A religious right crack-up?

A RELIGIOUS RIGHT CRACK-UP?…. In general, the most noticeable fissure among politically conservative evangelical Christians is generational. In this dynamic, older evangelicals see themselves as an appendage of the Republican Party, and consider abortion and gay rights as the only “moral” issues that matter. Younger evangelicals are less partisan, and consider poverty and global warming important, too.

But there’s another fissure, which in the short term, may be even more consequential. It’s between leaders of the religious movement vs. those more inclined to take John 18:36 to heart (Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world”).

The split first emerged, on a conceptual level, about a decade ago, when Cal Thomas, a far-right columnist and founding member of the Moral Majority, write a book called “Blinded by Might,” arguing that conservative evangelical Christians have been going about their efforts all wrong. Religious right activists, Thomas said, should focus less on political power and influence — having a seat at the proverbial GOP table — and more on religion and family.

In her Washington Post column today, Kathleen Parker reports on how this kind of thinking as grown considerably more common, to the point that many “principled Christians” are now “finished with politics.” Parker highlights a recent argument between Tom Minnery, head of the political arm of Focus on the Family, and Steve Deace of WHO Radio in Iowa.

Deace’s point was that established Christian activist groups too often settle for lesser evils in exchange for electing Republicans…. Compromise may be the grease of politics, but it has no place in Christian orthodoxy, according to Deace.

Put another way, Christians may have no place in the political fray of dealmaking. That doesn’t mean one disengages from political life, but it might mean that the church shouldn’t be a branch of the Republican Party. It might mean trading fame and fortune (green rooms and fundraisers) for humility and charity.

Deace’s radio show may be beneath the radar of most Americans and even most Christians, but he is not alone in his thinking. I was alerted to the Deace-Minnery interview by E. Ray Moore — founder of the South Carolina-based Exodus Mandate, an initiative to encourage Christian education and home schooling. Moore, who considers himself a member of the Christian right, thinks the movement is imploding.

“It’s hard to admit defeat, but this one was self-inflicted,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Yes, Dr. Dobson and the pro-family or Christian right political movement is a failure; it would have made me sad to say this in the past, but they have done it to themselves.”

For Christians such as Moore — and others better known, such as columnist Cal Thomas, a former vice president for the Moral Majority — the heart of Christianity is in the home, not the halls of Congress or even the courts. And the route to a more moral America is through good works — service, prayer and education — not political lobbying.

It’s worth noting that both sides of the fissure believe the culture war has effectively been lost, but they differ wildly on the diagnosis. For religious right leaders, the culture war flopped because they faced too many enemies (popular culture, changing norms, progressive interest groups) with too few allies (no Republican follow-through). For those like Deace and Thomas, the war never should have been fought in the first place, because it required principled Christians to effectively become political lobbyists.

Thomas told Parker, “If people who call themselves Christians want to see any influence in the culture, then they ought to start following the commands of Jesus and people will be so amazed that they will be attracted to Him. The problem isn’t political. The problem is moral and spiritual…. You have the choice between a way that works and brings no credit or money or national attention. Or, a way that doesn’t work that gets you lots of attention and has little influence on the culture.”

The movement, in other words, has a decision to make.