by Paul Apostolidis
Special to The Times

Early last month, George W. Bush raised eyebrows among Campaign 2000 watchers when he addressed the annual conference of the Christian Coalition. Instead of kowtowing to the coalition's agenda to renew "family values," as have most other republican presidential candidates in the 1990s, Bush stuck to his standard stump speech, complete with its baldfaced gestures to more moderate voters.

Bush had every reason to feel confident about breaking with GOP precedent. By positioning himself as a candidate who isn't owned by the evangelical conservative wing of his party, Bush has soared above his rivals in key state polls.

And so, once again, the buzz is circulating that a turning point has been reached: the so-called religious "extremists" within the Republican party seems to have lost their former clout. With a sigh of relief, the story goes, we can again trust that American democracy is sound because it rewards leaders who stand up to the forces of zealotry and dogmatism.

Unfortunately for the critics of the Christian right, the situation is neither so simple nor so happy. The Christian right continues to be a major force in the American political culture--and in many ways, Bush's Juggernaut actually proves this to be the case.

To be sure, some important signs suggest that evangelical conservatives are having a dismal time in Campaign 2000. Bush breezed out of the Coalition's evangelical-patriotic fest with founder Pat Robertson's cheerful endorsement. In return, Bush seemed to offer pitifully little. He referred only briefly to abortion and did not even mention Christian right meat-and- potatoes issues like school prayer and homosexuality.

Bush, the "compassionate conservative, just days before had betrayed Congressman Tom DeLay and his covey of ultra-conservative House leaders, who are much beloved by the Christian right. Saying he opposed trying to "balance the budget on the backs of the poor," Bush denounced the leadership's plan to save federal dollars by postponing payments of the earned income tax credit to low-income working families.

A 'triangulation strategy'

Political analysts have dubbed these moves by Bush the "triangulation strategy." Bush is clearly positioning himself as the alternative to both Democrats hobbled by "Clinton fatigue" and the unpopular Republicans who treated us to months of Monica-TV. This can't be good for the Christian Right, which is widely perceived as having stoked the fires of scandal with the fuel of Puritanism.

Nor do the numbers look good for evangelical conservatives. The fact is, Bush can confidently pursue "triangulation" because he is flying so high above other GOP candidates in the polls. With support in the 40 percent range in Iowa and New Hampshire alike, George W. has the luxury of campaigning like it's already September 2000. That is, he can go after the general voting public instead of narrowly targeting the party faithful.

John McCain may be mustering a genuine challenge to Bush in New Hampshire, where one early November poll had him trailing Bush by only a few percentage points. But even if McCain's threat is for real (and it may not be, since other polls show Bush leading McCain by far wider margins), this does not spell better times for the Christian right. Like Bush, McCain is courting Republican primary voters with a message that downplays family- values rhetoric in favor of other themes designed to attract an ideologically broad following.

Meanwhile, Bush's other competitors are mostly stuck in the single digits. And most of them, by necessity, are locked into the fool's game of trying to salvage a "better-than- expected" primary or caucus showing by scavenging the few remaining votes of the party's Christian-conservative base.

Consider the candidate who is cut most clearly from the Christian right mold: former Family Research Council president Gary Bauer. Bauer broke into the double digits last August in the Iowa GOP straw poll. But more recent polls of likely voters in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary show Bauer hovering around a mere six percent. Fewer than two-thirds of New Hampshire Republican voters even recognize Bauer's name.

Even worse, probably the greatest boost in name recognition Bauer has received so far came via October allegations of a sexual liaison with a campaign aid. It matters not whether the story, spread by a defector to the Forbes campaign, was true. Any GOP voters who were paying attention likely saw the Bauer-Forbes scuffle as a pathetic, compulsive repetition of the behavior that brought Congress's approval ratings crashing down during the Lewinsky affair. And this identifies Bauer (and Forbes, who has topped 20 percent in Iowa but still lags far behind Bush and confines his appeal to the Christian right base) as hopelessly mired in the embarrassing Republican past and incapable of building Bush-like bridges to new constituencies.

Finally, the Christian right is keenly divided, and this would seem to be a further sign of weakness. Bauer, Forbes, and fellow contestants Allen Keyes, Patrick Buchanan and Orrin Hatch are all competing for Christian right voters as a central strategy. None has yet to pose a serious threat to Bush, although each has carved out a niche in the fragmented evangelical-conservative electorate. Under conditions like these, it's no wonder that yet another group of evangelical conservatives is displaying what The New York Times called a "new pragmatism" and following Robertson into the Bush camp.

But in social movements, division does not automatically translate into defeat. Political movements invariably include people with different opinions, beliefs, and priorities. Movements succeed in achieving their goals when they offer distinctive roles for each of those groups to play in moving a broader agenda forward.

The civil rights movement provides a classic example of this dynamic. Sure, there were real disagreements and struggles among the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and other civil rights organizations. Those tensions almost disrupted one of the most exalted moments of the movement: the 1963 March on Washington. SNCC Chairman John Lewis had planned a scathing address denouncing the Kennedy administration for his inaction on economic conditions in black America. Only minutes before his speech did Lewis agree to join other movement leaders in urging support for Kennedy's civil-rights legislation.

The point, however, is that the civil rights movement succeeded not in spite of but because of its internal divisions. The fact that SNCC was pushing for more rapid and far- reaching change surely helped to convince the general public that waiting any longer to enact SCLC's more moderate agenda was not an option. And SNCC's continued radicalization as the '60s wore on undoubtedly aided the transition of the movement mainstream - and with it the Democratic party - toward a greater commitment to black economic progress.

