DALLAS (Reuters) - U.S. evangelist Jerry Falwell has been laid to rest but it is premature to write the political obituary of the conservative Christian movement he once led.
The “Religious Right,” a movement linked to the Republican Party that seeks to redraw U.S. public policy along evangelical Christian lines, remains a political force — and doesn’t need a unifying leader, experts on the movement say.
Falwell, who died in May at the age of 73, had been increasingly sidelined since 1989, when he disbanded the Moral Majority — a group that drummed up support for conservative Republicans.
But the movement has moved from success to success over the years, even as Falwell’s influence waned — not least in playing an instrumental role in securing two White House terms for devout Christian George W. Bush.
“National-level leadership is less important than it was in the 1970s and 1980s when Falwell headed the Moral Majority because the movement has matured,” said Matthew Wilson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University.
“A lot of the focus is at the local community and state legislative level,” he told Reuters.
Roughly 60 million Americans consider themselves to be evangelical Christians and they tend to take their religion and related matters more seriously than mainline church goers.
Its influence can be seen in state legislatures in places like Oklahoma, where a law has recently passed to prohibit public funding for most abortions.
In Texas, its legislative agenda has included scuttling pro-gambling bills, while ballot initiatives in several states have banned same-sex marriage — testimony to the effectiveness of its local activism.
It has also made inroads in the U.S. military, where critics say senior officers are carrying out a campaign to convert peers to evangelical Christianity — with huge implications for U.S. foreign and defense policy as the United States pursues radical Islam.
“They want to see a spiritually transformed U.S. military with ambassadors for Christ in uniform,” said Michael Weinstein, author of “With God on Our Side: One Man’s War Against an Evangelical Coup in America’s Military.’
And the movement can still rally millions of voters to the polls — or keep them away, as heavyweight conservative James Dobson has threatened to do if the Republican Party nominates former New York mayor and pro-choice and pro-gay rights candidate Rudy Giuliani to run for president in 2008.
Polls consistently show that white evangelical Protestants remain the most reliable voters for the Republican Party.
Nevertheless, the movement does have weaknesses: Many of its leaders hail from the South; none of the current Republican front-runners are flying its banner; and even many conservative Americans are turned off by its hectoring tone.
“Some Americans are getting tired of the conflict they inspire,” said John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron.
Pointedly, it has yet to achieve any of its big goals, such as getting the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision on abortion rights.
The Religious Right has split into many groups, some only a shell of what they once were — Christian Voice, the Christian Coalition and the Moral Majority Coalition among others.
But, apart from a division over the importance of climate change, these groups all sing from the same hymn sheet: they are all staunchly opposed to abortion, gay rights, pornography, gambling, alcohol and the separation of church and state.
“They are remarkably united on their core set of issues,” said Wilson — in contrast to the environment or feminist movements which have deep divisions.
Activists from within the movement say its unity flows from a common reading of scripture.
“Christian conservatives come together because they have common ground to stand on, which comes from belief in the Bible,” said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, an influential conservative lobby group with strong evangelical ties.
And many Religious Right groups play the same political role — encouraging religiously motivated social conservatives to sign petitions, raise hell and get out and vote.
There is also a crop of younger and energetic activists who have already been taking over from the Falwell generation, and whose ranks are partly drawn from institutions like Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, which Falwell founded in 1971.