It wasn’t a matter of polite disagreement. For Howard Phillips, evangelical support for a Republican presidential candidate could be a deep, deep betrayal.
“There are some people who would stick with the Republican Party if they nominated Judas,” the conservative activist once told Mother Jones. “And they would still call him Christian, and they would still call themselves Christian.”
Phillips died in 2013, but his words have new resonance in the age of Trump. Phillips, an evangelical convert, once instigated a civil war among his fellow Christian conservatives. He thought they were selling out their values, trading them in for political clout.
Today, when Religious Right leaders regularly make excuses for Trump and his aides’ most atrocious behavior, the same argument is made. The exit-poll statistic, that at least 80 percent of white evangelical voters cast their ballots for Donald Trump, has been cited again and again in bewilderment. Now that white evangelicals strongly support an adulterous casino mogul, it’s hard to imagine them ever breaking away from the GOP, for any reason. It wasn’t that long ago, though, when there was serious talk among some evangelicals about the need for a third party—a Religious-Right alternative to the Republicans.
Most of the scholarship on the Religious Right has focused on the rise of the movement, seeking to explain the seemingly sudden appearance of this voting bloc in the 1980s. To understand what historian John Fea has called Trump’s “court evangelicals,” however, it helps to look at an earlier moment in the movement’s history.
In 1996, there was a struggle for the political soul of the Religious Right. Some activists chose the politics of pragmatism, and some, purity. It was not the first time the Religious Right faced this choice, and it would not be the last. Then, as now, the movement largely chose relevance, thinking it was better to be a power player accused of hypocrisy than to be uncompromised, but irrelevant.
Howard Phillips fought for the purists in 1996. He’d been preparing for a long time.
A Jewish kid from Boston, Phillips got into politics in the heady days of the conservative resurgence of the 1960s. He was one of the many college Republicans whose ideology was galvanized during Barry Goldwater’s doomed campaign. Phillips became a diehard conservative. He joined Richard Nixon’s administration as head of the Office of Economic Opportunity, but then felt betrayed when Nixon didn’t deliver on a promise to defund the agency, his agency, which was tasked with carrying out Lyndon Johnson’s “war on poverty.” Phillips, a purist, resigned.
It was the beginning of a career of conflict with the Republican establishment. Starting in the 1970s, Phillips worked as a grassroots organizer. He recruited and rallied conservatives, especially those beyond the bounds of respectability, the radical fringes: the scattered supporters of the segregationist George Wallace, the disheartened libertarians, the people who still defended Joe McCarthy, and the white evangelicals who thought of themselves as basically apolitical but concerned about their country. In the process of organizing religious voters to protest for prayer in schools and against abortion, Phillips underwent a conversion. He became an evangelical and embraced the extremist theology of Christian Reconstructionism. Christian Reconstructionsts preach there is no neutrality or common ground between submission to the Bible and rebellion against God. It didn’t make Phillips less of a purist.
Phillips final break with Republicans came in 1990. President George H.W. Bush nominated David Souter to the Supreme Court. Bush was trying to avoid the controversy that had surrounded Robert Bork’s nomination a few years before, so he nominated a New Hampshire judge with almost no record on the controversial issues. He had no record on abortion. Bush said he didn’t know Souter’s position on abortion and it would be “inappropriate to ask.”
Phillips protested, but the Bush administration ignored his concerns. Senate Republicans ignored his concerns. Souter was confirmed without a fight, and not a single Republican voted against him.
Two years later, Souter upheld a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion in Planned Parenthood vs. Casey. He was joined in the decision by four other justices, all of them Republican appointees. What good were Republican presidents to a pro-life conservative? Phillips said: none at all.
In 1992, Phillips started a new party to the right of the GOP. It was called the U.S. Taxpayers Party, later to be renamed the Constitution Party. Phillips’ slogan was, “To achieve victory, first you must seek it.”
The party stood for a lot of typical conservative policy goals, of the sort that would later be associated with the Tea Party, such as lower taxes, smaller government, and less regulation of business. Its version of conservatism, however, was distinctly Religious Right. The preamble to the party platform called for the restoration of Biblical law. “This great nation was founded,” the preamble says, “not by religionists, but by Christians; not on religions, but on a foundation of Christian principles and values.”
