Paradoxes on the Christian Right

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As recently as the fall of 2000, some commentators were still predicting or declaring the demise of the Christian Right-as usual with any and every dip and downturn in the fortunes of the movement or its constituent parts. But the pundits notwithstanding, the movement has consolidated, stabilized, and is prepared to wage fresh battles. "Not only are the culture wars not over, and not only have we not lost," declared Florida televangelist D. James Kennedy in 1998, "but the fact is we are winning!"4

Financial data provided by most of the major organizations of the Christian Right to the Evangelical Council on Financial Accountability (posted on its web site  http://www.ecfa.org) provide a snapshot of the scale and stability of the movement. In most cases organizational income rises steadily over the three years listed. A sampling of rounded income figures for 1999, the last year for which there is data posted, shows: Concerned Women for America, $12 million; Family Research Council, $14 million; American Family Association, $15 million; Promise Keepers, $51 million; Regent University, $52 million; Focus on the Family $121 million; Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network, $196 million; Campus Crusade for Christ, $360 million. The combined income of D. James Kennedy's Coral Ridge Ministries, and his television and radio operation totaled $66 million. Interestingly, in 2000, AOL founder Steve and his wife Jean Case, donated $8.35 million to Jean Case's alma mater, Westminster Academy, a parochial school adjunct of Coral Ridge Ministries.5 Of course, not all of these organizations spend all or even most of their resources on political action per se, but each is an integral component of a still larger conservative Christian culture from which the Christian Right political movement is sustained and refreshed.

Running counter to this trend, the Christian Coalition has been faced with a steady turnover in senior staff and a dramatic drop in its budget from a high of about $25 million in the mid-1990's to about half that in 2000, among other signs of disarray. At the same time, it has sustained a significant and high profile niche in public consciousness. Similarly, Promise Keepers (PK), which at its peak filled dozens of football stadia in spectacular expressions of the new conservative Christian culture, has endured scandals, largely saturated its market, and declined in popularity and budget, but nevertheless sustains a $50 million a year budget while staging smaller scale events. After distributing tens of millions of books, literature, videos, music CDs and other paraphernalia, PK remains a powerful vehicle of conservative Christian cultural influence.

Additional paradoxes confound simple conclusions about the state of the Christian Right. First, in 2000 the Christian Right substantially subsumed itself to the electoral fortunes of George W. Bush (his sketchy record on the litmus test issues of the Christian Right not withstanding) as their best hope of ending the Clinton/Gore era. In the wake of this pragmatic decision, some Christian rightists are becoming radicalized. Second, the founding generation of the Christian Right is aging, and the turnover at the top of the leading organizations of the movement suggests potential instability among leading Christian Right institutions. And finally, major changes in the ideology and composition of the leadership of the Catholic Church will undoubtedly lead to an important shift in the direction and impact of faith-based political activism. The rise of conservative Catholicism may profoundly, if slowly, alter the dynamics of the contemporary Christian Right, resulting in an era of increasing political aggressiveness in electoral politics on the part of church-backed rightist initiatives, particularly on the issue of abortion.

Christian Right leaders, followers and even organizations have come and gone as the movement has evolved, but its religious and public policy agenda remains essentially unchanged. Pat Robertson, still the most visible and vocal Christian Right leader, declared during the 2000 election campaign "I want to see a future where a religious public servant occupies the White House and fills federal positions of power with men and women committed to godly principles."6 Such a government would at minimum seek to roll back liberal gains in such things as, reproductive rights and gay and lesbian civil rights, and lower, if not smash, the wall of separation between church and state. The debates among the factions of the Christian Right are more over means than ends.

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