For the Religious Right, “The Times They Are A-Changin”

These days, you can hardly stumble out of your doorway to pick up your daily newspaper, open a news magazine or log on to the Internet without encountering news of a meeting, conference, or book signing party, and a spate of articles with the theme “Whither the Religious Right?” or to put it more bluntly, “Is the Religious Right Dead?”

While an engaging debate for political junkies, we’ll know that the subject has reached the kitchen tables of America when a copy of Real Simple or Sports Illustrated arrives in my mailbox featuring a cover stories with headlines like “From Woodstock to Ted Haggard: Twenty-Five Ways to Clean Up a Really Big Mess,” or “Has the Religious Right Been on Steroids for the Past Two Decades?”

Until that happens, this debate over the Religious Right’s status visa via this mortal coil will remain “inside baseball.”

Fred Clarkson, a veteran journalist, co-founder of Talk2Action, and the author of the 1997 book Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy — one of the earliest, and still essential, books on the movement — observed recently that “It seems that every few weeks someone who ought to know better announces that the religious right is dead, dying, or irrelevant.”

At Street Prophets, Pastordan colorfully noted that “a lot of the people writing about it would rather put roses on its grave than send a get-well card.”

Dead, dying, seriously injured or none of the avove?

During a recent appearance at the National Religious Broadcasters conference, Dr. James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family, expressed deep concern about the future of the conservative Christian movement he helped build. “The question is,” Dobson said, “will the younger generation heed the call? Who will defend the unborn child in the years to come? Who will plead for the Terri Schiavos of the world? Who’s going to fight for the institution of marriage, which is on the ropes today?”

Dobson pointed out that the deaths of such revered evangelical leaders including the Rev. Jerry Falwell, Dr. D. James Kennedy and Ruth Graham Bell “represent the end of an era.” The radio talk show host “noted that others like Billy Graham, Chuck Colson, Pat Robertson and Chuck Swindoll will also soon pass from the scene, and questioned the impact on the conservative Christian church,” the Associated Press reported.

“Who in the next generation will be willing to take the heat, when it’s so much safer and more comfortable to avoid controversial subjects?” Dobson said. “What will be the impact on the conservative Christian church when the patriarchs have passed?”

In New York City on a recent mid-March weekend, The Nation magazine’s “Left Forum 2008,” featured a panel moderated by Esther Kaplan titled “Is the Christian Right Dead?” Promotional materials read: “The coalition between economic and social conservatives seems kind of rocky coming out of the Bush Presidency that brought them together. Is the Christian Right dead?”

Building a movement

When we talk about the Religious Right, we are referring to one wing — albeit the most colorful and grassroots oriented — of what back in the early 1980s was termed The New Right, which had its origins in earlier conservative movements.

From its inception, however, the New Right was a self-conscious movement — that is, it was founded on a set of principles, strategies, benchmarks and talking points — all necessarily adjustable to suit the political times. It was driven by highly motivated conservative activists — many of whom had been involved with the failed 1964 presidential campaign of Senator Barry Goldwater — and a core group of equally motivated entrepreneurs and philanthropists.

One of the key conservatives was William Simon, President Richard Nixon’s former energy czar and Treasury Secretary, and the then-president of the conservative Olin Foundation. Simon advocated for creating a “counter-intelligentsia” that would break the back of the dominant Liberal Establishment.

The nascent movement was also about forging a working coalition of free market advocates, religious conservatives, cold warriors, libertarians, paleo-conservatives, and neo-conservatives. They didn’t always agree on everything; they didn’t have to. They needed, however, to agree to disagree in ways that wouldn’t tear the coalition apart.

Interestingly, while many conservative leaders excoriated the liberal establishment, others acknowledged being schooled in the art of coalition building by attending meetings of liberal organizations, particularly civil rights groups meeting in Washington.

In 1973, The Heritage Foundation, currently Washington, D.C.’s largest and most influential think tank, was founded through the largesse of beer magnate Joseph Coors, and heir to the Mellon fortune, Richard Mellon Scaife, and with ideological leadership from Paul Weyrich, now widely considered the “Godfather” of the New Right.

