The Christian Right in U.S. Politics
- Kimberly H. CongerKimberly H. CongerDepartment of Political Science, University of Cincinnati
The Christian Right has been an active force in Republican and American politics for over 40 years. Its focus on morality politics (abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage, pornography, and sex and science education) has had an impact on the fortunes and expectations of conservative candidates, activists, and organizations all over the country. Its comprehensive activity demonstrates the multifaceted changes in society and religious engagement that brought the Christian Right as a political force into supporters’ consciousnesses, their churches, and the voting booth. Success in mobilization and the ballot box has not always created policy change, though the movement can claim policy victories in many states and localities. The largest impact the movement has had is in the Republican Party in all of its incarnations, altering the policies and strategies that are important and successful for the party. The incarnation of the movement shows signs of significant change, however, as the Republican Party is transformed by the populist messages and policies of the Trump administration. Scholars of the Christian Right movement and religion in American politics more generally should pay attention to the varying narratives, issues, sources of power, and social cohesion that the movement and its constituency, largely conservative Protestants, display. Like research on many social and political movements, the study of the Christian Right benefits from an interdisciplinary approach and a good grasp of the lived experience of the supporters, activists, and leaders within the movement.
The story of the Christian Right in contemporary American politics can be, and has been, told in numerous ways. These varying stories demonstrate the multifaceted changes in society and religious engagement that made the Christian Right into a political force. Some observers start with story of Protestant fundamentalism and its discontents in the first half of the 20th century or with the advent of the Cold War against the “godless” Communists. Others start with backlash to the social revolutions of the 1960s; Roe vs. Wade (1973); the opposition to a lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) antidiscrimination ordinance in Miami in 1977; or the response to an Internal Revenue Service (IRS) crack-down on White-only private Christian schools in the early 1970s. To a greater or lesser extent, each of these possible origin stories is true and accurately reflects the beliefs, actions, and reactions of the evangelical Protestant people who form the core of the movement in its many incarnations. But the way in which one tells the story of the movement matters; different approaches impact not only how a person evaluates the movement but how one defines Christian Right ideas and the categories assigned to people, organizations, and events. A scholar who views the Christian Right primarily as a reaction to the LGBT movement likely defines its constituent groups differently than one who sees the Christian Right as primarily a creation of the Republican Party.
The study of the Christian Right in the United States requires an interdisciplinary approach; focusing too narrowly on the political activities of movement organizations actually ensures a less robust analysis of the movement’s politics. The studies of social movements, social identity, political psychology, public policy, and theology all have important insights that scholars of the Christian Right ignore at their peril. The movement and its political influence is more than the sum of its parts, and a comprehensive understanding of the Christian Right’s place in American politics is found in examining the many threads that weave together to make the movement.
Because the goal of this article is to synthesize scholars’ understanding of the Christian Right more generally, I take this interdisciplinary approach. Other colleagues provide an excellent historical take on the movement and its theological and chronological development (e.g., McVicar, 2018); my goal is to more closely examine the themes of the movement’s political involvement. To that end, I approach the topic from a series of dichotomies within the movement that both illuminate and complicate our evaluation of the Christian Right and its impact on politics in the United States.
Some Important Definitions
From its earliest stirrings, one of the challenges to scholars and pundits who observe and analyze the political activity of American evangelicals has been the conflation of evangelical voters as a whole and the social movement known as the Christian Right. Certainly, there is much overlap among the categories, but it is important to note that there are many evangelical Protestants who, while politically and socially conservative, do not identify with the Christian Right. And there is a small but persistent group of evangelicals who do not identify as Republican, or socially conservative, for that matter. Thus it is important to understand the distinctions inherent in these terms and how voters and activists use them.
Evangelicals are usually defined as Protestant Christians who believe in the necessity of a born-again experience of conversion to belief in Jesus Christ for salvation, a high (inerrant) view of the Bible, a specific focus on the atoning work of Jesus on the Cross, and the expectation that these beliefs need to be expressed publicly and coupled with activism (Bebbington, 2003). The origin of the word “evangelical” is the intent to spread the “good news.” While these beliefs are easily converted into political activity, evangelicals have not always been convinced of the efficacy of political action, and many who would self-identify as evangelicals draw varied conclusions about the appropriate application of these ideas in the American political system. Many African American Protestants fit the four-fold definition of evangelicalism in theology and morality and yet are radically different in their application of these ideas to American politics. It is also worth noting that definitions and labels for evangelicalism have varied considerably over time, and scholars should be cautious about comparing people who fit 19th-century definitions of the evangelical movement with those who fit the late-20th- and early 21st-century definition.
The Christian Right, then, is the modern social movement focused on morally and socially conservative public policy in the American context. It is a loose network of people and organizations generally defined by their commitment to an evangelical form of Protestantism and socially conservative politics including opposition to abortion and same-sex relationships, support for faith-based education both within and beyond traditional public schools, and advocacy on a range of other ancillary issues that economically or culturally support these core commitments (Conger, 2009; Leege & Kellstedt, 1993; Wilcox & Robinson, 2010). These groups overlap in the sense that many of the grassroots supporters of Christian Right organizations and public policy are themselves White evangelicals, and the vast majority of Christian Right support comes from evangelical voters (Green & Guth, 1988; Green, Rozell, & Wilcox, 2000; Guth & Green, 1990; Layman, 2001; Wilcox & Robinson, 2010). But each evangelical and Christian Right organization defines its beliefs, policy commitments, or constituency differently, leading to some significant measurement difficulties for journalists and scholars alike.
