Not a few activists will eschew my former argument (in the November 1996 issue) against the national GOP as our preferred political vehicle, clinging to their indefatigable hope of gaining ascendancy and remedying the litany of indictments we issued against the old dame. So now is as good a time as any to analyze the viability of the Christian Right’s sixteen-year-old quest to exercise dominion over the GOP. Currently it seems Christian activists within the party fall broadly into two categories: those like the ubiquitous Ralph Reed who hope to “gain a place at the table,” i.e., an opportunity to influence GOP policy and policy makers; and those who are motivated by the powerful hut quixotic allure of a complete GOP takeover. Of course, many if not most activists combine, to varying degrees, these two suppositions. Since the latter expectation clearly has the least chance of success, let’s dispense with it first:
Premise: “The GOP should remake itself into the party of moral virtue — preferably Biblical virtues.”
The first question we should ask ourselves, if we can gain a moment’s objectivity by viewing the question from the GOP’s vantage point, is, why should they? Why should the real power players, the likes of Bob Dole, Phil Gramm, Pete Wilson, Alphonse D’Amato, Steve Forbes, George Bush, Jr., William Weld, Christine Todd Whitman, Gerald Ford, hatchet men like Haley Barbour (against Reagan in 1976), Jim Baker, Donald Rumsfeld, and Dick Cheney (as well as a legion of lesser known imitators and protégés) rush to the anxious bench for a political born-again experience? Why should we expect them to? Why should they betray their humanism, libertarianism, or political pragmatism and sell out their friends in the process?
Why should they depart from their historical stance?
Nevertheless, we can dream for a moment. Let us suppose we were to drive the Philistines from their lofty perches. Where would they go? The answer is quite clear — they would leave the party, just as GOP establishment strongholds deserted Reagan and Goldwater in droves (a little-known political factoid is that both Reagan [in 1980] and Goldwater ran 30- 40 points behind normal GOP voter trends in traditionalist GOP enclaves). What gave Reagan the edge not enjoyed by Goldwater was the so-called Populist vote — the Christian Right, Southern Democrats and conservative Roman Catholics switching to Reagan. Ironically, this is the precise voter profile most disdained by the GOP hierarchy. So, good riddance, you say! But not so fast! When the establishment walks, the framework (the campaign managers, pollsters, state organizers, fund-raisers and assorted technicians) goes with them. They also take the foundation, the “mother milk of politics” — money. The key to the party’s power is the hundreds of millions of corporate dollars funneled through the Republican National Committee, the Senate and House campaign committees, and a multitude of various “independent” business PAC’s or “educational” campaigns. Without this funding source, it’s doubtful we would be able to afford to mail the Party’s fundraising lists, let alone marshal sufficient resources into hundreds of races.
Over the past decade, activists have taken great encouragement from their hard-fought victories in taking over numerous county GOP committees and a handful of state parties. While these actions do represent important victories on a local level, they also demonstrate the inapplicability of this approach to the national level. The assumption is that if we controlled enough states we could elect the national chairman and thus control the party apparatus. There are, however two slight flaws. Usually the chairman of the RNC is hand-picked by the sitting President (if, of course, he’s a Republican). Secondly, even if a coalition of state chairs and national committee members prevailed, the big money would simply redirect their funds to campaign coffers not controlled by us. In multiple instances when we gained control of a local party structure, the Big Money Boys simply withdrew their resources and redirected them through alternative channels. So, without the establishment framework or foundation, what are we left with? An impressive neon sign that flashes “Republican Party” and a few truckloads of pachyderm novelties. But by then, even the GOP name will have lost its efficacy In their withdrawal from the party, the establishment (with the connivance of the media) will surely blow enough holes through our billboard (warning the nation of the take-over of the party by Right- Wing religious zealots) to render it virtually useless in attracting voters to its standard.
Conclusion: With the same effort we would need to first take over and then defend our position in such a scenario, it would seem a more prudent employment of our resources to concentrate on local party building, where we can exercise control — or build our own party. Both options could be pursued without the negative, energy-draining, morale-crunching warfare and attendant media distortion that would accompany a battle for the levers of power. Particularly when we discover the hydraulics connecting those levers to their power source have been sabotaged.
But What About a “Seat at The Table”?
