The Boston Phoenix
July 27 - August 3, 2000


Virtual Dems, continued

by Seth Gitell

Aside from George W. Bush's vice-presidential pick, Richard Cheney, the big news heading into this week's Republican convention is how tightly Bush has the event locked down: there will be no unruly evangelicals this year to muddy up the Bush coronation.

If you listen to conservatives like columnist Robert Novak, this is a sign of Bush's strength. The Christian right, after all, fractured the past three conventions with speechifying and messy platform fights on the convention floor -- the most notorious example being the 1992 Houston convention that helped torpedo Bush Senior's re-election.

Not this year. "Going into next week's national convention in Philadelphia, George W. Bush is more firmly in control of the Republican Party than any of its presidential nominees over the past half-century," Novak wrote in his column in the Washington Post. "The Family Research Council and allied groups, complaining about Bush's meeting with Republican homosexual activists, have been shut out of contact with the presidential nominee." (The FRC is the Christian conservative group that was headed by the Reverend Gary Bauer until his ill-fated run for the nomination last winter.)

But Novak is missing the story. It's not that Bush is so strong -- it's that the Christian right is weaker than it's ever been. According to the National Review, which obtained a copy of an FRC fundraising letter, the organization is in deep financial trouble. The letter detailed the group's $3.2 million deficit and warned, "If this shortfall isn't eased, the organization will have no choice but to pare back its public policy efforts."

Like the FRC, the Christian Coalition is also in the midst of hard times. This year's Republican convention, unlike previous ones, will not feature a Christian Coalition "war room," which means no secret communications center, no high-tech polling, and no bitter convention battles. Not only has the group's young, energetic head, Ralph Reed, stepped down, but its last Washington lobbyist resigned in April, according to the Virginian-Pilot. "The Christian Coalition doesn't exist anymore," says one conservative insider.

"There's been a sea change politically," says Ken Weinstein, the director of the Washington office of the Hudson Institute, an Indianapolis-based think tank. "The era of harsh partisanship is over. Armageddon-style battles are over."

In part, says Weinstein, the change reflects American attitudes. "The electorate is more socially libertarian, particularly on gay issues, than these groups would like to admit," he says.

But also at work is an internal divide between religious Christians. On the one hand are what Weinstein calls "Thou shalt not" Christians -- those whose beliefs are rooted in the strict moral prohibitions of the Old Testament. On the other are those who stress the New Testament's emphasis on "the gospel of love and redemption." So-called Old Testament Christians form the foundation for such groups as the Moral Majority, the Family Research Council, and the Christian Coalition. But with Bush the candidate putting more and more emphasis on "compassionate conservatism," they're being boxed out. "The tougher, more judgmental type of Christianity seems to be out of favor with voters," Weinstein says.

Larry Sabato, the director of the center for governmental studies at the University of Virginia, says the political clout of the evangelical movement may be at an end. "The Christian Right came to the forefront in 1980. They've had a good amount of time in the sun; they're showing some sunburn," says Sabato, who chronicled the Christian Coalition's electoral activities in a 1996 book, Dirty Little Secrets. "Their influence is on the decline."

Like Weinstein, Sabato sees Bush as staying true to his born-again leanings, but shunning anything that could be perceived as controversial. "Bush knows that the suburban swing voters he needs are scared away by these groups," Sabato says.

Finally, Elliott Abrams, another long-time observer of the Christian conservative movement, says the current weakness suggests that people made too much of these groups to begin with.

"There was a time when [people] told us that Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority were going to take over America," says Abrams, a former Reagan official who's now the president of the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center. "There was a time when they told us Pat Robertson and the Christian Coalition were going to take over America. This shows how silly they are and how off their predictions have been. People who don't share that view should stop being terrified of religiosity in American Christians."

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Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]

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