The Religious Right movement is a misunderstood phenomenon. It has been dead for more than a decade, and few are now comfortable defending it. But most evangelical leaders haven’t yet come to terms with the most important reasons it failed. That’s why we haven’t discovered a satisfactory model of political engagement for the twenty-first century.
The rise of the Religious Right was not as dramatic a change from previous history as it may seem. Evangelicals did change the strategy of their political activism in the late 1970s. The new strategy was markedly better in some respects, and markedly worse in others. Both the good and the bad changes received much attention and convinced people that something fundamentally new was happening.
Though evangelicals’ strategy changed, their underlying assumptions about politics and the goals of their activism remained largely the same. These continuities deserve more notice than they have received, especially if we want to think systematically about how our activism needs to change for the new century.
Unfortunately, some commentators use the phrase “religious right” simply to refer to voters who are both politically conservative and religiously conservative. On this definition, there will always be a “religious right”—but that’s a very misleading picture. Most evangelicals vote conservative, yet less than a fifth continue to identify themselves as members of the Religious Right.
It’s more illuminating to consider the Religious Right as a distinct political strategy. Evangelicals’ operating strategy incorporated at least four major changes in the late 1970s, all of which culminated in 1979 through a broad constellation of political efforts (such as Jerry Falwell’s founding of the Moral Majority):
1) Catholics. Well into the early 1970s, most evangelical leaders were almost as anti-Catholic as they were anti-secularist. This was a natural result of their political model based on restoring the old Protestant-dominated social order. But by 1979, evangelical leaders were suddenly making major long-term investments in alliances with Catholics. They jettisoned the confessional Protestantism of the old social order for a broader “Judeo-Christian” moral traditionalism.
2) Fundamentalism. What had been an acrimonious divide between “fundamentalists” and “evangelicals” was also largely mitigated. Up through the early 1970s, the prevailing political model had fueled hostility between these subgroups. The evangelical desire to act as moral guardians of America’s social order clashed head-on with fundamentalist fears that playing such a role would inevitably compromise doctrinal purity, just as it had for the mainline. Tensions along these lines remain to this day, but in 1979 they suddenly became subordinated to what were viewed as more urgent moral and cultural concerns. This opened the door to unprecedented levels of evangelical cooperation and of political mobilization among fundamentalists.
3) Race. White evangelical leaders as a group, who had too often turned a blind eye to racial injustice or even aided and abetted it, got on board for civil rights. Until the 1970s, many white evangelical leaders supported the racial status quo uncritically, in large part because they saw themselves as guardians of the existing social order. Changed racial attitudes would still take a while to reach everybody, but by 1979 it was clear enough which way the wind was blowing.
4) Partisanship. Perhaps most important was the new willingness of evangelical leaders—unconsciously, but consistently—to put all their eggs in the basket of one political party. Earlier evangelical leaders had always seen themselves as the guardians of a bipartisan social order and cultural consensus, so they had carefully maintained relationships across party lines. Billy Graham, turned off by Goldwater’s opposition to federal civil rights legislation, welcomed Johnson’s aggressive efforts to cultivate his support. Pat Robertson backed the evangelical Carter over Ford in 1976. But under the Religious Right model, seemingly without realizing what they were doing, evangelical leaders extensively subordinated the life of the church to the political interests of the GOP.
Evangelical leaders muted their criticism of immoral personal behavior in order to avoid embarrassing Republican leaders. Moral witness on divorce was especially eclipsed. Graham had backed Eisenhower in part because his opponent, Adlai Stevenson, was a divorcee; evangelicals mobilized against Nelson Rockefeller for the same reason. All that changed when evangelicals decided to go all-in with the divorced Reagan. Right at the moment when divorce was becoming normalized, evangelicals unilaterally disarmed themselves against it.
They also tempered the more socially scandalous aspects of their theology, such as the exclusivity of salvation in Christ. The Religious Roundtable’s 1980 National Affairs Briefing is mainly remembered for Reagan’s “I endorse you” remark, but a remark by Southern Baptist Convention President Bailey Smith is equally noteworthy. Smith complained that political rallies typically feature public prayers from both Christian and Jewish clergy, which implies Christianity and Judaism are the same, when in fact only those who trust Christ have God’s favor. Robertson and Falwell rushed to offer complex, obfuscatory “clarifications” of this embarrassing comment, lest the media fallout damage Reagan.
And they donated time and resources to GOP politicians who ignored them, in pathetic hopes of currying their favor. Ralph Reed was especially aggressive in pushing evangelicals to invest in helping the GOP, on the preposterous theory that the GOP would feel a need to repay them. A federal corruption investigation would later expose Reed as a shameless huckster on the make (“Hey, now that I’m done with the electoral politics, I need to start humping in corporate accounts!” ran a now notorious 1998 email to Jack Abramoff). But it says a lot about evangelical leaders’ naiveté that Reed could play them so brazenly. It says even more that some people are still letting him do it.
To a large extent, this partisanship coincided with increased levels of hostility from the other side of the aisle. Yet even if many in the Democratic Party were pushing evangelicals out, evangelical leaders didn’t have to respond by becoming uncritical cheerleaders of the Republicans. Moreover, the causation ran the other way, as well; uncritical evangelical cheerleading for the GOP generated hostility to evangelicals among Democrats—certainly after 1980, if not before.
