So now that Mike Huckabee has thrown in, we have three or arguably four Republican candidates elbowing one another to win the collective heart of the evangelical right. In addition to Huck, there’s Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and maybe Rand Paul, whose links to the constituency are more tenuous but who clearly is in there pitching.
What they all understand, of course, is that the evangelical presence looms large in the Iowa caucuses, and it’s quite possible that only one of them is going to get out of the state alive. So by that measure, the Christian right still wields considerable political power in this country. But outside the realm of the Republican presidential primary process—and maybe soon within it—the religious right is losing wattage fast, and I can report to you happily that the movement has only itself to blame.
Here’s a fascinating little politico-cultural data point that may have blown past you this week and would have me were it not for Rod Dreher at The American Conservative: A new Wall Street Journal/NBC poll shows that more Americans say they feel enthusiastic about or comfortable with an openly gay or lesbian presidential candidate than an openly evangelical Christian one. Yep. Three out of five, or 61 percent, said they’d welcome a gay candidate, while just 52 percent would say the same of an evangelical.
The comparison is instructive, because if you contrast these two movements and their relative political success in recent years, you see a very clear distinction that should (and does) make Republicans nervous. You see why the LGBT movement is winning and why religious conservatives are losing—and further, why evangelicals, the foot soldiers of the religious right, probably can’t do anything about it without in effect ceasing to be evangelicals (at least of the stripe they’ve been for 30-plus years).
When I was a young journalist in New York, I witnessed and to some extent covered the rise of the post-AIDS gay and lesbian movement, as it was then known. I remember the rise of ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. ACT UP got in people’s faces, and certainly to some extent understandably so. But there were the occasional militant actions that lost potential supporters—the kiss-ins at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, notably, and even on one occasion I recall the desecration of the Host by one protester within the Cathedral itself on a Sunday morning. That one lost even me, as well as a lot of people more important than I am.
This is making a very long story very short, but in essence, over time, the leaders of the movement saw that it was more important to persuade public opinion than to shock it. And so the public-relations strategy around the movement for same-sex marriage became “We’re just like you.” And it worked, in all the ways you already know about. The poll I cite above has 58 percent of respondents hoping the Supreme Court rules in favor of same-sex marriage, and just 37 percent hoping it rules against.
In other words, the LGBT movement figured out that it had to find a way to get people who didn’t agree to agree.
Now let’s look at the Christian right. Has it done anything over the years to change its approach, try to widen its reach? Basically, no. Evangelicals care about the issues they’ve cared about for three decades. There have in fairness been occasional attempts to broaden the reach, but they’ve mostly blown up. Richard Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) tried to get the movement interested in climate change, and it blew up in his face. Then he expressed mere ambivalence about same-sex marriage—on NPR, no less!—and got thrown out of NAE (resigned, officially).
Lately, the big issue for Christian conservatives is religious freedom. Are they winning that one? No. Public opinion is divided, for example, on the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision, and different polls yield different results depending on how the question is asked. But many polls, like this one by Reuters, find that majorities oppose even a private employer’s “right” to deny contraceptive coverage to women.
Americans are against the religious right, too, on state laws like the one Governor Mike Pence originally tried to pass in Indiana, and which evangelical conservatives are pushing elsewhere. When Arizona was considering a similar law, 66 percent in one poll said they wouldn’t want their state passing such a law. And you saw what happened to Pence—he backed down, his ratings went in the toilet, and if you mention him today as a presidential contender, it’s only as a punch line.
Americans were once that opposed to equal rights for gay people, too. But the movement changed, and public opinion changed. The religious right, however, can’t change. When you believe the Big Guy Himself handed you down your positions, you’re not going to alter them or indeed even the way you talk about them.
What is the religious right’s version of “We’re just like you”? I don’t think there is one. Because they are not like the rest of us, at least when it comes to politics. The rest of us are a bunch of different things (many quite religious). But we, motley as we are, believe in separation of church and state and the principle that as far as public life goes, the Constitution quite effortlessly trumps the Bible. And those among this larger “we” who are religious think religion demands chiefly that we behave compassionately toward the less fortunate, not that we refuse to bake cakes for matrimonially minded lesbians.
At long last, the real moral majority is winning.