Lazarus Rising: Is The Religious Right Ready To Be ‘Born Again’ In The 2010 Elections?

An Americans United Special Report

The past two years have been difficult for the Religious Right. President Barack Obama opposes the agenda of the religious-political movement, and congressional leaders have generally turned a deaf ear. Some commentators even pronounced the Religious Right dead.

But claims of the Religious Right’s demise are often premature. Like Frankenstein’s monster, the Religious Right has proven hard to kill.

Religious Right groups are waging a massive under-the-radar campaign this fall to register church-going voters, drive congregants to the polls and elect favored candidates. These organizations believe their allies in the Republican Party are poised to make significant advances, and they want to make sure that one or both houses of Congress move to GOP control. 

Upcoming events include:

Sept. 10-11: Faith and Freedom Coalition Conference & Strategy Briefing, Washington, D.C. Former Christian Coalition director Ralph Reed is attempting a comeback with a new Religious Right organization. This D.C. event will be the group’s first major public conference, and Reed – a political strategist implicated in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandals – claims to be raising $32 million to steer conservative Christians to the polls.

Sept. 17-18: Values Voter Summit, Washington, D.C. This annual event, sponsored by the Family Research Council and its allies, has become the leading Religious Right conference in the nation. A number of GOP congressional candidates will speak to the hundreds of attendees. In addition to the FRC, sponsors include the American Family Association, the Heritage Foundation and Liberty University.

Sept. 19: Pray & A.C.T., Washington, D.C. This nationwide project, which calls for 40 days of fasting prior to the elections, is endorsed by a broad coalition including evangelist Lou Engle, Newt Gingrich, Chuck Colson, Mike Huckabee and Southern Baptist lobbyist Richard Land, among others. The D.C. kickoff is Sept. 19 and the closeout event is Oct 30 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The coalition aims to “transform the culture” by “voting in all elections only for candidates who affirm the sanctity of life in all stages and conditions, the integrity of marriage as the union of one man and one woman, and religious liberty and respect for conscience.” Pray & A.C.T. organizer Engle depicts politics as a battle between good and evil, between “kingdom power” and “this present darkness.”

Sept. 20: 40/40 Prayer Vigil. Sponsored by the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, this nationwide 40-day event claims to focus on personal spiritual revival. However, it begins with a prayer for voter registration, includes a prayer for Christians to run for office and ends with a prayer for “discernment of candidates” and for “God’s people to vote.”

Sept. 26: Pulpit Freedom Sunday. During this event sponsored by the Alliance Defense Fund, evangelical pastors nationwide will be encouraged to violate federal tax law by endorsing or opposing candidates from the pulpit.

The Religious Right And The GOP: BFFs?

Why so many events and projects that feature voter mobilization or other activities tied to electoral politics?

The Religious Right’s fortunes are closely tied to the Republican Party’s. When the GOP lost power in Washington in 2006 and 2008, the Religious Right also took a hit. Its legislative proposals have stalled, and it finds itself unable to counter legislation, court appointments and other actions it opposes.

Eager to regain power in the nation’s capital (and in state legislatures), the Religious Right is going all out to do whatever it can to help its political allies get elected to public office.

Voter registration, mobilization and get-out-the-vote efforts are key to the effort. Polls show that regular churchgoers are much more likely to vote Republican. In addition, a recent poll conducted by the Pew Forum found that 74 percent of evangelicals say they are likely to vote in 2010. Religious Right groups are eager to keep this segment of the GOP fired up until Nov. 2.

A steady string of conferences, voter registration events, voter-guide distribution and other activities will help.

What About The Tea Party?

Some political analysts have speculated that the Religious Right has been overshadowed by the Tea Party movement.

This is an oversimplification. The Tea Party remains a wild card, but there’s no reason why this movement cannot exist alongside or in tandem with the Religious Right. Although they don’t see eye to eye on every issue, the Religious Right and the Tea Party share the same goal: drastically changing the political calculus in Washington.

It is true that the Tea Party – a loosely structured conglomeration of anti-government activists – remains divided over social issues. Some activists want to incorporate these issues into the movement, while others want to keep the focus on matters like low taxes and deregulation. Because the Tea Party is decentralized, there is no reason why the factions that favor adding social issues to the plate can’t pursue that goal and work with the Religious Right.

Religious Right organizations are working to woo the Tea Party – or create their own version of it. The Family Research Council held a special session for Tea Party activists last year and plans to do so again during this year’s “Values Voter Summit.” In a recent e-mail message promoting the event, FRC President Tony Perkins noted that U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, “a Tea Party favorite,” will be among the speakers.

Some right-wing figures, notably Sarah Palin, straddle both camps and may serve as a bridge between the two. But in the end, it almost doesn’t matter if the two arms formally cooperate or not. Their goal is the same: elect as many ultra-conservatives to public office as possible. They can work together on this or do it on parallel tracks.

Another example of cross-pollination between the two camps is Glenn Beck. Beck, the bombastic Fox News Channel host, held rallies at the Kennedy Center and the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., Aug. 27 and 28. Although Beck is a Mormon, he often features “Christian nation” rhetoric on his program, and his events took on the trappings of a religious revival. Among the speakers was David Barton, a Texas Religious Right activist (and former GOP state official) who insists that church-state separation is a myth.

Polls show that many voters are unhappy over the state of the economy and high unemployment. If this sentiment creates a political shift that elects more Tea Party-friendly candidates, it’s inevitable that some of those elected will also have a far-right social-issues agenda. In this sense, the Religious Right gets a free ride for its issues.

Americans United Comment

Americans United for Separation of Church and State is the leading national watchdog group of the Religious Right. Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn, who is a Christian minister as well as an attorney, frequently debates Religious Right leaders in the media and the in the court of public opinion. Lynn has tracked the Religious Right and led the opposition to it since the rise of the Moral Majority in the late 1970s.

For expert commentary on the Religious Right, contact Americans United’s Communications Department, communications@au.org.

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.