Power Play

Resurgent Religious Right Ready To Push Theocratic Agenda In Upcoming Congress

The day after the Nov. 2 election, Bob Jones III, president of Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C., felt moved to write to President George W. Bush.

Jones, a Christian fundamentalist whose school earned notoriety in the 1980s for refusing to lift a ban on inter-racial dating, could barely contain his glee at Bush’s re-election. He urged the president to move quickly to enact a far-right social-issues agenda and ignore all opposition.

“In your re-election, God has graciously granted America – though she doesn’t deserve it – a reprieve from the agenda of paganism,” Jones wrote. “You have been given a mandate. We the people expect your voice to be like the clear and certain sound of a trumpet. Because you seek the Lord daily, we know the Lord will follow that kind of voice eagerly.”

Bush spoke at the militantly fundamentalist school while seeking election in 2000, so Jones may have felt he had the green light to offer advice. He did not hold back.

Continued Jones, “Don’t equivocate. Put your agenda on the front burner and let it boil. You owe the liberals nothing. They despise you because they despise your Christ. Honor the Lord, and He will honor you.”

Jones isn’t the only Religious Right figure excited these days. Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, told The National Journal in December that he regards Bush as “the greatest president of my lifetime.”

“Bush doesn’t just understand our issues, he shares our worldview,” Land gushed.

But Land made it clear that words and half-hearted measures will not be enough, remarking, “I want him to do more in the next Congress.”

Religious Right groups are already bombarding the White House with wish lists for the 109th Congress. (See “Faith-Based Frenzy,” page 7.) And, in one early skirmish, already have won a partial victory.

Just days after the election, several groups joined forces to demand that U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), one of a handful of Republican moderates left in the Senate, be denied the chairmanship of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee. (See “The Religious Right and Election 2004,” December 2004 Church & State.)

Specter had angered Religious Right leaders when, during a post-election press conference, he reiterated his support for abortion rights and cautioned that Bush nominees with a far-right agenda would have difficulty winning Senate confirmation.

Furious Religious Right leaders demanded Specter’s head – and nearly got it. Their followers melted down Cap­itol Hill phone lines, calling Repub­li­can senators and demanding that Spec­ter be denied the chairmanship. The matter dominated the news for days.

Specter quickly began back-pedaling and said he never meant to imply that he would block Bush nominees or impose a pro-choice litmus test. All judicial nominees, he insisted, would get a fair vote.

But the Religious Right remained unsatisfied. In a desperate attempt to quell the growing controversy, Specter had a face-to-face meeting with Relig­ious Right leader and former presidential candidate Gary Bauer, Paul Wey­rich of the Free Congress Foun­dation and Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council. At the meeting, Specter reportedly reiterated his promise to support Bush judicial nominees. Some observers saw it was a complete cave-in to the Religious Right.

Asked about the matter on CNN’s “Lou Dobbs Tonight,” TV preacher Jerry Falwell said he was satisfied.

“I’ve spent the day today here in Washington with James Dobson and a number of religious leaders,” Falwell said. “Yes, we are well aware that he [Specter] is the chairman. He has made a firm commitment to all of us in writing and publicly and to the president, that he will, in fact, give a fair hearing to every nominee to the court and all the president’s proposals, send them out to the Senate floor for a full vote. That’s all anyone can ask.”

The dust-up over Specter was the first big post-election squabble to involve the Religious Right, and at first glance, it may appear that the groups lost, since the Pennsylvania senator is keeping the judiciary slot. But the incident is really a good example of how even when the Religious Right seems to lose, it still walks away with something valuable: Washington observers say Specter is now under extraordinary pressure not to block any controversial nominees.

Religious Right groups went to the mat over Specter because they realize that issues like abortion, gay rights and religion in public schools are likely to be resolved by the courts, not Congress. With so much at stake, they are not afraid to flex their muscle.

