The Religious Right Has Had Its Day? Fat Chance
A provocative essay in Time magazine raised more than a few eyebrows in mid-February with a headline that made a startling claim: "The Religious Right's Era Is Over," it blared.
Moderate evangelical minister Jim Wallis, the author of the piece, confidently asserted that the Religious Right's day has passed.
"We have now entered the post-Religious Right era," wrote Wallis, author of the popular book God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It. "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."
It's a stunning claim that might have sold more than a few magazines. But is it true?
A careful reading of Wallis' column reveals that his evidence for the death of the Religious Right could charitably be called thin: He asserts that younger evangelicals are deserting the Religious Right "in droves" and that a more broadly based evangelical agenda is emerging.
This new agenda, Wallis insists, will shift the focus away from divisive social issues like same-sex marriage and intelligent design and toward "poverty and economic justice, global warming, HIV/AIDS, sex trafficking, genocide in Darfur and the ethics of the war in Iraq."
Concludes Wallis confidently, "The era of the Religious Right is now past, and it's up to all of us to create a new day."
If the Religious Right is dead, someone forgot to tell that to many leading political figures. The unusually early start to the 2008 campaign season has been marked by a number of aspiring Republican presidential hopefuls contorting themselves to please Religious Right honchos.
One of the nation's leading experts on the Religious Right, John C. Green, a professor of political science at the University of Akron, said that Wallis has probably overstated the case in proclaiming a post-Religious Right era.
"Wallis has a point about the Religious Right losing its near monopoly on political discourse in American politics," Green said. "The rise of the 'Religious Left' and the reaction of moderates means that religious voters will encounter a wider range of options at election time.
"However," Green continued, "it may be premature to claim that the Religious Right organizations will fade away or that their target constituencies will withdraw from politics. Indeed, the existence of other religious voices may lead the Religious Right to step up its activism in the short run. The last 30 years have shown that religious conservatives are very resourceful and not easily discouraged in the face of opposition."
Another Religious Right watcher, journalist Michelle Goldberg of the on-line magazine Salon, whose 2006 book Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism is highly critical of the Religious Right, isn't persuaded by claims that the movement is dead.
"I sincerely hope that Jim Wallis is right. I also sincerely doubt it," Goldberg said. "Certainly, the movement has suffered some major setbacks, including the falls of Ted Haggard and Tom DeLay and the loss of Congress. But the Religious Right has been pronounced dead many, many times before -- after the televangelist scandals of the late '80s, after Clinton was elected and reelected and during the 1999 presidential race, when The Economist opined, 'The armies of righteousness, which once threatened to overwhelm the Republican Party, are downcast and despondent.'"
Goldberg noted that the 2006 election may in some ways have strengthened the Religious Right, since incumbents representing some of the last vestiges of northeastern moderate Republicanism lost their seats.
Is the Religious Right kaput? Even a casual glance at some recent news stories would seem to indicate otherwise. Consider, for example, the case of Mitt Romney.
Running for a U.S. Senate seat from Massachusetts against Ted Kennedy in 1994, Romney positioned himself as a different kind of Republican -- a socially liberal one. On the campaign trail, Romney vowed to defend legal abortion and be an even bigger champion of gay rights than Kennedy.
Today Romney sounds like an entirely different man. After losing to Kennedy and going on to be elected governor of Massachusetts for a single term, Romney has decided to seek the Republican presidential nomination. He now blasts legal abortion and plays up his opposition to same-sex marriage. He also accepted an invitation to deliver this spring's commencement address at TV preacher Pat Robertson's Regent University.
What happened? Political observers say the answer is obvious: Social liberalism might have been fine for a Massachusetts Republican, but it will never play well on the national GOP stage. To survive the primaries, Romney must placate the Religious Right -- and that's exactly what he's doing.
He's not the only one. U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a man who once blasted top Religious Right leaders as "agents of intolerance," now seems permanently affixed to TV preacher Jerry Falwell and has been making the rounds of various Religious Right gatherings.
Even Rudy Giuliani, noted for his social liberalism during his eight-year tenure as New York City mayor, felt compelled recently to explain how much he personally loathes legal abortion on Fox News Channel's Hannity & Colmes.
"Where I stand on abortion is, I oppose it," Giuliani said during the Feb. 6 broadcast. "I don't like it. I hate it. I think abortion is something that, as a personal matter, I would advise somebody against."
Giuliani went on to explain that even though he believes abortion should remain legal despite his despising of it, he would have no problem putting limits on the procedure and appointing anti-choice justices like Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court. He also stressed his opposition to same-sex marriage.
A week later, Robertson's Regent University announced that Giuliani would speak this month at an "Executive Leadership Series."
But Giuliani still has some work to do. Richard Land, head of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, told the Associated Press in early March that he expects many conservative evangelicals to look askance at the thrice-married former mayor. Land pointed out that Giuliani appeared in public with the woman who became his third wife while still married to wife number two.
"I mean, this is divorce on steroids," Land said. "To publicly humiliate your wife in that way, and your children -- that's rough. I think that's going to be an awfully hard sell, even if he weren't pro-choice and pro-gun control."
Around the same time, McCain was working the crowd at the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) convention in Orlando. McCain's Feb. 19 remarks at a reception for NRB members was not open to the media, but the Orlando Sentinel reported that the Arizona senator reiterated his support for overturning Roe v. Wade, the 1973 case that legalized abortion. McCain also expressed his opposition to same-sex marriage, although he declined to endorse a constitutional amendment banning it. (Romney and U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback also appeared at NRB-related events.)
Following the meeting, the Rev. Patrick Mahoney of the Christian Defense Coalition, a rabidly anti-abortion group, told the Associated Press that McCain's visit was helpful.
"He recognized he cannot be president of the United States without reaching out to the evangelicals," Mahoney said. "There definitely is an uneasy relationship between McCain and people of faith, but he is reaching out and he is breaking down those walls. He helped himself in that room tremendously today."
Days after the NRB appearance, McCain spoke at a luncheon cosponsored by the Discovery Institute, a Seattle organization that promotes "intelligent design." McCain had previously endorsed teaching intelligent design in public schools.
McCain seems aware that his efforts to court the very religious conservatives that he once mocked are putting him in a difficult position. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd reported that during a Feb. 23 McCain speech in Seattle, an audience member challenged him by asking, "I've seen in the press where in your run for the presidency, you've been sucking up to the Religious Right. I was just wondering how soon do you predict a Republican candidate for president will start sucking up to the old Rockefeller wing of the Republican Party?"
McCain replied, "I'm probably going to get in trouble, but what's wrong with sucking up to everybody?"
Although not an announced candidate, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is also working to mend fences with the Religious Right. Gingrich, who has been making overtures about a possible run, appeared on Focus on the Family founder James C. Dobson's radio program in early March and declared that he had "gotten on my knees and sought God's forgiveness" for moral lapses. (Gingrich was apparently referring to his extra-marital affair with a young aide. He later divorced his wife and married his mistress.)
Gingrich's confession that he had an affair at the same time he was attacking President Bill Clinton for his dalliance with intern Monica Lewinsky has not rattled one top Religious Right leader. Falwell has invited Gingrich to speak at Liberty University's commencement in May and says he does not regret that.
"As a pastor with more than a half-century of experience of working with fallible people, I have ministered to a few men who have experienced moral collapse," wrote Falwell in a message to supporters. "I have usually been able to tell which of the