New York Times Declares Religious Right Dead. Again.

By Jeff Sharlet

With “The Evangelical Crack-Up,” New York Times conservative beat reporter David D. Kirkpatrick’s nearly 8,000-word cover story in this Sunday’s magazine, the paper of record has attempted to cement a new chunk of conventional wisdom: The religious right is dead. Again.

The story is already the paper’s most-emailed article, and the liberal blog has heralded it as long-awaited news — a peculiar memory lapse for political junkies. This isn’t the first time establishment media has declared the end of conservative evangelicalism as a movement: It did the same in 1992, when Clinton won; in 1996, when he won again. It declared American fundamentalism an artifact of the past in 1925, after the Scopes Trial, and then proceeded to ignore the build-up of a Christian conservatism that infused the Cold War with particularly fervent anti-communism that recognized only three shades, black, white, and red. And as recently as 2000, too, establishment media considered fundamentalism mostly a non-starter, at best a sideshow in the Gore-Bush contest.

Here we are again. The NYT‘s two reporters assigned to following the religious right — or, rather, the electoral fortunes of the religious right — have declared evangelical conservatism as dead as D. James Kennedy and Jerry Falwell. On October 7, Laurie Goodstein weighed in with a “Week in Review” piece titled “For a Trusty Voting Bloc, Faith Shaken,” which made the classic establishment media mistake of reducing a social movement — evangelicalism — to its visible point of contact with the concerns of establishment elites, inside-the-beltway politics (see The Revealer, “Movements vs. Media Narratives”). And now, Kirkpatrick issues the official word in watercooler wisdom for political junkies: In 2004, he writes, “White evangelical Protestants looked like perhaps the most potent voting bloc in America.” But today, “the movement shows signs of coming apart beneath its leaders.”

An odd assessment from a man who, by his own admission, has been covering mainly the leaders, not the people in the pews, for the last three years. Even Kirkpatrick’s definition of leadership is a little thin: He has focussed on the leaders who shouted “Look at me!” the loudest, the Falwells and the Dobsons and the absurd Rick Scarborough (who also shows up to provide color in Goodstein’s piece). Such men are important to understanding evangelicalism, but they have always stood at the shrill right edge of the movement. The real leadership of conservative evangelicalism takes place not on Sunday morning chat shows, but at Sunday morning services, in thousands of churches across the country, and throughout the week in small group meetings. Focus on the Family is not powerful because of James Dobson; James Dobson is able to posture as powerful because of the thousands of activists beneath him, as detailed in Dan Gilgoff’s recent book The Jesus Machine: How James Dobson, Focus on the Family, and Evangelical America are Winning the Culture War. Gilgoff’s subtitle is instructive: He does not say they’re winning the electoral fight, but rather the fight they themselves chose: a culture war, which is won by attrition.

To wit: Obama’s decision to campaign with anti-gay activists. Many centrist liberals, in fact, defend Obama’s choice as a means of finding “common ground.” Meanwhile, culture war continues quietly in the textbooks of more than a million evangelical homeschoolers, at the new chastity rituals of a movement dedicated to “sexual purity” as a form of spiritual war, and wherever anyone, evangelical or not, accepts the reductionist premise of “Islamofascism” as if it’s a reasonable idea. Evangelical conservatives don’t need to shout; in fact, so long as they don’t, they persuade more people. That’s not to say the movement is more moderate now; rather, that it’s more polite. And much more likely to endure.

That there’s a crack-up in political evangelicalism’s old guard is indisputable, but the movement, the evangelical idea of what America is and should be, is stronger and more widespread now than it ever was in the 20th century. The very evidence Kirkpatrick and Goodstein cite to the contrary is proof of the movement’s real cultural power. Kirkpatrick, for instance, cites Marvin Olasky, the founder of the ultra-right World magazine and the man who coined “compassionate conservatism,” on the future of the evangelical-Republican alliance: “To some extent — we have to see how much — the Republicans have blown it. That opportunity to lock up that constituency has vanished. The ball now really is in the Democrats’ court.”

Kirkpatrick hears that comment as a sign that Olaskey and his evangelical brethren are moderating. But perhaps the Democratic Party is growing yet more conservative. Consider the presence in its advisory circles of Randy Brinson, in 2004 a vote-organizer for the Republican Party, now helping Democrats win the faith vote. The “new evangelicals” he told me, are as anti-queer as ever, but they’ll agree not to talk about it so long as “the gay stuff’s not in your face.” Don’t-ask, don’t-tell is the new moderation. Here it is in action, in the form of a Kansas pastor cited by Kirkpatrick: “Carlson reminded his congregation that homosexuality was hardly the only form of sex the Bible condemned. Any extramarital sex is a sin, he told his congregation, so they should not point fingers.”

