Marlys Popma, a leader of Gary Bauer's presidential campaign, issued a very specific plea to a roomful of his supporters at a downtown hotel here last week: She asked them to spend a half-hour a day on the phone rounding up votes, and a half-hour in prayer. If each followed that formula, she assured the crowd, "The Lord in heaven will say, well done my good and faithful servant."
Britain's Anglican Church was once referred to in jest as "the Conservative Party at prayer." For the 12 years since Pat Robertson won a stunning second-place showing in this state's caucuses and launched the Christian Coalition, the Republican Party has sometimes looked like evangelical Protestantism at the polls.
But the end of the campaign for Iowa's precinct caucuses last night may also mark the high point of Christian conservative influence on American politics this year. The caucus process, which demands a high degree of commitment and fervor, multiplies the influence of organized groups battling for a cause, including the cause of the Lord. The Iowa dynamic enabled Christian conservatives to push front-runner George W. Bush hard for a stronger commitment to oppose abortion.
For the rest of the campaign, though, the Christian right will be forced to confront problems that have weakened the movement, scattered its forces among several presidential campaigns and led some in its ranks to decry a lack of leadership in their own house.
Christian conservatives face a paradox. On the one hand, many of their positions are now routinely adopted by Republican presidential candidates, and their role in Republican politics is as normal and as thoroughly accepted as the influence of union members on the Democrats. "This particular cycle is the first in many years when not one Republican will say he's pro-choice," says Popma. "They're all pro-life, or at least they say so. And I've never seen so many candidates talk about Jesus Christ. The politicians know that--at least in Iowa--the Christian conservatives aren't dead."
Bauer, who is biding to become the top religious conservative leader after the campaign ends, argues that all the Republican candidates "throw rhetoric out there that sends the right signals" to religious conservatives. But he acknowledges that the Christian Coalition, once seen as a mighty electoral force, is not what it used to be. "We all know the coalition is having some tough days right now," he says.
Jerry Keen, the former chairman of Georgia's Christian Coalition who is working in Steve Forbes's campaign, is even blunter. He sees the 1996 election as marking the beginning of the coalition's "downhill slide" and the 1998 elections, in which Democrats gained House seats, as a disaster.
"In 1998 the Democrats used a grass-roots mobilization in the general election and the Republicans did nothing but air war," he said, using political-speak for the GOP's emphasis on television commercials. "The activists just simply did not vote. . . . You remove the organization and you remove the passion of activists on issues, and you're doomed to defeat."
Stephen Roberts, a longtime Iowa Republican leader, says the Christian right's "support and their strength has been diluted" and that rank-and-file Christian conservatives were disillusioned by the failure of the impeachment campaign against President Clinton and the peccadillos of conservative leaders, including former House speaker Newt Gingrich.
"Not only did Clinton escape but his popularity got better--and then Gingrich resigned and was found to have a situation," Roberts said. "If you're the Christian Coalition, you begin to wonder if the whole world has gone to hell."
Christian activists, especially those who rally to dark horses such as Bauer and Alan Keyes, reflect a yearning for a strength of commitment and purity of purpose that is often missing in conventional politics--and a growing impatience with settling for less. "Politicians say one thing when they're campaigning, but when elected, they either don't do it or do something different from what they promised to do," says David Karwoski, Bauer's church outreach director. "There have been times of frustration because some of our candidates and some of our public officials have been hypocrites, and that frustrates and demoralizes people."
"I think they got disillusioned after the Contract With America," says Popma. "They thought, 'This is great, now we're going to get someplace.' And it didn't happen."
"The people are still there," she adds. "but I think we're a little bit leaderless." After their moment in Iowa's political and media sun, it's a problem the Christian conservatives still have to solve.