The Political Subsistence of the Religious Right: Why the Christian Right Survives and Does Not Thrive By John Hicks

American Religious Experience

By John Hicks*

The contemporary religious right1 finds itself in an awkward situation, at least in respect to its predecessors. Historically, the religious right resided on the political fringe, a noisy group of outsiders who wielded little-to-no power. Over the past seventy-five years political commentators alternately declared the religious right’s eviction from American politics or, conversely, announced the recent move into a mansion on America’s most politically significant street. The press portrayed the religious right’s political influence as a cycle of death and resurrection, the first death sentence signed by the cantankerous H. L. Mencken during the Scopes Trial in 1925 and the rebirth of the movement after helping Ronald Reagan win the White House in 1980. The media declared the downfall of the religious right after Pat Robertson’s embarrassing loss in the 1988 Republican presidential primaries, only to heap ebullient praise on the religious right when Republicans, with the considerable assistance of the Christian right, won control of the House of Representatives in 1994. This birth-death scenario enlivens the broadcast news, but is not entirely accurate. Perhaps, a different interpretation of the religious right is in order, one which tempers the ebullience and the condemnation, revealing the sources of strength and the constricting dilemmas of the current movement. This essay proposes that the religious right has a considerable network of support to influence electoral politics and public policy decisions, but not enough current or potential membership to significantly affect American politics. Although this network will continue to survive and thrive, the Christian right movement will continue as a minority of the political population. In other words, the religious right subsists like many interest groups in American politics.

" By tethering itself to the Republican Party, the Christian right now faces the challenges of practical politics."

Today, the religious right enjoys its greatest access to the corridors of power, particularly because of its relationship with conservative members of the Republican Party. Access is the result of electoral success, especially the stunning 1994 election that brought Republican control to the House of Representatives. But access also comes in other forms. For instance, the former head of the Christian Coalition, Ralph Reed, is an important member of the current Republican presidential campaign of George W. Bush. Such access to power, however, comes at a price. Unlike previous religious right organizations, the modern Christian right walks a narrow uncharted path between the heart-felt convictions of its membership and the practicalities of day-to-day politics. Ironically, it is not as easy as it once was for the religious right to crusade against all that is considers evil because the current leaders of the religious right have become players within Republican Party politics2. It is much easier to rant and rave from outside the halls of power — and raise money by doing so — than to influence policy from within.

By definition, American political parties exist to win elections and, as a result, political parties pragmatically pursue policies in their quest for votes. By tethering itself to the Republican Party, the Christian right now faces the challenges of practical politics. For the most part, practical politics implies compromise and partisan bickering, both of which are problematical for the religious right. After all, how does an organization compromise religious principles translated into public policy?  Moreover, the constant partisan bickering makes the religious right look as if merely a segment of the Republican Party, with little better to do but serve as the foil for liberal Democrats. If that perception becomes reality, the source of the Christian right’s strength, fundraising, will begin to dry up. All in all, the religious right is in an awkward situation.

How did the religious right get into this situation? How does it survive? What are its agenda items? What is the connection to previous movements? How much influence does it have?3 These questions, and a consideration as to why the religious right will continue to influence American politics, are the focus of this paper.


Much of the story of the religious right and American politics revolves around the Christian right’s perception that the once mainstream religious beliefs of America, those held by conservative Christians, were relegated to the margins of American society beginning early in the twentieth century. Much of the impetus for the Christian right movement comes from the conviction that religion has been removed from American life and that those moral values, so important to the success of America, no longer had a place in American culture and politics.4

The eras of the religious right are best explained as three unsuccessful political movements followed by the current movement, which is remarkably distinct and more politically sophisticated than past movements. The modern Christian right’s first foray into politics began in the 1920s and revolved around the teaching of evolution in the public schools, with the culminating event the 1925 Scopes Trial in Dayton, Tennessee. Primarily a religious revolt of fundamentalists, the movement met with little success. Although the anti-evolutionists won Dayton case, the court of public opinion turned against this movement. Of the thirty-seven anti-evolution bills proposed to state legislatures, only a few were passed.5 In addition, the vitriolic condemnation of fundamentalists virtually destroyed the nascent political movement. For example, journalist H. L. Mencken freely condemned the fundamentalists as "morons" and "yokels" who ". . . are everywhere where learning is too heavy a burden for mortal minds to carry. . ."6 Due to these events, fundamentalists turned inward, away from the throes of politics and began to build, according to historian Joel Carpenter, a "parachurch network" in support of fundamentalism. This continually expanding network was (and is) the solid foundation upon which the Christian right was established.7

