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.
Do the Math
To take the most recent example, African Americans, who represent 11 percent of the electorate, cast 88 percent of their ballots for Democrats nationally. But Bush was able to get those numbers down to 84 percent in key states like Ohio and Pennsylvania in 2004-and kept the White House as a result. Republican strategists recognized that a significant number of black voters are very conservative on social issues but have stayed with the Democratic Party because of its reputation for being friendlier to racial minorities. The GOP didn't need a strategy to sway the entire black community; it just needed to pick off enough votes to put the party over the top.
Democrats could similarly poach a decisive percentage of the GOP's evangelical base. In the last election, evangelicals made up 26 percent of the electorate, and 78 percent of them voted for Bush. That sounds like a fairly inviolate bloc. And, indeed, the conservative evangelicals for whom abortion and gay marriage are the deciding issues are unlikely to ever leave the Republican Party. But a substantial minority of evangelical voters-41 percent, according to a 2004 survey by political scientist John Green at the University of Akron-are more moderate on a host of issues ranging from the environment to public education to support for government spending on anti-poverty programs.
Broadly speaking, these are the suburban, two-working-parents, kids-in-public-school, recycle-the-newspapers evangelicals. They may be pro-life, but it's in a Catholic, "seamless garment of life" kind of way. These moderates have largely remained in the Republican coalition because of its faith-friendly image. A targeted effort by the Democratic Party to appeal to them could produce victories in the short term: To win the 2004 presidential election, John Kerry needed just 59,300 additional votes in Ohio-that's four percent of the total evangelical vote in the state, or approximately 10 percent of Ohio's moderate evangelical voters. And if the Democratic Party changed its reputation on religion, the result could alter the electoral map in a more significant and permanent way.
That's why, insiders say, the word has gone forth from the Republican National Committee to defeat Democratic efforts to reclaim religion. Republicans who disregard the instructions and express support for Democratic efforts are swiftly disciplined. At the University of Alabama, the president of the College Republicans was forced to resign after she endorsed the Bible legislation. A few states away, a Missouri Republican who sponsored a Bible literacy bill came under criticism from conservatives for consulting with Brinson and subsequently denied to a St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter that he had ever even heard of Brinson. But as for Brinson himself, he's already gone. "Oh, they're ticked at me," he says. "But it's because they're scared. This has the potential to break the Republican coalition."
Willing to Play Ball
Three years ago, Randy Brinson would have been the first to tell you that he was an unlikely political player and an even less likely Democratic collaborator. He was essentially an unknown figure until, in 2003, he figured out a way to combine his three passions-religion, politics, and music. He had already been part of a group that started WAY-FM (as in, "I am the way, the truth, and the life"), a Christian radio station based in Montgomery and carried in 44 markets. With an upcoming presidential election, Brinson realized that a religious version of MTV's Rock the Vote would have the best chance of reaching young evangelicals and getting them involved in politics. Using his own money at first, he created a non-profit called Redeem the Vote and hired the media firm that marketed Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, giving him instant access to their contacts throughout the evangelical world. Through partnerships with more than 30 Christian music acts and summer concerts like Creation East and Spirit Coast West (the Christian equivalents of Lilith Fair or Lollapalooza), Redeem the Vote registered more voters than all of the efforts of the Christian Right heavyweights-Focus on the Family, the Southern Baptist Convention, American Family Association, and the Family Research Council-combined.
Suddenly, Brinson was on the radar of national media like The Washington Post and "Nightline," and catching the eye of fellow conservatives. With such an impressive showing his first time out and direct access to young evangelicals, the most coveted of resources, Brinson could have been on track to become a major player in the Christian Right. The old guard-figures like James Dobson, Chuck Colson, Don Wildmon, James Kennedy, Phyllis Schlafly-are all in their 70s; the future of the movement lies with people like Brinson, who are 20 or 30 years younger and have credibility with the grassroots.
So when religious conservatives convened a meeting at the Hay-Adams Hotel in Washington a few weeks after the election, Brinson was invited. The mood was celebratory, but with an aggressive, hostile edge. They had won, and now they wanted to collect.