Typically, off-year elections are both far more predictable and far less interesting than presidential election years. Not in 1994.
As November 8 approaches, statewide and local races throughout the country feature some of the most polarizing and provocative races this nation has ever seen. Opposing candidates, in many cases, represent fundamentally different world-views and thus radically different concepts of how the nation should order itself. What a difference a culture war makes.
In Pennsylvania, incumbent U.S. Sen. Harris Wofford, often viewed as a Bill Clinton-style Democrat, faces a stiff challenge from pro-life Congressman Rick Santorum in what is widely regarded as one among many referenda on the Clinton administration.
In California, seven-term incumbent congressman Vic Fazio, who earlier this year labeled Christian conservatives the "fire-breathing radical right," is being pressed by one of those conservatives, Tim LeFever. (See "The Definitive Showdown")
In Ohio, Republican Mike Dewine, who received the support of Christian conservatives for his party's nomination for the Senate, faces off against Democratic opponent Joel Hyatt. The Religious Right also has been credited with handing Iran-contra figure Oliver North of Virginia the Republican nomination for senator. North, involved in a three-person race, has been running neck and neck with Democrat Charles Robb in pre-election polls.
As for the big picture, optimistic Republicans have their eyes on the biggest political prize of all: wresting Congress from the Democratic party's dominance.
Congressional Quarterly (CQ,) reports, "For the first time in 40 years, Democrats face the prospect of losing functional control of the House."
Usually only a few dozen Senate and House races are considered competitive. This year, however, CQ has identified 111 congressional races it considers up for grabs. Observers attribute this phenomenon largely to the effects of redistricting and to strong anti-incumbent sentiment.
"People are disgusted with Congress, and conservatives are disgusted with Clinton," says Richard Cizik, policy analyst for the National Association of Evangelicals' (NAE) Washington office. "This accounts for a strong anti-incumbent sentiment and a high degree of cynicism. Cynicism breeds apathy, which bodes well for conservative candidates like Oliver North."
THE RISE OF THE RIGHT
Many factors are contributing to the volatility of this year's election season. At the top of most lists, however, is the emergence—or rather, the re-emergence—of the Religious Right.
The recent history of fundamentalists' and conservative evangelicals' foray into political activism has been well-documented. It began in the late 1970s, motivated ironically by the goal of defeating a self-described born-again incumbent President. The issues of the day took precedence over Jimmy Carter's claims of personal faith: he was "too soft" on communist regimes, inflation was out of control, and abortion on demand showed no signs of waning.
In Dallas 15 years ago, then-candidate Ronald Reagan told a group of conservative pastors that, while they could not officially endorse him, he endorsed them. But in 1994, many religious conservatives have questioned the sincerity or importance of the Republican party's support. In spite of 12 years (ending in January 1993) of Republican Presidents' commitment to conservative principles, little has changed for the better in the view of many conservatives. For example, despite the opportunity for five appointments to the Supreme Court, it has not been enough to tip the scales in favor of a clearly profile majority.
On foreign policy, Reagan as President delivered as promised. A host of observers contend that his anticommunist policies led to the demise of the Soviet Union.
The 1988 failure of Pat Robertson's bid for the Oval Office was a low-water mark for the Christian Right. Yet it also proved to be the seedbed for 1994's bumper crop of Christian Right candidates nationwide.
The critical difference has come in a shift in thinking from short term to long term, building from the bottom up instead of trying to change the political and social landscape from the top down. From the ruins of the late 1980s has emerged the Chesapeake, Virginia-based Christian Coalition, with 1.4 million dues-paying members and organized in all 50 states. The Washington Post reported that political forces friendly to the coalition's values are "dominant" in 12 states, and coalition spokespersons in interviews with CT did not dispute that assessment.
AHEAD OF SCHEDULE
The impact of the coalition and other groups with conservative agendas has, according to some analysts, arrived ahead of schedule. "We are seeing some battles in 1994 that we were not expecting to see till 1996 or even 1998," says researcher and political scientist John Green of the University of Akron's Bliss Institute.
According to Green, the Religious Right paid its political dues to the GOP by supporting Bush for President in 1992, even though he was not everything they would have liked him to be. Had Bush won, the stage clearly would have been set for a political struggle within the GOP, with the 1996 presidential campaign as the focal point.
Indeed, this battle might yet take place. But that question aside, Bush's early demise, according to Green, accelerated the process of the Religious Right distinguishing between those who are conservative merely on fiscal and foreign policies and those who want elected officials to pay more than lip service to conservative stands on issues such as abortion and homosexual rights.
Thus, in many cases, the most significant political battles of this election year—Republicans versus Republicans-already have taken place. The Religious Right's influence in South Carolina, for example, has been widely credited for helping to give David Beasley the Republican nod for governor. And in Minnesota, Gov. Arne Carlson, an advocate of both homosexual and abortion rights, became the first Republican incumbent governor this century to be denied his party's endorsement. That endorsement went to conservative Christian Allen Quist, but Quist lost the September 13 primary.
DOING THINGS THE RIGHT WAY
The Christian Coalition claims it does not endorse specific candidates, but merely educates voters as to where candidates stand on the issues. This claim is strongly supported by the fact that the coalition is active in all U.S. congressional districts, not just those featuring candidates perceived to be in line with the coalition's values.
According to Ralph Reed, executive director of the Christian Coalition, by the time this year is over, his organization will have distributed 57 million pieces of literature, mainly voter guides and scorecards revealing candidates' positions on issues important to the coalition's constituency.
The premise of the coalition's activities, according to communications director Mike Russell, is that if voting Americans understand the issues, the majority will support candidates who advocate the coalition's political and family values.
