By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 9, 2009
The Christian right, facing questions before the presidential election about its continuing potency as a force for cultural and political change, has found new life with Barack Obama in office, particularly around health care.
As the president prepares to address a joint session of Congress on Wednesday night to press for health-care reform, conservative Christian leaders are rallying their troops to oppose him, with online town hall meetings, church gatherings, fundraising appeals, and e-mail and social networking campaigns. FRC Action, the lobbying arm of the Family Research Council, has scheduled a webcast Thursday night for tens of thousands of supporters in which House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and other speakers will respond to the president's health-care address.
"Movements do better when they have something to oppose," said D. Michael Lindsay, a sociology professor at Rice University who studies evangelicals. "It's easier to fundraise in those kinds of situations. It's easier to mobilize volunteers because you have an us versus them mentality, and that plays very well right now for the Christian right."
After seeing their bread-and-butter issue of abortion take a back seat during the election last year, the Christian right has been a prime force in moving it back to the front row by focusing on it as a potential part of health-care reform.
"It's a busy time," said Tom Minnery, senior vice president of Focus on the Family Action, the lobbying arm of Focus on the Family. He said donations to Focus Action have climbed beyond expectations, although he declined to say by how much.
Experts say the resurgent interest is proving that predictions of the death of the Christian right -- widespread before the election -- were again premature. But they say the recent flurry of activity does nothing to solve the underlying challenges facing the movement -- the lack of younger leaders to replace aging ones and ways to engage younger evangelicals who want the movement to embrace a wider range of issues.
But, for the moment, conservative Christian leaders are riding high on opposing health-care reform.
"Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid and Henry Waxman have done more to energize Christian conservatives than any conservative leader could have done with this health-care package," said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. "I, who never believed that we were dead, did not believe that it would happen this quickly."
Polls show that the health-care packages on the Hill are widely unpopular among evangelicals. More than seven in 10 white evangelical Protestants in the most recent Washington Post-ABC News poll said they are dissatisfied or angry about the Democratic reform proposals.
A coalition of three dozen conservative Christian organizations, representing 5 million people and calling itself the Freedom Federation, announced its formation last month. It has taken on opposition to health-care reform as its first issue.
"We're not having to build a grand new organization. We're using the strengths of other organizations that understand the needs of their particular constituencies," said Mathew Staver, dean of the Liberty University School of Law and an organizer of the Freedom Federation.
Christian right leaders say it is too soon to tell whether health-care reform will trigger a flood of donations, but they are encouraged by the response they are seeing in other ways.
Gary Bauer, who heads the socially conservative group American Values, said that the list of addresses to which he sends his daily e-mail alerts was down to 170,000 and that he was getting only 50 requests a week to sign up for it before the election. Now, he said, the e-mail list is up to 225,000, and he is getting 1,000 or more requests a week asking to be added.
"The passion that was so evident in the Obama campaign right now, at least, has shifted to our side," he said.
Laura Olson, professor of politics at Clemson University, said health-care reform has been a way to rally Christian conservatives and get them back into the national conversation.
"It has the potential to remind people in that sector. . . of the American electorate that, 'This is really one of our core concerns, and here's a new manifestation of it,' " Olson said. "It puts a whole new coat of paint on it and makes it even more useful strategically."
Polling director Jon Cohen contributed to this report.