Values advocates rally following ’06 election setbacks
The midterm elections that swept congressional Democrats into power sparked fresh obituaries for the religious right.
Are the obituary writers correct? Is the traditional-values movement declining? Has the nation had enough of “moralizing busybodies,” as Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter put it, influencing policy?
In a three-part series, The Washington Times looks at the future of the traditional-values movement, including the status of the abortion debate and the role of women.
According to analysts on the left and right, the traditional-values movement isn’t dead or even dying. In fact, four of its largest groups — Family Research Council Action, Focus on the Family Action, American Values and Alliance Defense Fund — are planning their second “values voters summit” in October.
All 2008 presidential candidates have been invited to the event, which should rival the groups’ first summit, which drew more than 1,700 people in September. That gathering was sim-
ilar in size to the “Road to Victor y” Chr istian Coalition of America conferences of the 1990s.
This year’s values summit will focus on issues such as the sanctity of life, marriage, religious freedom, bioethics, immigration refor m, health care, radical Islam, judicial activism, geopolitics, national security, Hollywood and the press.
Christians and social conservatives are “motivated by issues,” not partisan politics, Family Research Council President Tony Perkins explained at a press breakfast on April 11 sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. “They have a clear sense of right and wrong, and when they see wrong, they want to correct it.”
Many traditional-values activists think that the 2006 midterm elections were a wakeup call for their movement and that they must do some retrenching and rethinking of its strategies. Major topics of conversation include changes in the movement’s leadership and leadership style; greater outreach to minorities, women, youth and religious voters; and, at least some traditional-values leaders say, political independence.
“The traditionalists have to make their case more clearly and strongly,” said Robert Knight, director of the Culture and Media Institute at the Media Research Center, a conservative watchdog group. “They also can’t be dependent on one political party. They have to be independent. That’s how you have political clout.”
Paul M. Weyrich, founder of the Free Congress Foundation, also thinks the traditional-values movement needs to be politically independent.
Social movements must change because “if you try to keep the movement exactly the way it was, you’ll never succeed,” said Mr. Weyrich, an icon in the conservative movement.
Mr. Weyrich helped organize a “third force” summit held in Washington earlier this month for social conservatives and their allies in the arenas of defense and economics.
The summit’s goal was to get conservatives “on the same wavelength,” Mr. Weyrich told The Times. In the 1960s, he wrote in a December column on the Free Congress Foundation’s Web site, the civil rights coalition was viewed as an independent voice that worked with both Republicans and Democrats “to pull both sides in its direction.”
The traditional-values movement was once such a “thirdforce” power-broker, and it is time to return to that position and not be “owned” by the Republican Party, Mr. Weyrich said.
“This,” he added, “is a rather new concept.”
After the summit, Mr. Weyrich said there was “a great deal of enthusiasm about creating this independent movement. People have volunteered to help with various aspects of it. And I think it will happen.” Nightmare for the right
The past two years were tough for traditional-values advocates and their Republican allies.
Scandals brought down prominent Christian leaders Ralph Reed and the Rev. Ted Haggard, as well as conservative Republican Reps. Randy “Duke” Cunningham of California, Bob Ney of Ohio, Don Sherwood of Pennsylvania and Mark Foley of Florida. The latter’s sex scandal involving former congressional pages raised questions of culpability for the entire Republican House leadership.
A further blow was dealt in a book by David Kuo, in which the former deputy director in the White House Office of FaithBased and Community Initiatives said President Bush’s faith-based initiative was more sop than strategy. Besides this, said Lisalyn Jacobs, vice president for government relations at women’s rights group Legal Momentum, the debacle over Hurricane Katrina relief and Republican overreaching in the Terri Schiavo right-to-die case helped fuel a backlash at the polls.
“The values voters didn’t feel they were being heard or taken seriously,” she said.
“The real wallop came with the Iraq war,” said Joseph Cella, president of Fidelis, a Catholic traditional-values group in Chelsea, Mich. “If there ever was a perfect storm in the political season, I think we had it in 2006.”
The result was a Democratic pickup of 30 Republican House seats, six Republican Senate seats and control of Congress. Many Republicans who lost were traditional-values allies.