One of the primary ways that scholars and journalists have studied politically conservative evangelicals, especially voters, has been through survey research. As with many groups in U.S. politics, the first challenge in studying these citizens, their views, and their behavior is to appropriately identify members of the group. Various national academic surveys about politics such as the American National Election Studies and the Cooperative Congressional Election Study, proprietary surveys by companies like Gallup and Barna, and surveys designed to gauge the American religious landscape in general, such as studies by the Pew Forum, all use a battery of questions to determine who is an evangelical, who identifies with the movement, and who supports the issue positions associated with the Christian Right. Most scholars rely on some combination of a respondent’s beliefs, behaviors, and religious identity to identify evangelicals (e.g., Leege & Kellstedt, 1993). This tends to include either or both denominational affiliation and self-identity as an evangelical, either directly or through a “born-again” label. The most comprehensive of these identifications is laid out by Steensland et al. (2000) and is used in most contemporary high-quality surveys. Most researchers refer to this identification strategy as “Religious Tradition,” and, as might be expected, this approach tends to homogenize a great degree of variation in belief, behavior, and identity into the evangelical label.
The challenge to identify evangelicals remains, however, because many people that scholars would identify as evangelical Protestants do not identify themselves as such, or do not even understand the terminology.1 For scholars looking to precisely identify as many respondents as possible, a close reading of the open-ended responses to religion questions, identifying evangelicals who were not picked up by the traditional means, is a fruitful operation. These challenges can hamper the overall assessment of evangelical identity and opinion, and of Christian Right support, but survey research remains the cornerstone of research into evangelicals in the mass public and forms the core of many of the analyses and conclusions discussed here in the assessment of the Christian Right movement in American politics. Another important note is that evangelicals are not equally dispersed over the United States, so national surveys can sometimes mask the true regional and local concentrations of evangelicals that make such a large difference for the political strategy of the Christian Right. While the best measures show the movement to average around a quarter of the population as a whole (26.3% in 2008, 25.4% in 2014) (Pew Research Center, 2015), state support varies widely. More than half of citizens claim to be evangelical in Alabama (51%), Arkansas (53.7%), Kentucky (51%), Mississippi (50.2%), Oklahoma (53.3%), and Tennessee (52.3%), while less than 10% do in Connecticut (8.1%), Rhode Island (9.3%), Utah2 (5.9%), and Vermont (7.6%) (Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, 2008).
Bottom Up Versus Top Down
Historically, Protestant fundamentalism focused on a retreat from the larger culture, into explicitly Christian communities and institutions. Evangelicalism emerged out of that movement in the middle part of the 20th century, keeping fundamentalism’s conservative theology but explicitly seeking to integrate with American culture, not retreat from it (Marsden, 2006; Noll, 2001). While the emerging evangelical movement sought to break down many of these barriers to broader cultural engagement in the United States, by the early 1970s, many evangelicals were disengaged with politics.3 Those who did vote were largely (conservative) Democrats, based on their Southern and lower middle class circumstances, and many voted for Republican presidential candidates. But the social and cultural changes wrought in the United States by the late 1960s and early 1970s—civil rights, women’s rights, legalized abortion, the sexual revolution, and early activism for LGBT rights—had gained the attention of even the most cloistered evangelical. The advent and increasing popularity of religious television and the celebrity preachers it created provided a new way for religious conservatives to see like-minded leaders beyond their local communities. The political dimension of this connection was made most clear by the Reverend Jerry Falwell. His sermons from the Thomas Road Baptist Church were being televised regionally, and many focused on these new cultural evils. He even specifically criticized presidential candidate Jimmy Carter, a Democrat and overt evangelical Protestant, for his “weak” stand on abortion and for doing an interview with Playboy magazine. Falwell roots the story of the beginning of his grassroots organization, the Moral Majority, in a phone call he received from the Carter campaign, asking him to tone down his criticism of the candidate. He says this was the first time he realized that someone might be listening to things that evangelicals were saying and he decided to do something to bring those voices together (Cromartie, 2001). The Moral Majority was based primarily in Baptist Bible churches, a group Thomas Road was connected to, but this meant that the Moral Majority had connections that reached almost every state in the country and helped build a network for evangelicals to try and leverage their numbers.
Parallel grassroots efforts were started in many states, and while affiliated with national organizations such as the American Family Association or Eagle Forum, these organizations operated largely independently and chose their own focus, whether on national or state issues. Other grassroots efforts of evangelicals in the 1970s geared to change politics or policy focused on opposition to the expansion of LGBT rights (Fetner, 2008), opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment (Oldfield, 1996), and protections of private, Christian schools from regulations on race in many parts of the country (Edsall & Von Drehle, 1994).
Clergy played a role in this grassroots mobilization as well. Many pastors found the arguments of early Christian Right leaders to be compelling, that the country was falling apart and only the church could help it (Guth, Green, Smidt, Kellstedt, & Poloma, 1997; Guth et al., 2003; Jelen, 1993). Given their status as opinion leaders over a wide variety of issues for the behavior and beliefs of their congregations (Beatty & Walter, 1989; Smidt, 2016), many clergy used their position to advance conservative social positions and even opened up their church to speakers and education materials from Christian Right groups (Djupe, Burge, & Calfano, 2016; Djupe & Neiheisel, 2019; Green, Rozell, & Wilcox, 2003; Oldfield, 1996). Pastors and other clergy formed an intermediate elite for evangelicals who were attracted to the Christian Right movement. Not political leaders themselves, many clergy nevertheless provided the underpinnings for a worldview that focused on moral reform and the need for activism. While some pastors became disillusioned early on with the practical failures of the movement in national politics, others embraced both the issues and the identity of the movement, forming the core of the contemporary ideas of cultural and religious threat (Green, Rozell, & Wilcox, 2006).
This grassroots story of the Christian Right movement, however, masks a parallel effort by elites in evangelical, conservative, and Republican circles to mobilize religious conservatives and harness their nascent power for the Republican Party. As early as the first half of the 20th century, savvy strategists were trying to link religious values with capitalism and support for Republican and conservative candidates (Kruse, 2015). The roots of the modern conservative movement, however, lie in the Barry Goldwater campaign of 1964; many of the leaders who got their start in that campaign were evangelicals themselves (Diamond, 1998; Moen, 1992; Oldfield, 1996) and continued to pursue politics after Goldwater’s defeat. These activists had become Republican and conservative leaders by the early 1970s, playing a role both in the rise of Ronald Reagan and in convincing evangelicals that political activity was a positive good, not just a necessary evil.
