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Second Coming: The New Christian Right in Virginia Politics.

Mark J. Rozell and Clyde Wilcox Johns Hopkins University Press, $32.95 By Alan Greenblatt John Warner's bid this year for a fourth Senate term has turned into an ugly episode of "This Is Your Life," with all his old enemies lining up to greet him. He may be the commonwealth's most popular politician, but within Republican Party power circles he has become a whipping boy. In the midst of the national GOP resurgence, Virginia Republicans have suffered some humiliating setbacks in recent years, and they blame their losses on the patrician Warner, who has failed to support GOP candidates such as Iran-contra figure Oliver North.

John Warner is the type of politician who unabashedly brags about his clout and proudly shows off a painting by Winston Churchill that hangs in his office. Warner has compiled one of the most conservative voting records in the Senate, but he cuts the kind of establishment figure cultural conservatives love to hate.

At a prayer breakfast in Richmond this past January, North said that one of the main qualifications he sought in any contender for this year's Republican primary is that he doesn't live at John Warner's home address. Mike Farris, the home schooling advocate who ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor on the GOP ticket in 1993, has repeatedly told reporters, "We've got a sickness in our party and that sickness is named John Warner." And erstwhile Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork has endorsed former Reagan budget director Jim Miller, Warner's rival in the June 11 primary. Bork has referred to Warner, one of six GOP senators to oppose Bork's confirmation in 1987, as a "supposed Republican" who cannot be trusted to stand by conservative principles.

Much of the blame for recent Republican failures, however, rests not with Warner but rather with the Christian Right, which has brought new activists into the GOP fold but also saddled the party with some unelectable candidates. In Second Coming, Mark J. Rozell and Clyde Wilcox provide a useful background look at the stars aligning this year against Warner. The book is an illuminating case study in how the Christian Right's insistence on ideological purity sometimes works against the GOP's best interests.

In a book happily free of both bias and academic jargon, Rozell and Wilcox show how social conservatives, motivated by their hostility to abortion, federal education standards, and gun control, have managed to overwhelm the remaining moderate party regulars in the Virginia GOP nominating process.

The authors portray the Christian conservative movement with a much more varied face than the boyish Ralph Reed and his Christian Coalition, the group the media uses to provide feature stories about the movement or comments about abortion.

In his "Contract With the American Family," a manifesto of the Christian Coalition's policy objectives, Reed downplays abortion, listing it somewhere below Individual Retirement Accounts. Although the Virginia-based group turns cranky whenever the Dole campaign floats the name of a potential pro-choice running mate, the Christian Coalition does not publicly press for a constitutional ban on abortion, knowing that such a move would be unpopular and thus counter-productive.

But local organizations in Virginia and elsewhere are not always so pragmatic. "Quite simply, the new Christian Right elites have staked out positions that are unacceptable to the majority of Virginia voters in most elections," Rozell and Wilcox write. A candidate strongly identified with the Christian Right can create a powerful backlash among the general electorate. North, for example, ran with a Bible in his hand, declaring every word of it literally true, and managed to lose against a weak Democratic incumbent amid record turnout.

In 1993, Farris had tried to run away from his past as a former Moral Majority official by distancing himself from previously published statements and legal opinions. (After losing a case at the Supreme Court, Farris had said, "It is time for every born-again Christian to get their children out of public schools." In the midst of a statewide GOP landslide, Farris lost.

Conservatives have already won the fight for control of the GOP. The difference on most issues between conservative candidates and even the most moderate hopefuls tends to be a matter of degree--whether you would allow abortions in cases of rape and incest, for example. Republican pollsters are warning clients this year that they will have to tone down their rhetoric on such issues as abortion, the environment, and education if they want to hold on to suburban voters, maintain their congressional majority, and win the White House. But members of the Christian Right, having been burned for years by Republican politicians who pay them lip service and then ignore them once in office, are no longer willing to split the difference.

Just as the National Rifle Association insisted on a House vote to repeal the ban on assault-weapons, even when such a move could hurt the candidacy of Bob Dole, members of the Christian Right remain unwilling to swallow hard and back a candidate whose positions they find unacceptably soft--even if he stands a strong chance of winning in November. The people attracted to politics by a North or Farris candidacy tend to see the world in absolute terms and are unwilling to accept that compromise is part of the process. As Rozell and Wilcox write, "Many Christian social conservatives [are] unwilling to turn the other cheek, preferring to defeat Warner [in the primary] even if it [means] a loss for the GOP in November." Alan Greenblatt covers politics for Congressional Quarterly.
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Author:Greenblatt, Alan
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 1996
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