Evangelicals Want Faith Rewarded

Christian leaders fear that influence on Bush, despite wide support, could be short-lived.

By Peter Wallsten

Los Angeles Times

November 12, 2004

WASHINGTON — Christian evangelicals provided much of the passion and manpower for President Bush's reelection. But even as they celebrate his victory, many of the movement's leaders are experiencing post-election anxiety, worried that their strong support for the president might not translate into the instant influence they expected.

They are flexing their muscles to block Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), an abortion rights supporter, from a Senate leadership post overseeing judicial nomination debates — but Specter appears likely to get the job. They want a clear-cut ban on same-sex marriage, but Bush's newly stated support for civil unions makes them wonder how strongly the president will back their efforts.

And as much as they turned out in force for Bush on election day, many are worried that their power could be short-lived, given that a number of prominent Republicans who support abortion rights and gay rights are positioning themselves to succeed Bush in 2008.

In recent days, some evangelical leaders have warned in interviews that the Republican Party would pay a price in future elections if its leaders did not take up the issues that brought evangelicals to the polls.

"Business as usual isn't going to cut it, where the GOP rides to victory by espousing traditional family values and then turns around and rewards the liberals in its ranks," said Robert Knight, who heads an affiliate of Concerned Women for America, a Christian conservative advocacy group.

"If the GOP wants to expand and govern effectively, it can't play both sides of the fence anymore. It needs a coherent message, which came through loud and clear in the election."

Matthew Staver, who heads the conservative, Florida-based legal group Liberty Counsel, said political parties tended to "take for granted those people who put them into office, especially religious or moral conservatives."

"We want to make sure that doesn't happen this time," he said.

The Rev. Louis P. Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition, said that if Republican leaders in Congress allowed Specter to become chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, their political futures could be at risk. He said a Specter chairmanship could be an "albatross" for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, a potential presidential contender.

The Rev. Jerry Falwell, one of the nation's most prominent evangelists, is so concerned about harnessing the movement's power within the GOP and national politics that this week he formed the Faith and Values Coalition, which, as he put it, aimed to be a "21st century version of the Moral Majority."

The group will seek to register millions of additional evangelical voters, starting in January, to ensure that supporters of abortion rights, such as former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, or backers of gay rights, such as Arizona Sen. John McCain, don't win the GOP presidential nomination and that Republicans retain the White House in 2008.

"If the Republican Party were to nominate a pro-choice head of the ticket, the energy level in the evangelical camp would be greatly diminished," Falwell said. "And, very frankly, I think the Republicans would lose."

The nervousness stands in contrast to the rejoicing that took place after Bush won by a wider margin than many expected. He benefited from a heavy turnout among conservative Catholics and Protestant evangelicals.

Evangelicals generally see the Bible as the authoritative word of God, emphasize "born again" religious conversion and are committed to spreading their faith and values.

Those voters may have been drawn to the polls by the national debate over moral issues, such as same-sex marriage.

Polls show that as many as 22% of voters ranked "values" as the most important motivator in casting their vote, and about 80% of those voters supported Bush, who spoke frequently of his Christian faith. Ballot questions barring same-sex marriage in 11 states may have brought new voters — and Bush supporters — to the polls.

Despite these voters' support for Bush, the White House seems to be treading carefully in its relationship with evangelicals.

On the issue of same-sex marriage, the Bush administration has been sending what some evangelicals say are mixed signals.

Karl Rove, Bush's chief political strategist, told reporters this week that he believed evangelicals deserved much of the credit for Bush's reelection, and that future candidates should heed the lessons of the 2004 election when it came to voters' opposition to same-sex marriage.

"This is an issue about which there is a broad general consensus," Rove said. "People would be well-advised to pay attention to what the American people are saying."

At the same time, Bush and his aides have focused most of their comments on other issues in the days following the election, such as revamping the tax system and reworking Social Security.

Moreover, Bush's most recent remarks on same-sex marriage infuriated some Christian conservative leaders.

"I don't think we should deny people rights to a civil union, a legal arrangement, if that's what a state chooses to do," Bush said on ABC in an interview that aired a week before the election. His statement put him at odds not only with some social conservatives but with the Republican Party platform.

"The president has to stop endorsing homosexuality indirectly by supporting civil unions," said Knight of Concerned Women for America.

Some evangelicals are calling on the White House to use its muscle to block Specter from becoming chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, a post he would win through the chamber's rules on seniority. Aides to Bush have so far kept an arm's length from the controversy, calling it an internal matter for the Senate.

Control of the Senate Judiciary Committee is important to conservatives because of the panel's central role in approving nominations to the Supreme Court and other federal courts and in shaping such legislation as the proposed constitutional amendment barring gay marriage.

Specter appears poised to take the chairmanship despite thousands of phone calls and e-mails that have been swarming senators since the Pennsylvania moderate warned last week that judicial nominees who opposed abortion rights might be rejected by the Senate. Some interpreted his remarks to mean that Specter would oppose anti-abortion jurists, though Specter said that was not the case.

Knight called the Specter issue "a very big test" to see if the GOP leadership understood "the depth of what occurred on Nov. 2."

"If they decide to elevate Specter anyway, they will alienate millions of people who counted on them to begin pushing back liberalism instead of aiding and abetting it," he said.

Adding wrinkles to their relationship with the White House, some evangelical leaders worry that Bush's circle of advisors includes aides who are insufficiently committed to conservative social values.

Some see Andrew H. Card Jr., the president's chief of staff and a former Massachusetts state legislator, as too moderate. They note that Vice President Dick Cheney, who has a lesbian daughter, has said that the issue of same-sex marriage should be left to the states, in contrast to evangelicals' call for a constitutional ban.

Bob Jones III, president of the Christian conservative Bob Jones University in South Carolina, recently urged Bush to purge moderates from the White House.

"If you have weaklings around you who do not share your biblical values, shed yourself of them," Jones said in a letter to Bush after the election. "Put your agenda on the front burner and let it boil. You owe the liberals nothing. They despise you because they despise your Christ."

Complicating relations between Republican leaders and evangelicals is that the movement is divided on how to wield whatever influence it has, and on which issues are most important.

One broad coalition of conservative Christian leaders met two days after the election to discuss the movement's role. A memo drafted after the meeting mapped out a strategy to "welcome the Republican, Democrat and the independent" by acknowledging issues such as poverty and the environment, as well as abortion and same-sex marriage.

But as evangelicals strive to find their role in a public square that feels increasingly inviting to their cause, some leaders say they must be patient. Even if Specter becomes chairman of the Judiciary Committee, it is not necessarily a defeat, they said.

Falwell said he had spoken to Rove three times since the election, and that Specter called him this week to offer assurances that he would not block Bush's court nominees.

Grover Norquist, a prominent anti-tax activist and Rove confidant who convenes weekly meetings of religious conservative leaders, said anyone who was complaining about conservatives' progress held "unreasonable expectations."

"How are conservatives feeling? Ecstatic," he said. "If they are not happy because they don't have two cars, then the answer is go out and work hard and get a second car."