Perhaps the most important, though largely underappreciated, architect of the Republican mobilization of conservative evangelicals was Paul Weyrich, a conservative Republican activist and operative who helped found the Heritage Foundation, the Free Congress Foundation, and the American Legislative Exchange Council. Weyrich was instrumental in convincing Jerry Falwell to start the Moral Majority, even coining the term. He was a very early proponent of evangelical clergy as the conduit to an unmobilized group of potential conservative voters, even fielding his own survey of evangelicals in 1979 to demonstrate the appetite for political messages among congregants (Gilgoff, 2008). Through his work with the Free Congress Foundation, he was able to help build the practical infrastructure of communication and mobilization among supporters of the Christian Right (Balmer, 2007; Oldfield, 1996). Weyrich strongly believed in the idea of a Christian America, encouraging Christians not to support the military when it recognized Wicca as a religious practice for the chaplaincy and stridently voicing his opinion that the country was indeed in a “culture war” that Christians were losing (Weyrich, 1999).
Most visible of the evangelical leaders in this early stage of the movement was Francis Schaeffer. Through a series of books and retreat centers in Europe and the United States, Schaeffer’s goal was to cultivate intellectuals and other thought leaders into an evangelicalism that was enmeshed in the larger Western culture and traditions (Schaeffer, 1976). Most importantly, he was an early evangelical opponent of abortion rights, when other evangelicals saw it as a Catholic issue (Oldfield, 1996; Smidt & Penning, 1997). Because of his larger vision for evangelicals in society, Schaeffer was an early advocate for a “culture war,” specifically promoting the idea that conservative Protestants become active not necessarily in politics but anywhere issues of protecting traditionally Christian approaches to life and culture were engaged.
If Schaeffer’s books and networks tilled the ground for the Christian Right, then Richard Viguerie’s direct mail strategies planted the seeds. Though more widely known as a founder of the modern conservative movement, Viguerie worked very closely with Falwell’s Moral Majority and other early Christian Right groups to form a powerful postal network of socially conservative, largely evangelical donors and activists (McVicar, 2018). Schaeffer, Weyrich, and Viguerie were explicitly trying to build and grow a grassroots movement of socially and economically conservative voters. Viguerie and Weyrich saw evangelicals as an important untapped resource for conservatives and the Republican Party in general. It is largely thanks to their efforts both through and beyond Viguerie’s work for Ronald Reagan in the 1970s that the Republican Party establishment welcomed new evangelical voters into the party apparatus (McVicar, 2018).
And evangelical voters responded. Many scholars have spent significant time evaluating the ins and outs of evangelical voting behavior over the last 40 years. The overall consensus is that evangelicals are primarily conservative and while many began as Democrats, most moved over to the Republican Party over time as Republicans gained power in the South (Smidt et al., 2010; Wilcox & Robinson, 2010). There is vigorous debate over the mechanism of that shift, with some scholars linking it to religious commitment and church attendance (Layman, 2001), while others point to issues such as abortion or public school desegregation as the primary driver of the shift (Brint & Abrutyn, 2010; Carsey & Layman, 2006; Claassen, 2018; Killian & Wilcox, 2008), and still others link it to demographics and party representation (Claassen, 2015). It is clear overall that individual differences in theological beliefs and religious tradition mediate Republican and conservative identity (Layman, 2001; Smidt et al., 2010). While these voters were and are clearly impacted by the efforts and messaging of Christian Right activists and organizations (e.g., Conger, 2010a; Djupe, 2011; Lewis, 2017), the deep analysis of religiously based voting behavior is a topic for another extensive essay.
Social Movement Versus Party Faction
One of the challenges for scholars in evaluating the Christian Right is in assigning it to a category for analysis. While in some respects the importance of the movement in American politics transcends analytic categories we place on it, it is important to embed our evaluations of the movement, its organizations, and its political impact into a larger picture of American politics. The Christian Right is not a singular or one-off phenomenon in the span of American political evolution but the current embodiment of long-term trends both in American Protestant religion and the relationship between religion and politics.
On one hand, the Christian Right can be clearly defined as a classic social movement. The Christian Right seeks to change society as a whole and has used political tactics in addition to group consciousness raising and parallel institution building in its attempts to create change. The movement also fits very well into the classic Political Process Theory (PPT) model of political involvement by social movements (McAdam, 1996; McCarthy & Zald, 1987). It has a defined set of social and political resources in the congregational and parachurch organizational links among its supporters, leaders, and elected officials. It further draws organizational and intellectual resources from churches, and other nonchurch religious organizations, such as religious colleges and universities, primary and secondary schools and school organizations, charitable and mission organizations, and even legal defense groups (Conger, 2009; Green, Rozell, & Wilcox, 2001; Martin, 2005).
The Christian Right uses these resources, following PPT, to frame a set of problems as direct threats to those people who support the movement. The rhetoric of the movement and the symbols it uses to make its points are most important here. The Christian Right’s focus on children and the family is one of the most important problem-framing techniques it utilizes (Fetner, 2008). From education in all its forms, to same-sex marriage and adoption, to economic policy that benefits single-earner families, the movement uses this framework of child and family protection to great effect. Overall, scholars have also demonstrated that the movement effectively uses the narrative of threat, both personal and cultural, to mobilize citizens in churches and other religious organizations into political activity (Campbell, 2006; Olson, 2016).
Finally, the Christian Right has demonstrated its understanding of American political culture by taking advantage of the political opportunity structures available to it. The movement’s varied focus on opposition to abortion, same-sex marriage, sex education and evolution in schools, and economic issues of church taxation demonstrate its flexibility both in terms of issues but also of venues. The relative lack of national policy success, coupled with the movement’s clear inroads into state Republican parties as well as state-level policy and legal strategies, demonstrate that movement leaders have recognized the openings provided by American federalism and the importance of state governments. The strength of the movement is based largely on this state strategy and on the movement’s ability to recognize political opportunities, a key factor in using PPT to explain a movement’s political involvement.
