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The Christian Right in American Politics

Think Tank Transcripts:The Christian Right in American Politics

MR. WATTENBERG: Hello. I'm Ben Wattenberg. The Christian right hasbecome a powerful force in the Republican Party, sparking a debateover religion and politics.

Joining us to sort through the conflict and the consensus are:Michael Cromartie of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and editorof the forthcoming book, 'Disciples in Democracy: ReligiousConservatives and the Future of American Politics'; Randall Balmer,associate professor of religion at Barnard College and author of'Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the EvangelicalSubculture in America'; Larry Sabato, professor of political scienceat the University of Virginia; and historian Michael Kazin of theAmerican University and author of the forthcoming book, 'The PopulistPersuasion, an American History.'

The topic before this house: the Christian right in Americanpolitics. This week on 'Think Tank.'

America was founded by religious refugees. In our history,religious faith inspired political and social movements, like theanti-slavery crusade in the 1850s, the fight for a constitutionalamendment to outlaw alcohol, and a large number of anti-war protests.

Thirty years ago, the Reverend Martin Luther King forthrightlydeclared that it was his faith that impelled him to fight for civilrights. His sermons mobilized millions in the struggle over votingrights for black Americans.

Despite this long history, many Americans have always believedthat politics should be kept out of the pews and religion out of thevoting booth.

Now a movement of Christian conservatives seem to be gainingpolitical clout, especially within the Republican Party. Figures likereligious broadcaster Pat Robertson, Virginia senatorial candidateOliver North, and columnist and former presidential candidate PatBuchanan have all rallied support from the so-called religious right.That has caused consternation among some Republicans, and at leastsome experts think it offers a political opportunity for theDemocrats.

Recently, Congressman Dick Fazio, chairman of the DemocraticCongressional Campaign Committee, characterized the movement asradical and intolerant. He warns that the Republicans accept thereligious right and their tactics at their own peril. That is whatthe American people fear most.

But do they? Polls show that Americans are one of the mostreligious peoples in the world, and with the exception of a stronganti-abortion stance, the bulk of the religious right's politicalagenda is often quite close to traditional conservatism.

Gentlemen, let me begin this discussion, if I might, trying toelicit some information, perhaps starting with you, MichaelCromartie. Who are these people? We see in the headlines, it says'Religious Right,' 'Christian Right.' Who are we talking about?

MR. CROMARTIE: We're talking about conservative Protestants, whoare sometimes called fundamentalists; they're sometimes calledevangelicals. There's a difference between evangelicals andfundamentalists. There are also charismatic conservative Christians,all a part of the Protestant wing.

However, Ben, it's becoming more and more the case thatconservative Catholics are now being identified with the religiousright, and even conservative Jews. As you mentioned just in youropening there, traditional conservatism is an umbrella that a lot ofthese people have become a part of. So it's not just evangelicals andfundamentalists, although a large body of them are these people.

MR. WATTENBERG: Randall Balmer, what would you add to thatdescription of Michael's?

MR. BALMER: I think it's important to note that this is part of along strain in American history. Far too often, the religious rightis characterized as something that kind of descended out of outerspace in the late 1970s. Evangelicals really throughout most of the19th century established the social and political agenda for thiscountry, and it was only in the late '70s or mid-'70s when they beganto reclaim their place in American public discourse.

But I'd also say that these are people who feel displaced in oneway or another. They feel as though the surrounding culture isoverwhelming to them, they feel as though their values are no longercentral to the culture in the way that they were maybe 50 or 30 yearsago. And this is what I think energizes them as well.

MR. WATTENBERG: Michael Kazin, you're a historian. I mean it'sinteresting. You all come, I think, from probably different spots onthe political spectrum, but the picture we're beginning to get isthat at least we can agree on some history. So, please.

MR. KAZIN: I think it's important to note that in this longhistory of evangelical politics, if you will, in the 19th century,especially the late 19th century, the political location of a lot ofthese people was really more on the left than on the right. ThePeople's Party, the populists, the original populists really, who hada pretty far-reaching economic program -- wanted to nationalize therailroads and other, quote, socialist kinds of programs, were mostlyvery strongly believing Christians. And most of them were in favor ofthe prohibition of alcohol as well.

And so moral politics with a religious basis has not always beenlocated on the right, by any means. MR. WATTENBERG: Professor LarrySabato of the University of Virginia, and I stress Virginia becauseyou have got a lollapalooza of a Senate race this time with OliverNorth allegedly -- and I underscore allegedly -- a candidate of thereligious right challenging incumbent senator Charles Robb and aseries of other people in a great political race from a journalisticpoint of view.

