Shortly after Reagan’s win in 1980, the conservative activist and key architect of the religious right Paul Weyrich told the incoming vice president [George H.W. Bush] that he better become a stronger advocate against abortion and for school prayer once in office. “I am not intimidated by those who suggest I better hew the line,” Bush shot back. “Hell with them.”
Political reality, however, soon curtailed Bush’s independent streak. Having coalesced as an essential voting bloc for Reagan’s victory, religious conservatives were determined to make sure they got what they wanted from the White House. Although Reagan would repeatedly disappoint them throughout his eight years in office, he understood how much his political success relied on keeping their support, and he often deployed Bush to personally meet with and reassure them.
Such meetings put Bush in closer contact with the preachers and activists who would be critical to his own future presidential ambitions. They also made clear to Bush his need to realign his positions with the conservative wing of the party, which was ascendant, in part because of the rise of cultural issues that were scrambling the party coalitions.
To do this, he would need to clear up his position on abortion, the biggest stumbling block for religious conservatives given his inconsistent record. And Bush took decisive steps to do so. After a meeting with the National Right to Life Committee to plan the group’s involvement in Reagan’s 1984 reelection campaign, the vice president suddenly announced he opposed federal funding for abortion except to protect a mother’s life, backed a constitutional amendment to overturn Roe v. Wade and supported a human life amendment that would outlaw abortion with a few exceptions — which he told the NRLC he would continue to consider.
All of this marked a fairly dramatic reversal of Bush’s long-standing stance when it came to abortion.
Yet despite that — or perhaps because of it — the religious right never fully trusted Bush, even as they lined up behind his presidential bid in 1988. They backed Bush over televangelist Pat Robertson in the Republican primaries that year, believing he’d be more electable, but they went into the opening days of the Bush presidency in a grim mood. Falwell’s Moral Majority had recently shuttered, and this combined with Bush’s preference for international affairs over domestic concerns left many commentators predicting the religious right’s demise.
The religious right, however, wasn’t retreating so much as it was reorganizing. Believing they had been used to get Bush to the White House with no real hope of seeing their agenda advanced, a group of influential religious right leaders, led by Robertson, met together in Atlanta in September 1989 to discuss what the movement should do next.
The group identified Bush and the GOP establishment as its chief target.