As membership in most Christian denominations decreases and many conservatives lament what they see as the advent of socialism in the U.S. many are wondering about the future of a movement that changed the face of American politics.
The Religious Right, also known as the pro-family movement or the values movement, is undergoing some changes: changes that indicate that people’s beliefs about religion and politics aren’t what they were 30 years ago when the movement began.
“I think that the country is becoming increasingly secular and is probably moving a little farther to the left,” said Tim Wildmon, president of the American Family Association, a Tupelo-based organization that has been a leading voice within the movement.
A 2008 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life suggests that for the first time in a decade a slim majority of Americans believe that churches should keep out of political matters. That spells trouble for a movement whose primary purpose has been to shape public policy to conform to biblical teachings.
Born in turmoil
The genesis of the Religious Right can be traced to the cultural and political turmoil of the 1960s, when the Vietnam War and the sexual revolution caused many to question traditional morality.
In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s conservative, evangelical Christian leaders like the Rev. Jerry Falwell began asserting their influence in the political arena. Their efforts were supported by people like the Rev. Don Wildmon, founder of the AFA, who spoke out against indecency in popular culture.
Although the Religious Right was made up largely of Protestant evangelicals, conservative members of other denominations also found meaning in the movement’s message. For example, many Catholics heard echoes of their own tradition’s strong, anti-abortion rhetoric.
The Religious Right evolved into a formidable cultural institution, raising awareness of the issues that fell at the confluence of religion and politics.
“You can’t deny that within the Christian tradition the movement has spoken to a large part of the collective, moral conscience,” said Sarah Moses who teaches religion and public policy at the University of Mississippi.
“To some extent they’ve kept religion alive in the public square.”
As happens with long-lived movements, however, the Christian Right is starting to show its age.
“We’re losing some of our generals,” said Tim Wildmon, referring to the 2007 death of Falwell and the recent retirement of James Dobson as president of Focus on the Family.
Wildmon’s father, along with people like the Rev. Pat Robertson are still looked to as the movement’s venerated elders, but recent political defeats and changing cultural attitudes about religion have led some to wonder if a new type of figure might best serve to lead the movement forward.
The Religious Right has traditionally confined its focus to a limited platform of issues centered around “family values.” Those issues have ranged from promoting traditional marriage to aggressively combating the abortion industry.
Some within the Religious Right, however, feel that recent sex scandals among high-profile evangelicals, such as the Rev. Ted Haggard, as well as among Republican politicians, like Gov. Mark Sanford, R-SC., who form much of the movement’s base, have squandered a lot of capital.
“We’ve lost on the issue of family values as a Republican Party,” said Fox News commentator and Mississippi native Angela McGlowan.
“If you’re going to preach family values then you’d better live by example.”
Many share McGlowan’s disillusionment over the close relationship between the Republican Party and the Religious Right.
The Rev. Roy Ryan, a retired United Methodist minister from Tupelo, said the association has become so close that “people wonder if you’re a Democrat, how can you be a Christian?”
Tupelo author and dentist Dr. Ed Holliday considers himself both a part of the Religious Right and a political independent. He has attended the Values Voter Conference in Washington, D.C., and is part of the local leadership for Mission Mississippi, a Christian organization devoted to creating dialogue between blacks and whites. He’s concerned that the perceived identification of the GOP with the Religious Right limits the movement’s reach, particularly among blacks.
Holliday sees the Rev. Harry Jackson, pastor of Hope Christian Church in Washington, D.C., as someone who might help change the demographics of the movement.
Jackson, who is black, is a registered Democrat but his theologically conservative message is interspersed with strong currents of social justice.
Jackson represents what many are calling a new breed of evangelical, people like the Rev. Rick Warren, author of “The Purpose Driven Life” who while remaining theologically conservative demonstrate an understanding of the challenges and opportunities presented by a global society.
McGlowan is a fan of Warren’s and believes that if America is going to change for the better, “we cannot go to politicians, we have to go to spiritual leaders. Not ‘religious’ leaders, but true spiritual leaders.”
Ryan said although he has disagreed with the Religious Right’s approach for decades, he believes it has a place in American society.
“Those of us who were more liberal-leaning in the ‘60s and ‘70s were doing what we could to influence public policy so we shouldn’t have a problem with others doing it,” he said. Overall, it’s the strident tone invoked by many within the movement he said most offends him.
Moses of Ole Miss said many today see the Religious Right as “fighting against the general tide of American thought, which includes tolerance and moderation,” and the future of the movement must “translate its values into a language that can be spoken more effectively in the public square and used to build wider coalitions.”
Wildmon said those who proclaim the death of the Religious Right are speaking prematurely. Despite the fact that abortion is still legal, evolution is taught in public schools and school-sponsored prayer isn’t allowed, he said the movement has also won some substantial victories.
“If you look at our opposition to gay marriage, it’s 30 wins and no losses when it’s been put to a vote of the people,” he said, adding, “Just because Roe v. Wade hasn’t been overturned doesn’t mean that the principle of protecting human life isn’t worth fighting for.”
McGlowan said the Religious Right may need an overhaul but the cause is still worthy and there’s no room for complacency.
“If we quit, we deserve what we get,” she said. “We cannot lose faith. Our relationship with God must guide us. The Christian, Religious Right will always prevail.”
Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal