Interviewee: Dr. Mark Rozell
Current: Acting Dean and Professor of Public Policy, School of Policy, Government, and International Affairs, George Mason University
In 2004: Professor of Public Policy, George Mason University
Interviewer: Dr. Michael Nelson
Fulmer Professor of Political Science
April 22, 2015
This transcription has been prepared according to the strictest practices of the academic and transcription communities and offers our best good-faith effort at reproducing in text our subject’s spoken words. In all cases, however, the video of this interview represents the definitive version of the words spoken by interviewees.
NELSON: Dean Mark Rozell of the Policy School here at George Mason University. Among your many books, are two we’re going to have reference to today. First of all, the book that you and John Green and Clyde Wilcox did, called The Values Campaign?: The Christian Right and the 2004 Elections. This is the fifth such book that you did. How did you get interested in this subject and how did the subject of the Christian right in national elections evolve over the course of those five books?
ROZELL: Well, it was not an area that I studied actually, in my own graduate studies back in the 1980s, although I’m an Americanist and studied both national institutions and the electoral process. [00:01:00] I was also very fascinated with and followed closely, Virginia state politics, that being my home at the time, and having lived there for 30 years of my adult life and had very carefully followed politics there.
So in the early 1990s, my friend, Clyde Wilcox, a professor at Georgetown University, approached me about an idea that he said bubbled up from a graduate student who said those of you, speaking of Clyde that is, who’ve been following the religious right movement in American politics, have been focusing too much on the sort of broad national perspective, and have been looking at the big name figures, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson. But the real action that people should be paying attention to is at the grassroots. It really should be focused on what’s going on with the school board races, the library boards, the various controversies over textbooks in the public schools, as well as literature [00:02:00] in the public libraries. He said, that’s where you’re going to find the real intensity of the movement. So as Clyde and I talked he said it would be a really nice idea to do something that’s a state-based, focused study, on the religious right movement, with an emphasis on the sort of grassroots politics of the movement. So, since I had a very deep interest in Virginia state politics, which also happened to be the home of the Christian Coalition and former Moral Majority, and of Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell, it seemed like the logical place to have done a careful case study of the rise and evolution of the religious right movement in American politics.
That resulted in a book that Clyde and I wrote together, called Second Coming: The New Christian Right in Virginia Politics. I had spent months interviewing many of the major figures, as well as various [00:03:00] grassroots activists in the religious right movement in Virginia. It was something that just captured my interest very deeply and I’ve maintained an academic interest in studying religious right politics ever since. I’ve never let the subject go.
NELSON: Our focus is on the 2004 election. What happened within the Christian right and its role in American elections, during the years leading up to 2004?
ROZELL: Right. Well, the scholars who study the contemporary religious right, or Christian right movement, whichever phrase they prefer, tend to trace its origins to the 1970s. There were a number of grassroots movements, particularly over textbook controversies and the like, in public schools, and also gay rights initiatives in a number of states, that helped to mobilize a force [00:04:00] in American politics that really had not been very active.
I remember in my focused study on Virginia, there was a campaign against what was called pari-mutuel betting. It was a popular referendum in 1978, and Reverend Jerry Falwell led a movement against this referendum, ultimately defeated it, and he said at the time, “This is a portent of future endeavors together.” In other words saying he understood the power of getting politically engaged, and what can be done to, in his phrasing or paraphrasing him, being good stewards of God on this earth through politics. He had previously always advised his followers to stay separated from the political process, that God takes care of matters of this world and evangelical Christians shouldn’t really [00:05:00] focus their endeavors on politics. But that completely changed when he got a taste of what impact he could have. We know the story of course, of the rise of the Moral Majority that he founded in the late ’70s, and his claim later, that he had helped mobilize at least several million additional evangelical and born again Christians for Ronald Reagan and the Republicans in 1980.
So the religious right movement had taken on enormous importance and this was one of those phenomena that I think many observers of American politics simply did not get, because they were not familiar with people who come out of the evangelical and born again movements in a sense, and so many of the leading political observers and journalists were just completely surprised by what happened in the 1980 election. Falwell and the Moral Majority became known as kind of kingmakers. There was a lot of emphasis then, on their impact [00:06:00] on American politics and on the Republican Party in particular, and many candidate on the Republican side started paying very, very close attention to leading figures in the movement.
The Moral Majority, as you know disbanded in the late 1980s, and one of the interesting perspectives about the religious right movement in American politics is how often people declare the movement politically dead, that something happens, they have a poor showing at a campaign. Pat Robertson’s presidential campaign, which was the most expensive one in 1988, I think he got a single delegate. The Moral Majority disbanded and people started to leave the Christian right for dead in American politics. What happened was Pat Robertson took his mass mailing list, which was enormous, and his contributor list, from the 1988 campaign, and created a grassroots organization, the Christian Coalition, [00:07:00] and appointed a savvy, more secular oriented, I think, political activist, Ralph Reed, who could put a very different face on the movement than many of the religious-based leaders, who had been the primary faces of the movement back in the 1980s. The movement then really took off in the 1980s, particularly its ability to influence Republican Party platform positions, party nominations. The Christian Coalition became known as the major kingmaker in Republican Party politics in the 1990s.
By the 2000 election, which is very important for the context of talking about our topic today, 2004, there was a significant drop-off in voter participation among white conservative evangelicals, [00:08:00] and that was a real puzzlement to many observers, because although Bob Dole had lost his election in 1996, to Bill Clinton, he actually did a good job in mobilizing the evangelical core of the Republican Party, despite his reputation of being a more centrist-type Republican. In year 2000, to the surprise of many, there was a drop-off of approximately 4,000 white evangelical voters from the ’96 election cycle to 2000.
NELSON: Four thousand?
ROZELL: Four million I meant, four million.
NELSON: Four million.
ROZELL: I’m sorry, so a drop-off of about four million voters, among the evangelical core of the Republican Party, and that was a puzzlement to many because, of course, George Bush was perceived by people outside the movement, as a candidate who was tailor made for the religious right. But I think what a lot of people forget is that in 2000, he ran as more of a centrist conservative [00:09:00] than he did as a religious right conservative, given the field of candidates that he was running against for the nomination that year.
Karl Rove and others had said that after the 2000 election, the key to getting George Bush reelected was to find those white evangelical voters who had in effect sat it out in the 2000 election cycle, and reenergize them, so that they indeed do turn out in 2004. Again, there were observers who were discounting the ability of the religious right to mobilize its core of supporters, people who looked at the enormous drop-off in voter participation among that group of voters, from 1996 to 2000. And then, the eventual effective collapse of the Christian Coalition as [00:10:00] an influential national organization in American politics, although it still existed as a letterhead organization and still was active, by the 2000 election, it was not really an important player so much as it had been in the 1990s. So, a lot of people were just willing to say at that point, maybe the religious right isn’t that important in American politics any more, and they found out differently in 2004.