Twenty years ago this summer, I pulled out of the parking lot at the airport in Knoxville, Tenn., and pointed my rental car south toward the American Bible belt. The purpose was to get up close and personal with a phenomenon called the Christian Right. Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority was thundering on about abortion, gay rights and communism. Televangelist Pat Robertson was priming for a run at the Republican Party's presidential nomination. Across the U.S., evangelicals and civil libertarians were skirmishing over issues ranging from school prayer to censorship to immigration.
Something electric was in the air. You could feel it in the sleepy little towns off the Interstate. You could hear it in snippets of conversations on the street. The car radio blared it incessantly. Some of it seemed heartfelt, but a lot of it was more extreme than I could stomach. I decided that the Christian Right was a curious, colourful American fad that would eventually fade and vanish.
As I followed the 2008 presidential primaries this past winter, I was struck repeatedly by how I couldn't have been more wrong. Far from a blip or a curiosity, the Christian Right is today an entrenched force in American politics. Conservative evangelicals have redefined the language of politics. The evangelical vote is now a political benchmark like organized labour, Hispanics, African-Americans and soccer moms. Candidates of all stripes fall all over themselves trying to assure evangelicals they are born-again, too. In the Republican Party, the candidate who fails to win over evangelicals might as well pack up and go home. Remember Mitt Romney?
That a single faith group should exert such a force in an ostensibly secular state is remarkable enough. That the force has become self-sustaining in less than a quarter of a century is astonishing. Early on, savvy conservative strategists figured out that the road to power starts at the church parking lot. Instead of aiming high for the White House, well-oiled conservative machines set out to mobilize Christian America from the bottom up. In less than a decade, Christian conservatives could legitimately boast they had delivered control of Congress to the Republican Party.
Today, evangelical Christians account for 20 percent of all voters and about one-third of the Republican Party. It hardly matters that Pat Robertson is fading on the fringes and Jerry Falwell is dead. The roots of the evangelical bloc go deep enough that the movement thrives without any real leadership or unifying apparatus.
In 2004, George W. Bush won 78 percent of the white evangelical vote and was re-elected president. November's presidential election will offer American voters a historic choice: Republican nominee John McCain will face either a woman or an African-American. How it will play out is anybody's guess. But you can take this to the bank: when the newspaper arrives on your doorstep the morning after the election, evangelicals will be a big part of the story.
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