Conservative Christians losing faith in GOP
Report from Vision America National Conference
WASHINGTON There was no clearer sense of the despair among conservative Christians who gathered recently than the row upon row of books with urgent, alarmist titles.
Pagan America. Judicial Tyranny. Liberalism Kills Kids. The Criminalization of Christianity.
In the political culture wars, religious conservatives say they've been electing candidates but not getting the results they want. And leaders worry that they might be about to lose Christian conservatives as a potent political force because of unmet expectations on a host of issues and stumbles by a Republican administration they helped elect.
Conservative "values voters" have been crucial to Republican success, with religious leaders driving huge voter turnout in recent elections. If they lack enthusiasm this fall, experts say, the GOP could lose control of Congress.
"The nation isn't focused today in a way it was on such issues as abortion, marriage, the nature of the family," said the Rev. Laurence White of Houston. "For us, it's not the economy, stupid. It's the morality, stupid."
The Rev. Rick Scarborough, an East Texas evangelist whose group Vision America sponsored a two-day conference aimed at getting Christian activists involved in the 2006 elections, says he hopes to mobilize groups representing 20 million people. To motivate them, he offers a list of 10 grievances and a program to register voters and press candidates to pass specific legislation.
"We're tired of talk. We want action," he said. "It occurs to us that no matter who is in the White House or who says what we want to hear, nothing ever changes."
High on the list are a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage and a judiciary more sympathetic to religious expression, like permitting the Ten Commandments in government buildings and allowing pastors to endorse candidates from the pulpit.
"If these issues are not addressed, you'll see values voters stay home by the millions. And then the Republicans and others who have been the beneficiary of the values vote are going to lose," Mr. Scarborough said.
Those who work to counter the influence of religious conservatives scoff at the notion that their opponents should feel aggrieved. The White House is occupied by the most openly religious president in memory, two new Supreme Court justices hold an expansive view of religious rights, and social conservatives control Congress.
"This language of persecution would be more credible if the very people using it weren't sitting at the seat of power in government today," said Kathy Miller of the Texas Freedom Network, a nonprofit group that monitors church-state issues.
Still, the dissatisfaction in the social conservative base threatens to divide a GOP already struggling to balance the interests of social conservatives with those of economic and traditional conservatives, who care primarily about Iraq, immigration, and taxes and government spending.
Professor John Green of the University of Akron, an expert on religion and politics, said evangelicals accounted for 35 percent to 40 percent of President Bush's re-election vote in 2004 and are instrumental to GOP success.
"These voters are quite important to Republican control of the House and Senate," Mr. Green said. "In Ohio, probably Florida, Pennsylvania and maybe Missouri in 2006, these voters could be absolutely crucial to Republicans."
A group called Reformation Ohio has enlisted more than 1,000 "patriot pastors" to help register voters who could benefit the GOP, particularly gubernatorial candidate Kenneth Blackwell. The group's leader, evangelist Rod Parsley, has lent his support to a similar group, the Texas Restoration Project, whose voter-registration efforts are being used by Gov. Rick Perry's re-election campaign.
The "War on Christians and Values Voters in 2006" conference last week offered a clear view of how social conservatives are approaching this election year. They aren't dwelling on their recent successes; instead, a siege mentality seems prevalent.
On the dais and in the hallways of a hotel at the gathering of about 400 conservative Christians, the talk was about moral values under attack and what one participant called "this alien idea of an absolute wall of separation between church and state."
A succession of panels featured vivid stories about religious liberty in jeopardy.
A Navy chaplain said he was disciplined for delivering an evangelical Christian prayer during a memorial service. A Florida artist recounted how his paintings were banned from a city hall exhibit because they depicted religious themes. And a Massachusetts radio talk show host said he was physically threatened for hosting a "Mr. Heterosexual Contest" after hearing about a gay beauty pageant in California.
Panelists warned that whatever the electoral gains of recent years, American culture is still besieged by Hollywood, the news media, gays, liberals, "secular humanists" and the ACLU.
There were some acknowledgments of victory. One panelist declared that cable TV and bloggers have "broken the media monopoly," and another sparked applause by announcing he was appearing that night on Bill O'Reilly's show on the Fox News Channel.
When a conference delegate asked whether Christians should buy control of newspapers that are for sale, longtime conservative activist Paul Weyrich said there was no need.
"Newspapers are a dying industry," he said. "There won't be any newspapers 20 years from now. Buy television."
As for Hollywood, panelists were uniformly critical of what they see as its denigration of Christian values but reluctance to critique Islam and risk what conservative activist Janet Folger called "folks in turbans dancing around the ashes of the building."
A declaration by Don Feder of Vision America "Hollywood likes Islam almost as much as it loathes Christianity" prompted a delegate to ask why Jewish movie executives would support a religion whose extremists wanted to destroy Israel.
Mr. Feder explained that Hollywood executives are political liberals who do not reflect Judeo-Christian ethics.
"The people in this audience," he said of the largely white, Protestant crowd, "are more Jewish than people like Barbra Streisand, because you embrace Jewish values. She doesn't."
One delegate came as George Washington, dressed in three-pointed hat and full revolutionary regalia. During a question-and-answer session, he offered brisk assurance that the Founding Fathers favored a close church-state alliance, even quoting "my friend Thomas Jefferson."
Alarm for sale
Attendees were eager to spread the gospel of danger beyond the conference, too, making it a marketplace for books, DVDs, CDs and Web sites.
"I've been traveling the country since my book came out" last April, said Rebecca Hagelin of the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank. "Here, let me hold it up for you."
The title Home Invasion: Protecting Your Family in a Culture That's Gone Stark Raving Mad.
Conservative luminary Phyllis Schlafly directed delegates to a table that held order forms for her newly updated paperback on "the tyranny of the judiciary."
"It's a handbook for action," she said.
The history of political activism by religious conservatives has been marked by periods of engagement and withdrawal. President Bush's appeal to evangelicals and gay-marriage initiatives in 2004 were a high-water mark, experts say, and the withdrawal may be beginning.
"A lot of Republicans use this group of people in a kind of euphoria that they've found this untapped political base," said Robin Lovin, a professor of ethics at Southern Methodist University. "But the lesson is that this is a group of people who are, by tradition, more skeptical, less likely to participate and hard to hold together for the long run."
Conservative Christian voters say that Republican leaders they helped put in office haven't moved quickly enough on their policy agenda. Here are some of the issues they feel haven't been addressed:
Gay-marriage ban. Although 19 states, including Texas, have amended their constitutions to ban same-sex marriage, Congress has not authorized a federal constitutional amendment. Conservatives say such a step is necessary to protect traditional marriage against court decisions requiring recognition of gay unions.
Religious expression. Conservative evangelicals want churches to be able to support political candidates without jeopardizing their tax-exempt status, teacher-led prayer to be allowed in schools, and religious symbols such as the Ten Commandments to be displayed in public places.
The judiciary. President Bush gets high marks for the two Supreme Court justices confirmed this year. But courts should be prohibited from taking "under God" out of the Pledge of Allegiance or otherwise ruling against acknowledgements of God in public declarations, conservative evangelical leaders say.
Abortion. Roe vs. Wade, which legalized abortion, has not been overturned.
Property rights. Conservatives want restrictions on eminent domain, the government power to take private property for public use.
School vouchers. Parents should be permitted to send children to private schools, including those run by religious institutions, with public money, these voters argue.