After Pat Robertson's resignation last week as president of the Christian Coalition, much of the commentary focused on the declining importance of the man and his movement. Critics note that the Christian Coalition has been losing members and financial support for years, and that Mr. Robertson lost credibility when, on his television show, "The 700 Club," he agreed with his fellow conservative religious leader Jerry Falwell that the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 were God's punishment on America for tolerating feminists, gays and lesbians, libertarians and certain federal judges. But the fact remains that Pat Robertson has been the most influential figure in American politics in the past decade.
George W. Bush is president today because the religious right vetoed the nomination of John McCain -- and John Ashcroft is attorney general because Mr. Bush needed to reward his supporters on the religious right. His bioethics commission is headed by the religious right's favorite intellectual, Leon Kass.
The constant references by the presidential candidates to their religious faith during the 2000 campaign also demonstrate the cultural influence of Christian conservatives. Under pressure from the religious right, the House has passed, and the Senate is considering, legislation that would make it a crime, punishable by imprisonment or fines, for ailing Americans to import medicines derived from the cloning of stem cells. The religious right has transformed American politics -- and credit for that goes to Pat Robertson. Under the inept leadership of Jerry Falwell in the 1980's, Christian conservatives formed merely one of half a dozen groups in the broad Reagan coalition. In the 1990's, Mr. Robertson's genius as a political organizer permitted religious conservatives to gain enough clout within the Republican Party to veto the nomination of political candidates they deemed unacceptable.
Thanks to Pat Robertson, the religious right also captured -- and killed -- the conservative intellectual movement. By the mid-1990's, as the Christian Coalition consolidated its control over the Republican Party, any intellectual to the right of center who dared to criticize the television preacher was purged.
By 2000, all the other factions in the earlier Reagan coalition -- neoconservatives, New Right populists, even libertarian conservatives like Barry Goldwater (who famously declared that conservatives should "boot Falwell right in the ass") -- were relegated to the sidelines. The obsessions of Christian fundamentalists, like abortion, homosexuality, pornography and evolution, still define today's Robertsonized Right. And conservative intellectual journals like Commentary, National Review and The Weekly Standard now join Kansas and Tennessee fundamentalists in attacking Darwinian biology.
Far from being inevitable, this outcome was unlikely. By inflating the numbers of his followers and taking credit for the Republican capture of Congress in 1994, Mr. Robertson convinced opportunistic Republicans and frightened Democrats that the religious right was a growing force that had to be co-opted or appeased. Polls show, however, that the number of conservative Christians in the United States is stable or shrinking. Most Americans are religious in theory but secular in practice. With each generation, social attitudes become more liberal on questions like abortion and gay rights -- a fact that has led Paul Weyrich and other right-wing activists to declare that conservatives have already lost "the culture war."
The genuine swing voters in American politics in the past decade have been not Protestant fundamentalists, but blue-collar "Reagan Democrats," many of them Midwestern Catholics who turned against George W. Bush when he pandered to the Vatican-baiting fundamentalists of Bob Jones University. Although these voters are not liberal, they are more concerned about health benefits and wages than about refuting Darwin. Only a bipartisan political elite unfamiliar with the working-class majority could have been fooled by Pat Robertson into thinking that the mainstream swing voter resembles Ben Jonson's Puritan, Zeal-of-the-land Busy, more than Norman Lear's Archie Bunker.
Pat Robertson enjoyed a remarkable winning streak, despite playing an extremely weak hand. By exploiting the ambition, fear and ignorance of America's out-of-touch political class, this spokesman for a marginal subculture reshaped American politics and became a kingmaker in one of the two major parties.
Copyright 2001, The New York Times