One of the perennial phenomena of contemporary politics is the periodic sighting of signs the Christian Right–along with the culture wars it promotes–is dead or dying. It’s so frequent a phenomenon that it’s always a good idea to be skeptical.
This week two different developments were bruited about as indicating a fast fade in the grip of the Christian Right on faith communities where it has flourished. This first was the appearance of a new political spokesman for the Southern Baptist Convention.I wrote this about it at Washington Monthly:
Andew Sullivan thinks the Christian Right may finally be on the ropes, and cites as evidence a Wall Street Journal profile of Russell Moore, the man who has succeeded the culture-warhorse Richard Land as chief political affairs spox for the Southern Baptist Convention.
Reading the profile, it’s clear Moore wants to turn the page rhetorically from Land’s many thunderbolts, beginning with welcome warnings of excessive church investment in political causes remote from its mission, and a more irenic attitude towards “sinners” if not sin. And he very clearly wants to dissolve the marriage of convenience between conservative evangelicals and the Republican Party.
But we’ve heard all this before, along with the same expressions of hope from liberals and secular folk (the profile features several) that these zealots are finally going back into their shell just like they did after the Scopes Monkey Trial. I’d remind everyone that a change in strategy and tactics for politically-inclined conservative evangelicals doesn’t necessarily reflect a change in goals or commitments, and also that a loudly proclaimed independence from the GOP has been a hallmark of the Tea Party Movement as well.
Sarah Posner, an adept observer of the Christian Right, added this observation:
The religious right is not a static movement. Although there are still some who go the fire and brimstone route, many others–particularly those telegenic enough to attain a position like Moore’s–are going to give the “culture war” issues a softer touch. But make no mistake: they still see these as cultural issues, and still see their essential role as engagement in the public square as witnesses for (their view of) Christ’s teachings.
The religious right is not a movement with one or even two or three or four leaders. Because it’s a political and cultural undertaking that is playing a long game–rather successfully–it has produced many disciples. (In contrast, liberals tend to see small moments within that long game–like Moore replacing Land–as more consequential than they should.) Moore has an office in Washington, and a press operation. He has a title. He’s smart and thoughtful. I read him. I follow him. He will be on your television a lot. But like with Land (although in a different way) this coverage will overplay his influence. He’s not a general. He can’t order a retreat.
Posner also notes this remark by Moore on Fox News which indicates a robust commitment to the “religious liberty” movement focused on resistance to the Obamacare contraception coverage mandate:
“You can see this happening all over the country not only related to Obamacare. This is just one fiery rafter in a burning house. Religious liberty is under assault all over the place in this country in ways that I think are probably more pronounced than we have seen since the founding era… People who are doing good things in their communities motivated by religious convictions are simply being driven out of the public square because they won’t sing out of the hymn book of the church of the sexual revolution. I just don’t think we can live this way as Americans.”
Not exactly a full retreat from the culture wars, eh?
Meanwhile, other optimistic observers think Pope Francis’ dramatic departures from a culture-war-heavy message from the Vatican could detach American Catholics from the Christian Right, while alienating conservative evangelicals. I wouldn’t bet the farm on that happening, either:
I haven’t been slavishly following Francis’ pronouncements, but it would appear that his many gestures towards change are the religious equivalent of a shift in institutional strategy and tactics rather than doctrine. And while he’s encouraged Catholics to think more broadly and lovingly about the mission of the Church in a broken world, it’s not like he’s excommunicating culture-warriors or telling Right to Life groups to suspend their efforts and instead feed and clothe the poor. The idea that a “liberal” Pope will create an immediate sea-change in American Catholic attitudes is no more compelling than earlier assumptions that conservative Popes could immediately convince their flock in this country to stop taking contraceptives or voting for Democrats.
Let’s wait and see before declaring for the umpteenth time that the Christian Right’s dead.