Who Needs the Religious Right? We All Do

Three things about the Religious Right’s influence on the 1992 election and in American politics are of particular interest to me. First, a myth that grew out of the 1992 Republican Convention in Houston. Second, the surprising gains that the Religious Right has made, particularly in the media (National Public Radio presented a fair piece on efforts by the Religious Right to expand into the black and Hispanic communities). And third, the Religious Right’s role in keeping alive moral issues and traditional values important to most Americans.

I was in Houston when the myth began. The Religious Right was said to have taken over the convention and to have imposed its own religious views on the Republican Party, with the goal of imposing them on the entire nation. The myth created a media consensus on the convention: that it was intolerant, mean-spirited, exclusive, judgmental, narrow-minded, or worse. When Pat Buchanan gave his speech, I happened to be sitting next to another Washington journalist who is a bellwether of press opinion. At first he loved Buchanan’s speech, but two days later his view had changed entirely, as had the view of many other press people. Now he felt the convention had turned into a hate-fest because of its domination by the Religious Right. That became the conventional wisdom among reporters in Houston. No, they didn’t conspire to reach this conclusion, but as they gathered to trade information and gossip, the consensus emerged that the Religious Right, if not in total control of the convention, at least had a large and pernicious influence there.

The evidence? It was the speeches by Religious Right people, like Pat Buchanan (even though he has little to do with the organized Religious Right). The mainstream press pointed to these speeches more than to the issues of homosexuality and family values. Pat Robertson’s speech was cited. So was Marilyn Quayle’s, though she didn’t dwell on religious issues but talked about feminism and women who don’t work.

There were 128 speeches at the convention, only three of which could be considered religious. Just one — Robertson’s, which wasn’t even given during prime time — could truly be called a Religious Right speech. Yet this was enough for the press to conclude that the Religious Right had dominated the convention.

A week after the convention, a woman television producer — married, with one child — was still furious about Marilyn Quayle’s speech, because she felt it attacked women who work. Here’s what Mrs. Quayle, who herself has sometimes worked full-time, actually said: “I sometimes think that the liberals are always so angry because they believe the grandiose promises of the liberation movement. They are disappointed because most women do not want to be liberated from their essential natures as women. Most of us love being mothers and wives, which gives us a richness that few men and women get from professional accomplishments alone.” This was hardly a broadside against women with full-time jobs. Nonetheless many women and men in the press took it that way.

In any case, the supposed domination of the GOP by the Religious Right didn’t contribute heavily to George Bush’s defeat in the November election. I think Bush was defeated because he signed the 1990 budget deal. Without that, he would have been re-elected. But in the media the view lingers that the convention was a critical moment that doomed Bush and his re-election chances.

The myth is not confined to the media. Spencer Abraham, executive director of the 199z House Republican campaign organization, ran for Republican National Chairman after the election and was defeated by Haley Barbour. Abraham talked to each of the 165 members of the Republican National Committee, because they were the electorate choosing the chairman. Amazingly, he found that a majority believed the press view of what happened at the convention, even though they themselves had been there and should have known better. Abraham was regarded as the Religious Right candidate, even though he wasn’t.

Religious Right Gains

My second observation about the Religious Right is the good news that the fog hovering over it is beginning to lift. The hostility toward it has begun to soften. The 1993 races for Virginia governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general greatly affected press opinion about the Religious Right. Since Virginia is right next door to Washington, D.C., the commercials for the races were on Washington television for national reporters to see. Clearly the Democrats overkilled in their attempts to discredit the Religious Right, trying to make it an issue not only against Michael Farris, a Religious Right favorite who was running for lieutenant governor, but also against George Allen, the Republican gubernatorial candidate. The Democrats cast Allen — who won — as a patsy for Pat Robertson, which he obviously is not.

The backlash in the press, while not sympathetic, was the beginning of a recognition that the Religious Right is a legitimate bloc in the Republican coalition. I don’t want to overstate this. But after talking to ten political reporters who followed the Virginia race — Christopher Matthews of the San Francisco Examiner, Gloria Borger of U.S. News, Brit Hume of ABC, Eleanor Clift of Newsweek, Carl Leubsdorf of the Dallas Morning News, Thomas De-Frank of Newsweek, syndicated columnist Robert Novak, Morton Kondracke of Roll Call, Paul West of the Baltimore Sun, and John Mushek of the Boston Globe — I found that most agreed the Religious Right is not an evil juggernaut, as they’d previously thought, but rather is a viable element of the Republican Party. They acknowledged that during the campaign the issue of the Religious Right changed from fear of a religious takeover to the unfairness of attacks on people for holding strong religious views. The result is a more positive view of the Religious Right, and that’s a gain. The Religious Right has further enhanced its legitimacy with the secular press by tackling non-religious issues, as in the Christian Coalition’s decision to air TV ads critical of the Clinton health-care plan.

