Volume VI, Number 2, Fall 2010


"Religion, Media and Culture: Religion and the American Political Sphere" by Christopher Boerl

Christopher W. Boerl is a Ph.D. Candidate at the Royal Holloway College, University of London, Department of Politics and International Relations. Email:

It is important to view the Christian Right as a distinct and influential culture within America’s broader social landscape. Like all cultures, it too was one which required tedious cultivation in its infancy and demands continual maintenance even today. This is so as:

[T]he cultural dimensions of civil society is not given or natural. Rather, it is in a state of social contestation: its associations and networks are a terrain to be struggled over and an arena wherein collective identities, ethic values and alliances are forged. Indeed, competing conceptions of civil society are deployed in a continual struggle either to maintain cultural hegemony by dominant groups or to attain counter-hegemony on the part of subordinate collective actors (Cohen as quoted by Arneil 2006, 9).

For more than thirty years now, the Christian Right has enjoyed a position of cultural religious hegemony as it has arguably been the most vocal, and indeed the most heard-from religious body in the country. In an effort to maintain this socially favoured position, the Christian Right has made effective use of emerging and innovative communication technologies that have helped them to spread their word, proselytize new converts, maintain the allegiances of exiting members, expand their networks of support, and grow their organizational resources.

Yet taken from a theological perspective which prides itself on the salvation of souls, there are other rationales that have arguable played a much larger role in influencing evangelical usage of communication technologies. As Jeffery Hadden notes, “[t]he sacred texts of Christianity command the followers of Jesus to preach the Gospel to every living creature on earth (Mark 16:15). Evangelicals take this commandment seriously, and many among them view the development of radio and television as instruments sent by God to help them fulfil this ‘Great Commission’ (1993, 114).” That these technologies ultimately led to a favourable social and political position for evangelicals may well be the result of happy luck as it was strategic planning. However, regardless of the ultimate motive behind the use of these and other forms of communication technologies, the fortunes of the Christian Right have been intangibly linked to their development.

For much of its history, the means of communication have developed along one of two singular platforms, either broadcast (one-to-many) or inter-personal (one-to-one). In many ways, these platforms complemented the sorts of communication which had been in existence in churches for years as they merely replicated the preacher congregant role, albeit on a larger scale. More recently, however, newer forms of communication technologies have emerged adding additional commutative platforms which have both radically changed the nature of communication, and have expanded upon the organizational potential of antedated technologies. Yet far from mimicking the broadcast nature of the radio and television, computer mediated communications (CMC) offer participants a many-to-many means of interaction and is easily accessed by countless others. As these new technologies have proliferated, regimes built upon older, more outdated technologies have come to be faced with new dynamic challenges.

For the Christian Right, the rapidly changing nature of communication technologies has rendered obsolete the ability of a few group elites to control the message and dictate the terms of the conversation. Today, new challenges have emerged which threaten the homogeny of this once monolithic voting bloc. To believe, however, that these changes alone will impose an insurmountable obstacle to the continued and future success of evangelicals in America requires a rather significant leap of faith as it ignores the innovative and intuitive nature the Christian Right has historically shown.

The thesis which follows is built largely on the examination on how the Christian Right is coping with these new changes. Yet in order to properly diagnose the severity of the challenges before them, it is important first to understand better the history of the modern evangelical movement. Thus, by better knowing the means by which the Christian Right have come to meet past challenges, the extent to which they as a movement have united, the strength of this unity, and the points of contention, provides us with an important backdrop from which future research may commence.

Monkeys, Satellites, and a Catholic President

In a century which gave us 1968, it is easy to forget that the 1920’s were an equally turbulent time for the American people. After decades of scientific and political advancements, in which rationalism gained broad acceptance and women secured the right to vote, society it seemed, began to stall. Not only had the decade kicked off with the passing of the 18th Amendment which prohibited all non-religious use of alcohol, but an increase in immigration from Eastern Europe helped to revive the Ku Klux Klan whose ranks “swelled to 5 million members” (Greenberg 2005). Additionally in 1920, the very year women gained the right to vote, seven women ran for seats in Congress and of them, only one won. Yet despite this victory, feminists had little reason to celebrate as the lone female member of Congress was none other than Alice Robertson of Oklahoma. Robertson who had until earlier that year served as “president of the Oklahoma Anti-Suffrage Association” proved to be anything but a friend of the women’s movement as she went on to oppose “everything the Women’s Joint Congressional Committee wanted” (Lemons 1990, 103). With this rocky start, it is little wonder that by 1933 only 13 women had come to serve in the United States House of Representatives, and of them, seven had assumed the seat vacated by their husbands (see Lemons 1990, 104). Yet despite the cultural tensions that gripped the country, many presumed science, and more specifically, evolution was safe. As Greenberg notes:

Although Darwin’s theories had met fierce resistance when first proposed in 1859, in time they secured general approval. Even many Christian leaders, once hostile to evolution, endorsed the theory—one of several trends that split many Protestant denomination into modern (or liberal) and fundamentalist camps. ‘By the time of World War I,’ wrote the historian William Leuchtenberg, ‘an attack on Darwin seemed as unlikely as an attack on Copernicus (2005).

However, by the summer of 1925, a clerk at a little known public advocacy group known as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) read of the Tennessee Butler Act banning the teaching of evolution in public schools. Disturbed by what they perceived to be a deliberate attempt by the state legislature to undermine the wall which separated the state from church influence, the ACLU decided to challenge the law directly. At the time, however, the ACLU was still in its infancy, having been formed only five years prior, and thus lacked legal representation in the state. As such, they decided to take an ad out in a prominent Tennessee newspaper, promising to defend “any teacher who made a ‘friendly challenge’ to the law” (Wills 2007, 97-98). Answering this call was a young Dayton man by the name of John Scopes.

At roughly the same time, and unbeknown to the ACLU, Williams Jennings Bryan, a three-time Democratic nominee for the Office President and former Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson, was increasingly troubled by the theory of evolution. It was not, however, evolutions scientific application which bothered Bryan so greatly, as in fact he had nothing at all against evolution “as scientific theory” (Wills 2007, 101). What had been troubling Bryan was the recent advancement of ‘social Darwinism’, a prevailing social theory which argued that human society was “an arena of struggle in which the strongest prevail, the fittest survive, and [where] the poor ‘misfits’ must be neglected in the name of social progress” (Ibid). Such an idea flew in the face of everything Bryan had ever staked a political claim upon, not to mention his Christian faith. Thus when Bryan agreed to take the case as a prosecutor for the state, Scope’s in-turn accepted the help of the Clarence Darrow, a famous New York defence attorney, determined to “show up Fundamentalism…[so] to prevent bigots and ignoramuses from controlling the educational system of the United States (as quoted by Fea 1995, pg. 209).”

When the trial ended, Scopes was easily convicted of violating the Butler Act and was fined 100 dollars. It was an expected outcome for the ACLU, whose real intensions were to appeal this case to the federal courts. What had come as somewhat of a surprise was the intense media scrutiny which had descended upon the case. By the time the trial commenced in July, and with such names as Bryan and Darrow involved, numerous press and media outlets where daily feeding the headlines of the countries many newspapers and movie reels. For their part the press had depicted creationists as backwards thinking and ignorant of scientific theory (see for instance Gilgoff 2007). One account by H.L. Mencken of the Baltimore Sun, described fundamentalists as coming from the “lower orders” of humanity, from which “no man of any education or other human dignity (as quoted by Fea 1995, pg. 210)” would dare to associate with. Faced with this onslaught of public attacks, fundamentalists did what many groups do when fired upon, they dug in and became all the more resolved.

Following the trial, the people of Tennessee elected the state’s lead prosecutor to the United States Senate and rewarded a junior prosecutor with a seat in the U.S. House. Similarly, Governor Peay, the very man who had signed the anti-evolution legislation into law, was popularly re-elected to serve a third term. Elsewhere across the South and the Midwest, the Scopes trial stood as living testament that laws forbidding the teaching of evolution could withstand judicial scrutiny. As a result, some fourteen states would in time consider similar legislation (see George 2001). Nationally, however, and as a result of the Scopes trial, high school biology text books slowly began to remove any mention of Charles Darwin or his theory. This occurrence was in no small part due to the fact that educators and superintendents approve and buy high text books, not specialists in the field. Thus, for teachers and school administrators wishing to escape the wrath of angry priests and upset parents, evolution became a strictly hands off topic (see Nelkin 1982). Naturally, publishers wishing to sell their biology text books took notice of the public sentiment and adapted to meet the mood of the market.

