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Peter Montgomery Headshot

The Undead

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Even though every Republican presidential candidate dutifully trekked to the "Values Voter Summit" to seek the support of Religious Right leaders and activists this month, some in the media are declaring the movement dead as a political force. Here's why they're dead wrong.

It's true that some leaders are agitated. Movement patriarch James Dobson himself acknowledged the anxiety among activists. The president they have backed so faithfully is widely viewed as a disaster. Religious Right leaders haven't agreed on a presidential candidate to rally around, and topping the Republican polls is their least favorite contender.

Even though former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani has sought to assure Religious Right voters by trimming his past support for gay rights and pledging to nominate far-right Supreme Court justices, who presumably could be counted on to overturn Roe v. Wade, Dobson and the Family Research Council's Tony Perkins have vowed not to support him. So Giuliani's polling strength among white evangelicals, which calls into question the leaders' claim to represent "values voters," must be galling.

Other polls show clearly that most Americans, including most white evangelicals, don't buy Dobson's premise that criminalizing abortion and stopping gay couples from getting married are the most pressing issues for the country. The broadening evangelical interest in environmental protection, poverty, and access to health care is probably bad news for Republican strategists and candidates who counted on anti-abortion rhetoric and gay-bashing to win elections.

But does all this add up to "End Times for Evangelicals?" as the New York Times magazine cover asked?

Hardly. There's a reason all those candidates came to pay homage to Dobson and his political allies at the Family Research Council. Dobson reaches millions of radio listeners every week. Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council and their advocacy affiliates took in more than $160 million in 2006. And that's just one part of the massive institutional political, media, and legal infrastructure that the Religious Right has built up over recent decades. That infrastructure, which has reaped enormous gains in political power and influence, isn't going to go away, no matter what happens to Rudy Giuliani in 2008.

Surveying the 2,500 or so cheering activists at the gala in his honor at the Values Voter Summit, Dobson twitted the news media for reporting that movement was moribund. "Welcome to the morgue," he announced to enthusiastic cheers. Dobson knows the obituary for the Religious Right as a political force has been written before -- for example, when Jerry Falwell folded the Moral Majority, and when the Christian Coalition slipped into organizational decline. In both cases, new organizations and leaders stepped to the forefront and the movement continued to build influence and power.

Giuliani's pro-choice, pro-gay rights record is enough for Dobson and Perkins to do their best to knock him out in the primaries. But even if they're unsuccessful, it wouldn't be the first time Religious Right leaders have been disappointed with a nominee. In 1996, the Christian Coalition's Ralph Reed and others energetically battled GOP nominee Bob Dole over the abortion plank in the platform. Dobson ended up voting for a third-party candidate. And while reporters were writing about the movement's demise, the Religious Right did anything but wither in the wake of Clinton's re-election. Instead, its leaders mobilized and became early backers of George W. Bush, working hard to put him into the White House.

And the results of the 1996 loss and the subsequent unity heading into 2000 are indisputable: two new far-right Supreme Court justices, many more ideological allies in the judiciary and executive branches, and millions for policies like "abstinence only" programs replacing comprehensive sex education.

And the movement's impacts on American culture, law, and policy go well beyond endorsements and mobilizing voter turnout. Its leaders have built vast television and radio empires. They have built a network of think tanks and advocacy organizations influencing policy at the state level. They have invested in universities designed to funnel students with their worldview into positions in government and journalism.

In the legal arena, the Federalist Society has been a pipeline to the Justice Department and the federal bench for ultra-conservative lawyers. Those right-wing judges are ruling on cases brought and argued by groups such as the Alliance Defense Fund and Pat Robertson-founded American Center for Law and Justice, which seek to undermine the separation of church and state and pursue the Religious Right's policy goals through the courts. The ACLJ claims a $35 million budget; the Alliance Defense Fund, $27 million.

There may be disarray in the ranks of this mighty machine, but its foundations are too broad and deep to be swept away by the failings of the current president, the prospect of Rudy Giuliani as GOP standard-bearer, or even a Democrat in the White House.