Culture War Cease Fire: True or False?

Andrew Sullivan is an optimistic man, someone who reads voraciously but doesn’t spend a lot of time at religious revivals. Hence he is overly optimistic about the media’s latest religious sensation, Russell Moore, the recently installed president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

“The Decline and Fall of Christianism” is the flamboyantly click-enticing headline of Sullivan’s post, extolling a recent Wall Street Journal profile of Moore in which he reiterated something he’s been saying for months: conservative Christians have lost the culture wars, and Southern Baptists, once the core of the so-called moral majority, are now a minority risking irrelevance unless they retreat from the fiery rhetoric of their forefathers of the past decades.

The Washington Monthly’s Ed Kilgore took a more measured view. “[W]e’ve heard all this before, along with the same expressions of hope from liberals and secular folk (the profile features several) that these zealots are finally going back into their shell just like they did after the Scopes Monkey Trial,” Kilgore wrote, adding:

I’d remind everyone that a change in strategy and tactics for politically-inclined conservative evangelicals doesn’t necessarily reflect a change in goals or commitments, and also that a loudly proclaimed independence from the GOP has been a hallmark of the Tea Party Movement as well.

The progressive blogger Digby took a shred of optimism from Kilgore’s post:

Religion is a huge part of American life and that’s fine. But the conservative churches have played an outsized role in our public imagination for decades now and it would be hugely beneficial if they were seen as just another religious group instead of the moral arbiters of the entire culture.

This is a lot to digest and dissect. But let’s get one thing on the table up front: Moore does not represent the religious right. It’s not even clear that he represents Southern Baptists (a shrinking population anyway). After all, his predecessor, Richard Land, was more a favorite of the media than of people in the pews, largely because the media is never sure who to go to for a quote, and Land was always happy to provide one. Moore may be more in touch with the shifting political and theological winds of his denomination’s millenials, but as his mentor Albert Mohler told the WSJ, “Russ will need a deft touch to make sure that Southern Baptists stay behind him.” (Translation: Moore will need a deft touch to make sure the denomination’s older and more conservative members stay behind him.)

It’s a deft touch, though, that Moore has brought to the term “culture wars.” What does that term mean, anyway? The religious right, as Moore has essentially acknowledged, has lost on same-sex marriage. Does that change his or his denomination’s views on homosexuality?

The ERLC’s website laments that “our churches must become lighthouses for those who struggle with sexual brokenness,” arguing that churches must be “’safe’ for the strugglers and for the friends and families of those who struggle. Only then will we be in a position to reverse the trend toward normalization of that which Scripture clearly calls sin.” That might not be the equivalent of lobbying Congress to pass a law prohibiting same-sex marriages, for example, or a fire and brimstone sermon condemning gay people to hell, but it’s a strong message nonetheless. Anti-gay marriage forces may have lost at the ballot box and at the Supreme Court, but there are still children who contemplate taking (and do) take their own lives because they’ve been told they are “sinful” and not “normal.”

The religious right is not a static movement. Although there are still some who go the fire and brimstone route, many others—particularly those telegenic enough to attain a position like Moore’s—are going to give the “culture war” issues a softer touch. But make no mistake: they still see these as cultural issues, and still see their essential role as engagement in the public square as witnesses for (their view of) Christ’s teachings.

The religious right is not a movement with one or even two or three or four leaders. Because it’s a political and cultural undertaking that is playing a long game—rather successfully—it has produced many disciples. (In contrast, liberals tend to see small moments within that long game—like Moore replacing Land—as more consequential than they should.) Moore has an office in Washington, and a press operation. He has a title. He’s smart and thoughtful. I read him. I follow him. He will be on your television a lot. But like with Land (although in a different way) this coverage will overplay his influence. He’s not a general. He can’t order a retreat.

Pay attention, too, to issues not in retreat, in particular, concerns couched as ones of religious liberty, particularly the contraception coverage requirement under the Affordable Care Act. This is an emerging and growing battleground—one the Supreme Court has been asked to wade into. Here’s Moore, just this week, on Fox News (h/t Denny Burk):

You can see this happening all over the country not only related to Obamacare. This is just one fiery rafter in a burning house. Religious liberty is under assault all over the place in this country in ways that I think are probably more pronounced than we have seen since the founding era… People who are doing good things in their communities motivated by religious convictions are simply being driven out of the public square because they won’t sing out of the hymn book of the church of the sexual revolution. I just don’t think we can live this way as Americans.

A fiery rafter in a burning house. Keep that language in mind the next time someone tells you the culture wars are over.

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