The Christian right in American politics (1994) | THINK TANK

The Christian right in American politics (1994) | THINK TANK


Ben Wattenberg: Hello. I’m Ben Wattenberg.
The Christian right has become a powerful force in the Republican Party, sparking a
debate over religion and politics. Joining us to sort through the conflict and
the consensus are Michael Cromartie of the Ethics & Public Policy Center and editor of
the forthcoming book “Disciples in Democracy: Religious Conservatives and the Future of
American Politics”; Randall Balmer, associate professor of religion at Barnard College and
author of “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture
in America”; Larry Sabato, professor of political science at the University of Virginia;
and historian Michael Kazin of the American University and author of the forthcoming book
“The Populist Persuasion: An American History.” The topic before this house: the Christian
right in American politics. This week on “Think Tank.” America was founded by religious refugees.
In our history, religious faith inspired political and social movements, like the antislavery
crusade in the 1850s, the fight for a constitutional amendment to outlaw alcohol, and a large number
of anti-war protests. Thirty years ago, the Reverend Martin Luther King forthrightly declared
that it was his faith that impelled him to fight for civil rights. His sermons mobilized
millions in the struggle over voting rights for black Americans. Despite this long history,
many Americans have always believed that politics should be kept out of the pews and religion
out of the voting booth. Now a movement of Christian conservatives
seem to be gaining political clout, especially within the Republican Party. Figures like
religious broadcaster Pat Robertson, Virginia senatorial candidate Oliver North, and columnist
and former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan have all rallied support from the so-called
religious right. That has caused consternation among some Republicans, and at least some
experts think it offers a political opportunity for the Democrats. Recently, Congressman Dick Fazio, chairman
of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, characterized the movement as radical and
intolerant. He warns that the Republicans accept the religious right and their tactics
at their own peril. That is what the American people fear most. But do they? Polls show that Americans are
one of the most religious peoples in the world, and with the exception of a strong antiabortion
stance, the bulk of the religious right’s political agenda is often quite close to traditional
conservatism. Gentlemen, let me begin this discussion, if
I might, trying to elicit some information, perhaps starting with you, Michael Cromartie.
Who are these people? We see in the headlines, it says “Religious Right,” “Christian
Right.” Who are we talking about? Michael Cromartie: We’re talking about conservative
Protestants, who are sometimes called fundamentalists; they’re sometimes called evangelicals. There’s
a difference between evangelicals and fundamentalists. There are also charismatic conservative Christians,
all a part of the Protestant wing. However, Ben, it’s becoming more and more
the case that conservative Catholics are now being identified with the religious right,
and even conservative Jews. As you mentioned just in your opening there, traditional conservatism
is an umbrella that a lot of these people have become a part of. So it’s not just
evangelicals and fundamentalists, although a large body of them are these people. Ben Wattenberg: Randall Balmer, what would
you add to that description of Michael’s? Randall Balmer: I think it’s important to
note that this is part of a long strain in American history. Far too often, the religious
right is characterized as something that kind of descended out of outer space in the late
1970s. Evangelicals really throughout most of the 19th century established the social
and political agenda for this country, and it was only in the late ’70s or mid ’70s
when they began to reclaim their place in American public discourse. But I’d also say that these are people who
feel displaced in one way or another. They feel as though the surrounding culture is
overwhelming to them. They feel as though their values are no longer central to the
culture in the way that they were maybe 50 or 30 years ago. And this is what I think
energizes them as well. Ben Wattenberg: Michael Kazin, you’re a
historian. I mean, it’s interesting. You all come, I think, from probably different
spots on the political spectrum, but the picture we’re beginning to get is that at least
we can agree on some history. So, please. Michael Kazin: I think it’s important to
note that in this long history of evangelical politics, if you will, in the 19th century,
especially the late 19th century, the political location of a lot of these people was really
more on the left than on the right. The People’s Party, the populists, the original populists
really, who had a pretty far-reaching economic program — wanted to nationalize the railroads
and other, quote, “socialist” kinds of programs — were mostly very strongly believing
Christians. And most of them were in favor of the prohibition of alcohol as well. And
so moral politics with a religious basis has not always been located on the right, by any
means. Ben Wattenberg: Professor Larry Sabato of
the University of Virginia — and I stress Virginia because you have got a lollapalooza
of a Senate race this time with Oliver North allegedly — and I underscore allegedly — a
candidate of the religious right challenging incumbent Senator Charles Robb and a series
of other people in a great political race from a journalistic point of view. What do
you make of this religious right movement? How did it play out in Virginia? How does
it add into what your colleagues have talked about? Larry Sabato: Well, taking Virginia first,
you’re right, the religious right is playing a major role. I don’t think Oliver North
could have been nominated without the Christian coalition. He had a pretty closely contested
convention race. He won with only 55 percent, and I think the Christian coalition definitely
made the margin of difference there. Michael Cromartie: Let me add to this, Ben,
something that Randall just said, and that’s simply this: that it’s true that evangelicals
have been involved in politics. And most historians locate their leaving the political arena with
the Scopes trial in 1925, where they were absolutely embarrassed. Ben Wattenberg: Refresh for us the Scopes
trial. Michael Cromartie: Well, the Scopes trial
was a debate about teaching creationism in the Tennessee schools in 1925, and H. L. Mencken’s
journalistic writings and critiques of them had quite a big effect on the country in his
descriptions of them. A lot of fundamentalists and evangelicals
became apolitical during that time, and the loss of the Protestant consensus in this culture
caused a lot of them to go underground. But their churches grew. And it wasn’t until
— as we’ve mentioned, till the ’70s that many of them became re-involved in the
public debate, and that was in response to, I might say, the successes of liberal culture
in this society. I mean the Supreme Court decisions and the — Ben Wattenberg: Give us a rundown of what
would bug the religious right. Michael Cromartie: Well, the Roe v. Wade decision
in ’73, but even the 1962 and ’63 decisions on school prayer and Bible reading in schools.