The birth of the modern Religious Right is generally traced to the founding of the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority in the 1970s — Paul Weyrich was one of those that handpicked the Rev. Falwell to head up the organization. The movement grew itself during the 1980s, a decade that began with the election of President Ronald Reagan and ended with the launching of Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition, and it matured as a major political force in the 1990s, serving as the ground troops for the Gingrich “Revolution” of 1994. And it was, and, still is, a significant force in twenty-first century politics — as evidenced by the turnout of so-called values voters in the 2004 presidential election.

So, is the Religious Right terminally ill, or, in the words of the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins and Bishop Harry Jackson in their new book Personal Faith, Public Policy, is it experiencing the “growing pains that precede a healthy expansion”? Has the bloom come off the rose or is it a movement in transition to as yet unknown vistas?

Is the Religious Right dead …

In February 2007, Jim Wallis, the founder of Sojourners magazine and the author of God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It, declared in a Time magazine essay, that “We have now entered the post-Religious Right era.” Wallis wrote: “Though religion has had a negative image in the last few decades, the years ahead may be shaped by a dynamic and more progressive faith that will make needed social change more possible.”

Wallis recently brought that very same sentiment to Comedy Central where he told Jon Stewart, host of The Daily Show: “I’ve got some good news… the dominance of the religious right over our politics is finally finished.”

In November of last year, Bill Press, a frequent co-host of CNN’s now departed Crossfire program, a spokesperson for liberal perspectives on a number of cable television’s news programs, and the author of Train Wreck: The End of the Conservative Revolution (And Not a Moment Too Soon),” wrote a piece for the conservative Internet opinion news magazine, World Net Daily, in which he stated unequivocally that “No matter who becomes the next president of the United States, the American people have already won a great victory with the total disintegration of the once all-powerful religious right.”

More recently, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne penned a column titled “Culture Wars: How 2004?” in which the senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of the recently published Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right, pointed out: “We are at the beginning of a new era in which large, secular problems related to war and peace, economics and the United States’ standing in the world will displace culture and religion as the electorate’s central concerns. Divisions on `values’ questions will not disappear, but they will be far less important to voters and campaigns.”

Dionne added: “The era of the religious right is over. Even absent the rise of urgent new problems, Americans had already reached a point of exhaustion with a religious style of politics that was dogmatic, partisan and ideological.

That style reflected a spirit far too certain of itself and far too insistent on the moral depravity of its political adversaries. It had the perverse effect of narrowing the range of issues on which religious traditions would speak out and thinning our moral discourse. Precisely because I believe in a strong public role for faith, I would insist that it is a great sellout of those traditions to assert that religion has much to say about abortion and same-sex marriage but little to teach us about war and peace, social justice and the environment.

Or is it experiencing the “growing pains that precede a healthy expansion”?

The Family Research Council (FRC), the powerful Washington, D.C.-based lobbying group, recently held a press conference to introduce Personal Faith, Public Policy, a new book co-authored by Tony Perkins, the head of the FRC, and Bishop Harry R. Jackson, an African American senior pastor of Hope Christian Church, and founder and Chairman of the High Impact Leadership Coalition.

“What our critics see as ‘splintering’ is actually the growing pains that precede a healthy expansion,” Perkins and Jackson wrote in their book. “The movement is adapting to the changing political environment and broadening its ranks while holding firmly to the principles that have united us thus far.”

Perkins and Jackson wrote: “While some argue that evangelicals lose influence when they fail to vote as a bloc for a particular political party, the ability to seed both parties and operate as a political ‘free agent’ could prove to have a much greater impact on actual public policy. As a result of the broadening of the evangelical movement, both political parties will increasingly have to compete for support of evangelicals to succeed. This, we believe, will ultimately result in policies that are more faith-friendly.”

In a recent column titled “Check Your Pulse… Are You Really Dead?,” Jackson argued that the Religious Right “continues to mature as a movement and grow in its influence in American politics. Few other constituencies can match it for size and, more importantly, unity.”

