Commentary


The Rise and Fall of the Christian Right


by John W. Whitehead
June 21, 1999

The recent dismantling of the Christian Coalition, the long-standing monolith of the conservative religious movement, symbolizes the demise of the "New Right." Following a ten-year struggle by the Coalition, the Internal Revenue Service recently denied the Christian Coalition's application for tax-exempt status. As a result, the Coalition, which was an integral part of the Religious Right, will divide into two separate entities. It may also face a crippling payment in back taxes, estimated by some Coalition officials to be as much as $400,000.

Energized by the Supreme Court's 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade which legalized abortion, the movement that came to be known as the Religious Right did not gain momentum until the early seventies. Rallying under the pro-life banner, Christian foundations developed in the late seventies, including James Dobson's Focus on the Family and Paul Weyrich's Free Congress Foundation. The Moral Majority, which became synonymous with the Religious Right and was headed by Reverend Jerry Falwell, came into being in 1979.

Having gained prominence with the help of televangelists and mass mailings, the New Right increased their momentum and stature through their allegiance with the Republican Party.

During the early eighties, the New Right was peaking. Paul Weyrich became an influential Washington, D.C. fixture, as a conservative wave rippled across the nation. While the Religious Right attacked homosexuality and AIDS, their primary target remained abortion, spawning anti-abortion groups such as Operation Rescue. The Religious Right's pro-life crusade was repeatedly endorsed and promulgated by GOP candidates

Foreshadowing the movement's descent, Falwell disbanded the Moral Majority in 1989. Seemingly, the cracks in the New Right's foundation were widening. In an attempt to rally the troops and boost support, Pat Robertson founded the Christian Coalition, which aimed to be "a force in American politics" and "a prominent fixture on the political landscape as the nation's number one pro-family, pro-life organization."

Despite the Coalition's growth and prominence, the Religious Right's strides against abortion were faltering. Their alliance with the GOP centered on a hard-line view against abortion. A shift within the Republican Party, however, was reflecting a softer and more moderate approach toward abortion. The nation was also gravitating toward the middle, which was reflected in the 1992 presidential election. George Bush campaigned on the "family values" platform, with the support of the Religious Right. However, the people chose Bill Clinton--the antithesis of family values--as the preferred candidate. This was a hard-hitting blow to the conservative religious movement, worsened by the pro-choice directives passed by Clinton immediately upon taking office.

Following this defeat, the New Right temporarily retreated--a pattern that would prove fatal. However, the Right regained momentum with the help of James Dobson, Paul Weyrich, Ralph Reed and others. In 1994, they successfully campaigned, saturating elections with their pro-life candidates and their pro-life agenda. The GOP won the House and Senate, and the Christian Right gained a majority in 18 state parties. Despite the New Right's full-court press to win the 1996 presidential election, however, Clinton defeated them a second time.

The hard-line view on abortion eventually created discord between the Religious Right and many mainstream conservative Republicans. The GOP began distancing itself, leaving the movement without a political allegiance from which to fight their war against abortion. As a result, the movement began losing its foothold and did not fight to regain it. A last-ditch attempt to regain the momentum of the eighties occurred last year when the Religious Right played the morality card and supported the impeachment of President Clinton. Clinton prevailed, and their agenda was again defeated.

The inevitable defection of the leaders of the New Right soon followed. Last December, Ralph Reed resigned from the Christian Coalition's board, and in March their director of field operations resigned, followed by their press secretary. But the final blow came earlier this year when Paul Weyrich wrote and distributed a letter claiming the Religious Right had lost the culture war and urged his fellow conservatives to retreat.

In truth, the New Right had lost its momentum, largely due to the waning of the anti-abortion movement. Without a strong, vocal anti-abortion candidate to reunite them, the Religious Right's pull has greatly dissipated.

Unfortunately, democracy is at its strongest when the competing ideals of the Right and Left are engaged in robust debate. With the recent fall of the Religious Right, however, we may be left with a monolithic political view. This is neither healthy--nor desired.
ABOUT JOHN W. WHITEHEAD

Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. His new book Battlefield America: The War on the American People (SelectBooks, 2015) is available online at www.amazon.com. Whitehead can be contacted at johnw@rutherford.org.

Publication Guidelines / Reprint Permission

John W. Whitehead’s weekly commentaries are available for publication to newspapers and web publications at no charge. Please contact staff@rutherford.org to obtain reprint permission.