Phillips’ plan for victory in the 1990s hinged on another conservative veteran of the Nixon White House: Pat Buchanan. Buchanan, who had spoken so eloquently of “a religious war going on in our country,” was running for president again in 1996. He was campaigning against free trade and immigration. The anti-establishment candidate, he was going to make American first again. In retrospect, his campaign looks like a sort of trial run for Trump’s 2016 triumph, but with more talk about character. A number of top spots in Buchanan’s campaign were notably staffed by Religious Right veterans. Phillips thought if could get Buchanan to leave the Republicans for his new party, purist politics would win. Buchanan flirted with the possibility, but ended up deciding just to use the third party threat to get a few concessions from the Republicans. He stuck with the GOP.
A lot of Christian conservatives were thinking about leaving the Republican Party in the mid-1990s. Chuck Colson, widely respected by white evangelicals, speculated it would happen sooner or later. Michael Farris, leader of the conservative Christian homeschool movement, said a break with Republicans was widely discussed among homeschoolers. Martin Mawyer, who had been editor of the Moral Majority’s newsletter, called for a split with the GOP. Few considered it more, though, than James Dobson.
Dobson had not started as a political operator. He had a doctorate in psychology, and he wrote Christian books on parenting, doling out advice for families on his evangelical radio show, heard daily on thousands of radio stations across the country. He had first gotten involved in politics in 1980, speaking at a conference on the American family organized by Jimmy Carter’s administration. It was Dobson’s idea to get invited to the conference, and he encouraged his listeners to write the White House to recommend his name. Eighty thousand did. Dobson got the appointment and a taste for influence.
Then, like a lot of white evangelicals, he supported Republicans, backing Reagan and then Bush. But in the run-up to the 1996 election, he was having second thoughts.
Republicans were saying they had to learn from Bill Clinton. To Christian conservatives like Dobson, Clinton was a degenerate and a womanizer—and yet he won in 1992. Clinton’s campaign wizards said, it’s “the economy, stupid.” Now Republicans also wanted to focus on fiscal issues, and avoid the divisive social issues that had been so central to Dobson’s work. Each Republican candidate acknowledged the moral drift of the nation, but the thought was the campaign was going to be won on tax cuts. Leave the jeremiads for another time.
Other Religious Right leaders embraced the Republican plan to downplay moral issues. It was a pragmatic choice. Ralph Reed, head of the Christian Coalition, went so far as to say he would support a pro-choice candidate if the candidate were Republican. Reed understood politics is the art of compromise and tried hard to teach conservative evangelicals how to be part of the establishment, instead of fighting a populist campaign. What use was righteous anger in the political wilderness?
Dobson and Reed fought, according to reporter Dan Gilgoff, and then parted ways. The Christian Coalition, with its 46 million voter guides and $26 million in annual contributions, would pursue pragmatic politics. Dobson and others, like Mawyer, would not. In March 1995, Dobson wrote an eight-page letter and sent it to his millions of supporters. Dobson said he wouldn’t support the Republicans if they wavered in their opposition to abortion. “There can be no compromise on an issue with such profound moral implications,” he wrote. “It is an affront to God Himself.”
Phillips saw an opening. He told Dobson the Republicans had already compromised. In a memo, he outlined all the ways a Republican president could fight abortion, starting with a presidential declaration that abortion was unconstitutional. What had Republican presidents actually done? Nothing.
Phillips pitched his alternative: get the U.S. Taxpayers Party on the ballot in 50 states; get Buchanan on the ticket; get a wealthy vice presidential candidate—maybe beer magnate W. Grover Coors or Domino’s Pizza founder Thomas Monaghan—and get him to use his riches to fund the campaign. Most importantly, the goal was to win.
“More than anyone else in America today,” Phillips wrote Dobson, “you have the power to make that happen.”
This might have been a bit of flattery, but not entirely. At the time, Dobson had double the number of followers the Christian Coalition had, according to The Washington Post. And because he was seen as a moral authority, his political opinions carried a lot of weight with evangelicals.
Phillips never got Buchanan to run on his ticket, so he ran for the White House himself. Dobson would vote for Phillips, but mostly to make a point to Republicans that they needed him and needed white evangelicals. He did not fully commit to the U.S. Taxpayers Party because a third party was not really practical. Dobson was no pragmatist, but also he knew the purists’ plan was far fetched, at best. Facts soon proved this out. Phillips only got on the ballot in 39 states. He couldn’t lure Buchanan away from Republicans or get a millionaire to pledge a fortune to the cause. He ran with no name recognition and barely enough funds to buy campaign ads. It looked like the purists’ best-case-scenario was quixotic and would end in sure defeat.