The parachurch network, originally constructed during the 1930s and 1940s consisted of the means of reaching out to convert the public with the message of the gospel, to bring revival to America. The network included:

    Bible institutes — like the Moody Bible Institute and the Bible Institute of Los Angeles, who trained fundamentalist ministers and missionaries. These institutions also hosted weekend-long evangelistic or prophecy conferences open to the public, and provided a wide range of services, like radio programs and publications, such as Moody Monthly.

    Colleges — like Wheaton and Bob Jones University.

    Summer Bible Conferences — which were a blend of old-fashioned camp meetings, fundamentalist teachings, and the traditional family vacations.

    Radio Preaching and Teaching — With the primary focus on bringing revival to America, fundamentalists adopted technology as a means of sharing the gospel with the nation and the world. Ironically, H. L. Mencken’s "morons" and "yokels" became masters of the technologies of the future and mass-marketing techniques.

    Publishing — Fundamentalism and evangelicalism was primarily a readers’ and publishers’ movement. Gospel Light Publishers, David C. Cook, Moody Press, Zondervan Publishing House; all got their start during this period.8

In other words, Fundamentalism developed a complex, widespread institutional network to sustain its activities. This "subculture" continued to expand with the changing times and would later include television programs, Bible book stores, Contemporary Christian music, the techniques of mass marketing and sales, and the modern proficiencies of direct-mail fundraising. The description of this as a network is a bit misleading, in that it gives the sense of an innocuous gathering. The modern network is big business, with sales of over 70 million books, 2,500 Christian bookstores nationwide and over $1 billion in music sales and concert tickets, just to mention three of its many areas of interest.9 The modern religious right movement is the heir of this parachurch network, and attracts most of its members through mass-marketing techniques refined through years of practice.

American fundamentalists reentered American politics during the anticommunist frenzy of the 1950s and 1960s. Groups like the Christian Crusade, the Christian Anti-Communist Crusade and the Church League of America battled communism in America over the radio waves and through traveling schools of anticommunism. The groups were considered on the margins, but did try to influence wider public policies. For example, these groups opposed the creation of Medicare, because they claimed it socialized medicine, and opposed sex education, because it would weaken the moral fiber of America, making it ripe for communist takeover. Although several of these organization survive to this day, most lost influence after supporting Barry Goldwater’s ill-fated Republican Presidential candidacy in 1964.10

A third movement began in the 1970s and grew to heights in the early 1980s.11 The Moral Majority, Christian Voice and the Religious Roundtable are some of the influential organizations founded during this era. This third movement focused on evangelical and fundamentalist reaction to a series of setbacks for traditional values, including several U.S. Supreme Court decisions on Bible reading and prayer in schools and the legalization of abortion. In addition, several local controversies flared arund the nation, including a textbook controversy in Kanawha County, West Virginia, a gay-right referendum in Dade County, Florida, and a series of local fights over the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. Moreover, the Democratic Presidential candidacy of a born-again Southern Baptist, Jimmy Carter raised evangelicals from obscurity. Carter called on evangelicals to openly participate in politics, turning their backs on a historical distrust of politics. During this time, the Christian right was rediscovered by the national media, with Time magazine declaring 1976 the year of the evangelical. Although not a majority, significant numbers of Americans expressed support for the Christian right’s cause. Studies reveal that the moral majority’s agenda — opposing abortion, support for prayer in schools and objecting to civil rights for homosexuals — had the steady support of 10-15 percent of the American public.12 However, the success of these groups were tied to their fundraising efforts, which were harmed in the 1980s by scandals surrounding televangelists Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggert. Ironically, these groups were also harmed by their electoral success. After Ronald Reagan’s election many religious right supporters no longer felt the urgency, and many cut back on their financial support of the Christian right. Pat Robertson’s unsuccessful candidacy for the Republican Presidential nomination in 1988 was the third movement’s final act.


