In August 1980, Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan stood before a crowd of 15,000 evangelicals in Dallas, Texas, and declared: “I know you can’t endorse me. But...I want you to know that I endorse you.” Shortly thereafter, various leaders of what would become known as the religious right would endorse Reagan, and their support would help make him the 40th president of the United States.
In December 2015, several dozen religious right leaders gathered yet again—this time in secret, at a Sheraton hotel outside Washington, D.C.—to determine which candidate would earn their endorsement. After four rounds of balloting, one candidate finally emerged with the 75 percent supermajority of votes needed to earn the group’s support for the presidency. They passed over soft-spoken Ben Carson, beloved by many Christians, and former Southern Baptist Pastor Mike Huckabee, and then on the fifth round, several votes shifted and their favor fell upon Ted Cruz, the junior U.S. senator from Texas.
Can the support of conservative Christian leaders propel Cruz above the seemingly impervious Donald Trump and land him the Republican nomination? There are millions of evangelical Christians in America—up to a quarter of the electorate, depending on which definition you use—and they are joined by many conservative Catholics.
And yet, the nation has come a long way since 1980. The religious right of 2015 is just a shell of its former self in terms of both cultural influence and the ability to mobilize voters. The support of conservative Christian leaders is nothing to sneeze at, but it is not breathtaking, either. Cruz will need more than the support of this shrinking, aging, and mostly white niche to win the White House.
The Reagan-era religious right was similar to today’s movement in that it was mad as hell. Traditionalist Christians were reeling from the sweeping social shifts of the 1960s and 1970s that produced the civil-rights movement, the feminist movement, the sexual revolution, and the gay-rights movement. This was combined with a litany of Supreme Court decisions that, among other things, banned prayer in public schools and legalized contraception and abortion. Many conservative Christians began feeling that the America they loved was morphing in the wrong direction and leaving them behind.
It’s difficult to overlook the similar indignation of their modern religious offspring in the face of a society that continues to grow more socially liberal. Many “evils” lamented by the religious right in the late 20th century—such as divorce, alcohol, and marijuana—are less culturally taboo than ever. Universal health-care reform has mandated access to birth control and emergency contraception, and the notion that Roe v. Wade will ever be overturned seems far-fetched. The civil-rights movement that so infuriated early religious-right leaders produced an African American president who is concluding his second term. Same-sex marriage is legal in all 50 states, and there is now a national conversation about the rights of transgender people. The anger of conservative Christians over the shape and likely future of the nation burns as bright as ever.
If anger were a substitute for influence, then the religious right’s endorsement of Cruz might ensure his victory. But over the last three decades, the strength of the movement has struggled. And its ability to influence national elections has been in sharp decline since 2004, the year religious leaders helped reelect George W. Bush.
The leaders who have now decided to rally behind Cruz provide a stunning example of just how far the movement has fallen. In 1980s, the religious right was led by powerful figures like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson who were ubiquitous on television news shows and in major print publications. The secret meeting at the Sheraton outside Washington, however, was attended by people like direct-mail “pioneer” Richard Viguerie and Jonathan Falwell, the lesser known of the late Jerry Falwell’s two sons. Also in attendance was James Dobson, who founded Focus on the Family and then left the organization in 2010—just before it became markedly less political.* Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, an organization that has fallen out of favor even with some conservatives recently, convened the Sheraton meeting. If political advocacy were kickball, this group would definitely be the B team.
Many reasons exist for the religious right’s waning political power. The United States has continued to grow more racially diverse while conservative Christians have remained largely white. At the same time, Millennials have begun to assert themselves in the political process, and the religious right is aging rapidly. Millennial evangelicals exist, of course, but they are not as solidly conservative or as politically unified as their parents and grandparents.
But perhaps most important, the ideological foundation of the religious-right experiment has been exposed for the sham it always was. The movement’s pioneers once believed that if religious leaders and their constituents banded together, they could consolidate political power and leverage it to legislate a more moral agenda. But the cold hard truth is that religion is just not as influential in most Americans’ lives as it once was. Most churchgoers no longer follow a pastor’s advice blindly when told what candidate to vote for or which position to take on an issue. Americans do their own investigations and make up their own minds, often at variance with their spiritual leaders. The sociologists Robert Putnam and David Campbell confirmed this in their 2012 study of Americans’ religious attitudes. They concluded: “In effect, Americans (especially young Americans) who might otherwise attend religious services are saying, ‘Well, if religion is just about conservative politics, then I'm outta here.’”
Nevertheless, some still believe that faith should be partisan—including Cruz’s father, Rafael Cruz, who will release a book in January, A Time for Action: Empowering the Faithful to Reclaim America. The book features a foreword by conservative commentator Glenn Beck and purports to equip religious people to help the United States return to the Founders’ “Judeo-Christian values.” As the book’s description notes, “[P]eople of faith should actively participate in the political process in order to combat the debilitating and deceptive progressive mantra that there should be a separation of church and state.” This theocratic vision for America might resonate with some evangelical Christians, but it will repel many others—yes, even many conservatives.
When Ted Cruz announced his candidacy last March at Liberty University (founded by Jerry Falwell), it was clear he viewed Christian conservatives as a key constituency. “Imagine millions of courageous conservatives all across America rising up together,” Cruz said. “Today, roughly half of all born-again Christians aren’t voting. … Imagine instead millions of people of faith, all across America, coming out to the polls and voting our values.” But the fractured Republican Party comprises more than just the religious right. Recall that many evangelical Christians weren’t ecstatic about either Mitt Romney or John McCain, but those two candidates ultimately won the party’s nomination.
With Cruz’s surging poll numbers in Iowa and New Hampshire, an endorsement from the leaders of the religious right can’t hurt. But if he wants to transform his surge into success, he must find a way to attract Christian conservatives without turning off other Republican factions. Heretofore, the far-right senator has been unable to do that. But in this primary race, stranger things have certainly happened.
* This article originally stated that James Dobson was ousted from Focus on the Family. Both Dobson and the organization have publicly stated that it was a voluntary leadership transition. We regret the error.