George W. Bush had his day on Saturday, and so did the Christian right. Two-thirds of voters who described themselves as conservative Christians supported the Texas governor against Senator John McCain in the South Carolina Republican primary, helping him defeat McCain by a vote of 53 percent to 42 percent. Among those with no connection to the Christian right, the result was a draw.
Bush cleaned up among voters who objected to McCain's meeting with the gay Log Cabin Republicans and who are most vehemently antiabortion. Whether that support will help Bush from here on is anybody's guess. But his Christian right supporters should definitely enjoy their moment of glory while it lasts, because that moment is steadily fading away.
In the '70s, as the country increasingly embraced liberal relativism, many Christians became nostalgic for the small-town values of their youth. In the eyes of Christian conservatives, society was becoming too lax, with social and sexual liberalism on the rise and a sense of community on the decline. In response, the partisan Christian right emerged, with an ideology that overtly linked morality and government.
The movement reminded us that "a corrupt tree brings forth evil fruit" and that the personal character of our politicians does matter. Beyond our outward politics, our positions on the issues, there has to be a moral backbone.
By this logic, what a politician does in his private life is inextricably linked to his public persona. And indifference to this fact, the Christian right insisted, represented the sort of decadence that has been the downfall of all great empires.
Even with an optimistic, hopeful true believer like Ronald Reagan as president, the Christian right managed to successfully sell the dark idea that an increasingly liberal society was quite literally damning itself. This gloom and doom gained momentum in the mid-'80s, when the country was navigating economic crises and the Cold War. Many people worried about their futures and decried the common enemy of liberalism, and the Christian right reached its apex.
Just one problem: since the early '90s, America has experienced its longest period ever of sustained peacetime growth. At present, the economy is humming, unemployment is down, and the middle class is growing. Along the way, a lot of our free-floating existential angst has flaked away.
Against this backdrop, the movement has become more susceptible to attacks on other fronts. For example: While the Christian right continues to pump its collective fist in the air over abortion and same-sex marriage, it has been notably silent on race issues. You don't see the Christian Coalition handing out pamphlets and organizing protests over the Diallo shooting. Nor do you hear its members addressing the Confederate flag issue. (Black voters get the message, and in South Carolina almost none voted in the Republican primary.)
Yet race is a moral issue that addresses the very social structures that keep us huddled together as a community. Until the Christian right makes an appeal to black Americans and other minorities, it will continue to be perceived as an insular group of rural folk who are out of touch with the moral concerns of modern America.
Finally, The Christian right has suffered for the failure to apply its rigorous moral standards to its own leadership. When the Clinton-Lewinsky affair went nova, the Christian right was out front, denouncing the president's indiscretions with the fist-shaking fury of William Jennings Bryan. Yet its leaders quietly cast their eyes downward when the personal indiscretions of Newt Gingrich, Bob Livingston, and Helen Chenoweth began to stud op-ed sections across the country. The stench of hypocrisy has followed the movement ever since.
I'm deeply committed to the movement's message that without a dedication to morality, to the tenets of Christian love and charity, we're condemned to failure as a community. If the Christian right is to make its moral message resonate, however, it must not submit to situational morality--exactly what it's always accusing liberals of doing. It must not fall neatly along party lines. Otherwise, the Christian right will find itself easily dismissed by a country that's increasingly obsessed with its own material prosperity.