Election 2008 - The Faith Factor

Religious Right Leaders Are ‘Grieving’ Over Election Outcome While Gearing Up For Next Round Of ‘Culture War’ Battles

Two days after the historic Nov. 4 election, Focus on the Family Chairman James Dobson took to the airwaves to explain that his heart was heavy.

“I want to admit that I am in the midst of a grieving process at this time,” Dobson said, explaining that he worries “over the loss of things that I’ve fought for, for 35 years.”

The reason for Dobson’s dismay? Two days earlier, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama had won the presidency in an electoral landslide – despite frantic efforts by Dobson and others in the Religious Right to stop the Illinois senator.

Dobson congratulated Obama for being the first African-American elected to the presidency but quickly added, “But, to be honest, I have to say that his win causes me enormous concern because he will be the most committed pro-abortion president in our history.

“He’s in favor of much of the homosexual agenda,” Dobson continued, “and he’s going to appoint the most liberal justices to the Supreme Court, perhaps that we’ve ever had. So, there are many reasons why I’m struggling today over the likely path that the nation has taken.”

What Dobson didn’t say is that he had taken extraordinary steps to keep Americans off that path. Shortly before Nov. 4, Dobson’s Focus on the Family Action released an apocalyptic document purporting to be a letter from a Christian describing the United States four years hence.

Titled “Letter from 2012 in Obama’s America,” the missive portrayed a country under President Obama where same-sex marriage has been mandated in all 50 states due to Supreme Court fiat and the Boy Scouts are forced to close down. Public schools are required to offer classes portraying homosexuality in a positive light, and many private religious schools have shuttered due to oppressive government regulation.

Houses of worship have been forced to hire gay people for certain positions, and public high schools don’t allow even voluntary prayer. The Pledge of Allegiance has been declared unconstitutional, most barriers to abortion have been removed and pornography appears on television daily. Home schooling is all but illegal, taxes are sky high and gas costs seven dollars a gallon.

Things aren’t going so well internationally, either: Russia has seized several Eastern European nations, and Obama stood by and did nothing while Iran dropped a nuclear device on Israel.

The letter – so over the top it was the focus of a critical segment on CNN – was just one device the Religious Right used in an effort to derail the Obama campaign as Nov. 4 approached.

Hyperbolic claims about the Illinois senator and his alleged far-left agenda were coupled with familiar Religious Right tactics: slanted “voter guides” that portrayed Obama’s opponent, U.S. Sen. John McCain, as a hero of religious and conservative causes while Obama was made out to be an extremist. At the same time, right-wing churches nationwide were mobilized for political action.

In the end, it was all for naught. Obama won a decisive victory, besting McCain 53 percent to 46 percent in the popular vote and trouncing him in the Electoral College, 365 to 173.

Obama was able to snatch Republican bastions like Virginia (home of Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell), Ohio, North Carolina and even Colorado – Dobson’s adopted state. At the same time, Democrats solidified gains in the House and Senate. The party now has 58 Senate seats (with two races still open); it also picked up at least 20 new House seats.

Exit polling conducted by the National Election Pool (a consortium of top media outlets) found that white evangelical Protestants stuck with McCain, voting for him over Obama 73-26 percent. Despite an aggressive outreach to religious voters by Obama and top Democrats, few evangelicals were moved. Obama’s vote total among this group is comparable to the presidential races of 2000 (when 68 percent of white evangelicals voted for George W. Bush) and 2004 (when Bush captured 78 percent of the white evangelical vote).

Obama did better among Roman Catholics than U.S. Sen. John F. Kerry in 2004, capturing 54 percent of them. But, unlike white evangelicals, Catholic voters tend not to base their vote on a handful of social issues. (Despite all of his talk about religion, Obama did particularly well with those who say they are religiously unaffiliated, capturing 75 percent of this group – an eight-point jump over Kerry’s 2004 total.)

Religious Right leaders were stung by the defeat. Although their relationship with McCain was historically rocky, group leaders had coalesced around the Arizona senator, backing him enthusiastically out of their fears of Obama. McCain solidified his standing with the Religious Right when he selected as his running mate Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, an evangelical Christian with conservative views on social issues.

In late September, the Family Research Council (FRC) hosted it annual “Values Voter Summit” in Washington, D.C. McCain and Palin were no-shows, but there was palpable excitement in the air over the Palin pick. Speaker after speaker lauded her from the podium, and many attendees sported hot pink stickers reading “Palin Power.” (See “Inside the Values Voter Summit,” October 2008 Church & State.)

For a time, it looked as though McCain’s unorthodox selection might work. Summit attendees celebrated polls showing McCain-Palin leading the race, and news stories circulated that the Alaska governor might energize the entire GOP ticket with her “hockey-mom-with-an-attitude” demeanor.

But the more Palin talked to the media, the more it became obvious that her grasp of international and domestic issues was tenuous at best. After a disastrous interview with CBS’s Katie Couric, the McCain campaign essentially closed down media access to Palin (except for Fox News, TV preacher Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network and Dobson’s radio broadcasts). By late October, polls were showing that Palin was a drag on the ticket, with 60 percent of respondents saying, not on the basis of her religious beliefs but on other factors, that Palin was not qualified to be president.

Palin was usually identified as an evangelical by the media, and some of the more controversial practices of one of the churches she attended in Alaska were discussed only briefly. In one video that circulated on YouTube, for example, a pastor from Kenya is shown praying over Palin, imploring God to protect her from “every form of witchcraft.”

