Analysts debate the staying power of Christian players in the conservative revolution.

Last month, Concerned Women for America (CWA)—the conservative women’s group Ronald Reagan once dubbed one of the “powerhouses on the political scene”—celebrated its tenth anniversary. About 400 people joined CWA founder Beverly LaHaye in Washington, D.C., to launch its new “Decade of Destiny for America’s Children.” Keynote speakers such as President George Bush, drug czar William Bennett, and Focus on the Family head James Dobson addressed the group via pretaped video messages.

At first glance, it seemed a far cry from the glory days when CWA attracted thousands of attendees and a personal appearance by the President (CT, November 6, 1987, p. 34), leading some pundits to interpret the conference as a sign that CWA has lost its previous political clout. Still, this year’s conference was beamed by satellite to 181 cities across the country so that 45,000 could participate, which other observers saw as a change of focus away from Washington and toward the grassroots.

In many ways debate over the status of CWA characterizes discussion of the present and future of the Religious Right, the broad coalition of politically conservative Catholics, fundamentalists, and evangelicals that rose to prominence in the Reagan era.

“It is perhaps premature to explain the failure of a social movement which has not yet died, but enough of the signs are already there,” said sociologist Steve Bruce, author of The Rise and Fall of the New Christian Right. Bruce and others point to a series of problems plaguing the Religious Right: organizational mistakes, internal differences on strategy and issue priority, a loss of momentum, and a less visible national role. For many, the disbanding of the Moral Majority this summer represented the final blow to the movement (CT, July 14, p. 58).

“The [New Christian Right] has failed to achieve any significant legislative success. It has failed in its main goal of re-Christianizing America, and there are few reasons to suppose that it will at some future time succeed,” Bruce said.

Following Mao

Many observers, however, are reluctant to count the movement completely out. “It would be silly to suggest that it has disappeared,” said Ron Sider, president of Evangelicals for Social Action. “The basic values and concerns that allowed it to be significantly influential have not changed substantially.”

A new strategy appears to be emerging for the Religious Right, which is returning its emphasis to the state and local levels. “Many that I know here in Washington of the Religious Right are now quick to admit that Mao was right when he said that in a revolution, if you take the countryside, the capital will fall,” said Richard Cizik, research director of the National Association of Evangelicals’ (NAE) Washington office. Cizik said when the Religious Right groups all moved to Washington in the eighties, they ignored the countryside. Now, he said, that seems to be changing. For example, CWA is putting priority on developing local Prayer/Action chapters.

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Tim LaHaye, president of Family Life Seminars and an early architect of the Religious Right, said the trend represents the strength of the movement. “In the nineties, the Religious Right is going to be composed of a host of independent, locally sponsored and funded organizations that work in unison, but individually,” he said.

With Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson presently taking the back seat on political action, a major issue for the Religious Right is the lack of designated leadership on the national level. This summer Falwell called James Dobson the “rising star” of the Religious Right.

Yet Dobson, despite his ability to mobilize hundreds of thousands of profamily radio listeners, categorically rejects the mantle of heir apparent to Falwell.

“Eighteen years ago, I was talking about the family in the context of society, and that is the limit of my public role now,” Dobson told CHRISTIANITY TODAY. “We have no political aspirations at all, … and I don’t want to lead the Religious Right.” Last year, Dobson said, Focus spent only 1 percent of its total budget on legislative matters and 6 percent on all aspects of public policy.

Mike Cromartie of the Ethics and Public Policy Center believes the lack of a single leader is bad news for critics of the Religious Right. “It will be difficult for them to raise money without Falwell’s and Robertson’s pictures,” he said.

John Buchanan, chairman of the liberal lobby group People for the American Way, acknowledges this is true. “It is certainly easier to do battle with a nationally televised prominent person … than it is to fight state-by-state and locality-by-locality battles, which is where I think the battles are going to be,” he told the Washington Times.

What remains to be seen, according to Cromartie, is “whether people will get motivated if they don’t have a figure on the federal level leading the charge.”

Another issue will be the extent to which evangelicals remain part of the Religious Right coalition. As Corwin Smidt, professor of political science at Calvin College, points out, evangelicals are a politically diverse group whose political activity is not limited to the Religious Right. “Many evangelicals may sympathize with many of the positions that the Religious Right has adopted, but still feel very uncomfortable with the total mix of what has been put together,” Smidt said.

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Noting the traditionally Democratic roots of evangelicals, Smidt said he is not convinced the Republicans have an irrevocable lock on the Religious Right. “That lock may be more secure today than it was in 1980, but it is still somewhat tenuous,” he asserted.

Assessing The Possibilities

Tim LaHaye has high hopes for the future of the Religious Right. “Just compare where we were 10 years ago with where we are now,” he said, pointing to the proliferation of Christian activist organizations around the country.

Sider disagrees, saying the narrowness of the movement will hamper it from getting a hearing in the larger society. “A really balanced voice that respected pluralism and still articulated a biblically balanced view ought to have a better shot at impact in the next decade,” he said.

Others offer a more cautious assessment. “The Christian Right is now a player among the different players, a political force to be reckoned with, but it is not going to take over anything,” said Cromartie. “In the past they expected things they never should have expected, and now there is a more sober outlook.”

NAE’s Cizik feels the jury is still out. “It’s not yet clear whether the movement will be able to translate ideological headway into demonstrable political effect,” he said, noting he does not believe the Religious Right has had a clear-cut test of its political power since the Bush administration took office. “A transition within the movement has started,” he said. “But it is not yet apparent what the result will be.”

By Kim A. Lawton.

Where’s Pat?

Once touted as a key leader of the Religious Right, Pat Robertson has spent the months following the 1988 elections out of the national news spotlight, leading some to conclude that he is likewise out of the political picture.

In 1989, Robertson threw his energies into reviving and extending his Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), which he acknowledges was deeply hurt by his run for the presidency and lingering fallout from the televangelism scandals, CBN reports that as a result of Robertson’s absence from the daily “700 Club” television show during the presidential campaign, audience numbers dropped sharply and contributions plunged $75 million annually. Robertson has returned to cohost the program, offer Bible teaching and news commentary, and raise funds.

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The CBN cable network, the Family Channel, has been turning a profit, allowing the organization to push ahead with new projects despite lagging donations. Among the new projects are construction of an international conference center at the Virginia Beach headquarters and plans for a major four-nation evangelistic crusade in Central America in 1990. CBN added 50 new broadcast affiliates, resumed broadcasting on the government-owned station in Nicaragua, and put in a bid to buy the PTL satellite network.

Robertson has been extending other communications interests as well. Earlier this year he created Broadcast Equities, Inc., a media organization aimed at setting up a national talk-radio network with a politically conservative perspective. Broadcast Equities has purchased WNTR, a secular station in suburban Washington, D.C., as its flagship station, and has applications for two more stations pending. The alternative news/talk-radio network will be separate from CBN Radio, which currently has 260 affiliates for its Christian music and programming.

Some Washington observers point to the purchase of WNTR and the recent announcement that CBN University will change its name next month to Regent University as evidence that Robertson is attempting to distance himself from the label of Christian broadcasting. They further speculate that with the news/talk network he could be positioning himself to give political direction to the Religious Right. Robertson did not respond to CHRISTIANITY TODAY’s requests for an interview about his intentions.

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