What do you make of this religious right movement? How did it playout in Virginia? How does it add into what your colleagues havetalked about?

MR. SABATO: Well, taking Virginia first, you're right, thereligious right is playing a major role. I don't think Oliver Northcould have been nominated without the Christian coalition. He had apretty closely contested convention race. He won with only 55percent, and I think the Christian coalition definitely made themargin of difference there.

MR. CROMARTIE: Let me add to this, Ben, something that Randalljust said, and that's simply this, that it's true that evangelicalshave been involved in politics. And most historians locate theirleaving the political arena with the Scopes trial in 1925, where theywere absolutely embarrassed.

MR. WATTENBERG: Refresh for us the Scopes trial.

MR. CROMARTIE: Well, the Scopes trial was a debate about teachingcreationism in the Tennessee schools in 1925, and H.L. Mencken'sjournalistic writings and critiques of them had quite a big effect onthe country in his descriptions of them.

A lot of fundamentalists and evangelicals became apolitical duringthat time, and the loss of the Protestant consensus in this culturecaused a lot of them to go underground. But their churches grew. Andit wasn't until -- as we've mentioned, till the '70s that many ofthem became re-involved in the public debate, and that was inresponse to, I might say, the successes of liberal culture in thissociety. I mean the Supreme Court decisions and the

MR. WATTENBERG: Give us a rundown of what would bug the religiousright. MR. CROMARTIE: Well, the Roe versus Wade decision in '73, buteven the 1962 and '63 decisions on school prayer and Bible reading inschools. Those two court cases kind of woke these people up tocertain things that were happening they were not pleased with. Andthen some IRS decisions related to private schools and how they oughtto be run caused them to become very agitated and concerned.

MR. WATTENBERG: And running today right down to the advent of gaypolitics in our society.

MR. BALMER: I think the issue of homosexual politics and thedenial of civil rights, or what the religious right characterizes asspecial rights to gays and lesbians, is in some ways a special casein that I think we are in a time of very deep cultural transitionright now. The most important thing that's happened in the last fewyears is that we as Americans have been robbed of our most durableenemy, the Soviet Union. With the collapse of the Soviet empire, Ithink we have been casting about to redefine ourselves. And we defineourselves as a people as against an enemy. We always had that enemy.For three-quarters of a century, we had the Soviet Union as an enemy.Now that's gone, and we've been casting about as a culture for a newenemy. And I think now we're looking to gays and lesbians, right hereamong us, as the new enemy. And I think for the religious right, thishas become an enormously potent kind of defining issue for them.

MR. KAZIN: I think historically, too, the rise of the Christianright has to be -- of course this didn't begin three or four yearsago; it began in the late '60s, early '70s, as you mentioned -- butit has to be connected to a sort of overwhelming fear of America'sdecline, not just economically in contrast to the Japanese andGermans, in competition with them and other economic powers andSoutheast Asians, but also sort of moral decline and culturaldecline.

I think that's one of the reasons why Christian right argumentshave caught on with people who would not originally be in favor ofthem -- for instance, some conservative Jews, orthodox Jews, whohistorically feared evangelical Christians as antisemites, which someof them were. But it's astonishing, I think, to historians to see howwide-ranging this feeling is and how ecumenical, in many ways, it is.

MR. WATTENBERG: Larry, you saw these people at work. Did youregard them as dangerous zealots or intolerant?

MR. SABATO: Look, you've got some zany and zealous elements inthis movement, as you do in almost any. And I think the pressnaturally focuses on the more extreme elements. For example, JerryFalwell sending out that ridiculous video claiming darkly thatClinton had been involved in a half a dozen murders here and there. Imean this is absurd. But the people that I know in the Christianright movement, and allies -- as you mentioned, for example,traditional Catholics opposed to abortion -- they're serious peoplewho are seriously concerned about what they see as the trends insociety, the social trends, the moral trends, the disintegration ofthe traditional family.

I don't know that it's -- I think you're right, there is partly areaction to what they perceive of as a threat, such as gay rights.But it's also -- the other side of the coin is their concern aboutthe disintegration of what they regard as the fundamentalorganizational element of society, the traditional family. And Ithink that has a legitimate place in the discussion and debate, and Ithink they add something important there.

MR. WATTENBERG: On this side of the aisle here, do you all thinkthey are intolerant and bigoted?

