When Vicky Hartzler was nine years old, she asked God what she should become when she grew up. According to her book, Running God’s Way: Step by Step to a Successful Political Campaign, the answer was surprising: a state representative.
Nine might seem to be an awfully early age to become interested in elected office, but it paid off. In 1993, the Missouri home economics teacher ran as a Republican and was elected to the state House of Representatives, where she served three terms. She later headed a 2004 campaign to amend the Missouri constitution to ban civil marriages for same-sex couples.
In 2010, Hartzler aimed for higher office. This time, the Archie, Mo., evangelical Christian sought a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives from Missouri’s 4th congressional district. Endorsed by Sarah Palin and the Tea Party, she focused her campaign on lower taxes and smaller government, but her stance on religion and politics was a constant undercurrent.
At one campaign stop, she was asked by a church deacon if she would “vote the way her faith dictates” on issues.
According to the National Catholic Reporter, she replied, “I’m 100 percent pro-life. I will uphold Christian values and beliefs in our country. My faith is first and foremost. I serve God through public service, but I answer first to God.”
Hartzler won her race, bumping off 17-term Democratic incumbent Ike Skelton, a Christian church elder whose conservative stands on social issues weren’t enough to save him at the ballot box.
Exit polls show that more than 60 percent of Americans cited the economy as their top concern in November voting. The figure was even higher in states hard hit by financial setbacks. But the subsequent changes in Congress, observers say, will empower Religious Right leaders who will insist on action on controversial social issues.
Hartzler is one of dozens of new members of the U.S. House of Representatives who are likely to tilt Congress away from church-state separation.
The House now has a 239-196 Republican majority (with eight races still undecided as Church & State went to press), and that means new leadership and new priorities. Former Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) will become the new Speaker, and U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor (R.-Va.) will become Majority Leader.
Both men have track records of working closely with the Religious Right.
Boehner is a strong proponent of voucher subsidies for religious and other private schools. He also wants publicly funded “faith-based” charities to have the right to discriminate in hiring on religious grounds.
Boehner has even pushed for “intelligent design” instruction in public school science classes, arguing that students should be exposed to the “full range” of scientific views.
In a speech at the Family Research Council’s “Values Voter Summit” in 2009, Boehner attacked President Barack Obama and told the crowd, “We’re in the midst of a political rebellion in America!” People, he said, “want their country back, and we can take our country back.”
During the elections this year, Religious Right forces worked in tandem with the Tea Party to try to elect conservative Republican candidates.
Some of the most high-profile candidates in this camp failed at the polls. Those who were the most publicly critical of church-state separation lost.
In Delaware, for example, Republican Christine O’Donnell questioned church-state separation in a televised debate.
“Where in the Constitution is separation of church and state?” she asked her opponent Chris Coons. Hampered by that perspective and a host of other non-mainstream views, she lost to Coons in the race for an open U.S. Senate seat that the GOP had hoped to win easily.
In the contest for Delaware’s lone U.S. House seat, Republican Glen Urquhart went even further than O’Donnell.
“Do you know where this phrase ‘separation of church and state’ comes from?” Urquhart asked. “The exact phrase ‘separation of church and state’ came out of Adolf Hitler’s mouth. That’s where it comes from. So the next time your liberal friends talk about the separation of church and state, ask them why they’re Nazis.”
Voters, perhaps aware that Thomas Jefferson had more to do with church-state separation than Hitler, didn’t buy Urquhart’s version of history. He lost handily to Democrat John Carney.
Nevada Republican candidate Sharron Angle and Colorado’s Ken Buck, both Tea Party favorites, also lost Senate races, after blasting church-state separation.
But many candidates who were more quietly hostile to church-state separation were successful.
Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council boasted that 124 of its closest allies in Congress – dubbed “True Blue” because of their 100 percent voting record in favor of FRC positions – were reelected. (Only one staunch ally, “True Blue” Democrat Bobby Bright of Alabama, lost.)
Perkins also claimed that 155 of the 182 gubernatorial and federal candidates the FRC PAC endorsed were successful.
Hartzler of Missouri was one of them. Taking advantage of the unpopularity of top Democrats, she slammed her opponent Skelton for allegedly voting for the agenda of Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Her emphasis was on economic concerns, but social issues cropped up as well.
For example, she accused her Democratic opponent, who regularly voted against reproductive choice and gay rights, of failing to preclude a rider from a defense appropriations bill that penalized hate crimes against gays.
According to the Pulaski County Daily, Hartzler told a veterans’ group in Laquey, Mo., “It’s an important bill, a sacred bill in my mind. Nancy Pelosi comes to him and says, ‘hey, would you stick on the spending bill for the troops my number one agenda item for San Francisco?’… Using the military to pass a radical piece of social legislation is wrong.”
Running on her “life values” of “faith, family and freedom,” Hartzler also appealed to voters in her Bible-belt district by noting her opposition to Obama’s recognition of religious diversity and his outreach to Muslims.
“They don’t understand,” she said, “that we believe that, yes, we are a Christian nation and we shouldn’t go around the world apologizing like our president does.”
