When I came to Montgomery to watch the debate over the Bible literacy bill, I had expected something pro forma, a Bible love-fest. Alabama is, after all, God’s country. On the drive from Atlanta, I sampled some of the area’s many Christian radio stations to catch up on the Christian rock that doesn’t get played as often in Washington–some classic Amy Grant, a little Third Day, and a new group, Jonah 33 (think 3 Doors Down, but with more Jesus lyrics). Outside, it looked like the good Lord could have reached down and molded Adam out of the red clay. This is the state that produced Judge Roy Moore and the Ten Commandments statue. Martin Luther King Jr., pastored his first church here, Dexter Avenue Baptist. In Snead, a convenience-store owner offers free coffee or soda to anyone who recites the Bible verse of the month, and people do it because it’s a two-fer: Learn the Bible and get a free Dr. Pepper.
As far as people around here are concerned, you can always use a little more Bible. It’s not taught in the schools very often because the Supreme Court ruled in 1963 that public schools couldn’t hold devotional classes, and many school boards–unsure of how else to teach about the Bible–don’t want to get sued. But when some local leaders learned last summer about a curriculum package produced by the Bible Literacy Project out of Fairfax, Va., the problem seemed to be solved. The course presents the Bible in a historical and cultural context–giving students a better understanding of biblical allusions in art, literature, and music. More importantly, it has been vetted by conservative and liberal legal experts to withstand constitutional challenge.
One of the leading advocates of the Bible course, Dr. Randy Brinson, met me at entrance to the state house. Brinson, a tall sandy-haired physician from Montgomery who speaks with a twang and the earnest enthusiasm of a youth-group leader, is a lifelong Republican and founder of Redeem the Vote, a national voter registration organization that targets evangelicals. Since discovering the Bible literacy course, he has successfully lobbied politicians in Florida, Georgia, and Missouri to introduce bills that would set up similar classes. But it is here at home that he’s encountered the most resistance. “You should see who’s against this thing,” he told me, shaking his head.
Indeed, when Brinson and the other supporters–including several Pentecostal ministers, some Methodists, and a member of the state board of education–entered the state house chamber to make their case, they faced off against representatives from the Christian Coalition, Concerned Women of America, and the Eagle Forum. These denizens of the Christian Right denounced the effort, calling it “extreme” and “frivolous” and charging that it would encourage that most dangerous of activities, “critical thinking.” The real stakes of the fight, though, were made clear by Republican Rep. Scott Beason when he took his turn at the lectern. “This is more than about God,” he reminded his colleagues. “This is about politics.”
Actually, it’s about both–a fight over which party gets to claim the religious mantle. Nationally, and in states like Alabama, the GOP cannot afford to allow Democrats a victory on anything that might be perceived as benefiting people of faith. Republican political dominance depends on being able to manipulate religious supporters with fear, painting the Democratic Party as hostile to religion and in the thrall of secular humanists. That image would take quite a blow if the party of Nancy Pelosi was responsible for bringing back Bible classes–even constitutional ones–to public schools.
The holy skirmish down in Alabama, with its “GOP blocks votes on Bible class bill” headlines, may seem like just a one-time, up-is-down, oddity. But it’s really the frontline of a larger war to keep Democrats from appealing to more moderate evangelical voters. American politics is so closely divided that if a political party peels off a few percentage points of a single big constituency, it can change the entire electoral map. To take the most recent example, African Americans, who represent 11 percent of the electorate, cast 88 percent of their ballots for Democrats nationally. But Bush was able to get those numbers down to 84 percent in key states like Ohio and Pennsylvania in 2004–and kept the White House as a result. Republican strategists recognized that a significant number of black voters are very conservative on social issues but have stayed with the Democratic Party because of its reputation for being friendlier to racial minorities. The GOP didn’t need a strategy to sway the entire black community; it just needed to pick off enough votes to put the party over the top.