For roughly the next thirty years, American children grew up largely ignorant of one of biology’s most fundamental theories. This all changed, however, when in 1957, Americans began hearing “an uncharacteristic note in their political discourse—self-doubt (Wills 2007, pg. 115).” The source of this doubt came by way of the Soviet satellite Sputnik, which, as it lay in orbit around earth, served as a reminder to Americans that they were indeed falling behind the Soviets. In the aftermath of Sputnik’s launch, America recommitted itself to the schooling of its youth. Additional money for education was swiftly made available and before long evolution was back in the classroom. Early opposition from evangelicals was scant as many were lured by the prospect of a bloated school budget; even if it meant discussing Darwin, as this in itself was now seen as a means of fighting Communism (Wills 2007). Gradually, however, outside social forces began to once again move American culture into an altogether new direction. As time would demonstrate, there were limits to how far evangelicals could be pushed, and the historic presidential campaign of John F. Kennedy was the first to test those bounds.

By itself, it is unlikely that the nation’s first Catholic President would have been enough to push evangelicals over the edge. Yet the historic presidency of John F. Kennedy came at a time of immense social and cultural change. In addition of grappling with issues of racial inequality, Americans were also confronted with a second wave of feminist activity. This time, however, women were not simply insisting on equality at the ballot box, but they were instead demanding their right of reproductive autonomy. Adding to these tensions was a series of decisions made by the United States Supreme Court which severely curtailed the role of religion in the public sphere. For instance, in 1962, the Court handed down the Engel decision which banned ecumenical public schools and served as the pre-cursor to the monumental 1963 Schempp ruling, effectively outlawing school sponsored Bible readings and prayer. These decisions greatly angered evangelicals and propelled some in the movement to take action. As David Hall notes, “[s]uccess might have eluded [evangelicals] had it not been for the turmoil of the sixties and the division that opened up in the aftermath of the Supreme Court decisions and the ‘cultural revolution’ (as found in Ahlstrom 2004, pg. 1099).” Yet despite Americas rapidly changing nature, Paul Weyrich argues that what “‘galvanized the Christian community was not abortion, school prayer or the ERA…What changed their minds was Jimmy Carter’s intervention against the Christian schools, trying to deny them tax exempt status on the basis of so-called de facto segregation (as quoted by Haberman 2005).’” A point which often goes overlooked but which was viewed as yet another attack on evangelicals.

Ultimately, it is unlikely that any one issue so angered the evangelical community as to be enough to bring themselves out of their self-imposed political isolation. What is more probable is that the culmination of these many events so disturbed evangelicals, as well as others who had not previously identified with this group, that they felt they had few options but to fight for their way of life. This is so because people in rapidly changing times are often drawn to organizations which appear to offer them some sense of normality. Beginning in the 1960’s and extending even to this day, Christian conservative groups “perceive themselves as culturally embattled and thus forced to become politically active in the hope that they can salvage some lifeworld protection (Regnerus et al. 1999, pg. 1392, see also Regnerus and Smith 1998).” Yet to go from being a cultural ‘embattled’ group to a major political force is no easy task. At the most fundamental level substantial organizational resources and the means for effective mobilization are required. Fortunately for evangelicals, the very nature of religious bodies provided them a significant competitive advantage which is not often afforded to secular organizations.

Media and the Unification of Evangelicals

When it comes to mobilizing their supporters, religious organizations enjoy key advantages their secular counter-parts do not. This is so as three characteristics which favour mobilization efforts are regularly found among religious groups. These characteristics include: leadership, collective identity, and the availability of resources. As Marostica explains:

“[R]eligious movements tend to have recognized leaders, men and women of God, who are in a position to use their holy status to further the political ends of the movement…A second strength of religious movements is that they enjoy powerful collective identities. Charismatic leaders, well-developed ideologies, and followers who believe them contribute to strong collective identities which permit religions to rely on high levels of commitment. Third, religious movements can use already established forms of resource mobilization when they enter the political arena. Through tithes, offering, or mechanisms for gathering resources, religious movements are spared the financial hurdles faced by other incipient social movements (1998, pgs. 48-49).”

Speaking specifically of conservative evangelical’s mobilization, Margaret Ann Latus states:

“Religious motivation provides a value framework for everything they do in life, and this is true of politics no less than of anything else. Related to this religious zeal is the fact that other incentives for participation…are less necessary for individuals driven by the conviction of their faith. Leaders have merely to ask and it shall be given unto them (as quoted by Bates, 1991, pg. 4).”

While Vernon Bates notes that the “deep-seated passion of conservative evangelicals” is an attribute which is rarely shared by those opposing their efforts (1991, pg. 4).

Thus by the 1960’s and 1970’s, the evangelical community, though not unified by today’s standards, where nonetheless saturated with respected religious leaders, were rich in resources, and had a budding and motivated base. As Tona Hangen notes, “[o]ver the decade of the fifties, membership in American churches rose from 64.5 million to 114.5 million, to include 60 percent of the national population (2002, pg. 147).” Yet such dramatic increases in church attendance failed to affect each protestant denomination equally. For instance, many mainline protestant denominations such northern Presbyterian and Protestant Episcopal witnessed overall net losses around this same period (see Carpenter 1980). Furthermore, it was also during this time that the evangelical Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) surplanted the mainline Methodist Church as the largest protestant denomination in America, a title the SBC retains to this day. Yet despite the rapid rise of evangelical Christianity, a common and unifying identity was not a trait which came naturally to these many traditions. It was instead something which had to be fostered, and had it not been for the self-imposed cultural isolation fundamentalists undertook in the aftermath of the Scopes trial, it is questionable when such an identity would have ever emerged.

In the wake of the Scopes trial, “fundamentalists retreated from the wider culture and built up their own separatist networks of schools, churches, Bible colleges, and, of course, radio stations (Hendershot 2007, pg. 385).” In doing so, they thus “laid the foundation for the emergence of neo-evangelism in the 1950s, a movement of intellectually and culturally engaged Christians (Ibid).” These religious institutes served as an irreplaceable cog in the formation of unified collective identity (see Moen 1995 and Carpenter 1980). This is so because as the American population grew throughout the first half of the twentieth century, so too did the demand for protestant ministers and trained laity. Meeting this demand were the growing number of Bible institutes, which in addition to their educational activities, often ran publishing houses and organized week-long summer Bible conferences, which “supplied staff evangelists for revival meetings and provided churches with guest preachers (Carpenter 1980, pg. 66).” Similarly, advertisements for denominational colleges, which had previously appealed largely to adherents of its affiliate denomination, were soon appearing in the periodicals of other denominations. As enrolment to these institutions rose, the various branches of evangelical Christianity increasingly came into contact with one another and forged both shared identities and a dense network of social and religious support (Carpenter 1980). Furthermore, Bible colleges were readily organizing their own massive revivals which attracted swarms of enthusiastic supporters. These activities helped to overcome long standing denominational divides and brought ever more people to the cause of evangelical ministry.

While attending one of these revivals, a reporter was struck by the unity which he witnessed and commented “a Methodist Bishop, a Baptist evangelist, a Presbyterian professor, a Lutheran pastor, a Christian layman and a Rescue Mission superintendent could stand on the same platform and preach the common tenets of the Christian faith while multitudes of believers wept and rejoiced together as if some glorious news had for the first time bust upon their ears (C.H, Heaton, as quoted by Carpenter 1980, pg. 70).” As time progressed, these institutes began to focus their considerable attention and resources on another medium through which the masses could be reached, that of radio broadcasts. By 1942, for instance, a single religious organization, the Moody Bible Institute, was “releasing transcribed [radio] programs to 187 different stations (Carpenter 1980, pg. 67),” and had a radio staff of nearly 300 who busied themselves by visiting churches to raise awareness of Moody’s religious broadcasts (Ibid).

Yet despite the eagerness by which evangelicals greeted the advent of the age of radio, it proved, nonetheless, a difficult medium to tap. Much of the problems evangelical ran into, however, were largely self-made. For instance, by 1943 all of the major national radio broadcasters had pulled commercial evangelism from the air (see for instance Hangen 2002). This action was the direct result of numerous inflammatory remarks made by fundamentalists and other religious commentators while on the air. Arguably the most notorious offender was Father Charles E. Coughlin. Although a Roman Catholic Priest (and thus unaffiliated with protestant evangelism) Coughlin succeeded in large part to scare major radio broadcasters away from paid religious programming. “His bellicose attacks on communists, socialists, international bankers, Jews, labor union leaders, and finally, President Franklin Roosevelt led many to fear Coughlin more than Germany’s Hitler (Hadden 1993, pg. 125).” And thus, when it came time to renew his contract, most broadcasters chose not to, citing a newly established National Association of Broadcasters’ code of ethics which barred ‘controversial’ speakers (Ibid).

