5 Signs the Christian Right Still Wields Too Much Power in America
This month, in a New Republic article titled " The End of the Christian Right," historian Michael Kazin confidently asserts that “the Christian Right is a fading force in American life, one which has little chance of achieving its cherished goals.”
I have lost count of how many times the Religious Right has been declared dead as a political force by someone in the mainstream media. Maybe Kazin’s piece seemed absurd to me because I read it the day after watching every Republican presidential candidate take time from their South Carolina debate preparation to stop by Ralph Reed’s “Faith and Freedom Coalition” event and pledge devotion to the Religious Right’s agenda.
Kazin acknowledges this dynamic, but says, “whatever their influence on the Republican primary, the Christian Right is fighting a losing battle with the rest of the country – above all, when it comes to abortion and same-sex marriage, the issues they care most about.”
Really? The Washington Post reports that with GOP now in control of both houses of the Virginia legislature, the state’s “most conservative Republicans aren’t holding back” and are pushing legislation that, among other things, will “roll back gay rights” and “beef up gun rights, property rights, parental rights and fetal rights.”
Here are five reasons why we shouldn't declare the end of the Christian Right.
1. Redefining Religious Liberty
Kazin does not address church-state separation or efforts by the Religious Right and its allies, particularly the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, to redefine religious liberty. In the name of “religious liberty,” they demand religious exemptions from generally applicable laws, but only for their religious beliefs; take government funding for religiously based programs but cry discrimination when a government grant program has anti-discrimination policies incompatible with their religious beliefs; portray those who oppose government funding of religion as anti-religious bigots and and claim oppression when government officials are made to comply with the separation of church and state.
Under President George W. Bush, Religious Right leaders’ political support was rewarded with weakened legal protections against tax dollars being used to fund religious discrimination and proselytizing, troubling changes that have yet to be fully reversed by the Obama administration. A phalanx of conservative Christian legal organizations fights daily to weaken the legal separation of church and state, and to reverse restrictions on overt electoral activity by tax-exempt churches.
2. Lack of Big Names ≠ Lack of Big Influence
Kazin cites “the absence of effective, well-known leaders” as a reason for the Religious Right’s decline. It’s true that there’s a shortage of household names among the Religious Right’s leadership, and that the endorsement of Rick Santorum by a group of evangelical leaders didn’t give him the boost they had hoped. But that fact reflects at least in part the decentralization and mainstreaming of the movement. Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and James Dobson were like Dan Rather, Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw back when the networks were the only game in town. Now the Religious Right influences culture and politics through a massive and diffuse infrastructure of religious ministries, educational institutions, think tanks, political organizations, radio and television empires, and online media -- not to mention the elected officials they have put into power in Congress and all across the country.
Newt Gingrich has spent years cultivating support among Religious Right activists by attacking “secular elites” and insisting in books like Rediscovering God in America that our country’s greatness is tied to the notion of a divinely inspired American exceptionalism. His fans weren’t going to abandon him on the say-so of a group of self-appointed leaders.