Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Is the Religious Right entering into a leadership vacuum?

I found this Washington Monthly post rather interesting, so I went to the original source story at The Washington Times:

The long-expected resignation of Focus on the Family's James Dobson highlights an open secret among America's roughly 70 million evangelicals: There are no obvious successors to the group of evangelical leaders who created massive organizations or built up media empires in the 1980s and '90s.

Mr. Dobson, 72, who resigned last week as board chairman of one of the country's most influential evangelical organizations, is one of the last of a great generation of evangelical leaders.

Some have died: the Rev. Jerry Falwell, Moral Majority founder; theologian Carl F.H. Henry; Florida pastor D. James Kennedy; Campus Crusade for Christ founder Bill Bright; and Christian philosopher Francis Schaeffer, who founded L'Abri Fellowship.

Others have either retired or have passed on the bulk of their duties, such as the Rev. Billy Graham, 90; televangelist Pat Robertson, 78; author and activist Tim LaHaye, 83; and Prison Fellowship founder Chuck Colson, 77.

"It's a changing of the guard," said Brian McLaren, 52, cited in 2005 by Time magazine as one of the 25 most influential evangelicals in America.

"There is a possibility the religious right will collapse on itself. Or someone will articulate a new religious center. The evangelical community has been slowly diversifying, and there may not be a center anymore."

For the past 30 years, the Religious Right was able project enormous political power with a combination of presenting a social agenda into the political debate in terms that was favorable to the Religious Right--abortion, gay marriage, intelligent design, and such. The Religious Right also demanded a litmus test concerning those same social issues to also be placed on political officials--either Republicans had to pass the Religious Right's litmus test in order to be elected, or appointed, into office positions. Of course, Democrats would always fail the Religious Right's litmus tests--especially on abortion. This political power came about because individuals like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson were able to combine the energy of their foot soldiers with the religious ideology to exert a strong influence within the Republican Party. They got it right on how to mix religion with political power.

That power is now starting to diffuse. First, the old guard of the Religious Right is dying off, with no new replacements to fill the vacuum left behind. Second is that I think that the social issues that have so galvanized the Religious Right are starting to fade in the political debate. The issues of abortion and gay marriage are meaningless in a political debate when Americans are losing jobs and health care. The U.S. economy and the financial crisis were the big issues last November, although gay marriage was a major statewide issue in California with Proposition 8. These social issues can still come back. But for the moment, it is the U.S. economy that is the important issue. Third is this interesting analysis from The Washington Monthly's Steve Benen:

Younger evangelicals are generally less inclined to read from the religious right's hymnal, and anti-gay animus is losing its salience. There's a growing movement among evangelicals to reclaim the mantle and expand the definition of "moral issues" to include things like poverty and global warming.

Younger evangelicals may just be willing to look at such "moral issues," seeking out solutions to poverty and global warming. If this is the case, then what we could be seeing is a diversification of the evangelical movement, as their members seek out their own "moral issues" and causes--be it abortion or global warming. So not only does the Religious Right have a leadership problem, but the movement may also fracture between competing groups. And, of course, all of this is taking place just as the Republican Party is having problems finding their own political voice as they have become a wounded, minority party. A part of the Religious Right will certainly have a serious political influence within the Republican Party. But now we have a leaderless Religious Right movement exerting political influence with a disarrayed Republican Party.

In other words, the blind leading the blind.

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