Now, once again, let us consider Gary Bauer and his relationship to George W. Bush. Bauer scolded Bush for his public break with the congressional leadership, and even more so for "using the language of American liberalism," a "classic Ted Kennedy line," to do it. Interviewed on Face the Nation Oct. 10, Bauer urged a quintessentially Reaganite agenda: "lowering taxes, smaller government, respect for human life, a strong foreign policy - a Reagan foreign policy."

This message certainly differs from Bush's call for a "compassionate conservatism" that is not quite so hostile toward government, less cavalier about cutting social programs, and less vehemently opposed to abortion. So there is real division on the political right today. The division exists both in the candidates' rhetoric and at the grassroots, where Bauer has cultivated a sizable financial base (he has raised the second-highest total of GOP presidential campaign contributions) as well as an enthusiastic following: Despite Robertson's plug for Bush, Bauer had by far the greatest number of supporters at the Christian Coalition's conference.

But again, division is not necessarily a weakness. For it is only against the backdrop of pure Reaganism extolled by Bauer that Bush's adjustment of GOP rhetoric makes any sense at all. The new and exciting, after all, needs the old and outdated to be there because the former has to establish itself by proclaiming its difference from the latter. And just as SNCC leaders' radical vision of the future provided the perfect foil for Martin Luther King Jr.'s more moderate appeals, so does Bauer's invocation of a hard-line past serve as a useful contrast for Bush's more moderate-sounding alternative.

But do the Christian right loyalists supporting Bauer and the more mainstream, "pragmatic" Republicans backing Bush really share a common cause, the way that SNCC and SCLC did? The answer is yes. Bush's platform is, in fact, deeply congruent with Christian right ideology.

The "compassion" in Bush's conservatism is supposed to come not only from the kinds and quantities of social services he favors, but also from the people delivering them. Those people, according to Bush's vision, should include more volunteers with private religious organizations and fewer employees of the state.

In Texas, Gov. Bush has already laid the groundwork for changes of this sort on the federal level. The Bush campaign boasts that a 1996 executive order facilitates a new role for religious groups in administering welfare services under contract with the state. Bush also led an effort to ease state licensing requirements for church-based child care centers and "alcohol and drug treatment programs which rely exclusively on faith to change lives." And the governor sponsored a joint project of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, churches in the Houston area, and Prison Fellowship Ministries (the brainchild of Watergate felon Charles Colson, who has been "born again" as a leader of today's Christian right) to institute "the nation's first-ever, 24-hours-a-day, Bible- and value-based prerelease program" for prison inmates.

Bush, Bauer singing same song

In short, "compassionate conservatism" means turning over much of the daily operations of the welfare state to churches and religious groups. It means more cutbacks in state-funded social services. It means even less voice for the poor in making and execution of public policy, since these will be done by private institutions that can't be required to make decisions democratically. And it means a disregard for the separation of church and state that would surely make the founders of this country shiver if they were alive today.

Getting private, religious organizations to shoulder public, governmental responsibilities is a major ambition of the Christian right. When Bush takes a stand for "faith in action" - as an arm of government - he is singing the Christian right's hymn.

And the Bush-Bauer harmony echoes even more resoundingly than this. Bauer might not use the compassionate conservative slogan in his campaign, but the Christian-right organization he formerly headed, the Family Research Council (FRC), and its ally Focus on the Family (Focus) are pushing their own version of compassionate conservatism.

"Compassion for the homosexual" is a new theme within this powerful segment of the Christian right. By this, the FRC and Focus mean that lesbians and gay men should be pitied for the "condition" that supposedly afflicts them and lovingly shown the way toward "coming out of homosexuality." From what I heard at a conference in Mountlake Terrace this past May, being "cured" of homosexuality seems to require a combination of professional "reparative therapy" and spiritual enlightenment along the lines of being "born again."

The Christian right's "compassion" initiative regarding homosexuality dovetails neatly with Bush's "compassionate conservatism" in three crucial ways.

First, by promoting the "ministries" that claim to offer treatment for homosexuality, the "ex-gay" campaign helps to legitimize and build the expanding network of social services run by right-wing religious institutions. This network includes groups like Prison Fellowship Ministries and other evangelical outfits now receiving state support.

Second, FRC's and Focus's accent on "compassion" amplifies the Bush campaign's redefinition of the basic values that justify the provision of aid to people in need. Instead of stemming from a commitment to justice and equality, social programs would be run out of a sense of charitable obligation. In the Bush and Christian-right visions alike, the basis for these programs would be the privatized, religious ideal of doing good for others rather than the public-spirited, democratic hope for a more egalitarian society.

Third, the Christian right's efforts to strengthen and police the boundaries separating "real men" from "sissies" (which is how gay men were described at Focus's conference) would help grease the wheels of an American welfare state remodeled according to Bush's plans. That's because a system of welfare provision that leans more heavily on the traditional family than on the state to support the poor needs to make sure that men behave like "real men": that they uphold the traditional image of masculinity, which includes both being a successful breadwinner and sexually desiring only women.

For all of these reasons, and despite the multiple obstacles the Christian right is facing this campaign season, we should be skeptical of those who declare that the wind has left the movement's sails. Nor should we too quickly accept the notion that George W. Bush is giving the movement a dose of much-needed discipline in his seemingly unstoppable drive for the Republican nomination.

The Christian right may not be marching in unified formation behind a chairman's banner, but its cultural - and political - revolution is still very much alive.

Paul Apostolidis is an assistant professor of politics at Whitman College. His book, Stations of the Cross: Adorno and Christian Right Radio, will be published by Duke University Press in 2000.

The above opinion piece is the second such article Apostolidis has written for the Seattle Times in recent years.