While liberals often describe the Christian Right as the "fringe" or "far right" of the Republican Party, the movement is the arty's best resource for expanding its base among non-whites.
Pundits often claim 1) the Republican Party has a demography problem. A Party of mostly old, white people will not have much of a future in a nation where the young are more racially diverse than the elderly; and 2) social conservatives, or the Christian Right, are the "far right wing" of conservatism, and must be jettisoned to expand its appeal. These claims do not make sense together.
While the Republican Party does have a demography problem, that problem will only be solved by embracing, not jettisoning, social conservatives.
Of all the segments of the Republican Party — libertarians, foreign policy conservatives, tax cutters, blue collar — social conservatives are most attuned to the sympathies of non-white Americans.
In 2003, Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., was ousted as senate majority leader after praising Sen. Strom Thurmond's 1948 presidential run.
"I want to say this about my state. When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years either," Lott said at Thurmond's 100th birthday party in December, 2002.
Thurmond, a Republican senator at the time, ran for president in 1948 as a Dixiecrat on an anti-civil rights platform. (The Republican candidate was Thomas Dewey. The Democrat, Harry Truman, won.) So, when Lott said "all these problems," was he talking the "problem" of blacks seeking voting rights and equality under the law?
The story only became big news after bloggers started writing about it. Many reporters from major newspapers were actually at the event but did not initially think it was a news story.
After the story finally made its way into the headlines of major newspapers, the opposition of social conservatives helped lead the way to Lott's resignation as majority leader.
One of the earliest and strongest statements condemning Lott came from Ken Connor, who was president of Family Research Council, the top social conservative advocacy group in Washington, D.C.
"Sen. Lott seems to have little appreciation for how such comments as this are received among black Americans. The damage he's done is considerable. ... Republicans ought to ask themselves if they really want their Party to continue to be represented by Trent Lott, or should the GOP look to a new Senate leader who is not encumbered by this unnecessary baggage?" Connor said.
I spoke with Connor shortly after he released that statement. (I was conducting research on my doctoral dissertation about the Christian Right.) Connor said that one of Lott's staffers contacted him, asking, "is this a joke?" Connor was told to retract the remark or he would be "cut off" from access to the senate majority leader. Connor told me he grew up in the South, was old enough to remember the horrors of Jim Crow, and believed it was important to stand by his remarks, even if it meant losing access to the Senate majority leader's office.
A similar dynamic happened more recently related to the Confederate flag in South Carolina. After the racially motivated shooting of nine people in a Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, it was social conservatives who led the drive to remove the Confederate flag from the grounds of the South Carolina capitol.
The effort was pushed by three social conservative Republican South Carolina leaders — Gov. Nikki Haley and U.S. Sen.'s Tim Scott and Lindsey Graham. Additionally, one of the earliest supporters of removing the flag was Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. Moore's predecessor, Richard Land, president of Southern Evangelical Seminary and executive editor of The Christian Post, and Franklin Graham, president of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, also announced their support for removing the flag. Graham, Land and Moore are all Southerners.
In some cases, social conservatives empathize with non-whites because they sympathize with non-whites; which is to say, they are themselves non-white.
Family Research Council, for instance, has two blacks among their experts, E. W. Jackson and Ken Blackwell. And current FRC President Tony Perkins coauthored a book on public policy with another well known social conservative black leader, Bishop Harry Jackson. And this year's March for Marriage was mostly comprised of non-whites.
The Christian Right has also helped make the Republican presidential field racially diverse. The movement has aided two Latinos, Sen.'s Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, one black, Dr. Ben Carson, and one Indian-American, Gov. Bobby Jindal. By comparison, the current Democratic presidential field is all white.