Religious Right on the Ropes
Despite huge increases in church attendance, off the charts sales of Bibles and Christian music CDs and the words "God Bless" attached to almost everything, the Religious Right is not benefiting from what many are calling America's "religious revival."
Instead, for several of the Religious Right's most popular leaders, it has been one embarrassing episode after another since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Branded intolerant bigots; compared to the fanatical Taliban; and forced to apologize for stupid and hurtful statements, the Religious Right is floundering, not flourishing.
Will the political influence of the Religious Right plummet as fast as the prestige of some of its veteran leaders? Don't get me wrong. This isn't one of those "the Religious Right is dead" columns that proliferate every time some popular televangelist gets tangled up in a sexual or financial scandal. In fact, there are several Religious Right organizations continuing to prosper, albeit within a rather narrow universe.
The Religious Right has been on the upswing in American politics for more than two decades, despite occasional fits and starts. They've been the most dependable political force within the Republican Party. President Bush might not have made it past the South Carolina primary in 2000 had not supporters of the Religious Right turned out in droves to help him defeat the then hard charging Senator John McCain.
So don't jump on the bandwagon when some fool with a keyboard concludes that the Religious Right is toast. They've been pronounced dead more times than Spain's Generalisimo Franco before he was finally cut from this mortal coil.
The Rev. Jerry Falwell got the ball rolling downhill shortly after Sept. 11 with his now notorious statement claiming that the terrorist attacks were the result of America turning its back on God. He then pointed his finger at gays, lesbians, feminists, pro-choice activists, the American Civil Liberties Union and People for the American Way as the main culprits. Most Americans quickly condemned Falwell along with the "700 Club's" Pat Robertson who listened and nodded his head in agreement. Falwell's subsequent apologies rang hollow and Robertson later shrugged off the incident with a Homer Simpson-like "doh!"
And you haven't heard the last from Rev. Falwell and family regarding his infamous post-Sept. 11 comments. According to a press release by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Jerry Falwell Ministries is charging "liberals, and especially gay activists" with engaging in "a vicious smear campaign to discredit him [Falwell]." Falwell's son Jonathan claims that "Liberals of all stripes, especially in the media, have seized on this opportunity to trash dad's deeply held Christian beliefs and to literally attack him day and night."
"This is truly outrageous," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "Falwell has gone from apologizing for his hateful remarks to trying to cash in on them. I thought Falwell couldn't sink much lower than he did in his vicious remarks after the Sept. 11 tragedy," continued Lynn. "But this fund-raising letter is indeed a new low."
In early October, the Rev. Lou Sheldon of Traditional Values Coalition said that gay or lesbian partners of victims of Sept. 11, should not be granted aid money because it could be seen as an affirmation of their relationships. "[Relief] organizations should be first giving priority to those widows who were at home with their babies, and those widowers who lost their wives," Sheldon said. "It should be given on the basis and priority of one man and one woman in a marital relationship."
The Oct. 17 issue of Concerned Women for America's Culture & Family Report cited a letter from Red Cross Vice President for Disaster Relief John A. Clizbe who was responding to an inquiry about the distribution of disaster aid from Elizabeth Birch, executive director of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC). Clizbe wrote: "the terrorists killed indiscriminately, without regard to race, age, religion, class or sexual orientation." He added, "As we distribute the relief funds, the American Red Cross recognizes that families come in many different forms. Rather than adhering to a strict definition of family composition, we are using a broad and inclusive definition of family. In doing so, we recognize traditional married families, as well as the committed relationships and domestic partnerships of many couples who are living together. Accordingly, these broadly defined families who have been living together are eligible for American Red Cross assistance."
Sheldon, critical of the Red Cross' inclusive aid policy added that "this is just another example of how the gay agenda is seeking to overturn the one man-one woman relationship from center stage in America, taking advantage of the tragedy."
The Religious Right is taking a public relations beating. But all is not doom and gloom. Jerry Falwell will likely reach his goal of signing up one-million prayer warriors; Pat Robertson's "700 Club" will continue to be broadcast every day over the Fox Family Channel; Lou Sheldon will continue to promote his anti-gay agenda to the 43,000 churches affiliated with his Traditional Values Coalition. And they all will no doubt continue to have access to conservative congressional representatives. Successes? You want successes: The Rev. Donald Wildmon's American Family Association's web site is quite pleased to report the recent sale of 170,000 or so "In God We Trust" posters. As if the AFA owns the rights to "In God We Trust!"
It is clear, however, that the Religious Right is not winning the battle for the hearts and minds of the American people. Here are a few reasons why:
* Out of the Shadows: Remarks, such as those from Falwell, once made in the relative privacy of Christian television programs, radio shows and in members-only newsletters have received more scrutiny since Sept. 11. Although conservative watchers have catalogued off-base quotes from Falwell, Robertson and Sheldon for years, media exposure to the broader public is more recent.
* Apocalypse Now?: Many Americans, seeking relief, comfort and peace in religion are looking to religious institutions for a God of love and a God of peace. From Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda group and the Taliban to our home grown fundamentalist fanatics, extremists embrace a disturbingly vengeful God and apocalyptic endtimes visions.
* "We are all Americans": The Religious Right's bread and butter anti-gay and anti-abortion issues are not playing well in the "we are all Americans" climate. Since several of the heroes of Sept. 11 were gays and lesbians, the Religious Right looks incredibly mean spirited and petty in trying to deny the families of these folks justly deserved support. On the abortion front, demonstrations at health clinics and the anthrax threats sent to Planned Parenthood Clinics -- while not a mainstream activity of the Religious Right -- is nevertheless seen as the tactics of fanatics willing to stop at nothing in pursuit of their own agendas.
I'm not convinced that Americans singing "God Bless America," at ballparks and football stadiums translates itself into "God Bless" anti-gay attacks, "God Bless" anti-abortion legislation, "God Bless" school vouchers or "God Bless" privatized social security.
Bottom line: For now, the president is coasting along with close to a 90 percent approval rating. With a long way to go before next year's midterm elections he has no need to cozy up to a bunch of high-profile Religious Right leaders who have repeatedly shot themselves in the foot since Sept. 11. I don't believe the damage will be terminal. How quickly they regroup and how effectively they do so will be a political drama that will play itself out in the months to come.
Bill Berkowitz is an Oakland-based freelance writer covering the Religious Right and related conservative movements.