Religious Right

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Religious Right

Since the 1970s, the Religious Right, often known as the "Christian Right" or the "New Christian Right," has referred to a coalition of organizations and individuals with three major goals in U.S. politics: to get conservative Protestants to participate in the political process, to bring them into the Republican party, and to elect social conservatives to public office. It is not, however, merely an electoral movement. Broadly speaking, the Religious Right is made up of evangelical Christians who are socially, theologically, and economically conservative. Its adherents are primarily, but not exclusively, white middle-class Americans who affirm so-called "family values," promote laissez-faire economics, and believe in a generally literal interpretation of Biblical Christianity. Although the coalition claims support from conservatives among Catholics and other religious groupings, it is generally made up of evangelical Protestants, and it is from this tradition that the movement has emerged. The Religious Right is best known for its positions on contemporary hot-button issues; for example, its adherents oppose abortion on demand, reject homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle, push for prayer in public schools, and protest high taxes and an expanding welfare state.

The rise of the Religious Right began in 1976, dubbed the "Year of the Evangelical" by Time magazine. The New York Times claimed that the blossoming evangelical movement was "the major religious force in America, both in numbers and impact," and Christian periodicals like Christianity Today praised the fact that evangelicals were finally reaching cultural prominence. Americans elected Jimmy Carter, a Southern Baptist, to the White House, a sign to some that the self-indulgence of the 1960s seemed to give way to born-again Christian fervor. Carter himself, however, was a middle-of-the-road Democrat who was far more tolerant of diversity in American culture than many of the outspoken evangelists and politicians who have since come to represent the Religious Right; his election was not so much the fruit of any proactive evangelical movement as it was a result of voters expressing frustration with a decade of Washington-based excesses: unpopular Vietnam policies by the Democrats and the Watergate scandal by the Republicans. Conservative Christians who helped to elect Carter in 1976 turned on him in 1980 as concerns over a variety of social issues caused them to reject Carter's moderate political policies and turn to the socially conservative Republican Party. Since then evangelical Christians largely have been associated with the Republican Party; however, the two are not coterminous and many left-leaning evangelicals decry the evangelical/Republican conflation.

The Religious Right remained an influential political movement through the end of the 1980s until several events caused many to argue that the movement had run its course: a series of televangelist scandals, the failed presidential bid of Pat Robertson in 1988, the disbanding of Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority, and Democratic electoral gains, including the recapture of the White House in 1992. Since the 1980s, however, the Christian Right has established influential new organizations like the Christian Coalition, and has organized many voters on the local level, making conservative Christians an important voting bloc in electoral analysis. For example, the Republican resurgence in 1994 was due in part to the strength of the Religious Right in local politics around the country.

The post-1960s Religious Right draws some of its power from the historical forces that shaped church-state relations in the United States over the past three centuries. The New England Puritans of the seventeenth century believed that they were founding a holy commonwealth and that they were entering into an explicit covenant with God: if they obeyed God's commands they would be blessed, and if they disobeyed they would be punished. Puritans also saw their society as a "city on a hill," an exemplary redeemer nation that the world should revere and imitate. This combination of covenantal thinking and a sense of divine mission has shaped American Protestants' perception of their role in U.S. culture for centuries, as expressed in statements like "This is God's country and it should be run God's way!" No matter how many mistakes Americans make, they continue to see themselves as the "last, best hope of earth." Since the Puritan era, evangelical Christians have considered themselves custodians of culture, called not only to serve in churches, but to bring the nation (and the nations) under the rule of God.

During the nineteenth century many of the nation's social reformers were evangelical Christians. Leading revivalists preached the doctrine of perfectionism—the idea that Christians could and should lead sinless lives. Evangelicals tended to be obsessed more with shortcomings in personal piety and opposed such vices as the consumption of alcohol, gambling, fornication, profanity, and dishonesty. While this preoccupation with individual behavior helped to civilize the frontier and encouraged pioneers to lead sober and decent lives, for some it bred social conservatism, causing them to ignore larger cultural issues like political decision-making, economic policies, and social ills such as slavery, exploitation of workers, and poverty. Many antebellum evangelicals were socially radical in their opposition to slavery, however, and evangelicals founded many of the nation's most prominent institutions of higher learning. Clearly, antebellum evangelicals did not eschew public responsibility, but the dynamic of revivalism did sow the seeds of social conservatism that blossomed in the 1970s with the Religious Right's rigid moralism. For many, God was more concerned about personal moral behavior than problems of social justice and economic equity.

