Religious right splintered, but hard times could put it back together

January 28, 2008|By Philip Jenkins

For conservatives, 2008 is shaping up to be a year as baffling as it is dreadful. Evangelical voters are deeply divided, and even religious voters who remain concerned about abortion and homosexuality are unhappy about Iraq, torture and climate change. At least for the present, the dependable Republican coalition forged during the 1970s looks terminally ill.

These strains are easier to understand, however, if we recall how improbable the seemingly inevitable GOP coalition has always been.

The conservative coalition is the product of events that more or less coincided with the doom-laden presidency of Jimmy Carter. Between 1977 and 1980, even Americans of quite moderate views became desperately alarmed at the signs of social decay at home, the collapse of the nation's international standing and a hair-raising economic situation. Many voters saw the crisis in religious terms, as the consequence of a nation that had betrayed its divine mission.

Building on a widespread evangelical revival, religious conservatives mobilized a substantial voting bloc alarmed by what seemed like a literally apocalyptic situation. They preached the necessity of rebuilding America's defenses and restraining the liberal government that they held guilty of causing many undesirable changes. Although these ideas had broad appeal, conservative religious believers offered a rock-solid electoral foundation through the Reagan years and beyond.

Yet for all its power, the conservative coalition always had some odd and even unnatural alignments. Instead of asking why the alliance now seems troubled, we should ask how it survived as long as it did.

After all, there was no natural reason why the lower- and middle-income people who faithfully attend evangelical churches should favor the free-trade policies that have wiped out much of the U.S. manufacturing base. Ordinary evangelical voters are disproportionately unlikely to be represented in the sectors of the economy that have boomed most conspicuously in recent years: finance and high-tech, services and information. It was only a matter of time before religious believers started asking where their true interests might lie.

But before we hold a funeral for the Reagan coalition, we should note how easily the circumstances of the late 1970s could repeat themselves. Already, some are drawing comparisons with the events of 1979-1980 and projecting a recession at least as bad as those years.

Now remember two things. First, there was no single issue or grievance that drove religious believers to the conservative banner. Rather, it was a generalized sense of threat to traditional ideals of community and family, and above all, the undermining of gender roles. Second, the real beneficiaries of Mr. Carter's 1976 victory turned out to be the Republicans, who managed to avoid blame for the problems of the late 1970s.

Now imagine the potential reaction against any Democratic administration elected this November. Suppose 2009-2010 brings us a recession and fiscal chaos, coupled with military withdrawal and retrenchment overseas. Once more, we could hear complaints about threatened families and communities at home, of national debility overseas, of the U.S. again becoming what Richard Nixon called "a pitiful, helpless giant." And as in earlier eras of chaos and confusion, people would likely turn to those religious institutions that seem to offer hope and solidity. Quite possibly, we would be set for a new era of religious-based conservatism, in which the politics of military and moral reconstruction coincided neatly.

In 2008, the religious right may appear to be dying, but it could just be going into hibernation.

Philip Jenkins is the author of "Decade of Nightmares: The End of the Sixties and the Making of Eighties America." This article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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