What does the ‘Christian right’ want?

0904CHRISTIAN_RIGHT_wideweb__470x297,0I completely understand why many mainstream journalists get frustrated when they try to write — in a fair and accurate manner — about the political force that is usually called the Religious Right.

First of all, the “religious” right can be defined quite broadly. At the very least, on most moral and cultural issues, this would include the so-called “First Things” coalition of conservative Evangelicals, pro-Catechism Catholics, Jewish conservatives and others. In other words, the “religious” right would have to be interfaith, from the get go. Are Mormon Christians part of that? Certainly.

But we all know that this is not what most reporters are writing about when they use the Religious Right label.

How about “Christian right”? That’s better. But that would really need to include conservative Catholics, the Orthodox, morally conservative (but perhaps economically progressive) Evangelicals, lots of hard-to-label Anglicans, etc. And how about the Latino charismatics and traditional Catholics? How about, on many issues, the African-American church? And, while we are at it, these people lean to the right on what issues?

So what about “Evangelical right”? That’s better, only you then have to wade into the old question of what “Evangelical” does and does not mean. And, again, what political issues are we talking about here?

You can see some of this at work in a pre-presidential health care speech story in the Washington Post that ran under the headline: “Opposition to Health-Care Reform Revives Christian Right.” The term “Christian right” is used throughout the piece. Here’s a crucial passage:

“Movements do better when they have something to oppose,” said D. Michael Lindsay, a sociology professor at Rice University who studies evangelicals. “It’s easier to fundraise in those kinds of situations. It’s easier to mobilize volunteers because you have an us versus them mentality, and that plays very well right now for the Christian right.”

After seeing their bread-and-butter issue of abortion take a back seat during the election last year, the Christian right has been a prime force in moving it back to the front row by focusing on it as a potential part of health-care reform.

“It’s a busy time,” said Tom Minnery, senior vice president of Focus on the Family Action, the lobbying arm of Focus on the Family. He said donations to Focus Action have climbed beyond expectations, although he declined to say by how much.

Experts say the resurgent interest is proving that predictions of the death of the Christian right — widespread before the election — were again premature. But they say the recent flurry of activity does nothing to solve the underlying challenges facing the movement — the lack of younger leaders to replace aging ones and ways to engage younger evangelicals who want the movement to embrace a wider range of issues.

The story has excellent sources and great quotes. But once again you have to ask: Who are these people? Where are the Catholics, who have offered some interesting comments on health control. How about African-American churches? Are they all on board with President Barack Obama on this one? Are some of them in the “Christian right,” while others are not?

I think the link here to abortion is accurate and crucial. But anyone who has followed this story carefully knows that that is one of several religion-rooted issues on the big plate called health-care reform.

This leads me to another question, one centering on the Democrats who are having the crucial debates over the contents of the key legislation. We all know that the U.S. Catholic bishops want wider or universal access to health care. But the hook for this Post story is that all of these “Christian right” leaders are opposed to health-care reform.

Well, is that true? Has anyone asked these leaders what they would like to see passed? Are they opposed to health-care reform, or are they in favor of a different approach? I guarantee you that some of them, in their surge to oppose Obama, are totally opposed to any change at all. But I bet that many in the widely defined “Christian right” are not opposed to all of the elements of this plan and they may have ideas about compromises that they could support.

That’s my main point for reporters right now. Look at the wider spectrum and tell us (a) who is opposed to all health-care reform, (b) who genuinely backs health-care reform, yet is opposed to some elements of the current plan and (c) who actually backs the Obama plan, or has been given a wink and a nod that the compromise plan will be acceptable to them.

This story tells us quite a bit about the impact of the health-care wars on the white, Evangelical, Protestant, pro-Republican, so-called “Christian right.” But who, pray tell, is talking to the Blue Dog Democrats? What are the pro-life Democrats saying (and are any of them “religious” or “Christian”)?

Who is seeking compromise? That’s another story and one that might overlap, a bit, with the Divine Ms. MZ Hemingway’s earlier post.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Davis

    “But who, pray tell, is talking to the Blue Dog Democrats?”

