The Religious Right in the Post-Falwell Era

Tom Shipka

If you're one who believes that the Religious Right suffered a serious blow on May 15 when the Reverend Jerry Falwell died, you're badly mistaken, according to Rob Boston, a long-time student of the movement. In a recent issue of Church & State magazine, Boston reports that the Religious Right today is flourishing. (1)
After pointing out that Falwell's eminence in the Religious Right "waned" when he focused his efforts on Liberty University, Boston says that leaders of the Religious Right have learned important lessons from Falwell's mistakes. On the one hand, they have toned down their public rhetoric and abandoned Falwell's relish for notoriety, preferring instead to communicate with the faithful through their own media outlets instead of mainstream media. Indeed, some of the most influential organizations in the Religious Right, such as the Reverend Donald Wildmon's American Family Association, which owns 170 radio stations and generates $17 million in revenues annually, operate largely "beneath the mainstream media radar." (p. 5) On the other hand, they have prioritized grassroots organizing. By the time Falwell's Moral Majority collapsed in 1989, Boston observes, it was "essentially a large mailing list with little local presence." (p. 4) The new Religious Right, by contrast, immerses itself in races from the local to the national level by linking itself to the Republican Party and requiring candidates seeking its support to endorse its agenda. This works, Boston says, because evangelicals are a huge percentage of Republican voters, especially in primaries. (p. 5) This also explains why so many candidates seek the endorsement of leaders of the Religious Right and why so many members of Congress meet weekly with them to collaborate as a "Values Action Team." (p. 5)
Also, Boston observes, the Religious Right today continues to exploit large and small tax-exempt organizations effectively to promote its goals. Among the larger ones is Dr. James Dobson's Focus on the Family, a radio and publishing empire which took in $137 million in 2005, and the Reverend Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network, which has nearly a million daily viewers and which took in $236 million in the same year. Among the smaller ones is Louis Sheldon's Traditional Values Coalition, which has a budget of $6 million a year to lobby in Washington and California, its home base; Tony Perkins' Family Research Council, which draws on an annual budget of $10.8 million to lobby and to organize evangelical voters; The Alliance Defense Fund, an Arizona-based legal group, which uses its $27 million annual budget to promote the interests of the Religious Right in the courts (p. 5); and the American Center for Law and Justice, a $14.5 million a year operation, which, among other things, works to influence the White House's choice of nominees to the Supreme Court.
Thus, Jerry Falwell's quest for theocracy in America proceeds apace despite his absence. Indeed, the Religious Right has more resources than ever to ban abortions, block legal rights for gays, install creationism, Bible courses, and prayer in the schools, promote abstinence-only sex education, spend tax dollars on religious schools and ministries, pack the Supreme Court, and impede stem cell research. Only time will tell if these resources are up to the challenges from moderates and liberals which the Religious Right faces.
1. Church & State, Vol. 60, No. 7, July/August 2007, pages 4-6.

© 2007 Tom Shipka