The Common Good

Religious Right - Growing Pains, or Death Throes?

Date: April 15, 2008

During a recent appearance at the National Religious Broadcasters conference, Dr. James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family, expressed deep concern about the future of the conservative Christian movement he helped build and define.

"The question is, will the younger generation heed the call?" he asked. "Who will defend the unborn child in the years to come?... Who's going to fight for the institution of marriage, which is on the ropes today?"

Dobson pointed out that the recent deaths of such influential evangelical leaders as Rev. Jerry Falwell, Dr. D. James Kennedy and Ruth Graham Bell "represent[ed] the end of an era". The radio talk show host noted that others like Billy Graham, Chuck Colson, Pat Robertson and Chuck Swindoll will also soon pass from the scene, and he questioned the impact on their passing on the conservative Christian church.

"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?" Dobson asked.

The modern Religious Right got off the ground in the 1970s with the founding of Falwell's Moral Majority. It grew during the 1980s, a decade that ended with the launching of Pat Robertson's politically savvy Christian Coalition, and matured as a political movement in the 1990s, serving as the ground troops for the Newt Gingrich "Revolution" of 1994. And it is still a major force in 21st century politics -- as evidenced by the turnout of so-called "values voters" in the 2004 presidential election.

These days, it is fashionable in liberal circles to pronounce the death of the Religious Right. In February 2007, Jim Wallis, the founder of Sojourners magazine and the author of "God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't 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 last year, Bill Press, the author of "Train Wreck: The End of the Conservative Revolution (And Not a Moment Too Soon)", wrote a piece for 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, E. J. Dionne, a columnist for the Washington Post and author of "Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right", pointed out that "The era of the religious right is over. Even absent the rise of urgent new problems, Americans had already reached a point of exhaustion with a religious style of politics that was dogmatic, partisan and ideological."

While liberals exuberantly declare the death of the right, conservatives beg to differ.

In "Personal Faith, Public Policy", Tony Perkins, the head of the influential Family Research Council, and Bishop Harry R. Jackson, the African American founder and chairman of the High Impact Leadership Coalition, declare that "What our critics see as 'splintering' is actually the growing pains that precede a healthy expansion."

The authors claim that, "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."

Charles Colson (with Anne Morse) recently penned a piece for Christianity Today titled "No Utter Collapse: Recent reports of our demise betray the media's ignorance about who we are." Morse and Colson, the former Watergate felon who now heads Prison Fellowship Ministries, ask: "How did we go from being the most powerful voting bloc in America to utter collapse in four short years?"

After blaming the liberal media for being up to its "old tricks", Colson acknowledged that the movement is in a period of "transition". He and Morse maintained that "every evangelical leader" they know, "right and left, in our own ways, are battling for traditional values."

Colson and Morse appealed to "evangelicals of all stripes... to band together": "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 marginalised. These are biblical priorities around which we can and should unite." And he's dead certain that "No matter who wins the election this fall, Inauguration Day 2009 will not be Armageddon for evangelical 'ayatollahs'."

Clearly the Religious Right is in a period of transition -- old leaders have passed, new ones have risen. Many of them head up mega-churches with worshippers numbering in the thousands and, in addition to filling seats every Sunday, they also are interested in creating community.

While they remain strongly anti-abortion and opposed to same-sex marriage, they are also concerned about the environment and the impact of global warming on the poor, immigration policy, racial reconciliation, combating poverty and AIDS in Africa.

However, nearly every new initiative brought by the young turks is countered by the old-timers. Two years ago, when the Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN) announced its Evangelical Climate Initiative -- a document recognising the seriousness of global warming and signed onto by a group of mega-church pastors, Christian college presidents and theologians -- the response from the old timers was swift and critical.

Most significantly for the 2008 elections, it appears that voters who self-identify as Christian evangelicals are apparently up for grabs, perhaps for the first time since Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980. The Barna Research Group, a credible Christian polling firm, has found that "values voters" no longer appear to be marching in complete 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 has been cyclical, this has not been your grandfather's movement. This Religious Right was built for the long haul. It created citadels of power, is well-financed and media savvy, has vast media operations and continues to build long-lasting institutions. And it still, for the most part, can be counted on to act in a relatively coordinated manner.

Here's the rub and it may prove to be a major contradiction: While the old-timers might agree that such issues such as global warming, immigration, racial reconciliation, and AIDS in Africa are important issues, it does not mean that they will agree on policy solutions to these issues.

However, if Perkins, Jackson and Colson's are reading the tea leaves correctly and recognise that they too must get on the broader-issues bandwagon, we are all in for some very interesting times.