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Brooke Grossman

Professor Munson

The Christian Right in America

ASSESSING THE FUTURE OF THE CHRISTIAN RIGHT

Faith has always been a driving force behind American politics.

The past two decades in particular have seen a growing symbiosis

between the mass movement of Evangelical Christians and the

Republican Party. Since the late 1970s, major national figures have

helped to rally white Evangelical Protestants in the United States

behind conservative causes and Republican candidates. Despite its

failure to unite around one Republican Party candidate in the upcoming

election, this is a movement that is well financed, has vast media

outlets, and has shown to be effective in building long-term

institutions. The Right has capitalized on technology, from radio to TV

to the Internet, and uses these to reach a broad grassroots

constituency. Numerous think tanks have been created that engage in

public policy analysis and research, and often advocate solutions to the

‘moral dilemmas’ plaguing our nation. These institutions include a

$2.5 billion per year religious broadcasting industry, a slew of

independent publishing companies, several dozen state-based think

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tanks that do legislative lobbying and legal firms devoted exclusively

to Christian Right causes. (Diamond) The group has, historically, seen

much more success in mobilizing their networks than the groups of the

Left. They have also managed to cultivate a new generation of leaders

for its movement by investing heavily in college and youth

organizations. The Christian Right has created an organized coalition

and kept the appearance of public unity, despite disparities among the

views of its members. This paper will discuss how the Christian Right

was able to acquire their power and sustain it over time, but are

currently facing a transitional period that could ultimately splinter the

group.

This paper will pose several arguments as to why the movement

is in jeopardy. One factor is the divides occurring within the

movement, including generational gaps that have arisen over time, as

well as contradictions among members with regard to specific issues.

Another concern is the dualistic nature of the ideologies that the

Christian Right embraces. One major criticism of the movement is the

tendency toward literalism; their habit of translating black and white

mentalities inherent to their theology with the political and secular

world. The Christian Right must accommodate to a changing political

environment, while holding firmly to the principles that have united

them thus far. This becomes problematic because members within the

movement do not have a monolithic belief regarding each and every

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issue. In addition, this group is not one that is willing to easily

negotiate their beliefs. The Christian Right has developed a close

relationship with the Republican Party, however this relationship is

slowly beginning to deteriorate as party politics force members to

adopt more moderate viewpoints in order to achieve political success.

In its early years, the coalition had a set agenda with a much

more unified ideology than today’s Christian Right. The movement

was originally a reaction to America’s so-called “declining morals.”

(Mickelthwait and Woolridge) Structural and social factors also

attributed to the rise of the religious Right, including a “shift in gravity”

with increasing migration to the South and West, intense communist

fears, the rise of consumerism and anti-elitist mentalities, and the

counterculture revolution. (McGirr) The movement came in conjunction

with significant social forces, such as the liberalism of the 1960s, the

New Deal, and the expansion of civil rights. The agency behind the

movement – in working to advocate their ideas – incorporated these

developmental trends to promote conservative, Evangelical beliefs.

One characteristic of the Christian Right is their unwavering and

extremist stance towards the issues they endorse and the major

legislations in recent years include efforts to criminalize abortion,

opposition to same-sex marriage, and discouraging taxpayer-funding

for embryonic stem cell research.

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Several issues in particular have presented themselves to be

problematic and most divisive among members of the Christian Right.

A generational gap has emerged between the old and young

Evangelicals over moral and social issues. Generational divides are

seen as a natural outgrowth of time and experience, however, the

functional problem here is that the dominant members of the Christian

Right, as well as those who founded the movement, are unwilling to

negotiate. With the advent of new technologies and communicative

information, new issues have been brought to the table, including

those surrounding abortion, stem-cell research, and pornography. The

older generations feel that the youth of our nation are too liberal. They

oppose the more progressive and compromising views that the up and

coming religious Right are more willing to embrace. Especially with the

rise of the Christian Coalition, there is a new generation of Christian

leaders who are more willing to compromise, work with others, and

tone down their rhetoric. Christian Right leaders, for example, have

moderated their rhetoric and policy objectives since the collapse of the

Moral Majority. This is disheartening to members within the group

because to compromise, in their eyes, is to show weakness and

insecurity about their convictions. Considering that the stance on

these issues is deeply rooted in faith, this is something that the

Christian Right members would be unlikely to tolerate.

The move to a broader agenda, including a greater regard

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concerning environmental issues, for example, has created strains

among Evangelicals, and between Evangelicals and the Republican

Party. "Conservative Christians will continue to fight hard on the life

issue and the definition of marriage," says Gary Bauer, head of an

advocacy group called American Values and a GOP presidential

contender in 2000. "But there is a willingness,” Bauer continues, on

another day to make common cause with liberals." (Page) For such

reasons, conservative Christians are finding fault with the ‘moral

cowardice’ among progressive members.

Another problem the Christian Right will face stems from their

relationship with the Republican Party. Republican-supporting

Evangelicals are switching allegiances after looking at the narrow

agenda that has defined their relationship with the Republican Party,

according to John Green of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

(Wells) The movement was able to secure their influence largely

because of their original association with the conservative members of

the Republican Party. Blind allegiances to the Republican Party have,

however, distorted the faith of politically active Evangelicals, asserts

Randall Balmer, a professor of religion at Barnard College and

Columbia University. Conservative Christians are concerned that there

are too many moderates in the Republican Party that are intruding on

and eroding at the Christian Right’s agenda. "Evangelicals have

broadened their perspective and widened their agenda," says John

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Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron and co-author of

The Values Campaign: The Christian Right in American Politics. "It's

not as if the social issues have vanished; they still care about them.

