Bob McDonnell, the GOP gubernatorial candidate in the blue-ing state of Virginia, is falling all over himself to disavow a thesis he wrote 20 years ago in pursuit of degrees in law and public policy at Pat Robertson’s CBN University (now Regent). The thesis, “The Republican Party’s Vision of the Family: The Compelling Issue of the Decade,” embraces various anti-feminist, homophobic positions that sit less well in 2009 than they did in 1989. McDonnell, a long-time Virginia state legislator who resigned as state attorney general this year to run for governor, is competing hard for the women’s vote in a state where 54 percent of the electorate is female. Democrats are making hay with the fact that he opposed women working outside the home not as some callow undergraduate but as a 34-year-old married man. Columnists like WaPo’s Ruth Marcus are enjoying themselves too.
The current squall aside, O’Donnell’s thesis serves as a wonderful historical document of the state of play of religious politics in Virginia and the country at large in 1989. That was the year that the religious right made the transition from its heady but ultimately disappointing Reagan years to the hard business of integrating itself fully into the national Republican apparat. And Virginia was ground zero. Licking his wounds from his failed presidential campaign, Robertson himself established the Christian Coalition with 28-year-old Ralph Reed as executive director. O’Donnell was one of those bright young things (n.b. a Roman Catholic, not an evangelical) who would be furthering the religiosification of the party.
The thesis itself is a perfect expression of the ideological moment. Here’s how it ends:
If Republicans at every level are committed unashamedly and zealously
to promote and protect the traditional family as the American norm, and
to resist family dissolution as an inevitable reality of progress and
culture, then the vision of restoration will begin to bear fruit. As
the family goes, so goes the nation.
Since then, the religious right has had its ups and downs in Virginia, reaching its peak influence in the early part of this decade, and subsequently descending into the valley of the shadow. At no point, however, has a full-throated devotee been able to rise to the heights of statewide office. (George Allen, Mr. Macaca, is the closest example to the contrary.) But the limits of religious zealotry were apparent to McDonnell 20 years ago. As he wrote, “It is also becoming clear in modern culture that the voting American mainstream is not willing to accept a true pro-family ideologue.”
His challenge now is to prove to Virginians that he no longer is one.