MR. BALMER: I would agree with Larry that they are sincere,well-meaning people -- I'm speaking about the rank and file; I'm notso sure about the leaders sometimes -- that is, people who really dofeel displaced. They do feel that the culture is in trouble. And asLarry says, the family is in trouble in this culture. There's noquestion about that, and they're building on those kinds of fears.

I'm not sure I'm prepared to dismiss the threat of the religiousright. According to some figures that I've come across recently, ofthe nation's 16,000 school boards, over 2200 now have been captured-- the majorities have been captured by the fundamentalist religiousright.

MR. CROMARTIE: Ben, I wanted to add that last week I had ajournalist in my office who said to me, among his many questions, Doyou think these people are apocalyptic about their descriptions ofthe social crisis in this country?

And I said, Well, I would say they were if it weren't for the factthat Daniel Patrick Moynihan, William Raspberry, Charles Murray, andany number of social scientists have shown us clearly that we're in abad situation.

MR. WATTENBERG: And Randall Balmer has just admitted it -- I mean,not admitted it. I mean it's pretty common knowledge.

MR. CROMARTIE: Exactly, and I think on this point, Ben, one of theironic points that the religious right needs to pay attention to isthat a lot of these problems are cultural and not political and thatthere needs to be a lot of cultural persuasion and debate that goeson, that the law is really not going to get at certain familyproblems. It just can't.

And so one other thing is that religious right is being more andmore motivated by cultural crisis and trying to find politicalsolutions to this cultural crisis, and in some ways it can provide astopgap, but it won't solve the problem of the family.

MR. WATTENBERG: You're saying, it's not the economy, stupid. Theproblems, the political problems in our society are cultural.

MR. CROMARTIE: Well, not all of them. I mean I don't want to arguethat politics and changing the law on certain things won't affectthings. I mean racism is a cultural problem, but the civil rightsmovement was very important in making it illegal to discriminateagainst

MR. WATTENBERG: Let me ask a question. At the Houston RepublicanConvention in 1992, the media, the mainstream media mocked the ideaof cultural politics. Now here we are, two years later, and everybodyright to left is talking values, values, values, values. DonnaShalala goes up and says Dan Quayle was right about Murphy Brown.Bill Clinton has in effect said that.

What on earth has happened? Is Clinton what's driving thisrenaissance of traditional values?

MR. BALMER: I don't know that I'd go that far, but I think BillClinton is, to my mind, the first American president who takesseriously the fact that we are a pluralistic culture. At the sametime, he recognizes that there needs to be a conversation aboutvalues and morality. A lot of people find that ironic, thinking thatClinton himself doesn't quite pass muster on those points.

But what I find fascinating about Clinton and his presidency isthat he seems to be groping toward a language for talking about thesesorts of things that is not strictly or exclusively a Judeo-Christianlanguage, that somehow reaches beyond that. It's very difficult, andyou see him groping toward it.

I think the State of the Union Address was a good example of that,where he was trying to find this vocabulary where we can talk aboutvalues without kind of hunkering back to this Judeo-Christiantradition, which is -- let's face it, it is exclusionary. It doesn'trepresent everyone in America. It doesn't take into account thepluralistic culture.

MR. SABATO: You're right, that's a good thing for any president todo. But I think you'd admit, as you just suggested, that Clinton isin a very difficult position in trying to do that. In fact, I wouldsay that one reason why social conservatism has found its voice inthe first two years of the Clinton administration is because of BillClinton's character problems, the unresolved character problems fromthe 1992 campaign. And we've learned a lot more about him, and I hateto tell you, but we're going to be learning a lot more about himstill between now and the 1996 campaign.

MR. KAZIN: In fact, if he hadn't talked so much about values, Ithink he'd be in better shape

MR. SABATO: Exactly.

MR. KAZIN: -- in that sense, because he's seen as a hypocrite.

MR. SABATO: He brings up the wrong subjects.

MR. KAZIN: But I think that Randall is right, that what he triedto do, and he hasn't done it very effectively because of a lot ofother problems he's had, is to give the left in the broad sense --liberals, the left side of the political spectrum -- a language ofvalues, which it didn't really have. That's one of the reasons theChristian right was able to make gains, I think, in the '70s and '80sas well.

MR. WATTENBERG: By the way, Michael, somebody used the word herethat the Judeo-Christian tradition was exclusionary. Do you buy that?

MR. CROMARTIE: No, I don't, in this sense. It is exclusionarytheologically, but it's not exclusionary politically. It doesn't haveto be exclusionary politically.

