2016-07-27
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.
 

The main item of business that day was what to do with Santorum's colleague, the pesky pro-choice Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Penn.). Specter held a crucial position as chair of the Judiciary Committee and had recently outraged this group by telling the press that he would apply "no litmus test" to judicial nominees. Now they wanted him gone, ousted, stripped of power. When, in the midst of escalating rhetoric, Brinson spoke up to suggest that perhaps punishing Specter wasn't the wisest decision, the idea wasn't well received. "That," he says, "was my first inkling that I wasn't one of them." If being a player in this world meant calling for the heads of moderate Republicans and ginning up fake controversies like a supposed "war on Christmas," Brinson wasn't terribly interested.
 
Not long after, while Brinson was still turning the taste of disillusionment around in his mouth, a Democrat called from Washington. Thinking that "maybe it wouldn't be so bad to talk to these Democratic people," Brinson agreed to come to Washington to sit down with some congressional Democrats. In quick succession, the lifelong Republican found himself meeting with advisers to the incoming Democratic leaders-Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.)-field directors at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and aides to Howard Dean at the Democratic National Committee.
 
What they found is that their interests overlapped: The Democrats wanted to reach out to evangelicals, and Brinson wanted to connect with politicians who could deliver on a broader array of evangelical concerns, like protecting programs to help the poor, supporting public education, and expanding health care. It had seemed natural for him to start by pressing his own party to take up those concerns, but Democrats appeared to be more willing partners. They even found common ground on abortion when Brinson, who is very pro-life, explained that he was more interested in lowering abortion rates by preventing unwanted pregnancies than in using the issue to score political points.
 
Those Democrats who had initially been wary about working with a conservative evangelical Republican from Alabama found Brinson convincing. They also realized that conservatives had done them an enormous favor. "Listening to him talk," one of them told me, "I thought, these guys bitch-slapped him, and he's willing to play ball."
 
At about this time, with Bush just entering his second term, his support among evangelicals began to slip. The Abramoff scandal hadn't helped, with its manipulation of Christian Right leaders to support gambling interests and email messages referring to evangelicals as "wackos." But the real problem was moderate evangelicals. Many of them soured on Bush for the reasons that lowered his approval ratings across the board: an unpopular Social Security plan, a lack of progress in Iraq, and the failed response to Hurricane Katrina.
The right-of-center magazine Christianity Today ran an editorial declaring that "single-issue politics is neither necessary nor wise." One-third of the students and faculty at Calvin College in the heart of conservative western Michigan signed a full-page ad protesting Bush's Iraq policy when he gave a commencement address there. Many moderates were dismayed when the old guard refused to join protests against federal budget cuts that fall disproportionately on the poor in favor of what James Dobson called "pro-family tax cuts." These evangelicals had supported Bush despite often disagreeing with his specific positions. But in 2005, according to an Associated Press poll, the percentage of them who believed the country was headed in the right direction dropped by 30 points.
 
Big Business v. Believers
 
While Brinson has been working with Democrats in Alabama on the Bible literacy bill, other evangelicals are having their own road to Damascus moments. One of them is Richard Cizik, vice president for governmental affairs at the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), and a frequent subject of profiles on "kinder, gentler" evangelicals in outlets like Newsweek and USA Today. Cizik has spent years trying to get evangelicals invested in what he calls "creation care," the idea that God gave them responsibility for tending to the earth. His hope has been that a Republican administration would be more likely to pay attention to lobbying from its own base on issues like carbon dioxide emissions than from liberal environmentalists.
 
In early January, I talked to Cizik about his efforts to get evangelicals to take a stand on climate change, a move that would place considerable political pressure on the administration to take the problem seriously. The NAE represents 52 denominations with 45,000 churches and 30 million members across the country-getting them all to agree on something is no easy task, but Cizik had made impressive strides and was optimistic. Convinced that his only course of action was to work with Republicans, he spent an hour patiently explaining why evangelicals were better off trying to change Republican attitudes about the environment rather than working with Democrats who already embraced his position. Not able to help myself, I argued back. It's not as if the Bush administration doesn't support environmental policies because they hate trees. It's because they have powerful business supporters who don't like regulation. Still, Cizik held firm, insisting that evangelicals had to change "our own party."
 
A month later, I ran into Cizik at the National Prayer Breakfast. That morning, he had opened up his Washington Post to find an article based on a letter to his boss from the old guard-Dobson, Colson, Wildmon, and the rest-suggesting, in the way that Tony Soprano makes suggestions, that the NAE back off its plan to take a public position on global warming. "Bible-believing evangelicals," the letter-writers argued, "disagree about the cause, severity, and solutions to the global warming issue." The leaked letter was a blatant attempt to torpedo Cizik's efforts, and it had worked. The NAE would take no stand on climate change.
 
