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Power Struggle: Who Will Be the Religious Right's New Kingpin?

With James Dobson inching toward retirement, many wonder who will fill the religious right's bully pulpit.

When Dr. James C. Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, announced he was stepping down as chairman of the powerful organization Feb. 27, it looked as if the world of the Religious Right was in for a major shake up.


Dobson founded the group in 1977 as a lonely outpost of right-wing Christianity in Southern California. Over the years, FOF, now based on a sprawling campus in Colorado Springs, became the largest, best funded and most influential Religious Right group in the nation.


Was Dobson really walking away?


A closer look at his "resignation" statement proved there was less there than meets the eye. Dobson vowed to continue with his daily radio broadcasts, which are heard by millions, and pledged to continue mailing monthly letters on "culture war" issues to his supporters.


In addition, Dobson promised to continue issuing personal political endorsements. At the end of the day, it seemed, not much had changed at FOF. Dobson dropped a title and some administrative duties, but for most listeners to his broadcasts or readers of his bulletins, nothing will have changed.


Dobson isn't stepping out of the public eye just yet, but his announcement has inevitably opened up questions of succession and new leadership in the Religious Right. Now 72, Dobson joins an aging cadre of Religious Right leaders, men and women who came to prominence in the late 1970s and who will, in all likelihood, be exiting public life over the next few years.


The face of the Religious Right has already started to change. Moral Majority leader, TV preacher and longtime Religious Right warhorse Jerry Falwell died on May 15, 2007. About four months later, D. James Kennedy of Coral Ridge Ministries died. Kennedy, a Presbyterian televangelist and prominent advocate of the "Christian nation" view of history, was known for his vociferous opposition to the teaching of evolution.


Other Religious Right leaders are less prominent these days. TV preacher Pat Robertson, 79, still broadcasts his "700 Club" on television but no longer heads his own political unit. Anti-feminist crusader Phyllis Schlafly will be 85 in August and is said to be in declining health. The Rev. Tim LaHaye, who for many years battled "secular humanism" in public schools and government, is 83 and lives in wealthy semi-retirement off the proceeds of his "Left Behind" novels, a popular series of apocalyptic potboilers.


Who will lead the Religious Right in the years to come?


Interestingly, there is no shortage of candidates. What differentiates the lot is that most do not have powerful radio or television ministries behind them. And some come from the political world, not Bible colleges or seminaries.


In short, the Religious Right will probably continue to wield political power for a long time to come. Its leadership and structure, however, may end up looking a good bit different than what we see today.


This article examines some possible new leaders for the Religious Right. It's admittedly a speculative venture, but one that is nevertheless anchored in reality. All of the individuals mentioned in this article have either led Religious Right groups, expressed some interest in doing so or are so closely aligned with the movement that they could catapult into leadership positions.


Newt Gingrich


The idea of Newt Gingrich as the next leader of the Religious Right is not as odd as it sounds. During his tenure as speaker of the House of Representatives, Gingrich was known mainly for his promotion of small government, low taxes and libertarian ideas, but a lot has changed since 1999; in recent years Gingrich has increasingly been stressing Religious Right themes.

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