Rehabilitating The Religious Right


Regional/ Kansas City:


© Jack Cashill - 1999

On Sunday, August 15, 1993, the Reverend Bob Meneilly mounted his pulpit at The Village Presbyterian Church in the largely Republican suburban stronghold of Johnson County, Kansas and proceeded to rain holy hell on a malignant force in metropolitan Kansas City.

His subject was not the new gambling boats floating up the Missouri, not the
record murders in KC, not the porn shops, juice bars, abortion mills, broken homes, chaotic schools, nor--closer to home--the soft-core apartheid in which his affluent flock sheepishly indulged. Small potatoes all.

No, Meneilly warned, this was a more dire threat, one far greater than the
old threat of communism.. True, given all the gulags and purges and Great
Leaps Forward and such, a conservatively estimated 85-100 million or so folks had been exterminated under communism. But this new threat was scarier, and worse, it was raging through the suburbs like an Ebola virus. Yea, verily, this was a plague of biblical proportions, a dreadful pestilence "known as the Religious Right or the New Right."

Sound frightening? Well, it did to the good Reverend. He "trembled for our
nation" at the thought of these "zealous religionists." They were "anti-
pornography," he groaned. They tried to "discredit our public school system."
(Da noive!) They were "conniving in every political way" to get prayer back
in school. They opposed--he noted daintily--a woman's "having a say about what goes on in her own body." And worse, they concealed their views "to hook
those who might not hear them otherwise." Woe unto ye all, Meneilly bellowed, "The Republican Party in Johnson County has been captured by the New Right and stealth candidates."

Not surprisingly, the sermon was a hit. It was reprinted both in The Johnson
County Sun and in The New York Times. The Kansas City Star lauded the
honorable Reverend as a "drum major for justice." And just about every do-gooder organization that had an award to give gave him theirs, culminating with the prestigious Harry S. Truman Good Neighbor award. With his new clout, Meneilly helped found a group called the Mainstream Coalition to further "expose the agenda of the radical religious right."

At the time, I paid little attention. After all, he wasn't talking about me.
A New Jersey native and a born-only-once Roman Catholic, I drink, gamble, dance (badly) and learned most of the Bible verses I know watching Pulp Fiction.

In fact, I didn't know a single radical on the good Reverend's laundry list,
and a year would pass before I met one. I remember the occasion well. I was at the victory party for Ron Freeman--the sharp, young, black conservative who had just won the Republican nomination for Congress in Missouri's 5th District. I was speaking to another Freeman supporter, the Jewish and aggressively moderate ex-Kansas City mayor Dick Berkley, when Freeman's Democratic opponent, Karen McCarthy, appeared on TV, trembling strategically.
"We can expect a negative, nasty campaign," she raged, "from the forces of the radical, religious right."

Yes, I had finally met Meneilly's Christian extremists. And they was us.

They is us. They remain us. After six years of effort, the Democratic
National Committee and its fellow travelers have convinced the uninvolved
masses of the American electorate that the "Ayatollahs" Robertson and Falwell are yanking the chain of every serious Republican candidate in America. And the Republicans, too many of them anyhow, have responded just the way the DNC had hoped. Like the allegedly Republican Reverend Meneilly, they have joined in the attack or, at the least, tried to distance themselves from its victims. Both strategies are utterly and literally self-defeating.

Alphonse D'Amato found out the way Rudy Guliani is learning, the hard way. A Hillary Clinton strategist recently suggested that Guliani would end up, as D'Amato supposedly did, "more like a senator from North Carolina than New York." New Yorkers all know how self-righteous and "intolerant" senators from North Carolina can be. New York Republicans, D'Amato and Guliani among them, have helped spread the word. What these "moderate" Republicans have been slow to understand is that they themselves will ultimately fall victim to the hysteria they have themselves inflamed.