There was no doubt that the administration had prevailed on the more pliable figures of the Christian Right to whack one of their own. Cizik was beside himself. It was hard to resist the "I told you so" moment, and I didn't. But when I suggested to him that this was an example of the way that business seemed to win out most of the time when religious and business interests came into conflict in GOP politics, he stopped me. "Not most of the time," he corrected. "Every time. Every single time." And he's no longer sure that can change. "Maybe not with this administration.... We need to stop putting all of our eggs in one basket--that's just not good politics."
 

Cizik wasn't the only example of this shift at the Prayer Breakfast. At the main event earlier in the day, keynote speaker Bono (of U2 and antipoverty crusading fame) enjoyed a far more enthusiastic reception than President Bush, whose applause was, several conservative religious leaders told me, surprisingly weak. ("He got a standing ovation when he entered, but that's because you have to stand," observed one evangelical.) It could have had something to do with the fact that Bono highlighted this tension between what's good for corporate interests and what serves the cause of justice. He went through a litany of examples-trade agreements that make it harder for Third-World countries to sell their products, tax policies that shift debt to the next generation, patent laws that raise the price of life-saving drugs-and then put the challenge to his audience: "God will not accept that. Mine won't, at least. Will yours?"

Evangelicals-particularly centrists-are increasingly answering, "No!" Rick Warren has recently started a campaign to end global poverty, reminding his followers that "Life is not about having more and getting more-it's about serving God and serving others." Groups like the Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN) are taking up Cizik's cause; 63 percent of evangelicals in a recent survey released by EEN said that global warming was an immediate concern. Half went even further, agreeing that steps needed to be taken to reduce global warming, even if it meant a high economic cost for the United States. Former National Review writer Rod Dreher has a just-published book that urges religious conservatives to question negative consequences of the free market.

The list of issues these evangelicals care about extends beyond the social hot-buttons that win elections. And yet, as Cizik notes, when they try to promote concerns that threaten the interests of big business, evangelicals are stymied every time.


Giving Karl Rove Heartburn
Like an abusive boyfriend, Republicans keep moderate evangelicals in the coalition by alternating between painting their options as bleak and wooing them with sweet talk. You can't leave me-where are you going to go? To them? They think you're stupid, they hate religion. Besides, you know I love you-I'm a compassionate conservative. The tactic works as long as evangelicals don't call the GOP's bluff and as long as Democrats are viewed as hostile to religion.

Randy Brinson is proof that some evangelicals are willing to take their chances and cross over to see what Democrats have to offer. There is a growing recognition among mainstream Democrats and the once-quiescent Religious Left that they can reframe issues they care about in terms that appeal to religious voters. But winning over moderate evangelicals-or moderate religious voters generally-will take more than just repackaging old positions. It will require aggressively staking out new positions that can be used to demonstrate the tension within the GOP's religious/business coalition-embracing, for instance, the Workplace Religious Freedom Act. And it means forwarding new ideas that can counter the conservative-promoted image of progressives as anti-religious-ideas like Bible-as-literature courses in public high schools, which might anger some secularists on the left but are perfectly consonant with liberal values.

Despite all of the punditry about a "God gap" at the voting booth, this is a better moment for Democrats to pick up support from religious moderates than any other time in the past few decades. That's because evangelicals themselves are the ones who are broadening the faith agenda, insisting that there are issues they care about beyond abortion and gay marriage, connecting Gospel messages about the golden rule and the Good Samaritan to the policies they want their government to support.

For 30 years, the Republican advantage among religious voters has come from being able to successfully control the definition of "religious," conflating it with "conservative" and encouraging the media to do the same. Measured against that yardstick, most Democrats come up short. But when the standard is more complex, when being religious also means caring about the environment and poverty and human rights and education, the playing field levels. Soon enough, Republicans start to miss the mark, and Democrats get a little closer.

This is what gives Karl Rove and the other GOP headcounters heartburn. A third-party candidacy by Roy Moore would be troublesome, but conservative evangelicals are ultimately loyal to the Republican Party. And while it might irritate business supporters, the administration could probably toss moderate evangelicals a few crumbs on the environment or global poverty. But once that door is opened, it can't be shut again. Whether or not large numbers of moderates migrate to the Democratic Party, if they succeed in expanding the scope of "religious issues," the GOP will lose its lock on faith.

And so Republicans revert to the only tactic they have left: fear. The fight down in Alabama has shown that they will do whatever they have to in order to prevent Democrats from claiming a piece of the religious mantle, even if it means taking what could be portrayed as the "anti-religion" stance themselves.

On the same day that Alabama Republicans launched their filibuster of the Bible literacy bill, state GOP chairwoman Twinkle Cavanaugh published an op-ed that charged the Bible curriculum was written by "ultra-liberal groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, the Council for Islamic Education, and the People for the American Way." (It was not.)

Randy Brinson chuckled as he reported this to me, saying, "This is smokin' them out. Now we see what they really care about. It's not religion; they care about power." He may have the last laugh. According to convoluted state law, Democrats can revive the Bible literacy bill after the Alabama legislature approves all of its budget bills this spring-and they have the votes to pass it.

more from beliefnet and our partners