Pulse of religion still beats in conservative politics
The Christian right isn’t what it once was, but not going away anytime soon
“AM I the only guy who’s ending sentences with ‘amen’ this weekend?” Ralph Reed, conservative political operative and born-again Christian, asked during his speech at the Western Conservative Summit in Denver this weekend. If the enthusiastic round of cheers and applause offered by the audience in response is any indication, then no—he’s not alone.
Despite his boyish looks, Reed is an old hand in the right-wing political scene. Some might recognize him from a 1995 Time Magazine cover featuring a medium closeup of his face in ominous low-key lighting, with a headline that reads “The Right Hand of God” splashed across. Reed is perhaps best known for his tenure as executive director of the Christian Coalition, the voter mobilization machine founded by famed televangelist Pat Robertson after his failed 1988 presidential bid. Throughout the 90s, Reed built a vast and sophisticated voter turnout operation, organizing evangelical Protestants into an invaluable asset for the GOP.
But now, in 2014, Reed is speaking to a different audience. Yes, the far right crowd that attends this summit is still openly and vocally religious, by and large. It seems like not a single speech ends without a “God Bless America,” and references to the Bible are plentiful. But the culture wars of the 90s and early 2000s have died down considerably as American society becomes increasingly secularized. One study now puts the number of faithless in America at 12 percent, another as high as 20.
Issues like gay marriage—which was once a major source of contention—have more or less been approved by cultural consensus over the last few years. Colorado legalized marijuana last year and there wasn’t much more than a peep out of the Christian right.
Still, about 78 percent of Americans say they’re Christian, according to the Pew Research center. Around a quarter of Protestants, who are themselves slightly more than half of all Christians in the U.S. population, still self-identifies as evangelical. Though the fervor around certain cultural issues has slowed to a simmer, the call to protect religious liberty and fortify the family and community against secular forces lives on.
“The great awakening will begin at home,” Reed said thunderously, “and ripple out from there.”
In 1999, still in its glory days, the Christian Coalition lost tax exempt status after a long battle with the IRS for passing out partisan voter guides and engaging in other overtly political activities prohibited for a 501(c)3 organization. From there, the Christian Coalition regrouped under the name the Christian Coalition of America, a 501(c)4 that could finally be the political animal it always wanted to be. In the 2000 presidential election, the Coalition distributed over 70 million voter guides in American churches, and the next time around, in 2004, the group spearheaded such an effective get-out-the-vote effort that it was credited with helping to carry Bush to victory.
Then, things took a turn for the worse. In 2006, Reed lost a race for lieutenant governor of Georgia. Around the same time, he became embroiled in national scandal when it was reported that lobbyist Jack Abramoff—an old friend of Reed’s—enlisted the Christian Coalition to push an anti-gambling campaign in Alabama, forcing casino-owning Native American tribes in the region to pay Abramoff more and more for his lobbying services. When all was said and done, Reed had casino money in its pocket and some explaining to do.
At that point, the once mighty Ralph Reed had all but fallen from grace. His Christian Coalition was drastically shrunken, not to mention in considerable debt: a far cry from its turn-of-the-century heyday.
But while Reed may have lost some credibility, he did not lose his savvy. In 2009, he founded the Freedom and Faith Coalition, describing it as “a 21st century version of the Christian Coalition.” Soon enough, he was back in the game: throwing star-studded Republican gala fundraisers that showcased the Christian capacity for forgiveness.
And now, here he is: addressing some 3,000 conservatives gathered at the Hyatt Regency in Denver with hair slicked back and a fierce gleam in his eyes. We need a “moral and spiritual great awakening” in American culture, he said, evoking a classic adage of the religious right. Mainstream secular culture has all but abandoned traditional family values over the years, as the reasoning goes, and the resulting dearth of morality is reflected in the liberal politics of Barack Obama and the like.
Much like the narrative put forward during a panel discussion on millennials, Reed made the case that conservative Christian values are victimized in the media. As an example, he pointed to what he saw as the unfair treatment of Phil Robertson, one of the stars of A&E’s Duck Dynasty, who was suspended from the show after an interview with GQ magazine in which he called homosexuality “illogical,” fondly reminisced about pre-civil rights Louisiana and proudly proclaimed himself a Bible-thumper. A&E ultimately reinstated Robertson after a public outcry by Christian conservatives threatening to boycott the network. Reed lamented the way he saw the media initially “bully” Robertson for his Christian beliefs. “We’ve got to quit apologizing for being believers in Christ,” Reed said.
This notion that religious practice should be both proud and public was also present in his—and other speakers’—praise of the Supreme Court’s recent Hobby Lobby ruling. “We’ve seen a tremendous victory for religious liberty in the Supreme Court in the Hobby Lobby case,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, referring to what has been defined as an employer’s First Amendment right to exclude types of health care he or she religiously opposes—like birth control—in coverage offered to employees.
The Texas senator applauded the right of employers to exclude “abortion-inducing drugs,” tying it in with the biggest culture war issue there is: abortion (which was also called baby-killing and genocide throughout the course of the summit.)
“On women’s reproductive rights, it’s arguable that the Christian right is way more conservative than it was in the 90s,” said Nancy Wadsworth, political science professor at Denver University who specializes in the role of religion and social movements in political culture. People then just weren’t talking about birth control in the context of public policy; only in the last decade has the topic reemerged in this politicized form. “It’s really become quite extreme,” Wadsworth said.
Despite the hard-line rhetoric on abortion, other culture war issues were somewhat downplayed at the summit. Reed said that straight people have done more damage to the institution of marriage than anyone else and there were some hollers of agreement from the audience. Forty percent of marriages in America end in divorce, he pointed out, resulting in a generation of children growing up without a loving mother and father. Reed noted that rates of babies being born out of wedlock are higher in African-American and Hispanic communities.
Before moving on, he enunciated very clearly: “I believe very strongly that marriage should be defined as the sacred union between a man and a woman.” That statement got a loud ovation. But few, if any, speakers at the summit gave any indication that fighting gay marriage is necessarily a policy concern anymore. When the issue was mentioned, it was solely in a cultural context. “Marriage is a value rooted in our Judeo-Christian traditions,” said Dennis Prager, syndicated radio talk show host, “and when they die, marriage dies.”
Other speakers—who are representative of the conservative movement generally, not necessarily the religious wing of it—barely brushed up against the issue. “We shouldn’t be fighting about gay marriage,” conservative journalist Mary Katherine Ham said point-blank.
For an issue that was majorly contentious just a few years ago, gay marriage has almost completely lost its potency as a wedge issue. “With gay marriage, there’s been a retreat,” Wadsworth said, “the younger [evangelicals] are less willing to legislate their values.”
Retreat from overtly political battles is not uncommon, according to patterns of social movements at this stage of maturation. “The heat of the grassroots fervor has diminished a lot,” Wadsworth noted. “The Christian right knows it’s been losing a lot of battles around cultural consensus… so they’ve professionalized. There’s a lot of work behind the scenes.”
There’s a back-and-forth tension within the movement over whether to engage with politics or retreat, and to what extent. At this point, mainstream society is too sinful to be saved, so perhaps evangelicals are better off turning inward to fortify their own communities, one line of reasoning within the movement goes. Others, like Reed, would rather see the Christian right emboldened to instigate “a greater reliance on God” in broader American culture, and the politics will follow.
“The Bible says we’ve been given a spirit not of timidity, but of power,” Reed said, calling on conservatives “to restore this last best hope of mankind—which is one nation, under God.”
[Photo by Tessa Cheek]
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