Since the Reagan era, Republicans have described their political coalition as a “three-legged stool.” Fiscal conservatives, national security conservatives, and social conservatives together hold up the fortunes of the party. This rhetorical stool is often used like a prop in pro-wrestling: to bludgeon recalcitrant office-seekers into submission.
But the metaphor is also supposed to signify a division of labor: Fiscal conservatism is the purview of the Republican business class or libertarians, national security is handled by neoconservatives, and somewhere out in the hinterlands the religious right will hand out pamphlets about abortion and knock on doors come election time.
This picture is a lie.
In their activist fervor, their enthusiasm for the ideas, and their electoral clout, religious conservatives are the base of all three legs. White evangelical Protestants make up almost third of the total electorate, and four out of five of them vote Republican. The religious right is more convinced of American righteousness in the exercise of its military might than the neoconservatives are, and more invested than Wall Street in lower taxes.
The Tea Party, confusedly hailed by the media as a grassroots libertarian spasm, turns out on inspection to be the religious right wearing a tricorn hat and talking about Obamacare. Neoconservatives who call for confrontation with Iran, a closer relationship with Israel, and pressing the War on Terror are not echoed by religious conservatives—they’re drowned out by them. In economics and military matters, no less than in social issues, conservative evangelicals are more Republican than Republicans.
“I’m all three,” says Richard Land, the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, political arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. “I’ve always believed in low taxes and a strong national defense.” Similarly, Jordan Sekulow, deputy director of governmental affairs at the American Center for Law and Justice, a Christian legal group, notes that for the evangelical right conservatism is a seamless garment.
“I grew up in this movement,” says Sekulow, “you can go through the old tapes of the Moral Majority. You’re not going to find anyone calling for higher taxes and a bigger federal government.”
Evangelicals have historically had two modes: absence from the political arena or a fierce and crusading engagement. Today’s politicking evangelicals often cite the anti-slavery movement of their 19th-century forebears and analogize it to their antiabortion activism today. They carry that same fervor into every policy battle.
“Evangelicalism developed at the same time as the Republican Party, and there was a certain conception of the market, individuals, and nations that still rings true with modern evangelicals today,” notes Darryl Hart, author of the forthcoming From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin: Evangelical Protestants and the Betrayal of American Conservatism.
The media story of Republican triumph in 2004 was the story of the Values Voter, who turned out to reject same-sex marriage in 11 states and along the way re-elected President Bush. White evangelicals were the largest demographic group in Bush’s camp, delivering over a third of his votes. The media story of the GOP’s 2010 midterm victory was the story of the Tea Partier, who took to the ballot box against government expansion into healthcare, bank bailouts, and reckless spending. The Tea Party was heralded as a new, transformative force. Yet these two columns of voters hail from the same evangelical regiment.
While Tea Party organizations do appeal to a certain kind of independent, The American Prospect’s Michelle Goldberg notes some unmistakable similarities between the religious right and the new revolutionaries: “Both have their strongholds in the white South, and both arise out of a sense of furious dispossession, a conviction that the country that is rightfully theirs has been usurped by sinister cosmopolitan elites. They have the same favorite politicians—particularly [Sarah] Palin and Rep. Michele Bachmann.” Bachmann and Sen. Jim DeMint, long favorites of Christian conservatives, now lead the Tea Party Caucus in Congress.
In February, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released a study showing that the Tea Party gets “disproportionate support” from white evangelical Protestants, and its members have conservative social views alongside their economic ones. Tea Partiers “are much more likely than registered voters as a whole to say that their religion is the most important factor in determining their opinions on these social issues.”
Fifty-nine percent of Pew respondents who said they identified with the Tea Party favored banning abortion in all cases, a figure that runs 17 percent higher than among the general electorate. Anti-abortion sentiment was stronger among these Tea Partiers than among Republicans as a whole. White evangelical Protestants were “roughly five times as likely to agree with the [Tea Party] movement as to disagree with it.” Another way of reading Pew’s survey is that the religious right is disproportionately committed to a small-government agenda compared to the electorate and the GOP as a whole.
