Should We Worry About the Religious Right?

Should We Worry About the Religious Right? January 23, 2012

So, it has come down to this. The Republican Party, the unchallenged standard-bearer for conservative Christianity in America since Ronald Reagan was president, seems to be deciding between a sometimes-moderate, formerly pro-choice, Mormon, and an ethics-challenged serial philanderer with unfavorability numbers that would make any politician blanch, in their presidential primaries. The candidates who seemed to bank their support on evangelicals and conservative Christians: Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Rick Santorum, have seen their campaigns run out of steam, dismantle in a stream of never-ending gaffes, or slowly fade into the background. It’s enough to make one wonder if the power of conservative Christianity in the United States is waning. Two recent articles at The New Republic debate this very question. The first, from Michael Kazin, argues that we are experiencing the twilight of the Christian Right.

Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich

“…contrary to the whims of lazy pundits, the waning of enthusiasm for battling over “social issues” is not due to higher concerns about jobs, the deficit, and the economic future […] Put simply, the Christian Right is getting old. According to the largest and most recent study we have of American religion and politics, by Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, almost twice as many people 18 to 29 confess to no faith at all as adhere to evangelical Protestantism. Young people who have attended college, a growing percentage of the population, are more secular still. Catholicism has held its own only because the Church keeps gathering in newcomers from Latin America, Africa, and Asia, few of whom are likely to show up at a Santorum rally. To their surprise, Putnam and Campbell discovered that conservative preachers infrequently discuss polarizing issues from the pulpit. Sermons about hunger and poverty far outnumber those about homosexuality or abortion. On any given Sunday, just one group of Christians routinely grapples with divisive political issues: black Protestants, the most reliably Democratic constituency of them all.”

Kazin concludes that if conservative Christians “hope to transform our pluralistic, profane culture into a new Jerusalem”, they will have to “find new holy battles to wage.” So are the culture wars essentially over? Are Christian conservatives no longer kingmakers in the Republican Party? Not so fast, says Ed Kilgore, who notes that while the Christian Right has botched attempts to control this election cycle, news of their demise is greatly exaggerated.

“It is true that they have been less conspicuous in this campaign, and less united in candidate preferences. But if they haven’t been able to pull their muscle behind a single candidate, that’s not a sign that they are on the wane—it’s a sign that, as far as the Republican Party is concerned, they have already won. Look at the potential nominees: Unlike 2008, no candidate in the field is pro-choice by any definition. Only Ron Paul seems reluctant to enact a national ban on same-sex marriage. Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum. and Herman Cain have been vocal in fanning the flames of Islamophobia; again, only Paul has bothered to dissent to any significant degree.”

Kilgore points out that the fight over abortion, a key issue for Christian conservatives, is escalating at the state level, not diminishing, and that a younger generation of culture warriors, some more radical than their elders, are just beginning to come into view.” Indeed, if there’s been one new phenomenon this year within Christian Right circles, its been the emergence of controversial neo-Pentecostal spiritual warriors into the mainstream. Journalist and author Jeff Sharlet has long argued against assertions that the Christian Right will fade away after a bad election or two, or because the current crop of leaders are growing old. That they have been a part of our spiritual makeup since the beginning.

“We don’t like to consider the possibility that they are not newcomers to power but returnees, that the revivals that have been sweeping America with generational regularity since its inception are not flare-ups but the natural temperature of the nation. We can’t conceive of the possibility that the dupes, the saps, the fools—the believers—have been with us from the very beginning, that their story about what America once was and should be seems to some great portion of the population more compelling, more just, and more beautiful than the perfunctory processes of secular democracy. Thus we are at a loss to account for this recurring American mood.”

So should we worry about the Religious Right? In so far as they battle against the rights and freedoms of religious minorities, yes, we should. Bad candidates and legislative setbacks don’t erase generations of grassroots organizing from the pulpits, and it would be folly to believe otherwise. Until demographics finally hit that magical tipping point, and conservative Christianity becomes simply one voice among many, vigilance is the watchword. As for Newt Gingrich’s ethical problems, we should never forget that evangelicals love a good forgiven sinner.