    This mistake is made over and over again in the press, and at GR. Blue Dog Democrats are not religious conservatives, as a group. Some are, but most aren’t. They are economics moderates or conservatives, but many are social liberals with little connection to the social conservative movement.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    No, I am totally aware that the Blue Dogs are not all religious types. Totally.

    However, some of them are from districts — think West Texas, historically — where these issues must be taken into account.

    So, not all Blue Dogs are pro-life Democrats, but almost all pro-life Democrats are Blue Dogs.


  • Harris

    I think you may have missed the other interesting aspect of the story, one commented on here as well: the generational shift. This still seems to be the property of the older generation of Christian Right leaders. As it dealt with the institutional aspects of the movement, this seems to be about the desire of the groups “to get back in the conversation”. While the coalition includes Catholics Online (thanks CT), this seems to be more the coalition with a more Republican orientation (Christian Right = Christian Republican, say circa 2002).

  • Marshall

    Thnaks for this assessment, tmatt. Reporting in general, and religious reporting in particular, seems to be increasingly about tossing around shibboleths, thereby fostering a sense of a simplistic bifurcation into two (usually) opposing ideological camps. Very discouraging, I fear, for the health of a democracy and intelligent debate.

  • MichaelV

    Tmatt: I’ve never heard the term “Pro-Catechism Catholic” -did you coin it? Either way I’ll certainly be using it in the future.

    “Death of the religious right”… that means as a political coalition, right? I’m not sure we didn’t have reason to doubt that prediction a year ago!

  • Julia

    Rather than “Pro-Catechism Catholic”, it’s more accurate to say that somebody supports the official teaching of the church or is a dissenter. And this is in addition to whether somebody is a practicing Catholic or just identifies themselves as one for whatever reason.

    Do we have pro-Constitution Americans and anti-Constitution Americans? If you are not pro-Constitution, you can’t even take the oath of office honestly. A person can be pro-Constitution and still think it needs to be amended.

    Saying a Catholic is pro-Catechism implies way too much about the presumably anti-Catechism people. Are you saying they don’t think there should be a Catechism, that they disagree with all of it, they disagree with some of it, or they think it needs to be changed in part? And are you implying that pro-Catechism people have no problem with any and all of what is in the very large Catechism?

  • Julia

    John Allen recently wrote about a speech by the Brazilian Cardinal Scherer. During the Q&A the Cardinal addressed the problematic media reaction when Benedict lifted the ex-communication of the Holocaust-denying SSPX bishop along with 3 others:

    Scherer acknowledged that the communication of that decision could have been better handled, saying that church insiders understood that this didn’t mean the bishops were “rehabilitated,” but rather that a long process of reconciliation had begun. That point, he conceded, was largely lost on the outside world.

    “When we use our own jargon, sometimes everything seems clear to us, but not to anybody else,” Scherer said. “Church spokespersons have to remember that the general culture no longer has a religious formation, so our words or deeds can be misunderstood or misinterpreted.”

    At the same time, Scherer wasn’t willing to put all the blame on the Vatican or the pope.

    “It’s also true that people who cover religious matters should take the time to inform themselves,” he said. “So, everyone could have handled this better.”

    In line with the Cardinal’s point about jargon, I’ve copied below a typical combox entry to the article about persons objecting to various aspects of Benedict’s teaching and actions – in order to demonstrate that “dissident” is not a negative slur. It’s the jargon most used by Catholics amongst ourselves for what you would call “anti-Catechism” Catholics:

    Dissent and questioning has always been a part of the church. Dissent is an unchanging tradition of the church.

    Where would our church be without the dissent, the questioning of saints, of priests, of theologians, of prophets, of missionaries, of visionaries and mystics and monks and nuns? Often founders of nuns orders and monasteries were in their own time condemned and denounced and later celebrated and made into saints!

  • Julia

    Sorry. Forgot to include the link to John Allen’s article.


    You will see some very unfriendly jibes between people in the combox, but the one I copied is the neutral terminology most often used when Catholic folks are not being snarky and divisive. “Dissent”/”dissenter” also has the advantage of being non-political and avoids dividing the church into two opposing camps – actually there are hundreds of camps, depending on what the individual is dissenting about.