By the mid-nineteenth century, the United States had become, more than at any other point in its history, a Christian republic, though Roman Catholics, as "foreigners," i.e., non-white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, were excluded from this equation because of their supposed allegiance to the Papacy, a foreign power, and because of fears that the poorer Catholic immigrants would upset the social order. Evangelical, revivalistic Protestantism remained the dominant religious expression, church membership had reached record levels, and Americans believed more than ever that through their example they would save the world. Buttressed by the support of wealthy businessmen, evangelists set out to improve the world through personal piety evidenced through public service and reform. Evangelicals pioneered scores of voluntary associations whose attention to single issues made them highly effective instruments of reform. They learned how to raise money and promote their enterprises and how to continually add numbers to their ranks. Most American colleges had evangelical roots, and Protestant clergymen were among the most influential of the country's celebrities. In many ways Victorian America was the heyday of American evangelicalism, as it dominated much of American public life and continued to grow exponentially.

Starting in the second half of the nineteenth century, forces of industrialization, urbanization, and immigration interrupted the evangelical march to cultural preeminence. Multiple subcultures divided by class, ethnicity, language, and religion replaced the relative homogeneity and social cohesion of an earlier era. Expansive immigration from eastern and southern Europe brought Jews, Roman Catholics, and Orthodox Christians to North America, thus weakening Protestant influence over the culture. The growing secularism that came to be found in urban America alarmed many in the country's leading Protestant denominations. The challenges of Darwinism and historical criticism of the Bible made traditional religious belief untenable for many more sophisticated Americans. Many Christian progressives sought to address the social problems accompanying growing industrialism (urban poverty, inadequate public housing, political corruption, for example) with an emphasis on social service, and the Social Gospel movement began to eclipse evangelicalism's traditional emphasis on personal salvation.

Between 1870 and 1925 evangelicals divided into two warring camps: modernists and fundamentalists (with many gradations in between, of course). Modernists adapted the Christian faith to modern science and new Biblical criticism. They espoused "theistic evolution" which made room for Darwin's theories and admitted the earth was very old. In addition, conceding that the Bible was often factually untrue and that it was at times supernaturally naive, modernists focused instead on a Social Gospel that emphasized moral instruction and service to fellow humans. Fundamentalists, on the other hand, rejected modernism in all its forms and argued that the Bible could be taken at face value—that it was literally true in all its claims. They also rejected evolution and any findings of modern science that questioned divine creation. Urban revivalists like Dwight L. Moody and Billy Sunday carried the fundamentalist "old-time religion" to millions of Americans, and it was from this wing of U.S. Protestantism that the "Old Christian Right" emerged.

After World War I, fundamentalist leaders like Sunday, William Jennings Bryan, and William Bell Riley championed two major causes: prohibiting the sale of intoxicating liquor and banning the teaching of evolution in tax-supported public schools—the two leading causes of the Old Christian Right. By 1920, fundamentalism was well organized and had made some impressive gains. Leaders achieved a stunning moral victory in the passage of Prohibition, the movement had respectable intellectuals who defended the fundamentals of the faith, and a handful of Southern states had passed laws that banned the teaching of evolution in public schools. By the early 1930s, however, the movement had disintegrated and lost its public credibility. Trouble began in 1925 with the trial of John T. Scopes in Dayton, Tennessee, concerning the teaching of evolution. This cultural event, swarming with national media—it was one of the first news events broadcast live on radio—cemented in the minds of Americans the notion that fundamentalists were rural, uneducated, backward simpletons unwilling to embrace advances in science and technology. Within five years all state laws prohibiting the teaching of evolution had been repealed. Prohibition itself was repealed in 1933, ending the fundamentalist dream of an America free from drunkenness and immorality.

By the mid-1930s, modernists had taken control of the largest Protestant denominations as liberals opted for a more flexible faith not imprisoned in fundamentalism's doctrinal rigor. As many Northern denominations embraced modernity, the fundamentalist center of gravity shifted to the rural South where Protestant conservatives stopped short of demanding social transformation. Southern evangelicals had traditionally been socially conservative, seeking to preserve the Southern ideal against Northern capitalistic encroachment. Evangelical Protestantism was now in the hands of social conservatives, and the marriage between the two would grow stronger as each year passed.

