Election Reflection: Whither Now, Religious Right?

Pundits spent a lot of time chewing over the results of the November election, but most seemed to agree on one thing: the religious right lost big.

Religious right groups had managed to put aside their uneasiness over Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s Mormonism and backed the former Massachusetts governor to the hilt. Many religious right leaders portrayed the election in near-apocalyptic terms, asserting that the very existence of the country hung in the balance.

Not only did Romney lose, but religious right-backed Republican Senate candidates like Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana were soundly defeated. In addition, three states (Maryland, Maine, and Washington) legalized same-sex marriage, and Minnesota voters refused to add an anti-gay marriage provision to the state constitution.

An attempt to strip the strong church-state separation provisions from the Florida Constitution failed handily, and Sunshine State voters also rejected a draconian anti-abortion provision. In Iowa, an attempt to remove a state supreme court justice who had voted to legalize same-sex marriage came up short.

The day after the election, even leaders of religious right groups had to admit there was no way to paste a smiley face on this one.

So what happens now? Is this the beginning of the end for the religious right?

Some signs do look ominous for the theocratic movement. The religious right’s core constituency—older, white evangelical Christians—is a shrinking part of the electorate. Exit polls showed that white evangelicals backed Romney in huge numbers: 78 percent supported him. It just wasn’t enough this time.

As he did in 2008, President Barack Obama assembled a coalition of younger voters, African-Americans, Latinos, and white liberals. A huge factor in Obama’s win were voters who, when asked their religion, reply “none.” These “nones” backed the president by 70 percent. There was also a pronounced gender gap, which indicates that the “war on women” led by the religious right and the Roman Catholic bishops ultimately hurt Romney.

As many news reports have indicated, Obama’s team had a superior ground game. They knocked on doors, made phone calls, and turned out the vote. The Romney team, by contrast, got lazy and was foolish enough to believe claims that the polls were skewed and Romney would win easily. Apparently, none of them bothered to take New York Times poll cruncher Nate Silver seriously until it was too late.

Undeniably, the dynamics of U.S. politics are shifting. The electorate of the future will be less white, more secular, and less rural. Long-term trends do not look favorable for the religious right.

But there’s no reason to get cocky. At the end of the day, elections are determined by who shows up. Obama’s team had an effective strategy for ensuring turnout in November. There’s no guarantee that it will always be this way.

In the wake of Obama’s first victory in 2008, some political pundits were quick to pronounce the death of the far right as a political force. Obama, they said, had forged a new political coalition that would survive for many decades.

Just two years later that coalition had collapsed. For whatever reason, too many of its members stayed home on Election Day in November of 2010. A wave of Tea Party extremists, many of whom are closely linked to the religious right, swept into office. The House of Representatives fell into GOP hands, and many state legislatures became much more conservative.

Assembling a coalition is one thing; turning it out on the day of the election is quite another. Religious right leaders have known for years that their policies and positions are unpopular with the American people. They still win elections because so many people have dropped out of the game.

In the 1990s I attended several national conferences sponsored by the Christian Coalition, a political unit founded by TV preacher Pat Robertson in the wake of his failed 1988 run for the Republican presidential nomination. Speakers at these events talked openly about how low voter turnout was their friend. Their strategy was to mobilize as many large, conservative evangelical churches as possible and make sure their congregants went to the polls. Apathetic non-voters did the rest.

I recall one gathering during which a speaker bragged that it didn’t matter if most Americans agreed with the Coalition. On Election Day, many of them hadn’t registered and weren’t even able to vote. Others were registered but didn’t go to the polls. All a candidate had to do to win, this speaker said, was target the “right” people, make sure they were registered and, if necessary, physically transport them to the polls.

The death of the religious right has been proclaimed many times. Some political analysts were certain that the movement had collapsed during the presidency of Bill Clinton and were genuinely surprised when “values voters” put George W. Bush in the White House twice.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that all religious right leaders are stone-simple fundamentalists. Many are savvy political operators. They are looking at the shifting demographics of the nation and know that they must win new support. They won’t compromise on core issues like opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage, but their goal is to dial back the rhetoric on issues like immigration and government services a bit to peel off just enough Latino support to destabilize the Obama coalition. Many Latinos, they argue, are Catholic or Pentecostal Christians who are open to the socially conservative message of the religious right.

Will this strategy work? It’s too early to say. One thing is for certain: Obama will never be on the ballot again. The coalition his team built last year was impressive. It remains to be seen if it can survive under another’s leadership.

Americans United reported recently that the nation’s ten largest religious right organizations take in more than $1 billion every year. Many of these groups are explicitly political, to the extent that they even sponsor political action committees. They are connected to the far-right money machine and in some states are powerful enough to run the Republican Party.

Stay informed and stay involved. We haven’t vanquished the religious right just yet.