Ministers Move the Parties, Left and Right

<i> William Schneider is a contributing editor to Opinion</i>

Who says religion and politics don’t mix? Not Ronald Reagan. “The truth is,” the President told a prayer breakfast at the 1984 Republican National Convention, “politics and morality are inseparable. And as morality’s foundation is religion, religion and politics are necessarily related.”

And so, in 1984, Jesse Jackson, Baptist preacher, ran for the Democratic presidential nomination and attempted to define a new liberal agenda. And now it looks like Marion G. (Pat) Robertson, Baptist preacher, will run for the 1988 Republican nomination and mobilize the religious right. Why has American politics suddenly become so churchy?

It all goes back to the 1960s. That’s when “social issues” entered U.S. politics--civil rights, women’s rights, sexual freedom, peace activism, cultural liberalism. With them, inescapably, came religion. Religious leaders were at the forefront of the civil rights and anti-war movements. And they are now at the forefront of the conservative backlash.

Religion is divisive. Both Jackson and Robertson reject consensus politics as played in Washington, and so they are attacked by professional politicians and commentators.


Jackson and Robertson undeniably add something to American political life. They address issues that have largely been excluded from modern U.S. politics, namely, class and religion. These potent populist themes are at the core of political life in other industrial democracies. The United States is unique in this. We have no major socialist or religious party. As a result, in this century, the United States has been spared the bitter divisiveness experienced by other democracies. However, we have also had the lowest voter turnout rates. Our political parties are obsessively majoritarian and therefore, to many voters, obsessively bland.

What politicians like Jackson and Robertson do is expand the political universe. They bring a moral energy to public life. They demonstrate that there are causes and resentments that lie beyond the boundaries of a carefully managed national consensus. Attention must be paid.

They also appeal to people not ordinarily involved in politics. Most who voted for Jackson in the 1984 Democratic primaries probably would not have voted at all if he had not been a candidate. The same will very likely be true for Robertson in 1988. Jackson’s core constituency, blacks, constituted 10% of the voters in the 1984 presidential election. They voted 90% for Mondale. In fact, blacks were one of the only groups whose support for the Democratic ticket went up between 1980 and 1984. Robertson’s core constituency, white “born-again” Christians, is slightly larger--15% in 1984. They showed the strongest swing to Reagan of any group, from 63% Republican in 1980 to 80% in 1984. One-fifth of 1984 Democratic primary voters were black. In 1988, “born-agains” are expected to be about one-fifth of the GOP primary vote.

What we have is two politicized minorities, roughly equal in size, moving in opposite directions, each concentrated in one party. Jackson and Robertson are not simply bloc leaders, however. Each has a larger ideological agenda.


In making his case for a black presidential candidacy, Jackson wrote, “A black candidate does not mean an exclusive black agenda, but an inclusive agenda that grows out of the black experience in America.” Jackson said his aim was to “excite, maybe even electrify, the black, the young, the rejected and unrepresented masses, increasing their voter registration and political participation.”

What Jackson advocates is an agenda of the left. Jackson sees blacks as the vanguard of the U.S. proletariat. Because of their dispossessed status and high political consciousness, blacks are ideally situated to pressure the Democratic Party to become what Jackson calls “a coalition of the rejected--the real silent majority.” That, of course, is not majoritarian; most Americans do not feel “rejected.” While mainstream party strategists urge Democrats to trim their sails a bit in these conservative times, Jackson reminds Democrats of their fundamental identity. They are the party of economic populism. The Jackson forces are a counterweight to wishy-washy majoritarianism. They bring passion to the party’s message.

Religion was critical in enabling Jackson to consolidate his support among black voters, many of whom do not share his leftist ideological views (or his anti-Semitic inclinations). To older, more conservative blacks, Jackson was not a dangerous radical. He spoke the language they heard in church every Sunday. His religious vocation and his conservative, almost Reaganite, views on self-help legitimized him to the black community.

Like Jackson, Robertson leads a constituency that feels dispossessed and resentful--and whose political consciousness has been increasing. The avowed purpose of Robertson’s Freedom Council is to get Christian evangelicals involved politically. Many Americans see the religious right as the latest incarnation of intolerance. Many people, not just liberals, have expressed alarm over the evangelicals efforts to Christianize the Republican Party and, through the party, the country.


