The Never-Ending Rise and Fall of the Religious Right

As we have stated again and again and again over the years, the media seems to have basically two ways of writing about the Religious Right:  1) they are dinosaurs on their way to extinction, or 2) they are galvanized, unified and motivated to reshape America.

And which of these narratives the media is presenting at any given time depends largely on how the Republicans did in the most recent election.  Thus after the 2008 election in which Barack Obama and the Democrats won significant victories, we saw articles like this in Newsweek:

The End of Christian America
The percentage of self-identified Christians has fallen 10 points in the past two decades. How that statistic explains who we are now—and what, as a nation, we are about to become.

This is not to say that the Christian God is dead, but that he is less of a force in American politics and culture than at any other time in recent memory. To the surprise of liberals who fear the advent of an evangelical theocracy and to the dismay of religious conservatives who long to see their faith more fully expressed in public life, Christians are now making up a declining percentage of the American population.

That was in April 2009. 

Today, of course, Republicans recently won significant victories in the last election, so now Newsweek is running this new cover story:

One Nation Under God
Powerful new rhetoric on the religious right pits Obama and big government against ‘God’s America’—and promises to galvanize Christians in 2012.

Though [Glenn] Beck may not be every conservative Christian’s idea of a leader, many moderate conservatives agree that the old-guard religious right—represented by Pat Robertson and James Dobson—and their social priorities have ceased to hold much sway in Washington. Further, they believe that something like Christian patriotism, what in theological circles is often called “American exceptionalism,” has replaced abortion and gay marriage as the rallying cry of the religious right

Evangelicals characteristically see themselves as a persecuted group whose values are under assault by the mainstream culture, and Beck has most successfully (and visibly) reframed those values in terms of patriotism. The enemy is no longer “moral relativism,” a term that encompasses sexual promiscuity, divorce, homosexuality, and pornography. It’s socialism, the redistribution of wealth, immigrants—a kind of “global relativism” that makes no moral distinction between America and every other place. Beck speaks frequently about God’s special destiny for America. “We used to strive in this country to be a shining city on the hill,” he said at the “Restoring Honor” rally in August. “That’s what the Pilgrims came here for. That’s what they thought this land was. It’s what our Founders thought … It is the shining example of a place where people work together in peace and friendship and worship God and make things better together.”

Sarah Palin, arguably the other emergent leader of the religious right, echoes this rhetoric. “Molding the crooked timber of humanity requires the grace of God,” she writes in her new book, America by Heart. “We have to know what makes America exceptional today more than ever because it is under assault today more than ever.” With this rhetoric, Beck and Palin are tapping a deep place in the American Protestant psyche … But Beck’s gift, and Palin’s, is to articulate God’s special plan for America in such broad strokes that they trample no single creed or doctrine while they move millions with their message. Jerry Falwell had a similar gift, and in 1980 his Moral Majority helped make Jimmy Carter a one-term president—and elect Ronald Reagan in a landslide.

Newsweek has even produced two companion pieces – one, a photo-essay entited “Faces of the Christian Right” and another article examining possible GOP presidential candidates in terms of their appeal to the Religious Right.

Just last year Newsweek reported that we had “entered a post-Christian phase” in America where religion was going to play less and less of a role in politics. 

And today Newsweek is reporting that the influence of Christian conservatives remains substantial and that they are rallying around the idea of “American exceptionalism” to press their political agenda and have lots of Republican presidential hopefuls to choose from.  

What an amazing turnaround!