A Long, Dark Night for the Religious Right

Washington Outlook, Business Week

March 1, 1999 (Edition Date) Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Blogger Tumblr

Until recently, Tinky Winky – one of the stars of the wildly popular Teletubbies kids' TV show – symbolized nothing more than the triumph of silliness. Now, the amorphous purple space-munchkin has come to signify something else: trying times for the Religious Right.

Christian conservatives suffered a shattering defeat in the impeachment trial of President Clinton. The mercurial Reverend Pat Robertson has been forced to reclaim the presidency of the Christian Coalition after a lengthy hiatus. And Reverend Jerry Falwell's decision to attack Tinky as a sexually ambiguous advocate of the gay lifestyle drew coast-to-coast snickers.

Many conservative Christians still can't accept the fact that two-thirds of Americans think Clinton committed perjury in covering up the Lewinsky affair – but want him to stay on the job by the same margin. "Our people are disgusted that Clinton got off," says Jim Berberich, executive director of the Missouri Christian Coalition. "Someday people are going to find out that being a conservative Christian is not equivalent to wearing a scarlet letter."

STANDOFFISH. Scarred by the impeachment fiasco, some Hill GOP leaders are rushing to distance themselves from religious activists faster than you can say: "Get thee behind me." House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) pledges accommodation with Democrats, while working to keep anti-abortion riders off of appropriations bills. And many grassroots officials say that the only way to erase the GOP's dreadful disapproval ratings is to shelve all the moralizing in favor of more engaging issues such as tax cuts, education reforms, and a leaner government.

Christian groups' absolutism "scares the hell out of voters in the middle" of the political spectrum, says independent pollster John Zogby. New Jersey Governor Christine Whitman told a recent GOP leadership conference in Miami: "We have got to get away from the perception that all we care about is whether or not Teletubbies are gay."

How are Christian conservatives reacting to such challenges? According to Morton C. Blackwell, a Virginia-based religious activist and Republican National Committee member, a top priority will be "working to get House [impeachment] managers reelected." Democrats have targeted many of them for defeat in 2000.

Beyond that, the Christian Coalition will soon roll out a legislative agenda that blends secular planks (ending the marriage penalty, promoting school choice, backing a Star Wars antimissile system) with calls for a ban on late-term abortions, parental consent for teens seeking abortions, and moves to combat religious persecution overseas. "Our issues are in the center of public opinion," says Randy Tate, the coalition's executive director. "I don't see how running away from our agenda helps Republican prospects."

But there's trouble ahead. The Religious Right shows no signs of unifying behind Dan Quayle, Steve Forbes, or any other socially conservative GOP Presidential contender. Meanwhile, semi-spiritual Texas Governor George W. Bush soars. "It's a time of adversity," sighs one religious activist, "but maybe that will energize people to get involved in our cause." After all, miracles do happen.