Religious Right Rebound

Three Years After Being Pronounced ‘Dead’ By Many Pundits, Fundamentalist Political Groups Are Riding High In Washington And Many State Legislatures

In late February, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives John Boehner (R-Ohio) flew to Nashville to address a gathering of the National Religious Broadcasters, a group of mostly far-right television and radio personalities. While there, he took some time to chat with a reporter for TV preacher Pat Robertson’s “700 Club.”

Boehner assured Robertson’s viewers that their concerns are his concerns – and he urged them to be patient. Reflecting on a recent House vote to cut off tax funding of family planning and health programs for women, Boehner asserted, “I met with a lot of religious leaders earlier today to talk about the strategy, and I think it’s important that we understand that what we want to do here is win the war, not just win a battle. And there will be an opportunity some time in order to win the big war, and we’re looking for that opportunity.”

What exactly does winning the “big war” mean? For many in the Religious Right, several “culture war” issues are at stake, including banning abortion, denying civil rights to gay Americans, injecting religion into public education and obtaining governmental support for religious schools and other ministries.

Under Boehner’s leadership, a new flock of legislators who poured into Congress in January in the wake of November’s elections is intent on winning this war. You might say they’re busy unleashing a new crusade – although sometimes under the radar. Social issues, which very few voters identified as a chief concern during the elections, are suddenly all the rage again.

And the Religious Right is back in the driver’s seat.

It’s not exactly what Americans thought they were getting. In November, polls showed great uneasiness over a high unemployment rate and a shaky economic outlook. Bolstered by legions of Tea Party activists who exploited fears over these issues, conservatives swept to victory in November, capturing not only the House of Representatives but many governorships and state legislatures as well.

Since then, changes in economic policy remain at a stalemate. The federal government limps along, funded by a series of temporary funding measures. “Culture war” issues, though, are enjoying a resurgence.

Interestingly, Religious Right groups are increasingly adopting Tea Party-style rhetoric about budget deficits as they push a familiar social agenda. A fight over tax funding for Planned Parenthood, which receives about $300 million a year to provide health services (such as cancer screenings) and family planning for the poor, was framed as a cost-saving measure.

In fact, ending funding of Planned Parenthood has been a long-sought Religious Right goal. Even though federal law states that none of the money the group receives can be used to provide abortions, Planned Parenthood has long been in the Religious Right’s crosshairs. The drive to de-fund it was led by U.S. Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), a staunch Religious Right ally.

Religious Right groups are so adamant on the issue that they have demanded that House Republicans shut down the federal government by refusing to vote for a budget if the Senate refuses to go along with the Planned Parenthood funding cutoff.

“If that’s the case, then shut it down,” the Rev. Frank Pavone, a Roman Catholic priest who heads Priests for Life, told Lifesitenews.com.

Weeks later, similar budgetary arguments were made when the House voted to end funding for National Public Radio (NPR). But again, NPR and PBS have long been Religious Right targets. For years, right-wing religious groups have attacked NPR for its alleged “liberal bias.”

(In an 11th-hour budget deal that was struck April 8, funding for Planned Parenthood was retained and NPR funding was restored. But voucher subsidies to religious schools in Washington, D.C., were added to the measure, as well as a provision barring D.C. from using its own money to pay for abortions for poor women.)

Boehner and his congressional allies labored to appease the Religious Right in other ways. When President Barack Obama announced that the U.S. Justice Department would no longer defend the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in court, Religious Right groups went ballistic. Some even asserted (incorrectly) that the Justice Department was required to defend the 1996 statute, which seeks to block same-sex marriage by defining marriage as an institution between one man and one woman.

In early March, a coalition of right-wing religious groups wrote to Boehner, demanding that the House take up the defense of DOMA in court. The speaker was quick to seize the opportunity.

Groups signing the letter included the National Association of Evangelicals, the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel.

