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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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Neural Transmissions

    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 this is a low point, Gawd help us.

  • the chaplain

    Dobson’s apparent about-face is illusionary. He was simply playing for political leverage a few months ago. If he and the RR want to retain any political influence, they will have to keep dancing with the guys who decked them out and brought them to the ballroom. That relationship runs both ways: the Republicans need to keep a large number of conservative Christians happy, but the RR also knows that its only chance of getting anything it wants is with the Republicans.

    Well, I say that last bit hoping that Obama doesn’t prove to be a huge disappointment in that area. I don’t care what Obama’s personal religious beliefs are, and he has said the right things about church-state separation in the past, but some of the things he’s said and done recently raise some ugly questions. I hope he’s just pandering and not revealing his inner-fundie.

  • Christopher

    You want to utterly defeat the Religious Right? The answer is simple: destroy the political class! Without them, they have no instrument to work through and will forever run about as a beheaded chicken.

    But it seems like most people in this nation seem to have this idea that they need those fools for soemthing other than the generation of hot air and stealing our tax dollars – so I don’t see that happening anytime soon…

  • Virginia

    Evangelism of Christian Fundamentalist may have loose some steam, but as long as there are people willing to be “indoctrinated” by them, and that states allow their interfering into public spaces, they will not die down completely.

    We can contribute to dampen their influence by being more visible, and more vocal in the expression of freethinking, skepticism and scientific reasoning.

  • bbk

    Even though religious influence ebbs and flows, on average it’s been declining for a long time. I’m not so concerned about the next time it comes back because there’s very little chance that it will be anything as powerful like the last time. Only a fundamental collapse of civilization could reverse the trend.

    I think a large part of this also has to do with perception. We see what the Evangelicals have done as absolutely despicable. But a lot of that is because we ourselves are much more secular than generations past. Secularists have worked very hard to expose this last round of Christians leaders for the money grubbing con-men that they were/are. And that’s pretty unprecedented.

    Past generations were defined by a wide range of atheists, from Robert Ingersoll to Andrew Carnegie, who set the agenda for society. But these freethinkers served as guides to the wealthy, educated elite of society. By and large the religious institutions of their time got away unscathed.

    Contemporary atheism will be remembered for something completely different. The most notable atheists of our time are people such as George Carlin and Frank Zappa. They took atheism to the masses, publicly and matter of factly ridiculing religious institutions. And then there are people such as Madelyn O’Hair, or Richard Dawkins, who in various ways contributed to the advent of an atheist civil rights movement.

    These are the products of this last cycle of religious revival. Not too shabby. And what are Christians going to get out of it, besides a couple of Bible theme parks? Not too much.

  • lpetrich

    I agree that we aren’t out from under the Religious Right’s political influence just yet, and I also agree that it’s best to not get complacent about the RR.

    The emergence of the “New Atheists” is welcome, and I think that it shows the lameness of the response of the more moderate and liberal sort of Xians to their fundie coreligionists — to the extent that it can be called a response. I remember arguing with one of them about why he didn’t challenge the fundies’ theology, despite having excellent credentials for doing so. He didn’t have a coherent answer.

    And some liberal Xians might have an even more serious problem: if one stated their beliefs in plain language, the heterodox nature of those beliefs would become rather glaringly apparent. Consider that John Haught believes that Jesus Christ’s resurrection could not have been photographed. I’m sure that to most of his coreligionists, he’s essentially saying that he believes that that event never really happened.


    As to Christopher’s idea of destroying the political class, I don’t see how that is either (1) feasible or (2) capable of destroying the Religious Right.

  • Christopher


    “As to Christopher’s idea of destroying the political class, I don’t see how that is either (1) feasible or (2) capable of destroying the Religious Right.”

    1. It can be done – but first power must be wrested from them, and that’s not likely to happen anytime soon…

    2. The Religious Right needs a powerful government to propagate its ideology beyond the local church because it’s too small to do it by itself: only with a powerful government can they make their will (unwavering support of tiny nations which it’s more practical to abandon, banning gay marraige, tax-exempt status for the church, etc…) anything more than a dream! Without the support of a powerful nation-state they’re up shit creek without a paddle!

    If he political class goes under, so will the much of the nation-state’s power (read: their very livlihood).

  • Samuel Skinner

    For those who think “destoying the political class” would change anything, I urge you to look at actual revolutions. The result is, invaribly, to replace on set of elites with another.

    The French revolution, the communist revolutions, the peasent revolutions, the New World’s independance movement and Africa’s… all replaced old masters with new ones. Why? Because as long as their is complex society, power will be unevenly shared.

  • Valhar2000

    Without the support of a powerful nation-state they’re up shit creek without a paddle!

    But so are the people they would victimize. Without the support of a kind-more-or-less secular government the RR can send out rednecks to beat up anyone they don’t like. In areas of the US where evangelicalism holds sway this already happens.

  • OMGF

    Yet McCain has already cozied up to Bob Jones and Liberty universities during his campaign…

  • The Nerd

    I’ve known for a long time that evangelicalism would burn itself out. It simply cannot hold itself in the minds of believers for very long, without something feeding it. Usually that has been fear, which is why every so often there will be another big “threat to Christianity”, such as Satanists in the park at night, or Harry Potter trying to turn all our children into spelcasters. But lately the scare tactics have been getting more and more unbelievable, and people grow weary of being frightened.

    I see evangelicalism fading away to make room for a milder, more metaphorical interpretation of the Bible. There will always be nuts out there, but most people will come to realize that Scripture was written for a different audience than our modern world, and adust their dogma accordingly.

