The Religious Right’s Power Grab: How Outside Activists Became Inside Operatives
By Neil J. Young | October 31, 2016
Since a leaked 2005 Access Hollywood audiotape revealed Donald Trump bragging about how he sexually assaulted women—something he dismissed as “locker room banter”—more than a dozen women have come forward to allege he attacked them in the past. In response, former supporters have denounced him. His poll numbers have tanked. But even as his candidacy continues to provoke outrage, Religious Right leaders—among his most steadfast supporters—have stood by him.
Voicing the obligatory remarks that called Trump’s comments “inappropriate” and “indefensible,” these conservative evangelical backers, including James Dobson, Pat Robertson, Robert Jeffress, and Ralph Reed, still rushed to the defense of his candidacy. “As I have made clear,” the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins told The Washington Post, “my support for Donald Trump in the general election was never based upon shared values rather it was built upon shared concerns.”
Values voters during this election have been quick to sidestep Trump’s spotty personal life and caustic temperament, not to mention his inconsistent positions on important evangelical causes. Instead, Religious Right leaders have offered up a litany of concerns that they say Trump will champion, from anti-abortion measures to sufficiently conservative Supreme Court nominees.
The heart of Trump’s support from the old-guard Religious Right owes to less noble concerns, however. Back in June, when he appeared before a group of 900 influential conservative Christians in New York, Trump did not appeal to them by sharing his religious testimony. Rather, he focused on his favorite topic: power, a word he used more than a dozen times in his remarks. Conservative Christians, Trump explained, had lost their power over the nation, but he would restore them to their proper influence. “We should have the power. We should have the power,” Trump repeated to hearty applause from the crowd.
Trump’s conservative Christian critics have often lamented that their fellow believers were sacrificing their values and principles to support such a man. But at times, they have also expressed regret that the Christian capitulation to Trump exposes painful truths about the Religious Right and its quest for power. “Our secular critics said all this talk about ‘character’ [and] ‘virtue’ was really just about power. We said they were wrong,” Russell Moore, a prominent evangelical #NeverTrump leader, tweeted in June, admitting evangelicals’ support for Trump may have proven those critics right. Moore, the head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s public-policy arm, added in another tweet, “If you wondered why younger, theological, gospel-centered evangelicals reacted [negatively] to the old guard Religious Right, well, now you know.”
It’s tempting to treat the Trump moment as an aberration of the political cycle rather than a result of the Religious Right’s own history. Indeed, Trump’s rise to power does not indicate the death of the Religious Right, as some have argued. Instead, it has plainly revealed the Religious Right’s gradual shift from its origins as outside agitators to inside party operatives. With such a change have come damaging consequences. It has produced profound effects for both religious conservatives and the Republican Party, and it has exacerbated divisions within the wide swath of American evangelicalism. Trump’s candidacy has baldly uncovered those schisms, but they had been there all along, shaping and shaped by the rise of the Religious Right.
GIVEN HOW POWERFUL the Religious Right quickly became, it’s worth remembering the movement’s modest origins. Troubled by the social and cultural changes of the 1960s and the legalization of abortion in 1973, conservative evangelicals organized politically to redeem the nation. Yet they did so shaped by their own historic indifference to and distrust of politics, avoiding what they saw as its distasteful practices and sinful temptations of power and corruption. Overcoming that longstanding avoidance of politics required that Religious Right leaders and laypersons alike imagine their new involvement as outside agitators rather than inside power brokers, lest they become sullied by the process. Mobilized to defend conservative causes and back candidates of character, the nascent Religious Right promised allegiance only to its own conscience.
Since the 1950s, a small group of evangelical writers like Carl Henry and Harold Ockenga had emphasized the duty of Christian involvement in the nation’s civic life, and those ideas had begun to spread through influential evangelical outlets like Christianity Today and through evangelical seminaries and churches. (Notably, through the 1960s, these efforts remained mostly a preoccupation of northern evangelicals. Southern evangelicals largely continued to disavow politics in order to resist the religious claims of the Civil Rights movement and tacitly support the continuation of the Jim Crow system of racial segregation.) Especially outside the South, most evangelicals tended to align with the Republican Party if they claimed a party affiliation. But conscience, character, and country were to come before party and the lure of power.
