It's Political Power, Stupid!

By Sara Diamond

Only the ostriches should be surprised. Preliminary data from exit polls indicate that about 30 percent of the people who voted in November were white evangelical Christians. Among these, about 69 percent voted Republican. There was nothing "stealth" about it. The stated agenda of the Christian Right in 1994 was to help deliver the Senate and Congress to the Republicans--and to credibly claim credit for doing just that.

The 30 percent figure means that the Christian Right is, each time around, doing a better and better job of getting its people to the polls. In the 1992 presidential election, only about 18 percent of the voters were self-identified white evangelicals. The figure for the 1990 midterm election was 15 percent.

The trend began in the late 1970s when the Christian Right registered several million new voters to vote for Ronald Reagan. In 1980, when Reagan won with only 26 percent of the eligible electorate, white evangelical voters accounted for two-thirds of Reagan's ten-point lead over Jimmy Carter. Then in 1984, the Christian Right pulled out all the stops to re-elect Reagan. In 1992, despite Bush's defeat, exit poll data showed that there were only two constituencies consistently loyal to the Republican party: people with incomes over $200,000 a year, who are few in number, and the Christian Right.

The past two decades have seen a growing symbiosis between the mass movement of evangelical Christians and the Republican party. Since the 1968 presidential election, when nearly ten million Americans voted for segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace, the Republicans have worked to broaden the class base of their party downward. That has meant following Wallace's lead in using issues of race, crime, and "morality" to attract white middle and lower middle class voters.

In the mid-1970s and 1980s, Gallup poll surveys showed that one-quarter to one-third of the U.S. population identified itself as "born-again" evangelicals. Most of them have become politically active only in the last 15 years or so. Certainly not all are right-wing but their numbers are large and numbers win elections. In June 1994 a New York Times poll revealed that about 9 percent of a national sample identified themselves as part of the Christian Right.

The handwriting was on the wall for anyone who cared to read. For 20 years, leaders of the Christian Right have built one organization after another, with the avowed purpose of winning state power, i.e. the power to influence, if not dictate, public policy. Leaders of the Christian Right worked hand-in-glove with the Reagan and Bush administrations to wage murderous wars on civilians in Central America and southern Africa. Meanwhile, the North American Left cackled along with the rest of the country at the ridiculous TV preacher scandals, which diverted people's attention from the really important players in the Christian Right.

While everyone else was laughing, the Christian Right grew into the most formidable mass movement on the political scene today. We will enter the new millennium with the Christian Right in positions of state power.

The single most important, though by no means the only, movement organization is the Christian Coalition. The Coalition's September Road to Victory conference drew 3,000 hard-core activists for two days of strategizing at the Washington, DC Hilton. In plenary sessions and small workshops, Coalition leaders laid out tactical plans for changing the course of U.S. history through the 1994 Congressional elections. The plans made sense. It seemed clear that the Coalition knew what it was doing. That is why Republican National Committee chair Haley Barbour sent his aide Leigh Anne Metzger to tell the conventioneers, "Despite press reports, the Republican party holds out a welcome mat to the Christian Coalition." Major GOP presidential hopefuls Dan Quayle, Senator Phil Gramm, Dick Cheney and Lamar Alexander all made early campaign stops at the conference.

The Coalition claims more than a million numbers, which is probably a mailing list figure. More importantly, the Coalition, since its founding in 1989, has built 1,100 local chapters in all 50 states. Some chapters hold regular meetings with a couple hundred people. Many of the chapters are headed by women, as are some of the Coalition's state branches. Each chapter includes members of multiple charismatic and Baptist churches, meaning that the outreach capability of the Coalition goes well beyond its own numerical strength which is phenomenal. In September, the Coalition sent voter registration packets to 250,000 churches. At the convention, members organized to distribute 30 million voter guides, in 300 local versions, which they successfully did in October. Christian Coalition executive director Ralph Reed explained that the voter guides allow candidates and campaigners to bypass "expensive and biased media." On one piece of paper, the Coalition makes a chart showing pictures of the Democratic and Republican candidates for Senate, Governor, and Congressional seats. The chart lists four to six issues phrased as the Right sees them--this year they included abortion on demand; homosexuals in the military; banning ownership of legal firearms; voluntary prayer in schools; parental choice in education--along with the words "supports" or "opposes" under each candidate's picture.

