Wonder-Working Power

The roots and the reach of the religious right.

In Defense of the Religious Right: Why Conservative Christians Are the Lifeblood of the Republican Party and Why That Terrifies the Democrats, by Patrick Hynes, Nashville: Nelson Current, 288 pages, $24.99

The Theocons: Secular America Under Siege, by Damon Linker, New York: Doubleday, 304 pages, $26

The Christian Coalition was instrumental in the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994, but before long its power seemed to be waning. In 1996 Bill Clinton—the draft-dodging, pot-smoking, abortion-rights-supporting womanizer who embodied everything Christian conservatives abhorred—handily won re-election against Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.). Two years later, Republicans lost ground in Congress as they prepared to impeach Clinton, and Paul Weyrich, the man who had first suggested to Jerry Falwell the name “Moral Majority,” adapted a phrase from Timothy Leary: It was time, he told Christian conservatives, to “turn off,” “tune out,” and “drop out.”

Weyrich wasn’t the only influential Christian conservative driven to rethink his movement’s prospects in the late ’90s. In the year of Clinton’s re-election, a federal district court ruling to permit physician-assisted suicide shook the editors of the Catholic journal First Things so violently that they began to ask whether judicial tyranny had destroyed democracy itself. This led to the magazine’s November 1996 symposium, “The End of Democracy?,” in which contributors concluded that civil disobedience, even revolution, might soon be justified. “America is not and, please God, will never become Nazi Germany,” editor Richard John Neuhaus wrote, “but it is only blind hubris that denies it can happen here and, in peculiarly American ways, may be happening here.”

Times have changed. You won’t find much sympathy at First Things for those who today use such language in the context of President Bush’s war on civil liberties. And Christian conservatives no longer feel so despondent about democracy. The president has assiduously cultivated their support, an effort rewarded in 2004 when nearly 80 percent of evangelical Protestant voters and 52 percent of Catholics voters cast their ballots for Bush.

In the wake of that election we’veseen an avalanche of literature purporting to explain the revival of the religious right and its implications for the country. Patrick Hynes’ In Defense of the Religious Right celebrates Christian conservatives’ power, even while claiming Christian conservatives are harried and besieged, ever on the defensive against an encroaching liberalism. Damon Linker, on the other hand, argues in The Theocons that it’s the religious right, and the First Things coterie in particular, that’s doing the encroaching. Each gets only half the story right. Hynes fails to prove that Christian conservatives are the persecuted majority he thinks they are, while Linker is persuasive about the aggressive agenda of the religious right. But Hynes better explains where Christian conservatives’ real power lies—not with a Catholic elite, as Linker would have it, but with the mass of evangelical voters loyal to the party of Lincoln.

Hynes is a campaign consultant—in the words of his dust jacket, “a hack with an impressive record of electing Republicans.” According to his book, “the GOP is, perhaps, God’s Own Party,” not only because religious voters today prefer Republicans but because the party originally arose from the Second Great Awakening and the abolitionist movement. Abolition itself, he writes, “was the result of Christians imposing their moral values on their fellow Americans.” Republican Christians, that is: Hynes emphasizes the typically Democratic affiliation of those Southern Christians who supported the peculiar institution, though he doesn’t note that some of the denominations that once defended slavery have since become stalwarts of the GOP. To hear Hynes tell it, the modern religious right doesn’t want to impose its values on anyone so much as it wants to defend those values against “a liberal Washington-Hollywood nexus that bookends American civilization.” (He doesn’t explain how Washington can remain part of that nexus when the party preferred by the Christian conservatives controls every branch of the federal government.)

Hynes is at his best discussing the demographics of the religious right and explaining its place in the Republican Party’s base. By his calculations, churchgoing voters are as important to the Republicans as African-Americans and labor voters combined are to the Democrats. In 2004 Bush received “something close to 28 million conservative Christian” votes, almost half his total pull, while by Hynes’ estimates approximately 11.8 million African-Americans and 16.7 million union members voted straight-ticket Democratic. (The “straight-ticket” qualification, of course, means Hynes isn’t exactly comparing apples to apples.) “John Kerry destroyed Bush among the 15 percent of Americans who never attend church (62 percent for Kerry to 36 percent for Bush),” he writes, “Conversely, Bush (64 percent) beat Kerry (35 percent) by virtually the same margin among the 16 percent of the electorate who attends church more than once a week.”

