One of many surprises from this year’s presidential election has been the collapse of the Religious Right, once one of the most powerful lobbies in the Republican Party. Donald Trump’s successful campaign has mostly ignored the movement’s traditional power-brokers, who have spent most of this year arguing among themselves about whether he was a supportable candidate. Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore, one of the most prominent Evangelical leaders, has argued that the rise of Trump, and Evangelicals falling in behind him, marks the death of the movement.
This is a dramatic fall. The Religious Right seemed to be rapidly gaining influence throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Perhaps, though, its influence was always overstated. Organised groups such as the Christian Coalition were overwhelmingly Evangelical and didn’t expand to other denominations. This is why the movement was slow to take up abortion as a cause. In its early days in the 1970s it was largely concerned with opposing feminism and pornography, while abortion was seen as a Catholic issue.
Much of the Religious Right’s strength came from its domination of the Republican Party apparatus in important states, and its ability to mobilise for party primaries. Its popular appeal was much weaker. Trump’s recent appearances at Evangelical events have been awkward and stilted, but it should be remembered that previous presidential candidates such as Bob Dole or John McCain have openly disdained the Christian Right and often not bothered turning up to their events. Evangelicals voted for them anyway.
One important effect of the Religious Right’s influence in the party machine was that it increased the distance between the grassroots and the leaders, who often seemed to be more concerned about the interests of Republican politicians and donors. In the 1990s, Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed got the Christian Coalition to endorse the Nafta trade deal, against the views of most of the group’s members. Meanwhile, they gained little in policy terms. Even when one of their own, George W Bush, became president, they were tarred by association with his failures while their central issues were not advanced.
It’s also apparent that the grassroots were never as ideologically driven as professional ideologues thought. Buchanan, a conservative Catholic, proclaimed the existence of a culture war in 1992, but Buchanan’s own presidential campaigns centred on Trump-like themes of trade, jobs and immigration. Meanwhile, Bill Clinton won elections, and survived endless personal scandal, by concentrating on the economy.
A telling detail from the Republican primaries was that, while Trump won voters who identified as Evangelical, his rival Ted Cruz – running on more traditional religious conservatism – won those who were weekly churchgoers. In many Evangelical communities, especially in the Southern states, church attendance is a middle-class practice. Working-class whites may call themselves Evangelical, but they don’t usually attend church.
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