Religious Right Is Losing Influence

06/17/2016 02:46 pm ET | Updated Jun 17, 2016
Reuters Photographer / Reuters
U.S. President George W. Bush poses with new U.S. Congressman Randy Forbes (R-VA) in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, June 20, 2001.

The Congressional Prayer Caucus has long been a presence on Capitol Hill, promoting sectarian ideology and pushing to mix religion with government. The Caucus is infamous for introducing explicitly religious legislation like H. Con. Res. 284, which would have declared 2008 the “Year of the Bible” if passed, and H. Con. Res. 13, which reaffirmed “In God We Trust” as the national motto and supported its placement on public buildings, public schools, and other government institutions.

But just this week, its founder and chairman, Rep. Randy Forbes, lost his re-election bid in Virginia, alarming many social conservatives who looked to Forbes as the chief congressional proselytizer. And this electoral upset isn’t the only blow to the religious right and its favorite caucus.

The Prayer Caucus’s membership used to be in the triple digits, but has now dwindled to roughly 90 members, nearly all of them Republicans. Adding insult to injury, the Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump, doesn’t seem as interested in promoting Christianity as past GOP candidates like Ted Cruz was, and his priorities do not neatly and directly pander to the religious right. (Neither has he proven to be Bible literate.)

Following the far right’s loss of their lead prayer promoter is the likely election of an open humanist to Congress, Jamie Raskin. And it’s worth noting the growing prominence of representatives like Jim Himes, Mike Honda, and Don Beyer who haven’t hesitated to work with the humanist community on legislative priorities. Earlier this week, Himes even took the extraordinary step of calling moments of silence in the House “an abomination,” as he emphasized the need for real action in response to the Orlando mass shooting.

All of this suggests a decrease in political clout of biblical literalists, both within Congress and the White House. Still, it’s important to recognize that this trend isn’t necessarily a one-way street, and that our political system could see backlashes of religiosity. That’s especially true given the millions of dollars poured annually into religious conservative issues that will thwart some progress. Eventual changes in administrations and the rise of new foes who champion backward ideas can also be expected. But such regressions won’t hold sway for long with the growing number of Americans who oppose religiously motivated legislation, as well as the declining number of Americans who associate with a religious belief.   

All of these changes have left many in the nontheistic movement with a brighter vision of their political future in which reason-based public policy could overcome promotions of personal faith in the halls of power. The practical impact of such a future would likely be greater inclusion of historically marginalized groups in the political process, such as the LGBTQ and nontheistic communities—both of which must combat religiously endorsed political prejudice on a regular basis—and a departure from bills that seek to strip entire groups of their rights for religious reasons. Above all else, seeing the religious right lose its grip on politics would likely result in a political and social atmosphere that evaluates issues and people on their merits, instead of upon what the Bible—or any “holy” book—teaches.

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