To Bolt or Not to Bolt? A Perennial Question for Purists

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As many of the major organizations of the Christian Right have solidified their position within the GOP, they have learned habits of compromise and political pragmatism. The more purist Christian Right factions have become increasingly marginalized. Though it was the most radical and purist leaders and organizations that were largely responsible for the growth of the Christian Right, often they are now spun off to the margins.

In the 1996 presidential primaries, the Christian Right in the GOP was divided between Pat Buchanan and Bob Dole. While the Christian Coalition backed Bob Dole, four top Christian right leaders co-chaired the Buchanan campaign: Phyllis Schlafly of the Eagle Forum, Don Wildmon of the American Family Association, Michael Farris of the Home School Legal Defense Association, and Larry Pratt of Gun Owners of America

James Dobson of Focus on the Family, unhappy with Dole's pro-life credentials, threatened to bolt the GOP and take his followers with him. He didn't, but said later that he personally voted for far-right candidate Howard Phillips. Dobson periodically threatens to bolt the GOP, and in this role follows in the footsteps of Robert Grant and Gary Jarmin of Christian Voice, and an earlier Pat Robertson, before he became a go-with-the-winner GOP loyalist.16 In 1998, when Dobson addressed the annual meeting of the secretive Council for National Policy, he stated that if the GOP abandoned or watered down its antiabortion position, he would leave the Party and take as many with him as possible.17

In the 2000 GOP primaries, the Christian Right vote was still deeply divided among Dan Quayle, Gary Bauer, Steve Forbes, Pat Buchanan, and Alan Keyes. Not one of these was able to match the vote-getting capacity of conventional politicians like George W. Bush (who had Ralph Reed as a campaign consultant) and Senator John McCain, and Bush ultimately won the votes of conservative Christians who opted for someone who seemed both acceptable and able to win the election. Interestingly, after the election, Morton Blackwell told U.S News and World Report that in the fall of 1999, a group of conservative leaders met with then-candidate Bush seeking a promise that if elected, he would appoint movement conservatives to his cabinet. Blackwell said, "He is keeping that promise" and that "John Ashcroft is an example of that."18

The Christian Right's rally to Bush throws into sharp relief the divisions within the movement, not only among candidates but also among parties. Pat Buchanan, after failing to break out of the pack in the GOP primaries, bolted the party and seized the presidential nomination of the weak and disorganized Reform Party. Buchanan's strident "culture wars" style and views were opposed by an eclectic group aligned with party founder Ross Perot, who generally supported libertarian John Hagelin. Hagelin was also the candidate of the Natural Law Party, dominated by devotees of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi the leader of Transcendental Meditation or TM. In the wake of these odd developments, some longtime Reform Party leaders endorsed Green Party candidate Ralph Nader whose anti-corporate, clean elections, and good government messages resonated with many Perot voters.

Buchanan spent most of the Reform Party's $12.5 million in federal matching campaign funds advertising on conservative Christian radio stations, in hopes of attracting voters who found the GOP ticket's public stands on abortion, civil unions, and immigration too mushy. But the vast majority of Christian Right voters seemed more determined to end the Clinton/Gore era than to quibble about the conservative and prolife bona fides of George W. Bush. Buchanan and fellow Christian Rightist Howard Phillips, the presidential candidate of the Constitution Party, (formerly the U.S Taxpayers Party) received only about one percent of the vote.

The Constitution Party, which was on the ballot in 41 states in 2000, draws a fiercely loyal but tiny constituency of Christian Patriots, Christian Reconstructionists, home schoolers, and militant anti-abortion activists.19 Over three presidential election cycles, it has been unable to attract candidates of national standing. The party unsuccessfully wooed Pat Buchanan in 1992 and 1996. In 2000, U.S. Sen. Bob Smith (R-NH) briefly bolted the GOP and sought the party's nomination before returning to the GOP fold. Party founder Howard Phillips ran as the party-building standard bearer in each race, speaking mostly to small groups and home-schooling conventions and drawing little media attention. After the 2000 vote, party chairman James Clymer of Pennsylvania wrote that he believed that "for every vote that Howard Phillips received in this election there are many times that number of people who support our efforts, yet could not bring themselves to vote for our candidate due to fear of Al Gore."20

