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Beware comeback of religious right in ’98

Ralph Reed is gone and the Christian Coalition is downsizing. It doesn’t appear that Pat Robertson is interested in another presidential run.

Hold the applause, that’s 1997. The religious right has been counted out -- or at least on the way out -- too many times before only to re-emerge, fashioning some new approach to make the politics of intolerance tolerable.

As the new year dawns, the religious right’s rising star is Gary Bauer of the Family Research Council, a pro-family lobbying group, who is already suggesting himself as a possible GOP candidate in the 2000 elections.

His Campaign for the Working Families PAC has already raised $1.6 million.

All this looks like different names, same games. Important games for sure.

Regardless of the role of God in Ralph Reed’s personal life, Reed really was a workaday political operative -- an extremely calculating and effective one -- on behalf of Pat Robertson and the Christian Coalition. When he left the coalition last year, he shed the vestments and returned to the world of political hardball without the God veneer.

The Family Research Council is a Washington-based organization once associated with James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, based in Colorado Springs, Colo. Though former Reagan White House Education Undersecretary Bauer is not a Reed clone, he’s in Washington to lobby for religious right fundamentals: “to develop and advocate legislative and public policy initiatives which strengthen and fortify the family and promote traditional values” while informing and educating “citizens on how they can promote biblical principles in our culture.”

Bauer has publicly wondered about consumerism’s insidious effects on the family. He’ll have to stop that sort of musing if he runs for the White House, of course. (Even if he runs, he won’t win. Not enough Americans vote that way.)

Despite the Reed-Bauer similarity, we should recall that what the media -- and we -- call “the religious right” no more reflects a single point of view than does Catholicism.

This raises at least three things to consider in 1998.

First, public perception (meaning the secular media) now accepts that fundamentalist and evangelical Christians did not suddenly appear on earth when Jerry Falwell invented the Moral Majority in the 1960s.

Second, most Americans might actually welcome evangelical Christians as next-door neighbors and live to tell the tale. We see this changed secular media perception in the way Promise Keepers was seriously discussed in the national media during their Oct. 4 Washington gathering.

The religious right remains both headache and savior to the Republican Party. The right’s activists drive the party regulars crazy. Their religion-based platform planks make little sense to operatives masterminding strategy and tactics in the cold-eyed, numbers counting polls and the electoral fray that is driven by mass mailings. Reed’s willingness to cut political deals clearly alienated some of the coalition’s bedrock believers. On the other hand the GOP knows an absolute antiabortion plank won’t make for a winning ticket.

But the religious right can get out a lot of the Republican/conservative vote much of the time. That’s why otherwise mainstream Republican candidates turn up at religious right venues to genuflect and turn up the volume on their newly discovered conservative Christian views.

The third point is perhaps the most important -- it has to do with the role the religious right is playing in U.S. society.

The trouble with the label “religious right” is that we’re not sure whom we’re including when we use it. We know some, such as Falwell, Robertson, Reed, Fr. Richard Neuhaus, Michael Novak and the Catholic Campaign for America. Yet we have to watch out for the lulling mantra effect of saying the words “religious right” lest we miss a bigger picture.

While the religious right most often makes for scary politics and punitive social programs, its campaigns highlighting such matters as the breakdown of social order, family life, personal responsibility, public education and the rest of its agenda have served to focus the national debate. And evangelical Jim Wallis, no right-winger, through the formation of Call to Renewal, has drawn an impressive cross-section of religious right organizations into the discussion of such a nonreligious right issue as poverty.

But the Wallis effort is an aberration that nibbles at the edges of a very large arena and is of no value as a general measure of the religious right’s activities or influence.

With all due respect to seeking civility in our public debate, those who do not think a fundamentalist theocracy is the best path to solving society’s problems will have to become a bit more cunning and calculating, serpents as well as doves, in dealing with the religious right.

The mistake of those not of the religious right persuasion has been to ignore or dismiss the topics they raise. The mistake will be compounded if the religious right is permitted to be the only voice framing discussion of those topics.

While predictions of the religious right’s demise have been premature, it’s unnecessary to concede as much ground as has been given over. The sad reality is that the religious right has appropriated the language of Christianity as if it had an exclusive copyright. Too often, in our news broadcasts and the popular culture’s understanding of things, to be Christian means to subscribe to the theology of prosperity and punitive politics of the likes of Robertson, Reed, Falwell and the rest. They have been allowed to politicize Christian language while doing nothing to Christianize political responsibility.

National Catholic Reporter, January 16, 1998