MR. BALMER: It doesn't have to be, but look at Robertson andBuchanan at the '92

MR. CROMARTIE: What was exclusionary about what they did? MR.BALMER: They were talking about this culture war, how this

MR. CROMARTIE: The culture war, Randall, as you well know, theculture war is very real in this society.

MR. WATTENBERG: If you read the Democratic Party speeches, say, byJerry Brown and Jesse Jackson, you would find them no less extremethan what Buchanan and Robertson said.

MR. SABATO: But that's the point, Ben. Both sides are intolerant.The secular left and the religious right have strong elements ofintolerance in there. And hopefully, the political process will tamethose elements of intolerance, which is what normally happens.

MR. CROMARTIE: It has already. Larry, as you know, it has alreadytamed those elements. And there are people in this movement that areintolerant.

However, the people who are most intolerant right now, in my view,is the liberal culture and liberal media, who I think take thereligious right more seriously than they should and give them morepower than they have. The most intolerant convention, in my mind, wasthe Democratic Convention, where they would not allow a governor ofthe largest state in the country, namely Governor Casey, he didn'tgive a speech because he was pro-life. Now, that's intolerance.

MR. SABATO: Well, there was intolerance at both conventions. Ithink that's a fair statement.

MR. KAZIN: The Republicans did not allow a homosexual to talkabout homosexual rights in a positive way, either.

MR. CROMARTIE: Well, it's interesting. A person is accused in thispolitically correct culture to be intolerant if he holds a normativeethic about anything. If you have a transcendent viewpoint aboutsomething and say, I will tolerate something, but I won't have toaccept it, you're going to be accused of being homophobic orintolerant. I think that's unfair.

MR. SABATO: Well, but the point that I think we can draw from partof what you just said is that in the American system, in Americanpolitics, mobilization begets counter-mobilization.

MR. CROMARTIE: Exactly. Sure.

MR. SABATO: And that's what we're seeing again. The religiousright is begetting a movement -- just starting -- on the left amongreligious people to counter-organize. And that's all to the good.

MR. CROMARTIE: They don't have the numbers, though. I mightmention, they don't have the numbers.

MR. SABATO: Not yet.

MR. WATTENBERG: Let's get down to some brass tacks. We've got anelection coming up this year. Are the people in the religious rightgoing to get what they want? Are they going to be a plus or are theygoing to be a minus for their party, for the Republicans? Gentlemen?

MR. KAZIN: I think it cuts both ways. I mean Larry's the expert onthis, but I think it cuts both ways, because on the one hand, theytake votes away from lower middle-class people, working-class people,who on economic grounds should be Democrats. So that's a plus for theRepublicans. On the other hand, they certainly help the Democratswhen you hear this kind of, I think, intolerant talk anyway. So Ithink it cuts both ways. I'm curious what Larry thinks about OliverNorth and his appeal in these terms, though.

MR. SABATO: Well, more generally, I think this year the religiousright is going to be a big plus for the Republicans. That's becauseit's a mid-term year. If it were a presidential year, I'd concludeotherwise for the following reason. In a midterm year, you've got 36,37, 38 percent of the people voting overall, but the religious rightreally activates and excites their membership, and their turnout, myguess, is going to be over 50 percent. That means everybody else'sturnout is really about a third of the electorate. Therefore they'lladd a few percentage points to candidates they support.

But a presidential year is another thing entirely. Turnout is muchhigher, and I think it's much closer to what you're saying. It'scloser to a wash with the pro- and anti-religious elements combiningin a way that doesn't really give a net electoral advantage to eitherparty.

MR. WATTENBERG: You have said that we are overestimating theirnumbers. Is that what you think?

MR. CROMARTIE: I do. I mean we're talking about a quarter -- atthe most, a quarter of the American voting population, at the most.That's a lot of people, but they're not going to take over theRepublican Party. That's a myth. And they're not going to take overthe country. So they're not a threat to the republic if you're notgoing to take over the country.

MR. BALMER: But they are, as Larry said, more active, morevigorous.


MR. BALMER: These are the people who are sending out letters,making phone calls, knocking on doors, whereas the more traditionalRepublican -- I think the real fissures are going to be within theRepublican Party over this.

MR. WATTENBERG: Well, I mean, but shouldn't we all believe intheory that people, whether they are religious or not, should beactive in politics?

MR.BALMER: Absolutely.

MR. CROMARTIE: But you just -- but, Randall, you seemed to implythere was something wrong with them doing that.

