The Emerging Republican Theocracy?
The GOP has succeeded in mingling theology, popular culture, and theocracy, says a former architect of the Republican majority.
BY: Kevin Phillips
Under Bush, this new political theology also began to reshape America’s dialogue with the rest of the world. Jacques Delors, the former European Commission president, added that “the clash between those who believe and those who don’t believe will be a dominant aspect of relations [between the United States and Europe] in the coming years.” Dominique Moisi, another well-known commentator, shed light on the U.S.-European divergence: “The combination of religion and nationalism in America is frightening. We feel betrayed by God and by nationalism, which is why we are building the European Union as a barrier to religious warfare.”
Within the United States, the religious mobilization of 2004 was extraordinary. In the South voting by regular church attenders soared, partly because Republicans sought high November turnout among the faithful to ensure against another failure to carry the national popular vote as in 2000. Supposedly tight states, such as Florida, Tennessee, and Arkansas, turned out not to be. However, in the spring, as tight races became likely between Bush and Kerry in Pennsylvania and the Midwest, the Bush campaign and its religious allies had stepped up their efforts. In June GOP e-mails leaked to the press describing how Bush forces planned to enlist churches around the nation in distributing political information and registering voters. In Pennsylvania the Bush-Cheney campaign sought “to identify 1,600 friendly congregations where voters friendly to President Bush might gather on a regular basis.” Even Richard Land thought that went too far, and the Reverend Barry Lynn, executive director of the liberal Americans United for Separation of Church and State, observed, “I never thought that anyone could so attempt to meld a political party with a network of religious organizations.”
However, this was only the tip of a large iceberg, and the administration’s religious allies were often out in front rather than waiting for instructions. According to a postelection analysis by The Washington Post, “national religious leaders, and their lawyers, also made a concerted effort to persuade pastors to disregard the warnings of secular groups about what churches can and cannot do in the political arena.” Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, which was launched in the 1990s by Pat Robertson, advised in a mailing to forty-five thousand churches that “short of endorsing a candidate by name from the pulpit, they were free to do almost anything,” and he later told the Post that “thousands of clergy members gave sermons about the election, and that many went further than they ever had before.”
Catholics were a particular target across several states in the industrial belt. Overall, the GOP campaign appointed fifty thousand Catholic “team leaders” at the local level, and while meeting with the Pope in June “Bush asked the Vatican to push the American Catholic bishops to be more aggressive politically on family and life issues, especially a constitutional amendment that would define marriage as a union between a man and a woman.” During the summer, the National Catholic Reporter posted a story on its Web site that the Republican National Committee had asked pro-Bush Catholics to provide its Catholic outreach unit with copies of their parish directories to help identify potential supporters.
In Ohio Bush’s share of the Catholic vote rose from 50 percent in 2000 to 55 percent in 2004. The jump was greater still in rural and small-town German Catholic centers, a century ago Ohio’s top Democratic strongholds. Mercer and Putnam, the state’s two most heavily Catholic counties, went three to one for Bush in 2004, his top percentages.
Warren County, in southwest Ohio, touted for its outer-suburban GOP gains, also had a religious factor at work. According to a 2000 religious census, Southern Baptists were the most numerous Protestant denomination there, one of only six such Ohio counties. (The six were Butler, Greene, Montgomery, Pike, Preble, and Warren.) Traditional Catholics, conservative Protestant evangelicals, and fundamentalists were vital in Ohio to offset the Democratic gains from high black turnout in the Cleveland area and from uneasy mainline Protestants and Yankee suburbanites in the Cleveland metropolitan area. The GOP weakness in Greater Cleveland—the onetime “Western Reserve” of Connecticut—and reliance on the German and southern-settled areas reversed the geography of Ohio’s post–Civil War party coalitions.
