For God and Country: The Christian right is alive and flourishing in the American body politic
September 24, 2012
For well over 30 years, the Christian right, a loose coalition of fiscal and social conservatives predominantly from white evangelical and Catholic traditions, has played a significant role in US politics at home and abroad. From its emergence during the late 1970s as a reaction to perceived moral decline and strident secularism, to the present day maturation into a formidable political machine intrinsically linked to the Republican Party, the power and influence of the Christian right continues to enthral political commentators and disturb liberal America.
Today, in all but a few states, the Christian right have established themselves as either a significant or the dominant faction within the Republican Party. The Christian Coalition was credited with mobilising the conservative evangelical vote securing the election of Republican majorities in both houses of congress in the 1990s. In the 2000 general election, they successfully managed to elect one of their own in George W. Bush through the distribution of 70 million voter guides. Bush received 74 per cent of the white evangelical vote, which increased to 78 per cent in 2004, securing his re-election. Christian right supporters tend to be politically active. They not only turn out to vote but mobilise others to do so as well. The Christian right has effectively become the Republican Party’s base, and candidates for political office are obliged to engage with the movement and acquiesce at least in part to its program.
The 2008 election revealed the continuing influence of the movement when John McCain, unpopular with the Christian right, was obliged to introduce Sarah Palin as his running mate. Support for McCain among white evangelicals prior to her selection ran around 61 per cent, by election day that support had grown to 73 per cent. Palin may have deterred more voters than she attracted, but for the Christian right she was their candidate. The movement tends to think strategically in terms of how it can maximise its power and influence. The Christian right candidate Mike Huckabee did not receive overwhelming backing from the movement because he was not deemed a credible presidential candidate who could defeat the Democrats. Mitt Romney was rejected because, as a Mormon, half the movement would not consider Mormons to be Christian.
In 2012 the Christian right’s best-known politicians Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee have declined to stand, and yet out of six candidates going into the primaries they have two of them: Rick Perry and Rick Santorum. Meanwhile, all four of the other candidates have had to tailor their appeal to the Christian right to become credible. If we take the Family Research Council’s voter guides as an indication of key issues for the movement, Santorum is the only candidate who has a 100-per-cent record. All six candidates oppose taxpayer-funding of abortion, only Jon Huntsman and Ron Paul oppose a marriage protection amendment to the constitution that defines marriage as the union of one man and one woman, and only Mitt Romney and Ron Paul support the elimination of the policy that prohibits open homosexuality in the military.
In recent times the influence of the Christian right has been increased by the rise of the Tea Party, which although primarily concerned with lowering taxation has considerable overlap in support. Michele Bachman formed the Tea Party caucus in congress, and as a conservative evangelical and member of Christians United for Israel, should have been be ideally placed to represent the Christian right, yet she consistently trailed behind in the polls before her withdrawal.
The most prominent of the Christian right candidates is Texas Governor Rick Perry, who succeeded George W. Bush when the latter moved into the White House. Perry, who led the opinion polls at one stage before falling spectacularly following a series of poor performances in the Republican debates, is popular with social conservatives and the Tea Party for his strong jobs creation record in Texas and his commitment to social values. In 2001, as governor of Texas he signed a hate-crime bill designed to protect homosexuals, but later founded a network of evangelical pastors to back a ballot initiative to ban gay marriage.
As an evangelical he has openly involved the church in political rallies, including one in a football stadium in Houston attended by 40,000 conservative evangelicals. The move cemented Perry’s position as the leading Christian right candidate. He has adopted a hawkish foreign policy perspective urging the overthrow of the Iranian government and the deployment of US troops in Mexico to deal with drug cartels. He has also endeared himself to the Christian right with demands for the reinstatement of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’, asserting that, “you don’t need to be in the pew every Sunday to know that there’s something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military.” His declaration to “end Obama’s war on religion” follows a consistent theme of the Christian right that they are persecuted and that their values are threatened by an overarching state. Unfortunately for Perry his debate performances have been so poor that Christian right voters have turned to the third member of the triumvirate, Rick Santorum, a conservative Catholic and former senator for Pennsylvania.
Santorum has emerged from his near win in Iowa as the Christian right’s favoured candidate. His social conservatism, impeccable record on traditional family values issues, hostility towards gay rights and abortion, support for Israel, and aggressive foreign policy position towards Iran endears him to the Christian right. Santorum may emerge as the main competitor to Romney if the Christian right are able to coalesce around one of their own. Failure to do so in 2008, when they failed to back Mike Huckabee believing him to be unelectable, resulted in the selection of McCain.
POLITICS AT HOME
The Christian right is at least partly responsible for the culture wars of the past 30 years that have made political rivalries so toxic. The original campaign issues promoted by the Moral Majority have largely remained unchanged. The Family Research Council’s 2012 Values Voters Republican Presidential Voter Guide highlights 10 key questions that should be borne in mind when voting for the current set of Republican hopefuls. The list defines candidates’ positions on opposition to abortion, secular reproductive health organisation Planned Parenthood, stem cell research, human cloning, estate tax, traditional marriage, federal employment non-discrimination, constructionist judges, educational choice, and homosexuality in the military. The Christian right have waged intensive campaigns around these issues through political lobbying carried out by myriad single-issue organisations and political action committees. The use of action alerts encourages the millions of supporters to lobby politicians and decision-makers locally and nationally…