Day of the Undead: Religious Right Alive and Kicking in America

I spent two days in mid-September attending the “Values Voter Summit,” an annual event sponsored by the Family Research Council, Focus on the Family, and other religious right groups. I go every year, and I’m always appalled by what I see and hear.

This year was no different. Fox News personality Sean Hannity led off his speech by joking about the sobriety of U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA), who is battling an aggressive brain tumor. Longtime religious right warhorse Phyllis Schlafly ridiculed the idea that children all over the world have a right to an education. Don Federer, a retired columnist for the Boston Herald, complained that there aren’t enough people in the world, criticized the use of birth control, and pined for the days when the average woman had six children. All of this was greeted with wild applause and, frequently, standing ovations.

PortraitPerhaps worst of all was the conference exhibit hall, where a variety of vendors peddled right-wing books and merchandise. Among them were two Tennessee men selling boxes of waffle mix decorated with racist cartoon images of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama. The men were expelled near the end of the conference–but only after the Associated Press ran a story about their wares that embarrassed conference organizers.

On the eve of the November election I have no way of knowing who our president elect will be. But I do know this: campaign 2008 definitely debunks any notion that the religious right is dead.

During the campaign, we’ve heard a lot about the so-called “new evangelicals.” Supposedly, these people seek a kinder and gentler form of evangelical Christianity, one that emphasizes finding solutions to global warming and caring for the poor over divisive “culture war” issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. They’re allegedly open to voting for a Democrat and, it’s been said, will rise up in great numbers and displace the old politics of religious conservatism.

The new evangelicals may have made a big splash in the media, but I remain skeptical that this movement exists in any significant numbers. It has few visible leaders and no well-funded national organizations. Sure enough, polls taken in September showed self-identified evangelicals backing Republican candidate John McCain by 80 percent–about the same percentage that voted for George W. Bush in 2004.

And where were the new evangelicals at the Values Voter Summit? They certainly weren’t among the 2,000 who erupted in applause and cheers any time Alaska Gov. and Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin’s name was mentioned.

Meanwhile, the old-fashioned, unreconstructed religious right–a supposedly “dead” movement–came on strong. McCain’s campaign was adrift until he tapped Palin to be his running mate. Suddenly, right-wing Christians who were indifferent about his candidacy were fired up and eager to vote for the GOP.

It was widely reported in the media that Palin wasn’t McCain’s first choice. He wanted U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) to run with him. But Lieberman is pro-choice, and this group would have none of it. McCain was told that adding Lieberman to the ticket was unacceptable, and he quickly caved. Palin was selected, even though she hadn’t been properly vetted and possessed at best a thin resume. Funny how a “dead” movement held that much power.

Palin’s presence on the ticket reignited a series of culture war issues that media pundits assumed were dying down. Those of us who work in the trenches knew it was a mistake to think that these issues were losing their potency, yet assorted media figures fed that view. Supposedly, we had turned the corner, and issues like the economy, energy prices, and international affairs would dominate.

Religious conservatives, however, have always been masters of distraction. Their organizations are adept at pushing the bread-and-butter issues that should matter onto the back burner in favor of rants about late-term abortions, same-sex marriage, or the role of religion in public life. Suddenly, the “culture war” was raging anew.

The religious right is also skilled at firing up its base. At the Values Voter Summit, I saw many attendees sporting buttons with images of Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts and Justice Samuel A. Alito. These two Bush appointees have pushed the high court sharply to the right. Religious conservatives not only know who they are, they applaud how they got on the court and want more like them.

By contrast, most Americans remain clueless about the Supreme Court. A poll taken in 2006 found that 57 percent couldn’t name even one justice. There were a number of incorrect responses, among them Thurgood Marshall, a justice who retired from the court in 1991 and died two years later, as well as Hillary Clinton and George W. Bush.

I don’t mean to imply that members of religious right groups are more intelligent than anyone else. Their views on science alone belie that claim. But they are disciplined and politically astute. They know what they want and what they must do to get it. They understand that it’s the Supreme Court–not Congress–that ultimately decides the fate of many “culture war” issues. And they know how justices get on the court: they are nominated by the president and confirmed or denied by a simple majority vote in the Senate. That’s why the religious right places so much emphasis on those races.

Conservative religious groups are also well funded and well organized. I recently compiled a survey of the top ten religious right organizations for Americans United. Collectively, their annual budgets easily exceed half a billion dollars. TV preacher Pat Robertson brought in nearly $250 million in 2006, and James Dobson of Focus on the Family reaches five million people over the radio every day.

The next occupant of the White House may or may not be very receptive to these people’s cause. Regardless, they will continue to press ahead. They despise the principles of humanism and will do everything in their power to cut them down and retard humanism’s growing popularity.

Wendell Phillips, a nineteenth century abolitionist and advocate of women’s rights, is reported to have said, “The Puritan’s idea of hell is a place where everybody has to mind his own business.” A theocratic movement that has no intention of minding its own business is newly empowered and as determined as ever to run our lives. This will have serious implications.

Get ready. The road ahead looks rocky.