Thursday, 3 January 2008

Is the US Religious Right in decline?

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As Americans finally begin the long process of selected who will run in November's presidential election, you'd be forgiven for thinking the Religious Right was alive and well, especially given the emphasis placed on religion by candidates from both parties in speeches and debates.

Not so, says political commentator and author Bill Press in a column for today's Detroit News, who declares that "No matter who becomes the next president ... the American people have already won a great victory – with the total disintegration of the once all-powerful religious right."

Citing the fact that the myriad leaders of the Religious Right have failed to fall into line behind one particular Republican candidate, Press boldly declares that "religious right is dead", "tolerance is back" and that "we don't have to worry so much about efforts to turn the United States into a Christian nation".

If Press is correct, then clearly this is great news for secularists everywhere. But perhaps he's being a little premature in making this declaration of victory. Just a quick look at William Hill's odds for the November election shows the Mormon Mitt Romney ("In recent years the notion of the separation of church and state has been taken by some well beyond its original meaning") at 10/1 to win, and Baptist minister Mike Huckabee (creationist who markets himself as "a Christian leader") at 14/1. Meanwhile in Iowa, where 40 per cent of Republicans are of the Religious Right, Huckabee is odds-on to win today's Republican caucus. While this does not reflect wider US opinion, neither does it suggest the death of the Religious Right.

Even the Democratic frontrunners have been keen to stress their religious credentials, with Hilary Clinton pointing out the importance of her Methodist faith and Barrack Obama emphasising his "personal relationship" with Jesus.

While the Religious Right may have lost a great deal of its past unity, it's perhaps a little early to be pronouncing the triumph of American secularism. Battles are still being waged across the states over abortion and evolution, and it's worth remembering that in Pete Stark the country still only has one "openly non-theist" congressman. As Laurie Taylor has pointed out before in this magazine, American atheists are less likely to be accepted, publicly or privately, than any other minority group. Meanwhile, as David Belden writes in the January/February issue of New Humanist (watch this space, it'll be online very soon), evangelicals are becoming more and more influential at all levels of the US military – a development which should worry all but the most ardent born-again Christians.

So, as the countdown begins to the end of the Bush era – putting aside the nightmare scenario of a Huckabee victory in November, of course – we can at least look forward to a US President less driven by evangelical forces. However, it seems there may be some way to go before we can safely dance on the grave of the Religious Right.