It’s been a rough stretch lately for Christian social conservatives, whose nightmare came to life this past summer with the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage in Obergefell vs. Hodges. But the annual Values Voter Summit kicked off this past weekend in Washington with shouts of jubilation, as activists celebrated the unexpected news that House Speaker John Boehner would be resigning amid the fight over social conservatives’ effort to defund Planned Parenthood or force a government shutdown. “Yes!” one man shouted above the deafening cheers and applause on Friday morning after Senator Marco Rubio interrupted his address to announce Boehner’s exit from the podium. “Amen!” shouted another.
Later, on Friday evening, another packed room at the Omni Shoreham would erupt once again when Kim Davis, the defiant country clerk from Kentucky, took the stage to accept an award for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. “I am only one,” Davis told the crowd in her brief remarks, her voice rising to a shout. “But we are many!”
It was a pent-up primal scream that these Christian culture-warriors have long been waiting to unleash. While these triumphal moments may have been fleeting—Boehner almost surely won’t be replaced as speaker by a hardcore social conservative, and Davis’s stand has done nothing concrete to advance the cause of religious liberties—the urge to cheer for something was easy to understand; right about now, evangelicals will take whatever victories they can get. Ever since the religious right’s political power arguably peaked in 2004, when President George W. Bush and Karl Rove made gay-marriage bans a centerpiece of their re-election strategy, social conservatives have watched helplessly as their “family values” agenda fizzled, as the tide increasingly swam against them on gay marriage, and as Tea Partiers replaced them as the most coveted constituency for Republican candidates to court. While they've had great success in enacting abortion restrictions in many states, they’ve seen popular support for much of their once-ambitious policy agenda erode.
Despite the hallelujahs, what this year’s summit ended up highlighting was not the resurgent power of Christian conservatives in the Republican Party, but how much their influence on the policy debate has diminished outside of the issue of abortion. As usual, most of the major GOP presidential contenders—even the unlikely figure of Donald Trump—came courting the crowd of 2,700 who'd registered for the event. But they offered little besides effusive praise for Kim Davis and utterly vague—if not utterly unrealistic—promises to champion religious liberties in the White House. When the summit-goers left Washington to scatter back to their hometowns across America, they left with no clear idea of what to fight for next on gay marriage—or how.
The very fact that religious liberty was this year’s marquee issue at Values Voters was itself a sign that social conservatives are largely, if understandably, at sea—unsure of what, exactly, to rally around, or what to demand from the candidates clamoring for their affections. Where social conservatives, not long ago, had hopes of repelling the “gay agenda" and turning back the trend toward normalizing homosexuality in America, they’re now reduced to rallying around an alleged campaign of persecution against outlying religious dissenters like Davis.
On Friday, in between speeches by the presidential candidates, I asked several activists about their strategy for preserving religious liberties. These folks expressed plenty of sympathy and respect for Davis, but had only the faintest idea of what to demand from Congress, state legislatures, or the presidential candidates to solve the problem. Like many, Ron Goss, a 69-year-old activist from Virginia, said he wanted the next president to obey the principles of a “Judeo-Christian nation.” Asked exactly what that would look like, Goss replied: “I would hope that people like Kim Davis wouldn’t be put in jail. We have the First Amendment.”
“You have to adhere to the Constitution—they’re not doing that,” said Marty Moore, a 73-year-old activist from North Carolina. “They just need to protect the Constitution at all costs,” agreed Judith Neal, an activist from San Dimas, California. “They need to leave the first Amendment alone.”
The drift in the social-conservative agenda has been a gift to conservative Republicans: They're increasingly free to court the religious right with little more than toothless appeals to tribalism. This year, they had little to do but practice affinity politics, competing to see who could come off as the most ardent supporter of Davis and “religious liberties” rhetorically. And if there’s one thing that Republican candidates have learned, particularly in the Obama era, it’s how to tap into their base’s fear and anger without offering anything concrete.
Senator Ted Cruz, who is betting heavily that Christian conservatives will be moved to turn out for him in droves, had volunteers blanketing the summit with campaign stickers and signs. In his address on Friday, Cruz went on at length about his visit to Davis in jail. “Kim and I—we embraced, and I told her, ‘Thank you,’” he said, inspiring an emotional round of applause and affirmative shouts from the crowd. But Cruz’s call for action on the issue boiled down to a mere blanket promise, if he’s elected, “to instruct the Department of Justice and the IRS and every other federal agency that the persecution of religious liberty ends today!”
Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee—who was so eager to own the issue, and revive his flagging campaign, that he refused to let Cruz speak at a rally when Davis was released last month—offered even less by way of feasible remedies. “The courts cannot make a law,” Huckabee declared, echoing his stance in the September GOP debate. “Kim Davis and people like her will never, ever go to jail if I am president of the United States!”
But even the most ardent faithful know that Huckabee’s prescription has already been leading nowhere: Davis, after all, defied federal authority by ignoring the law, arguing that “God’s authority” should take precedence over the Court’s ruling. And predictably enough, given the thinness of Davis’s constitutional challenge, it didn’t work. She was released from jail only after agreeing to a court order that she would allow the deputy clerks in her office to issue same-sex marriage licenses. An appeals court has rejected her attempt to appeal the court's demand.
Some prominent social conservatives worry that the Kim Davis mania is a sign the movement has become directionless, wasting valuable energy by looking in vain for political saviors and lionizing dissenters like Davis. “They’re always looking for a hero (or heroine), while the party’s other factions focus on staffing decisions and policy commitments, where the real work of politics takes place,” The New York Times’ Ross Douthat wrote last week, in a column criticizing evangelicals' embrace of Dr. Ben Carson. But concrete policy demands, Douthat argues, are more important than ever, given the ground that conservative Christians have been losing: “With same-sex marriage established nationwide and social liberalism ascendant, religious conservatives have a clear policy ‘ask’ they should be pressing every major Republican contender to embrace.”
But what is the ask? Douthat recommends uniting behind Senator Mike Lee’s First Amendment Defense Act, which would prevent the federal government from denying tax exemptions, grants, contracts, or school accreditation based on opposition to gay marriage. But neither candidates nor activists were talking up Lee's bill at the summit. Embracing an incremental policy change would mean recognizing just how little room the religious right has left to maneuver on the issue; the rhetoric of persecution feels so much more empowering.
Rod Dreher, a popular Christian conservative commentator best known for Crunchy Cons, a book about environmentally minded social conservatives, told me by phone during the conference that he agrees that “the Kim Davis thing was such an enormous distraction—a waste of time and our rapidly diminishing political capital for a battle that we weren’t going to win.” Efforts to carve out accommodations for individual businesses that don’t want LGBT customers—another much-cheered talking point for activists at the summit—are similarly doomed, he believes. But there, Dreher parts with Douthat, and with the political activists who came to Washington over the weekend: He’s among those calling for evangelicals to admit defeat in the culture wars and choose the “Benedict Option,” focusing on strengthening one's own faith, family, and community, rather than continuing to fight unwinnable battles in the political arena.
He knows it’ll be a while before the political activists who flock to Values Voters will come around to that argument, if ever. “Evangelicals want the hero,” Dreher said, echoing Douthat; they want both martyrs to the cause, like Davis, and a presidential candidate who promises to turn their vague wishes into action. But there’s no consensus candidate to rally around in 2016, so far, any more than there is clear agreement on how to pursue religious liberties in practice. While Cruz easily topped the Values Voter straw poll, evangelicals have also flocked to Donald Trump, who’s successfully channeled their discontent despite his now-discarded pro-choice views, and Carson, who’s also benefitted from the rise of symbolism over policy, running as a devout Christian with few real policy proposals. At the summit, Trump's support for religious liberties amounted to a call for stores to say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays.” Carson was even more vague, simply calling “to stop letting the progressives drive God out of our land.”
The summit also revealed a generational split that is making a unified policy agenda harder for the religious right to find. Younger activists tended to favor putting same-sex marriage to the side, and wanted their fellow conservatives to focus on a more winnable fight: enacting abortion restrictions at the state level and fighting federal support for Planned Parenthood. For them, the highlight of the weekend was Friday afternoon's speech by David Daleiden, the 26-year-old activist behind the undercover Planned Parenthood videos. “Our foremost right is the right to life,” Ashley Traficant told me, a 25-year Liberty University student and Cruz volunteer.
But many of the Values Voters attendees were old-school social conservatives, still determined to keep fighting same-sex marriage and LGBT rights—somehow, someway. “Just because the Court put out an opinion doesn’t mean that it’s the law of the land,” said Mark Roepke, a 44-year-old activist from Arlington, Virginia. Roepke was one of the few I interviewed who brought up Lee’s First Amendment bill as a priority, and he wants state legislatures and Congress to “step up” and stop same-sex marriage from becoming legal everywhere. But he admitted that he wasn’t sure exactly how. “That’s for much smarter people than me,” Roepke said with a laugh. “Give me a path, and I’ll follow that path.”