Whither the Christian Right?
How Religious Conservatives Succeeded and Failed in the 2006 Elections
By Pam Chamberlain and Chip Berlet
The Christian Right did turn out and vote for Republicans, as it has in the past, but in this election slightly more Christian evangelicals voted Democrat, perhaps to send a message to Republicans that they were tired of the war in Iraq, offended by corruption, distressed by scandals, and seeking change. The Christian Right, however, remains a large and powerful social movement, and it is already retooling for the 2008 elections.
Post-election analyses of voter demographics revealed that while American voters do sometimes vote in blocs, the specific mobilization of these groups is more complicated, and an informed understanding more nuanced, than conventional wisdom might suggest. What Perkins and his colleagues tried to mobilize is a subset of Christian voters, the core group of politically active, conservative, white evangelicals who respond to electoral campaigns that focus on a narrow definition of "family values," a frame that has proved successful for getting out the vote since the late 1970s.
Reviewing how the new Christian Right mobilized its base in 2006 will help us understand and anticipate what they might do in the next two years.
Family, Faith, & Freedom: To Protect the Children
Attending the late September Values Voters Washington Briefing were a mix of heartland cultural warriors, grassroots Republican political activists, and local church staff, including ministers and lay ministry workers. The crowd was a typical representation of the predominantly white and Protestant evangelical Right today. Predicting "Washington will never be the same!" Perkins then introduced the conference speakers, politicians and pundits alike, some of whom, like Republican candidates George Allen and Rick Santorum, (who appeared by video) turned out to lose their races a few weeks later.
Tony Perkins established the main frame of the event when he said, "we are facing threats from within and from without."
The threat from within came from liberals, same sex marriage, and abortion. The threat from without was terrorism. By focusing on the terrorist attacks of September 11th, the speakers tried to leap over criticism of the war in Iraq, other specific military interventions, the economy, and other issues.
The ultimate goal for many in this aggressive effort is to "restore" America as a Christian nation-a politicized, theologically-based worldview dubbed by critics of the Christian Right as "dominionism."1 The tendency toward dominionism has clearly influenced public policy in both the domestic and foreign policy arenas, as seen in the domestic gay marriage and the international abstinence-untilmarriage debates.2
This type of Christian Right pre-election voter mobilization conference used to be hosted by the Christian Coalition, with the title "Road to Victory." Now that the Christian Coalition has unraveled as a national group, a new coalition has stepped in to fill the void. The conference was coordinated by FRC Action, the political action arm of the Family Research Council, with Tony Perkins at the helm. Cosponsors included the political action arms of three other Christian Right groups: Focus on the Family Action (Dr. James Dobson), Americans United to Preserve Marriage (Gary Bauer), and American Family Association Action (Donald Wildmon). Most of these groups have close historical ties. Dobson's Focus on the Family created the FRC to lobby Congress before it was spun off as a separate entity. Gary Bauer ran the FRC from 1988 to 1999. The wild card in this coalition is Wildmon, known for his inflammatory anti-gay rhetoric and occasional detours into veiled anti-Semitism. His American Family Association pulls this coalition further to the right.3
The polite and attentive crowd was treated to one speech after another in the hotel ballroom, in a didactic style and hierarchical format typical of Religious Right rallies-tightly orchestrated logistically, skillfully crafted in framing and messaging. The visual aesthetic was slick, modern, and high tech, clearly reflecting how the coalition sank considerable resources into this event. The coalition partners also sponsored other pre-election regional events, like the anti-gay marriage "Liberty Sunday." The four cosponsors were positioning themselves as the unified national voice of the Christian Right. How successful have they been?
Success and Failure: What the 2006 Election Results Show
The Christian Right mobilization of voters was not able, on its own, to counter an unpopular war or an unpopular party, the incumbent Republicans. Even before the election, Professor Mark Rozell pointed out that in 2006 both the Republicans and the Democrats realized 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.He correctly forecast that, "Affecting a few electoral outcomes could be the difference between Democratic and Republican party control."4
According to the National Election Pool exit polls commissioned by major media outlets, white evangelicals did turn out to vote and comprised 24% of the electorate, the same proportion as in 2004 when mobilizing these voters in certain key states helped reelect George W. Bush.5
This figure can easily be misleading, since not all white evangelicals are conservative, and not all white conservative evangelicals consistently identify with the Christian Right. When successful, the Christian Right can consistently mobilize a core group of about 15% of American voters. They are joined by roughly 10% more of white conservative evangelicals who generally align with the Christian Right and vote Republican, but who sometimes shift their allegiance or sit out elections.
"It looks like the white evangelical base of the Republican Party pretty much held firm," reports John C. Green, expert on religious Americans' voting trends, from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.6 Yet he notes there were small and ultimately significant shifts teased out in exit polls. In 2004, white evangelicals voted 74% for Republicans and 25% for Democrats. In 2006, white evangelicals voted 70% for Republicans and 28% for Democrats. This slight shift alone is enough to shape the outcome in tight elections.7
This reminds us that despite the visibility of their leadership, especially on the Christian airwaves, the Christian Right core voting block is not consistently large enough to secure a GOP win in key states with tight races. The usual Christian Right allies among the broader white evangelical electorate sometimes shift and vote Democratic. The white evangelical voter base includes Republicans, Independents, and Democrats. They do not vote as a monolithic bloc. Along with Democratic Party and progressive voter mobilization efforts, targeting women, people of color, organized labor, immigrants, and other constituencies, the Christian Right can be outvoted.