At first blush, this next scenario — the unchanging dream of all Christian Right activists from myself ten years ago to Ralph Reed today — to hold a place of influence within the smoke-filled back rooms of the GOP decision-making process, seems to hold a more realistic chance of materializing. But here too we find significant obstacles. First of all, we have to realize that the GOP is, and will remain a “Big Tent,” and for its part, the GOP is happy to have us under its “Big Top” where our activities can be safely monitored and channeled. Christians even have their own section in the GOP — assigned on the basis of our willingness to moderate our perceived zealotry. The Christian Coalition’s relatively tame “Contract with the Family” earns it a place closer to center ring than enjoyed by Reconstructionists, “true believers,” pro-lifers, and other “hardcore” types who may be exiled to the freak show area. Yet, no matter how enthusiastically the crowd applauds when it’s our turn to perform, we must remember that we are just one act in the Big Tent — along with many other equally popular performing teams, none of whom share our peculiar religious world view or our paradigm for issues prioritization. Libertarians, defense hawks, economic conservatives, pragmatic populists. Country Club Republicans, neo-conservatives, and establishment conservatives take up the majority of the tent — as well they should... it is their tent — bought and paid for.
The fact of the matter is that although the various camps coexist under one umbrella of short-term political advantage, we are worlds apart. The GOP has never seen itself as a vehicle for Biblical solutions to the country’s problems. On the contrary, the Republican Party (within which I labored for two decades) takes seriously its commitment to the vision expressed within our nation’s Constitution (largely crafted by men very much like themselves — heavily influenced by the “right wing” of the Humanist Enlightenment): the preservation of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Through the decades, the GOP has interpreted the Founders’ dreams primarily in terms of freedom for the individual from “big government” interference. There is much here to be applauded: freedom to make (and keep) the fruits of your labors, freedom from government over-regulation and intrusiveness, etc. But freedom for man to enjoy his liberty and pursue happiness as he defines it presents us with a double-edged sword, connoting for many a widely drawn freedom of choice — regarding sexual preferences, religious views (or enforcement thereof), and especially abortion. Thus one of the most articulate voices for Republican majoritarians, libertarian P. J. O’Rourke, in issuing a major apologetic for the GOP in the nation’s leading conservative journal. The American Spectator, enthusiastically declared what attraction the G O P holds for a large part of its core: “We leave you alone.” To underscore the reasons for his personal affinity for the party, and to recruit those like-minded free spirits, he adds: “I still detest authority... I spit on dominion and control.” His point is the GOP is the party most likely to dismantle “big government,” which he defines as morally superior types “telling you what to do.” If, as I suspect, P. J. O’Rourke represents at least the same market share of the GOP soul as the Christian Coalition, how successful can our attempt to woo the heart of the GOP be?
And Then There’s The Real World!
Besides the fact that our Biblical world view is, in fact, metaphysically antithetical to true-blue Republican individualism, there remains the profoundly simple but normally ignored (by us) equation that political parties stay in business by winning elections — not by publicly posturing on potentially alienating issues. Herein lies the paradox of our love-hate relationship with the GOP. It pays off handsomely for the moderates, libertarians, businessmen, and political technicians that control the party to be accommodating to the Christian Right by dropping a few applause lines into well-timed speeches, by manipulating symbols (as in occasionally sharing the platform), and by sincerely wishing to work together to defeat a common enemy that each faction agrees is at least somewhat more dangerous to its well-being than the other faction. We get a crack at playing power politics, and the GOP enhances its ability to employ “wedge issues” in marginal races — and it gets lots of energetic volunteers (political cannon fodder). This tightrope act would come quickly apart, however, if the GOP were to publicly identify in a substantial way with anything that smacks of a Biblical agenda. For the GOP to rhetorically decry liberal excess and out-of-control big government stopping little kids from praying or even to insert a pro-life plank into a largely meaningless and traditionally ignored platform statement is (note how both Dole and Kemp unashamedly abandoned the Christian Right-influenced platform whenever convenient) one thing. Actually waging a concerted, high-profile campaign against “freedom of choice,” aggressively advocating constraints on the pursuit of liberty and self-fulfillment, or risking being perceived as diminishing the sovereignty of the individual is quite another. The unvarnished truth is that since 1980 our dream of a permanent seat at the Bargaining Table has been just that — a dream, an illusion — encouraged in the past by people like me and Chuck Colson (who candidly admits how he and other White House operators manipulated special interest groups by showing them a little attention and dangling a few “photo opportunities”). But the fact is that when we rewrite the party platform, it’s ignored. When we elect a Ronald Reagan we (and our agenda) are locked out (except for a few photo opportunities) by the Don Regans, Jim Bakers (a Ford/Bush operator who relentlessly