Giles Fraser: When the US Right was not so religious

23 August 2007

Karl Rove has gone. Often described as “Bush’s Brain”, Mr Rove, who has announced his resignation from the White House, was credited with masterminding the Republican electoral dominance since 2000. His genius, if that is the right word, was to find a way to mobilise Evangelicals into politics.

It was the Christian Right who made President Bush, and he knew it. That is why Mr Bush would often break off from the affairs of state to address the Southern Baptist Convention. This association between the Republican Party and the Evangelical Right looks like a perfect match. But it was not ever thus.

In 1964, the right-winger Barry Goldwater was nominated as the Republican candidate for president. Although he lost to the Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson, Goldwater is often associated with the conservative renaissance in the 1960s that led eventually to Ronald Reagan. He was against big government and the welfare state. What is often forgotten is his attitude to the religious Right.

“Every good Christian should line up and kick Jerry Falwell’s ass” was his reaction to the founder of the Moral Majority. Goldwater famously defended abortion. “I don’t have any respect for the religious Right,” he said. “There is no place in this country for practising religion in politics. That goes for Falwell, Robertson, and all the rest of these political preachers. They are a detriment to the country.”

It was only later that the economic conservatives, the political heirs to Goldwater, kissed and made up with the religious Right in the reasonably close relationship between Reagan and Falwell. But it was Karl Rove who led both parties up the aisle. From the mid-’90s, Republican politics became all about guns, God, and gays. Though he had little time for Evangelicals in private, he recognised the value of their alliance with economic conservatives.

Yet his departure coincides with an increasing recognition that this marriage may be falling apart. If the Roman Catholic Rudy Giuliani is the next Republican candidate for president, as seems likely, the party will be getting a candidate who is historically pro-gay and equivocal about abortion.

The influential Evangelical James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, has said that “conscience and my moral convictions” would prevent him from voting for Mr Giuliani. “I will either cast my ballot for an also-ran, or, if worse comes to worst, not vote in a presidential election for the first time in my adult life.” A Giuliani candidacy will signal the beginnings of a historic divorce.

The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Team Rector of Putney.

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