The Religious Right And Election 2004

Religious Right Leaders Exaggerate Their Role At the Polls In A Bid To Win More Power In Washington, D.C.

The day after a hotly contested presidential race that saw Re\xadpublican George W. Bush eke out a victory over Demo\xadcrat John F. Kerry, a Bush campaign staffer called Focus on the Family chairman James C. Dobson to thank him for his help.

Dobson was elated by the Bush win, but he couldn’t help launching into a tirade anyway. Recounting the conversation to The New York Times, the fiery religious broadcaster said he told the Bush representative that the nation was “on the verge of self-destruction” but “through prayer and the involvement of millions of evangelicals and mainline Protestants and Catholics, God has given us a reprieve.”

Dobson quickly added, “But I believe it is a short reprieve.” He insisted that Republicans pass a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, place curbs on legal abortion and block stem-cell research. If they fail, Dobson said, “They will pay a price for it in four years.”

Dobson was far from the only Religious Right leader celebrating Bush’s re-election while at the same time vowing to hold his feet to the fire. TV preachers Jerry Falwell, D. James Kennedy and others were quick to proclaim that religious conservatives could take credit for the Bush re-election and issued press statements making it clear that the movement expects to be handsomely rewarded for it.

In an e-mail message to supporters, Falwell reveled in the Bush win.

“After more than 25 years since I formed the Moral Majority and began mobilizing evangelicals to participate in the political process, I actually realized the fruit of my labors nationwide as Macel and I watched the election returns into the early hours of Wednesday,” Falwell wrote. “I could not hold back the tears of joy. Hour by hour, we observed a ‘slam dunk’ as the Church of Jesus Christ made the difference in initiating the return of this nation to moral sanity and the Judeo-Christian ethic.”

Kennedy was similarly enthused.

“Despite the conventional political wisdom that moral concerns are a drag on a political ticket, it was values that energized voters, lifted turnout among evangelicals and Catholics, and led to substantial GOP pickups in the House and Senate,” Kennedy said in the statement. “The voters have delivered a moral mandate.”

Continued Kennedy, who heads Coral Ridge Ministries in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., “Now that values voters have delivered for George Bush, he must deliver for their values. The defense of innocent unborn human life, the protection of marriage, and the nomination and confirmation of federal judges who will interpret the Constitution not make law from the bench must be first priorities come January.”

Buoyed by exit polling data showing that “moral values” topped the list of concerns for about 22 percent of the voters, a figure higher than any other issue, Religious Right leaders proclaimed that their concerns had made it possible for Bush to prevail.

In reality, the election was very close. Bush won nationally 51 percent to 48 percent, prevailing in the popular vote by 3.5 million out of 120 million votes cast. By Election Day, the race had boiled down to a handful of battleground states, with all eyes on Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio. Bush took Florida and Kerry Pennsylvania but the outcome in Ohio remained in doubt until early in the morning. Kerry lost Ohio by about 135,000 votes. Had he won the state, he would have won the election.

Some observers think social conservatives may have provided Bush’s margin of victory in Ohio. Several polls showed that the turnout of religious conservatives in Ohio ticked upward because of a state ballot referendum to ban same-sex marriage. The measure, which passed easily, drew higher numbers of evangelicals to the polls.

One exit poll conducted by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies showed that Bush’s support among African Americans in Ohio hit 16 percent five points higher than the national average. This led to musings that enough African Americans were persuaded to vote for Bush over the same-sex marriage issue to help tip the state to the president but this remains speculation. Bush also worked hard to promote his “faith-based” initiative in the black community, and this, along with other issues, could also explain his higher level of support.

The results in Ohio were part of a larger trend. Eleven states faced anti-gay marriage votes in November, and many analysts believe the votes helped Bush by driving more evangelicals to the polls. Religious Right activists were quick to point this out.

“I had seen polling data from six months ago that if this was on the ballot, that it would help the president by 3 to 5 percent.” Phil Burress, chairman of the Ohio Campaign to Protect Marriage, told Baptist Press.

But other commentators insisted that the post-election emphasis on “values voters” was simplistic, noting that the percentage of self-professed evangelical voters did not increase between 2000 and 2004.

