First up from the God Machine this week is a look at the recent track of the religious right movement and its spectacularly unsuccessful attempts to dictate the Republican presidential nominating contest.

Dana Milbank takes stock today and ponders, “God knows what has become of the religious right.”

The movement of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson has been in decline for some time, but recent events suggest that they are wandering in the political wilderness.

A fresh symptom of the trouble came this month during the meeting of 150 evangelical leaders in Texas, where the deeply divided deacons of the religious right had to take three votes before opting to endorse Rick Santorum, who has no real chance of winning the Republican presidential nomination. […]

Things have not gone well generally in this electoral cycle for the once-vaunted movement. Preferred candidates, particularly Mike Huckabee, didn’t run. The front-runner belongs to a church that some Christian conservatives consider a cult. The one religious conservative remaining in the race, Santorum, has virtually no chance. Michele Bachmann flopped. Rick Perry flamed out — and, upon exiting the race, endorsed Newt Gingrich the same day that the former House speaker was publicly accused by a former wife of seeking an “open marriage.”

We can take this accurate observation much further, though, by looking back at the last several cycles and noticing that this isn’t the first time the religious right has struggled.

In 1980, as the movement was just coming together in earnest, the religious right wasn’t sold on Reagan, and didn’t want to see H.W. Bush on the ticket. In 1988, the movement fought to prevent H.W. Bush from winning the nomination. In 1996, the religious right had no use for Dole. In 2000, the movement desperately wanted John Ashcroft to run, but he didn’t. In 2008, the religious right rallied behind Huckabee in the hopes of derailing McCain.

And in 2012, leading social conservatives threw their support to Santorum, hoping to give him a major boost in advance of the South Carolina primary, only to see him slip to fourth place in the polls.

If readers looked hard enough, I suspect they could find me contradicting myself about the relative strength of the religious right movement, and I’ll concede I go back and forth on this. On the one hand, evangelicals and other social conservatives maintain large numbers, help provide foot-soldiers for the Republican Party, have access to GOP leaders, and can get prominent party officials to routinely pander to them. On the other, Republicans tend not to put the movement’s agenda very high on the national to-do list, and when push comes to shove, the GOP presidential nomination invariably goes to candidates the religious right doesn’t like at all.

But if Santorum continues to fade immediately after a high-profile, enthusiastic endorsement from the movement, it’ll be time for the religious right to pause to consider a disconcerting realization: it doesn’t have the influence it thinks it does.

Also from the God Machine this week:

* Church arsonist going away for a while: “A white man who admitted to helping burn down a mostly black church to protest against Barack Obama’s election as the nation’s first black president was sentenced on Wednesday to four-and-a-half years in prison.” (thanks to R.P. for the tip)

* The Roman Catholic Church’s international scandal involving the sexual abuse of children intensified in Belgium this week, when Belgian police “conducted a third day of raids on Catholic church offices on Wednesday as part of an operation targeting priests suspected of child abuse.”

* And Tony Perkins, head of the religious right’s Family Research Council, reflected on MSNBC this week on why social conservative voters can support Newt Gingrich despite his past. “People don’t want to be seen as that judgmental, because they’re not judgmental,” Perkins said. He didn’t appear to be kidding.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.