The New Christian Right has taken on enormous political importance in the United States. In order to understand this coalition, we must consider past events and forces. Dr. Leo Ribuffo guides the audience through American history, describing key events, individuals and movements in American religious and political landscapes that led to the formation of the modern Christian Right. David Shribman emphasizes and explains the group’ s historic significance.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Leo Ribuffo is Society of the Cincinnati George Washington Distinguished Professor of History at George Washington University. Among the books he has written is The Old Christian Right, honored by the Organization of American Historians as the best book in American intellectual history in 1983-84. He is currently writing a book on the Carter presidency.
DR. LEO P. RIBUFFO: Intermittently since 1980 pundits and liberal activists have been saying that the New Christian Right is either on the verge of taking over American life or on the verge of decline. Among the high spots and low spots was the 1992 Republican Convention, where Pat Buchanan declared “cultural war,” a term that has, alas, entered our discourse. I’m going to try to make sense of some of this through the history of American religion and religion-related conflicts. We’ll see some similarities and continuities.
A couple of methodological considerations at the outset. The American religious stew has always been immensely complicated. This was certainly true in colonial days, when religion tended to be a mix of Puritanism and animism and witchcraft, and you were less likely to be a church member before you were married than to be pregnant or to have gotten someone pregnant. Similarly, beware of sweeping categories. The term “Judeo-Christian tradition” goes back only to the 1930s. “Fundamentalist” was coined in the 1920s to describe one wing of theologically conservative Protestants; it is now used ubiquitously to label groups from Tulsa to Tehran. It’s a little like referring to Jerry Falwell as, say, “a Protestant Hasid,” or Pat Robertson as a “Protestant Sufi Muslim.” We may expand our definitions to some degree, but let’s at least try to preserve some nuance.
It seems to me that if you want to understand the New Christian Right, then you have to understand the American religious crisis of the late nineteenth century, the transformation of American politics in the 1930s and 1940s, and the cultural crisis of the 1960s and early 1970s. I want to go back to that overwhelmingly Protestant culture in the late nineteenth century, when it was facing various challenges. Darwinism suggested that man, instead of being a little lower than the angels, was just a little higher than the apes. “Higher criticism” of the Bible told the faithful that the Book of Isaiah was written by three people, none of whom was named Isaiah. These intellectual challenges had to be assimilated. Then there were social challenges such as the “new immigration” — almost 30 million Catholics and Jews who, in an overwhelmingly Protestant culture, seemed very, very strange.
The institutionally dominant Protestant response was what was known as “new theology,” or “liberal theology,” or “modernism,” entailing five major positions: a new view of the Bible as not necessarily inerrant; a new view of Jesus as a good guy, not necessarily divine; a new view of God’s kingdom as the good society here and now; a tendency toward ecumenicism within Protestantism; and an optimism that the world was getting better and better. A minority of those theological liberals were also politically liberal or radical, and they espoused what became known as the social gospel. They had an immense popular appeal with best-selling books like Charles Sheldon’s novel In His Steps, where the citizens of Topeka are instructed in how to live their lives “as Jesus would.” This is Al Gore’s tradition! When he said that he wakes up every day asking himself “What would Jesus do?” he was harkening back to In His Steps.
And what did theological conservatives believe? In a nutshell, liberalism turned on its head. The Bible is inerrant, period. Jesus is the Son of God who died for your sins. God’s kingdom will be established when Jesus returns. We are ecumenical only among fellow theological conservatives. The world will get worse and worse until Jesus returns. Increasingly that worsening process was interpreted through a framework called premillennial dispensationalism. You may not have heard of it, but more Americans can tell you its essential features than can tell you the essential features of Keynesian economics. All time is divided into ages or dispensations (usually seven); we are in the next-to-last-age; things are getting worse and worse; Satan’s agent, the Anti-Christ, will arise and eventually dominate the world; this will be followed by the second coming of Christ and the establishment of the Millennium, the thousand-year reign of Christ. The scholar Paul Boyer says today there are eight million avid followers of this form of Bible prophecy; if there are eighty Keynesians left, I’d be surprised.
There’s a lot of complexity here. Not all theological conservatives were also political conservatives; William Jennings Bryan stands out as a theological conservative who was politically a progressive. The theological conservatives fought among themselves (notably Pentecostals, who believed that spiritual rebirth brought special gifts such as speaking in tongues, versus classic fundamentalists). Indeed, theological liberals and conservatives were not fully polarized before World War I. Similarly, before then there wasn’t a clear segmentation on the political spectrum; it’s hard to tell a so-called progressive like Theodore Roosevelt from a so-called conservative like William Howard Taft.
“Though religious conservatives have not taken control of the Republican Party…they have achieved something far more profound and potentially far more significant. Religious conservatives have changed the American conversation. They have changed who participates in that conversation and what assumptions are brought to bear on it. They have changed the tone of the conversation, and they’ve changed the content of the conversation. Eventually they may even change its conclusion.”
As the Hun Scare moved quickly into the Red Scare, World War I polarized American culture and religious life. There was militancy on all fronts, but for theological conservatives the war had a particular impact. First, it proved pessimism was right; and second, according to Bible prophecy Jews would return to Palestine before the return of Jesus — right before — and the Balfour Declaration promised a Jewish homeland in Palestine. So the theological conservatives, usually called in an oversimplified fashion “fundamentalists” after 1920, came out of the war on a roll. In 1919 they founded the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association, whose major focus was fighting the teaching of evolution in the public schools. In retrospect, in this first fundamentalist controversy as in the second of the 1970s and beyond, it’s hard to discover which side fired the first shots.
Actually, the first fundamentalist controversy had two fronts. One was within the denominations, with their heresy trials and so forth, where the rhetoric was tough. The Christian Century called fundamentalism a “neurotic” and “extremist” movement. The fundamentalist Billy Sunday, though in many ways atypical, had his good lines, and suggested to liberal Christians that going to church doesn’t make a person a Christian any more than going to a garage makes him an automobile.
Outside the denominations there was a wider fundamentalist controversy. The Scopes trial plus the debunking carried on by people like H. L. Mencken, Upton Sinclair, and Sinclair Lewis (with his Elmer Gantry) left a permanent mark, alas, on our view of theological conservatives down to the present. While these stereotypes linger, the more typical fundamentalists were quieter figures who differed among themselves in style, intelligence, and politics. Above all, beware of the claim that preachers could mobilize fundamentalists like robots. Rather, this was a rank-and-file movement responding to cultural threats to the things they held dear, the threats being perhaps evolution in the classroom, perhaps Theda Bara’s bared flesh in those very sexy silent movies.
