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Pilgrims' Progress

Tuesday, July 1, 1997

The scene certainly looked like a triumphant celebration of national power by religious conservatives. Two months before the 1994 elections, a procession of leading Republicans arrived at the ballroom of the Washington Hilton to preen, wink, and troll for votes in front of a conservative, largely evangelical gathering of the Christian Coalition. Phil Gramm, Lamar Alexander, and Trent Lott all delivered stem--winders promising a moral cornucopia for America if their various presidential and congressional campaigns succeeded in 1996. All offered visions of America that were flatteringly attractive to the euphoric crowd at this "Road to Victory" conference.

One might have concluded that the Christian Coalition had finally assumed the confident and unquestioned leadership of all culturally conservative Americans determined to put the country right--both politically and morally. But it is equally plausible that all the hoopla masked something far more ordinary: just another Washington flirtation between presidential wannabes seeking an enthusiastic audience and partisan activists desperate for a new moral and political champion.

A Place at the Table

After the election two months later, some in this audience attributed the stunning success of congressional Republicans to the ascendancy of the Religious Right. The GOP won a majority in the House of Representatives for the first time since 1954, and the hard work and support of Christian Coalition campaigners were probably indispensable. The Coalition mailed out 33 million voter guides and mobilized perhaps 4 million election workers during the campaign, including volunteers from about 60,000 churches, one--sixth of all churches in the nation.


The Religious Right has failed in many of its cherished
political and cultural objectives.


In 1996, again with immense support from the Christian Coalition, congressional Republicans managed to hold onto their majority. Ralph Reed, the group's executive director, was enjoying a position of great influence within the GOP. Reed had broadened the Coalition's agenda to include topics as diverse as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the expansion of NATO membership. He had personally helped defuse what might have become a festering public dispute with the B'nai Brith Anti--Defamation League, an influential Jewish institution. He had tried persistently to overcome the suspicion of the African--American community.

Through all this, he insisted that the only objective of the Christian Coalition was to secure for Americans of faith a "place at the table" of American political and cultural decisionmaking. By April 1997, when he announced his departure from the Coalition, he had built its membership from zero to 1.9 million in just eight years and had become perhaps the most articulate and politically astute figure in the entire

Religious Right.

By campaigning so actively on behalf of certain Republican candidates, the Christian Coalition, in fact, achieved far more than a "place at the table." For one thing, the 1994 and 1996 cohorts of new House members were far more representative of the nation's religious affiliations than any previous Congress. For example, about a quarter of new members of the House in 1994 were affiliated with evangelical churches, equaling (for the first time in modern political memory) the proportion of evangelicals in the U.S. electorate as a whole. And for the first time in modern political history, a majority of American evangelicals were telling pollsters that they favored the Republican party over the Democrats.

Yet the euphoria of 1994 deserves a second look. Success in House races notwithstanding, no open champion of the Christian Coalition--and hardly any candidates from the Religious Right--has been elected to a governorship or to the U.S. Senate since the Coalition formed in 1989--nor, for that matter, since the birth of the Moral Majority in 1979. More pointedly, the White House prospects of any political candidate closely associated with the Religious Right seem as remote today as they did in 1988, when Pat Robertson failed in his run for the GOP presidential nomination. Americans are still too uncomfortable with the agenda of the Religious Right--at the state or national level--to embrace it outright. Perhaps, they seem to be thinking, it is too narrow, too coercive, and, well, too religious for the country.

After 18 years of intense political activity, the Religious Right has failed in many of its cherished political and cultural objectives--from banning abortion to combating the widespread acceptance of homosexuality. This failure may be due as much to the movement's political engagement as to the opposition of an establishment elite that rejects its most deeply held values. Though modern religious conservatives have become much more sophisticated in their public relations, they have not yet made their greatest contributions to American civic life. When they do, these contributions are likely to come in the area of culture, not politics.

The Sleeping Giant

To gauge the prospects of the Religious Right, it is essential to understand its genesis. The term Religious Right, widely used by the early 1980s, was and is clumsy and somewhat pejorative. Yet it's a useful way to describe the large, inchoate movement of often angry Americans who surged to national prominence in the late 1970s, when the Reverend Jerry Falwell and others founded the Moral Majority. The spark was a threat by Jimmy Carter's IRS commissioner in 1978 to strip Christian schools of their tax--exempt status. This skirmish ignited resentments that had been accumulating for at least 10 years.

