The Magazine


Sep 25, 1995, Vol. 1, No. 02 • By STEPHEN BATES
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In his 1925 book The Man Nobody Knows, ad man Bruce Barton repositioned that timeworn product, Jesus of Nazareth. Decrying the "sissifted" paintings of a "pale young man with flabby forearms," Barton depicted a Savior who was strapping and suave, a public relations master and a sagacious executive, a riveting storyteller and "the most popular dinner guest in Jerusalem." The book became a bestseller, and hundreds of businessmen wrote to thank the author for having dispelled the alien, irrelevant figure of Sunday sermons. Barton had succeeded in crafting a Jesus capable of inspiring that other preeminent figure of 1920s literature, George Follansbee Babbitt.

Seventy years later, we're witnessing a transformation no less audacious than Barton's -- and potentially as problematic. The major architects are, like Barton, members of the Christian laity with a firm grasp on the tastes of their times. Just as Barton sought to introduce Jesus to mainstream corporate culture, these 1990s impresarios are working to bring the Christian right into mainstream political culture. And, as last weekend's Christian Coalition convention demonstrated, they seem to be succeeding. Their accomplishments may well transfigure American politics in 1996 and beyond.

Yet this repositioning is risky. The effort may fail, conceivably leaving the Christian right in tatters. Or, perhaps worse, the effort may succeed in cleansing the movement's public image, but only by wiping away every trace of its scriptural authority. A moderate, poll-drivenreligious right may prove no more Christian than Bruce Bartoffs executive-suite Jesus.

Much has changed since the modern Christian right emerged in 1980. Back then, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and other leaders injected jarringly religious and often exclusionary concepts into public life. Even when Falwell et al. did couch their policy positions in secular language, the opposition often tripped them up by publicizing their nonsecular pulpit exhortations. Robertson tried to run for president as a media mogul who just happened to be a Christian, but People for the American Way wouldn't let voters forget his boast of having redirected a hurricane with prayer. While unremarkable on The 700 Club, this was the sort of assertion that raised eyebrows on Meet the Press.

The Christian right of the 1990s bears little resemblance to the force that spooked so many people (especially journalists) in the 1980s. Today's high- profile Christian activists have mastered the grammar of secular politics. Now they complain about "political correctness" instead of "secular humanism" -- a crossover target instead of a Christians-only one. (Christian Coalition executive director Ralph Reed titled his book Politically Incorrect.) They say they want "a place at the table," not a Christian takeover. (A Place at the Table was reportedly the working title of Reed's book, but gay critic Bruce Bawer used it first.) Instead of condemning failed surgeon general nominee Henry Foster as a godless baby killer, they speak of him as " outside the mainstream of American culture." They talk more about the First Amendment than the First Commandment, more about anti-Christian bigotry than anti-Christian conspiracies, more about immoral taxation than immoral sexuality, more about the ecumencial-sounding "people of faith" than God- fearing Christians.

Instead of lugging Scripture into the political sphere, today's activists cart polling data. After the 1992 elections, the Christian Coalition sponsored a survey to help it sculpt a more moderate image. The Coalition's Contract with the American Family, unveiled in May, was market-tested by Frank Luntz, the same pollster who had pre-tested Newt Gingrich's Contract with America. Both contracts included only items with at least 60 percent popular support. "We don't have to pretend to be mainstream," Reed told USA Today earlier this month. "We are mainstream."

The Christian right has also appropriated buzzwords of the left: empowerment, tolerance, equality, community, choice. ("Our words," a former People for the American Way offcial told me, half-seriously.) James Dobson of Focus on the Family uses the feminist slogan "pornography is the theory; rape is the practice." The Family Research Council lifted another feminist phrase when it said the Henry Foster nomination proves that the Clinton administration "just oesn't get it." Addressing the Christian Coalition conference, former Pennsylvania Gov. Robert Casey called abortion "the most chauvinistic exploitation ofwomen in the history of the United States."