Merry War on Christmas -- The Religious Right Isn't Going Anywhere

Editor's Note: The idea that Bush's departure and Barack Obama's election herald a decline in power for the Christian Right in America is sorely mistaken. As the "War on Christmas" turns into an annual outrage, and progressives argue against the choice of anti-gay, anti-abortion Pastor Rick Warren to give the invocation at Obama's inauguration, we are reminded all too soon that the Religious Right is a steady force in the political and cultural arena. Frederick Clarkson's essay makes the case that we are in the middle of a religious war --  and that we should always be on alert against it.

For a year or more in the run-up to the elections, we heard claims that the Religious Right is dead, dying or irrelevant and that the so-called Culture Wars are over, or about to be. Such declarations have turned out to be spectacularly wrong.

There are many reasons for the staying power of the Religious Right. Among them is an extraordinary infrastructure developed over decades, especially at the state level. This infrastructure is an important part of the reason the movement will be able to sustain, restore and replenish itself as the founding generation of Religious Right leaders passes from public life and why it will be able to regroup in the wake of national Republican electoral losses in 2008. But this is not the only reason.

The Religious Right is on a mission, or rather a cluster of interrelated missions. They are religious in nature and transcend not only electoral outcomes but the lives of individuals and institutions. This is much of the source of both the movement's resilience and its development of a vast capacity to move people and shape events to raise up leaders, and to field effective organizations able to wage electoral campaigns at all levels and effectively use the process of state ballot initiatives to drive wedge issues and, ultimately, their legislative and constitutional agenda.

That is why the Religious Right will be a major factor in American politics for at least as long as the life of anyone reading these words.

Meanwhile, to get a sense of where things stand, let's look at an album of snapshots of what is happening on the ground, in the states, where most of American political life and government takes place. But before we do, let's begin at the beginning.

The Defining Moment of the Culture Wars

"My friends, this election is about much more than who gets what," Pat Buchanan declared in his famously inflammatory speech at the 1992 GOP national convention. "It is about who we are. It is about what we believe. It is about what we stand for as Americans. There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself."

He denounced the "radical feminism" of Bill and Hillary Clinton, stating that their "agenda would impose on America -- abortion on demand, a litmus test for the Supreme Court, homosexual rights, discrimination against religious schools, women in combat -- that's change, all right. But it is not the kind of change America wants. It is not the kind of change America needs. And it is not the kind of change we can tolerate in a nation that we still call God's country."

If this sounds familiar, it is because little has changed since these words were shouted to the world on prime-time television.

Buchanan's speech epitomizes the Religious Right's general view of the "culture war" -- as a "religious war" that manifests itself on many "cultural" fronts, most urgently abortion, homosexuality (especially, now, marriage equality), education privatization and curriculum content of the public schools.

For the aggressors in this largely one-sided war -- war is not merely a metaphor. It is far more profound and animating idea, stemming from conflicts of "world view," usually described as a "Biblical World View" against everything else. That is why we have seen decades of violence against abortion providers and against LGBT people, and almost nothing from other sides who are merely exercising their civil rights to believe differently or to seek greater equality under the law.

The more significant battles of this war will be in the states where the Religious Right's political strength is now greater than in the federal government.

Snapshots from the Culture War in the States

Here are a few snapshots from real-life politics in the states in 2008 and what they portend for the future:

