The Inclusion Moderation Thesis: The U.S. Republican Party and the Christian Right
Summary and Keywords
Conservative Christianity’s alignment with the Republican Party at the end of the 20th century is one of the most consequential political developments, both for American religion and American party politics. In the proceeding four decades, what has been the nature of this relationship? The inclusion-moderation thesis suggests that once religious movements are integrated into political parties, their interests are often co-opted by broader party interests and their positions moderate. For the Christian right in the U.S. there is mixed evidence for the inclusion-moderation process. Considering all the evidence, the most apt description is that conservative Christianity has transformed the Republican Party, and the Republican Party has transformed conservative Christianity. With its inclusion in the Republican Party, the Christian right has moderated on some aspects. The movement has become more professional, more attuned to the more widely accepted, secular styles of democratic politics, and more engaged in the broader goals and positions of the party. Conservative Christianity has also failed to fully achieve some of its most important goals and has lost some of its distinctiveness. In these ways, the party has changed the Christian right. At the same time, the Christian right has altered Republican politics. National candidates have changed their positions on important social issues, including abortion, gay rights, and religious freedom. The party’s platforms and judicially strategies have been strongly affected by movement’s interests, and conservative Christian activists have come to be central to the Republican Party. It’s stability and strength within the party have given the movement power. In these areas, the Christian right has evangelized the Republican Party rather than moderated. A fair assessment is that for the Christian right there has been partial but quite incomplete adherence to the inclusion-moderation process.
Donald Trump’s election to be the 45th president of the United States, with overwhelming support from white evangelical Protestants, has reinvigorated the study of the relationship between religion and American politics, perhaps to levels not seen since the rise of the Christian right in the 1980s. Following the 2016 election, exit polls suggested that 81% of white voters who self-identified as evangelical cast their ballots for Trump (Smith & Martinez, 2016). In the following months, more thorough polling largely confirmed these initial exit poll numbers, with estimates ranging from 76–82%. Moreover, as Trump endured an embattled presidency and faced steep midterm losses, particularly in the House of Representatives, evangelical support for Trump has remained, with 71% of white evangelicals having a favorable view of the president in the fall of 2018, compared to the national average of 42% (Vandermaas-Peeler et al., 2018). His favorability with evangelicals declined somewhat from his inauguration but remained quite steady during 2018.
Strong, consistent evangelical support for Trump has befuddled many commentators, who point to a disconnect between the strong supporters of family values (and the Moral Majority) and the president’s personal immorality, harsh treatment of critics, and political scandals. Others have pointed to underlying factors that might belie evangelical support for Trump, including fear, Christian nationalism, racial resentment, and support for religious right policies via the federal courts (e.g., Coaston, 2018; Fea, 2018; Whitehead, Perry, & Baker, 2018; Wong, 2018). A simpler answer can be found in evangelicals’ partisanship. White evangelicals are the strongest supporters of the Republican Party. Their strong partisan identity produces firm attachment to the party’s leader, whoever that is. Indeed, evangelical support for the Republican standard bearer has been consistently strong over the last four presidential elections.
The relationship between the Christian right and the Republican Party bears particular scrutiny for how conservative Christians have been integrated into the party. In Federalist 10, James Madison famously describes how an extended republic will guard against factions in politics, by forcing compromise, or at least frustrating extremism. In the study of political parties, this type of phenomenon has come to be known as the inclusion-moderation hypothesis. Once a movement is ingrained into a party, the hypothesis explains, its goals will be co-opted; the political context will promote supporting “insider” party concerns (Kalyvas, 1998; Tezcür & Künkler, 2010); and institutional features will promote moderation in the future (Schwedler, 2011; Share & Mainwaring, 1986; for a review of the hypothesis, see: Buehler, 2012; Kalyvas, 2000). The inclusion-moderation process has been documented for religious and nonreligious political movements in multiple contexts (see, e.g., Kalyvas, 1998, 2000; Karakaya, 2013; Keck, 1995; Przeworski, 1980; Tezcür & Künkler, 2010), though it has its skeptics (see, e.g., Bermeo, 1997; Schwedler, 2011). Recently, much of the scholarly attention on the inclusion-moderation of religion has been on the potential moderation of Islamist parties (e.g., Karakaya, 2013; Schwedler, 2006, 2011; Tezcür, 2010), though there has been some analysis of the Christian right in the U.S. (see, e.g., Hacker, 2005; Kirdis, 2016).