Is this a retreat from culture war? Or a redefinition of the battle and how it’s fought? Once, evangelical pastors railed against queer people; now, they push, nudge, and cajole their congregations into a much broader narrative of sexual purity, exemplified by the enormous popularity of the Every Man’s Battle books and their numerous spin-offs (young men, married men, women, and girls all have battles, too). Homosexuality usually takes up a few pages toward the back of these books. The fight, now, is against sex itself. And just like those evangelicals who declare that they hate the sin of homosexuality but love the sinner, the Every Man books urge you to hate sex in almost all its manifestations, but to love it when it’s done right — roughly every 72 hours, timed to the male need for “release,” between a husband and a wife who respects his “male headship.” The rest of the time, men should practice purging their minds of sexual thoughts by learning to “bounce” their eyes away from other women, temptresses all. Women, meanwhile, don’t have this problem, since they don’t really have sexual thoughts beyond pleasing their husbands.

“The pendulum in the Christian world,” Kirkpatrick cites another Kansas pastor, “has swung back to the moderate point of view.” That’s true, in one sense — the practice of screaming against gays and keeping mum about sex is out of fashion. Evangelical leaders and ordinary evangelicals want to talk about sex, and within very strict confines, how to have good sex. You decide whether the new approach is more moderate, or, perhaps, more “maximalist” — that’s the term some scholars use for religious movements that seek to conform every aspect of life to a theological vision.

Kirkpatrick writes of the “new interest in public policies that address problems of peace, health and poverty — problems, unlike abortion and same-sex marriage, where left and right compete to present the best answers.” Left and right do compete to offer the best answers on those issues. And the new moderate evangelicals are weighing in heavy for the right. The difference between this new narrative and the old spittle-flecked Falwell rants is that the issues involve technocratic responses from both the left and the right. Most significantly with regard to the environment — much has been made of the “green evangelicals.” They’re not “environmentalists” mind you, they’re interested in “creation care.” Six of one, half dozen of the other? Not at all.. Creation care proposes free market solutions to environmental problems. One market under god, as Tom Frank puts it. Evangelicals now sound more like the economic conservatives establishment media has always been more comfortable with.

Likewise poverty. Rick Warren, the mega-bestselling author of The Purpose-Driven Life held up by Kirkpatrick as a new, moderate evangelical, attempted to put his hyper-individualistic theology into practice in Rwanda, which declared itself the first “Purpose-Driven Nation.” Rwanda, according to Warren’s plan, was going to lift itself out of poverty by its own bootstraps, with God smiling from above. Forget about the economic legacy of genocide, much less of colonialism; forget about the reality of currency, and tariffs, and market infrastructure. What Warren offered was The Little Engine That Could, with Jesus in place of the choo choo train. Poor people, all aboard!

The problem with the new evangelicalism is the same as that of the old: It’s not any one issue (once upon a time, remember, many evangelicals were driven by their anti-Catholicism into pro-choice and anti-religious schools positions), but rather, the priority American evangelicalism gives to the individual soul at the expense of the community. For all its current talk of family values, American evangelicalism resists looking at society in terms bigger than the unit of one. Its essence — going back well before what Kirkpatrick wrongly identifies as the evangelical/mainline divide “nearly 100 years ago” — is the rhetorical rejection of a systemic critique and thus any attempts to address problems through government.

Of course, evangelicals have always made systemic critiques, but on their own terms — what else was Falwell’s argument that 9/11 was a punishment from God for feminism and homosexuality, a perspective I still hear in fundamentalist churches, albeit phrased more gently, with alarming frequency? And even now, the evangelical faith in the marketplace is leading many to embrace a new government solution to abortion: federal funding for “pregnancy centers,” like the one in Kansas cited by Kirkpatrick as more evidence of the new moderation: “Choices,” he writes, “discourages women from ending pregnancies by offering 3-D ultrasound scans and adoption advice.”

