Perhaps it was because he was recovering from painful back surgery, but a few weeks before the Republican convention, Paul Weyrich, a founder of the religious right, was awful grumpy about George W. Bush. From his sickbed he complained that “the George W. Bush campaign apparatus is doing its best to suppress conservative activism.” How so? Bush, Weyrich charged, had not spoken with sufficient fervor against abortion, had prevented right-wing partisans from highlighting the abortion issue during GOP platform deliberations (even as Bush supported the antiabortion plank), and he’d refused to establish an antiabortion litmus test for his running mate and judicial appointees. Instead, Bush was rushing for the middle. And if this continues, Weyrich said, Bush will fail to fire up the social conservative activists he needs to carry him on to victory: “Republicans do best when there are clear-cut differences between the candidates.” As Weyrich bitterly noted, although Bush desperately reached out to conservatives during the primaries, when John McCain was at his heels, “That was it for us. After he won the nomination, it was, Hello? I’m sorry. You’ve reached a disconnected number.”
That’s a harsh verdict for Weyrich to render on a candidate who has termed himself conservative and “pro-life,” pitched school vouchers, hailed Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas as model Justices, cited Jesus Christ as his favorite political philosopher, hired Christian Coalition Wunderkind Ralph Reed, visited Bob Jones U., defended the Christian right when McCain attacked it and called for sandpapering America’s coarse culture. And Weyrich was not alone. Phyllis Schlafly, president of the Eagle Forum, was eyeing Bush warily in the preconvention period. She, too, was disappointed that Bush has not championed the antiabortion cause. And James Dobson, president of Focus on the Family and an influential social conservative, interrupted a three-month retreat to appear on ABC’s This Week to warn that “George Bush cannot and will not be the next President of the United States if he doesn’t energize his base, and the base is pro-life, pro-family, pro-moral, basically evangelical Christians.”
Bush has maintained a nuanced relationship with the religious right. Christian conservative voters helped him dispatch McCain in crucial primaries, but he refuses to act as if he’s in their pocket. He’s in sync with key chunks of their agenda, but he hasn’t wholeheartedly embraced their movement–at least not in a consistent and public manner. Talking about their paramount issue–abortion–appears to be an unpleasant chore for him. Yet the gripes of Weyrich, Schlafly and Dobson do not represent the sentiments of the entire movement. Many, if not most, leading social conservatives have taken a practical view and reached an accommodation with Bush, some more enthusiastically than others. Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell are as giddy about Bush as a Texas cheerleader. Richard Viguerie, the conservative direct-mail magnate, is resigned to Bush’s ascendancy and supportive. Eight months ago, Viguerie dismissed Bush as an “Elvis impersonator,” opining that “Bush has never taken the lead on an issue of importance to conservatives.” Now Viguerie is all for Bush. “He’s within an acceptable range,” sighs Viguerie. The word “acceptable” emerges often when conservatives discuss the GOP nominee.
Bush can expect to benefit from the support of Christian conservatives who don’t share Weyrich’s profound despair, Schlafly’s reluctance or Dobson’s holier-than-thou aloofness. “Through Rush Limbaugh, G. Gordon Liddy and Christian radio, social conservatives have been told for eight years that Bill Clinton and Al Gore are problematic, flawed individuals who do not wish the Christian community well,” notes Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform. “They are now so convinced that Clinton and Gore have to be gotten rid of that Bush is”–yes–“acceptable.” Bush can count on most of the social cons who vote–if he doesn’t distance himself further from the social concerns of the religious right during the election campaign. Patrick Buchanan’s embarrassingly low standing in the polls may be evidence that the Christian right voters consider Bush to be just fine. And Bush’s selection of Dick Cheney, an established anti-choice conservative, as his Veep-chaperone won’t alienate the right. But what’s in question is the organized strength of religious right leaders crusading for Bush. How powerful is the God-for-GOP machine these days? Does it possess the skills and resources to mobilize and lead its Bush-leaning followers to the polls? The once-mighty Christian Coalition, for one, has fallen on tough times, and the prominent players of the religious right might be better able to preach politics than prompt political action. Bush may be the best hope for the religious right, but the religious right of 2000 may not be his most effective ally.
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“There are some guys in the movement who work, and some who whine,” says Norquist. And the whiners are of no help to Bush. For example, Dobson–definitely a whiner–could be a strong force, with a mailing list of 2.5 million fans and a radio audience of 6-10 million. But he shows little inclination to do more than wag his finger at Bush and the GOP and issue demands. Still, Bush does have many of the workers of the social conservative movement on his side. “There’s the Dobson wing,” one conservative strategist notes. “He screams, If you don’t do this, I’ll lop your head off. Then there’s the wing with the National Right to Life Committee, which operates much more like the NRA, which generates mail and phone calls, holds private meetings with members of Congress, shows the legislators how many members it can mobilize and requests specific votes in Congress. They deliver and the politicians deliver.” The NRLC has been backing Bush hard; it’s expected to run pro-Bush ads and voter-turnout operations that target pro-Bush (and pro-GOP) voters this fall. Its political action committee raised nearly $1 million in the first half of this year and spent about $700,000 on mailings, literature and get-out-the-vote phone calls for Bush. The group will likely be a major recipient of Republican funds this election.