For conservative Christians in the United States., the evidence for inclusion-moderation is not so clear. Although the Christian right’s inclusion into the Republican Party has professionalized the Christian right, moderated some of its goals, and solidified conservative Christians as strong partisans, the Christian right’s activism, combined with American federalism and recent polarization, seems to have inhibited moderation. In short, party inclusion of the Christian right has transformed both the Christian right and the Republican Party. The Christian right has successfully evangelized the party to its values while also being converted into the party’s broader goals.
The Emergence of the Christian Right
In June 1979, the Reverend Jerry Falwell, a prominent fundamentalist pastor and televangelist, founded the Moral Majority in an effort to bring together a religious coalition to engage in electoral politics to “fight for the family” (Williams, 2010, p. 174). This was a significant change for Falwell, who 15 years earlier had exclaimed, “Nowhere are we [Christians] commissioned to reform externals. We are not told to wage wars against bootleggers, liquor stores, gamblers, murderers, prostitutes, racketeers, prejudiced persons or institutions” (quoted in Baylor, 2018, p. 110). By the end of the 1970s, Falwell had changed his tune and his strategy. He worked with Republican activists, such as Paul Weyrich and Richard Viguerie, to create his Moral Majority organization to mobilize religious voters, endorse conservative candidates, and raise money (see, e.g., Baylor, 2018; Williams, 2010). Conservative Christian activists championed Republican nominee Ronald Regan in the 1980 election, and many of the rank and file followed suit, abandoning the born-again Baptist Jimmy Carter, the incumbent president from the Democratic Party.
Conservative Christians’ activism helped alter the GOP’s party platform to reflect social conservatism, notably by adding a call for a pro-life amendment, and the movement began working within formal party mechanisms. In the almost four decades that have followed, conservative Christians have become integral to the party. White evangelical voters have continued to flock to the Republican Party (Claassen, 2015; Layman, 2001); conservative Christian activists have been ingrained into all levels of the party apparatus (Grossmann & Hopkins, 2016; Layman, 2001); presidential candidates have altered their policy positions to reflect social conservative values (Baylor, 2018); and white evangelical Christians have altered their views to reflect the party (e.g., Deckman, Cox, Jones, & Cooper, 2017; Grossmann & Hopkins, 2016; Layman, 2010; Patrikos, 2013).
The Forming of White Evangelicalism’s Relationship With the GOP
In many scholarly and journalistic accounts, Falwell’s creation of the Moral Majority and the 1980 presidential election represent the beginnings of the Christian right’s alignment with the Republican Party, precipitated by the culture wars of the 1960s and 1970s (Baylor, 2018; Green, Smidt, & Kellstedt, 1996; Heineman, 1998; Moen, 1992; Winters, 2012). The reality is more complicated.
Connections between conservative Christianity and Republicanism started decades earlier than the 1970s. Much of what developed in the late 1970s had its roots in cultural and theological conflicts in the early 20th century between Christian fundamentalists and modernists (Layman, 2001; Lichtman, 2009; Wilcox, 1992; Wilcox & Larson, 2006). By the middle of the 20th century, many conservative Christian leaders were becoming aligned with the Republican Party, buoyed by the party’s stances on communism, racial politics, law and order, and social issues (Williams, 2010). This included “plain folk” and other conservative Christians who combined a commitment to free enterprise, an opposition to communism, and support for Judeo-Christian civil religion (e.g., Dochuk, 2011; Kruse, 2015; Lahr, 2007; McGirr, 2001; Williams, 2010). It also included those opposed to the secularism and cultural relativism of the left and of Democrats (Young, 2016), as well as the opposition to Democratic support of civil rights. Of particular concern was the penalizing of Southern, white Christian schools that did not comply with civil rights regulations in a 1978 IRS ruling (e.g., Balmer, 2014; Crespino, 2007; Edsall & Edsall, 1992). This multifaceted history laid the groundwork for the Christian right’s full integration into Republican politics.