"As of 1994, the religious right had dominant control of the state Republican Party in eighteen states, and substantial influence in fourteen others."

The current efforts of the religious right were born out of the ashes of Robertson’s campaign. Unable to gain the support of the entire religious right,13 Robertson and others began to refocus the efforts of the Christian right in America. The religious right (without any overt leadership) began to take three connected, although distinct, organizational paths. One took the form of interest groups whose main focus is fundraising to influence elections, examples of which are the Family Research Council and the Campaign for Working Families. Another took the form of activist, conservative nonprofit groups that strive to bring about public policies through legislation or the courts. Three examples are The American Center for Law and Justice, the Traditional Values Coalition, and the Alliance Defense Fund. A third organization type focused its attention on expanding influence within the Republican Party. The religious right, through its grassroots and fundraising efforts, earned a place at the Republican Party’s table. Essentially, the modern religious right is influential because it raises money and gets conservative voters to the polls. Credited with the Republican Party’s successful takeover of the House of Representatives in 1994 — the first time in over forty years — the religious right found itself with ready access to the halls of American political power. In other words, the modern Christian right is far more politically sophisticated than its predecessors and uses a variety of strategies to achieve its goals.

How much influence does the Christian right have? The religious right probably has the most influence at the state Republican Party level. According to political scientist Clyde Wilcox, the Christian right’s greatest influence occurs in states that utilize caucuses and conventions to determine party nominees, rather than states with primary elections. In states with caucuses and conventions, more effort is required of the voter to participate in the political process than simply casting a vote in a primary election. One of the keys to the religious right’s electoral success is a well-organized grassroots effort, which is driven by members’ dedication and belief in the importance of the cause. As of 1994, the religious right had dominant control of the state Republican Party in eighteen states, and substantial influence in fourteen others.14 Another source of influence comes from the Christian right’s lobbying efforts, a traditional activity of interest groups.15 Republican control of Congress allows the religious right greater access to political power than ever before. Influence is a difficult thing to judge, however. Access does not equate to influence.16


Most interest groups in American politics tend to be devoted to a single issue, like the National Riffle Association’s efforts to preserve the rights of gun owners or Handgun Control’s efforts to control access to guns. Composed of many interest groups, the religious right features a large number of single-issue interest groups, many of which are pro-life organizations. Interestingly, the larger organizations of the religious right, in particular the Christian Coalition, tend to focus on multiple issues, including foreign affairs.17

The contemporary religious right is much more politically sophisticated than its predecessors. However, its agenda is best described as defensive, and if adopted would remove many of those things that "invaded" the lives of conservative Christians beginning in the early 1960s, like the U.S. Supreme Court decisions regarding prayer and Bible reading in public school and the infamous Roe v. Wade decision. Most of the agenda proposes actions to defend conservative Christian persons from the intrusions of modern life, with a particular focus on defending traditional families from the "L" word, unbridled liberalism. The "L" word became a curse word in religious right circles, synonymous with the activities of the devil — free thinking, free love, sexual immorality. For most members of the Christian right, America has become too tolerant of sin. In most direct mail solicitations from the religious right, the "L" word plays a prominent role.18

One critical feature of the religious right’s agenda is "redeeming America." Considering the prominent place of evangelicals and fundamentalists in the religious right, this should not be much of a surprise. With the focus on a conversion experience in both traditions, any political organization of the Christian right would naturally stress the conversion of Americans. This agenda item takes a different turn, however, when one considers the influence of premillennial dispensationalists on the Christian right. For many dispensationalists, America is God’s new Israel, His new chosen people. If that destiny is to be fulfilled, America must be reclaimed for God. Leaders of the religious right often call on America to repent, to turn back to a time when America placed its faith in God. One example comes from a direct mail appeal from The American Center for Law and Justice. The testimony of Darrell Scott, the father of a Columbine High School victim, was reprinted, which states, "What has happened to us as a nation? We have refused to honor God and in doing so, we open the doors to hatred and violence."19 Such comments are common in the Christian right’s direct mail solicitations.