Democrats could similarly poach a decisive percentage of the GOP’s evangelical base. In the last election, evangelicals made up 26 percent of the electorate, and 78 percent of them voted for Bush. That sounds like a fairly inviolate bloc. And, indeed, the conservative evangelicals for whom abortion and gay marriage are the deciding issues are unlikely to ever leave the Republican Party. But a substantial minority of evangelical voters–41 percent, according to a 2004 survey by political scientist John Green at the University of Akron–are more moderate on a host of issues ranging from the environment to public education to support for government spending on anti-poverty programs. Broadly speaking, these are the suburban, two-working-parents, kids-in-public-school, recycle-the-newspapers evangelicals. They may be pro-life, but it’s in a Catholic, “seamless garment of life” kind of way. These moderates have largely remained in the Republican coalition because of its faith-friendly image. A targeted effort by the Democratic Party to appeal to them could produce victories in the short term: To win the 2004 presidential election, John Kerry needed just 59,300 additional votes in Ohio–that’s four percent of the total evangelical vote in the state, or approximately 10 percent of Ohio’s moderate evangelical voters. And if the Democratic Party changed its reputation on religion, the result could alter the electoral map in a more significant and permanent way.
That’s why, insiders say, the word has gone forth from the Republican National Committee to defeat Democratic efforts to reclaim religion. Republicans who disregard the instructions and express support for Democratic efforts are swiftly disciplined. At the University of Alabama, the president of the College Republicans was forced to resign after she endorsed the Bible legislation. A few states away, a Missouri Republican who sponsored a Bible literacy bill came under criticism from conservatives for consulting with Brinson and subsequently denied to a St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter that he had ever even heard of Brinson. But as for Brinson himself, he’s already gone. “Oh, they’re ticked at me,” he says. “But it’s because they’re scared. This has the potential to break the Republican coalition.”
Three years ago, Randy Brinson would have been the first to tell you that he was an unlikely political player and an even less likely Democratic collaborator. While his father had been a classic southern Democrat who shifted with George Wallace and made the leap to the Republican Party with Reagan, Brinson, who grew up in Jacksonville, Fla., had come of age in the new Republican South. He had worked on the campaign of the first Republican to be elected governor in South Carolina when he was in boarding school there and was an early Reagan supporter at college in Georgia in the mid-1970s. When Brinson moved his family to Montgomery after medical school, he naturally got involved in local politics, and in the late 1990s, he was a health-care advisor to the Republican governor Fob James.
But he was essentially an unknown figure until, in 2003, he figured out a way to combine his three passions–religion, politics, and music. He had already been part of a group that started WAY-FM (as in, “I am the way, the truth, and the life”), a Christian radio station based in Montgomery and carried in 44 markets. With an upcoming presidential election, Brinson realized that a religious version of MTV’s Rock the Vote would have the best chance of reaching young evangelicals and getting them involved in politics. Using his own money at first, he created a non-profit called Redeem the Vote and hired the media firm that marketed Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, giving him instant access to their contacts throughout the evangelical world. Through partnerships with more than 30 Christian music acts and summer concerts like Creation East and Spirit Coast West (the Christian equivalents of Lilith Fair or Lollapalooza), Redeem the Vote registered more voters than all of the efforts of the Christian Right heavyweights–Focus on the Family, the Southern Baptist Convention, American Family Association, and the Family Research Council–combined.
Suddenly, Brinson was on the radar of national media like The Washington Post and “Nightline,” and catching the eye of fellow conservatives. With such an impressive showing his first time out and direct access to young evangelicals, the most coveted of resources, Brinson could have been on track to become a major player in the Christian Right. The old guard–figures like James Dobson, Chuck Colson, Don Wildmon, James Kennedy, Phyllis Schlafly–are all in their 70s; the future of the movement lies with people like Brinson, who are 20 or 30 years younger and have credibility with the grassroots.
