Power Struggle

With James Dobson Inching Toward Retirement And Others Off The Scene, Many Wonder Who Will Fill The Religious Right’s Bully Pulpit

When Dr. James C. Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, announced he was stepping down as chairman of the powerful organization Feb. 27, it looked as if the world of the Religious Right was in for a major shake up.

Dobson founded the group in 1977 as a lonely outpost of right-wing Christianity in Southern California. Over the years, FOF, now based on a sprawling campus in Colorado Springs, became the largest, best funded and most influential Religious Right group in the nation.

Was Dobson really walking away?

A closer look at his “resignation” statement proved there was less there than meets the eye. Dobson vowed to continue with his daily radio broadcasts, which are heard by millions, and pledged to continue mailing monthly letters on “culture war” issues to his supporters.

In addition, Dobson promised to continue issuing personal political endorsements. At the end of the day, it seemed, not much had changed at FOF. Dobson dropped a title and some administrative duties, but for most listeners to his broadcasts or readers of his bulletins, nothing will have changed.

Dobson isn’t stepping out of the public eye just yet, but his announcement has inevitably opened up questions of succession and new leadership in the Religious Right. Now 72, Dobson joins an aging cadre of Religious Right leaders, men and women who came to prominence in the late 1970s and who will, in all likelihood, be exiting public life over the next few years.

The face of the Religious Right has already started to change. Moral Majority leader, TV preacher and longtime Religious Right warhorse Jerry Falwell died on May 15, 2007. About four months later, D. James Kennedy of Coral Ridge Ministries died. Kennedy, a Presbyterian televangelist and prominent advocate of the “Christian nation” view of history, was known for his vociferous opposition to the teaching of evolution.

Other Religious Right leaders are less prominent these days. TV preacher Pat Robertson, 79, still broadcasts his “700 Club” on television but no longer heads his own political unit. Anti-feminist crusader Phyllis Schlafly will be 85 in August and is said to be in declining health. The Rev. Tim LaHaye, who for many years battled “secular humanism” in public schools and government, is 83 and lives in wealthy semi-retirement off the proceeds of his “Left Behind” novels, a popular series of apocalyptic potboilers.

Who will lead the Religious Right in the years to come?

Interestingly, there is no shortage of candidates. What differentiates the lot is that most do not have powerful radio or television ministries behind them. And some come from the political world, not Bible colleges or seminaries.

In short, the Religious Right will probably continue to wield political power for a long time to come. Its leadership and structure, however, may end up looking a good bit different than what we see today.

This article examines some possible new leaders for the Religious Right. It’s admittedly a speculative venture, but one that is nevertheless anchored in reality. All of the individuals mentioned in this article have either led Religious Right groups, expressed some interest in doing so or are so closely aligned with the movement that they could catapult into leadership positions.

Newt Gingrich

The idea of Newt Gingrich as the next leader of the Religious Right is not as odd as it sounds. During his tenure as speaker of the House of Representatives, Gingrich was known mainly for his promotion of small government, low taxes and libertarian ideas, but a lot has changed since 1999; in recent years Gingrich has increasingly been stressing Religious Right themes.

The new push began in 2006 when Gingrich published a book titled Rediscovering God in America: Reflections on the Role of Faith in Our Nation’s History, a tome that promotes a “Christian nation” history that’s always popular with the Religious Right.

In a recent interview with Dan Gilgoff of U.S. News & World Report, Gingrich talked about his desire to unite conservative evangelicals with traditionalist Roman Catholics in support of a broad conservative agenda.

Gingrich, Gilgoff reported, is traveling around the country speaking to clergy on behalf of David Barton, a Religious Right pseudo-historian who has written books promoting the theocratic “Christian nation” viewpoint.

 “In the last few years I’ve decided that we’re in a crisis in which the secular state, if allowed, will fundamentally and radically change America against the wishes of most Americans,” Gingrich told Gilgoff. “You’ve had such rising hostility to religious belief that I wanted to reach broadly into the country and dramatically raise public awareness of threats to religious liberty.”

The ex-speaker added, “It’s time to challenge head-on secular domination in the West.”

Gingrich has formed a new organization, Renewing American Leadership, that partnered with the Rev. Donald Wildmon’s American Family Association to sponsor anti-tax rallies around the country on April 15. Although taxation is not traditionally a Religious Right issue, the push is a good example of Gingrich’s efforts to add to the “culture war” agenda and unite the various factions of the conservative movement.

During his five-year tenure as House speaker, Gingrich pushed for a constitutional amendment on school prayer and was a fixture at Religious Right meetings. Robertson’s Christian Coalition was the most powerful Religious Right group in those days, and Gingrich was often on hand.

One thing could derail Gingrich’s ascension to Religious Right leadership: his personal life. Gingrich has been married three times and has admitted to committing adultery. He had his first wife served with divorce papers while she was in a hospital recovering from cancer and married a younger woman, Marianne Ginther.

