Spring 2003, Vol. 6, No. 1

Table of Contents
Spring 2003

Quick Links:
Articles in this issue

In the South:
The GOP Gets Religion

What Christian Right?

The Undetected Tide

Church Notes

The New Governing Party

The Bible in Memphis

The Decalogue in Montgomery


A World of Hurt

James in the Box

O Brother, Who Art Thou?


What Would Jesus Drive?


From the Editor:

The GOP Gets Religion
by Mark Silk

“President Bush has hardly made a secret of his faith in the power of God,” wrote the Baltimore Sun’s David L. Greene February 10. “But recently, Bush has taken to sprinkling more religious language into his speeches, even drawing upon evangelical hymns and expressing his conviction that events are often driven by a divine force.”

With, in rapid succession, his State of the Union Address, remarks after the Columbia space shuttle disaster, and comments to the National Prayer Breakfast and the National Religious Broadcasters convention, George W. Bush ushered in a renewed period of media anxiety about the place of religion in his presidency. As Barbara C. Neff of the Religion News Service posed it, “President or preacher?”

In reaction, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, no supporter of the White House, was moved to protest, “[C]an we please stop pretending that Bush’s regular invocations of the Almighty make him some sort of strange religious fanatic? In how he speaks of God, Bush is much more typically presidential than he is painted, especially by our friends abroad.”

But the consensus at home was that Bush’s religion went beyond the presidential norm. Ceremonial piety was one thing. It was something else to speak as though you were anointed by God to take the nation into a war of your own choosing.

A century ago, the Student Volunteer Movement set out to achieve “the evangelization of the world in this generation.” That avatar of muscular Christianity seemed reborn in Bush’s statement to the religious broadcasters that the United States had been called to bring God’s gift of liberty to “every human being in the world.” Pax Americana, Pax Divina.

No one was accusing Bush of laying on the piety for merely political purposes, but his operatives were hardly above making the most of it. Whether or not operative-in-chief Karl Rove is keeping up with social scientists’ debates over the decline of bowling leagues and Lions’ clubs, he understands that religious institutions are the great bastions of American civil society. The White House’s political strategy is nothing if not faith-based: a ban on “partial-birth” abortion for the evangelicals, public school vouchers for the Catholics, charitable choice for the African Americans, no messing with Israel for the Jews, and the devil take the hindmost.

The strategy centers on high church-attending white evangelicals, whose 75 percent preference for GOP candidates makes them the most Republican of any religious grouping in America. But as with any voting bloc, getting a high proportion of their vote is only half the battle. You have to get them to the polls.

And it is here that journalists have been asleep at the switch. As Mark Rozell points out in these pages, the troubles of marquee organizations like the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition at the national level have repeatedly lulled reporters and their academic informants into thinking that the religious right is a declining force in American politics.

Faith-based politicking has been a Republican strategy since 1980, when GOP operatives and some high-profile evangelists joined together to turn white evangelicals into loyal Republicans. After his unsuccessful run for the presidential nomination in 1988, Pat Robertson set up the Christian Coalition as a way of avoiding the vagaries of depending solely on churches as a political base. But the reliance on “parachurch” organizations like the Christian Coalition has not meant leaving the churches out of the equation—at least, not in the South. 

In the 2002 election, Georgia was the place where it all came together. There, the state Christian Coalition appears to have served as the operational interface between the Republican Party and the churches.

To point out, as many reporters around the country did, that by becoming the chair of the Georgia Republican Party Ralph Reed had left the religious right to become a mainstream politico is to miss the point. Consider, rather, what the chair of the Georgia Christian Coalition had to say (in the newsletter reprinted on page yyy) after the GOP captured the Georgia governorship for the first time since Reconstruction: “While standing on principle, we must govern wisely and incrementally, and to that end I will work with the Governor’s office to ensure that our agenda is reasonable and attainable.” Even discounting for institutional self-aggrandizement, that “we” is telling.

The news media’s failure to recognize the nexus of party, church, and parachurch should not come as a surprise. While the distance between church and state is narrowing in American society, in the newspaper world the wall of separation between religion and the political beat remains about as high as ever. Political reporters will call up a parachurch leader for a quote from time to time, but they don’t venture into places of worship to see what politics is going on. It’s time for them to wake up and smell the covered dishes.

Is the church-by-church mobilization of white evangelicals a threat to the republic? Any expression of concern may be dismissed as secularist hysterics. But never in American history have churches been tied so directly to one political party. And to the extent that their leaders persuade people in the pews that the other party is “the work of the devil” (see the e-mails on page xxx), it cannot be a good thing.

In 1802, Alexander Hamilton conceived a scheme to rally the flagging fortunes of the Federalist Party by setting up a “Christian Constitutional Society” with chapters in every state of the infant union. He floated the idea to his ally James A. Bayard, a congressman from Delaware, but Bayard thought the Federalists lacked the passionate intensity of their Jeffersonian opponents to pull it off. As he wrote to Hamilton, “We have the greater number of political Calculators & they of political fanaticks.”

No one, today, would accuse the GOP of coming up short on either score.

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