Whither the Christian Right? How Religious Conservatives Succeeded and Failed in the 2006 Elections

About Pam Chamberlain

Co-authored by Chip Berlet


Chip Berlet is a former senior analyst at Political Research Associates. He authored Eyes Right! and Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort (with Matthew N. Lyons) and is a frequent contributor to Talk2Action and Huffington Post.

Worshipers at the pre-election Values Voter Summit in Washington, DC. (Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)

Worshipers at the pre-election Values Voter Summit in Washington, DC. (Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)

It was a scant five weeks until the 2006 midterm elections, and photogenic Christian Right leader Tony Perkins gripped the podium and smiled confidently at the 1700 activists gathered at the Values Voters Summit. Perkins predicted that his new coalition of Christian Right stalwarts would tip the scales for the Republicans in the upcoming midterm elections. He was, of course, wrong.

The Christian Right did turn out and vote for Republicans, as it has in the past, but in this election slightly more Christian evangelicals voted Democrat, perhaps to send a message to Republicans that they were tired of the war in Iraq, offended by corruption, distressed by scandals, and seeking change. The Christian Right, however, remains a large and powerful social movement, and it is already retooling for the 2008 elections.

Post-election analyses of voter demographics revealed that while American voters do sometimes vote in blocs, the specific mobilization of these groups is more complicated, and an informed understanding more nuanced, than conventional wisdom might suggest. What Perkins and his colleagues tried to mobilize is a subset of Christian voters, the core group of politically active, conservative, white evangelicals who respond to electoral campaigns that focus on a narrow definition of “family values,” a frame that has proved successful for getting out the vote since the late 1970s.

Reviewing how the new Christian Right mobilized its base in 2006 will help us understand and anticipate what they might do in the next two years.

Family, Faith, & Freedom: To Protect the Children

Attending the late September Values Voters Washington Briefing were a mix of heartland cultural warriors, grassroots Republican political activists, and local church staff, including ministers and lay ministry workers. The crowd was a typical representation of the predominantly white and Protestant evangelical Right today. Predicting “Washington will never be the same!” Perkins then introduced the conference speakers, politicians and pundits alike, some of whom, like Republican candidates George Allen and Rick Santorum, (who appeared by video) turned out to lose their races a few weeks later.

The rising or falling fortunes of the Republican Party in any election cycle do not determine the size and vibrancy of the Christian Right as a social movement.

Tony Perkins established the main frame of the event when he said, “we are facing threats from within and from without.”

The threat from within came from liberals, same sex marriage, and abortion. The threat from without was terrorism. By focusing on the terrorist attacks of September 11th, the speakers tried to leap over criticism of the war in Iraq, other specific military interventions, the economy, and other issues.

The ultimate goal for many in this aggressive effort is to “restore” America as a Christian nation-a politicized, theologically-based worldview dubbed by critics of the Christian Right as “dominionism.”1 The tendency toward dominionism has clearly influenced public policy in both the domestic and foreign policy arenas, as seen in the domestic gay marriage and the international abstinence-untilmarriage debates.2

This type of Christian Right pre-election voter mobilization conference used to be hosted by the Christian Coalition, with the title “Road to Victory.” Now that the Christian Coalition has unraveled as a national group, a new coalition has stepped in to fill the void. The conference was coordinated by FRC Action, the political action arm of the Family Research Council, with Tony Perkins at the helm. Cosponsors included the political action arms of three other Christian Right groups: Focus on the Family Action (Dr. James Dobson), Americans United to Preserve Marriage (Gary Bauer), and American Family Association Action (Donald Wildmon). Most of these groups have close historical ties. Dobson’s Focus on the Family created the FRC to lobby Congress before it was spun off as a separate entity. Gary Bauer ran the FRC from 1988 to 1999. The wild card in this coalition is Wildmon, known for his inflammatory anti-gay rhetoric and occasional detours into veiled anti-Semitism. His American Family Association pulls this coalition further to the right.3

The polite and attentive crowd was treated to one speech after another in the hotel ballroom, in a didactic style and hierarchical format typical of Religious Right rallies-tightly orchestrated logistically, skillfully crafted in framing and messaging. The visual aesthetic was slick, modern, and high tech, clearly reflecting how the coalition sank considerable resources into this event. The coalition partners also sponsored other pre-election regional events, like the anti-gay marriage “Liberty Sunday.” The four cosponsors were positioning themselves as the unified national voice of the Christian Right. How successful have they been?

Success and Failure: What the 2006 Election Results Show

The Christian Right mobilization of voters was not able, on its own, to counter an unpopular war or an unpopular party, the incumbent Republicans. Even before the election, Professor Mark Rozell pointed out that in 2006 both the Republicans and the Democrats realized that moral values and religion help shape how elections turn out:

We have motivated groups, both on the right and the left, trying to mobilize their constituencies, in large part because they believe values matter but they also understand that the two political parties are very closely competitive in Congress right now.

