Break Up? The dealignment of the Christian Right from the Republican machine

Essays

For the past twenty years the Christian right have been labeled the ‘backbone’ and ‘base’ behind the Republican Party’s electoral successes, a view that deepened with Bush’s consecutive victories in 2000 and 2004. Until recently the alignment between evangelical Christians on the Christian right and the Republican party had gone unquestioned.

Editor’s Note: I’m happy to welcome Kit Kirkland, a Ph.D student in International Relations at the University of St. Andrews whose research focuses on the relationship of Christianity and politics in America, as a new contributor to the blog.  This piece distills some of his recent research.

For the past twenty years the Christian right have been labeled the ‘backbone’ and ‘base’ behind the Republican Party’s electoral successes, a view that deepened with Bush’s consecutive victories in 2000 and 2004. Until recently the alignment between evangelical Christians on the Christian right and the Republican party had gone unquestioned. Their symbiosis and power based on the constant re-iteration of the movement’s importance amongst commentators and academics, all stressing the fixity and importance of Christian conservatives to the American political landscape, especially come election time. The arguments are well versed. Since Reagan, Republicans have pitched themselves as the ‘religion friendly party’ of America reaching out to a predominantly Protestant evangelical base, promising to enact a Christian agenda for votes and support. Christian conservatives in return picket, strategize and vote Republicans to power, and help to formulate and drive a moral Christian agenda with the sympathetic ear of their Republican partners. This fusion of the spiritual and political, has coined various theonomic descriptors from ‘republicanity’ to ‘theo-con’ – the synthetic blend of conservative ideology and Christian theology.[1]

During the Bush era Christian right success-stories reached a peak. Successes such as the 2001, OFBCI (Office of Faith Based Initiatives) now OFBNP (Office of Faith-Based and Neighbourhood Partnerships) that channels federal funds to ‘compassionate conservative’ Christian groups; to the UVVA (Unborn Victims of Violence Act) of 2004 which granted personhood to fetuses and challenged Roe vs. Wade; to other anti-abortion measures at the state-level aimed at ‘changing the hearts and minds’ with compulsory pre-termination sonograms have raised the profile of conservative Christian activism. Other efforts include their continued opposition to homosexual marriage, which they have successfully lobbied for with  sympathetic state legislatures to restrict marriage to unions of one man and one woman. During Bush’s tenure moral legislation appeared to reach its apogee. As Arnal has commented this ‘R’evival of religion within American political discourse has spawned ‘a cottage industry, busy fretting about the Christian right’ ranging from the inquisitive and scholarly, to the fear-mongering diatribe and polemical hatchet job.[2]  However, ironically, just as researchers have warmed to this glowing example of the post-secular and its significance within American politics, are we now witnessing this relationship’s sunset?

This shift centers predominantly around Obama’s re-election in 2012, though one could perhaps see it as early as Bush’s departure and McCain’s defeat in 2008 – where dollars trumped morals as the voting-concern of American Jane and Joe. Though evangelicals, Protestants and Catholics, of the Christian right turned out for Romney in 2012, it was not enough. Other groups, Black, Asian and Latino voters were more salient. Combs, President of the Christian Coalition said on reflection, ‘evangelicals turned out in record numbers and voted for Romney, but it just wasn’t enough.’ [3] In the light of the 2012 election Marty asked ‘had it been over-rated all along?’ [4] Did the Christian right truly have the convening and voting power they claimed? Academic commentators lamented that the relationship between evangelical Christians and Republicans had been over-determined: ‘[2012] was the last election where a white Christian strategy was workable’ said Jones of the PRRI (Public Religion Research Institute).[5] For conservative Christian activists the shift from electoral lynchpin to sideshow was even more pronounced, forcing many to question whether their days of political influence are over. Though some in the movement see the 2012 defeat as a hiccup, as Vander Plaats of the ‘Family Leader’ claimed, ‘…we’re not going away, we just need to recalibrate…’,[6] other faith leaders believe it will take more than tweaks to the movement’s message to change their political fortunes. Mohler, for instance, leader of the Southern Baptist Convention was less sanguine: ‘it’s not that our message [that] …abortion is wrong…and same-sex marriage is wrong didn’t get out — it did get out. It’s that the entire moral landscape has changed. An increasingly secularized America understands our positions, and has rejected them.’ [7]

 

Setbacks and fears have gripped the constituency before. During the 1990’s “wilderness years” under Clinton Christian leaders and commentators felt the moment for a Christian ‘moral majority’ had passed. That setback prompted considerable introspection but also a redoubling of efforts that ultimately led to Bush’s victories. Now, for a plurality of internal and external reasons there appears to be less appetite amongst social and religious conservatives on the Christian right to conform to the Republican mold and to keep the relationship going.