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  • Kilmrnock

    Yes, we need to worry about the religious right . Not all of them , but many are ifluenced by the Dominionists and their ilk. These people believe our govt .is supposed to be a Christian theocracy , and once was such . They want to return us to such a state ,as if we ever were a theocracy.Those such as the AFA,NAR are influential in the extremist religious right and now the king makers in the Republican party.As i’ve read in other articles the combination of traditional Rebuplican values married to extremist religoius doctine is a dangerous combination.We need to keep a careful eye of these people and their policies , they don’t really like us . Kilm

  • A year ago I would have agreed with Kazin’s assessment that the Religious Right, due to demographic trends, political defeats, and the growing successes in the Gay and Abortion rights battles in the public consensus, would be on its way out by the end of the decade.

    Now I’m not so sure. Their direct power may be waning but we are on the cusp of the rise of the new generation of religious fundamentalists; men and woman who for their whole lives have been fed the RR’s line in church, in homeschooling, at Bible camps, and multiple other avenues. Unlike the last generation of the RR, which most of us have known for our whole lives, this one has been consciously indoctrinated into the ideology from a very young age. While in the long run the RR is going to lose (demographics and public opinion are simply not on their side) I think in the short run they are going to get a lot bolder, more radical, and (if possible) more shameless with that trends likely accelerating up until the final moment of defeat.

  • When people have taken their eyes off of the Religious Right, that is when they have made great gains. When they are treated as quaint or a voiceless minority that is when they have surged into power. They are, in many quiet ways, trying to creep theocracy into state and county positions. Where they can wrest power for their goals, they will work to do so. As you say, Jason, vigilance should be our watchword.

  • Cedcker

    they need ot keep their religion out of politics thatis not the place for it

  • Nicole Youngman

    As a sociologist, assertions that these guys are going away always drive me crazy. A few decades back we thought religion was going away, too, and guess what?? It’s possible to have more than one trend going on at a time: yes there are more non-believers, yes we are more pluralistic overall, but the religious right is very much entrenched and will NOT go away–maybe not ever. We need to make sure that we don’t mistake waxing and waning and shape-shifting for disappearing. Just because we don’t see so much “Satanic Panic” stuff out there doesn’t mean they aren’t still active–and we need to pay attention to the cultural stuff that goes on behind-the-scenes, not just what a particular sample of preachers is saying in their pulpits over a given time period. The *genuine* difficulty is determining how popular/powerful a particular segment of them is at any given time–ie, just because they have a wingnutty website or publish a gazillion books about the evils of Harry Potter doesn’t mean they’re influencing large numbers of people. Likewise, just because their numbers may have dipped (ie, fewer people self-identifying as evangelicals in polls, etc) doesn’t mean their political power is diminishing. Just try finding an abortion provider these days and then tell me they don’t have significant control over our culture and social structure. Harumph.

  • Nicole Youngman

    A very good point, I think. One of the ironies of our increased communications capacities/technologies is that it’s just about as easy to keep kids tightly encapsulated in a nice little Christians-only world as it is to expose them to people who are different. Some of them figure out that the world ain’t what they were taught when they get old enough, but some maintain that habit of keeping the blinders on and staying in us-and-them mode their whole lives.

  • The religious right makes me dance with joy… because nothing rallies moderate Republicans back to center more than the desire to overwhelm the fringe element.

  • Even if the Religious Right were losing ground, that would still make them more dangerous as they become more desperate and have less to lose. Just look at how Newtie came back from the dead. Maybe that’s one of the advantages of worshipping a Zombie God.

  • Jack Heron

    And nothing motivates people with a persecution complex more than feeling under attack.

  • Fairly certain that Gingrich and Santorum are disqualified in enough states for it to be statistically impossible for them to get the required Electoral votes to win the nomination. This leaves Paul and Romney.

  • And Gingrich made it very clear in his South Carolina victory speech that fulminating against imagined “anti-religious bigotry” is a centerpiece of his campaign: “One of the key issues is the growing anti-religious bigotry of our elites and if you get a chance, if you go to, my campaign site, there’s a fifty four page paper there on the balance of power, putting the judiciary back in its proper role and eliminating dictatorial religious bigots…” (link)

  • Clear back in the 1200’s, I’m sure thoughtful Catholics wondered if they should worry about the newly minted Inquisitorial Courts. I’m sure Jews in Germany asked “Should we worry about those Jew-baiting Nazis?” And educated Iranians and Afghans likely wondered if they should worry about the noisy-ranty ayatollahs, or the dudes blowing up historic Buddha figures. And secular Jews in Israel are surely asking themselves if they should worry about their own most religiously uptight sorts.

