Bye bye, Christian Right


Lakewood Independent Church is the biggest mega-church in the world. It’s right in the centre of Houston, Texas, used to be a basketball stadium and seats as many as 16,000 churchgoers. Its preacher has his own cable show, and suspiciously white, capped teeth. There were 12 American flags flying out the front when I passed through last year.

Its slogan is, ‘Discover the Champion in You!’

Sound like an American cliche? Yes, it is. But it’s always been just part of the story. A couple of weeks back, New York celebrated Passover and Easter. Everything was open, but there weren’t any Easter eggs in the supermarkets. One might have concluded that Australia was a far more religious country, if you took New York as a guide.

America’s political Red/Blue divide (Red denoting Republican voters and Blue Democrats) was built on these kinds of cultural contrasts. After the 2004 Presidential election, US political commentators declared the country divided by moral values. The core factor determining which party people voted for was supposedly religious versus secular values. Red States were religious and conservative; Blue States were secular and liberal. The swing-states contained a purple patchwork of both.

Thus, most of the big issues of the 2004 campaign were framed morally — pro-choice versus pro-life, gay marriage versus re-writing the Constitution to ban Adam and Steve getting hitched, a War on Terror versus worrying about getting spat on while holidaying in Europe.

At that time, the contrast was portrayed by the media as between tolerance and faith.

The biggest issue shaping US voters’ preferences in 2004 was ‘moral values’ — 22 per cent of voters citing it as their vote decider in the exit opinion polls. It was meant to be all over for the Dems, who couldn’t appeal to the religious South. Republican leaders in Congress like Tom ‘the Hammer’ DeLay and Trent Lott had the region captured.

But, ironically, George W Bush’s incompetence has possibly bridged the Red/Blue divide by convincing the rest of the country that Southern Christian leaders are now unelectable. This time around, the Christian Right doesn’t have a presidential candidate to cheer on.

And that’s a sign of weakness for the Republican Party, whose primary voters are disproportionately Christian at the moment, even registered Republican voters are more concerned about Iraq than any other issue.

John McCain is the Republican Party’s mainstream candidate. When John Howard met with him in January 2006, it was a sign that our PM took the Arizonan seriously as a contender. (After all, Howard met with Dubya before he even declared his candidacy for 2000.)

Problem is, religious conservatives hate McCain. Although he’s tough on the War on Terror, and a big supporter of Dubya’s ‘Surge’, he’ll never please the Right. That’s because he once called Christian conservatives ‘agents of intolerance’.

And McCain has problems in the political Centre, too. Every bomb that goes off in Iraq, including the high profile attack on the Iraqi Parliament on 12 April, makes his ‘war president’ talk sound so 2004.

McCain said this week that ‘memorable’ and ‘measurable’ progress has been made since the ‘Surge’ in American troop numbers. But when American forces can’t even guard the Green Zone properly, McCain’s words sound gassier and gassier. And that means big problems for a guy who’s always sounded more convincing as the Commander-in-Chief than in any other part of the presidential role.

And if the Washington talk-show set’s candidate isn’t looking good, then the Republican candidate who does best in the general public opinion polls isn’t popular with the God and Guns crowd either.

Rudy Giuliani has been a bête noire for conservatives. The former New York City mayor epitomises Big Apple Values for many Southerners. In the past, he’s been pro-choice, pro-gun control, pro-gay rights and opposed to limitations on immigration. In recent weeks, his latest lady has been in the New York tabloids for hiding her third marriage. This followed the famous breakdown of his second marriage, after which he shacked up with a gay couple.

Giuliani has recently attempted to placate Southern conservatives by arguing that it’s okay for Southern States to fly the Confederate flag over their State Capitol if they want. The issue is hugely sensitive for African-Americans, who see that flag as a symbol of their oppression, both before the Civil War and before the Civil Rights movement. Giuliani replied that the issue was one of States’ Rights classic conservative talk.

But on core social issues, Giuliani isn’t shifting. He’s arguing that abortion should be legal and publicly funded, and hasn’t cosied up to the National Rifle Association (NRA). He’s calculating that any change of views on social issues will make him look like a hypocrite. So, on foreign affairs, it’s also full support for Bush in Iraq — yet another unpopular stance — this time alienating swing voters.

Giuliani is campaigning on his New York record. He’s known both for his competent management after 9/11 and his ‘tough on crime’ record (which opponents say encouraged a New York Police Department culture of brutality against minorities and legal impunity). He’s running as a technocrat. In other words, someone you might not agree with if you believe the world was created in seven days but who you’ll trust to handle war or the economy.

But this probably isn’t enough for most of the Christian Right, who’ll be voting in the early primaries in Red (or Reddish) States like South Carolina or Iowa. Conservatives in those States have become so desperate they’re supporting rank outsiders Mitt Romney or Fred Thompson.

Romney is the former Governor of Massachusetts. He was only in office for four years in the famously liberal State, and his chief drawcard is that he subscribes to a morally conservative religion: Mormonism. Analysts have speculated that Mormon fundraising has got him $21 million in the first three months of the year which means that he’s the Republican candidate with the most dosh right now.

Unfortunately, he hasn’t been getting much traction despite looking perfect for a television close-up and he’s not been doing well in the opinion polls. He’s stuck in single figures, and the more conservatives look at his record, the less they like him.

Romney claimed to be a proud member of the NRA. In truth, he’d been a member for less than a year. He also claimed to be against gay marriage but his supporters handed out salutations to those marching in a gay pride parade as recently as 2002. And while he has a lot of money right now, he’s running through it fast. He’s spent over half of it without his poll numbers significantly improving.

That leaves conservatives with Thompson. He’s a former Senator from Tennessee. He’s apparently conservative, although James Dobson, one of the most influential Christian Right leaders, doesn’t think so. Two thirds of the American public don’t know who he is and he has serious worries with cancer.

The conservative failure to find even one candidate is leaving some analysts questioning whether Kevin Phillips’s ‘Republican Majority’ is still intact. Phillips was a political scientist who back in the 1960s forecast that the Republican Party best represented the ‘silent majority’.

He argued that the South — then held by Democrats since Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s — was starting to vote along racial rather than class lines. Phillips argued that the South was the key swing region. The Republicans, with a coalition of low-tax, limited-government libertarians in the West, and rich cultural elitists (like the Bushs) from New England, were the new majority party. His predictions held but the signs are, only until the 1990s.

Meanwhile, last year’s mid-term elections showed that even moderate Republicans have no chance of being elected in the North East as symbolised by the defeat of Senator Lincoln Chafee, the most liberal Republican in that zone, and one of the last liberal Republicans in the party.

And the freedom-lovin’ West isn’t reliably Republican anymore either. A combination of large federal deficits and intrusive legislation symbolised by the anti-terror Patriot Act has convinced many Westerners that the Republicans are no longer the party of limited government. For the first time in more than a century, Democrats are competitive at a presidential level from Montana to Nevada.

Which leaves the Christian South by its lonesome as a steadfast Republican region. Two thirds of Americans want the Democrats to win in 2008.

The faithful at Lakewood better start praying for God to intervene on the side of the righteous.

Next week, Charles McPhedran looks at the frontrunners for the Democrats.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.