After the Religious Right and the Culture Wars

Why the Religious Right Needs to Turn Away from Their Preoccupation with Power and Regain Their Moral Legitimacy

by Tim Reuter:

“There is no country in the world where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America” ~Tocqueville, Democracy in America

The Religious Right is hardly newsworthy anymore.  A political force since electing Jimmy Carter in 1976, political evangelicals now comprise a demographically diminishing part of the electorate.  Nine years after values voters helped reelect George W. Bush, political evangelicals risk dwindling relevance.

Cross and Flag

The predictable result after the failures of 2008 and 2012 is panic.  Albert Mohler Jr., President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, offered the following after election night:

“Evangelical Christians must see the 2012 election as a catastrophe for crucial moral concerns. The election of President Obama returns a radically pro-abortion President to the White House, soon after he had endorsed same-sex marriage… we face a new moral landscape in America…it is, however, an urgent call to action”

Such is life in a declining Rome.  Redoubled angry rhetoric, apocalyptic prophecies, and historical distortions are political evangelicals’ new normal.  Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann cites her faith as a reason to contest Obamacare, claiming it will kill seniors and children, and few rebuke her inflammatory words.  Pastor John Hagee, a mega-church pastor in Texas, asserts that “God’s foreign policy” is pro-Israel, and supporting the Jewish state is a moral imperative for the United States.

But, one man’s anger is another’s existential despair.  The Religious Right had its moment.  It tried to wield state power for utopian ends, and failed.  Prayer is absent from public schools, creationism is not taught alongside evolution, bans on gay marriage are no longer automatic, and Roe v. Wade is still law.  They dreamed of a moral society bound by spiritual ties, which righteous government enforced and guarded with the weaponry of modernity.

In their leap to a land of dreams, political evangelicals fell hard.  They did not bring America to repentance, but embarrassed themselves.  Entrance into politics exposed evangelicals to the criticism of behaving like moralizing ideologues in an amoral field defined by give-and-take.  By trading moral suasion for state coercion, they jettisoned their moral authority.

Moreover, the whole project smelled of insincerity.  School prayer did not encompass a Catholic student praying a Hail Mary, anymore than teaching creationism concerned scientific inquiry.  Theirs was a Protestant piety founded upon that deemed Biblical or not.  Catholics, Orthodox, and Mormons were ecumenical allies of convenience against encroaching secularism born from the 1960s counter-culture.  The Christian Right’s goal, as with most political movements, was power.

Yet, the quest of political evangelicals to rule the City of Man has not gone unchallenged.  Classical conservatives (paleocons in the American political lexicon) have forcefully argued against evangelization by government, while nonetheless sharing concerns about declining morality.  One need only read Pat Buchanan’s commentary on social issues to see the agreement.  However, the dispute is over how to recapture and restore the place of Judeo-Christian values in the public square.

Many paleocons reject abstractions.  Lofty ideas such as democracy, freedom, or natural rights are meaningless when separated from the institutions that produced them such as property rights or religion.  Moreover, stripping an abstraction of its practical origins is a recipe for catastrophe.  President Bush, and his evangelical cadre, cloaked the Iraq War in the rhetoric of expanding freedom abroad while trampling on civil liberties at home.  Those defenders of increasing state power by equating it with expanding freedom validated George Orwell’s claim that “political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible.”

Moreover, the Christianity of paleocons is not political.  Neither the ballot box nor the state can make men moral.  But what the state can do is destroy.  It can transform a limited government republic into a polyglot empire, and discard generations of accumulated wisdom in the process.  Thomas Fleming is worth quoting on some length on tradition:

“a body of wisdom and truth and a set of attitudes and behavior handed down from one generation to another. It is our parents’ respect for their grandfathers that we reflect when we refuse to think ourselves wiser than our ancestors and do not presume to condemn their shortcomings.”

When paleocons speak of society’s moral disintegration they are addressing radicals seeking to ascribe a moral agency, or power, to the state.  The paleocon response is simple: the state is not the issue.  It reflects the morality or immorality of its people since government is an outgrowth of consent from the populace.  And given humanity’s flawed nature, dispersed power and keeping decision-making as local as possible are the best safeguards for life, liberty, and institutions.

Which brings us back to politicized Christianity, albeit in a slightly different context.  As he watched crass materialism and nationalism convulse Europe in the early 20th Century, the great Anglo-Catholic apologist Hilaire Belloc offered words in the mid-1930s that Russell Kirk would echo decades later.  “Cultures spring from religions; ultimately the vital force which maintains any culture is its philosophy, its attitude toward the universe; the decay of a religion involves the decay of the culture corresponding to it.”  As Europeans shed their Christianity, new pagan gods of state and self-worship filled the void before plunging into the horrors of the Somme or Buchenwald.

The Religious Right fears America is becoming a godless, amoral, socialistic basket-case.  Sin lurks everywhere, and the remedy is repentance by choice or force.  Their anxieties, jeremiads, and deep involvement in politics the past three decades say as much.

Whether right or wrong, political evangelicals should turn from their preoccupation with power and look inward.  A society is only as moral as its people.  An exit from politics and repositioning as the conscience of the state would serve their cause greater than any legislation.  Let sinners see the repentance of men to moral rectitude and say “surely the spirit of God is among you.”  If brought about voluntarily and guarded by civic institutions instead of government, the Religious Right may not have died in vain.


Tim Reuter is a researcher at a Washington DC think thank.

NOTE: This article also appeared at The Principled Aggressors. It was cross-posted with permission.


  1. A Disgruntled Landsknecht says:

    “As Europeans shed their Christianity, new pagan gods of state and self-worship filled the void before plunging into the horrors of the Somme or Buchenwald.”

    What about the 30 Years War, for starters? There has never been a point where Europe wasn’t prone to bouts to hyperviolence, much like, well, everywhere else.

  2. I’d be a lot more inclined to support the Religious Right if they weren’t so exclusivist and hostile. Look at how much hate they’ve amassed against Muslim-Americans, people who consistently voted with them for decades. Not to mention the racism against Hispanics etc.

    • A Disgruntled Landsknecht says:

      Funny story: I believe it was either Dinesh D’Souza or Ramesh Ponnuru who suggested some kind of political alliance between conservative Christians and conservative Muslims due to their shared distaste of debauchery and whatnot. No prizes for guessing what put the kibosh on such a plan.

  3. ray ancel says:

    Franklin Graham says that, “Obama is a Muslim because his father was a Muslim and the seed of Islam is sown through the father, as is the seed of Judaism is passed on through the mother.”

    Now after a little research, I learned that Adolf Hitler was born a Christian (yes, both parents were Roman Catholics) and Joseph Stalin was born a Christian and even attended seminary school. What does this all mean. Franklin Graham went on to endorse Donald Trump as the Republican presidential nominee.

  4. Pingback: Moral Legitimacy Deals with all Areas of Life, Including Politics

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *