It's Alive!: Claims Of Religious Right's Demise Are Premature
Rob Boston printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Tue Oct 30, 2007 at 12:53:58 PM EST
It's almost Halloween, and I like nothing better than to curl up with a classic monster movie. Just when you think the angry villagers have finally killed Frankenstein's monster, shot the wolfman with silver bullets or staked Count Dracula, up they spring again for another sequel.

It's part of the fun. These monsters are so iconic they can never really die. (Plus, there's more money in sequels.)

The Religious Right isn't as much fun as a monster movie -- although it is just as scary at times. And, like those old monsters, the death of the Religious Right is often proclaimed just a bit prematurely.

On Sunday, The New York Times unleashed two more Religious Right obituaries: Reporter David Kirkpatrick wrote a cover story about turmoil in the Religious Right for the Times Magazine, and columnist Frank Rich gloated over the so-called death of the Religious Right on the Opinion page.

I respect both of these guys. They know their stuff, and their articles over the years have been marked by a depth of knowledge and political savvy. But this time I must respectfully dissent. The Religious Right is not dead; indeed, the movement is not even wounded.

Claims that the Religious Right is on the ropes tend to rest on a few key arguments. One is the continued popularity of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani among Republican voters.

The easiest thing to say here is that the race is not over yet. Giuliani leads national polls, but those same polls show his support is rather soft. It's also telling that Giuliani is not leading among Republicans in Iowa, a state where the Religious Right dominates the GOP. In fact, he runs fourth, trailing Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson and Mike Huckabee, all of whom have made a big play for the Religious Right vote.

The election is more than a year off. Although inside-the-Beltway political junkies obsess over every new poll and twist in the horse race, the fact remains that most Americans aren't yet engaged. This includes many Religious Right activists. With the Republican field wide open, it's not surprising that religious conservatives are lining up behind different candidates. The same pattern held true in 1988, 1996 and 2000.

The second argument for the supposed weakening of the Religious Right is the rise of a so-called moderate evangelicalism that focuses on issues like global warming and care of the poor.

There are indeed some signs of a broadening of issues among some evangelicals. But it remains to be seen how large this movement is or if it is anything more than a passing fad that has been overly hyped by the media. Certainly there are no national organizations pushing this line that can match national Religious Right groups dollar for dollar.

The leaders of this loose movement - Jim Wallis, Rick Warren and Bill Hybels among others - are often referred to in the media as moderates or even liberals. While they may take some moderate views on issues like climate change, Wallis, Warren and Hybels parrot the Religious Right line on social issues. To our knowledge, not one of them has ever voiced support for the wall of separation between church and state.

I'm skeptical of polls that purport to survey self-identified "evangelicals" and show them as less interested in core Religious Right issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. Many people view the term "evangelical" favorably and glom on to it. Not all who call themselves evangelicals are in sympathy with the Religious Right or even Republicans.

Other polls tell a different story. One recent poll found that 27 percent of Republican voters would bolt the party if a pro-choice candidate is nominated. It's a good bet these are Religious Right voters, and their defection from the GOP could not help but alter the dynamic of the race.

The recent "Values Voter Summit" is further evidence of the Religious Right's continued power. The turnout of more than 2,000 activists rivaled the numbers the Christian Coalition brought to Washington during its heyday. Every Republican candidate was there, pledging fealty to the Religious Right's pet issues. One wonders why they came to woo a dead movement.

We must also look at resources. A recent report by Americans United found that the nation's top Religious Right groups are better funded than ever. James Dobson's Focus on the Family took in $142.2 million in 2006, a $4.4 million increase over the previous year. Tony Perkins' Family Research Council took in $10.3 million in 2006, an increase of over $900,000 over the previous year.

It is true that some Religious Right leaders have died recently, notably Jerry Falwell and D. James Kennedy. But movement leaders come and go. Falwell's son, Jonathan, is already working to take his place. (The younger Falwell is mobilizing pastors on behalf of the GOP in state elections next month.) Behind the scenes, figures like far-right pastors Rick Scarborough and Rod Parsley are working to build a national presence.

I've worked at Americans United for 20 years. Claims that the Religious Right is dead sound familiar to me. The Religious Right supposedly died in 1989 when Falwell disbanded the Moral Majority. It died again in 1992 when Bill Clinton was elected president. Then it croaked once more in 1996 when Clinton was reelected. In 2000, The Economist declared the Religious Right D.O.A. on the eve of the election - just days before the movement helped put George W. Bush in the White House.

My guess is the Religious Right still has a few tricks up its sleeve. This Halloween and beyond, I'll be keeping my eyes open (and I suggest you do as well). We may think we've staked the monster, but chances are there's still something lurking in the dark shadows that lie ahead.

There is no way to demolish something that has taken decades of careful planning to build, so the religious right will be with us for many years to come and cause much mischief, but I do believe that they are at the beginning of an inexorable decline.

The problem isn't the money (though it might become one if the Democrats take over the White House), it's the demographics.  Younger people, younger voters are markedly less religious, and even less anti-gay than their older counterparts, and especially the leaders.  While it is true that they also vote in smaller numbers, that will change as they get older, and so will the voting bloc of the religious right.