To more effectively plot strategy, Religious Right groups have been gathering in a type of super-council in Wash­ington. Representatives from about 70 organizations meet regularly. Calling themselves the “Arlington Group” (after the Virginia suburb where they first met), the groups have outlined an ambitious agenda for the next four years.

While information about the closed-door meetings is tough to come by, FRC’s Perkins told The National Journal that a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage has been a constant topic of discussion. Perkins said he believes prospects for passage of the amendment are looking much better.

“All of us are together and focused on one issue, which 95 percent of us agree on,” said Perkins. “It’s been very useful. I think the prospects are improving for a federal amendment.”

Religious Right conservatives are also expected to push a series of measures designed to chip away at legal abortion. They have already been successful in getting one provision into an omnibus spending bill that passed during a post-election lame duck session.

The euphemistically named “Abor­tion Non-Discrimination Act” permits any health-care providers to refuse to provide an abortion, overriding any state or local laws that may require providers to offer the full range of reproductive services in cases of medical emergency.

Abortion foes in Congress have been promoting bills that attempt to limit abortions by recognizing fetal rights or asserting that abortion can be restricted because fetuses feel pain during the procedure.

Bills like this would have died in committee just a few years ago. Now, thanks to the Religious Right’s dominance within the GOP, they are winning floor votes.

At a national meeting of the Christian Coalition in September, Falwell bragged that the Religious Right effectively controls the Republican Party. Because of the movement’s influence, he said, the GOP would not dare nominate a pro-choice candidate for president or vice president.

A prominent conservative political operative recently agreed with Falwell’s assessment.

Arthur Finkelstein, a longtime Re­pub­lican consultant, told an Israeli newspaper in November that the rise of conservative evangelicals in the GOP has profoundly changed the nature of politics in America.

“The political center has disappeared, and the Republican Party has become the party of the Christian Right more so than in any other period in modern history,” Finkelstein said in an interview with Maariv, a Tel Aviv newspaper.

He continued, “Bush’s strategy secures the power of the American Chris­tian Right not only for this term. In fact, it secures its ability to choose the next Republican president.”

Finkelstein, who rarely gives interviews, indicated that he does not necessarily think this is a good thing. The Religious Right’s headlock on the GOP, he said, means that politicians like New York Gov. George Pataki, a prominent moderate Republican who is rumored to be interest in a 2008 run, are effectively shut out of presidential races.

“Bush’s victory strengthens the ability of the Christian Right to nominate the next Republican nominee as much as the last one,” Finkelstein said. He added, “It will be difficult for Pataki.”

Ralph Reed, former executive director of the Christian Coalition and now a GOP consultant, agrees that the Religious Right has become a powerful force within the GOP. Unlike Finkel­stein, Reed has no qualms about that.

“As the pro-family community has become more sophisticated and successful, it has evolved from being a group of outsiders in the political process to a community that has a number of significant allies in important positions on Capitol Hill, in the administration and in the Republican Party,” Reed told The National Journal.

Some political observers believe the Religious Right may push for too much too fast and alienate moderate voters. Others say a sudden, dramatic court ruling, such as the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, would energize the op­posi­tion.

Those events, if they happen at all, could be years away. For now, a Congress that is extremely friendly to the Religious Right is ready to begin legislating, with the full cooperation of the White House and an increasingly warm reception in the federal courts.

But advocates of church-state separation are by no means giving up on the battle.

During a recent speech, U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Texas), one of the leading opponents of the faith-based initiative, said he believes the effort to pass a wide-ranging bill could still encounter roadblocks.

“I think we will not have enough votes to kill the president’s initiatives in the House, but even in the new Senate, I think we still have enough votes,” Edwards said.

Americans United Executive Direc­tor Barry W. Lynn said the organization will reach out to Republican moderates and continue working to derail proposals that endanger church-state separation.

“We will work even harder,” Lynn vowed. “Our Constitution demands nothing less.”