Will evangelicals turn the 2012 election?
About this blog: The impact of evangelicals in American politics is undeniable. Their greatest victory came with Ronald Reagan’s rise to the White House. Before that, they were instrumental in Barry Goldwater’s successes. In “From Bible to Sun Belt: Plain-folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism,” recently released by Norton, Darren Dochuk describes the evangelicals’ grassroots efforts that ultimately realigned American politics. Here, Dochuk, a professor at Purdue University and a former Fellow at the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University, ponders the evangelicals’ role in the coming presidential election of 2012.
In 1978, after rising to new heights of cultural influence during the 1970s, the nation’s evangelical conservatives mustered their resources for a run at Washington. We know the rest of the story: aided by Jimmy Carter’s misfortunes and inspired by Ronald Reagan’s vision, evangelicals and their candidate secured a landslide win.
When viewed from the present, Reagan’s 1980 triumph seems almost inevitable; considering the crises that beset his White House, Carter hardly stood a chance.
Yet when evangelicals imagined the political future before them in 1978, they lacked such assurance. Neither a Republican nor a Reagan win seemed predestined, and victory over Carter’s liberalism still registered as a daunting task. Fearful of failure, evangelicals attacked the year’s mid-terms with urgency, and then spent the next 24 months mounting a revolution.
What is intriguing from our vantage point today (having witnessed a mid-term season similar in tone to 1978’s) is the way evangelicals orchestrated this revolt. When looking for inspiration 32 years ago, they turned to California. There, since 1966, evangelicals had worked earnestly for Reagan’s “creative conservatism,” a creed that blended economic with cultural concerns, anti-government populism with responsible leadership.
In 1978, they acted on this conviction in two separate fights, one centering on fiscal matters, the other social. First, they rallied behind Howard Jarvis’ Proposition 13 campaign to limit property taxes. In the wake of its passage, one ebullient preacher called the initiative “the first Tea Party” since colonial times. Tea Party verve carried over into the fall, when church folk championed the Briggs Amendment (Proposition 6), which sought to outlaw gay teachers in public schools.
Unlike Proposition 13, Proposition 6 failed, but the momentum of both crusades inspired evangelical politicking nationwide, and helped the GOP chip away at Democratic majorities in Congress and elect future Republican stars like Newt Gingrich and Dick Cheney.
A strategic shift came next. In the 18 months leading up to the 1980 election, evangelicals continued to speak the language of backlash up front while sorting out their ideas behind. Even as firebrand preachers like Tim LaHaye and Jerry Falwell led their flock in public displays of patriotism (epitomized by the Washington for Jesus rally of April, 1980) and a rhetoric of condemnation (targeting Muslims abroad, gays and feminists at home, and a brainy Democratic president they thought un-Christian), evangelical powerbrokers helped party brass forge a comprehensive platform of supply-side economics and family values — pillars of creative conservatism.
The final piece of the puzzle was Reagan, whose longstanding ties with California evangelicals now put him in good stead. Willing to entertain fundamentalist preachers’ shrill speechifying without openly validating it, and always willing to work with moderate evangelicals who sought the conservative middle, Reagan proved to be the perfect match. Evangelicals henceforth heeded his commands for a responsible conservatism and channeled their anti-government angst into a politics geared for governance.
The question today is whether evangelical conservatives can follow this formula again. In the past 12 months we’ve seen hints of a 1978-revolt reborn: the “anti-” discourse of Tea Partyism, spoken in evangelical lingo, has generated patriotic rallies in Washington, outspokenness against Muslims, demands for less government and taxes and more suppression of gay rights, and censure of a beleaguered first-term Democratic president with Carter-like tendencies.
What seems missing — what remains the evangelical Right’s greatest challenge in the lead-up to 2012 — is the “pro-” side of creative conservatism, the centrist potentials that made Reagan’s coalition successful. Much has changed since 1978, making such qualities more difficult to find; perhaps the proliferation of cable news, reality television, and the blogosphere means polarization is here to stay.
But presidential (if not mid-term) elections are won by capturing the middle, and if evangelical conservatives want to be the victors in 2012, they are going to have to find a philosophy and a leader that can take them there. If they do, 2012 might be 1980 all over again.
Posted by: dgnunruh | January 6, 2011 2:37 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: shaiarra | January 6, 2011 3:46 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: shaiarra | January 6, 2011 3:47 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: shaiarra | January 6, 2011 4:08 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: shaiarra | January 6, 2011 4:13 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: gthornton2 | January 7, 2011 9:38 AM | Report abuse