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March 12, 2008
Column #1,385
Advance for March 15, 2008
The Religious Right Is Not Dying But Changing
By Mike McManus

Last Wednesday leaders of the Religious Left and the Religious Right debated its future at the National Press Club.

Tony Perkins, President of the Family Research Council, and co-author (with Bishop Harry Jackson) of a new book "Personal Faith Public Policy," argued: "I keep hearing that the Religious Right's influence is waning, that evangelicals are cracking up. These headlines get recycled every 6-8 years. He cited a 1981 New York Times quote by Jimmy Carter that the Religious Right is a "distortion" of Christianity and won't prevail.

Ronald Reagan, the Moral Majority's preferred candidate, had just been elected President by a landslide.  Similar articles in the 1990s failed to anticipate Republicans gaining control of Congress. A recent Washington Post column argued the McCain victory shows the Religious Right has lost its punch.

Perkins disagreed: "The fact we have a McCain Republican nominee shows conservatives won. We don't have a Giuliani candidacy, who we were told would be the nominee.  Pro-life, pro-marriage conservatives said if he got the nomination, it would give rise to a third party.  Rudy dropped like a rock.  When Rudy dropped out, five conservatives vied for the nomination and McCain captured it."

Interestingly, their new book asserts that conservative evangelicals have a common ground on many issues with such liberals as Jim Wallis, head of Sojourners, who participated in the debate. Both sides oppose abortion, favor racial reconciliation, religious liberties, rebuilding the family - and surprisingly, the need to address immigration, poverty and justice, the environment and global warming.

Bishop Jackson, who pastors Hope Christian Church and leads the High Impact Leadership Coalition, a national coalition of black pastors, told the Press Club that he and his Coalition met with Dr. James Dobson in December, 2004. He told Dobson that a unique coalition had re-elected Bush that included "many African American leaders who rallied their church and their votes that Bush would never have gotten," due to his support for the Marriage Amendment.

Then Jackson said while the election had been "fought on righteousness issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion, the black-led church has been preoccupied with justice issues, such as poverty.  I said righteousness and justice for the weak and the poor are of urgent importance to the African-American community."

Dobson surprised him by replying, "I agree with that.  Let's go tape a program."

Jim Wallis, who also wrote a new book, "The Great Awakening: Reviving Faith & Politics in a Post-Religious Right America," with a Foreword by Jimmy Carter, seemed a bit surprised by what these new Religious Right leaders were saying: "I am not one who says the Religious Right is dead," he proclaimed. "The monologue is over, and a new dialogue has begun. I am pro-life but I ask how does a committed life ethic address the fact that 30,000 died today of poverty and disease?  I want to find common ground, and indeed move to a higher ground.  A new evangelical agenda is emerging.  I profoundly agree that it must include people of color and white evangelicals.

"Martin Luther King said the church should not be the master or the servant of the state, but the conscience of the state.  He never did endorse a candidate, but he asked candidates to endorse the agenda of his movement."

I praised Perkins and Jackson for their book's stand on the need to reform no-fault divorce when no moral faults are claimed, such as adultery or abuse. Their book argues, as I have: "Today 80 percent of divorces are no-fault or unilateral, divorces. Since 1970, there's been one divorce for every two marriages - 42 million divorces shattering the lives of 40 million children.

"Unless a major fault is proven, couples with children should not be allowed to divorce, unless both parents agree. If mutual-consent divorce were to replace no-fault divorce, experts estimate that divorce rates would fall 30 percent, saving 300,000 marriages from divorce annually," they write.

They also proposed replacing "sole custody with a presumption of joint custody or shared parenting in which each parent has access to the children at least one-third of the time each week," writing that would push down divorce another 20%. "These two reforms have the potential to slash divorce rates in half, saving 500,000 kids from seeing their parents divorce."

I queried "Would you ask all the Presidential candidates where they stand on slashing divorce rates in half?"  Both said yes, as did Wallis but Perkins said the issue is a state matter. 

This is a new Religious Right taking on issues the left can agree with.

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