Gary Langer, director of polling for ABC News, wrote in a New York Times op-ed that the phrase “moral issues” is hopelessly vague.

“[T]his hot-button catch phrase had no place alongside defined political issues on the list of most important concerns in the 2004 vote,” Langer wrote. “Its presence there created a deep distortion - one that threatens to misinform the political discourse for years to come.”

Post-election polls that took a deeper look at the “values” issue buttressed Langer’s view. A week after the election, two progressive religious groups, Pax Christi and Res Publica, joined the liberal Center for American Progress in releasing a poll conducted by Zogby International on moral issues.

The poll found that 33 percent identified “greed and materialism” as the most pressing moral issue facing the nation. Thirty-one percent said “poverty and economic justice.” Only 12 percent named same-sex marriage.

The poll also found that 42 percent said the war in Iraq was the “moral issue” that most influenced their vote. Thirteen percent cited abortion, and 9 percent said same-sex marriage.

A separate poll conducted by the Pew Research Center reached the same conclusion. As the Associated Press reported, “When voters were just asked to name the issue most important in their vote for president without being given a list of answers moral values trailed the war in Iraq and the economy, according to the Pew survey.”

“We did not see any indication that social conservative issues like abortion, gay rights and stem cell research were anywhere near as important as the economy and Iraq,” said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center. “‘Moral values’ is a phrase that’s very attractive to people.”

“Moral values” frequently scores high on exit polls. A Los Angeles Times exit poll found it to be the top concern of voters in 1996 but no one attributed President Bill Clinton’s re-election that year to “values voters.”

Progressive Christians, however, concede that this year they were out-organized by the Religious Right. Exit polling did show some clear-cut trends that helped Bush. The president, for example, got a boost by solidifying his support among churchgoers. Nationally, voters who attend religious service regularly backed Bush heavily. Bush won more than 70 percent of white voters who said they go to church weekly, a Los Angeles Times exit poll showed.

Bush also increased his standing among Roman Catholics, winning that demographic group 52 percent to 48 percent. Among Catholics who attend services regularly, Bush did even better, capturing 58 percent of the vote.

In a close election, any constituent group can claim the credit for having provided the margin of victory. Whether they alone did it or not, religious conservatives have already claimed the credit for Bush’s re-election and made it clear they expect the president to deliver for them.

“I think that the voters spoke with a clear voice yesterday on…the issue of marriage, which speaks more broadly to the issue of judicial activism,” Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, told Religion News Service (RNS). “I think if they do not hear that voice on the Hill, they’re deaf.”

Corwin Smidt, director of the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics at the conservative Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., told RNS that the results are so powerful that even Democratic lawmakers would be foolish to turn a deaf ear to religious conservatives.

“There’s going to be some listening done,” Smidt said. “Evangelicals probably have greater access now to decision makers.”

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Conven\xadtion’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, concurred, in\xadsisting that Bush will now cater to Religious Right interests. He told Newsday, “As we say in Texas, he’s going to dance with the one who brung him. We haven’t come to this place to go home and not push our values and our beliefs.”

Land also made it clear that evangelicals expect a lot from Bush, telling the Orlando Sentinel, “You always want more. One of my jobs is to never be satisfied.”

Details about the Religious Right’s agenda have been sketchy, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what the movement wants. For years, Religious Right activists have demanded an infusion of fundamentalist Christi\xadan\xadity into public schools, restrictions on reproductive freedom, a complete rollback of gay rights, tax aid for private religious schools and other sectarian ministries and a government infused with Christian symbols and rhetoric.

As New York Times reporter David Kirkpatrick succinctly put it, “Exulting in their electoral victories, President Bush’s conservative supporters immediately turned to staking out mandates for an ambitious agenda of long-cherished goals, including privatizing Social Security, banning same-sex marriage, remaking the Supreme Court and overturning the court’s decisions in support of abortion rights.”

The Times quoted Richard Viguerie, a longtime Religious Right activist and one of the founders of the Moral Majority, who told conservative activists after Bush’s re-election, “Now comes the revolution. If you don’t implement a conservative agenda now, when do you?”