Internally, the Christian right appears to be distancing themselves from their Republican partners for spiritual, ideological and demographic reasons. Spiritually many Christian conservatives have grown tired of the Republican party’s manipulation of their support, the calculated use of spiritual signaling, what Domke and Coe call the ‘God Strategy’ is being met with greater cynicism.[8] Many agree with Mohler’s comment that Christian conservatives demonstrated ‘an incredible naiveté about politics, politicians and parties… they invested far too much hope in a political solution…’ [9] Support was pitched in binary terms, one side good the other bad, a process that papered-over how Republicans coopted and conditioned evangelicals for votes. This state of disillusion has not led to political ambivalence: though some have disengaged , many remain politically motivated and concerned, but their support and crucially votes is more contingent than before. Ideologically, since Bush’s departure in 2008, the ever-more-conservative push of the Republican party has divided the constituency still further, despite its intentions to unify. The lack of partisan compromise by many Republican leaders during the October 2013 ‘Federal Shutdown’ and the subsequent scorn they received from American society bears witness to how difficult it has become for many Christian right activists to identify with the Republican brand. Ideology is dominating theology. All too often the political baggage of the vocal and ultra-conservative Republican fringe is dominating the moderate Republican discourse, and drowning out the Christian right’s theological concerns and insights.

Nevertheless some ultra-conservative activists on the Christian right believe the push to the right hasn’t gone far enough, and have shifted their allegiance away from the ‘cosmopolitan and elitist’ Republican machine, to the anti-federal, ultra-conservative Tea Party.[10] Feeling taken for granted by the Republican machine, disenfranchised Christian conservatives have found renewed political relevance in the Tea Party. With an overlap of shared grievances, the Tea Party agenda naturally appeals to Christian conservatives who are motivated to reverse the nation’s fortunes by restoring America to its constitutional and ‘Christian’ roots. Whether more or less partisan, the Christian right is nonetheless much weaker as a result of the Republican’s dextral shift. Internally, the movement is also suffering from an eroding demographic. Increasingly, Protestants and evangelicals of the ‘millennial’ generation do not identify and share their parents’ partisan convictions to vote Republican even though they remain conservative. As Smidt observes, there has been a shift in how millennials take their faith forward into politics.[11] Averse to labels, they’re disillusioned with the reductionist Christian right agenda, with immigration reform, sexual equality and civil liberties all pushing beyond the traditional, life-issues leitmotif of the baby-boomer generation. Indeed, the millennials of the Christian right, though as faithful as their evangelical forefathers, are more hesitant to clothe the American public square in Christianity, and are averse to inerrant forms of Christian activism which they see as counter-productive, intolerant and one-dimensional. As a recent BARNA study noted, ‘millennials seek authenticity’ which is a quality dearly lacking in politics, riddled as it is with scandal and corruption. [12] As a result the millennials of the Christian right just aren’t as activist as their parents. As Guth has observed, the evangelical share of the population is both declining and graying, [and] in the long run, this means that the Republican constituency is going to be shrinking on the religious end…’ [13]

 

External factors ranging from the social to the spiritual and political are also pushing the Christian right’s separation from the Republican machine. Socially, the Christian right’s message is increasingly at odds with the American zeitgeist — they’re losing the social argument. Clamour to restore a traditional Christian America faces a daily storm of secular-humanist opposition, who decry their efforts to promote and legislate a prescriptive Christian agenda. Politicized religion doesn’t hold sway over American life as it once did. Tied to this social development are significant spiritual changes. According to a 2012 Pew Center study, one fifth of Americans now claim no spiritual affiliation. The growing numbers of ‘nones’ —those who are atheist, agnostic or have no affiliation—has become more pronounced over the past decade. Consequently, fewer Americans believe religious views should have claims over politics. Alongside declining denominational numbers, (with the notable exception of evangelicals and Pentecostals) the overall number of Christian conservatives that are warm to a God and country agenda is also declining.[14] Lastly, dealignment is also being pushed by the Republican party who are reaching beyond their old spiritual partners. There appears to be realization amongst the Republican machine that the Bush era was ‘contextual high’ for evangelical Christians and the Christian right, and that a broad, plural and multi-faith appeal is now necessary for electoral victory. Attempts to recruit the fastest growing electoral demographic, the Hispanic vote, have stalled as Republicans stumble over comprehensive immigration reform.[15] Republicans appear caught between placating white Christian voters, and the possibility of appeasing the larger Latino vote for 2016. Despite this uncertainty, Christian invocations and ‘narrowcasting’ towards the Christian right faithful will continue, but the movement’s privileged position within the Republican machine is now under scrutiny.