Many of those resentments are easy to identify. The countercultural movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s had led to massive increases in divorce, out--of--wedlock births, and welfare dependency. Crime rates were rising sharply. And, of course, the Supreme Court's decision in Roe v. Wade (1973) pre-empted the abortion laws of the 50 states.

Along with Falwell and the Moral Majority, other groups rose to prominence on this tide of discontent. They included groups such as Focus on the Family, led by James Dobson (syndicated to some 1,600 radio stations nationwide), Gary Bauer's Family Research Council, Concerned Women for America (whose membership of 500,000 is twice as large as the liberal National Organization for Women), the American Center for Law and Justice (a public--interest group of 200 attorneys who litigate to protect religious liberties), and many others. Almost all of them share the theology of Christians who are evangelical; that is, they believe in the inerrancy and authority of the Bible, the necessity of a personal Christian commitment of faith or "born--again" experience, and the obligation to share one's faith with others as widely as possible.

As the cultural conflicts wore on, however, they began to express their evangelical theology in the messy realm of politics. These evangelicals became convinced that national moral regeneration, through the adoption of biblically based moral convictions, was the most effective way to counter the decline of the nation.

Religion, of course, has often motivated political activists throughout American history--from the Puritans, to the Revolution, to the abolitionist and temperance movements, to the struggle for civil rights. Evangelicals or other devout Christians were in the forefront of these movements. But today's Religious Right is different from earlier political and reform movements in a crucial sense: Its activism grew out of a belief that the ardent secularists dominating the intellectual and cultural heights of the American polity were squeezing those with religious conviction out of political debates altogether. In other words, people of faith felt--and still feel--like second--class citizens in the nation they helped establish.

The Falwell Factor

For many years, the American public associated the movement almost exclusively with Falwell, a Southern Baptist pastor from Lynchburg, Virginia, who had earned a large national radio audience and founded Liberty University, a small college linked to his church.

Falwell was and is sincere in his enthusiasm for preaching the Gospel and trying to lead the unsaved into the Kingdom of Heaven, as evangelical theology directs. But he was perhaps too outspoken about social trends, organizations, and even individuals he deemed harmful to his vision of a healthy America, and too often he criticized them in careless, personal terms. As a result, the intensity of his Christian convictions undermined rather than underscored his criticisms. How much of his agenda, Americans wondered, was animated by political goals, and how much by his evangelical theology?

Numerous other religious figures seemed to share Falwell's penchant for blurring the line between Christian evangelizing and political advocacy to repair the moral fabric of America. As a result, the Religious Right's potential for political success was extremely limited.

For one thing, the very term "Moral Majority" provoked deep resentment. It implied a majoritarian consensus in American national life that was very hard to prove and it suggested that critics of the group's agenda were themselves "immoral." Then some conservative Christian groups tried to evaluate the political positions of members of Congress according to how "Biblical" they were. Although such efforts were theologically interesting, they were also politically absurd. In what sense is a defense budget of $300 billion more "Biblical" than one of, say $250 billion?

Next came the scandals of televangelism. Though they did not involve Falwell himself, the financial or sexual misdeeds of television evangelists Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart convinced many Americans that evangelical leaders were greedy, hypocritical, and mean--spirited. Then prominent supporters of the Moral Majority prompted a major backlash when they asserted that America was a "Christian nation." Though accurate in a descriptive sense--more than three--quarters of Americans call themselves "Christian" in the loosest definition of the term--the phrase was offensive to many secularists, Jews, and other minorities. It sounded like a trumpet call to impose Christianity upon the population through the political process.

By the time religious broadcaster Pat Robertson mounted his presidential run in the 1988 GOP primaries, many--perhaps a majority--of Americans were convinced that a campaign combining Christian evangelism with a political platform for America's moral salvation was not merely inappropriate, but positively dangerous. Robertson's primary campaign suffered its most decisive setback on "Super Tuesday" in March, when he finished third in his home state of Virginia. Although many voters there probably shared Robertson's core evangelical convictions and may have agreed with much of his diagnosis of the state of the nation, they just weren't comfortable with his prescriptions for the country.


Is the Religious Right prepared to move to the center
in order to gain wider support for its cultural objectives?