The biggest brand names of the religious right, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, have been talking for months about gassing up the Bush bandwagon, but it’s unclear how much fuel they have to spare. Robertson is committed to Bush–even though he wrote a bizarre book in 1992 revealing that President Bush, by pushing his new world order, was doing the bidding of a “tightly knit cabal whose goal is nothing less than a new order for the human race under the domination of Lucifer and his followers.” During the primaries, Robertson, letting bygones be, cut taped phone messages for the son of Satan’s tool, and when other conservatives were aggressively cautioning Bush not to consider a pro-choice running mate, Robertson said he could live with such a move.
Robertson’s dedication to Bush is firm, but his Christian Coalition, beleaguered by a financial crunch, legal problems and staff troubles, has fallen apart since poster boy Ralph Reed departed to become a well-paid political consultant. The coalition has lost its best operatives, and there is no executive director. Roberta Combs, executive vice president and day-to-day chief, has been criticized for squandering time and money on “faith and freedom” rallies rather than on organizing. Last December, Robertson conceded that his political arm was “quite a mess.” In February, Paul Nagy, a former field director, said, “The Christian Coalition is a defunct organization.”
But Robertson can rise again. “That the organization has gone through a restructuring in the national office has nothing to do with the grassroots in the states,” insists Combs. As for Reed’s departure, she huffs, “No one person is indispensable.” She predicts that “our people will get revved up” by the Bush campaign at “the right time,” although she admits it hasn’t happened yet–is she whistling past the graveyard? Several state Christian Coalition operations, however, are functioning well. And it presumably still has lists of likely Christian right voters and ministers willing to direct people to the voting booth. The lists may not be up-to-date, given the disarray at headquarters, but they’re probably usable. If the coalition isn’t up to exploiting them fully, perhaps the Bush campaign, the Republican Party or Tom DeLay’s operation will be. “It must be Ralph Reed’s job to figure out how to reach these people,” says one political strategist. “And their names are known.” Combs claims the coalition will operate paid and volunteer get-out-the-vote phone banks in all fifty states, and Robertson has vowed to distribute 70 million voter guides to push social conservatives toward the Bush and GOP camp. (To comply with tax and campaign laws, these compare-and-contrast guides to the candidates are supposed to be strictly nonpartisan, but, as always, they’re certain to favor Republicans.) “Robertson’s ability to turn out voters had nothing to do with having Ralph Reed on television,” says Norquist. “The key has always been ministers who let the coalition hand out materials.”
“It would be a mistake to equate the organizational disarray of the Christian Coalition with an organizational incapability to deliver anything,” observes Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Robertson doesn’t need a tremendous infrastructure to disseminate the voter guides; he just needs local activists who can deliver boxes of materials to coalition-friendly churches, particularly the mega-churches in the South and West. Robertson’s 70-million-guide goal is a stretch. A small fraction distributed in the right places could improve Bush’s fortunes and those of Republican House and Senate candidates, but it’s not certain that the coalition is up even to that task.
Jerry Falwell, organizer of the Moral Majority in the eighties, has returned to the political pulpit, mounting what he claims is a $15 million-$25 million campaign to corral 10 million evangelical voters, another supposedly nonpartisan effort designed to aid Bush. “The idea is to beat Al Gore,” says Falwell, who a few years back promoted a video that suggested Bill Clinton had arranged the murders of his enemies. “Falwell’s project is so outrageous in its anti-Gore sentiment that it does not pass the laugh test of being nonpartisan,” asserts Lynn, who has requested that the IRS investigate.
Last year, when antiabortion activists were questioning Bush’s commitment, Falwell eagerly vouched for his “pro-life” views. Now, with the help of Viguerie’s direct-mail machine, he’s raising money to locate and register Bush voters. This past spring, Falwell noted that he’d already received $1 million in corporate contributions. When he briefed conservative activists in Washington, he said he aimed to convince ministers in 70,000 churches to hand out voter material before the election, including 100 million “Promise to Pray and Promise to Vote” pledge cards. This would be quite a feat for a project only a few months old that, Falwell claims, will shut its doors after the election (perhaps a clever way to duck the IRS).
Cal Thomas, vice president of the Moral Majority in the eighties, doesn’t see the Falwell endeavor as serious, except as a collection-plate scheme. “It’s all about fundraising,” he says, with a snort of disgust. Falwell, he explains, does not have “the know-how or the follow-through. Falwell, the Christian Coalition–they’re all paper tigers, to quote Mao. The Christian vote is not unified. Huge numbers of evangelicals voted for Clinton twice. What’s out there has been registered. There’s no untapped mother lode that can magically be called up. It’s the mushy middle that determines the election. This is just about getting people to send in money.”