In conclusion, the Christian right haven’t exited the political stage yet; as Berlinerblau argues, ‘the road to any Republican presidential nominee must still pass through evangelical America’.[16] The Christian right have receded from view, as they have with previous Democratic epochs, and future elections may yet re-energise the Christian right. But this is dependent on a sympathetic Republican ear, a buoyant economy and a re-invigorated millennial cohort of moral voters. Certainly the Christian right along with fiscal conservatives will go on being one of the core groups the Republican party draws upon come election time, but the Republican machine is re-evaluating its appeal to its faithful Christian partners, against the possibility of breaking new ground with other ethnic groups, especially Hispanics. Votes not values matter, and with an aging and declining demographic, the narrow, traditional agenda of Christian conservatives is increasingly at odds with a secular-humanist and liberal electorate that rejects the place of faith in politics. The picture of values has changed considerably. Christianity is less central to American daily life, and for Christian conservatives the exclusive privileges they once shared with their Republican partners are fading. As the Republican machine looks to other constituencies, Christian conservatives are also reflecting upon their Republican relations. There is now considerable introspection over whether the Republican party remains an appropriate home for their moral views, and though many will undoubtedly see the Republican party as preferable to the alternative liberal and libertarian choices, doubt now hangs over this once forgone relationship. Spiritually, many are reflecting whether politics remains an effective method with which to restore America, especially as the Republicans rightward-shift makes that label more socially divisive. The next generation’s unease with partisan faith will ultimately decide the future of this waning relationship. Millennials don’t want their faith pigeon-holed under big-tent labels, their support is less defined, more theologically-contingent and is broader than the standard hot-button life-issues. After a long forty-year relationship, the Christian right and Republican machine are now wondering if it’s time for a breakup.

 

Bibliography

Books

* Berlinerblau, Jacques., ‘How to be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom’  (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012)

* Domke, David., & Coe, Kevin.,‘The God Strategy: How Religion Became a Political Weapon in America’  (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008)

* Linker, Damon.,‘Theocons: Secular America Under Siege’ (New York: Knopf Doubleday Pub., 2007)

Journals

* Arnal, William., ‘Being Secular in Twenty-First Century America: Responses to Jacques Berlinerblau’s “How To Be Secular”’ Critical Research on Religion, Vol. 1. Iss. 2., (August, 2013)

World-Wide-Web Resources

* Goldberg. Michelle., ‘Tea Party Meet the Religious Right’ Prospect, 12th January 2010, date accessed, 6th Feb. 2014, <http://prospect.org/article/tea-party-meet-religious-right-0>

* Goodstein, Laurie., ‘Christian Right Failed to Sway Voters on Issues’, The New York Times, 9th Nov. 2012, date accessed 29th Jan. 2014, <http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/10/us/politics/christian-conservatives-failed-to-sway-voters.html?_r=2&>

* Kim, David H. & Barna Group, “Frames Live – The New Shape of Young Adulthood,” BARNA, 30th Jan. 2014, date accessed 30th Jan. 2014, <http://new.livestream.com/accounts/6744258/events/2690471>

* Laderman, Gary., ‘Republicanity: The GOP Transformation Is Nearly Complete’ Religion Dispatches, 17th Jul. 2011, date accessed 29th Jan. 2014 <http://www.religiondispatches.org/archive/politics/4844/‘republicanity’__the_gop_transformation_is_nearly_complete/>

* Marty, Martin., “The Religious Right After the Election” Sightings, University of Chicago Divinity School, 12th Nov. 2012.

