Getting Religion in Politics

September 12, 1986

Report Outline
Evangelicals Become Electoral Force
Abiding Conflict Over Political Role
Televangelism Is a Political Sword
Special Focus

Evangelicals Become Electoral Force

After making a strong early showing in the campaigning that led up to Michigan's Aug. 5 Republican primary, television evangelist Marion G. “Pat” Robertson expressed jubilation about the early success of his exploratory 1988 presidential campaign. “The Christians have won!” he wrote to some 50,000 supporters in June. The comment seemed to sum up both the emerging political strength of Robertson and others on the “Christian Right,” as well as, in the eyes of some people, the potentially dangerous impact of a powerful religious movement on American political life.

As it turned out, Robertson did not do as well in the Michigan primary as some of his supporters had hoped. Most accounts had him finishing well behind Vice President George Bush in the first round of the state's lengthy and complex delegate-selection process for the Republican nominating convention. Robertson's modest showing is unlikely, however, to cause him to drop the idea of a presidential campaign. He has scheduled a nationwide, closed-circuit television broadcast on Sept. 17, at which time he is expected to indicate that he wants to be the first clergyman to occupy the White House.

Whatever the outcome of Robertson's campaign, his fellow political conservatives among the nation's estimated 35 million “evangelical” Christians are becoming a major force in politics. These theologically conservative evangelical Protestants, who stress the authority of the Bible and the need for a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, are opposed to what they see as the moral decay of American society, as exemplified by legal abortions, the banning of prayer in public schools and the toleration of pornography. In the past decade they have moved away from their traditional distrust of politics, and they are showing a growing allegiance to the Republican Party. Along with other demographic groups who are moving to the Republicans, evangelicals may be contributing to a realignment process that could make the GOP the nation's majority party. Their new political activism, symbolized by such organizations as Robertson's Freedom Council and the Liberty Federation (formerly, the Moral Majority) of Rev. Jerry Falwell, is reshaping the Republican Party at the grass roots.

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