- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 20, 2000

Each election cycle since 1980 has raised the question of whether the new Christian right, the latest political force on the American scene, is ready to expand or about to wither. The predictions have been a bit self-serving. To discredit the Christian right, opponents say it is dying, but to raise funds warn that it will take over America. Supporters cheer that it is thriving, but to get their donations speak of dire liberal threats to survival.
That is why a book such as "Prayers in the Precincts" written in the dry parlance of 28 political scientists is a refreshing effort to get at the truth. The contributors judge the health of the Christian right by sampling 14 bellwether states, staying focused on the movement's role in the 1998 elections. To get to 1998, they survey the history of the movement in each state and the political culture, and identify people and groups that made a difference a sterling feature of the book.
The introduction and conclusion are written by the three editors, John C. Green, Mark J. Rozell and Clyde Wilcox. "Overall," Mr. Green of Akron University writes at the start, "the Christian Right appears to have matched its performance in recent elections with its prime constituency in 1998." In other words, Christian right loyalists are no less active today than in the 1980s and in the best-success year of 1994. Nevertheless, factors such as higher Democratic turnout, unattractive candidates, organized opposition and lack of funds made 1998 a lackluster year.
For Democrats, it was a year of making history by gaining five congressional seats in a midterm when the party held the White House. Republicans also made history: They won Congress by the largest popular vote margin in 52 years. But the Christian right struggled.
"Although the movement won several individual victories, overall the 1998 elections constituted a defeat for the Christian Right," write Mr. Wilcox of Georgetown University and Mr. Rozell of Catholic University. They describe the current Christian right wave, begun with the 1988 presidential bid by religious broadcaster Pat Robertson, as the fourth preceded by waves around 1925, 1964 and 1978.
"The history of the Christian Right in the 20th century is one of mobilization and disintegration," Mr. Wilcox and Mr. Rozell write. The latest wave "has done a far better job than earlier waves at building grassroots organizations and infrastructure."
Still, there's a paradox. The Christian right "has achieved greater institutional influence within a political party than any other movement," they say. But on enacting policies such as relating to abortion, homosexuality, women, school prayer and families, "the movement has made little progress."
The reasons why become apparent in the chapter profiles of Texas, Georgia, Virginia, California, Florida, Alabama, Michigan, Washington, Minnesota, Kansas, Illinois, New York and Maine. As a rule, "movement" people can get elected only if they emphasize secular principles and come off "moderate." To win, it seems, the Christian right must not totally alienate the pragmatic wing of the Republican Party and must avoid the kiss of death that comes with being labeled "extremist" by liberals.
Reading the state histories, one has the sense that the Christian right's greatest impact on American politics has been in mood. It has stopped a liberal slide and framed the policy debate in a conservative framework family-values, virtue and less government.
The state hubs, or "pro-family councils" of the movement have various origins. Some date to the pro-life movement begun in 1973, but most are outgrowths of Mr. Robertson's presidential run (namely, the Christian Coalition), James Dobson's far-flung "Focus on the Family" radio ministry and state chapters of decency advocacy by the Rev. Don Wildmon's American Family Association. Eagle Forum, founded by Phyllis Schlafly to fight the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s, has a few strong state chapters.
As in any movement, these local units wax and wane. They are victim to political seasons, changing leadership and family squabbles. Local chapters often enough disagree with national offices, usually over "purist" vs. "pragmatic" approaches, but also over personalities, trust and simple localism.
Two Christian right successes, the book suggests, are Texas, where movement people sway a range of state boards and Republican Party panels, and Virginia. In that state, the Christian right found moderate and experienced candidates to back. The net result in 1998 was a Republican sweep of the Virginia legislature and state house for the first time since Reconstruction.
Virginia, if not Texas, mirrors Mr. Green's rule for movement success: "The Christian Right does best when it participates as part of a broader conservative coalition led by a mainstream candidate."

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide