Kathleen Parker asks, in her Washington Post syndicated column of April 5, this question: "Is the Christian right finished as a political entity?" By asking this question Ms. Parker is not asking if Christian involvement in moral issues is dead but rather "Is the Christian right finished as a viable movement and force in politics?" She thinks that it is. I have agreed with this premise since at least 2004, if not sooner.

I personally raised significant opposition to the Christian right, from my pulpit as a 27 year old pastor, on July 4, 1976! I still recall the sermon well and the response that followed. Many were unaware, at that time, what was happening and who was leading this change.

If you know recent history you realize that July 4, 1976, was the 200th anniversary of the American Declaration of Independence. It was also right in the middle of the Carter-Ford election season. There was a lot of interest in Jimmy Carter and his openly testifying to being a "born again" Christian. Major news magazines talked about Jerry Falwell and others who were launching a movement to get Christians involved in a number of "moral issues." (Some of the issues among the nine or so on the voter's guides were not moral issues so much as ideologically right-leaning issues, as opposed to what is the ideological left.) At the time I noted that all of this seemed to be a "push-back" moment for conservative Christians who were tired of decades of growing influence on the left found in the mainline denominations. They had also listened to Billy Graham all but endorse Richard Nixon and then discovered how dark his personal character really was when they heard the infamous Watergate tapes. Fundamentalists, and a growing number of evangelicals, were tired of standing down when it came to public political response to divisive issues that they felt strongly about.
Issues like removing prayer from the public schools, which was always a non-issue in the bigger picture of what matters, had a huge emotional tug on many of these new political warriors for Jesus. And Rapture fever was in the air then, maybe as much or more then as now, a fever that came in waves and motivated some to get involved just in case we could do something more openly before Jesus came back any moment.

The true story of the beginning of the Christian right has not been told. It needs a careful accounting so that ordinary Christian believers can understand how this whole movement actually came about. I have a friend (who will remain nameless for now) who was there, a major player in getting Falwell and company to launch the movement. This friend was one of the operatives who helped create the Moral Majority and thus the public rise of the Christian right. At the time he was not even a Christian. He was lobbying for the Republican Party behind the scenes. (He is a Christian today.) Listening to him describe what actually happened, and how the Christians were used by the political forces at work in the Republican Party, is the stuff of intrigue. In the end, it is also the stuff of deal-making and compromise. It will always be this way in politics. This is not inherently wrong, it just is what has to happen for things to be accomplished politically.

When the Christian right first began prominent leaders spoke against it. But I have lived through the lifetime of this social movement and seen it come and now watch it begin to go. Some of my friends insist that it was a helpful movement even with its excesses. Others have been deeply suspicious from the beginning. Count me among the second group. When Cal
Cal Thomas began to openly question it, about a decade ago, I finally read someone who understood the dangers from the inside and spoke clearly.

The one real good this movement gave to Christians was that evangelicals did get more involved in the political issues of our time in a new way. Millions of Christians did not vote for some years and did not care much about politics (it was messy business they said). This reality allowed the public square, as my friend the late Father Richard John Neuhaus put it so well, to become a "naked public square." Our collective voice was lost and that was not good. The Christian right clearly contributed to the recovery of Christian influence in the public square.

At the same time this movement diluted the positive influence of Christian faith in the wider culture. Millions of people, especially younger people, grew up seeing the media beat up on the Christian right, sometimes justly so. As they watched they grew less and less impressed by how Christians acted in the wider culture. Cal Thomas, in his book Blinded By Might (Zondervan, 1999), suggests that the real problems in America are moral and spiritual, not political. For serious Christians there should be no question about this point.

I believe the following negatives are the direct result of the Christian right:

1. Millions of dollars were spent to influence elections and the end results did not matter all that much. Where are we now in light of all this effort and expenditure? I know very wealthy Christians who lament spending so much on this movement.

