With such fellow believers as President Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft in office, religious conservatives have never had more friends in high places.

But a growing sense of frustration is enveloping the leadership of the political movement that began nearly 25 years ago when the Rev. Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority burst onto the national scene. A generation later, most Americans don't stand with what is commonly referred to as the Christian Right. Its big agenda items have fizzled.

And as the impact of last month's sweeping Supreme Court ruling on gay rights sinks in, the movement is at a soul-searching crossroads.

"Obviously, in some ways Christians are losing the culture war, certainly on this issue (gay rights)," said the Rev. D. James Kennedy, head of Coral Ridge Ministries in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and a religious broadcaster with a national following. "The time has come for us to re-examine the situation we're in."

Some see opportunity in a new battle arising from the June ruling—gay marriage. Handled correctly, strategists say, it could re-energize religious conservatives, putting them in a posture of defending heterosexual marriage instead of attacking the rights of gays.

There appears to be a growing consensus that the movement must find a way out of its current predicament: being dissatisfied with the status quo, but reluctant to criticize it because allies control the White House and Congress.

"They're at a moment where they have to reinvigorate themselves or reinvent themselves or they'll just slowly fade away," said John Green, a professor at the University of Akron and co-editor of a new book, The Christian Right in American Politics.

Most social movements do better rallying against enemies than helping allies govern, Green said. Many religious conservative organizations thrived when Bill Clinton was in the White House.

With gay rights marching on, abortion an established right, no return to teacher-led school prayer in sight and public vouchers for private schools a messy proposition at best, religious conservative activists have learned over time that it's easier to fulminate than to legislate. Even when laws are passed, the courts can and do overturn them.

Some see history repeating itself, as when President Reagan spoke the language of religious conservatives but wasn't able or willing to deliver on key policy goals.

A handful of national leaders, such as outgoing Family Research Council President Ken Connor, advocate a more demanding tone, even if it means criticizing Bush for not doing enough.

Article continues below

That appears unlikely, however, because Bush remains immensely popular among the white evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics that make up the movement. It's a constituency that makes up as much as 18 percent of the entire electorate, according to surveys, but it has no realistic place to go outside the GOP.

(In a dozen Gallup surveys over the last five years, the share of Americans identifying themselves as "born-again" or "evangelical" ranged between 41 and 49 percent. That grouping is much larger than the Christian Right because it includes blacks, who vote strongly Democratic, as well as some Catholics, mainline Protestants and non-voters who may identify with those spiritual terms.)

Connor, who left the Family Research Council Monday for unspecified "professional and personal reasons," says fellow leaders of the conservative Christian political movement have been used, accepting rhetoric instead of results and confusing access with influence.

"They go to an East Room ceremony or a Rose Garden signing or to the White House Christmas party and say, 'Look at all the influence I have,'" he said. "In reality, they've been bought off cheap."

Paul Weyrich—head of the Washington-based Free Congress Foundation, co-founder of the Moral Majority and a man some call the father of the Christian Right—shares some of Connor's frustration, without criticizing Bush.

"The president is a religious conservative. The senate majority leader is a religious conservative. The speaker of the house and the house majority leader and the majority whip are all religious conservatives," Weyrich said. "Yet we make only marginal, incremental progress. We really have to rethink our strategy."

The Leadership Institute, along with groups such as Concerned Women for America, Robertson School of Government at Regent University, American Renewal, and the Free Congress Foundation, recently gave Weyrich a "Patriot's Award" for his service to the cause. The scene—an annual summer gathering in suburban Washington sponsored by more than 20 conservative organizations—was festive, with red, white and blue banners and balloons. Activists carried paper plates piled with fried chicken, pork sandwiches and baked beans under a large banner saying "Government is not God."

Interviews revealed that leaders of the movement are downright pessimistic, even at a time when some Democrats accuse Bush of pushing a religious conservative agenda and foreign critics say the administration imposes a moralistic vision on the world.

Article continues below

"In politics and public policy, we're losing ground," said Walt Barbee, a veteran political activist in Virginia, the state where religious conservatives arguably been most successful. "I don't see how anyone can say otherwise in light of the prima facie evidence of this recent Supreme Court decision."

Justice Antonin Scalia, in his blistering dissent, said the court's majority had decreed "the end of all morals legislation" and made gay marriage the logical next step. Meantime, an appeals court in Canada ruled in June that a gay marriage ban was unconstitutional. Pending court decisions in Massachusetts and New Jersey could sanction gay marriage in this country as well.

"I don't think the bomb has gone off yet. It will go off and go off soon. It's the marriage bomb," said Matt Daniels, president of the Alliance for Marriage, a Washington-based group promoting a constitutional amendment defining marriage as solely a union between a man and a woman.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), has endorsed the effort, saying "Western values" and the "sacrament" of marriage must be protected.

In Michigan, legislators are working to rewrite the state constitution in a similar manner. Gary Glenn, president of the American Family Association of Michigan, predicts gay marriage will become the ultimate wedge issue, with every 2004 candidate forced to answer where he or she stands.

"Some folks on the right see the marriage issue as the winning move for them," said Michael Adams, a spokesman for Lambda Legal, a New York City organization fighting for gay rights nationally. "I think they're going to see that they're mistaken, just as they thought gay adoption was the issue for them and child custody for gays and lesbians was the issue for them.

"But we don't expect the Christian Right to go away. They certainly have shown with their virulent reaction the last couple of weeks that they're not going away."

Copyright © 2003 Religion News Service.

Related Elsewhere

For related stories, see our CTPolitics and Law archive.