Religion & American politics:

Changing of the guard

posted by D. Michael Lindsay

In the wake of the presidential election, who now speaks for American evangelicals?  Will the generation of James Dobson, Pat Robertson, and Chuck Colson be replaced with a new cohort?  Does the Democratic victory signal the end of the Religious Right as we know it?  Will the Obama presidency give credence to left-leaning evangelical leaders such as Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners, and megachurch pastors such as Joel Hunter, both of whom personally know the president-elect?

Certainly, personal interaction with the president raises the stock of an evangelical leader.  The late Jerry Falwell often let it be known that President Reagan personally called him when the president nominated Sandra Day O’Connor to the U.S. Supreme Court.  That one presidential gesture in 1981 validated Falwell’s claim to authority, even though he was just one of many figures vying to lead the evangelical movement in the early 1980s.

So who will President-Elect Obama turn to when he wants to hear what the evangelical community is thinking?  As has been the case with President Bush, he will first turn to members of his own administration who are evangelical.  I expect Burns Strider, who once led religious outreach in Hillary Clinton’s campaign, will serve somewhere, most likely in the office of public liaison.  This is the office that was institutionalized by Presidents Nixon and Ford as a way of maintaining regular contact with core constituencies.  There has been a person in this office tasked with religious outreach for over three decades.  No one in the Democratic Party has done a better job reaching out to evangelicals in recent years than Strider, and although they were not on the same team in the primary season, I expect President-Elect Obama will count on him.  I interviewed Strider three years ago while researching Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite.  Even then, it was apparent that Strider was laying the groundwork for a religiously-inspired movement that would engage political liberals and moderates, thereby forcing pundits to specify more clearly what is meant by “values voters.”

There are also high-profile evangelical pastors who will have the president’s ear.  Both Joel Hunter and Kirbyjon Caldwell publicly supported George W. Bush in 2004 and then backed Barack Obama in 2008.  Hunter leads a church in Orlando and delivered the benediction on the closing night of this year’s Democratic National Convention in Denver.  Caldwell pastors Windsor Village United Methodist Church, the largest United Methodist congregation in North America, and frequently participated in conference calls with the Obama campaign.

What Happens to the Religious Right?

Is the Obama presidency the final nail in the coffin for the Religious Right?  Don’t count on it.  For one thing, political movements like the Religious Right don’t need a “god” to succeed, but they do need a devil.  Nothing builds allegiances among a coalition like a common enemy.  Within the first few days of the new administration, the White House will reverse the so-called “Mexico City Policy” that bans all non-governmental organizations receiving federal funding from performing abortions in other countries.  President Clinton repealed this policy, first enacted by President Reagan and continued with President George H.W. Bush, on his first day in office in 1993.  In 2001, President George W. Bush reenacted the policy upon entering the White House.  The policy has become a political hot potato.  Shortly after the inauguration, President-Elect Obama will, no doubt, repeal the policy and thereby reinvigorate the Religious Right, for whom abortion remains the defining policy issue.

All the while, speculation continues on who will be the new standard bearer for the Religious Right.  Although Sarah Palin charmed this core constituency of the Republican Party, don’t expect her to become their public face.  Evangelicals have too much political savvy for that.  Just as they distanced themselves from Dan Quayle in the 1990s, so also will evangelicals move away from Governor Palin, despite her charisma.  Certainly, she will remain in the public eye, maybe complete with her own television show.  But she has never been able to articulate a religiously-inspired vision for public policy in the way that Phyllis Schlafly or Tony Perkins—both stalwarts of the Religious Right—have.

It is possible that Mike Huckabee may lead the Religious Right.  Like Charles Colson, Huckabee has actual government experience and shares with Colson a unique blend of theological insight and political acumen.  But the former governor of Arkansas will have to decide if he wants to be a contender for the Republican nomination in 2012.  If so, he will spend much more energy building relationships with fiscal conservatives (who did not support him in 2008) than deepening friendships with fellow social conservatives.

