Five years ago the Christian right was in a tenuous position. Its standard-bearer, the Christian Coalition, was under investigation by the IRS and the Federal Election Commission, and many of its state chapters were nearing collapse. Its lead organizers were fleeing so fast that one former field director called the organization “defunct.” Groups such as the Family Research Council and Concerned Women for America, undergoing their own leadership transitions, had not yet risen to take the coalition’s place. The movement had staked nearly everything on the drive to impeach Bill Clinton, and after that effort collapsed, its leaders projected a palpable sense of gloom. Paul Weyrich, the master coalition builder who had inspired Jerry Falwell to build a “moral majority” in America, wrote a Dear Friend letter that resounded with defeat. “I no longer believe that there is a moral majority,” he wrote in February 1999. “I do not believe that a majority of Americans actually shares our values.” He declared that the right had lost the culture war and that America was becoming “an ever-widening sewer.” He encouraged activists to give up, to quarantine themselves from this infectious immorality, “to drop out of this culture, and find places…where we can live godly, righteous and sober lives.” Weyrich’s letter sparked enormous controversy on the Christian right, but many saw it as the harbinger of a new evangelical separatism, marked by a retreat from political life.
Now, five years later, thanks to George W. Bush, the Christian right is on top of the world. Bush has not only bucked up the movement by ceding huge swaths of his domestic and international policy to this lobby, from his efforts to block abortions and gay marriage to his expenditure of significant political capital to support abstinence education, church-based social services and socially conservative judges. He has also revived the movement by injecting tens of millions of federal dollars directly into the coffers of the Christian right’s grassroots organizations, while at the same time starving their most vigorous political opponents of funds–singling out family planning and AIDS organizations for special punishment. While these groups receive a steady diet of financial audits, investigations and outright defunding, the President has turned his faith-based initiative into what the Rev. Eugene Rivers of Boston calls “a financial watering hole for the right-wing evangelicals.”As Weyrich told the conservative Christian magazine World shortly after Bush took office, “The Bush administration came along just in time to save many of these pro-family organizations. Four more years of a Gore administration–of being on the outside–and I think a lot of them wouldn’t have made it.”
It was Weyrich’s old running buddy, Richard Viguerie, the direct-mail guru who helped forge the religious right as a political force, and Howard Phillips, a former Nixon official who went on to head the Conservative Caucus, who first launched a campaign to “defund the left” in 1981. Viguerie and Phillips and their coalition of some eighty right-wing organizations went after groups concerned with core liberal issues–from women’s rights to civil rights and the environment–that were also important elements of the Democratic base. Their targets included the Audubon Society, the Urban League, Planned Parenthood and other organizations suspected of using federal funds to “subsidize liberal antifamily values.” “Our opposition receives almost 70 percent of its funds from the government,” said Viguerie in 1982. “We want to stop that.” Viguerie and Phillips battled for a series of rule changes to accomplish their aims throughout the Reagan years, many of which were rebuffed, but some of which, such as the Mexico City Policy (now commonly called the global abortion “gag rule”), became government policy. This drive to defund liberal institutions was revived in the mid-1990s by the conservative true believers of the Gingrich revolution, in conjunction with think thanks such as the Heritage Foundation, though their flood of bills went nowhere.
The Bush White House has picked up where Viguerie and Gingrich left off–though with far greater success. When Bush political adviser Karl Rove was asked by The New Yorker‘s Nicholas Lemann how he defined the Democratic base, Rove responded, “someone with a doctorate.” And so, according to the ruthless logic of Rove’s “strategery” shop, mainstream scientific, professional and policy organizations, whose constituencies tend to lean Democratic, have been removed from influential federal advisory positions and replaced by ideologues. The American Medical Association no longer advises US delegates to UN summits on children’s issues; Concerned Women for America does instead. Experts from the Center for AIDS Prevention Studies at the University of California, San Francisco, no longer sit on the presidential AIDS advisory council; they have been replaced by a former beauty queen who lectures on abstinence and an antigay evangelical barnstormer from Turning Point ministries. Screening by the American Bar Association of judicial nominees has been replaced by advice from the far-right Federalist Society.