The religious right appears to be in decline
Political observers have been conditioned over the past three decades to regard the religious right as a monolithic political force whose grassroots voters respond stereotypically to the directives of a few conservative personalities and organizations. Indeed, this idea has been fostered not only by liberal pundits, but also by the religious right itself in a self-serving attempt to persuade the media that they have the power to turn out masses of voters on behalf of their causes.
This thinking may have peaked in the aftermath of the stunning Republican congressional victories in 1994. Not only did such organizations as Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition claim credit for these victories; a significant bloc of new House members who considered themselves bound to a religious right social agenda squabbled with new Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and helped derail his legislative program.
The political terrain has changed dramatically since then. The locus of power has moved toward the center, and the religious right suddenly appears to be in retreat. Voter turnouts have been dwindling, conservative candidates are playing hard to get, and in the 2000 election season, the Republican Party is looking elsewhere for support—particularly to Republican governors. These GOP officials have not only transformed their state governments, but also are winning elections and re-elections with huge majorities, and without emphasizing the religious conservative agendas that marked GOP strategies in recent years.
Governors Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin, John Engler of Michigan, George W. and Jeb Bush of Texas and Florida, respectively, Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania, and George Pataki of New York are among the most successful of these Republican leaders. While they have been reforming state governments with conservative principles, cutting taxes, reducing welfare, and fighting crime, they have for the most part avoided the so-called bedroom issues that most voters find demagogic, and don’t care about passionately.
Indeed, in their book Blinded by Might (Zondervan, 1999), syndicated columnist Cal Thomas and pastor Ed Dobson, both of whom were active in founding Moral Majority in the ‘70s, contend that their movement has failed. “The larger vision of saving a culture and saving America seemed very attractive,” Dobson tells Jim Wallis in Sojourners (Nov.-Dec. 1999).
But as Wallis explains it, “Direct mail strategy and fund-raising came to dominate the religious right’s political agenda over former moral concerns. Political success, defined by keeping political power, eventually became more important than the issues that initiated the formation of the religious right in the first place.”
With some exceptions, the religious right has concentrated its efforts in recent years in the Republican Party, where it has enjoyed recognition and access, but not always legislative success. Ronald Reagan is still a religious right hero, but most of his practical efforts were intended to bring about his economic and foreign policy agenda, and not a social one.
Like Reagan, Gingrich attempted to placate the religious right while advancing his own conservative agenda. But unlike Reagan, he faced a shrinking majority in the House and a master opponent in President Clinton. Since Gingrich’s departure in late 1998, the House and Senate leadership have been dominated by figures who communicate poorly to the country and who continue to be outmaneuvered by the Democratic congressional minorities working with the White House. The effect has been an apparent sea change in public opinion regarding the two parties and the likelihood that the Democrats will regain control of the House of Representatives in 2000.
As a result, there is considerable soul-searching (pun intended, I guess) among leaders of the religious right—and, apparently, among leaders of the Republican Party, who have begun to turn to new alliances and perspectives as they approach the 2000 elections. The National Republican Congressional Committee, for instance, has begun channeling resources to other grassroots organizations to mobilize the kind of conservative voters they hope will preserve the Republican majority.
Meanwhile, the real impact of religious right voters on contemporary elections is being re-evaluated. Citing a National Opinion Research Center poll, Andrew Greeley and Michael Hout in the liberal Christian Century (Aug. 25, 1999) note that “the religious right has declined from 6.9 percent of the population to 6.4 percent, a difference that is not statistically significant but would hardly support the notion of a group whose numbers are swelling with each passing year.”
Indeed, Greeley and Hout argue that the turnout record is decidedly mixed: Only 9.4 percent of religious right voters did not vote in 1984, but the figure rose to 34 percent in 1988 and 36 percent in 1996.
Of course, the idea of what constitutes conservative movements in the United States no longer fits past stereotypes. Although some would assume the religious right is synonymous with Christian conservatives, Jewish voters have steadily shifted away from liberalism to centrist and conservative politics. Recent immigrations have produced growing blocs of Islamic voters and new citizens from Southeast Asia, many of whom have conservative religious beliefs. Many African Americans are as conservative as their white co-religionists, and it should come as no surprise that the front-running Republican presidential candidate, George W. Bush, is making a strong appeal to bring black and Hispanic voters into his party.
The current decline of the religious right, though, doesn’t mean that religious and conservative voters won’t vote in 2000. Mistakes by leaders and organizations do not alter the deeply felt concerns of the millions of Americans who share conservative values. How the candidates, the political parties, and the ideological movements transform themselves and adapt to evolving political conditions will tell the true story of the 2000 election season.