2. Much of the church took its eyes off the mission of Christ, both personally and financially. As I traveled across American the past seventeen years I found little interest in the supremacy of Christ and real spiritual awakening. The reason? There are several I think but one has to be that we were fighting for our place in the culture. When I touched on this subject nothing brought greater reaction!

3. The Christian right confused politics with the real work of city/community transformation, or the political realm was confused with the kingdom of God. (Christians can and should seek office and seek transformation!) The kingdom of God was lost to conservative Christians because of eschatological blunders linked to the 19th century so this problem is not new. Thankfully there are signs that this is changing with those under 35.

4. The power grab by leaders in the Christian right was immense and often very personal. They used their power to oppose fellow Christians and thus harm many people and missions. Think of battles like those in the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) and you get my drift. James Dobson, to cite but one living example, has had a political influence far beyond that of any Christian psychologist in American history. I wonder what would have happened if he had stuck to family systems and counseling and never engaged politics at all. I think his overall impact would have been quite a bit more positive. Instead, he is less and less important to the next generation and will likely be remembered for his political activism more than his family concern, most of which is sound and good. (I hope I am wrong, and could well be, but this is my take for now.)

5. The "deals" made with the GOP took most evangelical Christians out of the Democratic Party for more than three decades. This is changing. I would maintain that both parties are deeply flawed, on different points and directions. Christians can and should be found in both parties, working to influence and change their party accordingly. But the Christian right absolutized issues into "moral" vs. "immoral." Thus a pro-life Democrat became a virtual impossibility until the last ten years. Large numbers of young people are now seeking a new way, many of them energized by Obama's campaign. (Boomers from the Christian right believe this is the equivalent of a massive apostasy!) Time will tell what all this means but I maintain the last thirty-plus years was a net loss to the cause of Christ and his kingdom in the culture. I also maintain that the mission of the church suffered huge loss in the process.

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  1. Alex April 14, 2009 at 10:20 am

    Intriguing post. One question I have is: Do you believe that even a small portion of the significant decline in abortion rates since 1973 is a result of the Xian Right? I honestly don’t know, but if even 1% of the abortion decline was a result of the Xian Right’s efforts, then it’s hard for me to be exclusively critical of the movement.

  2. Dave Moorhead April 14, 2009 at 12:02 pm

    I have to agree that the “old” Christian right, the Moral Majority types, are finished as a major power broker in American politics. One of the reasons for this is the dramatic mistrust of leadership brought about by the scandals involving outspoken leaders of the movement. There will still be a number of people who will hang on no matter what but that number will be too small to have a major impact. This last presidential election probably demonstrates my point very well. The Christian right of old would have stood firmly for McCain and opposed to Obama. I found many, many Christians voting for Obama.

  3. Chris Criminger April 14, 2009 at 12:18 pm

    Hi John,
    I will say not only is the Christian right probably almost dead, but conservatives are terribly distressed with the Republican party.
    My Dad is 84 years old and has been a long time conservative Republican and now calls himself an Independent. He also believes the Republican party has lost its soul to the compromised culture to such a point that he wishes there would be a new party started called “the conservative party” apart from the two-party system we have in place now.
    In the end, I think many political conservatives are concerned, confused, angry, and disillusioned. I am not sure where their place will be in the future of American politics?

