Have you heard the news? The “culture wars” are over. Well, not really. They were over for about five minutes. Now they’re back on again.
Here’s what happened: Word started getting around that James Dobson of Focus on the Family had given a farewell speech to his staff during which he conceded that the Religious Right had failed to achieve many of its policy goals. Some in the media interpreted this as an admission of defeat and a sign that the Religious Right is giving up.
There are a couple of problems with this analysis. First of all, while Dobson did give a speech to his staff lamenting the state of things, he hardly threw in the towel. Dobson did admit that the situation is not really to his liking right now. That’s not surprising since a Democrat is in the White House, abortion is still legal, gay people continue to exist, the public schools don’t espouse fundamentalism and so on.
But Dobson’s answer to that was not to give up. Far from it.
Instead, Dobson vowed to fight even harder. Referring to abortion and family issues, he said, “Humanly speaking, we can say that we have lost all those battles, but God is in control and we are not going to give up now, right?” He later added, “I have been assured by the board and by many of you that we’re not going to cow, we’re not going to be discouraged.”
Just so there would be no confusion on this point, Dobson appeared on the Fox News Channel on April 14 with Sean Hannity. In this friendly forum, Dobson made it clear that he’s not giving up.
“We’re not going anywhere,” Dobson vowed to Hannity. He later added, “[T]he war is not over, pendulums swing, and we’ll come back, we’re going to hang in there, and, you know, it’s not going to be a surrender.”
(And by the way, don’t buy the claims that Dobson has retired. It’s bogus, as Dobson himself freely admitted to Hannity. Dobson still does a daily radio show, still sends out monthly letters to followers and still plans to hand out political endorsements. Some retirement.)
None of this stopped the Telegraph, a London newspaper, from proclaiming the death of the Religious Right yet again. The article quotes from Dobson’s address to his staff – conveniently leaving out his vow to continue fighting.
I mean no disrespect to our friends across the pond, but the U.K. press really doesn’t get the Religious Right. Maybe it’s because a movement like that has not existed in Great Britain since the days of Oliver Cromwell. For whatever reason, British reporters seem unduly eager to announce that the Religious Right is dead in America.
The well-respected Economist magazine pronounced the Religious Right kaput just before the 2000 election – literally days before that movement’s favored candidate performed well enough in Florida to eventually be put into office by the Supreme Court, unleashing an eight-year Religious Right reign of terror on the nation.
Tom Minnery, one of Dobson’s top lieutenants at Focus on the Family, pointed out recently that the Religious Right has been called dead many times in the past two decades.
“In the 20 years I’ve been in the movement, we have died four times,” Minnery wrote in a recent column. “Our first death was in 1988, following the failure of Pat Robertson to win his campaign for president. The second death was in the late ’90s, following the demise in influence of the Christian Coalition. Another obituary was written in 2006 when the Republicans lost control of Congress.”
I rarely agree with Minnery, but this time I’d say that sounds just about right.
Here’s the bottom line: The Religious Right is so closely identified with the Republican Party that its fortunes are now tied to that political unit. You might have noticed that the Republicans aren’t doing so well right now. That means the Religious Right isn’t doing so well either.
But remember, it’s a two-party system. The GOP may be down right now, but that doesn’t mean it’s finished. Exit polls in 2008 showed that voters were worried about the state of the economy. If things don’t turn around by 2010, voters might be willing to give the Republicans another shot. If that happens, the Religious Right would get to come along for the ride.
One more thought on this: Some commentators have been examining data from a recent survey about religion in America that showed a 10-point drop in the number of Christians and a spike in the number of people saying they are not affiliated with religion. There is a lot of interesting data in this study to be sure, but to draw the conclusion that conservative Christianity is losing power in this country is a wild extrapolation.
Just six months ago, mobilization and money from the Religious Right ended same-sex marriage in California, widely regarded as our most liberal state. Groups are mobilizing and hope to do the same in Iowa. And, despite President Barack Obama’s blow-out in the Electoral College, the popular vote in November was much closer. Forty-seven percent of the voting population was ready to put Sarah Palin, a far-right evangelical Christian and darling of the Religious Right, a heartbeat away from the presidency. This is not a movement on its last legs.
The Obama administration is definitely going to do things the Religious Right does not like, but being on the outside has certain advantages. People like Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Department of Health and Human Services nominee Kathleen Sebelius become targets of Religious Right wrath and spur fund-raising and mobilization.
I’d like nothing more than to see the Religious Right lose power and influence and fade away as a political force in American life, but I remain skeptical that is happening. I wouldn’t count the Religious Right out just yet.
Rob Boston is the assistant director of communications of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. This column appeared previously on the AU blog.