The FundamentaList (No. 86)

After nearly two years, it's time for a change. That's why the Prospect editors and I have decided that this week will mark a send-off for The FundamentaList.

We're not discontinuing The FundamentaList because the religious right is dead, because religion isn't important, or because the religious right and religion are not playing a political role in the Obama era. Instead, we're making the change so that we can react to breaking news stories more nimbly over on the blog and explore worthy stories in greater depth here on the main site.

The Prospect launched The FundamentaList in September 2007, when the Republican presidential primary was starting to heat up. Our goal was to follow the news of the religious right, both in the presidential campaign and in the broader political realm. That news included presidential campaigns, Mike Huckabee's unlikely rise (and his opposition from religious-right elites), Values Voters Summits, several "pastor problems," Sarah Palin mania, anti-gay-marriage rallies, televangelist scandals, and Middle East politics. We also asked that everlasting question: Is the religious right cracking up?

After rallying around Palin and losing, the religious right now faces a mediocre bench of prospects for 2012, including an MIA governor. The movement has not anointed a single figure outside of electoral politics who would act as its unitary spokesperson -- or at least be perceived that way by the media like James Dobson, the late Jerry Falwell, or Pat Robertson have been.

But this might not be a weakness for the movement. After all, the bench of evangelists and activists gives the movement many go-to guys. When one "leader" becomes a liability for whatever reason (whether it's Ted Haggard's homosexuality, John Hagee's inability to distinguish biblical prophecy from reality, or yet another moralizing elected official's tenuous relationship with morality), someone else is available to step in. And in some cases, like Newt Gingrich's recent conversion to Catholicism and recommitment to theocracy, what's offered is just an old, washed-up leader in new clothing and with a vast e-mail list. Huckabee, for example, has his own television show and is building a grass-roots political organization.

But regardless of whether a religious-right-approved presidential candidate is able to mount a serious electoral challenge, theo-conservatism's tentacles are firmly in our culture -- and our politics. This is evident in the continuing battles over its most visible wedge issues, LGBT rights and reproductive justice, but also in the less headline-grabbing skirmishes over sex education, creationism, evangelism in government and the military, and separation of church and state.

In 2008, the Democratic Party embarked on its most aggressive outreach to date to engage evangelicals and Catholics. President Barack Obama has expanded rather than scaled back the Bush-era faith-based initiative. Religion and government remain intertwined, despite Obama's stated commitment to their separation.

Over the course of the presidential campaign, Obama's efforts to court -- or at least charmingly disarm -- religious leaders whose politics were well to his right caused a rhetorical shift in his once solidly progressive positions. His shift on abortion rhetoric began during the campaign and continues as he reacts to conservative criticism. His faith-based effort has solicited input from conservative religious figures on shaping a "common ground" policy on abortion. (For anyone who thinks these discussions are a purely ceremonial exercise, there are consequences even if Obama doesn't end up taking the advice. No one relishes having their advice solicited and then ignored.)

Similarly, Obama's reversal of a campaign promise to repeal the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy and the Defense of Marriage Act looks like a reaction to the evangelicals who threatened to withhold their support if he was too friendly to gays.

Obama's own actions say a great deal about how important Democrats think it is to appease religious conservatives. One of his closest spiritual advisers (and a member of his faith-based council) is the Rev. Joel Hunter, who originally endorsed Huckabee and is the author of the book A New Kind of Conservative. Although Hunter is billed as a "new" kind of evangelical who believes his biblical values call him to address concerns beyond the wedge issues, he is still a conservative. He has nonetheless been promoted by liberal operatives who seem to think Democrats can't win without such a religion strategy. "This is a president who wants to engage and include conservative evangelicals," Hunter told the Christian Broadcasting Network in February.

The Democrats' religious outreach -- like the Republicans' -- is no longer just a campaign-year effort. The FundamentaList may be gone, but the Prospect's commitment to bringing readers coverage of that landscape remains. Keep coming back -- the coverage will still be here, post-FundamentaList.

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