While a small band of influential neo-conservatives
have played a significant role in shaping the foreign policy outlook
of today's Republican Party, it is the religious right that has come
to set that party's domestic agenda.
It was during the Reagan Administration (1981-1989)
that these two currents came together in a new social and political
movement that transformed the outlook of Republican politics.
Neo-conservatism is the secular political philosophy
that defined the reaction of a group of former liberals to what they
felt was the Democratic party's policy of appeasement toward the
Soviet Union--most especially the USSR's treatment of its Jewish
population and its relations with the Arab world. They were a small
but influential group of writers, commentators and government
The movement of the religious right was also borne
in reaction, but in this case, it was in reaction to the
countercultural currents that rocked the U.S. in the late 1960's and
1970's. As issues of women's rights (including the "right to
abortion") homosexual rights, etc., found a place in the agenda of
the Democratic Party, many white middle class family-oriented
religious leaders led their congregations into a number of national
organizations promoting "traditional values".
During the Reagan years, both political currents
wielded substantial influence. The neo-conservatives transformed
the national foreign policy orientation from a focus on human rights
and democracy (as it had been in the Carter Administration) to one
focused on combating "Soviet-inspired terror" and confrontation with
the "evil empire". For their part, the still emerging movement of
religiously-oriented conservatives were able to set the national
agenda on a wide range of social issues.
Under Reagan's umbrella, these two upstart currents
formed a sometimes uncomfortable coalition with the more traditional
Republican groupings like the business-oriented "internationalists"
and the libertarians who advocated small government and tax cuts.
While these traditional Republicans also had a conservative
orientation, they were more pragmatic and moderate than the two
trends under discussion here.
Both the neo-conservatives and the religious right
can best be characterized as fundamentalist movements. They are
ideological and dogmatic. And they are confrontational and
uncompromising. While this could always have been said about the
neo-conservatives, the religious right was, in the beginning, an
amorphous social movement.
It was during the 1988 presidential campaign that
religious conservatives went from being a reaction against what they
described as "moral decay", into a powerful political organization
with a coherent ideology. In that election Pat Robertson, a
television evangelist with a national following, was one of six
Republicans to challenge Vice President George Bush for the
Republican nomination for president.
Robertson's success in mobilizing Christian
conservative voters in that race inspired him to organize, after the
election, a new political organization which he called the Christian
Coalition. This group became the major vehicle for the religious
By the mid-1990's, this movement had succeeded in
winning control of the Republican Party's apparatus in seventeen of
the fifty states. In twenty-four others, they also wielded
substantial influence. At its peak, the Christian Coalition, the
leading organization of the religious right, claimed over ten
million members and the ability to influence millions more.
What Robertson did was not only organize
religiously-oriented conservatives into a political force, he and
others also sought to imbue this movement with a broader political
and theological agenda. Their theology, which is an aberrant form
of Christianity (rejected by most major Christian churches) teaches
that the Old Testament prophecies were destined to be replayed in
the modern world, leading to the Day of Judgement and the Final
Battle of Armageddon as proclaimed in the New Testament.
According to this school of thought, the ingathering
of the Jews into Israel in 1948 was part of God's plan to bring on
the Final Battle, in which the forces of Good (which fundamentalist
Christians see as the U.S. and its allies) would confront the forces
of Evil (correspondingly seen as the Soviet Union and its
allies--Arabs and Muslims). This battle would lead to the
destruction of the earth, which for this theology is a necessity
before Jesus can return to save "the select, the believers".
This Christian fundamentalist view maintained that,
although all Jews must ultimately be converted into Christianity in
order to fulfill the prophecies, Israel must be supported at all
costs. Hence the strong support given by the religious right to
Although the neo-conservatives are secular (and
oftentimes quite liberal in their social outlook) and the religious
right is theologically-based, these two currents share a number of
both currents are Manicheistic, i.e., they see the
world in absolute black and white, good and evil;
both currents define the forces of good as being
led by the U.S. and Israel and see the forces of evil (once
defined as the Soviet Union and now see as "the axis of evil"
states supporting terror) as including Arabs and Islam;
both currents are confrontational and
uncompromising. They believe that there can be no accommodation
made with those representing evil. Both, therefore, seek
confrontation and conflict, not a resolution of tensions through
both currents are absolutist, since their ideology
will allow only for total victory.
While the Republican sweep of Congressional
elections in 1994 brought many adherents of the religious right into
congressional leadership positions, both the neo-conservatives and
the religious conservative movement would not be satisfied until
they felt that they had won back the White House. Neither current
was comfortable with George Bush senior's presidency. He was, for
them, a moderate and accommodationist Republican. Despite Bob
Dole's efforts to win them over, neither grouping trusted him
either. But in George W. Bush, both movements hoped they had found
a champion. President Bush has appointed prominent
neo-conservatives and religious right leaders to important posts in
the White House and in the Defense and Justice Departments. While
the organization of the Christian Coalition is now in a state of
decline, one leading religious conservative was recently quoted in
an influential political magazine, saying "The organization is not
so important now that we have the White House and the Congress."
A leading American Jewish political science
professor, Steven Spiegel, recently noted, "If you just focus on the
power of the...Jewish groups, you're missing the boat. The
Christian right has had a real influence in shaping the view of the
Republican Party toward Israel."
This was in evidence most recently in two distinct
efforts: the pressure exerted on President Bush in mid-April when it
appeared that he was leaning too hard on Israeli Prime Minister
Ariel Sharon and the passage in Congress last month of one-sided
pro-Israel resolutions. Both efforts were the work of the combined
forces of the religious right and the neo-conservatives.
It is important to note that in these dark days,
some Arab American leaders and groups around the U.S. are meeting
with American Jewish leaders to attempt a common approach to peace.
At the same time, the major Christian churches in the U.S.,
representing the majority of U.S. Catholics and Protestants, have
issued appeals for peace and Palestinian rights.
But even with these positive and commendable
efforts, it is, thus far, the organized forces of the religious
right and their neo-conservative allies who are still defining the
course of the U.S.-Middle East policy debate.
Dr. James J. Zogby is President of Arab
American Institute in Washington, DC.