We are hearing again that “the Republican Monopoly on Christianity is Nearing its End” – in other words, that the Religious Right is finally losing its grip. That is what Christian Democrats of America’s Executive Director, Christina Forrester is telling us. I hope so. It is past time Christians stood up to the bullies in their midst, the people who have hijacked their religion since the 1970s to the sound of crickets.
Yet far from surrendering, there are signs the Religious Right, like Fox News, is getting behind Donald Trump, who, like actor Christopher Walken, is a genre unto himself. The difference is, Walken amuses us by pretending to be scary people on film, while Trump would be more amusing if he wasn’t pretending.
Is Donald Trump as a sign of just how deeply the Religious Right has permeated Republican politics, or is he evidence of its demise? Is he a sign of the end of the Religious Right’s dominance, that they have had to settle on a candidate who openly pooh-pooh’s the doctrine of repentance, who reduces the Eucharist to a “little wine” and a “little cracker”?
Or is he a sign of the Religious Right’s resilience and its chameleon-like ability to endlessly reinvent itself? It’s no small thing, after all, to have openly promoted hypocrisy through word and deed for almost 50 years while still successfully maintaining the moral high ground.
The obituary of the Religious Right has been written many times over. To confront such claims in 2012, Ed Kilgore wrote in the New Republic in 2012 that “The Political fumbling by Christian conservatives has been even worse this presidential cycle than it was in 2008.”
Kilgore pointed to the selection of John McCain, their enemy, in 2008, and says of 2012, “The Christian Right’s fatal failure this time was its inability to form a consensus behind a single candidate.”
However, he concluded that,
But if it’s entirely fair to point out that the once-indomitable Christian Right has botched the contest for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, it’s another thing altogether to conclude…that the Christian Right’s days of national influence have finally expired.
He is right. On each occasion, the rumors of its death have been proven wrong. And this is exactly what Bill Berkowitz pointed out in Religious Dispatches in June of 2009 that “even after an Obama victory reports of the death of the Religious Right are greatly exaggerated.”
And Dan Gilgoff, writing in U.S. News & World Report, argued in April 2009 that “for a movement on the verge of collapse, the Christian right ain’t doing too bad so far as influencing policy goes,” and pointed to its “29-to-0 record in amending state constitutions to ban same-sex marriage” as evidence.
Kilgore, far from admitting defeat, claimed victory: “But if they haven’t been able to pull their muscle behind a single candidate, that’s not a sign that they are on the wane—it’s a sign that, as far as the Republican Party is concerned, they have already won.”
So yes, Americans would be justified to be skeptical of any such claims. But let’s look at the argument.
According to Forrester, there are “key indicators that Christian votes will begin to lean more democratic in the 2016 Presidential election and beyond.”
1. Wedge issues have gone awry. The Republican Party’s two “clinch” issues–gay marriage and abortion–are becoming less of a factor for voters. While many Christians, regardless of their political affiliation, may be pro-life and in favor of traditional marriage, the tone of the conversation has changed dramatically and is no longer becoming a singular or even primary influence in picking a candidate. And with the recent Supreme Court decision, one could argue the fight for “traditional marriage” is now truly a moot point. One recent high-profile report even underscored that “most Republican presidential candidates seem to want to avoid talking about the issue [all together]—as Mitt Romney largely did in 2012.” Another 2015 report underscoring “The Republican Party’s Abortion Bind” cites that, despite “a newly enormous majority in the House and a newly minted majority in the Senate, Republicans finally had a chance to get a bill to the president,” but to no avail as the GOP coalition fell apart on technicalities in its attempt to pass a new bill. The report further highlights part of the challenge for Republicans, citing that “everyone knows the GOP faces a demographic time bomb, since its voters are older and whiter and more pro-life than the general population, so it’s risky to do anything that might make it harder to win them over.” Further, polling has shown that “the majority of Americans, based on gender, do not let their views on abortion affect their choice in a presidential candidate.” That finding reportedly came shortly after Rep. Todd Akin, the then Republican Senate hopeful from Missouri, drew backlash from his own party for his comments regarding “legitimate rape” and abortion.
2. “Compassionate conservatism was a lie.” In 2000 when George W. Bush ran for President, he won based on the assurance of a softer, more holistic conservatism that promised to leave “no child left behind” and to be more inclusive of groups across varied economic backgrounds. Fast forward to today and only a few voices in the Republican party are discussing economic equality. Indeed, the Republican party is still not only perceived as the party of the wealthy, but duly anointed as outlined in a March 2015 report titled “The Fight for the Soul of the Republican Party Is Over: The Rich Won Again” that detailed the epic failure of “reform conservatives” striving to reconnect the party to middle-class and low-income voters. Terms such as “The War on the Poor” and trending Twitter hashtags like #GOPWaronthePoor #WaronthePoor show that more and more Americans, and Christians, are identifying the Republican party with the wealthy, the so-called 1%, and against policies to help the poor. The GOP has not helped itself in this regard by allowing members of Congress and outspoken Evangelical leaders to leverage the media with messages that insult or demean food stamp recipients and others in the low economic class. When every policy, from the subsidized “Obamaphone” program to budgets for food stamps, which assists our nation’s poor, is slammed by the GOP establishment, the people, including Christians, are finally starting to take notice. This is especially true in states where GOP governors have refused the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, which would help millions in their states be able to receive healthcare. The effect of the GOP general narrative on helping these millions of poor families is especially heard…and felt. This is especially noticed by Christians who identify Jesus’ teachings of helping the poor and what our attitudes should be towards the needy. More and more Christians are identifying as Democrat or Liberal simply because they can no longer justify supporting the Republican party, based on these issues. As a result, we are seeing a rise in “pro-life Democrats” who are for abortion restrictions, but also broaden their definition of “pro-life” to all people in all phases of life, as scripture indicates. In this case, anyone classed as “the least of these” is a pro-life concern.