  • Anti-marriage-equality initiatives prevailed in Arizona, Florida and California in 2008. Fueled with funding from politically animated Mormons, Catholics and Protestant evangelicals at the urging of religious leaders, the initiatives passed, and for the first time in American history, rolled back a court-ordered civil rights advance.
  • While Rhode Island and New York recognize the validity of same-sex marriages from other states, the 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act allows states to refuse to recognize the validity of same-sex marriages. The Supreme Court has so far declined to hear constitutional challenges to DOMA. So far, 30 states have passed anti-marriage-equality initiatives; and 10 states passed statutory DOMAs.
  • New York and New Jersey: The conservative religious coalition that passed the stunning reversal on marriage equality in California plans to take the battle to these eastern states.
  • Constitutional Convention initiative in Connecticut: Every 20 years, the state is required to have an initiative asking the voters if it is time for a state constitutional convention. Following the state's Supreme Court legalization of same-sex marriage, the Religious Right and the Catholic Church seized on the initiative, purchasing a large, last-minute TV ad campaign. While this effort was unsuccessful, we can expect further battles in Connecticut.
  • Failed efforts to get other anti-abortion or anti-gay initiatives on the ballot: Montana, Arkansas and Massachusetts. Even in losing, the Religious Right has considerable capacity to keep its issues on the front burner.
  • Texas: The elected State Board of Education appointed three prominent "intelligent design" advocates to a six-member science-review panel. The chairman of the SBOE wrote in an op-ed, "Science education has become a culture war issue" and that the claims of scientists "will be challenged by creationists."
  • Alabama: The State Board of Education, under pressure from the Religious Right, recently approved a controversial Bible study curriculum as an elective.
  • Louisiana: In 2008, the legislature approved the use of "supplemental" materials in public schools, that appears to open a backdoor to the use of creationism and intelligent design materials banned from science curricula by the U.S. Supreme Court.
  • Kansas: Control over the elected State Board of Education has flipped back and forth between the Religious Right and moderate Democrats and Republicans since the late 1990s. In 2010, five seats are expected to be contested.
  • Iowa: Shortly after the 2008 presidential election, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Religious Right Roman Catholic, headlined a high-dollar fundraiser for the Iowa Family Policy Center, the state political affiliate of Focus on the Family. The event was seen as a foreshadowing of the 2012 Iowa presidential caucuses.
  • Alaska: Republican Gov. Sarah Palin, who was vetted by the Religious Right-dominated Council for National Policy and forced onto the Republican Party presidential ticket, has emerged as a party leader along with such Religious Right figures as Jindal, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (currently a Fox News program host and a former presidential candidate) and, arguably, Mitt Romney (a Mormon who has moved toward the Religious Right since serving as governor of Massachusetts).

These snapshots suggest not only that the Religious Right remains strong in the Republican Party, but that it intends and is capable of, waging and winning theocratic battles against LGBT and women's civil and human rights, as well as disrupting secular public education. The religious war Buchanan described has shown that it can transcend the wins and losses of any given election season. The only way the culture war could be over, or nearly over, is if one or another side is clearly winning or losing, its capacity to wage the war has been significantly enhanced or degraded, or it is about to call a truce or to surrender. None of these things is happening.


At a national meeting of the American Catholic bishops held shortly after the election, many declared there was no acceptable compromise on abortion and denounced the pro-choice views of President-elect Barack Obama. Some condemned Catholics who had argued it was morally acceptable to back Obama because he pledged to reduce abortion rates.

Focus on the Family has rolled out a new "Truth Project," a religious and ideological indoctrination program that is currently touring the country targeting young people of "college age." In addition to the usual fare of family issues and sexuality, the project aggressively promotes intelligent design. Analysis of current polling shows a slight trend toward tolerance among young, white evangelicals concerning some of the issues of the culture wars. While many pundits take that as a sure sign of change to come, the Religious Right is looking at the same data. And Focus on the Family and the millennially militant organization The Call, among many others, intend to aggressively contend for that demographic.

The Call is a national parachurch youth organization of growing significance. It actively campaigned for the anti-marriage-equality ballot initiative in California, culminating with a 10-hour election eve prayer rally headlined by James Dobson and Tony Perkins that attracted some 33,000 people. Speakers called for "martyrs" and predicted there would come a time when "we will have to risk our lives." Dobson promoted the rally on his national radio show, and according to one report was, "Choking up as he said he felt the hand of God telling him to go. 'The Lord must be involved in this,' Dobson said."

When significant leaders of the Religious Right such as Dobson say such things, it is important to take notice. If we view such events solely though the lens of the culture war -- which is to say, narrowly framed disagreements over abortion and homosexuality, we risk the error of reductionism.

Pat Buchanan was right. There is a religious war going on in America in which one side seeks to thwart, and even to roll back, advances in civil rights. This poses one of the central challenges of our time for those of us who are not part of the Religious Right; those of us for whom religious pluralism and constitutional democracy matter, along with such closely related matters as reproductive freedom, marriage equality and free, quality and secular public education. The defense and advance of our most deeply held values requires our holding clear-eyed assessments of how the Religious Right adapts to the changed political environment. And in order to do this, we must view announcements of the death of the Religious Right and the end of the culture wars, with considerable skepticism, every time.

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