That is not the way evangelicals see it. In their view, the liberals have done what the religious right is accused of trying to do, namely, use the power of the state to impose their values on others. Beginning with the civil-rights movement of the 1960s, Democrats and liberals have come to support a variety of reformist social causes, including women’s rights, bilingualism, affirmative action, busing, gay rights, unrestricted immigration, legalized abortion, sex education, teaching evolution, prohibition of prayer in public schools and tolerance of pornography.

Liberals typically defend these measures as enhancements of individual rights. Conservatives, however, see these actions as enhancements of state power. Every item on the religious right’s social agenda, including those just listed, started out as a liberal initiative. The right’s response was to protest what they regarded as government encroachments on private morality and personal liberty.

Liberals see the religious right as culturally aggressive and themselves as culturally defensive. To conservatives, it is the other way round.

That is the line Reagan took in his prayer breakfast speech. He argued that traditionally in this country, “the state was tolerant of religious belief, expression and practice . . . . But in the 1960s, this began to change. We began to make great steps toward secularizing our nation and removing religion from its honored place. The frustrating thing is that those who are attacking religion claim they are doing it in the name of tolerance, freedom and open-mindedness. Question: Isn’t the real truth that they are intolerant of religion?”


The problem is that, throughout history, those who demand religious liberty for themselves often deny others. Puritan New England was not exactly a model tolerant society. Most Americans do not see the religious right as trying to liberate religion from the state; they see evangelicals as a religious minority trying to win control and impose their values on others. Why? Because that, very often, is what the religious right says it wants to do.

Paul M. Weyrich, a leading political strategist for the Christian right, said so explicitly in a recent article, “The Cultural Right’s Hot New Agenda.” “Cultural conservatism,” he wrote, “rejects the argument that the free market is the only answer to most problems . . . . Government has an important role in upholding society’s moral fabric--by its own example; by its use of the ‘bully pulpit’ inherent in government; and, sometimes, by legislation.” He endorsed using “government sanctions” to counteract a “free market of values” in which “limits, restraints and self-discipline” are made to compete with “self-gratification, sensual pleasures and materialism.” In other words, the government must help us be good.

That idea does not sit well with most Americans. Just this month, the people of Maine voted 2-1 against a measure that would have banned the production, sale or promotion of pornography. “We’re not in favor of porn,” said one church leader. “But people just don’t want to be told what to think. The important issue here was liberty rather than morality.”

Like Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition, the religious right has sought to broaden its agenda. Last January, the Rev. Jerry Falwell formed a new organization, the Liberty Federation, which subsumes his old organization, the Moral Majority. While the Moral Majority dealt almost exclusively with moral and religious issues, the Liberty Federation is taking up a range of conservative causes, including defense spending, the President’s “Star Wars” proposal and military aid to anti-communist rebels in Nicaragua and elsewhere.


One reason for the shift was that Falwell and the Moral Majority had acquired a negative public image and were losing support. (Falwell blamed “baggage that the media has dumped on us.”) Robertson, however, is a more respectable public figure. His father was a U.S. senator. He is a graduate of Yale Law School. He founded the Christian Broadcasting Network and built it into a $100-million-a-year operation with an estimated 28 million viewers. He is no country preacher. Like Jackson, he projects a reasonable and sophisticated persona.

He is also shaking up his party, just as Jackson did in 1984. Last month, Robertson’s Freedom Council recruited enough precinct candidates to come in second in the opening round of the Michigan delegate-selection process for 1988. He beat Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) and kept Vice President George Bush, the front-runner, from winning a majority.

The Republicans can endorse Robertson’s social agenda only at the risk of alienating the party’s upper-middle-class suburban and yuppie supporters. For religion has the same effect on the Republican Party as race has on the Democrats: Every time the issue comes up, it tears the party apart. The Democrats’ New Deal majority included blacks, northern liberals and Southern white racists. From the 1930s to 1960s, the party kept peace among these disparate elements by avoiding the subject of race.

Neither Democrats nor Republicans will have the luxury of avoiding these delicate subjects in 1988. Both Jackson and Robertson have their strongest support in the South. And the Southern regional primary will be one of the first events--and possibly the conclusive one--of the 1988 nominating process.