The Republican Party used religious conservatives in a machine manufactured and bankrolled by fiscal conservatives, reaping benefits like tax cuts and new business opportunities, a group of panelists said in a Tuesday screening of “Golden Rule Politics” in Atlanta.
“You should hear the way they talk about Mike Huckabee,” said Cynthia Tucker, editorial page editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, said of the GOP power structure. “Their whole view was those people were just supposed to go out and man the phone banks and vote for them and do the voter registration for them. ‘But surely you don’t think that one of your own could be elected.'”
Kasim Reed, a Georgia State Senator and a Democrat, said there weren’t enough fiscal conservatives to win a majority on their own.
“So then they created an alliance with people who had opposed the Civil Rights Act, and that helped to give them another layer,” said Reed. “And then they finally co-opted a group of religious conservatives, which gave them a functional majority, which basically came from Ronald Reagan until the present.”
Reed, a member of Cascade United Methodist Church, recently began to lead an effort among Democrats to talk about faith.
“What I saw were people using faith to create a dominant party and then do bad things, things I did not agree with,” he said.
“Let’s be crystal clear,” Reed said. “It is manufactured and bankrolled by fiscal conservatives. If you look at the people who have funded the Christian conservative movement and the benefits they’ve gotten in the form of tax cuts, new business opportunities and all of the rest, it is a machine that picks the messaging out down to the word.”
Jason Carter, co-founder of the grassroots service organization Democrats Work, said one reason the Christian Right influenced so many white evangelicals is leaders like Ralph Reed successfully repackaged their social agenda in terms like family values and pro-Christian culture.
“I agree that there is a lot of manipulation,” Carter said. “But they made it palatable to church-going people in a certain way.”
Tucker said the message of the Moral Majority originally hit home for good reason. Following the 1960s and Nixon administration, she said, traditional Americans had good reason for concern.
“The appeal today is quite a cynical one,” Tucker said. “It is less in my view about shoring up families now and about something else entirely. But it did start at a time when ordinary Americans who are not necessarily rigid or narrow minded or self righteous were rightly concerned about social and family disintegration.”
“Now it’s become a very slick and cynical machine that focuses around easy, in my view, easy issues,” she said.
Tucker said she believes the political ascendancy of the Christian Right has reached its peak and is now perhaps on decline. “In large part we can thank the current president for that,” she said.
“But that doesn’t mean the battle for the larger cultural marketplace is over,” she said. “I am just utterly delighted that progressive Christians are now beginning to understand that we cannot cede the public square.”
A fourth panelist, John Peterson, Canon for Global Justice and Reconciliation at the National Cathedral in Washington, cited the “rise of Islamophobia in this country” as evidence of how politicians have used fear since 9/11. “I think that fear is being used by both political parties,” he said. “The Republicans do not have a sole hold on fear.”
Tuesday night’s screening at Emory University, on the eve of the New Baptist Covenant Celebration which begins today in Atlanta, was sponsored by the Baptist Studies Program at Candler School of Theology.
The Baptist Center for Ethics produced “Golden Rule Politics: Reclaiming the Rightful Role of Faith in Politics,” a 36-minute documentary that comes with a discussion guide for use in church, civic or home discussion groups, to counter one-sided messages of the Christian Right.
“What we’ve seen over 25 years is that the religious community has said that GOP stands for ‘God’s Only Party,'” said Robert Parham, executive director of the Nashville-based BCE. “That is a destructive myth in our culture. We must challenge that myth, and the only way to challenge that myth is to name the myth and then to begin a new narrative in our culture so that people of faith think carefully about the past and hopefully about the future.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.