The role of the Religious Right in the Republican Party and national political life is under a lot of scrutiny these days.
Everyone from Ralph Reed and Richard Land to Billy Graham and Tony Perkins did everything in their considerable power to steer the election to Mitt Romney and other Republican candidates, and they failed miserably. These folks even lost a string of referenda on issues such as taxpayer funding of religion, reproductive rights and marriage equality.
As a result of these losses, some pundits and prognosticators are declaring the fundamentalist political movement to be yesterday’s news. Few are pronouncing the Religious Right “undeniably and reliably” dead this time (as has happened often in the past). But respected analysts are finding it mighty sickly.
According to Religion News Service, the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) has concluded that relying on white Christian voters will never again spell national electoral success -- especially for the GOP. PRRI released a survey yesterday about religion’s role in the presidential race.
Forty percent of Romney’s vote came from white evangelical Christians, but obviously that wasn’t enough to put him over the top. As a matter of fact, eight in ten of the Republican candidate’s votes came from white Christians of one sort or another.
In contrast, Barack Obama won with a more diverse mixture. Thirteen percent of his voters were white mainline Protestants, and 13 percent were white Catholics. Hispanic or other Catholics made up 10 percent of the Obama vote, and black Protestants accounted for 16 percent. The religiously unaffiliated contributed 25 percent to the president’s total. (Eight percent of Obama’s vote came from white evangelical Protestants! Somebody get the smelling salts for Franklin Graham.)
“The changing religious landscape is presenting a real challenge to the strategy that relied on motivated white Christians, particularly white evangelical Christians,” said PRRI Research Director Dan Cox. “They’re still turning out at similar levels as they did in previous elections, but their size in comparison to other groups is shrinking.”
The PRRI analysts have a good point. Diversity is increasing in America. But we shouldn’t get too giddy about the putative reduction in the Religious Right’s power.
I’ve been following the Religious Right since 1980, and I’ve seen this crowd go through lots of ups and downs. I recommend that Americans not exaggerate the Religious Right’s power but don’t underestimate it either.
White evangelical Christians remain one of the largest and most disciplined voting blocs in American politics. They show up at the polls on a regular basis, and they tend to vote heavily for candidates who want to restrict abortion, deny basic civil rights to the LGBT community and generally bring more religion (of their sort) into government.
Many Americans vote only in presidential elections or hotly contested state and local races. Most Religious Right voters show up every time. That means they have a disproportionate influence in the electoral process.
In addition, the Religious Right has achieved a dominant role in one of our two major political parties. This was clear during the Republican presidential primary when all the candidates competed with each other to curry favor with the fundamentalist bloc.
Religious Right leaders are warning the GOP leadership that the party had better not moderate its stands on abortion, gay rights and related social issues or there will be hell to pay (so to speak).
Penny Nance of Concerned Women for America said conservative Christians will bolt if the party drops its platform plan calling for a ban on all abortions.
“[W]e will leave you if you betray us,” she wrote in a Christian Post essay. “Yes, I said it – and I mean it.”
I haven’t heard many Republican establishment heavyweights taking on the party’s theocratic wing. For GOP big shots apparently, it’s can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em.
To me, all this means that the Religious Right is likely to remain a powerful political factor, whether they win or lose in a given election year.
Needless to say, I am not a fan of the Religious Right. I think it is a dangerous movement that threatens the very foundation stones of American life – individual freedom and the separation of church and state. There’s nothing I’d like better than to see it lumber off the national scene.
I just don’t see it happening any time soon.