Fundamentalists had suddenly become emasculated. No longer capable of redeeming the nation for God, they retreated into culturally conservative communities. Fundamentalists were associated with the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s and went on to be associated with segregationism and anti-Communism in the 1950s. These links between conservative Christians and retrograde political movements fixed in the minds of Americans the image of fundamentalists as narrow-minded, bigoted, and backward looking—a very different image from that maintained by evangelical progressives a generation earlier. Between 1930 and the 1970s, Americans paid little attention to conservative evangelical Protestants. Having lost key battles in the 1920s, fundamentalists withdrew from public life and nurtured their own institutions. Because they had lost control not only of American culture as a whole but also of the country's major Protestant denominations, fundamentalists set out to create their own organizations that would preserve an unadulterated Christian message. Large independent congregations sprouted up all over the country led by famous preachers such as John Roach Straton, William Bell Riley, J. Frank Norris, Carl McIntire, and "Fighting Bob" Schuler. Individuals and churches formed coalitions that they hoped would increase their strength and effectiveness, the most notable being the World's Christian Fundamentals Association, the National Federation of Fundamentalists, and the Baptist Bible Union. In addition, fundamentalists established Bible colleges all over the country that favored Christian teaching and practical instruction over the liberal arts, the two leading ones being the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago and the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (BIOLA). Conservative evangelicals also published newspapers and periodicals like the King's Business, the Christian Beacon, Crusader's Champion, and many others, and also pioneered in radio broadcasting as they attempted to spread the Christian message around the country and the globe.

To the extent that conservative Protestants participated in national political life after 1930, their sympathies generally remained with the Democratic party. In the South, the force of tradition kept conservatives attached to the party that had re-established white political dominance in the wake of Reconstruction. This linkage was further cemented by the popularity of New Deal social-welfare programs that sought to eradicate poverty and assist farmers in financial distress. As evangelicals climbed the social and economic ladders, their affinity for liberal programs faded as they became more conservative. A significant number of conservative evangelicals fled the Democratic party in 1960 when it ran Roman Catholic John F. Kennedy as its presidential candidate. Traditionally anti-Catholic, white, churchgoing Protestants defected to the Republican party and voted for the Republican candidate, Richard Nixon. Southern whites, who fifty years earlier had supported Democrat William Jennings Bryan, responded favorably to the candidacy of Republican Senator Barry Goldwater in 1964, and in 1968 showed significant support for independent presidential candidate George Wallace. Georgian Jimmy Carter won the White House in 1976 and carried most of the Southern states. He did not, however, win the votes of the majority of white Southerners, many of whom were evangelical Christians. By the mid-1970s, most conservative Protestants were Republicans, and they would turn on Carter en masse in 1980 in support of ultraconservative candidate Ronald Reagan.

Scholars refer to the return of conservative Protestants to organized political action as the rise of the "New Christian Right," descendants of the "Old" Christian Right of the 1920s. During the 1950s and 1960s American culture became more liberal. Among many social changes, the Supreme Court under Earl Warren declared segregated schools unconstitutional in 1954 and upheld laws banning organized prayer in public schools in 1963; the Warren Court also progressively lifted prohibitions against books and movies that had been considered obscene. In 1960, the Food and Drug Administration approved use of the birth control pill, removing yet another barrier to nonmarital sex. As the conservative reaction intensified, evangelical Protestants joined in the cultural critique. A number of local movements around the country helped to galvanize conservative Christian political concern and united action. One of particular importance took place in 1974 when a group of fundamentalists led by educators Alice Moore and Mel and Norma Gabler protested proposed public school textbooks in Kanawha County, West Virginia. They argued that the sex education curriculum was too explicit, that the science books pushed evolution at the expense of creation science, and that books with sexually explicit, negative, or morbid language were inappropriate for young people. A culture war of sorts developed in Kanawha County as conservatives and liberals squared off over educational freedom, public school curricula, and issues of public decency. Religious and political conservatives from all over the country offered support to the embattled fundamentalists, among them Paul Weyrich and James McKenna and their Heritage Foundation, a fledgling conservative think tank in Washington, D.C. Journalists observed the "wedding of right-wing politics and right-wing religion" and the Religious Right was back in the limelight of American politics as a major constituency within the Republican party.