3. Christian Millennials are progressive-minded. In 2012, 67% of those under 35 voted for Obama. Since 62% of Millennials under 35 also identify with some form of Christianity, it stands to reason that there are millions of Millennial Christians who are progressive minded (or hold progressive values). Even though Republicans saw victory in the midterm elections, progressive ballot items won by a landslide, and Millennials voted in line with those items. Millennial Christians are also more inclined to support the LGBT rights movement, gay marriage and civil rights issues. They largely identify with values of compassion and minority issues, which have become known as part of the Democratic platform. Millennials, including Christians, dislike the GOP rhetoric on religious freedom laws and gay rights, women’s rights and minority issues.
Forrester is not the first to make these claims. Georgetown University historian Michael Kazin suggested in 2012 (the claims to which New Republic’s Kilgore was responding) that the Religious Right was “on the wane” because it was “increasingly out of touch with public opinion, and on the wrong side of generational tends.” Kilgore was willing to concede on same-sex marriage but contested Kazin on abortion.
CJ Werleman said much the same on AlterNet in 2014, writing that “The Christian Right’s dirty little secret is they are acutely aware that changing demographics are running against them.” In Werelman’s view, far from being a rumor, even the Religious Right knows it has lost the culture war.
Over at Bloomberg, Francis Wilkinson of the editorial board looked to the Academy Awards, of all places, for evidence of the rout: the 2014 selection of openly lesbian Ellen DeGeneres as “the safe choice to host one of the most mainstream, popular television events of the year, watched by some 40 million Americans.”
Wilkinson opined that while the rest of us have come to grips with “gay equality” and that “Religious conservatives will take a little longer not because they are religious, but because they are conservatives.”
Kazin wrote in January 2012,
Every GOP candidate still in the race speaks of Planned Parenthood as if it were a band of terrorists and vows to stop the largest and oldest reproductive rights group in the country from winning even a dollar of federal funding—and all of them except Ron Paul has signed a firm pledge to support a constitutional amendment that would essentially ban same-sex marriage.
As we well know, because of some faked videos, the assault on Planned Parenthood, three years on, is far from over – or won. The simple fact is that if Republicans gained the Senate, they lost the White House – again. For conservatives it is a simple matter formula of “Planned Parenthood = abortion” but Obama has proven himself a strong champion of women’s rights – including reproductive rights. And Democrats in Congress, many of them women, have stood firm against conservative efforts to give men authority over their bodies.
And the pledge against same sex marriage…well, we saw how that turned out, didn’t we? Kilgore was right to concede in 2012. The Supreme Court has spoken. If corporations are people, so are gays and lesbians, and as such, they have the same rights to marriage as “heterosexuals.”
Kazin said liberals had won another culture war issue too: contraception, pointing out that “The news that the traditionalist Catholic ex-Senator from Pennsylvania [Rick Santorum] had suggested that contraception ‘is counter to how things are supposed to be’ was enough to bury under a heap of ridicule whatever slim chance he had to win the nomination.”
Kilgore’s conclusion is my longstanding conclusion: “The Christian Right has been buried many times by secular observers since its advent as a powerful political movement in the late 1970s. It’s far too early to write yet another obituary.”
That isn’t to say that it isn’t on a wane. Take heart. Forrester makes some valid points. Mainline Christians have begun to organize and to speak up, for example, with regards the Iran nuclear deal, and against war. We even have a Pope standing up to the Religious Right.
However, demographics or not, Christians have not seized the mantle from the Religious Right. It may be coming, but it’s not here: The struggle is about more than the White House, despite the Religious Right’s victory in 2000, putting George W. Bush in the Oval Office.
It has always been so: it is about communities; towns and cities, and fifty states and their state legislatures, their governors, and their representatives in Congress.
These are the areas where the Religious Right still dominates. In “Jesus welcomes you to” signs at the edge of small-town America, and Ten Commandments displays in courthouses; in charter schools that teach religion, and public school textbooks that teach creationism rather than science to our children.
Evidence of the end of Republican dominance of Christianity will be in the form not of a Democratic presidential victory, which is almost assured, but success in these local elections, and the advent of true religious freedom for all Americans over the Religious Right’s imposition of religious tyranny.
I’ll believe the Religious Right is dead when I see it lying in the road.