Fierce in the ‘80s, Fallen in the ‘90s, the Religious Right Forgets Politics : Evangelists: ‘Born-again’ politics were like a holy war, spurred by a symbiotic relationship with Reagan; then came the unholy scandals.
Only one national election ago, the Christian Right seemed poised to establish itself as an independent political power. The movement had its own presidential candidate with a $17-million war chest and the largest paid staff in the field.
TV evangelist Pat Robertson nearly defeated the vice president of the United States in his campaign manager’s home state. The battle was close and sometimes covert. In 1987 Republican committeeman William (Rusty) DePass slipped into a closed-door meeting of Robertson loyalists in Lee Atwater country, Columbia, S.C.
Robertson had flown in unannounced and quietly gathered hundreds of “born-again” Christians who were eager to become foot soldiers in his campaign. A veteran GOP operative, DePass had written off Robertson’s campaign for the Republican nomination until he infiltrated its ranks. “They put on a rally that was basically a ‘how-to’ for taking over a precinct caucus,” DePass told me at the time. “They intended to overrun our precinct meetings and grab control of the party. It was scary.”
DePass went to the press and tried to rouse GOP regulars. He told the Columbia newspaper, the State, that the Robertson hurrah was “what a Nazi pep rally would have been like. The group was whipped into a froth, it was a real mob mentality; they were like sheep.”
What followed could only be described as a political holy war. Old-line politicos, most of them supporting then-Vice President George Bush, called Robertson’s forces zealots and compared them with the Revolutionary Guards of Iran’s Islamic regime. Robertson people fought back, charging that their opponents were country-club elitists and, worse, racists. When the caucus was held, Robertson recruits flooded precinct after precinct and took control of half the delegate spots to a state convention. At the convention, the more experienced party regulars used the rules to disqualify enough Robertson delegates and barely maintain control of the state.
Robertson’s candidacy seemed to be a breakthrough, an accomplishment that would move the religious right from the supporting cast to a leading role in national politics.
Today, as 1990 campaigns heat up, the Robertson blitz can be seen as the last moment of promise for a movement on the brink of sudden fall from grace.
The Christian Right grew powerful in the ‘80s because of TV evangelism and a symbiotic relationship with Ronald Reagan. Conservative Christian support had been instrumental in Reagan’s 1980 and 1984 victories. Then, as the decade wore on, the movement struggled to become a force in its own right, playing a significant role in congressional races, defeating Democrats in Texas, North Carolina, Alabama and Michigan. Groups such as Christian Voice, the American Coalition for Traditional Values and the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority had tens of millions of supporters, so powerful that Time magazine put Falwell on a 1985 cover, billed as “Thunder on the Right.”
But Moral Majority and the others at first succeeded as adjuncts to conservative GOP candidates who ran with party blessing. There was some question whether politicians were simply exploiting their “born-again” allies, tolerating harsh rhetoric in exchange for votes.
The turning point came with candidate Robertson, when the crusaders forced a fight with the GOP regulars. A challenge to Bush meant that the television preacher’s entire record was open to criticism. Soon Robertson was attacked for both his political position--including the abolition of Social Security--and his religious claims, among them faith healing and direct communication with God. Robertson was not prepared for GOP regulars in South Carolina who would compare his followers to Iranian zealots or liken his meetings to Third Reich pep rallies.
Then came the unholy scandals of 1988, just as election campaigns were beginning in earnest. Not all the TV preachers were involved in the kind of trysting that did in Jimmy Swaggart or the outright looting of ministry funds that led Jim Bakker to federal prison. But once the unraveling of wrong began, all TV ministers were tainted by the ceaseless parade of media reports about raw avarice and infidelity.
Suddenly the TV clergy, long protected by the cloak of religion, became fair game for the press, competing ministers and even late-night talk-show hosts. Oral Roberts’ give-or-God-will-kill-me fund-raising got more attention than it would have as an isolated incident. And Robertson was subjected to intense scrutiny by a national media that felt free to attack the candidate in a way they would have never attacked Robertson the preacher.
One year after South Carolina, in the rough-and-tumble of New Hampshire’s primary, the political hopes of “born-again” America died. With the sins of Bakker and Swaggart swirling about him like a New England snowstorm, Robertson stumbled from one gaffe to another. The worst was his declaration that Cuba had nuclear weapons poised to strike, a claim dismissed as patent grandstanding. Soundly defeated in New Hampshire, Robertson went on to a string of losses on Super Tuesday, even in South Carolina.
The stunning, self-inflicted defeat of the crusaders came about, in part, because the evangelists turned out to be flawed humans like the rest of us and, in part, because they misunderstood the relationship between religion and politics. Laurence Moore, a Cornell University historian of religion, summed up, “The American system mixes religion and politics but it places serious dilemmas before anyone who tries to found a political movement around a religious persuasion.” The subculture of Christian America has a history of forgiving the sins of exaggeration, lying, cheating, hypocrisy and infidelity. The national body politic doesn’t.
Now, mentions of TV evangelism evoke immediate snickering. Last year Falwell disbanded the Moral Majority for lack of funds. “The moral capital that was clearly in the hands of these people in 1980 was squandered,” wrote Cal Thomas, once Falwell’s right-hand man.
In South Carolina, DePass now estimates that 80% of the conservative Christians supporting Robertson’s candidacy have dropped out of politics. “They learned that when you cross the line into politics, everybody’s opinion is equal and even your theology can be questioned. That was a bit unsettling for them,” DePass said last week. “Those who remain, are being assimilated. They are becoming Republicans.” The picture is much the same across the country: “Born-again” conservatives have abandoned a political system that runs on compromise.
After a 10-year run as the dominant conservative special-interest group, the 1990 elections will find the religious right tamed, in a political process controlled by a bipartisan Establishment intent on moderation and accommodation.
A return to politics-as-usual could have been predicted. The overarching trend in American politics is moderation, a process that seems to propel all serious debate, inevitably, toward the bland and the predictable. Perhaps the religious right believed too strongly.