As a result, national radio broadcasters increasingly chose instead to air the more benign sermons of the National Council of Churches (NCC), an umbrella group which included most mainline protestant denominations with ties to the Catholic Church and Judaism. In choosing to provide this ‘sustaining time’ free of charge, broadcasters in-turn earned credit which could be used as evidence that their stations were providing invaluable public service, thus assuring them the renewal of their public broadcast licence. By contrast, most evangelical preachers found themselves unable to secure radio time on any of the major networks. Forced to turn to smaller and cheaper markets, evangelists quickly found a home among the local stations of America’s more rural populations. Soon thereafter, many evangelical ministries busied themselves with setting up their own radio stations or outright bought existing ones. Consequently, throughout the 1940s and 1950s, radio evangelists grew quite adept at running and maintaining their own radio stations, while the NCC and other mainline protestant groups increasingly grew dependent upon the charity of the country’s major radio broadcasters. In 1960, the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) changed course and decided to permit radio and television stations the right to claim paid religious broadcasting as part of their public service, thus negating any incentive broadcasters once had to give away air time for free. Evangelical ministries, flushed with cash, quickly swooped in and bid the NCC out of the market. Today, 1960 is often regarded as a cultural milestone marking the “‘virtual silencing’ of mainline churches in mass media (Hendershot 2007, pg. 378, see also Hangen 2002, pg. 153).”

Aided by this new FCC regulation, evangelicals continued to cultivate their ties among America’s many protestant traditions, as the rapid expansion of religious oriented broadcasting gradually reoriented the movement towards greater ecumenical ministries. Providing an even further catalyst to this effort was the advent of televangelism, which saw it audience grow from some 5 million in the late 1960s to nearly 25 million by the mid 1980s (see Hadden 1993). Leading this charge was Pat Robertson who founded the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) in 1961, though his endeavour was quickly followed by Paul Crouch’s Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN) and Jim Bakker’s PTL Network (PTL). Together, these three networks stood alone as giants in an industry soon saturated with smaller, more regionally based programming.

A key reason why television was so adept at bridging many of the long held denominational divides is due to its so-called mainstreaming effect. As George Gerbner discovered in the 1970’s, “television creates a confluence, a coming-together, of attitudes (Watson 1996, pg. 67).” When viewed “heavily” and by “desperate” and “divergent” groups, what results is the homogenization or “mainstreaming” of political views. These views in-turn tend to shift towards the conservative end of the political spectrum (Ibid, see also Ball-Rokeach and DeFleur 1979). Furthermore, Leon Festinger notes that individuals make a habit of seeking information which they already agree with. This effect works to reinforce pre-existing biases and may help to explain Gerbner’s mainstreaming effect. By appealing to individuals who already felt under threat by significant social upheavals, televangelists helped to foster a community of conservative Christians whose numbers grew as viewers increasingly gained access to cable T.V. and whose message gradually moved away from the center so to meet market demands (Festinger 1957, see also Watson 1996, pgs. 69-70).

In the wake of the many financial and sexual scandals which rocked televangelists in the 1980s, it has become quite fashionable to dismiss these preachers and their ministries. Yet throughout that decade, televangelists were among some of the most influential leaders in the nation. In 1980 for instance, Pat Robertson, through the use of his radio and television broadcasts helped to mobilize a half-million participants to a rally called ‘Washington for Jesus’ (see Hadden 1993). Similarly, Tamney and Johnson (1983) have shown that significant support for the Moral Majority came from individuals who were already watching religious programming (see also Tamney and Johnson 1984). This success can likely be attributed the fact that religious broadcasts work to reinforce an individual’s existing social and political values, as an individual, having become interested in religion in a formal setting, transfers “this interest to other forms of religious experience (Litman and Bain 1989, pg. 330).” The basic premise being, that “traditional church participation stimulates an interest in religion and causes those affected people to watch religious programming (Ibid).”1 Thus, these findings seem to otherwise dismiss Margret O’Brien-Steinfels and Peter Steinfels assertion that “(t)he (TV) church is fostering in our midst a completely private (and) ‘invisible religion’ (as quoted by Abelman and Neuendorf 1987, pg. 152).”

Today, religious electronic media has grown in sophistication. In addition to simply airing sermons and worship services, networks such as CBN and TBN are producing their own syndicated television programs and wide release movies. They have also gained for themselves a presence among America’s competitive news agencies and are regular work such secular media groups as Disney and FOX.

Eschatology and the Public Square

School children learning the history of the American people are often told that pilgrims came to the new world in search of religious freedom. This is simply not true. Religious freedom was a luxury the pilgrims already enjoyed in their adopted Holland. The real impetus for their colonization lay in their post-millenialist belief that in order to bring about the second coming of Christ, humanity had to first earn it. As such, the Puritans sought to establish a fundamentalist society upon which England and other European countries would eventually look to as an example of pious living and would thus be compelled to reform their own societies into greater accordance with God’s law. With time, post-millenialst views gradually gave way to premillenial dispensationalism, a theological position which believes that the second coming of Christ is imminent and can happen at any time. As such, it is important for dispensationalists to live each day as if it were the last (as they quite literally believe today may be just that). At present, roughly two out of every three Americans subscribe to some form of dispensationalism (see Unger 2007 and Wojcik 1996), and though it is easy to understand how such a belief in the literal end-times can have far reaching implications on the way in which one would choose to conduct their daily life, its implications on the broader electoral process is a more complex narrative.

Dispensational believers press the point that biblical scriptures speak of Christ’s imminent return and that to be accepted by the Lord, one must be loyal to the God and do Gods “duty and service while waiting (Woelfkin 1921, pg. 261).” For much of American history, this duty and service was largely seen as distinct from public life and separate from political affairs. The late Jerry Falwell, an avid dispensationalist and eventual active political campaigner crystallized this point in 1965, when he declared “Preachers are not called upon to be politicians, but soul winners (as quoted by Sullivan 2008, pgs 30-31).” And although religion has long been a fixture within American society, it has only been in the last quarter of the twentieth century that the pursuit for personal salvation has been so intangibly tied to the political process.

The transition for many evangelicals from spiritual Salvationists to political operatives began in earnest in the 1970s and was led by in large part by Hal Lindsey. Made famous by his best-selling dispensational account, The Late Great Planet Earth, which “reportedly sold eighteen million copies and which was described by the New York Times as the ‘number one non-fiction best-seller of the decade (Harding 1994, pg. 33),” Lindsey, by the end of the 70’s had become a household name in many evangelical circles. In utilizing his tremendous popularity and the influence of his writings, Lindsey, throughout this decade was busy sowing the seeds of a budding evangelical political movement. In 1980, when he published Countdown to Armageddon, he expanded upon his earlier positions, which among other things saw evangelicals as a marginalized people, and included a concerted push for stronger bonds linking religious beliefs with political activities.

In Countdown, for instance, Lindsey called upon Christians to take back their country and to preserve its religious heritage. He argued that with Christ’s return imminent, “Christians should live as if Jesus could come today, and ‘that means that we must actively take on the responsibility of being a citizen and a member of God’s family. We need to get active electing officials who will not only reflect the Bible’s morality in government, but will shape domestic and foreign policies to protect our country and our way of life (Lindsey, as quoted by Harding 1994, pg. 34).” Others have of course joined Lindsey in his call to action, and several, such as Pat Robertson and James Dobson, continue to exert considerable influence over the election of public officials and the development of public policy. Arguably, however, the most successful of any Lindsey bandwagoner has thus far been an author by the name of Tim LaHaye. His Left Behind novel series, co-authored Jerry Jenkins, is a fictional account of the end-times and has sold an astonishing 65 million copies in the United States alone, a mark Harry Potter has yet to best. Yet the Left Behind franchise has come to include a borage of other activities and merchandise, each of which are designed not only to make money, but to propagate dispensationalism as well. These activities include Left Behind Prophecy Conferences were believers meet and discuss signs of the end-times, visits to the Holy Land and the Valley of Megiddo, the supposed sight were Jesus will vanquish his enemies and restore God’s Kingdom on Earth (a popular activity encouraged by many churches), box-office movies, and online video games were teenagers play as Christian soldiers caught up in the Tribulation (for additional information refer to Unger 2007). Given the enthusiasm Left Behind has managed to generate, it is unlikely that major theological shifts within the American electorate will occur any time soon. Yet the convergence of dispensational belief into the fore of American politics, to date, represents the apex of what has long been reactionary movement. This point is reflected in Countdown, where Lindsey asks Americans to take their country back. Yet the question remains: From what is Lindsey wanting take America back?

