The End of the Religious Right? Not So Fast

One of the strangest phenomena in American politics is the persistence of claims, based on scanty or dubious evidence, proclaiming the death of the religious right or that the end of the culture wars is at hand. Having written about the ever-evolving religious right for more than 25 years, I have found myself often perplexed and sometimes gobsmacked by such claims.

These claims play a significant role in the discourse but they’ve received far less scrutiny than they merit. The term “culture wars” as we currently understand it was first popularized by sociologist James Davison Hunter in his 1992 book, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Control the Family, Art, Education, Law and Politics in America. Hunter framed it as a set of issues over which “orthodox” religious people and “progressives” were at odds. Perhaps irreconcilably so. And he worried that the political invective hurled by both sides could lead to violence.

But it was unsuccessful Republican presidential contender Pat Buchanan’s demagogic speech at the 1992 Republican Convention that really launched the term into our political lexicon. Although it is now generally referred to as “the culture war speech,” Buchanan never actually used the term, which is significant because Buchanan was saying something very different than Hunter:

There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be—as was the Cold War itself.

He makes it clear that this religious war is being waged on cultural fronts—but that culture is not the war itself. This is not a distinction without a difference. The religious war of which he speaks is not merely a collection of “social issues” over which people disagree, like abortion, homosexuality, and separation of church and state. It is, rather, a clash of profoundly different worldviews which are then played out in battles over specific issues.

The fascinating problem with the method of those who declare that the culture war is over, or about to be, is that they rarely if ever actually take the metaphor a step further. They do not name any of the belligerents, only the “issues” over which unnamed groups are said to be at war.

I believe there are two main reasons for this. One is the temptation to treat scandals and specific electoral outcomes as ultimate outcomes for the entire religious right or for the culture wars. On closer examination, the evidence from such episodes has never supported such conclusions. The other reason has to do with the temptation to draw sharp final conclusions from highly transitory polling data—as opposed to evaluating the players, ideologies, institutions, and leaders of the religious right.

We need to ask ourselves, and those who make these claims: How can there be a war without belligerents? How can there be an end to hostilities unless the warring parties themselves sue for peace? How can pundits say that peace is breaking out when none of the belligerents have even been asked if they would like to seek it? (And no, those engaged in self-selected common ground discussions, whatever you think of their merit, do not count.)

Consider, if we were going to talk seriously about baseball (or any other sport) as so many of us do. We would be knowledgeable about the strengths and weaknesses of the opposing sides, including such matters as injured players and replacements. We would know about the respective capacities of both teams’ pitching, running, hitting, and fielding. We might know something about the philosophies of the managers and the relative depth of the pockets of the owners. Take any field of competitive endeavor—including war itself—and the conversation is more like baseball than almost all of what we read or hear about the culture wars.

The claims that the end of the culture wars is at hand or that the religious right is dead are closely related, but they are not the same thing. Following from Buchanan, if a religious war is being fought on cultural fronts it stands to reason that the religious right, a movement dominated by conservative evangelicals and conservative Catholics, is one of the belligerents. And of course, the precipitous decline or demise of the religious right would be decisive in the outcome. But there has, to date, been no credible analysis published anywhere (to my knowledge) to show that such a decline or demise is even remotely in process. Thus it should come as no surprise that every historic element of the culture wars remains hot and that the religious right is playing a prominent and active role.

Facts are stubborn things—especially when one finds oneself without any. Some of those who make the claims we are discussing here, when they bother to cite any evidence at all, tend to rely on interpretations of convenience of public opinion polls or election outcomes. Chip Berlet has done a good job of debunking misuses of polling data of this sort, so I will not repeat all of that here.

That said, both liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats, often display a lack of appreciation of the seriousness of purpose as well as the considerable resources, ideological rigidity, and ongoing political clout of the religious right. Sometimes spectacularly so.

For example, religious right leaders objected when Governor Mitch Daniels (R-IN) called for a “truce” on contentious social issues—apparently without consulting those whom he expected to join in the truce. They declared that such a truce is the equivalent of “surrender.” Daniels, a possible 2012 GOP presidential contender, backed right off. Rob Boston, who has written about the religious right for two decades concluded that “Daniels’ quick retreat” indicates “that the religious right has lost none of its political punch.”

Politicians and their vassals understandably wish that contentious matters, over which there is little agreement (and over which they have no control), would miraculously disappear. And pols from Daniels to Barack Obama have made their wishes known. But all of the polling, focus grouping, and crafting of clever “messages” have failed to end the culture wars. The reason of course, it that the religious right, the main coalitional aggressor in the religious war and the various specific cultural battles by which most of us experience it, is unmoved by “messages.”

Little has changed since I wrote about this same general situation in my 1997 book Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy. The so-called culture war is marked not only by the kinds of volleys of unpleasant political invective from both sides that upsets DC insiders seeking to control public discourse. It also comprises real-world violence (such as the assassination of Dr. George Tiller) and threats of violence emanating almost exclusively from one side. I updated this point in an essay last year in The Public Eye magazine:

It is a one-sided war of aggression against the civil rights advances of women and minorities and the rights of individual conscience that we generally discuss under the rubric of religious pluralism and of separation of church and state. For these political aggressors, war is not merely a metaphor or the equivalent of a sports analogy. It is far more profound and stems from the conflict of “world view,” usually described as a “Biblical World view” against everything else. It is explicitly understood by its proponents as a religious war and waged accordingly on multiple fronts, mostly in terms we have come to define as “cultural.” How the conflict plays out takes on political dimensions and sometimes physical conflict. This war is theocratic in nature, and seeks to roll back decades, and depending on the faction, centuries of democratic advances.

As useful an analytical tool as polling can be, it cannot properly evaluate vast, complex, historic elements like these. But taken alone, and absent such context, polling can lead to what we may charitably describe as wishful thinking about the end of the culture wars and the demise of the religious right.

Those of us who have studied these matters for years are astounded by the frequency of such claims, and by the seeming obliviousness of otherwise thoughtful people who make them. Sometimes repeatedly. But such statements and the underlying views they represent are hallmarks of the politics of our time.

If past is prologue, fresh expressions of the death of the religious right and the end of the culture wars are surely at hand. And with them, there will be opportunities to question and to study these eruptions of an underappreciated swath of contemporary political eschatology.