opposed Reagan in 1976 and 1980, then was awarded the Whitehouse’s top spot [Chief of Staff] where he systematically undercut Reagan’s conservative aides, Nofziger, Meese, etc. and eviscerated Reagan’s agenda), Mike Deavers and Dick Darmans as Kevin Philips notes: “From the start (1981) Reagan aides were quick to downplay the difference that the religious Right had made on election day” (Post Conservative America, page 191). When we elect a Bush or a Dole, we are banished by them personally — no middle man required. Dole enthusiast, Ralph Reed was still in school in the early 1980’s, safely cocooned from the real world of power politics. Consequently his school-boy-like optimism hasn’t yet been tempered by the disillusionment of false hope and betrayal. He hasn’t yet experience the joy of having sacrificed everything, of “having delivered” only to be relegated to the cycle of White House face-saving meetings with “liaison deputies,” marionettes lacking any real power who in turn were cynically manipulated by the real players — the senior staff, to keep us pacified (of course, if his candidate had won, he would have learned this lesson in less time than it would have taken Sheila Burke to erase his phone number from President Dole’s rolodex). if one has spent any time with the GOP regulars, it doesn’t take long to realize the enmity runs deep — we are seen as zealots, nuts, backwater buffoons, Rednecks, Ayatollahs, hicks — and worst of all — as “party crashers.” Our value is calibrated in terms of our usefulness as cannon fodder. The further one ascends the GOP power ladder, the more intense these feelings become. It is clear we are tolerated but not wanted. Which leads to the next question, what keeps us in this “Not So Grand” Party anyway?
Five Bad Reasons for Going down with a Ship that’s Not Even Ours
1) We’ll lose our place at the table. As previously noted, our place setting is manipulated at will by party plutocrats — mysteriously disappearing during back-room policy discussions and reappearing when a few sacrificial lambs or scape goats are required (usually around election time). Let’s apply the “reality test.” After 12 years of Reagan/Bush, how has our agenda fared?
How many Christian scholar/thinkers or leaders were recruited into key positions? With minor exceptions, it’s been all show and no go. Smoke and mirrors.
2) We can take control. Fook what we’ve done in county/state parties and with the platform! This particularly deceptive illusion has been, I believe, adequately demystified.
3) It’s the only ship in port. What else would we do? This unseemly “plantation mentality” rests on a number of faulty assumptions: A) We lack the adequate vision and resources to strike out on our own. B) We can’t do better than the self-possessed political half-wits who have almost self-destructed the party. C) If we will just go along with the Big Boys, obsequiously standing by in true “step ‘n fetch it” fashion, we will be tossed a few scraps from the table.
4) We don’t have time to build our own party (and it would be doomed anyway) because our dispensationally driven eschatology dictates the Devil cleaning up — and soon! Not only are we not going to win the culture wars — we’re not even supposed to — ‘cause the earth is not the Lord’s — it’s the Devil’s! While this dispensational model of “The End Times” has been largely abandoned by most evangelical churches in terms of teaching, defending or even strict adherence, its residue after a century of permeating almost every denomination, continues to (at the very least) subconsciously inform our world view timeline. The practical consequences of this particularly abominable and destructive heresy have discouraged long-term planning, comprehensively thinking or even forming a “Christian world view.” Investing massive resources in the scholarly “heavy-lifting” necessary to develop a full-orbed world view that comprehensively applies Biblical truth to all areas of life (as the Protestant Reformers and Puritans did) is nonsensical when viewed from the currently dominant Evangelical Pietist dispensational paradigm. For those who haven’t caught on yet, in this novel scheme cooked up by layman John Nelson Darby and institutionalized by lawyer-turned-Bible-commentator C. I. Scofield, 1800 years of church theology, history and Biblical scholarship is disregarded, the church doomed to defeat, and the Devil inherits God’s earth, making a lie of Matthew 28:19-20. For the last century, evangelicals under the sway of the dispensational Zeitgeist, particularly students and businessmen, were mandated to devote all their resources to “soul-winning strategies.” In practice this meant obtaining a degree in “Bible” at a backwoods “Bible College” or joining a plethora of parachurch campus organizations committed to an inwardly privatistic scheme of personal piety, spiritual perfectionism and more soul-winning — as opposed to Biblically carrying out Christ’s mandate to engage and disciple the culture, restoring mercy and justice in the process (Mt 23:23, Mt. 25, Mt. 28:19-20, Is. 1 and 58), a process which begins, but does not end, with personal piety and evangelism. Businessmen’s roles were limited to financing all the above, feeling guilty they weren’t doing something “more spiritual,” and joining Bible studies or “Christian businessmen’s groups” where the theme seemed to be “meet, eat and retreat.” Christians bereft of their own coherent world view were forced to cobble together an eclectic series of contradicting notions, and suffering a breakdown from the consequential cognitive dissonance, simply fell back on the GOP to provide a “worldview,” at least when it came to cultural engagement or defending “family values.” We looked to the GOP to provide political salvation rather than to God’s Word to discover His plan for redeeming the world, including the world’s cultures.