Although the Christian Coalition has captured most of the headlines, it is but one of several players in the Religious Right. While its primary purpose is not political, the highly influential Focus on the Family plays a part in educating its constituency on the issues. Concerned Women for America (CWA) plays a major role in motivating activism among politically conservative women.
The Virginia-based Christian Action Network (CAN) has developed a "Restore America: Home Lobbyist Kit" for mass distribution. It includes a thorough, 47 page primer on political activism that addresses such topics as "How to Lobby a Congressman." The kit also contains CAN'S 1994 Government Report Card, which discloses how all members of Congress voted on issues related to homosexuality, abortion, school choice, and pornography.
"With the maturing of a movement comes a division of labor," observes Green of the Bliss Institute. "Different organizations focus on different things." This is not to suggest the division of labor is coordinated. By and large, organizations that make up the Religious Right, though their supporting constituencies may overlap, operate independently of one another.
Nor are conservative organizations always in agreement. For example, Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry has accused the Christian Coalition of selling out for "short-term political gain" (CT, Sept. 12, 1994, p. 61). While most conservatives regard Georgia Congressman Newt Gingrich as an ally, CT has placed Gingrich in its "Hall of Shame" for "showering the Clinton administration with praise" over its handling of the North American Free Trade Agreement and for supporting homosexuals in the military. Republican Sen. John Warner earned an honorable mention in CAN's Hall of Shame for failing to support profamily candidate Mike Farris in the Virginia lieutenant governor's race and for "recent hostilities toward one of the pro-family movement's most admired figures, Oliver North."
Because of frequent portrayals of the Religious Right as monolithic, some believe that religious broadcaster Jerry Falwell's distribution of a sensational video challenging President Clinton's integrity has damaged the movement's cause. Reed, noting that Clinton was elected despite concerns about his moral integrity, says, "What we ought to be doing as a movement is speaking to the issues. Clinton has given us the largest tax increase in history. He supports abortion and homosexual rights. We would be against these things if he were a choir boy."
WHERE ARE THE MODERATES?
The rise of the Religious Right has contributed to the seeming disappearance of political moderates, many of whom are uncomfortable both with Clinton-style liberalism and Christian Coalition-style conservatism. "We are in the midst of an intensely bitter cultural war," says Dave Gushee, assistant professor of Christian ethics at Southem Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. "People are not talking with each other; they are talking at each other. When you talk only to those you agree with, you tend to radicalize."
Gushee says he is sympathetic with many of the concerns of the Religious Right, given the unraveling of social fabric, the dissolution of the family, and the epidemic of drug and alcohol abuse. "But where is the concern for justice for minorities, for the environment, for economic justice?" he asks. "It's a truncated moral vision."
While politically conservative Christians have been busy distancing themselves from their secular counterparts, there has been virtually no similar activity among believers with more liberal social views. Some theorize this is because Mennonites and other Anabaptist traditions that make up the evangelical left wing have, unlike their fundamentalist brethren, continued traditions of shunning politics.
In addition, for many socially liberal Christians, standing against materialism is high on the list of theological priorities. Such an emphasis is not likely to result in a television ministry, an extensive mailing list of donors, or access to people in places of political influence.
Whatever the contributing causes, socially liberal evangelicals have not come together as have their conservative counterparts. While the Right has been improving the quality of its choices on election day, for those on the Left, voting has increasingly become a choice between the lesser of two evils.
"For the most part, the Democratic party today is under the influence of secular Americans who are hostile or indifferent to people of faith," Green says. "Even a highly respected person like [Pennsylvania governor] Bob Casey was not allowed to express a pro-life view at the 1992 convention. Bill Clinton, who at least shows some sensitivity to people of faith, is about the best Christians can hope for."
According to Green, one out of four white evangelical voters and nearly 90 percent of black Christian voters supported Clinton in 1992. Though most of these voters oppose the Democratic party's stands on abortion and homosexual rights, they believe the Democrats are closer to a biblical vision for society in such areas as welfare reform, gun control, and environmental concern.
Because of what they regard as its dogmatism in defining biblical Christianity, some conservative evangelicals remain tentative in their support for the Religious Right. "By and large, NAE constituents support the political goals of the Christian Coalition," Cizik says. "But I contend this group is misnamed. It ought to be called the Conservative Coalition. The word Christian implies authority it ought not to claim. On many of the issues it has raised, there is no clear biblical or moral mandate."
Some critics harbor concerns that the Religious Right appears more mainstream than it really is out of short-term political expediency. They fear that if the movement gains enough influence, leaders will go beyond simply bringing Christian values to government and begin legislating policies that reflect exclusively religious views. Recently, the Texas Republican party, heavily influenced by the Religious Right, declined to pass a resolution stating: "The Republican party is not a church . … A Republican should never be put in the position of having to defend or explain his faith in order to participate in the party process." Nevertheless, Southern Seminary's Gushee believes that fears of an emerging American theocracy are unfounded. "There may be some who harbor theocratic fantasies, but I'm confident that this country is too pluralistic for that to ever happen."
The coalition's Reed supports this assessment. "We strongly support the principle of the separation of church and state," he says. "We oppose government legislation of theological beliefs. We are trying to legislate family-friendly political views. No single constituency can ever dominate this country. What we want is a place at the table."
Cizik maintains that when evangelicals enter the voting booth, most will vote with the Religious Right despite their reservations. It appears that, for most, concerns about theocracy are secondary if they are present at all.
"I have no desire to live under a theocracy," one voter told a California newspaper. "I just want my 13-year-old daughter to have the same kind of life I had as a kid. We didn't have to talk about religious values; we just had them."
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