Is the Christian Right Fading?

Amid speculation on the social conservative movement's demise, reasons for doubt

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By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country

From the moment Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority opened its doors in 1979, the modern Christian right has always had a charismatic leader whose organization provided the movement with national infrastructure. Falwell and his group in the '80s. Pat Robertson and his Christian Coalition in the 1990s. James Dobson and his Focus on the Family in the '00s.

Now, with Dobson getting on in years (he turns 73 tomorrow) and his influence slipping, Spiritual Politics' Mark Silk observes that there "is no sign of a new national colossus to lead the social conservative movement into a fourth decade."

Which leads Silk to wonder about the future of the GOP:

No doubt, the white evangelicals who constitute the core of religious right support will remain a pretty loyal Republican voting bloc. The big question is whether, at the state and local level, they are going to be as mobilizable as they've been for the past generation.

Silk offers this caveat: "Reports of the demise of the religious [right] have circulated regularly since the early 1980s, when it first burst upon the scene; and the reports have always been premature."

In this moment of widespread speculation about the Christian right's disintegration, I'd like to expand on this cautionary note.

First, the transition of leadership from Falwell to Robertson to Dobson wasn't as seamless as is often portrayed. The past three decades have seen plenty of years when the Christian right lacked a national leader, triggering obituaries for the movement. The Moral Majority ceased to exist after 1986, for instance, and it was three years before Robertson and Ralph Reed opened the doors to the Christian Coalition. When the coalition collapsed in 1997, the Christian right lacked a national leader until the 2004 election cycle, when James Dobson stepped squarely into electoral politics and Focus on the Family launched a sister political organization.

Second, for a movement on the verge of collapse, the Christian right ain't doing too bad so far as influencing policy goes. It has a 29-to-0 record in amending state constitutions to ban same-sex marriage. A handful of states have legalized gay unions, but not where the Christian right has gotten same-sex marriage bans onto the ballot. Even with a liberal Democrat in the Oval Office, some of the Christian right's priorities, like reducing abortion and expanding faith-based initiatives, are being taken seriously.

Finally, to Silk's question about whether white evangelicals will be as "mobilizable" as in the past: If 2008 is any indication, they're more mobilizable than ever. Not only did the Christian right succeed in passing constitutional gay marriage bans in three more states—California, Florida, and Arizona—last Election Day, but Republican John McCain got more white evangelical votes than any other candidate on record, including George W. Bush. This despite McCain's many blunders in dealing with the Christian right.

It's undeniable that the Christian right is in the throes of big change, mirroring important political shifts among the white evangelical rank and file. But it is possible to overstate those changes.