For members of the Christian right, religion should play a very public role. For many, the posting of the Ten Commandments or reinstating prayer in school are two ways that America could be reclaimed for Jesus. Often, religious broadcasters point to the decision to take God out of public life as the critical turning point in American history, a moment when America turned its back on traditional morality and God. In many cases, religious right organizations use scare tactics to raise money. One such example concerned the case of Alabama Judge Roy Moore, who publically displayed the Ten Commandments in his courtroom and began his county court sessions with prayer. Moore filed and lost a court case, which required him to remove the Ten Commandments from public display. In a fundraising appeal from Coral Ridge Ministries (whose motto is "Reclaiming America for Christ"), D. James Kennedy writes, "If they can attack a man for defending public prayer and displaying the Ten Commandments, how long before they come after you and me?"20

Electing moral leadership to stem the tide of liberalism and the nation’s slide into moral relativism and chaos is another aspect of "redeeming America." A constant refrain of the religious right is "to restore godly leadership in America," a phrase used in a recent letter from Christian Coalition President Pat Robertson. Most contend that moral issues must be part of America’s political dialog. Otherwise, America will continue to turn its back upon God and His principles, an act provoking America’s downfall, as it did ancient Israel time and again. Robertson continued, "I want to see a future where a righteous public servant [Robertson’s emphasis] occupies the White House and fills federal positions with men and women committed to godly principles, honesty and integrity." If righteous public servants were on watch, many Americans would see the error of their ways and turn back to God. Electing conservative Christians to office is often portrayed as the critical method of returning godly influence to America.21

Ending abortion in America is the most prominent goal of the religious right. Many interest groups, perhaps the majority, of the religious right are devoted to ending abortion. For most members of these organizations, abortion is simply the slaughter of innocents, since they believe human life begins at the moment of conception. The current thrust of the anti-abortion movement is a good example of how the religious right has evolved into a politically sophisticated organization. In direct mail pleas to its membership, most anti-abortion groups still focus on the basic immorality of abortion, but the efforts to end abortion in America have taken a much more politically pragmatic approach. In recent years, the religious right chipped away at the edges of abortion, rather than an all-out frontal assault. For instance, much effort was expended on ending partial-birth abortions. These efforts have been fairly successful because the Christian right’s strategy features attacks on various fronts — try to elect politicians devoted to this cause, by grassroots lobbying efforts, and attempting to end the practice through the filing of court cases. The modern religious right cut its teeth on the abortion issue, learned from its mistakes, and grew into a sophisticated political group. Simply ending abortion in America is not an easy task; chipping away at the edges of abortion is politically feasible. And such activity plays into the strengths of the religious right — its ability to raise money and generate grassroots interest. For instance, Jerry Falwell began a fundraising letter for the Campaign to Ban Partial-Birth Abortion, "Congress is expected to soon consider a ban to the hideous partial-birth abortion procedure supported by Bill and Hillary Clinton and their extremist abortion allies.22" Another important political element is the support from other conservative religious groups, like the Catholic community, that have not traditionally supported Christian right efforts. In fact, pro-life groups directly appeal across denominational lines. For instance, a direct mail solicitation from the American Life League featured a page of quotations from an amazing range of religious leaders, like the fundamentalist Rev. Donald Wildmon and Pope John Paul II.23 Such cross-denominational connections are significant if the religious right hopes to forge a larger, more diverse Christian right movement.


"A rallying point for religious right leaders was the struggle against Darwinian evolution, the poster child for secular humanism."

Many items on the Christian right’s agenda focus on "family values," a term used throughout their literature. Family values became the primary rallying cry for the religious right, another response to the notion that traditional morality was losing ground. The Christian right’s emphasis on family values appears in four general areas: education, the promotion of traditional families, opposition to gay and lesbian rights, and the regulation of morality, such as the limitation of access to pornography for children and adults. These efforts are best described as defensive actions, ways for traditional moral values to be upheld and strengthened in America. For most members of the Christian right, these issues are also part of the redemption of America and are attempts to infuse morality into the political sphere.