In politics, most fundamentalists joined their liberal colleagues in opposing Al Smith, a Catholic, for president in 1928, but for a substantial number his religion was less important than the price of wheat or the preservation of white supremacy. Somewhere between two and five million Americans joined the Ku Klux Klan, most as casually as if they were joining the Elks. But not all fundamentalists were bigots, and not all bigots were fundamentalists. Perhaps the worst was the pro forma Christian Henry Ford, who distributed a collection called The International Jew, an Americanization of the virulently anti-Semitic Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. This was put together by his aide William Cameron, a Christian Identity type of that day. Those interested in the Christian Far Far Far Right can find here the antecedents of some of the current militias.
Clearly the twenties was a time of great cultural conflict with political ramifications, but I’d say that the political spectrum still was not clearly segmented. As Hoover put it, “We are a nation of progressives. We differ as to the road to progress.” It was the Great Crash of 1929, the Depression, and the response to the New Deal that accomplished the segmentation. Cultural questions of the 1920s were reorchestrated in a less prosperous economic context, and we can now see the spectrum that we are more or less familiar with: liberal advocates of the welfare state; Roosevelt pushing to turn “progressives” into liberals; conservatives (many of whom adopted the term regrettably, saying they were the true liberals), who opposed the welfare state; a radical left of communists and socialists. We will focus here on the emergence of a distinct Far Right, the Old Christian Right, the spiritual ancestors of the modern Christian Right. Many Far Right figures were famous or notorious at the time. The names still familiar are Father Charles Coughlin, the “radio priest,” and Senator Huey Long, whom I would put in this category though he is somewhat problematical. Among the many less well known today are Gerald L. K. Smith, my favorite Gerald Winrod, William Dudley Pelley of the nativist paramilitary group the Silver Shirts, and Elizabeth Dilling, the Phyllis Schlafly of her day, though much, much more conservative.
A critical question for historians is how this Far Right movement differed from such mainstream conservatives as Herbert Hoover and Senator Robert Taft. I would say three things. First, it had greater dynamism, not just to preserve American society but to restore American virtue. Second, the Far Right was more prone to ungrounded conspiracy theories, particularly those of an anti-Semitic sort. Third, this Far Right sometimes urged economic redistribution, and in that it was somewhat liberal to radical. Fourth, much of its rank-and-file came out of a theologically conservative Protestant background and made those arguments part of its politics.
Liberals or radicals of those days didn’t see a “far right” — they saw the coming American fascism! And they were willing to support restrictions on speech and assembly, indictments, the House Un-American Activities Committee, and the like to shut these people up. I call it a “Brown Scare.” Now broadly speaking there is an analogy between the American Far Right of the thirties and Hitler or Mussolini, in the sense that there would be an analogy between Wilson and David Lloyd George, or between Clinton and Blair. But these are very different countries. The American Far Right, particularly its religious wing, tended to be less militarist, more rooted in religion, and less disposed to genetic theories of interpretation regarding Jews than its European counterparts.
Let me give you only one example of my favorite, Gerald Winrod, a classic 1920s fundamentalist, fighting Prohibition and Theda Bara movies, politicized by the Great Depression. Winrod interprets the New Deal in theological terms. He notices that the blue eagle used as the emblem of the National Recovery Administration has the same number of feathers as the Beast of Revelation had arms. This was proof-positive to him — and I suppose to many of the sixty thousand people in Kansas who tried to send him to the Senate — that there was an international Satanic conspiracy stretching from the Crucifixion to Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Let me emphasize that only a minority of theological conservatives joined Far Right groups in the thirties. Most voted for FDR because they were Southern Democrats, poor, or both. Fundamentalist leaders spent most of the decade praying for the revival that didn’t come then, and also building an important infrastructure of Bible institutes, periodicals, and radio stations that would survive totally ignored by sociologists and journalists (though not by all historians) until the 1950s.
World War II and its aftermath produced both a religious revival and a movement of the whole political spectrum rightward. It would be useful if we came to understand that our left-right-center spectrum is not a standard imprinted on an iron bar in the National Bureau of Standards. Rather, it’s more like the old-fashioned Turkish taffy at the New Jersey shore: the location of the center depends on the “pull” on the extremes. The revival came during World War II; it’s sometimes called the Fifth Great Awakening. In 1940 only 49 per cent of the population claimed to attend church regularly; by 1960 it was 69 per cent. Despite spurts and ebbs, I would say that yes, it was a real awakening; yes, it was the fifth; and yes, it’s still going on. It involved Eisenhower’s God float in the 1953 inaugural, “under God” added to the Pledge of Allegiance, “In God We Trust” made the national motto. It involved the self-help guides of Norman Vincent Peale and his Catholic and Jewish counterparts, Fulton J. Sheen and Joshua Loth Liebman, and it involved Martin Luther King’s renovation of the social gospel in support of racial equality.
But what surprised all of the leading social scientists was the rebound of fundamentalism instead of its demise. (After all, if Seymour Martin Lipset and Daniel Bell said it was going, it had to go!) It adapted and thrived. That adaptation is largely symbolized by its most famous figure, Billy Graham, who began as a classic fundamentalist, indeed, a protégé of William Bell Riley, the founder of the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association. Graham went for a time to Bob Jones University and Wheaton College. Early on, he tottered on whether the Catholic Church was the whore of Babylon, and he still opposed Darwinism. But he became more sophisticated and somewhat more liberal, and began to call himself an “evangelical” rather than a fundamentalist. While he still believed that the return of Jesus was relatively imminent, he didn’t announce dates. A similar renovation was the adoption by Pentecostals of the more stylish name “Full Gospel” or ultimately “Charismatic.” The key figure there was Oral Roberts.
Not all theological conservatives of the fifties were happy with this drift. Young Jerry Falwell, who founded the Thomas Road Baptist Church in 1956, said he was still a Separate Baptist and a fundamentalist.
By the time we get to the mid-seventies with this Fifth Great Awakening, there’s a large constituency. How large depends on definition. Who knows? Forty, sixty, eighty million, ready to be politicized, moved rightward by the sixties — by the Vietnam War, the civil-rights movement, secularizing court decisions, changing sexual mores, a society that seemed to be moving left politically and culturally. Such changes would have seemed virtually inconceivable in the 1950s, when both the liberal left and the right clung to what Arthur Schlesinger called “the vital center,” liberals forgetting that they ever had popular-front allies, conservatives forgetting that they ever had anti-Semitic and isolationist allies.
