Is the Religious Right dead? It’s a question that seems to pop up periodically in American politics.
“Is the Christian Right still a power in American politics?” asked historian, author and Georgetown University professor Michael Kazin in January 2012 in The New Republic. “The lavish coverage which its partisans and their favorite issues have received during the current Republican campaign certainly leave that impression. Yet all this attention is akin to the dazzling glow of a setting sun. In fact, the Christian Right is a fading force in American life, one which has little chance of achieving its cherished goals.”
There’s just one problem what that assessment: It has been made many times before. The Religious Right was pronounced dead when Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992. Another death certificate was issued in 1996 when Clinton was re-elected
Most ironically, the movement was said to be dead on the eve of the 2000 election – just before its partisans helped put George W. Bush into the White House.
The election of Barack Obama and his re-election in 2012 have led to another round of “Religious Right is dead” stories. It makes good copy, but the truth is far more complex.
A cursory glance at the past 12 months might lead one to conclude that politically active fundamentalists are on the ropes. Obama was re-elected last year by a comfortable electoral margin despite an unprecedented effort by religious conservatives to boot him from the White House. Seven months later, the U.S. Supreme Court effectively legalized same-sex marriage at the federal level.
The problem is that fighting the Religious Right is something like playing a game of whack-o-mole: Every time you smash one of its plots, another pops up somewhere else. The Religious Right is simply too driven and organized to fade from American life.
In addition, these groups are well funded – to the tune of $1.2 billion annually – and are ingrained in the Republican Party at all levels. (See “The Terrible Ten,” page 8.)
Furthermore, the largely fundamentalist Protestant Religious Right is increasingly joining forces with the Catholic hierarchy in an ongoing fight to stop the spread of marriage equality, block access to affordable birth control and win the right to discriminate against LGBT Americans. More and more, these groups are insisting that any law they dislike is a threat to their “religious liberty.”
“The Religious Right will never be dead, no matter how hard some may wish it to be so,” Frederick Clarkson, a senior fellow at Political Research Associates, a progressive think tank in Somerville, Mass., told Church & State. “It is possible that the movement [will] recede in power, numbers and influence, but that time is not yet. What’s more, opponents across the religious and political spectrum have yet to conceive of a strategy that makes much of a dent, setbacks on particular issues or election campaigns notwithstanding.”
For years the Religious Right and Catholic hierarchy have had overlapping agendas, but long-term unification on specific causes has eluded them – until now.
Clarkson, a longtime Americans United ally, detailed this evolution in his recent report Christian Right Seeks Renewal in Deepening Catholic-Protestant Alliance. He wrote that the two groups have, despite deep and old disagreements, aligned thanks to their shared dislike of Obama, birth control policy and marriage equality.
As recently as 2000, that mutual dislike between the two groups was still pronounced – and openly displayed. Clarkson noted that Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said on CNN’s “Larry King Live” 13 years ago: “As an evangelical, I believe the Roman Church is a false church and it teaches a false gospel. I believe the pope himself holds a false and unbiblical office.”
But things changed when Obama took office in 2009, Clarkson wrote. The new president was almost immediately labeled a threat to “religious liberty.” This term has a very specific meaning to the theocratic right: It means the right to ignore any law that is perceived as conflicting with an individual’s personal dogma.
A turning point came in November of that year when prominent evangelical and ultra-conservative Catholic leaders joined forces to sign the Manhattan Declaration. The Declaration pledged defiance, brazenly asserting that its signers “will not comply with any edict that purports to compel our institutions to participate in abortions, embryo-destructive research, assisted suicide and euthanasia” and against “any rule purporting to force us to bless immoral sexual partnerships, treat them as marriages or the equivalent, or refrain from proclaiming the truth, as we know it, about morality and immorality and marriage and the family.”
Clarkson concluded that this well-funded movement that “has built its own network of institutions” is, despite recent setbacks in the so-called culture war, “publicly doubling down on its antichoice and antigay positions.”
Observed Clarkson, “Evangelicals and Roman Catholics have found common ground – and the motivation to set aside centuries of sectarian conflict – by focusing on these issues while claiming that their ‘religious liberty’ is about to be crushed. The movement is mobilizing its resources, forging new alliances, and girding itself to engage its enemies. It is also giving fair warning about its intentions. It may lose the long-term war, but whatever happens, one thing is certain: It won’t go down without a fight.”
So what does that fight look like? When it comes to marriage equality, it resembles open refusal to comply with court decisions. Shortly before the Supreme Court rulings on same-sex marriage in June, 200 fundamentalist luminaries like Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Family Talk Action President James Dobson and Liberty Counsel founder Mat Staver signed a “Marriage Solidarity Statement.”
They pledged, “As Christian citizens united together, we will not stand by while the destruction of the institution of marriage unfolds in this nation we love. The Sacred Scriptures and unbroken teaching of the Church confirm that marriage is between one man and one woman. We stand together in solidarity to defend marriage and the family and society founded upon them. The effort to redefine marriage threatens the proper mediating role of the Church in society.”
But the document went much further than that, recklessly predicting without any evidence that the Supreme Court would use force to “redefine marriage.”
“Experience and history have shown us that if the government redefines marriage to grant a legal equivalency to same-sex couples, that same government will then enforce such an action with the police power of the State,” the Religious Right manifesto insisted. “This will bring about an inevitable collision with religious freedom and conscience rights. We cannot and will not allow this to occur on our watch. Religious freedom is the first freedom in the American experiment for good reason.”
The bishops made a similar, albeit more low-key, statement. Calling the Supreme Court’s decisions “a tragic day for marriage and our nation,” they, too, vowed to fight marriage equality.
