The religious right has fallen on hard times, torn by sectarian division, hindered by the uneasiness of some in its ranks with coalition building, dispirited by scandals involving television preachers and hurt even by some of its successes, according to scholars and movement partisans.
At the same time, many who came to politics through the religious right are finding places in the political mainstream, and ideas associated with evangelical conservatives -- notably the importance of family policy and the need to base social programs on an explicit set of values -- are winning a broader hearing.
These were among the conclusions drawn at two meetings here earlier this month on the future of the Christian right, sponsored by the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the Heritage Foundation, conservative research organizations.
Participants were by no means unanimous in predicting a gloomy future for the religious right. Some scholars argued that political activists associated with conservative Christianity had transformed American politics.
For example, white evangelical Christians, who once were overwhelmingly Democratic, now are firmly in the Republican camp, partly because of the religious right's activities. And many of the religious right's causes are quietly -- and in the case of abortion, not so quietly -- making progress through an increasingly conservative court system.
Still, Robert Booth Fowler, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin, summed up a widespread view at the Ethics and Public Policy Center conference when he said the religious right now appears "as something of a summer flower only."
"Where are the victories within the Republican Party, not to speak of the nation?" Fowler asked. "Has the family been strengthened the way the New Christian right envisioned? Has prayer entered the public schools, the movement toward gay rights turned back, pornography been seriously attacked, or the Constitution amended regarding abortion?" The answer to all these questions, Fowler said, is no.
Fowler argued that the religious right had been hurt by sectarian differences among its followers on religious issues of profound importance to them. They also suffered from "disagreements over the appropriate degree of separation of church and state."
"There simply was no monolith waiting to receive its marching orders," Fowler said. "There was a great deal of discomfort with forming coalitions outside the evangelical/fundamentalist world and plenty of difficulty doing so within it."
Robert Wuthnow, a sociologist at Princeton University, argued that one of the religious right's achievements was to "bring values back" into discussions of social policy. But this success was a mixed blessing, he said.
"When everyone -- right and left -- is talking about values, the distinctive claims of the religious right tend to be muted," he said. "Its potential strength may therefore be diminishing by having a less distinct identity."
Paul M. Weyrich, president of the Free Congress Foundation, said the religious right made a fundamental error in allowing "pragmatists" in President Ronald Reagan's administration to place the conservative social agenda "on the back burner" behind economic issues.
"Those who sponsored that agenda were so happy to be near even the back door of the White House that they didn't want to jeopardize that presence," Weyrich said. "So they went along -- as Ronald Reagan himself did -- with the assumption that setting things in order economically was more important than setting things in order morally.
"How ministers of the gospel could say that," Weyrich added, "I don't know."
The discussion at the Heritage Foundation was organized around an article in Policy Review, the foundation's journal, by Thomas C. Atwood, a former staff member to Pat Robertson, the television evangelist who ran unsuccessfully for the Republican presidential nomination in 1988.
Reflecting the conservatives' self-critical mood, the article bore the title: "Through a Glass Darkly: Is the Christian Right Overconfident It Knows God's Will?"
Atwood, now the managing editor of Policy Review, criticized the religious right for failing to follow "the basic rules of politics, such as respect for opposing views, an emphasis on coalition building and compromise, and careful rhetoric."
As a result, Atwood said, religious right activists and leaders "often came across as authoritarian, intolerant and boastful, even to natural constituents." Atwood urged the Christian right to play down appeals to scripture and "messianic rhetoric" and appeal instead to "common-sense public values."
In an interview, Atwood argued that "the best thing that could happen to the movement is for it to be less identifiable as a movement and have its people and its ideas percolate through the system." He said a possible model was the New Left, which now has virtually no formal organizational presence in American political life but whose ideas on such issues as environmentalism and feminism are very much part of the mainstream.
"In spite of the demise of the Moral Majority and the failure of the Robertson campaign, the movement's values have had some reasonance in the culture," Atwood said. In the meantime, "evangelical activists are more discreet and more concerned about using language that can be understood by their coalition partners."
Several scholars at the Ethics and Public Policy Center conference argued that the religious right's problems were not unlike those facing the broader conservative movement: the absence of a clear set of issues around which to mobilize.
"At the moment, the one issue that seems still to have real potential to unify the movement is concern over abortion," said George Marsden, a professor at the Duke University Divinity School. "If it is resolved, it is difficult to see what will keep the coalition together."