“We never waited for the Tea Party,” says Sekulow. “We were grassroots activists before the Republican Party started embracing the power of grassroots activism. It’s not as if we had to be converted to these ideas or develop a healthy fear of a big federal government. It was there already.” According to Joe Carter, an evangelical editor at First Things and former Mike Huckabee staffer, “most Christian conservatives’ average income is $50,000 a year or less. They’re not worried what GE has to pay in taxes, it’s more personal. And they know that money is better spent in their church than by the government.”
The political conservatism of evangelicals solidified in the 1970s. As battles over segregation that had divided northern and Midwestern evangelicals from their southern coreligionists began to fade, opposition to abortion united them. Figures like Al Mohler and Richard Land in the Southern Baptist Convention began to promote the work of northern evangelicals like Francis Schaeffer in their successful efforts to steer the SBC towards theological and political conservatism.
Evangelicals bolted the Democratic Party in the ’70s and joined the Reagan coalition in the ’80s. By 1992, when Pat Robertson gave his speech to the Republican convention in Houston, GOP opposition to abortion and the mainstreaming of homosexuality was so solid he dedicated just 160 words to those subjects. He devoted 660 words—40 percent of his speech—to taxes, government spending, and the welfare state. He opened with a thunderous encomium to the GOP: “It was Ronald Reagan, George Bush, and Republican policies which brought communism to its knees.”
Evangelicals’ disgust with the counterculture of the ’70s, their confrontational stance toward communism, and their eventual adoption of the GOP parallel exactly the ideological odyssey of the neoconservatives. And the religious right today outpaces those intellectuals in their commitment to seeing American power employed abroad in spreading democracy and human rights.
Since the end of the Cold War, Richard Land has supported the use of America’s military might in Bosnia, Somalia, Rwanda, Afghanistan, and Iraq (twice). He wants to make sure Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Iran never obtains weapons of mass destruction. He could check off every intervention on the most exuberant neoconservative’s checklist, then check more. He was for humanitarian intervention in the Sudan and considered the merits of getting into Zimbabwe. Asked about the multiplication of American obligations around the world, Land quotes the Gospel coolly: “To whom much has been given, much shall be required.” America is a blessed nation and must be a blessing to others.
Evangelical leaders were as outspoken as anyone in their defense of the Iraq War. In 2004, Jerry Falwell deemed the military invasion and occupation sound for reasons biblical and humanitarian, quoting St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians: “Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” Robertson told viewers of his Christian Broadcasting Network, “We’re on solid ground [in Iraq], not only in terms of Christian, biblical concepts, but also in terms of public relations.” Even after the public had soured on the conflict, former head of the Christian Coalition Ralph Reed, asked to recant, said, “I supported the war then, I support it now.”
Sekulow organized “Christian Leaders for a Nuclear-Free Iran,” a petition that drew the signatures of every religious-right luminary from Catholic activist Deal Hudson to Rapture-awaiting megachurch pastor John Hagee. Sekulow says that for his fellow Christian conservatives, national security means, “First, an unapologetic national defense. It means we’re not going to apologize for defending our nation.” According to Sekulow, Christians aren’t taking marching orders from neoconservatives. “It’s a similar ideology to a certain extent, but we came to it in different ways,” he says. “For us, it isn’t an Ivy League conversion to American exceptionalism, we were already standing up to restore America.”
Although neoconservatives have seemed alone among Republican foreign-policy thinkers in unequivocally endorsing President Obama’s Libyan war, they find company in the religious right’s leaders. “I think many Americans and most Southern Baptists appreciate and agree with President Obama’s statement that it would violate our values and beliefs to allow human beings to be massacred by their own government when we had the ability to stop such a slaughter with a relatively small exercise of American military power,” wrote Land in a statement on behalf of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Land’s only complaint with Obama’s war in Libya is its lack of congressional consultation.
Conservative Christians don’t need to be told by anyone that America ought to stand by Israel. Evangelicals with a Dispensational theology already “speak out for Zion’s sake” (Isaiah 62:1). Hagee’s group, Christians United For Israel, is more passionately Zionist than any American neoconservative because its mandate, so its members believe, comes from Scripture, not an interpretation of political necessity or cultural affinity. Every year, CUFI draws one of the largest conservative Christian crowds to Washington, D.C. Hagee can pack a convention center when neoconservative foreign-policy confabs barely fill a presentation room at the American Enterprise Institute.
