Allan Lichtman: Crisis and Change in the Christian Right Movement (Part 1)

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Allan J. Lichtman is a professor of history at American University in Washington, D.C. His six books include Prejudice and the Old Politics: The Presidential Election of 1928 and The Keys to the White House. His new book on the history of American conservative politics is forthcoming from Grove-Atlantic Press.]

This is the first in a series of posts on the future of conservative politics in the United States. I invite all to comment on this important and fascinating topic.

Conservatives have largely set the terms of political debate in the United States for the last thirty years. Yet the conservative movement is undergoing a major transition, and its future is in doubt. Major figures on the Right have even denounced President George W. Bush as a betrayer of the conservative tradition. This first blog will raise the possibility of a major transition in the leadership of conservative Christians in the United States.

Since the late 1970s several major national figures have helped rally white evangelical Protestants in the United States behind conservative causes and Republican candidates. In the 2004 presidential election nearly 90 percent of regular, church-going white evangelical Protestants voted for President Bush. Yet the leadership of evangelical Christians is undergoing a major change with possibly profound implications for conservative politics.

Among Christian conservative leaders, Ralph Reed, the Christian Right’s shrewdest political strategist, was tainted by his association with corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff and in 2006 lost the Republican nomination for Lieutenant Governor in his home state of Georgia. That year, the Southern Baptist Convention, which had been controlled by theological and political conservatives since the late 1980s, elected a moderate minister, the 53-year-old Frank Page as its new president. Ted Haggard, the president of the National Association of Evangelicals and an adviser to President Bush, also resigned in 2006 year amid a nasty sex and drugs scandal.

Jerry Falwell. Liberty University Photography DepartmentBill Bright of the Campus Crusade for Christ died in 2003. Jerry Falwell died in May 2007, and D. James Kennedy of the nationwide Coral Ridge Ministries died the following September. In 2007, Pat Robertson turned 77 years of age; Beverly LaHaye, the founder of Concerned Women of America, turned 78; and James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, turned 71. New evangelical stars such as Bill Hybels and Rick Warren, who have built associations of many thousands of churches, are less politically active than Falwell and Robertson. They are also more open to liberal ideas about civil rights, the environment, and social justice and less inclined to back moral crusades by government abroad. For example, Hybels, Warren, and a few dozen other evangelical leaders signed a statement last year calling for action to halt global warming.

Is it possible then that evangelical Christians will fragment politically or that a new movement will arise that is conservative on social issues, but conventionally liberal on environmental, civil rights, foreign policy and economic issues? I await your thoughts.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Keith Halderman - 11/15/2007

In describing the new leadership you write "... less inclined to back moral crusades by government abroad." This bodes well for Ron Paul since he is the only candidate also so inclined who in addition is very publicly pro-life. I believe he is going to get a surprisingly large number of Christian evangelical votes. (see here)

Burgess Laughlin - 11/13/2007

I have two points. First, I question the statement that conservatives have been setting the terms of debate over the last 30 years or so. Perhaps you might elaborate your statement. This issue is germane to the importance of your first article in the series.

I would say that if "debate" refers to principled issues, then leftists ("liberals") are largely setting the terms of debate and conservatives, as they often do, are reacting to those terms. It might be true, however, that in terms of particular political initiatives, conservatives have been active and leftists reactive.

Second, as I agree with you about the importance of watching various movements as a way of predicting the future, I hope you will define your terms/ideas. For example, what does "conservative" mean here. (The "conservative" link helps, but I think the description is deficient and a concise, one-sentence definition is called for.)

For me, the term names this idea: individuals who follow a set of certain guiding ideas ("conservatism"); the four fundamental, that is, causal ideas are: God, Tradition, Nation, and Family.

Thank you for this series of articles.

Burgess Laughlin

Craig Michael Loftin - 11/12/2007

This issue came up on the Mclaughlin Group on PBS this past weekend--the host sees fragmentation because Robertson endorsed Guiliani and other Christian leaders with political sway have endorsed Romney and Huckabee. This to me does suggest some fragmentation. Pat Buchanan, panelist on the show, responded that all of these people would unite eventually in order to defeat Hillary Clinton. Of course that assumes she will be the Democratic candidate. But even if she is, it seems to me that if Christian conservatives are faced with a choice between Guiliani and Clinton, many will just stay home rather than vote just for Guiliani just to vote against Clinton. Unless Guiliani can recruit Rove (which seems very unlikely since Rove's political career has been so dedicted to Bush), or some other campaign strategist of comparable ability, indeed, the era of Christian conservatives as a reliable Republican voting bloc that can impact elections may be coming to an end.