Boehner acted quickly. He convened a meeting of the House’s five-member Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group and, over the objections of Democrats on the panel, railroaded through a provision ordering the House general counsel to defend DOMA in court.

Religious Right leaders were elated. In an email message to supporters, Family Research Council (FRC) President Tony Perkins accused Attorney General Eric Holder of “walking out on his responsibilities faster than you can say ‘traditional marriage’” and lauded Boehner’s move.

Perkins also called on members to support House Concurrent Resolution 25, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.), a lawmaker elected as part of the 2010 Tea Party wave. The measure says Congress “condemns the Obama administration’s direction that the Department of Justice should discontinue defending the Defense of Marriage Act; and demands that the Department of Justice continue to defend the Defense of Marriage Act in all instances.”

Religious Right leaders are even jumping into issues that have traditionally been outside their purview. Several groups are now regularly sending messages demanding a reduction in federal spending to deal with the deficit. And when laws curbing the power of unions appeared in Ohio, Wisconsin, Indiana and other states, Religious Right organizations quickly joined the crusade.

What’s going on here?

Most likely, the Religious Right is entering a new phase of political activity. By expanding its operations to include issues such as the deficit and unions, organizations like the FRC, the Alliance Defense Fund, the American Family Association (AFA) and others hope to forge an alliance with the Tea Party and create a right-wing phalanx so powerful no one can stand against it.

The Religious Right’s attempts to woo the Tea Party haven’t been subtle. Recent FRC conferences have included special sessions on how to work with Tea Party activists and have included self-appointed Tea Party leaders.

Not all supporters of the Tea Party are religious conservatives. Some want the focus to remain strictly on economic issues. But a February analysis issued by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found significant overlap between the movement and the Religious Right.

Only 11 percent of Tea Party supporters said they disagreed with the agenda of the Religious Right.

But the Pew analysis also showed that while many Tea Party supporters hold views in synch with the Religious Right, they were not necessarily members of groups like FRC, ADF and AFA. Nevertheless, Religious Right leaders clearly see the Tea Party as fertile ground for growth.

The rapid rise of the Tea Party – a movement that didn’t even exist prior to the 2008 elections – has been nothing short of remarkable. Leaders of the modern Religious Right, a movement grounded in the late 1970s, are undoubtedly looking at it with a great deal of envy. A merger may make sense, but turf wars and disputes over leadership and style have complicated the picture.

In any case, the rapid rise of the Tea Party and its burgeoning alliance with the Religious Right are further proof of the staying power of theocratic movements in American politics.

After Obama’s election, some political commentators pronounced the Religious Right fatally weakened. Some even talked about the election of Obama as ushering in a permanent political realignment in favor of more progressive politics.

Observers at Americans United for Separation of Church and State were skeptical of these claims. In fact, they had heard them before. In 1992, similar claims were made after the election of Bill Clinton to the presidency.

Two years later, the Religious Right came roaring back with the Republican triumph in the mid-term elections. Supposedly dead social issues became prominent again; as a sop to the Religious Right, Congress even spent several years hashing out a school prayer amendment.

The situation now contains many parallels. A political movement some thought dead is showing renewed strength and, once again, culture war issues are becoming prominent.

“The mistake some people make is assuming that the Religious Right’s fortunes hinge on a single election,” said Barry W. Lynn, AU executive director. “But American politics doesn’t work that way. The Religious Right is in this for the long haul. These groups aren’t simply going to pack up and go home because they lose an election.”

Indeed, the opposite is true. The election of Obama, whom the Religious Right loathes, energized many theocratic organizations. It gave them a highly visible target to oppose, leading to new activism and a spike in fund-raising.

Recently, several analysts have pointed out that the Religious Right – a movement anchored by several organizations that collectively raise nearly $1 billion every year – is now a permanent fixture on the American political scene.

Writing in the online journal Salon, journalist Steve Kornacki pointed out that there was a time when Republican presidential hopefuls didn’t have to kowtow to Christian fundamentalists – but it’s gone.

