The book is actually a compilation of papers that were delivered at a conference held in November, 1990, at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. Following a preface by editor Michael Cromartie, the book consists of four chapters. Each chapter contains a paper that was presented at the conference, followed by a formal response from another conference participant, which in turn is followed by more informal comments from other participants. The book concludes with an afterward by George Weigel, president of the Center.
If one is looking for a book that simply touts the virtues of the religious new right, then this book will not have much appeal. On the other hand, if one is looking for an objective analysis of the religious new right by a number of authorities from a variety of backgrounds and perspectives, then this book has much to commend itself.
The writers’ area of expertise include history, sociology, and political science. The backgrounds of the respondents are even more diverse, and include theologians, political analysts, and pastors, in addition to several more historians, sociologists and political scientists. Such a diversity, however, risks the potential of losing a sense of unity and purpose in the book. Such is not the case here. Rather, the chapters complement one another and result in a pleasingly cohesive study.
The four chapters focus on different facets of the religious new right. The first chapter is written by church historian George Marsden and examines the history of the religious right. He points out that the entry of religion into the political arena is nothing new and it has traditionally had an influence on American politics ever since colonial days. The second chapter, written by sociologist Robert Wuthnow,
looks to the future of the religious right. Next, political scientist Robert Booth Fowler examines the failure of the religious new right. His analysis begins with an examination of tangible factors, such as the influence of the religious new right upon the political system, its electoral impact, and its record on affecting policy. In the fourth chapter, political scientist Corwin Smidt also analyzes the strength of the religious new right and assesses its future, but his methodology is very different from that of the others.
Throughout the book there is a consistent tone of objectivity. When there is criticism of the religious right, it is not unfair. Such criticism is, of necessity, the opinion of each writer, but there are no signs of animosity. In each paper, subjectivity is limited by the approach the writer takes. The focus is upon tangible factors which are not difficult to verify. Assessments of what is yet to come, of course, are by nature more speculative. But even here conclusions are drawn based on present realities that are projected into the future. All of this helps to make the book far more than merely a collection of personal opinions.
The diversity of perspectives of the respondents also helps to balance out the content of each paper. In particular, with the exception of Mr. Smidt, the prospects for the future of the religious new right in the other three papers range from questionable to doubtful. The respondents to the papers provide the reader with other estimations that enable him to consider the question from a variety of viewpoints and appraisals.
Overall, the book is a helpful analysis of the religious new right. Yet one could wish that several other questions would also have been addressed. For instance, a whole cluster of questions center around the relationship between the religious new right and the secular right: To what extent are their agendas similar? How are they different? How does the secular right view the new religious right, and vice versa? These are questions that would fit well within the parameters of this book.
Also, it would have been interesting to see an analysis of the relationship between politics and the usual aim of evangelicals, namely, that of having a spiritual impact upon the world. Are the two objectives compatible? Can anything of lasting value and significance be achieved if the primary aim is a political one? At the end of his paper, Mr. Wuthnow raises an interesting point. He suggests that in the future the religious right may focus more on endeavors such as service, the promotion of community and reconciliation, and caring for the poor. But he does not develop the prospect.
The concept is more significant than it may seem. Could it be that the religious new right is following the pattern of its secular counterpart too closely, and thus failing to work in the realm of its true strength? As Richard John Neuhaus has said, “The first political task of the Church is to be the Church.” Since Mr. Wuthnow raised the possibility of an alternative course of action, it is unfortunate that he did not develop it. Granted, these are not easy questions, but they do need to be addressed.
For anyone wishing to become more familiar with the religious new right, this book should prove to be very useful. Each of the four chapters provides a good analysis of the aspect of the religious new right that it is supposed to examine. The scope of the book is broad enough that it provides a good inquiry into what the movement is, where it has come from, and where it is headed. Aside from some of the points made above, the book is quite informative and very helpful.
No one will agree with everything that he reads in this book, if for no other reason than because several of the contributors differ. Yet almost anyone should find it worthwhile. And with the diversity of perspectives and backgrounds of the participants, no one’s personal convictions concerning the religious new right should be slighted by this book–only enlightened.
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