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John C. Green and Lyman A. Kellstedt


The Christian Right

It is election time again, and the "Religious Right" is once more in the news. Conservative religious folk are now on the radar screens of journalists and pundits as they assess the political landscape and attempt to forecast the future. A spate of books has also appeared on the subject, including analyses, such as Dan Balz and Ron Brownstein's Storming the Gates (Little, Brown); apologies, as in Don Feder's Who's Afraid of the Religious Right? (Regnery); and attacks, like Rob Batson's The Most Dangerous Man in America? Pat Robertson and the Rise of the Christian Coalition (Prometheus).

Most observers agree that religion will matter in 1996-and a major new public-opinion survey supports that assessment1-but disagree on how much and whether it should.

This attention begs a crucial question: What exactly is the Religious Right? Few political terms are used with less precision. To most people, the label refers vaguely to conservatives who happen to be religious, as opposed to, say, rich. This notion is broad enough to include Pat Robertson and the Catholic bishops, Orthodox Jews and the Assemblies of God, Salt Lake City Mormons and New York City black Pentecostals, Southern Baptists and the Nation of Islam. Even a casual glance at this list suggests that apples are being compared to avocados.

Like many misused terms, "Religious Right" actually has a precise and useful meaning. It refers to a potential coalition of theological conservatives from many different backgrounds, including Catholics, evangelicals, Jews, mainline Protestants, Mormons, Muslims, and so forth, all dedicated to restoring traditional morality in public life. Such a coalition resembles the "orthodox alliance" James Davison Hunter identified as one side of the "culture wars." Indeed, something like this alliance has long been a dream of some conservatives and a nightmare for their liberal counterparts-as revealed by Jerry Falwell's quest for a "Moral Majority" and Norman Lear's defense of the "American Way." ...

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