Increasingly, conservative Christians don’t need a target list from anyone else, either. Scores of thousands of politically active Christians have gone on month-long missions to the Third World or taken politically charged tours of the Holy Land. Their churches have sister congregations in troubled spots along the coasts of Africa, Latin America, and Pakistan.
“These issues of genocide and intervention take on a personal hue,” says Carter. “I think this is the right opportunity for some Christian patriots to say what Christian thinking on foreign policy should look like. It wouldn’t look like neoconservatism. But so far no one’s really come up with it.” Until then, the nationalist passions of conservative Christians are as important to Republican candidates and policymakers as their positions on abortion, helping to connect the average Republican voter to the foreign-policy preferences of Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz.
For Sekulow, the fact that conservative Christians are driving the discourse on more than social issues is positive. “As with any political movement, as you mature, you begin with your core issue but you start involving yourself in other areas,” he says. “Your people become more involved in the process and then feel more ownership in the outcomes, whether it is on the issues you started on or ones you came to later.”
Carter believes that “the reason that we have ‘economic conservatives’ and ‘national security conservatives’ is that they broke off from heartland conservatives.” The idea that the three legs of the stool are separate is an illusion created by the media and the self-aggrandizing factions inhabiting the Beltway. Religious conservatives on almost every issue are running ahead of their coalition partners, going faster and farther than neoconservative and free-market policy elites.
The strength of evangelical convictions sometimes leads to tensions within the GOP tent. Most evangelicals opposed TARP and Bush’s bailouts. They turned against politicians like Rep. Bob Inglis, who had a 93 percent rating from the American Conservative Union but who supported TARP and refused to call Obama a “socialist.” Inglis lost by 42 points in a Republican primary to a Tea Party candidate.
The religious right’s preferred politician is constantly girded for battle and hates a negotiated surrender. “Evangelicals are Biblicists, they don’t have a tradition of natural law as Roman Catholics do, and they have a suspicion of human reason,” says Darryl Hart, “so whether it is foreign policy or domestic policy it is all biblical truth. That is why evangelicals are so loath to compromise.”
The frustration religious conservatives often encounter in politics—particularly where key social issues are concerned—may owe less to unreliable partners in the GOP than to an unconvinced American public. Laws that would impose stringent constraints on abortion rarely achieve more than 40 percent support among voters. Restrictions on same-sex marriage still pass as ballot initiatives, but by decreasing margins. Yet even when the religious right is out of step with the public mood, it can still set the tone—and limits—of discourse within the GOP.
Will that always be the case? Polls of evangelicals under 29 saw a 15-point drop in party identification with Republicans between 2006 and 2008, which has since only barely recovered. And there are other traditions of political thought available to evangelicals—whether Lutheran or Calvinist—that have the power to reform their instinctive nationalism. But the road from political theory to policy is a long one. And a less united evangelical front would make Republican lawmakers even less responsive to Christian conservatives’ social agenda. The politics of abortion, meanwhile, continue to close off the Democratic Party for evangelicals who might want a new political home.
The overwhelming fact of evangelical engagement remains their unbridled enthusiasm for Republican policies. In 2006, at the absolute depths of Republican mismanagement of foreign policy and just two years after Bush had ditched social issues for Social Security reform, 59 percent of Republican or Republican-leaning evangelicals told the Pew Forum that the GOP was “doing either an excellent or good job” at standing up for its traditional positions. In the November 2010 elections, when social issues had supposedly taken a backseat to Obamacare, 78 percent of white evangelicals pulled the lever for Republicans, according to a post-election survey Public Opinion Strategies conducted for Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition.
For all the ideological examination that neoconservatives and the Tea Party have received, neither would have the clout to add a jot or tittle to America’s policy debates without the manpower, enthusiasm, and the leadership of the religious right. Christian conservatives haven’t abandoned their social issues—they’ve enfolded foreign and fiscal policy into their ongoing culture war. Their worldview has as much to say about war, healthcare reform, and tax rates as it does about unborn children and homeschooling. And everyone is listening now.
Michael Brendan Dougherty is a TAC contributing editor.