The Fall of the Religious Left

Thus far, this paper has looked primarily at the rise of the religious right. It has sought to explain this rise by examining key historical developments, from theological shifts, to the rise of contentious social issues, to the growth of inter-denominational networks, and through the utilization of evolving communication technologies. By contrast, the religious left experienced a remarkable decline in influence and social standing at preciously the same time that the right was enjoying its rise. This effect left the protestant religious marketplace void of any serious religious competitor. There are of course numerous reasons for this event. Much of the lefts decline can be attributed to the assassination of key leaders, such as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, tragedies which robbed them of iconic figures. Yet arguably more important to their fall were the loss of a collective identity and the disappearance of shared values.

Despite prevailing romantic beliefs, Martin Luther King Jr. was not always the unifying force he is often portrayed to be within the broader progressive political movement. At no time was he perhaps more divisive then when he focused his energies to combating social ills other than racism. For instance, “when King turned to the issues of poverty, labour unrest, and the Vietnam War, he was criticized by fellow civil rights workers, savaged by politicians, and excoriated in the media (Winston 2007, pg. 974).” It was also during this particularly volatile time when “religious progressives who had made common cause with King splintered into antiwar organizing, feminism, black nationalism, La Raza and gay liberation (Ibid).” With the assassination of Rev. King and later with that of Robert Kennedy, American liberalism was left adrift. Their message, though by no means lost, was nonetheless overwhelmed by an increasing number of groups and special interests, each of whom could claim to be leaders in their own right. For their part, the media was quick to report the deconstruction of the left. With each emerging trend or new interest group came the added glare of media attention and public scrutiny. As the religious left continued to deteriorate, their message increasingly became vulnerable to lampooned attacks and marginalization (Ibid).

Capitalizing on this division were an all too eager group of evangelicals who not only sought increased influence over the public square, but who were also alarmed by the growing trend of loose biblical interpretations. By the late 1970s, for instance, a small group of Baptist leaders made pubic their intentions to take over their denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) and rid it of what they perceived to be a liberal drift in their seminaries, Sunday schools, and mission boards (Winston 2007). With time, the once moderately conservative SBC, America’s largest protestant denomination, would move exceedingly to the right. Today, the SBC is one of the most conservative protestant denominations in the United States and it remains the official position of the church that women are not to be ordained, abortion in all cases is a sin, and that God does not hear the prayers of Jews (Ibid). Yet the conservative takeover of the SBC was only a dry run. With this success secure, conservative Christians sought to extend their influence over other denominations as well. Some of these efforts proved fruitful, while other futile. When the latter prevailed, the Christian Right sought instead to marginalize mainline denominations by fracturing their congregations through the exploitation of wedge issues.

Of the more audacious tactics deployed by these groups were claims made on both 60 Minutes and in Readers Digest (at the time America’s most watched news program and most read magazine) that the NCC was not only sympathetic to Marxist guerrillas in Latin America, but in some cases, were funding them directly (Winston 2007). Grounds for these assertions came by way of liberation theology, a theological movement which was gaining marginal support within some circles of Christians, and which emphasized Christ’s role as a liberator of the oppressed more than his status as a saviour. Yet as potent as these allegations were, their impact remained small when compared to the Christian Right’s exploitation over internal division many mainline churches were experiencing on the issues of gay marriage and gay clergy ordination. On this front, the late Diane Knippers admitted that her goal in raising these internal divisions was “to diminish and discredit the religious left’s influence (as quoted by Winston 2007, pg. 979).” Today, efforts such as Knippers have largely succeeded, as “the old mainline churches have been culturally and institutionally displaced by a new plurality; yesterday’s supposed fringes are taking over American Protestantism’s main square (Phillips 2006, pg. 101).” Taking its place has been the “individual pursuit of salvation through spiritual rebirth, often in circumstances of sect-driven millenarian countdowns to the so-called end times and an awaited return of Christ (Phillips 2006, pg. 100).” As an increasing number of evangelicals began calling for broader political engagement, America’s religious left could offer little meaningful resistance. This shift drastically changed the very nature of American politics and has moved the country in a noticeably different, and all together, more conservative political direction.

Reagan, the Failed Evangelical Agenda, and the Grass-Roots Organization of America’s Christian Right

By the late 1970s, most politicians were taking evangelical voters seriously. Those who were not did so at their own peril. By 1980, evangelicals solidified their political clout with the election of Ronald Reagan; a feat particularly noteworthy given Jimmy Carter had been the nation’s first evangelical president (see Kaplan 2004). Yet Reagan’s election also served as an important cultural benchmark as his victory helped to “push millions of newly energized evangelical voters into the eager arms of the Republican Party (Sullivan 2008, pg 16).” How it was that Reagan came to be the darling of the Christian Right was the result of an intensive courtship and an extensive political ground game.

Believing Carter held weak support among his supposed base of white evangelicals, Reagan’s campaign undertook significant strains to win over these supporters. As Sullivan notes:

“The Great Communicator knew how to speak the evangelicals’ language, even if it wasn’t his native tongue, and he used it to good effect. Addressing a gathering of TV preachers and other religious right leaders in Dallas a few months before the election, Reagan hit all the right notes. He complained that the Supreme Court’s school-prayer decision had ‘expelled God from the classroom.’ He reiterated his oft-made observation that everybody in favor of abortion had already been born. He spoke admiringly of the Bible, explaining that ‘all the complex questions facing us at home and abroad have their answer in that single book.’ And if there were any holdouts left among the assembled clergy, he melted their hearts by declaring, ‘I know you can’t endorse me…but I want you to know that I endorse you (2008, pg. 43).’”

Determined to get Reagan elected, Jerry Falwell called together some 20 or so religious leaders and political operatives to his Thomas Road Baptist Church. It was at this meeting were many of them committed themselves to getting Reagan elected (see Unger 2007). Following this, “Falwell and his associates started going from state to state, meeting Catholics, old-line Protestants, and evangelicals, putting together (Moral Majority) chapters everywhere (Unger 2007, pg. 73).”

With Reagan in the White House, evangelical hopes were riding high, but with the Democrats controlling the House of Representatives, Reagan was limited in what he could do. Despite this inconvenience, Reagan’s first opportunity to give back to evangelicals came in July of 1981 with the retirement of Associate Justice Potter Stewart. Yet rather than nominate a conservative who would have pleased many in the evangelical camp, Reagan instead went with the more moderate, and pro-choice Sandra Day O’Conner. Reagan’s next nominee, Antonin Scalia was viewed by many as a reliable conservative, yet when Reagan would appoint again, he once more chose a moderate with Anthony M. Kennedy. Far from being the exception, however, disappointments such as these would emerge as a regular theme throughout Reagan’s presidency. For instance, in 1982, Reagan “halfheartedly honoured his promise to support a constitution amendment allowing school prayer, [by] refraining from putting enough political muscle behind it to bulldoze it though the Senate (Unger 2007, pg. 76).” Worse still, was when in the mid 1980s Surgeon General C. Everett Koop issued an early warning about the AIDS epidemic. In a special report Dr. Koop “advocated sex education, including teaching about homosexual behaviour, as an essential tool in stopping the spread of the disease, and even promoted the use of condoms for sex outside of marriage as a means of protection (Ibid).” With these actions before them, evangelicals came to learn a painful political lesson, “having a sympathetic president like Ronald Reagan did not guarantee that their political expectations would be satisfied. When push came to shove, Reagan abandoned conservative Christians (Haberman 2005).”

In an acknowledgment of their limited political powers, “conservative Christians at the end of the 1980s refocused their energies on forming a strong grassroots political movement (Ibid).” By the end of Reagan’s presidency numerous evangelical organizations began to dot the American political landscape. One of these newly minted organizations was Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition. From the beginning the Christian Coalition was “supposed to fill the vacuum left by the demise a few years earlier of the Moral Majority (Oliver 1996).” To help in this effort, Robertson tapped the 28 year old Ralph Reed to lead the coalition. Together, these men began programs which trained “conservative Christians to run for office and to manage other people’s campaigns. [In turn] these trainees became active in state and local Republican parties throughout the nation. They ran for municipal offices and school boards (Ibid).” And so it was that at unprecedented rates, the political mobilization of evangelicals soon materialized into the steady take over the Republican Party. In 2002, Campaign and Elections published a report in which it found “that in forty-four states, Christian conservatives controlled at least a quarter of the GOP’s state committees, up from thirty-one states just six years earlier (Kaplan 2004, pg. 73, see also Conger and Green 2002).” In eighteen of these states, Christian conservatives completed dominated the state committee altogether (Ibid).