    So, yes, absolutely yes. Because a theocracy is a theocracy, regardless what religion or religious-based mania is the guiding principle. And they don’t quit or go away until they are forced to do so. They prefer controlling the lives (and sometimes deaths) of others instead of minding their own sorry souls.

  • Charles Cosimano

    By all means worry. Anyone who makes the mistake of thinking something is going to go away doens’t know how these things really work. And it is wise to assume that if Newt is nominated he may probably win unless the economy does something drastically better.
    So the wisest course is to plan a strategy for that occurence now and have it ready if it is needed.

  • Anonymous

    I’ll believe that when I see it. So far, there’s zero evidence for your assertion.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    Exactly my thought, Apuleius. The waning of institutions among the Religious Right means they are a collection of floating souls vulnerable to some communicable mania.

  • kenneth

    What moderate Republicans? There’s not a single one left at the national level since they dumped Huntsman, and there’s fewer and fewer who even make the initial vetting with each election cycle.

  • I disagree, if anything the Religious Right along with the super-corporate Republicans have conducted an extremely successful and complete purge of any candidate who doesn’t toe the party line. You might be able to find Republicans who dissent from one of those two groups but I bet you won’t be able to find any who stand up to both and are still in the GOP or elected office.

  • Not to mention all the kids who have been raised in the RR’s stranglehold since birth. There’s world of difference between those who come around to a particular perspective for whatever reason and those indoctrinated in it from the cradle.

  • It doesn’t help that the whole Rapture/End Times scenario runs so rampant in those circles. That combined with the other factors mentioned is as dangerous as gunpowder and flame.

  • Daniel SnowKestral

    It is always wise never to underestimate any group that seeks to subvert quintessential liberities and due progress–let alone the Religious Right, who’ve made plain for all to see their goals to do so. Constant vigilance, education, awareness, and effective communication are needed more than ever.
    The Tea Party, for instance, and Newt, have done a masterful job on tapping into people’s fears to propel their own agendas. They have also been able to blame the every working-class American for their woes with this economic downturn–calling them lazy, saying they are entitled with handouts when we should really be re-directing their momentum against them by letting everyone remember who is REALLY entitled; banking barons, career politicians who rely on massive amounts of lobbying money to uphold the status quo at the expense of the impoverished, the disabled, the elderly, our children, the Middle Class, the People. And, of course, Wall Street, who get massive tax breaks and other kick backs.
    Big monies and the Religious Right (and other emerging groups like the Neo-Pentecosts) are all intertwined with our politics at the local, state, and federal levels. If the Koch Brothers can hold secret meetings regarding their strategies and donate large monies with no paper trails for public accountability, we need to be more aware than ever.

  • Malaz

    For those who might be disposed to be overtly concerned…rather…concerned to the point that you’re pulling hair. Allow me to demonstrate just a few cultural aspects that have gone the way of the dinosaurs;
    Flat Earth Theory
    Leeches (as medical treatment)
    Legal slavery
    “The Red Menace”
    “The Cold War”
    The entire Hittite Empire…etc…etc…

    Anyway, my point is that, while the RR is still a large part of Amherkhan pohlitix and it is still necessary to watch and defend , sometimes you can watch ideas die; and the ideal of a Christian, Conservative Amherkha…is dying.

  • Malaz

    What a delightful coincidence…I found this right after I posted that;

  • Larry Linn

    Social commentator and former alter-boy George Carlin sums it up, “Think about it. Religion has actually convinced people that there’s an invisible man living in the sky who watches everything you do, every minute of every day. And the invisible man has a special list of ten things he does not want you to do. And if you do any of these ten things, he has a special place, full of fire and smoke and burning and torture and anguish, where he will send you to live and suffer and burn and choke and scream and cry forever and ever ’til the end of time! But He loves you. He loves you, and He needs money! He always needs money! He’s all-powerful, all-perfect, all-knowing, and all-wise, somehow just can’t handle money! Religion takes in billions of dollars, they pay no taxes, and they always need a little more. Now, you talk about a good bull*** story. Holy S***!”

