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Religious right meltdown? More fiction than fact

Religious right meltdown? More fiction than fact

by Bill Berkowitz

Despite rumblings in the traditional press about a religious right 'crackup,' key conservative Christian organizations are bringing in 'more money than ever' says Americans United for Separation of Church and State

Over the past two-plus decades it has become fashionable for the traditional press to periodically pen the Religious Right's obituary. Or, if not an outright death notice, articles will appear that detail real, or perceived, rifts within the Religious Right -- Pat Robertson's endorsement of Rudy Giuliani for example -- plus periodic contentiousness between the Religious Right and other elements of the Republican Party. The traditional media often conclude that the Religious Right's days are numbered.

While there are certainly differences within the leadership of the Religious Right over which candidate to support, it would be foolhardy to consider these differences irreconcilable.

Commenting on the rift within the Religious Right, NewsMax's Tom Squitieri recently wrote that Robertson's endorsement "created a schism among evangelical Republicans -- one that may cost the GOP the White House next year." Squitieri pointed out that a major backlash has been under way in the evangelical community over the endorsement."

People for the America Way's RightWingWatch recently picked up on the in-fighting within the Party as a whole theme, pointing to a piece "suggesting that moderate Republicans are growing increasingly weary of the stranglehold the Religious Right has had on the Republican Party for the last several years and that efforts by presidential candidates to pander to the likes of James Dobson, Tony Perkins, and Pat Robertson are only alienating them further."

Scott Reed, who managed Republican Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign, told the Wall Street Journal's John Harwood that there's "a sense that the leadership of the Republican Party is too beholden to a small group of self-appointed social conservative leaders."

As crunch time approaches for the GOP's presidential candidates, the jury is still out on which candidate the majority of so-called values voters will support. Some political observers have argued that since the leadership of the Religious Right had been at first reticent about supporting any of the candidates and more recently have been all over the map with their endorsements, the conservative evangelical vote will be divided and diluted, which could lead to a large number of disillusioned stay-at-homes come November of next year.

In a recent interview with The Denver Post's PoliticsWest, Tom Minnery, the senior vice president of government and public policy for Focus on the Family and Focus on the Family Action, the organization's political arm, disputed this notion and maintained that it was ridiculous to be talking about any kind of so-called crackup within the Religious Right.

Minnery told PoliticsWest that such articles as David Kirkpatrick's "The Evangelical Crackup," which appeared in the October 28 edition of the New York Times Magazine was "typical of what we see during election cycles."

Minnery pointed out that after Pat Robertson failed in his bid for the Republican Party's presidential nomination in 1988, "There were wide predictions of a crackup; of the Moral Majority back then, of evangelicals. Then, of course, the Christian Coalition immediately rose up and became very strong. When that organization faded, there were another spate of stories about the crackup of evangelical Christians as an influence in the public square."

"What did we see then? Well, as recently as 2004, we saw 11 out of 11 states that had state marriage amendments on the ballot, passed them all by landslide proportions, except for liberal Oregon, which passed it with a 57 percent majority. And the exit polls in the 2004 election astonished a number of reporters when the single issue that brought most of them to the polls - as elucidated in the exit polls - was social, moral issues, such as marriage, such as the decline of our culture. And that astonished reporters."

"So, obviously, there was a big stick swung by social conservatives in the 2004 election. The fact that George Bush won in Ohio, that very key state, because a lot of people turned out for the marriage amendment in that particular state, was deemed to be significant. Now, we're into another cycle and the normal predictions of the crackup of evangelicalism is occurring. One of the phenomenon that gives rise to that, of course, is the fact that there is no single conservative candidate who has enough marbles for everybody in the conservative movement to want to play with. Everybody's lacking in something. Partially, this is just the way it is. People will have to figure it out, who to support. So there's some unsettledness. But I'd hardly call that a crack-up."

Over the past several weeks, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani received the endorsement of Pat Robertson, while other candidates have received significant support from other evangelical leaders. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, seen by some as the one fundamentalist Christian in the field that also has a streak of economic populism, has received endorsements from such evangelical leaders as Janet Folger, president of Faith2Action (website), Rick Scarborough, founder and president of Vision America (website), the Rev. Don Wildmon, founder of the American Family Association, and Tim and Beverly LaHaye, longtime influential conservative activists: He is the co-author of the wildly popular "Left Behind" series of apocalyptic novels, and she is the founder of Concerned Women of America.

At the same time Huckabee was stitching together support from Christian leaders, a Robert Novak column entitled "The False Conservative," maintained that while "Huckabee is campaigning as a conservative ... serious Republicans know that he is a high-tax, protectionist, big-government advocate of a strong hand in the Oval Office directing the lives of Americans."