  4. Derek Taylor April 14, 2009 at 3:51 pm

    I’m a regular subscriber and reader of this fine blog. This was a thoughtful entry and I think it deserves a thoughtful response.
    It has often gone unnoticed that a radical change occurred in the Democratic party during the years of 1968-1972. That is, the leadership and fund raising apparatus of the Democratic Party began to adopt a decidedly anti-Christian posture and platform. Even prior to this, the judiciary was quietly being used by liberals to effect revolutionary change that bypassed the democratic process almost entirely. Now this is very important: up to this point in American history, political parties had been mostly positive and affirming of our nation’s Christian heritage, but radical secularists made it clear that they were finished with this arrangement and were going to riot and use subversive tactics to accomplish their agenda. They made a strategic decision to start in the Democratic Party. Of course, many Democrats were – and still are – uncomfortable with this, but the emergence of McGovern signaled that they had the votes and influence necessary to exercise significant change and were in this for the long haul.
    Christians in the 70’s experienced a cold dose of reality: that the hard core secularists, though not a majority of the Democratic Party, had exercised their influence, largely because they were organized and committed to societal change. Christians recognized that they were basically asleep at the switch and terribly disorganized. You leave this important background out entirely when you describe the Christian right’s emergence. We cannot properly understand Billy Graham’s endorsement of Nixon without acknowledging the candidacy of McGovern and what it represented. Was Graham burned? Yes. But we cannot ignore the realities of what was going on in the background. (more on next post)

  5. Derek Taylor April 14, 2009 at 3:54 pm

    Cont’d from above:
    The following I say less in response to this blog entry than to some of the Christian right’s fiercest Christian critics: I feel that it is ungracious to point to only the excesses and barely any of the legitimate work of people like Dobson (the work Focus on the Family has done over the past 35 years is nothing short of amazing) and Falwell (whose outreach and ministry to unwed mothers and gays was significant and demonstrated that he cared about people and changed lives more than issues) have been involved in. I also don’t see much if any mention or criticism of folks like Jim Wallace or Tony Campolo, who comprise important elements of the politically active evangelical left (apologies if you have done so in the past and I have missed it).
    I also think it is strange that many are quick to assume dark motives behind a Falwell or Dobson, as if will to power were their heart’s true ambition. Personally, I think it is dangerous to imply motive, but I have wondered in marvel at these apparent motivations of these two men in particular – but not with the deep suspicion of dark motives that many Christians seem to presume. No, I truly admire them much more for their willingness to become lightning rods to the naked resentment of a scornful media and for their ability to stand firmly for their convictions while many others preferred to agree silently as death threats poured in. I still marvel at it.
    This post reminds me that Christians were sometimes the very harshest critics of their fellow Christians in the anti-slavery movement. To be absolutely certain, there were professing Christians, such as John Brown, who went too far in their zeal to see the abolition of slavery. Those of Brown’s ilk became exhibit A in the campaign to de-legitimize the anti-slavery movement. However, this did not and does not diminish the work of many who followed their convictions to see a nation’s grave sins and injustices addressed in a political manner.
    In summary, I find it very sad that many Christians set out to destroy their own, when a rare few dare to step into the civil arena to apply their conviction that Biblical truth and realities extend beyond the public proclamation of John 3:16. Many times, this means that Christ followers will be deeply unpopular – Scripture and Christ are absolutely clear on this matter. This means that Christians will not abstain to speak or vote on important issues like slavery, abortion, marriage, racial discrimination and injustice, pornography and a whole host of issues that have profound relevance to our world and culture. This is one of many reasons why I see parallels with the abolitionist movement of many years past.
    Thanks for letting me articulate this long response. I hope it is helpful and constructive – that is my intent.

  6. John H. Armstrong April 14, 2009 at 9:43 pm

    Each of the above comments add a significant piece to the larger picture of this issue. I am sure that none of us knows either the total good or the significant harm of any movement. To think that we see it clearly is to think too highly of our own opinion I feel certain.

  7. Steve Scott April 15, 2009 at 2:05 am

    I’m not too sad at the death of the Christian right as a political movement. It is, though, a strange animal. Many of its leaders (even on a local level) seemed to have a high rate of foot-in-mouth disease, which was blasted by the media and opponents. This reaction often led to more feet in mouths. It was a viscious cycle. Quite frankly, I’ve been more embarrassed than not by them.
    It is strange, but a few good things were mentioned here about the ministries of Dobson and Falwell. If I added up all the good things I’ve ever heard about these and other prominent leaders, I could count them on one hand, quite literally. These leaders were judged on what seemed to be a condemnation and hyper-judgmentalism of others through public statements. Too bad they couldn’t be remembered for how often they stooped into a gutter to help somebody in need.
    The Christian right has a serious image problem, and it would be good for that to disappear. The kindgom advances by faithful people, not by calling fire down from heaven. If this movement dies and more people are silently helped behind the scenes, then you and me both know that God gets the glory.

