The Skeptics

The Death of America's 'Religious Right' Is Greatly Exaggerated

As is typically the case, the results of Super Tuesday produced political winners and losers and made somewhat clearer who the likely presidential nominees of the two major parties will be in November. Many observers seem to believe the chances of several candidates died last Tuesday: Bernie Sanders on the left, and Marco Rubio, Ben Carson and John Kasich on the right. Garnering fewer headlines, however, many experts declared another loser on Super Tuesday: the death of the religious right. These analysts misread the outcome of the election. Badly.

CNN’s religion editor claimed on Wednesday that Super Tuesday “was supposed to be the religious right's last stand, a day when the Bible Belt would enter the voting booth and christen the most God-fearing candidate. Christian conservatives were the last best hope to halt Trump's momentum. They didn’t.”

Writing for the Religious News Service the same day, author Mark Silk argued the religious right “was moribund,” and had been “an invalid for a decade. What happened yesterday was a mercy killing, or better, candidate-assisted suicide. . . . Put that on the tombstone. Religious Right, R.I.P.”

But are these declarations accurate? Has the so-called “religious right” dissolved into irrelevance? No. In the spirit of Mark Twain, reports of the death of Americans who vote religious principles is greatly exaggerated.

First of all, “religious right” is an inaccurate tag, as spiritual Americans who desire to cast their votes for men and women that represent their principles is neither a right or left matter; I have thus far been unable to find a Republican or Democratic version of the Holy Scriptures. Analysts that argue religious Americans have lost their influence cite as evidence that on Super Tuesday their votes were “all over the map.” The assumption is that the faithful couldn’t distinguish between the religious and secular candidates and their votes were therefore scattered impotently to the wind. That would be a bad misreading of what happened. The truth, as is typically the case, is far more complicated.

Americans who value religious principles don’t vote with a blind adherence to the candidate who attends church most often, but on a complex set of beliefs about the economy, foreign policy and domestic programs.

The real problem for voters who wish to elect morally upright candidates is there are painfully few who seem to actually embody such values. Many of those running for office, it seems, only discover they are religious only when the polling data in a given area shows voters favor church-going candidates. “If that’ll get votes for me,” many contenders apparently think, “then yeah, I’m all about Jesus and the apostles John, Paul, and Ringo!”

One of the primary sources from which these religious values comes is the Bible. The Good Book admonishes Christians to: dwell on “whatever is true,” honorable, right, pure and of good repute (Philippians 4); be compassionate with those around you, don’t be arrogant but associate with the lowly, respect what is right in the sight of all men, overcome evil but do it with good (Romans 12); and that they should be characterized by “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5).”

The Bible also identifies negative character traits, and so most religious voters will avoid leaders who are “lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant,” irreconcilable, without self-control, reckless, conceited, and lovers of pleasure. “Avoid such men as these,” Paul sternly warns in II Timothy. Yet most Americans, whether Christian, Jew, Muslim—or even atheist—would be only too happy to see their elected leaders embody the positive traits previously mentioned—and desire to avoid those who represent the negative attributes.

But what happens when devout Americans believe either none of the candidates adequately reflect the desired values, or those candidates that do possess them are deemed insufficiently qualified? You get Super Tuesday 2016: the religious vote scattered all across the map.

For whatever reason, at the national level this year there seems to be a dearth of candidates who are characterized both by impressive religious values and by having strong leadership skills. None of the current presidential contenders of either party stands out as clearly having both; it is easy to understand why religious voters have not rallied to any candidate.

But it would be a mistake to conclude that large numbers of Americans no longer care about supporting candidates who reflect their religious values. Were a candidate to emerge in a future election who genuinely embodies a sincere adherence to moral standards and shows her- or himself to be a solid leader, it is likely the religious right will instead find a sharp focus for that person. For the sake of our nation’s future, I hope such a quality man or woman rises soon.

Daniel L. Davis is a widely published analyst on national security and foreign policy. He retired as a Lt. Col. after twenty-one years in the U.S. Army, including four combat deployments, and is a member of the Center for Defense Information's Military Advisory Board. The views in these articles are those of the author alone and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Government. Follow him on Twitter @DanielLDavis1.

Image: Flickr/Robert Couse-Baker.