  • Entomologista

    The other day I was skimming through the book UnChristian, which is written by an Evangelical seeking to remedy their image as hypocritical and judgmental. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a large portion of the book is about how to tell gay people you hate them in a nicer way. I don’t think they’re capable of comprehending why everybody else views them as intolerant and hateful.

  • KShep

    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.

    Yeah, it would be foolish to count them out, but on the other hand, what’s left to drive them into a frenzy? The Republican party has used them and their irrational fears/beliefs pretty consistently (the “southern strategy”) for a long time, and they’re running out of people to hate. First, it was the dirty hippies, then the blacks, then the “gun grabbers,” then the gays, etc ad nauseum. They’re trying real hard right now with immigrants, but it isn’t catching on too well. What or who is left to vilify? Fat people?

    I sincerely believe that the real reason the Repubs blew the ’06 election is because they ran out of people to scare southern evangelicals with. There weren’t any gay marriage bans on ballots across the country, as there were the previous few elections, so the “values voters” stayed home. They’re more worried about two guys kissing in Massachusetts than they are their own economic situations.

    I’ve pointed out to various fundie acquaintances over the years about how they are being used by their favorite party and had almost no success getting through. They want to be led around by someone they think they can trust, who says all the right things, rather than think for themselves.

  • LindaJoy

    Everyone here and anyone else should read Jeff Sharlet’s The Family before you make anymore conclusions about the power level of fundamentalism in this country. And, just so you know, Obama, Clinton and McCain all have paid or are paying court to this group. “the chaplain” is on to something when it comes to Obama. We are a long ways from being out of the woods on this. If you just want a taste of what the book is about, google the article by Jeff Sharlet in Harper’s entitled “Jesus Plus Nothing”. Then get back on here and comment about the influence of religion supposedly waning in American government.

  • Christopher

    Samuel Skinner,

    “For those who think “destoying the political class” would change anything, I urge you to look at actual revolutions. The result is, invaribly, to replace on set of elites with another.”

    But the political class wasn’t destoryed in said revolutions – all they did was replace the existing political class with another one. The only way it can be destroyed is by the community coming to the realization that government is only an idea: and as such only has power so long as people believe in it.

    Once a whole population realizes this, there’s no way for politicains to enforce their will over them: if they make “laws” that the people find counter-prodcutive or else absurd, they will simply act as if it didn’t exist – thus demoting politicians to the level of over-glorified administrators, as they can only enforce “laws” that the people find to be in their best interests instead of making their will into “law.”

    Of course, our civilization is far from this point – we won’t get here until sizable portion of the population thinks of themselves as sovreign entities and states as being agents that serve their will (not those of special interests).

  • Polly

    What or who is left to vilify? Fat people?

    Orders to persecute heavy people could be called “FATwa’s”
    Parents would worry about their children getting fat at school under the influnce of what they’d call the “chubby agenda.”

    PE would become mandatory.

    Hitler would be recast on History Channel dramatizations using overweight actors.

    Every news story involving criminal activity would list the weights of the heavy-set perpetrators and focus disproportionately on their activities.

    High food prices would be blamed on them.

    Endevours to widen theater and airplane seats would be viewed as the ICC “the International Corpulent Conspiracy.”

    Then we could label the fat-rights campaign, “Save the whales!”

  • lpetrich

    Christopher, that is fatuous utopianism. Are you serious that that is even halfway feasible? And how do you propose to depose the political class? By starting an anarchist rebellion?

    It seems to me that the Animal Farm effect will happen yet again, as Samuel Skinner has pointed out — what’s to keep a new political class from emerging?

    Our Founding Fathers had wanted to get away from political parties and factionalism, and they did that by writing a Constitution which ignored political parties, and which specified that the Vice President shall be the second biggest vote-getter in a Presidential election. However, that great experiment failed; the politicians quickly divided up into parties, and that way of choosing the Vice President was soon changed because it put rivals into office next to each other.

    Imagine keeping that system, however, with Prez-Veep combinations like FDR-Hoover, FDR-Landon, FDR-Willkie, FDR-Dewey, Truman-Dewey, Eisenhower-Stevenson, Kennedy-Nixon, Johnson-Goldwater, Nixon-Humphrey, Nixon-McGovern, Carter-Ford, Reagan-Carter, Reagan-Mondale, BushI-Dukakis, Clinton-BushI, Clinton-Dole, BushII-Gore, BushII-Kerry. Or even Obama-McCain or McCain-Obama.

  • Christopher


    “It seems to me that the Animal Farm effect will happen yet again, as Samuel Skinner has pointed out — what’s to keep a new political class from emerging?”

    The fact that every man, woman and child in this new social anti-order would be armed to the teeth: making it impractical for government to even try to enforce any more “laws” than are absolutely essential for its continued existence. In essence, the political class will die because people would (for the most part) live as laws unto themselves – thus all but negating the need for a class of sheep-herders to keep the flock in line.

  • OMGF

    Can we please not poke the troll? It’s hurting my eyes.

  • Christopher

    Just because you don’t like the message doesn’t mean you have to attack the messenger, OMFG. If you have a problem with my concept of a functioning society, point it out and give your reasons as to why you think it’s a “bad” idea – it’s not that hard.

  • OMGF
  • Christopher

    OMFG, I’m not an anarchist – I do realize that some goverment will always exist in some form or another: I just think we should only have enough of it to prevent anarchy, and go no further in empowering that institution.

  • Christopher

    BTW: the society I have in mid would actually be quite peaceful – as no one would be in a rush to start a fight with anyone else, as everyone would have access to heavy firepower. As the old Latin proverb says, “Sic vis pacem, para bellum.”

    It’s not a “violent dream” but rather the idea of peace through power taken to its logical conclusion: if everyone is a power, no one is – so eveyone gets along for the sake of preserving a fragile peace.