How "radical" is the Christian right?
The Christian right's flamboyant convention antics scared a lot of television viewers but, at the same time, signified the movement's arrival as the Republicans' biggest and most reliable constituency. As the Christian right continues to march steadily, though less noisily, toward assuming political power, movement leaders are now debating their future--as unyielding moral crusaders, as rank-and-file Republicans, or as some combination of both.
While the Christian right stands to mature in the process of charting its own course, critics of the movement seem to be wearing blinders; they continue to depict politically active evangelicals as "extremists" somehow outside or not belonging to "mainstream" culture, let alone everyday party politics. But opponents of the Christian right stand to lose if they do not recognize that, while the movement indeed has some wild policy goals, the agenda is supported by million of people as common as the next door.
Take last fall's elections in the state of Virginia. The Democrats tried to turn the election into a referendum against Christian-right-backed candidates, and that strategy failed. First-time candidate Michael Farris, a home-schooling activist and former attorney for Concerned Women of America, was pilloried as a raving "extremist"; he lost the race for lieutenant governor but still managed to raise $1 million and win 46 percent of the vote. On the other hand, Governor George F. Allen and Attorney General James S. Gilmore III, both moderate Republicans, won largely because of support from right-wing evangelicals. (After the election, Allen appointed prominent anti-abortion activists to his transition team and sought to nominate Family Research Council Vice-President Kay Cole James as Virginia's secretary of health.) In fact, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mary Sue Terry saw her poll ratings plummet following negative TV ads and speeches portraying Allen as a darling of the Christian-right "extremists." In a state where a third of the voters identify themselves as evangelical Christians, the Democrats' name-calling smacked of religious bigotry. Post-election commentators drew the lesson that, for mainstream Republicans, Christian-right backing helps more than it hurts.
That's because negative campaigning has limited appeal and because--like it or not--the Christian right genuinely represents a solid minority of Americans. In some parts of the country, that minority is a majority. Last summer, six Oregon counties passed preemptive measures banning civil-rights protections for gay citizens. The measures were sponsored by the activist Oregon Citizens' Alliance, but they won because thousands of voters share the Christian right's homophobia. To call them all "extremists" will not change the vote tallies.
Why, then, do liberal critics of the Christian right persistently resort to broad-brush slogans like extremism and a related epithet, the radical right? I can offer a few reasons. These terms were first popularized during the 1950s and 1960s when prominent political scientists, in dutiful service to the liberal wing of the Cold War establishment, labeled Senator Joseph McCarthy and his admirers as paranoid "radicals," alien to the American body politic. In reality, McCarthy drew his support from the same Republican faithfuls who had elected President Eisenhower. Popular right-wing groups like the John Birch Society emerged only in the late 1950s, well after political elites had turned the pursuit of "communist subversion" into a national religion. By then, polite society was keen to depict wild-eyed Birchers as "extremists," even as they played by democratic rules and helped win the Republican nomination for Barry Goldwater.
Academia's warnings about "radical right extremism" held influence when the massive Christian right mobilized in the late 1970s. Throughout the 1980s and continuing now, liberal outfits like People for the American Way have promoted a view of dangerous "radical right" Christians as something separate from the US. political and economic system itself. But there is nothing particularly "radical" about most politically active evangelical Christians. To be "radical" means to seize the roots of social problems, to advocate and work for profound change. The Christian right, on the contrary, supports existing conditions that effectively maintain inequality between rich and poor, white and black, men and women. More directly, the Christian right of the 1980s enlisted in a full gamut of US. military operations abroad and now in the 1990s is working to forestall gay civil rights and provisions for accessible abortion within the Clinton health-care plan.
Still, liberals organized against the Christian right can make hay by exploiting the "radical right" paradigm. While performing the valuable service of monitoring electoral races, People for the American Way, for example, needs to ensure its own financial resources and prominence in the media limelight. It can do so most efficiently by projecting its spokespeople as legitimate democratic players battling Christian "extremists" and by sticking to simplistic formulas that avoid controversy. Were liberal critics to analyze the
Christian right as a natural ally of corporate Republicanism, they might find themselves labeled as "radicals" The New York Times and CNN would stop calling, and the foundation dollars would dry up.
Then again, the Christian right's own avowed strategy--until recently--has, played right into the hands of liberals looking to find "extremists." The idea of secretly running Christian-right-backed candidate slates to take over city councils and school boards was hatched by "dominion theologists" with grandiose plans about implementing biblical law in every sphere of secular society. I first heard about the "county-by-county" stealth takeover plan at the 1986 convention of the Coalition on Revival. COR leaders, among others, were then laying the groundwork for Pat Robertson's 1988 presidential bid. During that effort and the simultaneous TV preacher scandals, the press made laughing-stocks of politically active evangelicals. That reinforced the Christian right's collective martyr complex and also the wisdom of the stealth strategy.