Despite the fact that Dr. James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family, has stated unequivocally that he would not support a Giuliani candidacy, Tom Minnery doesn't see the Constitution Party, a far-right entity, as being capable of siphoning off a significant number of evangelical votes. Minnery believes that should Giuliani become the nominee, "a lot of people on our side would probably swallow hard and vote for the more conservative of the two major party candidates."

Religious Right funding increases, says watchdog group

One measure of the health of the Religious Right is the amount of money flowing into their coffers. A mid-October press release from Americans United for Separation of Church and State pointed out that several major organizations are raising "more money than ever."

An analysis of IRS filings by Americans United found that:

  • James Dobson's Focus on the Family took in $142.2 million in 2006, a $4.4 million increase over the previous year. (In addition, Dobson's Focus on the Family Action took in $14.6 million in 2006.)
  • Tony Perkins' Family Research Council took in $10.3 million in 2006, an increase of over $900,000 over the previous year. (FRC Action, an affiliated group, took in $1.1 million in 2006.)
  • Don Wildmon's American Family Association took in $16.9 million in 2006.
  • Alan Sears' Alliance Defense Fund took in $26.1 million in 2006, an increase of $4.1 million over last year.
  • TV preacher Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network took in $236.3 million in 2005, a $49.8 million increase over the previous year.

According to the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United, "The top Religious Right groups are taking in huge amounts of money. They are also quietly organizing churches into a partisan political machine. Now they just have to find a presidential candidate who will carry out their agenda."

"They know they are on the verge of full control over the Supreme Court," Lynn added, "and one more appointment could lead to a high court reversal on church-state separation, reproductive rights and gay rights."

Is the religious right moving 'beyond mere identity politics' and toward 'political compromise'?

Writing in the November 27 edition of the Los Angeles Times, Dan Gilgoff, editor of Beliefnet's God-o-meter and the author of "The Jesus Machine: How James Dobson, Focus on the Family, and Evangelical America Are Winning the Culture War," suggested that Robertson's endorsement and the subsequent dustup is "a sure sign that many evangelical leaders have moved beyond mere identity politics and toward an overdue openness to compromise in a political system that's built on it."

One of the most troubling tendencies of the Christian right has been its habit of translating the black-and-white literalism of its theology to the political realm. Under this model, Democrats and moderate Republicans are God's sworn enemies and must be opposed at every turn. Rather than compromise, the Christian right has attempted to stage a conservative Republican "takeover" of Washington, with considerable electoral success during the Bush years but with poisonous consequences for politics and policy.

The willingness of a powerful figure such as Robertson to work with a former enemy such as Giuliani, by contrast, is evidence of the Christian right's ideological demilitarization. Add it to other recent evangelical partnerships -- with feminists, for instance, on the issue of sex trafficking, and environmentalists on the issue of global warming -- and a trend emerges.

Where Gilgoff sees maturity, Michael Cromartie, director of the Evangelicals and Civic Life Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, sees betrayal. Cromartie characterized the Robertson endorsement as being "past Mr. Robertson being the pragmatic politician."

Cromartie told NewsMax: "He is not taken seriously. For the religious conservative movement, it has moved on. Mr. Robertson is important only as a curiosity to the mainstream media. I don't know anybody in the evangelical [movement] who is sitting around saying 'I am going to wait for what Pat does.'"

In October, Mike Huckabee told the crowd at the Value Voters Summit in Washington that "... it's important that people sing from their hearts and don't merely lip-sync the lyrics to our songs," referring to the presidential contenders. "I think it's important that the language of Zion is a mother tongue and not a recently acquired second language."

Some pundits are speculating that a Giuliani/Huckabee combo could be the dream GOP ticket and an instant rift healer.

For that to happen, however, Huckabee would have to go back on what he has been touting as one of his major virtues -- loyalty to principles rather than politics. Huckabee has often maintained that Christian right leaders "are more intoxicated with power than principle."

Undoubtedly, a Giuliani/Huckabee embrace in Minneapolis next summer would make quite a sight.

There have always been splits and differences within Republican Party ranks, a longtime GOP operative recently told me. The current split "caused by the presidential race is best defined by who people are against rather than who they are for. Ultimately, it will not hurt the values voter movement. They will lead against the Democratic nominee no matter who the Republican candidate is. But a Republican candidate who is not trusted by the grassroots will not win against a solid Democrat ticket, no matter what Christian movement leaders say or do."


For more please see the Bill Berkowitz archive.
Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.

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