The Conversion Agenda

"Freedom to convert" is counterproductive as a generalized doctrine. It fails to come to terms with the complex interrelationships between self and society that make the concept of individual choice meaningful. Hence, religious conversion undermines, and in extremes would dissolve, that individual autonomy and human freedom.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

What Does Bush Owe the Religious Right?

Time Magazine
Feb. 7, 2005

They helped re-elect the President, and Christian conservatives want payback. A look inside the struggle over their agenda

For people of faith, the political landscape has never been entirely comfortable terrain. Politics, they have learned from experience, is a process in which principles get ground up into compromises--or ignored until the next campaign rolls around. This time religious conservatives are counting on things to be different: churchgoers mobilized as never before and helped re-elect a President they see as one of their own. Now they expect him to deliver for them. The early signals from President George W. Bush have been mixed. Bush's Inaugural Address brimmed with religious imagery, but abortion was the only top priority of the Christian right that he mentioned, in a fleeting and oblique reference near the end. He congratulated the tens of thousands of abortion foes who marched in Washington last week on the gains they made during his first term but promised nothing concrete in his second. The White House then backtracked from Bush's recent comments on the poor prospects for banning gay marriage, but only after major conservative Christian groups fired a warning shot, saying they might withhold their support for plans to revamp Social Security. For increasingly anxious conservative Christians, it must truly seem as if Providence has a sense of timing: this week they will hear Bush spell out his priorities in the State of the Union address. The next morning they'll tell him theirs at the National Prayer Breakfast.

What do they think Bush owes them? His campaign barely had time to sweep up the confetti last Nov. 3 before the victorious President got a congratulatory bouquet of praise, threats, warnings and demands. "In your re-election, God has graciously granted America--though she doesn't deserve it--a reprieve from the agenda of paganism," wrote Bob Jones III, president of the namesake South Carolina university that his grandfather founded to foster "Christ-like" character. "Don't equivocate. Put your agenda on the front burner and let it boil. You owe the liberals nothing." But if Jones saw the victory as an opportunity to be seized, others were preaching the biblical virtues of patience and caution. "Can we handle success and increased influence with grace and prudence?" Watergate conspirator turned prison evangelist Chuck Colson wrote in a column. "Sad to say, the church has managed to shoot itself in the foot almost every time it has achieved power in society. So what we need right now is a bracing dose of humility."

Having helped wage a presidential campaign over big issues like a constitutional amendment outlawing gay marriage, conservative Christians are not likely to be content winning skirmishes like the one that newly installed Education Secretary Margaret Spellings fought last week against the cartoon character Buster, famous for being Arthur's best friend. She objected to one episode that featured Buster visiting a real-life lesbian couple in Vermont. After her warning about the dangers of exposing young viewers to "the lifestyles portrayed in the episode," PBS decided not to distribute the show to its 350 publicly financed stations.

As Bush begins his last term in the White House, the voters who believe they did more than anyone else to put him there are asking themselves and him: What now? And when, if not now? "He's not the typical politician who 'understands' us," says Michael Farris, chairman of the Home School Legal Defense Association. "He's one of us." The President has the political freedom that comes with never having to run again and bigger majorities behind him in the House and Senate than he had in his first term. It looks as if there will be at least one opening on the Supreme Court in the near future, and possibly as many as three before Bush leaves office. His appointments would be enough to build a new conservative majority on the high court that could overturn Roe v. Wade, a long-sought goal of religious conservatives. And the recent expansion of the religious right's agenda into human-rights issues abroad creates new possibilities for influencing the Administration's foreign policy.

But there are also reasons a lame-duck Bush might be less sensitive to the demands of his base. He has staked out a daunting second-term agenda dominated by remaking both the Middle East and Social Security, which could make him more cautious about overreaching on social issues like gay marriage and abortion.

Evangelical activists, for their part, say that as Bush looks forward, he should also look back. They claim that what brought churchgoing Christians (including a record number of Hispanics) to the polls more than any other issue last year was gay marriage. Initiatives banning it were on the ballot in 11 states and passed in every one, overwhelmingly in almost every case. So religious groups were startled and angry when Bush, bowing to what he said were political realities, seemed to signal in a pre-Inaugural interview with the Washington Post that he would not press the Senate to pass the federal ban.

The reverberations came almost instantly. Former presidential candidate Gary Bauer, who sends a daily e-mail to 125,000 Christian activists, says his computer mailbox was jammed with hundreds of complaints, many lamenting, "I worked my heart out for this guy." The Arlington Group, a coalition of conservative religious organizations, quickly fired off to Bush political guru Karl Rove a private letter signed by such figures as Bauer, Don Wildmon of the American Family Association, Focus on the Family's James Dobson, conservative standard bearer Paul Weyrich and evangelist Jerry Falwell. They laid down a none-too-subtle threat that the Administration's "defeatist attitude" on gay marriage might make it "impossible for us to unite our movement on an issue such as Social Security privatization where there are already deep misgivings."