Defeats came in state issues as well.
Voters rejected a marriage amendment in Arizona and embraced funding for embryonic stem-cell research in Missouri. In South Dakota, they voted to repeal a law that vir tually banned abortion, and in Kansas, they sent home a crusading prolife attorney general.
“This was really a rebellion in the heart of red-state, pro-life America — the heart of the northern Bible Belt,” Sarah Stoesz, head of the Planned Parenthood chapter that oversees South Dakota, told the Associated Press.
So what happened with “values voters”?
A December analysis by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that voting shifts in certain religious demographic groups between 2004 and 2006 were small but significant.
Most white evangelicals and white mainline Protestants voted Republican, although by slightly smaller numbers. White Catholics, who in the past have strongly supported Republicans, voted for Democrats in 2006 by a bare majority.
“Nonwhite” voters of any faith, who tend to vote Democratic, backed their party in higher numbers. The biggest Democratic surge came from three small religious groups that skew Democratic — white “unaffiliated,” white “other faiths” and white Jews.
“Thus, the Democrats made gains everywhere in 2006, but they made the biggest gains in groups already most in their favor,” John Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, said at a conference in December.
“Huge numbers of religiously observant Americans voted for Democrats, reversing a 14-year trend,” according to the liberal People for the American Way (PFAW). “There are hugely hopeful signs that the pendulum in American public life is swinging back from the far-right extremes.”
The election was “a real shot across the bow for social conservatives and the Republican Party,” Mr. Cella said. New alliances
Although traditional-values leaders may not be in agreement about how to strengthen support among Republicans, some say inroads can be made with demographic groups such as blacks, Hispanics, Asians, women and youth — all of whom pulled far more levers for Democrats than Republicans in 2006.
“I don’t think there’s any evidence that there’s been a shift in the country on social values,” said Gary Bauer, president of American Values. However, there could be “some interesting new coalitions on specific issues” with blacks and Hispanics, he said.
“There’s no doubt” that the traditional-values movement must do a better job with minorities, Mr. Weyrich said.
“The single most pro-life subset in American politics is black males,” he said. “Hispanics are the biggest-expanding community in the United States. If you approach them on economic issues, you are going to lose. But if you approach them on family issues, they are very strong on family issues.
“Asians are very, very pro-family,” Mr. Weyrich added. “[They are] strong in their discipline and family orientation. They should be our people, but a lot of them don’t vote that way. So yes, we have got to have an expanding base or we lose.”
The “under-30” youth vote is dicey, especially because it has become “significantly progressive,” according to research by PFAW’s Center for American Values in Public Life.
From 1998 to 2002, the youth vote was evenly split. But in 2004, it widened in favor of Democrats, then grew to a gaping chasm in 2006 with 60 percent of youth supporting Democrats and 38 percent backing Republicans, the center said in a November report.
It is “too soon to tell whether the increasing Democratic advantage among youth constitutes a trend,” the center added. However, 30 percent of young Americans identify as liberal, 58 percent say they are politically “progressive” and 63 percent support homosexuals’ adopting.
But conservative analyst Janice Shaw Crouse sees support for traditional values in youth whose lifestyles she said have led to lower rates of teen pregnancy, teen births, abortion and sexual activity in high school.
“We have made really good headway,” said Mrs. Crouse, who directs the Beverly LaHaye Institute at Concerned Women for America.
She agrees that there is some entrenched antipathy toward traditional values in the babyboomer generation and among the twentysomethings. A real battle is under way for “the hearts and minds of twentysomethings” and “whether we are gaining or losing will be revealed in the next election,” she said. New leaders, new issues
Leadership, mission and outreach to religious voters are also hot topics in traditional-values conversations.
The traditional-values movement has long been associated with iconic leaders such as the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who led the Moral Majority from 1979 to 1989 and re-created it in 2004 as the Moral Majority Coalition, and the Rev. Pat Robertson, founder and former head of the Christian Coalition of America. In their heydays, both men were powerful political influences: Christian Coalition straw polls were early tests for Republican presidential hopefuls — and Mr. Robertson sought the Republican presidential nomination in 1988. Mr. Robertson finished ahead of George Bush in the Iowa caucus, but dropped out of the race after poor performances in subsequent primaries.
