Don't count Christian right out yet

March 10, 1998|By Diana Butler Bass

IN RECENT weeks, critics of the religious right have much to cheer.

First, the Christian Coalition, Pat Robertson's political group, laid off staff members, cut programs and canceled publications. A former financial officer confessed to having embezzled funds. To complicate matters, since the departure in June of its cherubic ,, director, Ralph Reed, contributions to the coalition fell 36 percent.

Then, Promise Keepers, the evangelical men's organization, announced it was laying off all 345 employees beginning March 1. In spite of its million-man rally in Washington last in October, its contributions were also down dramatically. This drop, combined with founder Bill McCartney's new policy of not

charging admission to stadium events, makes it impossible to continue business as usual.

Within weeks, the nation's two most visible -- and controversial -- evangelical groups appear to have crashed. Given the scope of the changes and the size of the financial troubles, neither will probably be able to claim the influence previously held.

However, liberals be warned: This is no time to celebrate.

For two decades, the religious right has proved itself a protean political powerhouse. Emerging in the 1970s after a series of local revivals, the incipient religious right engaged presidential politics in 1976 and helped elect Jimmy Carter president. By 1980, however, unhappy with Mr. Carter's perceived liberalism, evangelical activists allied themselves with conservative Republicans, formed Moral Majority and marched with President Ronald Reagan to the White House.

In 1988, after two Reagan terms and scant legislative success, an enervated religious right seemed directionless. Evangelists Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart struggled with scandal; Pat Robertson failed in a presidential bid; the Rev. Jerry Falwell quit politics altogether. The media reported these events with glee, and scholars wrote books on the rise and fall of evangelical politics.

By 1994, however, nobody was laughing. Except, of course, Mr. Robertson.

Victory at the polls

In six years, he gathered the faithful into a new organization, the Christian Coalition -- focusing and refining evangelical politics. The coalition's grass-roots appeal helped elect the most conservative Congress in decades. Mr. Robertson and Mr. Reed stood with radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh and House Speaker Newt Gingrich as the generals who engineered liberalism's defeat.

At the same time, Promise Keepers began its rapid ascent. First meeting in a basement, the organization soon filled stadiums with thousands of tearful, evangelical men being encouraged to "take back leadership" in their homes, churches and society.

Ostensibly apolitical, Promise Keepers nevertheless had political overtones.

During one Promise Keepers event I attended, political preferences were no secret -- hundreds of cars sported right-wing bumper stickers, T-shirts proclaimed Republican loyalty, and buttons announced conservative candidates of choice. Through informal networks and associations, Promise Keepers served as the Christian Coalition's revivalist recruiters.

Before the 1994 congressional elections, few observers noticed the strength and vitality of conservative evangelical churches and organizations.

Passions fueled by lengthy revivals, frustrated evangelicals hoped to restore America's Christian heritage through the democratic process. To them, the 1994 elections were a divine mandate -- God's miraculous plan to save the decaying republic.

By 1996, traditional politicians feared Mr. Robertson's power. Not president, but president maker, candidates paid homage to his coalition hoping to win its support. The Republican convention's smoke-filled rooms turned into prayer rooms. The Christian Coalition came of age.

Walking around the convention -- where television evangelists were treated like movie stars -- I had the vague feeling this was the Gettysburg of the religious right. Too much power; too much media; too much triumph. It can't last much longer, I thought.

Although the evangelical right failed Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole, it blamed traditional Republicans for not supporting the coalition's more conservative moral agenda. Not our fault, intoned Mr. Robertson. Within months, however, a shaken Mr. Reed left the Christian Coalition to become an independent political consultant.

Since then, with the brief exception of Promise Keepers' Washington rally, the religious right has been oddly silent -- even boring. But quiescence should not be interpreted as its end. Rather, it has entered a new dormant period -- a time of reflection and reorganization similar to the late 1980s.

A hard right turn?

Having tasted success, but failing in its ultimate goals, the religious right will, in its next incarnation, probably be less politically savvy, and less willing to compromise than the Christian Coalition and Promise Keepers. New leaders, most likely James Dobson and his associate, Gary Bauer, will be more militant.

In the past 20 years, conservative evangelicals have proved themselves an enduring constituency in U.S. politics. Perhaps they are waiting to see whether Jesus returns with the new millennium.

If he doesn't come back, don't worry -- they will. Just in time for the elections in 2004.

Diana Butler Bass Ph.D. is associate professor of religious studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn. Her latest book is "Standing Against the Whirlwind".

Pub Date: 3/10/98

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