On the other hand, an argument can be made that the Christian Right more closely fits the pattern of a party movement, further explained by Schwartz (2016). All of the Christian Right’s political and mobilization efforts have taken place within the Republican Party context. Party movements are hybrid entities, combining features of both political parties and social movements. One important feature in identifying the Christian Right as a party movement is its clear focus on legislative and legal strategies in its attempts to change society in the United States (Baer & Bositis, 1988). A party movement introduces new issues to the political agenda, forces existing political parties to take account of their issues, or changes the outlines of the existing party system. The Christian Right has certainly accomplished these things inside the Republican Party and in the larger conservative arena that surrounds the party.
Republican Insurgents Versus Republican Establishment
It is difficult to discuss the Christian Right in isolation from the Republican Party. For better and worse, the two have been so intertwined over the past 40 years that the real question is how that association has evolved and what impacts it has had (see Lewis, 2017). The Christians Right’s relationship with the Republican Party is as many faceted and complicated as the movement itself. It bears the marks of both grassroots and elite-driven mobilization of conservative voters (Conger, 2010a; Green & Guth, 1988; Green, Guth, & Wilcox, 1998; Oldfield, 1996). But the movement has had an enormous impact on the party both institutionally and ideologically over the past 30 years (Claassen, 2015; Conger, 2009, 2014; Schlozman, 2015). That these changes happened in the context of a larger effort to build a conservative movement in the United States has amplified and shaped the relationship between the Republican Party and conservative evangelicals. For many conservative Protestants, becoming active in what was essentially social movement work—protesting, boycotting, seeking to persuade other citizens—was not that far afield from the religious and charitable volunteer work that has long been a hallmark of religious adherents. Many were also socially connected to one another through activity and leadership in charitable and para-church organizations like mission boards, homeless shelters, and religious schools (Conger, 2009; Diamond, 1998; Lienesch, 2014; Moen, 1992). This provided a vitally important resource for eventual political mobilization. Individuals who are not necessarily interested in politics will attend a rally or fundraiser when invited by a friend (Verba, Schlozman, & Brady, 1995). And, in many cases, this network approach to activism created new networks among social conservatives, religious and nonreligious alike.
Given the early visibility of groups such as the Moral Majority, and the explicit ways the Reagan administration sought to court evangelical voters, some observers expected policy and political change to come relatively easy. Many believed that reminding people of traditional values, in comparison with the social upheaval brought on by the moral changes of the 1960s, would be enough to ensure passage of pro-life and pro-family legislation. But by the end of the 1980s, it had become clear that while Republicans candidates and elected officials were happy to have the support of evangelicals at the polls, that was not enough to ensure the changes in law desired by the movement (Martin, 2005; Oldfield, 1996). In response to this, Pat Robertson, an evangelical and Charismatic televangelist, ran for the Republican nomination in 1988.
Pat Robertson was not, perhaps, the most likely candidate to challenge the sitting Republican vice-president, George H. W. Bush. His nationally televised news and talk show, The 700 Club, provided a platform for Robertson’s visibility but also provided fodder for those opposed to him. Robertson’s version of evangelicalism, with an emphasis on supernatural gifts and healing, and his penchant for immoderate remarks on current affairs (he later described the 9/11 terrorist attacks, as well as several natural disasters, as punishment for America’s embrace of homosexuality), did not make him attractive to even a majority of religious conservatives, let alone the Republican Party as a whole. But Robertson’s failed presidential nomination campaign funneled a huge number of new, religious activists into Republican Party politics (Edsall, 1995; Penning, 1994). These were people who might have been Republican before but saw Robertson’s campaign as an opportunity to put a real person of faith in the White House (Hertzke, 1993; Penning, 1994). He was a candidate who would give more than just lip-service to their socially conservative policy agenda. Many of these activists went to work in state-level Republican politics and then stayed after Robertson’s defeat (Conger, 2009; Edsall, 1995; Guth & Green, 1990). These new leaders formed the backbone of the efforts in the early 1990s, many successful, to “take over” state Republican parties by installing socially conservative, pro-Christian Right leadership from the precinct level up. For many years to come, state and local Republican Party structures felt the impact of the Robertson campaign, some in the revitalization of the party with Christian Right activists, others in the deep conflict these new activists caused within establishment Republican circles as they tried to mold the party into their own social-conservative likeness (Green & Guth, 1988; Green et al., 1998; Green et al., 2001). Many state- and local-level Republican activists describe in detail the machinations of integrating—or excluding—Christian Right supporters in party committees across the nation (Conger, 2009, 2010b). This conflict and accommodation has not only shaped the Republican Party for the last three decades but also impacted the Christian Right activists themselves, schooling them in compromise and in navigating political and policy institutions at all levels of government (Green et al., 2006; Moen, 1992; Oldfield, 1996; Wilcox & Robinson, 2010).
Abortion Versus LGBT Rights Versus Racial Segregation
These attempts to mobilize both grassroots and elite evangelical voices into partisan politics were bolstered and shaped by a set of political issues newly important in the American social scene. Many scholars point to reaction against the social change and upheaval of the 1960s as a key resource for the advent and growth of the Christian Right. The movements that increased the rights of African Americans to vote and dismantle segregation, the rights of women to gain access to a wider range of jobs and to abortions, of lesbians and gay men to seek employment and housing without discrimination and publicly legitimate their relationships all form the backdrop of religious conservative reaction (Fetner, 2008). But, at the same time, religious conservative leaders learned from these liberation movements that rights were a powerful arena in which to contest political principles (Lewis, 2017). If Blacks, women, and homosexuals had the right to protest for equal rights in the social and political sphere, why not socially conservative religious people?