A more likely choice is Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal.  His conservative credentials are unassailable with a 100% pro-life voting record according to the National Right to Life Committee and consistent opposition to embryonic stem cell research.  He converted to Catholicism after being raised in a Hindu family, and he served as an Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services in the first term of George W. Bush’s administration.  A former Rhodes Scholar, Jindal was rumored to be the front-runner to join John McCain’s presidential ticket earlier this summer.  As the first Indian-American governor in U.S. history, Jindal would represent, quite literally, a new face for the Religious Right.

Whatever happens in the months ahead, three things are certain.  A new cohort of public figures will emerge, each claiming to represent American evangelicals.  President-elect Obama will appoint a few of them to his administration, but none to high office.  Second, the public disdain for the evangelical “brand” will subside a good bit as Bush-era religious conservatives fade from attention.  Finally, by next fall, the Religious Right will solidify its support behind two or three newer figures as they seek to remake the movement’s public image.

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7 Responses to “Changing of the guard”

  1. avatar Drew Tatusko says:

    I was thinking of this in terms of Stark & Bainbridge’s (1985) measure of tension related to sectarian developments and patterns of behavior. If we look at the formation of the Religious Right in the 70′s it would seem that a liberal government and a socially liberal society is the paradoxical fuel to reconstitute themselves. It will be interesting, and somewhat scary, to see how groups like the Christian Coalition, Family Research Council, American Family Association, and others do this. I would suspect they will continue the clear sectarian us (pro-family, pro-life, pro-religion) v. them (pro-gay, pro-choice, pro-secularist) mentality that we saw cast in clear relief as soon as Sarah Palin was nominated.

  2. Michael,

    This is a very informative post! I hope you will consider a follow-up post describing the potential mechanisms through which “the Religious Right will solidify its support behind two or three newer figures as they seek to remake the movement’s public image.” How do you think this will take place? Will it happen as an evangelical expands his (will it inevitably be a man?) influence by building an empire, following the example of Robertson, Falwell, and Dobson? In this case, the support of “the Religious Right” would presumably come from average evangelicals. Or do you think that networks of elite evangelical leaders will use their influence to promote some individuals who lack such an empire? If so, which networks do you think will be most influential and how might they exert this influence? To what extent should we expect consensus from “the Religious Right” about the new generation of leaders?

    Could being on President Obama’s speed dial be as significant for leaders of the evangelical left as was the connection to Reagan for Falwell? By comparison, how did Bill Hybels and Tony Campolo’s connection to President Clinton influence the way they were perceived by the Religious Right?

    My suspicion is that America’s evangelicals will not agree about who speaks for them. For that matter, many of the cosmopolitan evangelicals you spoke with in your book did not seem to feel that the evangelical old guard spoke for them. Did ordinary evangelicals feel that Falwell, Robertson, and Dobson spoke for them? It seems to me that media access gave these figures much of their influence.

    Perhaps who speaks for evangelicals will vary by audience. Larry King and President Obama may look for different characteristics in an evangelical spokesperson.

    Finally, any predictions about the future influence of Rick Warren and Joel Osteen in the evangelical community?

  3. avatar Drew Tatusko says:

    Interesting questions Conrad. It would appear that as evangelicalism changes from Billy Graham who has now announced that he is not going to act as presidential counsel as he has in the past, and James Dobson’s influence wanes, as well as the passing of Falwell and the aging Pat Robertson, we have to look at the young blood coming up. Rick Warren fits the mould of the “socially conscious” evangelical that I think is more conducive to Obama’s disposition. Others are Mark Driscoll, the Emergent community (Tony Jones, Doug Pagitt, etc.), and certainly Bart Campolo, Wallis, etc.

    It will be very interesting to see…

  4. Dear Drew and Conrad,

    Thanks for your thoughtful responses. Rick Warren has said repeatedly in public and in private that he’s not Billy Graham’s successor. When he and I talked, my initial response to his five-minute explanation of how no one would be the “next” Billy Graham was “Methinks thou doth protest too much.” I have felt the same way ever since. There is within American Christianity a long tradition of religious entrepreneurs wanting to hand the reins of their ministry over to their children. Billy Graham, Robert Schuller, Jerry Falwell, and John Osteen are just the most recent examples. I think Pastor Warren is trying to avoid any appearances of usurping Franklin Graham’s birthright. But he is most certainly poised to become the next version of America’s First Pastor.

