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The Decline of the Religious Right

Josh Berthume's picture

We have talked quite often (and with no small amount of thinly-veiled glee) about the many problems the Republican Party has had over the last few years, and the even bigger problems in the road for them in 2008. With the rise of Giuliani and the failures of so many NeoCon leaders within the GOP ranks, many have foreseen a coming fracture between Christian conservatives and the GOP. Now those religious conservatives are seriously discussing a third-party candidate and, by extension, a permanent break from the GOP.

Would it necessarily be permanent? I think so. I would make the argument that no special interest group bears more responsibility for the deplorable amounts of partisan rancor we now find in American politics than the Christian conservatives. For them, politics has been a zero-sum game since the Moral Majority days, and few dared to call them on their hypocrisy despite their tendency to cherry pick from Christianity while ensuring an ever-larger class divide in this country. Their arguments were shrill and gave rise to such sentiments as "You're either with us or against us."

The distillation of those sentiments was clear: real Americans don't go to Hell, but if you deviate on certain policies, you might as well be roommates with the Devil already. Thus, if the Republican Party clasps Rudy Giuliani to its bosom, tosses the dice and hopes for a November miracle with what feels like their best and only chance to avoid total embarrassment, Evangelicals will write them off, viewing them no longer as the party of God, values, or morals. They will cast about afterward and feel as if the break was inevitable, because we, all of us, suffer in the fallen land.


The high-water mark for the evangelical social movement — and let's call it what it is — was when Bush played fully into their agenda on the Terry Schiavo thing. Coincidentally, you could probably count that legislative action among the lowest points in Congressional history. At the time, I thought it felt wrong, and my father taught me that if it feels wrong, it probably is wrong and you should stop what you're doing immediately. The fact that the national media was uncomfortable and weirded out by the whole deal didn't put off the NeoCons, though. They continued their drive against an imaginary monolithic evil — which some of them would outright call liberalism, or to the same effect equate liberals to terrorists without batting an eye — that would force their children into same-sex marriages, steal all their money to give to drug addicts, and in general lead America down the slippery path of moral turpitude until the terrorists showed up and won.

America has soured on the NeoCon/Evangelical point of view. Publications as august as Time Magazine have carried declarations that the religious right's era of dominance has come to an end. The mounting difficulty for the movement has not just been policy or PR, although both of those fronts have been disastrous for them in the last few years. No, the real difficulty has been from within their own movement. From the previously linked McClatchy article:

In church, the generation of politically active, high profile evangelists such as Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell is giving way to new preachers such as Joel Osteen and Rick Warren, who shun partisan politics or are willing to embrace Democrats.

Warren, for example, hosted Democratic Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois at his California mega-church. He cites AIDS, poverty and illiteracy as top issues, not gay marriage or abortion.

So maybe the kids are alright. It could be that the new generation of Christian leaders in the United States see the shift away from an adherence to zero-sum sentiments, and believe there are greater problems to be solved with The Word than those hammered at by Falwell and Robertson and Dobson. It could also be that maybe they just don't buy it because they weren't there to see Reagan elevated as the Instrument, the Sword that would remake America as the shining city on a hill, with strict laws about who can do what where and how.

So let's say Giuliani gets the nomination. Maybe it is because he's America's Mayor, or maybe it is because a majority of Republicans want a more moderate candidate who is tough on terror but relaxed on many other issues. Maybe Republicans nationwide are just tired of being told what to think, and they feel like Giuliani is the best and only chance for defeating whatever Democrat makes it to the ring. Conservatives all along the spectrum were ready to rally around Thompson, but he has proven to be lazy, and boring, and impure to boot. Now their choice is Rudy and that choice has a good chance of sticking.

That should tell you something about the power of the religious right, and how far it has fallen. Their organizations are running low on money and their followers are running low on faith. Even if they were to organize the hard core among them, the resultant voting bloc would fall far short of even a plurality, because the hard core base was never that big to begin with. Popularity is contagious and can lend both individuals and movements the adulation of strangers, and what we have now — the NeoCon/Evangelical movement in a grossly diminished state — illustrates that a great deal of their political support among voters was surface-deep, at best. Perhaps most people voting Republican in the last 10 years weren't soldiers in the army. Perhaps, instead, they were observers at the parade: waving flags gamely enough, and looking around nervously in hopes they were doing it right and their neighbors were watching.

