Hunter Baker on the Past and Future of the Religious Right
Date: August 3rd, 2014
The Religious Right has been a force to be reckoned with in American politics over the past four decades, but is its influence on the wane as many of its initial leaders and intellectuals pass from the scene? Prof. Hunter Baker, associate professor of political science and Dean of Instruction at Union University, talks about the past, present, and future of this movement based upon his most recent book The System Has a Soul.
Following some light banter about puppies, Prof. Baker provides us with a definition of what the Religious Right is, noting that it has been a term that has been ill-defined and often used to refer to poor and uneducated religious voters. Hunter points out that this movement has some deep and surprising intellectual roots. While religious involvement in American politics has a long history, he dates the current movement back to William Jennings Bryan and the Scopes Monkey Trial and then picks up the story in the mid-20th century with the emergence of a number of “neo-evangelical” thinkers such as Carl F.H. Henry and Frances Schaeffer. We review the interesting influence these thinkers had and note the surprising activist background of these individuals, including Schaeffer’s willingness to “listen to hippies” and pro-labor attitudes (things that are not normally associated with the media caricature of the Religious Right).
We then talk about the emergence of the movement in the 1970s with individuals such as Chuck Colson arguing for religion to take on a more public profile and events such as the Roe v Wade Supreme Court decision playing an important mobilizing effect. This is where Hunter explains how Christians began to reject “functional differentiation” and helps Tony understand what that social scientific-sounding terms means. While many neo-evangelicals supported Jimmy Carter’s bid for the presidency in 1976 and that many Democrats were supporters of the pro-life movement that was gaining ground, Hunter points out the shift that occurs to the Republican Party in the 1980s with Ronald Reagan’s embrace of these individuals with his famous quote, “I know you can’t endorse me, but I endorse you.” Our conversation also covers the extent to which this movement was merely an evangelical Christian movement or whether it entailed non-Protestant thinkers such as Richard John Neuhaus.
We review the public rise of the Religious Right in the 1980s with reference to Falwell’s Moral Majority and Robertson’s Christian Coalition, but Hunter points out that it was James Dobson’s Focus on the Family that probably had the bigger and more lasting impact on the movement. Again he points out that Dobson, who has a Ph.D., is indicative of the scholarly grounding of the movement contrary to a media opinion that paints the movement as anti-intellectual. Although the demise of the Moral Majority and the election of Bill Clinton as president are often seen as indications of the waning of the Religious Right in the 1990s, Hunter asserts that the movement took on a more grassroots approach and was able to develop a “deeper bench” by electing adherents to office and placing them in the Academy. He makes the claim that the real peak of the Religious Right movement was around 2005. Disillusionment with the presidency of George W. Bush and the apparent failings of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan aided in eroding the influence of Christian conservatives during this time. We also discuss the politics surrounding same-sex marriage and how losses in the battle to ban gay marriage have also chipped away at the movement’s strength.
We finally turn our attention to the future of the Religious Right. Tony asks to what extent the Tea Party represents a revitalization of the Christian conservatives, but Prof. Baker notes that the Tea Party represents a distinct social movement. Nonetheless, he raises the issue of religious liberty and how Christians are now seeing this as a major issue that may allow them to align with the more libertarian leanings of the Tea Party. We also chat about the recent writings of Jonathan Malesic and James Davison Hunter who argue that it may be a time for Christians to embrace secularism and perhaps take a “season of silence.” Hunter provides his thoughts on this topic and we ruminate about the future of Christian political activism in the United States noting that there have been periods of waxing and waning throughout the long course of history and we may be witnessing one of those waning moments. Recorded: July 23, 2014.
Hunter Baker’s bio at his personal blog.
The System Has a Soul: Essays on Christianity, Liberty, and Political Life, by Hunter Baker.
The End of Secularism, by Hunter Baker.
Political Thought: A Student’s Guide, by Hunter Baker.
How Should We Then Live?, by Frances Schaeffer (mentioned in podcast).
Hunter Baker on Secularism.
Hunter Baker on the Future of Higher Education.
Jon Shields on Democratic Virtues and the Religious Right.
Gerald de Maio on the Electoral Religion Gap.
Kevin den Dulk on Religion, Education, and Civic Engagement.
Luis Bolce on the Media and Anti-Fundamentalism.
William Donohue on Secular Sabotage.
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