Gingrich divorced Ginther in 1999. According to some reports, the move came eight months after Gingrich learned she had multiple sclerosis. Gingrich was 57 at the time, and he soon married 34-year-old Callista Bistek, a House employee he had known since 1993.

None of this necessarily precludes Gingrich from Religious Right leadership. It certainly never stopped him from receiving a hero’s welcome at various Religious Right gatherings over the years. But it’s also a sure bet that many Gingrich critics – and they are legion – are salivating at the thought of engaging him over issues like same-sex marriage, given his own spotty marital record.

An additional wild card remains: In March, Gingrich converted to Roman Catholicism. While some conservative evangelicals have labored to make common cause with traditionalist Catholics, an air of mutual suspicion often remains. Religious Right groups tend to be anchored in Protestant fundamentalism. Over the years, only a few prominent Religious Right organizations have been led by Roman Catholics.

Mike Huckabee

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee would seem to be a perfect leader for the Religious Right: He’s a 53-year-old Southern Baptist minister who’s hip enough to play bass guitar in a rock band and has a compelling “up-from-poverty” back story. Popular with the far-right base, Huckabee gives a stem-winding speech and is savvy enough to know the ins and outs of national politics.

But does Huckabee want the job?

Huckabee sought the Republican presidential nomination in 2008. He was popular with many Religious Right activists but for various reasons never won over the leadership of several of the top organizations.

Part of the problem was that Huckabee often delivered mixed messages. On the stump during the primaries, he was forced to moderate somewhat to appeal to as many voters as possible. Huckabee, for example, would often talk about his belief that the Bible commands people to care for those in need. These messages fell flat with the Religious Right, which remains fixated on abortion and homosexuality, the red meat of the culture wars.

By the time Huckabee ramped up his message, it was too late. After the campaign, Huckabee formed a political action committee, accepted a gig hosting a Saturday night show on the Fox News Channel and published a book titled Do The Right Thing: Inside the Movement That’s Bringing Common Sense Back to America.

Many political pundits believe Huckabee will run again in 2012. Huckabee has been predictably cagey about the race, but it’s unlikely he would assume the leadership of a Religious Right group in the interim. A position such as that is a poor platform for a serious presidential candidate.

But if Huckabee were to run in 2012 and fail again, he might consider a job with a Religious Right organization. He would be in his late 50s, certainly young enough to consider such a career change.

Rick Warren

Although he’s not usually identified with the Religious Right, evangelical author and mega-church pastor Rick Warren holds nearly identical views on social issues. He’s opposed to legal abortion and urged his California congregation to vote to ban same-sex marriage. In that regard, he fits in well with the Religious Right.

But Warren does not stick to the tried-and-true Religious Right issues. He has been involved in movements to rally evangelicals on behalf of the environment and talks about the need to help the poor.

Warren is also something of a political opportunist who enjoys being near the seat of power, no matter who is sitting in it. He backed George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004 but did not offer an endorsement in 2008, perhaps sensing that GOP nominee U.S. Sen. John McCain was unlikely to win.

Instead, Warren hosted both Obama and McCain at a forum at his Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif. Although the two did not appear together in a debate format, Warren quizzed both candidates with an identical set of questions.

Obama in turn reached out to Warren. In a move that shocked some, Obama asked Warren to deliver the invocation during his Jan. 20 presidential inauguration. Despite grumbling from some progressive activists, Warren accepted.

Warren has made it clear that he does not agree with Obama on issues like abortion, gay rights and stem-cell research. Nevertheless, his ties to the administration, tangential as they are, would make it difficult for him to ascend to the leadership of the Religious Right as it is currently constituted. Religious Right groups have offered nothing but criticism of the new administration since Inauguration Day.

Warren would have to work a lot to win over the Religious Right’s foot soldiers. With a best-selling book under his belt and a vast mega-church empire at his control, Warren might very well consider himself more like the next Billy Graham – a sort of quasi-national pastor who is seen as transcending partisan politics. If that is indeed Warren’s goal, he might very well consider a job with the Religious Right a step down.

Sarah Palin

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin came out of nowhere last year and rocketed to lofty heights in the world of the Religious Right after she was tapped by U.S. Sen. John McCain to be his running mate on the GOP ticket.

Palin, who is an evangelical Christian, definitely fired up the Religious Right wing of the Republican Party. At a September meeting of the Family Research Council in Washington, Palin was all the rage – even though she did not attend in person. Attendees sported hot pink stickers reading “Palin Power,” and the Alaska governor was repeatedly praised from the speakers’ platform. Palin was talked about constantly, while McCain barely got a mention.

Palin, 45, would be a young leader who could conceivably shepherd the Religious Right for many years. But there is one drawback: It’s not clear she wants to job.

