The Culture Wars Are Still Not Over
The Religious Right in the States and Beyond

Frederick Clarkson is the editor of Dispatches from the Religious Left: The Future of Faith and Politics in America (IgPublishing), from which this commentary is adapted. He is a member ofthe editorial board of The Public Eye.

In the wake of pre-election punditry that the Religious Right is dead and that the so called Culture Wars are over, I wrote a piece for The Public Eye: “The Culture Wars Are Not Over: The Institutionalization of the Christian Right.”1 The year was 2001, what many now consider to have been the high watermark of the power and influence of the Religious Right in American politics. During the 2008 election season we have heard similar claims by Washington,D.C. insiders and pundits that the Religious Right is dead, dying, or irrelevant or that the culture wars are over or about to be. Such declarations are as wrong now as they were in 2001.

The Religious Right has developed an extraordinary infrastructure, especially at the state level, that will restore and replenish the movement as the founding generation of Religious Right leaders passes from public life, and will regroup in the wake of national Republican electoral losses in 2008. Additionally, fresh battles will break out on different turf, in different towns and states. Even the issues will evolve. But the culture of denial regarding the ongoing potency and significance of the Religious Right in American public life remains as a stubborn obstacle to meaningful discussion about this powerful movement.

Win or lose from election to election,whatever its ups and downs, the Religious Right is on a mission, or rather a cluster of interrelated missions. The missions are religious in nature and transcend not only electoral outcomes but the lives of most if not all individuals and institutions. This is much of the source of both the movement’s resilience, and its visionary development of a vast capacity to move people and shape events, to raise-up leaders, and to field effective organizations able to wage electoral campaigns at all levels and effectively use the process of state ballot initiatives to drive wedge issues and ultimately their legislative and constitutional agenda.

So let us be clear. The Religious Right will be a major factor in American politics for at least as long as the lives of anyone reading these words. It is important to underscore this point because as the spectacle of smoke and mirrors pours out of the political consultancies and non-profit shops of Washington, DC, so drives our national conversation on these matters with expensively produced,wrong headed narratives and overblown interpretations of polls (see sidebar). One such reality check is what is actually happening on the ground, in the states, where most of American political life and government takes place. We will look at an album of snapshots from the states in a moment, but first, let’s begin at the beginning.

The Defining Moment of the Culture Wars

The speaker who launched the term “culture wars” in to our political lexicon did not actually employ the term. Pat Buchanan delivered an inflammatory speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention. It is now known in political circles as “the culture war speech.” “My friends, this election is about much more than who gets what,” Buchanan declared. “It is about who we are. It is about what we believe. It is about what we stand for as Americans. There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself.” [Emphasis added]2

He denounced the “radical feminism” of Bill and Hillary Clinton, stating that their “agenda would impose on America— abortion on demand, a litmus test for the Supreme Court, homosexual rights, discrimination against religious schools, women in combat-that’s change, all right. But it is not the kind of change America wants. It is not the kind of change America needs. And it is not the kind of change we can tolerate in a nation that we still call God’s country.”

If this rhetoric sounds familiar, it is because little has changed since these words were shouted to the world on primetime national television at one of the two major party conventions in the most powerful country in the history of the world. It is also because the words express the deeply held views of a wide swath of conservative Christianity.

Buchanan’s speech epitomizes the Religious Right’s general view of the “culture war”—as a “religious war”3 that manifests itself on many “cultural” fronts, most urgently abortion, homosexuality (especially, now, marriage equality), education privatization, and curriculum content of the public schools.

So the culture war is not simply conflict over abortion or gay marriage. It is a one sided war of aggression against the civil rights advances of women and minorities and the rights of individual conscience that we generally discuss under the rubric of religious pluralism and of separation of church and state. For these political aggressors, war is not merely a metaphor or the equivalent of a sports analogy. It is far more profound and stems from the conflict of “world view,” usually described as a “Biblical World view” against everything else. It is explicitly understood by its proponents as a religious war and waged accordingly on multiple fronts, mostly in terms we have come to define as “cultural.” How the conflict plays out takes on political dimensions and sometimes physical conflict. This war is theocratic in nature, and seeks to roll back decades, and depending on the faction, centuries of democratic advances.