When the letter became public last week in the New York Times, the White House dispatched press secretary Scott McClellan to declare that the anti-gay-marriage amendment remains a priority and e-mailed McClellan's comments to the signers. The move was enough to quiet the grumbling. But the gay-marriage ban was noticeably absent from the list of top-10 legislative priorities that Senate majority leader Bill Frist unveiled the same day. Colorado Senator Wayne Allard nonetheless reintroduced it, quickly gathering 27 co-sponsors, eight more than it had when it went down to defeat last year. The measure remains well short of the 67 supporters a constitutional amendment needs to pass. (It would also have to be approved by two-thirds of the House and three-quarters of the state legislatures.) "The expectation is, we don't have the votes," says Pennsylvania's Rick Santorum, chairman of the Senate Republican Conference.

When it comes to social issues beyond gay marriage, conservative religious groups have a better chance of moving forward. November's election added several votes to the antiabortion side in the House and as many as four in the Senate, depending on how the question is posed. Among the pieces of legislation that stand a real shot at passing is a measure that would make it illegal for anyone other than a parent to transport a minor across state lines for an abortion--a move designed to make it more difficult for teens to avoid the parental-notification laws in 34 states. Another measure would require doctors to inform patients seeking an abortion at 20 weeks of pregnancy or later about the possibility that the fetus would feel pain. Bush supports both.

Evangelicals already have lots of successes they can count as their own. They're grateful for the law banning the second- and third-trimester procedure known as partial-birth abortion. They see another victory in the law that allows doctors and nurses to invoke their consciences in refusing to perform abortions in hospitals that receive federal funds, and in the law that makes it two crimes to harm or kill a pregnant woman. They're pleased Bush also banned the use of federal funds to create new stem-cell lines from human embryos.

But nothing matters more to religious conservatives than Bush's appointments to the courts, the effects of which could last a generation or more after he is out of office. It was the February 2004 ruling by a Massachusetts court that same-sex couples could marry in the state that turned the issue into a national controversy. Evangelicals have long insisted that their political setbacks, like Roe v. Wade, have been the product of activist justices. "At the very top of the list is the judiciary, which we feel is out of control and threatening to religious liberty and to the institution of the family," Dobson says. "That would be the most important thing to us because every other issue that we care about is linked, one way or another, to the courts." If Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who is suffering from thyroid cancer, is the next to vacate the court, Bush's appointment of a conservative would leave the court's ideological balance pretty much as it is. Justices John Paul Stevens, 84, and Sandra Day O'Connor, 74, who both voted to uphold Roe v. Wade, have been on the court for 30 and 24 years, respectively. If conservatives replaced them, the court could shift dramatically to the right.

So far, conservatives have been elated by Bush's judicial choices, but they'll watch his Supreme Court pick with special scrutiny because the balance is so close. Many are hoping he'll choose a jurist with a proven conservative record, such as Justice Antonin Scalia, rather than a more cipher-like figure such as Justice David Souter, who quickly disappointed conservatives after being named by the first President Bush in 1990. Conservative Christians are also keeping their eye on Bush's other choices, such as Michael Powell's replacement as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates against indecency in broadcasting.

But conservative Christians have new ambitions too and are expecting the President to embrace those as well. In recent years they have expanded their political agenda into foreign policy, where they have gone beyond the narrow goal of supporting Israel. An estimated 60% of the world's Christians live in Asia, Africa and Latin America, and evangelical missionaries have received a firsthand look at problems that Washington policymakers have ignored for decades. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have put forth reams of reports, but "the religious groups were able to get these issues higher on the agenda, where the secular human-rights groups were not, because of their mass constituency," says Allen Hertzke, director of religious studies at the University of Oklahoma and author of a book on religious activism in foreign policy. Those new interests have produced new alliances. Working with liberal groups, religious conservatives forced the Bush Administration to intercede in the Christian-Muslim civil war in Sudan. They also put political muscle behind global AIDS funding and legislation against international sex trafficking and lately are becoming increasingly worried about Third World debt.

That's just the beginning. "You will continue to see this agenda of Christian conservatives broaden out," says Kansas Senator Sam Brownback, and as it does, the results will sometimes be unexpected. At last week's annual antiabortion march, activists from the National Association of Evangelicals drew quizzical looks as they paraded under a banner reading STOP MERCURY POISONING OF THE UNBORN. It was a protest against water pollution by coal-burning utilities--a cause Ralph Nader or Al Gore would also support. "You can build from the left and build from the right and get something done," Brownback says. Which, in the end, may be what having power is all about. --With reporting by Massimo Calabresi/Washington and Rita Healy/ Denver


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