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 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.
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.