NUMBER OF THE WEEK: Apr. 12, 2009
GOP's Christian Right Pact Costs Votes
By John Zogby
Going back to 1980, Christian conservatives have been the most loyal of voters for the Republican Party. They were keys to Ronald Reagan's success and stayed with George H.W. Bush to help him succeed Reagan. In the 1990s, the might of the evangelical right diminished, but was still effective in undermining Bill Clinton's moral authority and paving the way for the 2000 triumph of George W. Bush and his branding as a "compassionate conservative."
As we look today at where the GOP stands, it is obvious that the party's tight alliance with the Christian right is not helping it. Ongoing trends and recent elections make that clear, as does a recent New York Times/CBS poll that found just 31% of respondents said they had a favorable view of the Republican Party, the lowest figure in 25 years.
The current Newsweek has a lengthy article entitled "The End of Christian America." It notes that the percentage of self-identified Christians has gone down 10% in last two decades, while "the number of Americans who claim no religious affiliation has nearly doubled since 1990, rising from 8% to 15%."
In the 2008 election, the Zogby Interactive post-election voter survey found that John McCain won two-thirds of born-again Christians. However, Barack Obama received the votes of three-fourths of those who identify as having no religious affiliation or affiliations that are not Christian or Jewish.
This week, Kathleen Parker in a Washington Post piece titled "Political Pullback for Christian Right" quotes some on the Christian right saying their movement is dead, while others question the value of party politics, which has certainly not helped them win the culture wars.
Then there is the guy in the White House. As it turns out, the man with the traditionally Muslim middle name is seen more favorably by conservative Christians than are most liberal Democrats. A March 31 U.S. News & World Report article quotes Richard Land, chief of the Southern Baptist Convention, praising Obama for living out "family values."
Our Zogby polling and that of others finds growing concern among young Evangelicals about global warming and poverty, issues that are the Democrats' home turf. Among all 18- to 29-year-olds, our post-election poll found 65% voting for Obama. Republicans are currently losing an entire generation.
Despite all of these factors, the national Republican Party remains closely tied to the Christian right and the narrowest issue positions it has represented. Any elected congressional Republican who deviates from the tightest religious orthodoxy on those issues, as well as some conservative economic stands, risks a primary challenge. Look at Sen. Arlen Spector of Pennsylvania, who barely beat off conservative Rep. Pat Toomey in the 2004 primary, and will likely face him again in 2010.
Republican candidates must have some room to maneuver in order to win elections, and they don't have that now. Hoping that the Democrats and Obama fail is not a winning strategy for the party or the nation. To be sure, given the world's economy and conflicts, that could happen, and 2010 could play out with the same level of success the out party normally has in a non-presidential election year.
However, the GOP's odds of pulling that off would be much better if it is seen as something more than the party that represents just one slice of the American pie. Stumping for God, guns and banning gay marriage--what I like to call the God, guns and gonads platform--just won't appeal to young people. However, none of this means that Republicans must turn on a dime against the beliefs of Christian conservatives and others on the right. Instead, Republican voters should allow candidates to hold some different policy positions, and it must involve cooling the rhetoric on divisive issues, including abortion, gay rights and the meaning of patriotism.
A party can be seen as principled, and still be reasonable, flexible, cooperative and problem-solving. So can evangelical ministers, such as Rick Warren and Joel Osteen. That's why young people have moved away from older, more inflexible leaders like Pat Robertson, Dr. James Dobson and the late Jerry Falwell.
We are entering a political cycle of greater government involvement in the economy, and that is an issue that clearly separates Republicans from Democrats. This is where the GOP should make its stand, but carefully. When people are hurting, as they are now, they want government to help. Republicans should accept that, and be seen as the moderating voice that limits intervention to that which is necessary, and opposes excesses.
That is not a strategy that will quickly bring Republicans back into power. But it does seem to be the best way to begin the climb out of a very deep hole.