Under the general topic of education, the religious right has been active since the issue of teaching of evolution in the public schools came to the public’s attention during the Scopes Trial. Historically, the Christian right has actively promoted its educational goals. The religious right’s attack on "secular humanism," for instance, is an example of the defensive nature of the agenda. Secular humanism, the bogeyman for the religious right, is often portrayed as a liberal conspiracy to influence the public educational process with its focus on mankind as the measure of all things. Often, religious broadcasters point to the troubled lives of American teens as the result of removing God from the public schools, pulling loose America’s public school students from their moral moorings.24

A rallying point for religious right leaders was the struggle against Darwinian evolution, the poster child for secular humanism. The religious right spearheaded efforts to allow for the teaching of creationism as a competing scientific explanation of mankind’s origins. Creationism has grown up, so to speak. Often ridiculed in the past because of such unsupportable ideas as a flat world, creation science has made great strides over the past thirty years. Vehemently dismissed by evolutionists as pseudoscientists, creation scientists have been remarkably skilled at influencing the core membership of the religious right, and are often showcased on religious broadcasts. Another aggressive method of the Christian right is to file cases through the courts. Ironically, the religious right adopted a "liberal" justification, where creationism is held up as an alternative scientific theory, with scientific evidence for both sides weighed on the scales of truth. Another method of influencing the public debate is the election of like-minded school board members. Not surprisingly, the Christian right discovered it is easier to influence local elections than national elections. Since a smaller percentage of citizens vote in local elections, a committed core of grassroots voters can successfully influence the outcome of local elections. Recognizing the virtual impossibility of removing evolution from the public school curriculum, the religious right adopted a very practical response to get creationism an audience in the public schools. No longer standing outside the political process and ranting against the scourge of evolution, the Christian right adopted a strategy that has the possibility of succeeding. This reveals an increasing political sophistication through which policy change is possible.25

Opposition to gay rights is another significant issue for the religious right. For most in the religious right movement, the lifestyle of gays and lesbians is an abomination before God. Defense of America from the "homosexual agenda" is often the focus of Christian right direct mail campaigns. For example, a direct mail piece from the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) states "‘If the homosexuals achieve their goals, you and I won’t recognize America,’ explains Sears [President and General Counsel for the ADF]. ‘The homosexual agenda affects every area of ADF’s mission — religious freedom, family values, and the sanctity of life. That’s why ADF is committed to fighting it tooth and nail’." The envelop from this ADF direct mail pitch includes pictures of Christian right leaders Dr. James Dobson, Dr. Bill Bright, Larry Burkett, Dr. D. James Kennedy, Marlin Maddoux, and Rev. Don Wildmon with the statement "They’ve joined forces to help safeguard your family’s future."26 In a direct mail appeal from Concerned Women for America, Beverly LaHaye writes:

Our country is built on God-ordained institutions of one-man, one-woman marriage. This view is enshrined in countless pages of time-honored laws that govern everything from real estate sales to the passing of an inheritance to children. Homosexual ‘marriage’ would cause massive financial, legal, and social upheaval as laws are revised to include same-sex partners. Our entire system of government will be overhauled to include homosexuality as an approved and legal lifestyle.27

Such statements apparently strike a cord with many members of religious right organizations, since the money keeps pouring in. For the religious right, part of redeeming America is the protection of America from the immoral forces of homosexuality.

The promotion of traditional families is also a significant part of the religious right’s agenda. The role of women as homemakers and developers of morality in children played a significant role in religious right works. Much of the religious right stressed the effort to protect the traditional family from the constant onslaught of liberal ideas and notions. An example of the continuing diversity of the Christian right is the championing of lower taxes through pro-family tax cuts, which is one focus of the Campaign for Working Families PAC headed by former Republican Presidential candidate Gary Bauer. The religious right often portrays itself as the last line of defense for traditional American values.


The future of the religious right is shrouded in paradox: the religious right will be around for a long time, but it will be marginally effective in politics. To explain this interpretation, the following question are considered: How does the religious survive through its many setbacks?28 Considering all of the predictions of the death or resurrection of the religious right, why does the movement survive and not thrive? The answers reveal why a new interpretation of the Christian right is necessary.


"Although the religious right has made great inroads into politics over the past twenty years, the movement  still falls short of the 'moral majority' it often portrays itself as."

