In June, Jerry Falwell Jr., president of the largest Evangelical university in the world (Liberty University; total enrollment: 110,000-plus), took a grinning picture with Donald Trump, then the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, in the real-estate magnate’s Manhattan office. Behind them, clearly visible on the wall, was a much younger Trump, tuxedoed, smirking from the cover of a 1990 issue of Playboy. The judgments of the Lord, it is said, are righteous and just. They are also, on occasion, delivered with a wicked sense of comic timing.
Suffering a series of grievous blows in recent years, culminating in the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision mandating official recognition of same-sex marriage nationwide, the traditional “religious Right” has been in its final throes for some time. The embrace of Donald Trump — an uncouth, unrepentant serial adulterer and alleged sexual abuser; a businessman who’s bullied widows and stiffed workers; and an apologist for brutalities in China and Russia — is its death rattle. But it may also be the occasion for a new, reinvigorated relationship between conservatives and orthodox Christians, refashioned for an America whose religious commitments are dramatically changed.
The religious Right was the result of a confluence of causes both theological and political. The Protestantism of the dominant WASP political and cultural establishment of the post–World War II years was that of the liberal Mainline, heavily influenced by the thinking of theologians such as Reinhold Niebuhr who encouraged what David Hollinger, in his essay “After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Ecumenical Protestantism and the Modern American Encounter with Diversity,” calls a “mood of self-interrogation” — a willingness to undertake a deep critique of American Protestantism’s inherited traditions and assumptions in the interest of a bold ecumenism. Such thinking was friendly to, if by no means synonymous with, mid-century political liberalism, so when the cultural revolution of the 1960s began, the Mainline Protestant churches were predisposed to sympathize. The ecumenical impulse in the Mainline prompted the consolidation of Evangelical Protestant denominations, which resisted the call for “diversity” as the siren song of secularism. Accordingly, Haight-Ashbury, Vietnam, Roe v. Wade, and the near-adoption of the Equal Rights Amendment constituted a series of related political-cultural disasters to which the Mainline churches assented but against which Evangelicals bucked.
In 1979, disappointed by the first Evangelical president — Jimmy Carter, whose politics did not reflect his religious bona fides — Jerry Falwell, minister of the nation’s largest independent Baptist church, founded the Moral Majority. At its height, the Moral Majority claimed 7 million members (one-third of whom, Falwell later estimated, were politically homeless Catholics), and for ten years it was an umbrella institution coordinating organized opposition to abortion and to legal acceptance of homosexual acts and support for Israel and for school prayer. Other organizations, such as James Dobson’s Focus on the Family and Family Research Council and Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum, also played crucial parts. And the effort was aided by a mass-media presence: Falwell’s Old Time Gospel Hour, which had been on the air since 1956, and Pat Robertson’s 700 Club, aired on his own Christian Broadcasting Network.
This mobilization had significant consequences. Evangelical voters went overwhelmingly for Ronald Reagan in 1980, among them a sizable minority who had voted for Carter in 1976, and they did so again in 1984. (Falwell later claimed that Reagan never would have won the White House without the Moral Majority.) In 1988, the Evangelical bloc of the Republican party was sufficiently strong for Pat Robertson to capture 9 percent of the national Republican vote in his upstart primary bid.
Over the course of the 1990s, some of the original infrastructure associated with the religious Right was devolved to smaller, more narrowly tailored organizations (such as Alliance Defending Freedom, formerly Alliance Defense Fund, founded in 1993 by Dobson and other Evangelical leading lights). But its influence did not wane. In 1992, Pat Buchanan declared to the Republican National Convention, following his primary loss, “There is a religious war going on in this country. It is a cultural war . . . for the soul of America.” The notion of “culture wars” was a handy paradigm for the battles that ensued over Bill Clinton’s in-office lechery. In Deal Hudson’s Onward, Christian Soldiers: The Growing Political Power of Catholics and Evangelicals in the United States, Tim Goegelin, special assistant to President George W. Bush and now a Focus on the Family executive, explains: “The reason the religious Right’s hatred for Bill Clinton was so venomous is that Bill Clinton was a proxy for ’60s behavior; he embodied the same issues that created the movement in the first place.” It was little surprise when Evangelicals formed George W. Bush’s core constituency in 2000.
During this time, the religious Right — which, by the 1990s, included a contingent of outspoken conservative Catholics, such as First Things founder Richard John Neuhaus — was transforming the country in extraordinary if often little-noticed ways. By the mid 1990s, Evangelicals were better educated and higher-earning than the average American, and Evangelical institutions of higher learning, such as Wheaton and Calvin colleges, had begun punching well above their weight in terms of scholarship; by 2007, D. Michael Lindsay, a sociologist at Rice University, could publish Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite.
