Republicans Need the Religious Right

This has been a banner year for books proclaiming that conservative Christians are misguided about public policy and dangerous to democracy. Consider claims made by the authors of the most well received titles.

“Christianists” are destroying the “conservative soul” (Andrew Sullivan) and taking over the Republican Party (former Missouri Republican Sen. John Danforth). They are “theocons,” threatening political pluralism here at home (Damon Linker) and “theocrats” hijacking American policy abroad in order to usher in the end times.

Yet, one author stepped forward to put in a good word for the religious conservatives. Republican consultant Patrick Hynes’ book, “In Defense of the Religious Right,” looks at the time between the 2004 elections, when social conservatives’ political clout was obvious even to detractors, and the 2006 midterms.

Hynes doesn’t focus on defending the religious right’s policy positions, for one very good reason: In the present intellectual climate, one must first establish that conservative Christians are legitimate participants in the debate. Notice the phrases used to describe religious conservatives’ political activities. They don’t merely participate in the political process: They are usually said to be “taking over.” They don’t legislate: They “impose values.”

In Hynes’ telling, religious conservatives feel called to promote good government rather than to compel people to accept their theology. He points out that they are only following a time-honored tradition of faith-driven political movements on the left and right, from the abolitionists to the civil-rights activism of the 1950s and ’60s.

Like the civil-rights movement, Hynes contends that the modern religious right is mostly engaged in defensive political action. It was galvanized by Supreme Court rulings banishing officially sanctioned prayer and Bible reading from the public schools and imposing legal abortion nationwide.

Hynes notes that it hasn’t slept since. President Bush carried 78% of white evangelicals, amounting to nearly one-third of his support in 2004. Republican congressional candidates did nearly as well with 72%. In 2004, Bush won 52% of Catholic voters against Sen. John Kerry (D.-Mass.), himself a Catholic. Bush also beat Kerry among theologically conservative mainline Protestants, in a race where frequency of church attendance was a better predictor of one’s vote than family income.

The religious right is now the largest single Republican voting bloc, delivering more voters for the GOP than either straight-ticket African-Americans or union members give the Democrats. But didn’t the midterms prove that these votes come at the cost of alienating most other voters? While “In Defense of the Religious Right” was written before the 2006 elections, it does address this point. Polls show that on religion in the public square, same-sex marriage and even certain abortion restrictions, the religious right’s positions are closer to the American mainstream than those of their opponents.

Hynes explodes myths about the religious right’s being “angry white men.” In fact, conservative Christians are predominantly female and more racially, regionally and economically diverse than any major Republican constituency.

Although Hynes makes a strong case that Republicans benefit from the values vote, he seems less certain about what conservative Christians are getting out of the bargain. He might have profitably asked whether the religious right expects too much out of politics.

But as the 2006 finger-pointing continues, the religious right will need defenders. Hynes’ book is a good start.