Is the Religious Right Wounded or in Transition?

These days, you can hardly pick up a newspaper, open a news magazine, or log on to the Internet without encountering articles with the theme "Whither the religious right?" Fred Clarkson, a veteran journalist, co-founder of, and author of the 1997 Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy, recently noted that, "It seems that every few weeks someone who ought to know better announces that the religious right is dead, dying, or irrelevant." 

Since the advent of the modern religious right in the 1970s, some analysts have consistently seen the latest misstep, defeat, or scandal as portents of the movement’s decline. Meanwhile others have chattered on about an unstoppable juggernaut exemplified by a presidential administration stocked with graduates of the religious right’s culture war classrooms and GOP-linked "value voters" flocking to the polls in record numbers. 

Earlier this spring, during an appearance at the National Religious Broadcasters conference—a gathering of hundreds of the most influential religious broadcasters—Focus on the Family’s founder Dr. James Dobson, who oversees a multi-million dollar media empire, expressed deep concern about the future of the conservative Christian movement he helped build and define. 

Dobson pointed out that the deaths of evangelical leaders such as Rev. Jerry Falwell, Dr. D. James Kennedy, and Ruth Graham Bell "represent the end of an era." He noted that other leaders, like Billy Graham, Chuck Colson, Pat Robertson, and Chuck Swindoll, will also soon pass from the scene. Dobson asked, "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? What will be the impact on the conservative Christian church when the patriarchs have passed?"

The religious right is one wing of what in the early 1980s was termed the New Right. From its inception, the New Right was founded on a set of principles with benchmarks and talking points, many of which were adjusted to suit the political times. It was driven by a core group of entrepreneurs and philanthropists along with highly motivated conservative activists, many of whom had been involved with the failed 1964 presidential campaign of Senator Barry Goldwater. 

These conservatives included William Simon, Richard Nixon’s former energy czar and then-president of the conservative Olin Foundation, who advocated creating a "counter-intelligentsia" that would break the back of the dominant "liberal establishment." 

The New Right aimed at forging a coalition of religious conservatives, free market advocates, cold warriors, libertarians, paleo-conservatives, and neo-conservatives. In 1973 the Heritage Foundation, currently Washington, DC’s largest and most influential think tank, was founded through the largesse of beer magnate Joseph Coors and the heir to the Mellon fortune Richard Mellon Scaife, with ideological leadership from Paul Weyrich, widely considered the "godfather" of the New Right. 

The birth of the modern religious right is generally traced to the founding of Falwell’s Moral Majority in the 1970s. (Weyrich was one of those that picked Falwell to head up the organization.) The movement grew during the 1980s, a decade that began with the election of Ronald Reagan and ended with the launching of Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition. It matured as a major political force in the 1990s, serving as the ground troops for the Gingrich "revolution" of 1994. It was a significant recent force as evidenced by the turnout of so-called values voters in the 2004 presidential election. 

In February 2007 Jim Wallis, the founder of Sojourners magazine and the author of Gods Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesnt 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." 

In November 2007, Bill Press, a frequent co-host of CNN’s now departed "Crossfire" program 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 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," stated that, "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…. The era of the religious right is over." 

Longtime leaders of the religious right feel that the news of the death of their movement has been exaggerated. The Family Research Council (FRC), the powerful Washington, DC-based lobbying group, recently held a press conference to introduce Personal Faith, Public Policy, in which the authors, Tony Perkins and Bishop Harry Jackson, write that, "What our critics see as ‘splintering’ is actually the growing pains that precede a healthy expansion…. 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…. 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, an African American senior pastor, 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 and Anne Morse 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, former Watergate felon and head of Prison Fellowship Ministries, an organization trying to get money 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…. 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." 

The column urges reconciliation between conservative and liberal evangelicals. Concerned about the loss of political influence and trying to strike a conciliatory chord, Colson and Morse point out that "every evangelical leader" he knows—Rick Warren, Jim Dobson, Bill Hybels, Jim Wallis, and Ron Sider—is "defending life, pursuing justice, and caring for the poor…. 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 margin- alized. These are biblical priorities around which we can and should unite." 

For the religious right, the times they are a changing as recent actions suggest: 

  • the current investigations of the financial and political activities of prominent so-called prosperity gospel televangelists 
  • the drug and sexcapades of the Bush administration-connected Ted Haggard 
  • the continual mad musings of televangelist and multimillionaire media mogul Pat Robertson 
  • the inglorious demise of Robertson’s Christian Coalition 
  • conservative evangelicals’ ties to the Administration’s foreign policy disasters 
  • the political intrigues of Dobson’s multimillion dollar media empire 
  • the End Time visions of Tim LaHaye, the longtime religious right activist and co-author of Left Behind, the best-selling series of apocalyptic novel 
  • the machinations and political miscalculations of the once mighty Ralph Reed and Tom DeLay
  • the raw bigotry of multimillionaire Hagee 
  • the movement’s failure to unite around one Republican Party presidential candidate, clearly suggests a movement in disarray 

But while old leaders have passed from the scene, new leaders such as Warren and Hybels have risen. Many of the new leaders head up mega- churches and, in addition to wanting to fill seats every weekend, they are also creating community. This new generation of evangelical leaders is grappling with new issues, hoping to broaden their appeal, particularly among young people. 

While they remain strongly 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, about immigration policy, racial reconciliation, and combating poverty and AIDS in Africa.  

However, with every new liberal-seeming initiative there has been a reaction from the old timers. Two years ago, when the Evangelical Environmental Network announced its Evangelical Climate Initiative—a document signed on to by a group of megachurch pastors, Christian college presidents, and theologians—the response from the old guard was swift and critical. 

The Evangelical Environmental Network aimed to educate its constituents about the seriousness of global warming and call for the U.S. government to come up with legislation establishing limits on carbon dioxide emissions. They were countered by Dobson, Colson, Richard Land (president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention), the Traditional Values Coalition’s Lou Sheldon, and the American Family Association’s Donald Wildmon, who signed a letter saying, "Global warming is not a consensus issue and our love for the Creator and respect for His creation does not require us to take a position." 

Most significantly for the 2008 election, it appears that voters who self-identify as Christian evangelicals are apparently up for grabs, perhaps for the first time since 1980. The Barna Research Group, a credible Christian polling firm, has found that so-called values voters no longer appear to be marching in lock-step with the Republican Party. A Barna survey found that 40 percent of all "born again" adults who plan to vote in November said they would choose a Democratic candidate, while just 29 percent said they would vote for a Republican. 

Although some have argued that the rise and fall of religious right movements in this country have been cyclical, this religious right was built for the long haul. It still has vast media operations and continues to build long-lasting institutions and still, for the most part, can be counted on to act in a relatively coordinated manner. 

Here’s what may prove to be a major contradiction: while old-timers might agree that issues such as global warming, immigration, racial reconciliation, and AIDS in Africa are important, it does not mean that they agree on policy solutions to these issues. If Perkins, Jackson, and Colson are reading the tea leaves correctly and recognize that they, too, must get on the broader issues bandwagon and hook up with the Hawaiian shirt- wearing Rick Warren, the impeccably outfitted Joel Osteen, the kinder, gentler and infinitely more cuddly Mike Huckabee, we are in for some very interesting political times.



Bill Berkowitz is a freelance writer covering conservative movements.