With the prominence of the Christian right in American politics at present, it is necessary for the average person to understand how they became such a fundamental part of the electoral process (akin to the necessity of Democrats to win over labor unions and more liberal Christian groups). The first major mobilizing effort began after the Roe v. Wade decision in January 1973, when pro-life activists began to organize nationally to prevent the expansion of abortion laws in the United States. This continues today, but the first time that they became a truly dominant force in electoral politics was in the 1980 presidential election when Ronald Reagan counted among his greatest supporters evangelists and other church leaders who saw Reagan as a great champion of conservative causes.
But the most tangible example of the Christian right’s dominance in politics came with the brief 1988 presidential campaign of 700 Club founder and Christian evangelist Pat Robertson. Robertson ran in the Republican primaries until he decided to bow out in favor of supporting Vice President George H.W. Bush. But Robertson’s brief campaign energized Christian evangelicals and made sure that Republicans knew the biggest and most active supporting body within the party were followers of Robertson.
The Robertson for President campaign began in earnest in August 1986, with the early selection process of Republican delegates in Michigan. Pat Robertson’s supporters in the state, the small but focused Freedom Council, was able to team up with the Jack Kemp campaign in Michigan to take 50% of the state’s delegates by February 1987, compared to 40% of delegates for frontrunner George H.W. Bush. While the Robertson and Kemp campaigns were unified here, they became opponents by the time the Iowa caucus came around in early 1988. Robertson began campaigning in Iowa in May 1987, where he ran on the idea that a values-oriented Washington outsider would be better than Bush’s tired beltway politics. In September 1987, Robertson had taken a lead in GOP polling, leading by nine points over Robert Dole and twelve points over Bush.
This success carried over to the Hawaii caucus in January 1988, where Robertson placed first and helped get the ball rolling for Iowa in February. His shocking second place showing in Iowa (just behind Dole and significantly ahead of Bush) gave credence to Robertson and his “invisible army” of conservative, church going supporters in the heart land. But the momentum was stalled on several fronts. Bush was able to pry some delegates away from a desperate Jack Kemp, who saw Bush as a more viable candidate in the long term. The Robertson-Kemp unified campaign, which gave strength to the rumors of a possible presidential ticket, was no longer.
As well, Bush was able to take the moderate Republicans and independents away from Robertson, who scared many voters who weren’t interested in promoting a theocracy. By the time New Hampshire’s primary came around, Robertson fell out of the top four vote getters and the Super Tuesday vote in March (across the south and western states) gave Bush the delegates he needed to get the nomination. Robertson, placing third in most of the states, decided to bow out in order to maintain party unity against the Democrats in the general election. However, Robertson was given a significant part during the nominating convention and recognition for the role of the conservative evangelical in the strength of the Republican Party.
Robertson’s crusade to take the White House for the faithful and the morally conservative failed to take off beyond a few primary successes. However, it is fairly obvious today that without the Christian right, the Republican Party would not be as mobile or as strong as it is today. Conservative Christians have ready-made resources for political mobilization in their schools and churches, as well as strong knit communities that vote in large blocs. Politicians like Bill First and Sam Brownback are examples of Republicans who take seriously the importance of religious conservatism and have often gone to the evangelical well in order to gain political capital. Without the brief success of Pat Robertson’s 1988 campaign, there may have been no 1992 speech by Pat Buchanan about the “culture war” in America nor would there have been as strong a mandate for conservatives in the 1994 Contract with America.