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Uncertain times for US Religious Right

By Matthew Wells
BBC News, Washington

Christian Defense Coalition activists protest against abortion outside the US Democratic Convention in Colorado, 23 August 2008
Christian anti-abortionists picketed the Democratic Convention in August
As the dust settles on Washington following the Barack Obama earthquake, one group more than any other is expecting to be out in the cold.

For the past eight years, the so-called Religious Right has enjoyed a warm reception at the centre of White House policy-making, and with the Republican coalition on Capitol Hill.

Mainly white, "born again" evangelical Protestants, who adhere to a literal interpretation of the Bible - and oppose abortion rights above all - the Religious Right comprise around 40% of the Republican Party's support.

"The Republican Party as it exists today could not exist without the Christian evangelical vote and the conservative Catholic vote," said Allen Hertzke, visiting senior fellow at the influential Pew Forum on Religion and Politics.

"Now the Republican Party can't win with them alone - as we've learned."

Although there is always a tension between the narrow social agenda of Christian conservatives and the broader, more pragmatic "low tax" wing of the party, the strong US economy kept that argument at bay - until this year's financial crisis.

Blaming the economy

The imposing facade of the Family Research Council includes the motto "faith, family, freedom" carved into the stone above the door, right across from the National Portrait Gallery in downtown Washington.

I think you're going to see a surge once again, reminiscent of the early 1990s
Michael Franc
Heritage Foundation vice-president

When it comes to the seemingly never-ending Culture War in America, "we lost a good portion of it, if President Obama is a man of his word", said the senior vice-president of the council's Action arm, Connie Mackey, who is in a reflective but steely mood.

She rejects the idea that by focussing on abortion, gay marriage and federal judges who disagree with them, the movement is ignoring the recent election verdict: "It was all played out on an economic playing field, and the economy is a disaster."

California's electoral decision to define marriage as only valid between a man and a woman gives her hope that a majority of American voters remain socially conservative, and sympathetic towards moulding a new Republican party that is more conservative, not less.

"I always get a laugh out of the liberals in the Republican Party who think they can walk away from their base," she said. "The [party] is only the vehicle in which the conservatives travel... You have to look at that vehicle and say, is it repairable, or do we get a new one?"

At the foot of Capitol Hill, the conservative Heritage Foundation was one of the large think-tanks that helped forge the defeated Republican coalition. Its vice-president in charge of liaising with Congress, Michael Franc, is confident that being denied influence in Washington will revive the Religious Right.

Relaxing rules on stem-cell research and abortion, will "galvanise the social Right - they will find it incredibly easy to generate all sorts of reaction from their donor base, and their supporters," he said. "I think you're going to see a surge once again, reminiscent of the early 1990s."

Across the lines

Although the Religious Right groups see no common ground with the Obama administration, that is not the perception among more moderate evangelicals close to power, during this transition period.

One of the more plugged-in members of the emerging Religious Left is Burns Strider, who was head of religious outreach for Hillary Clinton's primary campaign.

"Instead of talking about criminalising women, let's come together in an honest conversation, and find ways to reduce the number of abortions," said the jovial consultant, in his office in suburban Virginia.

For the hard-core Religious Right "it creates relationships where the edges are smoother," he added.

For the Pew Forum's Allen Hertzke, the idea that some "culture warriors" might wander across enemy lines in the less dogmatic post-election environment, would be the continuation of an already visible trend.

"On certain international humanitarian and human rights issues, unlikely alliances have formed between conservative evangelical groups and more liberal human rights organisations," he said.

"On [human] trafficking, on religious freedom, on Darfur, on human rights in China..." Christian conservatives may find themselves working alongside Democrats in Washington, he added.

Down to Obama

As the Republican Party struggles to regroup following an emphatic election defeat, it is clear that the Religious Right will have a major say in what happens next.

Alaska Governor Sarah Palin certainly helped to enthuse and ignite her fellow Christian conservatives in a way that John McCain could not. Many are already backing her for a run in 2012.

But the strength of the movement will also depend largely on what President Obama does. If he steers clear of a social and cultural policy agenda, preferring to focus all efforts on the economy and foreign affairs, the Religious Right will have nothing much to react against.

Unlikely as it is, given 40 years of polarisation, the culture wars may yet grind to a halt, for lack of ammunition.



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