In 2000 others in the Christian Right also were unwilling to sublimate purity of principle to pragmatism. During the campaign, Judy Brown of the American Life League declared "George W. Bush is NOT pro-life!" and denounced the Christian Coalition, National Right to Life Committee, and the Republicans for Life PAC for supporting Bush.21 Syndicated conservative columnist Kathleen Parker argued simply "abortion is here to stay-even if the Republicans take the White House." She predicted that RU-486, the "abortion pill," would make abortion more widely accessible and more palatable politically, and also would reduce the gruesome photo-driven politics of anti-abortion militancy. She noted that Bush de-emphasized the issue in the campaign, saying he would not make abortion a litmus test for Supreme Court candidates. The "debate" about abortion, Parker concluded, "is over."22 While the "debate" shows no signs of such a conclusion, Brown and Parker may be correct that, given Bush's mixed record on abortion, it is conceivable that he might appoint moderate justices in the mold of Justice David Souter, despite his declared admiration of the reactionary Justice Clarence Thomas. Early in the Bush administration, there are contradictory messages about abortion; just as the GOP itself remains a house divided on the issue. For example, while Attorney General John Ashcroft is fiercely antiabortion, he claimed in his confirmation hearings that he would make no effort to overturn Roe v. Wade and would enforce the Federal Entrance to Clinics Act (FACE).

Factional squabbling surfaced early in the life of the Bush administration. The Republican National Coalition for Life denounced Bush's first ten major appointments, declaring that "with just one exception" Bush senior advisors and cabinet nominations were "either publicly supportive of a mother's right to kill her unborn baby or [that] we have found no evidence that they are in any way pro life."23 Although this was before the nomination of John Ashcroft for Attorney General and Tommy Thompson for Health & Human Services, it underscores the nature of the GOP as a necessarily uneasy coalition. Similarly, Pat Robertson and other Christian right leaders expressed outrage and opposition to federal funding of some religious groups of which they did not approve, such as the Church of Scientology, the Hare Krishna's, and the Nation of Islam, and concern that enforcement of federal civil right laws would be tied to receipt of federal funds.24

Divergent positions on abortion within the Christian Right demonstrate that, even as the centripetal force of the center in current U.S. politics pulls the vast majority of the Christian Right toward compromise, it also causes others to spin off into radicalized formations.

The militant wing of the antiabortion movement is retrenching and threatening more profound assaults on access to abortion through the ongoing harassment of abortion providers, from picketing and obstruction to lawsuits, death threats and strategic assassination. Increasingly, advocates of violence are publicly presenting themselves as the underground "Army of God," self-described members of which have committed numerous violent crimes against abortion providers.25 While some of this public posturing is psychological warfare, it operates in tandem with the reality of the 20-year war of attrition waged by the violent antiabortion underground. Indeed, in the first two weeks of 2001, shots were fired through the windows of a Planned Parenthood clinic in Kansas, and an attempted arson occurred at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Michigan. During the 1990s, even as federal law enforcement increased their protection of abortion providers from harassment and physical violence, the war of attrition kept pace.

James Kopp and Eric Rudolph, two men who have been indicted for anti-abortion related murders, were on the FBI's Most Wanted list. Kopp was arrested on March 29th in Paris for the alleged killing of Dr. Barnett Slepian, an abortion provider near Buffalo, NY on October 23, 1998. A day prior to the arrest "the federal court of appeals in San Francisco ruled that a Web site and `wanted' posters calling abortion doctors `baby butchers'... are protected by the First Amendment guaranteeing free speech. The Web site, the Nuremburg Files, which targeted Dr. Barnett Slepian, did not constitute a specific threat, the justices said....The doctor's name was crossed out on the Nuremburg Files Web site shortly after the murder."26 The decade old cross-fertilization between militant anti-abortion activism, the militia movement and Christian Patriotism in the 1990s27 continues into the new century. For example, longtime Operation Rescue militants Joe Foreman and Bruce Murch have founded a community near Roanoke, Virginia that engages in paramilitary training.28 In Idaho, a militia group has emerged, that makes abortion a high priority and featuring a fairly sophisticated website.29 This group, the Freedom Fighter Militia, is typical of a new style and network of militia groups that seem to hybridize the contemporary Christian Right and the old style Christian Patriots. The Roanoke-based Virginia Citizens Militia encapsulated this confluence when it declared: "We believe in conservative Judeo-Christian values and constitutional rights!! We know that abortion and homosexuality are the greatest moral evils of our day! All men should be like `Promise Keepers' because a strong Christian family equals a strong Virginia." They also claim to be open to anyone regardless of race, gender or religious orientation.30

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