IN 1844, thousands of American evangelicals fully expected Jesus to return. When the predicted moment passed with no Lord in glory appearing in the clouds, his saddened followers dubbed it "The Great Disappointment."
For conservative Christians, last week's midterm elections may be the second Great Disappointment.
The Republican Party -- heavily dependent on a base of evangelical voters -- failed to capitalize on the biggest presidential scandal since Watergate. Even in the South, religious right candidates like Alabama Gov. Fob James lost.
In the morning-after spin, Randy Tate, president of the Christian Coalition, and his boss, Pat Robertson, accused mainstream Republicans of ignoring their moral concerns -- thus alienating the party's religious right base.
William Bennett used the moment to hawk books -- moaning about the "death of outrage" and accusing a lax electorate of caring more about money than morals.
Overall, it was a bad year for religious conservatives.
It did not start that way. In January, Christian conservatives could barely contain their glee as the Monica Lewinsky scandal unfolded. As the sordid details became public, America's neo-Puritans predicted a religious right electoral landslide in November.
On television and radio, Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, Gary Bauer and Mr. Robertson self-righteously smirked over sin while privately tallying impeachment votes.
What happened? Most of the die-hard religious right candidates lost.
In 1996, while covering the Republican Party's national convention, I felt I'd witnessed Gettysburg. Although half of the delegates in attendance claimed allegiance to some conservative religious cause, it seemed evident that they had reached their numerical limit in the party -- and were trying the patience of more politically skilled mainstream Republicans. They could not go any further than this, I mused.
That year, they failed to deliver for Bob Dole. This year, they failed to deliver once again. In spite of getting Christian conservatives to the polls, they lost.
The problem? Numbers. Quite simply, there are not enough religious conservatives to win an election. Candidates may win with them as part of a broader constituency. But the religious right can not win alone.
University of Chicago historian Martin Marty has noted that, since the 18th century, evangelicals have comprised between 25 to 33 percent of America's religious population. Therefore, evangelical political movements depend on the appeal their causes have for people outside their churches. To succeed they must build coalitions around common concerns.
In Texas and Florida, the Bush brothers recognized this fact. They won with the support of the religious right, but also the support of Hispanic, African-American, women and some Democratic voters to whom a more moderate agenda -- like George W. Bush's "compassionate conservatism" -- appealed.
The Bush brothers
The Bush brothers are not themselves evangelicals -- a crucial fact. Conservative evangelicals generally see the world in black and white terms and are unable, by virtue of their own theology, to compromise with anything they view sinful. Coalition-building is difficult for them -- leaving them dependent upon Christian conversion for new voters.
Therefore, conservative evangelical candidates such as Alabama's Mr. James, whose political agendas were lock step with religious right concerns, lost. They failed to reach beyond a particular ideology and include voters not identified with those causes. In short, their beliefs make them unable to build a constituency -- a crucial failure for any politician.
An economically contented electorate will be predisposed to vote against religious right candidates -- popularly perceived as narrow-minded and dangerous. Their moral crusades -- including impeaching a repentant president -- frighten many Americans who believe conservative evangelicals would undermine individual freedoms and derail economic prosperity. Their moral agenda strikes most of us as preachy and somehow un-American.
Thus, 1998 is a great disappointment. The religious right should now realize their 1994 victory was a fluke. If Mr. James can't win Alabama, they must understand their agenda is not America's agenda. And Jesus did not even return to rescue the cause. After all that work and prayer, their "Christian" America is not to be.
What a relief for the rest of us. Thanks be to God.
Diana Butler Bass is associate professor of religious studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn. Her latest book is "Standing Against the Whirlwind: Evangelical Episcopalians in 19th Century America," (Oxford University Press).
Pub Date: 11/10/98