He correctly forecast that, “Affecting a few electoral outcomes could be the difference between Democratic and Republican party control.”4

According to the National Election Pool exit polls commissioned by major media outlets, white evangelicals did turn out to vote and comprised 24% of the electorate, the same proportion as in 2004 when mobilizing these voters in certain key states helped reelect George W. Bush.5

This figure can easily be misleading, since not all white evangelicals are conservative, and not all white conservative evangelicals consistently identify with the Christian Right. When successful, the Christian Right can consistently mobilize a core group of about 15% of American voters. They are joined by roughly 10% more of white conservative evangelicals who generally align with the Christian Right and vote Republican, but who sometimes shift their allegiance or sit out elections.

Swimming in Subtext

The Values Voter Summit in September 2006 was overripe with subtle messages designed to direct, motivate, and reassure the audience. Here is a sample:

    • Godly Christians must be involved in politics to take back America from the Godless secularists and liberals. Godly Christians must vote, and vote for candidates who win our approval and these candidates must come to us; we do not go to them begging. We may not always agree with the Republican leadership, but we need them on our side to win our cause. Aware of being criticized for being too partisan toward Republicans, Tony Perkins issued a statement claiming that, “The Washington Briefing…was not an opportunity for us to endorse candidates but rather an opportunity for candidates to endorse us and our values.”
    • Our version of Christianity is correct, dominant, triumphant, defines the political center, and is politically powerful. Every other worldview is wrong, and unconnected to the real God. This is a struggle between good and evil. Our opponents are witting or unwitting agents of Satan. Former Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris — famous for her role in the 2000 Florida Presidential election fiasco and now an elected U.S. Representative running for the Senate16 — planted herself firmly in the dominionist wing of the Christian Right.17 At the final banquet of the conference, Harris emphasized the importance of the proper candidates winning in November, and suggested it was a battle against “principalities and powers.” Many in the audience surely recognized thisas a Biblical reference to “spiritual warfare” — in their view a struggle with the demonic agents of Satan.18 Just in case they missed the point, the emcee closed the banquet by reminding the audience that they were engaged in “spiritual warfare.”
    • Our faith, our moral superiority, and the fact we are persecuted by our opponents justify hatred of the enemy, and even violent resistance. Our God may be merciful, compassionate, and the God of justice; but our God is a zealous and vengeful God, and we are his agents on earth. Sin invokes punishment. This worldview emerged from several speakers. Colin Hanna, President of Let Freedom Ring, a 501(c)(4) anti-immigration group, reinforced his interpretation of this dual nature of a Christian God when he said that mercy and justice must be blended in public policy. He described amnesty for undocumented immigrants as “sin without consequences” and that “Amnesty is therefore not Christian.”
    • We need a Christian counter-culture to overcome the depravity of secularized modern life. One of the most secularized arenas for evangelicals has been Hollywood. For instance, Donald Wildmon’s AFA was founded to address immorality in the entertainment industry. At the Summit, an especially high energy panel, “Holly-wood in the Heartland,” introduced the audience to the work being done by Christian film producers and the alternate infrastructure that will support this counter-culture. Ted Baehr, who runs the Biblically based film review service, MovieGuide, high-lighted the work he and others have undertaken to steer Christians towards more acceptable, family friendly popular culture. Rev, Tommy Tenney previewed his new film, a reworking of the story of Esther, “One Night with the King,” and the audience learned that Hollywood has specific Christian movie studios, like FoxFaith.
    • We will win, because God is on our side.

“It looks like the white evangelical base of the Republican Party pretty much held firm,” reports John C. Green, expert on religious Americans’ voting trends, from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.6 Yet he notes there were small and ultimately significant shifts teased out in exit polls. In 2004, white evangelicals voted 74% for Republicans and 25% for Democrats. In 2006, white evangelicals voted 70% for Republicans and 28% for Democrats. This slight shift alone is enough to shape the outcome in tight elections.7

This reminds us that despite the visibility of their leadership, especially on the Christian airwaves, the Christian Right core voting block is not consistently large enough to secure a GOP win in key states with tight races. The usual Christian Right allies among the broader white evangelical electorate sometimes shift and vote Democratic. The white evangelical voter base includes Republicans, Independents, and Democrats. They do not vote as a monolithic bloc. Along with Democratic Party and progressive voter mobilization efforts, targeting women, people of color, organized labor, immigrants, and other constituencies, the Christian Right can be outvoted.

