Nov. 22 issue - All year long, the Rev. Pat Robertson kept his distance from the Bush-Cheney campaign. In 1992 he'd used a prime-time speaking slot at the Republican convention in Houston to rail against abortion, homosexuality and a decadent American culture. But this time the controversial televangelist didn't even bother to reach out to the campaign directly until a few days before voters headed to the polls. On tour to promote a new book on the Supreme Court, Robertson touched off a media frenzy by implying that, in the run-up to the Iraq war, George W. Bush had told him there would be no real American casualties. Afterward, Robertson phoned the campaign to offer his services in damage control. "What do you want me to do?" he asked. The answer was short and sweet. "They told me, 'Don't say anything'," he says. "'Nothing at all'."
Realizing that conservative religious leaders like Robertson have been so demonized that they're lightning rods even among evangelicals, the Bushies relied on less divisive lieutenants to get the faithful to the voting booth. But if the big-name evangelicals lay low before the election, they have since begun a very public victory dance. Pointing to the wave of anti-gay-marriage ballot measures approved in 11 states and the 22 percent of voters who cited "moral values" as their chief concern, the right is eager to claim credit for Bush's win. In past elections, evangelicals helped get out the vote but then quietly returned to their pulpits. Not this time. After years of frustrating Democratic rule followed by a gridlocked Congress under Bush, they now hold daily conference calls and meetings to review a long legislative wish list: conservative judicial appointments, a federal amendment banning gay marriage, abortion restrictions, tougher obscenity laws, school vouchers, a ban on all human cloning. And they're counting on Bush to deliver. "We're going to strike out and demand a conservative agenda," says direct-mail guru Richard Viguerie. "If we don't do it now, when do we do it?"
Nothing ranks higher than changing the face of the federal courts—especially the Supreme Court, where Bush is expected to fill as many as three vacancies. Talk-radio hosts and bloggers rant against liberal "activist judges" whose rulings open the door to gay marriage or strike down abortion limits. "Bush's legacy can be easily neutralized if he's unable to change the courts," says American Values president Gary Bauer. That explains the recent furor over comments by Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, a pro-choice Republican set to head the committee that manages judicial nominations. The day after the election, Specter told reporters it was "unlikely" that judges who oppose Roe v. Wade would be confirmed to the Supreme Court. Religious groups helped swamp Senate phone lines and e-mail boxes—Concerned Women for America sent anti-Specter missives to 80,000 supporters each day last week. Most observers admit that Specter seems likely to survive the battle. But the uproar was "a shot across the bow," says the Free Congress Foundation's Paul Weyrich. "We're not going to be trotted out every four years and then get kicked in the teeth afterwards."
Now Bush has to cater to more than just leaders like James Dobson or Jerry Falwell. Falwell may be relaunching his Moral Majority—now called the Faith and Values Coalition—but there are millions of "values voters" who don't belong to any organized group. "It's a many-headed approach now. You slice one off, another seven grow in its place," says David Barton, who advised evangelicals this year for the Republican National Committee. "There's a whole culture that's sprung up."
But controlling that kind of hydra could prove tricky even for Bush's vaunted strategist Karl Rove. Some religious supporters might scare off moderates Rove hopes to add to a permanent Republican majority. Bob Jones III, president of Bob Jones University, wasn't exactly conciliatory in his post-election letter to Bush, deeming the president's re-election "a reprieve from the agenda of paganism." Jones wrote: "You owe liberals nothing. They despise you because they despise your Christ." Even some social conservatives worry they could lose out if they push too far too fast. "We'd better be very careful not to think that the president owes us anything and it's payback time," Weyrich says. But there are still plenty of areas where Bush's agenda lines up with their own. Since the election, Rove has reiterated Bush's desire for a federal amendment banning gay marriage. Though aides say it's not first on Bush's to-do list, Republicans want to keep the issue alive. After all, it's not too early to think about the congressional elections of 2006.