“If you take a step back, though, that we are so accustomed to this actually is remarkable, when you consider that just over two decades ago, it was possible for Republicans to run in Iowa without straining to appeal to religious conservatives, or feeling compelled to stress a blindly, reflexively anti-government message,” Kornacki wrote.

Similarly, journalist Bill Berkowitz, who has tracked the Religious Right for a long time, noted in an article titled “Religious Right Today, Religious Right Tomorrow, Religious Right Forever?” that these groups now have an entrenched power structure that enables them to survive no matter what the political outlook.

“In defeat or in victory, the Religious Right has established the kind of enduring institutions, political relationships, and financial firepower to survive hard times, and take full advantage of the good times,” he said.

AU’s Lynn agrees.

“The Religious Right,” he asserted, “is always there. These groups have blended into the political background.”

And since last November, the movement has experienced renewed power. Even before the GOP took control of the House, the Religious Right scored a victory when the Smithsonian Institution agreed to remove a video from an art exhibit. Religious Right leaders had complained that the video, which included an 11-second clip of ants crawling on a crucifix, was an attack on religion.

Since then, theocratic groups have racked up more victories. The House is pushing to revive and expand a voucher program that subsidizes religious and other private schools in Washington, D.C. – even though other programs are being cut. (See “Speaker’s Pet,” page 4.)

A spate of bills curbing access to abortion is expected – with many already in place in the states. (A recently approved South Dakota measure requires a woman seeking an abortion to wait 72 hours, the longest such period in the country. It also mandates that she receive “counseling” at centers that oppose abortion – even though the centers are religious in nature. A lawsuit is almost certain to follow.) Bills seeking to introduce creationism in public schools are pending in at least nine states, and a raft of other legislative measures threatening church-state separation in the states is looming, (See “States of Conflict,” April 2011 Church & State.)

In addition, the House is busy pushing symbolic resolutions that please the Religious Right. On March 17, the House Judiciary Committee voted to approve H.Con.Res. 13, a measure “reaffirming” the use of “In God We Trust” as the national motto and encouraging its display in all public buildings, including public schools.

The resolution was introduced by U.S. Rep. J. Randy Forbes (R-Va.), leader of the Congressional Prayer Caucus. It is expected to be taken up by the full House soon.

Meanwhile, the Religious Right is flexing political muscle in advance of the 2012 elections. The GOP field is still shaping up, but so far only one potential candidate – Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels – has dared to suggest that stressing culture war issues may not be a smart move, and he was quickly chastised.

Daniels first floated the idea of “truce” on social issues in the summer of 2010. During an interview with the Weekly Standard, he asserted that the next president “would have to call a truce on the so-called social issues. We’re going to just have to agree to get along for a little while.”

Since then, Daniels has repeated the call. Appearing on “Meet the Press” March 13, the Indiana governor called for the focus to be on fiscal issues.

“I think probably, as a general rule, it is better practice (to) do the people’s business, try to concentrate on making ends meet, which Washington obviously has failed to do for a long time, and have other policy debates in other places if you can,” he said.

Daniels’ call is not going over well with the Religious Right. In an opinion piece published in The Wall Street Journal, Southern Baptist lobbyist Richard Land insisted that the American people don’t want Daniels’ truce.

“The millions of social conservatives and Tea Party voters firmly believe that Congress can walk and chew gum at the same time,” wrote Land. “They expect pro-life, pro-family legislation and they want deep cuts in federal spending, including an end to ObamaCare and its replacement with prolife, free-market health-care reform. They expect commitments to this effect from their pres­idential candidates.”

FRC’s Perkins chimed in, “Calling for a truce on core conservative principles might get you some high-profile media sound bites, but it won’t win you the Republican presidential nomination.”

