The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How George H.W. Bush enabled the rise of the religious right

Religious conservatives used the Bush presidency to launch their takeover of the GOP.

The Rev. Jerry Falwell testifies before the House Ways and Means Oversight Subcommittee on Capitol Hill on Oct. 7, 1987. (Dennis Cook/AP)
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Following Wednesday’s state funeral for George H.W. Bush at Washington National Cathedral, the former president’s casket will be flown to Houston where a memorial service will be held at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church the following day.

Unlike his son George W. Bush, the elder Bush, a lifelong Episcopalian, was less known for his religious faith. He was certainly not thought of as a champion of the religious right, the powerful political movement most associated with his predecessor, Ronald Reagan.

Yet it was Bush, the moderate establishment Republican whose family helped found Planned Parenthood, who secured the religious right’s permanent place in American politics. While historians largely credit Reagan’s presidency with helping religious conservatives move from the shadows of American public life into its spotlight, it was the Bush presidency, particularly its disappointments and defeat, that entrenched the religious right as the center of the Republican Party and guaranteed its ongoing influence.

From the moment he entered the 1980 Republican presidential primaries, Bush drew the ire of religious right leaders — so much so that people like Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell objected to Reagan’s selection of Bush as his running mate. Conservative organizations tracked Bush closely throughout the primaries, scrutinizing his conservative credentials, reviewing his record and documenting his every misstep. Bush’s questionable history included having written the foreword to a 1973 book advocating the benefits of family planning in developing countries. As a congressman from 1967 to 1971, Bush’s enthusiastic support for federal funding for Planned Parenthood and other family planning groups was so well-known it had garnered him the nickname “Rubbers.”

During the 1980 primaries, religious conservatives found even more reason to be suspicious of Bush. The International Life Times, an antiabortion newsletter, reported that Bush had lashed out at an antiabortion activist who asked him if he would push for a human life amendment to the Constitution should he become president. Bush, who didn’t support such an amendment, blasted the activist as a “one-issue person,” the newsletter claimed, before angrily telling the man, “Go f--- yourself.” Such stories, circulating widely among religious conservatives, significantly worsened the relationship between Bush and religious conservatives.

Shortly after Reagan’s win in 1980, the conservative activist and key architect of the religious right Paul Weyrich told the incoming vice president that he better become a stronger advocate against abortion and for school prayer once in office. “I am not intimidated by those who suggest I better hew the line,” Bush shot back. “Hell with them.”

Political reality, however, soon curtailed Bush’s independent streak. Having coalesced as an essential voting bloc for Reagan’s victory, religious conservatives were determined to make sure they got what they wanted from the White House. Although Reagan would repeatedly disappoint them throughout his eight years in office, he understood how much his political success relied on keeping their support, and he often deployed Bush to personally meet with and reassure them.

Such meetings put Bush in closer contact with the preachers and activists who would be critical to his own future presidential ambitions. They also made clear to Bush his need to realign his positions with the conservative wing of the party, which was ascendant, in part because of the rise of cultural issues that were scrambling the party coalitions.

To do this, he would need to clear up his position on abortion, the biggest stumbling block for religious conservatives given his inconsistent record. And Bush took decisive steps to do so. After a meeting with the National Right to Life Committee to plan the group’s involvement in Reagan’s 1984 reelection campaign, the vice president suddenly announced he opposed federal funding for abortion except to protect a mother’s life, backed a constitutional amendment to overturn Roe v. Wade and supported a human life amendment that would outlaw abortion with a few exceptions — which he told the NRLC he would continue to consider.

All of this marked a fairly dramatic reversal of Bush’s long-standing stance when it came to abortion.

Yet despite that — or perhaps because of it — the religious right never fully trusted Bush, even as they lined up behind his presidential bid in 1988. They backed Bush over televangelist Pat Robertson in the Republican primaries that year, believing he’d be more electable, but they went into the opening days of the Bush presidency in a grim mood. Falwell’s Moral Majority had recently shuttered, and this combined with Bush’s preference for international affairs over domestic concerns left many commentators predicting the religious right’s demise.

The religious right, however, wasn’t retreating so much as it was reorganizing. Believing they had been used to get Bush to the White House with no real hope of seeing their agenda advanced, a group of influential religious right leaders, led by Robertson, met together in Atlanta in September 1989 to discuss what the movement should do next.

The group identified Bush and the GOP establishment as its chief target. Some suggested breaking away to form a Christian third party, but others worried that move would only further marginalize their movement and causes. Instead, they decided they needed to capture and transform the Republican Party, electing conservative candidates and taking over the party’s infrastructure from within. No longer willing to be the GOP’s foot soldiers, the religious right mobilized to become the party’s power brokers, so that another George H.W. Bush would never again be its presidential candidate.

That meeting in Atlanta led to the creation of the Christian Coalition, the religious right’s most powerful grass-roots organization in the 1990s. Ralph Reed, the organization’s wunderkind president, focused on building a vast network in all 50 states. By 1994, the organization claimed over a million members.

Reed also led the Christian Coalition’s infiltration of the Republican Party. At the 1992 Republican National Convention in Houston, 300 of the 2,200 delegates belonged to the Christian Coalition, and more than 40 percent of the delegates identified as evangelical Christians. With that presence, the GOP’s platform committee produced one of its most conservative platforms ever, with absolutist positions against abortion and homosexuality. When Pat Robertson was asked whether the religious right was trying to take over the Republican Party, he laughed in response. “What is there left to take over?”

While Bush never fully embraced the religious right, he did cater to it from time to time, understanding how essential members were to his political fortunes. His choice of the conservative evangelical Dan Quayle as his vice president and his nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court were both intended to appease religious conservatives. The religious right thrilled at these selections, though members also complained they were mere tokens designed to distract from larger disappointments. But Bush’s strategic courting of the religious right also laid the groundwork for its eventual takeover of the party.

When Bush lost his reelection bid in 1992, critics pointed to the tent revival feel of the Houston convention as the reason that moderate and independent voters had fled the GOP. But for the religious right, the defeat was a victory of sorts. Conservative activists argued that Bush’s bland moderation had doomed his chances. And they ambitiously planned to recruit more conservative candidates for office and bury the moderate wing of the party by continuing to build their control of the GOP from within.

By 1994, a study found that the religious right had become “dominant” or “substantial” in 21 of the GOP’s state parties. Two years later at the Republican National Convention in San Diego, Christian Coalition members made up more than half of the convention’s delegates.

The fruit of these organizing efforts appeared in George W. Bush’s presidential election in 2000. Bush, an evangelical Christian and conservative, electrified the party’s religious base far more than his father had. The irony, of course, was that the seeds for George W. Bush’s victory had been planted in the dry desert years of the first Bush presidency.

Those years in the desert, though, shaped the religious right’s plans for the future. At an early meeting of the Christian Coalition in 1990, Robertson told a group of despondent activists, discouraged by Bush’s inattention to their causes, that the organization would not worry about the president but instead work toward electing a “pro-family” Republican majority to Congress by the middle of the decade and a pro-family, socially conservative Republican president by 2000.

Given how the first Bush presidency had stirred them into action, few sitting in the meeting that day in 1990 could have imagined it would be the president’s own son who would emerge as that conservative savior 10 years later. But in gaining and then losing the presidency, George H.W. Bush had ensured the religious right would ultimately win the Republican Party and eventually the nation.