MR. BALMER: No, absolutely not. No, I just -- I don't think thattheir influence has been overestimated. I think it's beenunderestimated for precisely those reasons.

MR. KAZIN: The question, I think, is whether the Republican Partycan do without the Christian right. I mean in many ways the Christianright holds a position in the Republican Party the way labor unionsused to hold in the Democratic Party -- long ago. That is, it's themost committed core of supporters, they get out precinct walkers.It's the grassroots strength. And a party needs grassroots strength.

MR. WATTENBERG: And recently, they have shown some sophisticationin supporting pro-choice Republicans who are conservative otherwise.That makes them

MR. CROMARTIE: Like Kay Hutchinson in Texas.

MR. WATTENBERG: Kay Hutchinson and Paul Coverdale in Georgia,which makes them -- I mean my own view is that bringing people intothe political system makes them -- knocks off a lot of the sharpedges and makes people -- that's what our pluralist system does. Itlets people get along.

MR. CROMARTIE: They find that out pretty quickly, too, Ben. And Ithink in the last decade, we've seen that history, that kind ofshaping occur to these people, and they're nuancing their arguments.They learn lessons, they make mistakes, but -- they take their lumps,but they've nuanced their arguments much better, and they've realizedthat politics is not church politics. You're not dealing with peopleof the same theological orientation. You have to build bridges andcoalitions and learn how to be prudently a compromiser.

MR. SABATO: And really, the tipoff for the Christian right, thefact that I think they have realized political reality, is the factthat they have supported pro-choice candidates. When I saw thathappening, it really was an eye-opener, I think for me and for a lotof people, the fact that they would be willing to support candidateswho would vote to keep the abortion laws much as they are or evenliberalize them.

MR. CROMARTIE: Which means they're not just a single-issuecoalition. And in response to what Michael said, I would agree. Ithink the Republican Party needs the religious right and thereligious right needs the Republican Party.

MR. SABATO: And I think they're both going to find that out andlearn how to work together. I think that's already happening.

MR. BALMER: This kind of softening of the edges I think pointsout, to me, the deficiencies of this whole culture war's paradigm,which is a very dualistic view, one side or the other. And it seemsto me that -- you're right, exactly, that the political processbreeds compromise. In order to get anything done, you have to havecompromise.

MR. WATTENBERG: What do you all agree upon and what do youdisagree upon? Mr. Kazin.

MR. KAZIN: Well, I think we agree about the significance of theChristian right politically and the fact that its presence is notsomething new on the historical-political scene. And I think we agreeabout some of the reasons why it arose when it did.

I think we disagree probably about the virtue of its positions. Weagree that virtue should be in politics perhaps, but we don't agreeon the virtue of this particular political force. That's my readingof it anyway.

MR. BALMER: I think we agree that these are -- most of thesepeople are sincere, well-meaning, well-intentioned people. Many ofthem are my friends. I travel around the country a good bit and

MR. WATTENBERG: Well, and you would not regard yourself by anymeans as a member of

MR. BALMER: I don't.

MR. WATTENBERG: You'd be on the other side?

MR. BALMER: I don't fall into the conservative camp politically. Ithink what I hear coming from the religious right is a lot ofmoralistic language. And I don't think Jesus was a moralist.

MR. CROMARTIE: So, you see we disagree about what these people aresaying. Randall is suggesting there's a lot of moralistic language.There is, but there's a lot of moralist language coming from a lot ofpeople who are not part of the religious right because we have a lotof bad, moral problems in this country that are rooted in policiesthat have been put in place by liberal politicians that a lot ofpeople across the board are suggesting have been a detriment to thefamily.

And I think we also disagree about what the word tolerant andintolerant is. And I think there is intolerance on all sides.

MR. WATTENBERG: Larry, wrap it up for us.

MR. SABATO: I agree with the agreements and disagreements.(Laughter.) I think that we agree that participation in Americanpolitics is not only a good thing, it's the only way in our systemfor these sorts of views to be heard. I think we disagree aboutwhether in the end this is going to be a healthy thing for thepolitical system or not. And I personally believe that it will bevery healthy for the system, and also for these groups, because theyare learning reality as opposed to ideology and doctrine.

MR. WATTENBERG: Okay. Thank you, Larry Sabato, Randall Balmer,Michael Cromartie, and Michael Kazin.

And thank you. As you know, we have enjoyed hearing from you.Please continue to send your comments and questions to the address onthe screen.

For 'Think Tank,' I'm Ben Wattenberg. END

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