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."
Movement leaders routinely liken their effort to the civil rights struggle. "We will ride in the back of the bus no longer!" Reed declared as he opened the Coalition's conference on Sept. 8. Attendees later received wallet-sized copies of a faith pledge originally used by Martin Luther King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference. "If we make this pledge our pledge, we can change America," said Reed.
Though the Christian right sometimes condemns identity politics, victimization, and multiculturalism, it simultaneously tries to use them as footholds toward enhanced legitimacy, as when it portrays conservative Christians as yet another downtrodden, underappreciated American tribe. That's why movement leaders cherish those "taunts and insults" (in Reed's words) that periodically seep into mainstream media outlets, like the Washington Post's 1993 observation that people who follow televangelists tend to be "poor, uneducated and easy to command" -- a favorite at the conference.
As an example of the rhetorical shifts of the nineties, consider school prayer. Whereas conserative Christians once argued that classroom prayer quite properly reflects the nation's religious heritage, now they argue that it advances students' freedom of speech. They no longer want state-written or -selected prayers. Instead, they seek an amendment guaranteeing freedom of religious speech in public schools and other official settings -- a way to keep schoolchildren and others from being "discriminated against just for expressing their religious belief in a public place," Reed has said.
In making the case for this amendment, activists no longer condemn the Supreme Court's prayer cases of the early 1960s. Instead, curiously, they laud the Court's 1969 free-speech case Tinker v. Des Moines School District. In Tinker, the justices ruled that high school offxcials must have a particularly strong justification before abridging students' free speech, which included the right to wear a black armband in protest of the Vietnam War.
Tinker represents a melange of ingredients that conservatives ordinarily abhor: judicial meddling with local decisions; interference with order and discipline in public schools; the raucous antiwar movement; children's autonomous rights (the topic of articles that dogged Hillary Rodham Clinton in 1992); and symbolic speech (in declaring a First Amendment right to burn the American flag in 1989, the Court cited Tinker as precedent). But for all that, Tinker offers a way to shift the debate from whether prayer coerces nonbelievers to whether limits on prayer coerce believers -- therby, advocates hope, forcing liberal opponents of school prayer to fess up to censorship.
Style as well as rhetoric has changed. Today's activists ooze the aw-shucks humility of Jefferson Smith from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, not the hectoring hellfire of Elmer Gantry. The Christian Coalition's Contract represents ten suggestions, Reed amiably assured reporters, not -- shudder! -- any sort of Ten Commandments. Movement leaders of the 1990s rarely resort to the coarse Christian-nation talk of the 80s (though some 80s leaders, including Falwell, still use it).
The new diffdence results partly from the fact that clergy no longer dominate the public face of the movement. Falwell, Tim LaHaye, and other 80s figures have left center stage. Donald Wildmon, the preacher who heads the American Family Association, has opted against courting national publicity (the fact that he's based in Tupelo, Miss., also helps keep TV crews away from his door). Most significantly, Robertson has lowered his profile in the secular press. When the Christian Coalition unveiled its Contract, he was in Zaire. With reason: According to a 1993 poll of Re-publicanvoters, Robertson has the highest negatives of any prominent Republican. Another survey found that white southern Republicans, though they feel warmly toward "Christian fundamentalists," virtually loathe Robertson; he scores below unions, civil rights leaders, and "women's liberation," and only slightly ahead of liberals.
But Robertson himself has hardly stood still over the years; in fact, he may be the leading indicator of the Christian right's evolution, as two of his books illustrate. The Old Robertson opens 1991's The New World Order by announcing that the just-completed coup against Gorbachev was a sham to make the West drop its guard. "We want so desperately to live in a peaceful world that we will accept virtually any fraud which offers that hope," he fumes. The book's index is chockablock with far-right bogeymen: Illuminati, Freemasonry, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Humanist Manifestos, and an assortment of Rockefellers (including "President Rockefeller," namely Senator Jay of West Virginia, who, the text reveals, "has been tapped by the elite to bring us that much closer to world government in 1996"). These topics make no appearance in the New Robertson's The Turning Tide, published in 1993. Instead, it features index entries for intolerance, political correctness, culture wars, and "victimism," as well as a positively serene opening sentence: "This is a book about common sense and hope."