  8. Adam S April 15, 2009 at 6:54 am

    I find the “if only one person was saved argument” weak. I went to a Passion play a couple weeks ago. Under its purpose it said, “if only one person is led to a closer relationship with Jesus all of our work will have been worth it.”
    The problem with that argument is that there can never be a response to it. This particular passion play cost $20 a person, was very large, in a major venue, and was so bad we left at intermission. It was my non-Christian brother in law that wanted to go. He was very disappointed. It was the 33rd year of the production and the script and music was very dated. (They had great set transitions though.)
    The question should never have been “if only one person”. It should have been two questions, “Is this the most effective use of our time and effort?” The second is more important but less able to discern, “Is this what God is leading?”
    I can’t know what God was leading Dobson and Falwell 20 year later. I am sure they had good intentions. But good intentions are not enough.
    The current result is that more people know of Evangelicals through politics than through their love. Christ said they will know you by your love, if we aren’t showing a lot of love, we aren’t showing people outside the faith what we have been instructed to show.

  9. Chris Criminger April 15, 2009 at 7:54 am

    Hi John,
    I appreciate Derek’s posts and I will add that on so many christian websites today, the religious right and conservative Christianity is taking a beating while the religious left gets a pass too often. Is this just another trend or fad of the times?
    Forgive the pun but maybe it’s right that the religious right is losing or has lost its influence. But if constructive critiques don’t run both ways, I am afraid that the church will not find itself more in the middle but way left of center. Many academically informed Christians know that the liberal left of Christianity is destroying the church more than building her up.
    I find it interesting that the church in the global south which is growing eight times faster than Christianity in the west is much more theologically conservative and socially engaging than much of Christianity in North America. Something for North American Christians to think about . . .

  10. Derek Taylor April 15, 2009 at 10:45 am

    One of the things I really appreciate about John’s ministry is that he has a wide perspective of the kingdom of God. Within orthodox Christianity, there are literally thousands of Christ following organizations, denominations and ministries we would never personally join because
    a) we might simply have a different calling
    b) we simply have a different set of convictions
    Until Christ returns, we will have all kinds of disagreements about things like pragmatism vs. idealism, whose approach is most effective, etc. But John is absolutely correct that we ought to have a great deal of humility and reluctance to point the finger and say “your approach is wrong, your motives are bad and you ought not to have this or that conviction.”. This tears down and has a more destructive impact than we can even imagine. Falwell and Dobson will stand before God and give an account to Him, not you or I.
    This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have a conversation about effectiveness, etc. It does mean that we should give the benefit of the doubt, recognize the good where possible and have a spirit of grace and humility when we discuss other Christ followers with which we disagree. We do well to remember that if someone were to critique our favorite organization or denomination, they would find hundreds of things that need to be corrected.
    Many, if not most Christians and Christian organizations who are doing God’s work will be deeply unpopular with the world. Christ promised it would be true. Many people seem to have forgotten this important and stubborn reality.

  11. ColtsFan April 16, 2009 at 7:01 am

    Chris writes:
    “I appreciate Derek’s posts and I will add that on so many christian websites today, the religious right and conservative Christianity is taking a beating while the religious left gets a pass too often. Is this just another trend or fad of the times?”
    Ditto here.
    I have seen this all the time. The right-leaning Christians get pummeled while the left-leaning Christians have a pipeline straight to God, while at the same pickpocketing my wallet to pay for more government social programs that don’t work.
    By the way, have you noticed how in Venezuela the Evangelicals swoon over a dictator named Chavez (who uses his secret police quite effectively), while the Catholic Church and most Catholics oppose Chavez?? My point is that a good dose of left-wing nonsense in the name of bad theology leads to trouble.

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