Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

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.

September 14, 2007 - Posted by | church-state separation, progressive faith


  1. Hmm… interesting post. From what I can remember from the southern evangelical branch of the Church of Christ, I was raised in, was they taught fear based Christianity. I grew up with alot of hell fire and brimstone preachers. Everyone who was different religiously (even some other Christian groups) or lifestyle wise was taught to be eyed with suspicion and fear, and that everyone had an agenda to take you away from heaven and send you to hell.

    But now that long predominantly Christian areas of the U.S. are getting that plurism and diversity in religion, along with the fact that more and more homosexuals (even from strict evangelical families) are coming out every day (and some if not most of the conservative Christians don’t want to disown or kick out or separate themselves from their childrens lives); they are finding that there is nothing to fear from difference. That we are pretty much like everyone else. In fact one of my moderate Christian friends told me once that I was one of the “most Christian acting person” she knew(Even though she knew I wasn’t), and said she was happy that she took the chance to get to know me, because initially she didn’t know how comfortable she felt having a “queer non Christian” in her house. There was fear there at who I was, and what she had been taught. So I think that dimishing the fear also has something to do with the diminishing of the Religious Right.

    Comment by dancingmoogle | September 16, 2007

  2. It’s true that acceptance (or at least tolerance) of gays and lesbians is growing among Christians, even evangelicals, Dancingmoogle, but the majority still disapprove. Look at all those anti-gay marriage amendments that were passed in state legislatures in ’04 (unfortunately). If that wasn’t a factor in ’06 and if it doesn’t prove to be in ’08, it could be because so many think the issue is settled. The proponents of marriage equality will need to get federal courts to say that the state amendments violate the U.S. Constitution–and that could revive the push for a U.S. Constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage.
    Just because there is a growing impatience with those who would make this the ONLY moral issue is, unfortunately for those of us who believe in GLBT inclusion and marriage equality, no sign that the majority of Christians do not still find it important. However, the next generations appear to favor full inclusion.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | September 16, 2007

  3. Oh yeah most evangelicals still do disapprove. And it will be a long hard battle with alot of the evangelicals for full inclusion. I was more commenting on the fact that thirty years ago, most gays were disowned by their families and kicked out into the streets, even as young as 14 years old. Now with more tolerance being shown, along with people like you and the younger generations that favor full inclusion it is changing the way people look at the issues. There will always be a core of staunch evangelicals, but slowly it seems that they are losing ground.


    Comment by dancingmoogle | September 16, 2007

  4. You’re making the same mistake that most opponents of the Religious Right make: your measuring their influence politically. This is because you assume they are statists also—a great deal of them are not. Whether it be education, the arts, or any other sphere, they pride themselves in taking dominion everywhere! So, unless you think you can use the power of the federal government to squash their comprehensive activism, it’s only a matter of time before they take that power back—and more. They’re having lots of kids, providing them with a Christian-oriented education, and infusing them with an optimistic view of the future. Then, they meet at least twice a week with hundreds of other like-minded persons in their churches and small group meetings. Losing ground? Hardly. They’ll simply go under the radar. Don’t measure their success politically. That’s too limited.

    Comment by James | September 17, 2007

  5. Michael,

    Very interesting post, though I think James has a valid point. I have an upcoming post on Patrick Henry College, which is an up and coming bastion of the new Religious Right. I think we’ll have to wait and see what changes with the death of the “old guard” and the rise of the “new guard.” I definitly see a decline in certain respects, but a possible resurgence in others.

    Comment by D. W. Congdon | September 17, 2007

  6. Like D.W. said, place like Patrick Henry college offer a very interesting possibility for a new resurgence. If they’ll succeed or not is what I’m waiting to see.

    Comment by david | September 17, 2007

  7. I don’t know what a “statist” is. It is not in any dictionary of political philosophy I’ve ever seen, but it sounds like someone who invests complete value in the state. If that’s what it means, I am no “statist.” If the idea is that the Religious Right includes people who do not care for political power, then they are no threat.