So when religious conservatives convened a meeting at the Hay-Adams Hotel in Washington a few weeks after the election, Brinson was invited. The room was full of men who had played some role in keeping the White House in Bush’s hands. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention sat at Brinson’s table. Rick Warren, author of the bestseller The Purpose-Driven Life, wasn’t far away. Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) and Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Penn.) came over from the Hill to talk with the group. The mood was celebratory, but with an aggressive, hostile edge. They had won, and now they wanted to collect.
The main item of business that day was what to do with Santorum’s colleague, the pesky pro-choice Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Penn.). Specter held a crucial position as chair of the Judiciary Committee and had recently outraged this group by telling the press that he would apply “no litmus test” to judicial nominees. Now they wanted him gone, ousted, stripped of power. When, in the midst of escalating rhetoric, Brinson spoke up to suggest that perhaps punishing Specter wasn’t the wisest decision, the idea wasn’t well received. “That,” he says, “was my first inkling that I wasn’t one of them.” If being a player in this world meant calling for the heads of moderate Republicans and ginning up fake controversies like a supposed “war on Christmas,” Brinson wasn’t terribly interested.
Not long after, while Brinson was still turning the taste of disillusionment around in his mouth, a Democrat called from Washington. The immediate post-election conventional wisdom was that Democrats lost because they couldn’t appeal to so-called “moral values” voters. Democrats immediately embarked on a crash course in religious outreach and sought out people who could teach them about evangelicals. Brinson, who had caught the attention of the Democratic youth-vote industry, seemed like an obvious choice.
As for Brinson, when the Democratic chief of staff on the other end of the line asked whether the doctor would be willing to meet with some Democrats, he thought about his recent experiences with the other side and decided “maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to talk to these Democratic people.” In quick succession, the lifelong Republican found himself meeting with advisors to the incoming Democratic leaders–Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.)–field directors at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and aides to Howard Dean at the Democratic National Committee. What they found is that their interests overlapped: The Democrats wanted to reach out to evangelicals, and Brinson wanted to connect with politicians who could deliver on a broader array of evangelical concerns, like protecting programs to help the poor, supporting public education, and expanding health care. It had seemed natural for him to start by pressing his own party to take up those concerns, but Democrats appeared to be more willing partners. They even found common ground on abortion when Brinson, who is very pro-life, explained that he was more interested in lowering abortion rates by preventing unwanted pregnancies than in using the issue to score political points.
Those Democrats who had initially been wary about working with a conservative evangelical Republican from Alabama found Brinson convincing. They also realized that conservatives had done them an enormous favor. “Listening to him talk,” one of them told me, “I thought, these guys bitch-slapped him, and he’s willing to play ball.”
At about this time, with Bush just entering his second term, his support among evangelicals began to slip. They had turned out in record numbers to give him nearly 80 percent of their votes. And for what? Conservative evangelicals didn’t like the fact that their demand to oust Specter was ultimately denied. Nor were they pleased that the Harriet Miers nomination had been bungled after it was peddled to them as a way to put one of their own on the high court. The Abramoff scandal didn’t help either, with its manipulation of Christian Right leaders to support gambling interests and email messages referring to evangelicals as “wackos.”
For their part, more moderate evangelicals soured on Bush for many of the reasons that lowered his approval ratings across the board: an unpopular Social Security plan, a lack of progress in Iraq, and the failed response to Hurricane Katrina. The right-of-center magazine Christianity Today ran an editorial declaring that “single-issue politics is neither necessary nor wise.” One-third of the students and faculty at Calvin College in the heart of conservative western Michigan signed a full-page ad protesting Bush’s Iraq policy when he gave a commencement address there. Many moderates were dismayed when the old guard refused to join protests against federal budget cuts that fall disproportionately on the poor in favor of what James Dobson called “pro-family tax cuts.” These moderates had supported Bush despite often disagreeing with his specific positions. But in 2005, according to an Associated Press poll, the percentage of them who believed the country was headed in the right direction dropped by 30 points.