Analysis of polling data confirms the narrative that the groundwork for the Christian right was developing prior to Falwell’s Moral Majority. The evidence shows that evangelical voters were moving to the GOP in presidential elections at least a decade prior to the creation of the Moral Majority. Jimmy Carter’s election in 1976 is the exception to the trend (Claassen, 2015). Moreover, the Republican Party was making Southern inroads in the 1950s, with the help of conservative Christians (Grossmann & Hopkins, 2016), and this continued with help of the “Southern Strategy” (Carmines & Stimson, 1989). It is fair, however, to suggest that the launch of the Moral Majority, and other like-minded organizations, helped ingrain Christian right politics into the Republican Party apparatus (Baylor, 2018). The infrastructure of evangelical television and radio, membership lists, congregations, and activists helped propel conservative Christians into the Republican Party (Zelizer, 2010), where they possess “distinctive influence” decades later (Layman & Brockway, 2018, p. 43).
What motivated conservative Christians to embrace and hold fast to the Republican Party over the past four decades has become the subject of much academic debate. Many histories have emphasized the importance of social-cultural issues such as abortion, gay rights, and religion in the public square (Heineman, 1998; Kruse, 2015; Martin, 2005; Young, 2016). Another wave of scholarship has particularly emphasized the role of race, arguing that racial resentment and/or rejection of the Democratic Party’s alignment with civil rights was the primary impetus (e.g., Balmer, 2007, 2014; Carter, 1996; Crespino, 2007; Edsall & Edsall, 1992). The historian Randall Balmer has elevated and popularized this view with a widely read piece in Politico (Balmer, 2014), and it fits with broader stories about the importance of racial politics in late-20th-century partisan realignment in American politics (see Carmines & Stimson, 1989; Schickler, 2016).
Racial politics is a typical blind spot in the study of white evangelicalism, as scholars tend to be focused more on religious justifications for activism or attitudes rather than other demographic characteristics (for an overview, see Leege, Wald, Krueger, & Mueller, 2002; Wadsworth, 2014). As such, religion and politics scholarship in political science about the Christian right has experienced a tension similar to the scholarship in history, with early analyses of the Christian right focusing on social issues (e.g., Green et al., 1996; Kohut, Green, Keeter, & Toth, 2000; Layman, 2001; Lienesch, 1993). A smaller body of work has emphasized the role of race, particularly in the early wave of the Christian right (e.g., Claassen, 2015, 2018; Leege et al., 2002), drawing on partisan realignment analyses (e.g., Carmines & Stimson, 1989). Racial politics were likely the stoutest force in evangelical alignment with the Republican Party in the first wave of Christian right politics (Leege et al., 2002), and evidence suggests that racial attitudes continue to be a strong predictor of evangelical partisan attachments (Claassen, 2015, 2018).
The more recent attention given to racial politics is not to say that social issues have not mattered. The Moral Majority’s political agenda was framed around social issues, especially abortion, from the start. Analyses of conservative religious voters suggest that abortion attitudes have promoted party switching (e.g., Adams, 1997; Killian & Wilcox, 2008). Additionally, opposition to abortion was an important factor in the Christian right’s inroads in the Republican Party from the late 1970s through the 1990s (Baylor, 2018; Layman, 2001), with the GOP’s party platforms becoming decidedly pro-life and almost all presidential candidates switching their positions on abortion to being strongly opposed (Baylor, 2018). Donald Trump epitomizes this shift. In a 1999 national TV interview, he declared, “I am very pro-choice. I hate the concept of abortion . . . but—I just believe in choice.“ He went on to state that he would not ban partial-birth abortion (Bump, 2016). As a presidential candidate (and president), however, Trump has toed a public pro-life line, though with varieties of inconsistency. During his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump suggested that women who get abortions need to face some type of punishment, though this was quickly updated to doctors, not women, facing punishment (Bump, 2016). In 2018, he was the first president to address the March for Life, declaring that his administration “will always defend the very first right in the Declaration of Independence, and that is the right to life” (Boorstein, Chandler, & Zauzmer, 2018). Mitt Romney had a similar evolution, arguing that abortion should be “safe and legal” during his 1994 Senate campaign and arguing as a Republican presidential candidate in 2007 that Roe v. Wade should be overturned (Bingham, 2012).
