Theresa Fleming is charmingly ebullient as she rattles off the names of co-operative state legislators who have met with her and her colleagues. The Strongsville mother of two is the director of the Moms for Ohio political action committee, with allies in both parties. “The insurance industry, the health care industry, people with interest in tax issues, they are already organized politically,” she says. “Moms needed a voice for issues that affected our children.”
Asked if this makes her a soccer mom, she quickly agrees. “We’re all soccer moms,” Fleming says. “We take our kids to soccer, baseball, basketball, swimming, and everything else.” But the issues that motivate her are almost exactly the opposite of what most political analysts mean when they use the phrase. She isn’t a swing voter turned off by social conservatism; instead, she is committed to the right to life, the battle against same-sex marriage, and keeping the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance.
It was voters like Fleming who gave George W. Bush Ohio and, by extension, a second term. Many like-minded people across the country volunteered on Republican campaigns and turned out on election day, helping the GOP win key races and increase its congressional majorities. They also succeeded in passing constitutional amendments affirming the traditional idea of marriage as a union between a man and a woman in 11 out of 11 states.
While some of the post-election chatter about values voters was exaggerated, the designation describes a real and growing electoral phenomenon. According to the Pew Research Center, nearly four out of five white evangelical Christians supported President Bush in 2004, representing more than a third of all ballots cast for him. When traditionalist Catholics and members of other conservative religious communities are factored in, it becomes clear that the voters usually lumped together under the banner of the Religious Right form the largest single constituency of today’s Republican Party.
As the euphoria from November begins to fade, however, some conservative Christians are starting to ask hardheaded questions about how much clout they are getting in return for their stalwart support. Pro-choice moderate Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), rescued from a pro-life primary challenge by Bush and his state’s conservative GOP junior Sen. Rick Santorum, has ascended to the Senate Judiciary Committee chairmanship. He offered cultural conservatives conciliatory rhetoric when this position appeared to be in jeopardy, but upon assuming the gavel he has reverted to type.
The gay-marriage debate, where social conservatives saw their greatest successes in 2004, has been the source of even larger disappointments. Both the White House and the congressional Republican leadership have assigned a much lower priority to a constitutional amendment preventing same-sex matrimony—believed by many on the Right to be the only way to stop the Massachusetts Supreme Court decision from being replicated nationally—than to reforming Social Security and the tax code. Even before the election, Bush indicated some flexibility on civil unions. “I don’t think we should deny people rights to a civil union, a legal arrangement,” he said in a televised interview, “if that’s what a state chooses to do…”
In January, many pro-family leaders decided it was time to voice their frustration. The Arlington Group is a loose network of socially conservative organizations that meet to collaborate on strategy. Participants sent Bush advisor Karl Rove a notably blunt letter. “We couldn’t help but notice the contrast between how the President is approaching the difficult issue of Social Security privatization where public opinion is deeply divided and the marriage issue where public opinion is overwhelmingly on his side,” the activists wrote. “Is he prepared to spend significant political capital on privatization but reluctant to devote the same energy to preserving traditional marriage?”
Contrary to some press reports, the statement stopped short of threatening to withhold support from the president’s Social Security initiative unless he stepped up his lobbying on the federal marriage amendment. Instead, the Arlington Group conservatives “respectfully request” that Bush “spend his political capital on the issue of the preservation of marriage just as he intends to do on other priorities.” But it was surprisingly tough criticism—describing the White House’s stance on gay marriage as “passive” and “defeatist”—from some of the president’s strongest supporters. The signatories of the letter comprise a virtual Who’s Who of Christian Right leaders—Gary Bauer, Paul Weyrich, Tony Perkins, and James Dobson. Dobson has been particularly pointed: “If Republicans do what they’ve done in the past, which is say, ‘Thanks so much for putting us in power: now we don’t want to talk to you any more,’ they will pay a serious price.”
As this warning suggests, some veterans of the Religious Right feel a sense of having been here before—they vote in large numbers for GOP candidates, but to little effect. The other players in the big tent end up getting to set the agenda. Christian conservatives were first a major factor in national politics during the Moral Majority years of the 1980s. Many of them hoped that by electing Ronald Reagan and a Republican Senate, they could at least roll back the cultural liberalism of the 1960s and at best help usher in a spiritual reawakening.
Neither goal was realized. While moral conservatives got access and sympathetic presidential speeches, they had little impact on public policy. The Reagan administration’s signature conservative achievements include enduring reductions in marginal tax rates and winning the Cold War. While most religious conservatives supported and obviously benefited from both accomplishments, the items of particular importance to them are conspicuous by their absence from this list.