Hartzler’s record and her stance on social issues earned endorsements not only from the FRC Action PAC, but also Concerned Women for America’s CWPAC, Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum PAC and Gary Bauer’s Campaign for Working Families.
Shari Bax, an associate professor of political science at the University of Central Missouri, told the National Catholic Reporter that the 50-year-old candidate’s religious connections were a key to her upset victory.
“Vicky is a grass-roots candidate,” Bax said. “And a lot of her grass roots is built out of a strong church network. Although her faith may not be driving the issues at this point in time…certainly her faith is still a cornerstone of the network she is using to build her support. And it will be a primary support system for her voter mobilization effort.”
Hartzler had the backing of many in her home congregation, the Harrisonville Community Church.
The Pulaski County Daily reported that Pastor Randy Evers had encouraged Hartzler to run for public office. He preached a special sermon in October emphasizing that Jesus Christ is “ruler over all the rulers of the earth” and that Christian prayer plays a crucial role “in the implementation of the Lord’s authority over earthly leadership.” He also recommended more direct political involvement, such as voting, displaying political signs and contacting elected officials.
“I hope you get involved with the political process in a variety of ways,” Evers said. “Register to vote and then vote every chance you get. We have voter registration cards out on the table right now.
“Don’t you have it come back to Pastor Randy’s ears – if I may frankly just say this – if you want to see a butt-kicking, I’ll do it if I find out – that’s a crude phrase, I understand that – I’ll get on your case, that’s a better way for a pastor to say it. I will get on your case if I find out that you could have voted and you didn’t register to vote.”
Hartzler told reporters that she had spoken to the four Tea Party groups in her congressional district and “probably will” join the Tea Party caucus being formed in the House.
The FRC’s Perkins attributed the Religious Right’s success at the polls in large part to its alliance with the Tea Party, a movement that has publicly emphasized lower taxes and smaller government, not social issues.
“In race after race,” said Perkins, “we witnessed the raw power, not of the Republican Establishment, but of the deep alliance between social and Tea Party conservatives.”
Ralph Reed of the Faith & Freedom Coalition agreed.
“These movements are inextricably intertwined,” he said, “and there is an enormous amount of overlap.”
David Brody of Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network even coined a new term, “Teavangelical,” to describe the coupling.
Perkins, Reed and Brody may be exaggerating somewhat. The listless Religious Right desperately needs some new vigor and enthusiasm that the Tea Party could bring, so it’s in their interest to try to latch on to it. But there is also some hard evidence of a burgeoning alignment between the Religious Right and the Tea Party crowd.
The Public Religion Research Institute reported in early October that nearly half of Tea Party activists polled say they are also part of the Religious Right or conservative Christian movement. Sixty-three percent say abortion should be banned in all or most cases, and only 18 percent think same-sex couples should be allowed to wed.
At any rate, National Election Pool polling data found that November voters who describe themselves at “born-again or evangelical Christians,” voted 78 percent for Republican candidates. That figure is up 8 percent over the last midterm election.
Religious Right leaders are already demanding that Republican members of Congress acknowledge the conservative Christian role in the election and act on their issues.
In a Beliefnet post headlined, “We’re back: Christian conservatives swarm Congress,” Religious Right activist Jordon Sekulow crowed, “November 2nd was a historic day for the Religious Right. Republicans are back in control of the House of Representatives and many social conservatives are heading to the U.S. Senate.”
Sekulow, son of Pat Robertson lawyer Jay Sekulow, added, “While the momentous task of repealing Obamacare and getting the economy back on track begin today, it would be foolish to overlook the impact these new elected officials will have on social issues.”
He may be right. Americans United’s Barry W. Lynn said he expects the Religious Right to push for religious school vouchers, publicly funded “faith-based” hiring bias, creationism in the public schools, laws allowing electioneering by churches, “Christian nation” resolutions and other measures that undercut church-state separation.
“Voters sent a strong message that they want Congress to focus on fixing the economy,” said Lynn, “but the election results may inflict collateral damage on the Constitution. I think the Religious Right will seize this opportunity to advance its agenda in Congress.”
Lynn is also worried about developments in the state legislatures. Religious Right activists are salivating at potential advances on that front.
Focus on the Family’s Citizenlink heralded those changes.
“The undercurrent of Tuesday’s conservative ‘tsunami’ yielded amazing results on the state level,” wrote Citizenlink’s Catherine Snow. “From state legislatures to secretaries of states to races for governors, conservatives made historic gains on Nov. 2.
“These gains,” Snow observed, “will not only affect the types of legislation put forth, but they will also influence future representation in the U.S. House. Starting in early January, legislatures will start the laborious process of redistricting based on U.S. Census figures.”
Items on the state legislative agenda – like the ones in Congress – will probably include social issues ranging from aid to religious schools and religion in public schools to religion-based restrictions on reproductive choice and gay rights.
“Church-state separation is going to be under sustained fire for the next two years in Congress and in many state legislatures,” said Lynn. “Religious Right leaders are re-energized by the election results, and they are going to want action. Those of us who believe in individual freedom and equality are going to have our hands full.”