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The Religious Right


Cross Procession on the National Mall
Photo: Win McNamee / Getty Images.

Defining the Religious Right:

The movement generally referred to in the United States as the Religious Right came of age in the late 1970s. While the Religious Right is extremely diverse and shouldn't be characterized in simple terms, the movement as we have come to know it is an ultraconservative religious response to the sexual revolution and other events that are seen, by Religious Right proponents, as being connected to the sexual revolution--and an attempt to effect this religious response as public policy.

Family Values:

From a Religious Right perspective, the sexual revolution has brought American culture to a fork in the road. Either the American people can endorse a traditional and religious institution of the family, and with it the values of loyalty and self-sacrifice, or they can endorse a secular hedonistic lifestyle grounded in self-gratification, and with it a profound moral nihilism. For religious reasons, proponents of the Religious Right approach to public policy do not tend to see any broadly applicable alternatives to these two possibilities (such as a hedonistic religious culture, or a deeply moral secular culture).


If the modern Religious Right had a birthday, it would be January 22nd, 1973. That was the day that the Supreme Court handed down its ruling in Roe v. Wade, establishing that all women have the right to choose to have an abortion. For many religious conservatives, this was the ultimate extension of the sexual revolution--the idea that sexual and reproductive freedom could be used to defend what many religious conservatives consider to be murder.

Lesbian and Gay Rights:

Religious Right proponents also tend to blame the sexual revolution for increasing social acceptance of homosexuality, which religious conservatives generally regard as a contagious sin that can be spread to youth by exposure. Hostility towards lesbians and gay men reached a fever pitch in the movement during the 1980s and 1990s, but has since transitioned into a more calm, measured opposition to gay rights initiatives such as same-sex marriage, civil unions, and nondiscrimination laws.


The Religious Right has also tended to oppose legalization and distribution of pornography, considering it another decadent effect of the sexual revolution.

Media Censorship:

While media censorship has not often been a central legislative policy position of the Religious Right, individual activists within the movement have historically seen the increase of sexual content on television as a dangerous symptom of, and sustaining force behind, cultural acceptance of sexual promiscuity. For this reason, grassroots movements such as the Parents Television Council have taken aim at television programs that contain sexual content or that appear to condone sexual relations outside of wedlock.

Religion in Government:

The Religious Right is often associated with attempts to defend or reintroduce government-sponsored religious practices--ranging from government-endorsed school prayer to government-funded religious monuments--but such policy controversies are generally seen within the Religious Right community as symbolic battles, representing flashpoints in the culture war between religious supporters of family values and secular supporters of hedonistic culture.

The Religious Right and Neoconservatism:

After 9/11, some leaders within the Religious Right now see theocratic movements within Islam as a greater threat than secular culture. In 2007, for example, The 700 Club's Rev. Pat Robertson endorsed thrice-divorced, pro-choice former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani in the 2008 presidential elections because of Giuliani's perceived tough stance against religiously-motivated terrorism.

The Future of the Religious Right:

The concept of the Religious Right has always been vague, nebulous, and vaguely insulting towards the tens of millions of evangelical voters who are most often counted among its ranks. Evangelical voters are as diverse as any other voting bloc, and the Religious Right as a movement--represented by organizations such as the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition--never received evangelical voters' ubiquitous support.

It would be naive to say that the Religious Right as an organized movement no longer poses a threat to civil liberties, but it no longer poses the most serious threat to civil liberties, if it ever did. As the general atmosphere of obedience following the September 11th attacks demonstrated, all demographics can be manipulated by fear. That some religious conservatives are more motivated than most by the fear of a potentially hedonistic, nihilistic culture, and sometimes do foolish things based on that fear, should not be surprising. The proper response to that fear is not to dismiss it, but to help find more constructive ways to respond to it--and to expose the way that charlatans, politicians, and hatemongers blatantly exploit that fear for their own selfish, and sometimes destructive, purposes.
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