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Getting Lost in the Big Tent
Jonathan Pait
November 14, 2002

Trent Lott made a mistake the other day – at least in the minds of many pundits. In an interview with American Family Radio he stressed that he would move to bring the partial birth abortion ban to the floor of the Senate for a vote. Also on the table is the attempt to get President Bush’s judicial nominees through the process (can you say S-h-e-d-d).

Both of these issues have been important ones to the “religious right.” Even those who have no love for those God-believing, gun-totin’, pro-lifers admit that though not organized as they once were, this segment of the population plays a huge role in elections. Certainly the desire to see constructionist judges and a conservative Congress motivated these citizens to exercise their desires in the ballot box.

It would be going too far to say that the religious members of the population won it for the Republicans. However, it is not a stretch to say they would have had a harder time pulling it off if these folks had not gotten involved. Even here in South Carolina you could sense that the religious conservatives were more motivated than the last two elections.

So why was Lott getting shushed when he brought up his desire to see these two important issues brought to the floor? Yesterday, the Washington Post reported, “Such public pronouncements on the Hill worry Bush aides. It's not because the president objects to the policy -- he had said he would sign a ban on the controversial procedure -- but because he does not wish to be seen as a captive of his party's ideologues, as President Bill Clinton did when he moved quickly on gay rights in the military. 'I don't take cues from anybody,' Bush said at last week's news conference.”

This brings us to the “big tent.” Lee Atwater, the very successful GOP strategist, offered up the idea of a big tent Republican Party. The idea boiled down to putting the platform in a less prominent position and bringing the disparate elements around the Party itself. Once the Party won we would decide what we believe and in what direction to lead.

In the eighties, the Christian Coalition and others bought into this. Pragmatism was the call of the day. First we win and then we will sort things out. The problem is that for the most part the ideologues were not the ones who won inside the tent. Each election cycle promises would be made and the religious right would be sucked in. Once victory was secured the Party leaders would tell the religious right to be patient and be quiet. They got lost in the tent.

The result was Christians became disillusioned with the political process. Enter Cal Thomas and his reaction to the use of the Church in politics. He preached the idea that it is the job of Christians to change society through the preaching of the Gospel – not through legislation. He was right, by the way. The Church is much healthier in many ways because of his reminder. The Christian Coalition fell into near obscurity as Ralph Reed moved on to different pursuits.

Some people then assumed that the conservative Christian voting block was dead. That was a mistake. While they are not organizing to form membership driven political associations, they are voting. Many of them see the need to return to the original purpose of the Church to spread the Gospel, but they also realize that they have an individual responsibility to be salt and light (an influence for morality) within their culture.

Christian conservatives don’t really need an organization. They share beliefs that lead them to common political positions. As individuals they go to the polls without marching orders and still vote as a block. They are making their presence known without watering down the Gospel by forming political organizations. Indeed, they may have finally gotten it right. It is a new kind of pragmatism. The Gospel changes society from the inside out. Political activity creates an environment for spreading the Gospel – it does not usher in the Kingdom.

So, now perhaps it is time to give them their due. Is the passing of a partial birth abortion ban too much to ask? Conservative Christians have put up with being the driver who has to eat in the kitchen long enough. Hey, they helped get you to the party – now they want to dan. . . Oh, I mean, play Pin the Tail on the Donkey.

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