The Christian Right’s opposition to both abortion and same-sex marriage has featured efforts in the courts at all levels. But these two issues highlight some of the significant differences in the way the movement has approached policy passage and implementation over its existence. Evangelicals were at the forefront of early opposition to the rights of LGBT individuals, especially at the local level (Fetner, 2008; Haider-Markel & Meier, 1996; Lax & Phillips, 2009). From protests over equal rights protections in the municipal laws of Miami, Florida, in the 1970s to opposition to same-sex couples adopting children in the early 2000s, the Christian Right has long opposed not only the political rights of lesbians and gay men but also the social and civil rights of those individuals. Much of the initial opposition from the Christian Right was centered around the idea that gay men in particular were a threat to children and to traditional families and that homosexuality was a “lifestyle choice” that did not rise to the level of race or ethnicity in terms of equality of rights. Importantly, many gay rights opponents raised the specter of same-sex marriage as the real danger to traditional morality, long before this issue took center stage among LGBT activists. In fact, some scholars point to this early Christian Right opposition to same-sex marriage as the avenue by which many gay rights organizations began considering it as an equal rights strategy (Fetner, 2008).
For at least a decade, the opposition to same-sex marriage and other forms of equal social and political rights for LGBT persons was the cornerstone of Christian Right activism and grassroots mobilization. The movement’s success in passing marriage definition laws and amendments to state constitutions in the 1990s and early 2000s demonstrated both the need for the movement and its ability to succeed. Much of this was linked to the fact that rules governing marriage had traditionally been state-level laws. State laws vary dramatically on marriage issues such as the age of consent and the process of obtaining a marriage license. And since roughly half of states allow for citizen initiative ballot issues, Christian Right activists took advantage of the opportunity to try to ban same-sex marriage, mobilizing countless voters for these efforts (Conger, 2009; Conger & Djupe, 2016). Furthermore, while in many cases state-level movement activists and organizations joined national efforts to affect policy on the federal level, national politics was once again problematic for the movement. The Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) decision robbed many state-level organizations of an important rallying point (opposition to same-sex marriage) that was used to introduce concerned citizens to the larger arena of Christian Right political efforts (Conger, 2018).
The abortion issue, while equally important in many parts of the movement, presented a very different set of considerations for evangelical voters and the Christian Right activists trying to mobilize them. Abortion had not initially been an evangelical issue, and many early Christian Right activists, focused on opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment or antidiscrimination measures for LGBT persons, generally ignored the Roe v. Wade ruling (Balmer, 2014; Oldfield, 1996). The initial movement opposition to abortion rights was the pro-life movement, peopled primarily with conservative Catholics in early days. The pro-life movement has been a parallel and overlapping movement with the Christian Right for decades. While many supporters of the Christian Right are also supporters of the pro-life movement, they remain functionally separate. Many pro-life movement supporters do not consider themselves to be part of the Christian Right; part of this division is ideological and part tactical. Many states have at least two pro-life groups, one primarily Catholic, the other primarily evangelical. This split was a function of the differing social networks of Catholics and evangelicals but also reflected differences of opinion (Conger, 2009). For Catholic pro-lifers, opposition to contraception and the death penalty are a core part of the movement; for evangelicals, many of whom support capital punishment and are generally unconcerned by most forms of birth control, these issues are not attractive. Catholics also largely approach the issue incrementally, seeking practical (frequently state-level) policy victories sustained over time (Prendergast, 1999; Yamane, 2005). Evangelicals have been more likely to support radical prohibition using constitutional amendments and supreme court decisions, at least up to the early 2000s when they moved toward state politics (Conger, 2018; Green et al., 1998; Persinos, 1994). It is not a coincidence that the anti-abortion groups that embraced radical public action and even violence were largely made up of evangelicals. These strategic differences are in some cases the result of the different frameworks behind Catholic and evangelical activism; Catholics are part of a single hierarchical organization that has an official stance on abortion and has put organizational resources to work in pursuing that policy, whereas evangelicals are much more loosely organized and the organizations that mobilize them into action around policy and politics do not hold any official or authority over the life and beliefs of their members. Finally, while many Christian Right groups also support pro-life causes, most pro-life groups concentrate only on abortion, seeing other issues as diluting attention from their most important issue.
The Christian Right has entered the political battle over abortion in a number of ways. The movement was originally focused on national policy change through a regularly proposed human life amendment or in opposition to specific practices in abortion such as late-term abortion (Green et al., 2006; Lewis, 2017; Wilcox & Robinson, 2010). These issues were a regular part of the national Republican Party platform from 1980 onward. Like many of the other issues important to the movement, however, efforts to limit abortions were more active at the state level after 2000. This shift was not only a response to the Webster (1988) and Casey (1992) decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court that opened up the state avenue for abortion restriction; it was also a strategic decision to make abortions harder to obtain through a variety of medical licensing and professional standards regulations (Tatalovich, 1997). They could not outlaw abortions, but they could make them very hard for doctors to administer legally. Scholars have demonstrated that abortion restrictions have increased in many parts of the country (Medoff, 2012), leaving some states with only a handful of clinics that can legally provide abortions. This issue area can be seen as the Christian Right’s largest policy win. While the movement shares the credit with pro-lifers, the Christian Right’s contribution seems to be recognizing the necessity of engaging in all forms of political activity, including recruiting candidates and bill writing to achieve their goals. There is good evidence that Republican majorities in state legislatures, aided by Christian Right lobbying and campaign groups, have been the primary driver of abortion restrictions in the states (Bentele, Sager, Soule, & Adler, 2013; Medoff, 2012).
As many states have passed laws to restrict the availability of abortion services, other related issues have cropped up with implications for the Christian Right movement and its activists. The development of over-the-counter “morning after” contraception, as well as new healthcare laws that require employers to pay for insurance that covers such contraception, have opened a new front in the conflict over abortion. The Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby (2014) decision exempting the company from the Affordable Care Act contraceptive mandate based on the religious objections of its owners was a victory for both pro-life forces and for those who sought more robust protection for countercultural religious free speech (Lewis, 2017). Some have linked this decision to a more robust claim for the rights of corporations in the political system rather than religious rights, but that focus is not necessarily antithetical to the protection of religious freedom.