But in 1964 the new conservatism nominated Barry Goldwater, running for president against what some Republicans saw as Eisenhower’s “dime-store New Deal.” Goldwater emphasized economic and foreign-policy issues but promised to restore school prayer. He himself was a pro forma Episcopalian who we now know had arranged an illegal abortion for his daughter. His overwhelming defeat also brought in the most liberal Congress at least since the thirties. But it was the turmoil around the Vietnam War that opened up all sorts of questions about those in authority and authority itself.
And so we get “The Sixties,” which I would say really extend from 1965 to 1973 or 1974. That’s where we find the recent political origins of the New Christian Right. Leaders like Falwell and Robertson have cited various issues: court decisions ending prayer in schools and lifting restrictions on pornography, increased acceptance of gays, the legalization of most abortions with Roe v. Wade, the rise of militant feminism, the Internal Revenue Service’s moving against Christian academies as segregationist. Whatever the specifics, I think we have to recognize in retrospect that the much misunderstood sixties was not a radical era but a polarized era. Even in 1968, 43 per cent of Americans still claimed to attend religious services weekly. That same year, George Wallace got over 13 per cent of the presidential vote, and Nixon won as a moderate and champion of what he called “Square America.” In 1972, Nixon got 80 per cent of the theologically conservative vote and was the first Republican to carry the Catholic vote. The Right’s part in this cannot be dismissed in Richard Hofstadter’s terms as “a paranoid style.” It’s a response to real issues and real changes.
But a sense of cultural grievance doesn’t automatically produce a national movement. To understand why the New Christian Right emerged as it did by 1980, we have to consider two things: the ironic role of Jimmy Carter, and the shrewd tactics of professional conservative Republican activists. Clearly there would have been some sort of religious mobilization in the late seventies through early eighties without Carter. After all, remember the shock and the outrage from religious conservatives over Betty Ford’s endorsement of Roe v. Wade and her comment on “Sixty Minutes” that her teenage daughter might have a love affair, which generated more White House mail than even the Nixon pardon.
But Carter attracted attention to “born again” Protestants and showed their political potential. There is still an enormous amount of confusion about Carter’s religion. I would say that he had an evangelical style — he signed letters “Your brother in Christ” — but was a fairly sophisticated theologian, essentially a liberal. He didn’t highlight that in 1976 for obvious reasons. His conversion experience in 1966 involved much less anguish than, for example, John Foster Dulles’s return to Presbyterianism in the 1930s. Carter rejected dispensationalism, accepted evolution, and was much influenced by the neo-orthodox theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.
All this information was readily available and could have been explained to the press by perhaps two thousand academics in the United States. But somehow it didn’t get through, and the presidential race of 1976 between the most devout pair of candidates since McKinley and Bryan was covered very badly. Carter got an estimated 56 per cent of the evangelical/fundamentalist vote and was the first Democrat to carry Southern Baptists since Truman. That is a major reason why he won. Unfortunately, that constituency over four years discovered that Carter was theologically and politically more liberal than anticipated, and that he was in that line of Baptists going back to Roger Williams and John Leland who believed in the firm separation of church and state.
All sorts of issues in the Carter years provided occasions for a Christian Right mobilization. My favorite is the 1980 White House Conference on Families, which Carter promised in 1976 to Catholics. It was initially called the White House Conference on the Family, but junior members in the administration said that was too exclusive. So it became the White House Conference on Families, to emphasize the “pluralistic” nature of families. Theological conservatives like Phyllis Schlafly and Connie Marshner mobilized on behalf of the “traditional” family, a women’s movement as powerful as any on the left. Beverly LaHaye was involved. James Dobson was involved. The White House Conference on Families occurred no closer to the White House than Baltimore. Nonetheless, it provided a convenient reason for mobilization, and such shrewd political pros as Paul Weyrich and Richard Viguerie worked with Falwell, Robertson, and others to put together groups like the Moral Majority, the Christian Roundtable, and the Christian Voice — what soon became known as the New Christian Right.
This all attracted national attention at the famous 1980 “national affairs briefing” for twenty thousand evangelicals, where candidate Reagan said he “approve[d] of what you are doing.” Exactly what he approved of seemed deliberately vague. Reagan was a devout, eclectic Christian, more reminiscent of Eisenhower than of Carter or Ford. He had a Catholic father and a Protestant mother. He was also influenced by Hollywood’s flexible mores. He had a vague interest in B’hai, dispensationalism, the Shroud of Turin, and astrology. In other words, he was a regular American. Again, the fact that Reagan was not in the grip of the Christian Right could have been explained by several thousand scholars. He opposed abortion, favored school prayer, and endorsed “equal time” for the Bible and evolution as elementary fairness. But he said that God heard the prayers of the Jews, despite what the Southern Baptist leader Bailey Smith said, and he was proud of the nickname “Gipper,” taken from a Protestant convert to Catholicism he had played in a movie.
Reagan’s election, it seems to me, brought a second Brown Scare — books with titles like God’s Bullies and Holy Terror about the evangelicals taking over; a major new liberal lobby, People for the American Way. The Washington Post ran a long article saying Reagan might launch a nuclear war to bring Armageddon closer.
Religious and political groups had a role in the mobilization that led to Reagan’s win and the Democratic loss in the Senate, but I think it’s quite clear in retrospect that the Christian Right became a very junior partner in this coalition. This was the most remarkable coalition since Roosevelt’s, which went from segregationists to communists; Reagan’s went from Jerry Falwell in Lynchburg to Frank Sinatra in Las Vegas. The Christian Right criticized the appointment of Sandra Day O’Connor to the Supreme Court and the establishment of diplomatic relations with the Vatican. But Reagan managed to keep the Right content for a while with symbolism and schmoozing. Walter Mondale tried in 1984 to present Reagan as a tool of the Christian Right and did even worse than Carter at the polls. By that point, 70-80 per cent of the theological conservative vote was solidly Republican. By the late 1980s, amid the Swaggart and Bakker scandals, pundits were predicting the end of the Christian Right. It didn’t happen.
It is in this context that Pat Robertson emerged, the son of a Democratic senator from Virginia, a secularist, as he explains, living in New York and New Haven in the 1950s, his moral decay evidenced by the Modigliani prints and Courvoisier he had in his apartment. Finally, returning to God, he became a Pentecostal, having a so-called second blessing. By the mid-1980s Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network, established in 1959, had an estimated worth of $230 million. In 1988 Robertson spent as much as George Bush in the primary but wound up with only thirty-five delegates.
