Is the Christian Right still a power in American politics? The lavish coverage which its partisans and their favorite issues have received during the current Republican campaign certainly leave that impression. Yet all this attention is akin to the dazzling glow of a setting sun. In fact, the Christian Right is a fading force in American life, one which has little chance of achieving its cherished goals.
Yes, pious conservatives earned the underfunded Rick Santorum a virtual tie in the Iowa caucuses, and, last week, a large gathering of evangelical leaders nodded fervently in his direction. Every GOP candidate still in the race speaks of Planned Parenthood as if it were a band of terrorists and vows to stop the largest and oldest reproductive rights group in the country from winning even a dollar of federal funding—and all of them except Ron Paul has signed a firm pledge to support a constitutional amendment that would essentially ban same-sex marriage. As for the presumptive nominee Mitt Romney, who has earned the suspicions of many conservative evangelicals, he has worked tirelessly to ingratiate himself with the Christian Right. Pro-Romney robo-calls in South Carolina currently feature a right-to-lifer from Massachusetts who opens her pitch, “I know you have heard a lot of folks talking about Mitt’s record on life, faith, and marriage while governor of Massachusetts.”
But, whatever their influence on the Republican primary, the Christian Right is fighting a losing battle with the rest of the country—above all, when it comes to abortion and same-sex marriage, the issues they care most about. A strong majority of Americans backs abortion in the early months of a pregnancy. If elected president, it’s exceedingly unlikely that Romney would ever sign legislation that could lead to the indictment of millions of women and tens of thousands of physicians for fetal murder. Last fall, even voters in Mississippi soundly rejected a bill that might have done just that.
Meanwhile, support for gay rights is rising, quite swiftly. Same-sex marriage tops fifty percent in some recent polls, and the remarkably placid response to New York’s recent legalization of the practice will make it easier for other states to follow suit. With over two-thirds of Americans now endorsing the end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the debate on that once controversial issue is now a matter for historians to analyze.
More fundamentally, the right of privacy is now all but unchallenged. Almost half-a-century after Griswold v. Connecticut, not even Rick Santorum proposes outlawing birth control methods that nearly every heterosexual woman has used or will use at some point in her life. The news that the traditionalist Catholic ex-Senator from Pennsylvania had suggested that contraception “is counter to how things are supposed to be” was enough to bury under a heap of ridicule whatever slim chance he had to win the nomination. In the modern U.S., once a demand for justice gets widely accepted as an individual right, its victory becomes all but certain. As the woman suffrage, birth control, and black freedom movements triumphed, so will those who campaign for legalizing gay marriage.
Thus, contrary to the whims of lazy pundits, the waning of enthusiasm for battling over “social issues” is not due to higher concerns about jobs, the deficit, and the economic future. As President, George W. Bush, despite his born-again convictions and eloquent speeches crafted by his fellow evangelical Michael Gerson, could not slow, much less reverse the erosion of support for the Christian Right.
Part of its decline is due to the absence of effective, well-known leaders. Two decades ago, evangelical conservatives could look to charismatic men like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson to raise hefty sums, build sizeable national organizations, and generate fear as well as loathing among liberals. But few Americans outside their own circle would recognize any of the key figures who organized the meeting last week that endorsed Santorum. That may be a blessing of sorts. One of them—Donald Wildmon, the 73-year-old founder of the American Family Association—made headlines in the past by calling for a boycott of Disneyland because it hosted an annual “gay day” and demanding that Sears pull its ads from the original Charlie’s Angels.
But the emptiness at the top of the movement reflects a gradual hollowing out at its base. At Glenn Beck’s prayer meeting cum political rally in August 2010, the average age of the participants was somewhere in the late fifties or older: White and gray hair and spreading midriffs predominated in the nearly all-white crowd. It may have been the first Washington rally in history at which a majority of the participants were resting on portable folding chairs.
Put simply, the Christian Right is getting old. According to the largest and most recent study we have of American religion and politics, by Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, almost twice as many people 18 to 29 confess to no faith at all as adhere to evangelical Protestantism. Young people who have attended college, a growing percentage of the population, are more secular still. Catholicism has held its own only because the Church keeps gathering in newcomers from Latin America, Africa, and Asia, few of whom are likely to show up at a Santorum rally. To their surprise, Putnam and Campbell discovered that conservative preachers infrequently discuss polarizing issues from the pulpit. Sermons about hunger and poverty far outnumber those about homosexuality or abortion. On any given Sunday, just one group of Christians routinely grapples with divisive political issues: black Protestants, the most reliably Democratic constituency of them all.
The passion of evangelical Christianity has always been a vital part of American religion and culture. It came ashore with the first Puritan settlers and will surely survive and prosper for decades to come. But, over the centuries, piety, in its messianic form, has proven quite adaptable to a variety of warring causes. Abolitionists and apologists for slavery, labor priests and ministers who denounced strikers as Communists, Martin Luther King and George Wallace—all fit Lincoln’s description of the Civil War antagonists who “read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.” If they still hope to transform our pluralistic, profane culture into a new Jerusalem, Christian conservatives will have to find new holy battles to wage. The old ones and their crusaders are rapidly aging.
Michael Kazin is the author, most recently, of American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation. He teaches history at Georgetown University and is co-editor of Dissent.