You likely have never heard of Ed McAteer, but you know him by his works. Although he never held a formal church position, McAteer was the father of the religious conservative movement in American politics.
It was Ed McAteer, a Southern Baptist layman, who persuaded the Rev. Jerry Falwell to get involved in politics. It was McAteer who introduced Ronald Reagan to Christian activists in 1980 at a conference sponsored by his organization, the Religious Roundtable.
No less a figure than Falwell remembered McAteer this way: “What the press calls today the ‘religious right’ really was his dream.”
Ed McAteer died this month. But long before, he had broken with the Republican Party, which he said never delivered on the conservative Christian agenda. “We were dropped like a hot potato once they got out of these Christians what they wanted,” he said.
The God Squad takes a break
McAteer was not alone. The conservative religious leaders who led the charge during the 1980s and 1990s are seldom seen these days.
Falwell is largely on the sidelines, contenting himself with commentary and tending his ministry. So is the Rev. Pat Robertson, an early opponent of the war in Iraq. Paul Weyrich, chairman of the Free Congress Foundation, declared five years ago that religious conservatives should “separate” themselves from politics. Franklin Graham, the fiery preacher who now runs his father’s Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, has been marginalized since he was quoted demonizing Islam after the Sept. 11 attacks. Ralph Reed left the Christian Coalition almost a decade ago.
But if “God is big into recycling,” as suggested by a sermon making the rounds on the Internet, then announcements of the death of the religious right are the proof. Such proclamations have been issued like clockwork during every national election cycle since Bill Clinton defeated President George H.W. Bush in 1992.
And they have always been wrong, no more so than today. The conservative religious movement has certainly moved into the background, but not because it is irrelevant. To a great extent, it has won the game.
“What’s different from the past is that it’s integrated into the Republican Party,” said Duane Oldfield, a political scientist at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., who studies the religious right. “The Christian right has gone from being outsiders to insiders.”
Beginning in the late 1970s, when McAteer recruited conservative religious activists Howard Phillips, Richard Viguerie and Paul Weyrich to help Falwell organize the Moral Majority, the Christian right made lurching inroads into the Republican Party, its prospects rising and falling with the successes and failures of its favored candidates.
Even though they had reservations about some of Texas Gov. George W. Bush’s relatively moderate positions, influential conservative Christian figures signed on early to his presidential campaign, and they found a winner.
In the 2000 election, Bush won 79 percent of voters who described themselves in exit polls as members of the “religious right.” Political analysts said that most likely, he won even greater support from Christian conservatives, many of whom consider “religious right” to be a pejorative and would not have identified themselves as such.
Seeding the government
Bush repaid the debt, weaving conservative Christian principles into the tapestry of his administration.
The movement goes beyond Bush’s making his Christianity a cornerstone of his public rhetoric or appointing stars of the religious right to high-profile positions — for example, his naming John Ashcroft, the Assemblies of God-immersed son of a Pentecostal preacher, as attorney general. The president has seeded every corner of the executive branch with religious conservative representatives, most of them in important policy-making roles that don’t get much public attention.
Bypassing Congress, where his Faith-Based Initiatives bill stalled in the Senate, Bush issued two executive orders embedding offices for faith-based initiatives in agencies across the government: in the departments of Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Labor, Justice, Education and Agriculture and in the Agency for International Development.
The administration has also made a practice of appointing conservative religious activists to regulatory and oversight boards that operate without public scrutiny.
Typical of many of these appointments is that of Eric W. Treene, who was installed at the Justice Department as special counsel for religious discrimination. Treene, who was litigation director at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a public interest law firm, is a favorite of conservative religious activists.
“Eric’s presence there sends a positive signal to people like me and other organizations who are concerned regarding religious issues,” the Rev. Robert Schenck, president of the National Clergy Council, told The Washington Times in 2002. “I am not sure why the Department of Justice doesn’t show him off to conservative Christians. Treene’s presence sends a signal that it’s a friendly place for people like us.”
The Bush White House is just as aggressive in its appointments to international agencies and boards. For example, in 2002, the administration sent a delegation heavily stocked with activists from conservative Christian organizations to the U.N. Special Session on Children, where it argued that the phrase “reproductive health services” could be read to affirm the right to abortion and to support the distribution of condoms to teenagers.
Members of the delegation included Bill Saunders, a director of the Family Research Council; J. Robert Flores, who was then vice president of the anti-pornography National Law Center for Children and Families; and Paul Bonicelli, executive director of the National Center for Home Education, a division of the Home School Legal Defense Association.
“I think it’s probably good politics,” Oldfield said in an interview. “The Republicans have been most successful when they can mobilize the Christian right in ways that aren’t visible to the general public.”
Right woman in the right job
If, as it has been said, leadership is about motivating human resources, then the conservative Christian movement has just the woman for the job.
Kay Coles James has been vice president of the Family Research Council, a director of Focus on the Family and dean of the School of Government at Pat Robertson’s Regent University. Today she is director of the Office of Personnel Management — the woman in charge of hiring for the entire federal government.
James has a long and distinguished record in the Reagan administration and Virginia state government, and no credible critic has argued that her deeply conservative faith has had a measurable impact on government hiring — indeed, the OPM bars any decision-making based on religion.
At the same time, James has remained a vocal spokeswoman for conservative Christian principles, and she makes no secret of her consultation with religious advisers in her own job.
“I have spiritual mentors,” she said in an interview in 2002 with Leah’s Sisters, a Christian-oriented women’s outreach group. “If I have to make a major decision, I consult with these people first.”
Likewise, James noted in a commencement address last year at Pepperdine University that “the strength I draw from God’s love is essential to my work in Washington. Although we speak in acronyms and euphemisms, I always go back to the Bible for the words that have the most meaning.”
Leader of the flock
James has been closely identified with Dr. James C. Dobson, a psychologist and evangelical lay activist who is one of a number of religious leaders who do not command the public spotlight in the manner of Falwell or Robertson but who wield enormous influence in the religious conservative movement.
Dobson founded and leads Focus on the Family, one of the largest Christian ministries on Earth, with programs in nearly a hundred countries, and he is by all odds the most powerful Christian leader in the United States today.
The ministry’s leading radio program, “Focus on the Family,” is the second-highest-rated syndicated program in the United States, and its magazine of the same name is the second-most widely read religious publication, with a circulation of more than 3.3 million. Dobson’s column appears in hundreds of newspapers.
Focus on the Family practices the modern conservative politics perfected by Ralph Reed, the former executive director of the Christian Coalition, who is managing the Bush campaign’s Southeast operations. It seeks to build power from the bottom up, patiently growing local organizations and training Christian conservatives in the basics of mainstream politics. Dobson’s ministry alone runs local political operations in nearly 40 states, and in 2000, the year of the last presidential election, it reported lobbying expenditures of more than $4 million.
As a nonprofit organization, Focus on the Family cannot endorse candidates, but Dobson has personally endorsed Bush — a powerful statement from a man whose audience has been estimated at 200 million people.
Today, the conservative Christian movement listens to leaders like Dobson and Charles Colson, the founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries. They are intent on building a long-term political infrastructure and molding policy, and they are able to do so without the withering scrutiny that fell on media-focused evangelists like Robertson and Falwell, whom they have largely supplanted.
The nexus of officials in the Bush administration and activists in the conservative Christian movement gives leaders like Dobson the strongest platform the movement has ever had.
“Some [of the older leaders] are fading,” Oldfield said, “but that’s because George W. Bush is head of the Christian right.”