    I am aware of the horrible example of Patrick Henry College (ironically named since Patrick Henry was a Deist!). And I do not AT ALL underestimate the ability of the RR to “go underground and regroup.” My post repeatedly warned against either ignoring the RR or prematurely declaring them dead. They have returned like a bad plague repeatedly.

    I am just analyzing the factors that are currently giving them problems.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | September 17, 2007

  8. Increasing religious and social pluralism (the one factor above that is unlikely to change) will probably reenforce the religious right’s self-identification as a “persecuted minority,” thus driving them to become more vocal and fanatical than ever. While this could lead to a resurgence of influence, it might instead simply be ignored by the public-at-large because, ironically, they will in fact have become a minority, though probably not a “persecuted” one.

    Comment by haitianministries | September 17, 2007

  9. Well, as a card carrying member of the religious right who has performed the required seven suicide bombings, I think the problem(s) is somewhere else: dysfunctional leadership.

    Power politics has paralyzed my church and many others that are conservative. This does wonders for attitude of the young. The Purpose Driven model is also wonderful in emphasizing everything except Christian character for leadership. Blesses are the pigheaded, for they shall inherit the church leadership …

    A Holy Spirit phobia is causing a tremendous amount of energy to be expended against charismatics. The least eloquent president in US history isn’t helping matters either. Then there is a hostile media which loves nothing more than to put all of the character problems on display.

    The glorification of decadence that is on the rise today is the same as what Christianity swept away when it started. I don’t see why it can’t do it again, except for Christians battling themselves.

    Comment by Looney | September 17, 2007

  10. I am disappointed by this decline. After Christian conservatives helped elect Bush win the last election, a pro-choicer is actually being widely promoted as a potential Republican nominee. Christian conservatives are not the majority, but there are enough of them that they should at least be respected.

    Comment by James Pate | September 17, 2007

  11. Always a pleasure to hear from you, Looney. I happen to agree with you about dysfunctional leadership–something that plagued the religious center and left for decades. Thankfully, we seem to be recovering leadership as ya’ll on the right are fumbling.

    I also am a huge critic of the drivel that Rick Warren peddles in his “purpose driven” books, but I am glad that he has eschewed the power plays of Falwell & co. and reached out to work on hunger and the environment, etc. His theology is a thin gruel, but I think he has been helpful in keeping younger evangelicals from continuing the Rightwing Republican hate machine you thrive in.

    I also agree with you that evangelical attacks on Pentecostals and charismatics are ridiculous.

    Christianity spread in the first centuries by love–then Constantine and political power corrupted it.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | September 17, 2007

  12. ” … the Rightwing Republican hate machine you thrive in ”

    Hmmm… I guess I was naively attempting to follow the love the sinner, hate the sin trick.

    Comment by Looney | September 17, 2007

  13. Well, James, first I make a distinction between all “Christian conservatives” and the radical Religious Right of politicized fundamentalism. And anyone who helped Bush win anything ought to spend years on their knees in repentance. Imagine helping a mass murderer to win reelection in the name of being “pro-life.” Anyone who was a part of that debacle doesn’t deserve respect.

    But prospective nomination of Guiliani, who shares none of the Religious Right’s values, as their nominee shows that their real god is power. They can’t unite behind a Sam Brownback or a Mike Huckabee (who are genuine religious right folks themselves!) because they can’t bear to back someone who might not win. The fear of a Democrat back in the White House is leading these fundamentalists to support a twice divorced Catholic with a reputation for womanizing, who is pro-choice and marches in gay pride parades; or to support a Morman former pro-choicer; or to support a Hollywood actor who doesn’t go to church and doesn’t want to talk about religion–because at least they won’t be “shudder” ==a Democrat!

    Maybe the real downfall of the Religious Right is that it is no longer leading or influencing the Republican Party, but is still in a shotgun marriage to that Party. Hmm. Maybe separation of church and state isn’t such a bad idea after all, hmm. Maybe loyalty to a political party shouldn’t be a Christian value??