How does the religious right survive through setbacks? First of all, when the political victories are few, the religious right can fall back on its "bread and butter" concerns, in particular the focus on individual virtue and vice. In reality, the Christian right is a religious movement whose primary concern is spreading the gospel. Most leaders of the movement come out of the larger pulpits in America — especially when including the television audience. Most would take offense at the characterization of "falling back" on the gospel, and they would be somewhat justified. But, when the political chips are down, the Christian right movement does not crawl upon the scrap heap of political has-beens, as many political movements do. The religious right has always been ambiguous as to whether it was a religious or a political movement. Ironically, this ambiguity is a source of the movement’s stability, in that it can always fall back on its primary mission. This religious movement has a political message as part of its agenda. If the mission fails, the movement falls back on its true reality. The evangelical subculture will continue to exist as a religious force in America, since fundamentalist, pentecostal and charismatic denominations have grown and are holding their core memberships. This is much better than mainstream Protestantism’s loss of significant membership since the 1960s.29

A second reason for survival is found in grassroots activism, which is both public and personal. On a public level the religious right tapped into local issues of concern, such as skirmishes over issues like sex education or textbooks or the Ten Commandments placed on bulletin boards in public schools. These issues compel many members of the Christian right to volunteer for the cause or go to the polls. On the local level, the organization of churches gives those in the movement an already-built, speedily organized network of potential support. In other words, the potential for grassroots support comes from an already established organization of conservative Christian churches. On a personal level, the religious right is a grassroots movement since much of its financial resources come from the small donations of hundreds of thousands of average people who pay the subscriptions and respond to direct mail solicitations. The Christian right survives on the generous donations of a large number of committed Christians.30

A third and perhaps most important reason for the Christian right’s survival is the existence of the extensive parachurch network, an evangelical subculture operating as the connective tissue for conservative Christian concerns. The network of Christian bookstores, conservative publishers, and broadcasting that helped sustain Christian conservatives since the late 1920s, continues to provide a solid foundation upon which the religious right was established. This network, which exists primarily as a means to provide spiritual growth for Christians, appears to be on sound financial footing.31 This subculture provides a very sound foundation that will continue to thrive whether the political hopes of the religious right are fulfilled or not. It would seem that the subculture from which the Christian right draws is members and financial backing will continue to thrive for some time.

Fourth, the religious right will continue to survive because they have the tools to survive. The media sophistication of the religious right’s leadership is often underestimated, whether radio, television, fundraising, or direct mail campaigns. Media access provides the movement with the ability to quickly mobilize a "defensive" political action. Christian radio and television programs reach millions of Americans daily. Of course the overwhelming content of Christian broadcasting deals with the Christian "walk," such quick access to a politically active group is envied by many political organizations and movements.

These four elements provide a root system for the religious right that is not easily overcome. On the one hand, the desire of their opponents to see the religious right removed from American politics are a pipe dream, wishful thinking. On the other hand, the ability of the Christian right to dramatically influence American politics is not quite in the cards either. Although the religious right has made great inroads into politics over the past twenty years, the movement is still falls short of the "moral majority"  it often portrays itself as. For instance, the largest religious right organization, the Christian Coalition, is composed of a membership that primarily evangelical and fundamentalist. Without a large infusion of Charismatics, mainstream Protestants and Catholics, the religious right will continue to be a vocal minority, never occupying the key position in American politics. The religious right is moderately influential, but it is one voice among many. Although the Christian right has a voice within the Republican Party, it is still not a majority and has little hope of becoming that majority in the near future.

Why does the religious right have little hope of achieving a majority? In some ways, the Christian right is caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Partly, the movement is unable to get enough members to influence the electorate. Although Christian right followers tend to vote, they cannot deliver enough votes to insist on the adoption of certain public policies. Conventional political strategists stress the importance of "moderates" in recent elections. For example, these "centrists" were the determining group in recent Presidential elections. For the religious right to gain a majority, it must moderate its position. Can — or will — the religious right moderate its positions without sacrificing its ideas and potentially alienating its financial supporters? Can the Christian right be moderate in the defense of virtue? Paradoxically, the great danger faced by the religious right is that it might win the support of a larger audience at the expense of the its volunteers’ enthusiasm, which means some loss of grassroots support and possible financial suicide. Since the movement is primarily "defensive," it will be much more difficult to take a moderate path. Thus, becoming a majority requires the ideological conversion of large numbers of Americans, which is not impossible, but highly unlikely.


