Summer 2010, Vol. 13, No. 1

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Spiritual politics blog

Table of Contents

From the Editor:
The Christian Coalition Revisited

Haiti Laid Low

Snatching Babies for Jesus

Singing Against the Rubble

The GOP’s Latino Problem

Anti-Gay Bill

The Word from Kampala’s Anglicans

Losing Patience with the Vatican

Death in the Sweat Lodge

Faith-Based 2.0

Letter to the Editor



From the Editor
The Christian Coalition Revisited

by Mark Silk

In the age of the Tea Party, what’s happened to the religious right? Gone from the scene? Alive and well and biding its time? Subsumed into a larger conservative thing? To approach some answers, it’s worth taking a little stroll down memory lane, via David Edwin Harrell Jr.’s important new biography, Pat Robertson: A Life and Legacy.

Harrell, an historian who has written extensively on charismatic Christianity in America, is sympathetic to his subject but does not omit the warts and brickbats. What sets his book apart is that he got free reign from Robertson to rummage through his letters and archives. Robertson also talked with him at length, as did his associates past and present.

The result is a rare inside look by a disinterested scholar into the most long-lived and consequential religious movement in American political history.

Robertson’s principal contribution to the movement was, of course, the Christian Coalition, which he launched after his failed bid for the 1988 Republican presidential nomination. Those accustomed to thinking of Robertson in terms of his penchant for portraying current events as the direct consequence of divine judgment will be surprised at his pragmatism and savvy. Indeed, even as he spoke provocation out of one side of his mouth as host of the 700 Club, he would be urging moderation out of the other as a political insider.

Robertson was an insider by birthright—a Virginia aristocrat whose father, A. Willis Robertson, was a lifelong politician who served the commonwealth as U.S. Senator from 1946 to 1966. When Robertson fils hired Ralph Reed, a former president of the Young Republicans, to run the Christian Coalition, they were two political peas in a pod.

In 1980, the religious right was launched as a national effort to turn Southern white evangelicals into Republican voters and activists. But in Robertson’s view, the marquee organization of the early years, Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, didn’t have the right stuff. Falwell lacked the necessary political sophistication, and his organization amounted to little more than a direct mail solicitation machine.

By contrast, the Christian Coalition dedicated itself to building grass roots infrastructure around the country. Its purpose, as Reed put it in an internal memo in 1989, was “to give Christians a voice in their government again.” In that respect, the organization was an extension of Robertson’s presidential campaign, in which he made himself “the representative,” as his campaign biographer put it, “of the vast cultural underclass that seeks to overthrow the hegemony of the entrenched elite.”

“Cultural underclass” is a happy expression, connoting class warfare without the economics. The rhetoric of the Christian Coalition was populist revolution, based on a sense of cultural victimization. In that, it was simply the next cry after the Nixonian silent and Falwellian moral majorities. Weren’t there more Christians in America than anyone else?

Harrell makes clear that it was always as much about participation as an issues agenda. Looking back, both Reed and Robertson considered the organization a success because it got evangelicals to the table—locally, statewide, and nationally. Indeed, the return of evangelicalism to a place in the mainstream of American culture may be as important a legacy of the religious right as anything.

Though for tax reasons it had to pretend so, the object was anything but nonpartisan. Those famous “nonpartisan” voter guides that were distributed by the tens of thousands in evangelical churches across the land were skewed to show that the Republican was the candidate with the right positions. Participation was always via the GOP.

The positions themselves went well beyond the canonical social issues—abortion, gay rights, prayer in school, etc. They included taxes and foreign policy and the size of government. When Robertson spoke out to criticize George H.W. Bush in 1992, it was for raising taxes and pushing arms control. 

In 1996, Reed became involved in a tough behind-the-scenes effort to permit Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole to back away from the party’s commitment to a constitutional amendment to ban abortion. Robertson had to send out assurances that the Christian Coalition remained orthodox on abortion, and yet he agreed with Reed that it was important to tuck the issue out of sight.

As he wrote at the time, “We must be careful not to allow ourselves to be diverted by what is intended to be a non-issue at this convention. The key is party unity, and I believe the leadership is going to do everything possible to assure unity so the Republican Party is able to win this most crucial election.”

So, today, the Tea Party movement (TPM) has tucked abortion and the rest of the “moral values” agenda out of sight. In the middle of the hardest times since the Great Depression, abortion et al. rank at the bottom of Americans’ list of important national issues. But cast your eye over Tea Party candidates, and you will find nary a dissenter from the orthodox religious right positions.

In Kentucky, James Dobson switched his endorsement when he determined that Tea Party candidate Rand Paul was sufficiently pro-life, and made Paul the runaway victor in the Republican senatorial primary. In Nevada, Tea Partier Sharron Angle, who secured the GOP nomination to oppose Harry Reid, is a Southern Baptist convert who does not hesitate to claim that God has chosen her for this mission. Sometime Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Minnesota Rep. Michelle Bachmann have no difficulty doffing and donning their Tea Party and religious right hats; indeed, it’s hard to tell the hats apart.

No less than the Christian Coalition is the TPM all about GOP politics. According to an April New York Times/CBS survey, TPM supporters are 10 times more likely to identify as Republicans than as Democrats—and are less likely than Americans as a whole to favor the creation of a new political party. They are 50 percent more likely to be evangelical, half as likely to claim no religion.

In sum, at the moment, the TPM looks like little more than the old religious right writ large and done up for the Great Recession. Only when the economy recovers will we be able to tell if it is actually something new under the sun.


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