Those two court cases kind of woke these people up to certain things that were happening they
were not pleased with. And then some IRS decisions related to private schools and how they ought
to be run caused them to become very agitated and concerned. Ben Wattenberg: And running today right down
to the advent of gay politics in our society. Randall Balmer: I think the issue of homosexual
politics and the denial of civil rights — or what the religious right characterizes as
special rights to gays and lesbians — is in some ways a special case in that I think
we are in a time of very deep cultural transition right now. The most important thing that’s happened
in the last few years is that we as Americans have been robbed of our most durable enemy,
the Soviet Union. With the collapse of the Soviet empire, I think we have been casting
about to redefine ourselves. And we define ourselves as a people as against an enemy.
We always had that enemy. For three-quarters of a century, we had the Soviet Union as an
enemy. Now that’s gone, and we’ve been casting
about as a culture for a new enemy. And I think now we’re looking to gays and lesbians,
right here among us, as the new enemy. And I think for the religious right, this has
become an enormously potent kind of defining issue for them. Michael Kazin: I think historically, too,
the rise of the Christian right has to be — of course, this didn’t begin three or
four years ago; it began in the late ’60s, early ’70s, as you mentioned — but it
has to be connected to a sort of overwhelming fear of America’s decline, not just economically
in contrast to the Japanese and Germans, in competition with them and other economic powers
and Southeast Asians, but also sort of moral decline and cultural decline. I think that’s one of the reasons why Christian
right arguments have caught on with people who would not originally be in favor of them
— for instance, some conservative Jews, orthodox Jews, who historically feared evangelical
Christians as anti-Semites, which some of them were. But it’s astonishing, I think,
to historians to see how wide-ranging this feeling is and how ecumenical, in many ways,
it is. Ben Wattenberg: Larry, you saw these people
at work. Did you regard them as dangerous zealots or intolerant? Larry Sabato: Look, you’ve got some zany
and zealous elements in this movement, as you do in almost any. And I think the press
naturally focuses on the more extreme elements. For example, Jerry Falwell sending out that
ridiculous video claiming darkly that Clinton had been involved in a half a dozen murders
here and there. I mean, this is absurd. But the people that I know in the Christian right
movement, and allies — as you mentioned, for example, traditional Catholics opposed
to abortion — they’re serious people who are seriously concerned about what they see
as the trends in society, the social trends, the moral trends, the disintegration of the
traditional family. I don’t know that it’s — I think you’re
right, there is partly a reaction to what they perceive of as a threat, such as gay
rights. But it’s also — the other side of the coin is their concern about the disintegration
of what they regard as the fundamental organizational element of society, the traditional family.
