It's Not Your Father's Religious Right

By David Kuo
Sunday, February 24, 2008

Who will govern the new religious right?

History may look back at this Republican primary season and judge that answering that question -- not determining the nominee -- could be its greatest significance. Even if Sen. John McCain wins the race for the White House, he's likely, at his age, to be a one-term, caretaker president. But a newly reconstituted religious right will be helping determine who wins the presidency for decades. So whoever ends up heading it will potentially enjoy a much more powerful position.

That there's now a pitched battle for the soul of the religious right is a horrifying thought to Republican leaders long familiar with the old religious right, a hierarchical group dominated by larger-than-life figures who'd anointed themselves Jesus's political representatives. But that movement is withering at the top and in revolt at the grass-roots.

Jerry Falwell and D. James Kennedy, two of the most formidable religious right leaders of the past quarter-century, have died. Evangelical stalwarts James Dobson, head of Focus on the Family, and Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson are moving ever closer to retirement. Meanwhile, a slew of self-appointed political shepherds are becoming politically marginalized and out of touch with an increasingly independent evangelical flock.

Just look at this primary season. Even after Robertson endorsed him, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani got a paltry 2 percent of the evangelical vote in Iowa and an only slightly less measly 3 percent in South Carolina. Despite endorsements from leading figures on the right including Paul Weyrich and Bob Jones III, Mitt Romney could never overcome anti-Mormon sentiments, especially among Southern Baptists.

And Fred Thompson's campaign sputtered out despite enthusiasm from leading evangelicals who were confident that they knew where their sheep were going. Particularly misguided was Richard Land, head of the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, who gushed last July, "I have never seen anything like this grass-roots swell for Thompson. I'm not speaking for Southern Baptists, but I do believe I have my hand on the pulse of Southern Baptists and I think I know where the consensus is." Wrong.

But saying that the old religious right is passing isn't the same as saying that the political movement of theologically conservative Christians is dead. Far from it.

Evangelicals are still the largest single voting bloc in the country. Demographersand political scientists agree that 10 to 20 years from now, there will be more self-described "born agains" in the United States than there are today, for simple reasons: Evangelical Christians are more likely to have larger families and more likely to bring new converts into the faith.

But what will this new religious right look like? And who will lead it? Here are some predictions.

It will probably be more progressive -- but not liberal. A late July online poll of 1,000 evangelicals from Beliefnet.com found that 60 percent identified themselves as part of a political movement interested more in "protecting the environment, tackling HIV/AIDS, alleviating poverty and promoting human rights and less on abortion and homosexuality." Among the issues most concerning them were reducing poverty, improving health care and education, and stopping torture.

Their progressivism, however, only goes so far. Seventy percent still said that ending abortion was important or very important; almost 50 percent opposed same-sex marriage.

That some evangelicals are enthusiastic about a more compassionate politics isn't new. After all, in 2000, a relatively young evangelical governor with a powerful story of personal redemption ran for president. He talked about poverty and education and reminded conservatives that government could be used for good, constructive purposes. I even recall that he pledged $8 billion a year in funding for faith-based charities.


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