The newly converted are the most zealous, sharing the good news with gusto to any and all comers. Every few days, Randy Brinson calls me with another revelation. Republicans? “The power structure in the Republican Party is too entrenched with big business. It’s not with evangelicals–they’re a means to an end.” The Christian Right? “They just want to keep the culture war going because it raises a lot of money for them.” Abramoff? “Evangelicals were being used as pawns to promote a big money agenda.” His fellow evangelicals? “Can’t they see that Republicans are just pandering to them??” He once was blind, but now he sees.
What sets Brinson apart from other disgruntled evangelicals is that he has an infrastructure at his disposal. Although Redeem the Vote is still engaged in voter registration activities, Brinson has expanded its mission, branching out into issue advocacy and using the organizational capability developed during the campaign to mobilize evangelicals at a moment’s notice. Last year, when a Republican state senator led an effort to shift money from Alabama’s education trust fund to more conservative causes, Brinson generated nearly 60,000 email messages–nearly half of the state senate district. It didn’t take long for the legislator to cry “uncle” and leave the funds for public education.
It’s for this reason that Brinson has not been completely shut out of conversations in the Christian Right, and officials at the White House continue to take his calls. He has numbers behind him, and they all know it. In an uncharacteristically boastful moment, Brinson crows that Republicans “are sweating bullets because they know what we can do.”
While Brinson has been working with Democrats in Alabama on the Bible literacy bill, other evangelicals are having their own road to Damascus moments. One of them is Richard Cizik, vice president for governmental affairs at the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), and a frequent subject of profiles on “kinder, gentler” evangelicals in outlets like Newsweek and USA Today. Cizik has spent years trying to get evangelicals invested in what he calls “creation care,” the idea that God gave them responsibility for tending to the earth. His hope has been that a Republican administration would be more likely to pay attention to lobbying from its own base on issues like carbon dioxide emissions than from liberal environmentalists.
In early January, I talked to Cizik about his efforts to get evangelicals to take a stand on climate change, a move that would place considerable political pressure on the administration to take the problem seriously. The NAE represents 52 denominations with 45,000 churches and 30 million members across the country–getting them all to agree on something is no easy task, but Cizik had made impressive strides and was optimistic. Convinced that his only course of action was to work with Republicans, he spent an hour patiently explaining why evangelicals were better off trying to change Republican attitudes about the environment rather than working with Democrats who already embraced his position. Not able to help myself, I argued back. It’s not as if the Bush administration doesn’t support environmental policies because they hate trees. It’s because they have powerful business supporters who don’t like regulation. Still, Cizik held firm, insisting that evangelicals had to change “our own party.”
A month later, I ran into Cizik at the National Prayer Breakfast. That morning, he had opened up his Washington Post to find an article based on a letter to his boss from the old guard–Dobson, Colson, Wildmon, and the rest–suggesting, in the way that Tony Soprano makes suggestions, that the NAE back off its plan to take a public position on global warming. “Bible-believing evangelicals,” the letter-writers argued, “disagree about the cause, severity and solutions to the global warming issue.” The leaked letter was a blatant attempt to torpedo Cizik’s efforts, and it had worked. The NAE would take no stand on climate change.
There was no doubt that the administration had prevailed on the more pliable figures of the Christian Right to whack one of their own. Cizik was beside himself. It was hard to resist the “I told you so” moment, and I didn’t. But when I suggested to him that this was an example of the way that business seemed to win out most of the time when religious and business interests came into conflict in GOP politics, he stopped me. “Not most of the time,” he corrected. “Every time. Every single time.” And he’s no longer sure that can change. “Maybe not with this administration…. We need to stop putting all of our eggs in one basket–that’s just not good politics.”
