Professor Explores the Political Power of the Right
October 29, 2008 – Government professor Clyde Wilcox pays careful attention to the Christian Right’s influence on the 2008 presidential elections – from the language used on the campaign trail to the selection of running mates.
The selection of current Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin is a strategic move to entice the evangelical base, he says.
“The choice itself I think is really interesting from [Senator John] McCain’s viewpoint, because McCain was leaning very much toward [Senator Joe] Lieberman and [former Homeland Security Secretary Tom] Ridge,” Wilcox says. “And they were both pro-choice, and the Christian conservatives in their party said ‘we will not work for you at all if you support them.’ ”
Though the Christian Right has been traditionally linked to the Republican Party, Wilcox says its influence also can be seen within the Democratic Party.
Democrats have rediscovered the use of religious language, he says, in an attempt to show moderates that there are religious members in the party.
“I think at some point many sort of moderately religious people were thinking, ‘Well, do you [Democrats] have any faith; is there some sort of core anchor to you?’ ” he says. “And since we don’t have a tradition here of say, values for atheists, there’s no long tradition of understanding that you do not need to be religious to be moral.”
Ahead of the Curve to the Right
When Wilcox decided to write one of the first Ph.D. dissertations on the Christian Right 25 years ago, he encountered challenges to jump-starting his academic career.
Despite receiving top honors for his work at Ohio State University – where he received his master’s and doctoral degrees in political science, Wilcox recalls being asked on more than one occasion during interviews, “Why would anyone write about this?” He remembers one interviewer even saying, “You know, I really like you except that you’ve studied this topic that won’t be around very long.”
Wilcox has authored, co-authored, edited or co-edited more than 30 books. And though much of his research has focused on the Christian Right, the professor’s work spans the political spectrum – he looks at the impact of interest groups on electioneering, lobbying and policymaking; gender in politics; and campaign finance.
Understanding By Comparison
In his 20 years at Georgetown, the government professor has met at least one person from all but nine countries through his own travels and through frequent discussions with international visitor groups brought over by the U.S. State Department.
“The kinds of questions you get from international visitors, are usually really interesting, and it helps you understand the distinctiveness of your politics,” Wilcox says. “We take for granted all kinds of things. We take for granted that candidates will run relatively dishonest ads. Other countries, they might have laws against this…”
He teaches not only his undergraduate and graduate students to compare other governmental processes, but entering classes of Foreign Service officers at the State Department, where he co-teaches a Composure Under Fire course.
“You understand American politics better,” he says, “if you at least think about how we’re different.”