Prophecies of a Divorce Between the GOP and the Christian Right Are Very Premature

So here’s TNR’s Elizabeth Stoker Breunig with another of her provocative, eerily confident, and ultimately questionable meditations on the intersection of religion and politics. The headline she or her editors chose seems more or less appropriate to what she seems to be saying: “The Deterioration of the Christian Right Is Imminent.” Last time I wrote about one of her articles she seemed to be saying “the culture wars are over.” So it’s clear she sees a trend.

To parse her argument very succinctly (if you want the scenic tour of Bruenig’s piece, check out my colleague Martin Longman’s take at Ten Miles Square, which arrives at a similar destination by a different route), Bruenig views the rising conservative attacks on Mike Huckabee for economic policy heresy as a sign the Corporate Wing of the GOP has lost patience with the Christian Right, and is willing to do without it, substituting instead a watery commitment to Christian evangelical rhetoric they can get from any number of less troublesome presidential candidates. Bruenig hopes that in turn that the scales will fall from the eyes of true conservative Christians, who will finally realize they’ve sold their birthright for a mess of pottage and turn elsewhere–where I’m not sure–for vindication of their values.

I wish I could agree with this analysis, but it depends crucially on the belief that support for capitalism is extrinsic to conservative evangelical Christianity, and has been undertaken as part of some sort of bargain–corrupt, perhaps, but still a bargain–between the agents of God and of Mammon. If the bargain is broken by the merchants of greed, then presumably their half-willing Christian allies may bail. But from everything I’ve read and seen, the spirit of capitalism and many of its associated impulses have deeply sunk into the American Christian, and especially conservative evangelical, world view. And that’s not at all surprising, since the people we are largely talking about have in the mean time traveled from farm to small town to city to suburb, and are living lives fully integrated with the market economy and mentality. They’re as likely to object to Huckabee’s heresies on trade and entitlement as to support them.

And that leads to the other problem with Bruenig’s case: I don’t know that Huckabee’s (or for that matter, Rick Santorum’s) economic “populism” has any particular religious foundation. He’s trying to exploit a very simple contradiction between the economic views of Republican politicians and of their voters: the GOP “base” is heavily concentrated among older and non-college-educated white folks. Few of them care for “entitlement reform,” if it comes at their perceived expense, and a decent number have never supported “free trade,” either. Huckabee is clearly trying to break out of his conservative-evangelical political ghetto into a broader neighborhood of potential allies against the GOP Establishment people who rejected him back in 2008. Whether or not it works, the Christian Right has no inherent dog in this fight, and as Bruenig acknowledges, there are plenty of other candidates who are willing to check all the boxes on the Christian Right’s agenda.

Yes, as Bruenig notes, some businesses are breaking with the Christian Right on the scope of “religious liberty” laws, as are some Republican politicians. But let’s not forget that the victorious plaintiff in the most important recent Supreme Court case in this area, which expanded the ambit of “religious liberty” significantly, was the self-consciously Christian business Hobby Lobby. The Christian business Chick-Fil-A has been an enormous symbol in the culture wars. The pulpit-pounding leader of the wildly popular (on the Right) Duck Dynasty clan, Phil Robertson, called himself a “Bible-believing, gun-toting capitalist” to screaming applause this year at that libertarian-dominated event, CPAC. Huck himself is hardly William Jennings Bryan.

As Martin Longman says in the title of his post: “The Christian Right Ain’t Populist.” Nor is it uniquely represented by Mike Huckabee. Nor has it lost faith in the GOP. Nor is the GOP showing it the door.

Other than that, Breunig’s essay is, as all her articles are, quite stimulating. In this particular case, she kind of reminds me of an adult child whose parents have divorced, with one marrying someone the child regards as a despicable scoundrel. Any sign this second marriage could be on the rocks will quite rightly stir up the child’s hopes. But nine times out of ten, they’ll kiss and make up.

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.