Continued strong support for Donald Trump among many conservative evangelical leaders and activists has led a number of commentators to declare the death of the religious right movement. Yet the history of the movement suggests that it is too resilient to be destroyed by a single electoral defeat.
The argument for the end of the religious right hinges on the following: (1) the likely defeat of the candidate supported by the movement, Donald Trump; (2) the likely election of the person considered the arch-enemy of the movement, Hillary Clinton; and (3) most important, the movement stands exposed to all as hypocritical — willing to support for president a deeply flawed character who appears to be everything the religious right claims to be against.
On the surface, these conclusions seem credible. The movement put its heft behind the likely loser, and with massive GOP defections from the party’s presidential nominee, the religious conservatives now look to be odd outliers in their steadfast continued support of Mr. Trump.
On many previous occasions there have been proclamations of the death of the religious right: after the preacher scandals of the late 1980s, after Rev. Pat Robertson's failed presidential campaign, after the demise of the Moral Majority, after the failure of the Bill Clinton impeachment, after the collapse of the Christian Coalition as the leading religious- right political organization, and at the end of the Bush II presidency when the movement could claim very little progress on federal policy.
The death of the religious right is a common narrative usually tied to one event or major setback, taking these singular events as defining the strength and endurance of a large social movement. Many political analysts are repeating that mistake right now.
Yet with each setback, the religious right movement stormed back, sometimes stronger than before.
In the late 1980s, when the Moral Majority disbanded, it was common to declare the movement finished. Several years later, political analysts declared religious conservatives the driving force that led to the unexpected Republican takeover of the House of Representatives. The Christian Coalition replaced the Moral Majority, and in 1995, Time magazine featured its executive director on the cover intoning that he had a plan to “take over U.S. politics — and it’s working.” In just several years, the narrative switched from they’re dead to they’re taking over.
Since then, the religious right has done much to anchor the Republican Party in local and state politics throughout much of the country. While struggling to effect its will at the national level, the movement has had a profound impact on state-level policies on abortion and public education. The two George W. Bush elections, especially the “values voter” campaign of 2004, owe much to the mobilization of religious conservatives. And even during the Barack Obama era, the movement has thrived as a mobilizer of forces in midterm elections that have secured GOP congressional majorities to check a Democratic administration.
The religious right movement isn’t dead, and it will survive Mr. Trump, although in a politically weakened position. As the demographics of the country show a steady decline in the white evangelical portion of the population, and younger generations are increasingly social liberals and libertarians, the religious right will continue to fade in its political influence. These trends are much more worrisome to the movement than the loss of its favored candidate in one election.
Nonetheless, a Trump defeat might actually create a new opportunity for some future movement leaders and organizations. How is that possible?
The religious right is primarily an oppositional movement, mobilized to reverse the direction of social liberal policies and of what its supporters consider cultural decline. Oppositional movement organizations often thrive when they have something threatening to them to oppose. A Hillary Clinton presidency potentially will be a major fundraising opportunity and a time of strengthened organizational support for some religious right groups. Just recall the Bill Clinton presidency, which was the heyday of the movement in terms of its ability to raise money and recruit activists.
The next four or eight years could be a treasure trove for some religious right leaders and organizations, even as the movement overall fades in influence.
Mark J. Rozell is dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and the author of numerous studies on the religious right in U.S. politics.