  • Danacorby

    When the year 2000 came and went and — as all sane people expected — nothing dire happened, it was felt among the Witches I know that we were in for a bumpy decade or so as the Millenialists searched first for someone to blame and then for ways to reassure themselves all was well anyway. Current right-wing politics address both those concerns.

  • Leeches, legal slavery, the Red Menace, and the Cold War all left a lot of casualties of various kinds in their wake. Leeching killed people, legal slavery wiped out whole cultures, the Red Menace scares ruined a good number of lives, the Cold War killed people and was a supreme waste of money. I wouldn’t be so flip about any of these things. They were hellish when people were going through them.

  • Worry about people who would deny your right to exist, no matter how small their number or how insignificant they may seem. It’s always worth having one eye on your enemies.

  • Anonymous

    I’ll believe it when their pomp-mobiles go up in smoke.

  • Anonymous

    “Because a theocracy is a theocracy, regardless what religion or religious-based mania is the guiding principle.”

    I made a neo-con whackdo at work the other day stammer and brain lock when I answered her assertion that I wanted “a government controlled by heathens and pagans”, with “Profoundly wrong assumption on your part. A theocracy is a very bad thing, even if it were based in a religion I agree with.” I spared her from my other political and philosophical thoughts since she didn’t seem like the type that could understand the concept of order with out laws. but I digress

  • Anonymous

    shhh, pay no attention to the men behind the curtains…

  • Anonymous
  • Sharon Knight

    Yeah but they’re not going to.

  • What do you have in mind?

  • Yes this too will pass.

    Like a kidney stone the size of a grapefruit.

  • The rise of Newt Gingrich is simple to explain. He articulates the voices heard inside the heads of the religious right – the voices that scream insults at a gay soldier in a war zone and boo for the Golden Rule.

    They simply want somneone who’s going to lay the smackdown on the uppity n*[bong!] in THEIR White House.

    Aside from the fact that one of them is a decorated war veteran and respected Senator, and the other is a draft-dodging, hate-mongering Rep kicked out by his own party for ethics violations, Newt is the Republican’s version of George McGovern running against Nixon in 1972.

    Also, if Barack Obama were like Dick Nixon, Mitt Romney would already be ratfucked and dead in the water like Ed Muskie was at this point in the campaign. Fortunately for Obama, Mitt seems to be doing it to himself. And the GOP base already hates him.

    What the not-Republicans (not just progressives, I include the small-L libertarians and the real classic conservatives in that group) have to beware of is the ratfucking that’s already being waged by the conservative money establishment (e.g. Karl Rove) to drive a wedge between progressives and the Democrats; the most obvious manifestation of this is the “Obama is as bad as Bush” nonsense, and the obsession some liberal types have for Ron Paul.

  • Anonymous

    The religulous right has been around since the dawn of time, in one form or another. As we become more educated and prosperous, their power and relevance wanes, but in times of crisis and among the poorly educated, there will always be people desperate & ignorant enough to support them.
    So yeah, we do need to worry about them, since we are in a time of crisis, and the right-wingers who have gotten into positions of power have made sure that fewer & fewer of us can get a quality education. Readers of Heinlein will recognize the parable of Nemiah Scudder, who was, incidentally, elected in 2012, kicking off “the Crazy Years,” and culminating in the breakup of the US.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    I object to the parallel between Newt Gingrich and George McGovern. The latter had none of the former’s ethical or marital baggage, and had not been palling around with an institution in the process of inflating a housing bubble.

    The most effective wedge the Republicans have attempted so far is not rhetorical but political: The Keystone XL pipeline divides the union members from the environmentalists.

    I don’t know any liberal types who fancy Ron Paul. He does have a Republican following not enamoured of the social conservatives or the Iran hawks, and could become a power broker within the GOP.

  • I think I pointed the difference out, Barruch. (Perhaps my sarcasm wasn’t heavy enough?) Disclosure: I worked for the McGovern campaign as a volunteer.

    But the limited appeal of both of them to the “base” of their respective parties at the time is the similarity. Their politics couldn’t be more unalike.

