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.