Maintaining that focus proved easier when their political power remained undeveloped. As evangelical denominations, churches, and grassroots groups organized in the late 1970s to elect conservative pro-life candidates to office, they did so as uncertain of their political influence as they felt confident of their political convictions. The naming of Jerry Falwell’s organization Moral Majority in 1979 reflected the belief that a silent coalition of Christian conservatives represented the greater part of the nation, but there were real doubts about what that meant in terms of political influence. When news of Ronald Reagan’s 1980 electoral landslide came in, Religious Right leaders sat stunned by what they had helped achieve. Ed Dobson, an associate of Falwell’s, remembered listening to the election results with Falwell on his truck radio. “It was one of those moments of ‘Can you believe what we did?’” Dobson later recalled in an interview.
The joy of Reagan’s win, though, soon gave way to the disappointments of politics. Reagan had courted religious conservatives by promising action on their cherished causes: overturning Roe v. Wade, restoring school prayer, and fighting against gay rights and other perceived threats to the traditional family. But once in office, Reagan mostly ignored those issues. His nomination of Sandra Day O’Connor, a moderate pro-choice jurist, to the Supreme Court outraged his evangelical supporters. Sixty-eight percent of pro-life activists deemed Reagan’s handling of the abortion issue as “fair to poor” during his first four years. Falwell publically admitted his disappointment that the president had ignored the Religious Right’s concerns. The fundamentalist pastor Bob Jones sent his complaints directly to Reagan. “Do not take us for granted,” he wrote the president. “We are not going to vote for you in desperation in 1984.”
Similar letters poured in from evangelicals across the country, promising they would stay home from the election. The disappointment with Reagan reflected the Religious Right’s sense of itself and its mission at the time. Walking away from Reagan—and the Republican Party—would signal the Religious Right’s devotion to its causes. And its commitment to conscience over party loyalty was an easier gesture when a good chunk of Reagan’s Southern evangelical supporters remained registered with the Democratic Party. In the end, evangelicals still turned out for Reagan in record numbers in 1984, but they did so with the expectation that the president would deliver on their concerns if they gave him a second term.
Still, the Religious Right remained peripheral to the workings of the Reagan administration and the Republican Party. Although Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Jim Bakker, Tim LaHaye, and other Religious Right leaders enjoyed frequent invitations to White House meetings, Reagan staffers privately admitted it was part of a strategy to keep the Religious Right distractedly busy. “We want to keep the Moral Majority types so close to us they can’t move their arms,” one Reagan administration official told the journalist Lou Cannon. After another four years made that strategy more obvious, evangelical leaders like Carl Henry and Cal Thomas started to wonder if Christians should get out of politics for good. “Were Christians Courted for Their Votes or Beliefs?” a Christianity Today headline glumly asked at the end of the Reagan years.
But Religious Right leaders like Falwell, Robertson, and LaHaye did not want the movement to lose what it had so quickly gained, opening up a divide between the Religious Right’s activist figures and its theological architects like Henry and the writers at Christianity Today. In order to be effective, these men reasoned, Christian conservatives needed to become more involved in politics, operating within the party structure as activists rather than merely seeking to shape the public square as concerned citizens. They also needed to be shrewder political actors rather than mere voices of conscience.
The worries about effectiveness and the prioritization of political strategy signaled a significant transformation for the Religious Right, since principle and duty had been the original inspiration for politics. Now leaders like Falwell and Robertson wanted to get things done, and they realized they could not just hope their moral voice would spur politicians to action on their behalf. Instead of acting as the GOP’s moral conscience, Religious Right leaders intended to become its backbone.
The evangelical theologian Francis Schaeffer profoundly shaped this shift through his writings and his friendship with Falwell. Schaeffer advocated for evangelicals to practice “co-belligerency” in order to accomplish political goals. “A co-belligerent,” Schaeffer explained in his 1980 book Plan for Action, “is a person with whom I do not agree on all sorts of vital issues, but who, for whatever reasons of their own, is on the same side in a fight for some specific issue of public justice.” When Falwell, a strict fundamentalist independent, initially resisted such advice, Schaeffer set him straight. “God used pagans to do his own work in the Old Testament, so why don’t you use pagans to do your work now?” Schaeffer asked. That thinking broadened the Religious Right—conservative evangelicals could now look to Catholics and Mormons as political allies rather than as religious heretics—but it also altered their relationship to politicians and the political process. Conservative Christians now would work with anyone, including politicians who did not align with all of their values, if that partner held the right position on key issues, especially abortion.
