By Steven P. Miller
Has the evangelical era of American politics run its course? Two terms into the Obama administration, and nearly four decades since George Gallup Jr. declared 1976 the “Year of the Evangelical,” it is tempting to say yes.
During the run-up to the 2008 election, Barack Obama went out of his way to court moderate and progressive evangelicals, such as Jim Wallis of Sojourners. Yet their role in his administration has not been remotely comparable to that of the Christian Right just ten years ago. Joshua DuBois and Melissa Rogers (respectively the previous and present heads of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships) are hardly talk show fodder in the manner of the Bush administration evangelical lightning rods John Ashcroft and Monica Goodling.
The Bush years sparked books like Chris Hedges’s American Fascists. The Obama years tend to inspire pieces with titles like “The Changing Face of Christian Politics.” The point, made by former Obama administration official Michael Wear, is that Christian politics has a new lease on life.
This new life comes at the expense of evangelical relevance, however. Evangelical political capital is quite scattered — useful for building fresh coalitions on immigration, while still holding the line on abortion. This configuration happens to resemble the world-view of Pope Francis. He is in the news a lot more than evangelist Franklin Graham, the son of Billy Graham.
Such is the view from on high, at least. In many statehouses, evangelical influence is alive and well. Even in red-state America, though, we see a defensive posture that spells retreat, if not outright defeat.
In a proliferating number of legislative initiatives, gay civil rights is cast as a threat to religious liberty. Rather than protesting excessive church-state separation, these efforts embrace an expansive interpretation of religious free exercise.
The contention, while not novel, is telling: conscience trumps open access. Here, conscience applies to commercial property, as in the case of caterers that refuse to serve gay weddings (as opposed to not inviting a couple over for Sunday dinner). This radical view of property rights does Kentucky Senator Rand Paul proud, even though he is often touted as the libertarian antidote to evangelical hegemony in the GOP.
At first glance, the religious liberty angle looks like a savvy strategy. After all, active Christians (including many Catholics and other non-evangelicals) far outnumber avowed secularists. But it is something of a leap of faith to believe that millions of Christian voters will prioritize religious liberty over, say, health care or education.
Thanks to former Christian Coalition head Ralph Reed, religious freedom was a clarion rallying cry during the 2012 campaign. Yet it has always been a supplementary theme within the Christian Right. Back in the 1990s, Reed made waves by proclaiming that Christians should not be relegated to the “back of the bus.” Reed’s use of a Civil Rights Movement analogy (a habit that continues) turned critical attention away from his more important goal: electing social conservatives to office.
Another form of social conservative defense involves appeals to social science data. Several well-funded studies — most notoriously, one by University of Texas sociologist Mark Regnerus — are cited to suggest that children raised in heterosexual households fare better than those raised by gay parents.
Unsurprisingly, the research has sparked controversy. Touting the superiority of straight marriage for the purpose of keeping the playing field uneven seems the height of tautology. One can plausibly hypothesize that legalized gay marriage will lead to stronger same-sex households. Besides, in what universe are heterosexual households suddenly renowned for their stability?
Such strategic flailing does not mean that the Christian Right is over—far from it. Yet, as these defensive messages indicate, it has abandoned the pretense of being a moral majority. This is no small shift in a winner-takes-all democracy.
Social conservatives (evangelical or otherwise) are no longer only battling liberal elites. They are contending with a growing real majority of Americans who either vigorously disagree with them or do not see what the fuss is all about. These Americans have long separated their workplaces from their places of worship. They likewise assume the separation of church and health care (notwithstanding the names of their neighborhood hospitals). Some of them support increased access to contraception precisely because they are uncomfortable with abortion.
Many evangelicals affirm these common-sense approaches, of course. The Christian Right does not represent them; in most cases, it never did. Now, though, evangelical conservatives are having a harder time getting away with claiming to speak for all evangelicals, never mind for Christians as a whole.
We are witnessing the public de-coupling of “evangelical” from “Christian” when it comes to politics. Born-again Christianity is no longer the standard against which religion’s role in public life is measured. This is a pivot from forty years of Carter, Falwell, Robertson, and Dobson, and it seems unlikely to be reversed anytime soon.
Steven P. Miller, Ph.D., is the author of The Age of Evangelicalism: America’s Born-Again Years, which is published by Oxford University Press USA this month. His first book, Billy Graham and the Rise of the Republican South, appeared in 2009. Miller lives in St. Louis, where he teaches History at Webster University and Washington University.