If you’ve sat down and watched an interview with any one of the outspoken conservative religious leaders recently, you’ve probably noticed something: they’re aging and angry. In fact, with each interview we see, it’s almost as if we watch them get angrier and angrier.
Gone are the days of compassionate conservatism where they at least appeared to seek middle ground on various issues or where they were careful with tone. These leaders of yesteryear are are in full panic mode, and it’s showing. As a result, the aging and angry epidemic among conservative religious leaders has become the elephant in the room of many parts of Christian culture.
When we try to break open the question as to why they seem so angry, the various answers all seem to point to one root cause: they’ve lost power and control.
During the height of the “religious right” these men were figures of power and control. Presidential candidates could not advance without their support, whether public or in secret, giving them tremendous influence over the direction of some political arms. They sold thousands of books, packed stadiums, and commanded massive influence over audiences of thirsty church goers ready to do their political bidding. They were quite literally Christian heroes to thousands.
For a leader in the religious right, the last three decades weren’t so bad.
Today however, they are approaching their twilight years. During a time when many would think of retirement and the opportunity to sit back and admire their accomplishments, these religious leaders are left to simply look over their shoulders at a building that is crumbling and beginning to catch fire.
This is precisely what has them so angry: they’ve lost most of the power and control they once had, and what’s left, is quickly slipping through their fingers. Here are what I think are the three key areas:
1. They lost a culture war they spent 30+ years fighting.
Religious right leaders have fought all these years on two key issues and lost: abortion and stopping the advancement of gay rights. On the abortion front, they’re no closer to seeing Roe v. Wade overturned than when this all began. On the front of gay rights, they not only lost but saw something happen they never seriously thought was possible: the legality of same sex marriage. They now understand this is a train that has left the station, and same sex marriage is eventually coming to all 50 states– a scenario far worse than they ever anticipated.
2. Culture advanced without them, and they’ve realized they are no longer relevant.
If you haven’t noticed, it’s not 1984 anymore. For these religious right leaders however, those were the glory days they never left. While the rest of us transitioned through the grunge rock of the 90’s, rang in a new millennium, and then woke up one day to flat screen televisions, these folks never advanced. Instead of sticking to teaching their congregations the timeless message of Jesus, they got caught up into the distracting quest of seeking political power and influence– one that became so addicting they failed to realize 30 years just flew by without them. Today, they look in the mirror at a greying scalp, and realize they are complete aliens to the new culture they’ve found themselves in. Whereas in the 80’s they were the movers and shakers, today they realize that they’re basically irrelevant– a realization that on one hand must be sad, but apparently is also quite infuriating.
3. They lost the generation that was supposed to replenish their ranks.
This is perhaps the single most anger producing realization these religious right leaders are facing: they lost their “next generation” and Ralph Reed is the only person wanting to start this cycle all over again. Being so focused on political power, and being so oblivious to cultural shifts around them, they lost their only ability for long-term sustainability. The children they once thought would carry the religious right forward are now adults, but have no desire to join the movement their parents found so wonderful back in the days of ballads and hair bands.
What’s worse from their perspective, is the situation is more than just the fact these “kids” aren’t interested in leading the next generation of the religious right, but that they’ve actually switched sides. While conservative leaders were stuck in the old culture wars, progressive/emergent Christianity happily welcomed these kids into our fold (and gave them a few books to read). Today, these “kids” now make up a core block of the opposition to the very movement they were once destined to lead.
And this is where we get to the heart of why they’re so angry: they realize they lost the culture war, they realize they are fleeting in power and relevance, but most infuriating of all, they realize that the children once destined to run the religious right are now among the biggest force opposing them.
I guess I’d be pretty angry too.