The November elections were widely viewed to have favored the Democrats over the Republicans, but the fortunes of the religious right seems more open to interpretation.
The New Republic magazine (Nov. 23) holds that the election signaled the public’s disenchantment with the social agenda of the religious right. Those Republicans who were elected or reelected, such as Texas Governor George W. Bush, were identified with a “cautious, liberal centrism.” Candidates who tied their campaigns to opposition to abortion, cuts to education, and other social issues were often defeated, writes John Judis. “In many Northern races, and even in a few Southern ones, Democrats benefited by tying their opponents to the religious right.”
The conservative Christian newsweekly World (Nov. 14) concurs that social conservatives suffered most in the elections and that the “clout of the religious right is more suspect than ever.” The magazine blames national Republican leaders for letting the Monica Lewinsky affair cloud over a clear conservative agenda. A poll by the Christian Coalition is cited showing that religious conservatives voted Republican only 54 percent of the time in 1998 — down from 67 percent in 1994. The article concludes that “believers are proving to be picky and restless. With two years of political posturing and legislative gridlock in the offing, will the religious right still form a cohesive voting bloc by the time 2000 rolls around?”
In U.S News & World Report (Nov. 23), John Leo writes that the religious right was far from a “paper tiger” in the elections. For instance, religious right activism was responsible for striking down measures supporting homosexual marriage. Leo thinks that Democrats and the media are deliberately portraying the religious right opposition as outside the mainstream of political discourse by focusing on the “most extreme people in the movement at the expense of the stable and praiseworthy.”
At the recent conference of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion in Montreal, political scientist and religious right specialist James Guth told RW that the religious right did well on “localized issues,” and that it’s “very hard to put a central theme on off-year elections.”
“Not since the civil rights era, political analysts say, have Democratic challengers so aggressively and openly used religious language in their campaigns,” writes Hanna Rosin in the Washington Post (Oct. 29). Many Democrats laced their campaigning on such issues as health care and education with religious themes, and not only as a defensive reaction against the Christian Coalition. In a Washington Post poll, Democrats were found to be just as religious as Republicans, with almost as many Democrats attending church and praying regularly as Republicans.
“The battle for the loyalty of religious Democrats has already begun. In addition to the usual signposts of family values — images of candidates with their children . . . political strategists say Americans can soon expect to see snapshots of mainstream candidates from both parties at Sunday morning worship, and hear emotional testimonies of their personal conversions and relationship with Jesus.”
The polling data also suggest that religion may even be less divisive among Democrats than it is in the Republican party’ (as seen in the battle between moderates and social conservatives). This is because the “most religious Democrats are disproportionately women and African Americans, two constituencies embraced by the secular left wing of their party.”
(World, Box 2330, Asheville, NC 28802)