Moral Minority?

The religious right appears to be in decline

| March-April 2000

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.”

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