Is Evangelicalism On the Wane?

Is the power of the religious right declining in America? Several lines of evidence would seem to indicate so.

Heading into the 2008 election, the evangelical movement is fragmented and leaderless, lacking a clear sense of enthusiasm or a preferred candidate to rally behind. Several important figures, including Jerry Falwell and D. James Kennedy, have recently died. Atheists and nonbelievers are growing in influence. And the religious right’s public brand is badly damaged, viewed as hypocritical and overly judgmental by large majorities of non-Christians.

For me, one of the most delicious signs of the religious right’s waning power came recently, when James Dobson announced that he might hold his nose and endorse John McCain for president after all, after earlier declaring he would not vote for McCain under any circumstance. It’s no surprise that he’s ultimately fallen in line behind the Republican nominee, but I think his about-face on this issue will reinforce the message that Republican politicians can disregard Christian fundamentalists’ desires, because they will vote for them anyway.

Unlike liberal and progressive political movements, the religious right is not capable of spontaneous bottom-up organization. By design, they are a movement that follows a leader and receives their marching orders from above. In the absence of any such person this year, they’ve become rudderless and disorganized. Also, prominent evangelicals who recognize how their faith has been coopted for political causes are beginning to push back with declarations like the Evangelical Manifesto, encouraging believers to focus their efforts on issues other than gay rights and abortion. This is a welcome development, though it should be noted that they do not disclaim the “standard” irrational religious positions on those issues.

The influence of religious groups has always waxed and waned in the United States, and it’s safe to say that it’s currently at a low point. If we who support secularism and reason take advantage of this to build a coalition that unites the Americans they have driven away from their side, we can ensure that their political fragmentation will continue for some time to come.

Nevertheless, it would be foolish to count the religious right out completely. They still command millions of members who can be driven into a frenzy if they have the right cause or leader to unite behind. They are down, but not defeated. And unfortunately, even though their influence is receding, they’ve left behind a “high-water mark” – an assumed standard level of religiosity in politics – which is likely to persist for a while.

Even as America as a whole becomes less religious, it seems that the political arena is becoming more religious. It was barely a century ago that a famous freethinker like Robert Ingersoll was a sought-after campaign trail figure and friend to presidents. Such a thing would be unthinkable today. So yes, the religious right is on the wane – but we have a long way to go to take back the ground they gained during their years of influence.

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