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | September 18, 2007

  14. From everything I hear out here (rural WI), the heart of the problem is the sheer hypocrisy revolving around an apparent single-minded obsession (by the religious right) with sexual issues. This has driven many otherwise conservative folks away from the religious right. There are also (very) negative feelings toward the self-serving mega-wealth of some of these organizations—the image of evangelists riding around in luxury autos, living in mansions, etc., viewing the public only as a potential source of revenue. People are willing to donate to help spread the Gospel, but don’t wish to finance ultra-luxury lifestyles for a handful of preachers!

    Comment by DHFabian | September 18, 2007

  15. Actually, I haven’t supported anyone on the right. The only argument here is I still think that Guiliani is more religiously conservative than Hillary, but that is more of a hold your nose and pick. Probably a few years in exile will do the Republicans some good, provided the rules aren’t changed to permanently exclude them from any hope of power and make the country into one party rule.

    Another big problem with the religious right is divisions resulting from reactionary theology. The hyper-precise interpretations of Reformed and Dispensationalist theology are both dividing the church and convincing the young that there aren’t any reasonable thinkers.

    Comment by Looney | September 18, 2007

  16. Mr. Fabian, that luxurious lifestyle has been true of the Religious Right at least since the late 1970s. Why has it taken so long for people to be disgusted with it? I was disgusted with it from the beginning.

    Looney, it was Republicans like Tom Delay who talked about permanent majorities and worked at redistricting (other than every 10 years at census when redistricting is supposed to take place) in such a way that Democrats would never again be elected. It was Republicans who tried to get rid of paper trails and install electronic machines that could be preprogrammed to give “the right” answers every time. So, I think your fear of the rules changing to keep the GOP locked out is just projection. Very Jungian. Your shadow is you.

    The progressive wing of the Democratic Party has long proposed the kinds of changes that, far from leading to one party rule, would make 3rd parties more viable: instant runoff voting; proportional representation in the electoral college or abolishing the electoral college; publicly financed elections with free air time (which makes it much easier for smaller 3rd parties–whether liberal like the Greens or conservative like the Reform Party–to get their message out).

    The length of time for the GOP in the wilderness will depend on how long they have a leadership vacuum and how long they embrace the disastrous policies of the Neo-Cons that the public is (rightly) rejecting wholesale.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | September 18, 2007

  17. I think the constant focus of the Right on Hillary Clinton, Looney, is actually helping her campaign. It’s ironic, because on so many issues, she is closer to the Republicans than most of the Democrats in the race. She is far more a free trade guru than I like (her husband’s NAFTA policies paved the way for W’s horrible free trade excesses); she is much more of a hawk in foreign policy and way too much of a corporate crony. The true progressives in this campaign are John Edwards and Dennis Kucinich, but the Right’s constant attacks on Hillary are backfiring. It’s ironic: The right’s hatred of her will probably propel her into the White House, mores the pity.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | September 18, 2007

  18. I always think it is a bad idea to dismiss the “Religious Right” in whatever form. It is that hope that they were slipping away because of their own mistakes, is in my opinion, one of the reasons of “The Conservative Resurgence.” Moderates simply just hope that fundamentalists will quietly go away without any real fighting effort on our part.

    That is a fatal mistake.

    YES, The recent leaders don’t hold the same sway and many have passed away.

    BUT Strong Right political leaders still hold posts in Government, Bush has not even been threatened with impeachment, and we still have No Child Left Behind, which is simply a way to make things so difficult for public schools that funding will be sent to private religious schools.

    I agree with the Education theory proposed here. Fundamentalists have realized the limit of public government, so now they attack education.

    See the Intelligent Design debate for the proof.

    Comment by Martin | September 21, 2007

  19. I have not dismissed the Religious Right at all. The possibility of another resurgence is still possible. I warned against early funerals. I am just noting trends.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | September 21, 2007

  20. […] Melissa Rogers for calling it to my attention.  I have noted the trends outlined in that article before:  Most of the prominent leaders of the Religious Right are either retiring or dying off; […]

    Pingback by The Fragmentation of the Religious Right? « Levellers | November 2, 2007

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