Thus, by the time George W. Bush took office in 2001, the Christian Right successfully controlled large swaths of the Republican Party. Yet following the disappointments of the 1980s and the painful lessons of Reagan’s presidency, many evangelicals believed that at the dawn of the 21st century, with one their own in the White House and with Republicans in control of Congress, the time was right to advance their agenda. In the early stages of his presidency, Bush did go to considerable lengths to placate his conservative Christian base. Among his actions were the reinstatement of Reagan’s global gag order and the elimination of federal funds supporting expanded research into embryonic stem-cell lines. Yet while these actions were looked upon favourable by the Christian Right, they were but small offerings when compared to their larger political agenda. Remarkably, however, on several issues most important to the evangelical base, issues such as abortion and Gay marriage Bush proved a mixed commodity at best. While certainly Bush managed to appoint two pro-life justices to the United States Supreme Court, his second appointee that of Samuel Alito came only after evangelicals bitterly opposed his original selection of Harriet Miers, a candidate they considered too liberal for the job. Further still was Bush’s meek support for a constitutional amendment protecting traditional marriage, a proposal which failed to receive even a simple majority in the United States Senate. For the moment, at least, the political aspirations of the Christian Right remain unfulfilled.

Democratic Losses Among Catholic Voters

By 1984 it had become apparent that evangelicals were voting in large numbers for Republican candidates. In examining the political behaviour of the Christian Right, Clyde Wilcox found that contributions from Christian Right PACs flowed almost exclusively to “Republicans challenging vulnerable Democratic incumbents, or to Republican incumbents facing strong challengers (1988, pg. 68),” a practice few other PACs follow. Yet despite the growing numbers of evangelicals and their clear preference for Republican candidates, Democrats could have maintained a politically advantageous position had other religious political affiliations remained unchanged. This is so because as a region the south (where evangelicals are strongest) is far from having enough electoral votes to elect a president by itself, and represents only a fraction of the total American population, thereby leaving ample margins for Democrats to establish and maintain a working congressional majority. Elsewhere in the country, the evangelical movement, though growing and with considerable political clout, can be otherwise offset by other religious groups or with establishment religious coalitions. Thus the problem Democrats have been running into over the past three decades has not been the loss of evangelicals by themselves, but rather the combined loss of this group with sizable defections of northern working class Catholics. When these two groups vote together, Democrats lose. Yet how exactly Democrats came to lose their favoured status with Catholic voters has as much to do with religious doctrine as it does with the party’s own failure to fully appreciate the magnitude by which changing social circumstances can affect political preferences.

Shortly after his election to the papacy in 1958, Pope John XXIII announced that he would shortly be summoning Church Bishops to Rome for a second Vatican Council. Their task was to determine how the Church should respond “and if need be, adapt…to the rapidly changing world around them (Sullivan 2008, pg.55).” What flowed from this Council was truly monumental. Not only were nearly two millenniums worth of religious practice altered, most notably the fact that Mass would now be conducted in the local vernacular, but also, the Church came to the firm conclusion that it should have “true freedom…to pass moral judgement even in matters relating to politics (Gauduim et Spes, as quoted by Sullivan 2008, pg. 55).” The result of this decision represents a fundamental shift in the thinking and practices of the Catholic Church. In using this language, the Church chose to take a more active role in the moral judgement of society and free itself from its near exclusive practices of charity work and the salvation of souls. Instead, the Church now viewed itself in the business of saving humanity.

In America, like other countries around the world, the Catholic Church continued its work with the poor, but it increasingly took a more critical stance on what it viewed to be the moral decay of society. Its first significant venture into politics took place with the Griswold decision, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that women were constitutionally afforded a right to birth control. On this decision the Church came out in strong opposition, a position most Americans did not share. A decade later when the Roe decision was had, the Church again came out in strong opposition. This time, however, Democrats made a severe miscalculation in both the response of the public and the Church. For the public, abortion was a messy issue and far more complicated than birth control. Unlike the Griswold case, where contraceptives were largely viewed as a simple and rational family-planning barrier which merely prevented the beginning of life, Roe by contrast was viewed more sceptically by the public, as now the country was confronted with the possibility that society had effectively legalized the killing of innocent life. For the Church, their opposition to abortion was a simple and long standing matter. It united, and the unanimity by which Catholics were opposing abortion in the 1970s was more solid than any other social matter (Sullivan 2008). As major Democratic officials came out in support abortion rights, they did so while attracting considerable heat from the Church. Not only did the Catholic Church mobilize its adherents, it also adopted one of the most comprehensive plans to combat abortion and its political supporters (see Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities 1975). In addition, Catholics everywhere were called upon to oppose pro-choice candidates and politicians. Similarly, pro-choice Catholic politicians were often prevented from receiving Holy Communion (as John Kerry was in 2004) and in some cases, they were out right excommunicated from the Church.

Complicating matters even further for Democrats was the fact that a number of pro-choice Catholic politicians, especially when compared to their evangelical colleagues, spoke very little about their own faith. Their silence is arguable a part of the culture of the American Catholic Church, in which Catholics are brought up to see their faith as a private and personal matter. It is also likely that this silence is an attempt by many pro-choice Catholic politicians to remain below the radar, thereby escaping the wrath of their own church. Yet this silence has only added to public perceptions that the Democratic Party is a party without religion. By default, the failure of Democrats to talk openly and candidly about their own faith has allowed Republicans to cast themselves as the party of the faithful.

More than most politicians, Bill Clinton, when launching his 1992 presidential bid, understood well the political dilemma his party faced and the deep misgivings many Americans have about abortion. Having been raised an evangelical Baptist and educated at a Catholic University, Clinton was throughout his life surrounded by religion. Unlike Michael Dukakis before him, Clinton also took opportunities to speak before religious bodies and made a habit of addressing Catholic Americans. Yet for all his work, Clinton was continuously plagued by the issue of abortion throughout his 1992 bid for the White House. However, far from being the first politician to take heat for the pro-choice credentials, the Clinton campaign learned from others. In 1989, for instance, “a San Diego bishop barred Lucy Killea, a California state assemblywoman, from taking Communion because she supported abortion rights (Sullivan 2008, pg. 91).” As her stance increasingly became the focus of the campaign, Sam Popkin, a professor from the University of California—San Diego advised Killea that rather than continue to insist that abortion be kept legal and safe, she might try saying ‘legal, safe, and rare’. The change seemed to work as she was re-elected to her seat. When Clinton, in the early days of his presidential campaign ran into similar troubles, Popkin sent a note to Hillary Clinton, advising that her husband make some changes to his language. In response, Clinton did adopt the ‘legal, safe, and rare’ mantra, though with one slight alteration: Clinton wanted to keep abortion ‘safe, legal, and rare’ (Ibid).

Throughout the remainder of the presidential campaign, Clinton kept up this rhetoric. In accepting his party’s nomination for President he declared before the crowd and the millions watching on television, that he was not “pro-abortion”, but was instead “pro-choice” (see Sullivan 2008, pg. 92). By modifying the way in which Clinton spoke about abortion, he managed to crystallize the feelings of many Catholics, and for that matter, many Americans. Far from wanting abortion illegal, Clinton simply wanted to make abortions rare. For thier part, both Gore and Kerry failed to connect with Catholic voters in the way Clinton had. Rather than tackle issues such as abortion and faith head on, both men chose to ignore the matter instead. Ultimately, this tactic proved unsuccessful.

George W. Bush and the Religious Base

After eight years of Ronal Reagan, and with the failure of Pat Robertson’s presidential bid, evangelical voters faced an unhappy reality 1988. Despite their growing influence and the earlier success of Pat Robertson in his own bid for president, vice president George Bush had won the Republican nomination for president. In acknowledging his own inability to appeal directly to evangelicals, and in recognizing the growing importance this group now exercised within the American electorate, George Bush had little choice but to rely on his eldest son to act as a surrogate on his behalf. To assist on this task, the younger Bush came to work closely with Doug Wead, a close advisor to the vice president. Together, these men understood how the marketing of moral values, which by the end of the 1980’s were a common feature on religious broadcasts, were helping to recast Christian identities. Furthermore, Bush and Wead were amply aware that a new Christian Right was coming to the fore, and that this group, like others had its subculture, “one with its own myths, its own language, its own heroes and villains and its own nonnegotiable political issues (Unger 2007, pg. 88).” To succeed in their task, the two men decided it better not have the elder Bush make overt gestures of his own religious faith as they feared it might be seen as insincere and unauthentic, and instead chose to focus their attention on amplifying Dukakis’ own religious shortcomings. With Dukakis being secular, this job proved easy enough. By 1992, however, and with the Democrats having nominated an evangelical of their own, Bush was defeated as he lost the support of 19 percent of white evangelicals (see Sullivan 2008 pg. 223).

