The rise of the Religious Right from political obscurity to the corridors of power is a testament to the movement’s fundraising prowess, strategic alliances, and relentless political organizing. The movement’s tactics have varied, and some of the faces at the front of the movement have changed over time, but the goal of bending American society and government to meet their religious and political vision has not. Here’s a super-shorthand look at the movement’s history.
Setting the Stage
Many politically and theologically conservative Christians were angered by Supreme Court decisions in the 1960’s and nationally publicized censorship campaigns in public schools in the 1970s, like that in Kanawha County, West Virginia, where a local textbook controversy escalated into a major struggle marked by jailings, bombings and strikes.
While some evangelical Christians had traditionally viewed politics as suspect, the presidential campaign of evangelical Christian Jimmy Carter generated a lot of enthusiasm. But many of those who were excited about Carter openly embracing his faith as a candidate became disenchanted by his policy positions. Those disagreements, including a major controversy over the 1979 White House Conference on Families further politicized the movement and spurred the rise of groups such as Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority.
Alongside battles against "secular humanism" in public schools, the Moral Majority and its allies savored their first real taste of political power after the 1980 elections, when Ronald Reagan was elected and many liberal senators were swept out of office. The Reagan years saw the rise of several groups whose goal was to foster and grow "the revolution." Along with the Moral Majority, groups like Christian Voice, The Religious Roundtable, and many others pushed the Republican Party to conform to their views on civil rights, reproductive rights, and a host of other issues.
As the Moral Majority faded in the late 80s, a new group led by televangelist Pat Robertson — the Christian Coalition — rose to take its place.
The Rise of the Christian Coalition
After Pat Robertson’s failed 1988 presidential bid, he hired a young Republican political strategist name Ralph Reed to organize the "invisible army" of Robertson supporters into the Christian Coalition, called one of the most "politically adept membership organizations ever." Using executive director Ralph Reed’s tactics of "stealth" politics and slanted voter guides, they recruited and helped elect candidates to all levels of government. During the 1990s, the Christian Coalition went far toward achieving Robertson and Reed’s goal of taking effective working control of a major political party, moving the Republican Party far to the right. Reed led the Christian Coalition and other Religious Right groups into political alliances with right-wing organizations, extending the "pro-family" label beyond the issues of abortion and gay rights to right-wing tax policies and more.
Where They Are Now
Religious Right groups’ lobbying muscle and political threats helped ensure Senate confirmation of two Supreme Court justices, Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justice Samuel Alito.
While Robertson’s once mighty Christian Coalition is a shadow of its former self, beset by creditors and fading fast, other leaders and organizations have filled the void. James Dobson, who heads the multimillion-dollar Focus on the Family media empire, has worked hard to make himself a power broker for Republican candidates running for national office. And newer leaders like Ohio’s Pastor Rod Parsley have established their own think tanks (Parsley’s Center for Moral Clarity for example) and networks of "Patriot Pastors." Parsley’s political organizing may have tipped Ohio toward George W. Bush in 2004, and he’s now turned his energies to electing Religious Right extremist Ken Blackwell as Ohio governor.
The 2004 reelection of George W. Bush was made possible in part by large numbers of ultraconservative voters who were drawn to the polls by anti-gay campaigns to "protect marriage." State constitutional amendments on marriage and other legal protections for gay and lesbian couples and their families are the latest tactic in the long history of the Religious Right’s demonization of gays to raise money and energize their base.
Religious Right leaders and their GOP political allies are using both anti-gay campaigns and the Bush administration’s so-called "faith-based initiative" to try to build political alliances with conservative African American and Hispanic leaders and try to peel politically significant segments of African American and Hispanic voters away from their progressive allies.
Where They Go From Here
Though some of the Right’s efforts have stalled, and poll numbers indicate that Democrats are poised to take back seats in the House and the Senate, it would be a mistake to think that the Religious Right’s influence is ended. The movement’s leaders and activists are a major part of the Party’s political base and are continuing to demand action on their issues in return for political support and turnout.
The importance of these activists in the GOP primaries is indicated by the efforts of top GOP contenders for the 2008 presidential nomination to curry favor with Religious Right leaders. Dobson and his allies can be counted on to mobilize support for politicians who will back their ongoing efforts to dismantle separation of church and state, undermine public education, make criminals out of gay men and lesbians, outlaw abortion, and pack the federal judiciary with ideologues who will undermine all Americans’ rights and legal protections.