Religion and Politics

By Sean Smith
Staff Writer

The media's assessment of the Christian Right movement and its presence in American politics, especially in the Republican Party, has often resembled a fun-house mirror, says Asst. Prof. Duane Oldfield (Political Science): exaggerating some aspects out of proportion while minimizing others.

To be sure, the two have forged a bond in many ways. Studies show the Christian Right "controls some 18 state GOP parties," Oldfield said, "and has a significant influence on 13 more." But it is an uneasy alliance complicated by tensions within both groups.

"There is a trend toward public moderation, toning down the rhetoric and broadening appeal," Oldfield said, "within a movement organized and based on religious appeal and views which make a number of people apprehensive at best."

This strain is suggested by the sub-title of Oldfield's forthcoming book The Right and the Righteous: The Christian Right Confronts the Republican Party . Oldfield examines the Christian Right's origins, its mobilization in the 1970s, and its rise to prominence in the 1980s, when it established ties with the GOP on both a national and local basis. He also looks at the disagreements among the Christian Right's leading members, as well as those with Republicans, which belie the perception of it as monolithic and archaic.

"The Christian Right is depicted as irrational, lashing out against modernity," Oldfield said. "But whether you agree with them or not, their overall response to events and their methods have been quite rational. It's also important to emphasize the stability of the Christian Right, because a lot of people thought the movement was all but dead by 1989; it is obviously very much alive."

Oldfield felt the time was ripe for a non-partisan, analytical treatment of the Christian Right and its various affiliates, like the now-defunct Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition. "Popular writing has tended to emphasize the hysterical, the 'they're going to take over' idea. The movement is getting stronger, but I don't think it's going to control the GOP. Nominations are decided in the primaries, and they do not have the population to control those."

The Christian Right draws its primary strength from the white evangelical population, particularly in the South, but the movement is diversifying, Oldfield said. It has established a presence in many middle-class suburban communities in other regions and other religious groups, such as conservative Catholics, often sympathize with some of the Christian Right's goals and beliefs, he said.

"What unites them," Oldfield explained, "is concern about passing values to the next generation. Their activism is overwhelmingly focused on those institutions which pass on values, such as families, schools, churches and the media."

Ironically, for all their identification with Republicans, Oldfield points to Democratic President Jimmy Carter's election as helping set the stage for the Christian Right's ascendancy. The success of Carter, a professed born-again Christian, came at a watershed period for the movement, he said, when it eschewed its long-standing "go-it-alone" policy because of what it viewed as a growing intrusiveness by national media and government regulation.

Carter helped "legitimize political involvement of evangelicals in the way John F. Kennedy did for Catholics," Oldfield explained. "The Christian Right was sitting on resources ideal for large-scale political activity. So when their ability to isolate themselves from society was less apparent, they began to mobilize."

The Christian Right found a champion in Ronald Reagan and the Republicans, Oldfield said, although they fell short in their efforts to enact their agenda. The 1980s saw an influx of white evangelicals into the GOP, and their influence was reflected in the candidacy of Pat Robertson for the party's 1988 presidential nomination. But Robertson's bid exposed flaws in the movement, Oldfield said, such as a lack of grassroots organization and - perhaps more significantly - a rift between Robertson's followers and a more fundamentalist faction, including Jerry Falwell.

While the movement has since been more successful on the grassroots level, such as state GOP committees or local school boards, it remains to be seen what kind of impact the Christian Right will have on the 1996 presidential race. The absence of the Christian Right's preferred candidates, Dan Quayle and William Bennett, from the campaign means that its support will be "all over the map," he said. Current front-runner Robert Dole would be acceptable to the Christian Right, "but they are not all that wild about him."

The real battle will likely come over the GOP vice-presidential choice and its platform, Oldfield said: The Christian Right will strongly oppose nominees who support abortion rights, or platform language that does likewise. Still, if the Republicans concentrate their fire in the campaign, especially during their convention, the Christian Right - with its ability to marshal support - will be an asset rather than a liability.

"The media perception that people scared of the Christian Right deserted George Bush in the last election is not supported by polling results," Oldfield explained. "Those who thought social issues the most important actually tended toward Bush. The problem for the GOP in 1992 was they didn't have a particular message and in that vacuum the Christian Right looked more prominent than they really were. It is better for them when they can broadcast their message from off the center of the stage."

Return to Oct. 19 menu

Return to Chronicle Home Page