Decline of the Religious Right?
It is plain that the Religious Right (that group of ultra-Conservative Christians who push for rightwing politics, usually in a “Christian Nation” ideology and sometimes with theocratic-leaning impulses) has lost ground since 2004. (The decline is noticeable in the inability of even RR leaders to unite around any one GOP presidential candidate.) I am NOT claiming that it is dying or dead. The death of the Religious Right has often been predicted since 1980 and each time the funeral was premature. But, at the very least, it has lost momentum and this might herald a decline if trends continue.
What factors have led to this apparent decline? Without claiming scientific or exhaustive precision, I think the following factors have brought this loss of momentum and, if they continue, will end the influence of the Religious Right for some time.
- Increasing pluralism in the U.S. population. This demographic trend started long ago and shows no signs of letting up, which may be why so many in the Right are anti-immigration. The U.S. is now home to numerous religions, more every day. I live not in New York City, Chicago, L.A. or Orlando, but in Louisville, KY–a medium sized city at the intersection between the Old South and the Mid-west. Louisville was never completely the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant enclave that such a geography would suggest. Catholics helped to settle Kentucky in the 18th C. when they were still a small minority in the nation at large. And Louisville has had a strong Jewish community since the mid-19th C. But today we have enough Muslims for 2 mosques. We have a Buddhist temple. There are Wiccans, Hindus, and others: 3 Unitarian churches; a Friends Meeting, a Women-Church gathering, and more. All this in a city that has a large (and, since 1994, fundamentalist) Southern Baptist seminary, a Presbyterian seminary, 2 Catholic universities, and is the headquarters of the Presbyterian Church, USA. The largest mosque in the nation is in IOWA. Think how diverse the major metropolitan areas of the country are! And that diversity is growing and penetrating even to the rural communities of the South and the Mid-West. If trends continue, Christians of all denominations may soon be a plurality rather than a true majority in the U.S.A.–which makes theocracy harder to impose, to say the least.
- Aging and passing of Religious Right leaders. Jerry Falwell is dead and the Moral Majority disbanded. D. James Kennedy had died quite recently. The Televangelism scandals of the ’80s dethroned Jim Baker and Jimmy Swaggert from positions of leadership. Pat Robertson’s syndicated TV show still reaches millions, but his influence has been in sharp decline since his failed run for the U.S. presidency in 1996. No one mentions Donald Wildmon, Phyllis Schafly, or Gary Bauer anymore. The only one of the first generation of Religious Right leaders to still be in full swing is James Dobson, once simply a Nazarene psychologist with conservative parenting tips and he is aging and seems to be losing influence. There are, of course, newer leaders such as Richard Land (of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission) and R. Albert Mohler, Jr. (who is my age and has destroyed my alma mater with his presidency of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary),but they don’t seem to have the clout that the previous bigwigs did.
- The following generations of conservative evangelical pastors do not seem as interested in following in the Falwell & Co. shoes. Even conservative mega-church pastors like Rick Warren are not using that influence in the same way.
- This goes hand-in-hand with the broadening of moral concern among Evangelicals and Catholics in the U.S. Abortion and “homosexuality” are still concerns for the majority of both groups, but attempts to maintain these issues as the only valid moral concerns in political elections seem to have failed. Evangelicals and Catholics are now the biggest swing groups in the country–neither Party can automatically count on their votes. They are concerned with environment (few are still calling Global Warming a hoax), with universal health care, especially for children, with war and peacemaking, with torture, with the growth of private prisons, etc.
- Probably aided by the spector of violent religious fanaticism among some Islamic groups, American citizens have begun noticing similarities in spirit (and sometimes, as in abortion clinic bombings, in action) among Christian fanatics. This is producing an aversion to religious extremism and an appreciation for secular, religiously-neutral, democratic government. The secular parts of the U.S. heritage are being celebrated by many. (Susan Jacoby got in on the ground floor with her book, Freethinkers, highlighting the heritage of Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Franklin, H. L. Mencken, and others.) The exteme edge of this is the U.S. part of the “angry atheists” publishing boom as a series of famous atheists and skeptics in the U.K., Australia, and North America blame religion for everything. I am not a fan of the angry atheists and I think if their noisy anger continues they could trigger a backlash of sympathy for the Religious Right–which thrives on a false sense of persecution. But all these angry atheistic books becoming bestsellers does show a broader disenchantment with religious fanaticism.
- At the same time, there has been revival among what might be called the Religious Center and Religious Left. The re-emergence, particularly, of an Evangelical Left (eclipsed since 1980) contributes to the decline of the Religious Right–at the very least by giving the public more spiritual options than skepticism or fanaticism.
- Prominent Democrats have been more vocal about their personal faith (and some Republicans like Fred Thompson have admitted being lukewarm churchgoers and uninterested in speaking about religion) which has, at least, lessened the Right’s propaganda line that the GOP is “God’s Only Party.”
There may be other factors, too. Tell me if you think of any.
Now, please remember that any of these things could change (although the first one is unlikely to change). The Religious Right still is trying to accomplish things I don’t consider helpful for either the church, the nation, or the world: Such as Al Mohler’s campaign to have a mass Christian exodus from the public schools–or even the dismantling of public education altogether. Such campaigns must be opposed. We cannot simply ignore the Religious Right. Every time centrists and liberals have tried the “ignore them and they’ll fade away” strategy in the last 30 years, the Religious Right has come roaring back and done great harm.
But these trends have given a space for other, more helpful, forces such as the reinvigoration of the Religious Center and the Religious Left. If we take advantage of this breathing space, it is possible that a rich and plural civic life will flourish. I think that is the kind of opportunity offered by groups like The Interfaith Alliance (with its Walter Cronkite Faith and Freedom Awards) and by resources like the Baptist Center for Ethics’ Golden Rule Politics DVD. I hope many more such campaigns flourish.
Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.