Even before campaign 2008 drew to a close, rumors were circulating that Palin was laying the groundwork for a 2012 run at the Republican presidential nomination. The GOP field is likely to be crowded that year, but Palin will probably have few problems lining up Christian conservative support (although the pregnancy and subsequent unwed motherhood of her teenaged daughter, Bristol, has created something of a scandal.)

But it’s unclear if she can move beyond that base, which failed to deliver for the Republicans in 2008. Palin’s addition to the Republican ticket sparked a burst of enthusiasm for the McCain campaign, and the two soared in the polls – but only briefly.

Palin made a number of missteps in the media and, following a disastrous interview with Katie Couric of CBS, the McCain campaign essentially kept her away from reporters as much as possible (with the exception of friendly sources like the Fox News Channel and evangelical Christian outlets).

Palin is up for reelection as Alaska governor in 2010. Assuming she wins that race, she could jump into the GOP presidential campaign at any point in 2011. If unsuccessful, she might be looking for work in 2014.

Would Palin consider a Religious Right sinecure, or does she have her heart set on some other type of political office? It’s too early to tell at this point; ultimately, the questions can only be decided by the scope of Palin’s ambition.

Tony Perkins

As president of the Family Research Council (FRC) in Washington, Tony Perkins would seem to be the logical candidate to assume the leadership of the Religious Right if others step down or retire.

But it’s not that simple. Perkins, a former Louisiana state senator, has led the FRC since September of 2003. The organization, an offshoot of Dobson’s Focus on the Family, became the largest Religious Right group in the nation’s capital, but that’s only because the Christian Coalition collapsed. The FRC has not seen spectacular growth under Perkins. Its budget is about $12 million annually, less than half of the Christian Coalition’s during its heyday.

Perkins is not especially charismatic and is not a minister; he doesn’t have his own radio or TV platform. His frequent appearances on the Fox News Channel are workmanlike but not especially energizing.

Perkins also has something of a checkered past when it comes to race relations. In 1996, Perkins, while managing the U.S. Senate campaign of Louisiana state legislator Woody Jenkins, paid former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard and notorious white supremacist David Duke $82,000 for his mailing list. In 2001, while laying the groundwork for an unsuccessful U.S. Senate bid, Perkins addressed the Louisiana chapter of the Council of Conservative Citizens, a white supremacist organization that grew out of the White Citizens Council. (The White Citizens Council was formed in the 1950s to protest public school desegregation as mandated by the Supreme Court in 1954.)

Under Perkins, the FRC sponsors an annual “Values Voter Summit” in Washington, an event featuring an array of far-right speakers that is reminiscent of the Christian Coalition’s old “Road to Victory” conferences. The event usually attracts around 1,500 attendees, but there’s a certain sameness to it year after year. Often, the same litany of speakers is featured. In short, the FRC seems to be spinning its wheels.

Could Perkins be pushed aside by a more dynamic Religious Right leader? It’s certainly possible.

Other Possibilities: Hereditary Leaders And Dark Horses

Like Roman emperors of old, some Religious Right leaders have attempted to groom their offspring for eventual succession. Emperors had mixed results with that, and so has the Religious Right.

Several years ago, TV preacher Pat Robertson began allowing his son Gordon to co-host the show with him. Gordon, 50, mimics his father’s right-wing rhetoric but seems to lack the intensity that makes Pat Robertson’s broadcasts so unique (and sometimes scary). The Christian Broadcasting Network has a huge endowment and can coast once Pat Robertson is no longer involved, but it’s hard to imagine Gordon, who is an attorney, not a minister, launching a new version of the Christian Coalition.

The late Jerry Falwell had two sons: Jerry Jr. and Jonathan. The duo shares the sizeable remnants of the Falwell empire. Jerry Jr., an attorney, serves as chancellor of Liberty University. Jonathan, a minister, pastors Thomas Road Baptist Church and heads up the television ministry.

Until recently, there wasn’t much left of the television ministry. Falwell Sr. skillfully used The “Old Time Gospel Hour” to enhance his national image and promote far-right political ideas. Falwell Jr. did not have a national TV platform until last month, when he announced that Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN) will begin airing his sermons on Sunday mornings. TBN is available via cable in more than 95 million U.S. homes.

Like his father, Jonathan Falwell regularly issues e-mail bulletins to supporters highlighting Religious Right themes. But this is little more than an informal network. The Moral Majority remains defunct, and Jonathan has no national political organization behind his efforts.

James Dobson has an adopted son named Ryan. Now 39, Ryan shares his father’s politics but seems to have little interest in inheriting the Focus on the Family empire. An ordained minister, Ryan runs his own group, Kor Ministries, and has authored several books. In 2005, a minor scandal erupted when word leaked out that Ryan and his wife had divorced.