Daniels’ insists that he opposes legal abortion and same-sex marriage. However, he skipped an Iowa forum for GOP presidential hopefuls March 7 sponsored by Ralph Reed’s Faith & Freedom Coalition. The event, held in a Waukee, Iowa, church, was plugged as the first opportunity for Religious Right-style evangelicals to screen potential presidential candidates.

The choice of Iowa – which holds the first presidential caucus in the nation – was deliberate. The Religious Right has always been strong in the state, and Reed, former executive director of the Christian Coalition, is determined to increase its role.

So far, Reed has been successful, and far-right fundamentalists are on the march in the Hawkeye State.

“They’ve harnessed the new technology and new methods to organize and activate their members,” Bob Haus, a longtime GOP strategist, told the Associated Press. “They are professionally run and they are a top-notch organization.”

Iowa has become something of a lab experiment for the Religious Right. Last month, The New York Times reported on a “Pastors’ Policy Briefing” sponsored by a statewide Religious Right group called the Iowa Renewal Project. The event in West Des Moines attracted about 400 members of the clergy, whose expenses were paid. It featured several national Religious Right figures and potential GOP presidential candidates and was clearly aimed at urging fundamentalist pastors to politicize their pulpits.

The Times piece was a rare look at how the Religious Right continues to labor to forge a church-based political machine. The organizer, a California activist named David Lane, told The Times he held similar events in 2010 in Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, South Carolina and Tennessee and that more would be held this year and next. (The events are underwritten by the American Family Association and other Religious Right funders.)

“What we’re doing with the pastor meetings is spiritual, but the end result is political,” Lane remarked. “From my perspective, our country is going to hell because pastors won’t lead from the pews.”

Political pushes like this are considered crucial. Many Religious Right leaders believe they made a tactical mistake in 2008 by failing to coalesce around a single candidate early. Some backed former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, while others supported former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, U.S. Sen. John McCain or other candidates.

McCain eventually won the nomination and energized the Religious Right by putting former Alaska governor Sarah Palin on the ticket. But Palin made a number of gaffes that convinced many Americans she was not ready to be a heartbeat away from the presidency. The GOP ticket was handily defeated in November. Religious Right groups began attacking Obama even before he was sworn in.

Support for Obama hovers at around 50 percent, and many Republicans believe he is vulnerable. Religious Right activists are determined to find a candidate who can put up a credible challenge while remaining faithful to their issues.

Backers of the Religious Right are likely to find no shortage of suitors. Huck­abee and Romney – both of whom aggressively pursued the Religious Right in 2008 – have signaled that they might run again. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour is a greg­ar­ious Southerner whose down-home image plays well with the movement, and former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, an evangelical, has been moving to the right.

Even dark-horse candidate Donald Trump, the real estate developer and reality TV show star, has been pandering to the far-right base lately, adopting discredited Obama “birther” tales and granting in­terviews to Pat Robertson’s “700 Club.”

Other potential candidates with Religious Right-friendly views include Newt Gingrich, who has been on a tear lately attacking secular government and playing up personal religious commitments, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann and Palin.

The Religious Right can be a daunting force in American politics. Its organizations are well funded and have millions of supporters. Its leadership is ingrained in the upper echelons of the Republican Party and among national conservative leaders in Washington. Friendly media outlets like the Fox News Channel parrot its views. (See “Billionaire Boys Club,” May 2011 Church & State.)

Yet none of this means that the victory of the Religious Right is in­evit­able. In some cases, its schemes are thwarted by courts. But in the long run, it will be defeated only if enough Americans stand up and support the wall of separation between church and state.

That’s where Americans United comes in.

“Most Americans don’t support the Religious Right’s extreme agen­da,” Lynn said. “They know that the church-state wall protects the incredible diversity of religious and philosophical freedom that we enjoy.

“The Religious Right,” Lynn concluded, “wants to bulldoze that wall. Our challenge is to rally Americans, make them aware of the danger and protect our rights from the zealots who would take them away.”