I recently read Damon Linker’s The Theocons: Secular America Under Seige, a book that chronicles the author’s view of the rising influence of the religious right in politics. I suppose I’m late to the party, but it’s still an informative and worthwhile read. In the arc described in the book, the election and presidency of George W. Bush, who not only publicly admitted to being a Christian but also carved out a place for faith-based initiatives in his approach to social programs, was the highpoint of the theocon movement. What’s left of it?
First, was there and is there a movement? Certainly religion plays a role in how some voters view the issues and the candidates. That alone doesn’t mean there’s a movement or that any self-styled movement has real influence. Even President Bush going out of his way to appeal to religious conservatives or employ religious rhetoric doesn’t mean there’s a movement — President Obama has also attempted such an appeal using the same sort of religious rhetoric, and no one thinks Obama is leading a religious charge against secular America.
I enjoyed the book and its account of the career of Richard John Neuhaus (recently deceased) and his popular journal First Things. I would certainly recommend it. But I confess that I find hard to swallow the whole idea that a few articles, magazines, and think-tank types can wield the influence (or pose the threat) attributed to them by the author. I suspect people who really buy into this idea are the same people who really believe there’s a vast right-wing conspiracy out there working to undermine the Clintons: the ever-growing loony left and most of the mainstream media.
But rejecting the dark power that the book attributes to religious conservatives still leaves open the question of what their political future is. It’s not clear the political cohesion between conservative Catholics and conservative Protestants will continue. Whatever focus the Bush presidency offered is gone. Whatever focus the Obama presidency offers is illusory. Demographics are moving against religious conservatives, with the primary moral value of the rising generation being “tolerance,” which in practice means anything goes (i.e., amoralilty). So will the influence of religious conservatives and theocons just wither away? Or will a presidential candidate emerge in 2012 to revitalize the movement? And who might that be? Sam Brownback? Mike Huckabee? Sarah Palin?