Top shelf conservative Christian evangelicals, GOP political leaders, and a host of right wing pundits, columnists, and radio and television talk show hosts have just about finished hashing out the whys and wherefores of Election 2006's "thumpin." Much post-election talk has centered on both the actions of the so-called "values voters," and what the election results might means for the future of the Christian right.
Some conservatives have moon-walked away from their defeated GOP brethren faster than Michael Jackson in his prime. Focus on the Family's Dr. James Dobson has argued -- in a post-election statement and on a Thanksgiving Eve appearance with CNN's Larry King -- that it wasn't that conservative social issues were rejected by the voters, it was that the GOP didn't push the conservative social agenda hard enough.
Meanwhile, direct-mail guru Richard Viguerie, and former Republican congressman and current MSNBC talk shot host Joe Scarborough, appear to have gotten what they had been touting for months -- a repudiation of the GOP. They hope, however, that this will lead to a revitalization of the conservative movement.
Unlike 2004, when the term "value voters" became de rigueur amongst the chattering classes, this time around evangelical voters -- unable to deliver tipping point power -- appear to have become just another -- albeit still important -- voting block.
One of the most hotly debated pre-election questions revolved around whether, given all the GOP scandals and bad news emanating from Iraq, conservative Christian evangelicals would choose to sit the election out. They didn't. Instead, they stayed the course: the New York Times reported that about 24 percent of voters -- up from 23 percent in 2004 -- considered themselves evangelicals or born-again Christians. Seventy percent voted for GOP candidates, compared to 72 percent in the last election.
In a column headlined "What I learned in the '06 elections," conservative columnist Maggie Gallagher, an affiliate scholar with the Institute for American Values and the president of the Manassas, Virginia-based the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy, included this unique way of spelling out how evangelical voters responded to ethics issues -- one of the issues that persuaded many independents to vote for Democrats: "Despite Ted Haggard, Mark Foley, Dick Armey, John Ashcroft, Ryan Sager, David Kuo, and all the other sophisticated efforts to persuade evangelicals that the GOP is simply cynically using them, evangelicals turned out" [italics added], and voted overwhelmingly for GOP candidates. Evangelicals alone may not be enough," Gallagher concluded. "But without them, Republicans are nowhere."
What Gallagher appears to be saying is that conservative Christian evangelicals remained solidly in the GOP camp "despite" the ethics scandals that ensnared former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX), former congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-CA), the now-jailed Republican Party lobbyist Jack Abramoff; "despite" the disturbing interactions between Rep. Mark Foley (R-FL) and congressional pages; "despite" the gay sex/drug scandal that brought down Haggard, the head of one of the most prominent evangelical Christian megachurches in the country and the former leader of the powerful and politically well-connected National Association of Evangelicals; "despite" David Kuo's revelation in "Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction," that the Bush administration used the faith-based initiative for political purposes, and often ridiculed evangelical leaders.
Power Trumps Ethics
Gallagher's pithy commentary raises an intriguing question: If the killing fields in Iraq, the Republican Party paying lip service to their agenda, and the GOP's ethics breakdown didn't dissuade the "values voters" from straying from the fold, what ever could cause them to desert the Republican Party?
While he doesn't speak directly to this question, Ken Connor, a Christian conservative leader who has consistently spoken out against this eras ethically-challenged GOP leaders and the evangelicals who support and enable them, lays part of the blame for the GOP's defeat at the doorstep of Christian evangelical leaders: "It is clear that Christian conservative leaders contributed to the Republican defeat, and in the process they've lost credibility," Connor wrote in a post-election commentary titled "Defending the Indefensible: The Road to Defeat."
Connor, the former president of the Family Research Council, who currently heads the Center for a Just Society, wrote that "When Tom DeLay's excesses were exposed, Christian political groups closed ranks to support him. When congressional Republicans put on their phony legislative parade, Christian political leaders were willing accomplices. When the Mark Foley scandal hit, Christian groups faulted everyone but Republican leaders. Why have prominent Christian organizations and leaders behaved in this way? The sad reality is that many have been seduced by the Washington, D.C., political culture. They have identified themselves so closely with persons and parties that they have lost sight of principle. By excusing the behavior of the Republican Party, Christian conservatives set the party up for the 2006 defeat."
Cal Thomas, one of the country's most widely syndicated columnists, maintained in a recent report that intoxication with political power "often dulls the senses to morality and 'values.'" In a story titled "Where do conservative Christians go from here?" Thomas argued that the "unholy alliance between people of faith and politicians ... often ends in compromise on the part of the faithful and the cynical harvesting of their votes with little offered in return." The case of Rep. Don Sherwood (R-Pa.), who lost his seat to a Democrat, is particular instructive said Thomas. Here is someone who "cheat[ed] on his wife and allegedly abus[ed] his mistress, Cynthia Ore, [yet] he still gets an 85 percent approval rating from the Focus on the Family Action organization. The delicious irony here is that he might have earned a 100 percent rating had he voted for the Marriage Protection amendment, which he supported."
The Christian Right's Future
Despite these criticisms, denial and resistance to change appears to dominate the Christian right's post-election analyses. The Rev. Lou Sheldon, the head of the Traditional Values Coalition maintained: "We know that in America the people are with us. They're just confused."
In its post-election analysis titled "Republican electoral defeat leaves religious right largely intact," the website JewsOnFirst warned that the Christian right will continue to aggressively push its agenda, especially in states where Republicans remain a majority and the Christian right controls the Party's apparatus: "Given the loss of opportunity on the federal level, there will probably be more, not fewer, state legislative attacks on science, gay rights and reproductive rights. Additionally, there will probably be an increase in state legislation deliberately breaching the separation of church and state in school and public life."
According to JewsOnFirst, "expect state-and local-level efforts to":
"On the national level and, in states where Democrats gained legislative seats or governorships . . . expect the religious right to wage . . . campaigns to defend their gains, most notably":
In a statement dated November 9, James Dobson accused Republicans of abandoning conservative Christians. "If they hope to return to power in '08," Dobson wrote, Republicans "must rediscover the conservative principles that resonated with the majority of Americans in the 1980s -- and still resonate with them today. Failure to do so will be catastrophic. Values voters are not going to carry water for the Republican Party if it ignores their deeply held convictions."
Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange.com column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.
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