The Culture Wars Are Not Over:
The Institutionalization of the Christian Right
Frederick Clarkson is the author of Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy, (1997) and of the forthcoming Profiles In Terrorism: Twenty Years of Anti-Abortion Violence, both from Common Courage Press.
During the 2000 presidential campaign, the Christian Right's leadership kept a markedly low profile, leading many observers to conclude that the movement was weak and that George W. Bush had successfully placed it under the discipline of the Republican Party. The Christian Right seemed united in its support for Bush's campaign, yet seemed to demand no public promise that he would support its policies in return. When Bush was declared the winner of the election and the vote was analyzed, researchers could see that the Christian Right vote had been crucial in electing Bush. When Bush appointed Christian rightist John Ashcroft and Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson, the "father" of welfare reform, to his Cabinet and established the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, the quid pro quo was obvious. At that point, it looked to observers as if the Christian Right were strong and flourishing within the Bush Administration.
Weak and shaky or clever and victorious-which view was the accurate one? Frederick Clarkson walks us through the paradoxes that now characterize the Christian Right, demonstrating that there is truth in each view. Although before the election the movement faced problems and challenges that made it vulnerable to serious decline should Al Gore win, in a George W. Bush administration it enjoys the support it needs to rebuild and reassert its authority as the moral rudder and strategic ballast of the GOP. For the Christian Right, its public silence and private voter mobilization in the 2000 election was a strategic investment that will pay off with double-digit returns for years to come.
Ralph Reed could not have predicted that the seat at the table of American politics he sought for so many years as Executive Director of the Christian Coalition would become an endowed chair. In the early 1990's the Christian Right, epitomized by the Christian Coalition, was ambitious but not quite fully legitimate. In this sense the nomination and confirmation of former Senator John Ashcroft as Attorney General, and the Bush administration's creation of a White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives is a measure of their success.
Several main trends are evident in the current fortunes of the Christian Right. First, the major institutions of the Christian Right, once bastions of fire and brimstone rhetoric and a transcendent vision of the once and future Christian Nation, have become practitioners of political compromise and coalition building. This is especially true in the case of national electoral politics. Second, the Christian Right has been largely incorporated into the Republican Party apparatus. Finally, and perhaps most important, the Christian Right is now largely institutionalized throughout society. The movement has come a long way in a short time. This is not to say that one of the most dynamic social/political movements of the latter part of the 20th century has necessarily lost its energy and edginess. Nor is it without fractures and schisms. In many respects it is still growing and finding new and distinctive forms and expressions. But the quiet institutionalization of the Christian Right is a far more dramatic, if less visible trend than any single clash in the culture war.
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