In this highly contentious spring season of Presidential candidate primaries, some unexpected events unfolded, leaving the ever-present religious right bloc a crucial but unpredictable force for the November election.
At least three developments bear attention; the impact of the Senator John McCain attack on Bob Jones University (BJU) and Governor George W. Bush; the decline, perhaps collapse of Gary Bauer as a prominent leader in religious right circles, and the long-hoped for but rarely realized energization of religious right voters as the key bloc to electing a Republican President and Congress.
First, the double-barreled criticism by Senator McCain of BJU produced several unpredicted results. It revealed, according to Andrew Sullivan in the New York Times Magazine, (March 12) the extent of anti-Catholic feeling in the United States. Pointing to the vitriolic rhetoric of official BJU teaching on Catholicism, Sullivan shows that Black bigotry (for example, Louis Farrakhan) is sharply denounced across the nation, while white bigotry in calling Catholicism a cult, for example, is “merely regrettable.”
Sullivan claims that the recent trend of Catholics voting Republican nationally, may well disappear in light of Governor Bush’s decision to speak at BJU. In the New Republic (March 20) Benjamin Soskis goes even further to suggest that the much-touted entente between Catholics evangelicals over secularization, abortion, school prayer, and gay rights was nothing more than a media event. Culturally conservative Catholics realized again in this primary, the author concludes, they have little in common with the religious right on national issues.
Meanwhile, the endorsement of Senator McCain by Gary Bauer, ex-leader of the Family Research Council, and a major voice in religious right circles, caught observers by surprise. Having been tutored by the powerful James Dobson of Focus on the Family and supportive of the anti-gay, anti-abortion, pro-school prayer agenda, Bauer caught the likes of leaders such as Phyllis Schlafly, Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed unprepared for the defection. Ryan Lizza writes in the New Republic (March 12) that Bauer’s move has left a deeply emotional rift among religious rightists, who had hoped for a unified front against Al Gore.
Lizza suggests Bauer’s move may well encourage a religious conservative to “pick up McCain’s reform mantle” which would divide the religious right along class lines. In the wings waiting for that call is Pat Buchanan. Finally, several observers believe that this year, in contrast to the Reagan, Bush and Dole candidacies, the religious right will get directly involved and thus be the pivotal bloc to bring Governor Bush to the Oval Office. Most surprisingly, the Rev. Jerry Falwell announced in March his program “Calling Ten Million New Voters to Political Action” as his re-entry step into national politics.
Having eschewed in the l990s his once major role in religious right leadership as he focused on directing Liberty University, Falwell surprised everyone by saying that under new banners, the Moral Majority is back, according to the online religion magazine Beliefnet.com (March 21). The centerpiece will be an initiative to bring ten million “people of faith” who have never voted before to the election polls in November.
Beyond that, observers such as Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention find convincing evidence the “born again” vote this time will put the conservatives in control of the White House. Suggesting that the anticipated criticisms of the religious right by Gore will be the final unifying force to bring this once disparate bloc into unity, Land calls on Governor Bush to stay with the religious right in the campaigns ahead.
— By Erling Jorstad, an RW contributing edtior and author of several books and other works on the religious right.