Some seven years later, and while attending Sunday service at Park Methodist Church in Dallas with his mother Barbara, George W. Bush heard Pastor Mark Craig preach a “rather pointed sermon about Moses’s reluctance to lead his people (Unger 2007, pg. 160).” Following the sermon, Bush reportedly called James Robinson, a conservative Southern Baptist televangelist and said, “I’ve heard the call…I believe God wants me to run for president (Ibid).” From there, Bush began to assemble a top notch team of political strategists and pollsters, led by his chief political strategist Karl Rove. To ensure the nomination went smoothly, Rove busied himself by securing endorsements from key Republican officials and by orchestrating “a campaign to woo powerhouse pastors and Christian Right leaders (Kaplan 2004, pg. 70),” a constituency Rove correctly surmised held the success of his candidate in the balance. Yet courting evangelicals posed sizable risks for the then Texas governor. In making a concerted push for this group, the Bush campaign ran the risk of alienating moderate Americans, who, while largely church goers themselves, where nonetheless made uneasy by some of the more extreme positions of the Christian Right. And so it became a central dilemma of the campaign as they struggled to navigate the political waters between Christian conservatives and more moderate and secular voters. The address this problem, the campaign would rely on the art of narrowcasting, whereby political messages are tweaked depending upon the audience one is addressing. In putting theory to practice, Bush, while continuing to speak openly about his faith, nevertheless toned down his remarks at nearly all major campaign events. To casual observers, Bush’s rather benign religious statements were seen as political ploys aimed at reminding the electorate of the ethical shortcoming of President Bill Clinton, and while they certainly served this end, there deeper meanings often flew under the radar, accessible to those who knew what to listen for. When the time came for Bush to focus more ardently on religious voters, he purposely chose more narrowly specific press outlets such as Christianity Today and World magazine. These outlets were not only largely ignored by the larger press, but were also widely read by evangelical Christians.

In addition to these efforts, the Bush campaign, with help from the Republican National Committee (RNC) were also busy courting Catholic voters. In 1998, for instance, the RNC launched a Catholic Task Force to drum-up support for the party in upcoming presidential election. Concentrating initially on Rust Belt states, the RNC hoped this task force would lure back those Reagan Democrats whom the party believed had soft support for the Democrats. Their technique was to deploy staff members on the ground whose job it was to make contact with Catholic congregations and compile a list of Catholic voters. By 2000, the party’s Catholic outreach “expanded into such states as Florida, New Jersey, and Louisiana (Sullivan 2008, pg. 146).” By the end of the 2000 election cycle, the RNC “had a list of 3 million church-attending Catholics who were the targets of a $2.5 million direct-mail and out-reach effort (Ibid).” In addition to these mailings, each of these Catholics received a minimum of two campaign phone calls and where often asked to identify other voters on behalf of the Bush campaign.

Yet despite these outreach efforts and the aura of inevitability the Bush campaign had constructed, the insurgent candidacy of Arizona Senator John McCain caught many in the Bush camp completely by surprise. When McCain scored an impressive victory in the New Hampshire Republican Primary, “Rove immediately dispatched his candidate to speak at Bob Jones University, a fundamentalist Christian college based in South Carolina (Kaplan 2004, pg. 71).” For moderates, this act, while questionable, was largely dismissed as necessary courting for an electoral base Bush desperately needed in that states conservative primary. In moving to the right, a tactic Bush often used whenever he found himself in political trouble, his campaign managed to score a decisive victory in South Carolina. McCain would rally with an unexpected win in Michigan (an open Republican primary in which more non-republicans voted than republicans) and in his home state of Arizona. But by having openly taunted the Christian Right, the very group that had given Bush his South Carolina victory, McCain lacked the necessary support to further challenge Bush as several closed primaries loomed near. By the end of the night on Super Tuesday, Bush emerged the clear frontrunner and party favourite to challenge setting vice-president Albert Gore. As history would have it, the 2000 presidential race would be one of the closest ever. While Bush ultimately emerged the victor, he lacked a clear mandate. To help heal the divisions of country bitterly divided, Bush gave numerous assurances that he would govern from the middle. Yet while the press made much to do about Bush’s sliver thin margin of victory, a mere five electoral votes and the loss of the popular vote by more than half a million, another, a more troublesome story had developed for Democrats.

While Democrats had longed acknowledged that the party had lost sizable ground with religious voters, many were surprised to learn just how deep those losses actually were. By 30 points, Bush had beat Gore among weekly church goers and had won two-thirds of those voters who “described the nation’s moral climate as off on the wrong direction (Kaplan 2004, pg. 75).” In addition, Bush bested even Reagan amongst white evangelical voters, capturing 75 percent of that voting bloc (Ibid, see also CNN 1996). Furthermore, in what has become a testament to the power of Christian Right organizations to mobilize this base, one poll showed that 79 percent of evangelicals who voted for Bush did so after being contacted at least once by a religious right organization (Ibid).” Problematic for Gore was his net capture of just 50 percent of Catholic voters, down four points from the previous election cycle (Sullivan 2008, pg. 221). Yet as startling as these numbers were, the so-called ‘God Gap’ would only worsen as Democrats were again reminded in 2004 of just how important faith is to the American people.

The 2004 Presidential Race

For a brief period on November 2nd 2004, it appeared Massachusetts Senator John Kerry would be elected the nation’s 44th president. Nearly every poll prior to the election showed a very tight race, and early exit polling data on the morning of the election indicated a Democratic victory. Had Kerry won, few would have been surprised by the result as Bush was both contending with a sagging economy and what was daily becoming an unpopular war in Iraq. When Kerry lost, however, many were stunned to learn that cultural values had been the single most important issue as decided upon by the electorate (Harris 2004). Yet this result was preciously what Rove had been aiming for, as it was he who following the tightly contested 2000 presidential election predicted that some “four million evangelical Christians had stayed at home (Ibid)” rather than vote on election-day. The key to Bush’s re-election, Rove knew then, was in mobilizing these voters to the polls the next time around. To achieve this task, the president and his team undertook one of the extensive religious courtships in American history and it began on Bush’s first full working day in office, January 22nd 2001, the 28th anniversary of Roe V. Wade.

By executive order, Bush reinstated Ronald Reagan’s global gag rule, effectively forbidding any foreign health agency receiving American aid to provide abortion services or even abortion information (see Kaplan 2004). Months later and after several meetings with pro-life groups (a regular occurrence in the White House, as well as weekly conference calls with evangelical and Catholic leaders), Bush announced that he would also be forbidding the use federal dollars to fund future research of embryonic stem cells. This decision was hugely important in solidifying the support of America’s most listened to evangelical, the Rev. James Dobson of Focus on the Family, who noted, “needless to say, I was elated to learn, that contrary to our fears, Mr. Bush was planning to act on behalf of unborn life (as quoted by Kaplan 2004, pg. 125).” Yet as important as these actions were to the base, Bush would make his largest religious gains on another two issues. One of these, Bush’s Faith-Based Initiatives had been long in development and even served as a centrepiece of the previous campaign, the other, gay marriage, thanks to a ruling by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, cropped-up literally overnight and was for a time an issue both Rove and the President were hesitant to tackle.

The reinstatement of the global gag order and the prohibition of federal funding for the research of new embryonic stem cell lines made Bush considerable friends among evangelicals. Once instated, these executive orders were then paraded before the Christian Right in hopes of luring those four million evangelicals Rove so often spoke of to the polls. Yet in energizing his own religious base, Bush also managed to mobilize substantial opposition among many in the medical profession and in the ranks of various women’s groups. In addition to angering these constituencies, Bush’s pandering to the right also succeeded in raising serious suspicions among America’s more moderate electorate, a group who had largely voted for him on the presumption that like them, Bush too was a moderate at heart. In an effort to counter growing questions and sagging approval ratings, the Bush White House sought to make inroads where few Republicans dared, namely among Black and Hispanic Americans. Yet winning their support, Bush knew, particularly Black Americans was no easy task. Bush had, after all, spent considerable time and resources campaigning to this same group in 2000 general election, only to be rewarded with less than 10 percent national support. The key to improving these numbers was to show that Bush cared about black people, and so it was that Bush, through his Faith-Based and Community Initiatives lavished conservative black preachers and their churches with sizable sums of federal money. This was made so as the Faith-Based and Community Initiatives program, serves as a federal partnership between government (i.e. government money) and “those providers most capable” of meeting the needs of the poor (White House 2008), namely churches in local communities.

