Republicans: THE CLASS OF '86

Kevin Phillips is publisher of the American Political Report and Business and Public Affairs Fortnightly

The 'Born-Again' Electorate is drawn to the GOP for cultural, religious reasons, not because of empathy with upper-bracket leadership elites and economic outlooks.

Realistically, the Rev. Marion G. (Pat) Robertson--the Virginia telepreacher whose charismatic brand of Protestant evangelism sometimes verges on faith-healing--has no shot at commanding the 1988 GOP presidential nomination or dominating the party's 1988 national convention. But his defeat in Michigan's Aug. 5 delegate selection preliminaries by Vice President George Bush--whose gray-flannel Republican forces could not always disguise their distaste and fear of polyester provincialism at worship--may begin a split along one of the most important fault lines in U.S. politics. A religious right political movement is gathering force--and a backlash is building simultaneously.

Let's begin with a basic demographic truth: For almost two decades, white fundamentalist and evangelical Christians, many of them Southern and most of them former Democrats, have provided the single most important swing constituency in presidential elections. A huge electorate, numbering in the tens of millions, has often voted its prayer book--as well as its patriotism and culture--over its pocketbook.

Except in the heyday of Jimmy Carter, Republican presidential candidates have been the ones to profit, sometimes overwhelmingly. In 1984, "born-again" white Christians went for Ronald Reagan over Walter F. Mondale by 4-1, the same huge margin they gave Richard M. Nixon in 1972. But now that these fundamentalists and evangelicals, aware of their importance to GOP success, are demanding a party organizational and policy-making role, they're making an unhappy discovery. Large elements of the Republican Party welcome them only as privates and corporals, not as captains and colonels. A real sociological and coalitional brouhaha may be in the works.

Over the last 20 years, the Democratic share of the presidential vote has generally shrunk: 43% in 1968, 39% in 1972, 51% in 1976, 44% in 1980 and 41% in 1984. As a result, the Democratic presidential coalition has become a shadow of its old Franklin D. Roosevelt-era self. The Republican presidential coalition has assumed the dominant role, uniting as wide a variety of groups--from Dixie fundamentalists to New York Jewish magazine editors and laid-back Nevada casino operators. The problem is that most of what unites them is reaction to past Democratic and liberal failures, not a shared Republican agenda. Now, these agenda disparities look like they're beginning to push to the fore.

It's not just evangelism versus secularism. Class, culture and economic status are involved. If the fight between Bush and Robertson in Michigan involved overtones of animosity between country club and chapel, there is also an emerging gap between the New Right and the New York-based neo-conservative movement captained by Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz and company. The increasingly bitter name-calling between Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.)and Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams --married to Podhoretz's stepdaughter--is an example. But the divisions go deeper. Yesteryear's shared distaste for the policies of George McGovern and then Carter can no longer bridge a great cultural divide. And in a regional sense, one can make a case that the GOP coalition's new economic "forgotten Americans" are the mining, agricultural, energy and textile communities of the South, the farm belt and the Rocky Mountains. Back in 1972 and 1980, they may have shared the GOP upper-bracket core constituencies' abhorrence of inflation--but not in 1986. The farm, energy and mining states--while not quite back to William Jennings Bryan-style economic populism--have clearly been on the easy money and reflation bandwagon for several years now.

To the eyes of these outsiders, White House Republicanism has served its core elites--people conservative in economics and moderate-to-sedate in culture--far better than it has served the peripheral populist-tilting and "social issue" constituencies who've voted Republican in most recent presidential elections. And this sense of being stepchildren and outsiders has driven religious-right leaders to start fighting "country club Republicans"--a favorite pejorative label--for control of GOP party organizations, platform commitments, local and even national nominations. Robertson's adventures and misadventures in Michigan are only part of this larger phenomenon.

Considerable strides are being made. Over the last year or so, the religious right has won organizational control of key counties or elected large blocks of state convention delegates in the Republican parties of Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska and Texas. In Texas' late June contest, although fundamentalists failed to win control of the state GOP chairmanship or to force the party to endorse their "Solemn Covenant" biblical platform, they did succeed in modifying the party platform, electing the party's state vice chairman and confirming a preacher on the 1986 GOP ticket as lieutenant governor.

At July's Washington state Republican convention, the conservative Christian community did, in fact, take control, prompting Democratic State Chairman Karen Marchorio to crow, "The Republicans have left 90% of the people behind them and didn't notice." And in New Hampshire, where the lure of the nation's first 1988 presidential primary is at work, Robertson's Freedom Council has hundreds of candidates running for October state GOP convention spots. Back in July, state Democratic Chairman George Bruno told the press, "We're watching the fringe-ification of the Republican Party."

Maybe. Maybe not. But Robertson's weak showing in Michigan--and even there, delegates enlisted by the Christian right's Freedom Council appear to have won 15%-20% of the seats--is only one early battle in what's likely to be a long and divisive intra-GOP conflict. As it happens, the telepreacher's own fortunes and prospects may be constrained by the limited outreach of his "charismatic" brand of Christianity, characterized by speaking in tongues and claims of God telling him what to do. It's just too extreme for other elements of the loose, "born-again" Christian coalition. Many Southern Baptists and evangelicals look askance at both his religious practices and politicking. On larger issues--like changing party platforms--the various factions find it much easier to collaborate.

Overall, though, it's clear that a number of new pitfalls are shaping up for the GOP. First, there's the extent to which the religious right's escalating bid for organizational power can be expected to continue through 1988, breeding intraparty tension, negative media coverage and a public backlash.

In June, even as the evangelicals and fundamentalists were losing their bid to take over the Texas Republican Party, state Conservative Caucus Chairman Jim Morgan said, "This year is the first year we've been semi-organized. But in two years, we're going to be a machine." In short, it's a confrontational series almost certain to intensify.

Second, the Republicans are probably going to have to grow more accommodative to the religious right in platform terms, given their increased assertiveness.

At the same time, however, such accommodation may prove costly if public opinion continues to sour on preacher involvement in politics. Consider that a Denver Post poll in July found that by 54%-33%, Coloradans agreed that "conservative religious movements as represented by Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson are becoming a dangerous force in American politics."

Third, as the religious right continues to push for new leverage in state and national GOP politics and platform-writing, the intraparty backlash is likely to increase. From Florida to Michigan, there are press reports of Establishment Republicans--the stereotypical Buick-driving, Presbyterian suburbanites--rousing themselves to repel all boarders.

The two groups don't get along well, anyway, and ongoing organizational conflicts are likely to widen what's already a substantial social and cultural gap. Just after August's delegate struggle, Robertson's Michigan Freedom Council director, Marlene Elwell, told the press that she heard George Bush people "call us Nazis."

Finally, if the religious right fails to gain the influence it so ardently seeks in the GOP--and if relations with the party Establishment deteriorate--then the 1988 Republican presidential candidate could find his share of the "born-again" white Christian vote dropping 15, 20 or even 30 points.

Something like that happened in 1976, to Republican nominee Gerald R. Ford, partly because "born-again" Georgian Jimmy Carter was his Democratic opponent, but also for other reasons. The "born-again" Christian electorate--in some respects not so unlike the old George Wallace vote--is drawn to the GOP for cultural, religious and "outsider" reasons, not because of any natural empathy with the Republicans' upper-bracket leadership elites and economic outlooks. Take away the moral issues, and large elements of the "born-again" electorate--10 times the size of the overrated Yuppie vote--revert to family or regional Democratic loyalties.

In short, the rise of the religious right--and now the rise of a backlash against the religious right--puts the GOP on a tightrope it has never had to walk before.

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