Is the Religious Right in Trouble?

If we're going to count the losers of the 2012 election, the religious right has to be high on the list. Its members said they would turn out in extraordinary numbers to fight that infidel in the White House, but Ralph Reed's turnout push fizzled. Gay marriage is now legal in three more states than it was on November 5, with more sure to come. In response, some on the religious right are wondering whether this politics thing just isn't working out for them. It isn't that they failed to get their message out, said influential religious-right quote machine Albert Mohler of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, "it's that the entire moral landscape has changed. ... An increasingly secularized America understands our positions and has rejected them."

We've heard this kind of thing before, and Ed Kilgore warns that the religious right's stranglehold on the Republican Party hasn't lessened at all:

Lest we forget, every single Republican candidate for president in 2012 toed the Christian Right line in every major detail. The second-place finisher in the nomination fight, Rick Santorum, was himself a Christian Right Culture Warrior of the most impeccable purity, willing to openly smite not just Secularists but Liberal Protestants and Catholics as infidels and instruments of Satan. The old chestnut of a "struggle for the soul" of the GOP between economic and cultural conservatives turned out to be as empty as ever, as the former embraced an aggressive campaign against legalized abortion and for "religious liberty" even as the latter continued to baptize laissez-faire capitalism as part of the Divine Plan.

Ed also notes that the potential 2016 GOP contenders all have impeccable religious-right credentials as well. All of that's true, but as a faction they still have an uncertain future. Ed's last point about the deal between economic and cultural conservatives—the former pretend they care deeply about abortion and oppose gay rights, while the latter proclaim that if Jesus came back tomorrow his highest priority would be cutting the capital gains tax—is right, in that it isn't so much a "struggle" as a negotiated arrangement. But in the last few years, culture has been pushed further and further into the background. If you added up all the time Mitt Romney spent talking about the business and the wonder of markets and compared it to the time he spent talking about abortion and same-sex marriage, the ratio would probably be ten to one or more. The Tea Party may have been made up in large part of cultural conservatives, but they swore up and down that all they cared about was their economic agenda. Republicans are as engaged as ever in a culture war, but the primary enemy in that war isn't godless secularists, it's government-loving socialists.

There's no question that the GOP can't abandon the religious right. But what it may do is confine its pandering to as brief a period during the primaries as possible. Let's remember that though Rick Santorum may have finished second to Romney, he scared the living daylights out of the Republican establishment, precisely because his message was so retrograde and filled with hostility.

The problem will only get worse for the religious right. There's an inexorable demographic evolution going on, one in which older, more culturally conservative people are dying off as younger, more culturally liberal people become adults and play a larger political role. How will they handle the shrinking of their appeal? One answer is for the religious right to undergo its own evolution. They've done it in the past, and there's no reason they can't do it in the future. The Southern Baptist Convention, which in the past had supported slavery and then segregation, recently elected its first black president. I wouldn't be surprised at all if 20 or 30 years from now, nearly all the institutions we now consider part of the religious right will have changed their position on gay people. They won't have to change on abortion—the country looks like it will remain split on that issue for the foreseeable future—but they may change on any number of other issues.

On the other hand, they may just hunker down; as Ed says, these folks love being able to consider themselves martyrs, surrounded by hostile forces and bravely standing up for God. But what happens when, a few elections from now, some incredibly charismatic Republican comes along and says he supports gay marriage and somehow manages to win, proving that maybe Republicans don't need them? Then they'll be in real trouble.

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