There are reasons why Religious Right Evangelicals will continue to dominate religious discourse, not only in their own sector of the Christian community, but also in what transpires in mainline denominations. Moderate voices, for the most part, are being sidelined and those with liberal views will find fewer and fewer means to express their opinions or gain an audience for their convictions.
Of course, there will be side eddies to the dominating flow of the Religious Right’s rhetoric and its control of who and what will represent Christianity. We can be sure that there will be dissonant spokespersons like Jim Wallis and his allies in his Sojourners community who will march to the beat of another drum. Also, there will be countervailing movements such as the Emergent church, led by the likes of Tony Jones and Brian McLaren; along with those radical countercultural advocates who relate to “the Simple Way” messages of Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, as well as several others. But such voices increasingly will be marginalized and referred to as irritating malcontents by those Religious Right Evangelicals who will dominate both the image and practices representing Christianity to the general public for the next 50 years.
The first reason for the preponderant influence of those Evangelicals who define themselves as advocates of Religious Right theological and political ideologies is that they have both the financial means and technological know-how to make widespread use of modern electronic forms of communication. Flipping the dial through available radio stations there will blare out to any listener an array of broadcasts, 24/7, propagating Religious Right politics, along with what they deem to be “old-time gospel preaching.” This is especially true of what comes over the airwaves in Bible Belt southern states.
There are now more than 1500 radio stations operated by owners who have a Religious Right political/theological bias. Such broadcasters are almost all members of the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB), an organization that is overtly oriented to very conservative politics. Messages that cast most Democrats in Congress, and certainly President Barack Obama, as dangerous liberals who are leading America towards socialism and secularism are common in their programming. It is easy to discern an anti-feminist, anti-gay, anti-environmentalist, pro-militarist, and pro-gun worldview in what is heard on their programs. While not claiming to be religious broadcasters, T.V. commentators the likes of Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Bill O’Reilly lend support to the Religious Right rhetoric.
There are several explanations as to how the Religious Right came into its dominating role. First, those who refer to themselves as political progressives and religious moderates in times past ridiculed these Religious Right broadcasters and declared that few reasonable Christians would take their harangues seriously, but they were wrong. Preachers in mainline denominational churches, along with others who have tried to articulate values and beliefs that differed from the messages of right-wing talk radio pundits often have lost credibility with those in their pews because their church members put more stock in what they heard on Christian talk radio than what they heard from the pulpit of their churches. Sometimes when preachers in mainline denominational churches bucked the views of the Religious Right’s talk shows they found that efforts were underway from disgruntled church members to oust them from their pulpits. In other cases, church members voted against their ministers with their feet by simply walking away and joining other churches where the preachers were more harmonious with what they had heard over the NRB radio stations. Moderate and progressive church leaders woke up too late to the impact that Religious Right television and radio programs were having on those who were in their pews.
Secondly, Religious Right laypersons came to realize that with very little effort just a few of them are able to exercise enormous influence on what happens and who speaks at any kind of religious gathering. If a particular speaker who does not fit their profile of someone they deem politically and theologically “safe, ” they know that just a half dozen phone calls to the offices of the sponsoring organizations or to a denominational office can lead to the cancellation of that speaker. Sadly, sponsors of such gatherings as youth conventions, denominational rallies, and other popular mass religious gatherings are overly sensitive to such complaints. In cowardly fashion, otherwise reasonable church leaders are easily intimidated and quickly yield to the demands of Religious Right critics. What makes matters worse is that the internet helps cantankerous, disgruntled right-wing Evangelicals to spread far and wide anything about any moderate or progressive Christian leaders they want silenced. Lies and distortions can be spread, via the internet, in an inexpensive way, and the effects are astounding.
As a case in point, more than twenty churches in a west coast city had come together to plan a weekend of evangelistic services, but when two of the pastors of these churches received complaints from parishioners accusing the invited speaker of holding heretical beliefs, and even raising innuendos about his sexual life, the evangelistic services were cancelled. When the uninvited speaker asked where these complaining parishioners got these serious (and what proved to be erroneous) reports, he was told, “Some people read these things on the internet.” The reality that none of these accusations could in any way be verified or traced back to who had made them made no difference. The cancellation was a done deed. Through the internet, false rumors about the speaker had been circulated throughout the community and, in addition, the two Christian radio stations reported the false rumors over the airwaves as though they were true.