As the 1970s advanced, conservative Protestants climbed out of the back seat and were vying for America's cultural steering wheel. Time magazine referred to 1976 as the "Year of the Evangelical," noting the prominence of conservative Protestants in American business, political, and social circles. During the 1960s and 1970s evangelist Billy Graham emerged as a celebrity via his well-organized crusades in U.S. cities where he preached a "born again" message. Graham rarely engaged in commentary on specific political issues, nor was he ever tainted by personal scandal, and he is generally regarded as a middle-of-the-road pastor whose political activities were limited to acting as an unofficial chaplain to national political figures. Chuck Colson, one of Nixon's Watergate-era henchmen, found Jesus and fought for an evangelical presence in American politics. Phyllis Schlafly led conservative Christians in their battle against feminism, lesbianism, and the Equal Rights Amendment. Jerry Falwell, pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia, and host of the Old Time Gospel Hour television program, came to the aid of Anita Bryant in her crusade to repeal a gay-rights ordinance in Dade Country, Florida. Robert Billings, James Dobson and scores of evangelical leaders battled the IRS in 1978 when it attempted to remove tax-exempt status from private Christian schools. Fundamentalist ministers who had long warned their constituents to avoid secular politics now encouraged them to reject the division of human affairs into sacred and secular spheres, insisting that there is no area of human activity, including law and politics, that should be outside of Christian influence. The task was "not to avoid this world, but to declare God's kingdom in it."

Political activists with little or no background in the Religious Right attempted to strengthen the Republican party by building bridges between secular and religious conservatives. Howard Phillips of the Conservative Caucus, John "Terry" Dolan of the National Conservative Political Action Committee, Paul Weyrich of the National Committee for the Survival of a Free Congress, and Richard Viguerie, a major fund raiser for conservative causes, all attempted to woo fundamentalist Christians. The basis for this new coalition would be an all-out attack on big government as the major threat to traditional religious and economic values. In addition to their traditional anticommunist, pro-business, and anti-tax stances, conservative activists added the concerns of the Religious Right: feminism, homosexuality, prayer in schools, and sexual laxity, among others. In 1978 Robert Billings, assisted by Paul Weyrich, formed the National Christian Action Coalition, the first national organization of the Christian Right; televangelist Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority, a conservative political action group, in 1979. Evangelical leaders embraced conservative political issues, but did so with a religious rationale. Increased defense spending was justified as a way of keeping the world free for ongoing preaching of the gospel; support for the government of Taiwan was key because the U.S. was protecting Christian allies from the godless, communist Chinese; governmental support for Israel was necessary because biblical prophecy demanded a unified and strong Israeli state. Now ideologically and institutionally viable, and savvy about electronic media like television and radio, the Religious Right entered the 1980s stronger than ever before.

Elected president in 1980, Ronald Reagan embraced the views of the Religious Right and pledged to work on its behalf. Among other gestures, he appointed anti-abortion activist and evangelical Christian C. Everett Koop surgeon general, frustrating many conservatives and delighting liberals when Koop took a strong pro-active stance in disseminating nonjudgmental information about the AIDS crisis. In 1980 Republicans regained control of the Senate for the first time in a quarter century, and the Religious Right was credited by many with securing those congressional victories. Throughout the 1980s the Religious Right was constantly on the mind and lips of political commentators and electoral analysts. Falwell became the unofficial spokesperson for conservative Protestants, and Pat Robertson's 700 Club television show reached record numbers of viewers as it combined revivalistic preaching with analysis of current events in a format similar to the network news. No one could ignore the Religious Right for its profound influence on local and national elections during the Reagan years. Approximately 25 percent of the American public described themselves as "born again" Christians, forcing politicians to contend with conservative Christians as a key voting bloc.

Beginning in 1987, a series of scandals involving prominent televangelists tarnished the image of religious conservatives, and the movement began to lose its cohesion. First, Oral Roberts brought ridicule upon himself by announcing that God would "call him home" if his supporters did not contribute eight million dollars to save his City of Faith Hospital. Then Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, heroes of the PTL television network and Heritage USA amusement park, found themselves embroiled in controversy. Journalists uncovered Jim's romantic tryst with former secretary Jessica Hahn and discovered that one of Bakker's colleagues had paid her $250,000 in hush money. To make matters worse, IRS investigators charged Jim Bakker with tax evasion and fraud. The Bakkers had mismanaged loyal followers' financial contributions and used them to support their lavish lifestyle. Jim Bakker, though released on parole a few years later, was sentenced to forty-five years in prison, and his wife, Tammy Faye, entered the Betty Ford Clinic to deal with a drug problem brought about by the stress. After this news story broke, televangelist Jimmy Swaggert was caught in a seedy hotel room with a New Orleans prostitute. Taken as a whole, these scandals humiliated the conservative Christian community and sowed seeds of dissention among its constituents.

