Even After an Obama Victory Reports of the Death of the Religious Right are Greatly Exaggerated

History was made yesterday, as Barack Hussein Obama was elected president of the United States of America. While “The religious right’s access to power in Washington, D.C. has been seriously diminished,” as the Rev. Barry Lynn of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State wrote early this morning, even in an Obama administration, expect some or all of the following to take place against the backdrop of a mainstream media giddy with reports of the demise of the religious right.

Right off the bat, longtime leaders of the religious right, monitoring every move Obama’s transition team makes, will distribute angry press releases critical of Obama administration appointees. Organizations will post heated blog entries and dash off daily e-mail alerts to supporters cataloguing a host of Obama missteps including complaints about the reversal of a number of Bush administration executive orders.

Conservative evangelical leaders will engage in a spirited and steadfast attempt to rebuild and reinvigorate a wounded movement, leading to the US Postal Service and direct-mail companies experiencing a surge in business as urgent fundraising appeals pepper the mailboxes and inboxes of religious right supporters.

At its worst—as was done during the Clinton Administration—forums will be convened to discuss whether the Obama presidency is legitimate.

An Obama presidency will force the religious right to rethink its strategy and tactics; a process that has been happening over the past few years due to the deaths of several prominent conservative Christian evangelical leaders and the aging of others.

Over the past two decades, the Christian Right has played a leading role in the use of new technologies to communicate with, mobilize, and raise money from its supporters. Longtime Christian conservative organizations such as James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, Tony Perkins’ Family Research Council, and Donald Wildmon’s American Family Association already field a full range of media operations, and they will continue to stay up to date with technological developments—particularly as they strive to bring young evangelicals into the movement.

Hillary Clinton’s slogan “Jobs, Baby, Jobs,” will come to fruition—in an ‘inside the beltway-esque’ way—as an Obama Administration not only brings in new cabinet members, advisors and aides, and their staffs, but also empties government agencies of Liberty University-schooled ideologues and fills those positions with Obama supporters. Ironically, this may strengthen the conservative movement as many of those currently employed by the Bush administration will seek and find positions at Christian conservative policy centers and Christian universities.

A host of so-called “new” evangelical leaders will try to play ball with the new administration. They will neither be as critical of, nor as uncomfortable with, Obama. Expect these newer folk to meet with Obama administration officials and to work together on a number of policy issues including Obama’s plan for revitalized faith-based initiatives, global warming, combatting AIDS in Africa and poverty at home and abroad.

“Look for the stock of religious conservative leaders such as Rick Warren, Stephen Mansfield, author of The Faith of Obama, and Cameron Strang, publisher of Relevant, a hipster Christian magazine that puffed Obama, to rise,” Jeff Sharlet, the author of The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, and RD columnist, told me. “Rich Cizik, the National Association of Evangelicals VP who sparred with dinosaurs such as James Dobson and Chuck Colson over the issue of global warming, will find himself in a stronger position.” Sharlet continued:

“If his health allows it, I wouldn’t be surprised to see David Kuo, a first-term special assistant to Bush for faith-based initiatives, returning to government in some capacity; he was thrilled when Obama announced his plan to actually expand Bush’s program, which Kuo turned against because he saw it as too partisan—and too modest.

“The religious right of the future will have a much bigger, more sophisticated, and more international agenda,” Sharlet pointed out. “Much of it will revolve around the same issues that animate liberals and leftists. But we shouldn’t assume that Christian conservatives who start with us on common ground are headed for the same destination. The temptation under Obama will be to declare the Christian Right dead, again; a premature announcement mainstream media has made a dozen times over the decades, ever since the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925.

“While one branch of the Christian Right withers, others will flower. It’s a social movement, not a political party, defined, whether it likes it or not, by evolution rather than principles. Christian fundamentalism will survive; it’ll adapt; and it may even grow stronger.”

“The far right of the patriarchy movement will not disappear under an Obama Administration, but may step back to regroup, as they have during other Democratic administrations,” said Kathryn Joyce, the author of Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement, forthcoming from Beacon Press (March 2009), adding:

Their advocacy on behalf of certain reproductive policy issues will certainly continue in enshrining broad ‘conscience clauses’ to exempt a wide range of medical industry workers from performing job tasks they object to on religious grounds; the expansion of their anti-abortion work through notification laws and the targeting of individual clinics and abortion providers on specious grounds; and will likely entail an expansion of a growing theme of their anti-abortion rhetoric: that abortion providers are engaging in racist population control measures against African American and Latino women (charges that numerous groups, including the Guttmacher Institute, have thoroughly debunked).

Obama’s administration would likely “expand the role and access of faith-based initiatives,” said Joyce, warning that:

“The Democratic Party’s courtship and pursuit of moderate evangelicals such as Jim Wallis and Rick Warren—who represent a putatively liberalized evangelicalism that tempers its social conservatism with concern for poverty and the environment—indicates a willingness to bend on the sort of civil and individual rights issues that are often a target of the religious right. The effect could be a further blending of public policy and doctrine-infused faith, where the milder social conservatism of moderate evangelicals is welcomed into an Obama government as part of a ‘big tent’ effort to accommodate believers.”

“An Obama victory will give the religious right a highly visible target to attack for at least four years,” said Rob Boston, Senior Policy Analyst, Americans United for Separation of Church and State and author of The Most Dangerous Man in America?: Pat Robertson and the Rise of the Christian Coalition. He went on to say that:

“The depths of the religious right’s loathing of Obama can be hard for some people to grasp. I got a taste of it during the ‘Values Voter Summit’ in September. Religious right groups will use an Obama presidency to raise more funds and spur activism. They will say McCain lost because he failed to appease “values voters”—even though he put Sarah Palin, an evangelical, on the ticket.”

Boston pointed out that he expected that the major religious right organizations “will, in concert with secular far-right groups, attempt to destabilize the Obama administration early on by raising some contentious ‘culture war’ issue. This will be similar to what they and their GOP allies in Congress did to Bill Clinton over gays in the military back in 1993. The idea is to cripple Obama right out of the box by forcing him to divert attention and resources away from economic concerns, which all of the polls show are of most importance to the American people.”

But, Boston noted, “these organizations will have to do some strategic shifting.” Without virtually any “clout in the White House and among the congressional majority leadership, religious right groups will have to start focusing more on state and local governments. This could mean more church-state conflict and ‘culture war’ battles in local public schools and communities.”

Boston does not see an Obama victory signaling “a crippling blow to the religious right.” He pointed out that “These organizations have been declared dead before, yet they always bounce back. The unpleasant truth is, the religious right is probably a permanent fixture in American politics. Like any social/political movement, it will see victories and defeats at the polls. No one electoral loss will spell its doom. The nation’s top ten religious right organizations bring in collectively more than half a billion dollars a year; their messages reach millions. A movement with this much money and [this many] supporters is simply not going to fade away overnight.”

At this point, at least one searing question about the religious right’s future during an Obama presidency isn’t answerable: Will Sarah Palin continue to be the darling of the Dobson-led religious right and a well-dressed poster woman for GOP politics, or will she be returned to the frozen tundra?*


*There has been a surprisingly vibrant discussion surrounding the potential redundancy of the phrase ‘frozen tundra.’ The New York Times’ sports pages reported on Lake Superior State University’s eagerly awaited List of “Words Banished From the Queen’s English for Misuse, Overuse and General Uselessness, 2003 edition,” which banished ‘frozen tundra’ for being redundant (missing the irony, perhaps, that this isn’t a word, it’s a phrase). LSSU’s 2004 edition, however, reinstated the phrase citing the objections of, among others, “adamant” Green Bay Packers fans.