NEWS ANALYSIS: Election lesson: religious conservatives have a mind of their own

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c. 1998 Religion News Service

WASHINGTON _ Tuesday’s election results were a blow to leaders of the religious right, just as the unexpected Democratic gains nationwide shook the Republican leadership with whom religious conservatives have been closely aligned.

Across the nation, a large number of candidates and ballot measures backed by religious conservatives met defeat, a bitter pill for the Christian Coalition and its allies, who prefer to portray their movement as ever-expanding and squarely within the American political mainstream.

In Alabama and South Carolina, for example, incumbent GOP governors closely identified with the religious right lost to Democratic challengers who favor lotteries to pay for public education _ a concept that is anathema to movement leaders.

In Colorado and Washington state, voters rejected ballot propositions to ban the procedure”pro-life”religious conservatives call”partial-birth abortion.”In North Carolina, Wisconsin, Kentucky, Washington state and elsewhere, congressional candidates strongly backed by the movement also lost.

Opponents were quick Wednesday (Nov. 4) to seize upon the widespread losses as a sign of the movement’s collapse.”Finally, the American electorate is saying it does not want TV preachers and far-right activist groups setting the agenda”in Congress, said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

But rather than signaling a potential death blow, what the election may have revealed is a movement more pragmatic and harder to pigeonhole than has been apparent to its detractors and supporters alike, said John Green, a University of Akron political scientist.

Echoing Green was Ralph Reed, the former Christian Coalition leader who is now a political consultant.”Contrary to the caricature, religious conservatives have never been single-issue voters,”he said.

By and large, Green said, the 1998 election was not about the broad moral issues that motivate the religious right’s rank-and-file. Those abortion and gay rights measures that were voted upon were local in scope and the results cannot be projected onto the national scene, he said. In instances where Republican candidates associated with the movement were beaten, it often came down to Democrats simply running a better campaign, Green said.

In short, it was local issues and personalities that carried the day, he said.”You can’t say the election was an outright rejection of the religious right, because for the most part Republican candidates did not run on strong religious right platforms this time around,”Green added.

William Martin, a Rice University professor of religion and public policy, generally agreed.”The religious right was never a monolithic juggernaut. What it has been is a well-organized political movement dedicated to its cause, which gave it power beyond its numbers,”he said.

For months, the religious right has hammered President Clinton on the issue of his admitted relationship with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, urging him to resign or face impeachment by the Congress.

But with that issue largely absent from the elections until a last-minute GOP ad campaign, the opportunity to use it as a rallying point for support for moral issues in general was lost. Perhaps nowhere was that more evident than on the issue of gambling, the subject of ballot measures in California and Missouri, in addition to the role it played in gubernatorial contests.

In California, voters gave the state’s Indian tribes the power to run their casinos unhampered by state control. In Missouri, voters approved the installation of slot machines on gambling boats tethered in manmade lagoons. Both measures passed despite the strong opposition of religious conservatives,coupled in some cases with opposition from moderate religious leaders as well.

But it was the Alabama gubernatorial contest in which a pro-gambling vote underscored the need to reconsider the pragmatism and independence of religious right voters, who accounted for 13 percent of the overall electorate this week, according to exit polls cited by the Washington Post.

Alabama, a state in which more than half the population identifies itself as evangelical Protestant, is as much a religious right stronghold as is any area of the nation. Moreover, GOP Gov. Fob James has been a religious right hero for his championing of school prayer and the placing of the Ten Commandments in courtrooms and classrooms.

Yet he lost big to Democrat Don Siegelman, who ran on a platform favoring the use of lottery income to pay public education costs. That in a state where religiously dominant Southern Baptists and Methodists have stood foursquare against legalized gambling for generations.

Christian Coalition national exit polls showed that 31 of self-identified religious conservatives voted Democratic Tuesday, up from 24 percent in 1994. While no figures were available for Alabama, it was safe to assume that more than a few self-identified religious conservatives backed Siegelman, given that he won 58 percent of the vote.

Gary Bauer, the religious conservative activist who is considering a run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000, called the Alabama contest and others in which gambling interests won,”one of the most disturbing”aspects of Tuesday’s balloting.

Legalized gambling, said Bauer, whose Campaign for Working Families spent over $2 million to support more than 200″pro-life and pro-family”candidates this election,”is being sold to the voters as a charade. It does not provide the money for education that’s advertised and it ends up undermining families and causing broken homes.” But Martin, the Rice University professor, said that for all their talk about conservative religious values, Alabamans were apparently more concerned about the money leaving their state for nearby Louisiana and Georgia, both of which allow legalized forms of gambling. Their concern, he said, prompted them to vote”the pragmatic path”and back Siegelman.”You hear people say that the voting shows how we’ve abandoned moral standards,”said Martin.”But there are other issues that people also are focusing in on.” Reed, the ex-Christian Coalition leader, agreed.”Religious conservatives are pro-life and concerned about values. But they also care about education and whether the economy is growing,”he said.

Despite losses such as the Alabama race, religious conservatives did gain some important victories Tuesday.

In Michigan, for example, a measure that would have legalized physician-assisted suicide was rejected. In addition to religious conservatives, Catholic and some other moderate religious leaders also opposed the measure.

Christian Coalition officials touted a one-vote gain in the Senate in favor of overturning Clinton’s veto of a law outlawing the so-called”partial-birth”abortion procedure, even as Republicans and Democrats maintained their overall balance of power in the upper chamber Tuesday.

In Hawaii, voters gave state legislators the okay to write a law prohibiting same-sex marriages. In Alaska, voter approval made a ban on same-sex marriages part of the state constitution.

The votes were called”a major victory for marriage and the family”by Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, a legal foundation created by religious right broadcaster Pat Robertson.

At morning-after Washington news conferences, Bauer and Randy Tate, the Christian Coalition’s executive director, both sought to blame the GOP’s relatively poor showing Tuesday on Republican leaders and candidates, who, they said, did themselves in by failing to fully embrace the religious right’s uncompromising moral message.

The failure to embrace the moral message left Republicans bereft of any agenda other than Clinton deserves to go, Bauer and Tate maintained.”There was no clear conservative agenda articulated by national conservative leaders in Washington,”Tate said.”Republicans tried to win a campaign based solely on anti-Clinton sentiment. Democrats had an agenda, albeit a liberal agenda. They talked about liberal approaches to Social Security, education and health care, and some agenda will beat no agenda every time.” But opponents of the religious right insisted religious conservative leaders had no one to blame but themselves for the results of Tuesday’s balloting.”While castigating the Republicans for focusing on the scandal, both Tate and Bauer failed to acknowledge their own preoccupation with the president’s problems,”said the Rev. Weldon Gaddy, executive director of the Interfaith Alliance, a moderate organization of Christians, Jews and Muslims organized to oppose the religious right.”Looking at the record, (Tate and Bauer) invested heavily in media campaigns calling for the president to resign … Those candidates who touted the narrow agenda espoused by Bauer and Tate paid a price at the polls.” Reed suggested it was time for religious conservatives to put the Clinton scandal behind them once and for all.”To continue to make it our raison d’entre has very little of an upside for us,”he said.”My best advice is to bring the impeachment inquiry to a swift conclusion.”

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