I’m not sure how long I’ve been arguing that conservative evangelicals lost the culture war, but it’s been a while. Over time, I’ve realized that’s not exactly right; the culture war is much too complicated and entrenched to ever really be “over.” But we speak of it simply in terms of the religious right’s attempts to turn back the clock on policy related to sexual morality, last night was as close as you can get to definitive proof they have lost. That doesn’t come as a surprise to most social conservatives, but it’s worth hearing them reflect about the position they’re in:
As a social conservative, I am as pessimistic as I’ve ever been about the future of social conservatism in US politics. It’s not because of the maladroit campaigning of people like Mourdock and Akin. It’s because of the demographic changes that this year’s election appears to lock in. Social conservatism is concentrated among older voters, who are dying off, and being replaced by younger voters, who simply aren’t socially conservative, and aren’t likely to become socially conservative (at least not as socially conservative as older, expiring Americans are). I know liberals and media figures love to say that social conservatism is a loser’s game. I don’t think that’s quite true, at least not in the way that they mean. But I think it is true that going forward, it will be very hard for a presidential candidate to win nationally if he or she is heavily identified as a social conservative. We social conservatives are going to have to figure out how to deal with that. They’re not going to be able to tell us to go away, but we are in a weak position.
We must face the reality that we may be on the losing side of the culture war. For decades, the “religious right” has focused its energies on winning the day through political means. But this year, voters in more than one state appear to have clearly passed referenda supporting gay marriage. This marks the first time for any state to legalize same-sex marriage by the expressed will of the people rather than through court rulings or legislation. While this certainly does not mean we should stop legal or political efforts completely, it does mean that we should begin thinking about what it looks like to be the church in a “post-culture war” era.
Conservatives have been arguing for quite some time that they had more marriage support than polls and media coverage indicated, and they pointed to the polls to do it. That narrative is now dead. Whatever else we make of gay marriage, it seems clear that (along with marijuana use) it is slowly becoming the law of the land.
In the wake Barack Obama’s resounding victory on a socially liberal line and the unprecedented success of gay marriage in the referenda in Maine and Maryland, we’re going to hear calls for the abandonment of social issues. As a Christian, I do not think ceaseless talk about homosexuality is the best way to spread the gospel of love. As a citizen, I view a culture of divorce as a greater problem for the common good. If I had my bones, I would have socially conservative candidates act like Robert McDonnell in his race for Virginia’s governorship: Hold the line, but do not rhetorically escalate. Quietly move forward a culture of life.
I’m not sure what all this means, and it seems like there’s still a belief that the messaging and the GOP are more of a problem than the substance of the social conservative position, which I think is overly optimistic.
David Sessions is the founding editor of Patrol. He covers religion for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, and is a graduate student in the Draper Program for Humanities and Social Thought at New York University. He can be reached at hdavidsessions at gmail dot com.
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