The religious right has had more downs than ups of late. As the nation moves toward full immersion in next year's presidential campaign, it seems unlikely this highly motivated corps of political activists will exert anywhere near the influence it did in other elections this decade.
This is not necessarily cause for exultation. The religious right has focused attention on some areas of national life badly in need of it - particularly moral laxity, whether in public life or popular culture. But its klieg lighting of "single issues" such as abortion or school prayer has often been polarizing and divisive.
The centrist themes being struck by the leading candidates in both major parties are a rejection of that kind of politics.
Organizationally, religious conservatives have seen their cornerstone, the Christian Coalition, battered by leadership and legal crises. A Federal Election Commission lawsuit against the coalition charged it with illegally coordinating campaign activities with specific Republican candidates. The ruling in the case let off the coalition on all but two counts - though it underscored the rickety state of federal campaign-funding law.
The Internal Revenue Service had earlier revoked the coalition's tax-exempt status because of its partisan activities, spurring a hasty reorganization.
Leadership faltered when the perpetually youthful and capable Ralph Reed stepped down. Founder Pat Robertson has now stepped back in to fill the void, promising a vigorous plunge into the 2000 race.
But the splash, clearly, will be much smaller. Candidate George W. Bush has made a speech calling for a partnership between religious organizations and government to solve social problems. Candidate Al Gore issued a plea for stronger families and greater neighborliness. Earlier, President Clinton appealed to Hollywood to produce healthier entertainment for our children.
"Values," often broadly evocative of religious belief, has moved squarely into the mainstream of American politics. There now seems to be a religious center, which inevitably moves the religious right to the margins.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society