Hynes takes pride in this but doesn’tlook closely at all it entails. Just as the “gender gap” cuts both ways—men vote disproportionately for Republicans just as women go heavily for Democrats—the growing “God gap” also has two sides. What does it tell us that Americans who attend religious services as infrequently as Barry Goldwater or Ronald Reagan once did now overwhelmingly vote Democratic? And Hynes is evasive about whether today’s Republican leadership is any closer to its followers’ degree of devotion. Outraged by Bill Press’ claim that President Bush doesn’t attend church regularly, the most Hynes can say is, “President Bush reads the Bible and prays every morning at 6:00 AM.”

He has other blind spots. Hynes shows that, contrary to stereotype, Christian conservatives are not overwhelmingly poor or Southern, and a majority of them are women. But while he professes surprise that the religious right is typecast as mostly male, his own book offers evidence of why that is: Almost every spokesman and leader Hynes talks to is indeed a spokesman or male leader. In this book, the women of the religious right are a silent majority.

The distaff side gets short shrift in his historical discussion, too. While claiming a common pedigree with abolitionists and even, to a lesser extent, the civil rights movement, Hynes neglects to mention another prominent example of religious involvement in American politics: the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and its prohibitionist progeny. Which if any of these groups is the true forerunner of the modern religious right? A clue might be found in the persistence of “dry counties” in such bastions of the Christian conservative movement as Mississippi, Kansas, and Alabama—though Puritan-era blue laws keep many a heathen municipality in Massachusetts dry as well. As for abolitionism, readers might wonder whether doing away with the coercive institution of slavery is really “imposing values” in the same sense as most of the modern religious right’s agenda.

“The Christian Right has donenothing to force its value on a helpless and unwitting public,” Hynes insists. “The exact opposite is true.” In support of his contention that “secular leftists are determined to remake American culture and society in their own warped image, to tear down traditional pillars of America’s moral strength,” Hynes cites a litany of court cases, legislative acts, and instances of civil disobedience: Griswold v. Connecticut (which effectively legalized contraception nationwide), the Stonewall riots (which launched the modern gay rights movement), 1960s New York and California laws legalizing abortion (the California law was signed by Gov. Reagan), and more.

Notably, Hynes is not making a states’ rights or federalist argument. He sees Culture War aggression both when states pass laws he dislikes and when federal courts strike down laws he does support. He also blurs the difference between persuasion and coercion: Most of his examples of secular leftist aggression involve loosening legal restraints. When he writes of “the radical Left’s assault on longstanding and long-accepted cultural norms,” what he means is that too much moral legislation is being repealed, overturned, or voided. Presumably Hynes and company would like to bring those laws back. If that isn’t “imposing values” on people, what is?

A few of his examples strike home. It indeed is ridiculous to, say, ban a schoolgirl from singing “The First Noel” at a Christmas pageant. But even if the left is as bad as he says, that doesn’t mean the religious right is any better. It would be interesting to see a forthright defense of the religious right’s views on everything from regulating gambling to kicking competent people out of the armed forces for being homosexual. It would be interesting, too, to see a defense of the religious right’s foreign-policy enthusiasms, from evangelical Christian support for the Iraq War (“evangelicals are among the only voter subgroups left in the country to still support the president’s foreign policy,” Hynes notes) to the drive by such Christian conservatives as Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) and Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) to intervene in Darfur. But little of this is in Hynes’ book.

For Damon Linker, a former editor of First Things turned critic of that journal’s political project, the danger of the religious right does not lie primarily with the evangelical Protestants Hynes describes but with a select group of Roman Catholic intellectuals whom Linker calls “theoconservatives.” What these men lack in numbers they make up for in influence: “the overtly religious policies and rhetoric of the Bush administration have been inspired by an ideology derived from Roman Catholicism,” Linker contends.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.


Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Video Game Nation: How gaming is making America freer – and more fun.
  • Matt Welch: How the left turned against free speech.
  • Nothing Left to Cut? Congress can’t live within their means.
  • And much more.