Say the religious right takes up the fight along a different avenue and they really do embrace a third-party candidate as a sign to the Republican Party that they will not be ignored, etcetera and so forth. The resultant ground swell of support for Mr. Third Party is likely to be underwhelming. Here's an old AP story, from before the 2006 election. What does it say about evangelical voters?

Exit polls showed 78 percent of white evangelicals voted for him in 2004. But an Associated Press-Ipsos poll conducted Sept. 11-13 indicated 42 percent of white evangelicals disapprove of the job Bush has done as president.

His approval rating among evangelicals is still better than he gets among Americans generally, but the poll shows Democrats have made slight gains among moderate white evangelical voters.

Conservative Christian groups have started trying to mobilize evangelical voters this fall by focusing on issues such as gay marriage and abortion.

In 2004, the press pegged the evangelical vote at just over 20 million. I think you would be hard pressed to really find self-identifiers in those numbers now. Those latter issues from the quote are less important than pocketbook issues and the war these days, or else the top Republican candidates would not have skipped the most recent "Values Voters" forum.

"They will regret the decision," said Jan Folger, president of Faith2Action and a member of the debate host committee. "Because they snubbed us, they will not win, because we will not follow their lead."

That kind of threat from the religious right once carried real weight. Now it rings hollow. I may dislike the Republican candidates and disagree with most every point they've ever made, but they aren't bad at politics and they probably know where they need to get their votes. If the top candidates aren't showing up to forums for the religious right, they probably can afford to lose whatever they lose by not being there, or they can't afford to lose whatever they would lose by showing up.

So, if the religious right drove the biggest wedges in politics (which they did) and effectively erased any room for Republicans to stand near the center in Congress or on the national stage (which they also did), shuffling off the NeoCon coil may be good for their party. I feel like it would almost certainly be good for America, the same way the eradication of the McCarthy's Red Scare did nothing but improve lives.

Legislatively, the center is where deals are made and lives are affected. The partisan rancor created by the NeoCon All-Or-Nothing approach leaves little room for Republicans to maneuver, and without any sort of opportunity for reasonable debate, Congress will remain less efficient and capable than it could be owing to its composition. Perhaps the expulsion of the religious right will realign the political spectrum in the Republican Party and make more room in the center. Making more room for reasonable people would ultimately mean less room for people that, say, equate liberals with terrorists, and I think that's just fine.

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Re: The Christian Right

I just wrote about this today, too. Whether it's the schisms among religious right leaders (Gary Bauer, James Dobson), or the anti-Giuliani sentiment among many in the Christian right, it's clear that this group is as disjointed as ever heading into 2008. It behooves Democrats to keep popping this message point, because as long as there is infighting among one of the GOP's largest bases, Democrats will reap the rewards.

Jones of the Nile

The Battle of the Brands

I think the Republicans are going to have to wander in the political wilderness for a while if this schism actually occurs. A Republican Party without the unquestioning votes of the social conservatives is going to have to go back to the drawing board, so-to-speak. We're talking about the folks who are the bread and butter of Republican primary politics here in the South, the voters responsible for so many of the radical fundamentalist candidates that the red parts of the Mountain West and the South send to Washington.

Their control of the Republican Party is the culmination of three decades of organizing and winning local, county and state offices. I don't think that the Republican Party can shake that off overnight.

I was going to write a separate article about this, but I'll go ahead and give the spoiler here: I think that the rank and file fundamentalists are going to be sorely disappointed by their leadership. The leaders of the social conservatives, folks like Dobson, have everything to lose if they buck the Republican Party.

All it will take for Rudy to win the endorsement of Dobson et. al. is for him to make a little throw-away comment like the one McCain made to Beliefnet about how he thought the Constitution established the U.S. as a Christian nation. Did you see how fast Dobson and his folks petted McCain on the head for that comment?

What they want is someone they perceive to be a winner. All Rudy has to do is make some trivial comment about the U.S. is a Christian nation or how we should have more prayer in school or something along those lines, and he'll have Dobson sitting in his lap in no time.

Why? Because Dobson and the other leadership know that their power is dependent on them sticking with the machine they've built in the Republican Party. My guess is that they are probably the most unenthusiastic people on the right when it comes to packing up camp and moving over to the Constitutional Party.

I think a majority of

I think a majority of conservatives are becoming fed up with the NeoCon agenda. If you look at the Internet, very few people actually buy into Giuliani's ideas. He is torn apart in blogs, chat rooms, etc. I understand this is not the majority opinion yet, but if he gets the nom then I think we can expect to see Hillary in office (which would be the worst case scenario!) If you look at this recent study, it is interesting to see how people support candidates online:

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