Is the religious right, which has been the electoral backbone of the Republican Party since the creation of the Moral Majority in the '70s and the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, in trouble? The strongly right-wing Washington Times reports rather dimly on the conference for the Faith and Freedom Coalition, a group founded by religious right luminary Ralph Reed, because it couldn’t even gather 400 audience members, despite having a deep bench of fundamentalist-beloved politicians and celebrities like Pat Robertson, Sarah Palin, Rick Perry and Scott Walker. The Times contrasted the small conference with its '80s and '90s counterpart, the Christian Coalition’s Road to the White House conventions, which drew thousands of participants every year.
If such a right-wing publication as the Washington Times is willing to hint at it, maybe it’s really time to ask the question: Is the Christian right beginning to lose its numbers, its mojo, and even its power? While it’s definitely too early to count them out—after all, the religious right, weird fantasies about masturbating fetuses and all—still wholly owns the Republican Party at this point. Still, is there some hope on the horizon that their once-mighty numbers and power are beginning to dwindle?
Evangelical writer and pastor John S. Dickerson certainly seems to think so. In a piece published for the New York Times in December 2012, Dickerson bluntly declared that evangelical Christians have become a tiny minority in America:
In the 1980s heyday of the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, some estimates accounted evangelicals as a third or even close to half of the population, but research by the Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith recently found that Christians who call themselves evangelicals account for just 7 percent of Americans. (Other research has reported that some 25 percent of Americans belong to evangelical denominations, though they may not, in fact, consider themselves evangelicals.) Dr. Smith’s findings are derived from a three-year national study of evangelical identity and influence, financed by the Pew Research Center. They suggest that American evangelicals now number around 20 million, about the population of New York State.
One major reason is strictly demographic: Older fundamentalists are dying off and not being replaced by younger ones. Research by the Christian Barna Group shows that the 43% of young people raised as evangelicals stop going to church once they grow up. The reasons that young people get disillusioned with the church track nicely to the reasons the religious right is such a danger to American democracy and freedom: They disagree with the homophobic and sexually judgmental teachings. They disapprove of the church’s attacks on science. They find conservative Christianity intolerant and stifling.
Evangelical leaders themselves certainly believe they’re seeing a decline in influence in the United States. In a 2011 Pew Forum poll of evangelical leaders around the world, 82 percent of American evangelical leaders said that evangelical Christianity was losing influence. Compare this to evangelical leaders in sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and North Africa, Latin America and most of Asia, 58 percent who said that their faith was gaining influence. Which, sadly for the people of those countries, means more gay-bashing, more attacks on women’s rights, and more scientific illiteracy, though presumably the evangelical leaders see all these effects as good things.
Of course, if you were gauging by the behavior of Republican politicians, you’d think that evangelical Christianity was not only growing in popularity but growing in conservatism. The past few years have seen a dramatic escalation in the attacks on women’s rights, which politically can only be a bid for the fundamentalist votes, as most people outside the world of conservative Christianity are either pro-choice or don’t care enough about the issue to vote on it. (Yes, there are also Catholics, but despite their leadership, the majority of Catholics are pro-choice.) Not only that, but Republicans seem to have grown bolder in portraying themselves as religious extremists to pander to the religious right, often embracing absolutist approaches to abortion, opening up the war on choice to attacks on contraception, and sharing the bizarre, anti-science attitudes towards rape and pregnancy they pick up in their churches. While the majority of Americans turn toward favoring marriage equality for gays and straights, Republicans attack like the country still views the issue the way a megachurch pastor would, even going so far as to hire separate lawyers to defend DOMA when the Obama administration refused to do it.
All of this, as Todd Akin can attest, hurts you in the polls, and yet Republicans keep at it like they’re facing a country on the verge of having an evangelical majority, when in fact the exact opposite is happening. What gives?
Part of the problem is that while politicians have a reputation for being able to change their views on a dime, the reality is that they’re often thrown off by change and struggle to adapt. Many, possible most, Republican politicians are fundamentalist Christians themselves, and they started out in politics during the multi-decade heyday when being a Bible thumper was a sure path to power. It’s hard for them to accept that things have changed that quickly.
Akin is a classic example. Since 1988, Akin’s schtick as a wild-eyed anti-choice lunatic spouting every fundamentalist conspiracy theory under the sun helped him win one office after another, usually annihilating his competition at the polls. When he made the move to run for Senate, it’s not surprising he thought the same strategy would work. After all, he’s tight with Paul Ryan, whom Republicans think of as their “mainstream” offering. They even authored anti-choice legislation together. Indeed, it’s easy to see how Akin would have easily won a few election cycles ago, “legitimate rape” comment and all. Back in the Bush era, being a dim-witted Bible thumper didn’t even block you from the presidency, so a Senate seat from highly religious Missouri should have been a breeze. The change has been happening so fast it’s no surprise Akin didn’t see it. Really, who could have?
Of course, as things can swiftly change for the better, they can just easily take a turn for the worse, so liberals shouldn’t sit on their laurels, confident that this decline in fundamentalism will last. This change was the direct result of many years of liberals highlighting, protesting, and fighting the Christian right’s abuses of power. To make sure this change takes, it’s important for liberals to keep up the fight.