Reagan did sign executive orders curbing federal funding of abortion and many of his judicial nominees believed Roe v. Wade was wrongly decided, although not enough to build an anti-Roe majority on the Supreme Court. But constitutional amendments banning abortion and reinstating school prayer went nowhere. Reagan, like Bush today with the federal marriage amendment, often endorsed them in speeches but in retrospect some question whether he did enough to promote their passage. Also like Bush, he only addressed pro-life marches by telephone.
The Religious Right rebounded in the 1990s, and Ralph Reed was a major figure in its revival. Reed’s strategy was to mainstream Christian conservatives within the Republican Party—getting them elected to leadership positions alongside establishment regulars—and to work in tandem with the other elements of the conservative movement.
He can claim some results. Religious conservatives contributed mightily to the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress. Many of the high-profile freshmen, such as Oklahoma Republicans Steve Largent and J.C. Watts, were themselves evangelicals. Pro-lifers had an even better election than Republicans—no pro-life incumbent of either party was defeated that year by a pro-choice challenger. But even then, the party leadership shelved many of their concerns. The only items in the vaunted Contract with America that were designed to appeal to them were promises to strengthen child pornography laws, cut taxes for families with children, and include anti-illegitimacy provisions in welfare reform. No major social issue—not even one with broad public support, like restoring school prayer or banning partial-birth abortion—was listed in the contract.
Even some on the Left are beginning to argue that the GOP’s appeal to social conservatives might be something of a shell game; Republicans employ pro-life and pro-family rhetoric to win elections but don’t deliver once in office. In What’s the Matter With Kansas? Thomas Frank wrote, “Historians often attribute the withering and disappearance of the nineteenth-century Populist movement to its failure to achieve material, real-world goals… Yet with the pro-life movement, the material goal of stopping abortion is, almost by definition, beyond achieving.”
The crux of Frank’s argument is that conservatives have avoided debates about socioeconomic class by appealing to Middle America’s sense of cultural embattlement. This helps them win middle-class votes by appearing to identify with the moral values of people whose economic interests might be better served by voting Democratic. Once in power, Frank contends, the Republicans cannot address these social issues because they would lose their ability to appeal to these voters once these grievances are removed from the debate.
You don’t have to endorse the entirety of Frank’s argument to acknowledge one point he raises: social conservatism has brought people into the Republican Party with lower incomes than the party’s traditional base, some of whom are more economically moderate and less hostile in general toward activist government than other conservatives. Reihan Salam, writing in the Los Angeles Times, has referred to the “crisis of ‘Sam’s Club’ Republicans.”
In addition to marriage and abortion, Moms for Ohio lists pocketbook issues that affect the family as major concerns, including job losses caused by global trade. “If we are going to say we are compassionate conservatives, we have to mean it,” Fleming says. “And it is impossible to help others unless we stay strong ourselves.” One pro-family volunteer notes the “scandal of World War II veterans having to board a bus to Canada to get affordable prescription drugs.”
These differences have been bridged in the past by the conservative consensus that libertarian means can achieve traditionalist ends. In the 1990s, Grover Norquist began making the argument that social conservatives were a part of the Right’s anti-statist “Leave us Alone” coalition: “Conservative leaders can meet in a room, and the taxpayers can agree not to throw condoms at the children of Christians and orthodox Jews; the gun owners can agree not to raise everyone else’s taxes; the Christians can agree not to steal anyone’s guns; and they all can agree not to take anyone’s property.”
Even back then fissures were apparent. Supply-siders never warmed to the $500-per-child tax credits; although popular with pro-family groups, they did not enhance work incentives by lowering marginal rates. Then House Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich (R-Ohio), who eventually became a supporter of the credits, once half-jokingly described them as a sop to “greedy Christians.”
Tensions aside, many social conservatives remain optimistic about their prospects with Republicans controlling both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, and Bush personally has a tremendous reservoir of goodwill to tap among the grassroots. “I think we need to give the president the benefit of the doubt on marriage and other issues,” says Carrie Gordon Earll, a senior policy analyst at Focus on the Family. “Wherever he has had the opportunity, he has seized it. People I speak to are encouraged.” Fleming agrees: “I think the president won re-election based on issues like marriage. I hope he delivers, and I believe he will.”
“Pro-family groups are the locomotive on this train,” Earll emphasizes. “We need to be the ones pushing to keep our issues on the table.”
This much is clear: religious conservatives have won their place in the GOP’s big tent. They will be watching carefully to see how the ringmasters perform.