It is important to note that while violence has diminished overall, this war is already marked by decades of violence, including hundreds of arsons and bombings of abortion clinics, as well as the assassination and attempted assassination of doctors. We have also seen extraordinary violence against LGBT people. There has also been, and continues to be, a multidimensional battle against the Constitutional doctrine of separation of church and state in the service of religious supremacism. This manifests itself in many ways, from efforts to post the Ten Commandments in public buildings, especially court houses and the public schools, but particularly in public education—which offers the opportunity to teach biased, religiously framed versions of human sexuality4 and evolutionary science as well as Christian nationalist versions of American history.

We have also seen state and federal funding of proven ineffective and “faith-based” abstinence education programs as well as anti-abortion “crisis pregnancy centers.” (It should be noted that federal funding for abstinence-only education has continued, despite Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress in 2007 and 2008.)

That the Democrats’ national party recruited, fielded, and massively financed twelve explicitly anti-abortion candidates for the House of Representatives in 2008 is one indication that the culture war is moving more deeply into the Democratic Party.5

But probably the more significant battles will be in the states where the Religious Right’s political strength is now greater than in the federal government. For example, Focus on the Family Action, the political arm of James Dobson’s Focus on the Family (FOF), has 35 state affiliates called family policy institutes or councils.6These groups, such as the Massachusetts Family Institute, have taken the lead in state level anti-marriage equality campaigns and ballot initiatives for years; often they work in close collaboration with the Roman Catholic Church. This is a political infrastructure that is far greater than the sum of its parts.

Snapshots from the Culture War in the States

Let’s look at a few snapshots from real life politics in the states in 2008 and what they portend for the future.

Anti-marriage equality initiatives prevailed in Arizona, Florida, and California in 2008. Longtime Religious Right leader Chuck Colson called the California initiative, Proposition 8, “the Armageddon of the culture war.” Maggie Gallagher, president of the National Organization for Marriage said: “This is ground zero in a culture war that the California Supreme Court just declared on Christianity and every single faith.” Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, told The New York Times, “It’s more important than the presidential election.” Fueled with tens of millions of dollars from the Mormon Church, as well as such evangelical financiers as John Templeton and Howard Ahmanson, the initiative passed, and for the first time in American history, rolled back a court ordered advance in civil rights gained by an oppressed minority.

But the battle is far from over. At this writing, major legal challenges are planned and massive street demonstrations protesting the outcome have made national television news for more than a week in the wake of the election results.

What’s more, while Rhode Island and New York recognize the validity of same sex marriages from other states, the 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) allows states to refuse to recognize the validity of same sex marriages. The Supreme Court has so far declined to hear constitutional challenges to the federal DOMA, but that could change as more states recognize same sex marriage and more issues of interstate recognition of same sex marriages emerge. Meanwhile, civil rights efforts will go forward on many fronts, and there will be efforts to thwart or roll them back. So far, 30 states have passed anti-marriage equality initiatives; and 10 states passed statutory DOMAs.

New York and New Jersey: Shortly after the November election, the Associated Press reported that the coalition of evangelicals and the Mormon and Roman Catholic Churches that passed the stunning reversal on marriage equality in California planned to take the battle to these eastern states where marriage equality has shown signs of advancing in the state legislatures.7

Anti-abortion ballot initiatives lost in California, Colorado and South Dakota. The Colorado initiative would have defined a fertilized egg as a person for legal purposes in contravention of Roe vs. Wade. The California initiative was a parental notification measure that has been defeated twice before and the South Dakota abortion ban had been defeated once before. These defeats underscore the persistence and ongoing capacity of the Religious Right towage the battles of the culture war.

Constitutional Convention initiative in Connecticut: Every 20 years, the state is required to have an initiative asking the voters if it is time for a state constitutional convention. In the wake of the October ruling by the state’s Supreme Court legalizing same sex marriage, the Religious Right, led by the Connecticut Family Institute (the state political affiliate of Focus on the Family) and the state’s Roman Catholic bishops seized on the initiative as a way of keeping the issue alive, purchasing a large, last minute TV ad campaign. While this effort was ultimately unsuccessful, it is a safe bet to expect further battles in Connecticut.

Failed efforts to get other anti-abortion or antigay initiatives on the ballot: Montana, Arkansas and Massachusetts. Even in losing, the Religious Right has considerable capacity to keep their issues on the front burner.

Texas: The elected State Board of Education is chaired by Don McLeroy, a Religious Right activist who has made a career of seeking to inject the agenda of the Religious Right into the public schools. In October 2008, the board appointed three prominent advocates of the “Intelligent Design” religious theory of the origin of the universe to a six member science review panel. One of these, Steven Meyers, is a vice-president of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, a Religious Right think tank devoted to the propagation of intelligent design. McLeroy wrote in an October oped, “Science education has become a culture war issue” and that the claims of scientists “will be challenged by creationists.”8

Additionally, the legislature passed a bill that would make it easier for school districts to teach courses about the Bible, but of course, this opened the door to teaching the Bible itself, from particular religious and political points of view. For example, four members of the state board soon made news when they wrote to Texas school districts urging them to use the discredited, Christian nationalist oriented Bible study curriculum produced by the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools. Experts predict lawsuits if school districts use the program.

Alabama: The State Board of Education first approved a Bible study curriculum published by the Bible Literacy Project for elective use in Alabama school districts. Then, under pressure from the Religious Right, it voted to approve materials from the even more right-wing and controversial National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools.9

Louisiana: In 2008, the legislature passed, and Republican Governor Bobby Jindal signed, a law that critics say is a backdoor way of slipping the teaching of creationism is mand intelligent design by allowing for “supplemental” materials that feature unwarranted and unscientific critiques of evolution to be used in addition to standard science books in the public schools. The legislation was originally introduced in collaboration with the Louisiana affiliate of Focus on the Family and the Discovery Institute.10This kind of action is reminiscent of efforts to get around federal and Supreme Court decisions intended to desegregate the schools, or bar the posting of religious documents such as the Ten Commandments in the public schools.

Indeed, the 1987 Supreme Court case of Edwards v. Aguillard (1987) ruled a Louisiana law requiring the teaching of creationism in the public schools unconstitutional, pushing advocates of creationism to produce the concept of “intelligent design” and ultimately a rewrite of the creationist textbook Of Pandas and People in an effort to get around the ban.11 In 2005, a federal judge ruled that the use of the revised book in the Dover, Pennsylvania public schools was unconstitutional, consistent with Edwards v. Aguillard. Still, activists continue to push Intelligent Design at high levels of state government in flagrant defiance of the federal courts, demonstrating the insistence and capacity of the Religious Right to pursue theocratic policies.

Kansas: Control over the elected State Board of Education has flipped back and forth between the Religious Right, and moderate Democrats and Republicans since the late 1990s. In 2008, the “moderates” held a narrow and electorally fragile 6-4 majority over the Religious Right, anti-evolution faction. A moderate coalition of Democrats and Republicans increased their majority over the anti-evolution, Religious Right faction to 7-3, at least until 2010 when five seats are expected to be contested.

Iowa: Just weeks after the 2008 presidential election, Gov. Jindal, 37, a Religious Right Roman Catholic, was the headliner at a high dollar fundraiser for the Iowa Family Policy Center, the state political affiliate of Focus on the Family. The event was seen as a foreshadowing of the 2012 Iowa presidential caucuses.

Washington, D.C.: The Los Angeles Times published an article just before the election that shows that little has changed with the dynamics of the Religious Right in the GOP in two decades: “In skirmishes around the country in recent months, evangelicals and others who believe Republicans have been too timid in fighting abortion, gay marriage and illegal immigration have won election to the party’s national committee, in preparation for a fight over the direction and leadership of the party…. The Religious Right is contending with party moderates for control of the Republican National Committee. It was frustration with the Bush-led Republican National Committee that prompted a number of conservatives this year to try to upend the system. Conservatives won seats representing California, Iowa, Alaska, Texas, North Carolina, South Carolina and Michigan. One new member is a popular black preacher from Detroit, Keith Butler, who presides over a mega-church.”12

Alaska: Republican Governor Sarah Palin, who was vetted by the Religious Right-dominated Council for National Policy and forced onto the Republican Party ticket has emerged as a leader of the Republican Party and of the Religious Right, along with such Religious Right figures as Gov. Jindal, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee (currently a Fox News program host) and arguably Mitt Romney (a Mormon who has moved towards the Religious Right since functioning as governor of Massachusetts).

Even a cursory flip through snapshots from the culture war shows that the Religious Right remains strong in the Republican Party, intends to, and is capable of, waging and winning theocratic battles against LGBT and women’s civil and human rights, as well as disrupting secular public education. The religious war Buchanan described in 1996 has shown that it can transcend the wins and losses of any given election season. The only way the culture war could be over or nearly over is if one or another side is clearly winning or losing, their capacity to wage the war has been significantly enhanced or degraded, or they are about to call a truce or to surrender. None of these things is happening.


