Is the Religious Right Losing Its Grip?

Social conservatives stick to free market rhetoric despite their slipping influence in tough economic times, writes Lester Feder.

Evangelicals' openness to an alternative economic vision has fearful leaders such as James Dobson of Focus on the Family, pictured here, hardening their rhetoric and reviving old clichés that simply do not speak to the new economic reality. (AP/Gerald Herbert)
Evangelicals' openness to an alternative economic vision has fearful leaders such as James Dobson of Focus on the Family, pictured here, hardening their rhetoric and reviving old clichés that simply do not speak to the new economic reality. (AP/Gerald Herbert)

The recession is taking its toll on the conservative movement, and religious right leaders’ intellectual rigidity is helping to put a nail in the coffin of a once-influential constellation of ideas regarding the free market.

This was made clear by a recent lecture at the conservative movement’s philosophical mothership, the Heritage Foundation. Jay W. Richards, author of a new book, Money, Greed, and God: Why Capitalism is the Solution and Not the Problem, said nothing new when he addressed the question, “Is the free market moral?”

Richards defended unregulated capitalism in the language of evangelical Christianity, reflecting the melding of social and economic conservatism Heritage has pedaled for two generations. What was remarkable about the event was that conservatives felt the need to apologize for such long-established doctrine. To watch Richards’ lecture or read his book is to enter a time warp straight back to the late 1970s, when conservatives were rebelling against “big-government liberalism” which they equated with “godless communism.”

But much has changed since then. Many conservatives concede that the eight-year reign of George W. Bush was one of the most disastrous in the nation’s history. Most Americans have come to believe orthodox free-marketism was a false gospel. And even growing numbers of conservative evangelicals are deeply troubled by the vast inequality and environmental degradation created by giving big business free reign.

There is still no sign of a mass defection of the evangelical base, but the openness of evangelicals to an alternative economic vision has the social conservative old-guard fearful that their rank and file could walk away from the free-market camp. In response to this fear, leaders such as Gary Bauer of American Values, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, and Focus on the Family’s James Dobson are hardening their rhetoric, reviving old clichés that simply do not speak to the new economic reality.

Just this week Bauer sent an e-mail to members of his group to “Stop the Stimulus!”—legislation that passed four months ago—and to educate Americans on the “economic dangers of the left’s radical socialist agenda.” Bauer’s upcoming Values Voters Summit has one session planned to show how health reform means “rationing your life away” and another to teach activists how to organize antitax “tea parties.” However, not a single session offers solutions for families struggling with health care bills, unemployment, or home foreclosure.

Is it any wonder that a movement with so little to offer people who are suffering is nervous? The 5-percent shift of evangelical voters to the Democratic presidential nominee in 2008—with much sharper increases among younger voters—demonstrates that many evangelicals want new solutions, even if they’re still leery of the left.

Rice University professor D. Michael Lindsay, author of Faith in the Halls of Power, suggests that social conservative leaders may be sticking with the old party line because they still believe it. He points out that many evangelical religious leaders are faith entrepreneurs who built large churches, media ministries, and activist organizations using strategies modeled on the business world.

“In the leadership cohort, I would say over the last 30 years they have seen the benefit of the free market in the religious sector work to their advantage,” he said. “Because evangelicals are religious entrepreneurs, they have an affinity for business entrepreneurs, and the downturn has not changed this.”

But the religious right’s leadership paralysis may simply be born of fear. “I think that they feel that they need to reinforce the relationship between evangelicals and Republicans,” said Sarah Posner, author of God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters. As leaders circle the free-market wagons they revert to “pre-welfare reform rhetoric,” Posner said. “There’s no discussion of regulation of Wall Street,” just epistles spreading the good news of the free market.

Richard Cizik is one of the high-profile leaders of the Christian right who defected from the movement because of its rigid small-government views. He is convinced that his old allies on the right learned the wrong lessons from history. He describes his former allies as “zealots,” whom he defines by paraphrasing Winston Churchill: “A zealot is someone who won’t change his mind and won’t change the subject.”

“It’s not as if the antiregulatory DNA of evangelicals can’t be changed,” says Cizik, pointing to the years-long process that convinced him that “the ‘magic’ of free-market economics has shown itself to be snake oil.” Along with his concern about global warming, Cizik says he also lost 30 percent of his 401k in the financial crash. He attributes Obama’s improved margin among evangelicals to this group’s desire for new economic policy and says that openness to Democratic candidates could grow if the president’s policies succeed in turning the economy around.

And if evangelical leaders remain more faithful to the Republican Party and business interests than to the interests of their members, they will become similarly irrelevant.

“The Bible warns about this,” Cizik says. Scripture should be a caution to leaders who will surrender their remaining independence in the service of free-market forces: “What is the profits of the man to gain the whole world and lose his own soul?”

Lester Feder is a freelance journalist covering conservative politics and popular culture.

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