The San Fransisco Chronicle, Sept. 13, 1993.

11 Frederick Clarkson, "California Dreamin'", Church and State, October 1991, 5.

12 David Tuller and Susan Yoachum, Ibid.

13 Ibid.

14 William Greider, Who Will Tell the People (NY: Simon and Schuster, 1992), 324.

15 Ibid, 325-326.

16 David Tuller, SF Chronicle, Sept. 13, 1994.

17 Huntington, Ibid.

18 Greider, 220.

19 Ibid. 238.

20 Ibid, 239.

21 Ibid, 241.

22 Goldstein, 61.

23 One such episode is described in an article about Dobson in the Wall Street Journal, October 17, 1988.

24 "An Interview with the ACLU's Barry Lynn," Church and State, Jul-Aug, 1991, 11.

25 Priscilla Painton, "Clinton's Survival Journey", Time, April 5, 1993, 51.

26 Congressman Bob Dornan who fills in for Rush Limbaugh on his popular radio program, informed participants at the Road to Victory III 1993 Conference of the Christian Coalition, that Rush was in harmony with them.

27 David Tuller.

28 Bruce Nesmith, The Righteous Republicans: The Reagan Campaigns, White Evangelicals, and the New Republican Coalition, 1980-1984, draft of book soon to be published by ________, 32. Nesmith teaches political science at Coe College in Iowa.

29 Lisa Anderson, "Religious Right eyes turf in N.Y. elections", Chicago Tribune, May 23, 1993, 19.

30 Ed Reid, 1993 "Report..."

31 Mark O'Keefe, "'Religious Bigotry' Alleged," Christianity Today, Dec. 13, 1993, 66.

32 Ibid.

33 The Galesburg Register-Mail (AP), "Religious Right may broaden agenda beyond gay rights," Sept. 9, 1993, A-5.

34 Bruce Nesmith, Epilogue.

35 A.J. Reichley, "Pietist Politics", Christianity and Modern Politics, ed. Louisa S. Hulett, (NY: de Gruyter, 1993), 254.

36 Greider, 248.

37 Ed Reid, 1993 "Report..."

38 Ed Reid, Road to Victory II Report, 1992.

39 Christian Coalition Congressional Scorecard, 1994 Election Year Edition, PO Box 1990, Chesapeake, VA 23327.

40 Ibid.

41 Ed Reid, 1992 "Report..."

42 Most commentators focus on CC and the Right in their attempt to take over or to at least use the Republican Party structure in carrying out their program. For instance Howard Fineman, "God and the Grassroots", Newsweek, Nov. 8, 1993, 43: "Unlike Perot's United We Stand America, the religious right doesn't need to create new national structure; the Republican Party will do just fine. Having been invited into the GOP's "big tent" in the 80's, it now would like to run the show. In nearly a dozen states, from Alaska to South Carolina, evangelicals have become powers on GOP state committees."

43 Stephen Carter, The Culture of Disbelief, 265-6.

44 Ibid 268. 265-6.

44 Ibid 268.