The Religious Right Turns 33: What Have We Learned?

The Rev. Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority with Paul Weyrich in June 1979. (Associated Press)

Many historians say the modern religious right was birthed in June of 1979. That was the month when the Rev. Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority, an organization tasked with saving the American public from the threat of moral decline. Not coincidentally, Concerned Women for America was formed the same month.

Previously, Evangelical Christians had been reticent to engage in partisan politics. But the cultural revolution of the 1960s brought on a blitzkrieg of social changes that left many religious conservatives feeling as if their way of life was being threatened. In response, the faithful flooded the public square -- millions of them under the Moral Majority's banner -- to influence national elections and legislation. Standing tall at the helm of the movement was the silver-haired Falwell, a man whose presence could silence a room and whose rhetoric would often rouse it to raucousness.

I first met Jerry Falwell in 1999 when I was a senior in high school. My father, a pastor who was about to be elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention, drove me to Lynchburg, Va., at Dr. Falwell's request. The preacher planned to convince me to attend Liberty University, a task which he executed masterfully. I would arrive at the Evangelical super-school as a freshman in a matter of months.

The most memorable portion of the conversation, however, had nothing to do with Liberty. It was when my dad asked Dr. Falwell how his ministry was going. The reverend's jovial smile went somber and he leaned in closely:

"James, we've got the numbers. We've got the resources. We've got the leadership," he said. "I've spoken to conservative Christians in churches all across this country, and they know what is at stake. We've got to get serious about Jesus, and we need to call this nation back to its roots. It's time to stand for what is right."

But then he added, "We've got to get our folks to the polls next year, and we need to do a better job telling people what will happen if liberal Democrats remain in control of the White House. We must save this nation!"

My brow furrowed. Even a 17-year-old realizes when someone's answer doesn't match the question. Dad asked Dr. Falwell about his ministry, and Falwell answered with a strategy for acquiring political power.

Before leaving Lynchburg, I shook the preacher's hand, but I was unable to shake his comments. Our car rumbled back from the James River Valley to metropolitan Atlanta while I meditated on the reverend's words. Impressed by his presence and passion, I shared many of the same sentiments.

Dr. Falwell said we needed to get serious about Jesus. I wanted to get serious about Jesus. He said we needed to call our nation back to its roots. I wanted our nation to return to its roots. Dr. Falwell said it was time to stand for what is right. I wanted to stand for what is right. But even then, my teenage mind wasn't sure that he had effectively navigated how faith should mingle with politics. I'm even less sure today.

As we look back on more than a quarter century of political engagement by the religious right, two things now appear obvious.

The question we must now answer is not, "Can we save this nation?" but "Can we save our faith?"

First, partisan religion is killing American Christianity. The American church is declining by nearly every data point. Christians are exerting less influence over the culture than even a few years ago, organized religion no longer garners the respect of the masses, and two in three young non-Christians claim they perceive the Christian church as "too political." Church attendance is declining, and the percentage of Americans claiming no religious affiliation is rising.

As sociologists Robert Putnam and David Campbell argue, the church's partisan political alignment is at least partly to blame. In a recent article in Foreign Affairs they write, "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.'"

The question we must now answer is not, "Can we save this nation?" but "Can we save our faith?" And the only way it seems we will be able to do the latter is through abandoning the partisan, divisive strategies adopted by the Christian right and begin engaging the public again in more prudent ways.

Second, we learned that partisan Christianity cannot effectively change our culture. When the religious right formed, conservative Christians were energized around restricting abortion and same-sex marriage, reducing the size of government, and protecting religious freedom. More than a quarter-century later, these same debates innervate the movement. Little progress has been made despite their best efforts, and an increasing number of individuals now recognize the religious right strategy has largely been a failure. The irony of this turn of events is that Christians above all others know that true change must occur in hearts -- not just the halls of power.

More than a decade after my first meeting with Jerry Falwell, I realize that the preacher was and is not alone in his approach to faith, politics, and culture. Many Christians believe our country is at a critical point in its history, and the responsibility to act rests on the religious community. So strong are these feelings that Christians have devoted a considerable amount of time and ministry resources to fighting the culture wars. This effort has failed to achieve the goals it set out to accomplish and has repelled an entire generation in the process.

If American Christians continue to see that the culture wars as the primary way of shaping culture, they should expect to see their numbers decline and their influence wane. But if they wake up to our current reality and return to the foundations of their faith -- love, compassion, and a rigorous commitment to the "Gospel" story that drives them to faith in the first place -- the faith's best days may yet lie ahead.

As American Evangelicals have become more partisan, American Christianity has suffered as more shy away from the faith.