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.