And I think that has a legitimate place in the discussion and debate, and I think they
add something important there. Ben Wattenberg: On this side of the aisle
here, do you all think they are intolerant and bigoted? Randall Balmer: I would agree with Larry that
they are sincere, well-meaning people. I’m speaking about the rank and file; I’m not
so sure about the leaders sometimes — that is, people who really do feel displaced. They
do feel that the culture is in trouble. And as Larry says, the family is in trouble in
this culture. There’s no question about that, and they’re building on those kinds
of fears. I’m not sure I’m prepared to dismiss the
threat of the religious right. According to some figures that I’ve come across recently,
of the nation’s 16,000 school boards, over 2,200 now have been captured — the majorities
have been captured by the fundamentalist religious right. Michael Cromartie: Ben, I wanted to add that
last week I had a journalist in my office who said to me, among his many questions,
“Do you think these people are apocalyptic about their descriptions of the social crisis
in this country?” And I said, “Well, I would say they were
if it weren’t for the fact that Daniel Patrick Moynihan, William Raspberry, Charles Murray,
and any number of social scientists have shown us clearly that we’re in a bad situation.” Ben Wattenberg: And Randall Balmer has just
admitted it — I mean, not admitted it. I mean it’s pretty common knowledge. Michael Cromartie: Exactly, and I think on
this point, Ben, one of the ironic points that the religious right needs to pay attention
to is that a lot of these problems are cultural and not political and that there needs to
be a lot of cultural persuasion and debate that goes on, that the law is really not going
to get at certain family problems. It just can’t. And so one other thing is that religious right
is being more and more motivated by cultural crisis and trying to find political solutions
to this cultural crisis, and in some ways it can provide a stopgap, but it won’t solve
the problem of the family. Ben Wattenberg: You’re saying, it’s not
the economy, stupid. The problems, the political problems in our society are cultural. Michael Cromartie: Well, not all of them.
I mean, I don’t want to argue that politics and changing the law on certain things won’t
affect things. I mean, racism is a cultural problem, but the civil rights movement was
very important in making it illegal to discriminate against — Ben Wattenberg: Let me ask a question. At
the Houston Republican Convention in 1992, the media, the mainstream media, mocked the
idea of cultural politics. Now here we are, two years later, and everybody right to left
is talking values, values, values, values. Donna Shalala goes up and says Dan Quayle
was right about Murphy Brown. Bill Clinton has in effect said that. What on earth has happened? Is Clinton what’s
driving this renaissance of traditional values? Randall Balmer: I don’t know that I’d
go that far, but I think Bill Clinton is, to my mind, the first American president who
takes seriously the fact that we are a pluralistic culture. At the same time, he recognizes that
there needs to be a conversation about values and morality. A lot of people find that ironic,
thinking that Clinton himself doesn’t quite pass muster on those points. But what I find fascinating about Clinton
and his presidency is that he seems to be groping toward a language for talking about
these sorts of things that is not strictly or exclusively a Judeo-Christian language,
that somehow reaches beyond that. It’s very difficult, and you see him groping toward
it. I think the State of the Union address was
a good example of that, where he was trying to find this vocabulary where we can talk
about values without kind of hunkering back to this Judeo-Christian tradition, which is
— let’s face it, it is exclusionary. It doesn’t represent everyone in America. It
doesn’t take into account the pluralistic culture. Larry Sabato: You’re right, that’s a good
thing for any president to do. But I think you’d admit, as you just suggested, that
Clinton is in a very difficult position in trying to do that. In fact, I would say that
one reason why social conservatism has found its voice in the first two years of the Clinton
administration is because of Bill Clinton’s character problems, the unresolved character
problems from the 1992 campaign. And we’ve learned a lot more about him, and I hate to
tell you, but we’re going to be learning a lot more about him still between now and
the 1996 campaign. Michael Kazin: In fact, if he hadn’t talked
so much about values, I think he’d be in better shape. Larry Sabato: Exactly. Michael Kazin: In that sense, because he’s
seen as a hypocrite. Larry Sabato: He brings up the wrong subjects. Michael Kazin: But I think that Randall is
right, that what he tried to do — and he hasn’t done it very effectively because
of a lot of other problems he’s had — is to give the left in the broad sense — liberals,
the left side of the political spectrum — a language of values, which it didn’t really
have. That’s one of the reasons the Christian right was able to make gains, I think, in
the ’70s and ’80s as well. Ben Wattenberg: By the way, Michael, somebody
used the word here that the Judeo-Christian tradition was exclusionary. Do you buy that? Michael Cromartie: No, I don’t, in this
sense. It is exclusionary theologically, but it’s not exclusionary politically. It doesn’t
have to be exclusionary politically. Randall Balmer: It doesn’t have to be, but
look at Robertson and Buchanan at the ’92 — Michael Cromartie: What was exclusionary about
what they did? Randall Balmer: They were talking about this
culture war, how this — Michael Cromartie: The culture war. Randall,
as you well know, the culture war is very real in this society. Ben Wattenberg: If you read the Democratic
Party speeches, say, by Jerry Brown and Jesse Jackson, you would find them no less extreme
than what Buchanan and Robertson said. Larry Sabato: But that’s the point, Ben.
