Before November 8, numerous voices suggested that the Religious Right was in its death throes and that no intervention could resuscitate it. Then Donald Trump got elected. Exit polls showed 81 percent of white evangelical voters casting their votes for Trump, leading to a reversal in the diagnosis. While the Religious Right had been in cardiac arrest, at the last minute white evangelical voters wheeled in the crash cart and restored its rhythms. The demise of the Religious Right had been greatly exaggerated, even by evangelical leaders like Russell Moore.
This narrative is quickly becoming the acceptable interpretation of events—though it is an over-generalization at best, and dead wrong at worst. Part of the problem is a tendency in the media to equate the Religious Right not only with evangelicalism as a whole but with all religious conservatives. But these categories are not the same. Evangelicalism is alive and well, but the Religious Right remains on life support. This election was more like a shot of Epinephrine, increasing the chances of short-term survival while not resolving the underlying problems. The Religious Right will likely limp along for quite some time, but its capacity to influence the evangelical world will steadily wane.
First, the Religious Right has always been a sub-culture of leaders and organizations, committed to a particular political agenda, within the evangelical movement. Since the publication of Randall Balmer’s Thy Kingdom Come and subsequent popular articles (see here and here), the media has largely embraced the narrative that the Religious Right began in backroom deals over segregation and religious freedom related to Bob Jones University. Balmer wrote his book, however, as an evangelical who wanted to recover what he considered to be the heart of the movement, which was its late-nineteenth-century coalition of conservative theology and progressive social activism around the poor, women, and ethnic minorities. Indeed, in almost all of his published works, Balmer has maintained his desire to recover the evangelicalism of the late-nineteenth century. Largely forgotten in the popularization of Balmer’s narrative is that he ended the book with an appendix in which he declared that the Religious Right was a sub-culture within evangelicalism.
Of course, Balmer is partly to blame for the confusion. At the beginning of Thy Kingdom Come, he equates the Religious Right with all religious conservatives, including Pentecostals, some Catholics, conservative Jews, and Mormons. Yet he traces the origins of the Religious Right to Baptist fundamentalists and the fight over Bob Jones University’s tax-exempt status in the face of its policies of racial discrimination. This is problematic because the broad classification at the beginning of the work functions to implicate everyone who happens to share select conservative political commitments in what happened with Bob Jones. When you read the narrative, what Balmer means by Religious Right is really a coalition of leaders and organizations within the evangelical world who have sought to organize evangelical voters along a particular set of issues. It is this coalition that is dying a slow death, not evangelicalism or religious conservatism.
Second, evangelicalism is in the midst of a generational transition across the entire movement. The new leaders emerging within the Religious Right (Ralph Reed, Tony Perkins, Jerry Falwell, Jr.) do not have the same influence over evangelicalism as the older leaders once did in the 1980s and 1990s. Moreover, the rise of social media has resulted in new networks of evangelicals with women teachers leading the way.
There is also the rise of the Pentecostals, with three Pentecostal denominations now among the fifteen largest Protestant denominations. Presiding Bishop of the Church of God in Christ Charles E. Blake has become active on a host of issues. For example, he asked General Superintendent of the Assemblies of God George O. Wood to join him in declaring December 14, 2014 Black Lives Matter Sunday (see here and here). He also recently signed his name to an open letter to Hillary Clinton on religious freedom for Black America. Blake’s fusion of the holiness tradition of ministering to the poor and oppressed with concern for national issues has garnered a statement of affirmation from Catholic scholars.
As a loose coalition of conservative Protestants, evangelicalism has always been a fragmented movement held together by a common mission, and by organizations such as the National Association of Evangelicals. While the Religious Right held sway over part of the movement at one point, there are too many developments occurring in different sectors for this to continue. New coalitions are forming that will ultimately render the organizations of the Religious Right largely irrelevant.
Finally, Russell Moore’s recent call for an evangelical reading of scripture that gives rise to a richer theology of gospel witness points us in the right direction. I would say that evangelicals need a deeper conversion to the truth, which is central to the Wesleyan call to the sanctified life. There remains a theological problem, in the tendency of popular evangelical discourse to reduce the gospel to regeneration and justification by faith alone, as though conversion were only about entrance to the faith. This position has fueled a fragmented theological vision. It also stands behind preaching centered on “felt needs” or “seeker sensitivity,” rather than on theologically robust accounts of the gospel as part of the ongoing conversion of the people of God.
It is precisely a deeper conversion to the truth that resides within the ecumenical movement at its best, which is to say that we begin to perceive the whole Christ within the communion of the saints. This requires that pastors of largely white churches go out and meet their African-American and Hispanic brothers and sisters because they cannot see Christ and his body without them. Conversion to the truth cannot occur in the isolated silos of denominationalism and local traditions. Evangelical networks have always made this larger community possible, and ecumenical engagement merely extends the community to Catholics and Orthodox.
Common witness to the truth of the gospel requires a common conversion to the gospel among the people of God as a whole. It is this that gives me the most hope of forging a common witness in which we cease to drink from our own wells and rediscover together a theology that is at once evangelical and catholic. With the forging of such a common witness, which has already begun, the Religious Right will no longer matter.
Dale M. Coulter is associate professor of historical theology at Regent University.