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.