A Complicated Blessing
"You can feel the surge!" exclaimed Republican Senator Jim Talent, his nerdy visage beaming from behind a makeshift podium in an airless, jam-packed conference room at the back of Springfield's old Lamplighter Inn. Late in the afternoon before election day, more than 100 volunteers had temporarily abandoned their posts at phone banks and in neighborhoods across Missouri's most conservative city, proud home to the Pentecostal Assemblies of God and five Christian colleges, to cheer their man--and their campaign. "If we can finish and execute this plan in the next twenty-seven hours," Talent told them, "I'm convinced you're going to re-elect yourselves a United States Senator."
The troops--an all-white mix of mostly conservative Christian senior citizens and students, including a gaggle of fraternity brothers shipped in from Brigham Young University for the final push--let out a rafter-shaking roar. Like thousands of Christian-right activists across the country, they'd looked past the scandals in Washington and Colorado and heeded the call, knocking on 45,000 Springfield doors (according to Talent's campaign) and placing 80,000 calls to registered Republicans and independents. Sure, they'd gotten some rude receptions here and there. "I am still shocked by the things some folks said to my face," said Steve Helms, who'd been knocking on doors since December in his campaign for the Statehouse. But, he said, "it's lined up right."
Missouri did look like this year's ideal setting for a last-minute Karl Rove-style surge to victory. All the ingredients of a massive turnout were in place--starting with a devout, scandal-free candidate with strong Christian-right credentials and a bottomless ad budget to help make Talent's opponent, Democratic state auditor Claire McCaskill, look like Hillary Clinton's (even more) evil twin. The essential Rovean plot twist was also in play: a "moral values" ballot issue that would enshrine the right to federally approved stem-cell research and therapies in the state Constitution.
But rather than serving as this year's Republican savior, Missouri ended up exemplifying why the GOP lost the mid-terms--and why the religious right's political alliances are increasingly, startlingly, up for grabs. Like their evangelical counterparts almost everywhere else, Missouri's religious right voted in surprisingly healthy, near-2004 numbers. But moderate and independent Missourians did not come along for the ride--partly because the stem-cell wedge proved to be anything but magic. Like the infamous Terri Schiavo intervention by Congress, opposition to stem-cell research is an extreme extension of the "pro-life" position--an extension too far, in the view of many Christian voters. As former Senator John Danforth wrote in spring 2005, "It is not evident to many of us that cells in a petri dish are equivalent to identifiable people suffering from terrible diseases." Danforth's blast spread through Missouri faster than kudzu. So did his warning that the religious right had become a dangerously divisive force.
As if bent on proving Danforth's point, stem-cell opponents waged an ugly campaign that ended up alienating many moderate and conservative Missourians. "God hates you," Alan Keyes reportedly informed stem-cell-research backers at a rally of 700 Springfield Christians in late September. If that wasn't enough, along came Rush Limbaugh in October. Stem-cell-research supporters had used some of their $30 million campaign budget to unleash a moral weapon of their own: actor Michael J. Fox, quaking from the effects of Parkinson's disease, in an emotional TV ad urging Missourians to vote for McCaskill and research. When Limbaugh mocked Fox and claimed he had exaggerated the effects of his disease to pull on voters' heartstrings, the radio rabble-rouser set off a backlash that stemmed the anti-stem cell tide and made voters wonder where the real morality lay. "To me, the stem-cell thing is just silly," Springfield's Tom Rollings told me on election night, holding the hands of his wife, Donna, and their toddler son after voting at Pleasant View school. A committed Christian, Rollings said he and his spouse "usually vote Republican, but not this time." To them, a far less publicized ballot initiative, one ignored by the Christian right, was the more legitimate "values" vote. "People's wages--that is a moral issue," Rollings said. "Especially when you're trying to feed your family."
Most Missourians agreed, as the state's initiative to raise the minimum wage to $6.50 an hour passed with more than 75 percent of the vote. Combined with the failure of the stem-cell wedge, it was a sign that evangelicals in Missouri, like those across the country, are eager for a more expansive version of what Christian politics means--beyond the old standbys of "life," "activist judges" and the "homosexual threat." That narrowness troubles even leading Christian conservatives like former George W. Bush adviser Marvin Olasky, now editor of the evangelical World magazine. In a scathing postelection editorial, Olasky skewered Republicans for abandoning compassionate conservatism, ignoring poverty and being "the party of corporate suits."
"Rank-and-file evangelicals are awakening to the moral bankruptcy of leaders of the religious right," says liberal evangelical Randall Balmer, who critically explores the religious right in his recent book, Thy Kingdom Come. Dee Wampler, a longtime Christian-right activist and Republican stalwart in Springfield, says that conservative misdeeds woke up plenty of his counterparts in the Bible Belt of southwest Missouri. "We're the worker bees of the party," he says. "A lot of us are disgusted--about the Foley scandal, among other things. We elected them to stand guard and not let this kind of thing happen. I'm hearing a lot of dissension coming out into the open now."
But like most religious-right activists in Missouri, Jaci Winship, who led a grassroots effort by Missourians Against Human Cloning, was defiant. "The battle goes on, and we won't rest until truth wins the victory and deception is defeated," Winship declared. National potentates struck a similar tone. After the election, James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, still felt powerful enough to threaten the GOP. "I think we ought to let the Republican leadership know that if they want to change this outcome in two years," he said, "they'd better pay attention to their base, and their base is made up of values voters."
Dobson is right about the Republicans' addiction to the religious right. They have used, manipulated and catered to voters like the Springfield Christians for so long that the party would be lost (and losing) without them. What Dobson doesn't want to recognize is that these voters' "values" are less and less stuck in the wedge-driven paradigms of 1980, or 2004. Balmer, for one, believes that evangelicals could become important swing voters, and thereby expand their power, because they'd be able to sway candidates' positions in both parties toward pro-poor and pro-life stances. Already, he says, "When I talk to audiences of evangelicals they'll say, 'Yes, Jesus' teachings would lead me to vote Democratic--but I simply can't get past the abortion issue.'"
That's why the lessons of Missouri--that religious-right Republicanism is losing its punch and that religious-right voters are beginning to look beyond the tried-and-true dogma--don't merely point to a dilemma for the GOP. With "values voters" increasingly open-minded, Democrats--who won 29 percent of evangelical votes, at least 5 percentage points more than in 2004--will have to grapple with the tangled question of how to claim them without abandoning their prochoice, moderately progay base.
The election results did not, as many pundits have hastily and wishfully surmised, signal the shrinkage of evangelicals' influence over American politics. Instead, what happened in places like Missouri suggests that moral politics is growing more expansive--and less Republican. If that's the case, progressive Democrats might end up remembering November 7, 2006, as a very complicated blessing.