Back in the 1980 presidential campaign Ronald Reagan did in fact visit Bob Jones University, just as George W. Bush did 20 years later. The big difference, though, between then and now, is that Reagan was making a symbolic statement that the strong moral values of evangelicals and religious Christians would be welcome inside the Republican party tent. Indeed the conservative Christian vote helped carry Reagan to two big victories. The vote also helped carry George Bush the elder in ‘88, and remained the core support of Bush and Dole in their losing efforts in ‘92 and ‘96. It’s also worth recalling that the Christian right was essential to the Gingrich congressional victory in ‘94.
Don’t blame the Christian right for Bush the elder’s tax hike, or Dole’s dispiriting ‘96 run, or the GOP Congress’s big-spending budget deal in 1998. If the most faithful of the party faithful stayed home, it’s no wonder.
I say all this because when John McCain by inference blames the religious right for the last two Republican presidential defeats and the poor GOP congressional showing in 1996 and ‘98, he completely misses the point. And when McCain blames Reverend Falwell and Pat Robertson for “leading the GOP in the wrong direction” he misses the point even more. And when he said that McCain will lead the GOP back to Reagan, he misses the point for a third time. Remember, the evangelicals and the Catholics were the Reagan Democrats.
It’s not only that the Christian right has become a core Republican constituency, but it’s also important to remember that twenty years ago Reagan made sure that the Republican party would be the party of traditional, moral, religious and family values. In other words, if McCain is blaming the Christians, then he is also blaming Reagan. He can’t have it both ways. If Reagan were active today, he would argue that the GOP should not be secularized. If Republicans are to succeed, then religious values must be central to their mission.
Here’s another point on this. It may well be that Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson have overstepped in political terms. But a much bigger point in American life today — including American political life — is the claim by University of Chicago Nobelist Robert Fogel that the nation is in the midst of its fourth great spiritual awakening.
Falwell and Robertson don’t really matter. What does matter is that millions and millions of people, including the baby boom generation, which is now graying around the temples, is going through a lifestyle change that includes a spiritual awakening.
Sometimes this includes direct contact with religion. Sometimes it includes a more ambiguous and less structured spiritual higher power. But at the core, the spiritual awakening that is so present in American life today is aimed at a change in individual behavior which is certainly more sober, more faithful, more responsible and more traditional. I, by the way, include myself in all of this. For me the issue was alcohol and substance abuse. For others it could have been marital infidelity, gambling, debt, or other extreme forms of behavior. The fact of the matter is, there are so many people involved in churches, synagogues, self-help groups and so forth, that in sum this great wave is unmistakable.
None of us are all-powerful; it’s one of the things life has taught us. But God is. And that lesson guides us toward a better life. By listening to God, we have become better spouses, better parents, better friends, better workers, better citizens and better people. This may not always be apparent in Washington, but it’s happening nearly every place else.
John McCain is part of our baby boom generation and he is, of course, a demonstrably brave and valorous person in terms of his wartime service. But I still believe that anger still gets the best of him, and prevents him from sincerely apologizing to Falwell and Robertson (who he continued to attack in last night’s debate). That anger blocks him from the spiritual life. And the anger has become the basis of his campaign. It’s not a good message.
There is no doubt in my mind that the coming election — where Bush will fight Gore — will be the most religious-oriented and faith-based contest in many, many generations. I don’t think John McCain understands this. I’m not sure George W. Bush does so fully, either. Alan Keyes is someone who does understand it. And he moved closer and closer last night (in the CNN debate) to endorsing George Bush.
Meanwhile, in showing humility with his apology to Catholics for his “missed opportunity” at Bob Jones University, Bush puts himself much closer to the great spiritual awakening than either John McCain or Albert Gore.