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The Vanishing Religious Roots of American Conservatism

Religious conservatives have made a political alliance with Republicans but are losing their influence.

Shockingly, in an election cycle dominated by debate about immigration and foreign policy and not life or marriage, 80% of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump.

In many ways, this election was a microcosm of the problems facing the “religious right.” Paradoxically, they are supporting the Republican Party in greater numbers but Republican leadership seems less committed to promoting the policies of the religious conservatives. It seems that the coalition between religious conservatives and the Republican party is increasingly a political alliance, not an ideological one. And as the religious roots of American conservatism fade, the influence of the religious right on American politics fades as well.

The principles of conservatism used to be inextricably linked to the values of religion. Russell Kirk, the preeminent conservative intellectual of the 20th century wrote that the first canon of conservative thought was a belief in a transcendent moral order. In the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville called religion the “first American institution,” commending cultural Christianity for establishing the morality upon which a stable society is based. In his Farewell Address given in 1796, George Washington asserted that religion was an indispensable counterpart to popular governance. These ideas stem from 18th-century statesman Edmund Burke, known as the “Father of Conservatism,” who wrote succinctly: “Religion is the basis of civil society.”

In the late 20th century, the conservative principles of Kirk and William Buckley were wed to a vocal constituency when evangelicals became active members of the Republican party. In the 1980s, the “Moral Majority” led by Jerry Falwell, Sr., rallied behind the Republican party to oppose abortion, push for prayer in schools, and support the traditional family. The power of the Moral Majority eventually diminished, but politically active evangelicals remain a potent interest group within the conservative movement. Even though many Jews, Catholics, and Muslims consistently vote Democratic, 61% of Republicans still say religion is very important to them compared to 47% of Democrats.

Unfortunately for these conservatives, hardly any Republican leaders talk like Edmund Burke any more. There are still vocal religious conservatives among the Republican elite, including Vice President Mike Pence, but the Republican party at large does not style itself as the party of faith traditions. Alt-Right factions notwithstanding, Republicans are typically the advocates of free markets, limited government, and strong national defense. Especially among the youth, social conservatism is seen as the prejudice of a bygone age. For example, 61% of Republicans under thirty now favor same-sex marriage. In the last few election cycles, socially conservative candidates like Mike Huckabee, Ben Carson, and Rick Santorum never gained any traction, while in 2016 socially conservative candidates like Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz couldn’t stop the groundswell that was Donald Trump’s campaign, even though he was a candidate who waved a gay pride flag on the campaign trail and promised (ostensibly) to uphold LGBTQ rights.

Donald Trump—casino owner, divorcee, and TV host riddled with scandal—seemed like the last person to be an ally of religious conservatives. Yet religious Republicans still flocked to him in the last election. Why? For many people, he was the “lesser of two evils.” Many prominent figures like theologian Wayne Grudem, Liberty University President Jerry Falwell, Jr., and Christian political activists James Dobson and Tony Perkins came out in support of Trump. Yes, he is bad, they said, but he’s better than Hillary. Even if they didn’t verbalize it, these figures did touch on something important: Trump, unlike Clinton, knew he needed the evangelical vote, so even if he wasn’t the best spokesman for religious conservatism, he had to court the religious right. This and the imminence of vital Supreme Court appoints was enough to swing the evangelical vote strongly in favor of a millionaire playboy.

Religious conservatives and Republicans have gone from intellectual bedfellows to begrudging allies. The Christian right seems to stick by Trump as a devil’s bargain to get policy changes. For example, most conservatives love Supreme Court appointee Neil Gorsuch and hope he will spearhead a conservative renaissance in the jurisprudence of life and religious liberty. Trump has also been more accommodating of religious liberty, and scaled back Obama-era policies concerning LGBTQ individuals in the workplace. But with the exception of Justice Gorsuch, these seem like small victories.

On the whole, the Republican establishment hasn’t shown a willingness to fight the battles of the religious right. Take for example the recent healthcare debate. A major talking point of religious groups (and their allied politicians) in 2016 was defunding Planned Parenthood as a critical component of healthcare reform. Yet, in addition to failing to pass a healthcare bill even with a Republican Senate, House and Executive, the GOP has yet to defund Planned Parenthood on a federal level. Meanwhile, the thrust of Republican strategy is tax reform, immigration, refugees, and national security. Trump himself, while he may not be representative of all Republicans, is embroiled in fights with the media, his promises about protectionism and the Mexican border wall, and international conflict. Gone are the days where the aims of the religious right were seen as central pillars of conservatism.

Compounding the problem is that religious conservatives are rapidly losing the war of ideas. As public support for gay marriage, transgender rights, and social justice increases, religious groups that hold to traditional values look like obstructionists and face vicious attacks in the media. For example, last week a group of over 150 evangelical leaders signed what was called the “Nashville Statement,” which outlined what they considered a biblical view of gender, marriage, and sexuality. Even though the statement simply expresses what has been Christian orthodoxy for nearly two millennia, the statement was vilified in the press and scorned by many Republicans and Democrats. The fact that a relatively minor attempt to generate public attention for traditional religious social teachings drew such fire is remarkably indicative of the cultural attitude towards religion in America. Each generation since the Baby Boomers has had fewer self-identified Christians, and the next generation of conservatives is likely to reject much prior religious teaching on sexuality and life. One of the lessons we can learn from history is that politics is shaped by culture, not the other way around. As religious conservatives lose acceptance in culture, they are an increasingly unwelcome presence in politics and seem alien in the party where they once felt at home.

The lesson for religious conservatives is clear: if you are satisfied with short-term concessions from Republican leadership you will wake up one day to find yourself with nothing to stand on. The future power of the religious right in America depends upon winning the war of ideas, not the latest political figure who is willing to throw you a bone.

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