Another way to trace the advent and evolution of the Christian Right is in the fight over school desegregation and opposition to racially progressive policies. This version of the Christian Right story is often overlooked, as its most visible activity occurred very early on in the evolution of the movement, and many contemporary religious conservatives would be uncomfortable telling their own history with such an obviously racial dimension. However, early analyses of the movement and more recent analysis of movement supporters’ attitudes over time demonstrate a strong element of racial conservatism in politically conservative Evangelicals and in their reasons for allegiance to the Republican Party (Claassen, 2018).
One of the ways that Whites dealt with the desegregation of public schools, particularly in the South, was to start private schools that were White-only (Walder & Cleveland, 1971). In many cases, these were founded as religious schools and sought nonprofit status on this basis. In 1969, African American families sued the Treasury Department, claiming that the Whites-only Christian School in their home of Holmes County, Alabama, should not receive tax exemption because its primary purpose was segregation, not religious schooling. The court ruled in favor of the parents, and the Nixon administration was able to enforce its IRS regulation that racially segregated private schools were not tax exempt (Balmer, 2014; Claassen, 2018). The court’s decision in Green v. Connally ignited fears that government interference and removal of tax exemption would make the operation of these schools untenable. Early mobilizers of the movement, particularly Paul Weyrich, publicized this threat as a problem for religious freedom (Gilgoff, 2008). There is also significant evidence that the school fight helped to mobilize early groups like the Moral Majority (Balmer, 2007; Martin, 2005). This kind of mobilization makes sense in the context of the Christian Right emphasizing a pro-family policy. Choosing where a child goes to school is a bedrock parental right, and protecting children both from secularism and from racial diversity became wrapped together in the guise of school choice (McRae, 2018). While the battles over private Christian school independence subsided somewhat with that decision, what was left were a network of private, Christian, almost entirely White schools that served as an important training ground for future Christian Right leaders and provided a cultural baseline for generations of evangelical voters. Movement leaders, especially Weyrich, recognized that it would be difficult to openly mobilize evangelicals against desegregation and sought another avenue of mobilization, eventually pursuing abortion as that issue (Balmer, 2014).
But race as a latent issue within the movement and the motivations of evangelical voters did not go away. Leege, Wald, and Krueger (2002) find that evangelicals’ shift to the Republican Party between 1968 and 1988 was largely driven by “race and the role of the federal government seeking to assure greater opportunity for minorities” (p. 243). Conservative racial views also seem to have strongly motivated Trump voters in the 2016, a group significantly made up of evangelicals (Djupe & Calfano, 2018; E. Green, 2016). Examining racially motivated voting over time, Claassen (2018) finds that in both the North and the South racial attitudes had a significant impact on White evangelical voters’ support for Republicans between 1972 and 2016. He further points out that blaming minority groups for social problems is a key element in nationalist rhetoric, echoing findings that Christian Nationalists played a large role in Trump voters’ decision-making in 2016 (Whitehead, Perry, & Baker, 2018). So, while abortion and LGBT rights have been the most prominent issues to mobilize evangelical voters into Christian Right activists, racially conservative views have driven many evangelicals’ voting patterns and have operated as latent motivation for social as well as economic conservativism within the movement.
Other important issues for the Christian Right have included the teaching of abstinence-only sex education and creationism in public schools. This focus on education has led to battles for both local and state-level school boards (Deckman, 2004). Christian Right activists and organizations have also taken up issues such as obscenity and pornography, as well as women’s rights as homemakers. Further, they have moved beyond traditionally religiously oriented issues to be active in religious tax exemptions, both domestic and international adoption, and foreign policy. Nearly all of these, however, have in some way become Republican issues. Christian Right supporters have rarely had to choose between supporting an issue and supporting the party (Conger, 2009, 2014; Green & Guth, 1988), so this possible arena for conflict has been averted. Where strategic decisions have been evident, they have been largely over the arena in which to pursue policy and cultural change, at the national level or the state level.
National Movement Versus State Movements
The legacy of Pat Robertson’s run for president in 1988 launched what would become the cornerstone organization of the Christian Right in the 1990s, the Christian Coalition. Formed from the remnants of the Robertson campaign, along with already existing state-level advocacy organizations, it boasted an affiliate organization in every state by 1990 (Watson, 1999). The Christian Coalition was the next step in the evolution of the Christian Right. Led by Robertson and Ralph Reed, the Coalition was able to fuse true grassroots activism with electoral campaign savvy and success. More important, these joint strengths allowed the Christian Right to be more strategic in its tactics, both in terms of politics and policy. The focus of a national movement allowed supporters to feel part of a much larger group of like-minded people, while educating them on how to make important impacts in their local and state politics. From the same mobilization impetus of the Christian Coalition grew not only the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives in 1994 but also the U.S. Supreme Court decisions that laid the groundwork for states to play a significant role in the regulation of abortion, an issue focus fully embraced by the state-level affiliates of the larger organization (Conger, 2009; Green et al., 2000; Rozell, 1997; Rozell & Wilcox, 1996). The Coalition’s focus on state-level politics continued throughout the 1990s, and, while the organization became largely moribund after 2002, the marks of its concentration on connecting existing state and local networks into a national organization remain in much of Christian Right activism to this day (Claassen, 2015; Schlozman, 2015). This connection between and state and national organizations and mobilization is clear in the Republican Party as well. National Republican Convention delegates—state activists and officials gathered together to create the national platform and nominate a presidential candidate—increased their support and reported membership in or support for Christian Right organizations in increasing numbers over this time period as well (Campbell, Green, & Layman, 2011; Layman & Brockway, 2018).
One of the main reasons for the Christian Right movement’s focus on state politics has been the fact that many of the issues that are most important to them are specifically state-level issues. The regulations that determine abortion procedures are state-level medical licensing laws; the educational standards that impact the teaching of science and human reproduction are state-level laws; and the standards upon which the Religious Freedom Restoration Act can be enforced (e.g., antidiscrimination laws) are entirely state governed. Even the battle over the provision of contraceptives by private companies under the Affordable Care Act had a state-level dimension as insurance companies are licensed and regulated by the states.
