Review: Is the Religious Right Dying?

In recent months, many observers have wondered (some not so silently) whether the religious right might be dying. The movement’s putative founder, Rev. Jerry Falwell, passed away last year, and several other original movement leaders, especially Rev. Pat Robertson, are far less politically relevant today than they were in their heyday. We now hear comparatively little about religious right interest groups, and the once-powerful Christian Coalition is a brittle shell of its former self. Quite a few books recently have appeared that call for or point to evidence that a new religious left may be asserting itself. A number of progressive Christian blogs, such as Street Prophets and Faithful Democrats are afire with discussion of a different kind of marriage between religion and politics that emphasizes peace and justice issues instead of socio-moral concerns. In the baffling 2008 presidential primary season, Republican candidates aligned with the religious right failed to make much headway, but Democratic candidates made concerted efforts to reach out to people of faith. Should we interpret all of these facts to mean that the religious right is indeed dying?

In his new book, Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Christian Right (Princeton University Press, 2008), political analyst E.J. Dionne Jr. argues: “The religious winds are changing. Over the last two decades, and especially the last few years, we have witnessed a great commotion over religion and politics… The era of the Religious Right is over.” Dionne’s argument exemplifies recent elite-level discourse about the impending or current demise of the religious right. Other noteworthy entries in this growing oeuvre include leading religious left activist Rev. Jim Wallis’ vividly titled The Great Awakening: Reviving Faith and Politics in a Post-Religious Right America (HarperCollins, 2008), Time journalist Amy Sullivan’s engaging The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats Are Closing the God Gap, and former National Council of Churches head Rev. Bob Edgar’s clarion call Middle Church: Reclaiming the Moral Values of the Faithful Majority from the Religious Right (Simon & Schuster, 2006). The publication of these books (and others in the genre) demonstrates that even if theirs is wishful thinking, a critical mass of elites agree that the religious right’s days of political dominance are over. Backing this view, and endorsing many of these books, is the exemplar par excellence of religio-political progressivism himself: former President Jimmy Carter.

More evidence may be gleaned from the presidential nominating process that has unfolded before our eyes this year. Considering that adherents of the religious right comprise a core constituency in the Republican Party—and that their support arguably was the most important reason why President George W. Bush was reelected in 2004—it is at least somewhat surprising that the presidential candidates most closely allied with the religious right (Gov. Mike Huckabee, Sen. Fred Thompson, and Sen. Sam Brownback) did not do better in the campaign for the Republican nomination. To be fair, Huckabee attracted a good deal of support from evangelicals across the country, but their support was not enough to vault him past Sen. John McCain. Instead, in McCain the GOP is set to nominate a presidential candidate who is on the record calling religious right leaders “agents of intolerance,” and whose 2000 presidential bid failed in large part because of his failure to earn the support of conservative evangelicals, especially in the South Carolina primary. McCain’s success this time around is surprising considering the centrality of the religious right in the Republican electoral coalition. Some observers, however, including Dionne and former White House insider David Kuo, whose book Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction (Free Press, 2006) exposed the Bush administration’s instrumental and sometimes contemptuous attitude toward conservative Christian voters, might say McCain’s success actually is not a surprise. Instead, it may be that Bush’s second term has forced the GOP to move in a different direction for strategic reasons. Yes, McCain is a Republican, but he does not fold religion and politics together à la Bush. In fact, a public perception that McCain’s relationship with the religious right is strained actually could help him win in November by strengthening his appeal to moderates. Evangelicals, after all, should not be expected to abandon the GOP altogether, as their identification with the Republican Party is at this point rather deep and abiding.

Not to be outdone, after the 2004 election the Democrats realized that they had a “religion problem” and began recalibrating their own electoral strategies as a result. A “God gap” larger than any other electoral cleavage apart from race divided the 2004 electorate: voters who frequently attended worship services were far more likely to support Bush, while Sen. John Kerry enjoyed a preponderance of support from people who rarely or never worship. (The problem for Kerry was that the United States is a highly churchgoing nation.) The 2006 midterm Elections featured several successful new Democratic candidates, including Ted Strickland (who won the Ohio gubernatorial race) and Sherrod Brown (who won a US Senate seat from Ohio) who made no bones about their personal religiosity. Both candidates retained the services of a new political consulting firm, Common Good Strategies, which was founded in 2005 with the express aim of “helping Democrats reclaim the debate on faith and values.” Learning from these candidates’ success, Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton each employ faith and values campaign advisors whose job it is to identify ways of reaching out to religious Americans using faith-based themes.

The preponderance of the evidence does suggest that a religious “middle-to-left” may in fact be resurging in the United States. The proof will be in the pudding: will the Democratic presidential candidate succeed in attracting a broad faith-based coalition of voters in November? Even if the 2008 presidential election does rewrite conventional wisdom about the ideological nature of religion’s relationship to American politics, a nascent religious left will have challenges on its hands. For decades the religious left has been missing from the national political radar screen—not just because the religious right has crowded it out, but also because its own political agenda has lacked focus and specificity. An essential element of the religious right’s political success over the past quarter century has been its laser-like focus on a relatively small number of interrelated issues. The religious left would need to define its agenda priorities clearly and precisely in order to earn concrete policy victories. Nor am I convinced that we should write an obituary for the religious right. As Dionne notes in Souled Out, “The end of the religious right does not signal a decline in evangelical Christianity” (p. 4). Far from it: evangelical Protestantism continues its exponential growth, as close to 30 percent of all Americans now consider themselves part of this vibrant religious tradition. The newer generation of evangelical Protestant leaders includes some clergy (such as Rev. Rick Warren) who have embraced a wider array of issue concerns and others (such as Rev. Joel Osteen) who steer clear of the political fray. Nevertheless, evangelicals remain stalwart opponents of abortion, and for many this issue will remain as a litmus test on election day. As a social movement, the religious right remains as a force in American politics. Its primary strength today lies in its sophisticated networks of evangelical (and, increasingly, traditional Catholic) activists at the state and local levels. Many conservative Christians have been elected to school boards, city and county government posts, and state legislatures. Conservative Christian activists also hold enormous sway over many state- and local-level Republican Party organizations. The apparent waxing of the religious left and waning of the religious right is a reflection of the cyclical nature of American politics. In the mid-twentieth century, the religion-politics relationship in the United States was purely assumed to be one of liberal faith-based advocacy. To varying degrees, mainline Protestants, African-American Protestants, Catholics, and Jews joined together in the Civil Rights Movement, the anti-Vietnam war movement, the fair housing movement, the nuclear freeze movement, and various other demands for peace and justice. In this era, conservative people of faith largely lacked a unified political voice, in part by choice; evangelical Protestants for decades embraced the view that politics is a sinful realm best avoided by people whose primary focus is on eternal salvation. (And many evangelicals still embrace this view.) In the 1980s, the religio-political winds changed, and the religious right rose to prominence. Two and a half decades on, the United States appears to be in store for another change in the zeitgeist. Everything old is new again, as is always the case in politics.