David Duke and the Religious Right in Louisiana

David Duke (AP Photo/Burt Steel)

A week ago, New York Times right-leaning columnist Ross Douthat offered what he called a “limited” defense of “the beleaguered, battered, all-but-broken religious right.”

The occasion for Douthat’s column was the fierce split in the ranks between those religious right leaders who are supporting (sometimes vociferously) Donald Trump for president despite his manifest, major flaws from a Christian perspective, and those so opposed to Trump that they are appalled to see fellow conservative Christians embrace him.

Without tracing Douthat’s thoughtful reasoning, it might be hard to understand his conclusion, but for our purposes let’s just recognize that Douthat builds to this: Without the Christian right, America would have “a right-of-center politics… ultimately far more divisive than the evangelical politics of George W. Bush.”

Further: “When religious conservatives were ascendant, the G.O.P. actually tried minority outreach, it sent billions to fight AIDS in Africa, it pursued criminal justice reform in the states…. [S]ome kind of religious conservatism must be rebuilt, because without the pull of transcendence, the future of the right promises to be tribal, cruel, and very dark indeed.”

I use that as a starting point to re-tell some history for which the Christian right still gets far too little credit. It is history that is timely again because of news from Louisiana this week. Louisiana has a “jungle primary” for the U.S. Senate with 23 candidates, and a big debate coming up this coming week for which  a 5 percent showing in the most recent poll is needed for participation.

Neo-Nazi David Duke, trying a political comeback, looks likely to do no better than seventh or just maybe sixth in the race – but he still eked into the debate ranks by polling at 5.1 percent. Some observers are rather verklempt that Duke will pollute the stage; others are just glad he’s no real threat to qualify for the runoff election.

But there was a time when Duke really was politically ascendant in the years 1989-1991 – a time when he (barely) got elected to the state legislature, finished stronger than expected in a race for the U.S. Senate, and then made it into a runoff in a race for governor and pulled to almost a statistical dead heat with three weeks remaining before fading to a landslide loss.

I was heavily involved for all three years in the effort to stop Duke. In 1989, for example, I was working for a state senator named Ben Bagert who was running as a newly minted Republican in the 1990 U.S. Senate campaign. Bagert didn’t know the GOP political players; but I, despite my mere 25 years, knew almost all of them due to growing up in a conservative activist household.

Louisiana’s jungle primary system allows anybody to run under any party label no matter what the state party actually wants – but it was my job to help Bagert organize at party caucuses and a state convention to win the “official” Republican endorsement that would provide a number of benefits unavailable to others claiming the GOP label.

As a determined anti-Dukester, I was convinced that early organizing would be necessary to dominate the caucuses and deny Duke a foothold in the official party organization. Many longtime activists, however, kept wanting to wait for other potential candidates to enter the race, because while they opposed Duke they still wondered if the former Democrat Bagert had enough conservative bona fides to trust.

My fear was that “you can’t beat somebody with nobody,” and that a “wait, wait, wait” approach would produce an unorganized and divided opposition to Duke – thus allowing him to win far too many delegates just by virtue of his own organizational head start.

That’s where the Louisiana Christian Coalition, which was a quite potent force at the time, came in. The Coalition was not just well organized, but well disciplined. At that time, if its leadership agreed on one course of action, its rank-and-file membership would go along in order to concentrate its resources in a large, powerful army.

I kept going back again and again to the LCC leaders, asking them to get on board with Bagert. They wanted to hedge their bets – until, that is, I started more strongly stressing the anti-Duke message than the pro-Bagert message. Several black Republicans were in the Christian Coalition leadership, and the whole organization was strongly pro-Israel. When they realized that the former Klan leader Duke, despite claiming to have put his virulent racism behind him, remained firmly anti-Semitic, they were appalled.

The last day I worked for Bagert (for various reasons, I left to take another job in the fall of 1989) was the day the Coalition leadership agreed to come on board. And when they did, they were a joy to behold.

Raising a moral cry among their own adherents against the hatred represented by Duke, the Coalition organized the heck out of the caucuses. They were wildly successful. In the end, Duke earned less than 10 percent of the delegates to the 1990 state convention – and, a year later, having lost the Senate race but announced for governor, Duke again got less than 10 percent of the delegates for the party’s endorsement for governor.

Sure, in both cases Duke ended up eventually outpolling the “official” Republican and ending among the final two contestants for election. But in both cases he was effectively hampered by the lack of official party resources and never could claim the cachet, the respectability, of formal party support. When he finally lost the governor’s race in a landslide, his career as a serious political threat ended.

The salient point for us today is that the religious right, despite its sometimes divisive rhetoric, has always been motivated by a sense of Christian duty and a Christian ethic of trying to act in moral, and loving, ways in this temporal world. When the chips were down, the religious right didn’t just sit back and watch as a former Klan leader tried to fool people into thinking he had abandoned his white hood. Instead, the Christian Coalition stood tall, and worked incredibly hard, to block Duke’s ascent.

What Douthat described as “the pull of transcendence” makes the religious right an asset, on balance, on the political scene. Douthat is correct: Those motivated by the Judeo-Christian ethic bring a sensibility to politics that can point our polity in directions far less “nasty, brutish, and short.”

If the religious right follows its better instincts, it can help us as a civil society follow our better instincts as well.

Quin Hillyer is a veteran conservative columnist. He has an undergraduate degree in Theology from Georgetown University and has served for years in various forms of ecumenical lay leadership.