    And I know FAR too many people of the liberal persuasion otherwise who are enamored of Paul, mostly for his anti-foreign war and anti-drug war positions.

  • Isn’t it odd how the would be theocrats think everyone would do as they are going? Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative would be wasted on them…they’d merrily answer “Yes, everyone SHOULD do this” to every question so tested.

  • Kilmrnock

    The one part of all this that I can’t wrap my head around is the fact that the RR can endorse or even tolarate a man like Newt Gingrich. This guy has questionable , morals and ethics . He was removed from office as speaker of the house , by his own party , for ethics violations , and is also a well documented serial wife cheater . He even left one of his 3 wives while she was in cancer treatment .For lack of a better descriptive term , Newt is a Rotten Bastard. He Has violated the 10 Judeo/ Christain comandments on numerous occasions .Now this guy is the RR darling , i don’t get it .All these facts should disqualify him in thier eyes.Do the RR people have any standards at all? My wife says his current wife looks and acts like a stepford wife .Gingrich is a man of no Honor , that and his previos escapades make me incapable of voting for him under any conditions . Kilm

  • Kilmrnock

    I need to add a few things that i believe are good qualities the President of the US should have .Keeping in mind this is the largest, most powerful nationstate in the world . She/He should be Honorable , True , have impecable standards and ethics . I also believe a strong code of honor/ethics should be of major importance to him/her. Also a basic concern for the American people is absolutly neccesary . He/She should not be beholden to any religous/ political groups , extremist or otherwise.This person needs to intelligent , not overtly religious , and be sorounded. by inteligent , level headed advisors. The president also needs to have a resonable environment policies as well .Extremists from either side are extremly dangerous and can harm us and our planet. Kilm

  • Peter Dybing

    Defending freedom requires vigilance, always has.

  • Zachary

    Sane, rational points all. But we’re not dealing here with sane, rational people on the RR and far right.

    We’re dealing with people who are in the grips of a fear, a deep, terrible, existential fear, because the world as they know it has passed on. They can’t and won’t accept reality and they can’t and won’t look inside themselves for answers and instead look for a strongman type leader to tell them what to do. Mix in the End Time scenario this bunch loves so much and enter Newt like a horseman of the apocalypse. (And that part has always blown my mind–the people actually want an apocalypse to destroy the world, rather than working toward saving the world.)

    It is sad and scary to see this happening in the U.S. Too many people did not learn from history. And thanks to educational budget cuts and home schooling, people will just get more ignorant. So it’s up to us who have some education and the ability to think rationality to keep the lights on.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    Deep into Watergate I was the proud wearer of a “Don’t Blame Me, I Voted for McGovern” button.

    His lack of appeal was to the boss. Party bigwigs — elected officials — had been forced to share power with the actual base, the grass roots Democrats, under rules McGovern had written, and McGovern was the result.

  • Malaz

    One thing I find amusing about Amherikhans…they can never be too offended or have too many things to be offended about…
    Being flip wasn’t the point.
    Dead ideas is the point.

  • Anonymous

    Made me think of

    “Life is a struggle, and if you should feel really happy, be patient: this will pass.”

    GARRISON KEILLOR, A Prairie Home Companion, 2006

  • Sure, we can get a quality education… protect Internet freedom, and pay for your public library. Loved your “Nemiah Scudder” analogy.

  • Kenneth, Ryan and Hecate, there are plenty of moderate Republican leaders at the state level, representatives and governors. There are plenty of moderate senators. And there are lots of moderate Republican voters.

    Listening to Mr. Obama’s speech last night, one thing he said struck me as most important — removing the power of corporate personhood. As Ryan notes, some of the large multinationals are throwing money at candidates like Gingrich. Take away that empowerment (and moderate conservatives want that just as much as the most liberal Dem) and you’ll see more moderate candidates flourish.

  • Druidwood

    I’m surprised that the Pagans in my area are not worried about the religous right. Even on some Pagan fourms they don’t seem to be bothered by them and thier rantings. I’ve tried to get Pagans in my area to take notice of this group. These people are not such old news that they should not be deemed dangerous. These people have more then enough money to stick around and cause us some serious trouble.