The twentieth century struggle in American Protestantism was defined along the Fundamentalist/Modernist front. While the mainline reigned at mid-century, by the closing decade the conservatives had the upper hand, at least in professed believers. Some part of this growth was a Boomer phenomenon and the shift of population to the Sun Belt. One can mix in a bit of sexual anxiety that was the subtext of the 80s and90s — the prime family years of the Boomers.
This religious growth was widely spread but it came with a catch: the growing conservative wing of Protestantism was also the wing for But something else was in the wind. Thsomething of a puritan movement had taken place.
these forces had been part of the fundamentalist community, particularly those in S California (see Darren Dochuk’s From Bible Belt to Sun Belt). It was a potent stew: highly separatist adherents, a militant anti-communism, a Plain Folk distrust of elites; this was the gift of Orange County to the world.
But once you get past Reagan, what was the impact of this religious nationalism? More respectability, yes, and a new name (Religious Right) but still largely a failure argues George Hawley
(The Religious Right) was an effective fundraising tool for Republican politicians, but its lasting victories in terms of social policies are difficult to name. Stopping the Equal Rights Amendment in the late 1970s was perhaps the movement’s sole permanent achievement. And that victory occurred before most of the major institutions of the Christian Right were even established. On abortion, gay marriage, prayer in school, and other social issues, conservative victories were typically fleeting.
But if it was a failure politically, it was worse for Christianity as a whole. The very political energy of the movement drove out the moderate and liberals, not simply sending some to the mainline congregations, but completely out of the religious game. To the sidelines. As Hawley notes, “the finding that it expedited the decline of Christian identification and affiliation is a damning indictment.”
Matthew Lee Anderson picks up the issue of the Religious Right, and in particular its connection to racism. Is it, as Randall Balmer, Sarah Posner and others, linked to racism — is it the color line that drives its animus? Anderson has his doubts.
While evangelicals indisputably have a less-than-exemplary record on questions of race, their own history within the South is not necessarily identical or equivalent to the history of the Religious Right. The most charitable interpretation of Bob Jones is that the Religious Right defended the wrong practice for the right reasons, namely, the freedom of religious institutions to govern themselves.
It may not be race at all.
Ballmer’s thesis appears to underplay the impact of S California in the formation of the Religious Right. This sis the territory mined by Darren Dochuk’s From Bible Belt to Sunbelt. Politically active Christian nationalism emerged from two deep streams: that of southern white protestantism, and the new right synthesis in Orange County. The latter grew from “Okie” immigration of the 30s, which brought Church of Christ fundamentalism and Southern Baptists together — what is most interesting for this story is its relative lack of racial animosity, It was not the color line but anti-communism and the embrace of free markets that shaped the thinking. This is the stream that found Goldwater and put Ronald Reagan into office . To Orange County and the Deep South, we can add the conservative upper Midwest, with its mix of Lutherans (LCMS and Wisconsin) and the Dutch Reformed communities. The Upper Midwest allowed the bridge-building to Catholics that the other two streams lacked.
Finally, one should note the role of the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA), as a sort of connector to all these strands. The PCA brought a mix of Midwest Presbyterianism from Reformed Presbyterian-Evangelical Synod of Francis Schaffer, a strong push to suburban evangelical ministry, and a more problematic heritage with the church square First Churches of the deep south that stood by segregation. It was from the PCA that we got the culturally assertive forms of faith, from christian education to Hobby Lobby, forms derivative of theology first developed by the Dutch Reformed. .
To add a further nuance, we can consider Peter Beinart’s article, “Breaking Faith” in The Atlantic. recent article on the Trump supporters. He notes that the President draws support from those who are culturally of the Religious Right, rather than from those who regularly worship. And there, the hypothesis that this population would end up in the alt-Right seems at least plausible.
A month ago, Kevin White at Mere Orthodoxy raised up the question about what it meant to be a social conservative. Terms get mushy when we speak about “cultural warrior” and even more so, when the conversation turns to the meaning of conservative itself.
So some conservatives are defined by one or another cultural ideology (not just the “Religious Right”), some primarily by an economic theory, some by a vision of American greatness. There is a conservative political movement in America, but it is itself a coalition of conservative movements, of varying mutual compatibility. They have more in common than an opposition to modern progressivism, but that “more” can be tricky to pin down.
Even social conservatism is a cluster of movements. Some are single-issue, others take on a thicker portfolio of concerns. Some threads have a positive vision, and others are reactive and based on resentment. Some care deeply about the proper role of each level of government, others see that array of governments as a jumble of available tools. Some loved Falwell, other social cons struggle still to distinguish him from Mephistopheles-minus-the-style.
So he opts out for a Mr Nice Guy philosophy.
So perhaps the question is not how to find a “non-culture-war conservatism”, but how to be a thinking, winsome social con who can self-present and be received as those things.
Perhaps it is as simple as this: there is no unified conservative worldview or approach. None. The very amorphous nature of those who would wear the label probably rules against its use save in the comparative sense (“this more conservative than that”) and of course as a political label. On top of this, so much of our own political and cultural thinking will be driven not by philosophy but by our particular social circumstances. We are as much conservative (or liberal) by birth as by our “coming to the light.”
As a matter of politics — this mass communication aspect — the use of the term “conservative” is somewhat slippery, suggesting that one actually has a set of principles that will lead one to act independently on various political or policy decisions. A kind of semantic glue, perhaps, but also a sort of scrim hiding from us what the issue really is, that of power to determine the political agenda on the Right. Here, the social conservatives (for want of a better term) appear to be engaged in a two-fold struggle, first to enlist fresh soldiers from the Millennial cohort, and second to gain traction within political councils against the more economic and libertarian factions.
In a biblical moment, the only point of convictions is to be able to deny the politics, in the word from Proverbs, to swear to our own hurt. The charge of hypocrisy resonates as much for its sense that “conservative” is merely another name for Republican and the settling for the politics of power and pragmatism, as it does for any failing of personal ethics. The Christian political approach must always be one seeking to build across the social chasms rather simply stay content with one’s own side. However nice one puts it.