Moral indignation had sparked and fueled the Moral Majority's emergence and growth during the early 1980s. It had also galvanized the zealous campaign workers in Robertson's run for the presidency. But moral indignation is a two--edged sword. It may energize supporters for short--term heroic efforts of political activism (as it did on the Left in 1972, when anti--war fervor propelled George McGovern to the Democratic nomination for president) but it is seldom enough to secure long--term political, much less cultural, changes.

Changing Landscape

To Robertson's credit, he and the Religious Right learned much from the electorate's rejection of him. Evangelical Christian policy prescriptions for what ailed American life could never prevail at any level of government without politically organized support at the grass roots. So in 1989, Robertson changed his entire political strategy by forming the Christian Coalition and handing the reins to Ralph Reed, one of the most gifted political minds in contemporary American politics.

More importantly, the Religious Right started to pursue nonpolitical approaches to items on its agenda, seeking support for particular issues among people who were not politically conservative at all. The groups that broadly constituted the Religious Right created a division of labor, as major organizations like Focus on the Family and the Christian Coalition realized that they could not take up cudgels over every issue that aroused them.

Meanwhile, smaller groups that focused on very specific areas of national life enjoyed considerable success. Legal watchdog groups like the Christian Legal Society, the Rutherford Institute, and the American Center for Law and Justice (another group founded by Robertson, and led by the feisty Jay Sekulow) have doggedly protected religious liberties and fought the often mindless bias against religion in public education.

Congress and even the White House have embraced the goals of these activists. The 1984 Equal Access Act, the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and President Clinton's 1996 guidelines on the legitimate expressions of religion in public schools were all the result of meticulous legal work and careful educational campaigns by these organizations and their allies.

Finding Common Ground

Wisely, the Religious Right as a whole appears to have retreated somewhat from assuming there is an unequivocal Christian, or even "religious," position on such complex and controversial topics as NATO expansion, NAFTA, illegal immigration, or any other burning question of the day. Ultimately, though, the movement's constituent groups will have to decide: Is the Religious Right prepared to move towards the American center in order to gain wider support for long--term cultural objectives? Is it willing to sacrifice a partisan preference for GOP candidates in important political races in order to attract a wider audience for its overall moral vision?

Take the issue of abortion, for example. Poll after poll indicates that Americans are distinctly uncomfortable with the procedure, yet unwilling for the most part to ban it altogether. So it would seem more sensible and realistic to chip away at the legality of abortion in areas where there is a strong consensus of public discomfort--such as partial--birth abortions--than to continue to quest after a total ban on the grounds of spiritual principle. Even a ban on partial--birth abortions with some exceptions for the sake of the mother's life or physical health is surely better than no ban at all.

Even more promisingly, American liberals have given surprising support for individual items of the Religious Right's agenda when they are not advanced as part of a grand and threatening campaign. One of the most interesting and successful Christian efforts to reduce the American divorce rate is a program called Marriage Savers that was pioneered by Michael McManus, a Maryland--based newspaper columnist (see article, page 52). Though McManus is an evangelical Christian, he has no connection to the Religious Right. In fact, he has been a rather acidulous and persistent critic of Pat Robertson.

Yet McManus, the author of a popular book entitled Marriage Savers, has managed to round up support from such diverse individuals as Joan Brown Campbell, the general secretary of the National Council of Churches; Don Argue, the president of the National Association of Evangelicals; and William Cardinal Keeler, Baltimore's Roman Catholic prelate. Together, they are pushing churches and synagogues in 64 American cities to adopt tough, mandatory marriage--preparation programs and provide marital "mentoring" programs staffed by lay married couples. The effort has reduced divorce rates in Montgomery, Alabama, and Albany, Georgia, by 12 percent in two years, and by a whopping 19 percent over four years in Peoria, Illinois. One Michigan judge was so impressed by the program that he has persuaded all officials performing civil weddings in his jurisdiction to insist that applicants attend marriage--preparation programs beforehand.

Is McManus part of the Religious Right? Absolutely not. Are his objectives in saving American families identical to those of the Religious Right? Totally. The lesson here is that America's "people of faith" (nearly 80 percent of the population) can work together on certain clearly defined social or moral problems even if they differ on everything else, including theology. There is no inherent reason, for example, why evangelical Christians should not work with radical feminist groups who are as opposed to pornography as they are. Nor should it matter that on the issue of abortion, radical feminists are at loggerheads with evangelicals. The collaboration might be beneficial for both sides, as well as for America.

