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Ed Vitagliano
 You're here » Christian Columns Index » Guest Writer

Alienation -- What Happened?
by Ed Vitagliano - (
February 12, 2007
Category: Political
TWO YEARS AFTER a political victory of conservatism in America, Democrats put what President Bush called a "thumping" on Republicans in the mid-term elections, taking control of both the House and the Senate. The election results threatened to politically cook the goose of an already lame-duck president -- and turn a conservative "revolution" into a rout. Once again, a politically unified, culturally conservative movement has run out of steam.

"Now comes the revolution." According to the New York Times, those were the words uttered by conservative activist Richard Viguerie, predicting the political victory of conservatism following the re-election of George W. Bush in 2004.

Viguerie captured the triumphalist sentiments of many conservatives in 2004 when he said, "If you don't implement a conservative agenda now, when do you?"

After all, he noted along with most pro-family leaders, "conservative Christians and 'values voters' [including voters who identified themselves as evangelicals, born-again Christians, and weekly churchgoers] won this election for George W. Bush and Republicans in Congress." Now it was time for payback.

Two years later, however, on November 7, 2006, Democrats put what Bush called a "thumping" on Republicans in the mid-term elections, taking control of both the House and the Senate. The election results threatened to politically cook the goose of an already lame-duck president -- and turn a conservative "revolution" into a rout.

"Everyone agrees that the evangelical right's legislative agenda for the next session of Congress appears dead as a result" of the Democratic take-over of both houses of Congress, said Larry Cohler-Esses, editor at large for The Jewish Week.

So what happened?

Shifting winds of political fortune

First, it appears that politics happened. Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-IL), considered one of the architects of the Democratic victory in November, said just prior to the election that the coming battle was expected to be intense. "This is about power," he said bluntly.

Shrewdly put, yes, and perhaps quite cynical. But Emanuel was right in assessing the nature of politics: It's about power -- the power to ram through a political party's agenda. And quite frankly, the Republicans have had a pretty good run. After all, the Grand Old Party (GOP) has had the presidency for 20 of the last 28 years.

The problem, of course, is that turn-about is fair play -- and turn-about has a way of occurring regularly in American politics. For a while one party is up and seems destined for an ultimate triumph as a political power. Then, the winds shift, bringing alternating turns at the helm for both parties.

The narrow Bush victory in 2000 raised the hopes of GOP supporters, which became the triumphalism of the Republican Party in 2004 -- Viguerie's predictions of a "revolution." It is in this context of shifting political fortunes that the resounding Democratic victory in 2006 -- with the specter of a possible Democratic candidate winning the White House in 2008 -- makes perfect sense.

The fact is, our country has always seemed to be divided into essentially two halves, with political victories followed by losses, see-sawing back and forth. This is the reason, no doubt, why the American political landscape is littered with the bones of third-party animals that periodically attempted to rise to the position of alpha male.

So why has it been so difficult to fashion a dominant political vision in America that enables one party to obtain a permanent hold on power?

A nonexistent majority

For one thing, as evidenced in the 2006 election, our culture is simply not as politically, culturally or religiously monolithic as one might think.

In 2004, an article on BeliefNet, using data from the Fourth National Survey on Religion and Politics, categorized "the religious groupings that make up our political landscape." It found a wide range of beliefs that would appear to guarantee that a permanent majority would be nearly impossible.

Titled "The Twelve Tribes of American Politics," the article included estimates of the percentage of the voting-age population represented by each group. They were: the Religious Right (12.6%); Heartland Culture Warriors (11.4%); Moderate Evangelicals (10.8%); White Bread Protestants (8.0%); Convertible Catholics (8.1%); the Religious Left (12.6%); Spiritual But Not Religious (5.3%); Seculars (10.7%); Latinos (7.3%); Jews (1.9%); Muslims and Other Faiths (2.7%); and Black Protestants (9.6%). (Percentages do not add up to 100 because of rounding off.)

As fragmented as our culture is when it comes to religion, the matter is further clouded when each category is broken down even further. Two examples will suffice.

