The Common Good
November-December 1999

A Declining Force

by S. J. Carr | November-December 1999

An inside look at the fall of the Religious Right

Some books should be read simply for what they say; others for who has written them, and why. Given the circumstances of America’s Christian Right nowadays, Blinded By Might: Can the Religious Right Save America? brilliantly exemplifies the latter.

Authors Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson were once senior figures in the Moral Majority. Twenty years after that first great dreadnought of the Christian Right was launched, and more than a decade after its sinking, they are now haunted by two questions: What happened? What now?

Thomas answers the first with unvarnished bluntness: "Two decades after conservative Christians charged into the political arena, bringing new voters and millions of dollars with them in hopes of transforming the culture through political power, it must now be acknowledged that we failed."

That’s the book’s—if you will—"political frame," to which Dobson adds a second, "religious" analysis no less firm: "The Christian Coalition reduces the Christian faith to a series of political positions, and that is the equivalent of theological heresy."

As the two men fully understood, either charge alone guaranteed controversy among fellow conservative evangelicals. But together, the accusations of "political failure" and "theological heresy" have ignited a firefight among their allies since the book first appeared.

They are accused of abandoning the Christian Right, but Thomas and Dobson insist they haven’t done any such thing. Rather, they say, they are calling for a baseline reappraisal of what has and hasn’t been accomplished after 20 years—and where the Religious Right needs to go next. Yet their proposals aren’t likely to quiet their detractors, inside or outside the movement.

THE PAST TWO decades have witnessed, lest we forget, the third major rise of the Religious Right in this century. The first, in the 1920s, blended a potent stream of anti-modernism (emblemized by the Scopes trial) with bitter strains of nativism, anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism, and racism. The second, in the ‘50s and ‘60s, combined its own hyperbolic variant of American anti-communism with often die-hard resistance to integration and civil rights. Seen from the hindsight of century’s end, neither had a viable national political future or base—and, to be frank, embodied some of the ugliest stains on our public landscape.

When the third round emerged in the late 1970s, its founders chose to learn from past failures. Abandoning, indeed admirably condemning, anti-Catholicism, anti-Semitism, and overt racism, the new (but still overwhelmingly Protestant fundamentalist) Religious Right set out with a heady trans-denominational ecumenism, at least among those who shared their political goals, that clearly marked a new phase.

But it also started from a new place politically. The Majority was the brainchild of three men: Howard Phillips, Paul Weyrich, and Jerry Falwell. Phillips, who’s Jewish, and Weyrich, who’s Catholic, had emerged from the remnants of the Goldwater campaign, true believers in right-wing politics, not right-wing religion per se. Together with direct-mailer Richard Viguerie and political strategist Terry Dolan, though, they decided Protestant fundamentalists could be a new Republican voting bloc—and saw Falwell as an ideal leader for aiding and accelerating the shift of largely Southern voters from their embrace of the Democratic Party to the welcoming arms of conservative Republicans.

This led to an incongruous and fractious "movement"—top-down and grassroots at once, fueled by direct mail and television appeals. It focused on hardball electoral politics and cynical media manipulation even as it preached evangelical redemption.

Millions of voters indeed shifted parties, though to this day it’s hard to tell how many of them shifted because they were religious fundamentalists or because they were conservative voters, among whom many happened also to be fundamentalists (36 percent of evangelicals, after all, voted for Clinton in 1996). From the beginning, of course, the Christian Right’s various leaders claimed it was the former.

The trickier question is what they actually got for their new Republican loyalties. Thomas’ and Dobson’s point is "not much" on abortion, school prayer, and gay issues—and it is this that leads basically to their judgment of "failure." Electoral politics, despite solid Republican dominance, led to "economic issue" victories for the party’s traditional country-clubbers, not "social issue" wins for its newly recruited evangelicals.

BLINDED BY MIGHT

wants fundamentalists now to revive some of their older practices and beliefs—in effect, return to salvation "one soul at a time." The Christian Right shouldn’t entirely abandon politics, the two argue, but rather abandon thinking of itself as the Republican’s electoral shock troops. Vote your principles, pray faithfully, send letters or e-mails when you disagree with public policy. Send money to anti-abortion groups, but—just as important—volunteer at a local crisis pregnancy center. "Most important," they note, "we need a happier countenance....Who wants to hang out with whiners and complainers?" Learn, even, to love your enemies.

Passionate colleagues (James Dobson, for one) reject this advice—even while remaining quieter in their own evaluation of the Religious Right’s successes. Yet Blinded By Might accurately captures honest reflections many in the Christian Right need to hear. In decline as a coherent electoral force, it faces a dilemma: Its core set of issues—so heavily focused on control over acts and images involving sexuality, gender, and reproduction—have at once been fought, ignored, and transmuted by others. And while those issues won’t go away, others have surfaced, along with new political alliances.

If the Christian Right were simply a political party, ideological "remodeling"—as Clinton and Blair (and before them Reagan and Thatcher) all pursued—would be the order of the day. But it isn’t—and besides the late ‘90s aren’t the late ‘70s or ‘80s—and so there’s a dilemma. Thomas’ and Dobson’s solution is to hold to their core values, yet "soften" their approach by recognizing what for too long the Christian Right ignored: that God’s world and Caesar’s aren’t the same.

What fellow Christians, though, should be asking of these authors and their allies (if indeed the Christian Right is a religious movement first) is something different—and more. It turns on this simple religious and moral question that precedes politics: When will you, in Christ’s name, speak of and for the poor—and economic justice not just for the poor, but for all across God’s earth?

Why political conservatives should worship at the altar of The Market and embrace the God of the Invisible Hand is no surprise. But why Christians, conservative or otherwise, should ignore the most elemental reading of the gospels and the prophets is. Honest men Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson may be in Blinded By Might, yet, sadly, in Christian terms they remain still blind, it seems to me, to the greater right—and greater light—that lies beyond the very question of might itself. —Richard Parker

RICHARD PARKER teaches on religion, politics, and public policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

Blinded by Might. Thomas, Cal Dobson, Ed. Zondervan, 1/1/99.

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