Staffers in Americans United’s Legislative Affairs Department say they expect the Religious Right to hit the ground running come January. Among the movement’s top priorities will be efforts to pass Bush’s “faith-based” initiative, various measures to strip the federal courts of their ability to hear church-state cases, a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriages, bills to alter the federal tax code to permit church-based politicking and voucher subsidies for religious schools.

Appointments to the federal bench will also be a flashpoint for controversy. The Religious Right sees changing the Su\xadpreme Court as its best hope for “Christianizing” America in the long run. A court dominated by justices like Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas could overturn legal abortion, return school-sponsored prayers to public schools and open the door to unrestricted government aid to religion.

As Bush proclaimed victory, Religious Right leaders were quick to insist that he adopt a “take-no-prisoners” approach on federal judges.

“I’ve heard commentators say Bush should pick judges who don’t polarize,” said Jan LaRue, chief counsel of Concerned Women for America. “Nonsense....The president shouldn’t be cutting any deals with Democrats.”

There could be one roadblock, however, and it doesn’t come from the Democratic Party: U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), one of the few remaining GOP moderates in the Senate, is widely presumed to become the next chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, replacing the rigidly conservative Orrin Hatch (R-Utah).

During a news conference after the election, Specter criticized some of the conservatives on the high court and reminded Bush that his re-election was too close to be a mandate.

“If you have a race that is won by a percent or two, you have a narrowly divided country, and that’s not a traditional mandate,” Specter said. “President Bush will have that very much in mind.”

Specter went on to call the right to legal abortion “inviolate,” and, despite his strong support for the ultra-conservative Clarence Thomas in 1990, implied that he would block any high court nominee who opposed the right to choose. Ditching Roe v. Wade, he said, would be like trying to reverse Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court ruling that desegregated America’s public schools.

Furious, the FRC’s Perkins immediately issued a bulletin to supporters demanding that they call Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and insist that Specter not be allowed to head the Judiciary Committee. Perkins called Specter’s comments the “height of arrogance and ingratitude” and asserted, “He has a history of pandering to the aggressive abortion lobby, and a Specter chairmanship would be disastrous.”

Specter quickly issued a statement attempting to clarify his remarks.

“I have never and would never apply any litmus test on the abortion issue and, as the record shows, I have voted to confirm Chief Justice Rehnquist, Justice O’Connor, and Justice Kennedy and led the fight to confirm Justice Thomas,” Specter said. “I expect to work well with President Bush in the judicial confirmation process in the years ahead.”

But it may have come too late. The Religious Right posse was already forming. In perfect synchronicity, FOF’s Dobson, longtime Religious Right warhorse Phyllis Schlafly, Concerned Women for America and a slew of other ultra-conservatives issued a barrage of statements demanding that Specter be denied the chairmanship.

Religious Right leaders implored their followers to hit the telephones and it worked. The New York Times reported that Republican senators who sit on the Judiciary Committee were flooded with calls.

“We are getting slammed,”’ said Mike Brumas, a spokesman for Sen. Jeff Ses\xadsions (R-Ala.) “Some of them are saying things like they voted for values on Tuesday and this is a slap in the face.”

Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, said the flap over Specter shows it’s obvious that the Religious Right is feeling newly emboldened. The landscape in Washington will undoubtedly lead to more pitched battles in the months and years to come, he said.

Lynn urged AU members not to get discouraged.

“The Religious Right is already crowing about providing Bush’s margin of victory,” Lynn said in a press statement issued Nov. 3. “The movement’s leaders expect to be handsomely rewarded for that. The culture war may go nuclear.”

Continued Lynn, “I don’t think most Americans want Jerry Falwell and other TV preachers calling the shots in Washington. But people are going to have to speak up loud and clear to make sure members of Congress know that.”

Lynn also pointed out that the results underscore the dangers of the widespread political apathy in the United States today. Although turnout was higher this year about 60 percent of eligible voters turned out that figure still means that about 100 million Americans didn’t even bother to cast a ballot.

Polling data shows that about 120 million Americans voted in the election, yet the U.S. population contains approximately 220 million adults over age 18. Some of those individuals are not legally entitled to vote due to felony convictions or mental incapacitation. Even making allowances for those, Bush’s vote total of 59,424,292 represents far less than a third of the adult population.

