Why the Christian Right Was Noticeably Absent in This Election by Gabe Lyons and Jonathan Merritt

Most the votes have been counted and it seems the GOP has made historic gains in Congress. At least 60 Democrats have now been replaced in the House of Representatives and at least six have been sent packing in the Senate. President Obama called it a “shellacking” in a press conference today.

These numbers shouldn’t be a complete shock to those who have been watching the election coverage. Gallup’s generic ballot had been predicting the shift for some time. But what may surprise you is the noticeable absence of the Christian right during these midterms.

The last time we saw a so-called “Republican revolution” was in 1994 when no Republican incumbent lost and America witnessed a 54-seat swing. In that year, unlike this one, Christian right political advocates were among the most notable and vocal voices. Ralph Reed and Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition, for example, was at its political peak and distributed 40 million copies of the “Family Values Voters Guides” in more than 100,000 churches nationwide. As a result, one national poll showed 27 percent of all voters that year self-identified themselves as born-again Christians, compared with 18 percent in 1988.

By 2008, however, the Christian tide had turned. With the newly formed “Religious left” at the forefront of Obama’s campaign, many Christians crossed party lines for the first time. Double the number of young evangelicals voted for Obama than for Kerry in 2004.

This year, Christians mobilized again for Republicans but they did so under a different banner than the religious right. Namely, the Tea Party. No Christian voter guides, no focusing on families, and no touting that we’re either moral or a majority.

Why has this happened?

In large part, it’s because the Christian right has failed to enlist sufficient numbers of young recruits in their movement. As noted in the book UnChristian, most young Americans have been turned off by the religious right’s politics, as well as the judgmentalism and hypocrisy that now marks American Christianity. While faith still informs the way young believers cast votes, it doesn’t express itself in such vicious partisanship as years past. In recent polls, more young Christians self-identify as “centrist” than either “conservative” or “liberal.”

Additionally, de-enlisted older Christians increasingly share the sentiments of these un-enlisted young Christians. A cross-generational weariness with the culture wars has set in among all Christians, which partially accounts for their absence in current battles. According to a recent LifeWay Research poll, only 28% of evangelicals believe they will see a significant contribution from current Christian leadership in resolving pressing social concerns.

Without new faces or an invigorated contingency, the Christian right has found itself in the middle of a leadership vacuum. Many stalwart Christian conservatives like Jerry Falwell and D. James Kennedy passed away while others, including James Dobson and Pat Robertson, have been able to exert far less influence. According to Politico, “Without a charismatic figure carrying the banner, the religious right has been eclipsed by the fiscally focused tea party.”

To be fair, an October 2010 study by the Public Religion Research Institute shows nearly half of Tea Partiers consider themselves a part of the religious right or conservative Christian movement. And election polls indicate that more evangelicals turned out to vote this year than in the last Presidential election. But these believers aren’t following Christian leadership or fighting for a distinctly Christian agenda.

Rather than cheering for Christian pastors on political talk shows, conservatives are now tuning into teary-eyed lectures from Mormon pundit, Glenn Beck. In fact, Beck delivered the commencement address this year at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. Forthcoming books by conservatives including No Apology: The Case for American Greatness by Mitt Romney and To Save America by Newt Gingrich are rooted more in historical narrative than religious narrative. Not only has the pilotage turned over, but the storyline from the last GOP resurgence has also been completely replaced.

This new narrative has also stoked emotions on a different set of issues than Christians have championed in the past. Debates over hot buttons such as abortion and illegal drugs that were critical in the 1994 elections have given way to emotional disputes about federal spending, a still-struggling economy, the role of government, and the very essence of what it means to be “American.”

They say every revolution needs strong leaders, powerful ideas, and a mobilized constituency. The Christian political movement of late has failed to produce all three. While a few religious political leaders will doubtlessly try to cobble together their old coalitions, it seems we’ve entered into a new era in the American public square. Historians may look back on the 2010 midterms and call it a “revolution,” but they won’t be crediting it to the Christian right.

Do you consider yourself a part of the “Christian right?” What about the Tea Party? Share your take on the elections with us.
Editor’s Note: The political cartoon featured above is quoted from Vanity Fair, May 2010. The characters pictured are (clockwise from the top-left): Rush Limbaugh, Ayn Rand, William Kristol, Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, and Sarah Palin.