Bush's religious-right challenge

Wags in Washington are telling a story these days: Two veteran GOP operatives are discussing the election, and one says, "I have good news and bad news."

"Tell me the good news first," says the other.

"The religious right stuck with Bush and helped him win the White House."

"Great! So, what's the bad news?"

"Well.... The religious right stuck with Bush and helped him win the White House."

This apocryphal story captures a major challenge facing George W. Bush: how to handle zealous social conservatives in the context of a razor-thin majority coalition. This problem isn't new to either American or Republican politics. Democrats struggled with the unwieldy New Deal coalition for decades, a major element of which was conservative Southerners.

Many of these folks and their descendants, now Republicans, vexed the last President Bush eight years ago. It is only the closeness of the 2000 election that makes George W.'s situation acute.

A few voting statistics put the problem in perspective. Observant evangelical Protestants, the core constituency of the "religious right," voted 84 percent for Bush, making up almost one-third of all his supporters.

Together with observant mainline Protestants and Catholics, religious conservatives accounted for better than half of all Republican ballots. But Bush also got crucial votes from other places: less-observant white Christians, other religious groups, and secular voters combined for more than two-fifths of his support. Despite this successful coalition-building, Bush lost the popular vote and barely won the Electoral College.

Based on these results, religious conservatives are demanding action on social issues, while other Republicans argue that such issues be put off - forever, if possible.

Muted during the campaign, this argument became audible during cabinet appointments and will become louder as the sub-cabinet is assembled, reaching a crescendo with judicial appointments, especially any Supreme Court vacancies.

Policy conflict promises to be fierce. Religious conservatives will want quick moves on abortion, such as executive orders reversing some of President Clinton's policies, and they will keep the pressure up to restrict abortions in federal programs. There will be similar pressures on gay rights, pornography, "pro-family" policies, and the use of faith-based organizations to implement social programs. Perhaps the strongest demands will concern education, especially school vouchers and standards.

Religious conservatives hope Bush will "restore honor and dignity to the White House," but this seemingly easy task could be undermined by bitter infighting. It is hard to unite the nation when one's own house is divided.

It is worth noting, however, that so far Bush has managed this conflict fairly well. Many observers expected social-issue disputes to damage his candidacy severely. Bush employed the three "S's" - symbolism, sympathy, and selective concessions - to attract diverse constituencies.

For religious conservatives, good examples of symbolism and sympathy were Bush's expressions of faith and his visit to Bob Jones University, which offended many other Americans because of its anti-Catholic views.

Selective concessions included the nomination of Missouri Sen. John Ashcroft for attorney general and a promise to ban late-term abortions. Bush treated moderates in much the same way, meeting with gay Republicans, pointedly refusing to address the Christian Coalition, backing the existence of the Department of Education, and nominating the likes of New Jersey Gov. Christine Whitman, a strong supporter of abortion rights, to the cabinet.

Of course, both groups were dismayed by the strokes directed toward their rivals. But once stroked themselves, they stuck with Bush.

We should look for more of the three "S's" from President Bush once in office. But whether such tactics will survive the crucible of power remains to be seen. As the Washington wags might put it: "All heck is about to break loose."

John C. Green is a professor of political science and director of the Bliss Institute at the University of Akron in Ohio.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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