Charles Colson (with Anne Morse) recently penned a piece for the February issue of Christianity Today titled “No Utter Collapse: Recent reports of our demise betray the media’s ignorance about who we are.” Colson, the former Watergate felon who now heads Prison Fellowship Ministries, a faith-based organization fighting to receive twenty-first century dollars from the Bush Administration’s faith-based initiative, asks: “How did we go from being the most powerful voting bloc in America to utter collapse in four short years?”

The answer is, we haven’t. The press is merely up to its old tricks. When I worked in the Nixon White House, the press heralded me as the President’s brilliant young political strategist. After having built me up, the press tore me apart, calling me the “White House hatchet man” and “evil genius.” The press loves to promote people — it’s good copy — and then tear them down–also good copy. They take credit for slaying monsters they helped create. We see this vicious cycle with so many public figures today.

While acknowledging that the movement is in a period of “transition,” Colson maintained that “polls show that evangelicals are as strongly pro-life as ever, … continue to support traditional values [and] … are mightily concerned … with preventing terrorism.” He claimed that the fact that “new issues are emerging … doesn’t mean evangelicals are losing their influence.”

Striking a conciliatory chord Colson pointed out that “every evangelical leader” he knows — “Rick Warren, Jim Dobson, Bill Hybels, Jim Wallis, and Ron Sider — … right and left, in our own ways, are battling for traditional values. We’re defending life, pursuing justice, and caring for the poor.”

Colson appeals to “evangelicals of all stripes … to band together”: “What we have in common is more important than the things that divide us. Republican or Democrat, we’re all committed to preserving moral order, biblical orthodoxy, and defending the marginalized. These are biblical priorities around which we can and should unite.” And he’s dead certain that “No matter who wins the election this fall, Inauguration Day 2009 will not be Armageddon for evangelical `ayatollahs.'”

Pathway to the future

To paraphrase Mark Twain’s comments upon reading his famously premature obituary: The news of the death of the religious right has been greatly exaggerated.

The Religious Right is clearly in a transitional period; old leaders, as Dobson pointed out at the National Religious Broadcasters conference, such as the Rev. Falwell, and the lesser known but equally as influential, Dr. Kennedy, the head of Florida’s Coral Ridge Ministries and several Washington D.C. political enterprises, have passed from the scene.

New leaders such as Warren and Hybels are emerging. This generation of evangelical leaders is grappling with new issues, hoping to broaden their appeal, particularly among young people. While they remain anti-abortion and opposed to same-sex marriage, those are not the only arrows in their quiver. Many are concerned about the environment and the impact of global warming on the poor, immigration policy, social justice, racial reconciliation, and combating poverty and AIDS in Africa.

Voters identified as Christian evangelicals are apparently up for grabs in this election; perhaps for the first time since Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980. So-called values voters no longer appear to be in lock-step with the Republican Party, the Barna Research Group, a credible Christian polling firm, has found.

Arizona Senator John McCain apparently hasn’t gotten the memo: His campaign made extraordinary efforts to win endorsements from evangelical leaders similar to the ones he once characterized as “agents of intolerance.” Recently he received the on-stage pat-on-the-back endorsement from Pastor John Hagee, the powerful San Antonio, Texas-based preacher who heads Christian United for Israel. Hagee, as numerous reports have revealed, is quite comfortable spewing anti-Catholic, anti-Muslim rhetoric while writing gleefully about the coming End Times.

Despite its failure to unite around one Republican Party presidential candidate, the Religious Right is a movement that is still well-financed, still has vast media operations, is still building long-term institutions, and still, for the most part, acts in a coordinated manner.

To agree that such issues such as global warming, immigration, racial reconciliation, and AIDS in Africa should be on the Religious Right’s agenda does not mean that there is agreement on solutions to these questions. However, if Perkins, Jackson and Colson’s are correctly reading the tea leaves and believe that they too must get on the broader issues bandwagon, the Religious Right is in for some very interesting political times.

Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His column, "Conservative Watch," documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right. Read other articles by Bill, or visit Bill's website.

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  1. hp said on April 4th, 2008 at 2:21pm #

    Is there a religious left?