Both sides are intolerant. The secular left and the religious right have strong elements
of intolerance in there. And hopefully, the political process will tame those elements
of intolerance, which is what normally happens. Michael Cromartie: It has already. Larry,
as you know, it has already tamed those elements. And there are people in this movement that
are intolerant. However, the people who are most intolerant
right now, in my view, is the liberal culture and liberal media, who I think take the religious
right more seriously than they should and give them more power than they have. The most
intolerant convention, in my mind, was the Democratic Convention, where they would not
allow a governor of the largest state in the country — namely Governor Casey — he didn’t
give a speech because he was pro-life. Now, that’s intolerance. Larry Sabato: Well, there was intolerance
at both conventions. I think that’s a fair statement. Michael Kazin: The Republicans did not allow
a homosexual to talk about homosexual rights in a positive way, either. Michael Cromartie: Well, it’s interesting.
A person is accused in this politically correct culture to be intolerant if he holds a normative
ethic about anything. If you have a transcendent viewpoint about something and say, “I will
tolerate something, but I won’t have to accept it,” you’re going to be accused
of being homophobic or intolerant. I think that’s unfair. Larry Sabato: Well, but the point that I think
we can draw from part of what you just said is that in the American system, in American
politics, mobilization begets countermobilization. Michael Cromartie: Exactly. Sure. Larry Sabato: And that’s what we’re seeing
again. The religious right is begetting a movement — just starting — on the left
among religious people to counter-organize. And that’s all to the good. Michael Cromartie: They don’t have the numbers,
though. I might mention, they don’t have the numbers. Larry Sabato: Not yet. Ben Wattenberg: Let’s get down to some brass
tacks. We’ve got an election coming up this year. Are the people in the religious right
going to get what they want? Are they going to be a plus, or are they going to be a minus
for their party, for the Republicans? Gentlemen? Michael Kazin: I think it cuts both ways.
I mean, Larry’s the expert on this, but I think it cuts both ways. Because on the
one hand, they take votes away from lower-middle-class people, working-class people, who on economic
grounds should be Democrats. So that’s a plus for the Republicans. On the other hand,
they certainly help the Democrats when you hear this kind of, I think, intolerant talk
anyway. So I think it cuts both ways. I’m curious what Larry thinks about Oliver North
and his appeal in these terms, though. Larry Sabato: Well, more generally, I think
this year the religious right is going to be a big plus for the Republicans. That’s
because it’s a midterm year. If it were a presidential year, I’d conclude otherwise
for the following reason. In a midterm year, you’ve got 36, 37, 38 percent of the people
voting overall, but the religious right really activates and excites their membership, and
their turnout, my guess, is going to be over 50 percent. That means everybody else’s
turnout is really about a third of the electorate. Therefore they’ll add a few percentage points
to candidates they support. But a presidential year is another thing entirely.
Turnout is much higher, and I think it’s much closer to what you’re saying. It’s
closer to a wash with the pro- and anti-religious elements combining in a way that doesn’t
really give a net electoral advantage to either party. Ben Wattenberg: You have said that we are
overestimating their numbers. Is that what you think? Michael Cromartie: I do. I mean we’re talking
about a quarter — at the most, a quarter of the American voting population, at the
most. That’s a lot of people, but they’re not going to take over the Republican Party.
That’s a myth. And they’re not going to take over the country. So they’re not a
threat to the republic if you’re not going to take over the country. Randall Balmer: But they are, as Larry said,
more active, more vigorous. Michael Cromartie: Fine. Randall Balmer: These are the people who are
sending out letters, making phone calls, knocking on doors, whereas the more traditional Republican
— I think the real fissures are going to be within the Republican Party over this. Ben Wattenberg: Well, I mean, but shouldn’t
we all believe in theory that people, whether they are religious or not, should be active
in politics? Randall Balmer: Absolutely. Michael Cromartie: But you just — but, Randall,
you seemed to imply there was something wrong with them doing that. Randall Balmer: No, absolutely not. No, I
just — I don’t think that their influence has been overestimated. I think it’s been
underestimated for precisely those reasons. Michael Kazin: The question, I think, is whether
the Republican Party can do without the Christian right. I mean, in many ways the Christian
right holds a position in the Republican Party the way labor unions used to hold in the Democratic
Party — long ago. That is, it’s the most committed core of supporters. They get out
precinct walkers. It’s the grassroots strength. And a party needs grassroots strength. Ben Wattenberg: And recently, they have shown
some sophistication in supporting pro-choice Republicans who are conservative otherwise.
