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Lori Sheridan, left, Carol Helm and Naomi Kohen, all of Tulsa, Okla., stand outside of the Bartlesville Community Center in Bartlesville, Okla in December 2010. The conservative activists were protesting the Republican party’s placing the state’s struggling economy ahead of social issues such as abortion.
On Faith asks “What do the religious controversies surrounding the leading Republican candidates tell us about the state of the social conservative movement? What do social conservatives want in 2012?”
Sharlet: On the one hand, social conservatives, particularly of the Protestant variety, want out of 2012 what they’ve wanted since H.L. Mencken handed them a shellacking at the Scopes “Monkey Trial” in 1925: respectability. Christian conservatives have either dominated American politics or shouted loudest in opposition for three decades, but the movement’s inferiority complex runs deep. Eighteen years after the fact, fundamentalist pundits still cite a description of fundamentalists in The Washington Post as “largely poor, uneducated, and easily led.” That the characterization is snobby — and inaccurate. It’s also old. But as a movement, these religious social conservatives can’t seem to win enough validation – also known as power – to make them feel better. Exhibit A: The sense of wounded grievance fueling Michele Bachmann’s campaign.
On the other hand, things are changing. The Christian Right has consolidated, fractured, rebuilt, refractured, and revived itself many times now since it became an explicit electoral force in the late 1970s. There’s no longer the same sense of now or never. Activists – and many in the rank and file – understand that they’re part of the American scene, and that means there’ll always be a second act. Sarah Palin flames out? Enter: Michelle Bachmann.
But that also means politicians such as Bachmann and Rick Perry can’t harness the same urgency once drawn on by Christian Right leaders. As David French writes abortion remains the wedge issue it was back in the 1970s, when one of Bachmann’s intellectual heroes, the late Francis Schaeffer, dragged evangelicals into battle over what had once been considered a Catholic issue. But a politician’s stance on that one issue is not enough to get him elected – or even to scuttle a health bill, as we saw in 2010. Anti-abortion activists know they face a long fight. They’re fighting their battles – and winning more of them than most liberals realize – at the state and even local level.
Homosexuality no longer looms quite as large in the Christian conservative imagination. The rank and file are catching up with former leaders like Pastor Ted Haggard, who told me back in 2005, when he was still president of the National Association of Evangelicals, that the conservative fight against gay marriage had already been lost. Of course, he had more of a stake in such matters than we knew back then.
There’s always Islam, still a boogeyman for millions of Christian conservatives who understand it not as a religious rival – many won’t grant Islam the status of a religion – but as an almost intimate threat to Christian families. The logic doesn’t track, but, then, it never does when it comes to bigotry. And yet, in the wake of the Oslo murders, for which killer Anders Breivik drew inspiration from a number of prominent American conservatives, putting Islam front and center in a social crusade is just too ugly. (Indeed, the anti-Islam campaigner Pamela Geller may have jumped the shark when she called Rick Perry “the stealth Jihad candidate.”) And banning mosques never really sat right with the rank and file of fundamentalism, anyway – the movement has deep democratic roots in the American tradition of freedom of religion, or “liberty of conscience,” as the most fervently devout of the colonial founders, Roger Williams, put it.
What does that leave the aspiring social conservative activist? Easy: economic conservatism. I don’t think the term “teavangelicalism,” as David Brody at the Christian Broadcasting Network put it, is going to catch on. Still, the compound word captures the convergence of social and economic ideas that has been slowly overtaking populist fundamentalism for decades. That’s not new: As I’ve written elsewhere, the Family, or the Fellowship, which sponsors the annual National Prayer Breakfast, began putting laissez-faire economics at the heart of their gospel back in 1935. Even then they were merely picking up a strand of American evangelicalism strung from the “Businessmen’s Revival” of the 19th century.
The Family maintained a powerful sense of paternalism, the idea of “top men,” anointed by Jesus, deciding what’s best for rest of us. The so-called “teavangelicals” are stripping some of that away as they elevate Ayn Rand to apostle status; “Atlas Hugged,” as former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford, a family man and potential Tea Party favorite before his famous flame-out, put it.
For all of these reasons, the social conservative movement is facing the possibility of a schism. In 2008, that played out through Christian conservative anxiety over Mike Huckabee, who struck a slightly more compassionate — and “big government” — note than many religious libertarians could abide. Establishment religious conservatives bridled, too – -an overlooked factor in Huckabee’s electoral demise was the investigation into his televangelist backers proposed by Senator Chuck Grassley.
The threat of fracture may bode well for Rick Perry. Policy-wise, he differs little from Michele Bachmann, but where she’s typecast (inaccurately) as nothing but a raving social conservative, stalking gay rights rallies from behind Minnesota bushes, Perry presents as a triple threat. The Texas governor is a business conservative, a social conservative, and, oh yeah, a man.
Let’s not let the rise of Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann blind us to that last “qualification” – as passions ebb and tide within the social conservative movement, one commitment remains constant: “male headship,” God the father, and even, as an increasing number of homeschoolers are coming to call it – favorably – The Patriarchy. The movement’s increasingly religious economic conservatism is cast in gender terms, as a quest for the restoration of masculine dignity, a revival of breadwinning in an era of genuinely humiliating economic conditions. What do social conservatives want in 2012? Same thing they’ve always wanted. “One man, one woman,” and a passel of kids. A family, narrowly defined, daddy in charge, with maybe some gentle wisecracks about how the wife is really in control. It’s the relative modesty of that ambition that justifies the extremes of social conservatism in the public square, the Bachmanns and the Perrys who pop up every four years, each crop a little more potent than the last. The candidate who understands this passion play best will always steal the show; and maybe, this time, the nomination.
Jeff Sharlet is the bestselling author of The Family and C Street. His new book is Sweet Heaven When I Die: Faith, Faithlessness, and the Country In Between