Falwell Is Gone... The Religious Right Is Alive & Kicking

05/16/2007 06:31 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Lots of thumbsucking about the death of Jerry Falwell and what it might portend. I don't think it portends much of significance. Along with his health, Falwell's stock had been declining for years. Repellent but by no means stupid, Falwell had been reduced to making ever-more-outrageous statements in order to break the media barrier. What I hope we won't do is conclude that the original group of Christian Right leaders -- Falwell, Robertson, Kennedy, et al -- represented the high water mark of their movement, and that things will get better as each of these elders receives his just reward beyond the grave.

Not long ago I participated in a special convocation on faith, morality, and citizenship at the Yale Divinity School, my alma mater. Pundit/columnist E.J. Dionne, Sen. Gary Hart, and U.S. Rep. David Price (D-N.C.) were among the luminaries sparking conversation. Dionne and others tried to suggest that the era of the Christian Right is now drawing to a close and that we are moving toward a healthier middle ground, with big segments of Evangelical leaders breaking ranks with the hard right on issues of poverty, climate change, and overall foreign and military policy.

I demurred because (a) I think this viewpoint represents a misreading of what successful movement building means-and these Christian Right elders, with their networks and "universities" and media apparatus, undoubtedly were movement builders; and (b) I think this viewpoint underestimates how much the new so-called "common ground agenda" has already yielded to the Christian Right in significant and damaging ways.

Let me amplify both points slightly. It seems to me very much of a stretch to say that the era of the Christian Right is "over" when the movement has built an infrastructure and a set of institutions that the so-called Christian Left can only dream about. With or without Falwell, the Arlington Group-the nerve center and steering committee of the movement-continues to function, the movement's fundraising capacity has never been greater, its next-generation leadership development continues to be incredibly effective, and its electoral machinery (501(c)(3) rules be damned!) remains in place.

Sure, there is some fragmentation, and the movement has been badly hurt by its very own lame duck "Christian" president and his catastrophic war. But let us also remember that this is a movement fueled by cultural resentment and false nostagia-two very potent fuels indeed, at a time when the movement's "base" is suffering acute identity and economic anxieties.

I am told by reliable observers that the next Big Thing that the Christian Right will be focusing on to rally its troops is potentially much bigger than the Gay Agenda ever was. They are going to hitch their wagon to the threat of Evil Muslims In Our Midst. If I were James Dobson, I might well be planning to lift this banner. It is perfect in many ways for the coming electoral cycle.

Regarding the other point-all the ways in which the so-called "common ground agenda" already capitulates to the Christian Right -- I do not think it is necessary to say too much. One sees the progressive Evangelicals, the Mainliners, and progressive Catholics joining forces on these themes: extreme poverty is bad, whether in East St. Louis or in sub-Saharan Africa; Bono is good; living wage laws are good; global warming is bad; the AIDS pandemic is bad; a disastrous and failed war is bad; torture is bad; Guantanamo is mainly bad; progressive immigration reform would be mainly good.

One does not see or hear systemic critiques of the free market ideology that ensures immiseration abroad and the proliferation of low-wage jobs domestically-and that, parenthetically, guarantees a continuing massive influx of desperate immigrants.

One does not hear critiques, either theological or practical, of the overall imperial project that gives us wars of choice and over 1500 U.S. overseas military bases. One does not hear a strong rousing defense of the presumption of innocence, habeas corpus, or other foundational principles of the Constitutional system. One does not even hear a clarion call for a return to progressive taxation: the one thing that could actually fund an attack on child poverty and a decent universal system of health care.

Most importantly, one hears nothing at all about the close connections between poverty and women's reproductive health, or about poverty and the oppressive religio-juridical strictures against women's rights in effect in this and many other countries.

And of course one hears nothing about the justice and safety claims of LGBT persons: not even the teeny-tiniest acknowledgment that, inasmuch people are going to have sex anyway-and have sex with whomever they choose-enabling them to have safe sex might be a good way to help stem the AIDS pandemic.

You can expect to see all of these critiques and concerns to be entirely absent in the new common ground discourse on faith and morality that already is setting the stage for the presidential season.

And you thought the Christian Right was on its last legs? Think again!