In addition to national party politics, social and cultural issues have also played an important role in state-level evangelical involvement with the Republican Party (Conger, 2010a, 2010b; Conger, 2009; Green, Rozell, & Wilcox, 2003; Rozell & Wilcox, 2018). In particular, state-level activism against gay marriage and abortion, as well as for religious freedom, has been prominent. Christian right ballot initiative campaigns to define marriage as one man and one woman, coordinated by George W. Bush strategist Karl Rove, enhanced turnout in the 2004 election (Campbell & Monson, 2007; Putnam & Campbell, 2012). In recent years, with the help of Christian right activists, several states have passed legislation restricting abortion rights (North, 2018; Phillips, 2016), with a wave of restrictions in 2019.
In addition to promoting Christian right activism, abortion’s importance, especially to elites, has transformed the way that conservative Christians approach a host of issues, adopting the language of rights and justifying controversial positions in the name of the pro-life cause (Lewis, 2017). Although abortion, gay rights, and other cultural issues have perhaps not been the sole impetus of the Christian right’s connection to the Republican Party, they have altered evangelicals’ participation within the Republican Party (Bennett, 2017a; Layman, 2001; Lewis, 2017; Moen, 1992; Shields, 2009).
The Effects of Party Inclusion
Academic debates remain about the origins of the Christian right’s relationship with the Republican Party (and the most important factors that helped to forge that relationship), but conservative Christians remain a potent, loyal force in the Republican Party. Conservative Christianity’s initial forays into the party were contested, with major Republican figures denouncing the Christian right’s influence. Barry Goldwater publicly lambasted Jerry Falwell for opposing the Supreme Court nomination of Sandra Day O’Connor to the Supreme Court, and later decried that the party had been taken over by “kooks,” referencing the Christian right (Baylor, 2018, p. 107). George H. W. Bush also had a tepid relationship with the Christian right, and John McCain called conservative Christian leaders “agents of intolerance” and declared that Falwell and Pat Robertson were an “evil influence” on the Republican Party (quoted in Baylor, 2018, p. 118; see also, Cohen, Carol, Noel, & Zaller, 2009). Conservative Christian leaders too have rejected the party (e.g., Thomas & Dobson, 1999; see also Moore, 2016) or at least threatened to (Djupe & Calfano, 2013), repeatedly decrying their perceived second-class status. Those divisions have largely dissipated, however, as the Christian right has become ensconced in the party (Berry, 1999; Grossmann & Hopkins, 2016; Layman & Brockway, 2018). As early as 1993, two-thirds of Republican central committees were controlled by conservative Christians (Dochuk, 2011), and in 2016, white evangelicals were the religious group with the greatest number of party activists (Layman & Brockway, 2018).
Not only have Christian right activists taken up many key positions within the party, they have also shifted the party’s commitments. For instance, they have altered the Republican nominees’ positions on abortion (Carmines & Woods, 2002; McTague & Layman, 2009), convinced George W. Bush to support a Federal Marriage Amendment (Baylor, 2018), and held prominent positions in the Trump administration (Milligan, 2017; Weber, 2018).1
As the relationship between conservative Christianity and the Republican Party has solidified, what has been the effect? Has the Christian right been converted, moderating to meet the demands of a big tent party, or has it remained faithful, successfully evangelizing the GOP? The evidence is mixed—a “yes” on both questions.
Evidence of Faithfulness and Evangelization
Early in the development of the Christian right, its relationship with the Republican Party was tenuous. Christian right leaders argued that they wanted to take over the party, and established party leaders and activists were skeptical and even hostile to the new breed of Christian right leaders and the attention they brought to often-controversial social issues. One primary thing, however, has provided the Christian right staying power in the Republican Party—activism. Activists have continually promoted cultural conservative ideology, which is central to the party, and conservative Christians have effectively mobilized their grassroots network.
