The term "Religious Right" pops up every election cycle, but leaders often identified with the political movement say that while their constituencies remain strong, the catchphrase deserves a proper burial.

After Election Day, the BBC declared that times are uncertain for the Religious Right. In September 2008, Newsweek declared a Religious-Right Revival after Sarah Palin was nominated vice president. Even after the election, the term "Religious Right" or "Christian Right" appeared in recent obituaries as journalists searched for words to describe Paul Weyrich, cofounder of the Moral Majority, and the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, founder of Catholic journal First Things.

However, several politically conservative evangelicals said in interviews that they do not want to be identified with the "Religious Right," "Christian Right," "Moral Majority," or other phrases still thrown around in journalism and academia.

"There is an ongoing battle for the vocabulary of our debate," said Gary Bauer, president of American Values. "It amazes me how often in public discourse really pejorative phrases are used, like the 'American Taliban,' 'fundamentalists,' 'Christian fascists,' and 'extreme Religious Right.' "

Jerry Falwell, cofounder of the Moral Majority, self-applied the Religious Right label until it started taking a more negative connotation, according to John Green, senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

"Terminology is fraught with peril," Green said. "People associated it with a hard-edge politics and intolerance. Very few people to whom that term now would apply would use that term."

Academics believe the phrase originated with the media in the late 1970s after politically conservative groups like the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition were formed.

"I think some of these terms have a life of their own. There's very little you can do to change them and reinvent them," said Joel Carpenter, former Calvin College provost and author of Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism. "The Moral Majority no longer exists, but conservative religious folk who are pushing conservative cultural politics are still around."

Gary Schneeberger, vice president of media and public relations for Focus on the Family, said that when writers include terms like "Religious Right" and "fundamentalist," they can create negative impressions.

"Terms like 'Religious Right' have been traditionally used in a pejorative way to suggest extremism," Schneeberger said. "The phrase 'socially conservative evangelicals' is not very exciting, but that's certainly the way to do it."

What muddies the waters even more is when writers use the terms "evangelical" and "Religious Right" interchangeably. Individuals like megachurch pastor Rick Warren would resist being categorized as part of the Religious Right, even though the policies he supports may be politically conservative, said Randall Balmer, author of the Encyclopedia of Evangelicalism.

"I don't know if there are any labels for these folk," he said. "They do defy political labeling."

Like Warren, many groups would rather distance themselves from the Religious Right, even though they may agree on several political issues. Richard Land said he corrects numerous reporters who call him a leader of the Religious Right, explaining that he represents a group of Southern Baptists who would probably consider themselves conservative evangelicals.

"When the so-called 'Religious Right' agrees with us, we applaud their good taste and good judgment," said Land, who is president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission for the Southern Baptist Convention. Some phrases need to be eliminated from journalists' vocabulary entirely, he said. "Until Tony Perkins or Jim Dobson puts a pistol on the table and threatens to kill someone, they shouldn't be called ayatollah of the Right or the Jihadists of the Right."

Article continues below

On the other side of the political spectrum, founder of Sojourners Jim Wallis is often associated with the "Religious Left" but would rather be called a progressive. He also dislikes the use of "Religious Right."

"I would not be happy with labeling anyone just right-wing. That's simplistic and reductionist," Wallis said. "Labels are shorthand, sloppy ways to describe someone."

Organizational leaders like Tony Perkins of Family Research Council want a term that includes other religious groups like Catholics, Jews, and Mormons so that they can see themselves as fighting for the same cause.

"It's not accurate to say that the Christian Right or the Religious Right is simply a narrow slice of evangelicals," Perkins said. "Will everyone identify themselves as part of the Religious Right? No, but they do share a portion of values."

Coming up with the best term to describe religious groups who are politically conservative can be tricky for writers. Rice University sociologist Bill Martin, who authored the book With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America, resists the term "religious conservative" because it has connotations with a group that identifies itself as theologically conservative.

"Mennonites and Amish are religious conservatives," Martin said. "They are pietistic people, but they're not involved politically."

Some journalists have already written obituaries for the Religious Right, but that would be premature, says Michael Cromartie, vice president at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

"I think it's unwise to say any of these groups are finished," Cromartie said. "Groups like these often grow, regroup, [or] expand when they're in opposition." In other words, perhaps journalists should find a style before 2012.



Related Elsewhere:

See also Christianity Today's September 1999 cover story, "Is the Religious Right Finished?"

More politics coverage is available at our politics blog and politics & law section.