But foreign policy issues, environmental issues, even social welfare

issues have joined the agenda. That has led them to develop broader

alliances in some really odd ways." (Page)

When George W. Bush was elected President, the Religious Right

saw him as the leader that would finally bring the country under the

dominion of God. In the 2000 election, Bush recognized the Religious

Right as a political powerbase for both the nomination and the general

election. He embraced the same values the Christian Right advocated,

from being “born again” to opposing abortion, stem-cell research, and

gay marriage. Mickelthwait and Wooldridge write, “Bush has given the

social Right a lot to be happy with: abstinence education, a signature

on a ban on partial-birth abortion, a cloning ban, a half victory on stem

cells and so on. They just want more.” Social conservatives were

terrified that the Republican establishment was preparing to sell them

down the river on gay marriage, all because of Bush’s need to attract

moderate voters. (Mickelthwait and Wooldridge) Compromise is seen

as a vital part of any democratic society. It is for this reason that the

duality inherent to the Christian Right has been increasingly

problematic. Although the group is able to work well and be successful

as a grassroots movement, they politically fail to have the ability to

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compromise and cooperate to maintain their status.

Bush’s religiosity is difficult to access because it functions in

different ways. In private meetings before religious audiences he

conveys a sense of passion and personal faith, even claiming on some

occasions to be divinely inspired. (Nelwort) But in the public sphere,

he tries to avoid giving off the impression that he is a religious zealot.

The extraordinary Evangelical love affair with Bush has ended for many

over the Iraq war and what they see as his meager domestic

accomplishments. None of the current candidates will go as far as Bush

did in identifying with conservative Christians, mainly because they

can’t. The presence of an overtly religious man, who sometimes puts

faith over law from the Oval Office, is cause for concern. Supporters of

the Christian Right tend to favor some form of Dominionism, the belief

that Christian’s are mandated by God to take control of political

institutions to subordinate civil law to biblical law. But where this has

had its biggest impact is in its advocacy of stealth tactics to break

barriers between church and state. In the classroom, for instance, they

are in favor of group prayer time and teaching Genesis. This

underscores and discredits their political cause because there is an

undeniable overlap between the secular, political and religious spheres

that are meant to be kept separate.

The group is a coalition of different people coming together with

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different interpretations. The ideology of the Christian Right is

shrouded in irony and this is one reason for loss of faith among group

members. The group endorses an anti-government mentality, while at

the same time advocating for increased use of the death penalty.

“Hostility to government is arguably the American Right’s ruling

passion…On the face of it, this is bizarre—because if you hate

government then you should really hate a president who fed steroids to

the monster.” (Mickelthwait and Wooldridge) As mentioned in The

Right Nation, members of the Christian Right “will happily call for less

government intervention in the morning, and then try to add

amendments to an appropriation bill that benefits his district in the

afternoon.” (p. 417) This will result in an overall disillusionment with

the coalition. Their credibility is severely tarnished when the ideologies

they profess contradict with their actions. Conservatives preach a

commitment to what they view as traditional standards of morality in

their public and private lives. The truth, however, is that many

morality-based conservatives engage in behaviors that contradict their

professed ideology. The question, or rather concern, has arisen as to

whether their ‘agenda’ is to control others rather than uphold

standards of moral behavior.

Christian Right organizations endorse moral convictions in trying

to mobilize apathetic citizens by laboring diligently to promote their

own agenda. The movement is after all an Evangelical social

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movement, but it has become a prominent political movement as well.

The Christian Right has developed themselves through their use of

wedge issues, like abortion and gay rights, to influence the political

landscape. Rather than compromise, the Christian right has attempted

to stage a conservative Republican "takeover" of Washington, with

considerable electoral success during the Bush years but with

poisonous consequences for politics and policy.

The enormous amount of movement building that has been

diligently undertaken for so long by the political Religious Right, as

Thomas Frank argues in What’s the Matter with Kansas?, has not gone

without notice. “While leftists sit around congratulating themselves on

their personal virtue, the right understands the central significance of

movement-building, and they have taken to the task with admirable

diligence.” Such devotion is necessary because success in democratic

politics requires more than individual membership – it also demands

deliberative activism. However, after several years of intense activism,

some of the leading Evangelicals are finally running out of energy and

ideas and are being replaced by new institutions and leaders. However

the influence of the Christian Right on the 2008 election is diminishing.

There is diversity among candidates and a changing political agenda.

We are witnessing the slew of potential “firsts”; the first black

president, the first woman president, the first Mormon president, and

the oldest president ever elected in their first term. This change is

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representative of a larger, cultural change going on in our society.

Today the movement shows signs of decay beneath its leaders.

The death of two of the most formidable religious right leaders of the

last three decades, Jerry Falwell and Reverend D. James Kennedy, will

impact the movement as well. The founding generation of leaders like

Falwell and Dobson who first guided Evangelicals into Republican

politics 30 years ago are no longer around. This group will experience

hardships because they are without solid leadership.

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