In American public life, one cannot overstate the importance of maintaining at least a facade of religious tolerance. "The rule is," syndicated columnist Miss Manners advises, "that one does not denigrate others' faith by declaring that what they believe is not true." In his 1978 book No Offense, sociologist John Murray Cuddihy asks why Protestants abandoned their mission to convert Jews to Christianity. "Not because Christ and Paul had not commanded it (they had); not because it was false to Christianity (it was of its essence); but because of appearances: It was in bad taste."
This code of religious civility -- Cuddihy terms it the Protestant etiquette -- eluded the Christian right of the 1980s. Declaring that Jews are bound for hell may seem "unkind, unfair, unloving," evangelist James Robison said in 1980, but "it's still God's truth." In a 1994 essay, Clyde Wilcox argues that the Moral Majority failed because its Baptist Bible Fellowship leaders distrusted potential allies of other faiths. One mid-westernchapter, he notes, asked candidates for office whether they believed salvation was assured by works, faith, or some other means. In Wilcox's words, "the Moral Majority impaled itself on its own religious particularism."
To a remarkable degree, the Christian right of the 1990s has eliminated at least the public manifestations of boorish bigotry and other uncivil religion. The leaders these days quickly and noisily disavow the excesses of extremists who claim to be on their side, such as the murderers of abortion providers. Addressing the Anti-Defamation League earlier this year, Reed insisted that the Christian Coalition seeks goals no rational person could fear: "A nation where the separation of church and state is complete and inviolable. Where any person may run for elective offce without where they attend church or synagogue ever becoming an issue. A nation where no child of any faith is forced by government to recite a prayer with which they disagree. " New York Times columnist Frank Rich said of this peroration: "Add five words ('Today I am a man'), and Mr. Reed's oration would be a credit to any bar mitzvah."
Reed is not alone in displaying a domesticated demeanor. In his 1994 book Healing America's Wounds, the popular evangelical author John Dawson emphasizes, "Absolute truth about God can be communicated by very tolerant people. Jesus is the supreme example of this." Earlier this year, National Association of Evangelicals president Don Argue chided some Christian activists for "violat[ing] Jesus's command to love their enemies and do good to those who persecute them." In a recent pamphlet, Rutherford Institute president John Whitehead offers a temporal, even therapeutic reason for treating one's enemies civilly: "A Christian who appears angry and belligerent loses the political cover that comes from being a genuinely caring person."
Along with the leaders' own adeptness, other factors are enabling the movement, in Reed's words, to put "a friendlief face on who we are." Though they may disagree about the solutions, Christian right activists are addressing concerns shared by many Americans. A 1994 Peter Hart poll found that 51 percent of Americans believe that the nation's most serious problems stem mainly from "a decline in moral values"; only 34 percent attribute the problems mainly to "economic and financial pressures on the family." In his new book, The Lost City, Alan Ehrenhalt writes wistfully about some of the changes in American life since the 1950s: "The suspicion of authority has meant the erosion of standards of conduct and civility. . . . The repudiation of sin has given us a collection of wrongdoers who insist that they are not responsible for their actions because they have been dealt bad cards in life. When we declare that there are no sinners, we are a step away from deciding that there is no such thing as right and wrong."
Though no particular fan of the Christian right or its policies (he blames unfettered capitalism for much of the dissolution of community), Ehrenhalt echoes the movement's diagnosis of the nation's ills. Similar themes run through two other new books by scholars outside the Christian right, David Gelernter's elegiac 1939: The Lost World of the Fair ("authority has all but vanished," he writes) and Francis Fukuyama's paean to churches and other " mediating institutions" between individual and state, Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity.
