The Social Conservative Crack-Up

What once looked like a solid block of principled consistency now looks like an Etch-a-Sketch that was stolen, stripped, and left for dead in a dumpster behind the neighborhood Chik-Fil-A.

Mitt Romney’s campaign is now famously associated with treating the general election like an Etch-a-Sketch—just flip it, shake it, and pretend the primary never happened. But what’s happening to the Republican Party’s traditional socially conservative base will be far more influential. What once looked like a solid block of principled consistency now looks like an Etch-a-Sketch that was stolen, stripped, and left for dead in a dumpster behind the neighborhood Chik-Fil-A.

Social conservatives, to put it bluntly, are cracking up.

James Dobson was setting trends when he said years ago that the culture wars are over, and social conservatives lost. Democrats from Obama on down long to convince America that the Attack of the Bible People is a permanent emergency, but the reality is shockingly different. Pat Robertson—the 700 Club guy who ran from the right against the Reagan/Bush legacy—now supports legalizing pot and reforming prisons.

Robertson is far from launching a Great Awakening of Christian hippiedom. But when Rick Santorum, who suspended his campaign yesterday, was last in the Senate, the current headspace of a growing number of establishment social conservatives was simply unthinkable.

As their aging religious leaders abandon the old scripts, politically active conservative Christians are ceasing to function according to plan. In every primary state but one, voting Catholics threw their support behind Mitt Romney, a Mormon, instead of Santorum, the most agitated Catholic in America’s public square. Evangelicals, meanwhile, embraced Santorum freely. (Not one accusation of Popish plots has been leveled against the campaign.)

Yet even while evangelicals have swelled to make up half of Republican primary voters, they’re divided and relatively unenthused about the Republican field. Perhaps not so coincidentally, growth among evangelical Christians has proceeded apace with the diminution of many so-called “mainline” Christian churches. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, whose book on the topic will drop soon, bemoans the transformation of social conservatives into people who strike each other—and maybe even themselves—as heretics:

"Barack Obama, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum all identify as Christians, but their theological traditions and personal experiences of faith diverge more starkly than any group of presidential contenders in recent memory. These divergences reflect America as it actually is: We’re neither traditionally Christian nor straightforwardly secular. Instead, we’re a nation of heretics in which most people still associate themselves with Christianity but revise its doctrines as they see fit, and nobody can agree on even the most basic definitions of what Christian faith should mean."

It’s almost as if what’s happened to American Christianity from a doctrinal perspective is transpiring simultaneously in politics. How can a political movement animated by its religious convictions and commitments cohere around a set of policy prescriptions when it can’t even safely assume that everyone’s practicing the same religion?

Signs of the crackup are everywhere. And it’s not just a neat fracture down the middle that maps onto America’s cherished right-left divide. Some Catholics use birth control; some Catholics using birth control still don’t want the government telling their Church what it must and must not subsidize. Megapastor Rick Warren wants you to delay your gratification, but megapastor Joel Osteen wants you to remind God of how well you’d do in life—and to pay up, if you can, for the message.

Personifying the madness is Mike Huckabee, the jovial former Arkansas Governor who, by some accounts, could have crushed the current field and united the party. Huckabee says a brokered convention would be a “train wreck,” but from the perspective of his social conservative fans, his career is the train wreck that’s actually happened. Instead of running against Barack Obama, he’s running against Rush Limbaugh, extending his cordial media empire into talk radio.

That’s hardly what you’d expect from someone who’s still letting people float him seriously as the perfect running mate to solve Romney’s so-con problems. (Guess who was Huckabee’s first guest on radio? Yep.) Will Huckabee or won’t he? Either way, no candidate can reverse the drift and disagreement that’s set in among social conservatives—on drugs, immigration, sex, or anything else.

It all might sound like the religious right ought to crack open the Book of Revelation and write in a fifth horse of the apocalypse. Instead, social conservatives stand to gain from their extended-play day of reckoning. As Rick Santorum’s candidacy shows, it’s obvious that their political scheme in its original incarnation is a failure—but it’s also evident that plenty of religious Americans hope as strongly as ever that their country’s politics can be reconciled on some fundamental level with their faith.

The best way for social conservatives to rise again is for their millions of adherents to recognize two central facts. First, fighting to change the federal government from the inside has served mostly to make the movement its prisoner. Second, guys like Robertson aren’t stupid. They’re as savvy about politics in some ways as they are sincere about religion. A carefully calibrated shift toward a more libertarian approach on some so-called social issues could give so-cons the deliverance from partisan frustration they’ve been praying for.

James Poulos blogs at Forbes. He is on Twitter at @jamespoulos.