* McHaney, Sarah.,‘Christian Right’s Influence Shaken by US Election’ InterPress News Agency, 8th Nov. 2012, date accessed 29th Jan. 2014, <http://www.ipsnews.net/2012/11/christian-rights-influence-shaken-by-u-s-election/>

* Mohler, Albert., quoted in Meacham, Jon., ‘The End of Christian America’ Newsweek, 3rd Apr. 2008, date accessed 31st Jan. 2014,

<http://www.newsweek.com/meacham-end-christian-america-77125>

* Pew Research Center, ‘Nones on the Rise’ Pew Research Religion and Public Life Project, 9th Oct. 2012, date accessed 30th Jan. 2014,<http://www.pewforum.org/2012/10/09/nones-on-the-rise/>

* Shear, Michael., & Parker, Ashley., ‘House GOP’s Immigration Plan Presents Tough Choices for Obama’ The New York Times, 31st Jan. 2014, date accessed 5th Feb. 2014, < http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/01/us/obama-hints-he-may-be-open-to-immigration-deal-with-gop.html?_r=0>

* Smidt, Corwin., ‘American Evangelicals Today’ Calvin Henry Symposium, Apr. 2013, date accessed 30th Jan. 2014, <http://www.calvin.edu/henry/archives/lectures/Smidt-AmericanEvangelicalsToday.pdf>


[1] Gary Laderman, ‘Republicanity: The GOP Transformation Is Nearly Complete’ Religious Dispatches, 17th Jul. 2011, date accessed 29th Jan. 2014 <http://www.religiondispatches.org/archive/politics/4844/‘republicanity’_—_the_gop_transformation_is_nearly_complete/>

See also, Damon Linker, ‘Theocons: Secular America Under Siege’ (New York: Knopf Doubleday Pun., 2007)

[2] William Arnal, ‘Being Secular in Twenty-First Century America: Responses to Jacques Berlinerblau’s “How To Be Secular,” Critical Research on Religion, August (2013), p. 215

[3] Sarah McHaney, ‘Christian Right’s Influence Shaken by US Election’ InterPress News Agency, 8th Nov. 2012, date accessed 29th Jan. 2014, , http://www.ipsnews.net/2012/11/christian-rights-influence-shaken-by-u-s-election/>

[4] Martin Marty, “The Religious Right After the Election” Sightings, University of Chicago Divinity School, 12th Nov. 2012.

[5] Robert P. Jones, PRRI quoted in Laurie Goodstein, ‘Christian Right Failed to Sway Voters on Issues’, The New York Times, 9th Nov. 2012, date accessed 29th Jan. 2014, <http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/10/us/politics/christian-conservatives-failed-to-sway-voters.html?_r=2&>

[6] Laurie Goodstein, ‘Christian Right Failed to Sway Voters on Issues’, The New York Times, 9th Nov. 2012, date accessed 29th Jan. 2014, <http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/10/us/politics/christian-conservatives-failed-to-sway-voters.html?_r=2&>

[7] Ibid.

[8] David Domke & Kevin Coe, ‘The God Strategy: How Religion Became a Political Weapon in America’ (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), Ch.1.

[9] Albert Mohler quoted in Jon Meacham, ‘The End of Christian America’ Newsweek, 3rd Apr. 2008, date accessed 31st Jan. 2014, <http://www.newsweek.com/meacham-end-christian-america-77125>

[10] Michelle Goldberg. ‘Tea Party Meet the Religious Right’ Prospect, 12th January 2010, date accessed, 6th Feb. 2014,  <http://prospect.org/article/tea-party-meet-religious-right-0>

[11] Corwin Smidt, ‘American Evangelicals Today’ Calvin Henry Symposium, Apr. 2013, date accessed 30th Jan. 2014, <http://www.calvin.edu/henry/archives/lectures/Smidt-AmericanEvangelicalsToday.pdf>

[12] David H. Kim & Barna Group, “Frames Live – The New Shape of Young Adulthood,” BARNA, 30th Jan. 2014, date accessed 30th Jan. 2014, <http://new.livestream.com/accounts/6744258/events/2690471>

[13] op.cit. Laurie Goodstein, ‘Christian Right Failed to Sway Voters on Issues’, The New York Times

[14] Pew Research Center, ‘Nones on the Rise’ Pew Research Religion and Public Life Project, 9th Oct. 2012, date accessed 30th Jan. 2014, <http://www.pewforum.org/2012/10/09/nones-on-the-rise/>

[15] Michael Shear & Ashley Parker, ‘House GOP’s Immigration Plan Presents Tough Choices for Obama’ The New York Times, 31st Jan. 2014, date accessed 5th Feb. 2014, < http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/01/us/obama-hints-he-may-be-open-to-immigration-deal-with-gop.html?_r=0>

[16] Jacques Berlinerblau, ‘How to be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom’ (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012), p. 106

 

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