Transcription – Mark Rozell Interview

NELSON:          I want to come back to George W. Bush in 2000, but first, you know, how is it that evangelical Christians became the Christian right, and a core Republican constituency, when you think about the popularity of Jimmy Carter in 1976?

ROZELL:           Right, that’s right.

NELSON:          And then just a few years later the movement toward the Republican Party has taken place and there’s such a thing as the Christian right. What explains how that group became [00:11:00] the core Republican constituency in many ways?

ROZELL:           Yeah. Well that’s exactly right, because many had voted for Jimmy Carter in 1976, who ran very proudly as a born again Christian and wore his religiosity on his sleeve. You may remember of course, many observers of American politics who were outside of the Deep South in particular, finding this quite a curiosity. Why would this man be talking about these things publicly, this is not what politicians do. But he had very significant appeal among people who in effect had a champion who was unembarrassed to express his deep faith in Jesus Christ, and talk about the importance of religion to his public life.

So to answer your question, what eventually happened of course was that the southern evangelicals who had lined up in favor of Jimmy Carter, became very [00:12:00] discontented with his policies primarily. So, when it came down to the really core issues that they care about and back then, more than anything else it was the issue of abortion, Jimmy Carter was not their right candidate. So, a number of very savvy political strategists on the Republican side, who had observed what I discussed earlier; Jerry Falwell’s activity in Virginia. The very large following that he had nationally, with his Old Time Gospel Hour, and then his throwing himself into the political game in Virginia, with the anti-pari-mutuel betting campaign in 1978. They saw potential there, to mobilize a group of voters who either had previously sat on their hands on election day, or in the case of 1976, [00:13:00] came out for Jimmy Carter but had become discontented with his administration. So, folks like Richard Viguerie, for example, the folks who were part of what was then called the new right movement in American politics; Howard Phillips, several others, discussed the possibility of transforming American politics by aligning southern evangelical and born again Christians, with pro-life Catholics in the Midwest and the Northeast, along with the traditional core groups of support for the Republican Party that generally came out of the Chambers of Commerce and the business community and the low tax folks and the like, and creating a sort of new coalition of American politics. [00:14:00]

They were successful in convincing Ronald Reagan that there’s a sleeping giant in American politics waiting to be awakened. And so when Ronald Reagan gave a speech, now very famous, in Houston in 1980, in which he said words to the effect, speaking to evangelical pastors, I know you cannot endorse me but I endorse you. You know, I stand with you. They had not heard that before, someone who was so unembarrassed to go before this group of individuals who felt that in the mainstream culture, they had been marginalized, even mocked, never taken seriously, and here was this major presidential candidate saying, I’m with you.

Now, there are many debates to this day about how authentic Reagan was as a religious conservative president, right? Because I don’t think he governed particularly [00:15:00] well from their perspective, on the issues that they cared about. But the very fact that he reached out and the way he did, and gave legitimacy to conservative evangelicals by saying I’m one of you and I’m not embarrassed to stand before you and say that I think we should put God back in the classroom and we should protect human life. That was extremely powerful in its time.

NELSON:          Yeah, for years… And I’m asking this because your mention of evangelical pastors, stimulates this question. For years, it was the Democrats who had sort of the grassroots constituency in the form of organized labor. The Republicans really didn’t have anything comparable to the kind of turn out the vote operation and so on, that the Democrats had, through the unions. Do evangelical pastors become the equivalent of local labor leaders, for the Republican Party?

ROZELL:           In a sense they do. [00:16:00] I mean if you look at the voting patterns now, the white evangelical Protestants are overwhelmingly Republican. The mainline churches tend to be more split in their voting patterns, but when you look at the new evangelical churches, for example, their pastors are enormously powerful. Actually, that’s a very key part of the story, I think, of the 2004 election, because I was mentioning before, the effective collapse of the Christian Coalition as an organizing vehicle to mobilize religious conservatives at the grassroots throughout the country. So many people were projecting, after the 2000 election, with the enormous drop-off in voting by white evangelical Protestants, between ’96 and 2000, and the effective demise of the Christian Coalition, that this movement wasn’t going to be able to effectively mobilize voters in 2004, very effectively for [00:17:00] George Bush. Well the fact is, the movement was there, it was very active, the turnout was fantastic for the evangelical core of the Republican Party. It all happened as a result of grassroots activism in a number of key states in the Electoral College in particular, where evangelical pastors had become very actively mobilized. There was a direct outreach effort, campaign, on the part of the Bush Administration, to these pastors and to their churches, even to the point of requesting the lists of people who belonged to their churches, to use as a vehicle for political contacting. There were local and state level groups that bubbled up and were led [00:18:00] primarily by a number of evangelical pastors and other activists in the religious conservative movement, that did the work that the Christian Coalition had been famous for doing back in the 1990. And so I thought that really showed the enduring power of the movement, right? That you don’t need a Moral Majority or a Christian Coalition, to direct from the top, and then try to deliver the votes that way. There’s an activist core there that cares very deeply about these issues and they can get mobilized through many different vehicles in electoral politics, and that happened largely on its own, through the efforts of a number of leaders, including a large number of evangelical pastors. Much of it, I believe, was very much coordinated with the Bush campaign at that time, and they were able to derive resources from various persons [00:19:00] and groups who were sympathetic to that movement or who cared about Bush’s reelection and knew that mobilizing these people was absolutely critical to his reelection campaign. And it worked.

NELSON:          Do you have any sense, focusing on George W. Bush now, that when — because his 1994 successful campaign for governor of Texas, occurred not that many years after his personal affirmation of faith, and the effect that had on the conduct of his own life. Did he connect with — while in Texas, did he connect with the Christian conservative community in that state as he ran for and won, and then was reelected governor, in 1998? Did he begin forging a connection then and there?

ROZELL:           He did, yeah he did. I think he became more outspoken in those areas [00:20:00] as he moved toward presidential politics. Some people have suggested that was carefully calculated. I think as you review the story of George Bush and how he overcame the demons in his life, right? I mean, he was a pretty misdirected young man, troubled by alcoholism and a number of failed business ventures. It wasn’t until he was about 40 years of age, that he had this major change in his life, that he attributes to accepting Jesus Christ in his life. Everybody knows the story, he stopped drinking. That’s a very powerful story for evangelical and born again Christians, you know somebody who had fallen in his life and then was able to overcome his demons, and the impact of devoting his life to Jesus [00:21:00] and straightening himself out. I think many people in the evangelical and born again communities found that a very powerful personal story, and it gave him credibility as someone who was authentic. I think that’s really key to the importance of understanding his ability to connect with those voters, because time and again, more secular oriented Republican candidates for office had used similar type claims about having a religious awakening of some kind.