Citizens seem to be more motivated to vote and participate in politics by news and controversy concerning national politics. Conversely, state and local politics make a much bigger difference in the everyday lives of most people. In many accounts of the movement in its grassroots incarnations, a constant description of state-level work includes mobilizing people and convincing them to be active in less publicized, less glamorous state politics. But it is also the case that state-level activists are using the attention given to national politics to point out state issues and raise citizen interest (Conger, 2010a, 2014). One movement activist described his own organization as being less driven by national controversies, and therefore it was smaller and less well known and funded than other Christian Right organizations in the state that did focus on national issues (Conger, 2018).
Existing measures of Christian Right influence in state-level politics take these realities into account (Conger, 2009, 2010a, 2014; Persinos, 1994). Based on measurements from 1996 to 2016, we can see the ebb and flow of the movement in the states. In some cases, the movement’s influence is consistent, but in others it increases and decreases based on legislative and judicial action. Overall, the movement seems to have sustained influence in states with large evangelical and conservative populations, as well as in states where the parties are closely matched in their electoral fortunes. While we still lack consistent measures of lobbying activity by the movement in state-level politics, these measures of movement influence make clear that the movement has institutionalized itself in the states beyond just electoral and Republican politics (Conger & Djupe, 2016). Christian Right organizations are active beyond citizen mobilization, in the standard policy advocacy and regulation of state-level politics.
While much of the activity of the movement remains at the state level, media and voter attention are still drawn to the national politics aspect of the movement’s activities. This is unsurprising since, for many aspects of American political life, more attention is paid to the national level than to the state level. At the national level, several organizations have sought to play a definitive role in the movement by serving both as a national hub for state organizations and activists and as a vehicle for lobbying and influence on national policy. Historically, there were a number of smaller groups that have mobilized religious conservatives for impact on national, primarily electoral politics. These include groups like the Religious Roundtable, the Free Congress Foundation, and important political leaders such as Paul Weyrich. But there are several larger national groups focused specifically on national policy and politics such as Concerned Women for America and the American Center for Law and Justice. These groups are different from membership-oriented national organizations focused on grassroots mobilizations, such as Eagle Forum, American Family Association, the Christian Coalition, and the older Moral Majority, because they are distinctly focused on research and policy and use their public voice to support these policies, not simply mobilize fellow evangelicals (Green et al., 2003, 2006; Rozell & Wilcox, 2017; Smidt et al., 2010; Watson, 1999; Wilcox, 1987; Wilcox & Robinson, 2010). Working separately and in tandem, these groups spend time lobbying and trying to push policymaking focus onto their specific social and cultural issues.
The most prominent of these policy organizations is the Family Research Council (FRC). Founded in 1992 as an offshoot of the conservative Focus on the Family radio ministry, the FRC pursues policy research, both internal and external, and focuses on advocacy to implement that policy in all three branches of the national government. As with all public policy advocacy organizations, the FRC’s visibility and influence has varied over time depending on the issues being addressed in the larger political arena. The FRC has been significantly active in opposition to same-sex marriage and other LGBT rights and antidiscrimination laws. But the FRC is also active on other issues such as fiscal policy to allow mothers to stay home with young children, opposition to the HPV vaccine, and abortion restriction (Smith, Olson, & Fine, 2010). They see all these issues as consistent with their commitment to a pro-family agenda, a term they prefer to the Christian Right label.
The FRC has also tried to foster this focus on public policy and advocacy in the states by creating a network of state-level family policy organizations. These groups operate similarly to the national organization, focused on policy, not necessarily on citizen mobilization. This link between national- and state-level policy and among state policy organizations helps explain some of the significant similarities among state-level policy programs in recent years on issues such as abortion restriction, science and sex education, and same-sex marriage (Green et al., 2003, 2006; Rozell & Wilcox, 2017).
This linkage between a national policy organization and state affiliates highlights an important challenge for the Christian Right movement in the 21st century: how to sustain a movement that is active in the states but largely moribund at the national level. It highlights another dichotomy within the movement, that is, a conflict between the actions and tactics of the movement and the actual impact these have on politics and policy in the United States.
Tactics Versus Impact
In exploring the shape and substance of the Christian Right during its tenure in American politics, a wide variety of political activities and strategies are apparent. Voter mobilization, lobbying, protest, partisan wrangling, campaign donations, movement candidates, and religious activity have all been discussed. The Christian Right has the full range of political and social tactics at its disposal. The movement has also sought an explicit legal strategy that more closely mirrors other civil rights and liberation movements of the 20th century than religious conservatives’ earlier incarnations in the moral reform efforts of the 19th and early 20th century. This focus on rights and the perception that evangelicals were losing battles in their attempt to retain traditional moral values led to a new avenue within the movement, a specifically legal strategy to enforce conservative moral standards, or at least protect them, through the judicial system (Bennett, 2017; Hacker, 2005).
One of the areas the Christian Right has had a significant impact has been in the field of legal defense. Wanting religious conservatives to have the same type of representation as Christian Right leaders perceived liberal and civil liberties activists to have, they specifically sought to create legal groups to compete with the American Civil Liberties Union. They have succeeded in creating a number of different organizations that approach the effort from slightly different angles. The ADF (formerly Alliance Defending Freedom) is a network of religiously motivated conservative attorneys who are available to work for religious liberty cases in a variety of both state and federal judicial venues. Ecumenical both in personnel and clients, the ADF has become the largest and best known of the Christian Right legal rights advocates (Bennett, 2017). Others include groups like the American Center for Law and Justice, focused more specifically on national issues, and the National Right to Life, which focuses on abortion and contraception cases. Together, these groups represent an important strain of the thought and advocacy of the Christian Right. These legal advocacy organizations have championed the notions that conservative evangelicals and other protestants have specific Constitutional rights that can be used to protect traditional moral and cultural values (Hacker, 2005). This so-called rights turn has focused more specifically on carving out exemptions for religious people to state and national policies they do not agree with or go against their moral beliefs. The most famous of these are linked to providing services for same-sex weddings, but many have been litigated that include protections from a variety of antidiscrimination laws and from requiring the prescription of emergency and planned contraceptives (Bennett, 2017; Jelen, Lewis, & Djupe, 2018; Lewis, 2017).
