"It will be conceded … that a Christian's first duty is to God. It then follows, as a matter of course, that it is his duty to carry his Christian code of morals to the polls and vote them," observed Mark Twain. "If the Christians of America could be persuaded to vote God and a clean ticket, it would bring about a moral revolution that would be incalculably beneficent. It would save the country."
Twain—himself a religious skeptic of sorts—showed more wisdom in this conclusion than some former leaders of the religious conservative community. Since the disappointing 1998 election results, a few among the ranks of the faithful have counseled timidity, retreat, and withdrawal. Religious conservatives have not achieved all they desired since they burst onto the national political scene in the late 1970s with the formation of the Moral Majority. That is beyond dispute. But I disagree with those who claim that we should therefore leave the public square to the organized Left.
I greatly admire and respect those who, though their intentions are noble, mistakenly make this claim. Indeed, many of them—particularly my friend Paul Weyrich—greatly influenced my own walk of faith and civic engagement. We are all indebted to them for their prior service, and we stand on their shoulders. We should honor their past work.
It is true that there is no "moral majority" in the strict arithmetic sense—those who testify to a personal faith experience and who also hold conservative views on public policy do not constitute 51 percent of the electorate. But they are the largest single voting bloc in the electorate—24 percent of all those who walked into a voting booth in 1998. That is larger than the union vote, the feminist vote, the gay vote, or any other single constituency organized around an issues agenda.
And what a difference these people of faith have made! Once we talked about values and were ridiculed. Today the media declare, "Dan Quayle Was Right." As a result of our efforts, teenage pregnancy is on the decline and abortion rates are falling, largely because of common-sense restrictions on abortion passed during this decade as religious conservatives won a string of election victories. Since the election of John Engler as governor of Michigan in 1990 (by only 20,000 votes out of 2 million cast), the number of abortions in that state has declined by 40 percent. Similar declines are occurring around the country.
Two million families are off welfare today because of dramatic welfare reform that religious conservatives fought for and passed in the first Republican Congress in 40 years. Bill Clinton's health-care power grab was defeated in large part because of our efforts. We passed the first federal ban on an abortion procedure since Roe v. Wade by a margin large enough to pass a constitutional amendment. Bill Clinton has vetoed our ban on partial-birth abortion for now, but its codification into law is only a matter of time. And Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has passed, and other pro-family governors will soon pass, the most sweeping and dramatic school-choice legislation in history.
None of this would have happened without the pro-family movement. And while we have suffered our share of defeats, that is not a sign of our weakness, but a sign of our arrival and growing maturity. Every social-reform movement experiences defeats and disappointments, and ours is no exception. But even when pressed to the wall, our movement enjoys remarkable victories against incredible odds. In Pennsylvania, religious conservatives recently defeated riverboat-gambling legislation, and in Alabama, a bill to legalize video poker and casino gambling was beaten back by the Christian Coalition, Eagle Forum, and the Alabama Family Alliance.
The evidence is clear: people of faith cannot surrender American politics to the special interests and the organized Left. We have worked too hard for too long to earn our place at the table and our voice in the conversation we call democracy. We will not surrender it—not because we seek power, but because we seek justice. And justice requires our vigilance.
Frustration at slow progress in the political arena is understandable. But my advice to my friends in the pro-family movement is this: Do not be discouraged. As Reinhold Niebuhr once observed, "The arc of history is long, but it curves towards justice." This road is often long and hard. But it has always been so. The antislavery movement began petitioning Congress in the 1830s, and did not see slavery abolished for 30 years—and that required a bloody war. The NAACP was founded in 1909, but it did not even gain support in a national party platform until 1948, and it did not pass landmark civil-rights legislation until 1964. The suffragist movement gathered at Seneca Falls in 1848, and women did not gain the right to vote nationally until 1920. The same will be true in the pro-life and pro-family movements. The gradual and incremental nature of our progress and victories is not unusual in the history of social-reform movements in the United States. It is the norm.
Moreover, the reason we persevere is because our nation requires it. John Adams said in 1811, "Religion and virtue are the only foundations, not only of republicanism and of all free government, but of social felicity under all governments and in all the combinations of human society." Until the rise of the modern Left, political thought rooted in our values was seen as central to the success of a free society by Republicans and Democrats, Christians and Jews, Catholics and Protestants, black and white. We must remain true to those principles, whether we win or lose. Our ultimate obligation is to be faithful, not successful. Success is in God's hands and according to God's timing.
Setbacks like the 1998 elections are no reason to abandon the future. The religious conservative movement has leadership that is mature, stable, and seasoned. It has benefited from years of developing veteran talent at the grassroots. The spiritual commitment of its supporters is conducive to a long-term political movement. The pro-family movement has built a lucrative fundraising base of millions of small donors, people who care enough about the direction of this country to give what little or great amount they can. Its demographic base in the electorate is large, well organized, and rooted in historic patterns of voting behavior. Rather than expressing distaste for politics as some political movements do today, pro-family activists are embracing it, pouring out of church pews to serve in the party machinery, volunteer on campaigns, and run for local office. They have a fresh, can-do spirit that reflects real enthusiasm for civic involvement.
In June 1989, Jerry Falwell announced that he was folding the Moral Majority. Critics on the Left joyfully claimed an end to religious conservatism. But they underestimated Falwell's accomplishment of reawakening the slumbering giant of the churchgoing vote. A few months later the Christian Coalition was founded, which soon grew to 2,000 local chapters and over 2 million members and supporters in all 50 states. This movement is based not on a single organization or personality, but on a set of values that are burning in the hearts of millions of Americans of faith. As long as they exist, this movement will exist, and no amount of Monday morning quarterbacking by their critics will make them go away. And thank goodness, for our nation is a more decent and civil place because of them.
It has now been 20 years between the founding of the Moral Majority and the call of retreat by Ed Dobson and Cal Thomas in their book, Blinded by Might. In this time period, religious conservatives have redefined American politics, halting much of the Far Left agenda of redefining the family, raising taxes, and abortion on demand. Even 1998 was more a defeat for the Republican party than for religious conservatives. In fact, a postelection survey by Shadwick Re search found that self-identified evangelicals favored Republicans by 54 to 31 percent in 1998. Had this constituency supported the GOP by the same margin as it did in 1994 (69 to 21 percent), Republicans might have won 12 House seats instead of losing 5. The GOP didn't lose in 1998 because it was abandoned by religious conservatives; it lost because it abandoned the themes and issues of religious conservatives.
Politics is not the answer to our national spiritual salvation. Only personal evangelism, marriage enrichment, the rebuilding of a child-centered culture, and spiritual revival can do that. On that, I agree with Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson. But surrendering politics would essentially condemn future generations to the failed policies of the Left. And make no mistake: without our check, there would be no balance. Our withdrawal would condemn millions in this nation who otherwise might have struggled to maintain our culture. It would send countless more unborn to their premature deaths. It would consign too many children to lives without hope or opportunity in the inner city. It would mean a crushing burden of higher taxes that weighs too heavily on middle-class families struggling to give their children a chance at the American dream. This we cannot and must not do.
As people of faith, we are called to be salt and light in a world in desperate need. Let's quit worrying about the outcome—for that is in God's hands—and get to work.
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