Here's the way the strategy works. An AP reporter pulls a small item from
Jerry Falwell's obscure National Liberty Journal on the Teletubbies. The AP
releases the item a day or two before the conviction vote in the Senate.
Democratic pundits from Washington to Walla Walla pick it up immediately.
They neglect to say that gay magazines had long ago outed Tinky-Winky or that The Washington Post had done the same just a few weeks back or that Jerry Falwell had not written the article in question, had never even seen the Teletubbies. Why spoil the illusion? By the time of the Sunday morning talk shows, Republican strategist Mary Matalin is doing their dirty work for them--denouncing Falwell for his "gay-bashing."

The circle will inevitably complete itself when the Dems accuse Ms. Matalin's next candidate of representing the party of gay-bashers. And when they do, how can Ms. Matalin possibly object?

The Democrats count on the silence of Republican moderates. Just a month
before the 1998 congressional election, in a stunningly well coordinated spate of demagoguery, they and their allies blamed the death of a young gay man in Wyoming not on the soulless, parentless, rap-happy, high school drop-outs who murdered him but on the Christian right. Given the media's instinctive urge to bolster the Democrats in the run-up before a worrisome election, this story dominated the news for a week or more. Since no one of consequence objected, an outpouring of shrill anti-right rhetoric went unanswered, costing Republicans of all stripes countless votes.

In the Reverend Meneilly's congressional district, the road to Democrat Dennis Moore's upset victory over incumbent conservative Republican Vince Snowbarger in the '98 election was paved with anti-Christian demagoguery. Meneilly's Mainstream Coalition led the way, sowing fears of so-called "Christian Extremist Theocrats," especially among the area's Jewish population.

In the 1996 primary, Snowbarger's first bid for the congress, Republican
moderates fanned the fires. Friends of his primary opponent, Ed Eilert,
targeted area Jews with a letter inferring that the inoffensive Snowbarger was an anti-Semite and denouncing him for his "extreme views." Although
Snowbarger eked out victory in both the primary and the general election, he was damaged. In the 1998 election, the fear mongering continued. Popular Republican Governor Bill Graves made a lame, last minute defense of Snowbarger, but it was too little, too late. Hundreds of Grave's moderate
Republican supporters had already staked "Dennis Moore" signs in their yards.
Soon after the election an apolitical Gen X friend confided in me that
Snowbarger never had a chance. When I asked why, he answered almost as if frightened, "He's so extreme."

The only Republicans who can effectively defend the social conservatives are the Republicans most immune from liberal attack--moderates like Bill Graves.
Had Graves comes to Snowbarger's defense two years ago, Snowbarger would not have even faced a Democratic challenger this election, nor would Graves have faced a conservative challenger in the Republican primary.

Indeed, it is the moderates who have the most to gain. If they defend the
right strategically and consistently, they can begin to erase the wide-spread
caricatures one sees of all Republicans in the media. This will take time.
Of more immediate value, especially to presidential candidates like McCain,
Bush, and Dole, moderates will earn the gratitude of these conservatives and diminish intra-party friction. Had Colin Powell followed this tact in 1996, he would be president today.

If moderates need a strategy to defend the right, perhaps they can find it in
federalism. The social conservatives in Kansas don't tell the libertarians of
New Jersey how to live their lives, if the New Jerseyans promise to do the
same. Utah and Nevada, after all, sit by side in relative, largely Republican
harmony despite a dramatic difference in state ethos.

On the abortion issue, moderates and conservatives can find common ground in constitutionalism. Whether pro-choice or pro-life, all Republicans should agree that Roe v. Wade violates the spirit and the letter of the Tenth

Moderates should remind the media that the social conservatives in the party are not interested in "forcing their agenda" on America. Indeed, most social conservatives of my acquaintance would be happy to have a say at their local school board. This is what makes them Republicans. They want power to be returned to them and their communities, power that all Americans have lost due to capricious court judgments and administrative sleight of hand over the last thirty or forty year

The social right may never support the Republican middle with enthusiasm. Why should they? But they will at least respect them. And that, understandably, is something they have a hard time doing right now.

© Jack Cashill - 1999

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