The political fumbling by Christian conservatives has been even worse this presidential cycle than it was in 2008, when their blood-enemy, John McCain, won the top spot on the Republican ticket. The Christian Right’s fatal failure this time was its inability to form a consensus behind a single candidate. Last weekend’s Texas conclave of religious conservatives, engineered by Family Research Center president and Christian Right warhorse Tony Perkins, initially appeared to have generated a united front behind Rick Santorum. But almost immediately, Newt Gingrich supporters challenged the results, and the united front quickly crumbled. With polls indicating no surge for Santorum in the state, Perkins’ gambit looks likely to fail—catastrophically, in fact, since it mainly benefited Mitt Romney, the one candidate hardly any Christian Right leader supports.
But if it’s entirely fair to point out that the once-indomitable Christian Right has botched the contest for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, it’s another thing altogether to conclude, as the esteemed historian Michael Kazin did earlier this week, that the Christian Right’s days of national influence have finally expired. It is true that they have been less conspicuous in this campaign, and less united in candidate preferences. But if they haven’t been able to pull their muscle behind a single candidate, that’s not a sign that they are on the wane—it’s a sign that, as far as the Republican Party is concerned, they have already won.
Look at the potential nominees: Unlike 2008, no candidate in the field is pro-choice by any definition. Only Ron Paul seems reluctant to enact a national ban on same-sex marriage. Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum. and Herman Cain have been vocal in fanning the flames of Islamophobia; again, only Paul has bothered to dissent to any significant degree.
Mitt Romney, of course, has a history on cultural issues that instills mistrust among many on the Christian Right. But his current positions bring him entirely in accord with social conservative priorities, and if he were elected, he would enter office more committed to Christian Right goals than any president in history. And if he is the nominee, he will likely choose a running-mate (and potential successor) who will, like McCain’s in 2008 (after social conservatives essentially vetoed his first and second choices), delight the Christian Right.
But regardless of its residual power within the Republican Party (which he acknowledges), Kazin believes the Christian Right is on the wane because it is increasingly out of touch with public opinion, and on the wrong side of generational trends. And when it comes to same-sex marriage, Kazin is probably correct: Although majority support for same-sex marriage rights remains a distant prospect in some states, the positive direction of public opinion is clear and—given the close direct relationship of age and likelihood to oppose same-sex marriage—irreversible.
But on the issue most important to the Christian Right’s foot soldiers, abortion, it’s not at all clear the Christian Right is losing. Kazin cites the 2011 defeat of the Personhood Amendment in Mississippi as a sign of anti-choice weakness. In fact, it’s remarkable that such an initiative—which would ban not only all abortions, but Plan B contraception, intrauterine devices, and arguably oral contraceptives—did as well as it did (a similar amendment was crushed by nearly a three-to-one margin in Colorado in 2010). More illustrative of the current state of play is the passage by seven states, (with legislation pending in many others, of so-called “fetal pain” legislation essentially banning abortion after twenty or twenty-two weeks of pregnancy.
Even more significantly, none of the major national reproductive rights organizations have gone to federal court to challenge these laws, which clearly violate Supreme Court precedents. Why? Because they legitimately fear that the Court would not only validate these laws, as it did with respect to so-called “partial-birth abortion” statutes in 2007, but would use the occasion to partially overturn Roe v. Wade and other the other decisions that establish and protect the constitutional right to choose. And that’s with the current Supreme Court. There is zero doubt that the next Supreme Court opening filled by a Republican president will produce a Justice who will be at least as hostile to the right to choose as George W. Bush appointees Roberts and Alito.
Aside from fetal pain bills, anti-choicers, particularly after the 2010 elections, have succeeded in many states in enacting restrictions and conditions on abortion providers that have seriously eroded reproductive rights, particularly for poor women. In general, the anti-abortion movement is showing a degree of sophistication that indicates it has evolved beyond the days of bloody fetus posters and physical assaults on abortion providers.
And on abortion, unlike same-sex marriage, there are few if any signs that generational trends will greatly move public opinion in a more progressive direction; voters under thirty are at most only marginally more likely to be pro-choice than their parents, and evangelical conservative youth are, if anything, more devoted to the anti-choice cause than their elders. The right to choose remains fragile, and will likely remain so for the foreseeable future.
That brings me to a final argument of Kazin’s: that the Christian Right is literally dying off, via the aging of its leaders and followers alike. You could, of course, argue that this is true of the entire Republican Party, which now relies disproportionately on older voters. Perhaps in the long run the future does belong to the progressive forces that showed such strong support among young and minority voters for Barack Obama in 2008. But it’s cold comfort in the short run, in which older voters remain significantly more likely to vote.
Yes, the warhorses of the Christian Right are showing their age, but a younger generation of culture warriors, some more radical than their elders, are just beginning to come into view. The Christian Right has been buried many times by secular observers since its advent as a powerful political movement in the late 1970s. It’s far too early to write yet another obituary.
Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic.