So Is the Christian Right Dead Yet Already? Not So Fast!

I’ve always been a fan of Suzy Khimm’s reporting and writing. But I have to say, her take on the Christian Right as reflected in her experience at this weekend’s Values Voters Summit makes me fear she’s going to convince progressives and MSM types all over again that the Christian Right is dead, the way they keep declaring it dead year after year.

Ever since the religious right’s political power arguably peaked in 2004, when President George W. Bush and Karl Rove made gay-marriage bans a centerpiece of their re-election strategy, social conservatives have watched helplessly as their “family values” agenda fizzled, as the tide increasingly swam against them on gay marriage, and as Tea Partiers replaced them as the most coveted constituency for Republican candidates to court. While they’ve managed to enact abortion restrictions in many states, they’ve seen popular support for the rest of their once-ambitious policy agenda erode.

Despite the shouts of hallelujah, what this year’s summit ended up highlighting was not the resurgent power of Christian conservatives in the Republican Party, but how much their influence on the policy debate has diminished. As usual, most of the major GOP presidential contenders—even the unlikely figure of Donald Trump—came courting the crowd of 2,700 who’d registered for the event. But they offered little besides effusive praise for Kim Davis and utterly vague—if not utterly unrealistic—promises to champion religious liberties in the White House. When the summit-goers left Washington to scatter back to their hometowns across America, they left with no clear idea of what to fight for next—or how.

Khimm goes on to quote Ross Douthat–who is not a conservative evangelical at all–and Rod Dreher–who’s already given up on politics–to support her hypothesis that the Christian Right is out of steam and ideas.

But I think the piece misses a pretty important point: even if politically oriented conservative evangelicals (and some of their traditionalist Catholic allies) are divided over strategy, tactics and leadership, and are flummoxed by the speed with which marriage equality was enacted, their years of partisan service give them a grip on the Republican Party that will pay off massively if the GOP wins the White House and hangs onto Congress next year.

No, Republicans will not be able to reverse Obergefell v. Hodges. But a Republican president would almost definitely issue executive orders affecting government contracts, service providers, and federal prosecutorial policy that will give people like Kim Davis unprecedented leeway to avoid anti-discrimination laws.

And on the reproductive rights front (which Khimm somehow thinks is less important to VVS attendees than same-sex marriage), a Republican victory has enormous implications. For one thing, the Planned Parenthood funding cutoff that’s created so much thunder and lighting in Washington will happen, almost instantly. Republican divisions on that subject are almost entirely about the government shutdown context–one of many topics where supposed “wars for the soul of the GOP” are all about strategy and tactics rather than goals or policies. A ban on abortions after 20 weeks will be enacted instantly as well, along with whatever other measures antichoice activists decide will not trigger an inconveniently timed constitutional challenge to Roe v. Wade–and they make go ahead and roll the dice on that one, too! And that’s just the beginning of policy changes supported by the Christian Right that will finally be redeemed under President Rubio or Bush or Trump or Cruz. Whether or not a GOP president and Congress can succeed in a total repeal of Obamacare via the reconciliation process (or perhaps a nuclear option eliminating filibusters entirely), there’s no question one of the first provisions to go will be the contraception coverage mandate.

And then there are the courts. Is there a single Republican presidential nominee who has not made–or if not, will soon make–extremely specific promises to stack the Supreme Court and other federal courts with pre-vetted opponents of precisely the reasoning that led to Obergefell?

To put this all another way, if, as the headline of Khimm’s piece suggests, the “Religious Right Has No Idea What to Do Now,” that’s largely because they’ve won everything they can win without controlling the federal government and the courts. The former is within reach in 2016. The latter would then probably be just a matter of time. No, they might not have the special cache of having united behind a single candidate for president who then wins the White House. But with no sizable faction in the GOP really willing to stand up to them (except in ridiculous and ultimately irrelevant causes like shutting down the government for a week or two in a futile gesture over Planned Parenthood), it may not matter a lot.

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.