The pastor who made the call to the cancelled “progressive” speaker apologized profusely and regretfully acknowledged that it was probably a handful of Religious Right zealots who had spread the falsehoods anonymously via the internet. Nevertheless, he went on to say, such upset had been generated in the congregations of the sponsoring churches that holding the meetings had become impossible. Later, this community rescheduled the evangelistic weekend with another speaker that Religious Right Evangelicals pronounced acceptable. Chalk up another victory for the Religious Right. With every such victory, the Religious Right becomes increasingly emboldened so that they know that anyone who does not toe the line with what they have laid down as an acceptable ideology is pushed off the speaking circuit.
This same kind of tyranny has taken over the Christian publishing business. Christian bookstores, nationwide, tend to be owned and operated by well meaning people who want to propagate their faith through the sale of Christian books. Again, a handful of complaints raised about some authors that Religious Right Evangelicals consider “dangerous” will have the books written by such authors sent back to the distribution houses of the publishers. It doesn’t take these publishers long to recognize whose books they should put in print if they want Christian bookstores to put their books on the shelves.
There is some hope, however. The good news is that moderates and progressives, in spite of all the problems caused by the internet for those who do not have the Religious Right’s “good housekeeping seal of approval, ” through the internet have found ways of getting their messages out to any who are open to what they are saying. Their books are now available on amazon.com, which is where people, more and more, are buying books. Thus, the overwhelming control the Religious Right has had on which books Christians can read is being broken. Add to this the reality that in the near future many books simply will be downloaded into Kindles, IPods, or other electronic means for reading books. Sadly, many good people who still run Christian bookstores will be threatened with going out of business. The future isn’t any too bright for the printed paper media and those who are trying to sell it.
There is further good news for those who feel threatened by the dominance of the Religious Right. Young people under the age of thirty are more and more circumventing Christian talk radio and getting their news reports off their computers. Add to that, they are less and less likely to pay much attention to the television pundits on Fox News. The Pew Foundation researchers discovered that those in this age group are far more likely to get their news from Jon Stewart on The Daily Show and from Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report. These so called “comedy” programs not only fail to reflect the views and practices of the Religious Right, they actually make many of them look ridiculous. It is no surprise that Jim Wallis has chosen to be a guest on The Daily Show twice, while I have had two appearances on The Colbert Report.
Finally, it is important to note that “below the radar” of most observers of the American religious landscape there are split-offs from traditional Evangelicalism which differentiate themselves from the Right. Knowing that, according to the Barna researchers, Evangelicals convey to the general public an image of being “judgmental, hypocritical, and homophobic, ” many younger Christians have tried to shun the name “Evangelicals” and have sought other titles, such as “Emergent Christians” or simply “Followers of Jesus.” Those in one such split-off movement are now calling themselves “Red Letter Christians” (see www.redletterchristians.org). While holding to traditional doctrines as those stated in the Apostles’ Creed, having a high view of Scripture, and declaring faith in a personal relationship with a resurrected Christ as essential for salvation, they clearly denounce as idolatry any attempt to make Jesus into either a Democrat or a Republican. With a deep commitment to living out the red letters of the Bible, which in many editions highlight the words of Jesus, these Red Letter Christians espouse what Glenn Beck and other conservative commentators might deride as “progressive social values.” But there is nothing that is ideologically identifiable with these Red Letter Christians. Coming from across the political spectrum, they do not want to be pigeonholed. What they do want as their identity is a recognition that they are endeavoring to embrace the radical lifestyle prescribed by Jesus on a personal level, especially as it is set forth in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).
Perhaps movements such as these will emerge as dynamic forces contributing to the public face that Christianity will have a few decades from now. But for the immediate present, and for the next several years, the Religious Right will reign supreme.