"In the heat of the Republican presidential primary race, candidate John McCain referred to the religious right as the 'forces of evil.'"

Another potential snarl for the religious right comes from its relationship within the Republican Party. The Christian right is a defensive social movement. Modern American political parties have had an uneasy relationship with social movements, like the anti-Vietnam war movement within the Democratic Party in the late-1960s and early 1970s. Currently, moderate Republicans uneasily coexist with the religious right. Most liberal and moderate Republicans recently faced nasty electoral challenges from conservative Republicans. Even some conservatives are leery of the movement. Conservative columnist Cal Thomas, former communications director of the Moral Majority and the most widely syndicated conservative columnist in America, wrote

There's a disturbance in the force. . . . A lot of people are going back and looking in those Bibles they claim to believe. They find that reforming American culture or taking over the nation politically is not on God's Top Ten list. In fact, not on his list at all. The true way to change a culture is through bottom-up morality, not top-down political power. Some of the religious leadership have shamelessly ignored the instructions in the Bible in favor of settling for a lesser king and lesser kingdom.32

In the heat of the Republican presidential primary race, candidate John McCain referred to the religious right as the "forces of evil." Social movements often find it difficult to deal with American political parties whose main goal is to win elections and be as pragmatic — or centrist — as possible. Political parties deal with day-to-day political hazards and many of those issues do not interest — or energize — the membership of the religious right.

A third potential snarl for the religious right is a question about future leadership. Who has the political clout to lead the disparate groups of the Christian right? Many political commentators were impressed with the young leader of the Christian Coalition, Ralph Reed, but he left the organization to set up a political consulting firm. Pat Robertson is attempting to fill the power vacuum, but he comes with a considerable set of negatives. Gary Bauer attempted to use his connections within the Christian right movement to make a run for the Republican presidential nomination, but did not generate significant support in any primary. With so many diverse groups at work, the religious right has a solid foundation, a vast array of horizontally linked organizations. Most successful interest groups and social movements have grassroots appeal and strong leadership. The horizontally linked organizations are too diverse and too loosely connected to provide the Christian right with a leader or even a board of directors. Paradoxically, the source of its strength also hold back the movement.

The Christian right will continue to influence politics in the United States from its place within the Republican Party. Republican presidential hopefuls will continue to attend the meetings of the National Religious Broadcasters, exhorting the broadcasting troops to support his or her cause. And in several states, the religious right will continue to gyrate within state Republican Party apparatuses. That influence, which is firmly based on the network of evangelicals and fundamentalists, will continue to have a political presence. The Christian right is at a crossroads, however. Will the movement take a pragmatic approach toward bargaining and compromise, softening the edges to make the movement more palatable to American moderate voters — and thereby risk losing its core constituency and financial resources? Or will the Christian right follow a more ideological course, one driven by uncompromising moral standards? Whatever the road taken, the Christian right will not succeed in achieving a majority and will be relegated to the sometimes-influential edge of political power.

John Hicks is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Alderson Broaddus College.


1. The terms "religious right" and "Christian right" are used interchangeably. These imprecise terms, necessary for an essay of this type, refer to a loose coalition of national, state and local organizations devoted to political action in support of conservative Christian causes. The best known national organization is the Christian Coalition, but there are many diverse organizations in the Christian Right, including Alliance Defense Fund, American Life League, American Center for Law and Justice, American Family Association, Campaign for Working Families, Concerned Women for America, Family Research Council, and Focus on the Family, to name just a few.

2. A quality book on the relationship between the Christian right and the Republican Party is Duane Murray Oldfield, The Right and the Righteous: The Christian Right Confronts the Republican Party (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1996).

