by Rod D. Martin
September 30, 2002
Ask Christians today where they stand in the Republican Party, and many of them will tell you a tale of woe. The Christian Coalition was a flash in the pan, some say: it sold them out and disappeared. A few talk of bolting to a third party, although the trickle out to those has reversed in recent years. Many are disheartened, and speak of “better days.”
The truth, though, is startlingly different.
Earlier this year, Campaigns and Elections, trade journal of political professionals, published a report entitled “Spreading Out and Digging In”, a follow-up to its decade-old study on the strength of the Christian Right in state Republican parties at the beginning of the Gingrich revolution.
Its conclusion? Christian conservatives now hold a majority of seats in 36% of all Republican Party state committees (or 18 of 50 states), plus large minorities in 81% of the rest, double their strength from a decade before. They are weak in just 6 states (plus D.C.), all northeastern. As the study put it, Christians are “gaining influence by spreading out to more states and digging in when faced with opposition.” Once dismissed as a small regional movement, “Christian conservatives have become a staple of politics nearly everywhere.”
Even these numbers understate the case. In California, for instance, where the study rightly noted reverses, Christian conservatives in the powerful California Republican Assembly were nevertheless able to overturn the “foreordained” outcome of their party’s gubernatorial primary, badly upsetting left-wing Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan with conservative underdog Bill Simon. A Simon win in November would guarantee their dominance in the party, and dramatically increase their influence in both state and nation.
Likewise, the study found that many who came to politics as part of the Moral Majority or Christian Coalition no longer explicitly identify themselves as part of the “Christian Right.” For the most part, however, this change of labels does not indicate a defection: indeed, it frequently reflects their new status as the dominant force in a broader, ruling coalition, as with many supporters of Arkansas Governor and former Baptist minister Mike Huckabee.
How can the perceived Christian weakness differ so greatly from the reality? One must never discount the constant media barrage labeling religious conservatives a tiny “fringe” movement, nor the similar drumbeat from Democrats and leftist Republicans. But impatience is the better answer. Though Christians have enjoyed explosive growth across the country, in most states their strength remains under 50%. This one fact prevents Christians from electing a majority of the Republican National Committee and, for that matter, controlling the party’s purse across the nation. It also prevents many Christians from seeing how extraordinary their gains have really been.
What is amazing is that one group could come so close to such control; but then, conservative Christians are not just any group. Despite not voting as a self-conscious bloc – or not voting at all – through much of the past century, a quick glance around church parking lots on any given Sunday bespeaks Christians’ potential electoral strength. In much of the country, they are an overwhelming majority, possessed of an all-encompassing worldview, things no traditional lobby can hope to match.
These numbers alone mean nothing, especially when it comes to party leadership. Nevertheless, the twin surges of Christians into GOP ranks in the early 1980s and early 1990s have begun to bear tremendous fruit, as naïve, idealistic recruits have transformed into savvy operatives and leaders, building organizations, winning leadership positions, fighting onto platform committees, and electing many of their own to public office.
Admittedly, their reach has sometimes exceeded their grasp. In more than one state, Christians have tried too much too soon and lost ground as a result.
Yet short-term set-backs mask the bottom line. The huge influx of Christians has provided Republicans an ever-growing pool of the volunteers they lacked for decades; it has also helped establish Republicans’ recent fundraising advantage over Democrats (one reason Democrats and leftist Republicans want to strangle them through campaign finance “reform”). Now Christians’ power is beginning to catch up with their influence; and with vision and leadership, that trend could well produce a Christian-led Republican Party by the end of the decade.
Could that party lead America? Yes. But to succeed, there is a lot Christians still have to learn: how to take and keep the offensive; how to articulate one (and just one) unified vision that’s saleable to the broader conservative majority; and, perhaps most importantly, how to build a national coalition and hold it together over time.
But if they act wisely, Christians could well recover their role as the leading force in conservatism, not merely restoring balance to a too-secularized public square, but giving powerful expression to mainstream, historic American beliefs they invented: in limited government, individual responsibility, and the dignity and rights of man.
Editor’s Note: This op-ed from Rod D. Martin was originally posted at WorldNetDaily.