April 14th, 2011
02:09 PM ET
By Dan Gilgoff, CNN.com Religion Editor
So maybe the Christian Right isn't so dead after all.
In fact, the movement that was supposed to have been eclipsed by the fiscally focused Tea Party in recent years and was said to be reeling from the loss of leaders like Jerry Falwell is showing some pretty dramatic signs of life.
In last week’s down-to-the-wire budget battle between the White House and Republican leaders, for example, it was a GOP effort to defund Planned Parenthood – a longtime enemy of Christian conservatives – that emerged as a final stumbling block.
And Family Research Council President Tony Perkins says the last time his conservative Christian movement saw so many victories at the state level – where many legislatures are busy passing new abortion restrictions - was in 2004, when more than a dozen states adopted same-sex marriage bans.
At a moment when the Republican Party has reclaimed power in the House, has taken control of most state legislatures, and is set to begin the process of choosing its next presidential nominee, the Christian Right is playing an increasingly influential role in the party.
Just this week, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican, signed a pair of new Kansas laws that ban abortions after 21 weeks of pregnancy and that require minors seeking to terminate pregnancies to get consent from both their parents.
That same day, Tuesday, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, also a Republican, signed a new law banning state tax credits for donations to Planned Parenthood or other abortion providers.
With a handful of other states adopting their own anti-abortion measures earlier this year, Perkins says his conservative Christian agenda “has been accelerated forward” in recent months.
Liberal groups accuse Republicans in Washington of pulling a bait and switch on social issues, saying the GOP took back the House last November by campaigning on fiscal issues, turning to hot buttons like abortion only after taking office.
“I think most Americans are saying, ‘What’s going on here? We elected you all to focus on fiscal and economic issues, not social ones, and you’re not doing that,” says Planned Parenthood spokesman Tait Sye.
Sye notes that a bill called the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act,” which would place new restrictions on the healthcare law President Obama signed last year, was the third House resolution introduced this year, which he calls a testament to new GOP fervor on social issues.
But many political experts say that religious conservatives never went anywhere - even if the news media and some quarters of the Republican Party paid them less mind in recent years.
“The biggest reason we’ve seen all this action on abortion since the GOP came to power is that social conservatives are still a very important part of the Republican coalition,” says John Green, an expert in politics and religion at the University of Akron. “And the way parties manage coalitions is to try to give each part something it wants.”
Despite claims by some Tea Party groups that their movement represents exclusively economic conservatives, polling research shows considerable overlap among Tea Party members and the Christian Right.
About half of the Americans who identify as part of the Tea Party movement say they are also part of the religious right or conservative Christian movement, according to a survey released last year by the Public Religion Research Institute.
The survey found that most Tea Party members reflect the views of religious conservatives, as opposed to libertarians, on social issues. Nearly two-thirds of Tea Party members say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, and less than 1-in-5 support gay marriage.
And white evangelical Protestants, the base of the Christian Right, are roughly five times more likely to agree with the Tea Party movement than to disagree with it, according to a Pew survey analysis released earlier this year.
“There’s really no daylight between those the two groups,” says Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the anti-abortion group the Susan B. Anthony List, referring to Tea Party and religious conservatives.
She notes that Republican leaders like Indiana Rep. Mike Pence and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann have a foot in both camps, helping to spearhead the House fight against Obama’s budget proposals and its attempt to defund Planned Parenthood.
The Family Research Council’s Perkins says new GOP efforts around abortion are a reaction to President Obama’s first years in office. Obama rescinded the ban on federal funds for overseas abortion providers and signed a healthcare law that many conservatives say subsidizes abortion, though the law’s supporters say it respects the federal ban on abortion funding.
“Politics is a pendulum that swings back and forth - the federal government overreached and now the states are responding,” Perkins says. “A lot of this is a response to the healthcare bill.”
In some states, like Ohio, fights have broken out among anti-abortion activists over how to use their new-found power, with one faction pushing for sweeping new restrictions and the other urging more incremental limits that they say will withstand legal challenges.
“Most of the lawmakers pushing for these abortion bills are not very well known even in their own states,” says Green, because many came to power in just the last year. “Their stars are still rising and that process will depend on whether their bills are successful and whether they are eventually overturned.”
Debates over how far to go in restricting abortion will likely extend all the way up to the Republican presidential primary, with likely candidates already working hard for Christian Right support.
Donald Trump, who says he will announce next month whether he will run for president, called the Family Research Council’s Perkins last week to chat for the first time, even though the thrice-married Trump isn’t exactly known as a “family values” Republican.
“Trump knows to get to square one in the Republican primary process he has to show people that he’s pro-life,” says Perkins. “Whether he can get to square number two is another question.”
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