After the Christian right suffers some major defeat it has not been uncommon for analysts and commentators to pronounce the imminent demise of the movement. It could be the widespread realization of the staying power and adaptability of the Christian right that this did not happen after the recent elections where Democrats turned the tide against conservative Republicans. The Economist (November 11) recaps the many troubles of the Christian right: the voting turnout was a disappointment for Republicans, with polls showing that a third of evangelicals voted Democrat. In 2004, only one in five voted Democrat. Prominent spokesmen for Religious conservatives, such as Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, went down in defeat while scandals dogged Christian right leaders such as Ralph Reed and Ted Haggard.
But the magazine notes that much of this replays similar difficulties from years ago, such as the televangelist scandals of the late 80s or the demise of the Moral Majority and the shriveling of the Christian Coalition. The article maintains that the Christian right has the ability to reinvent itself largely due to the still-secular tilt of the Democrats and its new focus on international issues, such as the Darfur massacres, rather than remaining centered on gay rights or overreaching on the Terri Schiavo affair.
In the new book Righteous (Viking, $24.95), journalist Lauren Sandler finds the future of the Christian right in the evangelical youth counterculture. The book is part of a vast genre of popular accounts, usually by secular journalists, of evangelical America and the Christian right. Sandler writes that religious revivals throughout American history started out as “ecstatic youth movements.” Evangelical young people as varied as tattooed skaters, teen pro-lifers, postmodern church planters, black Christian rappers, and Christian right activists at Patrick Henry College are all characterized as part of the “Disciple Generation.” She notes how the children of such conservative Christian leaders as Franklin Graham, Stephen Strang, James Dobson and Jim Bakker are among the more radical leaders of this youth movement. Sandler sees this generation as distinct from older evangelicals (mainly in their use of “extreme” language and youth- relevant methods of outreach), but concludes that their dogmatism and blending of “nationalism” with Christianity, all belong to a worrisome “fundamentalist” resurgence in American society that needs to be fought by secularists. In fact, the most revealing part of the book may be Sandler’s call to arms for secularists to mimic the Disciple Generation’s effective methods of activism in order to steer America in a more secular, leftist direction
Meanwhile, the above mentioned international issues may also further divide the Christian right from evangelical moderates and the left, according to a recent study. Such an international issue as AIDS relief in Africa has tended to unify the various camps of evangelicals as well as create new coalitions with secular activists. But a paper by Jennifer Eaton Dyer of Vanderbilt University presented at the recent meeting of the American Academy of Religion in Washington, attended by RW, finds that such common ground is shifting. Early in the new millennium those on the evangelical right, such as Franklin Graham, and James Dobson, joined with centrists and leftists, such as Rick Warren, Nelson Mandela and rock star Bono to fight against the spread of AIDS in Africa. By 2004, the issue of poverty was joined with that of AIDS, drawing such Christian right leaders Pat Robertson to cooperate with secular liberals in the One Campaign.
But more recently, the cooperative mood has dissipated within the evangelical fold, according to Dyer. The first sign of such a schism was last spring when a large number of evangelicals from the left and moderate spectrums backed a drive to combat global warming, while much of the evangelical right–as represented by James Dobson and Southern Baptist leader Richard Land– led an opposing attack on the initiative. Then last May Dobson and other religious right leaders led a campaign to halt funding to the Global Fund, mainly due to its lack of U.S. representation , with more liberal evangelicals fighting to retain funding for the international hunger relief group. The latest conflict has been between evangelical left activist Jim Wallis calling for renewed attention to poverty in the U.S. and Tony Perkins of Focus on the Family urging evangelicals to hold the line on such family issues as gay rights and abortion. Dyer concludes that other possible dividing issues such as international sex trafficking and diplomacy in North Korea may also work to divide the evangelical right from the evangelical moderates and left.
Another alliance, that between Catholics and evangelicals on many political issues, may have been shaken in the November elections. The National Catholic Reporter (November 17) notes that Republican strategists hoped that the “God factor” (relating to the finding that regular church-going Catholics tended to vote Republican), evident among Catholics in the 2004 elections, would also be in play during the recent race. But exit polls showed that this year, 55 percent of Catholics voted Democratic, with 46 percent weekly churchgoers from all denominations supporting House Democratic candidates. Republican Catholic activists claim that the disaffection was mainly a protest over corruption in the Republican Party and note that pro-life Democrats gained wide support. Nevertheless, the success of the Democrats among Catholics, often on economic issues, has bolstered party strategists who have made an extra effort to appeal to people of faith after the 2004 election. Analyst John Green said he expects “to see a lot more discussion of [Democratic religious outreach] and a lot more Democratic candidates who adopt this approach. The Democrats learned a lesson and they adapted.”