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Six predictions for the future of the Religious Right

For more than forty years now, the Religious Right has been a powerful force in the United States, helping reshape the Republican Party and realign the nation’s politics and culture. Typically considered a grassroots movement of conservative Catholics, evangelicals, and Mormons, and the political organizations that mobilized their efforts in the 1970s and 1980s, the Religious Right’s intellectual and ideological origins trace back further into the twentieth century. In the 1950s and 1960s, for example, religious conservatives mounted a theological defense against the powerful ecumenical movement of mainline Protestantism, and began to stitch together a loose alliance that would make later political partnerships possible. As historians and other scholars continue to investigate the ‘long history’ of the Religious Right, many observers also wonder what the future holds in a secularizing United States. Here, then, are six predictions about the Religious Right in the years ahead:

1. The Religious Right is not going away, but predictions of its demise will continue.

No sooner had the Religious Right emerged than those from both inside and outside of the movement began forecasting its end. Religious Right leaders have often threatened to abandon politics should politicians and, particularly, the Republican Party ignore their agenda, but they continue to be the GOP’s most important constituency. Secular commentators, on the other hand, read almost every election result and demographic forecast as a death knell for the Religious Right. Religious conservatives and their organizations, however, are not going away. While the United States is becoming less Christian, most conservative Christian denominations remain vibrant and will continue to exert their influence in public life. Indeed, the sense of being a shrinking demographic will galvanize religious conservatives’ commitment to politics as a means of safeguarding their religious identity and defending ‘religious freedom’, the latest framework for the politics of the Religious Right.

2.The Religious Right will become more racially diverse, especially its leadership.

Changing demographics mean significant transformations for the nation’s politics. The Religious Right will not be immune from these shifts, but will instead reflect them. Historically, the Religious Right has included almost only white evangelicals, Catholics, and Mormons. But with the nation’s rising Hispanic population and the rapid growth of Asian-American evangelicals, plus an increasingly vocal and visible number of conservative African-American religious leaders, like Bishop Harry R. Jackson, Jr., the faces of the Religious Right will showcase the nation’s racial diversity. Many of these non-white Americans may never join the Republican Party, but their backing of socially conservative candidates and legislation will be critical for the Religious Right’s political victories going forward.

Photo credit: “Pray for our nation sign” by Billy Hathorn. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Image credit: Pray for our nation sign by Billy Hathorn. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

3. Mormons will play a more visible role in the Religious Right and national politics.

Since the 1970s, the LDS Church has played an active role in national politics, but much of that work has been under the radar. Working through grassroot organizations that often hid their LDS affiliation, Mormons helped defeat the Equal Rights Amendment, pass anti-gay legislation, and enact anti-obscenity laws, among other ‘moral issues’, as the church defined them. In 2008, however, the LDS Church prominently led efforts to pass California’s Proposition 8 ballot initiative outlawing same-sex marriage. Mitt Romney’s two presidential bids brought increased attention to the church and helped mainstream Mormonism to the American public. During the Obama presidency, the LDS Church has become one of the most outspoken and vigilant defenders of religious liberty, a move that has helped strengthen political ties with conservative Catholics and evangelicals. As evangelicals have softened, or at least reevaluated, some of their longstanding attitudes about Mormonism, they have also helped lay the groundwork for a much more visible and politically-active LDS Church.

4. Abortion will continue to be a top issue; same-sex marriage will not.

Although the federal right to abortion has been legal for more than forty years longer than the federal right for same-sex couples to marry, religious conservatives see abortion’s legality as far more vulnerable and will continue to seek to overturn it. On the other hand, they will generally accept marriage equality as ‘settled law’. The key difference here is the generational factor. Younger religious conservatives, including evangelicals, support same-sex marriage more than twice as much as the oldest generation. Conversely, younger religious conservatives are just as likely to oppose abortion rights as their elders. As public polling continues to indicate an almost equally divided nation on the question of abortion, these trends bode well for keeping abortion in the political spotlight and at the forefront of the Religious Right’s agenda.

5. The Religious Right will go local.

Other than George W. Bush’s presidency, the Religious Right has had few political victories at the national level in the last twenty-five years. Locally, religious conservatives have fared far better in chipping away at abortion rights, implementing conservative educational curricula and textbooks, and (for a time) preventing same-sex marriage. This represents a concerted effort hatched in the 1990s by Christian Coalition president Ralph Reed who said he would “exchange the Presidency for 2,000 school board seats” so that he could transform the nation at the community level. Expect increased focus on local and state elections to advance religious conservatives’ causes in the years ahead.

6. The Religious Right will go global.

The Religious Right has also found incredible success on the international stage, particularly in Africa and South America. As Mormonism, Catholicism, and evangelicalism, particularly Pentecostalism, have grown on those continents, American religious conservatives have spotted fertile ground for their political objectives, such as the work of American evangelicals in supporting anti-gay measures in Uganda. There’s a feeling among some American religious leaders that the United States is a lost cause, but many of them believe certain foreign countries can defend and advance the political concerns of religious conservatism. Additionally, what will be most interesting to look for is whether conservative religious leaders from other countries, such as Brazil’s Silas Malafaia, who will have increasing relevance in the States thanks to changing demographic patterns, will involve themselves in American politics.

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