The Religious Center

Without such collaboration, long--term cultural reform is unlikely. Abortion remains legal in every state throughout pregnancy, despite continual protests and lobbying by groups such as the National Right To Life, Concerned Women for America, the Family Research Council, the American Family Association, and others. Pornography has been banned from public display in stores used by the general public--one success of Religious Right activism--but continues to flourish on the Internet. But in regard to the gay lifestyle, another hot button for conservatives, and something with which the general public is obviously uncomfortable, the Religious Right has failed so far to frame the argument in a way that seems neither intolerant nor bigoted.


The Religious Right alienated American with a vindictive tone of speech and action that seemed to outweigh the social worthiness of its causes.


To be sure, religious, and particularly Christian, conservatives seeking a national mandate for moral leadership have always faced bitter antagonism from America's cultural gatekeepers on the Left. Christian conservatives also encounter a persistent suspicion that they want to use the political process to impose puritanical standards of personal behavior upon their fellow citizens. As much sympathy as they may have for specific parts of the Religious Right's agenda, Americans as a whole remain uncomfortable with the notion of the Religious Right's achieving political power en bloc.

The Religious Right now faces a turning point in its development. It has accomplished a great deal in the political arena despite its setbacks at the higher levels of political power. A broad swath of the American public supports significant parts of its agenda: preserving religious freedom, securing educational choice and improvement, saving the American family, restricting (if not banning) abortion, and limiting pornography. Perhaps its greatest conceptual challenge now is to persuade both its supporters and the American people that its ultimate goal is not the Christianization of America.

As individuals, of course, evangelical Christians have a constitutional right and a moral duty to proclaim their faith whenever they have opportunity to do so. But these proclamations should never intermingle with the political process. Whenever the public perceives such an association, it objects vigorously--and rightly so. One way in which the Religious Right could reassure Americans as a whole that the vast majority of its supporters are not would--be Ayatollahs is to explain tirelessly that evangelicals may share exactly the same theology and still differ with each other sharply on important political questions. Most Americans harbor fervent antipathy toward any notion of an established state religion.

Americans are arguably the most fair--minded citizens of any country in the world. They have an intuitive sense of what seems fair at the social and political level. They get carried away by fashions and trends from time to time, but sooner or later they come back to their senses. The Religious Right alienated many Americans in its early years by a tone of speech and action whose vindictiveness seemed to outweigh the social worthiness of the causes it adopted. Reed and others have repaired some of the damage, but more repair work is needed.

Perhaps one way to start would be for culturally conservative religious groups, whether Christian, Jewish, or Islamic, to cease thinking of themselves as "right" in the political sense. What the Religious Right really ought to be, even if it dare not call itself this, is the "Religious Center"--a genuine "moral majority" of Americans who agree strongly on "pro--family" issues, but agree to differ on a whole lot else. Christian Coalition supporters may indeed campaign for specific GOP candidates, but they should realize that their partisanship in the political arena may undercut their other efforts in the social and cultural ones.

The new Religious Center ought to capitalize on the widespread grass roots unhappiness with America's cultural and moral condition. Massive and careful polling by the University of Virginia's Post--Modernity Project in 1996 showed that Americans are deeply pessimistic, not so much about the specific policies of the White House or the Congress, as about the nation's overall political culture. Fifty--five percent of Americans believe our nation is in strong--to--moderate decline, and about two--thirds believe there is a clear decline in standards in family, education, ethics, and popular entertainment. Americans may have a short--term confidence in their economic future, but they remain unhappy over many of the hidden diseases infecting their culture.


The movement's greatest challenge is to persuade the public that its ultimate goal is not the Christianization of America.


The new Religious Center faces a stiff challenge: Identify this sickness in terms that are not religiously exclusive, and suggest remedies that are effective without seeming intolerant. A major spiritual re-awakening among evangelical and mainstream American Christians is undoubtedly vital to this effort. So, too, are broad--based programs on family issues that appeal to mainstream groups. Nor is there anything wrong with vigorous political activism and campaigning for candidates of either political party who seem friendly to the pro-family programs of this new Religious Center. In fact, the Christian Coalition has campaigned occasionally on behalf of culturally conservative Democrats, part of Reed's own vision of "casting a wider net."

Political advocacy for national social change is a healthy tradition of the American polity. So are movements of evangelism and spiritual renewal, both within Christendom and in other segments of the American faith community. But the two traditions should be kept zealously--I dare say religiously--apart.