Tracking the exact sum of federal grant money distributed through Bush’s faith-based program has been notoriously difficult as this money is divided up between various federal departments and agencies, as well as with each state being provided a lump sum for its own dispersant. In March of 2005, however, “Bush proudly told a conference of religious leaders that the federal government gave $2 billion in grants to faith-based groups the year before (Goldberg 2006, pg. 108).” We do, however, know that by 2004, some $300 million dollars yet to promote healthy marriages and another $75 million for responsible fatherhood (Kaplan 2004), two issues which disproportionately affect the black community. To further assist/court the black community, the White House regularly organized a series of seminars throughout black neighbourhoods teaching community and religious leaders how to apply for and receive federal faith-based money.

Although government grants to religious charities are by no means new, President Bush took this practice to an unparalleled height. As the self-avowed evangelical Amy Sullivan noted in a 2004 Washington Monthly article, “‘[t]he policy of funding the work of faith-based organisation has, in the face of slashed social service budgets, devolved into a small pork-barrel program that offers token grants to the religious constituencies in Karl Rove’s electoral plan for 2004 while making almost no effort to monitor their effectiveness (as quoted by Goldberg 2006, pg. 109).’” John DiIulio, the first head of Bush’s faith-based programs agrees as well, noting, “There is no precedent in nay modern White House for what is going on in this one: a complete lack of a policy apparatus…What you’ve got is everything—and I mean everything—being run by the political arm. It’s the reign of the Mayberry Machiavellis (as quoted by Goldberg 2006, pg. 121).’” From a governing perspective, what has taken place in the White House’s faith-based program is abhorrent, yet from a political perspective, one would have to say Bush’s faith-based program was a resounding success, particularly as it may well have been the difference between victory and defeat.

In courting black voters, Bush knew he would never win the demographic outright, but in tight elections you don’t need to win every demographic, you just need to improve upon your previous showing. Through his faith-based grants, however, Bush succeeded in wooing “black leaders, many of them evangelical clergy who lead large congregations (Wallsten 2006).” When on election night it became evident that Kerry’s bid for the White House hinged on his ability to carry the state of Ohio (where the election itself was decided by the slimmest of margins), Bush’s improved showing among black voters, a jump of 7 percentage points, proved too steep a hill for Kerry to climb. Ultimately, it appears Bush’s gamble on winning over just enough black voters paid off, as in Ohio, this group proved to be a determining factor between a second Bush presidency and a Kerry victory (Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies 2004).

In American politics there are arguable few things more important than a well prepared plan. When it came to religious voters, Bush had just this. By expanding his courtship to conservative black church-goers, and by building upon his already impressive religious support of four years earlier, the Bush campaign was leaving nothing to chance. To further assist in their religious outreach efforts, the campaign hired a darling of the Christian Right, former executive director of the Christian Coalition, and adept political operative Ralph Reed to oversee its efforts. “One of the fist things Reed did was to appoint chairpersons in each of the eighteen battleground states. In Florida alone, the campaign employed a state chairwoman for evangelical outreach who brought on board outreach chairs in each of Florida’s sixty-seven counties. Every country chair, in turn, recruited between thirty and fifty volunteers to contact and register their evangelical neighbors (Sullivan 2008 pgs. 116-117).”

By contrast, Democratic contender, Senator John Kerry had but one staff member responsible for religious outreach, Mara Vanderslice, and she received scant party assistance and had no pre-existing database of reliable religious allies to work from. Yet as bad as things were for Vanderslice, they were about to get even worse when Archbishop Raymond Burke declared that John Kerry should be denied the Eucharist because of his support for abortion rights.

Whipped into a frenzy the media launched into what became known as ‘Wafer Watch’ and the public quickly began debating the use of Holy Eucharist as a political tool. Immediately, Vanderslice developed a strategy to combat this controversy, which included “talking points that went on the offensive” and the promotion of “Kerry’s commitment to his Catholic faith (Sullivan 2008, pg. 125).” In addition, Vanderslice sought out high level pro-choice Catholic politicians who were ready to make the media rounds. Surprisingly, however, senior Kerry advisors chose instead to ignore the issue believing that it would simply die down. When questions concerning Kerry’s Catholic credentials did not go away, however, the campaign decided to make one of its few religious appeals. The idea was to organize a national community service day with people of faith just weeks before the general election. The event was called ‘People of Faith for Kerry’, and it was supposed to be covered by the major news outlets in hopes of generating positive press coverage for the candidate. The only problem was that the press never got the memo and subsequently, “not a single reporter or photographer showed up to cover the (campaigns) endeavours (Sullivan 2008, pg. 136).” This media failure was a direct result of the Kerry communication office, which insisted on controlling all press outreach and refused to allow the volunteers, “many of whom had relationships with local publications (Sullivan 2008, pg. 137),” from contacting them whatsoever. When the communications office forgot about the event, the public was left in the dark.

Ultimately, there was little the Kerry campaign could do to prevent the issue of the Senator’s faith from emerging as a political issue. Yet the failure of the campaign to effectively control this story is an example of poor managerial judgment and a badly executed plan. Campaigns need to expect the unexpected, and be ready to roll with unforeseen developments. Kerry was unsuccessful in doing just this, whereas Bush was much more adept. For Bush team, their moment of political genius came in their response to an issue few saw coming.

In the early onset of the 2004 presidential campaign, few political observers foresaw gay marriage playing any significant role. In fact, it was not until the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court on February 3rd of that year ruled in a split decision to expand the states definition of marriage to include homosexual couples that the issue even began to register as an election year topic. Yet as viable as gay marriage would ultimately prove to be for Bush, his team of senior advisors were initially hesitant to take this issue head-on, as “60% of voters said that they supported same-sex marriage or civil unions (Sherrill 2004, pg. 2).” The problem, the Bush camp knew, lay with differentiating support for civil unions and that of same-sex marriage. By coming out too strong against the court’s decision, Bush ran the risk of offending a substantial portion of the American electorate, who when now faced with the topic as never before, might ultimately decide to side in support of gay couples. By remaining quite, however, Bush would come off as insincere and unsupportive of the efforts of the Christian Right, an act that could potential undermine all the work his campaign had done to lure ever more Christian conservatives to their cause. For these reasons, it was not at all surprising that “Bush was slow to endorse a constitutional amendment to define marriage as between a man and a woman (Cooperman and Edall 2004).” Yet as the calls from Christian leaders came pouring in, and as gay couples began lining up outside city hall in San Francisco and Portland, Oregon, Bush publicly declared his support for a federal amendment banning same-sex marriages. On July 14th, the United States Senate, in what was perceived to be a big election year defeat for the Bush White House, rejected such an amendment, thereby leaving little recourse for opponents of same-sex marriage outside the states.

Although Hawaii and Vermont had already recognized civil unions some years before, and whereas a handful of other states already had amendments or laws banning same-sex marriage, most states had yet to address the issue of gay marriage in any meaningful way. Of the few states that had, Michigan had more recently done so when in 2003 State Senator Alan Cropsey introduced a bill banning same-sex marriage. Anticipating a bitter and emotionally charged fight, Cropsey, was relying heavily on support from his state party. To his surprise, however, it was not the Michigan Republican Party that came most to his aide, but rather the Roman Catholic Church, who spent nearly a million dollars in an effort which secured the passage of his bill (see Cooperman and Edsall 2004). One year later, a similar story would again play out, this time in a total of 13 states (11 on election-day). In these contests, the untold story of the 2004 election, “is that evangelical Christian groups were often more aggressive and sometimes better organized on the ground than the Bush campaign…[and] in many respects, Christian activists led the charge that GOP operatives followed and capitalized upon (Cooperman and Edsall 2004).” In many instances, scores of clergy members went as far as to attend “legal sessions explaining how they could talk about the election from the pulpit (Ibid).” Similarly, countless churches launched voter registration drives and issued countless voter guides instructing congregants on how to vote, with the Christian Coalition alone mailing some “30 million voter guides in 2004 (Sullivan 2008, pg. 145).” As such, states with gay marriage ballot propositions provided Bush with just the issue needed to drive evangelicals to the polls. Furthermore, evidence seems to suggest that while gay marriage mobilized Christian conservatives behind Bush, it had an opposite, demobilizing effect on secular voters, a demographic were the Democrats enjoy sizable support, thus damping secular turnout and Kerry support (see Campbell and Monson 2005).

