TV & Radio
Religious right wants its due from Bush, GOP
By Mike Dorning Washington Bureau
Sun Jul 17, 9:40 AM ET - Chicago Tribune
On a January morning in 1980, a day when thousands of abortion opponents protested the anniversary of Roe vs. Wade across from the White House, a group of conservative evangelical leaders sat down for breakfast with the born-again president, Jimmy Carter.
The responses they heard on abortion, the Equal Rights Amendment, gay rights and other social issues left them unimpressed. A relationship that already had been strained was irretrievably broken.
By fall, white evangelicals, who four years earlier had supported the election of a Southern Baptist Sunday school teacher, a man quite open about the central role of faith in his life, instead voted overwhelmingly for his defeat, switching their loyalties to Ronald Reagan and the Republican Party.
Now, with an opening on the Supreme Court that offers President Bush the opportunity to alter the course of American jurisprudence, the alliance between Republicans and religious conservatives has reached a defining moment.
For a quarter-century, a politically awakened movement of conservative evangelicals and moral traditionalists of other faiths has played an increasingly important role in Republican electoral successes. In campaigns, they have knocked on doors, stuffed envelopes and dependably performed the other mundane but essential work behind winning elections. At the polling place, they have provided a crucial bloc of votes.
Bush would not be in the White House today without their support. Half of his votes in the 2004 election came from religious traditionalists, according to a survey by the politically independent Pew Research Center. And heavy support from evangelicals gave him the margin of victory in such battleground states as Ohio, Florida, Iowa and Missouri.
Yet religious conservatives so far have not had much success on the issues that matter most to them. Reagan gave them hope but little in the way of action. President George H.W. Bush never seemed quite comfortable talking about their issues.
Abortion is readily available, with few legal restrictions. The gay rights debate has moved from employment discrimination to marriage equality. Pornography is more accessible than ever. Popular entertainment is full of sex-drenched shows such as ABC's "Desperate Housewives." And the 10 Commandments were just thrown out of courthouses in Kentucky.
It is a source of frustration to some leaders of the movement.
And they have not been quiet in criticizing even a prospective Bush nominee to the Supreme Court whom they deem insufficiently devoted to their cause. A torrent of criticism from social conservatives flowed when news reports suggested Bush might nominate his friend Atty. Gen. Alberto Gonzales, whose views on abortion rights are considered murky.
`Little to show'
"We have very little to show for all these years of electing Republicans. If we don't get a decent nominee, we've got to ask ourselves what we have been doing," said Paul Weyrich, a longtime leader of social conservatives who helped found the Moral Majority and is now chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.
"For President Bush, social conservatives and the senators they helped elect, the moment of truth has arrived," said Richard Land, head of the public policy agency for the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest non-Catholic denomination.
Religious conservatives heard Bush the candidate regularly tout Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas as models for a judicial nominee. They understood that to mean someone who, like Scalia and Thomas, adheres to a narrow "strict constructionist" reading of the Constitution that does not find a basis for rights to abortion, homosexual sex or sale of pornography and allows a greater role for religion in public life.
Anything less, or any effort to split the difference by picking one strong conservative and one more-moderate candidate if conservative Chief Justice William Rehnquist should resign this summer, "would be a grave error, a missed opportunity and a betrayal," said Phyllis Schlafly, founder of the Eagle Forum.
This president won religious conservatives and especially evangelicals in part through the fluent way he incorporates his personal faith into his public life. Perhaps no modern president has had as profound and overt adult religious experience as Bush, who turned to faith at least in part to overcome a problem with alcohol.
Bush uses the right words
He unabashedly cites as his favorite political philosopher "Christ, because he changed my heart." His speeches make deft use of the language and imagery of the Bible. He draws on phrases that ring clear to the evangelical ear, such as the title of his autobiography, "A Charge to Keep," taken from a Methodist hymn.
And he offers a worldview cast in spiritual themes: good versus evil, lightness against darkness.
All of which is no small thing to believers who yearn for a greater place for religious expression in public life and often feel alienated from contemporary American culture, said Steven Waldman, editor in chief of Beliefnet.com, an independent multifaith Web site
"A lot of what they've gotten are soft benefits. They've gotten a place at the table," Waldman said. "I think it's made them feel less alone. But I'm not sure it has translated into progress on the key social issues they care most about."
To be sure, religious conservatives can count achievements under the Bush administration and from the Republican-controlled Congress. The ban on federal funding for stem cell research. Funding for abstinence-only sex education. Bush's "faith-based initiative," which gives government support to social programs provided by religious institutions. A regulatory stall on permitting over-the-counter sale of morning-after contraceptives.
But their agenda has not moved forward in the same way as the policy goals of other key groups in the Bush coalition. Economic conservatives, for instance, received big tax cuts and an easing of environmental regulations. And neoconservatives achieved one of their most cherished foreign policy goals: a war to topple Iraq's Saddam Hussein.
By contrast, Bush has offered what is seen as only modest backing for the proposed constitutional amendment defining marriage as a heterosexual union, a cause that has stirred passionate support among Christian conservatives angered by court decisions on gay marriage. He has given tepid support for private school vouchers.
He has declined to call outright for the reversal of Roe vs. Wade, instead offering code words such as his promises to appoint strict constructionist judges. At the same time, he assures abortion rights supporters that he has no litmus test on the issue for judicial appointees. Even Bush's signature accomplishment for religious conservatives--the federal ban on what critics call partial-birth abortions--could amount to an empty gesture without the right nominee to the court. A similar state ban was overturned on a 5-4 vote, with retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor providing the deciding vote against. A challenge to the federal ban is working its way through the courts.
Social conservatives have had mixed success with the Supreme Court nominations of the Republican presidents they supported. Reagan gave them the strongly conservative Scalia but also O'Connor and Anthony Kennedy, both moderates. The first President Bush appointed Thomas but also the solidly liberal David Souter.
The math on Roe vs. Wade
The replacement of O'Connor with a justice who rules against abortion rights would not in itself be sufficient to overturn Roe vs. Wade, for which there appears to be a 6-3 majority among current members of the court.
But such an appointment seems necessary if the decision is to be overturned in the near future. The ailing chief justice votes against abortion rights anyway. Besides O'Connor, the only Roe supporter on the court who seems likely to leave soon is 85-year-old Justice John Paul Stevens. The others who vote to uphold Roe are much younger.
"When you look at the arithmetic and actuarial tables, if Mrs. O'Connor is not replaced by a strong, strict constructionist conservative, then it's hard to see how the court will be turned around in this generation," said the Southern Baptist Convention's Land.
More immediately, Bush's nominee to replace O'Connor could play a pivotal role on church-state issues. O'Connor provided the decisive vote in last month's 5-4 ruling removing the 10 Commandments from Kentucky courthouses as well as an earlier 5-4 ruling banning prayer at public school graduations.
Rev. Tim LaHaye, author of the popular "Left Behind" Christian book series and one of the evangelical leaders who 25 years ago left the meeting with Carter deeply disappointed, said the importance of the choice facing Bush is unmistakable.
"This is a very, very significant moment, and it will become more and more significant," LaHaye said.
by alfayoko2005 | 2005-07-18 02:01