“Now that the Supreme Court has issued its decisions, with renewed purpose we call upon all of our leaders and the people of this good nation to stand steadfastly together in promoting and defending the unique meaning of marriage: one man, one woman, for life,” the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, one of the most powerful sectarian lobbies in the United States, said in a statement. “We also ask for prayers as the Court’s decisions are reviewed and their implications further clarified.”
Clarkson said the Religious Right and its allies will probably one day grudgingly accept marriage equality as a matter of law, but they will continue to attempt to erode LGBT rights through their “religious liberty” argument.
“If we are going to use the metaphor of the ‘culture war,’ let’s tease that out and say that marriage is one battle, a series of battles actually, that will be played out over decades or longer,” Clarkson said. “The nature of the battle may change but the war is far from over, and the army has not been defeated – let alone surrendered and negotiated terms. That said, some of the marriage-related issues are already being reframed as matters of religious liberty – and religious liberty promises to be one of the defining matters of our time.”
As for the fight over health care coverage and the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act, the bishops have taken the lead with Religious Right legal groups protecting their flank.
Framing their stance as another battle for “religious liberty,” dozens of secular for-profit businesses run by Catholic or fundamentalist Protestant owners insist that the Constitution says they don’t have to pay for employee health insurance plans that include access to no-cost contraceptives. Many of these cases are making their way through the federal courts, and some judges have sided with these business owners. The issue is expected to eventually be taken up by the Supreme Court, and it’s unclear at this point which way the high court will go.
“Religious liberty is for people, not Big Business,” Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn said in a recent media statement. “If the court takes the view that corporations have full rights to religious expression, there would be far-reaching and disastrous consequences.”
Despite this Religious Right/Catholic hierarchy alliance and its ongoing engagement in the culture wars, these new friends still face some significant challenges. For one, young evangelicals are increasingly out of step with their leaders. A 2007 study by Pew Research Associate Dan Cox examined data from the past seven years. He found that young evangelicals – defined by Pew as between the ages of 18 and 29 – were dissatisfied with Religious Right ally George W. Bush and the Republican Party generally.
Cox also found that while younger evangelicals remain conservative, they are less partisan than older evangelicals. Many appear to be migrating to the independent camp.
“[S]ince 2005 the group’s Republican affiliation has dropped significantly – by 15 percentage points,” the study found. “However, the shift away from the GOP has not resulted in substantial Democratic gains; instead it has produced a small increase in the number of Democrats (five-point increase) and a ten-point increase in the number of independents and politically unaffiliated Americans. Republicans now have only a two-to-one advantage over Democrats among younger white evangelicals, compared with a nearly four-to-one edge in 2005.”
More recently, an evangelical-leaning enterprise found 54 percent of evangelical Christians said “traditional Judeo-Christian values” should receive preferential treatment in the United States, as reported in January by the Barna Group.
Other polls have shown that younger evangelicals are more open to the idea of LGBT rights, although they remain steadfastly opposed to legal abortion.
As for Catholics, they just aren’t listening to the bishops like they once did. In the 2012 presidential election, Obama outpolled Romney 50 percent to 48 percent among Catholics despite the bishops’ attacks on him. And in a poll commissioned by the American Civil Liberties Union and Catholics for Choice that was issued before the election, a whopping 86 percent of Catholics said they believe they are under no obligation to follow a cleric’s instructions on how to vote.
Clarkson, however, cautioned against reading too much into statistics.
“The success or failure of the hierarchy in pursuing its political goals is not measured as much by polls and national elections as those who rely on polls to measure political reality would like to think,” Clarkson said. “As a practical matter, however, since the hierarchy would like to see their favored candidates win in order to advance their public policy priorities, I think we may see a more aggressive targeted voter registration and mobilization effort aimed at more conservative Catholics, probably organized by outside groups with no obvious connection to the Bishops.”
Targeted electioneering has boosted the Religious Right’s fortunes in the past. In a country where 50 percent of the eligible voters often don’t show up on election day, it’s not hard for a disciplined voting bloc to wield an inordinate amount of influence.
Just two years after Obama’s election in 2008 – which some political pundits insisted had ushered in a new, progressive era of American politics – a band of extreme “Tea Party” candidates swept into the U.S. Congress, aided and abetted by allies in the Religious Right.
The Tea Party, which some political analysts insist is just the Religious Right with a new name, also holds control or significant influence in 24 state legislatures.
Prime examples are North Carolina, which has passed one regressive law after another since 2010, including severe limits on abortion; Kansas, which has pursued the Religious Right’s social-issues agenda with a vengeance and Texas, which is trying to close most abortion clinics in the state, and where, thanks to prodding by Religious Right groups, a new law makes it clear that everyone has the right to say “Merry Christmas.”
The Religious Right also hopes to maintain control of its flock through education. Clarkson pointed to homeschooling, as well as fundamentalist-founded universities, as sources for keeping their ranks stocked with Religious Right ideologues.
“There is a vast infrastructure of schools, churches, organizations and media outlets that did not exist a generation ago,” Clarkson said. “Ditto with the growth of Christian home schooling; that has helped propel several presidential campaigns, including that of Mike Huckabee. Liberty University, founded by the late Jerry Falwell, became the largest Christian university in the world in just a few decades. Can we think of any other institution of higher learning that has grown so much so fast anywhere in the U.S?”
Given these efforts, Clarkson said it would be a terrible mistake to ever dismiss the Religious Right as irrelevant.
“Denialism is a major problem that hobbles learning, constructive thought, good reporting, good scholarship and effective political action in relation to the Religious Right, one of the most significant and dynamic movements in American history,” he said. “Every movement has its ups and downs. Leaders, organizations, and institutions come and go. But it is wrong to read every downturn or scandal as definitive evidence of the death or decline of a movement that has proved itself to be so resilient.”