Grossman and Hopkins (2016) suggest that the Republican Party is characterized by a commitment to ideology (as opposed to various groups), and cultural conservatism is one of the three legs of the conservative ideological stool, in addition to libertarianism and anti-communism (see also Lee, 2014). Conservative Christians have been the key force in promoting and maintaining this cultural conservative force within the party, particularly through activist networks (Layman, 2001; Oldfield, 1996). In the middle of the 20th century, this was primarily expressed through civic displays of Judeo-Christian religion, opposition to communism, and support for law and order (Kruse, 2015; Williams, 2010). Traditional family values issues followed (i.e., opposition to abortion and gay rights), though conservative Christianity first had to develop its opposition to abortion, for prior to the 1980s it held moderate, nuanced views on the issue, largely leaving it to Catholics (see, e.g., Lewis, 2017; Williams, 2010, 2016).
Although religious conservatism is an essential component of Republicanism, this was not always so clear. To unite the conservative movement, in the 1960s activist leaders pursued unity among the strands of conservative ideology inside the Republican Party through a strategy of “fusionism,” seeking to push back against the Democratic Party and its New Deal and progressive policies. This effort sought to enhance the party’s commitment to conservative values, and it involved a variety of internal battles within the party (Grossmann & Hopkins, 2016; Horwitz, 2013; Kabaservice, 2012). Cultural conservatism was a component of the push to make the Republican Party more ideologically conservative, but religious conservatism was not always at the forefront. There were few evangelical activists or fundamentalist voters who supported Barry Goldwater in 1964, and Goldwater had disagreements with Christian right activists. Moreover, the Republican and Democratic official party platforms did not diverge much on cultural issues, with both supporting the Equal Rights Amendment and neither mentioning abortion (Baylor, 2018). But the momentum was shifting, signaled by the 1976 campaign of Ronald Reagan (Williams, 2010). With increasing Christian right mobilization on social issues, the Republican Party platform changed dramatically in 1980, calling for an antiabortion amendment, a ban on abortion funding and the appointment of antiabortion judges, and opposition to the ERA (Baylor, 2018; Layman, 2001; Putnam & Campbell, 2012; Williams, 2010). Despite the inroads, many in the party, including Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, tried to keep the Christian right at arm’s length, or even publicly opposed them (Baylor, 2018).
Notwithstanding success in altering the Republican platforms, the Christian right’s influence on the party, particularly its policy outputs, was inhibited because of its structure and value commitments. The movement was a collection of small, independent organizations that lacked formal connections to the party and was prone to infighting (Baylor, 2018; Berry, 1999; Grossmann & Hopkins, 2016). What it lacked in structure, however, it made up in grassroots mobilization and party activists. The Christian right prompted evangelical Christians to turn out to vote at higher rates, and it also produced Republican activists at the national and state levels (Baylor, 2018; Green et al., 2003; Layman, 2001). This grassroots activism remains a distinctive and important part of the Christian right’s involvement in the Republican Party. Evangelical activists are “the life of the party” (Layman & Brockway, 2018, p. 43). Additionally, data from the Public Religion Research Institute suggests that white evangelicals have made up approximately one quarter of the electorate for every election since 2012, despite being only 15–20% of the population (Burton, 2018; Sciupac & Smith, 2018).
The Christian right’s activism has allowed the movement to wield strong influence in the Republican Party (Layman & Brockway, 2018; Layman & Weaver, 2016), though certainly not as much influence as many Christian right activists might wish. Most clearly, the Christian right is responsible for the party’s pro-life stance. As Baylor (2018) shows, all Republican presidential candidates from 1980–2016, save one (Bob Dole), altered their position on abortion to become pro-life. The Christian right’s demand for a pro-life party has been met (Carmines & Woods, 2002; McTague & Layman, 2009), as the correlation between partisanship and abortion attitudes has grown (Putnam & Campbell, 2012). As a result, the Republican Party’s position on abortion is more conservative than that of rank-and-file Republicans. Opposition to abortion remains a sacred plank in the Republican Party’s platform, and it is particularly potent in state politics (Conger, 2010b; Cook, Jelen, & Wilcox, 1993; Norrander & Wilcox, 1999; Roh & Haider-Markel, 2003).
