The Christian Right : Influent but inefficient in Congress

According to a survey of the PEW research center published in January[1], more than 90% of the 114th U.S. Congress members are Christians (mostly Protestants). That poll shows the importance and the possible influence of religion in politics in Congress.  Among those members there is a movement called the “Christian Right”, which is viewed as extreme. The goal is to determine how influent that movement can be in Congress.

To answer it, we should first introduce the term and movement. The Christian Right is mostly an American term that puts together right-wing Christian political factions such as the Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition of America (CCA), Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council, etc. which strongly support socially conservative policies. As one entity, they have been gaining influence since the forties but have only become influential since the seventies. [2][3][4] That’s when Baptist pastor Jerry Falwell and other Christian leaders began to encourage conservative Christians to get involved in politics. In response, the 1980 Republican Party took positions that mattered to this movement, such as the restoration of school prayer. However, according to Elizabeth Levy[5] “In terms of popularity and influence (real or supposed) of the Christian Right, the nineties were probably a “golden-age”. Indeed “in 1995 Raph Reed, from the Christian Coalition, did the cover of the Time Magazine with the title “The Right Hand of God”[6] ”, proof of the major influence.

The influence of the movement is major and it fluctuates depending on the region and the political situation of the country. According to E. Levy, this influence is major in the Bible Belt (mostly southern states), which is not surprising considering the importance of Christianity, especially Baptism, in the southern states. “Religiosity is an important parameter to take into account to measure the influence [of the movement]” said E. Levy. Among those states, both North and South Carolina and Mississippi are the most religious.[7]
But the Christian Right has, according to her, also very “fierce defenders in rural states such as North and South Dakotas”, which are mostly Lutheran states, but with a significant Catholic presence.7 However “it’s not the only parameter”, we should have studies which “measure the influence of the Christian Right inside local Republican Parties” to know how anchored to movement really is. As we know, senators and representatives are elected locally, thus this parameter has an effect on the composition of Congress.

The political situation in Congress in the nineties can possibly explain the “golden age” of the Christian Right because 1994 marked the year the Republican Party took over both chambers after forty years. The link between Republicans and the Christian Right can’t be overlooked because it’s crucial to the movement’s actions. As E. Levy stresses: “Officially, the organizations of the Christian Right can’t endorse a candidate in an election […] [and] they give as much importance to the analysis of Republican positions as they do to Democrats’ positions”. Because Republicans are traditionally more religious than Democrats, and thus tend to agree more on matters such as abortion, family, marriages, pornography, etc. there is “often a coincidence between the Christian Right and the Republican Party” according to E. Levy.

We can see an impact of this influence on the Republican Party, both on the local and the national level. On the national level, the Party, seeing how powerful the Christian Right was becoming, adapted its ideas to it to gain its support. For instance, the 1980 GOP platform assumed positions such as their support for a restoration of school prayer and their opposition to abortion, for which the Party “leaned towards restricting taxpayer funding this choice and passing a constitutional amendment which would restore protection of the right to life for unborn children”2. Pro-life is indubitably one of the most important positions of the movement, and they want the government to legislate on this matter according to their beliefs. It’s thus logical that the Party would seek their support, for up-coming elections for instance, but also to pass bills in Congress since the GOP did not have a majority at the time.
E. Levy describes the Party as one that “is sometimes dominated by its own extreme factions”, referring to the Christian Right and the Tea Party. “Often the candidates or the ones elected must undergo, at least punctually, the wrath of the movement. [But] it is a mutual dependency relationship in the end. The Christian Right needs a politician to defend its ideas. The ones elected (often Republicans) need voters.”

On the local level the movement can influence local elections results through their support for certain candidates. Indeed for every election, candidates are vetted by the Christian Right on their positions on most important subjects, which determines whether or not the movement will back them. Elizabeth Levy studied that support for candidates for representatives in Oklahoma (one of the Bible Belt states).[8] She shows how the group gives financial aid but also supplies volunteers to help in the campaign. Those two kinds of help can be decisive to win an election, for which every nickel counts.

But this influence needs to be put in perspective. Indeed as influent as the movement may be, in Congress it loses its importance, where it didn’t see its political demands upheld. Even at the movement’s strongest, their success in pushing national legislation was mixed. E. Levy mentioned the example of an Oklahoma representative supported by the Christian Right, who co-sponsored a resolution in 1995 (“Proposing a religious liberties amendment to the Constitution of the United States to secure the people’s right to acknowledge God according to the dictates of conscience”) which was killed in committee. This happens a lot in the legislative process as it is difficult for any resolution to go beyond this stage. However this nixed resolution wasn’t the only one, many other pieces of legislation didn’t pass the committee stage, despite the political situation being favorable.