On this single issue, more than any other, evangelicals mobilized in ways never before seen in the hole of American history. While Kerry supporters were busy phone banking and knocking on doors, Bush increasingly came to rely on the strength of the Christian Right. As would be the case, Bush’s re-election efforts weren’t happening in stealth, as some Democrats have surmised (see for instance Goldberg 2006, pgs. 52-56), his efforts were simply taking place where most secular Americans never dared venture, in churches and mega-churches around the country.

The Changing Evangelical Landscape

When elections are decided by the narrowest of margins, any erosion of support often proves detrimental. In both the 2000 and 2004 presidential cycles, religious support for the Democratic nominee has steadily ebbed when compared to Bill Clinton’s re-election of 1996. In that election, Clinton enjoyed the support of 54 percent of all voting Catholics and 32 percent of white evangelicals. In 2000, by contrast, Gore’s share of religious support had slipped to 50 percent among Catholics and 28 percent among white evangelicals. By 2004, those figures where down even further when Kerry received a mere 46 percent of the Catholic vote and an anaemic 22 percent of white evangelicals (see Sullivan 2008, pg. 222 and 223). Following these losses, many Democrats began to take seriously the party’s ineffectiveness in wooing religious voters and once again made religious outreach a top priority.

Leading this charge has been the two person operation of Common Good Strategies, which is to date the only Democratic consultancy firm specializing in religious outreach. With their help, Democrats have begun to amass an impressive string of electoral victories as an increasing number of religious voters in key districts and swing states are once again pulling the lever for Democratic candidates. Most notable among recent victories was the 2006 re-election of Michigan governor, Jennifer Granholm, who despite presiding over an ailing economy in her first term, was able to run and win on a pro-choice, pro-gay rights platform while capturing 47 percent of the evangelical vote (see Sullivan 2008, pg. 203). The secrets to Granhom’s success lay with her willingness to speak openly about her faith and to personally engage evangelicals on their own turf (for more information, see Sullivan 2008, pgs. 177-204). Similar stories have likewise played out for other Democrats willing to follow comparable campaign strategies. In Ohio, Governor Ted Scrickland frequently visited churches, engaged congregants and spoke of abortion reduction, rather than simply labelling himself as pro-choice. In addition to these efforts, Strickland also harnessed the power of Christian radio and did so early (Ibid).

Since 2004, Democrats have gradually opened up about their faith and their willingness to engage the religious voter. Campaign stops at churches and synagogues are an important aspect of this outreach, as they not only place the candidates among actual voters, but they also provide excellent photo ops and are often covered by both conventional and Christian press. In addition, Democratic candidates are increasingly spending money advertising on Christian media outlets (see Sapp 2006), while the national party now promotes the use of Christian radio as effective venue for candidates to reach voters (see Brown 2006). Furthermore, there are fresh signs that the religious left is ending their long-time silence. For instance, Jim Wallis’ Sojourners is one such organization who for the past several years has busied itself organizing relies and conferences around the country, raising funds and running ads in hundreds of local newspapers, as well as having launched an extensive voter registration drive in time for the 2008 presidential election (see Sullivan 2008). Similarly, a group of three Catholic friends angered by the willingness of some Catholic priests to use communion as a weapon, have subsequently launched the Catholic Voting Project website, which permits “visitors to take an online quiz to see how their positions [match] up with those of the Church (Sullivan 2008, pg. 148)[,]” and from there, visitors are then able to see how their positions compare against political candidates.

During his own Presidential Campaign, Barack Obama launched an all out offensive to bring religious voters back to the Democratic Party. When, for instance he first introduced himself to the nation at the 2004 Democratic convention, Obama implanted several religious reference, such as “I am my brother’s keeper” into his speech, and at one point even drew from the lyrics of a famous church camp song when he declared he worshiped “an awesome God (see Callahan 2008).” The use of this type of language, as well as a willingness by Obama to cast several political issues into a religious context (as he has so often done with the environment), strikes an important chord among religious voters, particularly younger religious voters, who unlike their parent are more likely to be working towards the eradication of poverty or the preservation of the natural environment rather than picketing abortion clinics. To this end Obama launched his religious outreach offensive, once called the ‘The Joshua Generation Project’, which aimed to specifically “solicit, engage, and win the votes of young evangelicals, young Catholics, and ‘people of faith’ (Ibid),” through a series of house parties, blogs, concerts, and more (see also Brody 2008). Speaking directly of to this endeavour, Obama stressed:

“I’m here because somebody marched. I’m here because you all sacrificed for me. I stand on the shoulders of giants. I thank the Moses generation; but we’ve got to remember, now, that Joshua still had a job to do. As great as Moses was, despite all that he did, leading a people out of bondage, he didn’t cross over the river to see the Promised Land. God told him your job is done. You’ll see it. You’ll be at the mountain top and you can see what I’ve promised. What I’ve promised to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. You will see that I’ve fulfilled that promise but you won’t go there. We’re going to leave it to the Joshua generation to make sure it happens. There are still battles that need to be fought; some rivers that need to be crossed. Like Moses, the task was passed on to those who might not have been as deserving, might not have been as courageous, find themselves in front of the risks that their parents and grandparents and great grandparents had taken. That doesn’t mean that they don’t still have a burden to shoulder, that they don’t have some responsibilities. The previous generation, the Moses generation, pointed the way. They took us 90% of the way there. We still got that 10% in order to cross over to the other side. So the question, I guess, that I have today is what’s called of us in this Joshua generation? What do we do in order to fulfil that legacy; to fulfil the obligations and the debt that we owe to those who allowed us to be here today? (Barack Obama 2007).”

In all, Obama’s effort to tap the religious vote seems to have paid off. Although he has yet to reach the marks set by previous Democratic predecessors, he nonetheless improved upon Kerry’s 2004 showing.

With Obama’s willingness to engage religious voters through a series of online and off-line activities, and given the new social and political concerns of the so-called ‘Joshua Generation’, long held political alignments may well be on the cusp of change. Should these changes indeed manifest the future religious/political American landscape will likely look significantly different than it does today? Given what we know about the social impacts of the Internet, it is likely that new evangelical groups challenging the historical supremacy today’s conservative base will continue their efforts and expand their base. Whether or not the established Christian Right will maintain its political clout, or be forced to share it with new, more diverse internal organizations may well come down to the communication and organization strategies each of these sub-cultures employ. With the advent of the Internet, elite control over the flow of communication has been disrupted, giving voice to previously voiceless people. As Heather Savigny aptly notes, “rather than promoting consensus and the resolution of conflict in accordance with shared values, the internet provides a site where virtual individualism exists in primacy over the reality of geographical and political boundaries. It is through these virtual meeting places that opinion may be formed, and become collective without reference to traditional actors (2002, pg. 7).” Should evangelicals continue to cross this threshold and rely increasingly on the Internet as a means of communication and organization, it is foreseeable that the older evangelical guard will diminish in importance as new evangelical interests threaten to displace this traditional lobby. What the future ultimately holds for the political aspirations of evangelicals is at this point anyone’s guess. It is likely that the effects of the new media environment will be no less revolutionary than those brought about by the advent of earlier communication technologies. Thus by examining changing communication patterns and their net impact on the broader evangelical community, a more accurate picture can thus be had.

Whatever the results of these investigation may be, two truths seem inevitable to create a third. First, America has long been a nation of religious adherents. Our political process and governing bodies are largely characterized by prevailing religious views. Politicians who tread on faith, or who fail to tap America’s ground swell of religious support, do so at their own political peril. Secondly, Internet technologies are not only revolutionizing the way in which politics is conducted, but they are also changing the ways in which we live out our personal lives and interact with those around us. These two truths are not exclusive phenomenon insomuch as they take place independent of one another. They are instead two truths occurring in the same social and political sphere and they are rapidly changing the nature of American society. The political party which comes to understand this best, which puts this knowledge to practice by adapting their message, tweaking their platform and embracing these technological changes, will most assuredly find themselves in a politically advantageous position.

 

 

Notes

1 It is worth noting that in the results of their 1989 study, Litman and Bain found no direct link between church attendance and the viewing of religious programming, a point which contradicts Hadden and Swann 1981 and Tamney and Johnson 1984. Litman and Bain did, however, find a correlation between the intensity of one’s religious beliefs and the viewing of religious programming.

 

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