Transcription – Mark Rozell Interview

NELSON:          Are you thinking of his father, for example?

ROZELL:           Yeah, his father, it never seemed genuine with his father, it really didn’t. When he spoke before religious conservative groups he never looked comfortable. It never looked authentic, it looked forced, honestly. I think he understood [00:22:00] why politically, it was important to do so, but we know that he shifted his position, for example, on abortion, and a number of core social issues, between his own presidential campaign in 1980 and after having become Ronald Reagan’s vice president and seeking the presidency himself. He was outright clumsy in those meetings with religious right figures, and they never trusted him as one of them.

Even Reagan, although they speak extremely fondly of him today, there was an enormous amount of discontent in the religious conservative movement in the 1980s, with the policies of the administration, that he was more concerned about the economy and fighting communism than he was concerned about moral values. He would give speeches where he would throw in the language about putting God back in the classroom and protecting human life, [00:23:00] but he never made a big push for constitutional amendments for putting prayer in the classroom or restricting abortion rights, for example. It’s pretty well-known that he knew and he understood that he had to give that annual speech to the pro-life rally in Washington, D.C., and make these overtures, but he was not going to sacrifice the core issues of his agenda by delving into these really hot-button issues that could only be very divisive in American politics and hurt the rest of his agenda.

So along comes George W. Bush and he’s the real deal, and that’s really meaningful, because the religious conservatives feel that time and again, they’ve heard from Republican politicians, the right rhetoric, all the promises, but then once elected the message is wait your turn, we’re not ready for this yet. You don’t want to speak up too loudly now, because it’s going to hurt the rest of our agenda. We’re with you [00:24:00] but please be patient, and the patience, quite frankly, was running out and by 2004 in particular, many religious conservatives came to the conclusion this is our time. Finally, we got someone who’s the real deal in office and okay, he had to get through the first election and now, with reelection in 2004, this is the one and best opportunity for the movement to push the social agenda.

NELSON:          On the subject of authenticity, you remember what Bush said when he was asked, in some sort of forum, who his favorite political philosopher was.

ROZELL:           Jesus Christ, right, yes.

NELSON:          Because he changed my heart.

ROZELL:           He changed my heart, yeah, brilliant, brilliant. Yeah, now, you know, to secular political observers, the people I talk to all the time, in my academic community, they thought what a dunce, I mean [00:25:00] that was the common reaction. He’s asked this question, who’s your favorite philosopher, and he couldn’t even mention Plato or Aristotle, you know? I thought his political instinct was absolutely brilliant in that case, because here he was, someone who had been running as a “compassionate conservative.” He was trying to project the image of the softer side of conservatism, and by implication, distinguish himself from the more ardently conservative candidates who were challenging in the 2000 election. Remember the cast of characters who were running in 2000. There were a lot of folks running well to the right. So he had to do something to establish his credibility with the evangelical core of the Republican Party, which turns out in big numbers in primaries and especially [00:26:00] in the caucuses, they have enormous influence. That’s signaling that he did, I thought, from a political standpoint, was absolutely brilliant.

NELSON:          Do you think it was authentic?

ROZELL:           I think it was both politically calculated but it also reflected who he is and what he believes, yes.

NELSON:          What happened in 2000? The fact that Bush didn’t get as much of an evangelical turnout in 2000 as 2004. The fact that he didn’t get as much as in ’96.

ROZELL:           It’s astonishing actually.

NELSON:          Some Republicans will say it’s because of that sort of last weekend news revelation about his DUI conviction years ago.

ROZELL:           Right, that had an impact yeah, that definitely had an impact. My memory tells me that the demographic with which he was hurt the most was middle age and older [00:27:00] women voters, many who actually do identify with so-called traditional moral values. A colleague of mine joked that these were women who were looking at their own son and thinking, you know, that’s what my son does; I would never want him for president. Yeah, I think that definitely made a difference. That hurt him because that went so much against the narrative about him, I think, and the fact that this was something that was sprung at the last minute in the campaign, you know the last weekend, and he had never put that out there, which I think really hurt him. You know the story, of course, in American politics, you have something like that, you put it out there and you put it out there early and you explain it and you get ahead of the story. He didn’t do that.

NELSON:          He becomes president after the 2000 election and you’ve already referred to the [00:28:00] efforts that his key advisors and the Republican Party generally made, to really focus on grassroots organization among evangelicals for the reelect, but I wonder, to the extent you think — to what extent do you think politics and policy were going hand-in-hand? I’m thinking in particular, of the faith-based initiatives, the stem cell speech, maybe other things come to mind?

ROZELL:           Yeah, yeah that’s right. Many evangelical and born again Christians were actually unhappy with the compromise he struck on the stem cell issue. Remember, that he would allow existing lines, right? To continue to be used for research, and some had felt that that was a moral compromise that they could not accept. The Faith-Based Office, there were actually many leaders in the religious right movement, and activists too, who didn’t like it, [00:29:00] very interestingly. So here was a president giving Executive Branch affirmation and stature to the role of religious-based groups, in the implementation of public policy. They should have been delighted of course, that was the assumption of he and his administration, but Pat Robertson and some other said we don’t want these things being directed by the government. We don’t think that that’s an appropriate role for a government organization. So even there, they found that there was some significant disagreement with the direction that they were taking. And then of course, Bush had appointed someone who was openly a Democrat initially, to that office.

NELSON:          John DiIulio.

ROZELL:           John DiIulio with University of Pennsylvania, that’s right. That had caused some concern as well, among the evangelical core of the Republican Party that you know, [00:30:00] the priorities of the Faith-Based Office would not be what they would like to see necessarily, that Dilulio would focus more on sort of inner city issues and trying to used faith-based organizations to deal with rehabilitation and that the moral issues agenda, as they perceived it more narrowly, would not be the focus of their efforts.

NELSON:          How about the effect of especially the faith-based initiatives program, on non-white evangelicals–African American churches, Latino evangelical churches.

ROZELL:           Yes.

NELSON:          Did he have more success politically, with that program, in those constituencies?

ROZELL:           Right. There is the argument that some have made, that this was a very cynical effort on the part of the administration. A colleague of mine, Michael Fauntroy, contributed a chapter to a book I had edited on the Bush presidency and religion, and the title of his chapter [00:31:00] was “Buying Black Votes.” And it was exactly this topic that he wrote about, that the Faith-Based Office, many in the black community saw as kind of a cynical effort to buy off the loyalties of black evangelical pastors, and as a result, try to make inroads, through the use of social issues, in the black community. Some strategists on the Republican side, who are very sympathetic to the religious right, point to data showing, of course, that African Americans are more religious than white Americans. They read the Bible more, they attend religious services more often. They tend to be more socially conservative on issues such as gay rights and abortion rights. [00:32:00] So there’s this perception among these Republican strategists, that if the moral or social issues can be brought more to the fore in the African American community, that that will break the stranglehold that the Democratic Party has, on black voters, as they perceive it. The effort was of course not politically successful in the long run. You don’t see any evidence that there was any significant upswing in African American support for Republicans or for George W. Bush, based on social issues, but there was that interpretation among many, that the Faith-Based Office created an opportunity, a vehicle, for doing outreach to black evangelical pastors in the country, to try to make some political inroads in the black community.