The Religious Right After Obama
Will Christian conservatives learn the lessons of defeat or stay trapped in the GOP? By David Sessions.
If there’s one thing the religious right agrees on after Tuesday’s election, it’s that they lost—big time. Not only did Obama win reelection, but gay marriage won in all four states where it was on the ballot, and the two most outspoken senatorial candidates—one of whom was heavily funded by religious-right groups—were defeated.
“Last night really is a big loss, no way to spin it,” gay-marriage opponent Maggie Gallagher wrote the morning after. “Evangelical Christians must see the 2012 election as a catastrophe for crucial moral concerns,” wrote the Rev. Albert Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. “It’s not that our message didn’t get out,” he added. “It did ... An increasingly secularized America understands our positions, and has rejected them.”
It’s when the conversation turns to why a majority of voters rejected those positions—and what to do about it—that things get messier. In the wake of Tuesday’s liberal landslide, there has been plenty of overwrought analysis that has little connection to reality. Gary Bauer, for instance, blamed the Republican Party for downplaying gay marriage, which he insisted could have been the “winning issue” that motivated more social conservatives to turn out. (Actually, as many white evangelicals turned out as ever and overwhelmingly voted for Romney.) American Family Association rabble-rouser Bryan Fischer chalked it up to Romney’s Mormonism and the fact that he isn’t a “genuine conservative.” In the wake of the four ballot victories for gay marriage, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council predicted a violent revolution by America’s conservative majority if the Supreme Court makes gay marriage the law of the land.
But the emerging conventional wisdom in social-conservative circles is less dramatic: their message failed because the Republican Party failed to appeal to a broad enough base of voters. “We did our job,” top organizer Ralph Reed said at a debriefing the day after the election. “But we can’t do the Republican Party’s job for them, and we can’t do the candidate’s job for him or her.” Like hundreds of mainstream conservative pundits, the focus was suddenly on minority voters. “The map just does not add up for Republicans in terms of the present reality, much less the shape of the future,” Mohler wrote. “Put simply, the Republican Party cannot win unless it becomes the party of aspiration for younger Americans and Hispanic Americans.” Gallagher added, “Either we figure out how to win a much larger share of the Latino vote, or the conservative movement could be over.”
It is striking how, despite blaming the party for ignoring their pleas against Romney, many leaders and activists on the Christian right fundamentally identify themselves with the GOP. The social-conservative project now, as much as ever, lives and dies on the fate of Republicans at the polls. Just as much of the conservative commentariat has begun calling for the party to put on a PR campaign for Latino voters, often referring to them as “natural Republicans,” conservative Christians have begun speaking of Hispanic-Americans as social conservatives who just don’t know it yet. Social conservatives believe the GOP will need them to reach out to socially conservative minority voters, a project that will both shore up the Christian right’s place in the party and bring in new bodies to vote for its agenda.
If the religious right has not reconsidered its symbiotic relationship with Republicans, it also remains convinced that its message maintains a broad appeal to the American electorate. There is a blatant contradiction here: they acknowledge a seismic cultural shift is shaking the ground beneath their coalition, but seem to believe this deep structural change can be addressed with little more than a recalibrated message. What happened Tuesday was mostly a branding problem. The GOP establishment’s squeamishness on social issues, Gallagher explained, led to an election that failed to energize the base. (Despite the fact that the base turned out as faithfully as ever.) The victories for gay marriage, the National Organization for Marriage insisted, were the result of “political and funding advantages,” not real support for gay marriage. Reed characterized Obama’s win as a “personal victory” and argued that the majority that has now elected Obama twice must have done so despite deep disagreement with his policies. Again, the answer is a new look for the losers: “We need to do a better job of not looking like your daddy’s religious right. We have to be younger. We have to be more diverse ethnically.”
In his New York Times column Sunday, Ross Douthat calls this sort of thinking the “demographic excuse,” a silver-bullet “fantasy.” America’s shift away from the GOP, on both social and economic issues, goes far deeper than a simple pandering campaign can reach. Both religious conservatives and mainstream Republicans who think they can rebuild a majority by enlisting young candidates and throwing Hispanics a bone on immigration are still unprepared to confront their electoral dilemma. Latino Protestants, not to mention Catholics, are a long way from becoming Republicans. The only way that the GOP will significantly expand its appeal is to rework its economic agenda—something that remains unlikely for the foreseeable future. Because the religious right has made party politics the entire infrastructure of its movement, it will likely be dragged along, mostly ignored, as the party continues to struggle under the stranglehold of wealthy financiers who don’t want the current 1 Percent economic orthodoxy to change.
Religious conservatives outside the bubble of party politics think there are more realistic means of guarding their values than simply hoping the GOP will bring in more voters to support the party’s status quo. American Conservative blogger Rod Dreher has argued since 2008 that his side has lost the argument on gay marriage and that the Republican Party cannot be expected to make opposition to marriage equality an issue. “Same-sex marriage opponents would do well to abandon the fight against same-sex marriage, and instead focus on the threat [it] poses to religious liberty,” he wrote. First Things columnist Peter Leithart welcomed the death of a religious right that was “parasitic on Reaganism” as an opportunity to build a more holistically Christian political approach. “Christians won’t have a fully Christian public philosophy until we have reckoned with the inner tensions between advocacy of the market and, say, support for traditional families.”
But despite fresh approaches on the margins, the religious right remains a movement much more committed to partisan politics than to theological principle. Like the party on whose coattails it rides, change is likely torturous and glacially paced. And just like the 2012 election, by the time electoral realities force conservatives to adapt, it may already be too late.