Although Bush had effectively wooed the Christian Right, he ultimately made fewer appointments among evangelicals than Reagan, did less schmoozing, and intermittently did things that annoyed the Christian Right in a big way — inviting gays to several White House signing ceremonies, for example, and supposedly acquiescing, though not very eagerly, in what Robertson called the “gay and lesbian agenda” of the National Endowment for the Arts. It was in this context that Robertson formed the Christian Coalition, which under Ralph Reed’s guidance went up to probably two million members.
Ralph Reed, as everybody knows, is very smart. He has a Ph.D. in history, and he went back to abolition, temperance, William Jennings Bryan, and the civil-rights movement in attempting to build a usable past for the New Christian Right. He tried to broaden the appeal by using the vague term “people of faith,” which some saw as the Right’s “weasel-word,” akin to “people of color.” I think the best guess is that post-Reed the Christian Coalition has about a million members. Some say 600,000; Robertson still says two million. One million seems about right.
There are, of course, other figures around. Pat Buchanan certainly deserves mention. He may not be very popular, but he does seem to be the Christian Right’s most popular Catholic, and he apparently got about a third of the evangelical vote in the 1992 primaries. He’s also interesting intellectually in that he too finds a usable past in the 1930s, in Father Coughlin and the more bigoted of the non-interventionists, not to mention the Catholic Church pre–Vatican II.
Certainly no presidential couple since Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt has been hated as much by religious conservatives as the Clintons. By all accounts the feeling was mutual. That’s not at all surprising, and there are two serious points beyond anecdote here. One, the Clintons were without question culturally the most liberal presidential couple in history. Two, this is the latest version of an inter-Christian battle. The Clintons present themselves as serious Christians, and in a way they are. You may wonder, “How can that womanizer be a serious Christian searcher?” So was Lyndon! He probably was more of a womanizer and maybe more of a searcher. Hillary for her part is an old-fashioned Methodist social-gospeler who says she believes in the literal second coming of Christ; she also mixes in various self-help gospels like those of Tony Robins and Marianne Williams. In other words, she is, in lots of ways, a regular American!
Before I offer some speculations about the future, let me summarize briefly the main differences between the New Christian Right and the old one of the thirties and forties. First, Falwell, Robertson, and their compatriots accept the basic dispensationalist framework. If you want more of that, turn on your cable TV any hour of the day. They see ubiquitous signs of the Anti-Christ, but they no longer name names. A previous generation tried Napoleon III; it didn’t work out. Mussolini — oops. So we’re not getting Tony Blair as the Anti-Christ.
There was also more significant updating. Evangelical-fundamentalist culture has, like the rest of America, gotten culturally more liberal since the 1920s and 1930s. The sins are not dancing and alcohol; they are homosexuality and abortion. Unlike Gerald Winrod and many others in the 1930s, they no longer believe the Anti-Christ will be a Jew associated with the international Zionist conspiracy. Although fundamentalists and evangelicals believe in inerrant scripture, they have to interpret what they read in the Bible, too, and that is affected by other events. Among those events is the Holocaust, which brought about a rise in the philo-Semitic interpretation of the Book of Revelation. Robertson still cooks up some anti-Semitic folklore, but he drops the Jewish part out of it. I think Buchanan qualifies as a real live anti-Semite, and I don’t use that term casually at all.
There is also a move away from the kind of anti-Catholicism that was quite routine in the twenties and thirties. There is good evidence that in the 1950s anti-Catholic sentiment was on the rise in the United States, for reasons related to Catholic power. I think that’s one of the reasons why Kennedy had particular problems. But you don’t find anybody now, really, with the exception of Bob Jones III, who says that the pope represents the “scarlet whore” of the Book of Revelation.
This New Christian Right is more economically conservative than the old, primarily because, I think, we do not have 25 per cent unemployment and the poverty level is about 13 per cent, not 33 per cent. The thing that’s least new, one that pundits have marveled at for a generation, is that Christian Right leaders have managed to find someone who knows how to operate a television camera. Actually, cultural Christian conservatives in the twenties used radio earlier than many other constituencies. I would say that for eighty years they have been far ahead of, say, organized labor in using new technologies as they come along.
What of the future? I would say that we will have a Christian Right with us in some form into the foreseeable future. And certainly the New Christian Right will continue to be a major player in the Republican Party. There’s a broad evangelical culture on which to draw. In the mid-eighties, 62 per cent of Americans had no doubt about Jesus’ ultimate return; 80 per cent expected to be judged by God personally; 40 per cent still claimed to attend church, compared to 14 per cent in Britain and 12 per cent in France. Though the numbers wax and wane, that’s a pretty solid core constituency. The issues also wax and wane. There was a time when I thought abortion as an issue might last as long as temperance and prohibition. Now I’m not sure.
But to describe these conflicts as a cultural war is both off base and irresponsible, an example of what the great sociologist David Riesman called the American penchant for “big talk.” We all share it. I don’t want to write an article called “The Cultural Tempest in a Teapot”! But I think we’d be better off if we referred to this as a cultural shouting match, which is an American way of life that we’ve had for a long, long time. We haven’t had a cultural war, really, since the cavalry attacked the Mormons in the 1850s.
Here are a few more possibilities to keep in mind as you watch the visions and shifts usually missed by the secular eye. There’s evidence of an evangelical, even fundamentalist drift in various New Age-y directions, or theologically liberal directions, particularly among the young. This is not surprising; since the twenties, theological conservatives have not been immune to the lure of bright lights, big cities, and Sunday baseball. One of the interesting aspects will be how evangelical pop music — the so-called “heavy metal missionaries” — will actually work: will it keep young people in evangelical-fundamentalist cultures, or will it serve as a bridge to the more secular society? Who is co-opting whom? The power of the country to sop up dissidence of all sorts — here Daniel Bell and Seymour Martin Lipset were right — is very, very strong.
I don’t think there will be much success in rallying culturally conservative Catholic voters to an alliance with Far Right Protestants. They are more liberal on issues such as race, and still suspicious.
Finally, as you deal with all this, don’t lump together everybody who seems to be pious. Beware the still powerful Mencken and Sinclair Lewis stereotypes from the 1920s. Don’t lump together the Christian Coalition, Christian Identity militia, and the Branch Davidians as religious nuts. The Branch Davidians — poor souls — if they had been supported by fundamentalists and had had a national constituency, instead of being called a cult, might still be alive. If Timothy McVeigh had remained religious he would now be running Catholic bingo games in upstate New York with his father. Think about what bigotry may mean. Bob Jones has a theological animus toward Catholicism: is that bigotry? If you look at his website, you have to dig pretty hard to find the anti-Catholic stuff. It’s a lot like life — complicated.