The Christian right also pulled the party in its direction in opposition to gay rights. Christian right organizations compelled George W. Bush to support a federal marriage amendment, which earned him outspoken support and increased mobilization in the 2004 election (Baylor, 2018; Campbell & Monson, 2008; Putnam & Campbell, 2012; Williams, 2010). Christian right groups were also effective in passing several state ballot initiatives in the 1990s and 2000s that defined marriage to be between one man and one woman, which inhibited same-sex marriage (Haider-Markel, 2001; Rimmerman & Wilcox, 2007). Even while the public has become very accepting of same-sex marriage (Dann, 2018), the Republican Party did not even support civil unions as of the 2016 platform (Baylor, 2018). Evangelicals and Mormons, central constituencies within the Christian right, are the cultural holdouts regarding same-sex marriage, with favorability rates between 20% and 25% lower than those of the general public (Dann, 2018). A similar cultural division is emerging in the Republican Party regarding transgender rights, and it is also led by the Christian right (Castle, 2018).
In the legislative arena, cultural politics have been shown to have a strong ideological pull, leading to ingrained, uncompromising positions (Oldmixon, 2005). Legislators’ policy decisions are also constrained by the cultural attitudes in their home state (Oldmixon & Calfano, 2007), and state-level cultural politics alter committee assignments (Lewis, 2014). Combine this with evidence that Republican legislators overstate their constituents’ conservatism (see Barker & Carman, 2012; Broockman & Skovron, 2018), and the Christian right’s influence is likely outsized.
The conservative Christian agenda has also been prevalent in judicial politics. The broader conservative movement lacked an organization to engage the courts until the Federalist Society was formed in 1982. In the past 35 years, however, the Federalist Society has helped to transform Republican politics, with a particular emphasis on constitutional interpretation and judicial nominations (Hollis-Brusky, 2015). Conservative Christians played a minor role in the conservative legal movement (Southworth, 2008; Teles, 2008), but in the 1990s the Christian right began forming their own legal organizations. Many were created out of the need to litigate pro-life issues, but they rapidly expanded to include a host of conservative religious issues, including religious freedom, church–state relations, and same-sex marriage (Bennett, 2017a; Hoover & den Dulk, 2004; Lewis, 2017; Wilson, 2013). These Christian legal organizations have shaped the framing of legal and political issues on the right and have been successful in federal court (Bennett, 2017a, 2018b; Lewis, 2016, 2017). They have also built legal education networks to enhance their influence both in Court and in the Republican Party (Wilson & Hollis-Brusky, 2018). Along the way, both the Federalist Society and Republican judicial nominations have become more attuned to Christian right interests (Southworth, 2008). The Christian legal community’s connections to the Republican Party have grown, with the George W. Bush administration providing notable access (see, e.g., Blumenthal, 2007). The election of Donald Trump, however, saw even greater access for the conservative Christian legal community, both in the White House and in federal court (Bennett, 2017b, 2018a; Weber, 2018). Notably, Jay Sekulow, the head of the prominent Christian right legal organization, the American Center for Law and Justice, became President Trump’s personal lawyer in the summer of 2017.
There was evidence of the Christian right’s success in cultural politics during the first two years of the Trump administration. The Trump administration engaged in several initiatives to promote the religious freedom policies of the Christian right, including a religious freedom task force, greater protection for conscience claims, and the promotion of international religious freedom (Hallam, 2018; McGraw, 2018; Woellert, 2018). Moreover, the administration sought to roll back protections on transgender rights (Meckler, Schmidt, & Sun, 2018). In late 2018, Congress overwhelmingly passed federal sentencing reform, which was promoted by conservative Christian organizations (Dagan & Teles, 2016; Green, 2018). This is combined with a cadre of conservative federal judges and administration lawyers, several with connections to conservative Christian legal organizations (Bennett, 2018a; Weber, 2018). All told, there is substantial evidence that the Christian right has evangelized the Republican Party on cultural issues, rather than moderating on entrance.