5) A multiple party system, or the disappearance of the GOP is simply not feasible. Wrong! Ever hear of the Whigs?
They were replaced by a group of upstarts who referred to themselves as Republicans when they failed to adequately address the “culture war” issue of their day — slavery! Guess who is not addressing cultural survival issues today (hint: the Democrats are addressing these issues — and quite boldly, in their discredited Enlightenment, modernist, Neo-Marxian fashion). Not only are third parties inevitable (as Chuck Colson recently noted, “The split is coming”) if anyone hasn’t noticed, they are already here — a total of eight or more the last time I checked. Of course, the real question is, will they mature into “real parties” that exercise significant power? To answer this question we need to pose the larger question — how will our antiquated two-party system fare in a new world of powerful and irreconcilable competing interest groups, rapidly shifting political realignments, culture wars and a collapsing economy (to say nothing of the rapid disintegration of social order)? Not very well accordingly to one of the GOP’s preeminent political demographers and social scientist Kevin Phillips (no relation to Howard) who prophesied the “Emergency Republican Majority” back in 1968. According to Phillips, the two-party system is “decreasingly viable” since the “old coalitions appear to encompass unbridgeable sociological disparities.” Sound familiar? Think about Christian Right “zealots,” secular Neoconservatives, Libertine Libertarians, old-line establishment types, and superficial but fashionable (and irreligious) country clubbers! Phillips in fact doesn’t leave room for any doubt about this unlikely marriage of convenience lasting: “fundamentalist tilted forces of the New Right, and the GOP’s... social progressives are as hostile and incompatible as the McGovern/ New Class and George Wallace Democrats were in the late 1960’s and 1970’s.” A condition which Phillips suggests could lead to a powerful “third force” effort: “If the Religious Counter Reformation is as massive and as in depth as partisans suggest, it could seek a vehicle of its own.” I think it is significant that Phillips is not the only objective “outside observer” to reach this conclusion. In what I believe will turn out to be a prophetic statement. Christian historian and author David Barron writes: “... if the evangelicals should lose their foothold within the Republican Party or if the abortion battle should swing against them with an aura of irreversible finality, a larger number of conservative Christians will begin to think more seriously about overt forms of social protest and resistance. If that should occur, the Reconstructionists will be waiting for them with open arms.” In our third article, we’ll examine how these dynamics might take place, and suggest several options for optimizing an effective response.
This article is the second in a series. if you missed the first installment wherein Mr. Doner, a former senior GOP strategist, and architect of the “Old Christian Right” (1978-1988) demolished the party as “visionless, morally bankrupt and unfaithful to its agenda and its allies” and “terminally stupid” to boot, simply contact us for our November 1996 issue. In 1997 the entire series (Part III will appear in our February 1997 issue of Chalcedon Report) will be offered in booklet form.
In his third installment Mr. Doner makes a critical distinction between the two Republican Parties — local and national-and appropriately outlines a two-pronged strategy. He investigates the populist phenomenon that has cost the GOP three of the last six presidential elections, and predicts Christians have a unique window of opportunity to guide (on a national level) a new realignment of the nation’s electoral power blocs.
- Colonel V. Doner