January 19, 2012, 11:24 PM
There They Go Again
By NEIL J. YOUNG
A week ago, 150 evangelical leaders meeting at a ranch outside Houston backed Rick Santorum’s candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination. Presumably, they hoped that their endorsement would pull Mitt Romney back from the front of the race. Saturday’s primary in South Carolina – with evangelicals expected to make up sixty percent of the electorate – provides what seems like a perfect testing ground for disrupting any claims about Romney’s inevitable nomination.
Newt Gingrich is apparently surging once again, taking votes from Romney. Coupled with Rick Perry’s exit, the evangelicals’ blessing of Santorum in Texas could propel him to a surprisingly good showing on Saturday or — who knows? — perhaps even a victory.
Speaking from Texas shortly after the endorsement, Gary Bauer, a prominent social conservative who ran for president in 2000, explained why the evangelicals had rallied behind Santorum: “They were all looking for the best Reagan conservative.”
Dennis Cook/Associated PressRonald Reagan in the Oval Office on Jan. 28, 1986.
For nearly twenty-five years, Ronald Reagan has loomed over every Republican contest. During the debates this campaign season, he has been mentioned four times as often as the most recent Republican president, George W. Bush. At the final debate in South Carolina on Thursday, for example, Newt Gingrich said, “When I became speaker, we went back to the Ronald Reagan play book.” Mitt Romney, for his part, didn’t like to hear Gingrich speaking that way. “I looked at the Reagan diary,” he told Gingrich. “You’re mentioned once.”
This is typical. Across the Republican Party’s political spectrum, candidates continually claim the Reagan mantle, depicting themselves as his most steadfast acolyte and the natural heir to his political legacy. Rick Santorum did it, too, suggesting earlier on Thursday that he was the candidate most likely to fulfill Reagan’s political legacy. “We’re going to win or lose this election based on about 10 states,” he said. “I come from one of those states. I come from a background and a town where there were lots of Reagan Democrats.”
The religious right wing of the Republican Party has clung especially close to the memory of Reagan. In Reagan, religious conservatives remember a president who spiced his speeches with Bible verses, fought for their issues, and championed the nation’s Judeo-Christian heritage. But memory is an unreliable guide, and history in the service of politics often breeds soothing myths that camouflage inconvenient truths.
In reality, religious conservatives were often dissatisfied with Reagan’s presidency. The Christian right of today – and Republicans generally – must stop using a mythic Reagan as their measuring stick for candidates because it drives them away from viable contenders who fall short of an impossible standard that Reagan himself couldn’t have met.
Believing themselves the key constituency that had guaranteed Reagan’s historic win in 1980, Christian conservatives felt the president owed them for their enthusiastic backing. Reagan had courted the nascent political movement on the religious right with a spirited defense of their most cherished political issues, including promises to restore school prayer, to work against the Equal Rights Amendment, and to attack federal abortion rights, legalized just seven years before.
But once in office, the Reagan administration claimed that it first had to address the nation’s weak economy. The social agenda of Christian conservatives would have to wait. In the meantime, the White House planned to muffle their grumbling. “We want to keep the Moral Majority types so close to us they can’t move their arms,” one Reagan staffer explained to the journalist Lou Cannon.
The complaints piled up. Evangelicals pointed out that Reagan had appointed too few of them to positions in government, despite his campaign promise that evangelicals in his administration would mirror their proportional representation in the American population – about forty percent at the time. In light of that snub, Reagan’s selection of Sandra Day O’Connor — who had made several pro-choice votes during her time in the Arizona state legislature — as his first nominee to the Supreme Court stung sharply.
During the campaign, Reagan had won the National Right to Life Committee’s endorsement by pledging that he’d only nominate committed pro-life jurists to the nation’s highest court. Reagan’s tepid and ineffectual support for key school prayer and anti-abortion legislation in Congress during his first administration frustrated and angered religious conservatives who watched various bills die while the president did little.
As the 1984 election approached, Jerry Falwell, the leader of the Moral Majority, confessed he was “a little anxious that we haven’t had some aggressive support” on issues important to the religious right. Sixty-eight percent of pro-life activists judged Reagan’s first four years as “fair to poor” on the abortion issue.
Many Christian conservatives began to publicly question supporting the president’s reelection bid. “If we balance the budget and we still keep murdering a million and a half babies every year, there’s no way we can say we’re better off than we were four years ago,” Moral Majority’s Cal Thomas commented. “Do not take us for granted,” the fundamentalist pastor Bob Jones wrote the president. “We are not going to vote for you in desperation in 1984.”
Still, these chiding messages were meant to prod the Reagan White House into an aggressive defense of their issues rather than to represent a legitimate political threat. Conservative Christians generously contributed to Reagan’s landslide win in 1984. While disheartened by what they saw as the slim accomplishments of the first four years, many Christian conservatives, rather than hold Reagan personally responsible, blamed moderates in the White House, like James Baker, then chief of staff, for blocking their agenda.
Others contended that Reagan would turn to their priorities in his second term, once he was free to pursue their causes after he’d secured re-election. “With the burden of campaigning behind him for good,” a writer for Christianity Today, the nation’s leading evangelical publication, wrote on the eve of the election, “the president may move vigorously toward his unfulfilled 1980 promises.”
Once returned to office, however, Reagan continued to disappoint conservative Christians by his failure to advance their political objectives. Their anger and frustration with the president soon gave way to grief and disillusionment. Shortly after Reagan left the White House, the influential evangelical intellectual Carl Henry blasted Reagan for having “given little more than lip service” to the concerns of conservative Christians. Looking back on the Reagan presidency and George Bush’s election in 1988, the editors of Christianity Today worried in a headline, “Were Christians Courted for Their Votes or Beliefs?”
The political disappointments and painful realizations that marked the religious right’s rocky relationship with Reagan’s presidency have been replaced by the more powerful seductions of selective memory and wishful fantasy. But like any myth of history, there are small truths within it that alter the memory.
Reagan failed to achieve the religious right’s grandiose objectives, but he delivered on other issues religious conservatives cared about, like cutting taxes and increasing military spending. His full-throated espousal of traditional morals and Christian principles along with symbolic gestures like naming 1983 the “Year of the Bible” looked like crass politics to many observers, but linger as forceful evidence for many conservative Christians of Reagan’s unique example.
If Republicans want to appeal to an American electorate that increasingly has little direct connection to Ronald Reagan, they need to let go of romantic memories that produce only unrealistic expectations. Part of Reagan’s appeal came from his insistence on his own limitations, so Republicans would be wise to stop looking for a savior among a field of mortals.
In reflecting honestly on their own fractious history with Reagan, religious conservatives and other Republicans alike might better evaluate the candidates that stand before them rather than hopelessly praying for the second coming of a president who never really was.
Neil J. Young is the author of the forthcoming book, “We Gather Together: The Rise of the Religious Right and the Challenge of Ecumenical Politics.” He teaches at Princeton.
There They Go Again – NYTimes.com.