Religious Right leaders doubled down on the GOP, deciding their best bet lay in bringing to the party more voters who would lobby for their beliefs. The American Coalition for Traditional Values, founded by LaHaye, emphasized voter mobilization over civic engagement and soon claimed to have registered 4.5 million new voters in the 1980s. As a new decade opened, the Christian Coalition, a Moral Majority for the 1990s, built on these patterns, organizing workshops to train evangelicals on how to take control of the Republican Party. By 1992, 300 of the 2,200 delegates to the Republican National Convention belonged to the Christian Coalition. (More broadly, 42 percent of the delegates that year identified themselves as evangelical Christians.) Four years later, the Christian Coalition’s members made up more than half of the delegates at the RNC’s meeting in San Diego. Asked if the Religious Right was trying to take over the Republican Party, Robertson laughed in response. “What is there left to take over?” he asked.
NOW SERVING AS the party’s base and its most organized operatives, the Religious Right has fully transformed from its origin as a religious movement seeking to shape American public life to a political movement of religious actors. Its leaders, like Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition and now the Faith & Freedom Coalition, have also become political insiders to the GOP, more concerned with the GOP’s electoral success than the nation’s cultural reform. That transformation has greatly benefitted the Republican Party and significantly altered the Religious Right’s public voice and private operations. Though still championing a “family values” politics, Religious Right leaders now talk far more in the vein of rough-and-tumble politics than the language of Christian service and civic obligation. “I do guerilla warfare,” Reed honestly, if cynically, explained of his work to a reporter in 1992. He added, “You don’t know it’s over until you’re in a body bag. You don’t know until election night.”
That political vision came to dominate the Religious Right’s strategies. It also spread throughout the broader conservative evangelical culture, fostered by a booming cottage industry of televangelists, authors, and radio and television personalities who found their greatest success in stoking the fires of the culture wars. Schaeffer had encouraged Falwell and other televangelists like Robertson and James Robison to use their television programs to stir up their white evangelical viewers for political action. Soon these shows, watched by more than 15 million Americans by the early 2000s according to one study, often looked more like Republican Party propaganda than religious programming.
The evangelical world has never been monolithic, of course. There are progressive evangelical leaders and voices within evangelicalism that advocate disengaging from the political process. In recent years, many pastors and younger evangelicals have called for a social engagement that addresses racial injustice, poverty, AIDS, and climate change. Today there are growing numbers of evangelicals of color who have never been a reliable bloc for the Republican Party. Many of them are vocal critics of Trump. And after the Access Hollywood tape came to light, several influential white evangelical women, including Beth Moore, Kay Warren, and Jen Hatmaker, have reminded their followers there are other options to vote for this November.
But the white, male faces of the Religious Right are the most frequent media commentators. They are the voices that often speak most loudly for evangelical Christianity. For Trump, they argue that he need not be a Sunday school teacher, or a pastor-in-chief, and much of the white evangelical flock seems to agree. In a recent PRRI poll, 72 percent of white evangelicals indicated that personal transgressions wouldn’t keep politicians from doing their job well, an increase of 42 percent from just five years ago. Nearly 65 percent of white evangelicals indicated they would still vote for Trump even after the Access Hollywood tape was released.
Trump is the ultimate co-belligerent for the Religious Right. Instead of remaining staunch on principles and causes in the face of power, white evangelicals have rallied to Trump’s bellicose tone and promises of power. But Trump is not the cause of these developments. He is their beneficiary.
The Religious Right organized in the late 1970s to be a moral voice of Christian conscience to the nation. It was a movement devoted to its principles and suspicious of political power. But the game of politics soon required other devotions. In the process of advocating causes and electing candidates, the Religious Right found itself increasingly tied to the Republican Party. Once outside political agitators seeking to reform a nation, members of the Religious Right have become inside power brokers of a political party that offered them power if they might occasionally set aside their principles. Over and over, they have done so, but those adjustments went largely unnoticed until now.
Donald Trump has done many things this year, but he has not caused the Religious Right to abandon its principles or convictions. It started doing that long ago.
Neil J. Young is the author of We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics. He hosts the history podcast Past Present.
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