No longer are fundamentalist Christians alone in mourning religion's disappearance from the foreground of American life. Yale Law Professor Stephen Carter's The Culture of Disbelief, which Reed frequently quotes, contends that our mass media treat religion as little more than "a troubling curiosity." In The Revolt of the Elites, the late Christopher Lasch derides the "new elites" who perceive fundamentalist Christians (and other denizens of Middle America) as "at once absurd and vaguely menacing -- not because they wish to overthrow the old order but precisely because their defense of it appears so deeply irrational." In a 1994 essay, John Updike observes with surprise that "orthodox religion scarcely figures at all, even as a force to be reacted against," in contemporary American fiction; as Updike notes, it was not always so.
The Christian right's opponents have simultaneously grown more temperate. In a memo last year, Arthur Kropp, the late president of People for the American Way, urged leaders of other liberal organizations to swear off such terms as " 'flat-earthers,' 'fire-breathers,' 'witchdoctors,'or any of a host of epithets that belittle the religious faith of the movement's leaders or followers." Further, Kropp noted, "We have to be careful never to suggest that they're not welcome to participate in the process. . . . It's the rest of us who are at fault on this score for not rallying our own constituency." It was a big step for the organization that a few years earlier had railed about "Ayatollahs" of the religious right.
On a limited but noteworthy scale, too, Christian right activists and their opponents are participating in cordial dialogues. For more than a year, Ron Brandt, editor of the magazine Educational Leadership and a self- described Stevenson liberal, has been quietly bringing together representatives of education groups and representatives of Christian right groups. The meetings seek both to find points of agreement and to adopt civil language for airing the disagreements that endure. (The effort has its critics: Some Christian activists fear that their representatives are selling out to the enemy; on the other side, education writer George Kaplan likens Brandt to Neville Chamberlain.)
In all these respects, a savvier Christian right is exploiting a more auspicious political environment. Its considerable success is reflected in the early maneuvering for the 1996 Republican nomination. Pat Buchanan, Bob Dornan, and Alan Keyes identify wholeheartedly with the movement; Buchanan goes so far as to needle the Christian Coalition's Contract with the American Family for unbecoming moderation ("they've lowered the hurdle so that everyone this side of Arlen Specter can jump over it"). Phil Gramm stumbled at first, brushing off Christian right leaders who wanted him to address cultural concerns ("I ain't running for preacher"), but then delivered a moralistic anti-government speech at Falwell's Liberty University. While Gramm declaimed on the righteousness of the free market, Bob Dole achieved greater success by condemning the depravity of particular marketplace decisions -- those of Time Warner executives. Dole and his wife also left their Methodist church after syndicated columnist Cal Thomas chided them for belonging to the same liberal parish as the Clintons; the Doles began visiting evangelical churches. And Arlen Specter has positioned himself as the candidate courageous enough to stand up to the Christian right. "My brand of gutsiness is a little special," he preens.
On the other side, President Clinton has repeatedly tried to reach out to conservative Christians. His 1995 State of the Union address included both a salute to "our religious leaders" and a Dole-like reference to "the damage that comes from the incessant, repetitive, mindless violence and irresponsible conduct that permeate our media all the time." In July, the president endorsed the V-chip and, in the same week, instructed the Department of Education to clarify the legitimate role of religion in public schools. His remarks about classroom religion, in fact, could have come from Ralph Reed: "Wherever and whenever the religious rights of children are threatened or suppressed, we must move quickly to correct it. We want to make it easier and more acceptable for people to express and to celebrate their faith." In an interview early this year, Clinton suggested that truly discerning Christians ought to stand with him because, compared with leaders of the religious right, he is "much more humble in his Christian faith."
For now, the Christian right seems to have secured its place at the table, but it may end up banished to the kitchen before election day 1996. Three related risks seem particularly acute. A la Richard Nixon's 1952 campaign themes (communism, corruption, and Korea), they are Christianity, coalitions, and kooks.
Christianity: It takes more than divergent faith traditions to explain the gulf between Martin Luther's "Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise" and Reed's poll-driven Contract with the American Family. In a 1993 Policy Review article, Reed wrote that he was emulating the Apostle Paul, who spoke of becoming "all things to all people that I may by all means win some." To some in the movement, however, Reed's politesse is a sellout, even an unscriptural one (Paul notwithstanding). They believe that while the Christian right of the 1980s may have brought too much religious absolutism into politics, the movement of the 1990s is bringing too little. Many of these critics would agree with Cuddihy, who also cites Paul: "In the end, then, there may be faith, hope, and charity, but if -- as the apostle says -- the greatest of these is charity, charity will end by devouring truth."
