Twenty years after the emergence of the so-called “Religious Right” on the American political radar screen, it is time to assess the impact and future prospects of the greatest political-religious movement since Prohibition.
How close are religious conservatives to obtaining their announced goals of outlawing abortion, blunting the gay rights movement, winning the war on drugs, cleaning up Hollywood films and prime-time television and restoring a new moral order? After spending millions of conservative Christian dollars, after a White House dominated for 12 years by Ronald Reagan and George Bush and a Congress run by Republicans since 1995, are we better off today than we were 20 years ago?
A fair-minded person would have to answer no, not because the Religious Right was wrong on the issues but because the strategy for implementing our agenda was flawed.
Our theory was that a moral majority exists in the land and that if the “sleeping giant” could be awakened and animated, righteous leadership could persuade or, failing that, compel unrighteous Americans to act morally. Yet, one-third of the self-identified evangelical vote cast their ballots for Bill Clinton in the 1996 election, and legislation (to say nothing of Supreme Court decisions) to stem the cultural mudslide remains elusive.
In warfare and in sports, when one battle or game plan isn’t working, a wise leader explores different ways to achieve the same objective. While we once argued in favor of organizing religious conservatives into a political force, we now realize such a movement was doomed to futility from the start. We are not calling for the withdrawal of religious conservatives from political life, a strategy that would be just as wrong-headed as an unbalanced commitment to politics has been these last two decades. We are calling for a different strategy articulated by a different King who presides over a different Kingdom which He said is “not of this world.”
While we believe that all Christians — liberal or conservative along with people of other faiths have a right, even an obligation, to participate in the political life of their nation, we think “Christian” political lobbying groups are counterproductive, not only to the primary cause of spreading the Gospel, but because they also muffle the church’s prophetic voice in an increasingly pagan and materialistic world.
Conservative Christians should not withdraw from politics and culture and emulate the prohibitionists and the Anti-Cigarette League at the beginning of this century. They should instead awaken to the power they already possess — the power to transform lives from the inside. This is different from political power that changes no minds and transforms no hearts. The beauty of a “bubble-up” instead of a “trickle-down” morality is that it is the only process that actually works. A political strategy pits opposing camps against each other and reduces moral arguments to who can turn out the most votes at election time. Truth becomes a casualty.
Of all the issues we addressed at Moral Majority, the only one that has seen some success is abortion. There are fewer abortions now than there were 20 years ago not because of laws, but because pro-lifers established thousands of pregnancy centers that offer helping hands and hearts to women with unplanned pregnancies. Laws protecting all human life will come when sufficient hearts have been changed to value life more than the Dow Jones Industrial Average.
Conservative Christians should continue to vote intelligently for candidates who reflect their views. They should pray for all of those in authority, regardless of party, which is a Biblical mandate. But they should be under no illusion that either party will usher in a moral revival. That’s not the job of politics or politicians. That is the unique work of the church.
When sufficient numbers of conservative Christians understand and are obedient to Jesus’ commands to “love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit those in prison” and care for widows and orphans, a moral revival will sweep this land that no power on earth will stop. But the political road will lead to frustration and defeat.
Cal Thomas, a syndicated columnist and former vice president of Moral Majority, and Dr. Edward Dobson, a former assistant to Jerry Falwell and now pastor of Calvary Church in Grand Rapids, Mich., are co-authors of Blinded by Might: Can the Religious Right Save America? (HarperCollins Zondervan).
Los Angeles Times Syndicate