The Rise of the Christian Right in Virginia

The Rise of the Christian Right in Virginia

Drew Walton

My episode of this podcast series focuses on two particular strings in the grand weaving of the Republican Party of Virginia as it exists today. It’s both a narrative of a single man, Richard Dudley Obenshain, and how his abrupt and unexpected death changed the political playing field for the GOP that allowed the second string of this podcast, the Christian Right, to eventually imbue itself into the Republican Party’s infrastructure in the state of Virginia. The two strings tie together into what I present as a romance that is ultimately fulfilled not by mere words of persuasion and political compromise but rather by voids in leadership and outlying political circumstances.

Richard Dudley Obenshain

In producing this podcast, I had to leapfrog through certain time periods in order to concisely make the argument I do. Perhaps the most outstanding example of this was the 1980s which I only cover in the sense to stress the failures of GOP and the first steps of the Christian Right in Virginia. This is partly because of the historical research I’m pulling from regarding this. For example, the Christian Right’s actions as chronicled Mark J. Rozell and Clyde Wilcox in Second Coming: The New Christian Right in Virginia State Politics is appropriately titled because it serves as a double entendre, the Second Coming being the prophesied biblical event of Jesus Christ’s return to Earth at the end of the world; but what I perhaps should have stressed is that the title is in fact a “comeback story” for the Christian Right.

The full book examines the twenty year time period between 1976 and 1996, the fourteen years leading up to 1990 are particularly dismissed as a fruitless and unfulfilled political venture for the Christian Right as helmed by Jerry Falwell of The Moral Majority. As these authors stress, “During the 1970’s and early 1980s, the Christian Right in Virginia was a decentralized collection of social movement organizations and leaders, with little cooperation or coordination. Its leaders voiced extreme positions on social issues, preferring purism to political compromise. By the early 1990’s, a set of more pragmatic organizations had emerged that sought to build interdenominational alliances and to compromise when necessary to achieve their goals” [Rozell and Wilcox, 4]. So even our authors view the years in the immediate wake of Obenshain’s death as a relatively inconsequential time for the Christian Right, with their focus being more on how the second wave of the Christian Right learned from their own organizational failures and petty prejudices against other denominations of Christians rather than any substantial political outcomes they made at the time.

This of course leads into the topic the Christian Right’s political victories in the 1990s. The Christian Right had the built in numbers to seize Virginia state politics at the time. As of the beginning of the decade in 1990; Protestant Evangelicals made up roughly over a million and a half adherents at this time and factored in at 24.58% of Virginia’s population.

Counties with browner shades of orange represent those with higher populations of Protestant Evangelicals. Well above the minimal spread of 10-20% in each county.

As you can see in the map to the right this was fairly distributed across the state with only the most remote counties hosting Protestant Evangelical populations closing in on 50% or more. An average regardless of whether it a suburban county or a rural country generally skews close to 30% per country. This is why the Christian Right was so effective in the elections because they were able to reach a sizeable amount of voters across the entirety of the state without having to pander or focus on specific demographics because their message was ultimately based around their niche.

Rural locations such as Lee, Scott, and Wise counties were naturally receptive to the mobilization efforts because they were built into they were more or less built into the now fully transformed Republican Party. With the last remaining conservative Democrats running for election in these areas, these ideological odd dogs were soundly defeated and then absorbed into the GOP infrastructure as can be seen by the results of the 1993 election.

The Democratic Party’s few victories in the 1993 election are mostly found in the cities of the southeastern portion of the state.

By the end of the twentieth century, Richard Dudley Obenshain’s dream of converting conservative Democrats into the Republican Party had at long last been realized. Quite unexpectedly, it was the fledging and primordial Christian Right that was still emerging in the 70’s and 80’s that had made his dream into a reality.




Sources (Books, podcast audio clips, music, and map data)

Atkinson, Frank B. The Dynamic Dominion: Realignment and the Rise of Virginia’s Republican Party since 1945. Fairfax: George Mason University Press. 1992.

Conger, Kimberly H. The Christian Right in Republican State Politics. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. 2009.

Rozell, Mark J., and Clyde Wilcox. Second Coming: The New Christian Right in Virginia Politics. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. 1996.

Trump at Regent University:

Pat Robertson interview:

“Division” by Kevin MacLeod (

Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License

“Concentration” by Kevin MacLeod (

Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License

“Dewdrop Fantasy” by Kevin MacLeod (

Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License

“The Complex” by Kevin MacLeod (

Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License

Virginia Evangelical Protestant and 1993 Gubernatorial election map data:


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