And while a small number of white Christian evangelicals shifted away from the Republicans, a significant number of Catholics and mainline Protestants also shifted. More information is needed to tease out the influence of the Catholic vote, 26% of all voters, a group comparable in size to the white Protestant evangelical electorate. And not enough information is currently available to determine exactly which segments of Latina/Latino and Spanish-speaking voters are shifting, and whether or not that is correlated with being Catholic, Protestant, or secular.

After the election, conservatives bemoaned their losses but tried to say that not much had changed. Americans for Tax Reform, Grover Norquist’s group, described the election as “Democrats Dressing up as Republicans,” referring to the relative conservatism of some Democratic winners.

The Christian Right mobilization of voters was not able, on its own, to counter an unpopular war or an unpopular party, the incumbent Republicans.

Tony Perkins acknowledged that Americans had spoken but insisted that there was no new direction despite the shift in party support. Distancing himself from the losers and referring to his followers as “integrity voters,” he said, “Democrats won mainly because they seized on a platform largely forsaken by the GOP-social values. When ‘integrity voters’ saw the Republicans had abandoned their principles, they ultimately abandoned the GOP.”8 “This should be a clear message to both Parties that values voters vote values, not party. Their focus is not on party politics, but rather on government guided by core values.”9

The day after the election, conservative columnist Michael Medved recognized that,

The numbers from every corner of the country make it clear that the American people meant to send a message to their leaders, and the future of the conservative movement depends on an accurate reading of the substance they meant to communicate, and a realistic reassessment of the current state of our politics.10

But it remains to be seen if these analysts are correctly reading their constituency. Medved interpreted the figure that 59% of voters disapproved of the war in Iraq as an indication that “many (if not most) of those voters dislike Bush’s policy because they feel it’s not aggressive enough.”11 This seems a dubious contention.

Democratic Party leaders are now debating how to handle the issue of religion and people of faith-sometimes constructively and sometimes opportunistically. In Ohio and Pennsylvania, Democratic candidates actively referred to their faiths. Ted Strickland, the new Ohio governor is a Methodist minister, and Bob Casey, Rick Santorum’s successful opponent for the Senate in Pennsylvania, is a Catholic. More targeted analysis needs to happen in selected states to learn the details of religious voters’ influence. For instance, conservatives and liberals alike will study the data on same sex marriage bans, which passed with considerably smaller point spreads than in 2004, to see if their presence on the ballot made a difference in the candidates’ results. The same scrutiny will apply to the minimum wage ballot measures that pro-labor groups designed with a frame of economic justice aimed at enticing people of faith to consider other values than those stressed by the Christian Right.

What’s the Matter with “What’s the Matter with Kansas”?

Demographic election analyses notwithstanding, it’s not so easy to describe white evangelicals accurately. Thomas Frank, in his book What’s the Matter with Kansas, nimbly navigated the conservative scene on the ground in Kansas, but slipped when he implied that people in the white working class who vote against their apparent economic self interest did so because they didn’t really understand the complex issues, or were easily swayed by fundamentalist preachers and opportunistic politicians. Some, we are led to believe, are simply addled.12

There is no evidence that white evangelicals are any more stupid or crazy than anyone else. Nor are they simply the manipulated puppets of a Karl Rove strike force.

There is no evidence that white evangelicals are any more stupid or crazy than anyone else. Nor are they simply the manipulated puppets of a Karl Rove strike force.

Large groups of white evangelicals are mobilized through the rhetorical style of right-wing populism, which suggests that liberal elites and welfare queens are eroding conservative American values.13 Jean Hardisty refers to this process as mobilizing resentment.”14

Many white working class voters and white middle class voters can be persuaded at times to vote against their apparent immediate economic interests through appeals to their sense of morality that cast “traditional family values” and “moral values” in terms of societal struggles over issues such as gay rights, same sex marriage, abortion, stem cell research, and pornography. In elections, sometimes economic issues trump social issues, and sometimes social issues trump economic issues-and how Republicans and Democrats are perceived by Christian evangelical voters weighing the pull of those sets of issues can determine the outcome of an election.15

Whither the Christian Right?

The rising or falling fortunes of the Republican Party in any election cycle do not determine the size and vibrancy of the Christian Right as a social movement. Members of the Christian Right are more committed to their issues as they define them than they are to any political party. Like any social movement, they align with political entities that they believe will bring about the changes they seek.

Black, Hispanic, and Asian evangelical voters and Roman Catholics of all kinds have responded to various campaign strategies aimed at religious voters, most notably around abortion and gay issues. On occasion, Christian Right and Republican efforts can erode the historic preferences among these groups to vote Democratic as happened in 2004. While some in these groups shifted back to vote Democratic in 2006, it remains to be seen how well subsequent mobilizations will fare in specific races. State-based analysis is key.