    In response to being on speed dial from the Oval Office, I don’t think the evangelical left is as organized or as disciplined as the evangelical right, certainly not in terms of mobilizing masses of people. The only person in that camp who seems to have benefited from his proximity to power is Jim Wallis. Knowledgeable sources I have spoken with have suggested that Wallis is perceived by many political leaders on the left in much the same way that James Dobson is perceived on the right. They both can mobilize certain groups to action such that it’s important to be on their good sides. But they are not seen as close advisors or as spiritual counselors. One can be a modern-day prophet of sorts or a priest to those in power, but not both.

    So if this is a hinge moment for the evangelical movement, who will they mobilize behind for leadership? I suggest a couple of political figures (Huckabee or Jindal), and I think that’s the larger trend within the evangelical movement today. Whereas most movement leaders in the previous generation were pastors–or at least seminary graduates–the leadership class of American evangelicalism today is noticeably more “secular” in orientation, having spent most of their careers in the corporate world or politics. Just look at who’s being tapped to lead evangelical parachurch organizations. They have MBAs, not MDivs. Their work experience is very different from the movement’s leaders of the last half-century.

    When trying to identify the movement’s rising leadership cohort, don’t look to the evangelical subculture. Instead, pay attention to those figures who already have experience in the public limelight, people with track records of success in non-religious settings. As evangelicalism continues to “mature” as a movement, it will increasinly rely on leaders with more cosmopolian backgrounds and orientations.

  5. Michael,

    Thanks for this inside perspective. I suspect that all of your insights are correct but I am not sure how they fit together. You begin by saying that pastor Rick Warren is essentially the Billy Graham of our time but you conclude by suggesting that leadership will come from those with secular training and that the evangelical subculture will not be the source of evangelical leadership. Maybe I am just unclear about your concept of what it means to speak for evangelicals and how the evangelical movement mobilizes for leadership. Perhaps we are talking about distinct roles–pastor to the nation and presidents, potential Presidential nominees, leaders of Christian political groups, bestselling authors and tv personalities, etc. Surely there are distinct pathways to each of these roles.

    Your posts today suggest a kind of agency or unity in the evangelical movement that allows it to act as a movement rather than as a loosely connected web of people and organizations that share similar theological and political beliefs but act independently. I am still a little puzzled about how “the movement” does anything. To an outsider, it often seems like a series of separate empires with interests that often conflict. Furthermore, as you point out in your book, many of the emerging leaders with secular training, such as evangelicals elites in business, are comfortable with neither the evangelical label nor hoi poloi evangelicals and their “evangelical subculture.”

  6. Conrad,

    I agree with your assessment almost entirely. You are right that American evangelicalism is a constellation of different figures and institutions, many of whom compete with one another for donors and attention. This attenuates the likelihood that they work together on many things, but there is some unity among the politically conservative camp of the evangelical movement, especially now. In the wake of stunning Republican defeats last week, movement leaders among the Religious Right are seeking to “circle the wagons” and identify some promising new leaders. My sense is that this next cohort of Religious Right leaders will be individuals with political experience, but not necessarily leadership experience with parachurch organizations. Dobson and Falwell may be replaced by Huckabee and Jindal, or people like them. Also, many of the secular leaders I interviewed for Faith in the Halls of Power are, indeed, uncomfortable with the evangelical label. They are important, powerful people with intriguing stories, but they are not likely to become the Religious Right’s new guard. For that, a clearly identified religious label (usually evangelical or conservative Catholic) is required.

    My original post did not mention Rick Warren because he, like Billy Graham, stands over and above the political fray, even though both minister to the nation’s top leaders in government. Sorry if my mentioning him suggested that I thought he was becoming part of the new guard of the Religious Right. That will not happen. Instead, he will retain a more pastoral role with the political elite, and someone else with sharper elbows will emerge as the next luminary of the Religious Right.

  7. avatar Laura Duane says:

    There have been many varied reactions to this post around the internet, including thoughtful essays and a full reproduction of the text in Christianity Today. Read a roundup of responses at here & there.

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