MR. CROMARTIE: Thank you, Leo. David Shribman is the Washington bureau chief of the Boston Globe. In June 1999 he wrote a cover story in the Globe’s Magazine on the Christian Right and its influence on politics.
DAVID SHRIBMAN: Over the years I have developed something of a healthy obsession with the Religious Right. Actually I prefer to use the phrase “religious conservatives.” It seems a little more elegant and much less loaded with partisan rancor. I find the presence of religious conservatives at the very center of our politics one of the more fascinating aspects of that politics. Surely that presence has helped move the politics of religious conservatives to the center of our politics.
I have talked with hundreds of religious conservatives over the years and have found them to be almost uniformly pleasant, thoughtful, intelligent, committed, and patriotic. They do not look like revolutionaries, and for the most part they don’t consider themselves revolutionaries. They’re not insurrectionaries by nature or by inclination. They’re not doing anything especially dangerous or subversive or even unusual. They’re talking politics, organizing, and voting — doing the pretty unremarkable things that union members, small business owners, capitalists, art lovers, gun owners, refrigerator salesmen, and everybody else have been doing for decades. The difference is that religious conservatives have recently fomented, I believe, a quiet American revolution. That revolution is a combination of morality and politics. It helps explain the 1998 drive to impeach President Clinton, which began with outrage over the President’s personal morality and was fueled by the demand of religious conservatives and others that their representatives in Congress punish the President.
But this is a revolution with a difference. Though religious conservatives have not taken control of the Republican Party and suffered a setback in the 1998 mid-term elections, though they don’t hold Hollywood in their thrall, and though a well-publicized effort to make inroads among blacks fizzled terribly, they have achieved something far more profound and potentially far more significant than any one of those things. Religious conservatives have changed the American conversation. They have changed who participates in that conversation and what assumptions are brought to bear on it. They have changed the tone of the conversation, and they’ve changed the content of the conversation. Eventually they may even change its conclusion. But it’s the content that is the most important part.
Largely as a result of their efforts, President Clinton will go into history as the first president to be impeached in 130 years. Dozens of undecided Republican lawmakers decided to vote with impeachment forces, at least in part out of fear of being challenged by the Right and by religious-conservative candidates in Republican primaries. A powerful legislator only days from winning the House speakership, Robert Livingston of Louisiana, was forced out because of his own history of adultery, forced to announce his withdrawal from the position that in the twentieth century has been occupied by some of the most notorious womanizers in Washington history.
“Religious conservatives do not look like revolutionaries, and for the most part they don’t consider themselves revolutionaries. They’ re not doing anything especially dangerous or subversive or even unusual. They’ re talking politics, organizing, and voting — doing the pretty unremarkable things that union members, small business owners, capitalists, art lovers, gun owners, refrigerator salesmen, and everybody else have been doing for decades. The difference is that religious conservatives have recently fomented, I believe, a quiet American revolution.”
In the entire half-century course of post-war America, only three movements can lay claim to having changed the American conversation: the civil-rights movement, which made the social order in the South and the industrial cities of the North seem odious and downright anti-social; the women’s movement, which freed half the population from the burdens of tradition and stereotype and in the process changed the lives and expectations of the other half; and the religious-conservative movement, which like the others was spawned by a deep sense of ethics, caused tension among friends, prompted violent debate among commentators and ordinary people, turned the natural order on its head, and then sent even more waves coursing through American politics and American life.
In winning a subtle but real change in the key in which American politics is sung, religious conservatives also challenged the way historic social movements sweep across the country. The civil-rights movement and the women’s movement originated generally from the left, the religious-conservative movement from the right. The first two began in the streets and the nation’s homes before moving into its electoral politics; the Christian Right began in the political world and then muscled its way into national life. The first two movements shifted American values, while the Christian Right thrust the whole notion of values to the forefront of American life. Now these issues are not only on the table of politics, they are the table of politics. Now the word “values” passes the lips not only of conservatives but also of liberals, not only of Republicans but also of Democrats. Now the notion that religion is at the center of national life and not at its periphery is voiced not only by Republicans but also by Democrats. Democrats cannot afford to ignore the values politics that the religious conservatives have forced the Republican Party to talk about.
Religious conservatives stir unusually strong passions. Opponents try to portray them as being on the fringe, but they have fought their way to the center of American political life. No accounting of American politics today can fail to include them. Like union members before them, religious conservatives built their power by understanding the nature of power. I once had a long discussion about this with an unusually sharp observer of Republican politics, Patrick Kelley. He’s the managing editor of the Emporia Gazette, a Kansas paper that to all of us is a storied and beloved institution, once edited by William Allen White. Here’s what Pat Kelley said: “They didn’t change American politics, they took advantage of American politics. After Vietnam and after Watergate, nobody wanted to work for the old parties, and there was a vacuum for them to fill. All they had to do was to attend meetings and vote themselves into office. They’re doing their politics better than anybody else. That formula found big results in Kansas.” Religious conservatism may have a Southern face, but right now it has a Midwestern soul. And nowhere is the strength of the Christian Right greater than in the Grain Belt. While the Emporia Gazette trumpeted a sound, traditional, and respectable brand of Republicanism, religious conservatives in Lyon County noticed when members of the GOP Old Guard retired or moved or died, and they swiftly filled the vacuum. Once the stealth phase ended, the real battle began. Politics increasingly became a struggle over abortion. Soon Kansas, where blood had been shed over the moral issue of slavery in the middle of the nineteenth century, became a modern political battleground.
There’s no denying the role of the Religious Right in the Republican Party as one of the signal developments of American politics in the last quarter century. But how much influence is enough? How much is too much? How close should the worlds of religion and politics be? Can people of faith separate their religious beliefs from their political beliefs? Should they? Should they have to? Are religious conservatives a threat to the political system, or are they its salvation? These questions loom large in the political landscape.
Religious conservatives now argue that politics is not an event but a process. After the tumult of the past dozen years, they themselves are clearly, indisputably, part of that process.
MR. CROMARTIE: Thank you, David. Now everyone else is invited to join the conversation. Jean?
DR. JEAN BETHKE ELSHTAIN, Divinity School at the University of Chicago: Just for clarification, Leo: You talked about the influx of Catholics and Jews and how strange our grandmothers seemed to people who are already here, and then you said, unless I missed something, that the Protestant response to this was the new theology. Are you arguing a causal relationship?