Every few years-following an electoral defeat of Republicans, the collapse of a Christian Right organization, or an expose of a leader’s shady past-the death of the Christian Right is announced in the media. Reports of its death are, as they say, greatly exaggerated, and complacency would be a mistake. The Christian Right will survive, and remains a powerful factor in the social, cultural, and political life of the United States.

Keep an eye out for the next hot button issue coming to your state.


1 Dominionism is a tendency within the Christian Right to assert that Christians are mandated by God to take control of secular political institutions. See: Frederick Clarkson, “The Rise of Dominionism: Remaking America as a Christian Nation,” The Public Eye Magazine, Winter 2005; Michelle Goldberg, Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism (New York: W.W. Norton, 2006); Chip Berlet, “The Christian Right, Dominionism, and Theocracy,” The Public Eye online, http://www.publiceye.org/christian_right/dominionism.htm. While Christian Reconstructionism is the most militant form of dominionism, it is a common error to imply that all dominionists are Reconstructionists or desire a full-blown totalitarian theocracy.
2 Kaplan, Esther, 2004, With God on Their Side: How Christian Fundamentalists Trampled Science, Policy, and Democracy in George W. Bush’s White House (New York: The New Press); Geoffrey C. Layman and John C. Green, “Wars and Rumors of Wars: The Contexts of Cultural Conflict in American Political Behavior,” British Journal of Political Science (36)1, (January 2006), pp 61-89; Herman, Didi, The Antigay Agenda: Orthodox Vision and the Christian Right (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997); Katha Pollitt, “Earthly Rewards for the Christian Voter,” Subject to Debate column, The Nation, December 6, 2004, http://www.thenation.com/doc/20041206/pollitt; William Martin, With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America (New York: Broadway Books, 1996); Sara Diamond, Roads to Dominion: Right-Wing Movements and Political Power in the United States (New York: Guilford Press, 1998).
3 Institute for First Amendment Studies, “Religious Leaders Denounce Wildmon’s Anti-Semitism,” Freedom Writer, June/July/August 1989, at http://www.publiceye.org/ifas/fw/8906/wildmon.html.
4 Banks, Adele, “With Election Looming, ‘Values Voters’ Are Back in the Spotlight,” Religion News Service, Wednesday, September 20, 2006, http://www.presbyterianchurch.org/pcnews/2006/06482.htm .
5 Goodstein, Laurie, “Religious Voting Data Show Some Shift, Observers Say,” New York Times,November 9, 2006, P7.
6 Ibid.
7 Cooperman, Alan, “Democrats win bigger share of religious vote: Parties disagree on why the gap has narrowed,” Washington Post,MSNBC, November 11, 2006, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/15662295; PBS, “Perspectives: Election Analysis,” Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, (#1011), Transcript, November 10, 2006, http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/week1011/perspectives.html .
8 “America Cleans House,” Family Research Council Washington Update listserv email, Wednesday, November 8, 2006.
9 “Integrity Voters Reveal Values Gap,” Press release Family Research Council, November 8, 2006, at http://www.frc.org/get.cfm?i=PR06K02.
10 Medved, Michael, “Uncomfortable lessons from a disastrous night,” Townhall.com, November 8, 2006, http://www.townhall.com/columnists/
11 Ibid.
12 For examples, see Frank, Thomas, What’s the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2004), pp. 160-161, 205, 213, 226, 238-251.
13 Berlet, Chip, and Matthew N. Lyons, Right-Wing Populism in America (New York: Guilford, 2000), pp. 1-18. See also Margaret Canovan, Populism (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981); Michael Kazin, The Populist Persuasion: An American History (New York: Basic Books, 1995).
14 Hardisty, Jean V., Mobilizing Resentment: Conservative Resurgence from the John Birch Society to the Promise Keepers (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999).
15 We discuss this at greater length in Running Against Sodom and Osama: The Christian Right, Values Voters, and the Culture War in 2006, HTML: http://www.publiceye.org/christian_right/values-voters/vv-toc.html; PDF: http://www.publiceye.org/pdfs/Running_Against_Sodom_and_Osama.pdf.
16 Gumbel, Andrew, “Something Rotten in the State of Florida,” Common Dreams, September 29, 2004, originally from The Independent, http://www.commondreams.org/headlines04/0929-26.htm.
17 “Katherine Harris,” interview, Florida Baptist Witness, August 24, 2006, http://www.floridabaptistwitness.com/6298.article.
18 Arnold, Clinton E., Powers of Darkness: Principalities & Powers in Paul’s Letters,(Downers Grove Intervarsity Press, 1992); Sara Diamond, Spiritual Warfare: The Politics of the Christian Right (Boston: South End Press, 1989).

Pam Chamberlain is a former senior researcher at Political Research Associates, with an expertise in gender justice, education, and campus issues.