Thus, the “revolution” that the far right has proclaimed and the “mandate” they insist Bush has were not brought about by a majority of Americans.

Over the years, Lynn said, the Religious Right has become very adept at exploiting voter apathy and mobilizing its base. As a result, its supporters have a disproportionate influence on the political system.

Aside from helping Bush win re-election, Religious Right groups are taking credit for electing several conservative senators and other legislators. Here is a round-up of some specific races:

In Oklahoma, Republican Tom Coburn defeated Brad Carson 53 percent to 41 percent. Coburn, a physician who formerly served in the House of Representatives, has advocated executing doctors who perform abortions and during the campaign accused lesbians of running rampant in the state’s public schools. Coburn, a former member of the board of directors of the Family Research Council, frequently championed Religious Right causes during his time in the House.

In Florida, Mel Marti\xadnez, a former Bush administration official, defeated Demo\xadcrat Betty Castor for the seat vacated by U.S. Sen. Bob Graham (D). During the GOP primary, Martinez aggressively courted the Religious Right and branded his opponent, U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum, as “the new darling of the homosexual extremists” after McCollum backed hate-crimes legislation. The attack led The St. Petersburg Times to withdraw its endorsement of Martinez.

In South Dakota, U.S. Rep. John Thune (R) defeated Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle in a close race. Daschle had been targeted by Focus on the Family founder Dobson, who accused him of obstructing the GOP’s social-issues agenda in the Senate.

Daschle will be replaced as minority leader by U.S. Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nevada), and U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin, a strong supporter of church-state separation, will move up to Senate minority whip.

In South Carolina, voters promoted U.S. Rep. Jim DeMint (R) to the Senate. DeMint defeated Inez Tennebaum 54 percent to 44 percent. During the campaign, he opposed allowing gays and pregnant single women to work in public schools.

In Louisiana, U.S. Rep. David Vitter, a Christian Coalition favorite who earned a 100 percent on the group’s scorecards, defeated several other candidates with 51 percent of the vote, avoiding a runoff. (State law allows several candidates to run simultaneously. If the top vote-getter falls below 50 percent, he or she must face the runner up.)

But the Religious Right didn’t win every Senate race. In Illinois, Democrat Barack Obama easily defeated Religious Right commentator Alan Keyes, 70 percent to 27 percent. In Colorado, Demo\xadcrat Ken Salazar edged out Repub\xadlican Pete Coors of the socially conservative brewing company, 50 percent to 47 percent.

The overwhelming majority of House members kept their seats. Most of the exceptions were in Texas, where House Majority Leader Tom DeLay engineered an off-year redistricting scheme to increase GOP representation. But not everyone DeLay targeted fell. U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, a strong supporter of church-state separation, survived a tight race. Edwards defeated Republican Arlene Wohlgemuth, 51 percent to 47 percent.

Alabama voters chose an ally of former Chief Justice Roy Moore for a seat on the state Supreme Court. Tom Parker, who acted as Moore’s spokesman during the legal fracas over Moore’s Ten Com\xadmandments display, easily won, defeating Democrat Robert Smith 56 percent to 44 percent.

Parker’s victory came de\xadspite his courting of neo-Confederate groups, some of which are accused of having a racist agenda. He also called on voters to oppose a state ballot initiative that would have removed antiquated language from the Alabama Constitution mandating segregated schools. Residents voted to retain the provision, although the margin was so close, about .02 percent, that a recount is under way.

“Tom Parker stood with me in my battle over the Ten Commandments, and I believe God has rewarded his faithfulness,” Moore said in a press statement. “Tom will make an outstanding justice on the Supreme Court and will stand for the moral values which we all cherish.”

In California, voters incur\xadred Religious Right wrath by approving a ballot referendum that commits the state to spend $3 billion on stem-cell research. Frustrated over the federal government’s spending limits on such research, which is a sop to the anti-abortion movement, Golden State voters backed the plan 59 percent to 41 percent. Proponents argue that the research could lead to cures for debilitating diseases.

The California vote became a veritable battle of the stars. The state’s popular Republican governor, former action film star Arnold Schwarzenegger, backed the initiative, but actor Mel Gibson, a traditionalist Roman Catholic and director of “The Passion of the Christ,” opposed it.