These sophisticated attempts to alter the law and even public opinion through the making of rights claims (Djupe, Lewis, Jelen, & Dahan, 2014) within the American judicial system fit into the larger picture of a movement evolving and learning from its engagement with the larger political system and opponents. The Christian Right displays its fundamental links to an American version of religious politics by being as litigious and vocal about individual and group rights as any other civil rights effort of the 21st century. But the intense effort and large-scale visibility of these efforts and other tactics in the movement’s repertoire have not really translated into tangible policy victories. This reality makes the study of the Christian Right challenging. Early scholars had to continually defend the idea of the Christian Right as an identifiable movement, and more recently researchers have struggled to articulate the continued relevance of the movement in the analysis of American politics (Green et al., 2000, 2001; Liebman & Wuthnow, 1983; Lienesch, 2014; Rozell & Wilcox, 2017, p. 201; Smidt & Penning, 1997). Political scientists tend to specialize in either national or state politics, and the religious and social aspects of the movement increase the challenge exponentially. As mentioned earlier, the study of the Christian Right in American politics rewards the interdisciplinary researcher, and focusing on the variety of theoretical frames used to study the movement and its impact on American politics brings this into high relief.
Contemporary Challenges for the Study of the Christian Right
Postmortems of the 2016 election emphasized the role of resentment among Trump voters. Like middle-class evangelicals in general, supporters of the Christian Right movement provide good evidence for the role of cultural resentment (Hochschild, 2018) in pushing people toward candidate Trump. Because they tend to live in more suburban and rural areas and in states in the middle of the country, many evangelicals feel like they are at best ignored and at worst ridiculed by a liberal political, business, and media elite residing on the coasts.
But is this really evidence of the support of the Christian Right movement for Donald Trump? While large proportions of evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election, support by elites was more ambiguous (Djupe & Calfano, 2018). Some evangelical leaders, both during the election and in the first years of the administration, were stridently supportive of even the most outrageous of the president’s policies and claims (Gerson, 2018; E. Green, 2016). Others, however, were opposed to Donald Trump and his populist message of both cultural and economic nationalism from the very start. While fairly anemic overall, the Republican #NeverTrump movement saw its largest support and most important contributors among conservative evangelicals who had long been Republicans but were unable to sanction a person of Trump’s lack of religious and moral bona fides as the standard bearer of the Republican Party. This kind of disconnect between Christian Right leaders and their constituency is not new (Djupe & Neiheisel, 2008), but the degree to which rank-and-file evangelical Republicans have supported a president does seem to be significant evidence of Republican rather than religious voter identities.
Many evangelical Republicans, even those who were skeptical of Trump or who voiced only qualified support for him, have been enthusiastic in their support for the Supreme Court justices he has appointed. What policy victories exist for the movement are largely the result of court actions. The U.S. Supreme Court has allowed states to more tightly regulate abortion and individuals to exercise religious “conscience” rights in refusing service to the LGBT community or women seeking abortions (Liptak, 2018) . These court victories underline the importance political evangelicals have place on Supreme Court appointments and their continued support for President Trump based on his court appointments (E. Green, 2018). Large majorities of evangelical Republicans continued to support President Trump and his policies even as a majority of the population do not approve of the actions he has taken. Thus evangelicals will remain an important part of the Republican coalition for the foreseeable future (Green, 2018; Wuthnow, 2018).
At its height, the Christian Right was never monolithic, and over the decades of its existence, the movement has sustained significant criticism not only from people outside of evangelicalism but also from within it. With some regularity, the more religiously inclined of the leadership becomes disillusioned with politics and its attendant inability to force people to think and behave morally. They frequently will argue that involvement in politics damages the spiritual and religious goals of evangelicals (Dreher, 2017). There is also evidence that the presence and power of the Christian Right movement in a state make it more likely for individuals to identify with no religious tradition at all (Djupe, Neiheisel, & Conger, 2018). These calls for abeyance or withdrawal seem to be cyclical, usually occurring after a period of success ends with a swing back toward the liberal or Democratic side of the political spectrum. Furthermore, a consistent and liberally oriented portion of evangelicalism has existed since the mid-1970s, but this group is so small and dispersed that it has not achieved the status of a countermovement (Kellstedt, Smidt, Green, & Guth, 2007; Olson, 2011).
Like Mark Twain’s death, rumors of the movement’s demise tend to be exaggerated, but there is no question that the Christian Right has evolved over the past decades and that its national influence has seen a significant decline over that time. Successes in state-level policy notwithstanding, the movement has seen few victories and many defeats at the national level. Scholars should continue to view the movement through the lens of party and state politics, however, and not assume that increasingly permissive moral attitudes combined with pressing needs in the economic realm entail the disappearance of the Christian Right. As with many features of political life, the Christian Right, its path through modern American political life, and the impact it has had across the political arena reward scholars with an eye toward the lived experience of voters and activists and scholars who go beyond the view from Washington, DC.
There are a wide range of data sets on the religious makeup of the United States and religion’s impact on voting and mass politics. These are regularly archived at the Association of Religion Data Archives and the Pew Research Center on Religion & Public Life. Most of the organizations mentioned in this article have an online presence along with archives of material on media campaigns and policy efforts. An invaluable source for state-level information on the Christian Right movement is a series of books edited by Mark Rozell and Clyde Wilcox that detail efforts in individual states dating back to the 1988 election cycle.
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2. Utah is always a challenge in the study of religion and politics at the state level. The state’s Mormon population is around 63% and, while most of these are conservative Republicans, they do not quite fit within the largely evangelical Christian Right movement (Campbell, Green, & Monson, 2014). Scholars, however, have found close working relationships among Christian Right and Mormon policy groups, especially in states like Arizona, where both Mormon and evangelical populations are substantial (Conger, 2009).
3. For a different view of evangelical voting behavior before 1980, see Claassen (2015).