2016-06-30
In a previous column I sought to analyze how the Republican primaries revealed the decline of the religious right. Those primaries made it obvious that though it is still potent in places like South Carolina, the religious right has created a sufficient backlash so that it has become an ineffective political base in the pursuit of victory in a national campaign.

This conclusion was supported not just in John McCain's overt attack on the leadership of the religious right, but also in George W. Bush's rapid backpedaling to disassociate himself from the "Bob Jones" mentality following his defeat in Michigan. In light of this trend, it seems appropriate to call to mind how this political constituency came into being in the first place.

The origins of the religious right were clearly in the South. Its leadership is even now made up largely of ordained evangelical and fundamentalist preachers, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson being the two best-known. Its membership base consists principally of white, working-class religious believers who reflect the cultural values of that region.

The first thing to note is that racial prejudice is the unadmitted presence in the background that helped the religious right to emerge as a political force. Prior to the federally ordered changes in the region's racial practices, these white Southerners were members of the democratic solid South. The Roosevelt coalition that came to power in 1932 was made up of labor unions and ethnic minorities in the North, white working class people in the South and intellectuals throughout the country. This coalition rode into dominance in the wake of the Depression which made bread and butter issues the unifying symbol of America's working classes. The Depression also created the path to success for the Democratic Party that had been out of power since the election of Woodrow Wilson to a second term as president in 1916.

The Roosevelt coalition began to show serious strains 16 years later, when Harry Truman in 1948 lost the intellectual left to Henry Wallace and his Progressive Party over the issue of Communism, and he lost the blue-collar white South to Gov. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina and his Dixiecrats over the issue of race. Yet despite these losses, Harry Truman still eked out an upset victory over his lackadaisical Republican opponent, Thomas Dewey.

In 1952 and 1956, the nation rested from its weariness with war and post-war dislocation by electing the fatherly Dwight Eisenhower, who sought not change but brought to the Presidency something that came to be called "benign neglect."

But the forces of change unleashed by World War II could not be contained, even by the enormously popular Eisenhower. The Supreme Court passed the desegregation ruling during his years as president, and Eisenhower was forced to uphold the law by federalizing the Arkansas National Guard to insure the peaceful desegregation of Little Rock's Central High School. That episode alone was enough to keep the South leery of the Republican Party a bit longer.

In 1960 the old coalition worked once more to elect by the slimmest of margins John F. Kennedy to the presidency. His Roman Catholic persuasion troubled those evangelical Southerners, but that was tempered by the presence of Southerner Lyndon Johnson on the ticket. Without that concession Kennedy's election would never have been achieved. Kennedy's assassination, however--combined with President Johnson's forcing of a series of civil rights bills through the Congress as a memorial to the fallen president and his appointment of Thurgood Marshall, the first black justice, to the Supreme Court--were enough to bring that coalition tumbling down.

In 1964, Barry Goldwater ran a "Southern Strategy" in his quest for the Presidency. He was not successful in the election, but he brought an abrupt end to the days when the South could be counted on to be solidly Democratic--and he found that in that white South, racial fears trumped economic interests every time.

Goldwater's Southern appeal was found in his conservative, almost libertarian, hostility to big government. This resonated with the South's devotion to States' Rights, which was nothing but a code word to cover the overt racism that marked their segregated region. It was, after all, the power of the Federal Government that disrupted Southern white life with desegregation and busing court orders.

Nixon turned the Goldwater strategy into victory in 1968 and 1972 with the help of George Wallace, a southern Democratic governor whose war against the national leadership of his party was a revival of the Dixiecrat strategy of 1948. It was clearly racial fears that propelled Wallace into the campaign, but secondary issues were urban rioting (which elicited the cry of "law and order"), the Vietnam War, and the protest movements which flew in the face of the military traditions of the South rooted in the Civil War.

People were to discover that the emotional tug of patriotism is always the flip side of evangelical religion. "Stand up for Jesus" and "God Bless America" elicited the same responses from Southern white voters.

With the power of the conservative white South inside the Democratic Party greatly diminished, a new coalition gathered around the Democratic nominee George McGovern in 1972. It was characterized in conservative circles as one made up of "hippies, draft dodgers, drug addicts, feminists and those favoring free love." That coalition was clearly more than the Southern white voters could tolerate. They left the Democratic Party in droves and increasingly identified themselves not as independents, but as people now committed to the party that once had foisted Reconstruction on their region.

After a brief Watergate-influenced, short-lived victory by Jimmy Carter in 1976, Ronald Reagan put the Southern coalition together in a permanent way in 1980. He invited Jerry Falwell with his Moral Majority and Pat Robertson with his Christian Coalition into the leadership of his crusade for a restoration of traditional values in American life. He gave lip service to his opposition to abortion and to his approval of prayer in the public schools, but he never moved to translate either into action. He did rebuild American military might and articulated the religious right's condemnation of "godless communism" which he called "an evil empire." He appointed religious right candidates like James Watt, Secretary of the Interior, and other recognizable religious right figures to the Human Rights Commission. He also made the President's prayer breakfast an annual showcase event for evangelical religion.

The Southern white voters had found a new home. Racism was perfumed under the issues of limited government, patriotism and family values.

When Reagan ended his two terms in the White House, religious leaders tried to elect one of their own--Pat Robertson, who actually won the Iowa Caucuses--but they had to settle for George Bush, who never could really talk the talk of the blue-collar Southern evangelicals. His patrician roots simply would not reach that deep.

With Southerners Bill Clinton and Al Gore on the ticket in 1992, both of whom knew how to carry Bibles to church each Sunday, the Democrats staged a small Southern comeback. But Bill Clinton had a professional wife who liked to use her maiden name. He also gave his Presidential support to such issues as abortion and homosexuals in the military. His personal behavior hardly qualified him as a proponent of family values.

So a deep, visceral wedge separated the religious right from the Democratic Party. Nevertheless, the economic prosperity of the Clinton years did raise the comfort level of the working classes to a new sense of prosperity, all of which served to make the bread and butter issues of the working classes in the white South less pressing. They could therefore be seduced by exotic emotional issues. Abortion and homosexuality, combined with the recurring theme of a limited Federal Government, succeeded in keeping this block of working class people loyal to the party of big business, wealth and privilege.

It is a strange marriage driven still by an unspoken racism, but destined not to last forever.

If the stock market cools, and the economy turns down or if health care and Social Security come under pressure from the Republicans' desire to provide excessive tax cuts for the wealthy, then these blue-collar workers will be driven back to the economic issues that once bound them to the Democratic Party; their Republican flirtation will come to an end. So the Democrats will play in the 2000 campaign to those economic fears, making it essential for the Republicans to keep their emotional wedge issues hot. To frighten people about their economic well-being, or to increase religious intolerance and homosexual fear, is a strange way to seek a political victory, but people will do whatever they think will work to win.

I do not believe that the Democrats will write off the South in this campaign.

They seem to sense that a shift in loyalty is under way there. In an attempt to exploit that shift, the Democrats will wrap Bob Jones University and the Confederate Flag that still flies over the State House in Columbia, S.C., around George W. Bush. They are betting that the racism which called the religious right into being has abated sufficiently to enable them to win back these votes on economic issues.

The Republicans will counter by attempting to wrap Bill Clinton's moral misdeeds and his obvious lack of such family values as sexual faithfulness and truthfulness around Al Gore. They will praise family values, and biblical morality, and they will continue the successful theme of being the party dedicated to the limiting of federal power that still gets interpreted in the South as race talk.

It will be an interesting campaign, and the results will reveal just where the new majority resides.

As these issues develop, this column will seek to read the signs accurately. So stay tuned.

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