Posted on May 25, 1998 in Washington Watch

As political activists in both parties are laying plans for the 1998 congressional elections and almost 20 national Republican and Democratic leaders are touring the country positioning themselves for the 2000 Presidential elections, a core group of religious conservative organizations are instead focusing their efforts on taking control of the Republican Party.

For almost two decades now, the religious right has been a significant force in Republican politics. Ushered onto the national scene with the Reagan victory of 1980, this movement received an organizational boost with the 1988 presidential campaign of Pat Robertson. Based on this experience, Robertson, a television preacher, founded the Christian Coalition. During the past 10 years his group and its off-shoots and related organizations have waged a successful grass roots campaign that has resulted in their take over of more than one-third of the Republican party’s state organizations.

The religious right wing now has the power to define the Republican Party agenda. On political analyst recently noted that “the religious right has now become to the Republicans what the labor unions were to the Democrats.”

In fact, they are so influential among the grass roots activists of the party that it has become accepted political wisdom that without their support a Republican cannot win that party’s presidential nomination.

This was clearly in evidence in 1996 as frontrunner Bob Dole shocked Washington’s political elite by changing many of his long-standing political positions on critical issues (abortion, gun control, welfare, immigration and the Middle East) in order to win the religious conservative’s support for his nomination. As the Dole transformation demonstrated, the traditional moderate Republican Party of George Bush, Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon and Dwight Eisenhower had been taken over by fundamentalists who seek to impose their morality and politics on the nation and the world.

Despite his conversion during the1996 primaries, Dole disappointed the fundamentalist wing of the Republican Party when he failed to make their issues central to his campaign against Bill Clinton. The religious right is also showing signs of displeasure with the Republican controlled Congress, which they believe they were responsible for electing in 1994. In recent weeks leaders of the religious right have protested that Congress is only paying lip service to their moral agenda. They are warning Republicans not to take their support for granted in 1998 or 2000. In fact one prominent fundamentalist leader noted that he would prefer the destruction of the Republican Party to “their present betrayal of the moral agenda.”

And so as the nation gears up for the November elections, the religious right is maneuvering to assert its control over the Republican agenda. Signs of an intra-party struggle are everywhere in evidence:

    1. After leaders of several religious right wing groups threatened to withhold support in the November elections, some leaders of the Republican congressional caucus met with them and pledged support for their agenda. They collectively agreed to form the “Congressional Values Action Team” and to bring up for a vote a number of resolutions supported by the religious groups.

    Should these bills be defeated in Congress, the religious right will campaign to defeat those who voted against the legislation.

    2. The religious right forced the Republican National Committee to an extended vote on a resolution to deny any party funds and support to any Republican candidate who favors even limited abortion rights.

    This resolution was defeated as too extreme but only after the party leadership was forced to so strenuously restate their opposition to abortion that some other Republican officials were offended. One decried the entire effort as “projecting the image of a party giving a veto power to a militant constituency.”

    3. The forces of the religious right did succeed in passing sweeping legislation that would apply sanctions on countries accused of “violating religious freedoms.” The so-called “Religious Persecution Act,” was opposed by the White House and moderates who fear that the legislation is narrowly focused and will impede broader U.S. foreign policy objections.

    4. Angry with Dole and Gingrich, whom the religious conservatives accuse of having let them down, these groups have made it publicly clear that their support in 1998 and 2000 must be earned.

    While one of the leaders, James Dobson of “Focus on the Family,” has threatened to bolt the Republican Party, which he accuses of “hypocrisy,” another, Gary Bauer of the Family Research Council, is threatening to run for President in 2000.

    Already two of the leading Republican candidates for 2000 have publicly adopted the fundamentalist agenda. Steve Forbes, who campaigned against these groups in 1996, has had a Dole-like conversion this year. Missouri Senator John Ashcroft, another Republican candidate for the 2000 presidential campaign, has so strongly adopted the religious right’s agenda that Pat Roberts has made a substantial contribution to Ashcroft’s political action committee.

    5. Finally, the strength of the religious right has been in evidence in the strong Republican displays of support for the Likud government of Benjamin Netanyahu.

    It was no accident that on a recent visit to the United States Netanyahu first met with the leadership of the religious right.

The ideology of this movement is anti-Arab and quite dangerous. What is of real concern is that this group has merged with the neo-conservatives and pro-Likud forces in the Jewish community to virtually take over the foreign policy of the Republican Party, including its Middle East policy.

Moderate Republicans are worry that the growing power of the fundamentalists will weaken their party on the national scene.

The control by the religious right will not adversely affect Republicans in congressional elections, but it will have an impact on presidential races. If Republican candidates must adopt the narrow agenda of this movement to win the Republican primary, they become unattractive to voters in November.

By driving moderates away from the Republican Party and forcing independent voters into the Democratic camp. Republican moderates fear that their party is in danger of becoming a minority party of ideological fanatics.

The leaders of the religious right are unfazed by these dire predictions. Like Dobson, they are ideologues who fear surrendering their agenda more than they fear defeat. In fact, Ashcroft said as much two weeks ago when he noted that “Republicans should stand for positions, even if we lose” because of them. At the same time this movement knows that it has significant leverage over the party because of it numbers and grass roots strength.

This drama within the Republican Party will continue to play itself out. It deserves to be watched because of its consequences to both American democracy and to American foreign policy.

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