Religious Right

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The religious right, or "new Christian right," is a conservative coalition in the United States that has risen in prominence since the late 1970s and has moved many formerly politically marginalized religious conservatives to engage the political process. With concerns over what they perceived as moral decline in 1960s, as well as new Supreme Court laws prohibiting school-sponsored prayer and legalizing abortion, many conservative Protestants and Catholics sought political advocacy as a means to return "Christian" values to the country.

The Moral Majority became the most prominent organization in the religious right soon after Jerry Falwell founded it in 1979. Targeting the Republican base, the organization mobilized voters to elect politicians who would defend their values: supporting prayers and creationism in schools, as well as opposing abortion, pornography, obscenity and other perceived threats to the family.

Though the Moral Majority declined by the late 1980s, the religious right remains active fighting against same-sex marriage and abortion.
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Social Movements and Religion in American History
While religious leaders have addressed political issues in the United States since its founding, the religious right arose during the Cold War as a response to anxieties over communism, social unrest and perceived spiritual and cultural decline.

The roots of the religious right stretch back to the 1930s or 1940s, when neo-evangelical leaders began forging close ties with economically conservative businessmen. They shared objections common to the political and theological liberalism of mainline denominational leaders in the National Council of Churches (NCC), and they worked together to build a network of colleges, parachurch organizations, radio and television stations, and political action networks that joined together Christian values, Jeffersonian democracy and free-market economics. While NCC-affiliated churches began a persistent membership decline in 1960, leading conservative denominations tended to thrive from the 1950s to the early 21st century. Southern states with many conservative Protestants shifted from solidly Democratic in the 1950s to overwhelmingly Republican by the 1990s, in part reacting to the Civil Rights Movement. The strong friendship between Southern Baptist evangelist Billy Graham and Richard Nixon exemplified increasingly cozy relations between conservative Protestants and Republicans who promised to bring order to an increasingly chaotic world.

This conservative coalition included Protestants and Catholics. After Engel v. Vitale (1962) and Abington v. Schempp (1963) prohibited school-sponsored prayer and Bible readings, respectively, many evangelicals sought to return Christian instruction to public schools. When Roe v. Wade (1973) legalized first and second trimester abortion across the nation, even some Southern Baptist conservatives initially accepted the ruling; but by the late 1970s, most conservative Protestants opposed abortion alongside Catholics, spurred in part by the advocacy of evangelicals such as C. Everett Coop and Francis Schaeffer. Religious conservatives also opposed the women’s liberation and gay rights movements in the name of upholding God-given gender roles and biblical teachings on sexuality. Phyllis Schlafly, the Catholic grassroots Republican activist who gained fame with her 1964 book A Choice, Not an Echo, founded the Eagle Forum and led the successful opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s. The signing of evangelical and Catholics Together by conservative Protestant and Catholic scholars in 1994 signaled growing cooperation between the two groups.

Moral Majority and Presidential Politics

The Moral Majority became the most prominent organization in the religious right soon after Jerry Falwell founded it in 1979. An umbrella association for conservative Protestants, Catholics and Jews, the organization mobilized voters to elect politicians who would defend their values: supporting prayers and creationism in schools, supporting school vouchers and traditional sexual mores and opposition to abortion, pornography, obscenity and other perceived threats to the family. In the 1980 presidential election, Moral Majority rejected the born-again incumbent Jimmy Carter due to his ties to evangelicals’ liberal foes, and instead championed his Republican challenger Ronald Reagan, who won in a landslide. The political turn rightward also affected denominations, particularly the Southern Baptist Convention, which between 1979 and 1990 had become the largest Protestant denomination in the nation and had replaced moderate leaders with conservatives. Though it exercised modest influence in the Reagan White House and had declined by the end of the decade, Moral Majority cemented the religious right’s place in the Republican coalition. Groups that continued Moral Majority’s legacy included James Dobson’s Family Research Council and Focus on the Family; Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition and American Center for Law and Justice; the Alliance Defense Fund (now Alliance Defending Freedom), Donald Wildmon’s American Family Association; Michael Farris’ Home School Legal Defense Association and Charles Colson’s BreakPoint.

Pat Robertson’s unsuccessful 1988 bid for the Republican presidential nomination demonstrated conservative Christians’ continuing political advocacy. In the 1990s, the religious right took on new issues, such as school vouchers, repackaged old ones, advocating that intelligent design (rather than creationism) be taught in science classrooms alongside evolution. A Democratic White House for most of the decade ensured few victories for the religious right. One victory was the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, which required the federal government to hold as legal only such a marriage between a man and a woman until the Supreme Court ruled the statute unconstitutional in 2013 and legalized gay marriage across the nation in 2015.

A high water mark for the religious right came after the 2000 election of George W. Bush, the self-styled compassionate conservative whose evangelical faith featured prominently in his presidential campaigns. Bush earned praise from many in the religious right for supporting federal funding for faith-based charities while opposing funding for embryonic stem cell research, for advocating a "culture of life" against euthanasia and abortion, signing a partial-birth abortion ban into law in 2003 and supporting a constitutional amendment against gay marriage after Massachusetts legalized it in 2003. Bush’s departure in 2009 diminished the religious right’s influence.

The Religious Right has extended beyond Protestants and Catholics. The Manhattan Declaration in 2009 made common cause among Protestant, Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians for a pro-life, traditional marriage and religious liberty agenda. Jewish figures in the religious right have included Frank Meyer, cofounder of the conservative publication National Review and Ralph de Toledano, a journalist and editor for Newsweek and National Review. From 2011 to 2014, Republican Eric Cantor became the first Jewish Majority Leader in the U.S. House of Representatives, demonstrating the continuing connections between Jewish conservatives and the Republican Party. Mormons also gained prominence in the religious right in the early 21st century. The LDS church took a prominent role in opposing gay marriage, while the rise of right-wing pundit Glen Beck in 2009 and strong evangelical support for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in the 2012 general election exemplified growing acceptance of Mormons in conservative politics. The religious right remains a key constituent of the Republican Party and still exerts varying degrees of cultural and political influence in the early 21st century.

Robertson, Marion "Pat"
Schlafly, Phyllis
Falwell, Jerry
Jerry Falwell Helps Found the Moral Majority
Engel v. Vitale
Abington School District v. Schempp
Pat Robertson Founds Christian Broadcasting Network

Phyllis Schlafly demonstrating against Equal Rights Amendment- Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ds-00757

Jerry Falwell portrait- Wikimedia Commons- from Liberty University (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Paul Weyrich- Wikimedia Commons- photo by c.berlet, (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Pro-life demonstrators in front of Supreme Court- Wikimedia Commons- photo by Forstle.JPG

Focus on the Family, Colorado Springs- Flickr- photo by Matt Howry (CC BY 2.0)
Book/Journal Source(s)
Kurian, George Thomas, and Mark Lamport (Eds.), 2016. The Encyclopedia of Christianity in the United States. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Web Source(s)
If you enjoyed reading this entry, please buy the Encyclopedia of Christianity in the United States at the link above.
Web Page Contributor
Brendan J. Payne

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