3. Research on the contemporary religious right has been in the hands of excellent political scientists and historians. Some general books on the topic are Sara Diamond, Not by Politics Alone: The Enduring Influence of the Christian Right (Boston: Guilford Press, 1998); Michael Lienesch, Redeeming America: Piety and Politics in the New Christian Right (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993); William Martin. With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America (New York: Broadway Books, 1997); Oldfield, The Right and the Righteous; Clyde Wilcox, God's Warriors: The Christian Right in Twentieth-Century America (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992); and Clyde Wilcox, Onward Christian Soldiers? The Religious Right in American Politics (Bolder, CO: Westview Press, 1996). An excellent brief history of the Christian right is Bryan F. LeBeau, "The Political Mobilization of the New Christian Right," American Religious Experience; available from

4. Oldfield, Right and the Righteous, 13-21.

5. Edward J. Larson, Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997).

6. George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism, 1970-1925 (New York: Oxford, 1980), 188. rd University Press, 1997).

7. Joel A. Carpenter, Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

8. Ibid., 16-32.

9. Diamond, Not by Politics Alone, 44, 49.

10. Wilcox, Onward Christian Soldiers, 34-35.

11. A well-written account of this era is found in Erling Jorstad, The New Christian Right, 1981-1988. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1987).

12. Wilcox, Onward Christian Soldiers, 37.

13. Robertson’s campaign was supported by many Pentecostals and Charismatics, but did not have the significant support of fundamentalists. See Oldfield, Right and the Righteous, 125-82; Wilcox, God’s Warriors; and Steve Bruce, The Rise and Fall of the New Christian Right. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).

14. Wilcox, Onward Christian Soldiers, 73-82. The 18 states where the Religious right dominated the state Republican Party were Deleware, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Texas, Iowa, Minnesota, Arizona, California, Oregon, Washington and Alaska. It has substantial influence in 14 states, Maine, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi, Nebraska, Kansas, Utah, Nevada and Hawaii.

15. The Christian Coalition has lobbying software available, for only $39.95. For an extra $9.95 you can purchase state government data. Information was gathered from the Christian Coalition website on 7/7/99 ( The link sent me to a software company at

16. Wilcox, Onward Christian Soldiers, 73-91. A good introduction to interest group politics is Mark J. Rozell and Clyde Wilcox, Interest Groups in American Campaigns: The New Face of Electioneering (Washington, DC: CQ Press, 1999).

17. For example, see William Martin, "The Christian Right and American Foreign Policy," Foreign Policy 114(1999):66-80.

18. General information on the religious right’s agenda can be found in Wilcox, Onward Christian Soldiers, 111-29, but the best source of information comes directly from the publications, television and radio broadcasts, and direct mail of the religious right.

19. Direct Mail Solicitation from The American Center for Law and Justice, "Why America’s public schools are no longer safe. (It’s not what the media would have you believe...)," no date, in possession of author.

20. Direct mail solicitation from Coral Ridge Ministries, "In Defense of our Christian Freedoms!" no date, in possession of the author.

21. Pat Robertson, "A Message From the President," Christian Coalition, accessed 4/12/2000; available from

22. Direct mail solicitation from Jerry Falwell, Campaign to Ban Partial-Birth Abortion, no date, in possession of author.

23. Direct mail solicitation from Judie Brown, American Life League, Inc., no date, in possession of author.

24. Oldfield, Right and the Righteous, 92-95

25. Another area of educational interest to the religious right is in the use of school "vouchers." The family should, they argue, receive a voucher (the amount of funds that ordinarily spent on a child for the public schools) to be used by the parents to pay for private school. The religious right has also been influential in the home schooling movement in the United States.

26. Direct mail solicitation from Alliance Defense Fund, "They’ve joined forces to help safeguard your family’s future," no date, in possession of author.

27. Direct mail solicitation from Concerned Women for America, "National Survey on Homosexual Rights," no date, in possession of author.

28. Much of the following comes from the arguments found in Diamond, Not by Politics Alone; Wilcox, Onward Christian Soldiers; and Oldfield, Right and the Righteous.

29. Oldfield, Right and the Righteous, 24-28.

30. Diamond, Not by Politics Alone, 12.

31. Ibid., 41-51.

32. William Greider, "Whimpers on the Right," Rolling Stone, Nov 25, 1999, 51-52.

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