For a man witnessing a debacle in real time, Rev. Louis Sheldon, a leader of the Christian Right political movement, sounded amazingly sanguine Tuesday night: even as an early AP exit poll indicated that almost one-third of white Evangelicals chose a Democrat for Congress.
"We know that in America the people are with us," insisted the founder and chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition, one of the largest groups in the Christian right. "They’re just confused."
Now, taking a break from monitoring discouraging election returns on television, Sheldon stressed that the defeat of the Republican Party in the House of Representatives signaled no decline for the movement that has been so central to GOP tenure there.
The issues that brought defeat, he said, had nothing to do with his movement.
"The issue is Iraq and the culture of corruption among a few Republican elected officials," said Sheldon. "It’s very clear, we’re here to stay. We’re in it for the long haul. The assault on marriage, sexual predators and abortion are not going away. So, we’ll go on."
No one doubts this. But whether they will go on in the same way and with the same sway over the Republican Party is already a matter of intense debate among political observers and activists.
Everyone agrees that the Evangelical right’s legislative agenda for the next session of Congress appears dead as a result of Tuesday’s Democratic House victory. That is a source of great satisfaction for mainstream Jewish groups; they strongly opposed several measures passed by the House last session that had the movement’s backing.
These include the Public Expression of Religion Act, which would stop judges from awarding lawyers’ fees to plaintiffs who win suits against the government for violating the separation of religion and state. Another bill passed last session would empower faith-based groups to discriminate on the basis of religion in hiring staff for government-funded social service programs such as Head Start.
Both bills are stalled in the Senate. With the change in control of the House, "passage of these bills now becomes much less likely," said Richard Foltin, head of the American Jewish Committee’s Washington office.
Furthermore, he observed, with unsympathetic Democratic members taking over House committee chairmanships, the movement’s prospects for moving new legislation forward are dim.Even in the Senate, where the victorious party remained uncertain, many noted the defeat of Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) as a devastating setback for the Christian right.
"He was the de facto leader of the social conservatives on the Hill," said Marshal Wittman, a former official with the Christian Coalition now affiliated with the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist Democratic think tank. "He carried their water on key issues. He was their most prominent advocate. And he was in the Senate Republican leadership."
Like most of the Christian right, Santorum was a fervent supporter of Israel. But his successor, Bob Casey Jr., pledged during his campaign that "no senator will be as vigilant or supportive as me" in maintaining the U.S.-Israel relationship. Virtually all of the new Democratic members have taken similar stands.
Seeking Other IssuesWith its domestic legislative agenda on hold, its support for Israel seen as replaceable, and a significant portion of its grassroots voting for the Democrats, what is the future of the movement whose influence within the Republican Party has made them kingmakers? Even before last Tuesday, emerging voices within the Evangelical movement (sotto voce) were calling on the activist faithful to expand their agenda to encompass other issues. What about the environment and global warming? they asked. Genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan and increasing economic inequality here at home?
Some now say acting on these concerns will mean working with the newly empowered Democrats. The victorious party’s own numbers also now include a coterie of socially conservative victors from Tuesday night. And hoping to peel off even a few layers from what has been a pro-GOP monolith, Democratic Party activists are plotting new ways to welcome Evangelicals to their fold.
"It isn’t like the door is closed because Democrats are in control," said one high-ranking Democratic House staffer. "There may be certain issues on which they agree with us. They’ll certainly have access."
The staffer, who would speak only on condition of anonymity because she was unauthorized to make statements to the press, was one of several who saw an opportunity. Conservative Christian political activism on sexual and church-state issues remained unstinting, she conceded, "But in the last year, I’ve seen a huge change with this movement. It’s fracturing."
In Newsweek this week, President Bush’s former speechwriter Michael Gerson, an Evangelical, spoke of a "head snapping generational change among Evangelicals.
"Many, he wrote, "have begun elbowing against the narrowness of the religious right, becoming more globally focused and more likely to consider themselves ‘pro-life and pro-poor.’ Depending on your perspective, this may be creeping liberalism or political maturity."
Sheldon scoffed at this notion, and the idea that Christian right activists might cultivate relationships with the newly empowered Democrats. Some new Democratic members may be more in tune with their views on sexual or church-state issues, he said, "But the leadership won’t let us work with them. We can’t reorient because our issues are issues the Democratic Party national platform repudiates."
Drawing on his experience from years working with the Christian right, Wittman said, "The bottom line is that the social conservatives will remain a powerful force within the Republican Party. … It’s unlikely they’ll have any significant relationship with Democratic leaders. Essentially we have one conservative and one liberal party. And the Evangelicals are part of the conservative party."
A Tough Year
But that may be true only because Evangelicals have been content, until now, to let Christian right leaders speak for them, said John Green, a senior fellow with the non-partisan Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
"We must make an important distinction between the Christian right per se and Evangelical Protestants," he explained. "Moderate Evangelicals have tended to follow the Christian right when it was about social issues. Many voted with Bush, but they are increasingly uncomfortable having their movement so exclusively identified with him. Long-term, that’s quite important."
With the rise of a Democratic House able to bring Democratic issues to the floor for votes, Green predicted support and involvement from this sector of Evangelicals in an expected drive to raise the minimum wage, a key Democratic concern. "There actually is interest in poverty," he said.
Sheldon’s Anaheim, Calif.-based Traditional Values Coalition claims some 43,000-member churches as part of its lobby. It is well known, well-funded and widely feared for the grassroots roar it can summon up to oppose abortion rights, gay rights, stem cell research, pornography and sex education other than abstinence education. But it has been a tough year: The scandals have come one after another for the political party he and others in the Christian right consider theirs: Reps. Randy Cunningham (R-Calif.), who pleaded guilty to bribery last November; Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), who pleaded guilty to corruption and conspiracy charges last month after accepting lavish gifts for favors; Jack Abramoff, the convicted fundraiser and briber who provided many of those gifts: and to whom Sheldon himself was linked through payments he received from an Abramoff client, an Internet gambling firm; and, perhaps most upsettingly for the author of "The Homosexual Agenda to Change America," Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.), who was forced to resign his seat after the disclosure of his uninvited sexual communications with male congressional interns.
Then, as if things could not get worse, there was the disgrace of Sheldon’s own friend and colleague, Rev. Ted Haggard, the Colorado mega-church leader and president of the National Association of Evangelicals, an even bigger pillar of Republican support on the Christian right. Sheldon disclosed that he and "a lot" of others knew about Haggard’s homosexuality "for awhile … but we weren’t sure just how to deal with it."
Months before a male prostitute publicly revealed Haggard’s secret relationship with him, and the reverend’s drug use as well, "Ted and I had a discussion," explained Sheldon, who said Haggard gave him a telltale signal then: "He said homosexuality is genetic. I said, no it isn’t. But I just knew he was covering up. They need to say that."
Sheldon insisted that being in opposition in the House "will be a huge energizing factor for us" as politics shifts toward the selection of a presidential nominee for 2008. But even he seemed to acknowledge that the tidal wave of scandal and electoral loss would not be without some effect.
"The Evangelical community is not monolithic," he acknowledged. "Some of us hate politics because it’s so partisan. It doesn’t have a comforting element. It can be very divisive.
"A lot of Evangelicals just don’t want to get involved," he lamented.