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Running Against Sodom and Osama

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Running Against Sodom

Same sex marriage is the current hot button topic in which, through the Christian Right, “religious perspectives are logically related to policy issues” as Layman and Green put it. These topics vary over time across a range of conservative social issues, although the two main themes since the late 1970s have been anti-abortion and antigay. Since the early 1980s, after helping elect Ronald Reagan by using abortion as a wedge issue, Christian Right strategists have grazed across conservative social issues linked to “moral values.” They carefully track what topic and what type of rhetoric raises more money in targeted direct mail campaigns, and what turns out voters to the polls. For example, Republican strategists will take a close look at the voting patterns in the eight states that will vote on marriage restrictions this November.

In 2003 there was a similar antigay campaign launched, aimed at influencing the 2004 Presidential election.~15 Antigay campaigns are a recurrent theme in the Christian Right, and have been used for electoral voter mobilizations before.16 Christian Right leader James Dobson, founder and current chairman of the board of Focus on the Family, campaigned actively in 2004, citing the “assault on marriage” that he saw as being waged by those who supported same sex marriage. Republican strategist and Bush advisor Karl Rove was reported as making the mobilization of conservative Christian evangelicals a key priority for the campaign.17 Given the initial uncertainty over the influence of the Christian Right in the 2004 elections, it was not clear if Rove would once again encourage a high visibility Christian Right pre-election campaign using social issues. We now know the Christian Right efforts in 2004 had an effect, and we know this tactic of demonizing same sex marriage is being employed once again.

The Christian Right’s anti-gay strategy, framed as “an assault on the family,” is directly aimed at electing Republican candidates in the 2006 midterm elections. This same strategy could be used for the 2008 Presidential race, because it has worked before in concert with statewide ballot initiatives and candidate framing issues.

The decision about this will not be based on the overall outcome of the 2006 midterm elections, but on sophisticated analyses by Republican strategists of exit polls and other data that will reveal whether or not the grassroots micro-target techniques were effective in specific states. If it turns out that antigay rhetoric pulled some conservative evangelicals into voting booths in targeted races, then the reliance on antigay rhetoric will be continued through 2008. If not, then other issues will be field tested to identify the most effective hot-button social issue.

Micro-targeting is the technique used by Republicans to mobilize grassroots voter participation on Election Day.~18 As journalists Mike Allen and James Carney explain:

Republicans hope to close the deal in tight races with a get-out-the-vote strategy that was developed in the wreckage of the 2000 presidential campaign. Bush’s team was led then, as it is now, by Rove, Bush’s political architect and now White House deputy chief of staff, and [Ken] Mehlman, then White House political-affairs director.

The G.O.P. says their volunteer forces in ‘04 proved to be more effective than the paid workers contracted by Democrats, unions and Democrat- oriented fund-raising groups.~19

At the Christian Right’s “Values Voter Summit” Washington Briefing held in Washington, DC, in late September 2006, several speakers openly touted the fact that the Christian Right had played a major role in electing Bush in 2004. It was clear from conversations with attendees that many felt the statewide initiatives to block same sex marriage had drawn many evangelical voters to the polls, and that the vote for Bush in some cases came along for the ride. Judge Charles W. Pickering, Sr., made this same point when he said that Bush might not have won Ohio if the Marriage Amendment had not been on the ballot. Pickering, who Bush unsuccessfully tried to appoint to the federal appeals bench in 2004, said there was a culture war in America, with the battle over the confirmation of federal judges a central front. One conference workshop (discussed in detail later in this report) was based on applying micro-targeting techniques to local churches.

State ballot initiatives are one way to generate grassroots interest in a national election. In the 2006 elections, according to the Associated Press, “The fate of hundreds of ballot initiatives will be decided. Several states will vote on proposals to ban same-sex marriages and raise the minimum wage. Republicans hope the former will boost turnout in crucial congressional races, and Democrats have similar plans for the latter.”~20 In the 2006 elections, eight states will vote on marriage restrictions banning same sex marriage, and Republican strategists hope this will pull conservative voters to the polls. The states are Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Virginia and Wisconsin.

Professor Mark Rozell, quoted in Religion News Service, said both the Republicans and the Democrats realize that moral values and religion help shape how elections turn out:

“We have motivated groups, both on the right and the left, trying to mobilize their constituencies, in large part because they believe values matter but they also understand that the two political parties are very closely competitive in Congress right now,” said Rozell, a professor of public policy at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

“Affecting a few electoral outcomes could be the difference between Democratic and Republican party control.”~21

In 2004, The Nation columnist Katha Pollitt warned progressives that they should not be complacent about values voters because the Christian Right has so far been unable to push its full agenda through a Republican-controlled Congress. That is “like saying the left got nothing from FDR because it didn’t get socialism,” she quipped.~22 The Bush administration has placed representatives of the Christian Right throughout the Executive Branch, affecting social, economic, scientific, and foreign policy.

That the current Christian Right set of issues and frames might well have been crafted by Republican strategist Karl Rove is a reasonable suspicion, and whether or not Rove actually helped devise the strategy, it is congruent with what the White House sees as advantageous. Leaders of the Christian Right certainly have access to key Republican politicians in Washington, DC. Just prior to the 2006 midterm elections, James Dobson of Focus on the Family told the Values Voter Summit audience that he had just spent two weeks in the nation’s capital meeting with Congressional leaders.~23 It is unlikely that many Democrats were on his dance card. MSNBC reported that Ralph Reed, “former executive director of the Christian Coalition and an unsuccessful candidate for lieutenant governor in Georgia … got 18 [White House] meetings, including two events with Bush, between 2001 and 2006.24

It would be easy to picture Rove as the mastermind of all of this, but although he is skillful, the strategy was formulated by key right-wing strategists in the late 1970s in a multi-faceted plan that brought Ronald Reagan to office.~25 Rove came up through the political institutions created in part by this network that built the New Right as a coalition that included the growing Christian Right. Sara Diamond points out that this overall strategy relies on loosely-structured projects, in which a specific set of institutions and leaders on the political right agree to a handful of hot button issues on which to focus, and a few key frames through which issues are presented.26 With this type of symbiotic project—linking a Christian Right social movement to a Republican political movement – the actual implementation requires no central coordination. Participating groups agree to be on the same page, but they get to write their own text, often using the rhetorical style of right-wing populism.27 Jean Hardisty refers to this process as “mobilizing resentment,”28

While the Christian Right likes to pretend this is not about partisan politics, the reality is quite different. Even the ultraconservative Washington Times reports the obvious:

Mr. Dobson and Family Research Council President Tony Perkins sought to rally the troops for the midterm elections by reminding them that Republicans helped get two new conservative justices on the Supreme Court and that Democrats are still blocking legislation and President Bush’s judicial nominations.

Mr. Dobson evoked applause and cheers when he reminded the crowd that “we do have two new very, very exciting Supreme Court justices,” referring to Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.

The crowd was urged not to be convinced of reports that Republicans will lose control of Congress.

“Don’t believe everything you’re hearing out there,” Mr. Dobson said.~29

Rather, Dobson, Perkins and other Christian Right leaders reserved to themselves the right to tell the attendees at the Values Voter Summit exactly what to believe.

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