Kirkpatrick doesn’t tell you that throughout the country, such centers have sprung up in communities where abortion is hardly an option any more, since the clinics have all been driven out by a decades-long campaign of intimidation, harassment, and even arson and murder. He doesn’t tell you about the research that shows that “advice” offered at such centers often goes well beyond adoption into science-fiction–medical “facts” such as the “link” between abortion and breast cancer. And, maybe most importantly, he doesn’t tell you that such centers enjoy support not only from Republican politicians, but also Democrats — even Hillary Clinton.

Many new evangelicals, he writes, are “as likely to lean left as right.” By this, he means that they may vote for Democrats. But what kind of Democrats? The NYT, like all daily papers, needs a basic — and straightforward — conflict narrative. Left vs. right is a good one, so the paper lines those ideologies up with the parties: Democrat vs. Republican, forget the nuances within the parties. If they’re running against one another, they must believe in very different things, right? Consider a few issues on which conservative Democrats have lined up with Republicans and make your own call: Iraq; Iran; “free” trade; pregnancy centers; the $28 million by which a Democratic subcommittee just voted to increase funding for abstinence-only sex education that’s been proven inaccurate and dangerous to teens.

This is not to say that the two parties are identical, but rather that they don’t represent the full left/right spectrum that the establishment media suggests — and that evangelical and the conservative wing of the Democratic Party aren’t such an unlikely match. Billy Graham, in his youth, was a Democrat — as were most Southern evangelicals before the Civil Rights era. Some of them were fundamentalists and New Dealers to the extent that they welcomed government pork when it came their way. To suggest that evangelicals are reviving that Democratic tradition — mildly populist economics combined with social conservatism and a fundamental belief in the export of American power — doesn’t so much herald a moderation as an expansion of cultural influence. And culture, as evangelical activists understand in a way that the NYT does not, is politics.

But the new conventional wisdom of The New York Times has a trump card, made right here in New York: Giuliani. Measuring the movement by the faint winds of its voting inclinations, Kirkpatrick concludes that since many evangelicals currently favor Giuliani — a pro-choice man of visibly weak “family values” — the movement’s old fire is gone. “‘What I liked about George Bush,'” an evangelical tells him, “‘is all of his moral side and all that. But somehow he didn’t have the strength to govern the way we hoped he would and that he should have.’” Admiration for “strength to govern” is to Kirkpatrick a sign of moderation.

There’s another possibility. For much of the 20th century, American evangelicalism enjoyed a clearly-defined enemy in the form of foreign communism and those within the U.S. that evangelicals suspected of harboring un-American views. The end of the Cold War removed that great clarity. At around the same time, sexual purity jumped up from a distant second place in the rhetoric of evangelical leaders to a roaring first. But 2001 introduced a new enemy, more easily cast in the old starring role of a foreign ideology: militant Islam or, as many within evangelicalism call it now, “Islamofascism.” The movement was so split over where to put its energies — the fight against sex or the clash of civilizations — that before his 2006 downfall, Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals convened a meeting of more than a 1,000 pastors from around the country at which they debated the issue.

Giuliani’s popularity amongst evangelicals may reflect a growing consensus in that debate: The enemy is Islam. And Giuliani’s the best man for that battle.

But what of growing evangelical discontent with the war in Iraq? Review the quote on strength above. The evangelical dissatisfaction with Bush’s venture into what many evangelicals call the “10/40 window” — latitudinal and longitudinal boundaries of the area in which the world’s greatest concentration of non-Christians live, a “window of opportunity” in evangelical terms — is the incompetence with which he pursued it.

“The extraordinary evangelical love affair with Bush has ended,” Kirkpatrick writes. Only, it never really existed. Evangelicals voted for Bush. Many believed in him. But, contrary to liberal fears, almost nobody thought he was a political messiah, or even the ideal politician. Bush was always a compromise, and both the people in the pews — as skeptical about politicians as any other Americans — and the leaders knew it as early as 2002. That’s when I started hearing off-the-record remarks about “what comes next” after Bush. Nobody believed that Bush’s administration was the endgame.

Both Kirkpatrick and Laurie Goodstein make much of recent polls that show that younger evangelicals are defecting from the Republican Party. “The defectors,” concedes Kirkpatrick, “by and large say they’ve become independents, not Democrats.” That’s not all they say: On many issues, they’re more conservative than their parents. But on some, they are more liberal, in conventional terms. Across the board, though, from sex to the Middle East, from school vouchers to global warming, the “new” evangelicalism isn’t retreating from politics; it’s expanding its vision of what politics are. Establishment media, meanwhile, is sticking with the polls.