At the same time journalists and cultural critics were heaping ridicule upon the Religious Right for its leaders' misdeeds, the movement began to disintegrate politically. In 1988, Christian Right religious leaders were politically split during the Republican primary campaign. Falwell endorsed George Bush, while many others supported Jack Kemp and Bob Dole. Television preacher Robertson, head of the multimillion dollar Christian Broadcasting Network, campaigned for president and even made impressive showings in several early primaries. Robertson, however, eventually withdrew from the race after finding himself unable to garner the full support of the Religious Right that he had taken for granted. Falwell disbanded the Moral Majority in 1989, and the hopes of the Religious Right lay in ruins. Many commentators announced the death of the Religious Right in 1992 when Bill Clinton, a liberal Southern, pro-choice, progay rights child of the 1960s, entered the White House.

The Republican congressional resurgence in 1994, revealed these obituaries to be premature. The Religious Right helped to elect political conservatives to office in that year; and Robertson's new organization, the Christian Coalition, was instrumental in that process. In 1989 Robertson, with the counsel of Religious Right leaders Charles Stanley, D. James Kennedy, Beverly LaHaye, Marlene Elwell, James Muffett, and Lori Parker, formed the Coalition as a grassroots conservative political organization independent of the structures of the Republican party. Under the leadership of a young and vibrant Ralph Reed, this new organization would no longer kowtow to Republican presidents but would instead "be a force unto its own." The Coalition de-emphasized national politics and followed the principle that the real battles of concern to Christians were in neighborhoods, school boards, city councils, and state legislatures—in other words, they accepted the dictum that all politics is local. During the 1994 election, the Christian Coalition distributed thirty-five million voter guides and seventeen million congressional scorecards, and made telephone calls to three million voters. In 1995 the organization added its support to the Republican "Contract with America" and penned its own "Contract with the American Family" that called for religious equality, local control of education, school choice, protection of parental rights, family-friendly tax relief, eradication of pornography, privatization of the arts, and victims' rights. By 1995, the Christian Coalition claimed 1.6 million members and a budget of over $25 million. It continues to educate conservative Christians regarding local political issues and candidates in a grass-roots campaign to purify the United States.

During the 1990s, a group called the Promise Keepers also garnered national attention. Founded by University of Colorado football coach Bill McCartney and friend Dave Wardell, the Promise Keepers brought together large numbers of Christian men in stadium rallies across the country, asking them to re-commit their lives to Christ and reclaim their traditional role as head of the family. The group's mission statement: "a Christ-centered ministry dedicated to uniting men through vital relationships to become godly influences in their world" came under fire by the National Organization for Women and religious-left groups like People of Faith, who claimed Promise Keepers was really advancing a right-wing, homophobic, anti-feminist agenda that wanted to relegate women to traditional, submissive roles. The Promise Keepers organization affirmed, however, that the group has "no affiliation with the Christian Coalition or any other organization" and that "Promise Keepers is not politically motivated in any way." It also claimed some success in going beyond the white-Protestant image of the Religious Right by including Catholics and members of racial minorities in its rallies.

Robertson resumed the presidency of the Christian Coalition after the departure of Ralph Reed. In June, 1999, the organization announced it was splitting into two separate organizations after the Internal Revenue Service revoked its tax-exempt status. Under the reorganization, Christian Coalition International would endorse candidates and make political contributions, while the existing tax-exempt body, to be renamed Christian Coalition of America, would continue distributing its controversial voters' guides. The move was seen by critics as yet another example of the decline of the once-powerful organization.

—Kurt W. Peterson

Further Reading:

Bruce, Steve. The Rise and Fall of the New Christian Right. New York, Oxford University Press, 1988.

Carpenter, Joel. Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism. New York, Oxford University Press, 1997.

Christian Coalition. Contract with the American Family. Nashville, Moorings, 1995.

"Christian Coalition Official Website." June 1999.

Lienesch, Michael. Redeeming America: Piety and Politics in the New Christian Right. Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1993.

Marsden, George. Fundamentalism and American Culture. New York, Oxford University Press, 1982.

Martin, William. With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America. New York, Broadway Books, 1996.

Menendez, Albert J. Evangelicals at the Ballot Box. New York, Prometheus Books, 1996.

"Promise Keepers Web Site." June 1999.

Silk, Mark. Spiritual Politics: Religion and America since World War II. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1988.

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Religious Right

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