How Powerful is the ‘Religious Right’?

Reacting to a claim that the Religious Right isn’t actually all that powerful, Kevin Drum retorts,

I am really, really tired of hearing this. It’s true that Republicans often pander to the religious right with purely symbolic actions, such as constitutional amendments against same-sex marriage that everyone knows will never get adopted. But at levels ranging from school boards all the way to the presidency the religious right has tremendous influence on a wide variety of policy issues in the Republican party, from abortion and gay rights to welfare policy and stem cells.

Evolution in public schools is perhaps the most chilling example of this. It is a big issue, the same as teaching kids that Japan bombed Pearl Harbor rather than the other way around is. And while it’s true that creationism and its bastard cousin Intelligent Design haven’t gotten far in our public school system, the only reason for that is the unceasing efforts of liberals and scientists to keep them out. It has nothing to do with a lack of influence, but rather to the fact that groups like NCSE fight them hammer and tongs every time they pop up.

I agree that religious conservatives are quite influential in our politics, especially at the local levels–particularly school boards–especially in areas where they are quite concentrated, notably the Deep South. On the other hand, they’re not all that powerful in proportion to their numbers. The overwhelming majority of Americans are at least nominally religious and, compared to our European cousins, quite devout in practice. Yet, even in the Bible Belt, hard science won out over religious mythology in school curriculums over eighty years ago. The battles have really been at the margins since then, notably on the school prayer issue and its variants.

Most of the other issues Kevin mentions–“from abortion and gay rights to welfare policy and stem cells”–are policy areas where the views of Christian conservatives happen to coalesce with those of other factions. Remember, the modern Religious Right didn’t come into its own until Jerry Falwell and others mobilized them for the 1980 election. A large part of that voting block was sitting out elections until then, feeling marginalized by a Democratic Party that was dominated by northeastern liberals and not yet drawn to a Republican Party that was perceived to represent the country club elite.

Abortion was illegal in most of the country for most of our country’s history; it didn’t become a political wedge issue until the Supreme Court overturned a broad social consensus in 1973. The public acceptance of homosexuality is something that has come about in my memory; it certainly wasn’t a top priority for national Democrats until Bill Clinton made it that in 1992. We didn’t even have a national welfare policy until the Great Society and even such Democratic stalwarts as Daniel Patrick Moynihan –not to mention Bill Clinton–thought it was creating a permanent underclass with some horrendous unintended social pathologies. The stem cell debate is an outgrowth of the fight on abortion, as well as a bit of traditional squeamishness about “playing God.” And, of course, the Religious Right is losing–or has lost–on every one of these issues; the debate now is about containing their losses or slowing down the inevitable.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. bryan says:

    One suspects that Kevin sees everything through the prism of California as liberal paradise and therefore, the “religious right” ruins it for the rest of the country.

    I don’t think the religious right “lost” on the issues you stated. Rather, they weren’t even in the fight until after most of the issues were lost. And much of what gets classified as “religious right” is really just middle America – the red states, if you will, with more conservative, traditional views than the coasts and the (yes, I said it) liberal media.

    In short, most of the “religious right” is really the “American center.” And that drives Kevin Drum crazy.

  2. Paul says:

    If Kevin is concerned about disproportional democratic representation perhaps he should look at the gay community.

    As you blogged a while back (I’m too lazy to look for link) they represent a very small subset of the population compared to their perceived numbers and political power.

    When the health statics come out every year the first thing they they talk about is the number of people who died from AIDS. Forget it is merely a virus that is both preventable and not near the biggest killer in the world. Heart disease and Cancer are buried but AIDS numbers are front and center.

    If you go to the CIA factbook site and look up different countries, they post prominently how many people in the country have AIDS but don’t mention malaria or any other diseases.

    I’ve never heard Kevin complain about gays having undo sway over policy.

    It strikes me that Kevin’s problem is not disproportional democratic representation but that Christians might (gasp) want to be represented too.

  3. BN says:

    Methinks the AIDS thing, especially where the CIA Factbook is concerned, is less about homosexuals and more about the rather serious nature of the epidemic, as it’s developed in Third World countries, over the past decade or two. After all, as Paul said, homosexuals are few, but AIDS cases, especially among heterosexuals in Africa, are immense.

    And really, if people are actually seriously considering passing a Constitutional amendment basically saying that homosexual love is a nonexistent joke, how politically powerful can they really be?

  4. Kevin Drum says:

    Paul: give me a break. For many years AIDS got far less attention than it deserved because it was associated with gays. It’s the major pandemic of our age — of course it gets lots of attention.

    Bryan: Needless to say, the religious right has little influence in California. But it does in lots of other places.

    My problem isn’t so much that they have influence (though of course I’m on the opposite side) but that Republicans endlessly pretend that they don’t. I don’t pretend that gays or blacks or labor have no influence on the Democratic party, so why the pretense about the religious right and Republicans?

    And James, although there are issues where the religious right more or less is in sync with other groups, there’s not much question that most of the energy and activism and money on these issues (abortion, prayer, stem cells, gays, etc.) comes from the religious right. If not for them, they would be moderate issues that would probably have been compromised away long ago. They’re the ones who keep the culture war going.

    I happen to agree that they will eventually lose their battles. But they haven’t yet, and we libs have to fight tooth and nail to keep them at bay. I wish we got a little more help from moderate Republicans on this.

  5. Boyd says:

    I wish we got a little more help from moderate Republicans on this.

    I’m sure you do, Kevin, but that’s a pretty unrealistic wish. Moderate Republicans generally agree more with their Religious Right wing than they do with Democrats. Remember, there’s a similarly wide spectrum of liberalism in the Democratic Party, much of it very distasteful to moderates.

  6. jen says:

    Hard science? Religious mythology? Please.

    That “hard science” is merely a theory that’s never been fully proved. And there’s plenty of science that backs up the “religious mythology”.

    Personally, I have no problem with the theory of evolution being taught in schools – as a theory rather than as the truth – as long as the theory of creation is also taught.

  7. James Joyner says:

    One can’t fully prove scientific theories. All that can be done is to establish a reasonable basis for it and then attempt to find evidence to falsify it. Evolution is as close to a certainty as we’re going to get, I’d think. There’s no doubt that evolution happens over time–the evidence for that is overwhelming–just whether it is the starting point for humanity.

    Creationism, on the other hand, is a fairy tale with no absolutely no basis in science. Under what rationale would one teach it in school as a plausible alternative theory? Why not teach reincarnation and astrology, too?

  8. bryan says:

    My problem isn’t so much that they have influence (though of course I’m on the opposite side) but that Republicans endlessly pretend that they don’t. I don’t pretend that gays or blacks or labor have no influence on the Democratic party, so why the pretense about the religious right and Republicans?

    Well, probably because you aren’t paying attention. The *religious right* as it came into existence 20 years ago is past its prime much in the way that labor is. It can’t deliver the decisive blow in big national elections. It’s no longer the phenomenon that it was made out to be when Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson were doing their thing.

    Much of the evangelical community seems to have moved from the mainly political focus of the mid-80s to a more wholistic approach as the older generation is fading out and a younger generation of Christians is moving into positions of power.

    And I still think that what you consider “right” from California is really more “middle.”