In the annals of marketing, the "re-branding" concept is not new. Sometimes, when a company or organization is saddled with an image problem, it decides to change its brand name - in the hopes that, presto, all the nasty old connotations will be flushed down the memory hole.
Not long ago, for instance, Philip Morris was stuck with a bad image problem, due to the fact that its signature product helps to kill many thousands of Americans. The solution was not to do away with the killer product (heaven forbid). Rather, the solution was to dump the name that had become synonymous with death; Philip Morris Companies Inc. simply became Altria Group Inc.
Meanwhile, you may have heard about the image problems that have lately plagued Blackwater, the U.S.-based security outfit that killed 17 Iraqis in a crowded square back in '07, an incident that triggered congressional inquiries and recently prompted the Iraqi government to deny Blackwater a new operating license. Well, Blackwater has now decided to retool its image, and step one was to dump the name Blackwater. The company is now calling itself Xe (pronounced zee); presumably that will make all the difference.
The same kind of thing sometimes happens in politics; as I noted recently, liberals these days much prefer to be called progressives, having decided that the old label carries too much baggage, that perhaps Mike Dukakis ran over the word with his tank back in '88.
Which brings us (finally) to the article that appeared late last week in Christianity Today, informing us that the religious right is seeking to re-brand, having somehow decided that the term religious right has too many bad connotations, and that a new name would spiff up the religious right's image.
It's understandable that the religious right would want to do something for itself, given the fact that the movement has stalled so badly. Nine years ago, having played a pivotal role in electing George W. Bush, the religious right was riding high. A string of successes seemed in the offing: a ban on stem-cell research, the enshrinement of an abortion ban and a gay marriage ban in the U.S. constitution, all sorts of laws encoding the movement's God-ordained values. But today the outlook is bleak; having been rendered largely toothless by the '08 election results, the religious right is stuck on defense for the foreseeable future.
Hence the apparent need for a re-brand. What's most striking, however, is that religious right leaders don't believe they bear any responsibility for their own image problems. They simply trace their woes to the religious right term, and the Christianity Today article dismisses the term as just something that's "thrown around in journalism and academia."
As arguments go, blaming the media is not exactly original, but in this case it's fascinating nevertheless. Over the years I have used the term religious right - because it was a widely accepted shorthand for the movement. I knew it was widely accepted precisely because so many of my conservative Christian sources, and Republican strategist/pollster sources, and the ex-lobbyist for the Christian Coalition, all used it in conversations with me.
Among many others, Elmer Rumminger, a publisher of Christian textbooks and Bob Jones University professor, told me six months before the 1992 election that "the religious right may just decide stay home in November." Neil Newhouse, one of the most respected Republican pollsters often used to tell me, "Thirty percent of our voters are from the religious right." Conservative strategist/pollster Kellyanne Fitzpatrick told me during the 2000 Florida crisis that if Bush lost to Gore, the next GOP candidate "would shine a bigger light on the kinds of issues that the religious right, and the moral right, has been asking for."
Conservative scribes have frequently used the term without seeking to dispute it. Ed Dobson and Cal Thomas, co-authors of the 1998 book Blinded by Might, write at one point: "Before the presidential campaigns of 1980 and 1984, the Religious Right continued to lobby Congress and register new voters." Moreover, the late D. James Kennedy, in his 2008 book How Would Jesus Vote?, writes in passing on page 18: "Modern secularists often accuse the religious Right of calling for a theocracy in America. Despite these claims, I am not advocating theocracy."
The religious right should probably start by acknowledging that it has long used the term to describe itself (here's another, from a 2003 lecture by religious right blogger Stephen W. Carson: "I can pretty fairly be classified as a member of the Religious Right myself.") Then perhaps members of the movement can solicit ideas for a nice re-brand. Here's one idea from Gary Schneeberger, spokesman for Focus on the Family: "Terms like 'Religious Right' have been traditionally used in a pejorative way to suggest extremism. The phrase 'socially conservative evangelicals' is not very exciting, but that's certainly the way to do it."
But would that really "do it"? In the end, the movement's image problem is perhaps traceable not to its terminology, but to its morally judgmental attitude. Put another way, a product doesn't necessarily benefit from a new name if the old ingredients remain.
Let's test my argument. Consider this factual sentence: On Sept. 13, 2001, religious right leader Jerry Falwell blamed the 9/11 attacks on "pagans and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifetyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way - all of them who have tried to secularize America, I point the finger in their face and say, 'You helped make this happen." And religious right leader Pat Robertson, his co-guest on the TV appearance, replied, "I totally concur."
Now substitute Schneeberger's preferred terminology: On Sept. 13, 2001, socially conservative evangelical Jerry Falwell blamed the 9/11 attacks on "pagans and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifetyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way - all of them who have tried to secularize America, I point the finger in their face and say, 'You helped make this happen." And socially conservative evangelical Pat Robertson, his co-guest on the TV appearance, replied, "I totally concur."