For the past two decades, the media's coverage of religion and politics has been dominated by the religious right. First Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority, then Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition, organized the faithful into electoral politics and attempted to gain power through the Republican Party. Whenever the subject of religion and politics came up, they were the center of attention.
But in the most recent sign of a new day, Governor Bush declined an invitation to speak to the Coalition's annual "Road to Victory" conference in Washington last month. For the first time since the Coalition's founding, the Republican presidential nominee did not appear. Only after warnings from Robertson that he was "taking a risk," Bush finally sent a three-minute videotaped message that was mild compared with what the warriors of the Christian right have come to expect.
The next day, Robertson issued another warning in an appearance on "Face the Nation." Speaking to the audience, and presumably to Bush, he complained, "It's a dangerous strategy to ignore your base...."
During the Republican Convention in Philadelphia, the religious right was almost totally downplayed. Robertson did not speak to the convention, but spent it (as one news account noted), "tucked away comfortably in a skybox."
The Christian Coalition has been through some hard times since the departure of Ralph Reed in 1997. It has been beset with staff upheaval and lost both money and members. News reports told of temporary employees hopping from room to room ahead of news camera crews so that each office appeared to be bustling with activity. Massive numbers of Coalition voter guides showed up in dumpsters and recycling centers after Election Day.
Last summer, the Coalition was forced into a corporate reorganization when the Internal Revenue Service denied it tax-exempt status. This legal ruling makes it problematic for churches to distribute its much-touted voter guides without endangering their own tax status. While their electoral strength was always exaggerated, their ability to "deliver" decisive blocs of votes is now also in question.
But the deeper reality is that by focusing on the "moral agenda" of abortion, pornography, homosexuality, and Hollywood sleaze, the Coalition consistently ignored other moral issues of poverty, racism, and economic inequality. In January 1997, the Coalition had taken a promising step by initiating the "Samaritan Project," designed to work with inner-city churches on these issues. The project, however, was never given the necessary resources, and in the staff cuts, was first to go. That quick turnaround and the broken promises made to inner-city pastors was one of the most cynical and disreputable political moves by a Christian organization in years.
And too-close involvement with Republican Party politics ultimately denied the Coalition the moral high ground that any movement for a new moral politics needs. Cal Thomas, a former Moral Majority official, notes that "The religious right was a series of issues that ultimately affixed themselves to a particular party, so therefore their success in dealing with those issues depended on whether or not that party came to power, locally and nationally."
Today, both conservative and liberal churches are showing a deepening social conscience on the issues of poverty and race. A recent survey showed that 86% of the American people (religious or not) believe that "churches and religious organizations should spend more time helping the poor." This public opinion is echoed in both presidential candidates' emphasis on new partnerships between government and faith-based organizations to overcome poverty. And many churches associated with the religious right are now among those involved in social service ministries in their communities.
This new moral conversation and action shows great promise for the future of America. History teaches us that the most effective social movements are also spiritual ones, which change people's thinking and attitudes by an appeal to moral or religious values. These changes in attitudes then change the political and cultural climate, which then make policy changes more possible. The best example is, of course, the civil rights movement.
I am not one of those who think the religious right has been an entirely negative force in American politics. Their cry for a more values-centered politics is a positive development. Indeed, the unacceptability of a continuing high poverty rate in the midst of our great prosperity is a values and morals issue. Better yet, it is bringing together liberals and conservatives in a biblical concern for "the least of these." If we can unite over this moral issue, both the poor and the country will be better for it, not to mention the integrity of the religious community.