And you also can't discount the importance of the evangelical's internal battle over which issues to go to war on.  Gay marriage is fast becoming a loser for them, and embryonic stem cell research will be too if and when the first treatments arrive.  And the ideas of raising the profile of poverty and stewardship of the planet are dangerous ones for the conservative religious right because they know that the progressive message on those issues is attractive to many (not to mention that it tends to work better as policy too!).

We'll see if a pro-choice Republican can win the ticket.  In the end, he may not, but that doesn't mean the religious right isn't in trouble -- especially in the long run.

by tacitus on Tue Oct 30, 2007 at 01:51:17 PM EST

to America recently (last 6 months or so), and I do believe that he is diversifying from the gay-abortion axis to rally the pro-war faction to him, and to have an issue that seems likely to have longer-term hot-button influence over the next generation than gays.

I do think that Rude Rudy appeals because he has "war hero" status in their eyes (yes, seems illogical), and that the religious conservatives may see him as palatable enough come the general election. One of the other things that may be appealing to the religious conservatives is that he "cleaned up New York City", that traditional den of iniquity, and by "cleaned up", I think the main thing is "keeping  non-wealthy blacks (other than on-the-job service workers and servants) out of public space in Manhattan south of Harlem".  Rudy's love of authoritarianism appeals to all those who want to keep down "those people" (fill in the blank, but in America, it's usually blacks, Hispanics, and brown immigrants of all sorts).

by NancyP on Tue Oct 30, 2007 at 02:37:28 PM EST

While Dobson is no fan of Rudy, you may have hit on the reason why he may still endorse him should he win the nomination (or, at the very least, not actively oppose him).

Dobson did say that "voting for the lesser of two evils was still voting for evil" at the Values Voters Summit the other week, and he obviously meant Rudy, but Dobson has also shown, by the company he keeps, that he is not immune to compromising his supposed pro-family principles if there is something in it for him.

How else can one explain his friendship with and admiration for people like Tom Delay, Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich?  Fine, upstanding examples of morals and family values, they are most certainly not.

Bogus scaremongering over Islam is all they seem to have in common, and if Rudy shows the slightest sign of warming up to Dobson, I suspect it will be enough to turn Dobson's head.

Dobson has already proven, many times, than principles will only take him so far away from the centers of power.

by tacitus on Tue Oct 30, 2007 at 03:25:30 PM EST

sat out the election in 1996, and later privately said he had voted for the Constitution Party candidate, Howard Phillips.

He epitomizes the religious right absolutism on abortion and homosexuality. He does not compromise on those, even as he toadies to power in the GOP. It is a tricky balance.

That he has joined a group of people who say they will go third party if the GOP candidate is unsatisfactory means that they are, as Alan Keyes said earlier this year would be necessary, either going to stay on board or jump ship together.

I think the jury is entirely out on that.

by Frederick Clarkson on Tue Oct 30, 2007 at 04:09:24 PM EST

are diversifying to anti-Islam, probably for its hoped-for longevity as a rallying cry and political motivator. Phyllis Schlafly is one. The added benefit to making Muslims the new gays is that there is synergy between the religious-right owned media and the Fox-o-sphere. The RR pundits/preachers hope to stay near power by any means, and undoubtedly will be advising any Republican president (shudder) about strategic court and other appointments.

by NancyP on Tue Oct 30, 2007 at 05:20:51 PM EST

Rob has nailed it! The RRR is not dead nor will it be for sometime to come. Rob in reciting the "demise" of the RRR during the last 20 years is very accurate. He just didn't go back far enough in our history. The theocrats have been pissed ever since the Founders gave us a secular nation. They have gained power, lost power over the entire history of our country.

They have taken many forms -- abolitionists, prohibitionists, etc., they are chameleons. They change to any color to hide what they are doing and if they have a little set back in 2008, they will rebound crazier than ever.

Rob is right there are those who have been waiting patiently for the Elders - Falwell, Kennedy, Sheldon, Dobson to go to their reward, such as it may be.

Rod Parsley has been drooling ever since he attended the signing of the Partial Birth Abortion Bill and saw he was the youngest guy there.

by JerrySloan on Tue Oct 30, 2007 at 09:21:17 PM EST

I would be amazed if Parsley become a newly anointed leader of the religious right.   I haven't seen any of his TV shows in several years, but isn't he still a paid up member of the TBN, Word of Faith crowd?

The man, as a preacher, may be charismatic but he struck me as nothing but a slick salesman with his fake tears, glib catchphrases and meaningless slogans, and his shilling for the TBN network during their contemptible "Praise-a-thons" was right up there with like of Benny Hinn.

I guess he might be able to claim the mantle of the equally batty Pat Robertson (though I think his son Gordon might have something to say about that), but if that's the best the religious right can come up with then I guess they really should be worried.

by tacitus on Wed Oct 31, 2007 at 01:36:41 AM EST

generation, too. Jay Sekulow's son Jordan now appears more and more prominently on the "American Center for Law and Justice" broadcasts, as just one example.

by nogodsnomasters on Tue Oct 30, 2007 at 06:58:47 PM EST

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