Meanwhile, religious conservatives pulled the Republican party rightward. By the time of his death in 1984, Evangelical theologian Francis Schaeffer had made abortion — until then widely seen as a Catholic issue — a central concern in Evangelical circles. In the 1990s, when many prominent Republicans thought the party’s future lay in the direction of an accommodation with Roe, the religious Right pushed back. Today, the Republican party’s official platform declares that “the unborn child has a fundamental right to life which cannot be infringed,” and opposition to abortion is generally a litmus test for Republican office-seekers.
These and other victories should not be understated. But when Jerry Falwell disbanded the Moral Majority in 1989, he declared that “the religious conservatives in America are now in for the duration.” That turned out not to be the case.
It has been widely noted that self-described Evangelicals exhibited surprising enthusiasm for the candidacy of Donald Trump. That observation must be qualified — most churchgoing Evangelicals preferred other candidates during the primaries, and there have been significant dissenters from the Trump fad, including the student body of Liberty University and figures such as Andy Crouch, executive editor of Christianity Today — but the general tilt is further evidence for the thesis proposed by sociologist James Davison Hunter in his 2010 book To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, that the emphasis on personal charisma in Evangelical theology (think megachurch pastors) inclines the average Evangelical voter to a similar theory of political leadership. That goes a long way toward explaining the lasting affection for George W. Bush among Evangelicals, or the cults of personality that cropped up around, among others, Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin, and Ben Carson.
But the embrace of Trump is also a sign of the times. The 2016 presidential contest has been strikingly devoid of discussion about any of the social issues that were prominent as recently as 2012. At the first general-election debate, in late September, abortion, same-sex marriage, and religious liberty were never mentioned — just one year after a series of sting videos exposed the savagery of the country’s largest abortion provider, and amid ongoing attempts to use the power of the state to coerce same-sex-marriage dissenters. That lacuna is certainly due in part to the fact that both of this year’s major-party candidates generally endorse a liberal sexual culture. But the power of the old religious Right was to force conversation about topics over the objections of policymakers. That power is gone.
Of course, those whose theological conservatism entails political conservatism have not vanished. Moreover, their leavening influence on a rapidly secularizing culture is arguably more important than ever before. But how right-leaning Christians ought to participate in public life is, once again, a wide-open question.
What’s obvious is that they will require a new model. The Evangelical energy that animated so much of the religious Right has been lost first and foremost because of the manner of the religious Right’s political participation. The political ardor of many of the religious Right’s charismatic leaders was so fierce that their commitment to mobilizing large constituencies on behalf of social reforms appeared to, or actually came to, outmatch their theological or pastoral commitments. Likewise, often beholden to nostalgia for a postwar cultural consensus that in reality only ever half-existed, Evangelicals quickly became reflexive Republican partisans, and American Evangelicalism started to be seen as baptized Reaganism or Bushism. In a word, the religious Right became more right than religious. And the eyebrow-raising comments of Falwell and others (e.g., that “AIDS . . . is God’s punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals”), and the hucksterism that became associated with mass-market Evangelicalism (e.g., Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, et al.), encouraged the notion that Evangelical moral authorities really had none.
What’s a Christian conservative to do? Different alternatives are on offer. Rod Dreher, a senior editor at The American Conservative and an adherent to Eastern Orthodoxy, proposes what he calls “the Benedict Option,” in which Christians would focus on building up tight-knit, local communities to be “loci of Christian resistance” against the fragmentation of the larger culture. First Things editor and Catholic theologian R. R. Reno, in his book Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society, follows T. S. Eliot in suggesting that a core of engaged Christians living the Gospel intently — raising up the poor, defending the weak, promoting solidarity, etc. — is well situated to speed the collapse of a weak, failing secular establishment. In Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel, Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, submits that Christians are called to “engaged alienation, a Christianity that preserves the distinctiveness of our gospel while not retreating from our callings as neighbors, and friends, and citizens.”
The paths overlap and diverge in various respects, but noteworthy about all three is that they reject any easy concord with conservative politics (let alone the Republican party). The priority is the authentic living-out of the Christian faith and the jealous guarding of its integrity. Theology and politics are integrally related, but the interests of the Church must be prioritized over those of the state when the two come into conflict. And that may mean that theological faithfulness entails positions that transgress against conservative orthodoxy.
That is not a blueprint for a “new religious Right.” But, in truth, such a thing may not be what is needed right now. Far more pressing would seem to be the need for an authentic Christian voice crying in the wilderness, wielding a moral authority independent of party politics, preparing a way for a renewed public life.