John Green, the Ohio-based religious-voting expert, explained the centrality of the Midwest as a religious crossroads and melting pot: “One reason why Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania are so competitive is that they . . . have a lot of ‘centrist’ groups.” Groups that he puts into this category include Catholics, Lutherans, and Methodists. Green also explained Iowa’s shift from Gore in 2000 to Bush in 2004 by indicating that “close to a third of the voters this time were white born-again Protestants,” reflecting their large turnout. Bush’s big gains over 2000 came in western Iowa, mostly in counties with unusual concentrations of holiness or German-Dutch Reformed denominations. Not coincidentally, Iowa is where Pat Robertson surprised and beat the elder George Bush in the 1988 GOP presidential caucuses. In 2004, the Bush family profited from the high churchgoer participation so discomfiting sixteen years earlier.
Nor did the politico-religious mobilization end there. New plans were quickly afoot in pivotal Ohio. By early 2005 the Southern Baptist Convention, already a force in southwestern Ohio, announced that metropolitan Cleveland had been selected as its one national “Strategic Focus City” for 2006–2007. Backed by a budget of $2.5 million, thousands of volunteers from all over the country would converge to help win converts and start new churches. Before long, local Christian conservatives announced the Ohio Restoration Project, a plan to marshal evangelical, Baptist, Pentecostal, and Roman Catholic leaders as so-called Patriot Pastors to take control of the Republican party and elect a born-again governor in 2006.
While this stops short of a merger of church and state, the potential for important constituencies to nudge the Republican party in a theocratic direction has a little-heralded historic dimension. Several of its vital denominational allies exemplify a political closeness to government. The Southern Baptist Convention, as we have seen, is regarded by some as more or less the unofficial state church in Dixie. Indeed, studies suggest that northerners moving to the South frequently join it, not least Newt Gingrich, the former Pennsylvanian. Moreover, since the 1990s the SBC’s moderate-liberal opposition faction has criticized the dominant conservatives for getting too close to Washington and soft-pedaling the church’s historic commitment to separation of church and state. One SBC moderate-liberal, Will D. Campbell, wrote a novel—The Convention (1988)—“in which the SBC is renamed the Federal Baptist Church and is by the end of the book indistinguishable from a political party.”
The major Pentecostal denomination, the Assemblies of God, has worked closely with the Republicans ever since the Robertson presidential campaign, perhaps reflecting Robertson’s own disdain for churchstate separation. His Pentecostal allies, as noted earlier, pushed blatantly theocratic resolutions at state Republican conventions. John Ashcroft of Missouri, a dedicated Assemblies of God layman, became a particular target for proponents of strict church-state separation because of the new Justice Department units and policies he developed as George W. Bush’s first attorney general.
The church history of the Mormons, in turn, could fill a book—and often has—with what one chronicler summed up as “its polygamous family structure, ritual worship practices, ‘secret oaths,’ open canon, economic communalism and theocratic politics.” The Church of the Latter Day Saints was the last U.S. regional theocracy, continuing that way into the early twentieth century, and the title of its president—officially “President, Prophet, Seer, and Revelator”—still reflects that heritage. Philip Goff, director of the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture, emphasizes that over the last hundred years the Mormons did much more than survive: “The Latter-Day Saints created a de facto establishment of religion in the inner mountain West that continues to this day.” The Mormon analogy that Baptist-watching historian Paul Harvey sees, not surprisingly, is to the parallel accomplishments of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Finally, the two major Lutheran denominations also tap a tradition of accommodating state power. The Missouri Synod Lutherans, archconservative and “corporatist,” regarded theirs as the one true church, followed the word of the Bible, upheld male authority, kept the German language as long as they could, and separated themselves from other faiths through parochial schools and church-related organizations. The evangelical Lutherans, as we have seen, came together in several stages from the multiplicity of German, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, and Finnish Lutheran churches of the upper Midwest, many of which were offshoots of state churches in the old country. Door County, Wisconsin, has enough of an Icelandic fishing community to support an Icelandic Lutheran church.