Evidence of Conversion and Moderation
While the Christian right has altered the Republican Party in many ways, it has also been transformed by its participation in the party. It has moderated its stances, supported broad party initiatives beyond cultural politics, and professionalized its approach. For example, although “Evidence of Faithfulness and Evangelization” outlined many successes for the Christian right during the first two years of the Trump administration, one of its biggest goals has not been accomplished: Congress declined to cut funding for Planned Parenthood despite unified Republican control (Ollstein, 2018). In doing so, one of the Christian right’s primary goals was sidestepped by the party, to the chagrin of many conservative Christian activists.
Because the Christian right formed out of a loose network of grassroots organizations, and because many of its leaders were not ingrained in Republican politics, the movement’s early sway on the party was limited. The Christian right faced pushback from party elites, and it had to use brokers to connect them to the party (Baylor, 2018). The staff of many conservative Christian organizations was small, and some of the early leaders, including Falwell, were more interested in grassroots activism than guiding policy reforms. Moreover, many of the leaders of these conservative Christian groups were committed to broad party concerns rather than discreet conservative Christian interests. As Jeffrey Berry describes, many of the leaders “regarded themselves more as Republican strategists than as legislative lobbyists” (Berry, 1999, p. 89; quoted in Grossmann & Hopkins, 2016; see also Horwitz, 2013). For these reasons and more, analyses suggest that the first waves of the Christian right led to limited legislative success on cultural issues (see Berry, 1999; Grossmann & Hopkins, 2016).
The Christian right was also moderated into the broader goals of the Republican Party. Though nearly all Republican presidential candidates have changed their positions on key cultural issues to accommodate conservative Christians, Christian right groups have chosen to support less than ideal, front-running Republican candidates to cement their position in the party. These included George H. W. Bush, Bob Dole, and George W. Bush (Baylor, 2018), and it certainly describes evangelicals’ support for Donald Trump, especially after he secured the Republican nomination. In fact, a survey conducted at the end of the 2016 Republican primary suggests that white evangelical Christians were much less likely than average Republicans to consider defecting from the Republican Party following the nomination of Donald Trump, even though he was not a consensus candidate among conservative Christians (Lewis, 2018). Evangelicals have become the most committed partisans.
In addition, the Christian right has been integrated into the party, a strategy pursued by many, but not all, party leaders (Grossmann & Hopkins, 2016; Karol, 2009; for dissention among activists, see Baylor, 2018). As Christian right activists have become intertwined with the party, they are more prone to compromise (Layman, 2010). The integration of the Christian right has also perpetuated rank-and-file conservative Christians, as well as activists, to acquire the broader policy preferences of the Republican Party (Grossmann & Hopkins, 2016). This includes opposition to national health care reform and environmental regulations, reduced government spending and reduced taxes on businesses and the wealthy, and foreign policy (e.g., Barker & Carman, 2000; Deckman et al., 2017; Guth, Green, Kellstedt, & Smidt, 1995; Layman, 2010; Lewis, 2017).
The Christian right has also altered, and even moderated, its approach to politics with its assimilation into the Republican Party. Leaders and activists have become more professionalized over time (e.g., Moen, 1992; Wilson, 2013) and more amalgamated into the party (Layman, 2010; Layman & Brockway, 2018). They have intentionally transformed their public arguments to be more secular and less religious (Moen, 1992; Shields, 2009). Among this is a heavy emphasis on the liberal language of rights, both in legal and political advocacy. This emphasis on rights has been employed by elites but also adopted by the rank and file (Brown, 2002; Djupe, Lewis, Jelen, & Dahan, 2014; Jelen, 2005; Lewis, 2016, 2017). However, religious appeals are often shrouded in language discernable mostly to insiders (Albertson, 2015; Calfano & Djupe, 2009), adopted on purpose to signal evangelicals without public notice (Kuo, 2006). Evidence from both leaders and the mass public also suggests that conservative Christians have become more deliberative and tolerant of the political rights of others in recent decades, moderating to fit the norms of American politics (Eisenstein, Clark, & Jelen, 2017; Lewis, 2017; Shields, 2009; for an example of how this process might work, see: Djupe, Lewis, & Jelen, 2016). Conservative Christians have also developed more professional political organizations, both political and legal, moving away from the ad hoc grassroots structure of their beginnings (Bennett, 2017a; Wilcox & Larson, 2006; Wilson, 2013). These endeavors have yielded some successes, but they have also moderated the goals of the movement, sacrificing religious preferences for broader political ones (Layman, 2010). Such professionalization and moderation can risk the momentum of political movements (see, e.g., Layman, 2010; Scheingold, 2004; Wilson, 2013), though the Christian right seems to persist. This is perhaps because of its partisanship more than its ideological goals, however.
