Why Evangelicals Are Bolting the GOP
A growing number of evangelicals see the Republicans ignoring their values and find the Democrats eager to welcome them in.
BY: Amy Sullivan
A version of this article is also appearing in the Washington Monthly .
The Republicans were filibustering the Bible bill. On a Tuesday afternoon in early February, Republican legislators in Alabama took to the floor of the state house to oppose legislation that would authorize an elective course on the Bible in public high schools. The recommended curriculum for the course had been vouched for by Christian Right all-stars like Chuck Colson and Ted Haggard, but so far as Republicans were concerned, there was only one pertinent piece of information about the bill: It was sponsored by two Democrats. Now Republicans were prepared to do everything in their procedural power to stop it, even if that meant lining up to explain why they could notstand for this attempt to bring a class about the Bible into public schools.
When I came to Montgomery to watch the debate over the Bible literacy bill, I had expected something pro forma, a Bible love-fest. Alabama is, after all, God's country. This is the state that produced Judge Roy Moore and the Ten Commandments statue. Martin Luther King Jr., pastored his first church here, Dexter Avenue Baptist. In Snead, a convenience-store owner offers free coffee or soda to anyone who recites the Bible verse of the month, and people do it because it's a two-fer: Learn the Bible and get a free Dr. Pepper.
As far as people around here are concerned, you can always use a little more Bible. It's not taught in the schools very often because the Supreme Court ruled in 1963 that public schools couldn't hold devotional classes, and many school boards—unsure of how else to teach about the Bible—don't want to get sued. But when some local leaders learned last summer about a curriculum package produced by the Bible Literacy Project out of Fairfax, Va., the problem seemed to be solved. The course presents the Bible in a historical and cultural context—giving students a better understanding of biblical allusions in art, literature, and music. More important, it has been vetted by conservative and liberal legal experts to withstand constitutional challenge.
One of the leading advocates of the Bible course, Dr. Randy Brinson, met me at the entrance to the state house. Brinson, a tall, sandy-haired physician from Montgomery who speaks with a twang and the earnest enthusiasm of a youth-group leader, is a lifelong Republican and founder of Redeem the Vote, a national voter-registration organization that targets evangelicals. Since discovering the Bible literacy course, he has successfully lobbied politicians in Florida, Georgia, and Missouri to introduce bills that would set up similar classes. But it is here at home that he's encountered the most resistance. “You should see who's against this thing,” he told me, shaking his head.
Indeed, when Brinson and the other supporters—including several Pentecostal ministers, some Methodists, and a member of the state board of education—entered the state house chamber to make their case, they faced off against representatives from the Christian Coalition, Concerned Women of America, and the Eagle Forum. These denizens of the Christian Right denounced the effort, calling it “extreme” and “frivolous” and charging that it would encourage that most dangerous of activities, “critical thinking.” The real stakes of the fight, though, were made clear by Republican Rep. Scott Beason, when he took his turn at the lectern. “This is more than about God,” he reminded his colleagues. “This is about politics.”
Actually, it's about both—a fight over which party gets to claim the religious mantle. Nationally, and in states like Alabama, the GOP cannot afford to allow Democrats a victory on anything that might be perceived as benefiting people of faith. Republican political dominance depends on being able to manipulate religious supporters with fear, painting the Democratic Party as hostile to religion and in the thrall of secular humanists. That image would take quite a blow if the party of Nancy Pelosi was responsible for bringing back Bible classes—even constitutional ones—to public schools.
The holy skirmish down in Alabama, with its “GOP blocks votes on Bible class bill” headlines, may seem like just a one-time, up-is-down, oddity. But it's really the frontline of a larger war to keep Democrats from appealing to more moderate evangelical voters. American politics is so closely divided that if a political party peels off a few percentage points of a single big constituency, it can change the entire electoral map.