Is The Religious Right Dead?

Hardly, Say Church-State Experts, As GOP Presidential Candidates Pray For The Fundamentalist Movement’s Blessings

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, told Church & State 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 these men was genuinely seeking forgiveness for their actions. My sense tells me that Mr. Gingrich is such a man. He is today happily married to wife Callista, and committed to be the husband he should be.”

As if all of this were not enough, the GOP field features two candidates who are closely identified with the social conservative camp: U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Both men have been staples at Religious Right gatherings over the past few years. (Huckabee is an ordained Southern Baptist minister.)

In early March, Huckabee traveled to Colorado Springs to meet with the executive board of Dobson’s Focus on the Family. The Associated Press reported that Huckabee proudly pledged fealty to the Religious Right and took a shot at his rival Brownback.

Meeting with reporters afterwards, Huckabee asserted, “A Washington address is not an advantage.” He urged the Republicans to rededicate themselves to a “family values” agenda and supported Focus’ right to intervene in politics.

Huckabee is apparently the second GOP contender to meet with Dobson face to face. A video posted on YouTube shows Romney talking with conservative columnist Ann Coulter and Religious Right attorney Jay Sekulow backstage at the recent gathering of the Conservative Political Action Committee in Washington, D.C. Romney is heard saying he had a “good meeting” with Dobson that “lasted almost two hours.” Romney says of Dobson, “I think he’s still open [to supporting me].”

These efforts to placate the Religious Right 18 months before the election would seem to indicate that the movement is not dead and that its activists are well poised to affect the outcome. How strong is the movement in the wake of last year’s elections?

It’s beyond dispute that the Religious Right is furious over November’s elections, but that doesn’t mean its leaders and activists are going to quietly slink away. In fact, evidence indicates just the opposite: These groups remain politically astute and are right now laying plans to use their political leverage to influence the lives of all Americans.

The Religious Right is well aware of the ground it lost in November — and is busy making plans to regain it. In late February, The New York Times reported that the Council for National Policy (CNP), a secretive group of far-right activists, convened at a Florida resort for a closed-door meeting to plot strategy. Members are clearly anxious to make certain that the GOP nominates one of their own, even if they aren’t sure yet who that is.

The Times reported that many CNP members remain suspicious of McCain, Romney and Giuliani — despite the efforts of the three men to woo religious conservatives. Attendees heard from two hopefuls: Huckabee and long shot candidate U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.). Brownback, The Times noted, had addressed the group in October.

A certain amount of anxiety hangs over the CNP, reported The Times. But one participant was confident that the leading GOP candidates could regain the group’s trust simply by recommitting themselves to its agenda.

“It’s called secondary virginity,” quipped Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform. “It is a big movement in high school and also available for politicians.”

The CNP isn’t the only far-right organization looking to extract promises from the GOP hopefuls. The Family Research Council (FRC) has announced a 2007 “Values Voter Summit” to take place in October. The FRC event is likely to be something of a beauty pageant, giving attendees an opportunity to screen GOP presidential hopefuls for ideological purity.

For those who can’t travel to Washington, the FRC is planning a big push for Web-based activism this year. Rolling Stone magazine reported that the drive will focus on videos and podcasts that the group hopes will reach millions in advance of the 2008 elections.

The Religious Right’s message to the GOP is clear: Pay attention to us.

“We want to be sure that the lessons of the last election have been learned, and that the Republicans understand that we are not a lock for the GOP,” Charmaine Yoest, FRC vice president of communications, told Rolling Stone. “When you’re looking at razor-thin margins, you better pay attention to your base.”

Such threats are the Religious Right’s bread and butter. And in primary elections especially, which tend to attract more ideologically driven voters, playing to the base can pay off. The Religious Right’s best shot at power continues to be making sure the Republican Party remains responsive to its demands — a drive that so far appears to be working.

In the meantime, for many Religious Right groups it’s business as usual. In Texas, the Rev. Rick Scarborough has announced a partnership with Religious Right activist Alan Keyes that aims to mobilize 100,000 “values voters” and 5,000 “Patriot Pastors” who will vow to “vote their Christian values on election day 2008.” Further details remain sketchy, but Scarborough promises to use the project “to awaken a sleeping church before it is too late.”

Falwell also has ambitious goals for 2008. Late last year, he announced plans to form a council of allied religious leaders to screen GOP candidates for ideological purity.

“We are hoping to find the next Ronald Reagan,” Falwell said. (See “TV Preacher Falwell And Allies Hope To Find ‘Next Ronald Reagan,’” January 2007 Church & State.)

Other factions of the Religious Right are busy taking aim at Democratic Party hopefuls. The Southern Baptist Convention’s Land, who fancies himself something of a political powerbroker these days, recently remarked on “the Darth Vader-like specter of a Hillary Clinton presidency” in The Washington Post. Land, whose 16-million member denomination probably includes at least a few Democrats, seemed unconcerned about uttering such inflammatory and partisan comments.

Meanwhile, Charisma magazine, a publication aimed at Pentecostal Christians, is trying to knock Clinton rival U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) down a few pegs. A column in the March issue by Charisma publisher Stephen Strang praised Brownback and went on to incorrectly assert that Obama was raised as a Muslim, warning ominously, “Who would have thought that a man raised as a Muslim would become the darling of the liberal media and be put forward as a possible presidential candidate? I think you can see that we are engaged in serious spiritual warfare. So I am calling on all intercessors and all those concerned about the outcome of this election — whether you are a Republican or a Democrat — to pray as never before.”

Religious Right groups remain active at the grassroots level as well. Their power tends to be magnified during the primary season, when only the most committed — and ideologically driven — voters show up at the polls.

This trend is even more pronounced in a state like Iowa, which chooses convention delegates through a labor-intensive caucus system as opposed to a primary. The Politico newspaper, a D.C. publication that covers politics, reported last month that Steve Scheffler, head of the Iowa Christian Alliance (ICA), is poised to play a major role in that state’s Republican caucus.

The ICA broke away from the Christian Coalition a few years ago and quickly established itself as influential in the state GOP. The Politico called Scheffler “the man to see for Republicans courting the Christian right.” The paper noted that during its interview with Scheffler, he took a phone call from a top McCain supporter in Iowa, inviting him to meet the Arizona senator.

The next president will probably see vacancies on the Supreme Court as well as have the opportunity to shape church-state relations in areas like “faith-based” funding, stem-cell research, the proper role of religion in public life and other issues. Too much is at stake for the Religious Right to decide to sit out the election.

Those skeptical of the claims of the Religious Right’s death have history on their side. Wallis is hardly the first to announce the death of the Religious Right. The movement was proclaimed dead after Falwell shut down the Moral Majority in 1989, and after Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992.

More recently, some analysts predicted the demise of the Religious Right when Robertson cut loose the Christian Coalition in December of 2001. The group did indeed go into decline, but other organizations quickly filled the gap.

Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn, whose recent book Piety & Politics: The Right-Wing Assault on Religious Freedom scores the Religious Right for its theocratic tendencies, said no one should assume that the movement is on the ropes.

Lynn said Religious Right leaders oversee sprawling and well-funded radio, television and Web-based operations that reach millions of Americans daily. Their pressure groups are well established in Washington and continue to enjoy unprecedented access to many far-right legislators.

“It would be comforting to think that the era of the Religious Right has passed,” Lynn said, “but I see absolutely no evidence that this has happened. Organizations determined to tear down the church-state wall are not going to give up the power they spent 40 years amassing simply because not everything went well for them during the last election cycle. These groups will continue to press their theocratic agenda, and we must continue to resist it.”