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The Deterioration of the Christian Right Is Imminent

Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Mike Huckabee’s recent entry into the presidential race has turned boring early campaign season into something worth watching. Huckabee’s presence has revealed a process of decay that has been steadily unfolding over the last several years, as it now seems that the deterioration of the Christian right—as a unified moral presence in national politics—is imminent. Thanks to the Republican primaries, we all have front row seats.

Say what you will about Huckabee, but as Mother Jones’ Tim Murphy recently observed, he’s a dyed-in-the-wool evangelical, the sort who, as a Baptist pastor, preached against alcohol, pornography, and The Life of Brian. But he’s also the sort who opposes Social Security reform, on the grounds that suddenly retracting coverage from elderly Americans would be forcing them to pay for governmental “sins.”

For this position, and for a general emphasis on his evangelicalism over business-friendliness, Huckabee has already been savaged by a host of prominent conservatives. At The Washington Post, George F. Will declared his campaign an appalling crusade; at National Review, David Harsanyi attacked his “aw-shucks populism”; and Iowan radio host Steve Deace slammed him for his contribution to “the basis of a permanent welfare state.” That is, of course, his support for Social Security, a program that has been in place since the 1930s.

At National Review, David French explained the phenomenon unwittingly in a piece about "Why a Huckabee Loss Would Be a Win for Religious Conservatives": "When Mike Huckabee loses the Republican primary, he’ll be defeated by another pro-life, pro–religious liberty candidate — but one who probably has a stronger conservative economic record or better national-security credentials." In other words, it isn’t enough to be overtly Christian anymore, or to represent conservative Christian values. Every GOP candidate will pay the very same lip service to God and family that Huckabee will. Republicans will therefore base their choice of candidate not on Christian values, but on free market street cred. So why, French wonders, does it matter if Huckabee is unceremoniously abandoned thanks to his support for the status-quo in terms of Social Security and Medicare?

It matters because of what it reveals: that business-friendliness has now come into direct confrontation with Republicans’ much-vaunted Christian values, a phenomenon especially visible when it comes to gay marriage. At Slate, Will Saletan reported the parade of anti-business bloviating that issued from GOP candidates during their respective South Carolina tours last weekend:

They went after the GOP’s traditional ally, big business, for siding with the sodomites. Cruz blasted “big business” for joining Democrats “to say their commitment to mandatory gay marriage in all 50 states trumps any commitment to the First Amendment.” Jindal decried “the assault ... in Indiana and Arkansas,” in which “corporate America joined up with the radical left to bully those lawmakers” who had defended religious exemptions from laws against anti-gay discrimination. The audience cheered as Jindal declared, “I’ll also say this to these corporations that have already told me in Louisiana they don’t want us to pass our own bill protecting the rights of individuals and businesses who support the traditional view of marriage. Don’t even waste your breath trying to bully the governor of Louisiana.”

This rhetorical appeal to Christian conservatism is ramping up because the matter is out of politicians' hands, and all parties are aware that their upbraiding of businesses will not acutally pan out in policy. It is safe, in other words, for GOP candidates to rail against business, so long as their protests remain at the level of frustrated grumbling. What the conservative media machine’s destruction of Huckabee demonstrates is that the free-market, anti-egalitarian wing of the GOP establishment has less patience for the Christian wing than it used to, though Daniel Bell's 1976 book The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism serves as a reminder that these tensions have always existed. It has just taken this long for things to unravel.

If Huckabee has become politically disposable because the pro-Christian song and dance has become de rigueur, then the real test of GOP mettle is now mostly a matter of pro-business sentiment, just as the donor class desires—which is a serious problem not just for Huckabee, but for the committed evangelicals who believed Republicans sincerely had pro-Christian interests at heart. The GOP's true devotion all along has been to tax-cutting, anti-spending fiscal policies that, as Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson argued in 2010's Winner-Take-All Politics, were responsible for concentrating wealth and power in the hands of a precious few Americans. And it is into these hands that the Christian right now delivers itself, hoping for mercy. 

