Posted on July 18, 1994 in Washington Watch

After enduring a barrage of Republican attacks over the past two years, Democrats have begun to fight back. In an effort to define an issue that will shape their campaign strategy for the 1994 Congressional elections, the Democrats have launched a well-orchestrated campaign criticizing the Republican party for being taken over by “radical right-wing religious elements.”

In the past two months, well publicized speeches by the Chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) David Wilhelm, Chairman of the Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) Rep. Vic Fazio, and U.S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders have all asserted the religious right-wing’s “take-over” of the Republican party. And on a number of occasions President Clinton, himself, has expressed concern over the growing influence of “intolerant and radical” forces in the Republican party.

In an effort to feed this campaign, both the DNC and the DCCC have issued regular news releases and produced a press guide for the national media.

By now, two months into the campaign, hardly a day passes without one major newspaper or television news program carrying a story about the right wing’s influence within the Republican party. An active debate between liberal and conservative columnists has filled the editorial pages of the nations newspapers with opinions about the activities of the `religious right’.

What reinforces the Democrats’ charge is that it is true. During the month of June, on three successive weeks, the Christian right wing take-over was on display in the Republican State conventions in Virginia, Texas and Minnesota.

In Virginia, the well-organized Christian political movement formed the backbone of Oliver North’s successful campaign to become the Republican nominee for Senate.

One week later in Texas, Republican delegates from the Christian right wing ousted the Republican party chairman and elected a new party leader, Tom Pauken. The campaign posters used by their movement on the floor of the state convention read “A vote for Pauken is a vote for God.”

The following week at the Minnesota Republican State Republican Convention, delegates aligned with the Christian right succeeded in anointing one of their own as the party’s favorite for the Republican nomination for Governor, Allen Quist. In so doing they rejected the reelection bid of the current Governor, Republican Arne Carlson, whose moderate policies had aroused them to action. Though Carlson may still win the Republican primary, Quist will have the party organization behind him.

In the face of this new Democratic onslaught, the Republican party has closed ranks. The Chairman of the Republican National Committee (RNC) has responded to the Democratic attacks by calling the attackers “bigots” and charging them of attempting to stir up a McCarthy-like anti-religious crusade. All 44 Republican Senators wrote to President Clinton urging him to rebuke the Democratic party Chair for beginning this campaign.

There is no doubt that many of these national Republican leaders are uncomfortable with the new power of the religious right – but practical politics demands that they not reject this potent force aligned with their party.

Recent analysis shows that the organized Christian movement has taken full control over the apparatus of 10 state Republican parties and exercises significant influence in 8 others. They have run for and won office in thousands of local jurisdictions across the U.S. For example, the organized Christian movement now boasts of controlling 2,250 school boards throughout the country.

A Republican leader who rejected this level of grass roots power would not only threaten his or her own chances for reelection, but would also damage the chances of the Republican party scoring major victories in the national elections in 1994 and 1996. So while they may not be pleased with this “new factor” within their party, they feel that need to support it anyway.

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The history of this Christian right wing “take-over” can be traced to a number of political and social factors, but its most immediate antecedent is the group called the “Christian Coalition.” Founded by the Reverend Pat Robertson in 1989, the Christian Coalition was Robertson’s effort to institutionalize the momentum generated by his failed by for the 1988 Republican Presidential nomination.

Realizing how open U.S. politics is to organized grass-roots activity, Robertson vowed to launch a group that would build political power from the bottom up. The Christian Coalition, based on the network of evangelical Christian groups nationwide, held training seminars for their members on how to increase their organized vote, how to run for office, how to run for political party posts, and how to make their organized vote count in elections.

They played by the rules and showed that they could master the rules and win. The proof of their success is their essential control of one-third of the Republican state party organizations.

What concerns Democrats and many moderate to liberal Republicans is that the philosophy of this religious right-wing movement is not only conservative, but somewhat intolerant of opposite views.

As DNC Chairman Wilhelm suggested in his first speech on this issue, it is one thing to disagree over issues; but it is quite another to denounce your opponents as “Godless” or “anti-Christ.” Wilhelm noted in a speech at the latest Christian Coalition convention that he, too, was a Christian and a person of “deep faith” – but he differed from the Christian Coalition on a number of issues. Wilhelm chided the group for claiming that it is, in effect, the only group that had “God on its side.” The Democrat was repeatedly booed by the audience.

At Christian Coalition meetings the group begins with a pledge – not the usual pledge of allegiance to the U.S. flag – but one of their own making. It was widely reported when former Vice President Dan Quayle spoke to a Christian Coalition training conference in January of this year, he led the group in their pledge. Facing a flag with a cross on it and with hands over their hearts, Quayle and the audience of 2,000 recited:

“I pledge allegiance to the Christian flag, and to the Savior, for whose Kingdom it stands, one savior, crucified, risen and coming again, with life and liberty for those who believe.”

The Christian Coalition’s newspaper runs articles with titles like “Think Like Jesus, Lead Like Moses, Fight Like David, Run Like Lincoln;” and “Believe it or not, the Lord may want you to run for office.”

While this “religious fundamentalism” frightens many, what is too often ignored in critiques of the Christian right are the root causes of the movement.

Liberal Democrats decry the Christian movement’s organized campaigns against homosexuals, abortion, civil rights, government social programs and their strong position for “American military might in the world.” But, on a very basic level, what motivates the Christian right, like other fundamentalist movements, is their fear of a world gone out of control – of a decline in values and a breakdown of the very fabric of society.

These concerns are very real to too many Americans, and they will not go away by attacking a movement seeking to address them. The debate that should be taking place, but which has not yet begun, is the debate over the root causes and fundamental solutions to the real problems that plague society. But in the mean time, Democrats and Republicans are debating a symptom of these problems: the success of the religious right’s effort to gain control of the Republican party.

Democrats will attempt to make the strength of the Christian right within the Republican party an issue in this fall’s elections. Republicans are in an uncomfortable but necessary alliance with Christian right and will defend the movement, hoping that it will help them win as many Senate and Congressional seats as possible – possibly even gaining control of Congress and setting the stage for their effort to regain the White House in 1996.

What causes concern in some Republican circles, however, is that if the Christian right succeeds in 1994, such a Republican victory may backfire on the party in the future. One must remember how the vitriolic speeches of Pat Robertson and Pat Buchanan at the 1992 Republican National Convention brought out a division between the right wing and moderate elements of the party. An even stronger religious right presence in the Republican party after this year’s elections may induce moderate Republicans to abandon the party or drag it down in a deeply divisive internal debate. Either course of action would weaken the party’s chances of unifying itself in the future.

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This debate has posed a very special problem for the American Jewish community and supporters of Israel – an issue I will address next week.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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