The Rev. Donald Wildmon, founder of the American Family Association (AFA), has named his son, Tim, president of the organization, clearly grooming him for succession. Similarly, the Rev. Louis P. Sheldon, founder of the Traditional Values Coalition (TVC), increasingly appears to be turning the reins over to his daughter, Andrea Lafferty, who serves as the group’s executive director.

The AFA and the TVC tend to specialize. The AFA is known for its attacks on pornography and sexual themes in television and films, and the TVC is infamous for its gay bashing. Both groups have modest budgets and never achieved the type of truly national stature of organizations like the Family Research Council. The groups could expand under new leadership, however.

Could a new leader emerge from the Religious Right’s back bench?

In recent years, at least two conservative preachers have tried to make the jump from the second tier to the top but so far have fallen short.

Pastor Rod Parsley of World Harvest Church in Columbus, Ohio, seemed to be making all of the right moves. Parsley, a telegenic TV preacher with a mega-church, authored books promoting right-wing themes and even started his own Religious Right group, the Center for Moral Clarity. Backed by other conservative clergy, Parsley worked to forge a political machine to intervene in Buckeye State politics.

The effort soon crashed and burned. Democrats swept state offices in 2006, and Parsley and an allied minister were accused of using their pulpits for inappropriate partisan purposes.

Texas pastor Rick Scarborough, a close ally of the late Falwell, launched his own Religious Right outfit called Vision America, in the 1990s. A Southern Baptist minister, Scarborough’s main claim to fame is that he helped elect like-minded candidates to local office in Pearland, Texas.

But this was years ago, and the effort eventually collapsed. By 2002, scandals had brought down some Scarborough allies, and others were not reelected. Scarborough left Pearland and set up shop in Lufkin. The east Texas town of 33,000 is an unlikely base for a national political movement.

Vision America putters along with a budget of less than $500,000 per year, but Scarborough’s attempts to become a national figure and emulate his mentor Falwell have so far amounted to naught.

A New Direction?

For many years, the leaders of Religious Right groups tended to be fundamentalist or Pentecostal ministers who ran large television empires. James Dobson, who is a child psychologist and is not ordained, challenged that paradigm. Dobson reached people through radio and by publishing various magazines and newsletters, deftly mixing conservative parenting advice and evangelical Christianity with right-wing politics.

The day of the television preacher as Religious Right leader may have passed. In the coming years, the nation could see Religious Right groups “devolve” to leaner (and meaner) units. Perhaps no single national leader will emerge. Instead, a variety of groups will press their agendas, sometimes in concert, sometimes singularly.

U.S. News blogger Gilgoff said the Religious Right may be headed for a type of structural split.

“Palin and Huckabee are poised to be the movement’s political leaders, but it’s hard to tell who will be the organizational leaders, roles that have traditionally been played by organizations run by Dobson, Pat Robertson, and Jerry Falwell,” he said. “It’s unclear if a Dobson-like figure will emerge to lead the movement like Falwell did in the ’80s, Robertson did in the ’90s, and Dobson did in the ’00s. But it may be that Christian conservatives have been so successful in becoming politically players themselves – for example, George W. Bush – that those outside organizations become less important and figures like Palin and Huck become more important.”

In some ways, this scenario could create a more challenging environment for civil liberties groups like Americans United for Separation of Church and State. A phalanx of Religious Right groups led by people like the FRC’s Perkins – serviceable but not exactly national figures in the way the TV preachers of old were – could still be formidable. In fact, they might very well end up doing a lot of their work under the radar, away from public and media scrutiny.

Sarah Posner, a blogger with The American Prospect who follows the Religious Right closely, believes the movement’s leadership is in transition but says that doesn’t mean it will be less influential in the years to come.

“The leadership of the Religious Right has become more diffuse than it was in the early days, when everyone looked to the heavy hitters like Falwell or Robertson,” Posner told Church & State. “Now many egos are vying for the same audience, and with the realization that a single figurehead can fall from grace, such as Ted Haggard, operatives are happy to have a deep bench of go-to people, including political operatives, televangelists and mega-church celebrities.”

Continued Posner, “Nonetheless, certain people are putting together networks and organizations to place themselves at the top of the heap. Notables in that category include Mike Huckabee, who through his HuckPAC is organizing armies of volunteers in every state, and Newt Gingrich, who is launching a ‘new’ – in reality, recycled – effort to stymie any divorce proceedings between the Religious Right and the Republican Party.”

Posner said it’s also worth keeping an eye on the new breed of evangelical leaders who pose as centrists – figures like Florida pastor Joel Hunter and Warren.

“They spurn the Religious Right’s vitriol but on many matters fundamentally agree with its theocratic politics,” said Posner. “They’ve been successful at cultivating a softer image, and are already becoming the faces of a theologically and politically conservative movement that’s ditched a lot of the crazy.”