I’m so glad Damon Linker has returned to full-time writing. Agree with him or not, his columns are always smart and engaging. Today he’s writing about the future of the religious right in US politics. He says, accurately, that the religious right as we knew it is “finished.”:
Its decline since 2005 can be traced to numerous causes: The right’s widespread disappointment with the legacy of the Bush years across a range of areas, including fiscal, foreign, and social policy; the shift of the national GOP toward economic libertarianism in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008, the election of Barack Obama, the rise of the Tea Party, and the passage of health care reform; and finally, a dramatic and rapid shift in the culture, especially among the young, away from politicized religion and toward the acceptance of gay marriage.
In the wake of these changes, the remnants of the religious right have been reduced to playing defense. No longer portraying themselves as the nation’s “Moral Majority,” they’re now focused on the much more modest task of protecting themselves from state-mandated secularism. Where they once tried to ban gay marriage in the Constitution, now they fight to ensure that the government will allow conservatives to pass on their anti-homosexual beliefs in their own homes, churches, and schools. Where they once dreamed of outlawing contraception, now they fight to keep the government from forcing Catholic institutions to pay for insurance that provides it.
But this defensiveness doesn’t mean the populist energies behind the religious right have disappeared. On the contrary, millions of Americans continue to consider themselves religious conservatives. What will come next for these voters, now that the original religious right is fading out?
There are at least four possibilities.
Read Linker’s piece to find out what they are. None of his suggested possibilities seems likely to me, which is not to say it won’t happen, only that it’s still too early to tell. Speaking anecdotally, as a religious and social conservative, I think the best we can hope for legislatively is to play defense, and to elect candidates who promise to do their best to build a defensible perimeter within which we conservatives can live within our institutions. I don’t know how feasible that is, but I do know that it is more feasible than the same old same old. Meanwhile, I put my passion into doing things that build up local culture, e.g., participating in and encouraging homeschooling communities, building up the local church, etc. The broader culture is lost to us, at least in the short term. The time has come to build institutions capable of riding out what is to come, and passing along our countercultural faith and values to our children. Meanwhile, when we can cooperate with our liberal and/or secular neighbors, let’s do it.
As Evangelicalism grows increasingly estranged from American culture—especially from the evaporating culture of the Bible Belt—it grows increasingly committed to the “strangest” aspects of the evangel itself: atonement, resurrection, reconciliation, and so on. Some younger Evangelicals’ flight impulse from issues deemed “political” isn’t a move to the political left as much as a move to the theological right. Evangelicals want to conserve a supernatural gospel without sacrificing its social, cultural, and political importance, a gospel they saw often negotiated away in previous generations in a ploy for social and cultural acceptability and political success.
Moore says that it’s true that young Evangelicals are interested in a broader spectrum of issues that their parents were, but Moore says this doesn’t necessarily make them more liberal, despite the fact that some prominent Evangelical liberals have emerged out of their generation. Read on:
These Evangelicals actually go to church and so represent the future. The problem is that “young Evangelical” is a confusing term, especially for a media culture that often defines the concept in terms of marketing rather than theology or ecclesiology. It would be a mistake to lump the convictional Evangelicals of whom I speak in with the professional dissidents who make a living marketing mainline Protestant shibboleths to Evangelical college audiences by questioning everything from biblical inerrancy to a Christian sexual ethic. As one wag once said of Al Gore, that he is “an old man’s idea of a young man,” these Evangelicals are usually an Episcopalian’s idea of an Evangelical, just as the “nuns on the bus” are secularizing America’s idea of a Catholic.
But these sorts aren’t, demographically speaking, where the future is, among those who are actually filling and building churches. The “red-letter Christian” who speaks as though the Sermon on the Mount is a pretty good Galilean first draft of the 2024 Democratic party platform isn’t likely to be launching an Evangelical church-planting movement. Or an Evangelical adoption agency, soup kitchen, or halfway house for people just out of jail. The pop-left of Evangelicalism usually has quite little to do with Evangelical churches and is usually ephemeral even by the standards of Evangelical faddishness. Rob Bell once pastored a megachurch; now, last I heard, he was talking about starring in his own reality show.
Evangelicals typically wonder, then, how do we “balance” such things? How do we engage socially without creeping back to the God and Country religion that gave us Christian T-shirts with a red, white, and blue “USA” in the middle of the slogan “Jesus Saves”? In the providence of God, it seems, an Evangelical triumphalism and an Evangelical isolationism will be decreasingly possible. As the sexual revolution whirls on, it is no longer possible to pretend that Evangelicals represent the “real America” of God-loving, hard-working, salt-of-the-earth social conservatives like us. As orthodox Christianity becomes increasingly freakish in American society—as it is in Europe and in the Islamic world—the more the church will have to look to the New Jerusalem and the less we will be able to look to Mayberry for our picture of what “normal” looks like.
Total disengagement, though, is itself also a privilege of a cultural Christendom that is fast passing away. It is one thing, after all, to avoid the typical Evangelical panic and paranoia of the last generation. It is another to act as though it is holy to constrict the liberties of future generations by keeping silent. If we shrug off attempts to bully and intimidate on the basis of a new sexual orthodoxy, we would be accepting a designation of “bigotry” not only for ourselves but also for future generations to come and for those of various faith traditions. Was the Apostle Paul, after all, anything less than missional when he called for public justice and fairness for himself (Acts 16:37–39)? Were the revolutionary-era American Baptists wrong to pressure Madison and Jefferson for a First Amendment guaranteeing religious exercise? After all, one can still preach the gospel from a jail cell.
The secularization of American culture will ensure that Christianity must either capitulate or engage. The engagement will not be at the level of voters’ guides or consumer boycotts—and thank God. The engagement instead will be first congregational, in shaping the consciences of a people who will witness to, as Evangelical theologian Carl F. H. Henry put it, the God who judges both men and nations.
Read the whole thing. Seriously, do. There’s a lot there. Moore concludes by saying Evangelicals will have to figure out how to speak prophetically to the culture without becoming either party’s shills. I’m no Evangelical, but I am a religiously conservative Christian, and I want to be right there with them in this way. A big challenge, though, is figuring out how Christians (Evangelical and otherwise) hold on to their identities in a fast-moving and intense post-Christian culture. Speaking with older Christians, both Protestant and Catholic, I hear deep concern that the younger generation simply does not know the fundamentals of the faith; put another way, they know how to feel as a Christian, but they don’t know how to think as a Christian. Moore talks about how some churches are dealing with this (by going back to a stronger catechetical base, and putting aside the feel-good, seeker-sensitive silliness in favor of something with more rigor). This is perhaps the greatest challenge Christians face in contemporary culture: not so much figuring out how to draw new people into the faith, but how to hold on to what we have. True Christianity has to do both at the same time, of course, but if we don’t hold on to what we have — and you don’t do that by retreating into rigorism (as distinct from rigor) — the game is up. The faith can be lost in one or two generations. It happened in Europe. There’s no reason why it can’t happen here.