Moreover, there are other voices now arguing that religious views are a legitimate source of political values and should be included in the public debate. The political left doesn’t accept this, insisting that religious people want to impose their views on everyone. But President Clinton dissents from that liberal view, and so does David Wilhelm, the Democratic National Chairman. When Wilhelm spoke to the Christian Coalition, he made a significant concession. He stressed that religious values are fine and legitimate as roots of political views. That’s the Religious Right position. It is not the position of most Democrats.

Clinton and Wilhelm declared that people of strong faith should not be ostracized from the public square. Christians, Jews, Muslims, and members of other faiths can properly draw on spiritual teachings to guide their political views. Wilhelm has also noted, “Let us say that while religious motivation is appropriate, it is wrong to use religious authority to coerce support in the public arena.”

The Religious Right’s Importance

The third thing I find interesting about the Religious Right is the notion that it is driving people away from the GOP, that most Americans want a party based on serious economic and foreign policy issues, not those horrible social issues. Here the real issue is the Republican Party’s strong stand against abortion. If you are part of the elite opinion stream — where it is socially unacceptable to be opposed to abortion — you’ll get flak from friends and maybe your spouse for being associated with such a party.

Richard Nixon, in an interview with William Safire, gave his opinion on abortion: “The state should stay out — don’t subsidize, and don’t prohibit.” The view that abortion should be kept out of politics is shared by many other Republican politicians. I think this shows they are ignorant as to the party’s real base. They don’t understand who grassroots Republicans are.

The Republican Party does not stand a chance of becoming a majority party in America or electing another president without the Religious Right. Vast numbers of Americans are alienated from the Democratic Party, yet are leery of the Republican Party. What attracts them to the GOP is not supply-side economics or hawkishness on foreign policy but serious moral and social concerns. I understand the reluctance of millions of former Democrats to become Republicans — the thought of being a Republican makes even me wince. But the Religious Right’s cluster of issues attracts many of them.

Abortion is an issue that helped George Bush in 1992 and certainly helped George Allen win the governorship of Virginia. Millions of people were also attracted to Republican candidates because they believe in a role for religion in American life. Others became sympathetic to Republicans because they care about, for instance, the injection of gay values into the mainstream of American opinion, or about moral relativism. Whether it’s the kind of multiculturalism that shows up in the Rainbow Curriculum in New York or Outcomes-based Education, only the Religious Right keeps all these values issues alive. And the beneficiary is the Republican Party.

There used to be something called the New Right, but it doesn’t exist anymore. Its leaders were people like Paul Weyrich (who said in 1985 that the only serious grassroots activity in the Republican Party was religiously based — which is even more true now), Richard Viguerie, and Howard Phillips. But the New Right is now gone, leaving only the Religious Right.

If the Religious Right is driven out of the Republican Party, I think values issues — abortion, the role of religion in public life, gay rights, and moral relativism — will all but vanish. It is religious people who keep them on the table. Their departure would cause the Republican Party’s base to shrivel dramatically. Republican elites simply do not understand this. I worry when Ralph Reed says that the Christian Coalition is not going to concentrate on opposing abortion because abortion cannot be blocked; instead, they will talk about parental consent and about other important issues like tax cuts. In truth, the Religious Right needs to emphasize the issues that brought its people into politics in the first place — basically moral issues.

The Religious Right’s issues are critical politically not only for the Republican Party but for everybody. They are more important than cutting the capital-gains tax rate or aiding the Bosnian Muslims. They involve the moral upbringing of our children, the character of our citizens and our leaders, the way we regard and treat religious faith and religious believers. If American politicians do not want to grapple with these moral issues, the overarching issues of our era, then what are they in office for?

I do not always agree with the positions of the Religious Right. I am not really concerned, for instance, whether a school-prayer amendment passes. I have also disagreed with their style, although under Ralph Reed it has gotten better. But I give them credit for forcing things onto the national agenda that are critical to the Republican Party and to the rest of us.

In 1989, when Ronald Reagan returned to California on Air Force One, he was asked what his greatest regret was after eight years as president. He said he regretted that he hadn’t done more to restrict or end abortion in this country. If an entire party abandons that issue and other moral concerns and ostracizes from the party the people who want to raise those concerns, the regret will ultimately be felt by the entire nation.


  • Fred Barnes

    Frederic Wood "Fred" Barnes (born in 1943) is an American political commentator. He is the executive editor of the news publication The Weekly Standard and regularly appears on the Fox News Channel program Special Report with Bret Baier. He was previously co-host of The Beltway Boys with Mort Kondracke, which previously aired on the Fox News Channel.

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