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“Mainstream Democrats have grown more centrist and mainstream Republicans have grown more radical,” Peter Beinart wrote recently in The Atlantic. The former editor of The New Republic (TNR) chalked up that magazine’s recent turmoil to the rightward shift in American political discourse. Having long played the contrarian gadfly by staking out a sophisticated liberal stance between the mainstream wings of both parties, TNR is now an actor without a part. The Democrats have moved so far to the right that that sliver of space no longer exists. Beinart’s assessment of the current state of affairs is correct.
The Democrats have been reduced to defending the social status quo while pursuing a progressive agenda only at the slimmest of margins, while the Republicans are spitting fire at anything that isn’t associated with unfettered commerce or muscular Christianity. But even as the ideological Left appears to have fallen out of American politics altogether and the voice of the Right is growing louder, the rightward shift in American politics is more ephemeral than decisive. Liberals and progressives can be forgiven for feeling besieged, but they should breathe easy—they are winning.
Cultural conservatives are banging a loud drum not because they are giddy with success, but because they are desperate. Reasons for the decline of conservative values are manifold: demographic shifts, changing cultural norms, and most frightening to many conservatives, the growing tide of secularism. The ranks of the non-religious are swelling: the 2006 Faith Matters Survey recorded that 17 percent of Americans claim no religious identity, topping the 14 percent who identified as “Mainline Protestants”— the group that once made up the bulk of the country’s religious believers. While these external developments shine darkly on conservatism in general, their biggest threat lies in providing fodder for the Republicans internecine conflict: the alliance of the Political Right and Christian Right is breaking down.
The Republican Party pulled off a political coup when it enlisted evangelical icon Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority to help deliver the 1980 Presidential election to Ronald Reagan. However, integrating the Christian Right into the Republican platform has always required a considerable amount of doublethink on both sides. What does a Manhattan plutocrat like Donald Trump have in common with a Bible Belt preacher like Falwell? Next to nothing. The only thing that has kept these disparate groups together is shared opposition to the Left.
Since the election of Reagan, the Republican mainstream has allowed the Christian Right to tag along while it focused primarily on promoting its market-liberal economic program. Channeling the average American’s desire to get rich and live well, the party elite never paid more than lip service to the anti-modernity agenda of their Christian compatriots. But Republican leaders like Reagan and Newt Gingrich sang such a sweet song that the Christian Right continued to play the role of the ‘good wife,’ keeping the marriage together for the sake of the conservative movement.
Highlighting the connection between the Political Right and Christian Right is not to argue that Christianity is politically conservative by definition. Historical figures such as Martin Luther King and William Jennings Bryan demonstrate otherwise. In addition, the “progressive Christian” movement has gained traction in the USA over the past two decades—a strand of Christianity that is “socially inclusive, conversant with science and culture, and not dogmatically adherent to theological litmus tests such as a belief in the Bible’s inerrancy,” in the words of the Reverend Dr. Brad Braxton. But the Christian Right is the most politically organized branch of American Christianity. Americans tend to associate Christianity with conservatism not because they’ve always been linked together, but because the links that do exist have been of major political salience for the past 40 years.
However, tension is growing within American conservatism. Beinart and others are correct in asserting that Republicans are becoming more radical, but they fail to recognize that the very radicalism they decry is growing in incompatible directions. The libertarian and religious worldviews, which drive the two most vigorous currents in American conservativism, are fundamentally at odds.
Libertarians are much less amenable to religious conservativism than are traditional mainstream Republicans. The libertarian ethic champions the individual over the collective, and the inexorable triumph of reason over religious dogma. The Christian Right tells us almost the opposite story, one of deference to divine revelation and the helplessness of human beings in the face of Providence. Libertarianism represents an interpretation of Enlightenment ideals that smacks more of Thomas Paine than Edmund Burke.
One can imagine Burke rolling in his grave at the notion that a band of radical individualists —who promote the idea that the state is illegitimate and should be shrunk “down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub”— are part of an ostensibly ‘conservative’ party. On the other hand, the Christian Right’s worldview is so antithetical to Enlightenment values that it would best be described as ‘reactionary’ rather than ‘conservative.’
As the libertarian wing takes on a stronger role within the Republican Party, the tensions between these forces will gain in strength and threaten the alliance that has been the backbone of conservative electoral success for more than three decades. Republicans must also deal with the fading popularity of religion in America, especially among the young. According to American Grace, Robert Putnam’s comprehensive study of religion in America, 25 percent of college freshman in 2009 reported having attended a total of zero religious services during the past year. That’s more than triple the number of those who gave the same response in 1968. Writes Putnam:
“A growing number of Americans, especially young people, have come to disavow religion. For many, their aversion to religion is rooted in unease with the association between religion and conservative politics. If religion equals Republican, then they have decided that religion is not for them.”
While Putnam’s credentials as a social scientist are not in question, it appears that he has mistaken cause for effect. For millions of American millennials, the opposite can be said: “If the Republican Party equals religion, then the Republican Party isn’t for me.” Many (though by no means all) young Americans find religion distasteful, stupid, and backward, and wouldn’t vote for any party using it as an ideological foundation. The Christian Right is and will remain an embarrassment for mainstream conservatives, even more so for the GOP’s en vogue libertarians.
Successful implementation of the party’s pro-business agenda will depend on currying the favor of young voters, especially in light of the ageing of the party’s existing demographic. Reaching out to the young, many of whom are sympathetic to pro-market sentiment but cringe at phrases like “abstinence-only sex education” and “Harry Potter is the Devil” will require further marginalizing the Christian Right. Combine this with the natural friction between libertarians and evangelical Christians and a storm is brewing within the contemporary conservative movement.
It has been apparent for some time that the Christian Right was never more than a tactical tool used by the Republican mainstream, many of whom are moderate believers or closet non-believers. That tool is starting to look more like a crank-operated hand drill than a Bosch cordless. American liberals, progressives, and writers like Beinart may bemoan the rightward shift in the public discourse, but time is on their side. The Republican Party’s marriage of convenience is bound to become increasingly unhappy.