10/12/2010 09:00 am ET Updated May 26, 2011

The Success and the Failures of the Religious Right

What has the religious right achieved?

Among its success, the religious right mustered a broad resistance to the legal establishment of secularism. Some on the left still contend that religiously motivated arguments are illegitimate in the debate over public policy. Evidently, in their conception, the separation of church and state means that, although citizens may advocate a certain political view on the basis of utilitarianism or liberalism or vegetarianism, they may not do so on the basis of moral views rooted in Christianity or Judaism.

Religious conservatives have stoutly resisted this notion, reminding us that many pivotal events in American political history -- from abolition to the civil rights movement -- came about in large part thanks to religiously informed social activism.

Practically speaking, the religious right has also scored some successes. When Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973, essentially legalizing abortion on demand, an editorial in the New York Times announced the abortion debate over. In part because of the religious right, the debate continues -- with a majority of Americans in some recent polls now considering themselves pro-life. Given the cultural forces arrayed against pro-life Americans, this is a remarkable achievement.

The religious right has also formed an element in a larger political coalition defending and encouraging an active, moral role for America in the world. This was especially important during the period of the Cold War. And it has been a stalwart supporter of the often friendless state of Israel in that nation's struggle for survival against enemies sworn to its destruction.

Still, could the religious right have done things better, and is a different model of social engagement needed for the future? We believe the answer to both questions is yes.

The language and tone of the religious right have often been apocalyptic, off-putting, and counterproductive. "Just like what Nazi Germany did to the Jews," said Jerry Falwell, "so liberal America is now doing to evangelical Christians." In 1994, a conspiracy-mongering video promoted by Falwell associated President Bill Clinton with drug dealing and murder.

Such melodrama, or hysteria, is good for fund-raising, but bad for American politics. It makes a civil political conversation impossible, and does a disservice to the cause of a Christian witness to society.

Strategically, too, the religious right has been inconsistent and politically arbitrary. During the 1980s, the Christian Voice issued report cards measuring candidates' views not only on school prayer and abortion but also on support for an American defense treaty with Taiwan and opposition to a national Department of Education; there were no categories concerning the relief of poverty or racial equality. Such selectively left a strong impression that the movement was less an independent voice than a tool of a specific political ideology.

The biggest problem of the religious right, however, has not been tonal or strategic but theological. Some conservative Christians have identified the nature and destiny of America with the nature and destiny of biblical Israel. This view of the New World as the new Israel has a long history, but a pedigree does not make it correct.

America was not founded as a Christian nation -- precisely because the founders were informed by a Jewish and Christian understanding of human nature. Since humans are autonomous moral beings created in God's image, freedom of conscience is essential to dignity. At least where the federal government was concerned, the founders asserted that citizens should be subject to God and their conscience, not the state. America was designed to be a nation where all faiths are welcomed, not one where one faith is favored. Historically, this disestablishment of religion has served the Christian faith well, preserving it from being corrupted and tainted by political power.

In combination, the various failings of the religious right -- of tone, strategy, theology, and simply human sympathy -- abetted a social backlash that goes beyond politics. By the 1990s, argues Robert Putnam, the politicization of religion by the religious right was causing many young people to turn against religion itself. The religious right, it turns out, was not good for religion.

The religious right began as a defensive reaction to the aggressions of the modern world. It ended by squandering much of its promise because it was too reactive. Often it responded to anger with anger. It responded to the liberal gospel by downplaying the very idea of social justice, thus narrowing the range of evangelical concern. The result was often a partial agenda, even a partisan one. In an unexpected way, this reactive model of social engagement allowed the left to continue setting the social and political agenda.

The next phase of Christian social engagement will need to move beyond reaction, instead applying first principles to a broad range of public concerns.

Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner are authors of the recently released book, City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era, from which this post is excerpted.