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
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,"
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,"
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."
Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]phx.com.
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