Why the Opposition to the Religious Right Failed

A new movement offers a new strategy

Posted Aug 22, 2012

As a humanist I don’t like saying this, but it’s true: By any objective standard, the religious right has been an enormous success. Since Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority first came on the scene in 1979, politically engaged conservative Christians have steadily become more influential, and this has shifted the landscape of American public policy.

A list of all the areas affected by the religious right would be lengthy: politics (with candidates not only proudly rejecting evolution, but even holding prayer rallies to launch their campaigns); reproductive rights (where the debate is no longer just about abortion, but birth control); respect for women (with politicians saying “legitimate rape" does not cause pregnancy); education policy (with history books being rewritten to conform to a conservative Christian narrative, and anti-science activists fighting the teaching of evolution); and numerous other areas. Three decades ago much of this would have been unthinkable, and the fact that it’s happening today is evidence of the success of the religious right.

But if the religious right has succeeded, by definition that means its opposition has failed. As I point out in my new book, Nonbeliever Nation: The Rise of Secular Americans, all those who seek rational public policy in America—and that includes religious believers and nonbelievers—should spend some time considering why the opposition to the religious right has failed.

If we carefully consider the traditional opposition to the religious right, we find that it has usually fallen into two general categories. First we had the liberal and moderate politicians who were natural opponents of the socially conservative agenda of the religious right. (To be fair, even conservative politicians sometimes opposed the religious right. Republican Senator Barry Goldwater, a conservative stalwart for decades, once referred to the activist fundamentalists in his party as a “bunch of kooks.”) Second, we had advocacy groups such as People for the American Way, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and others, all of which have fought valiantly against the religious right.

Kennedy: "I treasure my faith."

Upon examining these opponents, however, we find a common theme. Generally speaking, all of them were eager to emphasize their own associations with religion, often arguing that the religious right had no monopoly on religion. Senator Ted Kennedy, for example, in a speech at Jerry Falwell's Liberty Baptist College in 1983, was quick to point to his own religion. “I’m an American and a Catholic,” he declared. “I love my country and treasure my faith” Similarly, all the major liberal advocacy groups tried hard to associate themselves with religion, putting religious leaders on their boards and in other leadership positions.

Such statements and actions by liberal politicians and advocacy groups are fine, but in hindsight we can see why this approach alone, without something more, was doomed. By joining in the exaltation of religion—and failing to emphasize that a nonreligious world view is every bit as legitimate as a religious world view—these opponents played directly into the hand of the religious right, creating a sense that the entire spectrum of legitimate opinion in America ran from the religious left to the religious right. Meanwhile, Americans who were personally secular—decent citizens who rejected religion outright as a basis for morality or public policy—were necessarily marginalized and seen as irrelevant. The media would rarely mention them, and no politicians would claim to come from their ranks.

As we see, the religious right benefitted immensely from this posturing. If religiosity is exalted, no demographic is more validated than the ardent, die-hard, vocal, conservative Christian who lectures about “traditional values.” And the phenomenon by its nature becomes self-perpetuating, as liberals and moderates find it necessary to turn up their own religious rhetoric.

This describes exactly what has occurred in America over the last three decades, as the opposition to the religious right has fought futilely while making great efforts to hold religion in high esteem. Nobody is suggesting that the opposition to the religious right should have been anti-religious, but it certainly should have included a strong element that recognized the nonreligious demographic as a valid, important part of the American tapestry. The religious right has succeeded not by winning debates with seculars, but by creating an environment wherein seculars are invisible, wholly marginalized.

What we are finding only in recent years, however, is that seculars have had enough of sitting on the sidelines, and even religious Americans who value rational public policy are understanding the harmful consequences that have resulted from both the undue public exaltation of religion and the simultaneous marginalization of secularity. This is why the secular movement is gaining traction, and also why, for the first time ever, a majority of Americans (54%) in a recent Gallup poll said they would vote for a qualified atheist for president. That number is 70% among young people, a sure sign that the trend is in the direction of atheist acceptance.

The emergence of the secular demographic—with atheists and humanists enjoying a place at the table in shaping American public policy—s a new strategy of opposing to the religious right. As history has shown, religious liberals and moderates cannot fight the battle alone.

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