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Getting the religious right wrong

By W. James Antle III
web posted December 5, 2005

Behold the all-powerful religious right.

Abe Foxman, longtime national director of the Anti-Defamation League, recently warned that groups like Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council were engaged in a "pervasive and intensive assault" on the separation of church and state, aimed at "Christianizing America." Former Sen. John Danforth (R-Mo.) claimed last month that the Republican Party "has been taken over by the Christian conservatives," and is currently writing about on the subject (his publisher hopes it will "dilute the meanness" in American politics). Even George Will complained that the conservative movement "will rapidly disintegrate" if the religious right tries to "conscript the government into sectarian crusades."

Notice that religious conservatives don't merely participate in the political process, they take over. They don't have issues, they launch sectarian crusades. Expect to hear more tributes to the religious right's power and intolerance as Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito's confirmation hearings approach.

Rev. Bob Edgar, head of the National Council of Churches, told the Associated Press that Alito was nominated to please "the radical religious right." Even before Alito was nominated, religious conservatives were being blamed for Harriet Miers' withdrawal. James Ridgeway alleged in the Village Voice that President Bush abandoned Miers "just as his Republican supporters in Congress were coming to her defense against the Christian right." Robert Kuttner echoed in the Boston Globe that religious conservatives "deserted [Bush] over Miers".

There's only one problem with this narrative: religious right leaders were far more likely to support Miers than other conservatives. Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, James Dobson and Chuck Colson all endorsed her.

Inflating the religious right's political influence is a favorite game of activist groups on both sides. Any time a small-town school board gives short shrift to evolution or a county courtroom displays the Ten Commandments, fundraising letters go out advising that theocracy is just around the corner.

But these claims are often made by people who should know better. If anything, religious conservatives see far less of their agenda translate into public policy than their numbers and electoral significance would predict.

According to the Pew Research Center, nearly four-fifths of the 28 million evangelicals who voted in the 2004 presidential election supported President Bush. This is almost one-third of his popular total. Factoring in other religious conservatives like traditionalist Catholics and the values vote approaches 30 million.

What do they have to show for these numbers? Economic and foreign-policy concerns regularly trump social issues in Congress. And thanks to the federal courts, legislators can't even deal with many of their concerns.

Abortion is still considered a constitutional right by a majority on the Supreme Court—even though seven of the nine justices were appointed by Republican presidents. This Court is at least as bad from the Christian right's perspective on gay rights and only marginally better on religious expression in the public square.

President Bush has endorsed a constitutional amendment preventing gay marriage, but it is no closer to passage than the amendments pertaining to abortion and school prayer backed by his father and President Reagan. Howard Stern may complain about censorious Christian conservatives seeking to impose broadcast decency standards, but nudity and profanity are far more common on the country's airwaves than a generation ago.

Some liberals have also noticed the discrepancy between the religious right's fearsome reputation and minimal legislative impact. Jonathan Chait claimed in The New Republic that Republicans "give social conservatives symbolism and imagery but little in the way of actual policy change." Thomas Frank argued in his book What's the Matter With Kansas? that the GOP exploits moral issues to keep voters in line they might otherwise lose.

You don't have to agree with these writers' economic analyses—or their implied endorsement of the old "poor, uneducated and easy to command" canard—to suspect they might be on to something. Far from being the dominant force in American politics, the religious right actually gets back in policy less than it gives in votes.

Social conservatives have had some successes, most notably faith-based initiatives and the partial-birth abortion ban. Some of their failures are the fault of religious right leaders themselves, many of whom are gaffe-prone (think Pat Robertson) or lack Beltway savvy.

The reality of the religious right is less frightening than the press clippings would have you believe. Religious conservatives aren't taking over America. They are still just taking their place at the table.

W. James Antle III is an assistant editor of The American Conservative and a senior editor for Enter Stage Right. The views expressed above represent his alone.

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