Political Culture: Christian Right, R.I.P.

It’s been a rather apocalyptic year for conservative Christians. The virtual collapse of America’s economy and moral standing under their Chosen leader, George W. Bush, left their credibility as an influence on governing in tatters. Their preferred candidate in the Republican primaries, Mike Huckabee, won the rural South but lost the rest of the country to a guy who used to call their leaders “agents of intolerance.” They cozied up to John McCain eventually, but the fervently devout Church Lady he chose for a running mate turned into a national joke. And then the guy they love to deride as a Muslim, if not the Antichrist, won the presidency by a comfortable margin and led an electoral sweep that left right-wing Christians without a single significant champion in Washington.

Even their one major victory on Election Day, in California’s battle over Prop 8, was tempered by the fact that it was bankrolled and driven to victory largely by the Mormon church, which evangelical Christians still hold highly suspect. (A corollary fact – that most Californians harbor intense Buyer’s Remorse over Prop 8 – can’t sit well either.) Since November, gay-marriage opponents have been forced to swallow defeats in Connecticut, Vermont and Iowa (Iowa!), with more states likely to fall to the hedonists and infidels in the near future. Just yesterday, New York Gov. David Paterson announced he’s introducing a gay-marriage bill in the state’s heavily Democratic legislature.

Meanwhile, church attendance is down, atheism and non-affiliation are up, abortion is still legal, vocal prayer is still banned from public schools, evolution is totally kicking creationism’s ass, stem cell research is being funded by the government, that Ten Commandments monument is in a basement somewhere rather than on the courthouse lawn, Lil Wayne is #1 on the charts, and Terri Schiavo is still … well, you get the picture. Hell, Newsweek even celebrated Easter with a cover story touting “The Decline and Fall of Christian America.” Short of the Rapture arriving tomorrow – which, I recognize, many evangelicals would consider a blessing – could things get any worse for the Christian Right?

The fact is, the movement that began with Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, and expanded through Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition, Donald Wildmon’s American Family Association, James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, and other groups, is just … about … wait for it … dead. Though we can expect the funeral to drag on for a while. (As Richard Pryor once famously quoted his father, “The dirt! Can we get to the part with the dirt?”)

Even its leaders seem finally to have noticed the large-print, boldface writing on the wall. Conservative columnist Kathleen Parker noted last week that Dobson himself has been captured on tape admitting that the big culture-war battles are all lost. Dobson’s departure from the scene just about finishes off the movement’s highest-profile figureheads – and his replacement as head of Focus on the Family recently was assailed by a Christian-radio host for selling out the Gospels to a Republican Party that can’t seem to do anything right, much less Right.

Therein lies one of the keys to the Christian Right’s ultimate failure. By hitching their wagon to the GOP, whose true power-brokers were never really committed to their cause, fundamentalists doomed themselves to share in the GOP’s errors, misdeeds and eventual decline – all without ever getting much in return. Evangelicals flocked to the polls for Reagan and the Bushes expecting an end to Roe v. Wade, a Constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, a return of prayer to the schools, a commitment to teaching creationism (or at least “teaching the controversy”), etc., etc., etc. … and instead they got to absorb the stink from Ed Meese, Iran-Contra, “Read My Lips,” the Iraq War, Valerie Plame, wiretapping, Mark Foley, Larry Craig, the economic disaster, and (oh, yeah) torture. Hey, at least that hooded dude at Abu Ghraib was photographed in a crucifix position, right?

Someday, perhaps, knee-jerk partisanship will stop blinding those few remaining holdouts who still believe that torture (or Iraq, or the Plame affair) was moral, much less “Christian.” Even then, however, there will plenty of room to argue that the Christian Right’s own agenda – denying a woman’s right to choose, denying equal rights to gays and lesbians, forcing religion into public schools and government buildings, censoring books and music and movies and the Internet, imposing sexual probity (and wasting hundreds of millions of dollars) with “abstinence-only” education at home and abroad, etc. – was hardly moral either, much less “Christian.”

Still, the central flaw of Christian conservatism – its original sin, if you will – was its insertion into our nation’s politics in the first place. Christ preached a personal gospel, not a political one; neither the Old Testament nor the New is a governing document. (If I’m wrong, maybe somebody can point Tim Geithner to a passage describing how to bail out a dysfunctional banking system?) Yes, religion (and especially Christianity) has guided nations and empires in their foreign and domestic policies for millennia — but that was a problem the framers of our Constitution were looking to solve, not the foundation on which they were attempting to build a new kind of government.

Certainly, using political organizing in churches to advance fundamentalist values in government – that’s right, Jerry Falwell was Barack Obama’s moral/evil twin! – was a natural response to the sweeping changes that began after World War II and accelerated during the 1960s. But that didn’t make it right. The Moral Majority/Christian Coalition/AFA/Kansas creationists’ mission – to steer our government in what they considered a Biblically-based direction via cash, lobbying, and advocacy for candidates and policies from the pulpit – represented exactly the type of narrowly tailored agenda the framers were trying to stop when they separated Church and State in 1789. And it was all in the service of an agenda that would discriminate rather than integrate, that would exclude rather than embrace, that would shackle rather than free.

>The impact of abstinence education, Bristol Palin styleThe Christian Right’s values were not American values. And their personal behavior too often showcased the hypocrisy in attempting to force a single set of “moral” demands upon an entire nation. Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, Ted Haggard … Bristol Palin: These were the people we were meant to emulate? These were the sort of people who could tell us what we can and can’t do, in the name of all that’s holy?

The difference between “can and can’t” and “should and shouldn’t” is the difference between governance and morality; it’s time that conservative Christians remembered that difference. And perhaps, at long last, it’s time for them to re-train their focus inward rather than outward, and find again the true purpose of religion – which, after all, is to find meaning and betterment for oneself, not for society as a whole. The path to heaven may be through faith and good works, but that faith needs to be your own, not mine — and those good works (and charitable dollars) need to be steered toward the poor and downtrodden, not lobbyists and legislators.

>Of course, reports of God's death have been greatly exaggerated before -- this time in 1966I don’t begin to suggest that anyone sublimate his personal morality to the hedonism he sees all around him, or that an individual shouldn’t vote for whichever candidate or ballot initiative best matches his values. (Though I do think it’s past time for the Bible’s pronouncements about homosexuality to find their proper place in that drawer marked “Things We Don’t Bother With Anymore” – a drawer already occupied by the Good Book’s dictates encouraging possession of slaves, prohibiting the eating of shellfish or the wearing of garments made from two types of thread, and commanding the execution of those who work on the Sabbath, among many others.)

The proper settings for the advancement of individual religion and morality have always been the home and the church, not the public schools, the courts or the halls of Congress. So go forth, conservative Christians, and prosper. Multiply, even! Do all the good, charitable works for others that will make God smile upon you. Believe what you want, and encourage your own children to behave however you think the Bible wants them to.

But at long last, could you please learn to live and let live? And could you please (pretty please) stop pretending that the granting of equal rights to people whose “values” you disapprove of is somehow a form of discrimination against you?