The Coalition's 1,100 chapters are responsible for distributing the voter guides by identifying sympathetic churches and by finding "pro-family" voters on a one-by-one basis. Roberta Combs, state chair of the South Carolina Christian Coalition, told conventioneers how she has organized Coalition members in 60 percent of her state's electoral precincts. "You are in warfare," she said. "Politics equals people. People equals numbers. Numbers equal precincts. Get ten people to start with. Get a map, voter registration lists, church directories, other `pro-family' lists." Correlate these lists and identify sympathetic voters street by street, Combs urged, and then go door-to-door with the Coalition's fall voter guides.

Combs is typical of many Christian Right leaders. Until recently going full-time with the Coalition, she ran a successful business as an interior designer. She began working for Republicans in local elections in 1978. Then she ran the South Carolina branch of Americans for Robertson in 1988. She put on successful fundraising affairs for the state GOP and they elected her to be their treasurer. She and her army can now take credit for electing South Carolina's new Republican Governor David Beasley.

In Pennsylvania, Christian Coalition members backed the new Republican governor Tom Ridge, one of the party's so-called moderates. Ridge is pro-choice on abortion, which caused an outcry by some in the Christian Right in Pennsylvania; they backed minor party anti-abortion candidate Peg Luksik. Overall, however, the Christian Coalition's strategy was to back any and all Republicans, pro-choice or not. In California they backed gubernatorial candidate Michael Huffington who was nominally pro-choice and who had also supported the removal of the ban on gay military personnel. This game is about power, not principle.

Now as we face the coming legislative onslaught of a Republican-dominated Congress, people on the Left are talking about emulating the grassroots organizing tactics of the Right. This idea is sensible but one does not create a citizen lobbying apparatus overnight. For years, people in the Christian Right have learned to make their activism a regular habit. Not a week goes by that the movement's TV, radio stations, and scores of organizational newsletters aren't mobilizing people to call and write their elected officials. Here are people who believe in the efficacy of their own small but persistent actions. They believe their individual postcards and phone calls make a difference, and they do. Two years ago, after Clinton proposed allowing openly gay military personnel, Christian Right activists shut down the Congressional switchboard and deluged their representatives with mail. It worked, and it worked again in early 1994 when an amendment that would have required certification of home school teachers was attached to a federal education bill. Within a week, home schooling leader Mike Farris went on two nationally syndicated Christian radio talk shows and revved up the phone trees of his 37,000-member Home School Legal Defense Association. Eight hundred thousand phone calls later, only one member of Congress was willing to vote for the amendment.

Is this the kind of activity the Left could or would emulate? Probably not, because these dramatic incidents do not occur in a vacuum. They are made possible by the day in and day out organizing the Christian Right does, and they are made possible by the network of institutions the movement has built over several decades. These institutions include a $2.5 billion a year religious broadcasting industry, a slew of independent book publishing companies, dozens of independent regional monthly newspapers, several dozen state- based think tanks that do legislative lobbying, and an array of legal firms devoted exclusively to Christian right causes.

Some left media watchers have focused recently on Rush Limbaugh, an important, though easy target. Limbaugh has millions of listeners and he has played an influential role in the Clinton-bashing of the past two years. Limbaugh attracts the Left's attention because he allegedly lies with some regularity and because he's a loud-mouthed boor. He fits the image leftists have of people on the Right. But to credit the Johnny-come-lately Rush Limbaugh with the mobilization of the Right would be like claiming that the demagogic 1930s radio priest Father Charles Coughlin was responsible for the hundreds of pro-fascist organizations that flourished in the United States during the 1930s and 1940s.

Most of what goes on in right-wing broadcasting is not like the Limbaugh show. Limbaugh is a recent phenomenon, and long after his stardom passes, the Christian right will continue to produce much subtler and effective programming.