The "Religious Right" consists of white evangelical Protestants who attend church at least once a week and generally are biblical literalists. At 12.6% of the voting-age population -- and 15% of all actual voters in 2004 -- it might be expected that this group would remain a solid voting bloc for conservative cultural issues.

That is, if it were monolithic in terms of ideology. However, individuals who fell within the Religious Right as a group were not uniform in how they viewed themselves. When describing their own ideology, 66% considered themselves conservative, 25% moderate and 9% liberal.

Likewise, "Heartland Culture Warriors," identified as mainly conservative Catholics, conservative mainline Protestants, and Mormons, also split according to ideology. They categorized themselves as conservative (50%), moderate (41%) and liberal (10%).

Moreover, the way in which some in these groups voted in 2006 demonstrated that the coalition of "values voters" lauded by Viguerie was not as solid as many pro-family leaders had hoped. An Associated Press exit poll revealed that almost one-third of white evangelicals voted for a Democrat in the 2006 mid-term elections.

Steven Waldman, in a column on, said, "People who attended church weekly voted 58% to 41% for Bush in 2004. [In 2006], they voted 51% for Republicans to 48% for Democrats."

In other words, the very idea of a large bloc of "values voters," who will consistently vote based on a handful of pro-family issues, may have been premature to begin with.

The mushy middle

Why did so many values voters appear to switch parties between 2004 and 2006? Polling seems to indicate widespread dissatisfaction with the GOP due mainly to the scandals that plagued numerous Republicans as well as deep concerns with the Iraq War.

Many analysts said they saw it coming well before the election. According to a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, the number of conservative Christians with a favorable view of the Republican Party dropped from 74% in 2004 to 54% in 2006, prior to the election.

But there may be a problem that is deeper than a temporary dissatisfaction among values voters with the GOP. Simply put, the majority of Americans are not solidly in the camps of either the cultural/political right or left.

Newsweek's Jonathan Alter noted that "more than one-third of American voters identify themselves as independents, which is a higher percentage than claim a party [identification]."

And when it comes to political ideology, neither conservatives nor liberals own a majority share. A USA Today editorial in November pointed out that nearly half of voters surveyed on Election Day described themselves as moderates. In fact, the Republican efforts to turn out their conservative base actually succeeded, according to White House political director Sara Taylor. Exit polling revealed that as many values voters turned out to vote in 2006 as did in 2004.

However, the percentage of values voters was not enough to compensate for independents. "The base turned out," Taylor said, "but independents made up a larger share of the electorate and they broke very heavily Democratic."

But if liberal Democrats are now tempted to engage in the same sort of triumphalistic gloating that Republicans engaged in following the 2004 election results, they should resist. Even former President Bill Clinton, one of the shrewdest politicians in recent memory, said, "It would be a big mistake to read the results as some big move to the left in America."

Thus the same political and cultural limits currently in play preventing a conservative majority will also serve to restrict a liberal takeover.

A challenge to the church

Instead, what is clear is that our culture remains split over fundamental issues. This is not only because the world is a complicated place, but because as a society we are no longer moored to a comprehensive worldview that helps shape our beliefs as a people.

Church leaders would be wise to recognize this, and begin preparing an all-inclusive and long-term strategy for reaching America's 300 million people with the Gospel and a biblical worldview. After all, what we've been doing hasn't exactly been working.

As Jon Meacham said in Newsweek, "For all the vaunted talk of the religious right's power in American politics, in fact the central claims of the movement -- constitutional amendments restoring prayer in school, banning abortion and forbidding same-sex marriage -- have not been realized, and are unlikely to be any time soon."

Perhaps cultural change in America will not come as the result of a political "revolution" after all. It may come as the seed of God's Word is sown in the land, and gradually bears its fruit.
Ed Vitagliano, a regular contributor to, is news editor of AFA Journal, a monthly publication of the American Family Association. This article, reprinted with permission, appears in the January 2007 issue.

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