What explains these four strategic shifts? The conventional narrative is that court decisions on issues such as abortion and school prayer were the catalyst. But evangelicals were actually slow to adopt these causes, largely due to their anti-Catholicism.
Some Religious Right leaders point to a 1978 IRS proposal to strip some evangelical schools of their tax-exempt status. But that seems like a slender thread on which to hang such a huge and sustained social shift. The proposal, which was never implemented, was not a central feature in evangelical political discourse. Nor was this the first time evangelicals had ever been the target of federal harassment.
A parsimonious explanation that fits the facts is that the astonishing steamroller of libertinism in the 1970s produced something like a panic. Evangelicals saw America rushing ever more rapidly toward cultural catastrophe. The tipping point had to be near. “God is angry with us as a nation,” Falwell declared. “I have a divine mandate to go right into the halls of Congress and fight for laws that will save America.”
The moral panic theory explains at least three of the four strategic shifts. Evangelicals dropped their opposition to Catholics because, in their panic, they were desperate for allies. Fundamentalists overcame their fear of activism because they were more afraid of societal collapse. Evangelicals went all-in on the GOP in hopes of maximizing their political leverage. (The change in racial attitudes is a more complex story to which we can’t do justice here.)
This theory differs from the prevailing explanations mainly by denying that evangelical mobilization was primarily a defensive response to anti-evangelical government action. There certainly have been plenty of instances of legal, policy, and regulatory discrimination against evangelicals—and not only recently. In the 1940s, for example, FCC regulations blatantly discriminated against evangelical religious broadcasters in favor of the mainline until evangelical political activists successfully challenged this injustice. But in general, evangelicals have been much too quick to cry out, “They attacked us! We’re only defending ourselves!” The high points and low points of evangelical mobilization in the twentieth century just don’t seem very strongly connected, either in timing or in content, to government incursions. But they are clearly connected to heightened anxiety about national moral decay.
Why does all this matter? Because it shows that what was really shifting in evangelical politics was strategy—evangelicals were prompted to desperate measures by what they saw as desperate times, but their basic assumptions and goals did not really change.
In some ways, the Religious Right exacerbated the inadequacies of the inherited model by removing inefficiencies and mobilizing more effectively. It was a triumphalist movement, openly bragging that with its new alliances, new voter enrollments, and new partisan strategic positioning, it would roll to victory, put the enemies of morality under its heels, and save America. “We have . . . enough votes to run the country,” Robertson announced in 1979. “We are going to take over.” As with Ockenga in 1947, Robertson’s triumphalism was not only typical for the time, it was formative.
The Religious Right accomplished early successes. Before the 1980 election, libertinism was winning an accelerating series of political victories, shifting American law and policy onto a materialistic, utilitarian basis. After 1980, a new anti-libertine coalition forged by the Religious Right brought this victory procession to a halt. That is a substantial achievement.
But the Religious Right was already declining in power by the mid-1980s, and it withered throughout the 1990s. After the early years, it accomplished few of its legislative priorities. Politicians deftly extracted money, votes, and volunteer time from evangelicals while delivering little of substance. The best it could do was maintain a political stalemate with libertinism.
Here is where I have to disagree with Daniel Williams’ groundbreaking new book, God’s Own Party. Williams has collected extensive evidence documenting evangelical activism throughout the last century, upon which I’ve drawn in both parts of this article (along with other sources). But Williams thinks the Religious Right was highly successful; his main thesis is that evangelicals are now essentially in control of the GOP. I agree with David Courtwright that it’s the politicians who have been in the driver’s seat.
Then in 2000, George W. Bush broke with the Religious Right strategy decisively. He aligned with conservatives on social issues and wasn’t shy about identifying himself personally as a man of faith, but he eschewed triumphalist rhetoric and kept Religious Right leaders at arm’s length. He emphasized that he was equally sympathetic not only to “people of all faiths,” but also to “people of no faith” and their concerns. His heavy investment in positive portrayals of Islam after 9/11 was of a piece with this. Bush’s desire to treat Christianity, Islam, and atheism as functionally equivalent for civic purposes stands in stark contrast to the “Judeo-Christian” moral traditionalism of the Religious Right. Bush consistently appealed to what he said were universal values shared by all humanity; whatever you think of that, it isn’t what Pat Robertson believes.
Bush’s campaign and presidency were not just the death knell of the Religious Right strategy; they were the beginning of the end of the whole twentieth-century evangelical model of political engagement. Bush manifestly did not view either evangelicals as such or some grand coalition of conservative religious traditions as having a special guardianship over America’s social order. Nor did he have any interest in trying to restore such a guardianship.
A decade after its death, it now seems to be pretty widely admitted that the Religious Right strategy was a bad deal. It did extensive damage within our own household and exposed us to a great deal of political manipulation. Worst of all, it has reinforced a widespread cultural perception that the gospel of Christ is a right-wing political program, driving people away from the church.
If the twentieth-century model is no longer satisfactory, how do we begin building a new one? I’ll look at that in a follow-up article tomorrow.
Greg Forster is the author of five books, including The Contested Public Square.