At a national meeting of the American Catholic bishops held shortly after the election, many passionately declared that there was no acceptable compromise on abortion, and denounced the prochoice views of President-elect Obama. Some also condemned Catholics who had argued it was morally acceptable to back President-elect Obama because he pledged to reduce abortion rates.13 Nevertheless liberal Roman Catholic columnist E.J. Dionne wrote in The Washington Post a few days after the election that Obama should seek common ground on abortion by not rescinding Bush-era anti-abortion executive orders —such as the infamous “global gag rule”14 and otherwise not pursuing pro choice policies. Mistaking capitulation with compromise is an all-too-common pattern among those who would sacrifice the civil rights of others in the name of common ground.15

Meanwhile, focus on the Family rolled out a new “Truth Project,” a religious and ideological indoctrination program that is touring the country. In addition to discussing family issues and sexuality, the project aggressively promotes intelligent design and features, among others, Ben Stein, the producer of the anti-Darwin propaganda film Expelled. Young people of “college age” are a particular target. Analysis of current polling may show trends among young White evangelicals on the hot button matters of the culture wars. (See box on page 27). The Religious Right is certainly looking at the same data. Focus on the Family and the millennially militant organization The Call, among many others intend to aggressively contend for that same demographic.

The Call is a national parachurch youth organization head by the Los Angeles based Lou Engle, which played a dynamic role in the California campaign to roll back marriage equality. Engle is a member of the Apostolic Council of Prophetic Elders, which leads the international Pentecostal movement, called the New Apostolic Reformation (also known as the Third Wave) and is headed by former Fuller Theological Seminary professor C. Peter Wagner. The Third Wave gained considerable attention during the 2008 election season, due to the involvement of GOP Vice-Presidential candidate, Sarah Palin.16 It sees itself struggling in a demon infested world, with the job of invoking supernatural powers of “anointing” and “spiritual warfare” to drive out witches and demons and reform the culture. Many understand themselves to be part of group called Joel’s Army, a biblically prophesized unit that will do battle with the forces of Satan to establish a theocratic order in the EndTimes.17

The Call enjoys the support of such top Religious Right leaders as Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, Father Frank Pavone of the militantly anti-abortion Priests for Life, and former GOP presidential contender Gary Bauer.

In August of 2008, Engle mobilized 50,000 young people for a rally on the Mall in Washington, D.C. The crowd was addressed by GOP presidential primary candidate Mike Huckabee among other conservative leaders. Church & State reported: “Pieces of bright red tape with the word “LIFE” covered their mouths as young Americans rocked back and forth, swaying their arms in the air to loud Christian music while they listened to the raspy voice of their leader, Pastor Lou Engle. Engle… summoned the young generation to ‘revive’ the nation from what he often refers to as ‘forces of darkness.’”

“‘I believe…that God has thrown a window open,’ Engle told Charisma, a leading Pentecostal magazine. ‘We have entered a season of time in a massive [spiritual] war. It’s Pearl Harbor. It’s Nazirites or Nazism. We are in a war, and if we don’t win, we lose everything.’ Some young evangelicals who are part of Engle’s movement see themselves as soldiers in this ‘war.’ They view it as their duty or calling to end the nation’s immorality and stop what they consider the ’dark forces,’ such as legal abortion and gay marriage.’”

“Abortion is not another social issue,” says Engel, “Abortion is fueling the demonization of our whole culture.”18

Engle was featured in the Academy Award nominated, 2006 documentary Jesus Camp, in which he indoctrinates young children in anti-abortion ideology and takes them to the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court where they wear the same bright red tape over their mouths with the word “LIFE” written in black on it as was used at the rally on the Mall.