The religious broadcasting industry began in earnest in the 1940s. Evangelicals were then working to change laws to better secure their access to the government-regulated airwaves. They also worked, during the Cold War period, to impune the patriotism of the liberal mainline churches, which never fought back. By the early 1960s Pat Robertson started the first Christian TV network. From one tiny TV station, he built a media empire that now includes the Family Channel cable network, which currently reaches into 57 million households. The viewing audience for Robertson's weekday 700 Club program is estimated at one million. About a third of the program's content is overtly political. Throughout the 1980s, Robertson used the 700 Club to lobby for U.S. military aid to the Contras and to the death squads in El Salvador and Guatemala. Now he uses his network to lobby against gay rights and to get out the vote for Republicans.

Christian radio is an even more pervasive medium. There are about 1,200 full-time Christian radio stations in the United States. After country music and what is called "adult contemporary" music, Christian broadcasting stations are the most popular form of the radio medium. Standard fare on a typical Christian radio station--there are three I can listen to here in the Bay area--includes a few hours a day of political talk shows mixed in with music and inspirational teaching. KFAX in the Bay area plays James Dobson's interview show twice daily along with the daily Concerned Women for America broadcast, which in only four years on the air has built an estimated audience of 500,000. Host Beverly LaHaye routinely uses the program to get her listeners to lobby Congress. On the hour, KFAX broadcasts the "Family News in Focus" spot, a mini-newscast of items of concern to the Christian Right. At 3:00 PM we get the daily commentary of Gary Bauer's Family Research Council, and by the late afternoon, there is an hour-long talk show, usually of a political nature. Christian radio is popular because it gives people emotional sustenance along with the news, traffic reports, and what they need to know to be politically active.

It is the coherence of the Christian right's cultural institutions and ideological message that makes millions of people want to participate.

This is a political movement built on the foundation of some very tightly held religious views. We need to understand the religious sentiments of our fellow citizens. For evangelical Christians, one of the most politically relevant tenets is the idea that they are being persecuted by secular society. Sacrifice and martyrdom are essential themes of the Christian faith. Translated into right-wing politics the theme enables people to claim that queers and other minorities are somehow attacking the dominant culture when they demand equality. We have the most powerful political movement in the country continually claiming to be persecuted by "the Left," which the Right defines as the Clinton administration and centrist lobbies like People for the American Way. It is illogical, but the religious persecution theme keeps activists mobilized and enables them to feel comfortable about trying to deprive other people of their civil rights.

Average people active in the Christian right feel genuinely that the country is going to hell in a hand basket, which is true. The problem is that through a long process of ideological formation most have arrived at a distorted view of their own best interests. They look at the stagnant economy and see "illegal aliens," not runaway capitalism, which they generally support. They look at teenage delinquency and then blame teachers' unions instead of the consumer culture that trains young people to shop and not think.

What people in the Christian right want is pretty basic. They want laws to outlaw abortion, which they consider a form of infanticide. They want to change the tax code to encourage married mothers to stay home and raise good kids. They want queers to get back in the closet and pretend not to exist. They want high quality schools; they think the public schools are failing not for lack of resources but because kids can't pray or read Genesis in biology class.

The Christian right wants these and related things so badly that they organized to win the political power necessary to change the direction of public policy. Early on, the Republican party realized that it could become the majority party by hitching its sails to the evangelical mass movement. For two decades, the Democrats stood idly by, unwilling and unable to respond because Democrats will challenge neither the prerogatives of big business nor the ideological premises that keep people from challenging class, racial, and gender inequality.

Unfortunately, the real Left, battered down by external repression and its own internal foibles, has not responded either. The Left has been unidimensionally focused on the atrocities waged at the highest levels of state power, and has been unwilling to recognize that significant numbers of our fellow citizens are decidedly reactionary. In places where fascism has taken hold, it has been through a convergence of state and corporate power with a mass base of reaction. We saw this vividly in Chile in the 1970s. I am not suggesting that our country will face a military coup. In the era of "democracy," from Nicaragua to the former Soviet republics, elections are the primary means through which the Right takes power.

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