The Magazine

Born Again

The ranks of Christian conservatives aren't dwindling.

Jan 26, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 19 • By MARK STRICHERZ
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

IN DECEMBER 2001, Karl Rove gave a provocative impromptu speech about the decline of the religious right. As a rule, presidential political strategists aren't paragons of forthrightness, but on this morning at least, Rove seems to have been wearing his neutral analyst's suit. Claiming that 19 million self-identified evangelical, fundamentalist, and Pentecostal Christians should have been expected to go to the polls in 2000, he noted that only 15 million did so. "Just over 4 million of them," he told his audience at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, "failed to turn out and vote. And yet they are obviously part of our base."

Since then Rove has not broached the topic (his office didn't return calls for this story). But it was a striking number, and the story of evangelical disaffection has had a long life in the press. Newsweek reported last fall that "the primary demographic objective of [the Bush-Cheney 2004 campaign] is to increase turnout among families that consider themselves evangelical."

Add all this to the well-publicized troubles of the Christian Coalition, and it's easy to conclude that evangelicals really are disengaging from politics. In his speech Rove echoed the gloomy thesis of the book by former Moral Majority staffers Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson, "Blinded by Might: Why the Religious Right Can't Save America": "[W]e may . . . be returning to a point in America where fundamentalists and evangelicals and Pentecostals remain true to their beliefs," said Rove, "which are things of the--you know, politics is corrupt, and therefore we shouldn't participate."

There's only one problem with this analysis. There's no proof. Unless Rove has his hands on secret poll data, the evidence is that the turnout of white evangelical voters didn't change much from 1994 to 2000.

And that's the past. The future looks brighter. Whether galvanized by smart turnout strategies by Christian groups, Howard Dean's secularism ("I don't want to listen to fundamentalist preachers anymore," he told California Democrats), or the tyranny of the federal courts, evangelicals are more likely to go to the polls this November.

In claiming that evangelical voting strength had sagged, Rove seems simply to have repeated a common mistake: conflating white evangelicals, fundamentalists, and Pentecostals with self-declared members of the religious right. The latter category has indeed declined in recent years.

The two groups aren't the same. "You can't equate" them, says Corwin Smidt, a leading scholar of evangelical political behavior at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. "Evangelicals are a religious group, while the religious right is a socio-political group."

For reasons not clear, exit polls don't ask voters if they identify themselves as evangelicals or fundamentalists. Rather, voters are asked if they label themselves part of the religious right. The question causes many evangelical scholars to shake their heads. "It leads to misleading data," Smidt maintains. "One problem is that many African Americans say they're part of the Christian right, but in fact they don't vote Republican at all."

In Voter News Service exit polling data culled by American Enterprise Institute resident fellow Karlyn Bowman, voters identifying themselves as part of the religious right indeed shrank throughout the '90s. In the 1994 midterm elections, 19 percent of voters identified themselves as members of the religious right; in the 1996 presidential election, 16 percent did so. By 2000 the number had dropped to 14 or 15 percent.

Given that about 105.5 million Americans voted in 2000, it's easy to do the math and see how Rove could believe that 15 million evangelicals had voted and that 19 million should have. As for why a smaller share of Americans identified themselves as part of the religious right, one can only speculate. Possibly the media's vituperative sneering at the label made people loath to identify themselves with it.

Evangelicals, on the other hand, make up a much larger bloc, somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 million, or one quarter of all voters. Their ranks stretch across Christian denominations, although the term has far greater currency among Protestants (from the Lutherans to the Baptists) than Catholics. And though they were less politically active 30 years ago, before Supreme Court decisions like Roe v. Wade, today's evangelicals vote at about the same rate as the national average, according to University of Akron survey research conducted by Smidt, Lyman Kellstedt, John C. Green, and James Guth. "I've seen no [recent] drop-off in the number of evangelical voters," says Green, a professor of political science at the University of Akron.

While not all evangelicals are Republican or even conservative, it's certainly a group of voters that will be hugely important to the Bush campaign. What will it do to get them to the polls this year? In general Bush campaign officials and Christian conservative leaders are of two minds about this.

The former tend to stress turnout; the latter stress issues. As Bush-Cheney campaign director Ken Mehlman says, "We're encouraging voter registration big time in churches, mosques, and synagogues." This emphasis helps explain why Ralph Reed--onetime director of the Christian Coalition--has been hired as one of the campaign's 11 regional chairmen (Southeast). Talking with Reed nowadays is a bit like talking with a Chicago precinct captain: His favorite topics are numbers and the importance of knocking on doors. "In Florida," he boasts, "we have 65,000 team leaders, 7,000 precinct workers, and we've added 55,000 Republican registered voters since the election."

Although Reed also mentions the importance of the pro-family agenda, he is not nearly as insistent on this point as are many evangelical leaders. They say the Bush administration must emphasize its support for their issues: a federal marriage amendment to ban homosexual marriage and appointing pro-life judges, especially to the Supreme Court. Some bring up hot-button issues like support for former Alabama judge Roy Moore, whose judicial career ended in controversy over the Ten Commandments monument he installed in Alabama's supreme court building. "I would strongly implore [Bush] to come out on behalf of Roy Moore and to try to get rid of this illegal court order," says Rick Scarborough, the president of Vision America, a Houston-based nonprofit. "Judge Moore was removed from the bench because he would not renounce his belief in God."

In between these two approaches is the Christian Coalition, back from its organizational woes of the late 1990s. The group has budgeted $4.2 million for identifying and mobilizing evangelical voters in 24 swing states. Drew McKissick, the group's unflappable political director, thinks that they can be mobilized by Howard Dean's secularism and support for civil unions, as well as by better outreach. Says McKissick: "If they receive phone calls, postcards, and pamphlets," 80 percent are "likely to vote for the more conservative of the two candidates."

There is evidence that the coalition's new approach could succeed. Kellstedt, an emeritus professor at Wheaton College in Illinois, says his research shows that among traditionalist evangelicals, 89 percent who received campaign literature in 2000 went for Bush. By contrast, only 64 percent among those who didn't receive literature voted for Bush. Boosting those numbers could be particularly important given that only 47 percent of traditionalist evangelicals voted in 2000.

Evangelical groups, however, say that they don't have much money. Especially when compared with liberal interest groups such as America Coming Together and The Partnership for America's Families, it's not much of a contest. Those groups plan to spend $95 million in the election. "They're well funded and if they know what they're doing, they can get results," says Ruy Teixeira, a Democratic-leaning demographer and author of "The Emerging Democratic Majority."

Still, the Bush campaign will likely have far more money, about $200 million, to spend by election's end. If evangelicals can persuade donors to direct some of that money their way, Karl Rove probably won't be talking about their alleged decline next year.

Mark Stricherz, a Phillips Foundation fellow, is a writer living in Washington, D.C.