The Call actively campaigned for the anti-marriage equality ballot initiative in California, culminating with a 10-hour election eve prayer rally in a San Diego stadium headlined by James Dobson and Tony Perkins that attracted some 33,000 people. Rally speakers, including Engle, called for “martyrs” and predicted that there would soon come a time when “we will have to risk our lives.”19 Dobson promoted the rally on his national radio show, and according to one report was, “Choking up as he said he felt the hand of God telling him to go. ‘The Lord must be involved in this,”’ Dobson said. [Yes on 8’s Rev. Jim] Garlow agreed, saying they were ‘crying out’ to God in spiritual desperation to save California, as they were ‘watching the destruction of Western civilization.’” Focus on the Family, even while facing a budget crisis that has resulted in recent layoffs, nevertheless poured $539,000 in cash into the “Yes on 8” campaign and FOF board member Elsa Prince kicked in $450,000.20

When significant leaders of the Religious Right such as Dobson say such things, it is important to take notice. But if we view such events solely though the lens of the “culture war”—which is to say, narrowly framed disagreements over abortion and homosexuality, one is risking the error of reductionism. Dobson, Engle and their supporters are powerfully motivated by and committed to their world view, which is religious, militant, and comprehensive—and not merely a grab bag of hot button issues.


Pat Buchanan was right. There is a religious war going on in America against civil rights advances at odds with conservative religious orthodoxies. This poses one of the central challenges of our time for those of us who are not part of the Religious Right. Those of us for whom religious pluralism and constitutional democracy matters as reproductive freedom and marriage equality, and free, quality, and secular public education are important values need to pay attention to how the Religious Right adapts to the changed political environment. And in order to do this, we must view announcements of the death of the Religious Right and the end of the culture wars, with considerable skepticism, every time.

Winter 2008
Vol. 23, No. 4 :


End Notes

  1. Frederick Clarkson, “The Culture Wars are Not Over: The Institutionalization of the Christian Right,” The Public Eye, Spring 2001.
  2. Patrick J. Buchanan, 1992 Republican National Convention Speech, Houston, Texas, August 17, 1992.
  3. For further discussion of religious war ideology, see Frederick Clarkson, Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy, (Menro, ME: Common Courage Press, 1997.) pp. 136-138.
  4. See Pam Chamberlain, “Abstaining From the Truth: Sex Education as Ideology,” The Public Eye, Fall 2008.
  5. Raymond Hernandez, “Democrats Carrying the Anti Abortion Banner Put More Congressional Races in Play,” The New York Times, October 25, 2008
  6. See Frederick Clarkson, “Takin’ It to the States: the Rise of Conservative State-Level Think Tanks,” The Public Eye, Summer/Fall, 1999.
  7. Lisa Leff, “ cheers religious groups,” Associated Press, November 9, 2008.
  8. DonMcLeroy, “Biology standards and reasonable doubts,” Waco Tribune-Herald, October 19, 2008.
  9. Phillip Rawls, “State school board approves 2nd Bible textbook,” Associated Press, November 14, 2008.
  10. Barbara Forrest, “The Discovery Institute, The LA Family Forum, and the LA Science Education Act,” Talk to Action, June 26, 2008.
  11. Barbara Forrest, “The Vise Strategy: Undone,” The Skeptical Inquirer, 2006.
  12. Peter Wallsten, “Social conservatives fight for control of the Republican Party,” Los Angeles Times, October 28, 2008.
  13. Rachel Zoll, “Catholic Bishops will fight Obama on Abortion,” Associated Press, November 12, 2008.
  14. The global gag rule refers to an executive order issued by every Republican president since Reagan that proscribes U.S. family planning assistance to foreign non governmental organizations that perform abortions (except in cases of a threat to the woman’s life, rape or incest) provide counseling and referral for abortion; or lobby to make abortion legal or more available in their country. The rule stifles discussion of abortion-related issues and compels NGOs to choose between accept U.S. assistance and provide essential health services.
  15. E.J. Dionne Jr., “Obama’s Promise to Pro-lifers,” The Washington Post, November 15, 2008.
  16. See The New Apostolic Reformation Research Team, Palin’s Churches and the Third Wave Series, Talk to Action, October 30, 2008.
  17. Casey Sanchez, “Arming for Armageddon, Militant Joel’s Army Followers Seek Theocracy,” Intelligence Report, Fall 2008.
  18. Sandhya Bathija, “Answering The Call: Evangelist Lou Engle Rallies Evangelical Youth on Behalf of the Religious Right,” Church & State, October 2008.
  19. Michael W. Wilson, “The Call: Spiritual Warfare in the Field of Martyrs,” (video) Talk to Action, November 4, 2008.
  20. Cara Degette, “More Layoffs at Focus on the Family,” The Colorado Independent, November 17, 2008.


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