Obama, by contrast, made few missteps during the campaign. Republicans tried to make an issue over controversial comments made by Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s former pastor, but voters didn’t seem to care. Obama chose U.S. Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.), a seasoned legislator, as his running mate, which helped allay concerns about Obama’s relative inexperience in Washington.

Biden, a Roman Catholic, came under fire from some church bishops and ultra-traditionalist activists for his pro-choice views on abortion. But again, the attacks never stuck, and Obama won a majority of the overall Catholic vote.

The day after the election, the FRC issued several statements pointing out a silver lining for the Religious Right: the defeat of same-sex marriage in California, Florida and Arizona. The FRC also vowed to remain in the political fray.

FRC President Tony Perkins pushed the line Religious Right leaders use every time their favored candidate loses: He didn’t do enough to appease them – this despite the fact that McCain moved far to the right on several issues and picked Palin at the behest of conservative Christians.

“The base is like flypaper, and the undecideds are the flies, and the base has got to be sticky,” Perkins told the Dallas Morning News. “In this election, the base never became sticky.”

In a message to supporters, Perkins warned of bad things to come.

“We are going to see, I think, unprecedented attacks against our faith through measures like the hate crimes [legislation] to the Employment Non-Discrimination Act,” he said. “We’re going to see attacks on innocent human life through the Freedom of Choice Act, trying to erase all the gains that have been made in the pro-life movement. And I think even our freedoms are going to come under attack.”

Gary Bauer, a longtime Religious Right activist who runs a far-right political action committee, issued a statement bucking up the troops.

“I’m sure many of you are depressed and dispirited,” Bauer wrote. “I understand. I am down too. But I urge you not to spend your time wallowing in defeat…. After 2000 and 2004, the radical Left did not fold up and go away quietly. It immediately redoubled its efforts to defeat us. Leftwing groups organized, raised money, registered voters and, finally, yesterday they succeeded. Will we be as tough and committed as they were? Or will we slink away demoralized and defeated? I have already made my decision. I intend to fight!

TV preacher Pat Robertson is also concerned. Robertson interviewed John Fund of The Wall Street Journal after the election, imploring Fund to explain how Republicans can find a path back to power.

Fund told Robertson not to worry. Obama and congressional Democrats, the Journal editor opined, will overreach and enact policies that are unpopular, sparking a GOP resurgence. Fund also said the party should look to Palin and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal – both closely identified with religious conservatism – as its new breed of leaders.

Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention added Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney and U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky to the list. (Land took credit before the election for Palin’s presence on the ticket, so his suggestions for future party leaders may be less than welcome right now.)

Some Religious Right leaders see Palin as their best hope. Phyllis Schlafly of the Eagle Forum called Palin “a rising star” and “a breath of fresh air.” The Rev. Lou Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition gushed to the Los Angeles Times, “She is our angel.”

Dutch Sheets, an increasingly influential Pentecostal pastor and frequent guest on Robertson’s “700 Club,” issued a statement praising Palin and asserting that the election of Obama means God will withdraw his protection from the nation, resulting in an array of calamities.

“I am not hoping for judgment,” Sheets wrote in an online message. “I am saying it is inevitable….What are some of the judgments we can expect on our nation as a result of this election? More economic woes. More violence in an already violent nation. Disease and death (satan, who is responsible for these things will have greater inroads to our nation). Natural disasters (weather – tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, drought; fires; earthquakes; etc.). Terrorism (they will fear us much less now). War, perhaps on our own soil. Judgments relating to the [Supreme] Court.”

But Sheets was upbeat about Palin’s future.

“I’ve been asked if my feelings about Sarah Palin have changed,” he wrote. “They have not. I believe she is an Esther, a Deborah, with a huge mantle from God for reformation. God has a great destiny for her related to this nation if she chooses to continue down this path.”

Two days after the election, FRC’s Perkins and other Religious Right figures joined secular conservatives at the Virginia home of activist Brent Bozell to plot strategy. The Politico reported that the meeting “is just the first of a handful of other sessions among Republicans to diagnose what went wrong and how to reestablish a party that has now been routed in two consecutive election cycles.”

Some activists are pushing for even more emphasis on social issues.

“The GOP must return to its pro-family roots if it wants to start winning again,” said Peter LaBarbera of the militantly anti-gay group Americans for Truth About Homosexuality. LaBarbera scored McCain for not attacking Obama on issues like same-sex marriage and gays in the military.

But moderates and fiscal conservatives argue that the party’s emphasis on issues like abortion and gays is divisive and drives voters away at times when economic concerns take front and center. The two factions seem destined to duke it out.

The day after the election, Americans United issued a report about the outcome, noting that the results mean that the Religious Right’s power in Washington will be diminished.

“James Dobson, Tony Perkins, Richard Land and Company did everything but declare Obama the Antichrist,” said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “In the end, they kept their own flock in line, but the majority of Americans were unmoved. On Jan. 20, the Religious Right’s eight-year run of the White House will come to a screeching halt.”

Lynn was quick to add that the Religious Right continues to have baleful influence at the state and local level and noted its success with anti-gay ballot measures.

“The Religious Right is not dead,” concluded Lynn, “but I’m happy that most Americans seem very wary of the movement’s reckless merger of religion and politics. Those of us who value church-state separation must remain on the alert to counter the Religious Right’s next gambit.”