Indeed the Republican Party had both chambers, and it was the Christian Right’s most influential period. In the end, in over six years (1995-2001) the three Oklahoma districts’ representatives just managed to pass two laws related to the Christian Right agenda: the Defense of Marriage Act and the Assisted Suicide Funding Restriction Act of 1997. Important bills such as the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act of 1995 did not pass (even if it did, eventually, in 2003). Thus, even if the group helped representatives’ elections, it didn’t help the group much. The results were simply not there, even if the representatives at least defend the group’s ideas.

This lack of results can be explained by a few factors. Its influence in Congress can then depend on the Tea Party. Even if they don’t seem to have much in common, they can agree on some subjects and combine their influence to have results in the Republican Party. But they don’t agree on the way to treat the subject of abortion, a fact that limits their relationship. The Tea Party believes abortion is a private choice, even if they don’t approve it, and that Congress shouldn’t invade private life and legislate about it. It’s the opposite for the Christian Right because they believe it should be banned.

Moreover their influence in Congress can be problematic. In the 1998 midterm elections in which the Republicans kept control of the House, the interests of the Christian Right were upset in the race for House leader. The candidate that the Christian Right had backed throughout the years was deemed by Republican House Representatives as too religious, thus too extreme. The House was unwilling to elect him to represent the party, even though the candidate pledged “to build a coalition of moderate and more conservative Republicans”8. “He seemed too radical in his social views to be a compromising, hence effective, Majority Leader”8 wrote E. Levy.

The group’s strategy is not very straightforward, if there is one. It seems divided internally. For instance, the group didn’t back their candidate when he wanted to become Majority Leader. This move appears to be absurd as he would been in the best position to spread the group’s ideology, and even helped promote its agenda.  The divisions, as unclear as the movement’s strategy, might be religious. Indeed from time to time Mormons are included in the group, whereas most of the members are Baptists. There are also some Catholics. That might generate different points of view which can’t be overlooked. According to E. Levy however, those differences were progressively erased. She thinks that they tend to agree on goals, but not on actions, such as who to support, what to say, what to do, etc. The group’s divisions can explain why they aren’t able to decide on a coherent strategy, which can furthermore foster arguments and resentment.

The movement itself didn’t succeed in passing much of its legislation when it was at its most powerful stage. Their divisions and lack of strategy are one of the factors.  But its ideology became absolutely unavoidable in the GOP. Any candidate to a Republican nomination to any elected post must adopt its main positions. Even if some of the most important factions of the movement disappeared in the nineties, many still exist and new ones are constantly founded.

An article by Audrey Le Bras and Perrine Gros


Annex

1995 Time Magazine Cover

Time God hand 1995

[1] 1615 L. Street et al., “Faith on the Hill,” Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, accessed December 8, 2015, http://www.pewforum.org/2015/01/05/faith-on-the-hill/.

[2] “Christian Right,” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, November 3, 2015, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Christian_right&oldid=688783104.

[3] “Content Pages of the Encyclopedia of Religion and Social Science,” accessed December 9, 2015, http://hirr.hartsem.edu/ency/Cright.htm.

[4] Margaret L. Andersen and Howard Francis Taylor, Sociology: Understanding a Diverse Society (Thomson/Wadsworth, 2006).

[5] PhD student in English-speaking civilization at Paris VII University under Isabelle Richet’s direction. Specialist on the matter of the Christian right in Congress because of her work, such as :

“Theses.fr – Elizabeth Levy, De la Défense Des Valeurs à L’exercice Effectif Du Pouvoir : L’influence de la Droite Chrétienne aux États-Unis., “ accessed December 9, 2015, http://www.theses.fr/s46167
Elizabeth Levy, “The Christian Right Goes to Congress. Achievements, Failures, and Political Trajectories of Republican Oklahoman Representatives (1994-2010)“, Revue française d’études américaines 2014/4 (n° 141),

[6] The subtitle was « Meet Ralph Reed, 33. His Christian Coalition is on a crusade to take over U.S. politics and it’s working.” As an annex to this file

[7]According to the American Identification Survey (University of New York City). Map as an annex to this file

[8] Elizabeth Levy, “The Christian Right Goes to Congress,” Revue Française D’études Américaines n° 141, no. 4 (August 19, 2015): 132–44.

Religion in the U.S. according to the American Identification Survey (University of New York City)

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