THE OPPRESSED REPRESSED

09.29.14 9:45 AM ET

The Religious Right’s Slow-Motion Suicide

In fairness, the culture-war right has done less damage than the neocons and the super rich have. But they’re still the ones on the ropes.

I’m not sure what’s come over me and I suppose it’ll pass, but at just this moment I’m feeling a little bit sorry for evangelical conservatives. They were apparently pretty droopy, these proceedings over the weekend at the Values Voter Summit, as my colleague Ben Jacobs described things. Oh, yes, Ted Cruz fired them up, and some of the old stalwarts put in respectable appearances, but they have to know deep down that they’re like the horse-and-buggy lobby after Henry Ford has hit town. It’s only a matter of time.

I refer here chiefly to same-sex marriage, the big issue on which the cultural right now represents a quickly shrinking minority. You know the storm clouds are gathering when even Michele Bachmann is throwing in the towel—she declared same-sex marriage “not an issue” and even “boring” at the meeting.

But it’s not just same-sex marriage. The country has liberalized culturally in a range of ways in the past six or eight years, and it’s not only not going back, it’s charging relentlessly forward. The religious right also has no leaders anymore of the remotest interest. Back in the ’80s, Jerry Falwell was a figure to contend with; to loathe, certainly, but also to fear. Today? Pat Robertson has lost his marbles, seemingly, and after him, who? Tony Perkins? No one even knows his name, or if they do, they inevitably think of the guy who played filmdom’s most famous matricidal cross-dresser and aren’t entirely sure that this Tony Perkins might not be that Tony Perkins, which is not quite the type of association they’re looking for.

It’s a group that is losing power, and I think the leaders and even the rank-and-filers know it. Their vehicle, the Republican Party, is going libertarian on them. Rand Paul, whether he wins the 2016 nomination or not, is clearly enough of a force within the party that he is pushing it away from the culture wars. He is joined in this pursuit by the conservative intellectual class, which knows the culture wars are a dead-bang loser for the GOP and which finds the culture warriors more than a little embarrassing, and by the establishment figures, the Karl Rove types, who stroked them back in 2004 but who now see them as a liability, at least at the presidential level. There are still, of course, many states where these voters come in quite handy in that they elect many Republican representatives and senators.

If you think of the famous three legs of the Republican stool (the money conservatives, the foreign-policy conservatives, and the cultural conservatives) and think about which of those legs have had the biggest policy impact during periods of Republican governance in recent history, you have to conclude that the money and foreign-policy conservatives have made out like bandits (in some cases all too literally). The money crowd got all the deregulation it could realistically hope for. The neocons got two wars. The social conservatives haven’t done nearly as well. They’ve gotten some judicial appointments, but Roe v. Wade is still law, and that turncoat Kennedy is probably going to let the gays marry.

Now we’re getting to why on one level I feel a pang of sympathy for them. The disasters the Republican Party has brought us in the last decade—the economic meltdown and the wars—were the fault of the other two legs of the stool. Yet we know that these two groups are going to have permanent power in GOP. The money people own the party, and the neocons still dominate in Washington and—Rand Paul notwithstanding—will always have a considerable degree of influence in the party. The social conservatives are the only faction within the triad that hasn’t heaped wreckage upon the nation (not for lack of trying), and yet they have far less power in the upper echelons of party than the other two groups. And when they complain, as they occasionally do, that they’ve largely been paid back for all their work in the vineyards with lip service and symbolic little executive order-type things, they have a point. It’s a little like labor in the Democratic Party.

And now, 2016 is going to be a pivotal election for them. Many of them want Ted Cruz, who won the Values Voter straw poll. But of course this is ridiculous. Cruz isn’t going to be the nominee. In fact Cruz’s win, and the fact that Jeb Bush and Chris Christie weren’t even invited to the meeting, is a sign of their retreat from serious politics toward something entirely gestural. Bush, from these people’s perspective, is too squishy on immigration, and Christie last October decided to stop fighting the tide of history on same-sex marriage when a decision by the state’s Supreme Court led Christie to withdraw an appeal his administration had lodged against a pro-same-sex marriage lawsuit.

That’s a childish way to do politics. If somehow they were to get their way with Cruz, then Hillary Clinton will easily be elected president, and she’ll almost certainly have the time and opportunity to flip the Supreme Court back to a liberal majority, and they’ll be finished for the good, the cultural right, and they will have contributed mightily to their own well-deserved demise.

OK. Whew. I’m over it.