However, Mr. Falwell died on May 15, Mr. Robertson and many other traditional-values leaders are in their 70s, and leadership is shifting to younger men and women. There’s also support for the idea that the next generation of traditional-values leaders will not be larger-than-life household names, but local powerhouses whose strength comes from grass-roots alliances.
“We are in the midst of a steady, generational change, and it’s a natural cycle,” said Mr. Cella, adding, “When people see who’s coming up through the ranks, they should be very, very excited.”
As for mission priorities, Mr. Cella and other traditional-values leaders said the three bedrock issues are — and will remain — traditional one-man, one-woman marriage; the sanctity of life; and religious liberties.
Questions have arisen about whether these issues are the right mix for a public that has grown less church-oriented.
In 2006, only 55 percent of voters who attend weekly religious services voted Republican, compared with 59 percent in 2004. This “so-called ‘God gap’ ” — a 20-point advantage Republicans held for a decade with religiously devout Americans — was “virtually cut in half” in 2006, Robert P. Jones, former director of the Center for American Values in Public Life, said in November.
One reason for the shift is that relatively few people choose abortion or homosexual rights as their top political issues, said Peter Montgomery, the center’s new director. Poverty and health care are far more important now, he added.
Also, Democratic candidates were making compelling arguments, saying that “it’s OK to worry about the family issues, but we also need to worry about the compassion issues — poverty, environment, health, international aid, Darfur, and so on,” said Eric Sapp, of Com- mon Good Strategies, a Democratic consulting group. This theme, he said, helped many of his Democratic candidates win in 2006.
Traditional-values groups, however, are wary of taking the focus off of family issues — or substituting feel-good values for biblical values.
Traditional-values voters are going to have to watch out for “poseur Christians” — “liberals trying to sound like quote, ‘evangelicals,’ “ said Andrea Sheldon Lafferty, executive director of the conservative Traditional Values Coalition. “They are not us. They are not traditional values. They are pro-abortion. They are pro-homosexual ‘marriage.’ ”
Dr. Randy Brinson, a physician and founder of Redeem the Vote, a nonpartisan grass-roots voter-registration and education group that focuses primarily on Christian youth, said both parties have some soul-searching to do.
A 2006 Internet survey of 400,000 conservative evangelicals showed a “huge shift” from Republican to “neither” party — and the Alabama election is a good example of how the traditional-values vote is in play, Dr. Brinson said.
Alabama is very conservative, with a high concentration of evangelicals, he said. But they began to perceive Republicans as being more interested in power and big business, and not supportive of things the voters wanted, such as allowing high schools to carry elective classes in Bible literacy. Meanwhile, he said, Democrats met with pastors and lay leaders, and endorsed Bible-literacy classes and talked about “9-to-5” issues such as pensions, groceries, jobs and health care.
People began to think: “ ‘Hey, maybe this won’t be so bad, especially when we see how corrupt the Republicans have become,’ “ Dr. Brinson said. The result is that Alabama voted in a Republican governor and attorney general — and a Democratic lieutenant governor and chief justice of the state Supreme Court.
Dr. Brinson’s advice is for politicians, Republicans in particular, to forget about relying on national “gatekeepers” to lead the flocks. Now the best outreach tool is to meet with pastors and speak to evangelicals directly, through townhall meetings, the Internet and radio.
The doors are open to Democrats, too, he said. If Democrats can get a centrist candidate through the primaries and are not perceived as hostile to religion or eager to embrace the failed “Great Society” agenda of President Lyndon Johnson, “they can resonate” with some of these middle-class evangelical voters, he said.
And the “third-force” strategy for the traditional-values movement?
Says Mark J. Rozell, a publicpolicy professor at George Mason University who studies religion in politics: “There are many, and I will include myself, that think that the religious conservative movement may have made a mistake some years ago by adopting a one-party strategy, that they should have done more to play the parties off each other.
“I think they’re coming to that realization, and that may actually be beneficial to the movement,” he said.