Only a decade ago, Christian social conservatives were a commanding force in American politics. They helped elect one of their own, George W. Bush, to two terms. They were a cornerstone of a GOP coalition that appeared to hold a permanent electoral majority. But today, the movement has lost its momentum – in part because one of its assets has become a liability.
It used to be that when Republicans wanted to increase conservative voter turnout, all they had to do was put same-sex marriage on the ballot. Even in liberal California, voters could be counted on to reject the then-outlandish idea of gay marriage.
But nothing in American politics has changed more rapidly than public opinion on that issue. These days, a solid majority of American voters say they don’t see anything wrong with gay nuptials. About the only major constituencies that haven’t come around are conservative Republicans and evangelical Christians, and even in their ranks, there’s a distinct generation gap. A recent Public Religion Research Institute poll found that while only 27 percent of evangelicals approve of same-sex marriage, 43 percent of evangelicals younger than 34 do.
The shifts in public sentiment have led Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention to draw an arresting conclusion: Contrary to what an earlier generation believed, there’s no “moral majority” in America today, and never was. “There was a Bible Belt illusion of a Christian America that never existed,” Moore told journalists at a conference sponsored by the Ethics and Public Policy Center last week. “The illusion of a moral majority is no longer sustainable.”
Moore is no liberal; he believes in the literal truth of the Bible, and he abhors abortion and gay marriage. But he’s a realist. “We need to recognize where the country is,” he said.
This week, for example, he and Ralph Reed, chairman of the conservative Faith and Freedom Coalition, published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal criticizing the Republican-led House for failing to pass an immigration reform law.
“Their strategy is shortsighted,” the two conservative leaders wrote. “Reform is the right thing to do for our economy . and the moral thing to do for the soul of our nation.”
The Republican Party shouldn’t be too worried. Evangelicals are unlikely to leave the GOP even if they aren’t as active in promoting an agenda. In 2012, for example, 79 percent of white evangelicals voted for Romney, despite the unease some felt with his Mormon religion. In fact, the refocusing of evangelical activism could actually be good for the party. In the next GOP presidential primaries, candidates may not face the same rigid litmus tests on social issues as Romney did. A candidate closer to the center of American public opinion – one, say, who accepts current laws on gay marriage and supports comprehensive immigration reform – might even survive the nomination process and get elected.
That wasn’t Moore’s objective when he took office last year as head of the Southern Baptists’ Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. His goal was to find a more effective way to bring Christian belief into the public square. But he may also have made it easier for a moderate conservative Republican to run for president in 2016.
Doyle McManus is a columnist for The Los Angeles Times. Email him at doyle.mcmanuslatimes.com.