DR. RIBUFFO: No, I was just giving the social context of why there was so much upset. It wasn’t solely an intellectual thing.
DR. ELSHTAIN: So the new theology is not a response to integrationists; these tendencies were already at work in Protestantism?
DR. RIBUFFO: It was the context that made things scarier to them.
DR. ELSHTAIN: Now a question for David: I don’t disagree at all at your putting in the trio — civil rights, feminism, and religious conservatism — as movements that profoundly shifted the conversation. But I wonder if in some ways the story of religious conservatives isn’t even more remarkable.
The civil-rights movement and feminism, after at least a period of time, had what we usually call “elite opinion” on their side. But religious conservatives have been bucking elite opinion and have in fact been often anathematized. Isn’t that a rather important difference?
MR. SHRIBMAN: Yes, but the civil-rights movement and the women’s movement were mounted by or on behalf of outsiders. I think that this is less so of the religious-conservative movement.
DR. ELSHTAIN: That makes sense to me regarding the civil-rights movement but not feminism. What do you mean when you say that the women’s movement was mounted by outsiders?
MR. SHRIBMAN: I mean before 1919, when women were not able to vote.
DR. ELSHTAIN: I thought you were talking about the more recent wave of feminism, which was clearly managed by very educated, upper-middle-class women, primarily from the Northeast, although it became a bi-coastal conversation early on. I know a lot of women who said, “This is not a movement for women; this is a movement on behalf of this particular socioeconomic group and has nothing to do with us or our lives.” So it strikes me that the analogy with civil rights doesn’t quite work there with feminism.
DR. STEPHEN CARTER, Yale Law School: I think you’re both right about the difference in the elite reaction, but it strikes me that you can explain that simply by looking at two things. First, the issues themselves are very different. Even if we look at the civil-rights movement and say that in various parts of their movement the texts are the same — I’m thinking for instance of the Christian gospel—still what’s at stake is different for different constituencies.
MR. SHRIBMAN: Economically?
MR. CARTER: No, politically or culturally. A few years ago when Oliver North, the Iran/Contra hero, was running for Senate in Virginia, I got a telephone call from a reporter who was doing a story about North’s candidacy. She had discovered that there were people praying for him to win. What did I think about that? I told her I didn’t think anything about it, one way or the other. But she thought this was peculiar — not outrageous, not a church/state separation problem, but just very odd that people would pray for something like that.
If your religious faith in any tradition is very deep, one of the things that it seems to me has to be true is that you are a different person because of that faith. It changes the way you look at the world, changes the things you value. So it’s not plausible that people of deep religious faith could, no matter how hard they tried consciously, separate their faith from their political views. Now, surveys have found that people who participate more in their church also tend, apparently, to vote more Republican. And so one wonders, when people express strong discomfort with involvement by Christian Right people or other people with strong faith, is this really about issues or is it just partisanship?
DR. RIBUFFO: I agree that it’s not simply issues.
MR. CARTER: A lot of discomfort is expressed, by the elites on campuses and by political commentators and journalists, with the idea that heavily organized religious people using religious language talk about political issues. Do you sense this is a general discomfort with religiosity?
MR. SHRIBMAN: In trying to explain the concept “compassionate conservatism” Marvin Olasky points out something about the Establishment Clause. He says that the Founders, or the caucus that voted to approve the First Amendment, conceived of a freedom of religion and not a freedom from religion. But since the 1960s — and the school-prayer decision was probably the most visible symbol of this — the prevailing elite thought has been that government and society should be free from religion, rather than free to foster religion. I think that gets to what you’re talking about. There is indeed an unease among elites about spirituality, and more than spirituality, religiosity.
DR. ELSHTAIN: There’s an interesting division, in regard to the First Amendment, between those who emphasize disestablishment and those who emphasize free exercise. Religious conservatives are sure to emphasize free exercise and to resent constraints on that. But, David, you said that the revolution is a combination of morality and politics, and I think that’s different from religiosity. What people may be wary of is that combination of politics and morality, given the question, how do you define morality? We’re not just talking about a religious faith, we’re talking about what the moral code is, and that can be interpreted very differently.
MR. SHRIBMAN: I think that journalists live in a peculiarly isolated world in which honest and open expressions of religious belief are discouraged — but I see a lot of shaking heads.
JAY TOLSON, U.S. News & World Report: I think one of the dangers of historicizing the subject as Leo brilliantly did is suggesting that the religious experience has always been the same. It hasn’t. Religion has become less and less about observance and more and more about belief and the moral complex that goes with belief. To some extent, that is the effect of the “Protestantizing” of all faiths in our culture. It puts a huge emphasis on the creedal aspects, on what I believe.
JODY HASSETT, ABC News: Leo mentioned the Branch Davidians, and it got me thinking, well, yes, most conservative Christians would not theologically identify with them, but certainly the specter of jackbooted thugs did contribute to the circle-up-the-wagons mentality. Today there are so many conservative-Christian subcultural things — a big increase in home schooling, Christian diets, banks, rock, and now the Cal Thomas cultural thing about how to engage politically — that I’m wondering, Leo, how this fits into your view of conservative Christians.
DR. RIBUFFO: I think that’s two points. On the Branch Davidians: afterwards theological conservatives and fundamentalists saw them as victims of the jackbooted thugs. Before they were cultists. All I’m saying is if the Branch Davidians had had any wider support in society, they would be alive. The Waco siege was, I believe, the largest number of civilians killed by the federal government in this century. The president of the United States said that they were “a bunch of crazy people who murdered themselves.” The FBI, trying to figure out what David Koresh was talking about in translating the seals of the book of Revelation, thought they were like the seals at Sea World. Had this been any other group we could think of, had this been one guy shot by Guiliani’s police, the mainstream would not have forgotten it.
As to the separate Christian culture, it seems to me not so different from parish Catholic schools when I was growing up. I think there will be the same pressures and pulls to assimilate over the long term and counter-pressures to be more separate, to try to preserve the purity.
MS. HASSETT: John Green and others have suggested that the main voting issues for conservative Christians in the next ten years will be same-sex marriage and other kinds of homosexual rights. What abortion was to the nineties, gay rights will be to this decade. It seems to be the one area where conservative Protestants and Catholics are indeed coming together and mobilizing politically.
MR. SHRIBMAN: But I think that abortion is still going to trump just about any other issue like that, in part because of the defenselessness of the victims and in part because of the heavy authoritarian potential for the government in this kind of decision. Who was worse, the fascists in Spain or the fascists in Italy?
