The Ambivalent Legacy of the Christian Right

becoming_christian_citizenThree months after a sobering election for religious conservatives seems as good a time as any to think carefully about American evangelicals’ involvement in politics over the past 35 years.

The biggest story of these years has almost certainly been the rise and fall of the Christian Right, that powerful voting bloc that looked to figures such as Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, and Pat Robertson for political guidance. As we begin to evaluate the impact that the Christian Right has had on American politics (and the church), we need to take stock of its significant achievements and its substantial shortcomings—in other words, to grapple with its ambivalent legacy.

I use the phrase “rise and fall of the Christian Right” advisedly. Recent scholarship has demonstrated that partisan political involvement by conservative Protestants in the last quarter of the twentieth-century was nothing unusual; indeed, evangelicals have hardly ever retreated from the public sphere. What was new about the Christian Right in the 20th century was the political power its leaders wielded.

Likewise, in using the term “decline” I do not wish to imply that secularization is inevitable or that the re-election of President Obama proves indisputably that religious conservatives no longer have much influence in American politics. Such conclusions are too simplistic.

Nevertheless, a recent Pew Survey on religious affiliation does not augur well for the political goals of most evangelicals. Nearly 20% of Americans now consider themselves religiously unaffiliated, with over 30 percent of “millennials” (ages 18-31) choosing this designation. Moreover, nearly half (46 percent) of the American public in general believes that religious institutions are “too involved” in politics, while 67 percent of the unaffiliated agree with this statement. Clearly, leaders of the Christian Right are speaking to an American audience that is decreasingly likely to be sympathetic to their goals.

If we should then perhaps begin to treat the Christian Right as a historical phenomenon, how can we assess its successes and failures? From my perspective, the movement has had three successes and two failures.

First, the Christian Right did an admirable job of bringing the issue of abortion to the forefront of the national consciousness. When the Supreme Court created a constitutional right to abortion in Roe v. Wade (1973), Protestant opinion was mixed. Some voices like “Christianity Today” lamented the ruling, but others (particularly Southern Baptists) greeted the result as a victory of personal liberty over religious (Catholic) tyranny. But, thankfully, it did not take long for most evangelicals to take a valiant stand on behalf of the unborn. Important achievements (such as the 2003 ban on partial-birth abortion) were due in no small measure to persistent pro-life activism by conservative Christians.

Another accomplishment of the Christian Right has been its defense of the rights of religious individuals to participate in political life. Although the movement has sometimes failed to appreciate the benefits of the separation of church and state, it has helpfully reminded the American public that the First Amendment does not require a “naked public square.”

Third, the Christian Right was never hesitant to call attention to the general coarsening of American culture. Vice Presidential candidate Dan Quayle was widely mocked for his 1992 condemnation of the celebration of out-of-wedlock pregnancy in the TV show “Murphy Brown,” but recent findings have determined that his views were closer to the truth than those of his detractors.

For these virtues, 21st -century evangelicals should be grateful for the legacy of the Christian Right. Yet present-day evangelicals must wrestle with the movement’s substantial failures as well. Generally speaking, Christian Right leaders focused rather myopically on social issues, to the exclusion of other important matters about which the Bible speaks clearly. For example, the Christian Right routinely dismissed environmental concerns and (with some exceptions) sustained little engagement with such problems. For instance, James G. Watt, the Pentecostal Secretary of the Interior from 1981 to 1983, was reluctant to undertake preservationist goals due to his premillennial convictions about the end of the world. Others, such as radio personality Larry Burkett, concluded that America’s environmental problems were “either exaggerated or non-existent”—a position that disagreed with almost all scientific findings.

Likewise, the Christian Right’s record on racial matters was mixed. Billy Graham held integrated crusades at an early date, but Bob Jones University banned interracial dating until the year 2000. Even when the university lost its tax-exempt status over the issue in 1983, it continued the policy for another 17 years. Indeed, some observers have even attributed the Christian Right’s origins to widespread support among conservatives for BJU’s tax-exempt status in the 1970s.

Second, much of the rhetoric from the movement’s leadership seemed often to have a self-righteous, judgmental tone. Those who agreed with Jerry Falwell were a “moral majority,” perhaps leaving his opponents to wonder if he considered them an “immoral minority.” Pat Robertson claimed that God spoke frequently to him, giving his pronouncements an air of divine authority that was often distasteful.

Finally, politically conservative evangelicals often used harsh, militant rhetoric about taking back their country, which revealed more anger than grace. One diatribe in the late 1970s, from a spokesman for the Religious Roundtable, about “the radicals, and the perverts, and the liberals, and the leftists, and the Communists coming out of the closet” was exemplary in this regard. Such language was useful for stirring up political activists, but not particularly adept at communicating God’s love. Can we doubt that the public’s current distrust of the church’s involvement in politics has a great deal to do with pronouncements like these?

Evangelicals need not abandon political engagement in the coming years, but we must pursue it with a chastened conscience. We should continue to advocate biblically based solutions to social problems, but we should do so with greater tact and humility. We should learn from the admirable commitments of the Christian Right without repeating the movement’s mistakes and excesses. Readers will have their own ideas about the particular direction this activism should take, but all evangelicals should think more carefully about how we can graciously and humbly proclaim the City of God in the City of Man.

Image copyright The Telegraph.

Benjamin J. Wetzel is a Ph.D. student in history at the University of Notre Dame. He can be reached for comment at bwetzel@nd.edu.

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