August 14, 1996 in Nation/World

The Right Bides Its Time The Most Powerful Force In The Party Stands, Waits

Thomas B. Edsall Washington Post
 

After dominating proceedings of the Republican platform committee through much of last week, leaders of the Christian right, the single most powerful and controversial force in the GOP, have agreed to abandon center stage during the week of Bob Dole’s presidential nomination.

Unlike the convention of 1992, when televangelist Pat Robertson shared prime time on the first night of the convention with Patrick J. Buchanan, the conservative political movement will have no speakers on the podium during the network broadcasts of events here.

Viewers of Monday night’s television extravaganza saw a far different party than that of four years ago. The opening session featured Republican moderates such as New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman and former general Colin L. Powell, whose views on subjects such as abortion are anathema to Christian conservatives.

But this subordination of the religious right on the airways in no way reflects a diminution of its muscle within the GOP, a power fueled by demographic forces that appear to guarantee a growing and expanded role in coming years. And Christian right leaders have worked to set the stage for increased leverage at future GOP conventions through rules changes designed to encourage delegate selection in open processes where well-organized religious groups are best equipped to compete.

Declaring victory in winning an anti-abortion platform and the anti-abortion ticket of Bob Dole and Jack Kemp, Ralph Reed, executive director of the Christian Coalition, said, “I don’t need a lot of rhetorical bones from the podium.” Instead, he said, “you can only feed your people on that (rhetoric) for so long. At some point you’ve got to have office holders, you’ve got to have state chairmen, county chairmen, you’ve got to have state executive committee members, you’ve got to have delegates. We’ve got that, and we don’t need as much the rhetorical stroking.”

Reed’s recognition of the strength - though controversial in nature - of the religious right underlies the current strategy of taking the spotlight off the movement’s leaders this week, and a tentative decision by the Christian Coalition not to engage in television advertising during the general election.

“My theory has always been very simple. We are not the moral majority, we are not a majority,” he said at a breakfast meeting with Washington Post reporters and editors. “If you are a majority you go out and you broadcast, which by definition means you broadcast to everyone. … The problem with that is that it can turn off as many people as it turns on. What we do is very different. We ‘narrowcast.’ We identify our community, we work it better than anybody else can work it. It really is the political equivalent of niche marketing.”

A random sampling of delegates and alternates suggested only minor discontent among anti-abortion activists. Sherman Colson, an alternate from Redmond, Wash., who said he is an evangelical Christian and “pro-life,” said “the things I have heard from the platform, I’ve not heard them take a strongly pro-choice position,” in a way that would provoke or anger anti-abortion forces.

One discordant note was voiced by Keven Hainin, a Buchanan alternate delgate from Washington. “The platform is good, but they (convention officials) are showcasing people who are opposed to us on key areas.”

Reed and other Christian right leaders with strong ties to the GOP are sitting smack in the middle of a political and demographic explosion that appears to guarantee their strength within the Republican Party for the foreseeable future, according to demographers, students of religious trends, and political scientists.

One of the most important political developments in recent years is that the number of people tied to mainstream Protestant churches is falling rapidly, while affiliation of whites with evangelical churches is growing at a rate at least equal to the rate of growth of the population, if not faster.

In 1962, according to Oxford University political scientist Byron E. Shafer, 45 percent of the population was mainline Protestant (Episcopal, Methodist, etc.) while 29 percent was evangelical Protestant (Southern Baptist Convention, Assembly of God, etc.). By 1992, the percentage of the population describing itself as mainline Protestant had fallen to 24 percent, while evangelical Protestants had grown to 33 percent.

During these three decades, evangelical Protestants, once heavily Democratic, especially in the pre-civil rights South, have become a bedrock of the GOP. Writing in Christian Century, John C. Green and three other found 72 percent of white evangelicals who are regular church attendees voted for Republican congressional candidates.

These trends are simultaneously changing the religious composition of the activist base of the GOP and of elected officials.

James Guth of Furman University said Republican members of the House are undergoing a radical change, with mainline Protestants falling from a decisive majority to a frail plurality. In the period from 1959 to 1964, he said, 72 percent of House Republicans were white mainline Protestants, 13 percent were evangelicals, and 9 percent were Catholics. By 1992, the percentage of mainline Protestant had fallen to 39 percent, while evangelical Protestants had grown to 27 percent, and Catholics to 23 percent.

The intensity of religious belief and church attendance have become strongly predictive of political affiliation. Anyone who attends church four or more times a month and prays regularly is likely to be Republican.

Another demographic trend has become increasingly important: evangelical Protestants have more children than mainstream Protestants, and their children are more likely to remain in the faith than those of mainline Protestants. In the long run, this will work to increase the tilt of religious-political power to the evangelical movement.

“From the standpoint of our constituency, our strength is not driven by ideology but by demographics. I’m a big believer that demographics drive values and values drive political beliefs and affiliation,” Reed said. “The fact of the matter is that there are two core constituencies of conservative - now Republican, but it doesn’t have to be Republican - of a conservative, traditional values political coalition. The first is marriage and child bearing and child rearing and the second is church attendance.”

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