DAVID PLOTZ, Slate: I’m changing the subject slightly. I’ve been reading the Left Behind novels, and I wonder what is behind the fascination with dispensationalism now. Why is it so popular? Is there any political stake involved in that popularity?
DR. JAMES GUTH, Furman University: May I comment on that? I’ve been writing on some of these topics for a while, and I think there are two things to say about dispensationalism today. First, its current manifestations have moved dramatically away from the central core of the dispensational tradition theologically. Historically, dispensationalism was connected to some degree of non-politicization, in part because of the view of the futility of human effort. More recently, the pre-millennial dispensationalists were at the core of the Christian Right, and adherence to those beliefs was associated with very strong Republicanism and conservatism on social issues, and ironically a greater propensity for political activism.
JOHN LEO, U.S. News & World Report: There’s a tendency at conferences like this to get to the point where we view religious conservatives as garish loonies. I don’t think they’re loonies, and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to call what’s going on a cultural war. Leo brought up the 1980 controversy over “the family/families.” That was a very crucial debate, in my opinion. It wasn’t just about the singular word and the plural and making room for single mothers. It amounted to a radical attack on the traditional family. And I think twenty years later that those people who reacted in 1980 to that little burp of change were on to something. Their entire value system, in their opinion, is under assault — honor, patriotism, family, work, self-discipline, right across the board. Yet we blame the religious Christians for reacting to attacks on their value system. I think it’s folly to pretend that issues like this will go away.
Religious conservatives tend not to be represented at conferences like this. They don’t get hired in journalism. I think the massive lack of sympathy for their point of view colors journalism and to some extent the academic world. We need to talk more about the elite worldview and what it’s doing to religious people. I think we’ve gone too far in kicking them around. The contempt that a lot of us have for perfectly sincere religious people has gone too far.
PEGGY WEHMEYER, ABC News: I happen to be a very unusual person in that I’m in network television and I attended an evangelical church when I was hired. The Associated Press spread all over the country a quote from my boss saying, “We really struggled with the idea of hiring a Southern born-again Christian.” Can you imagine thinking, “There are 40, 60, 80 million of these people and one slipped into the newsroom — it’s terrifying!” People seemed to think that I must be a biased, shallow, unsophisticated swamp woman from the South because I attended an evangelical church. As journalists we analyze and talk about and write about these huge groups of people without really knowing any of them. I think that religious conservatives are not represented in our coverage of their issues in the same way that, say, gays and lesbians are represented on gay and lesbian issues.
MR. CROMARTIE: That’s one reason why we’re having these meetings: to help educate journalists about religion in American life.
E. J. DIONNE, The Washington Post: I found that when you tell somebody in the newsroom that you go to church, you discover that there are a lot of closet religious people. Back to a point that Leo made: I’m not sure I agree entirely that the press did such an awful job of covering Jimmy Carter — even if he was, as Leo has said, seen too much early on as a Martian for participating in a faith shared by tens of millions of Americans. For example, we certainly heard about Carter as a fan of Reinhold Niebuhr; that came out during the campaign.
DR. RIBUFFO: I’m not saying that the coverage of Carter in general was worse than the coverage of Ford. The oddity of Carter as religious, that came across. With Ford, here was a guy who played football, who skied all his life; he had bad knees in his sixties, and once in a while he stumbled and fell down. Did anybody talk to a bone doctor about why this was no big deal? Ford was the guy who fell down, and Carter was the guy with the strange religious relatives. I thought the press took the easy line on both.
MR. SHRIBMAN: My memory of it is that Carter was treated like an alien being from another planet.
MR. CROMARTIE: John Leo, do you remember how Carter was covered? How did you cover him?
MR. LEO: We thought he was an exotic loon. I was at Time at the time; we put him on the cover looking like Jack Kennedy, and that got him elected!
DR. RIBUFFO: I want to say something as a historian. We’re kicking around a perennial American historical issue, and that is this: to what degree is this an extraordinarily diverse country and to what degree is there a consensus? Conflict to a manageable degree is normal in America. The conservatives among us who see or want to see some unbroken line of respect for religion down to the 1960s, after which it all went to hell, need to realize that such a view simply does not fit the historical record. There were fights over disestablishing the state church in Massachusetts in the 1830s. In the late 1880s the problem was Republican politician Robert Ingersoll, who was also a prominent agnostic speaker. I wish you all luck in fighting it out, but as a historian I swear to you that these issues are not going to go away. There was no golden age, and there probably won’t be one soon.
ALISSA RUBIN, The Los Angeles Times: It’s not that people don’t respect evangelical beliefs, but that when evangelicals propound them in the political arena and suggest changes in laws that then affect people who don’t hold their beliefs, it seems impossible for there not to be arguments. Because we’re a nation of law, we’re going to come back to the Supreme Court and to Congress, and these questions are going to be argued out there. We need to keep adding information to these debates but not necessarily resisting conflict. There are people with very different ideas about the right way to live.
MR. CARTER: That sounds true, except that I just spent the past couple of years reading pro-slavery and anti-slavery sermons from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and that’s exactly what all pro-slavery preachers said: “These darn Northern preachers, trying to impose their religious visions on us. Can’t they just let us live the way we want to and they can live the way they want to? Why do they have to go changing the laws?” Change in law doesn’t really get us anywhere. The conflicts are still going to be here, and somebody has to win.
DR. RIBUFFO: The Civil War was a real war. I think the issue we’ve been discussing is a lot closer to Prohibition. In the late nineteenth century the Women’s Christian Temperance Union was the largest women’s organization in the world, and probably the most powerful. And temperance wrenched the country apart, probably more than abortion has done.
FRANKLIN FOER, The New Republic: Leo, when you were giving your history of the Old Christian Right, it seems to me that you didn’t pause at the two points that are traditionally considered the turning points in the movement: the 1925 Scopes trial, after which evangelicals disappeared from public life, and then the 1970s prayer disputes, where they suddenly reappeared. I have evangelical friends who tell me that the impact of the Scopes trial is usually exaggerated.
DR. RIBUFFO: I don’t think it makes sense to refer to “left,” “right,” and “center” before the 1930s, when that terminology first began to be used. But certainly there were cultural conservatives — religious among them — before the Scopes trial, and they didn’t all go home and lock themselves away right after the trial. They were all still around and still active in the thirties and forties. And I did deal with the seventies, except I call them still the sixties. I would say it’s that period from 1964-65 to 1973-74.