And while a small number of white Christian evangelicals shifted away from the Republicans, a significant number of Catholics and mainline Protestants also shifted. More information is needed to tease out the influence of the Catholic vote, 26% of all voters, a group comparable in size to the white Protestant evangelical electorate. And not enough information is currently available to determine exactly which segments of Latina/Latino and Spanish-speaking voters are shifting, and whether or not that is correlated with being Catholic, Protestant, or secular.
After the election, conservatives bemoaned their losses but tried to say that not much had changed. Americans for Tax Reform, Grover Norquist's group, described the election as "Democrats Dressing up as Republicans," referring to the relative conservatism of some Democratic winners.
Tony Perkins acknowledged that Americans had spoken but insisted that there was no new direction despite the shift in party support. Distancing himself from the losers and referring to his followers as "integrity voters," he said, "Democrats won mainly because they seized on a platform largely forsaken by the GOP-social values. When 'integrity voters' saw the Republicans had abandoned their principles, they ultimately abandoned the GOP."8 "This should be a clear message to both Parties that values voters vote values, not party. Their focus is not on party politics, but rather on government guided by core values."9
The day after the election, conservative columnist Michael Medved recognized that,
The numbers from every corner of the country make it clear that the American people meant to send a message to their leaders, and the future of the conservative movement depends on an accurate reading of the substance they meant to communicate, and a realistic reassessment of the current state of our politics.10But it remains to be seen if these analysts are correctly reading their constituency. Medved interpreted the figure that 59% of voters disapproved of the war in Iraq as an indication that "many (if not most) of those voters dislike Bush's policy because they feel it's not aggressive enough."11 This seems a dubious contention.
Democratic Party leaders are now debating how to handle the issue of religion and people of faith-sometimes constructively and sometimes opportunistically. In Ohio and Pennsylvania, Democratic candidates actively referred to their faiths. Ted Strickland, the new Ohio governor is a Methodist minister, and Bob Casey, Rick Santorum's successful opponent for the Senate in Pennsylvania, is a Catholic. More targeted analysis needs to happen in selected states to learn the details of religious voters' influence. For instance, conservatives and liberals alike will study the data on same sex marriage bans, which passed with considerably smaller point spreads than in 2004, to see if their presence on the ballot made a difference in the candidates' results. The same scrutiny will apply to the minimum wage ballot measures that pro-labor groups designed with a frame of economic justice aimed at enticing people of faith to consider other values than those stressed by the Christian Right.
What's the Matter with "What's the Matter with Kansas"?
There is no evidence that white evangelicals are any more stupid or crazy than anyone else. Nor are they simply the manipulated puppets of a Karl Rove strike force.
Large groups of white evangelicals are mobilized through the rhetorical style of right-wing populism, which suggests that liberal elites and welfare queens are eroding conservative American values.13 Jean Hardisty refers to this process as mobilizing resentment."14
Many white working class voters and white middle class voters can be persuaded at times to vote against their apparent immediate economic interests through appeals to their sense of morality that cast "traditional family values" and "moral values" in terms of societal struggles over issues such as gay rights, same sex marriage, abortion, stem cell research, and pornography. In elections, sometimes economic issues trump social issues, and sometimes social issues trump economic issues-and how Republicans and Democrats are perceived by Christian evangelical voters weighing the pull of those sets of issues can determine the outcome of an election.15
Whither the Christian Right?
The rising or falling fortunes of the Republican Party in any election cycle do not determine the size and vibrancy of the Christian Right as a social movement. Members of the Christian Right are more committed to their issues as they define them than they are to any political party. Like any social movement, they align with political entities that they believe will bring about the changes they seek.
Black, Hispanic, and Asian evangelical voters and Roman Catholics of all kinds have responded to various campaign strategies aimed at religious voters, most notably around abortion and gay issues. On occasion, Christian Right and Republican efforts can erode the historic preferences among these groups to vote Democratic as happened in 2004. While some in these groups shifted back to vote Democratic in 2006, it remains to be seen how well subsequent mobilizations will fare in specific races. State-based analysis is key.
Every few years-following an electoral defeat of Republicans, the collapse of a Christian Right organization, or an expose of a leader's shady past-the death of the Christian Right is announced in the media. Reports of its death are, as they say, greatly exaggerated, and complacency would be a mistake. The Christian Right will survive, and remains a powerful factor in the social, cultural, and political life of the United States.
Keep an eye out for the next hot button issue coming to your state.
For more extended analysis of the Christian Right and Election 2006, See Running Against Sodom and Osama: The Christian Right, Values Voters, and the Culture War in 2006 (PDF)
Pam Chamberlain and Chip Berlet are senior research analysts with Political Research Associates and members of The Public Eye editorial board.
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