Lou Sheldon, who heads the Traditional Values Coalition, is also raising money to register and motivate Christian right voters to pull the lever for Bush. His outfit, begun in 1982, claims to be connected to 43,000 churches, and last year he recruited Hispanic and African-American churches in California to support a referendum outlawing gay marriage. Like Robertson and Falwell, Sheldon throws around the big numbers, saying he’s shooting for a $12 million voter campaign (nonpartisan, of course)–about five times the size of his past election-year efforts. He claims there’s no lack of enthusiasm for Bush among social conservatives: “Bill Clinton issued an executive order declaring June gay pride month and talked about the beauties of homosexuality. That’s motivation.” But Sheldon acknowledges that 23 percent of the born-again evangelicals who voted in 1994 didn’t bother to in 1998. His theory: They were bummed that Clinton stayed in office after the sex scandal. Now he predicts (or hopes) that those voters sense Clinton’s “day of reckoning is at hand, and they know Gore represents an agenda that’s the antithesis of Christian voters’. The Supreme Court decision striking down school prayer at Texas high school football games will help us. It’s a kick in the pants. George W. Bush supports student-led prayer of this sort. He does motivate us.”
Sheldon’s muscle is hard to assess, since his small shop depends on liaisons at each church to do the grunt work of registering parishioners and urging them to the polls. “It’s always a little dicey when people say they have X number of churches,” a Republican organizer remarks politely. “That’s hard to check or evaluate.”
With the political strength of the religious right less discernible than in the past, Republicans and conservative strategists have been wondering how to make up for the assumed decline of the social conservative establishment. Many in GOP quarters are looking to the pros of the National Right to Life Committee to substitute, in a way, for the Christian Coalition. “The Christian Coalition once clearly had it, but it’s gone,” Weyrich says. “Jerry Falwell talks a good game, but he couldn’t put together a political operation if his life depended on it. He can hold rallies. His people know how to do that, but not how to put up a precinct operation. Dobson is capable of mobilizing people if he decides to. But he feels the Republican Party has given him short shrift and has not lived up to the promises of 1994. Lou Sheldon can produce some activity, in a few regions–some states or Congressional districts–but nothing nationally.”
If the presidential election proves to be close, whatever mobilization social conservatives mount could have an impact, obviously. But as social cons toil for Bush, other interests–including business groups, labor unions, the NAACP, the NRA, environmentalists, the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League–will be doing their damnedest to drive their supporters to vote the right way. It probably will be impossible to determine whether any individual effort was decisive. This election could demonstrate, however, whether the organized religious right still has any juice.
And there’s always the possibility that Bush will turn off social con voters. “One mistake the business wing of the Republican Party often makes,” Viguerie comments, “is to say of social conservatives, Where else do they have to go? Nothing else drives a conservative up the wall more than a country club Republican saying, Where else do they have to go? Well, we can go gardening, we can go fishing…. I have great concern he’ll run a campaign designed to appeal to the national media instead of conservatives. If Bush does not highlight issues of importance to conservatives–the need for tax cuts, school choice, abortion and gun rights–then he’s not going to energize the conservative base, and I expect he will lose. This is the best year my business has had since 1980. Conservatives are more worried and concerned than any time in my previous thirty-five years of doing this. Every single marble is in play–the House, the Senate, the White House and Congressional redistricting. They see Hillary in the wings. They see the potential for twenty years of a radical liberal agenda. That’s terrifying.” So frightened conservatives are there for Bush’s taking–unless he screws up.
Should Bush end up in the White House, what then for the movement? “It’s a continual worry of partisans of the right, and left, that you elect a guy, but he’s not excited about your issues,” Norquist remarks. “I think that in the next four to eight years, George W. Bush can do what we want him to do on taxes, and as for social conservatives, those things that can be done on their issues in that period, he’s for them.” Weyrich, not surprisingly, holds a different opinion: “Conservative movement leaders have hope, but they have nothing to base their belief on. They shouldn’t be shocked if Bush gets in and does the opposite of what he said he would do. Of course, all things considered, I’d rather have Bush and the Republicans in than the liberal Democrats…. If there’s any major takeback of the country, it’s not going to come with this crew”–Bush and the Congressional Republicans. “We need a religious revival. And if we’re going to have one, only God knows. Literally.”
Fortunately for Bush, most social cons have been battered by the Clinton years and are satisfied with an as-good-as-it-gets candidate. So will Bush owe the Christian right if he moves into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue? It depends on what they can do for him in the next few months. His father courted and received religious right support, but, most conservatives complain, he never made good on his debt. It would be reasonable for the National Right to Life Committee to expect payback from Bush for its work in the trenches on his behalf. Yet despite the warnings of Weyrich, Dobson and Viguerie, it’s not hard to envision Bush triumphing in November without hugging their issues and without a big push from the God squad. Consequently, the strategists of the religious right have two prayers this presidential season: That George Bush does end up needing them–and that they can meet that need.