What went wrong with the religious right?

In 1989, I went to work for the most powerful evangelical of his time, Dr. James Dobson. As a young and energetic Christian, I was elated to find myself in the epicenter of a vibrant evangelicalism. Even so, I struggled with the culture from the beginning. Yes, there was a great deal of positive energy. However, as Focus on the Family grew out and away from Dr. Dobson’s initial emphasis on parenting — as expressed in his ground-breaking book, Dare to Discipline — into political activism, I watched a transformation that was personally challenging.

My first encounter with Dr. Dobson was in the living room of a solid group of Protestants who were seeking to deepen their faith and faithfulness with their families. We watched and talked about Dr. Dobson’s teachings on fatherhood, and his perspective really resonated with me. As someone who came from a broken home, I wanted to halt the cycle of divorce and brokenness in my family. Dr. Dobson had the antidote. He was right, and through his promptings and my engagement with Christ and his people in a local Church, I was changed for the better.

In our society, the fight against abortion and pornography was at its boiling point. These were righteous battles worthy of civil disobedience, imprisonment and derision. Dr. Dobson rose to national prominence, in part because of his participation in the Reagan administration’s attempt to mitigate the scourge of child-pornography.

Unfortunately, I watched a fundamental shift emerge — what seemed to be an increasing emphasis on political power as a primary means to save a morally faltering culture. Dr. Dobson’s public emphasis on engaging in the exercise of political power in order to change our culture for the good marked Focus on the Family as a political organization (though 95% of the budget was spent elsewhere). While Dr. Dobson truly believed (and still believes, I presume) that the preeminent issue facing every living person was/is our relationship with God, the shrill and shallow nature of the media-centric culture wars completely obscured this firmly held belief. He became known for his harsh criticism of pop culture and political candidates rather than his love for Christ and his desire to form the Christian family as the only lasting and trustworthy foundation of a civil society.

Our culture has continued to erode away from Christ and his Kingdom. Evangelicalism has lost its way — and lost its children to secularism and have faded into a defeated and apathetic cynicism common to idealistic warriors who find themselves winning a few important battles but losing the war.

True culture change cannot come through the political process as a primary means. It was a politicized Christian conservatism that obscured the essence of the Evangelical movement (Christ and evangelism), and left in its wake a kind of moral political movement that diffused its own real capability of bringing about lasting societal change. The irony of this evolution is that while this was happening with U.S. Evangelical conservatives, it was also playing out on the left in the Catholic Church with a Christianized Marxism known as Liberation Theology. Both movements essentially displaced a transformative relationship with Christ at the center of real change and replaced it with political or structural power — a formula that never works.

There was and is a fundamental and culturally fatal misunderstanding of how and why cultures change.

Culture in a democratic society is merely an aggregate reflection of the beliefs of the people in that culture. Change the beliefs of those who make up that culture, and the aggregate reflection of those beliefs will change. However, the power to bring about any real substantive change for the better only comes through a transformative engagement with Christ. As this kind of real transformation occurs, the predominant legal and political environments follow.

Why does the appeal of power lure the hearts of those who rise to the ability to influence civil society? Because winning elections is an incredibly exhilarating process. It feels powerful and effective.  However, convincing people to vote any particular way for any brief period of time is an emotional game, not one that reflects any real fundamental change. This is why, even in the wake of the fervent Evangelical "Church Growth Movement," the U.S. in recent decades has not experienced any fundamental or substantive shift toward Christian values on a national scale.

So how do we get to a place of fundamental change that then reflects itself in the culture? There is only one way that this can happen: through an authentic and transformational encounter with Christ, accompanied by a mental and emotional shift toward values and beliefs that mirror those of our Creator.

There must be a personal and aggressive engagement with the God of the Universe in and through his Church, the sacraments, catechesis, prayer and self-giving.

Does this mean that the political process should be abandoned? Absolutely not! Archbishop Chaput’s book, Render Unto Caesar - Serving the Nation by Living our Catholic Beliefs in Public Life, is as good as this story gets and should be read and followed by every serious Catholic who desires to stabilize the sanity of this nation long enough to rebuild the spiritual health of the Church.

The key is putting first things first. Political action — absent the foundational values that reflect the most important relationship of every living person — will only yield fleeting results based on the charismatic nature of leaders, the effectiveness of their arguments and their use of the media. Yes, changed hearts vote, speak and act according to divine wisdom — but deep and lasting convictions that reflect divine wisdom rarely, if ever, come through TV commercials, speeches or political campaigns.

In today’s intense battle for religious liberty, it is essential that Christians fight for the justice that is being denied all people of faith — and to do that, the political process must be leveraged with vigor and abandon. But this must be done through the lens of our faith, with the lead of our God.

To stay informed on the news and all that our Church is doing to uphold our most cherished freedom, I urge you to follow the comprehensive coverage at ReligiousLiberties.org. Determine what you can be doing to stand in unity with fellow Americans who are working and praying for fundamental change — and a return to a country that is truly “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”