By 1990, Robertson's Christian Coalition was boasting of its steadily increasing membership rolls while, at the same time, encouraging its local campaign functionaries to keep low profiles lest they be blasted by secular humanists. Through stealth campaigns, the Christian right won countless elected offices, but the cloak-and-dagger routine also became a public-relations liability, particularly Christian Coalition director Ralph Reed's way-out threats about "flying below radar" and operating like a guerrilla warrior. At best, stealth campaigns can work only for first-time challengers, and increasingly voters are wary of candidates with little-known public policy positions and affiliations.
In 1992, sneaky and undemocratic stealth tactics became the dominant theme in press coverage of the Christian right. After Clinton's election, the Christian Coalition hired a public-relations firm to help the movement project a more "mainstream" image. Recently, Ralph Reed told Charisma magazine that he regrets having fostered the stealth model. More significantly, Reed published, in the Heritage Foundation's Policy Review, a widely discussed article, "Casting a Wider Net," calling for the Christian right to broaden its base by granting bottom-line economic concerns as much priority as the "moral" issues. To attract more diverse constituents, the Christian Coalition has also announced its intentions--thus far unrealized--to recruit heavily from minority churches.
Critics of the Christian right might dismiss Reed's new mainstream soft-sell as the public-relations device it most certainly is. But the mainstream gambit has helped the Christian right solidify alliances with the most dominant faction of the Republican Party. After Clinton's election, pundits predicted that moderate Republicans would ditch "extremists" like Pat Robertson, and a handful of pro-choice moderates joined forces under former Congress member Tom Campbell's Republican Majority Coalition.
Thus far, though, this faction has been unable to wield much influence. In, stead, the most successful new Republican Party faction has made clear its intentions to court right-wing evangelicals. In early 1993, Jack Kemp, William J. Bennett, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and former Minnesota Congress member Vin Weber launched Empower America. One of their goals has been to dampen Patrick Buchanan's popularity; in the 1992 Republican primaries, Buchanan won 25 to 30 percent in most states, largely because of Christian right backing. Empower America and Buchanan's own American Cause Foundation are diametrically opposed on issues of free trade and U.S. military intervention abroad. Both factions seek to represent the Christian right on the "family values" front, but Empower America has a far richer corporate donor base than Buchanan's group. Last fall, Empower America joined forces with the Christian Coalition in the failed effort to pass a "school choice" initiative in California.
Over this and other questions involving the proper role of the state, the Christian right is divided between those who want to broaden the movement's agenda and those concerned about the pitfalls of collaboration with "mainstream" Republicans. Following Ralph Reed's Policy Review article, the debate went public. In a September 1993 Washington Post column, Christian Action Network President Martin Mawyer chastised Reed for casting too wide a net and, essentially, for selling out "profamily" concerns (school prayer, opposition to gay rights and abortion) to what he called "unrelated" issues like the North American Free Trade Agreement and heath-care reform. In sync with his allies over at Empower America, Reed had endorsed NAFTA, although, as Mawyer reports, the audience applauded when Patrick Buchanan denounced NAFTA at a Christian Coalition conference. Mawyer concluded that broadening the coalition's legislative agenda will not translate into victories on salient "moral" issues.
For its part, CAN has focused on single-issue campaigns. CAN was front and center in last year's lobbying to maintain the bans on gay military personnel and on federal funding for poor women's abortions. CAN also took credit for persuading Congress to cut the budget of the National Endowment for the Arts by $8.6 million.
Though CAN opposes subordinating Christian right activism to the interests of the Republican Party per se, there is nothing particularly "extreme" about its tactics. CAN uses direct mailing lists to mobilize phone calls and letters to Congress members. That CAN pursues a narrow-issue focus and the Christian Coalition hopes to make itself indispensable to the Republican Party is, if anything, a sign of the Christian right's maturity. Social movements are successful to the extent that activists and leaders with divergent strategies can each find a niche. The public debate between Ralph Reed and Martin Mawyer was inconsequential for a movement that now effectively accommodates both single-issue and party-oriented organizations. Both types of groups are successful because they exploit elements of routine electoral politics: Congress members' response to constituent lobbying and persistent low voter turnout, both of which are advantageous to the highly mobilized evangelical minority.
It does no good, then, to see the Christian right through the blinders of a "radical/extremist" paradigm. It is outrageous that the right wants to pad, lock gays in the closet, deprive women of reproductive freedoms, enforce antiquated and monolithic school curricula --the litany is well known. But in the coming season of local and statewide elections, the Christian right will hold the high ground as well-organized, well-heeled, and genuinely discontented opponents of the Clinton era status quo. To crudely blast politically active evangelicals as "extremists" will only increase their claimed underdog status. The only way for opponents to beat back otherwise inevitable Christian right gains will be to disavow name-calling and instead--with cool heads--conduct grass-roots voter education on the true policy aims of the Republican/ Christian right alliance.
Sara Diamond, Ph.D., is the author of Spiritual Warfare: The Politics of the Christian Right and a columnist for Z Magazine. She recently received her doctorate in sociology from the University of California at Berkeley.
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|Title Annotation:||Watch On The Right|
|Date:||Mar 1, 1994|
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