For a moment, it looked like the pragmatists would win. When Bob Dole wrapped up the race for the Republican nomination, Dole made deals with the religious conservatives. These concessions were mostly symbolic. He picked a pro-life vice presidential candidate. He let pro-lifers—led by Buchanan’s sister Bay—control the party platform. But then he also ignored them, and campaigned on tax cuts and fiscal responsibility.
The pragmatists weren’t happy, but they went along with it. That’s what pragmatists do.
Dobson rejected that. He sided with the purists, though only temporarily, as a way to win some clout with the Republicans. He called for Dole’s defeat, letting people know he was casting a protest vote for Phillips. Later, he would claim part of the credit for Dole’s loss. If Republicans wouldn’t listen to his concerns and prioritize his issues, he could air their quarrel with the national media, calling for the destruction of the party until they returned, supplicant, giving him influence over the party’s agenda.
That’s how it worked out. Dole lost and exit polls gave Dobson the evidence he needed. Eighty percent of white evangelicals had voted for Reagan in 1984. Eighty percent had voted for Bush in 1988. In 1996, only 65 percent of self-identified supporters of the Religious Right voted for Dole, according to political scientists James M. Penning and Corwin Smidt.
Dobson said, see? He claimed the credit for Dole’s defeat belonged to white evangelicals. The “pro-moral community,” he said in a much-publicized speech, “was the difference between winning and losing” for Republicans.
The purists had little to show for their efforts, despite the number of evangelicals who voted for Phillips instead of Dole. “If we ever got our act together,” one U.S. Taxpayer Party member lamented, “we’d be downright dangerous.” The election, however, was a high-water mark. Afterwards, the U.S. Taxpayer’s Party broke down in fights over policy. The party agreed that, as they said, “the sovereignty of God is the number-one issue,” but that didn’t settle the other issues. The party couldn’t even agree to use the same name in every state. They never again got more than 0.2 percent of the popular vote.
Some of the pragmatists didn’t do so well either. In 2000, Buchanan left the Republican Party and joined the Reformed Party. He spent the bulk of his 2000 presidential campaign trying to wrangle the raucous outsiders while fighting wrestler-turned-politician Jesse Ventura and Ventura’s ally, Donald Trump. Trump called Buchanan a racist, a “Hitler lover,” and the candidate of the “really staunch right wacko vote.”
Reed also faced a reckoning. Membership in the Christian Coalition collapsed in 1997. Donations dropped dramatically. One-fifth of the staff was let go. Reed was pushed out, though he continued to organize and lobby for the Religious Right. The Christian Coalition struggled to maintain its importance.
The Religious Right as a whole maintained its clout, as did Dobson. In the following years, top Republicans came to him and promised him that his priorities would be their priorities. Twenty years later, when Trump sought Dobson’s support in the summer of 2016, the price of an endorsement was set. When the two men met, Trump made, in Dobson’s words, “historic commitments,” most of all promising to only appoint pro-life judges to the Supreme Court.
“I left the meeting,” Dobson wrote after the election, “with a determination to help him win the election.”
Dobson announced his support of Trump in June 2016 and nothing changed that. Not evidence Trump bragged of committing sexual assault. Not Trump’s crude language, his business deals, or his embrace of openly racist supporters. Not his insistence he had never needed God’s forgiveness or his brazen disregard for the truth. “I’m not under any illusions that he is an outstanding moral example,” Dobson told Christianity Today. Politics isn’t about purity, he seemed to argue, and access is important. When Trump won, Dobson wanted to make sure pro-life evangelicals got the credit, just like they got the credit for Dole’s loss.
Howard Phillips didn’t live to see Dobson, his one-time backer, come around to Trump. He died before Pat Buchanan, once the hope of conservative Christians who felt their religion was under attack, endorsed the celebrity businessman. Phillips wouldn’t likely have been surprised, though, that the people he tried to organize with a Religious Right alternative to the Republicans stuck with the GOP no matter what. He had long argued that Republicans like being in power more than they care about conservative principles. And conservative evangelicals could be bought off with a little access to that power: a pat on the back, a visit to the White House, or a meeting with a vice president.
Donald Trump promised the Religious Right it would win. He promised his supporters “so much winning.” For Phillips, a failed prophet of political purism, the only way the Religious Right could hold onto its principles was to be willing to lose.
Daniel Silliman is a Lilly Fellow at Valparaiso University. A U.S. historian, he writes about religion in American culture.