Another Premature Burial For Christian Right

Brother Benen, among others, is enjoying the discomfiture of the Christian Right’s leadership in the wake of Election ’12, wherein they not only participated in the GOP’s presidential and Senate defeats, but also got waxed in a number of ballot initiative fights, most notably (and for the first time ever) those involving same-sex marriage.

But I think he (among others) is going too far in suggesting that the Christian Right is on the edge of giving up or changing it goals, or could even begin to give way to a new generation of conservative evangelicals whose “focus is less on this kingdom, and more on the next.”

Yes, the election results were very bad news for the Christian Right, primarily because the re-election of Barack Obama puts its most immediate targets, the power of a president to issue regulations and make appointments to the federal bench, beyond its reach for another four years. The HHS contraception coverage mandate will stand, along with its legislative underpinning, the Affordable Care Act. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who will turn 80 in March, can now retire if she wishes without being held responsible for the reversal of Roe v. Wade and other key Court precedents. It’s unclear how long the chief conservative warrior on the Court, Justice Antonin Scalia, who turns 77 in March, can hang on. When the 40th anniversary of Roe comes round on January 22, the antichoice movement, which had hoped it would be celebrating the decision’s imminent demise, will be thrown back into the Long March of guerrilla warfare against reproductive rights.

But the Christian Right remains psychologically prepared for exactly that contingency. Steve appears to think quotations from Christian Right leaders acknowledging an increasingly difficult political landscape in an “increasingly secularized America” is an indication they may soon adjust their goals or retreat into more spiritual endeavors. These are people, however, who glory in perceived persecution; who like to compare themselves to the Christian Martyrs of the centuries, and more recent “witnesses” like the Confessing Church opposition to Hitler and today’s believers struggling for the freedom to worship in Islamic countries. Anyone expecting the Christian Right to fade away should remember this is a movement whose chief symbol, after all, invokes the state execution of its divine Founder.

When I read of Christian Right leaders discussing the uneven struggle with “secularized America,” I don’t assume they are losing faith; I figure they are contemplating more militant, even revolutionary means. And there is no reason whatsoever, let’s be clear, to think the Christian Right has lost its hold over its primary political vehicle, the Republican Party. In the ongoing intra-Republican post-mortem over the 2012 election, there may be some tactical repositioning on cultural issues (particularly in de-emphasizing opposition to same-sex marriage, where everyone can see the generational hand-writing on the wall, even among evangelicals), but no significant change.

Lest we forget, every single Republican candidate for president in 2012 toed the Christian Right line in every major detail. The second-place finisher in the nomination fight, Rick Santorum, was himself a Christian Right Culture Warrior of the most impeccable purity, willing to openly smite not just Secularists but Liberal Protestants and Catholics as infidels and instruments of Satan. The old chestnut of a “struggle for the soul” of the GOP between economic and cultural conservatives turned out to be as empty as ever, as the former embraced an aggressive campaign against legalized abortion and for “religious liberty” even as the latter continued to baptize laissez-faire capitalism as part of the Divine Plan.

The increasingly dominant strategy for a Republican revival, an aggressive Latino outreach, is right in the Christian Right’s wheelhouse. And so is the talk about a “modernized” messaging and turnout effort with the best technology money can buy–which should be apparent to anyone who has attended worship services in a megachurch. And for those flagging in the faith, there will be the 2014 midterm elections, where there will be significantly improved odds of another Republican victory that will (temporarily, to be sure) quell all the current discussion of ineluctable demographic trends that have already consigned conservatism to the dustbin of political history.

In a qualifier of his optimism about the Christian Right, Brother Benen observes:

The obituary for the religious right has been written many times, but the political movement, to varying degrees, has persevered through difficult times before. It’s easy to imagine Republican presidential candidates in 2016 and 2020 showing up at the same Christian conservative conferences, repeating the same pandering talking points to the same evangelical activists.

I’d say it’s not only easy to imagine, but hard to un-imagine. Yes, the Christian Right’s old leadership will gradually change, but that doesn’t mean the chimera of a “progressive” evangelical movement that will suddenly embrace climate change activism or social justice via public sector programs will materialize and take flight. And moreover, every serious name being bruited about for the next GOP presidential nomination (Ryan, Rubio, Bush, Jindal, McConnell, Haley) has solid-gold Christian Right credentials. Particularly if the conservative movement generally gets a second wind in 2014, it’s more likely that 2016 will be a more frenetic crusade for the Christian Right than the just-concluded cycle, than that it will represent an occultation. Get ready for more holy war.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.