MR. FOER: My second point is that I think we could sum up the differences between the Old Christian Right and the New Christian Right by saying that the movement was kind of bourgeois-fied, that the members absorbed a lot of middle-class and bourgeois values.
DR. RIBUFFO: I wouldn’t put it that way. I think that before they were bourgeois-fied they became more tolerant. The two go together. But I also think that World War II had an impact on religious conservatives as on all other Americans. We’ve been able to say, “Look what intolerance can lead to.”
WILLIAM McGURN, The Wall Street Journal: On a related point, I think that evangelical leaders like Chuck Colson are way ahead of their people in their view of Catholics. If you look at the novels by Beverly LeHaye’s husband, you find the Pope as the Anti-Christ and a member of the Trilateral Commission and so on. After Colson signed that statement with Richard Neuhaus on a sort of evangelical/Catholic rapprochement, two evangelicals criticized Colson for doing so on the basis that Catholics are not Christians.
DR. RIBUFFO: I would say that for well over a hundred years Catholic/Protestant rank-and-file relations have been fairly calm. The Christian Protestant Right even in the thirties came to the discovery that the Pope was better than Franklin Roosevelt. Politics has always been complex. In the late 1890s there was a group called the American Protective Association, which McKinley courted very shrewdly. When you joined it you pledged not to join a union with Catholics, go on strike with a Catholic, vote for a Catholic. McKinley courted it. Then he appointed a Catholic attorney general, promoted him to the Supreme Court, and for the first time a Catholic took part in the inaugural.
MELANA VICKERS, USA Today: Much of the Christian Right remains in ethnically homogeneous pockets of the South, whereas Catholics are ethnically very diverse, as are many mainstream Protestant groups. I wonder what the Christian Right view of ethnic minorities has been—not racial minorities but Italians, Eastern Europeans, Jews to an extent.
DR. RIBUFFO: “Ethnic group” is another term we don’t get in common use until the 1950s. A number of groups that are now lumped together with other white groups used to be considered pure ethnic groups. Norwegian and Swedish Lutherans in Minnesota, for instance, were once considered quite distinctive. There was also a time when groups we now put together as “white Protestants” were divided theologically as well as ethnically. Theologically liberal and theologically conservative Lutherans would have had their own ethnic conflicts. On the whole, I would say that the members of the Christian Right who are Northern European — sometimes self-described as Nordics or the Nordic-Celtic civilization — were pretty firmly in the vanguard of anti-immigrant nativism and were probably disproportionately anti-Semitic, though that’s hard to judge, down through the 1940s.
I think it is safe to say that today anti-Semitism is quite small on the Christian Right, as it is among Americans generally.
MR. SHRIBMAN: Wisconsin with a .5 per cent Jewish population has two Jewish senators, and one Jew has succeeded another Jew in the senate in Minnesota, which also has a less than 1 per cent population of Jews.
ELLIOTT ABRAMS, Ethics & Public Policy Center: We’ve been talking about evangelicals in a certain sense as if there were a flat, cohesive population group that was there a hundred years ago and is there now. But clearly, over time, it’s not the same group. So what is it? Either we’re talking now about the great-grandchildren of the people of the 1890s or we’re talking about a self-renewing group, one that gains members every day because, say, somebody whose father was a Methodist secularist becomes a born-again evangelical. How much of this is a genetic inheritance from your family and how much of it is voluntarism?
DR. RIBUFFO: Part of the confusion is that nineteenth-century evangelical Protestantism in general includes just about all Protestants. It’s replenished by immigration. I don’t know the percentage that is directly descended from the same population in the 1890s.
MR. ABRAMS: Replenished by immigration from where?
DR. RIBUFFO: From the rest of the world.
MR. ABRAMS: You can’t replace Southern Baptists by immigration from Korea.
DR. RIBUFFO: But you could replace a lot of Pentecostals with Koreans. Granted, I have yet to see a Korean major figure in the New Christian Right, but if you go to Aimee Semple McPherson’s church in Los Angeles, you find it’s almost all Hispanic and Korean.
MR. ABRAMS: Evangelicals as a religious group used to be, probably even twenty-five years ago, white. Now the constituency is becoming more and more non-white.
DR. RIBUFFO: The black religious tradition is too complicated for us to get into. There are some theological overlaps, but on the whole it’s a separate movement. But yes, evangelical/fundamentalist Protestantism is becoming less white.
DR. GUTH: Let me say a little about the question of where evangelicals have come from. If you look at the entire evangelical tradition you see lots of elements. You see Korean Presbyterians — who are for the most part very evangelical — and other Asian Christians who are an increasing influence on the evangelical community. Also, a lot of the rapidly growing evangelical denominations have a high proportion of former Catholics and former mainline Protestants who have experienced some sort of religious conversion. If you look at data on religious migration from the General Social Survey, you find that over the years Americans are not nearly as stable in their religious homes as you might think. A subtle movement goes on continuously. It used to be fed by social mobility—the old pattern of once you learned to read you were no longer a Baptist, you were a Methodist — but that doesn’t work very much anymore. A bigger cause today is theological perspective. You’re a United Methodist, you discover that United Methodists don’t stand up for historical biblical beliefs, and you go somewhere else.
KENNETH WOODWARD, Newsweek: Are the children of evangelicals likely to become evangelicals themselves?
DR. GUTH: They have a much higher retention rate than other Christian groups, even Catholics. So there’s both more retention and more conversion. That’s why the evangelical community has retained its one-quarter share of the population over the past few decades.
LYNN NEARY, NPR: There’s a thread coming in and out of this conversation about why it is that people feel threatened by or concerned about the Religious Right, about conservative Christians being politically active. I’ve been covering religion now full time for six years, and what I’m wondering is, what happens when a theological belief translates directly into a political belief? In regard to these issues like homosexuality and abortion, there’s a certain point where the discussion really ends. There can be no discussion beyond that point on certain beliefs because they are such deeply held matters of faith. A person believes what he believes because it says so in the Bible, or because that’s what Catholic teaching says.
When you take that into a larger political context, where do you go with a discussion about abortion or homosexuality? It becomes problematical when the political belief is the same as the theological belief.
DR. RIBUFFO: There is this tension in what Americans think they want. On the one hand, they want people to stand up for principles; on the other hand, they don’t want too much noise and trouble. “We’re nice Americans, and we’re supposed to compromise.” I would say for myself that if people disagree with me on principles, I tell them my principles. That’s as legitimate a social fight as any other.