Cizik wasn’t the only example of this shift at the Prayer Breakfast. At the main event earlier in the day, keynote speaker Bono (of U2 and antipoverty crusading fame) enjoyed a far more enthusiastic reception than President Bush, whose applause was, several conservative religious leaders told me, surprisingly weak. (“He got a standing ovation when he entered, but that’s because you have to stand,” observed one evangelical.) It could have had something to do with the fact that Bono highlighted this tension between what’s good for corporate interests and what serves the cause of justice. He went through a litany of examples–trade agreements that make it harder for Third-World countries to sell their products, tax policies that shift debt to the next generation, patent laws that raise the price of life-saving drugs–and then put the challenge to his audience: “God will not accept that. Mine won’t, at least. Will yours?”
Evangelicals–particularly centrists–are increasingly answering, “No!” Rick Warren has recently started a campaign to end global poverty, reminding his followers that “Life is not about having more and getting more–it’s about serving God and serving others.” Groups like the Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN) are taking up Cizik’s cause; 63 percent of evangelicals in a recent survey released by EEN said that global warming was an immediate concern. Half went even further, agreeing that steps needed to be taken to reduce global warming, even if it meant a high economic cost for the United States. Former National Review writer Rod Dreher has a just-published book that urges religious conservatives to question negative consequences of the free market.
The list of issues these evangelicals care about extends beyond the social hot-buttons that win elections. And yet, as Cizik notes, when they try to promote concerns that threaten the interests of big business, evangelicals are stymied every time. Observers date the latest round of religious/business tensions to the mid-1990s disagreement over whether to continue China’s Most-Favored-Nation trading status. Although the issue split Democrats, the most serious dispute was within the Republican Party. Religious conservatives, led by evangelicals, argued that the United States should not trade with a country that had serious human rights abuses, including persecution of Christians. But their concerns were overridden by corporations who lusted after China’s vast, largely untapped market.
More recently, evangelicals and other religious leaders have met with officials at the Justice Department and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to request government action to protect children from receiving pornography over wireless devices. This was a cause the Bush-Cheney campaigned trumpeted during 2004 as proof of its commitment to help parents protect their children from harmful cultural influences. That was before wireless companies weighed in to oppose the regulation, however. In their latest meeting with federal agencies, the religious leaders were politely but firmly rebuffed.
Even a simple measure to protect the rights of workers to wear religious garb such as the hijab in the workplace or to swap work schedules with a colleague on religious holidays like Good Friday hit a brick wall when business interests got involved. For 10 years, Republican congressional leaders–and, since 2001, the Bush White House–have refused to support the Workplace Religious Freedom Act (cosponsored by John Kerry and Rick Santorum) because the business lobby, led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, opposes the idea that employers should have to make accommodations for religious workers. In a November 2005 hearing on the legislation, Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.), angrily dressed down the Chamber’s witness, declaring himself “incredibly disgusted, as well as disappointed” by her testimony. This earned him a rebuke from the committee chair, who reminded Souder that “private business… has the right to set the rules.”
This is hardly a new tension in the Republican coalition. In 1984, Sidney Blumenthal wrote a fascinating article in The New Republic, detailing how Reagan’s political advisors struggled to sideline the religious conservatives who had put them into power. A “strategy of repressive tolerance,” he wrote, was the work of economic conservatives who found the agenda of the Christian Right inconvenient and often embarrassing. The battle plan sounds very familiar today: The Christian Right rallied its followers around issues like abortion and school prayer; the White House offered “insincere gestures of support” while instructing congressional leaders to place relevant legislation in permanent limbo; and White House aides made sure the Christian Right constituency was “maintained in a state of perpetual mobilization.”
The flaw in this strategy, Blumenthal noted, was that “The White House served as an incubator for the movement it was trying to contain.” After eight years of this, religious conservatives wised up. And when televangelist Pat Robertson entered the 1988 presidential primaries, his strong early showing stemmed in large part from the support of frustrated evangelicals. Back then, of course, the issues that the White House was working to avoid were conservative favorites like abortion and school prayer. That’s still a problem for the Bush administration, but now they face dissent from the other side as well. The first time around, of course, Robertson failed to get the nomination, and most evangelicals–faced with the choice between the Episcopalian George H.W. Bush or the avowedly secular Michael Dukakis–drifted back to the GOP. What will happen in 2008 is now an open question.
