Evangelicals' influence in American political life has become increasingly visible in recent years. Now the battle over President George W. Bush's judicial appointments threatens to kick up a firestorm over the intrusion of religion into politics. But to many evangelicals, the campaign isn't controversial at all -- it's just one step in a long-range plan to leverage their growing numbers and political clout.
In fact, many of the evangelical activists who form the bedrock of the Religious Right are frustrated that their electoral successes haven't translated into greater gains. After all, their effort to get Christian voters to the polls played a key role in both of Bush's elections, as well as the GOP's control of both houses of Congress. Yet they can claim only a few victories, such as the 2003 ban on so-called partial-birth abortions -- and even that has been overturned by the courts.
That's one reason the activists are putting on a full-court press to get the Senate GOP to outlaw Democratic filibusters of the President's judicial nominees. Indeed, as Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) mulled his strategy over the week of May 9, the offices of 22 senators were deluged with calls on the issue that were prompted by Christian groups such as Focus on the Family's CitizenLink Action Center. The phone barrage followed an Apr. 24 telecast on the judges issue from a Kentucky megachurch, which Frist addressed via videotape. While the battle is ostensibly over the 10 judges Senate Democrats have rejected, the bigger goal is to give the GOP sufficient power to put a religious conservative on the U.S. Supreme Court should a vacancy occur soon.
Longer-term, evangelicals are targeting half a dozen Democratic seats in the Senate. These include some in states Bush carried in November, such as Kent Conrad's in North Dakota and Bill Nelson's in Florida. The plan: recruit experienced conservatives to run and then supply them with the money and volunteers they need to topple the incumbent. Should the activists prevail in at least five states, the Senate would have a filibuster-proof Republican majority of 60 votes. While the Christian Right can't count on every vote, it hopes to use its heft to push through a broad range of goals that have remained only wishes so far.
In addition to tougher laws against abortion and gay marriage, these include expanded rights for prayer in schools and religious symbols in public places, as well as laws allowing churches to endorse political candidates. Evangelicals also want new laws that permit more federal funding for faith-based programs and that allow them to discriminate in hiring against non-evangelicals. "They expect [Bush] to deliver on their agenda," says University of Akron political scientist John C. Green.
This long-range vision petrifies many Democrats and troubles some religious leaders from more-moderate Protestant and Catholic denominations. They're particularly worried that Bush could force moderate Republicans to toe the line on evangelicals' goals. If the GOP ever gets 60 votes, it would allow the Religious Right "to railroad anything through the Senate that they want, just like the House already does," warns Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church & State.
Even without such control, evangelical activists have unprecedented entrée at the White House. Top Bush political adviser Karl Rove held regular strategy sessions with religious leaders during the 2004 campaign. And Administration officials keep in constant touch with social conservative leaders. White House aide Timothy Goeglein meets with everyone from old-timer evangelical strategists such as Paul Weyrich to relative newcomers such as Tony Perkins, president of the Washington-based Family Research Council, a religious lobbying group. Many also operate through the National Association of Evangelicals, a Washington-based network of 52 denominations whose president, Ted Haggard, is the pastor of the 11,000-member New LIfe Church in Colorado Springs, Colo. Says Goeglein: "I need to accurately reflect their goals back to the White House bloodstream."
So far, Bush has managed to keep his core evangelical base content even without major victories. But as they push for more, the President and the GOP could run into trouble, particularly among swing voters. True, a majority of Americans agree with the Religious Right on some cultural issues, such as returning prayer to public schools and keeping the term "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance. But they don't necessarily approve of direct religious involvement in politics.
In the case of Terri Schiavo, the brain-damaged woman whose parents' cause many evangelicals championed, 76% of Americans disapproved of congressional intervention, according to an April Gallup Poll. And Americans disagree, by 52% to 40%, with the GOP's attempts to change the rules on judicial filibusters, another Gallup poll found. Overall, 40% of voters say Republicans are too close to the Religious Right -- compared with 35% who believe Democrats are too close to their liberal base.
The lesson: Americans find the trappings of religion a comfort in the public square. But when it comes to writing laws, many want their ministers to stay in the pulpit. That may be, but evangelicals' growing strength could put Americans' appetite for mixing politics and religion to the test.
By Paul Magnusson, with Richard S. Dunham, in Washington