Winter 2010, Vol. 12, No. 3

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Spiritual Politics blog

Articles in this issue:

Table of Contents

An Army of One

From the Editor:
The End of the Christian Right

The Open and Affirming Lutherans

Angling for Anglicans

The Fighting Atheists

Not in My Canton

China's Lama Obsession

Scientology's Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Year

Letter to the Editor


New books

From the Editor:
The End of the Christian Right by Mark Silk 

A few days after the Grand Old Tea Party convention in Nashville February 4-6, Washington Post religion editor David Waters took to the newspaper’s Under God blog with a post entitled “Will Christian Right join the Tea Party?”

While noting that the convention featured a fair amount of religious chatter—invocations and benedictions and the odd workshop on Christian political engagement—Waters pointed to the absence of religious items on the Tea Party agenda: nothing about abortion, gay marriage, or the restoration of God to the public schools. His conclusion: This is “an anti-government movement, not a pro-God movement” that will make no room for social conservatives.

My own sense is that we’re in somewhat deeper, ah, waters.

For starters, it’s worth asking, “Is there today a Christian Right worthy of the name capable of joining the party?” Jerry Falwell is dead and Pat Robertson doesn’t seem to be feeling so good himself—not to mention James Dobson, who has withdrawn the hem of his garment from Focus on the Family and started up a new radio show. In a word, there is currently no marquee leader with a marquee national organization to go where Moral Majority, Christian Coalition, and Focus went before.

To the extent that there have been big institutional players in the culture wars of the Age of Obama, they’ve not been the classic parachurch operations of yesteryear but traditional religious bodies like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints leading the charge for Proposition 8 in California and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops fighting to keep abortion coverage out of health care reform legislation.

Yes, Focus anted up big bucks for that Tim Tebow ad during the Superbowl. So what? Overall, the Christian Right these days looks like a bunch of has-beens, never-weres, and wannabes.

Some years ago, George Mason University’s Mark Rozell pointed out in these pages (“What Christian Right?,” Spring 2003) that wishful journalists have been writing obituaries for the Christian Right almost since it burst onto the national scene in 1980. Most recently, the obits have come in the form of books by the Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne (Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics after the Religious Right) and Time’s Amy Sullivan (The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats Are Closing the God Gap).

Like their predecessors, these two 2008 volumes advanced the idea that conservative religious causes were running out of steam. And, they argued, the Democratic Party had now found sufficient religion to move the country past the faith-based politics of the previous generation.

None of this seems to be the case. Contrary to predictions, the push to establish gay marriage has hit a wall, and abortion politics remain as grim as ever, with the tide shifting a bit to the pro-life side. Wars over the teaching of evolution in the public schools have not ceased, and revisionist views about the Christian (or “Judeo-Christian”) founding of the nation continue to be injected into the nation’s textbooks, and consciousness.

That the Tea Party movement has taken flight on right-wing economic populism should come as no surprise during the worst recession since World War II. But that hardly means that the movement is keeping social conservatives off the reservation.

Ralph Reed, the founding executive director of the Christian Coalition who has a knack for speaking truths that his opponents dismiss as mere self-aggrandizement, laid it out in an interview with CBN’s David Brody February 12. Last summer, Reed established the Faith and Freedom Coalition, which he described to Brody as “sort of a 21st-century version of the Christian Coalition on steroids, married with with a sprinkling of the NRA.” What it really is, however, is “a synthesis of the traditional fiscal wing of conservatism and social conservatives”—in other words, it’s not a Christian Right outfit at all, but a political action committee designed to merge social conservatives into a broader conservative movement.

Reed claims that a lot of Tea Party organizers belong to Faith and Freedom, and that two of the half-dozen national leaders of the Tea Party Patriots are old comrades-in-arms. The paradigmatic character in Ben McGrath’s report on the Tea Party movement in the February 1 New Yorker is Don Seely, a social conservative from Kentucky.

The fact that the Tea Party movement isn’t trumpeting the old family values agenda says more about the politics of the moment than the membership. These are, after all, Sarah Palin’s people. And Bob McDonnell’s. The newly elected governor of Virginia has impeccable Christian Right credentials—a degree from Regent University Law School and a perfect record of pushing social conservatism while representing Virginia Beach in the House of Delegates from 1993 to 2006. But in 2009, he ran for governor as a fiscal, not a social, conservative.

Speaking with Brody, Reed allowed as how the Republicans as well as the Democrats had “lost their way,” and claimed that his new organization would serve to hold “both political parties accountable.” He also told Brody that “we got our clocks cleaned on the ground” in the 2008 elections and waxed enthusiastic about how the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in January meant that the organization “can advocate the election or defeat of candidates.”

Some Tea Partyers may be resisting a friendly takeover by the GOP but I’d be willing to bet the house in Maine that come November, counting the number of Democrats endorsed by the Faith and Freedom Coalition will require the fingers of one hand. At most.

 Spiritual Politics
Mark Silk's blog on religion and politics.


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