There is a curious irony in the crack-up of the lucrative accord between American business and conservative Christians. As Kevin Kruse recently detailed in One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, the marriage of the two was always one of convenience. Post-Depression big business needed a makeover after so many Americans were stung by the implosion of the economy, and a few enterprising Christian leaders figured they could make a few bucks and expand their political influence by forging a friendship with wealthy industrialists. And they were exactly right, for a time. From their compact, older ideas of a uniquely "Christian America," were fully manifested, placing a religious, patriotic gloss on the virtues of individualism, self-sufficiency, and low taxes. Worse, some of the more revolutionary impulses issuing from Christianity concerning poverty and justice were, through this alliance with industry, perilously muted.

The rapport between Big Business and the religious right wasn't so much about businesses being aided by Christian rhetoric as not being inconvenienced by it. On some issues, businesses are still willing to show up for the Christian right, so long as it doesn't damage their revenue. But as society shifts on key moral issues, businesses are more than willing to shed the bonds of obligation to their Christian patrons in order to keep turning healthy profits. Consider, for example, the rift unfolding between free marketeers and their formerly cozy Christian counterparts on the subject of gay marriage.

Support for gay marriage has steadily grown, and opposition has steadily dropped: As of 2014, 52 percent of Americans favored allowing gays and lesbians to legally marry. Among millennials, the ascendant consumer class, the number was 67 percent, and among Gen-Xers, 53 percent. White mainline Protestants and Catholics supported gay marriage at rates of 60 and 57 percent, respectively; both numbers were the highest on record for each denomination. Among the unaffiliated, black and white Protestants, Catholics, and evangelicals, only evangelical support for gay marriage was found to have dropped between 2013 and 2014, from 23 percent to 21. Evangelicals remain the only demographic group surveyed to remain staunchly opposed to same sex marriage.

In the majority of states, gay marriage is already legal, and there is a sizable chance that the Supreme Court will soon legalize it in the remaining states. In the Obergefell v. Hodges case that will decide the fate of same sex marriage nationally, 379 businesses signed an amicus brief urging the court to legalize gay marriage. These businesses included Coca-Cola, Amazon, Goldman Sachs, Google, Apple, General Electric, Johnson & Johnson, and a mess of banks. “Allowing same-sex couples to marry improves employee morale and productivity,” the brief reads, “reduces uncertainty, and removes the wasteful administrative burdens imposed by the current disparity of state law treatment.” In other words: Legalizing same-sex marriage is just good business.

Or, as Arne Sorenson, CEO of Marriott Hotels, described Indiana’s recent religious freedom legislation: “pure idiocy from a business perspective.” Given Marriott's long history of professing Christian values (the hotel chain refuses to offer pornography among its channels, and stocks the Book of Mormon along with its nightstand drawer Bibles) it is especially poignant that Sorenson felt comfortable enough to depart from his company's historical line on faith. Eight other CEOs joined Sorenson in the public castigation of Indiana lawmakers who sought religious-freedom protections for businesses concerned about being sued for discrimination for refusing to serve gay customers. As the national legalization of gay marriage looms larger, such religious-freedom protections are the last refuge of nervous objectors. And just as big businesses have no interest in defending traditional marriage, they have no interest in defending religious freedom laws. Businesses are in the practice of selling products to the public, and the public, as Pew’s data shows, is rapidly shifting toward support of gay unions.

In his 1988 presidential nomination acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, President George H. W. Bush folded together his professed Christianity and the GOP’s unfailing commitment to “free and fair trade … keeping government spending down ... keeping taxes down” like so: “The fact is prosperity has a purpose. It is to allow us to pursue ‘the better angels,’ to give us time to think and grow. Prosperity with a purpose means taking your idealism and making it concrete by certain acts of goodness.” The idea was that if everyone were wealthy enough, we would spend our bountiful free time pursuing our idealistic interests. And, as inequality has grown and the wealthy have enjoyed the benefits of pro-business policies, they have done precisely that—except that their ideals no longer match those of the Christian right, and their interests never really did.