Like an abusive boyfriend, Republicans keep moderate evangelicals in the coalition by alternating between painting their options as bleak and wooing them with sweet talk. You can’t leave me–where are you going to go? To them? They think you’re stupid, they hate religion. Besides, you know I love you–I’m a compassionate conservative. The tactic works as long as evangelicals don’t call the GOP’s bluff and as long as Democrats are viewed as hostile to religion.
Randy Brinson is proof that some evangelicals are willing to take their chances and cross over to see what Democrats have to offer. There is a growing recognition among mainstream Democrats and the once-quiescent Religious Left that they can reframe issues they care about in terms that appeal to religious voters. But winning over moderate evangelicals–or moderate religious voters generally–will take more than just repackaging old positions. It will require aggressively staking out new positions that can be used to demonstrate the tension within the GOP’s religious/business coalition–embracing, for instance, the Workplace Religious Freedom Act. And it means forwarding new ideas that can counter the conservative-promoted image of progressives as anti-religious–ideas like Bible-as-literature courses in public high schools, which might anger some secularists on the left but are perfectly consonant with liberal values.
A sign that Democratic leaders are beginning to get it is the plan–promoted by leaders such as Harry Reid and Hillary Clinton–to lower abortion rates by preventing unwanted pregnancies. Full-throated support of this effort, and a recognition that abstinence education plays a role in lowering teen pregnancy rates (along with birth control), puts Democrats alongside the majority of voters on this difficult issue, and it is especially appealing to moderate evangelicals. They’re not looking to punish everything outside of procreative marital sex; they just want to see fewer abortions take place. And because evangelicals generally don’t have the same opposition to contraception that Catholics do, Democrats can promote the kind of plan that would truly reduce abortions, something Republicans–with their reliance on right-wing Catholics–can’t afford to do.
Despite all of the punditry about a “God gap” at the voting booth, this is a better moment for Democrats to pick up support from religious moderates than any other time in the past few decades. That’s because evangelicals themselves are the ones who are broadening the faith agenda, insisting that there are issues they care about beyond abortion and gay marriage, connecting Gospel messages about the golden rule and the Good Samaritan to the policies they want their government to support.
For 30 years, the Republican advantage among religious voters has come from being able to successfully control the definition of “religious,” conflating it with “conservative” and encouraging the media to do the same. Measured against that yardstick, most Democrats come up short. But when the standard is more complex, when being religious also means caring about the environment and poverty and human rights and education, the plane levels. Soon enough, Republicans start to miss the mark, and Democrats get a little closer.
This is what gives Karl Rove and the other GOP headcounters heartburn. A third-party candidacy by Roy Moore would be troublesome, but conservative evangelicals are ultimately loyal to the Republican Party. And while it might irritate business supporters, the administration could probably toss moderate evangelicals a few crumbs on the environment or global poverty. But once that door is opened, it can’t be shut again. Whether or not large numbers of moderates migrate to the Democratic Party, if they succeed in expanding the scope of “religious issues,” the GOP will lose its lock on faith.
And so Republicans revert to the only tactic they have left: fear. The fight down in Alabama has shown that they will do whatever they have to in order to prevent Democrats from claiming a piece of the religious mantle, even if it means taking what could be portrayed as the “anti-religion” stance themselves. On the same day that Alabama Republicans launched their filibuster of the Bible literacy bill, state GOP chairwoman Twinkle Cavanaugh published an op-ed that charged the Bible curriculum was written by “ultra-liberal groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, the Council for Islamic Education, and the People for the American Way.” (It was not.) Randy Brinson chuckled as he reported this to me, saying, “This is smokin’ them out. Now, we see what they really care about. It’s not religion; they care about power.” He may have the last laugh. According to convoluted state law, Democrats can revive the Bible literacy bill after the Alabama legislature approves all of its budget bills this spring–and they have the votes to pass it.