In the end, the greatest evidence of moderation is that white evangelicals have become one of the core constituencies of the Republican Party, and perhaps the most committed Republicans. They support Republican policies and Republican candidates for president and state office; they turn out to vote at high rates; and they support Republican presidents, even beleaguered ones such as George W. Bush and Donald Trump, at much higher rates than the general public (“Evangelical Approval of President Bush,” 2007; Vandermaas-Peeler et al., 2018). Republicanism has become a part of evangelicals’ identity (Margolis, 2018; Mason, 2018), presenting high degrees of affective polarization and negative partisanship. In political life, evidence suggests that evangelical and Republican identities have become “fused” (Patrikios, 2013). This finding has only enhanced the research that suggests that partisanship might also shape one’s evangelical affiliation, with Republicans being more likely to attach to conservative religious life (Margolis, 2018). This fusion of evangelicalism and Republicanism has been on display with the election and presidency of Donald Trump. Partisanship supersedes ideology (or religion), as strong partisans such as white evangelicals are likely to follow the cues of the party leader (Barber & Pope, 2018).
The Christian right’s relationship with the Republican Party is a two-way street. Conservative Christians have both transformed the Republican Party and been transformed by it. They have pulled the party toward them on cultural issues, in large part because of their activist and grassroots networks and their heavy concentration of power in state politics. The distinctive influence of the movement is perhaps clearest in the areas of presidential elections and state party politics, though it is growing in judicial politics. At the same time, the Christian right has moderated its politics in service to the party. It has become integrated into the Republican apparatus and Republican political identity, for good and for ill. Although it has not been a complete co-optation or “capture” (see Frymer, 1999), this fusion has caused the Christian right to lose its distinctiveness. There is also evidence that elements of party capture are becoming stronger in the 21st century, especially with the secularization of the Democratic Party. At the same time, conservative Christianity’s connection to the Republican Party has opened the doors of power, and Christian right issues have been an important part of the Republican Party’s national political agenda (Baylor, 2018; den Dulk, 2018). In addition, the movement’s relationship to the party has resulted in the accumulation of some democratic norms. A fair assessment is that there has been partial but quite incomplete adherence to the inclusion-moderation process.
For three decades, scholars and journalists have predicted the death of the Christian right, to no avail (see Wilcox & Larson, 2006). In recent years, such calls have grown louder, with descriptions of them being on their deathbed because of the decline of religion in America, demographic changes, and the public’s increasing acceptance of progressive social policies (e.g., Jones, 2016a, 2016b; Posner, 2016). Certainly, these changes will prove to be hurdles for the political influence of the Christian right, particularly as their politics might be accentuating the growth of secularism (Djupe, Neiheisel, & Conger, 2018; Djupe, Neiheisel, & Sokhey, 2018; Hout & Fischer, 2002). More likely than extinction, however, is adaptation. Adaptation has been the overarching story of conservative Christian politics for the past four decades. Public politics have been crafted and reformed to meet changing political demands, whether that is adapting public arguments, focusing on legal issues, or engaging with party politics (Baylor, 2018; Layman & Brockway, 2018; Lewis, 2017; Moen, 1992; Wilcox & Larson, 2006). The Christian right’s connection to the Republican Party has facilitated these changes, and its position as the most committed Republican constituency only makes this more likely, particularly as partisanship and identity are interconnected, and conservative Christianity has state-level strongholds.
The dance between evangelization and moderation within conservative Christian politics is likely to continue. The Christian right will surely learn new moves along the way as cultural and political forces demand change. To predict its demise, however, continues to seem premature.
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(1.) The Christian right has certainly held positions in prior administrations, but this relationship arguably reached its apex in the Trump administration.