Perhaps the Christian right will ultimately transcend the transcendent and settle in the secular realm. Some indications are already apparent, such as activists' increasing self-description as part of the "pro-family movement" (Reed has even argued that "religious right" is a pejorative). The "Christian" in Christian Coalition may become as empty as it already is in YMCA. Reportedly, though, Robertson vetoed "pro-family"and such phrases when choosing a name for his organization. "I am a Christian," he said, according to a 1993 Playboy article. "I am not ashamed of Jesus. And we will call this the Christian Coalition. If other people don't like it, that's just tough luck." The organization may end up with the worst of both worlds, a secular agenda that's off-putting to some fellow believers and a religious name that's off-putting to some outsiders.
Coalitions: This dispute over Christianity's role in the movement has exacerbated existing fault lines, particularly over abortion. Reed, though he has threatended that conservative Christians may abandon the Republican Party if the '96 ticket includes a pro-choice candidate, has also worked to find an alternative to the GOP platform's support for a Human Life Amendment. John Whitehead of the Rutherford Institute told me he considers Reed's dance around abortion "a little bit unethical."
If the Republican presidential nominee picks a pro-choice running mate, the Christian right could fragment. Moderates like Reed would be inclined to back the ticket anyway, especially if the platform remains pro-life and the running mate keeps his (or her) peace. Others would bolt to a pro-life third party, a possibility that Pat Buchanan, Howard Phillips of the U.S. Taxpayers Party, and others have spoken of. Still others would stay home on election day, exasperated.
In addition to retarding the Christian right's efforts to join the mainstream, such a development could only help the Democrats retain the White House.
Kooks: Michael Fortier, charged as a co-conspirator in the Oklahoma City bombing, broods about the New World Order that's paving the way for a United Nations takeover of the United States. Imagine the hoopla if it turns out that Fortier's bookshelf includes, alongside the terrorism handbook The Turner Diaries, a well-thumbed copy of Robertson's febrile New World Order.
The conspiratorial mindset evident in the Old Robertson's writings flows in part from theology. Scriptural literalists like Robertson detect conspiracy- orientedprophecies in the Book of Revelations; in addition, of course, they believe that a conspiracy led to their Savior's crucifixion. One could advance a multiculturalist argument for tolerating such beliefs in public life, but it probably wouldn't fly. Psychiatrist Thomas Szasz once observed that if you talk to God, you are called "religious," whereas if God talks to you, you are called "schizophrenic." In the same way, we respect, or at least disregard, asserted beliefs in private, churchly, and ancient matters -- the power of prayer, the transubstantiation of wine into the blood of Jesus, 2, 000-year-old miracles. But we look askance at religious beliefs that spill out into the public, contemporary, empirical world, including conspiracy theories.
The conspiracy notions and other beyond-the-fringe beliefs may get plenty of play in the 1996 campaign. Democrats will try to make the Republican nominee renounce conservative extremists, including the militia activists who echo Christian right rhetoric. Rep. Charles E. Schumer offered an alliterative preview a few weeks ago: "Many in the Republican Party have become mealy-mouthed mollifiers of militias." Such efforts may forestall the Christian right's efforts to win a permanent place at the table, especially if militia types spill any more blood.
Whatever missteps and misfortunes may bedevil the movement during the '96 campaign, though, don't count it out over the long run. "With the demise of Robertson's campaign came the death of the Christian right's political hopes," Michael D'Antonio wrote in his otherwise-fine 1989 book Fall from Grace. Five years later, the movement's political hopes are stronger than ever. "For Christians," as Ralph Reed said after Clinton's victory in 1992, "without a crucifixion there is no resurrection."
Stephen Bates is a senior fellow at the Annenberg Washington Program and author of Battleground: One Mother's Crusade,the Religious Right, and the Struggle for OurSchools (Henry Holt paperback).