That makes them — Michael Cromartie: Like Kay Hutchinson in
Texas. Ben Wattenberg: Kay Hutchinson and Paul Coverdale
in Georgia, which makes them — I mean, my own view is that bringing people into the
political system makes them — knocks off a lot of the sharp edges and makes people
— that’s what our pluralist system does. It lets people get along. Michael Cromartie: They find that out pretty
quickly, too, Ben. And I think in the last decade, we’ve seen that history, that kind
of shaping occur to these people, and they’re nuancing their arguments. They learn lessons,
they make mistakes, but — they take their lumps, but they’ve nuanced their arguments
much better, and they’ve realized that politics is not church politics. You’re not dealing
with people of the same theological orientation. You have to build bridges and coalitions and
learn how to be prudently a compromiser. Larry Sabato: And really, the tip-off for
the Christian right, the fact that I think they have realized political reality, is the
fact that they have supported pro-choice candidates. When I saw that happening, it really was an
eye-opener, I think for me and for a lot of people, the fact that they would be willing
to support candidates who would vote to keep the abortion laws much as they are or even
liberalize them. Michael Cromartie: Which means they’re not
just a single-issue coalition. And in response to what Michael said, I would agree. I think
the Republican Party needs the religious right, and the religious right needs the Republican
Party. Larry Sabato: And I think they’re both going
to find that out and learn how to work together. I think that’s already happening. Randall Balmer: This kind of softening of
the edges I think points out, to me, the deficiencies of this whole culture war’s paradigm, which
is a very dualistic view, one side or the other. And it seems to me that — you’re
right, exactly, that the political process breeds compromise. In order to get anything
done, you have to have compromise. Ben Wattenberg: What do you all agree upon,
and what do you disagree upon? Mr. Kazin. Michael Kazin: Well, I think we agree about
the significance of the Christian right politically and the fact that its presence is not something
new on the historical-political scene. And I think we agree about some of the reasons
why it arose when it did. I think we disagree probably about the virtue
of its positions. We agree that virtue should be in politics perhaps, but we don’t agree
on the virtue of this particular political force. That’s my reading of it anyway. Randall Balmer: I think we agree that these
are — most of these people are sincere, well-meaning, well-intentioned people. Many
of them are my friends. I travel around the country a good bit and — Ben Wattenberg: Well, and you would not regard
yourself by any means as a member of — Randall Balmer: I don’t. Ben Wattenberg: You’d be on the other side? Randall Balmer: I don’t fall into the conservative
camp politically. I think what I hear coming from the religious right is a lot of moralistic
language. And I don’t think Jesus was a moralist. Michael Cromartie: So, you see we disagree
about what these people are saying. Randall is suggesting there’s a lot of moralistic
language. There is, but there’s a lot of moralist language coming from a lot of people
who are not part of the religious right because we have a lot of bad, moral problems in this
country that are rooted in policies that have been put in place by liberal politicians that
a lot of people across the board are suggesting have been a detriment to the family. And I think we also disagree about what the
word tolerant and intolerant is. And I think there is intolerance on all sides. Ben Wattenberg: Larry, wrap it up for us. Larry Sabato: I agree with the agreements
and disagreements. [Laughter.] I think that we agree that participation in American politics
is not only a good thing; it’s the only way in our system for these sorts of views
to be heard. I think we disagree about whether in the end this is going to be a healthy thing
for the political system or not. And I personally believe that it will be very healthy for the
system and also for these groups, because they are learning reality as opposed to ideology
and doctrine. Ben Wattenberg: Okay. Thank you, Larry Sabato,
Randall Balmer, Michael Cromartie, and Michael Kazin. And thank you. As you know, we have enjoyed
hearing from you. Please continue to send your comments and questions to the address
on the screen. For “Think Tank,” I’m Ben Wattenberg. Announcer: This has been a production of BJW
Inc., in association with New River Media, which are solely responsible for its content.

7 thoughts on “The Christian right in American politics (1994) | THINK TANK

  1. America's religious roots were perhaps a driving force, initially. I think that force is helping divide it and slow it down now, however.

    Conservatism's weakness is that it is unable and/or unwilling to accommodate social change, much in the same way that Liberals' inability or refusal to allow for periods of respite for society after a large shift in the way society or culture works. Only in America are those two sentiments so polarised and inflexible, and it is going to cause some serious trouble for the stability of the nation at large. I suspect it may even be intentional, as some kind of social engineering… to what end, I don't know.

  2. Decades of leftwing democrat influence in schools, hollywood and the main stream media have led to what we have today, a fascist political party supported by leftwing activists/terrorist. This is what is replacing the white population thanks to legal immigration, all immigration should be stopped immediately.

  3. The religious conservatives want to establish a theocracy in America, it will be a set up for religious identity politics

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